Friday, February 21, 2003

The Case for War. There are some people in the world who are called pacifists, who believe that violence is always the wrong answer in every circumstance. Not many people think that this is a very logical position to hold. It certainly has problems. As such, I am not a pacifist. This is a misconception that even some of my friends have, merely because I am far more reluctant to embrace violence than most. But, I am not entirely reluctant to embrace it. Now, I don't believe in anything like a "just" war. There are too many things that routinely happen in war which are totally incompatible with justice, but which are nevertheless necessary. I do believe in "necessary" wars, and a war can be necessary under a number of different theories.

Concerning the present situation with Iraq, I can think of one circumstance which would convince me that the war is necessary. That would be if it can be definitively shown that inspections cannot make any more progress. I think plenty of people on both sides of the issue would agree with the statement that, if inspections cannot make any further progress, then war is necessary for the purpose of disarming Iraq. The question then moves to whether or not that showing has been made. To me, it has not, but I'm beginning to wonder about it.

I do not accept regime change as a valid basis for war, nor can I accept pre-emption. Both, I feel, are buzzwords designed to cover up the fact that we're talking about an unprovoked, offensive war. In my view, an offensive war is never justified. Only a defensive war. Nazi Germany launched an invasion; the allies (belatedly) repelled the invasion. Fom the allied perspective, that was clearly a defensive war (and a necessary one, but they are two separate issues). The Gulf War was a defensive war (not directly defensive, since Iraq did not invade or attack the United States, but defensive of ally Kuwait). These are both easy cases.

The present case is a lot stickier. The only justification that can even hope to fall on the right side of the offensive-defensive dichotomy is the disarmament justification. Even this, though, gets ugly. You don't have any clear provocations like the invasion of Poland in 1939 or the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But you do have a real interest in preventing a tyrannical thug like Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons (which, in the hands of North Korea, have reduced Bush's vaunted moral clarity to full-fledged Clintonian foreign-policy nuance, and we can't have that!). Preventing Iraq from acquiring nukes is a totally legitimate, not to mention crucial, interest.

However, if that goal can be achieved without putting American soldiers at risk, and without killing any innocent Iraqis, or destabilizing the region, or fomenting fundamentalist Muslim hatred, or furthering Osama bin Laden's apocalyptic holy war wet dreams, then that's the way to go. The clear alternative to war is U.N. inspections. If the inspections can work to disarm Iraq and to frustrate his plans to acquire nukes, even if it cannot succeed in removing Saddam from power or pre-empting whatever it is we're trying to pre-empt, then it is the only legitimate option. If the inspections cannot achieve this goal, then war is the only available option.

In light of the huge costs and uncertainties, not to mention loss of human life, which accompanies any war, it makes sense to put the burden of persuasion on the side of going to war. In other words, it must be conclusively demonstrated that the inspections cannot succeed before the war alternative becomes legitimate.

So, while I am beginning to harbor doubts as to the potential effectiveness of inspections, I am not yet convinced that they are hopeless. I will be paying very close attention in the coming days and weeks to this point.

All of this relates only to the moral justification for war. I am still convinced that the Bush Administration cannot be trusted to carry out a war in the right way, and I think the weight ofthe evidence is overwhelmingly on my side. But then, that all depends on what you think the goal of the war is, and opinions, even within the White House, differ wildy on that question.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Hey you! Yeah, you. I'm talking to you! Here at Terminus, we're going to embark on a bold experiment, which is almost certain to fail. I've been lamenting lately that I don't get a lot of feedback to my posts, which leads me to believe that I'm an insufferable old boor. Not exactly news, I know. Anyhow, I thought I'd ask a question of my readers in an attempt to solicit responses. As I said, this will probably fail. Here's the question:

Given the best-case-scenario, when do you think the U.S. government will see its next surplus, and what would have to happen to bring it about? I've been thinking about this question a lot lately, but I won't post my answer until I have a couple of responses. So, if you want to know what I think, you'll have to tell me what you think. And, you should probably get out more. Alternately, you could just ask Lima Beanz. He and I were just talking about this last night.

Oh, it was beautiful. We had just finished watching a movie, and out of nowhere, he belted out an impassioned defense of Bill Clinton's presidency. I love that kid.
"Budgetary Smoke and Mirrors". I found this article thanks to Pandagon. Over there, Jesse argues that Bush's plan to raise revenue by increasing "user fees" would be called a tax hike if proposed by a Democrat. He's right, of course, but what he doesn't point out is that it is a tax hike.

Consider one case from the article. The Bush Administration has budgetted $675M for meat inspections, which is a public service designed to ensure that all of the meat sold for public consumption in the United States is safe. Unfortunately, we actually need $768M to do this job, leaving a shortfall of $93M. The Bush Administration plans to make up this shortfall by increasing fees paid by meatpackers to federal inspectors. Meatpackers will, of course, pass on as much of this fee increase to consumers as possible, which means that the price of meat is going to increase. Which means that everyone who buys meat will pay more for it. This is a tax hike. Or, to put it more precisely, this has the same effect on consumers as a tax hike. It's also a very regressive tax hike, since it will have a disproportionately high impact on low-income Americans, who spend a higher proportion of their income on food. [A man making $250,000/year does not spend ten times more on food than a man making $25,000/year.]

Jesse argues that this is reminiscent of the way a badly managed business tries to raise revenue, not by cutting costs or increasing sales, but by tacking on arbitrary fees to raise the price of their items. That's exactly right. It's a bad business practice (it's indicative of an unwillingness to confront the core problems, and represents a desperate attempt to look strong when the fundamentals are crumbling), and it's an irresponsible government practice. At least he's trying to minimize the deficit, but we can't give him too much credit for that. This measure represents a drop in the bucket (in fact, a tiny drop in a huge bucket), and anyone who was really concerned about the deficit would stop wildly cutting the taxes of the exorbitantly wealthy. [Bill Clinton's taxes were cut by $150,000 last year. They were CUT by $150,000 last year!!]

As if this isn't bad enough, the Bush Administration also wants to charge veterans more for health care. Beautiful!

The bottom-line is that, because these proposals are so politically stupid, many of them will be shot down in Congress, which means that Bush can blame the Democrats for blocking his brave effort to reduce deficits. Looking at it that way, they may not be politically stupid after all. On the other hand, on top of other resent measures by the Bush Administration to save money by screwing veterans, there is a growing chorus of people sick to death of Bush's particular brand of "compassionate conservatism".

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Political Corruption. Even when it began in the wake of the White House's oil-heavy "energy policy", the suit brought against Vice-President Cheney over the meetings held to wrte the policy were a "below the radar" political issue. Now, in this post-9/11 world, it's only moreso. That's a shame, because it's actually a pretty important issue, and it's symbolic of the attempts of this White House to circumvent the Constitutional limits on executive power.

Here's the background, off the top of my head (so, some details may be a little fuzzy). After the White House released its energy policy (which, surprise, surprise, was specially gift-wrapped for the fossil fuel industries and contained little more than lip service to conservationist and environmentalist concerns), a couple of Congressman wanted to know who the White House met with in constructing the policy. This is quite similar to what happened in Clinton's first term, when Hillary Clinton refused to release the names of the people she met with to help her to decide who to meet with to help her to decide Health Care policy. No, wait. That's not really similar at all. Cheney refused to release the names of his direct outside advisors. The former First Lady, on the other hand, refused to release the names of the people who advised her of which advisors to meet with. Regardless, Republicans at the time villified Hillary Clinton for stonewalling, while Democrats argued that it doesn't matter who chooses the advisors, it only matters who advises on the policy. So, when Cheney refused to release the names of those who advised on the energy policy, Democrats cried foul (and rightly so) and a couple of Congressmen urged the General Accounting Office to pursue the matter.

The GAO is a government oversight agency designed to promote transparency in government. They subpoena documents from, for instance, the executive branch, in order to make public the processes of decision making, or what have you. It is a public service, and transparency in government is a necessary component of good government under a democratic system. How can the people make informed voting decisions if their government is doing things in secret which they might not approve of? So, the GAO subpoenaed the White House to get the information about the composition of the energy policy advisory panel. The White House fought them, and refused to release the documents. So, in an unprecedented move, the GAO sued the Vice-President. This suit failed, and the GAO has just decided not to appeal the decision.

Last Friday, John Dean, former Counsel to President Nixon and a man with intimate, first-hand knowledge of the mischief Presidents can pull off when the public can't see them, wrote this article for, despairing at the GAO's failure to pursue the matter further. Dean is concerned, as am I, at the precedent this sets which will allow all future Presidents to keep much of their business (or, rather, the people's business) secret from the voting public. Dean also wonders why the GAO dropped the matter.

This article from The Hill gives us the answer. It seems that some Republicans in Congress are more concerned about protecting the power of the President than they are with asserting their own Constitutionally mandated oversight role, and they are willing to go so far as to threaten to cut GAO's funding if hey didn't play ball.

I imagine that most people, not being as wonky as I am, won't get very fired up about this matter, but it truly is important. The executive branch of government was already pretty powerful even before Bush came in and started knocking down venerable Constitutional walls. By failing to challenge the lower court ruling against the GAO, we lose the chance for a higher court to step in and re-establish one the vital checks-and-balances that works to restrain the worst excesses of the executive branch. Whether this actually would have happened or not is anyone's guess, but either way, it would have been useful to get a more definitive ruling on the issue. Of greater concern is the willingness of Republicans in Congress to use their budgetary powers to intimidate a non-political Congressional organization into dropping a suit against a Republican White House. This is the most cynical manipulation of the system I've seen in years, and I'm very upset that it was allowed to succeed.

Ironically, it confirms some of the objections true conservatives have against government power. Any organization, whether inside or outside the government, which depends on government money to operate, is susceptible to political manipulation by the people who right the checks (or, rather, the appropriations bills). Sometimes, this political manipulation is wielded for the public good. In this case, however, the manipulation is being used to save the White House the political embarrassment of having to admit, publicly, what everyone knows: that the energy companies didn't just adivse, they practically wrote the energy policy, and they were allowed to do so as a reward for their financial support of Bush's presidential campaign. If this isn't crass political corruption, what is?

Monday, February 17, 2003

The Bond Project: Octopussy. What exactly makes a Bond film successful? Of course, it depends on what one means by “success”. But it’s still difficult for me to answer the question merely in terms of my own opinion. For instance, as you may have noticed, there are several Bond films which I despise. Considering them as a group, these share certain qualities: a lack of seriousness that goes far over the line into ridiculousness, weak plots which can be demolished by the slightest scrutiny, and special effects elevated beyond all reason to the point where they consume the films themselves. The current film in my series contains many of these aspects, and yet I enjoy it a great deal. Why that it should, I can’t quite explain.

Octopussy is an entirely non-serious film, and the plot is extremely flimsy. Some of the action sequences stretch credulity beyond the breaking point, even for someone familiar with Mr. Bond’s implausible exploits. And yet, I simply enjoy this film.

Certainly, it marks a major shift from its immediate predecessor. For Your Eyes Only is a film which, even if taken out of the Bond context, would stand up quite well as an espionage thriller. Octopussy on the other hand, would be derided and then ignored if not for Bond. Somehow, Bond can get away with things that other films can’t.

But how can you hate a film which opens with a tense chase scene involving two circus knife throwers pursuing a clown. And it only gets better from there. From the lovely scene at the auction where Bond steals the Faberge egg, all the way to the all-girl raid on the villain’s headquarters in the final act, this film is nothing but fun. If anything can be said to drag it down, it is the over-serious performance from Louis Jordan as henchman-turned-mastermind Kamal Khan. He starts of promisingly, his easy charm and smooth malevolence fitting in nicely with the canon of Bond villains to date. But toward the end of the film, he seems to (quite inexplicably) start taking the whole thing rather seriously. His henchman, a wonderfully imposing figure, seems to realize that it’s all rubbish really, and the scene where Khan orders the poor man out of the plane to tackle Bond is a perfect example.

The title character, unfortunately, turns out to be a lot less interesting than she should be. And while, judging from the high esteem in which she is held, Maud Adams is much acclaimed for her performance in this film and in The Man With the Golden Gun, I find both appearances to be distinctly unmemorable. There is much which springs rapidly to mind when I consider this movie: Vijay, the yo-yo razor thingy, the all-female assault at the end. But the supposedly central character, Octopussy herself, I must struggle to recall. General Orlov, indeed, is very memorable. He is totally over-the-top, and in realistic terms, utterly insane. I can’t quite comprehend what, exactly, he was trying to achieve, or how he thought it would possibly benefit him. Indeed, the logic of his scheme was sorely lacking. But his insane determination fit quite well into the barely restrained silliness of the rest of the production.

Watch, for instance, the scene where Bond storms into the U.S. military base in West Germany. Hear the panic in the guards voice as he reports to his superiors that the intruder it wearing “a red shirt”. A wry commentary on American fear of Communism, and perfectly in keeping with the general tone of the film.

Others have professed to take similar enjoyment in many of my most hate Bond films, and I wonder if others detest Octopussy the way I detest Moonraker. There really is, I suppose, no accounting for taste.

The Bond Project continues with A View to a Kill.