Monday, January 22, 2007

The Magic of Bill Richardson

There's lots of discussion about Bill Richardson's weirdo habit of touching others in social situations. Odd enough, one would think? Check out his justification for poking the lieutenant governor at a train groundbreaking ceremony:

" 'I have a short attention span,' Richardson said. 'I get bored easily.' "

Bill, enough sound bites like that and you might start to sound like a president... of the Bush variety, that is.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Experience Fetish

This bit from a profile of Obama's candidacy is fairly typical:

"The fact that Mr Obama was not in the Senate during the debates about the Iraq war probably is an advantage: remember John Kerry’s fatal dithering on the subject. But the fact that he did not take part in a controversial vote cannot make up for his complete lack of experience in foreign policy. Will American voters really vote for a neophyte at a time when they are entangled in wars in the Middle East and al-Qaeda is doubtless planning another attack?"

Now, I've complained about this before. But let me say that the popular obsession with "experience" is not only stupid -- it's actively pernicious, projecting political whimsy onto a concept with no real meaning.

Yes, Obama will have a shorter Senate tenure than Clinton, Edwards, or McCain. So what? Although Senators have some access to privileged information, and occasionally participate in substantive policymaking, for the most part their foreign policy "experience" is the same as every informed person's: they examine the issues in play, discuss them, and declare their judgments.

I do that
. And so did Obama -- in the 2003 rush to war, this "neophyte" managed to nail the correct position where the deeply "experienced" Washington establishment failed. Would you rather support Democrats who threw their weight behind the war? Who, either from cynicism or active stupidity, decided that supporting an irrational push to conflict was smart foreign policy? Would you rather support McCain, a man clinging to fantasies of a meaningless troop surge?

When such a dumb concept finds its way into the American zeitgeist, we can usually blame the media. It's tempting to do the same here -- certainly the media has propagated the "Obama lacks experience" line, mentioning it as a weakness because... well, the man doesn't have enough serious weaknesses to complete an article.

But the obsession with experience isn't just the media's fault: it's a far deeper part of our mental terrain. We love "experience" because it's the one asset that accumulates automatically. You might not be a success, but if you put in your time, you'll damn sure get your fill. And the young guys simply must respect you: you've been around, seen it all, and can tell some great stories. You call it experience; I say it's Social Security for the ego.

It's human nature. And it holds enormous potential to destroy. We may yet see the most talented political orator and thinker to win national prominence in decades (ever?) fail thanks to this phony flaw.

Let's hope for better.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Name 'em

Not to harp on Romney's general lousiness, but the press release I mentioned in the previous post caught my eye again. Take another look at the opening paragraph:

"Governor Mitt Romney, in direct consideration of the proposed increase in troop deployments in Iraq, issued the following statement today putting an emphasis on the need for clear and measurable strategic objectives."

There's nothing more outrageously hackish than claiming to support some ethereal "clear objectives" and then finding yourself unable to name a single one.

He just doesn't learn...

Mitt Romney, unaware that reflexive support for the President's delusion is not a winning political strategy, puts out this painfully obsequious press release.

He can't be stupid enough to think that the surge will work, right?

I don't think he is. Instead, he's desperate to be President, and he thinks that cutting corners to maintain a relentlessly consistent public image is smart politics. What a tool.

1994 Debate with Romney

From Youtube by way of Andrew Sullivan.

I don't think any attack ad in the Republican primary could possibly be more effective than a few choice cuts from Romney's talk on abortion.

Who's left to get the nomination? Giuliani has been dead from the instant he considered running, his pretty poll numbers set to collapse once the 9/11 mask crumbles. Sam Brownback radiates nervousness and poor composure, while Newt Gingrich is, well, Newt Gingrich.

Mike Huckabee? Yes, he did lose an awful lot of weight. Still a no. I say there are only two plausible scenarios. First the obvious: McCain wins. But if McCain acquires the "phony conservative" stigma, jokers like Brownback and Huckabee aren't going to make a successful challenge. Instead, we'll see the surge of a likable, conservative, and articulate governor. Bill Owens, anyone?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Foreign policy, Giuliani, and the election

In discussions of prospective presidential candidates, I often hear someone say:

"I don't think that Obama has enough foreign policy experience."

Get that? The senator just doesn't have the hard-earned expertise the presidency demands.

This is ridiculous on many levels. Obama, to my infinite satisfaction, pointed out that "Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had a lot of experience." But perhaps the worst part of all this mumbling is simple:

What about Giuliani?

Here we have a candidate with absolutely no foreign policy experience. Now, I'm of the belief that measuring a candidate's mettle by crunching years of service is absurd. But if we're going to use this metric, and we're going to claim that Obama can't be President because he's only spent two years in a relevant position, why shouldn't our requirement apply to Giuliani too?

And more intelligent measures of foreign policy acuity are even less kind to Giuliani. It's hard to pin down the precise skill set necessary to conduct our foreign affairs, but we can reasonably expect that a few qualities are required: open-mindedness, patience, and a tolerable temperament. Giuliani has none.

And might it also be reasonable to judge candidates on their track records? Edwards, Clinton and McCain all voted for the Iraq war; Giuliani and Romney consistently supported the venture. Obama was the only current contender to correctly believe the war was an awful idea, and to vocally protest against it. I dare anyone to read his 2002 speech and tell me he wasn't dead-on.

If anything, foreign policy should be an asset for Obama. But in Washington and the buzzing commentariat, correct views seem to be irrelevant.

Phallus 101

"I got an A in Phallus 101." That's the provocative title of Charlotte Allen's piece in the LA Times on absurd college courses, based on the Young America Foundation's recently released list of the "dirty dozen" most bizarre class offerings.

Now, a course titled "Phallus" is pretty ridiculous. And I'm no fan of the faddish, politically correct drivel that fills course lists -- hell, I'm a math major! But I must say that Allen's article is pretty weak gruel. It exposes a set of biases no less ridiculous than the runaway academics she seeks to pillory.

This is particularly revealing:

"The bigger problem is that too much of American higher education has lost any notion of what its students ought to know about the ideas and people and movements that created the civilization in which they live: Who Plato was or what happened at Appomattox."

But... why is it so important to know about Plato? I've read some of his work: it's poorly argued, poorly executed, and poorly written. Beyond knowing the history of Western philosophy (and I can name literally dozens of subjects more important than that), there's just no reason to study the inept musings of ancient Greeks. Yet Allen doesn't even understand that there's a legitimate dispute here -- she offers nothing, save boilerplate homages to the classical canon.

She continues with the same tired approach:

"Why not take a course in "The Phallus"?

You can get the same credit for it as for a course in Greek tragedy."

Greek Tragedy? Come on! What utility does that have? I happen to believe that my education shouldn't be governed by a fetishistic love for ancient mediocrity. This stuff belongs in the same category as "The Phallus."

Meanwhile, either the Young America Foundation (a conservative hack group) didn't try very hard, or college courses today aren't quite as ridiculous as it would like to think. Take a look at this entry on its list:

11. "American Dreams/American Realities"

Duke University. Part of Duke's Hart Leadership Program that prepares students for public service, this history course looks at American myths, from "city on the hill" to "foreign devil," in shaping American history.

This sounds like a reasonable approach to me. American myths have played an important role in the formation of our country, and if you're going to study public service, they're a good topic to consider. Did the Young America people scour the country and find nothing funnier? If so, that's pretty revealing.

Now, I agree that serious flaws exist in today's academy, but we shouldn't revert to the conservative focus on a narrow slice of Western culture. After all, it was precisely that absurdity -- the unequestioned focus on a few "classic" topics -- that caused the reforms and overreactions we see today.

So here's my modest proposition: when designing a core curriculum, why not require topics that are actually, um, "core" to understanding the world? Statistics? Geography? Hard science? These are what students really need, not some dinosaur's assessment that college education is incomplete without Shakespeare.

And the next time that some pseudo-intellectual taunts students for their failure to read Aristotle (or, really, to give a damn), I'll have a question waiting: which three greenhouse gases hold the greatest potential to cause warming over the coming century? You'd think this should be obvious, but my limited experiments with the query suggest otherwise. I wish the Young America crowd good luck.

The tipping point

This might be it: Charles Krauthammer is now infuriated by events in Iraq. When the militarists have lost him, do they really have anyone left?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Why do we still listen to these people?

William Kristol writes in Time Magazine that "There Is a Way Forward in Iraq." Who knew?

He begins with some sniping at war critics:

"Saddam Hussein's trial and execution were imperfect. But the critics of the trial can't have it both ways. First, many of them told us that we couldn't expect Iraq to be a Jeffersonian democracy. Now they feign outrage that Saddam's trial didn't live up to Jeffersonian standards."

Well, a few of us complain about the trial. But the vast majority of criticism deals with Saddam's botched execution, which Kristol practically ignores. This shamelessly sectarian hanging has plunged Iraq further into apocalyptic terror. Hosni Mubarak, whose government is as close to friendly as Arab regimes come, grimly notes that Saddam is now a "martyr." And even worse, we now see that the government is beyond redemption -- a Sadrist militia carried out the deed. If Kristol thinks a little bloviating about defeatist liberals will erase this disaster, he's wrong.

The neocon nitwit spends the rest of his article spreading the gospel... or rather, the Frederick Kagan plan for Iraq, which Kristol believes to have roughly similar properties. You can find it here. After an unhappy effort to browse this trash, I feel that I've gotten the gist: Kagan wants us to put down the Sunnis in Baghdad. Extreme chutzpah then enables him to write off dealing with Sadr as a "sequel." (I'm serious! He uses the word -- it's on page 33 of the extended document.)

You get the picture. Our oxymoronic sustained surge will be followed by a bunch of really sweet "sequels," which will presumably involve even more troops. In fairness to Kagan, he does offer one alternative ending for Sadr. I quote:

"The sectarian violence now raging in Baghdad is one of the most powerful recruiting tools for the Jaysh al Mahdi, and one of its most potent overt justifications. If that violence is dramatically reduced, it is likely that some Jaysh al Mahdi fighters will begin to fall away from the group, reducing Sadr’s leverage within the Shiite community and within Iraq as a whole."

As far as I can tell, the steps here are:
  1. We clean out Sunni areas in Baghdad, using magic powers to make this operation succeed where previous surges failed.
  2. We ignore the fact that our ally, the Iraqi army, is nearly indistinguishable from the Shiite militia.
  3. Our quelling of the Sunni insurgency reduces violence.
  4. We manage to keep Sadr's militia from consolidating its control over Baghdad, while simultaneously also managing to avoid any direct confrontation with it.
  5. The newly pacified Baghdad ceases to be fertile recruitment territory for Sadr.
  6. Sadr peacefully loses support.
  7. Oh... and he doesn't just lose some support. He weakens to an extent where he no longer threatens Iraqi democracy, spontaneously losing his vicegrip on the Iraqi government.
  8. The end.
Did it occur to these twerps that there is one obvious step more likely to cause a decline in Sadr's recruitment power than a troop surge ? I don't know, maybe... a withdrawal?

And here dies American foreign policy.

A (relatively) graceful exit

Now that the Bush administration is announcing an ill-defined and futile "surge," a troubling question presents itself: when this policy fails (and it inevitably will), how will we salvage an exit that is anything short of humiliating?

Hold a referendum.

Call for a vote by the Iraqi people to decide our continued presence. Since polls indicate that they would surely cast us out, this policy is operationally equivalent to withdrawal. But politically it is far superior: it stifles charges that we betrayed the Iraqi people, while emphasizing our democratic credentials to an Arab street steeped in rhetoric about American imperialism. It's the closest we'll get to a dignified exit.

Obama in '08

A few critics have expressed concerns about Obama's admission of marijuana and cocaine use in his youth. Prominent among these skeptics is (apparently) the Washington Post news division, which thought such "doubts" important enough to merit a sudden front-page story last Wednesday: "Effect of Obama's Candor Remains to Be Seen."

But the article ultimately proves the opposite point. Its inapt comparisons, dressed in the comfortable and consequence-free clothing of speculation, manage to illustrate how vapid this supposed weakness really is. Take a look:

"Two decades ago, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was forced to withdraw as a nominee for the Supreme Court after reports surfaced that he had used marijuana while he was a law professor. As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton thought marijuana use could be enough of a liability in 1992 that he felt compelled to say he had not inhaled. And President Bush has managed to deflect endless gossip about his past by acknowledging that he had an 'irresponsible' youth but offering no details."

This is supposed to be our evidence? The mention of Ginsburg is patently ridiculous; there is no comparison between drug use as a law professor -- when Ginsburg was putatively building his legal career -- and as a troubled adolescent. Meanwhile, such Clinton discussion avoids the real issue: in 1992, his marijuana use was only a theoretical vulnerability, not an actual one. And despite otherwise excellent political instincts, Clinton addressed this "problem" in the worst possible way: admitting that he smoked weed, but gratuitously adding that he "didn't inhale." This both failed to improve his marijuana position and encouraged suggestions of dishonesty -- yet Clinton still won!

And let's take a close look at the sentence about Bush. Had youthful indiscredictions been important to voters, Bush never would have won. His experience only emphasizes how easily a wayward youth -- which in Bush's case was far longer and less reponsible -- can be brushed aside with non-denial.

Now, does this imply that Obama's candor is worse? Or, far more likely, does it indicate that voters forgive youthful misbehavior? Remember that voters are people. Not many were innocent teenagers; no one wants to be judged for poor decisions from age 15. And when you contemplate how real people think, Obama is in better shape than Bush ever was. Bush's alcoholic years lasted until age 40. Obama became a community organizer and then a spectacular law student at Harvard. Which story is better?

That the Washington Post deemed such an article necessary, and proceeded to make such spectacularly wrongheaded references, bespeaks a disturbing lack of political judgment at one of our nation's most important newspapers.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Return

With little applause, an abandoned fan base, and probably a few muffled boos, I now make my return to political blogging.

Since I'm anxious to plunge right into the nastiness of amateur punditry, my thoughts here will be brief. There is, however, one promise I must belatedly fulfill: the much-vaunted three month review of my blog's accuracy.

I don't have much to objectively evaluate. My posts were mostly ideological in nature; their arguments timeless and positions abstract. From the sea of questionable prose, I can isolate only three testable "predictions":
  1. The Israeli operation in Lebanon would be a disaster. (here, here, here and here)
  2. John Edwards, while not necessarily the best candidate (see here), had a better shot in '08 than pundits and Internet prediction markets gave him. This was pre-Obama, of course: at the time I was down on pretty much every Democratic possibility.
  3. Adam Morrison would be a complete bust.
This isn't a significant set of predictions, of course, but at least I seem to have gotten all of them right. Israel's response to the Lebanon crisis was, alas, a disaster. Edwards was criminally underrated with a 7.6% value on Tradesports (he currently trades at more than twice that). And in perhaps my most successful call, Morrison is arguably the worst starter in the NBA. He's a one-dimensional scorer who... well... sucks at scoring. (a field goal percentage of 37!)

In the glow of these puny successes, let blogging commence!