Saturday, December 31, 2005
Closing the year on a good note
It seems wrong to end the year with a post on the ten worst Americans - so let me close out the year on the blog by highlighting three people who I know and respect. All of them have written something constructive about Iraq in the past week:
1) Andrew Erdmann -- about whom I've blogged in the past -- had an op-ed in the New York Times earlier in the week on Iraq's parliamentary elections:Read all three pieces -- combined, their advice point the way towards a sober but hopeful picture of Iraq.For better or worse, in the election's aftermath, the United States will almost certainly begin to withdraw its military from Iraq in 2006. But that does not mean that the time has come to disengage. On the contrary, a broader, more diverse engagement with Iraqi society is needed to help Iraqis develop the institutions, practices and values essential to real and enduring democracy....2) A few years ago I was fortunate to have an office next door to Major Scott Cooper of the U.S. Marine Corps (we were both Council on Foreign Relations fellows). Cooper represents the best the Marines have to offer. On Christmas Day, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland relayed a long e-mail Cooper sent to him about how he views Iraq:
The ten worst Americans
So I see there's a meme going around the blogosphere on the "10 worst Americans." This seems as fitting a top 10 list as any to end the year. It was worth perusing some of the other lists, as they refreshed my historical memory a bit. That said, here's my list, without comment, in alphabetical order.
UPDATE: OK, two quick comments. First, I added Ames to Angleton because I was blanking on the former's name when I first put this together. They are perfect döppelgangers, however.
Second, I do find it interesting that the majority of my names come from the Cold War era.
Friday, December 30, 2005
The greatest quote whore who ever lived
In the University of Chicago Alumni magazine, Amy M. Braverman has an excellent profile of Robert Thompson, Syracuse’s trustee professor of radio, television, and film in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television.
Thompson is better known as being the best quote whore in the business -- seriously, the could be asked to comment on wallpaper paste -- or That 70's Show -- and he'd come up with something worth putting in the first two paragraphs of a story.
What Braverman reveals, however, is that Thompson devotes considerable time and effort to hone this skill:
[A] large portion of his day is devoted to talking with reporters. Most mornings, after waking up at 5:30 to read a novel (favorite authors include Don DeLillo, Nicholson Baker, and Alison Lurie), he makes scheduled calls to a few radio shows. “If you’re a professor holding office hours,” he says, “you’ll talk to anyone who comes in. This is the same thing. If I have three calls—one from the student newspaper, one from the New York Times, and one from CNN, I’ll return them in that order.” When big television events occur, he’s inundated. After the 2004 Super Bowl, for example, “Janet Jackson gets her blouse ripped off, and that killed Monday.” In fact, the Janet calls continued for two weeks. For that particular story, he considered it important “to get another voice out there.” Nobody else, he says, was discussing how the Super Bowl “has always been a raucous, rowdy broadcast with cameras lingering on cheerleaders and crass commercials. What are you going to worry about more—the breast flashing at 50 yards or the countless commercials about beer and the good life? To me there’s no question.”....The webbed aluminim lawn chair. Wow.
I humbly bow before the greatest quote whore who ever lived.
[Isn't there a price to be paid for this kind of slavish attention to media entreaties?--ed. I dunno. On the one hand, Thompson does seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject domain, thanks in no small part to his willingness to talk to the media. At the same time, attempting to render a two-sentence judgment on any media trend or phenomenon under the sun might carry a cost in terms of deeper thought -- a point Josh Korr makes here and here. Er, can't you say the same thing about bloggers?--ed. I'll leave that question for the comments.]
UPDATE: Thompson might be the most prolific quote whore ever, but I'm pretty sure Virginia Postrel will win the award for most profitable.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
What's wrong with this sentence?
Vincent J. Schodolski has a story in today's Chicago Tribune about the unothrodox sentences judges sometimes impose on defendants. Here's how it opens:
There is a song in Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera "The Mikado" in which the title character reveals that one of his goals is "to let the punishment fit the crime." It appears that a number of judges around the country share that objective.Am I the only one who believes that ten days in jail stretched out over ten years is an extraordinarily lenient sentence for vehicular manslaughter?
At first I thought this was an error in the Trib story -- but it's not:
Tiffany Nix, 25, was ordered to spend every September 28 through 2015 in jail for the 2004 death of 9-year-old William "Isaac" Brian.As an aside, those tougher penalties don't seem to be working.
A question to the prosecutors in the audience -- given the circumstances, is this kind of jail time par for the course for a manslaughter conviction?
[Do you have any better ideas?--ed. Well, my wife, upon reading the story, had the instinctive reaction: "Put her in solitary for a few years, but on the date the child died release her into the general inmate population and tell everyone what she did." But you should see how responds if the kitchen is really messy.]
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
It is with a hard head but a heavy heart that I relay this Financial Times report from Leslie Crawford:
Spain’s Socialist government on Tuesday officially abolished the siesta, the extended lunch break.While I suspect the 8% figure is an exaggeration, it seems hard to dispute the notion that the siesta is a thoroughly inefficient way of inserting break times into the working day. So the economist in me accepts this as wise policy.
At the same time, the Burkean conservative in me mourns a loss. The siesta is such a lovely conceit for lazy people like myself -- who have a strong belief in the restorative and stimulating powers of the long lunch -- that it will be hard to imagine its disappearance from its country of origin.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
What are the lessons of Munich?
Encouraged by the positive reviews it has received from film critics, my wife and I went to see Munich today, and perhaps the most accurate thing I can say about it is that it is, in every way, a lesser movie than the one in Spielberg's prior oeurve it most resembles, Saving Private Ryan.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
A movie based on or inspired by historical events is always judged on two levels -- the extent to which the film hews to historical accuracy, and the larger meaning that is derived from the current context through which the film is viewed. Munich fails pretty badly on the first point -- as Aaron J. Klein points out in Slate, "Munich is not a documentary. Indeed, it is full of distortions and flights of fancy that would make any Israeli intelligence officer blush." (Check out Klein's interview with NPR as well.) The idea that the Mossad relied exculsively on a private organization for its intelligence and logistics is pretty absurd. The biggest difference might be that the Mossad agents who engaged in the Munich response did not evince any of the moral qualms that Spielberg assigns to his assassination squad. Ironically, this is less of a problem with Saving Private Ryan, even though the main narrative of that film is complete fiction. It is through the journey of trying to find Ryan that the protagonists and the movie-watching audience is exposed to the abject brutality of war.
So, what is Spielberg's larger meaning? There's lots of evidence here. As Edward Rothstein points out in the New York Times:
"There's no peace at the end of this," warns Avner, the morally anguished Mossad assassin, as Steven Spielberg's new film, "Munich," draws to a close. And by "this" he means the targeted killings that Israel is said to have begun after 11 of its athletes were murdered at the 1972 Olympics by members of the Palestinian Black September offshoot of Fatah.It's not just movie critics who have interpreted Munich in this way. Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, after viewing the film, said:
My reaction to it in some ways is less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more about the larger context of dealing with terror. In many ways this is a historical event. And for the Israelis and Palestinians, while it will move many, you look at the demographics of both peoples and you'll find this is ancient history for them. So, it doesn't have an immediate relevance for them per se, but it does have a relevance in terms of highlighting what happens when you're confronted with a horrific act of terror and you have to do something about it. My reaction to it from the beginning was much more about terror and the responses to terror, and much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.In the movie, Spielberg suggests two dilemmas with the Munich response. The first is that terrorizing the terrorists carries with it a moral and ethical price that cannot be easily dismissed (ironically, this is best demonstrated in the film not through any speech but through the last murder the team successfully carries out). The second is that the practical results of such an operation are counterproductive -- they merely encourage one's adversary to escalate its campaign of terror, and those involved in the mission succumb to the grip of paranoia.
The problem with Munich is that neither of these dilemmas is accurately portrayed. Practically, there is evidence that the gains of the campaign outweighed the costs. Klein says that, "The numbers show a steep slide in the frequency of terror attacks against Israelis and Israeli institutions abroad from 1974 to the present." That fact matters in any utilitarian calculation of these actions, but it is never mentioned in the film.
As for the moral dilemma, none of my fellow moviegoers bought the idea that the Israelis would develop any remorse or inner conflict over what they did, and the historical record bears them out. This doesn't mean that in a world of Abu Ghraibs, the question shouldn't be asked. But just as critics of recent wars have argued that what happened at Munich in 1938 is an imperfect metaphor for policy responses, what happened after the Munich tragedy of 1972 is a badly flawed metaphor for the ethical dilemmas we face today.
Ross gets it right when he says, "the choices are hard, and sometimes you pick the best of the bad alternatives." Not even Steven Spielberg, however, can turn that lesson into a compelling movie.
Why is Russia still a member of the G-8?
Both houses of the Russian legislature have passed a law (about which I have blogged before) that will impose formadible oversight and make it next to impossible for small or midsized NGOs to accept monety from Western donors.
Earlier this month The National Interest's Nikolas Gvosdev provided a weak defense of the proposed new law in the pages of the International Herald-Tribune:
[L]et's be honest - the crux of the matter lies with about 2,000 NGOs in Russia that deal with human rights and democracy issues, as well those groups unable or unlikely to get funding from Russian sources who rely on Western aid. And the proposed legislation is the clearest signal yet that Putin's vision for Russia - at least in the short term - is not liberal democracy but managed pluralism - a self-contained system where the Kremlin can set down red lines and can determine the amount of space different points of view will be allowed to occupy in the Russian political system. (Think Mexico in 1976 or Singapore under Lew Kuan Yew).I wonder what Gvosdev -- who also blogs -- would say about this Reuters report:
An outspoken aide to President Vladimir Putin resigned on Tuesday, saying he did not want to work for a state that had ended democracy and basic freedom.That bolded section raises an interesting point -- why is Russia still a member of the G-8?
It makes no sense from a liberal institutionalist perspective -- Russia has become less and less democratic over the past decade, and shows no sign under Vladimir Putin of trending in a constructive direction anytime soon.
It makes no sense from a realist pespective as well -- Russia is an economic lightweight with interests that diverge from the advanced industrialized nations in a number of areas. Russia so obviously does not belong in that grouping that it has never been allowed to participate in the most relevant G-7 grouping, that of the finance ministers.
Kicking Russia out of the G-8 would not necessarily accomplish a great deal -- it's not like Putin is suddenly going to smack himself on the forehead and say, "Gosh, you're right! I am monopolizing power within my country!" However, such a move would highlight the extent to which Russia has drifted away from the liberal democratic values it's government has lauded for fifteen years. It would not compromise any important component of U.S. foreign economic policy. And it might even revitalize a grouping that has been somewhat moribund during the Bush years.
Monday, December 26, 2005
The reorganization of U.S. foreign aid
Over the past few weeks there have been a trickle of stories coming out about a reorganization of U.S. foreign aid policies.
For example, there's Caroline Daniel and Guy Dinmore's Financial Times piece from December 11th:
President George W. Bush on Wednesday announced that the State Department would lead all US post-conflict reconstruction, a move that supersedes the controversial decision to give that task to the Pentagon in Iraq following the 2003 invasion....
Then there's this write-up of an FT interview with outgoing USAID head Andrew Natsios:
The US Agency for International Development will unveil early next year a comprehensive strategy for improving democracy and governance in developing countries.I'm not sure how far the Bush administation is going to get in its reorganization, but the proposals raise an interesting question -- should the primary focus of U.S. foreign aid be on reconstruction and democratization? One could argue that this leaves out a whole lot of other aims -- literacy, disease prevention, and economic development, for starters. One could also argue, however, that reconstruction and democratization are prerequisites for the other stated aims of foreign aid. One could also argue, however, that democratization is the result and not the cause of those other goals.
Whenever you have a chicken-egg problem like achieving multiple development goals, it strikes me as wrong-headed to put all of your resources in one half of the equation. If the administration's proposal is to create such a balance, fine with me. If the idea is to make reconstruction and democratization the sole aim of foreign aid, though, then I'm not sure it's such a hot idea.
One final bureaucratic thought. The attempt to create logistical capabilities for aid and reconstruction within the State Department would have a significant effect on the traditional rivalry between State and Defense. The latter has always had an edge in terms of capabilities and resources. If State develops its own parallel means to deliver man and material somewhere, one of DoD's unspoken advantages in bureaucratic politics will be dented just a little bit.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Merry Christmas!! The streets are ours!!
Wonder what those of the Jewish persuasion do on Christmas day? Click here and watch the video to find out.
Worst tradecraft ever
John Crewdson has a front-pager in the Chicago Tribune on the extent to which the CIA left footprints in their rendition of an Egyptian-born Muslim cleric commonly known as Abu Omar. This exercise has led Italy to issue 22 arrest warrants for alleged CIA officers for what they did.
Without getting into the normative debate about whether such renditions are appropriate or not, Crewdson's story suggests that the CIA's tradecraft is so bad it couldn't smuggle a ham sandwich out of a foreign country without getting detected by local police. The lowlights:
The trick is known to just about every two-bit crook in the cellular age: If you don't want the cops to know where you are, take the battery out of your cell phone when it's not in use.It is comforting, however, to know that the CIA agents lived high on the hog while screwing up this badly, as Crewdson points out in a sidebar:
Italian prosecutors wrote in court papers that the CIA spent "enormous amounts of money" during the six weeks it took the agency to figure out how to grab a 39-year-old Muslim preacher called Abu Omar off the streets of Milan, throw him into a van and drive him to the airport.
The University of Chicago flunks George W. Bush
The Chicago Tribune asked three economists linked to the University of Chicago -- Ed Snyder, Michael Mussa, and Austin Goolsbee -- to grade various aspects of the Bush administration's economic performance for the past calendar year. The results aren't pretty:
While conservative economists like Mussa and Snyder say the president's tax cuts and stimulus package helped lay the foundation for the current economic expansion, they tend to join [former Kerry advisor] Goolsbee in lamenting that the administration's lack of spending discipline is mortgaging the nation's future....Read the whole thing -- here's the report card in brief:
A new front in the war on terror?
The global war on terror has many fronts -- including, apparently, the pages of the January 2006 issue of GQ magazine:
The person you see above is Wafah
On a hot August afternoon, aspiring pop star Wafah Dufour walks into the media lunch hub Michael’s, in Midtown Manhattan. Accompanied by her publicist, Richard Valvo, the slender, exotic young woman with long dark hair in a high ponytail à la I Dream of Jeannie is dressed in a white tank top, green love beads, lacy miniskirt, and backless pumps. Conversations continue as heads look up to check her out.Lest you think this is some attempt at a put-up job by a deep cover Al Qaeda agent, Gurley provides some additional info:
She has no contact with most of her relatives, including her father, doesn’t speak Arabic, has an American passport… The list goes on. “At the end of the day, I believe that the American people understand things and they have compassion and they see what’s fair,” she says. “They’re very fair, and that’s why I love America, and that’s why my mom loves America.”The entire staff here at danieldrezner.com wishes Ms. Dufour the best of luck in all of her endeavours -- and we hope in particular that word reaches her notorious uncle. As Reuters reports, "Asked how he would react to her posing for racy pictures in a glossy magazine, she said, 'I think he would have a heart attack.'"