Saturday, February 25, 2006

Will the wheel turn on the ports deal?

Via NRO's the Corner, I see that Glenn Reynolds has an op-ed about the political reaction to the UAE ports deal in the weekend Wall Street Journal. Actually, the story is more about the blogosphere's reaction:

When the story first appeared, bloggers were overwhelmingly negative. My own reaction, on Feb. 12, was "color me unimpressed." Other bloggers were more pungent, but the story got little attention in the national media, which were mostly preoccupied with the Cheney quail-hunting story. ... Some bloggers, meanwhile, were having second thoughts. One of them was me: Although my initial reaction was negative, I started getting emails from readers -- some of them longtime correspondents -- who had experience with the UAE. One had served alongside troops from the Emirates in Afghanistan; another had spent time in Dubai. Some had worked with UAE ports officials. All were positive. ... As I write this, it's not clear where the rest of the debate is headed, but there are already some useful lessons for the White House. First, blogs make an excellent early warning system. The White House, unaccountably, seems to have been blindsided by the furor over this deal, though most people's gut reaction was negative. As with the many bloggers like me who changed their minds, gut reactions can be overcome by evidence -- but the White House should have taken advantage of this early warning to have its arguments in order. It didn't. That's the second lesson: The White House should not only have read blogs, but responded to them with information and arguments, rather than waiting for blog readers to weigh in.
I'll be intrigued to see whether the rest of the American people calm down as quickly as the blogosphere over a deal that should go through. I'd like to be optimistic, but I fear that Glenn's libertarian streak might be coloring how he thinks the rest of the vox populi will react. UPDATE: This is what I'm talking about.

posted by Dan at 10:08 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Your IR reading for today

I'm attending an all-day conference at Princeton on nested and overlapping international institutions.

IR and IL types should read some of the short papers linked to on the conference web site -- paticularly if you're interested in the politics of genetically modified organisms.

Less hard-core IR types might be more interested in the latest issue of The Washington Quarterly. David Adesnik and Michael McFaul have an article entitled "Engaging Autocratic Allies to Promote Democracy."

In a related vein, Jeffrey Kopstein asks in "The Transatlantic Divide Over Democracy Promotion," whether that policy become yet another new source of transatlantic tension, or will it be an area in which they can work together.

I expect 100 word comments by the end of the day.

posted by Dan at 08:11 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

My one post about Larry Summers

I've received a few e-mail queries about whether I would post anything on Larry Summers' resignation as president from Harvard and whether it's an example of:

A) Political correctness triumphing over rational discourse;

B) What happens when an out-of-touch faculty becomes too pwerful;

C) Larry Summers' inability to adapt to his environment;

D) All of the above.

Actually, I have only two thoughts.

The first is that Larry Summers is an exceptionally bright economist who might be a better public intellectual now that he can just speak his mind.

The second is that, much as one may want to buy into the argument that this is Harvard's liberal, elitist, out-of-touch faculty punishing a truth-teller, I strongly suspect there are other parts to this story. So before anyone jumps to conclusions, I'd suggest reading this Institutional Investor story by David McClintick.

posted by Dan at 12:14 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Freaking out about takeovers

It should be pointed out that the United States is not the only country currently wigging out about foreign direct investment. This seems to be the theme du jour across the globe. Some examples:

1) As much as Americans might not be thrilled with Google's new China presence, it appears that some Chinese aren't pleased either. Philip P. Pan reports for the Washington Post:
A state-run newspaper reported Tuesday that Google Inc. is under investigation for operating without a proper license in China and quoted an unnamed government official as saying the Internet giant needs to cooperate further with the authorities in blocking "harmful information" from its search results.

The report, in the Beijing News, was published the same day that another state newspaper ran a harshly worded editorial about Google. The paper accused the firm of sneaking into China like an "uninvited guest" and then making a fuss about being required to follow Chinese law and cooperate in censoring search results such as pornography.

The unusually bold attacks in the state media suggest that the Chinese government is unhappy with Google's efforts thus far to filter politically sensitive results from its popular search engine in China, and that its ability to do business in the country may be in jeopardy.

Google has since received is licence, but only after indicating that it was "'willing to receive guidance' from the authorities."

2) Bloomberg reports that the Spanish government is getting into trouble with the EU because of its resistance to a foreign takeover:

Europe's top regulators warned Spain against trying to block a $35 billion takeover of Endesa SA by Germany's E.ON AG as Spanish government leaders stiffened their opposition to foreign ownership of utilities.

The European Commission threatened legal action against Spain for seeking to keep its power and gas industry in national hands, a day after E.ON announced the 29.1 billion euro ($34.7 billion) bid, the biggest ever in the utility industry. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero today repeated opposition to the bid, calling Endesa "strategic'' for the country.

3) Other EU countries are also having fits about hostile takeovers. Martin Arnold and Tobias Buck report in the Financial Times that France is getting quite creative in trying to fend off Mittal Steel's bid for Arcelor:
France is preparing to push European Union takeover rules to their limits again by giving companies the right to use so-called poison pill defences to rebuff hostile takeover bids - even if they come from companies unable to use similar strategies.

The new rules allow companies subjected to a hostile bid, or expecting a possible raid, to issue warrants convertible into shares at adiscounted price to existing shareholders, making any offer more expensive and encouraging friendly talks.

Thierry Breton, finance minister, told the Senate yesterday: "To think we can keep economic activities in France by opposing any change in their owner-ship would be a great mistake."

Instead, he said he aimed to "give French companies the ability to defend themselves on equal terms".

But by letting companies use poison pills to ward off bidders - such as UK companies - that do not have access to similar measures, the French government seems to be going against the spirit, if not the letter, of the recent European takeover directive.

4) The French and Spanish moves could trigger a cascade effect within the European Union to restrict hostile foreign takeovers, as this companion FT story by Tony Barber relates:
The threat of creeping protectionism across Europe deepened on Wednesday when Italy raised the prospect of toughening Italian takeover laws in retaliation against France’s efforts to deter foreign bidders from acquiring French companies.

Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, said Italy was among the most “market-oriented” countries in the European Union and disliked protectionism, but it could not ignore France’s firm line on hostile takeover bids.

In a move that has rattled the European Commission, the French government is proposing to let companies use “poison pill” defences to thwart hostile bidders.

“The Italian law on takeover bids is among the most open and was written before the European [takeover] directive, which was then changed in a more restrictive sense, as is happening in France,” Mr Tremonti said.

“I don’t think this is the right way, but it has to be taken account of, if reciprocity is to be guaranteed. The company under attack at the moment has more limited defences than the attacker,” he told reporters.

Mr Tremonti said it was not only France’s preparations to tighten its takeover rules but also current German laws that had stirred concern in Italy.

As much as trade deficits trigger protectionist backlashes, there's something about FDI that generates even more nationalism.

Why? My hunch would be that it is easier to freak out about concrete examples rather than abstract statistics, and the FDI situations are all about individual takeovers. Plus, despite pretty strong evidence to the contrary, there is still a belief that a foreign firm will act as a willing and enthusiastic agent of the home country government (though, to be fair, this suspicion might be a bit more justified when you're talking about a state-owned company).

A question to readers who oppose the port deal -- what do you think of the Euro-reactions? Are they overblown or thoroughly rational?

posted by Dan at 05:54 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Open Iraqi civil strife thread

Comment away on the ever-worsening violence in Iraq, triggered by the bombing of the Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, in the city of Samarra. Dan Simon has a disturbing synopsis in the Christian Science Monitor.

It would be a cruel irony if a bombing that didn't actually kill anyone turned out to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

posted by Dan at 10:01 PM | Comments (33) | Trackbacks (0)

David Ignatius makes me so mad!!!

David Ignatius' column in today's Washington Post echoes some recent speculation about why globalization hasn't led to the kind of moderate, secular modernization predicted by the likes of Tom Friedman and other Davos men:

So why does the world feel so chaotic? Why is there a growing sense that, as Francis Fukuyama put it in a provocative essay in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "More democracy will mean more alienation, radicalization and -- yes, unfortunately -- terrorism"?....

A second explanation of the connectedness paradox comes from Charles M. McLean, who runs a trend-analysis company called Denver Research Group Inc. (I wrote a 2004 column called "Google With Judgment" that explained how his company samples thousands of online sources to assess where global opinion is heading.) I asked McLean last week if he could explain the latest explosion of rage in our connected world -- namely the violent Islamic reaction to Danish cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad.

McLean argues that the Internet is a "rage enabler." By providing instant, persistent, real-time stimuli, the new technology takes anger to a higher level. "Rage needs to be fed or stimulated continually to build or maintain it," he explains. The Internet provides that instantaneous, persistent poke in the eye. What's more, it provides an environment in which enraged people can gather at cause-centered Web sites and make themselves even angrier. The technology, McLean notes, "eliminates the opportunity for filtering or rage-dissipating communications to intrude." I think McLean is right. And you don't have to travel to Cairo to see how the Internet fuels rage and poisons reasoned debate. Just take a tour of the American blogosphere.

Wait a minute -- I thought blogs were dead. How can they be passe and a conduit for rage? Huh? HUH??!!

What the f@#$ does Ignatius know about blogs???!!! He's just a card-carrying member of the ELITE MAINSTREAM MEDIA!! ATTICA!!! ATTICA!!!!!

OK, got that out of my system.

I see the point that Ignatius and Fukuyama are trying to make -- that democratization creates real short-term problems by allowing radicals to take over governments. However, as I've said repeatedly, unless radical or revolutionary groups succeed at making the trains run on time, these groups (and blogs) become discredited and illegitimate over time. More generally:

[I]lliberal democracies are [not] necessarily better for world politics than slowly reforming authoritarian states are. But they are not necessarily worse, either. It's more a question of timing -- illiberal states that become democratic are more likely to have problems sooner rather than later, while authoritarian states that are slowly democratizing are likely to have problems later rather than sooner.
Fukuyama and Ignatius are correct to raise the short-term problems that come with globalization and democratization -- but they're wrong not to stress the long-term advantages that come along as well.

posted by Dan at 12:42 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

What's the big deal about the port deal?

I can certainly see why there's some political controversy about a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates helping to run ports on the Eastern seaboard -- but after reading this Christian Science Monitor story by Alexandra Marks, I don't think there's any real basis for the kind of outrage I'm seeing. This section in particular stands out:

Companies like P&O don't provide security at the ports. The US Coast Guard and Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement do. For instance, in New Orleans, P&O is one of eight terminal operators responsible for marketing the port, signing agreements with shipping lines, hiring labor, loading ships, and moving cargo.

But P&O has no responsibility for security. "We have our own police force, harbor patrol, customs officers, and Coast Guard," says Chris Bonura, spokesman for the Port of New Orleans. "That won't change no matter who is operating the terminal."

P&O is not commenting on the political uproar over the deal. But a source within the company worries that the media and politicians are misrepresenting the arrangements. Other who work within the port communities agree. They note that P&O will not be "managing" the ports, as many news organizations have reported. Instead, the company is one of many that leases terminals at the port.

"I've never quite seen a story so distorted so quickly," says Esther de Ipolyi, a public-relations executive who works with the port of Houston. "It's like I go to an apartment building that has 50 apartments, and I rent an apartment. This does not mean I took over the management of the whole building."

Then there's this from Heritage's James Jay Carafino in National Review Online:
What happens when one foreign-owned company sells a U.S. port service to another foreign-owned company. Not much. Virtually all the company employees at the ports are U.S. citizens. The Dubai firm is a holding company that will likely play no role in managing the U.S. facilities. Likewise, the company is owned by the government, a government that is an ally of the United States and recognizes that al Qaeda is as much a threat to them as it is to us. They are spending billions to buy these facilities because they think it’s a crackerjack investment that will keep making money for them long after the oil runs out. The odds that they have any interest in seeing their facilities become a gateway for terrorist into the United States are slim. But in the interest of national security, we will be best served by getting all the facts on the table.
Except, of course, all the facts were reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) earlier in the month. People aren't upset that there's been a review -- they're upset because there's been a review and the outcome is one they disagree with on a gut level. [Yeah, but hasn't CFIUS approved over 99% of the cases brought to its attention?--ed. Yes, but I dare the readers to find a case where CFIUS screwed up.]

There's been a lot of hot air in the blogosphere on this -- and even hotter air from the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and local politicians -- but I haven't seen anything approaching a rational, reality-based argument against this deal.

I've been quite critical of President Bush as of late, but he deserves significant credit for sticking to his guns on this one. There is little political upside -- but in this case, George W. Bush has made the right decision.

I have every confidence in the ability of my readers to try and persuade me that I'm wrong. But you had better have a better argument than American ports + UAE firm = terrorist attack in the U.S.

UPDATE: A few commenters have raised the point that Dubai is considered to be the hub of Middle Eastern money laundering. This is a) true; and b) irrelevant to the question at hand. Dubai is the center of money laundering in the Middle East because it's the principal financial center in the region. It is undeniably true that pre-9/11, the UAE was remarkably uncooperative on terrorist financing. That did change with the terrorist attacks, however. Furthermore, this issue is irrelevant. Why would the UAE's government -- which has been an ally of the U.S. for decades -- use the ports as a source for money laundering?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds is mystified why Bush is digging his heels in on this issue. I'm not -- I'm sure that Bush views the Congressional hullabaloo as legislative interference in routine executive branch functions. And we all know how Bush feels about that issue.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Steve Flynn has been concerned about homeland security for quite some time, and he's not exactly Polyannish about the state of security in American ports. So I think it's telling that in this Time story by Tony Karon, Flynn is untroubled by this port deal:

[T]o call the United Arab Emirates a country "tied to 9/11" by virtue of the fact that one of the hijackers was born there and others transited through it is akin to attaching the same label to Britain (where shoe-bomber Richard Reid was born) or Germany (where a number of the 9/11 conspirators were based for a time). Dubai's port has a reputation for being one of the best run in the Middle East, says Stephen Flynn, a maritime security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Dubai Ports World, which is a relatively new venture launched by the government of Dubai in 1999, has a number of Americans well known in the shipping industry in its senior leadership. It operates port facilities from Australia through China, Korea and Malaysia to India, Germany and Venezuela. (The acquisition of P&O would give them control over container shipping ports in Vancouver, Buenos Aires and a number of locations in Britain, France and a number of Asian countries.) "It's not exactly a shadow organization for al-Qaeda," says Flynn. Dubai, in fact, was one of the first Middle Eastern countries to join the U.S. Container Security Initiative, which places U.S. customs agents in overseas ports to begin the screening process from a U.S.-bound cargo's point of departure.
Flynn has more to say to the Washington Post's Paul Blustein and Eric Rich:
Stephen E. Flynn, a specialist in maritime security at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that although the company is state-owned, several members of its top management are Americans -- including its general counsel, a senior vice president and its outgoing chief operating officer, Edward H. Bilkey, who is a former U.S. Navy officer. And since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States has increasingly depended on such foreign port operators to cooperate in inspecting cargo before it heads for U.S. shores.

"It's a global network at the end of the day that we're trying to secure here," Flynn said. "And that doesn't happen by the United States owning every bit of it. What we should be focusing on instead is the question, are the security standards adequate?"

Robert C. Bonner, who until November headed U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agreed. Although U.S. dock workers have occasionally been caught colluding with drug traffickers, the possibility that terrorists or their sympathizers would end up working in U.S. ports is remote because of the strong role of unions in hiring, he said.

"I think there's some specter that people from the Middle East are going to come over here and operate terminals," he said. "I don't think anything like that is going to happen."

YES, I'M STILL UPDATING: David Sanger and Eric Lipton do raise a small but valid and reality-based concern in their New York Times story:
The administration's review of the deal was conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body that was created in 1975 to review foreign investments in the country that could affect national security. Under that review, officials from the Defense, State, Commerce and Transportation Departments, along with the National Security Council and other agencies, were charged with raising questions and passing judgment. They found no problems to warrant the next stage of review, a 45-day investigation with results reported to the president for a final decision.

However, a 1993 amendment to the law stipulates that such an investigation is mandatory when the acquiring company is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government. Administration officials said they conducted additional inquires because of the ties to the United Arab Emirates, but they could not say why a 45-day investigation did not occur.

I do get some hives whenever I hear that the Bush administration has circumvented standard operating procedures -- but, again, there's nothing in the reports I've seen to suggest that there is any substantive reason for concern. The alarmists on both sides of the aisle are making the kind of conspiracy-based arguments that would make Michael Moore blush. See, for example, this nice debunking by Dick Meyer of CBS News, or this Financial Times story by Andrew Ward, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Edward Alden. And see also this fact-laden Q&A by Eben Kaplan at the Council on Foreign Relations website. This sentence stands out in particular: "Calls from lawmakers to reconsider the approval have come after the thirty-day period to raise objections had expired."

WHAT THE HECK, ONE MORE LAST UPDATE: California Conservative -- one of the first bloggers to raise qualms about the port deal -- now concludes, "If you step back and look at the big picture, this isn’t about port security. It’s about elections and winning credibility on the issue of homeland security."

Finally check out Mansoor Ijaz's defense of Dubai in NRO. Key section:

Whatever the UAE's policies in the pre-9/11 world (whether as home to A. Q. Khan's illicit nuclear network, one of three Taliban embassies, questionable banking practices, or as an alleged repository for Iranian-terror funds), Dubai's record under these young leaders in the post 9/11 world reflects serious and structural change in national strategy. As Jim Robbins noted Tuesday, in December 2004, Dubai was the first Middle East government to accept the U.S. Container Security Initiative as policy to screen all containers for security hazards before heading to America. In May 2005, Dubai signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to prevent nuclear materials from passing through its ports. It also installed radiation-detecting equipment — evidence of a commitment to invest in technology. In October 2005, the UAE Central Bank directed banks and financial institutions in the country to tighten their internal systems and controls in their fight against money laundering and terrorist financing.

These are not the actions of a terror-sponsoring state.

posted by Dan at 06:16 PM | Comments (83) | Trackbacks (0)

Trailer libre!!!

What John Podhoretz said -- if the movie is as funny as this trailer, I'll be a very happy man come June.

posted by Dan at 03:23 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

How do you contain Iran?

Ron Asmus have a very intriguing answer to this question in today's Washington Post -- let Israel join NATO:

The United States already has a de facto security commitment to Israel. Any future U.S. president would go to the defense of that country if its existence were threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran. And in spite of the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic voices that one can hear in Europe, there is little doubt that European leaders such as Tony Blair, Angela Merkel and even Jacques Chirac would also stand tall and defend Israel against an Iranian threat. Given this situation, basic deterrence theory tells us that it is more credible and effective if those commitments are clear and unambiguous.

The best way to provide Israel with that additional security is to upgrade its relationship with the collective defense arm of the West: NATO. Whether that upgraded relationship culminates in membership for Israel or simply a much closer strategic and operational defense relationship can be debated. After all, a classic security guarantee requires clear and recognized borders to be defended, something Israel does not have today. Configuring an upgraded Israel-NATO relationship will require careful diplomacy and planning. But what must be clear is that the West is prepared to match the growing bellicosity against Israel by stepping up its commitment to the existence of the Jewish state.

There are growing signs that Israel is interested in such a relationship with NATO. About two years ago I was approached by a group of Israelis and asked to help facilitate a closer Israeli-NATO dialogue. At the time, the idea seemed a bit far-fetched to many. Since then, however, a real debate has emerged in Israel over building closer ties to both NATO and the European Union. Israel has also presented the alliance with a plan for a step-by-step upgrade in bilateral cooperation. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has paid his first visit there, and talks on closer cooperation are underway.

The obvious question, of course, is how Israel would deal with the occupied territories. This strikes me, however, as a problem that could also be an opportunity, even with a Hamas-led Palestinian government.

This kind of move would not be without risks, but if nothing else, it would give NATO a renewed sense of purpose.

Readers are warmly invited to provide reasons to shoot down this proposal.

posted by Dan at 11:47 AM | Comments (26) | Trackbacks (0)

Before you e-mail your prof, you may want to read this

Jonathan D. Glater has a front-page story in the New York Times that will amuse many professors and send a chill down many students' spines. Here's how it opens:

One student skipped class and then sent the professor an e-mail message asking for copies of her teaching notes. Another did not like her grade, and wrote a petulant message to the professor. Another explained that she was late for a Monday class because she was recovering from drinking too much at a wild weekend party.

Jennifer Schultens, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of California, Davis, received this e-mail message last September from a student in her calculus course: "Should I buy a binder or a subject notebook? Since I'm a freshman, I'm not sure how to shop for school supplies. Would you let me know your recommendations? Thank you!"

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

Glater has a one very odd quote on the implications of all of this. For example:
Christopher J. Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied technology in education, said these e-mail messages showed how students no longer deferred to their professors, perhaps because they realized that professors' expertise could rapidly become outdated.

"The deference was probably driven more by the notion that professors were infallible sources of deep knowledge," Professor Dede said, and that notion has weakened.

Well, any belief I had that Dede was an infallible source of deep knowledge has gone right out the window. I'd suggest, rather, that e-mail is simply a less formal means of communication, and students raised in an Oprah-fed confessional culture don't see a downside in sending them.

Because, most of the time, there isn't a downside -- stories like these inevitably pick on the 5% of emails that are annoying, tedious, or just plain stupid. And, I might add, the story contains the best response to these kind of electronic queries:

Many professors said they were often uncertain how to react. Professor Schultens, who was asked about buying the notebook, said she debated whether to tell the student that this was not a query that should be directed to her, but worried that "such a message could be pretty scary."

"I decided not to respond at all," she said.

Oh, and for the record -- all of my students are required to purchase Trapper Keepers to attend my classes.

UPDATE: Ah, it appears that the Times is behind the times -- Kathryn Wymer had a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month suggesting that e-mail is on the outs with the student body:

I pride myself on keeping up to date with the latest technology. I regularly use computers in my classroom, and have long been a fan of the educational potential of online discussion groups. So I was completely taken aback a few months ago when a colleague informed me of something she had recently learned from her students: Teenagers no longer check their e-mail.

I confirmed that in a subsequent conversation with a 16-year-old. "Yep," he said. "It's way too slow. I never check it."

The immediate gratification of instant messaging, commonly called IM, has superceded the possibilities of e-mail for teenagers and college students. My colleague commented that her students found e-mail to be "dinosaur-ish," good only for communicating with parents and teachers.

Intriguingly, Wymer's experiment with I-mailing students didn't work out so well: "I wonder if other students resisted the impulse to use instant messaging in order to keep their personal and professional modes of communication separate."

Wymer also touches on a problem Kieran Healy raises: "sometimes the students pick the kind of addresses for themselves that aren’t exactly professional-quality. Frankly it feels a bit odd to correspond with, e.g., missbitchy23 or WildcatBongs about letters of reference or what have you." Be sure to check the comments thread for some other amusing examples of poor e-mail choices.

ANOTHER UPDATE: See this comment on Tim Burke's blog on whether one of the profs in the story was accurately quoted.

posted by Dan at 11:16 AM | Comments (25) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, February 20, 2006

See if this sounds familiar....

Last month I blogged about the Newsweek story on the rebellion of politically-appointed Justice Department lawyers against the Dick Cheney/David Addington approach of how to run the war on terror and the executive branch.

I got a powerful whiff of déjà vu upon seeing that The New Yorker's Jane Mayer has a story about Alberto J. Mora, the general counsel of the United States Navy until January of this year. Why? Well, three reasons.

First, the rebellion story sounds awfully familar:

One document, which is marked “secret” but is not classified, is a twenty-two-page memo written by Mora. It shows that three years ago Mora tried to halt what he saw as a disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruelty toward terror suspects.

The memo is a chronological account, submitted on July 7, 2004, to Vice Admiral Albert Church, who led a Pentagon investigation into abuses at the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It reveals that Mora’s criticisms of Administration policy were unequivocal, wide-ranging, and persistent. Well before the exposure of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, in April, 2004, Mora warned his superiors at the Pentagon about the consequences of President Bush’s decision, in February, 2002, to circumvent the Geneva conventions, which prohibit both torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” He argued that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward U.S.-held terrorist suspects was an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also challenged the legal framework that the Bush Administration has constructed to justify an expansion of executive power, in matters ranging from interrogations to wiretapping. He described as “unlawful,” “dangerous,” and “erroneous” novel legal theories granting the President the right to authorize abuse. Mora warned that these precepts could leave U.S. personnel open to criminal prosecution.

In important ways, Mora’s memo is at odds with the official White House narrative....

Mora thinks that the media has focussed too narrowly on allegations of U.S.-sanctioned torture. As he sees it, the authorization of cruelty is equally pernicious. “To my mind, there’s no moral or practical distinction,” he told me. “If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America—even those designated as ‘unlawful enemy combatants.’ If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles. It’s a transformative issue.”

Second, the description of Mora sounds similar to the conservative DOJ lawyers who nevertheless resisted Bush's proposed policy changes:
Mora—whose status in the Pentagon was equivalent to that of a four-star general—is known for his professional discretion, and he has avoided the press. This winter, however, he agreed to confirm the authenticity and accuracy of the memo and to be interviewed.... Mora, a courtly and warm man, is a cautious, cerebral conservative who admired President Reagan and served in both the first and the second Bush Administrations as a political appointee. He strongly supported the Administration’s war on terror, including the invasion of Iraq, and he revered the Navy. He stressed that his only reason for commenting at all was his concern that the Administration was continuing to pursue a dangerous course. “It’s my Administration, too,” he said.
Third, the degree of duplicity going on just depresses the living hell out of me. Consider this section:
Without Mora’s knowledge, the Pentagon had pursued a secret detention policy. There was one version, enunciated in [Pentagon general counsel William] Haynes’s letter to [Senator Patrick] Leahy, aimed at critics. And there was another, giving the operations officers legal indemnity to engage in cruel interrogations, and, when the Commander-in-Chief deemed it necessary, in torture. Legal critics within the Administration had been allowed to think that they were engaged in a meaningful process; but their deliberations appeared to have been largely an academic exercise, or, worse, a charade. “It seems that there was a two-track program here,” said Martin Lederman, a former lawyer with the Office of Legal Counsel, who is now a visiting professor at Georgetown. “Otherwise, why would they share the final working-group report with [head of Southern Comabd General James] Hill and [Guantánamo commander General Geoffrey] Miller but not with the lawyers who were its ostensible authors?”....

The senior Defense Department official defended as an act of necessary caution the decision not to inform Mora and other legal advisers of official policy. The interrogation techniques authorized in the signed report, he explained, were approved only for Guantánamo, and the Pentagon needed to prevent the practices from spreading to other battlefronts. “If someone wants to criticize us for being too careful, I accept that criticism willingly, because we were doing what we could to limit the focus of that report . . . to Guantánamo,” the official said.

In fact, techniques that had been approved for use at Guantánamo were quickly transferred elsewhere. Four months after General Miller was briefed on the working-group report, the Pentagon sent him to Iraq, to advise officials there on interrogating Iraqi detainees. Miller, who arrived with a group of Guantánamo interrogators, known as the Tiger Team, later supervised all U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. And legal advisers to General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, used the report as a reference in determining the limits of their interrogation authority, according to a Pentagon report on Abu Ghraib.

A lawyer involved in the working group said that the Pentagon’s contention that it couldn’t risk sharing the report with its authors “doesn’t make any sense.” He explained, “We’d seen everything already.” The real reason for their exclusion, he speculated, was to avoid dissent. “It would have put them in a bind,” he said. “And it would have created a paper trail.”

UPDATE: Here's a link to Mora's memo (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan).

ANOTHER UPDATE: I've met John Yoo several times at conferences, and each time I've found him an engaging individual with a lively mind. But I have to think he's engaging in wishful thinking in this response to a interview:

I would like to say that it is my understanding that the United States does not engage in torture, and that the reports of abuses that have occurred in Iraq or elsewhere appear to have been the result of individuals acting outside official policy. Abuses, while regrettable, sometimes happen in large organizations when individuals violate the rules.
Link via Greg Djerejian.

posted by Dan at 01:04 PM | Comments (25) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The blogosphere, R.I.P. (2002-2006)

Well, it's time for me to pack it in -- blogs are finished, kaput, history.

How do I know this? Why, I've been reading what the media has said about it this month. They're doomed economically -- Slate's Daniel Gross says, "as businesses, blogs may have peaked. There are troubling signs—akin to the 1999 warnings about the Internet bubble—that suggest blogs have just hit their top."

Gross is just following up on a New York cover story by Clive Thompson, in which it turns out that it's difficult to eke out a living from blogging:

By all appearances, the blog boom is the most democratized revolution in media ever. Starting a blog is ridiculously cheap; indeed, blogging software and hosting can be had for free online. There are also easy-to-use ad services that, for a small fee, will place advertisements from major corporations on blogs, then mail the blogger his profits. Blogging, therefore, should be the purest meritocracy there is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nobody from the sticks or a well-connected Harvard grad. If you launch a witty blog in a sexy niche, if you’re good at scrounging for news nuggets, and if you’re dedicated enough to post around the clock—well, there’s nothing separating you from the big successful bloggers, right? I can do that.

In theory, sure. But if you talk to many of today’s bloggers, they’ll complain that the game seems fixed. They’ve targeted one of the more lucrative niches—gossip or politics or gadgets (or sex, of course)—yet they cannot reach anywhere close to the size of the existing big blogs. It’s as if there were an A-list of a few extremely lucky, well-trafficked blogs—then hordes of people stuck on the B-list or C-list, also-rans who can’t figure out why their audiences stay so comparatively puny no matter how hard they work. “It just seems like it’s a big in-party,” one blogger complained to me.

Read the whole thing -- there's some interesting confusion by either Thompson or Clay Shirky between power law distributions and cascade effects.

[OK, so maybe blogs can't rake in the big bucks -- they're still fun, right? They're a political force, right?--ed.] No, I'm afraid that the media has determined that neither assertion is true. The Financial Times' Trevor Butterworth says that blogs are culturally passé:

[A]s with any revolution, we must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor. Is blogging really an information revolution? Is it about to drive the mainstream news media into oblivion? Or is it just another crock of virtual gold - a meretricious equivalent of all those noisy internet start-ups that were going to build a brave “new economy” a few years ago?

Shouldn’t we just be a tiny bit sceptical of another information revolution following on so fast from the last one - especially as this time round no one is even pretending to be getting rich? Isn’t the problem of the media right now that we barely have time to read a newspaper, let alone traverse the thoughts of a million bloggers?....

Blogging - if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising - brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet.

The historical lesson here is one of cyclical rebellion at the US media for being staid, dull and closed off to change. Indeed, the underground press of the 1960s was described in almost identical terms as blogging is today. “The loudest voice heard in America these days,” said the radical journalist Andrew Kopkind in 1967, is the sound of insurgents chiselling away at establishments.”

The present round of chiselling may feel exciting and radically new - but blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift’s fleas sucking upon other fleas “ad infinitum”: somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism....

Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere - tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn’t leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium.

Butterworth is so convinced the blogosphere is passé, he's... er... set up a blog to handle the feedback.

Similarly, over at AlterNet, Lackshmi Cahudhry despairs about the inequality, corporatization, and general whiteness of the blogosphere:

As blogs have grown in popularity -- at the rate of more than one new blog per second -- they've begun to lose their vanguard edge. The very institutions that political bloggers often criticize have begun to adopt the platform, with corporate executives, media personalities, porn stars, lawyers and PR strategists all jumping into the fray. That may be why Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the founder and primary voice of Daily Kos, thinks the word "blog" is beginning to outlive its usefulness. "A blog is merely a publishing tool, and like a tool, it can be used in any number of ways," he says....

The past two years have also marked the emergence of a close relationship between top bloggers and politicians in Washington. A number of them -- for example, Jesse Taylor at Pandagon, Tim Tagaris of SwingStateProject, Stoller and Armstrong -- have been hired as campaign consultants. Others act as unofficial advisers to top politicos like Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), who holds conference calls with preeminent bloggers to talk strategy. When the Senate Democrats invite Moulitsas to offer his personal views on netroots strategy -- treating him, as a Washington Monthly profile describes, "a kind of part-time sage, an affiliate member" -- the perks of success become difficult to deny.

Armstrong sees the rise of the blogger-guru -- or "strategic adviser," as he puts it -- as a positive development. Better to hire a blogger who is personally committed to the Democratic cause than a D.C.-based mercenary who makes money irrespective of who wins.

But the fact that nearly all these "advisers" are drawn from a close-knit and mostly homogenous group can make them appear as just a new boys' club, albeit one with better intentions and more engaged politics. Aside from notable exceptions like Moulitsas, who is part-Salvadoran, and a handful of lesser-known women who belong to group blogs, top progressive bloggers tend to be young, well-educated, middle class, male and white....

The Washington Monthly profile of Moulitsas included a revealing quote, in which he expressed disappointment at not being able to fulfill his dream of making it big in the tech industry back in 1998: "Maybe at some time, Silicon Valley really was this democratic ideal where the guy with the best idea made a billion dollars, but by the time I got there at least, it was just like anything else -- a bunch of rich kids who knew each other running around and it all depended on who you knew."

The danger is that many may come to feel the same way about the blogosphere in the coming years.

So everyone go home -- blog are economically unviable, culturally spent, politically unequal, and in the end amount to nothing more than the lame afterbirth of the dot-com boom and bust....

Hey, what are you doing here? I thought I told you to go home. Ah, maybe you clicked through to see if, perchance, I was being sarcastic.

Well, yes and no. You can condense all the linked stories into a few central themes:

1) Not a lot of people will make a living off of blogging;

2) Power laws create an unequal structure in the blogosphere that gives power to those at the top of the pyramid -- the linkers rather than the thinkers, as it were;

3) Blogs will become co-opted by the mainstream media.

4) There are inherent constraints on the influence of blogs.

Well, all of this is very original. Oh, wait....

All of these articles do a decent job of puncturing the "blog triumphalist balloon" -- it's just that a lot of bloggers have been stomping on that balloon for years now. The key question to ask about blogs is the counterfactual -- do any of these writers truly believe that the information ecosystem would be more democratic, more entrepreneurial, or more culturally interesting if blogs did not exist?

In this way, these stories are correct in asserting that blogs are a synecdoche for the Internet as a whole -- they don't quite live up to the hype, but then again, the hype is so damn impressive that even if they live up to some of it, we should be impressed.

Hey, mainstream media types, I'll cut you a deal -- I will never say that the blogosphere is a harbinger of egalitarian democracy if you acknowledge that blogs, flawed though they may be, nudge the information ecosystem in many constructive ways.

Now, seriously, go home.

UPDATE: Further evidence that the blogosphere has died -- William Safire has a column on its jargon in the New York Times Magazine.

posted by Dan at 12:11 AM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (0)