Wednesday, April 07, 2004

How to force the Administration to get serious 

I keep looking back to the $87 billion appropriation--that was the last time Congress had any opportunity to exercise some oversight on this war. And, in how ever small part because the D Senate leadership agreed to a voice vote, they pissed that opportunity away. We NEEDED to say, then, that there would be ongoing oversight over contracting, guarantees that Iraqis would be brought into reconstruction, and guarantees that the troops would get what they need--like body armor.

So I wonder, how do we get another shot at that oversight? Do we have to wait unil November 4, when BushCO will ask for another $50 billion? Or do we get a nice bipartisan group to stall all funding (we could start with the highway bill) until the incompetent administration allows congress to serve in its constitutionally mandated oversight role.

Of course, at this late date, I'm not sure what good it will do. But perhaps we can avoid this turning into the Iraqi intifada?? Perhaps we can prevent the massacring of civilians??

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Comments on Kerry's Energy Policy 

I just got an email about Kerry's energy policy (for the long version, go here). And it drives me crazy. Here's a guy with real environmental credentials (I often take solace in that). But his energy policy stinks. So let's brainstorm how we can improve it.

A quick overview of the policy, with my comments/critiques:

Reverse Bush broken promise and urge OPEC to increase oil supply.

Kerry's first bullet point promises something he cannot deliver (oh, where is HoHo calling for honesty?). You're not going to get Saudi Arabia (which has a better relationship with Bush, so would be more likely to listen to him) or Venezuela (which has an understandably crummy relationship with the US, and Kerry's hardline calls against Chavez aren't going to improve that) to increase oil supplies unless you can find some way to get them more money for their oil. But since the dollar is tanking, you're going to have to get them 20% or more than what they were getting.

Kerry needs to address some of the underlying issues here--the weakness of the dollar, our inability to really affect oil supplies, and a real need to begin to cut back overall. Or better yet, Kerry could be honest and say that we need to find a way to deal with increased oil prices because we might as well get used to them--what's that, you can't get elected on that? Okay, we'll wait until after the election.

Temporarily suspend filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve until oil prices return to more normal levels.

Insisting on filling the SPR is actually one of Bush's few honest acts--stocking up some oil for when we will need it, because we will need it (okay, I realize it also helps his buddies make bottom line profit). I'd actually prefer Dem congresscritters to call for this, because I think if Bush does stop filling the SPR, then it might be perceived as a victory for the D's. And I'd like him to NOT make it a campaign issue, because one way or another, it needs to be refilled, and there is a pretty good chance prices are only going to get higher. But I do like Kerry's call for a long-term management plan for the SPR.

Enact a simpler, cleaner national fuels strategy

Kerry rightfully calls for more coordination among fuel regulations--if there was more standardization, it would prevent oil companies from reaming consumers by not producing enough fuel for a given area.

But even the Senate has agreed that one of the problems with fuel distribution in this country is concentration. There are too few refineries in many markets (particularly CA), and there are too many bottlenecks in production.

You're not going to get a more functional market in fuels in this country unless you have more competition. So you need to accompany a standardization with a call to break up Exxon Mobil and Chevron Texaco.

An energy policy to decrease dependence on foreign oil and protect Americans.

Why is this the fourth bullet???? This should the the first thing Kerry talks about when he talks about energy--and it should be foregrounded as a program to create jobs, make America more competitive with other countries, and otherwise stimulate the economy. Hell, it should be the first thing Kerry talks about, period.

I also think Kerry needs more details here. He promises incentives for clean and efficient fuel use. Is he proposing tax breaks? Credits? Is he going to tailor business taxes to foster efficiency and alternatives as well?

Ditto his Renewable Energy Trust Fund. He provides some details ("will also create 500,000 new jobs"), but he needs to give more meat here. This is where, given John Kerry's history and environmental background, he can really begin to form his own vision.

Oh. And he needs to name it something more inspiring than "Renewable Energy Trust Fund." Particularly coming from someone whose wife has, well, a fairly sizable trust fund, this sounds like the pastime of a really rich person, not a visionary program to unite this country. This name needs to inspire people, get them dreaming, unite the country. Something like, "21st Century Energy Discovery Fund."

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Gary Sick's October Surprise and our potential October Surprise? 

I just finished reading Gary Sick's book, October Surprise. Gary Sick was the head of the Iran desk in Carter's National Security Council. He tells the story of the plot on the part of the Reagan-Bush campaign to make a deal with the Iranians to prevent the release of the hostages until after the 1980 election.

I decided to read the book (Kevin Phillips used it in his American Dynasty) as a way to gain some perspective on our own potential October Suprise as well as for background on our current relationship with Iran (we know there have been some backroom dealings going on, and I'd love to guess out what they might be--some of the players, like Ghorbanifar and Laurence Silberman are still in the game, too). Anyway, here are my thoughts on what is a very worthy and (at this moment) timely read.

I should say, straight out, that Sick's book was discredited when it first appeared. He relies on a number of anonymous witnesses, and it took him until after Iran-Contra broke to form the conclusion that the Reagan-Bush campaign had pulled off an October Surprise. Later, corroborating evidence appeared, not least in Soviet spy files. I, however, found Sick's book surprisingly balanced, much more so than Phillips' book (better written, too). For example, Sick seems much more skeptical of one of the most incendiary allegations about the event, that Poppy Bush was involved in the negotiations with the Iranians. Further, he provides a balanced consideration of the validity of all the information he presents; I imagine this reflects his background working with intelligence.

Anyway, one of the things I tried to figure out was what made it possible to pull off the negotiations. One thing was that Carter had alienated the intelligence community. He had cut the number of covert agents from 1200 to 400, which meant there were a lot of people with really good contacts who had reason to work against Carter's re-election. One example of how this hurt Carter is that top-secret information (such as the plan for a second rescue attempt) found its way to the Reagan-Bush campaign within days. In addition, disgruntled intelligence personnel managed to keep the R-B camapign informed of the Carter negotiations with the Iranians. They even managed to turn one of the chief interlocutors with the Iranians into double agents, working both with the Carter administration and, more faithfully, with R-B.

Another thing that made the scheme possible was that Carter had alienated some key international players. Obviously, he had alienated Khomeini. Sick describes Khomeini's actions, at times, as motivated out of a visceral dislike of Carter. But Carter also alienated the Israelis, partly because of his tough stances at Camp David, partly because they felt he wasn't considering their interests. By the end, the Israelis gambled wholeheartedly on a Republican Administration, going so far as to send shipments of arms, against Carter's explicit request, before the election (they fudged it, so they could get the first shipment off before actually responding to Carter's inquiry about it).

The Israelis proved to be a real liability here. When Iran's military supply needs became dire after Iraq invaded, there were three possible sources (besides shady individual arms dealers): Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. The comment made me realize that in many ways Israel is as much of a rogue arms dealer as Pakistan and North Korea. But of course, they're our rogue arms dealer. The only problem is, Carter got stuck in a spot where they were dealing for the other side--and they managed to undermine US interests in the process.

Another key factor was Carter's principled nature. Up until the week before the election, he refused to consider dealing weapons to the Iranians in exchange for the hostages. Of course, since there was someone else who was willing to deal weapons (R-B), that meant that Carter was necessarily offering a less attractive deal. Not surprisingly, the Iranians went with the more lucrative offer. Sick explains, "By refusing to compromise for his own political advantage, Carter inadvertently helped to ensure that the hostages would not be released until the next administration took office."

I couldn't help but thinking, btw, that our principle and our unwillingness to put the interests of other parties (Israel) ahead of our own national interest is what gets Democrats looked on as so ineffectual from a security standpoint. It's ironic, I know, but if you're willing to basically bribe another party, you're more likely to get them to act reliably, rather than if you just try to deal with them honestly.

Finally, not surprisingly, R-B engaged in some of the same kind of directly contradictory disinformation they're spewing now. Reagan once said that "he would not be surprised if Iran released the hostages before the election since Iran probably preferred Carter to himself as President." Bush wondered whether Carter was going to pull an October Surprise, saying, "there's not a darned thing we can do about it." All the while, they're negotiating with Iran, asking them to hold 52 American citizens for an additional three months. Once Reagan was inaugurated, he kept spouting off about how he would never negotiate with terrorists, but of course, he got elected precisely by negotiating with terrorists. Reading about this didn't surprise me in the least, but boy did it seem familiar.

So what does this teach us with respect to the possibility of an October Surprise this year?? It's a remarkably parallel situation. Like Carter, Bush has pissed off some key international players. Also like Carter, Bush has profoundly angered a significant portion of the intelligence community; I suspect Poppy's influence will help to keep some of the intelligence community on their side, but many have already publicly sided with Kerry or at least against Bush. (I also have really big questions about how the intelligence community feels about the prospect of a Kerry presidency, given his history of leading investigations into CIA involvement with drugrunning; will they be thrilled because he (like Bush) has whitewashed stuff for them, or will they feel like they have a debt to settle??) But of course, we're not expecting an October surprise from Kerry; we're expecting it from Bush.

Reading this book made me feel like an October Surprise may be what is going on in Pakistan. Of course it'd be about bin Laden (and as with R-B, the timing of his capture). But what is in it for Pakistan? What interests would it serve Musharraf? It seems like it doesn't incease his political or life security at all. And the US is in a position to deal openly with Musharraf.

Anyway, I think Bush's similar positioning to Carter make it possible that, if they are trying to pull off an October Surprise, it might fail. I think it's hard enough because they're presumably dealing with Pakistan (since ISI agents are almost all playing it both ways all the time). But they also likely can't expect the support of the intelligence community. I suspect Israel is again voting for the Repeublicans (although I kept thinking of Kerry's backpedalling with Israeli policy issues when I was reading about Israeli behavior then). But clearly Bush can't count on the support of other allies (imagine if he needed help from the Turks, for example).

Anyway, I said above that "we're not expecting an October Surprise" from Kerry. But what if he could deliver one (I suspect he could, given some of the people he has working for him)?? Would I want my own side to pull an October Surprise if I knew it was the best (only) way of winning an election? Tough to say. I'm with Jimmy Carter here, I'd rather take the principled route. And after reading this book, I couldn't help but conclude that the Republican/Democratic divide in this country has less to do with policy and more to do with a split between putting a pursuit of power ahead of the interests of American versus putting the interests of America first. And I wonder, at times, whether allowing this regime to have another term won't mean the end of many things I hold dear in this country. So could you argue that it is in the best interest of the country to sponsor an October Surprise for our side?

I guess I'd rather reapply myself to finding an honest way of getting Kerry elected.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Irish Contribution to Civilization 

Here's a sad thought about Ireland's greatest contribution to civilization.

I've long had a joke with my (Irish) husband that the Irish are colonizing the world with Guinness. There are Irish bars in every major city of the world, it seems. And even in a city like Prague (where, if you speak Czech, a half liter of the best beer in the world can be had for $.13), people are willing to pony up a lot of money (in local beer currency terms) for a Guinness. We've actually started making a point of visiting the Irish bars around the world . . . and let me warn you, Guinness is really not good in Rio de Janiero. Guinness was not built for warm-weather climes.

But most of the Irish bars around the world are nothing like the real thing. They've got cheezy pictures of Joyce painted on the wall, discarded rugby and hurling equipment hanging from the rafters. They're way too clean. And they break the space of the room down too much, discouraging real drunken mingling.

Well, that's bothersome enough. But now, in Ireland, the traditional pub is being renovated into a fancy yuppie bar, with brushed steel fixtures and neon-colored vodka-based beverages. I suppose that has the salutory effect of making it more acceptable for a woman to be in the pub outside of the snug. But I'm really worried that the real McCoy is disappearing.

There are even people in Ireland who are worried that civil society is suffering as a result. People are staying home or hanging out with the people the came to the pub with. It's only a matter of time before a witty Irish intellectual writes a book on "pubbing alone" (maybe I'll do it once my citizenship comes through later this year).

At any rate, while you're enjoying your Patty's day festivities, give some thought to the (sadly declining) democratizing instincts of the Irish pub.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Howard Dean as a Narrative for the 21st Century 

The best article, by far, on Howard Dean's campaign is this article in the IT magazine, Baseline. It provides a deatiled look at the way that Meetup.com and blogs have served Dean's campaign. The article gets what a lot of people have not--Dean's campagin uses technology as a way to build a great grassroots network, not as a campaign in itself. It's worth it for a review of the ways they're using technology.

But I most enjoyed glimmers of a sense that the Dean campaign tells a different kind of story. This is a story without a dominant narrator, one that evolves but is richer because of it:

Television, radio, print and mail can create awareness and desire for a product. Senders control the presentation and, if intelligently worded and presented, the messages cause an individual or company to vote with its dollars, by buying the product. But the lesson of Dean's campaign is that the Web is not for micromanagers. With the Internet, an effective campaign creates a community that will on its own begin to market your product for you. Properly done, you won't be able – or want — to control it.

The advantage of this is that everyone becomes a storyteller. So rather than one orderly, controlled message radiating from a center (and paid for through expensive ad time), you've got a lot of little conversations, many told by a narrator who has built in credibility for the listener:

But Dean's Net effort is about getting individuals to give time, not just money. Trippi and Teachout want others to tell the Dean story, not themselves.

Of course, this has one more advantage. It allows you to tailor for different markets, so you can be more things to more people. Given the kind of marketing people are used to in this day and age, I imagine it is a pretty powerful marketing tool:

Dean himself discourages the language of marketing, yet this is marketing of a new sort. "It's not marketing and branding in the sense of demanding complete fidelity to a very succinct message, saying you can't waver on font, color, or verb – 'Coke Is it,'" says Teachout. "We've allowed for local-interest, geographic, ownership of the campaign. That necessarily runs counter to it. We have a flowering of different brands. If this was a branding contest, we'd be losing."

There is a caveat of course. At times, Dean does send out an old-style top-down message. This is part of creating a legitimate story that can be repeated over and over again:

Sometimes, though, the candidate's own message trumps this diffuse branding effort. Rather than sending targeted e-mail to specific interest groups, for example, the campaign sends the same message to everyone, whether it concerns healthcare or foreign policy. If the Internet is being used to recreate New England town meetings all across the country – and to involve all those meetings in the same discussion – the candidate can't say different things to different people.

This is the way most successful narratives work in this day and age--from Harry Potter to Left Behind to LOTR. You've got to have a strong message (I doubt, for example, that someone without Dean's strength of personality could have pulled this off). But you've also got to find a way to saturate with the story, you've got to find a way to get people to participate in it, rather than just sit in a darkened theater absorbing it.

Let's just hope that the passive theater crowd goes the way of the last century because of it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Area Studies and the New McCarthyism 

It is no secret that the conservative movement is trying to take back the universities. People like David Horowitz are advocating a new-fangled affirmative action program, in which conservatives are guaranteed a certain number of positions in university departments to counteract the liberal "bias" of universities.

The latest salvo in this effort is an attempt to require university Area Study departments to openly support America or stand to lose their funding. If passed, this bill would establish a committee to review the policies of Area Study centers to make sure they had enough faculty that supported US policies:

If it becomes law, it will create a board to monitor how federally funded international-studies centers impact national security. The board will evaluate whether supporters of American foreign policy are adequately represented in university programs.

The real target here is Middle Eastern studies departments. Neocons complain they have been taken over by leftists--often natives of the countries themselves--who support the "islamo-fascist" revolution. But the program would institute the review on all of the programs. And it would bring with it an expectation that the Area Studies departments would produce more spooks for the government.

Now, actually, this move is not all that distant from the urge that established the Area Studies centers in the first place, nor is it entirely removed from movements already underway in universities. Most Area Studies programs were formed during the Cold War in an attempt to train professionals sufficiently to work intelligently in the regions. Area Studies programs would not only give people advanced language training, but they would provide the interdisciplinary background that gives a real understanding of a region.

Even now, students working in Area Studies centers are likely to be aware of the security-related concerns behind their programs. Most notably, Area Studies programs are the avenue for receiving funding to study languages overseas; this funding is limited to languages that are underrepreseted in the US. The notion is that the funding program will compensate for this shortage in expertise, no matter if the interests of the people involved tend more to (as Martin Kramer, one of the proponents of the bill, scoffs in the Salon article) gender in eigth centry Cairo than it does to contemporary terrorism.

Some scholars associated with Area Studies centers have recently been rethinking the model. Some note that the regions of the Area Studies centers are artificial constructs that often prevent one from learning about more general trends in globalization; they would like to move the centers under a larger International Studies umbrella (this is how Michigan's program is organized, for example). Other complain that these regions were originally formed with an eye to Cold War considerations, and that they therefore continue to look at the regions from a geopolitical strategic standpoint, rather than a neutral one.

Now I'm not sure that such a neutral standpoint exists. However, I'm sure there are problems with this bill. Right now, Area Studies centers tend to compensate for the biases inherent in the sub-disciplines of the area. For example, because Slavic departments are largley staffed by Communist-era exiles, the departments tend to shy away from any kind of materialist analysis. To their detriment. But working within a Russia and East European Studies center offers schoalrs a way to use such methods in their work.

But the effect of this bill would move the work of Area Studies away from compensating in these ways to a way that analyzes all regions through the same lens--that of the US as a benevolent actor. As Martin Kramer admits, "The idea that the United States plays an essentially beneficent role in the world is at the very core of this approach."

We've just learned the dangers of such tunnel visioned thinking. And that is the point some of its opponents clearly articulate:

For professors of Middle Eastern studies, though, it's outrageous, and dangerous, that the government is meddling with academic freedom. And it's especially galling that those who are calling for government intervention are the very neocons whose fear-mongering claims about Iraq have been shown to be false. "The thing that burns me, these are the guys who told us that Saddam had an active nuclear weapons program and would have a nuke within three years," says Cole. "And they're coming back and telling us that our scholarship is shoddy and we need to be overseen by them?"

Looking at regions of the world as pawns of the Cold War, as Area Studies originally did, was blinding enough. But starting with the assumption that the US is a force for good in this world is certain to cause us to miss some things.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Surest Counter to US Power 

My academic work looked at (among other things) the possibilities of 2nd world countries (those reasonably developed countries that can either thrive or fail through trade with the rest of the world) to exercise real sovereignty. One of the problems for these countries--I looked at the Czech lands and Argentina--is that they were always triangulated by larger powers. It was too easy to replace one region with another. For example, Latin America had a relationship with Europe that suffered after 1989, because Europe traded preferentially with the former communist states. You can even argue that Central and Eastern Europe provided some of the materials that Latin America would come to supply after Conquest.

There have been efforts on the part of these nations, heretofore unsuccessful, to band together to prevent this kind of triangulation. In the 70s, non-metropolitan countries tried to increase their influence with the non-aligned nations. But some of the areas in which they operated, such as UNESCO, were simply undermined by the US, thereby undermining the stregnth of the movement.

The latest version of this is the alliance that brought down the Cancun trade talks, the G21 (actually the number fluctuates depending on the issue you're discussing). Now, I'm not saying that what happened at Cancun is a good thing. It would be better to have one organization overseeing fairer trade, than to have the kind of bilateral agreements the Bush Administration is currently pursuing.

But an alliance between these countries, in particular between India and Brazil, could be powerful.

And the effort has continued--however lessened--after Cancun.

Right now, PNAC is most concerned about the next threat to its power coming from the European block (thus the engagement but simultaneous restructuring of NATO) or from China (thus the interest in bases in East Asia).

They have not apparently given much consideration to India, nor to the possibility that you will have an alliance between the larger developing nations with access to technology.

What intrigues me about a Brazilian-Indian alliance (although the article focuses on Brazil and Argentina) is that
  • you've got a huge chunk of population
  • you've got a mix of rural and industrial production that can, within itself, act as a powerful trade block
  • with India, you've got the genuine transfer of technological information, if not (yet) the investment
  • again, with India, you've got a reasonably large army, with the bomb
  • you've got strategic distribution in key areas

  • It's way too early to know how this will come out. But I find it intriguing. And I find that having two democracies--however dysfunctional--as the potential successors to the US empire rather comforting.

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