Saturday, October 31, 2009

Greece and Afghanistan

It's worth keeping track of what the neocons are saying about Afghanistan. They think that they have Barack Obama on the back foot on this one, with Iraq "proving" that a troop increase can have powerful effects in taming an insurgency and with the US (thanks to 7 years of neglect) facing some very awkward choices when ideally the choices would be either scale up massively or just go home. But anyway, one critical issue in both Afghanistan and Iraq is whether the USA (or similar power) can ever really "win" a war fought via a domestic proxy. Here's Max Boot --

The worst thing the Obama administration could do is throw up its hands in despair and claim we can’t win in Afghanistan because of [Hamid] Karzai’s problems. In fact, every counterinsurgency effort in history has faced a problem of governmental legitimacy; if the government were generally accepted as legitimate and efficient, there would be no insurgency to begin with. Enhancing governmental credibility is a tough task but by no means a mission impossible — we’ve helped achieve that outcome in countries as varied as Greece, the Philippines, and El Salvador.

So let's take Greece which is perhaps the least well-known example in the US. The Wikipedia article on the period on question is excellent. There are a few things to note.

First, this was a civil war in which the US picked a side. The Cold War made things relatively simple since they could mapped into 2 sides: Communist and not-Communist. Do Iraq and Afghanistan have 2-sided civil wars?

Second, what eventually did in the Greek Communists? A falling out between Tito and Stalin. They needed Tito for the logistical support but Stalin for the ideology, and when there was a row, most of the leadership chose the latter. Which was a huge mistake. Yugoslavia was a lot closer.

Third, Greece does resemble Afghanistan in one important respect. The locals had seen off a hated foreign occupier (Nazi Germany and the USSR respectively) pretty much on their own. Having someone else waltz in at the end to declare themselves in charge didn't go down very well with the people who had stuck it out at home. Hence the legitimacy problems to which Boot obliquely refers.

And finally, if we are looking at outcomes following US interventions to boost a local client, Greece is close to the best case scenario. It's now a rich country in the European Union and NATO, with a significant foot in eastern Mediterranean/Adriatic politics and good (if complex) relations with most of its southeastern European neighbours. But that's 50 years after its civil war ended. In between there's been military coups, dictatorships, the partition of Cyprus, a terrorism problem that never really went away, mass emigration, street riots, and poisonous domestic politics.

If the American people are to be told the truth about what a prolonged Afghan adventure would involve, shouldn't this decades-long scenario be part of the sales pitch?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Is there anything they can't do?

Wall Street Journal -- One of Russia's most powerful tycoons -- barred entry to the U.S. for years due to U.S. government concerns about possible ties to organized crime -- visited the country twice this year under secret arrangements made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ...

A State Department official said Mr. [Oleg] Deripaska doesn't hold a valid U.S. visa.

FBI investigators, as well as authorities in Britain and Spain, have probed Mr. Deripaska's business interests in the past amid allegations of money-laundering from investigators and prosecutors. He has never been charged with a crime in those probes. Mr. Deripaska has met with FBI investigators before. It isn't known what was discussed ...

During the early October trip he met top investment-banking executives including Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, according to people familiar with the meetings.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

That's the good news

Max Boot, reporting in the Weekly Standard on the Afghan part of his Afghan-Iraq trip --

It may seem like we've been at war in Afghanistan for eight years, but given the lack of resources for most of that time, the war effort is really less than six months old in critical parts of the country. "We are essentially where we were in Iraq in 2004," one American colonel told me. "We're just getting started."

Matthew Yglesias was recently discussing a similar point. Since it took George Bush 3 full years from the start of 2004 to find a workable Iraq policy, let's not overemphasize the "rush" on Obama's Afghan decision.

UPDATE: Fascinating opinion piece by Afghan war veterans David Adams and Ann Marlowe in the Wall Street Journal. Bottom line: the question of more or less troops is irrelevant. It's the strategy for working with the tribes that matters. Which could also be taken as the lesson of the Surge in Iraq.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Carry on up the Tigris

Max Boot, whose solution to every foreign policy problem is more troops --

I happened to be few miles away from the terrible bomb blasts that went off in central Baghdad on Sunday, but I first became aware of them when word spread around the conference room in the U.S. embassy, where I was being briefed.

This reminds me of what I learned long ago in Iraq: acts of violence that occur a few blocks away might as well be a world away. Once again, I learned the details from CNN, just as observers back in the U.S. did. I did not feel the roar of the explosion, nor see the smoke.

He seems blind to the irony of being "in Iraq" but learning Iraqi news from CNN. Inside the fortress that is the US Embassy.

Then there's the rest of his itinerary, for which one assumes the US taxpayer is being billed --

A few high-profile attacks — this one or the one in August — do not change the fundamental, day-to-day reality of life getting better.

I will have more to say on this in the future, but for now I have to get my body armor and head for the Black Hawks to take a trip to southern Iraq.

So this day to day reality of life getting better requires moving visiting Americans around by military helicopter.

This is delusion. Unfortunately, it's influential delusion.

More Vicars of Dibley

The Washington Post rounded up some usual suspects to discuss the Vatican's latest salvo in its relationship with the Anglican Church. Included in them is George Weigel, who never found a George Bush policy that he didn't like. But anyway, Weigel applauds the Vatican's move on the ground that it creates a "moment of clarification" (which was always one of George Bush's favourite phrases when there was a war going on), specifically regarding the divergent positions of the two churches on the ordination of women --

The tensions were evident more than twenty years ago, in a historic exchange of letters among Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, and Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, the veteran Dutch ecumenist then leading the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The Pope and the cardinal asked Runcie to explain the reasoning that had led certain parts of the Anglican communion to ordain women to the ministerial priesthood. Runcie replied in largely sociological, rather than theological, terms, citing women's changing roles in business, culture, and politics.

So let's go read the actual Runcie letter --

The fundamental principle of the Christian economy of salvation-upon which there is no question of disagreement hetween Anglicans and Roman Catholics-is that the Eternal Word assumed our human flesh in order that through the Passion Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ this same humanity might be redeemed and taken up into the life of the Triune Godhead. In words common to both our liturgical traditions: ‘As he came to share in our humanity, so we may share in the life of his divinity.’

It is also common ground between us that the humanity taken by the Word, and now the risen and ascended humanity of the Lord of all creation, must be a humanity inclusive of women, if half the human race is to share in the Redemption he won for us on the Cross.

Some Anglicans would however then go on to point to the representative nature of the ministerial priesthood. They would argue that priestly character lies precisely in the fact that the priest is commissioned by the Church in ordination to represent the priestly nature of the whole body and also-especially in the presidency of the eucharist-to stand in a special sacramental relationship with Christ as High Priest in whom complete humanity is redeemed and who ever lives to make intercession for us at the right hand of the Father. Because the humanity of Christ our High Priest includes male and female, it is thus urged that the ministerial priesthood should now be opened to women in order the more perfectly to represent Christ’s inclusive High Priesthood.

This argument makes no judgment upon the past, but is strengthened today by the fact that the representational nature of the ministerial priesthood is actually weakened by a solely male priesthood, when exclusively male leadership has been largely surrendered in many human societies.

This is not a "sociological" argument. It's a doctrinal argument that Runcie said has only become more relevant because of sociology. And in fact, one could even argue that it's a fundamentally Catholic argument. If you're going to go to the trouble of creating a hierarchy of sacraments in terms of who is in a deeper relationship with God, then to maintain the claim of universality (or "catholicism", if you will), don't you have to open these sacraments to everybody?

For Weigel and more than a few of the neocon Catholics, it sometimes happens that the real Catholics aren't Catholic at all. For once, we agree!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The ball is flat

Don't get us wrong. Paul Krugman is always a good read. And he's often right. But he's been wrong, wrong, wrong about the British economy going back a full year now, from when he was using Gordon Brown's supposedly brilliant financial sector policies as a stick with which to beat Hank Paulson.

Here's a post from just over 2 months ago which was presumably intended as a riposte to his stimulus critics --

[Bouncing Britain] Two months ago I wrote that there were hints of a relatively quick economic turnaround in Britain. Now those hints have gotten much stronger. Basically, aggressive monetary policy and the depreciation of the pound are giving Britain a boost relative to other advanced countries.

The chart above is the latest data on that boost. GDP growth on annual and quarterly basis. The best that can be said is that rate of output decline at the worst of the recession has not been maintained. But this is an economy still in recession, even as other advanced countries come out of it.

That's some bounce.

Chart: UK Office of National Statistics

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Commonwealth Legion

The conservative group Accuracy in Media is having their 40th anniversary conference in Washington DC today. C-Span is providing a true public service by covering the whole thing live. It's worth tuning it any point to get a sense of the current political environment in the USA and in particular the extent to which views that were once on the fringe of conservatism have gone mainstream conservative.

For the participants, Barack Obama, global warming, the rise of China, the Israel-Palestine question, the fall of Communism, the rise of Islamism etc are the convergence of a relentless march of America-haters who have skillfully manipulated events and perceptions thereof to advance their America-hating agenda.

Since there's already quite enough of the Internet devoted to these theories, enough said. Instead, one side observation about the conference: an out of proportion number of the speakers, telling the loyalists what they wanted to hear, were not American.

Consider this morning. New Zealander Trevor Loudon drawing a line between meat packing strikes in Chicago in the 1940s and a Communist in the White House today, just as the New Zealand hard left had taken over there in the mid-1980s. There was the Irish journalism veteran Ann McElhinney complaining, inter alia, about the challenge of buying non-organic food in Whole Foods. And telling tales of children coming home from school saying that they hate their parents' lifestyles as a result of what they had heard about global warming.

The republican audience (one would assume in both American senses of the word) lapped up the global warming scepticism of the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who assured them all that the science was a massive hoax. He was also signing books outside. And then luncheon speaker Tony Blankley, who despite the long-time career as a Washington media operative, is still somewhere back in the mists of time a Londoner.

So what's the interpretation? The obvious one is that American conspiratorial rabble-rousing is best served up with a Commonwealth (& ex-members) country accent. It seems to add to the credibility. For the audience (and this came up during Loudon's Q&A), it only proves that the conspiracy is indeed so vast that most Americans have already been co-opted by it and only furriners can see the truth. It's worth noting that this is not a new phenomenon: The Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard was a critical cog in the Clinton wars of the 1990s, because he would launder the loony theories through the Telegraph, thus providing a legitimate source for the establishment US media to "discuss" the stories.

And for the foreigners, it shows that America is still the land of opportunity. Ireland, New Zealand, and even the UK just don't have the market size on their own to make a living out of knowing that you're right and everyone else is wrong. America has the size and the politics to make it work. Is this a great country or what?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Now there's some outrageous rhetoric

Dick Cheney got the "Keeper of the Flame" award from the Center for Security Policy last night. That's Frank Gaffney's outfit. Cheney is clearly unperturbed by the conspiratorial baggage he's taking on by endorsing Gaffney. But then when your closing lines include the following, Gaffney's stuff is moderate by comparison --

We cannot protect this country by putting politics over security, and turning the guns on our own guys.

One bit of credit to Cheney. It seems he's aware of the problem of claiming that Bush=Cheney got us 8 years without another 9/11 --

We had been the decision makers, but those seven years, four months, and nine days [to Jan 20th 2009] without another 9/11 or worse, were a combined achievement:

But anyway, shouldn't the cable news cycle be devoted to Cheney's claim that Obama is pointing the guns at Americans?

He was there in spirit

Karl Rove in his Wall Street Journal perch --

There is also the heavy whiff of politics in the administration's [Afghan] war deliberations. The president's senior political adviser, David Axelrod, apparently attends war cabinet meetings—something I did not do as President Bush's senior political adviser.

From Bob Woodward's account of the Iraq war run-up --

The president also informed Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, of his decision [that there would be war in Iraq] over the [2002] holidays. Rove had gone to Crawford to brief Bush on the confidential plan for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. While Laura Bush sat reading a book, Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation on the campaign's strategy, themes and timetable.

Opening his laptop, he displayed for Bush in bold letters on a dark blue background:


Strong Leader
Bold Action
Big Ideas
Peace in World
More Compassionate America
Cares About People Like Me
Leads a Strong Team

All things being equal, the president asked, when would you like to begin the campaign and active fundraising?

Rove said he wanted the president to start that February or March [2003] and begin raising the money, probably $200 million. He had a schedule. In February, March and April 2003, there would be between 12 and 16 fundraisers.

"We got a war coming," the president told Rove flatly, "and you're just going to have to wait." He had decided. "The moment is coming." The president did not give a date, but he left the impression with Rove that it would be January or February or March at the latest.

"Remember the problem with your dad's campaign," Rove replied. "A lot of people said he got started too late."

"I understand," Bush said. "I'll tell you when I'm comfortable with you starting."

So before getting to the bit where Woodward was being spun by his sources [K. Rove], note that Bush was telling Karl Rove over Christmas 2002 that there was going to be a war with Saddam. In public, the suspense was maintained up until March 2003. Technically, Rove wasn't in the "war cabinet". He didn't need to be.

But now note the preposterousness of Bush's supposed sacrifice of campaigning. There wasn't an election coming until November 2004. There was no prospect of an opponent in the Republican primary. So he was still a full 15 months at the earliest from needing to do any serious campaigning.

But Rove wept as Bush forsook some fundraisers in early 2003. And never noticed that Bush telling him there was a war coming could be mapped into the first four criteria of his Powerpoint presentation. The Bush-Rove relationship was You Furnish the Pictures, and I'll Furnish the War. No cabinet meetings necessary.

UPDATE: Headline on Rove op-ed in US edition of WSJ --

Obama Goes Wobbly on Afghanistan

Headline on Con Coughlin op-ed in WSJ European edition --

Brown Goes Wobbly on Afghanistan

So the people who have to make the actual decision about sending troops into danger are "wobbly". The pundits are all for it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

He knows what a stolen election feels like

National Review's Rich Lowry doesn't like John Kerry's central role in the Afghan election compromise --

Isn't this what Richard Holbrooke was supposed to be doing? Could it be that Holbrooke — diplomat extraordinaire — so badly alienated Karzai in the course of leading the administration's botched handling of the first election that he no longer has any sway with the Afghan leader?

Holbrooke's botched handling of the 1st election amounted to saying that there will have to be a runoff.

There is going to be a runoff.

But anyway, the Wall Street Journal gives us some insights into how Kerry won Karzai over to the inevitable --

That night, Sen. Kerry went to the presidential palace, where the two men, sometimes accompanied by Mr. Eikenberry [US Ambassador] and sometimes alone, hashed out Mr. Karzai's concerns. "We had lot of hours together and talked about a lot of things, including the American experience in elections, and going back to 1864, Al Gore in 2000," Sen. Kerry said. "I think it helped to put it into a certain framework."

It's hard to know what "certain framework" Kerry has in mind, but one might be that when an election is subject to serious doubt, as Florida 2000 was, a complete re-run of the election might not be a bad idea. Legitimacy, mandate, all that stuff. No wonder Lowry is mad.

UPDATE: Lowry comes out against the runoff and doesn't seem too perturbed by the election fraud. Having a leader is more important.

Turbulent Priests

Two unrelated events in Christendom took place yesterday.

First, the Vatican decided to get into the spirit of financial engineering and announced that is is creating a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for the absorption of Anglican dissidents into the Church; the SPVs will have legacy rights to continue certain aspects of Anglican practice, not least the Anglican Mass, but otherwise the new entrants will pledge allegiance to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Second, the Irish government found itself in a rare war of words with the Church of Ireland, in the form of harsh address by C of I Archbishop of Dublin John Neill who accused the department of education of having an implicit plan to wipe out distinctive Protestant education in Ireland.

The underlying issue is a system of special administrative grants for Protestant fee-paying schools which were cut last year. The Department says that they were unconstitutional. It's weird how grants that worked for 40 years suddenly turned out to be unconstitutional when the bureaucrats were looking for something to cut.

But the grants reflected an Irish solution to an Irish problem. When free public secondary education was brought in in the mid-1960s, it was in the context of a system where the Catholic Church owned most of the schools, the priests were ex officio members of the school boards, and Catechism was on the curriculum. These circumstances are largely intact, but apparently pass constitutional muster. The compromise was that where a C of I school could be sustained, it would get the administrative grants that otherwise only went to the schools within the free public system.

It was the fact that other fee paying schools don't get the special grant that was after 4 decades deemed objectionable. Note the absence of any demonstrated complaint about the system, let alone an attempt to test whether the courts would uphold a system with a clear purpose of protecting a minority religious group.

Anyway, back to the Pope and his wheeze. We can't resist mentioning this subtle dig at Benedict by Timothy Bradshaw in the Times (UK) --

When this powerful central Vatican machine reaches into local church life it can have a negative impact, as when the Pope closed down the Catholic Centre Party in 1930s Germany, a disastrous weakening of opposition to Hitler.

You'd think Papa Ratzi would know that history.

What his move and that of the Irish government have in common is that they are striking at the Anglican church when they think it's weak. The Pope thinks he can peel off the conservative wing and leave only a liberal Rowanesque rump, although the Vatican may not have thought through what happens when already disaffected but persisting Catholics find an influx of de facto evangelicals in their churches. That more relaxed Anglican congregation will still be down the road.

While the Irish government is gambling that the only students seriously affected are those in rural areas where the lack of density makes sustaining a specialized C of I school difficult. Sure can't they sit in the local secondary and just read a book during any religious content? As a cynical calculation, it probably has merit. Rural areas seem more up in arms about a proposed tightening of drink-driving laws than the loss of a few more C of I schools.

But it's a telling commentary on the current self-satisfied definition of Irishness (as reflected in the Angelus) that there's less space for a traditional Irish religious institution to function. It's pointless to note the irony of the country's permanent party of government, Fianna Fáil, gathering last Sunday to celebrate the 1791 founding of the United Irishmen, a movement characterized by a fellowship of Catholic and Protestant Irish nationalists, even as the government undermined the compact of that relationship. For the Vatican and the Irish establishment, it's all in the name of modernity.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Warm up the death panels

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn (ex Bush speechwriter) rolls out a recurring anti-health care reform talking point -- that the US spends way more on healthcare than Singapore, so why don't we switch to that system? --

"When I'm asked to describe the differences between the U.S. and Singapore systems, my one-word answer is 'complexity,'" says Dr. Jason Yap, director of marketing for Raffles Hospital, a leading private care facility in downtown Singapore. "There are so many parties in the American system that do not really contribute to care."

Dr. Yap is referring to the higher costs that come from an American system that depends on regulation and oversight to accomplish what Singapore tries to do with competition and choice. At the Raffles lounge for international patients, he shows me an example of the latter. It's a one-page, easy-to-read list of fees.

At the high end of accommodation, a patient can choose the Raffles/Victory suite for about $1,438 per night. That price includes a 24-hour private nurse, a refrigerator stocked with drinks, and an adjoining living room to entertain. At the other end of the scale, a bed in a six-person room goes for just $99.

Dr Yap is having words put in his mouth since he never actually said that it specifically was regulation and oversight that adds to the American's system's costs. The way his quote is presented, he could just as easily be referring to the insurance companies. And note also how the cost quotes are for the bed, not the actual care. You don't get treated for $99/night. But anyway, McGurn says it all must be working because Singapore only spends 4 percent of GDP on healthcare compared to 15 percent for the US.

The above is the Singapore population age distribution. It's unusual. It has relatively few very young people and old people and lots of working age people in between. Most developed countries have a much more even distribution across the various age groups. To put some concrete numbers on it, the US has 6.8 percent of the population in the 0-4 years range compared to 4.4 percent for Singapore, and the US has 12.8 percent at 65 or over compared to 8.8 percent for Singapore (all figures as of 2009 from US Census Bureau).

If you take out lots of expensive young people and lots of expensive old people, then, sure costs go down. Incidentally, Singapore's fertility rate is well below replacement, so they're headed for a future much like the one that the demographic doom mongers say Europe is headed for.

But in the never ending quest for factoids, reduction of healthcare costs by having fewer old people and fewer kids is now apparently the preferred model.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Freaky Gurls

The Superfreakonomics book by Levitt and Dubner has already suffered a pre-emptive strike over its "global cooling" analysis.

The chapter on prostitution is also going to need a look. Daniel Davies has noted the authors' unhealthy interest in this topic. The chapter is in today's Sunday Times (UK). Since everything in Superfreakonomics must be counterintuitive, the counterintuitive message of the prostitution chapter is that less is more: charging a higher rate for paid sex (and so reducing the number of "encounters") is more lucrative.

Being economists, they're obliged to provide an explanation for this and the explanation relies entirely on the demand side. The argument is that since it's now so easy for men to have casual sex (those awful temptresses at college apparently being the problem), the demand for commercial sex has declined and so the service providers have to position themselves at the high end to make any money.

The chapter includes a remarkable claim that begs scrutiny --

Their income [Chicago prostitutes] of roughly $18,000 a year is next to nothing compared with what even low-rent prostitutes in Chicago earned 100 years ago. A woman working in a “dollar house” took home the equivalent of about $76,000 today annually, while prostitutes at the Everleigh Club, the city’s top brothel, could earn the equivalent of about $430,000.

Why has the prostitute’s wage fallen so far? Because demand has fallen dramatically.

Besides the empirical claim about earnings, there is the argument that the only thing that matters for understanding prostitution is the demand side, not the supply side. And now Levitt and Dubner are in much-traversed territory, though they seem not to realize it. For one thing, the apparent infatuation with careers in prostitution has awkward echoes of Gladstone's "rescue missions" in London from the 1840s onwards. From what Gladstone encountered, it sounded very much like (1) the earnings from prostitution were fairly abysmal, but (2) the alternatives -- including his religious mercy houses -- were worse.

Dr. William Acton wrote contemporaneously (1857) about this period. Now although some of Acton's writings are easily ridiculed today (as a Victorian moralist), he also had enough of analytical mind to write the following --

Domestic servants, and girls of decent family, are generally driven headlong to the streets for support of themselves and their babies; needlewomen of some classes by the incompatibility of infant nursing with the discipline of the workshop. Those who take work at home are fortunate enough, and generally too happy, to reconcile continuance of their labours with a mother's nursing duties, and by management retain a permanent connexion with the army of labour, adopting prostitution only when their slender wages become insufficient for their legitimate wants.

In other words, 19th century prostitution was often a matter of unintended pregnancy precipitating a need for income and/or atrocious wages in the few available occupations. Times have changed. So if you're going to do a real economic analysis of prostitution, you'd have to look at the labour force participation of women, occupational patterns, availability of contraception and abortion, and legal and social standards regarding the treatment of working women (especially domestic employees). But that would be a lot more difficult than the Pygmalion frisson that they apparently got from "Allie".

UPDATE: One of the photo illustrations with the Sunday Times chapter is Billie Piper, as in Belle de Jour. So that's the image of prostitution. And of interest to the many Freakonomics bloggers, the Sunday Times excerpt of the global cooling chapter finally has a weblink.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Keep digging

French investigators are worth listening to. In 2001, they were pretty sure that some dude named Zacarias Moussaoui who had they had previously thought was up to no good in France was definitely up to no good in Minnesota.

He was learning how to fly large jets.

So anyway, and unrelated to the above, they have a new probe going, says the Wall Street Journal (subs. req'd) --

The investigating magistrates' preliminary probe stems in part from a 2008 report by France's health-inspection authorities, the people familiar with the investigation said.

In that report, the health authorities said that French-registered charity Airma had spent only 8.4% of the €5 million ($7.4 million) it had collected from 2004 to 2006 on its declared mission of Alzheimer's research, according to the report, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

In the report, Airma defended itself by saying it had incurred high legal costs over that period. The French health authorities also described in the report how Airma relied on U.S. marketing company Market Development Group Inc., of Washington, and on the French branch of U.S. company Saturn Corp., which is based in Maryland, to reach out to potential donors via post and email.

Market Development Corp. has an interesting pedigree. Several of the principals have links to Richard A. Viguerie. Who? The dude who is so integral to US conservatism that he has his own name-branded conservative website. You can use your search engine of choice till the cows come home and you will still be finding connections to everyone who's anyone in conservative circles. And by the way, direct mail/fundraising is critical to the Republican political machine. Could such a machine have been deployed for selfish purposes, and in France of all places? Say it ain't so!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

And don't have any kids yourself

National Review guest post from Michael New spinning like a top regarding the embarrassing (for pro-lifers) report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute showing that, inter alia, rates of abortion don't differ with the legal status of abortion across countries --

Most of the countries where abortion is prohibited are in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. These countries have low per capita income and a higher incidence of social pathologies that may increase the perceived need for abortion. This nuance is not picked up in any of the media coverage of the AGI report.

This particular nuance is so nuanced that it's not clear what the point is. What are these "social pathologies" in countries that ban abortion which also result in high rates of abortion? Stigma against single mothers? Stigma against contraception? Aren't those exactly the issues which pro-lifers in rich countries use to bash social liberals in those countries?

To put it more bluntly, one very obvious social pathology in many poor countries is that attitudes to women are completely f*cked up! Which would lead you to predict exactly the mix of discrimination and pregnancy care underprovision that you see in these countries. That's no nuance. That's goes to the essence of the debate about the regulation of contraception and abortion.

Finally, not every country that bans abortion yet still has abortion is low income. There's Ireland (and Poland, and a few other European countries too). The wheeze there is that neighbouring countries provide it, which cuts down on the health disasters that the Guttmacher Institute finds for poor countries. Which illustrates the general point: one reason countries have abortion bans is because mechanisms emerge to enable official hypocrisy. In poor countries, it's the backstreet abortion. In rich countries, it's money, NGOs, and mobility. Laws on the books keep the zealots happy. But they don't have much to do with sustainable reductions in abortion.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Illiberal fascism

Benito Mussolini is a vital figure in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, because among the fascist dictators, he's easiest to peg as someone with vaguely "left" roots (as a worker-agitator) and who enjoyed some general popularity in the 1920s. But now we know that way back in 1917, MI5 knew exactly what they were dealing with -- a demagogue who liked war and who liked the idea of bashing strikers and/or pacifists over the head:

Archived documents have revealed that Mussolini got his start in politics in 1917 with the help of a £100 weekly wage from MI5.

For the British intelligence agency, it must have seemed like a good investment. Mussolini, then a 34-year-old journalist, was not just willing to ensure Italy continued to fight alongside the allies in the first world war by publishing propaganda in his paper. He was also willing to send in the boys to "persuade'' peace protesters to stay at home.

Mussolini's payments were authorised by Sir Samuel Hoare, an MP and MI5's man in Rome, who ran a staff of 100 British intelligence officers in Italy at the time.

Cambridge historian Peter Martland, who discovered details of the deal struck with the future dictator, said: "Britain's least reliable ally in the war at the time was Italy after revolutionary Russia's pullout from the conflict. Mussolini was paid £100 a week from the autumn of 1917 for at least a year to keep up the pro-war campaigning – equivalent to about £6,000 a week today."

If being a pro-war reactionary fond of physical force violence is not an essential characteristic of being Fascist, it's not clear what is. It is possible though that Benito liked fresh mozzarella, which may make him a liberal Fascist.

It's all relative

National Review's Rich Lowry --

By the way, I take issue with his [Ralph Peters] contention earlier in the column that Iraq wasn't in a civil war. Of course it was. By any reasonable standard, that level of sectarian violence and cleansing constitutes a civil war

Rich Lowry on the actual Iraqi civil war --

[Nov 2006] Just a quick note on this semantic brouhaha. It seems obvious that there is a kind of civil war in Iraq, even if it is not a replica of our civil war or (yet?) as violent as some others. So I don't think it's necessarily out-of-bounds for the media to use the phrase (although even some MSM types see an agenda in the big NBC announcement). On the other hand, it is understandable that the U.S. and Iraqi governments want to parse the phrase very closely and avoid it all costs, for fear of the effects it might have on the ground and here in the U.S.

So, what happened? How does the now obvious fact that Iraq was in a civil war in 2006 relate to Lowry's view in 2006 that this was mere semantics, albeit semantics that the Iraqi and US governments were justified in wanting to avoid?

Because, in 2006, it was politically damaging for George W. Bush for it to be said that Iraq was in a civil war. Completely off-message with the demands for "good news from Iraq."

One wonders what contemporary issues might be getting the same treatment from Lowry, in the opposite direction since it's a different President now.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Newt is nuts

Newt Gingrich is still mentioned as a Republican presidential hopeful. He did an interview with National Review. It's worth a look for an understanding of how Newt thinks and by extension what the people who love Newt might think --

Obama, Gingrich adds, “is a radical in the sense that the victory of those values would mean the end of American civilization as we know it.” ... One editor asked Gingrich why America took such a sharp cultural turn after the Second World War. “I think it’s actually, in a bizarre way, the victory of the European intellectuals,” says Gingrich. “It would be interesting to go back and do a study of how this evolved. You have two streams coming together. You have an anti–middle class intellectual elite in the United States. You can go back and read, for example, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Main Street, etc. And you have the European refugees, who bring a very left intellectualism.”

Er, Newt, do you have any specific group in mind for those "refugees" who brought a "left intellectualism"? At least he didn't refer to them as Bolsheviks.

Anyway --

I keep arguing that the most important political phrase of the next ten years is that ‘two plus two equals four,’ which the Poles used against the state. It partly came out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the state torturer says to the citizen: ‘If we tell you that two plus two equals five, it equals five. If we tell you that it equals three, it equals three,’” he says. “Deweyism, in that sense, wanted to create plasticity. William Ayers in that sense is a legitimate disciple of Dewey. How do you get to a revolutionized society? You make sure the people don’t know anything.”

Gingrich likened this to the Left’s current strategy of “saying that $10 trillion in debt doesn’t really matter because you won’t really notice it, and anyway by the time we get to that, something good will have happened.”

Got that ... arguments about public finance are just like the totalitarian state in 1984, because Newt says they are.

Then there's Newt and his favourite refugee left intellectual, Jesus --

Gingrich, a new convert to Catholicism, says that his recent documentaries and books, as well as his own faith, have influenced his politics and philosophy. “I think the centrality of the Eucharist in the Catholic experience, and the degree to which you’re directly infused with Christ, gives me a much higher appreciation of the cost of a totalitarian state on an everyday basis,” he says.

Every day is like Sunday, or something.

“If you read [George] Weigel,” he says, “and think about the points he’s driving at, and then you look at the passion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to try to destroy every public cross in the country, to try to destroy every reference to religion, you begin to see this intense competition between this secular bureaucracy that literally is terrified of the sight of religion and the desire of humans to have access to being able to approach God without being constantly pressured by the state.”

You'd think that if "you're directly infused with Christ" from the Eucharist then whether or not there's a cross in a desert somewhere really wouldn't matter that much, but it's all clear in Newt's head.

Looking to Afghanistan, Gingrich says, “the real underlying challenge is that this is a much bigger problem than people understand. You can pull out of Afghanistan, and then what? You want to pull out of Pakistan? Fine. And then what? We pulled out of Somalia, and now we have pirates. You think these guys are going away? Or, do you think that this will become a bigger problem? It’s like dealing with Iran. The last few weeks have been worse than Chamberlain. This is Baldwin in 1935, just willfully blind because he didn’t want to tell the British people the truth because it would offend them.”

If things are so dire, then where is America’s Churchill? “I don’t know, we’ll find out,” says Gingrich. “I hope that we can find one.”

The Baldwin reference is a bit strange and at the very least, Baldwin's hesitancy on rearming was reflecting the pacifist mood of the public at the time. But where is the new Churchill? The Christ-infused Newt is too modest to tell us.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A new meaning for "Fisked"

That Robert Fisk story in the Independent (UK) about the dollar maybe sometime no longer being used to price oil sure worked out nicely for any investor prepositioned short in dollars and long in commodities. There's a history of this type of stuff in the Gulf.

He's cleaning up a mess

Eight US soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack on a NATO outpost in Nuristan province on Saturday. Here is part of the reaction of Veterans for Bush operative Pete Hegseth, posting at National Review's The Corner --

The big difference between the Surge violence in Iraq in 2007 and the increase in violence in Afghanistan today, is that in 2007 our troops knew reinforcements were coming, and would be added to the fight wherever necessary. Men like Eric Geressy fought in enemy strongholds, knowing that additional forces were coming and would be all around them — squeezing al-Qaeda like a pimple.

Right now, I can’t imagine our troops in Afghanistan feel the same way. Our Soldiers and Marines are manning remote combat outposts, surrounded by enemy fighters, with no idea whether the reinforcements they so desperately need will ever come. Nonetheless, our troops are bravely following orders and taking the initial steps necessary to implement the counter-insurgency strategy President Obama approved in March and General McChrystal has been implementing aggressively.

A casual reader might conclude that Hegseth is claiming that the soldiers got stranded at the outpost because of some new Obama strategy. But that wouldn't be true and we know it can't be true because the Saturday attack bears striking resemblance to one in July 2008 in the same province in which 9 US soldiers was killed.

The circumstances that led to the latter incident, the so-called Battle of Wanat, are still unresolved. Dumped into last week's news was a statement from General David Petraeus that he has ordered another inquiry into the battle, which apparently will be the 3rd such investigation. This one will will "also address circumstances beyond the tactical level." Which sounds like an investigation of strategy.

So the point is that a major attack happens in July 2008 and the investigations are still going on. A repeat attack happens in October 2009 and Hegseth is wondering "Where Is the Urgency on Afghanistan?" A question better addressed to the commander-in-chief for 2008 who at the time was being hailed as a genius by Hegseth for the surge in Iraq. The one that kept Afghanistan short of troops.

UPDATE: Max Boot, on an Afghanistan-Iraq tour, has an interesting couple of lines on the Nuristan incident --

One of those "impertinent questions" concerns the deployment of small coalition outposts in remote regions of Regional Command-East along the border with Pakistan. Here small numbers of soldiers were isolated and subject to daily attack in bases that could be supplied only by air. What was the point of having soldiers so far from population centers, [General Stanley] McChrystal demanded? Previous commanders had asked the same question, only to hesitate to remove them because they knew that this would represent a propaganda boost for the Taliban. McChrystal went ahead with the consolidation even after insurgents nearly overran Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province in early October, killing eight American soldiers, just days before it was to be dismantled. He insists, rightly, that a successful counterinsurgency strategy must be focused on the people, not on terrain, and that's where he's putting his troops.

This makes clear that Hegseth has the situation pretty much backwards. It was the old strategy to have thinly-defended combat outposts. Obama wants to implement a new strategy.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

New Europe

A poster held during a protest against the Lisbon Treaty held outside the Irish Embassy in Prague (context), illustrating that there is a visceral element to the Czech opposition to the Treaty that won't easily be overcome.

Photo: REUTERS/Petr Josek