Samantha Power

So Weds night, I went and saw Samantha Power at the LA Library’s great ALOUD reading series.

She is Barak Obama’s primary foreign policy advisor, and the author of the great book ‘A Problem From Hell’. She was touring to promote her new book, about Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the UN diplomat who was murdered in Iraq by a truck bomb.

She was interviewed by Terry George, the filmmaker, who has optioned the book and is planning to make a film of it. Some comments about that will follow…Power’s talk focused on de Mello; he was a charismatic, seductive (literally, apparently – she cracked a joke she said was prevalent in the UN that you couldn’t throw a rock in Sarajevo without hitting one of de Mello’s children…) driven man, who she obviously deeply admires.

She admires him, in large part, because he was willing to confront evil; he ‘negotiated with the Khmer Rouge’. His heart was always in the struggle to save people; as he progressed from being a ‘soixante-huit‘ (one of the students in the Paris antiwar/anti capitalist riots of ’68) to a pragmatist working the levers of national governments to try and save a few more refugees she felt that he maintained his high ideals.

And he personalized those ideals; he used Un vehicles – in full defiance of UN regulations – to smuggle civilians out of areas where they would have been slaughtered. He helped a Kosovar cleaning woman at UN headquarters find and save her son. He supported his east Timorese cleaning woman long after he left Timor.

He also worsened the situation in East Timor by handing over political control too soon; and she alluded to other failures of his humanitarian missions. I wonder – and will try and do some homework, and would ask all of you to provide any pointers you can find – if he rally improved conditions.

What I walked out with was the sense that she admired him because he was morally righteous; he stood on the side of the angels.

The problem, of course, is that moral righteousness without results is the province of saints and religious figures; from our political leadership, we are allowed to demand results.

And my admittedly casual impression is that UN humanitarian aid – other than feeding refugees – hasn’t shown much in the way of results. Again, I’m interested in what others know about it.

And it was interesting that Power both acknowledged that (indirectly) and still was impassioned about it. And that passion is a big part of what pulled her to the story.

She also saw it as a way to humanize the UN. For the first half of the discussion, she talked about how important the idea of the UN is while acknowledging it’s shortcomings; in the end, in response to a question, she made me feel much better by acknowledging that as long as the UN consistently acts against the interests of the US, the US will be emphasizing other multilateral organizations – she used the example of NATO in Afghanistan – to resolve our issues. She ended by acknowledging that while the UN may be helpless in peacemaking, and in confronting evildoers, it’s useful for providing humanitarian aid,

Confronting evil – and I liked it that she used that word frequently in her discussion – was never going to be the UN’s metier.

So my view of her swung over the course of the talk. In the first part, as she idealized de Mello’s failures, I was profoundly cynical. In fact, walking out of the talk, I began to think out a better critique of ‘feel good’ liberalism as opposed to ‘do good’ liberalism.

But by the end, as she talked about the need to pragmatically confront evildoers – and acknowledged that they exist – I felt better.

There’s a longer piece on the nature of the humanitarian impulse, and why it is that the blue helmets are always stalwart in standing up to the Israeli army, and not so much at standing up to Hezbollah.

Terry George was funny, as witty Irishmen tend to be. But he made a few telling comments, and there was an interesting thought bubble that popped up as he talked.

He was devastated that there was no audience for ‘political’ films today; he talked about the corpses of the anti-Iraq war films that were made this year. I thought about asking him – during the question and answer section – if that might be as attributable to the fact that the films had the wrong politics as to the fact that they were political – but I wimped out.

And it’s interesting to me how the media indirectly shape our discourse – Power could write the book in part because she had a deal to sell the film rights. And George was intimately involved in the process of writing the book – looking at the drafts as they came off her computer.

For very little money – in film terms – but a lot of money – in journalistic terms – he managed to have a hand in shaping the story she wrote, and indirectly, shaping the political discourse about the UN and humanitarian aid, and America and Iraq.

In business, I’m always looking at those discontinuities – where what would be a small investment in one context becomes a meaningful one in another.

And I think there is probably a very meaningful one here, as writers about events and politics may have an incentive to shape their stories – and hence our perceptions – to meet the worldview and demands of Hollywood.

Did she change my views on Obama or my concerns about his foreign policy? No.

Stupidest Idea This Week

Here’s a sooper-genius proposal for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

We propose that Iran’s efforts to produce enriched uranium and other related nuclear activities be conducted on a multilateral basis, that is to say jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments. This proposal provides a realistic, workable solution to the US – Iranian nuclear standoff. Turning Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities into a multinational program will reduce the risk of proliferation and create the basis for a broader discussion not only of our disagreements but of our common interests as well.

OK, people – did you learn anything from Oil-For-Palaces? When hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, people cheat. And to expect the Russian, Chinese, and European ‘partners’ in Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle to act strategically when immediate financial rewards are at stake is – well, it’s kind of Captain Renault-ish.

And let’s train and educate the Iranian scientists so they can be more efficient at making enriched uranium…say, in parallel programs that we’re so good at detecting.

And let’s invest millions in an infrastructure on Iranian soil, so the Iranians can simply come by one day and decide to treat it – well, with all the sanctity of an embassy. The genius authors of this correctly dismiss the notion of building the plant in Russia for strategic reasons; people, why not put it in Germany? (if you’re going to ship the fissile materials anyway…).

And as a cherry on top of this steaming cow pie, they suggest that the main reason to do this is because Ahmadinejad is in trouble with his own people, and needs a political lifeline. Because?

If you haven’t seen this video – you should.

So let’s revisit – we’re creating a management structure that is designed to be corrupted, to improve the ability of the Iranian regime to cheat, and to create an immensely valuable asset for them. The defense is that it will improve our enemies’ standing with his people (who are starting to hate him., in part because our policies are working), it will create a ‘bright line,’ crossing which will mean the regime will “certainly” face military action (hey – all the liberal commentators who say things like this – will you sign, in blood, please a memorandum fully supporting bombing raids and the inevitable civilian casualties and diplomatic fallout if Iran does, like cheat us on something like this? I’d take you much more seriously if you did).

The authors of this foolishness are ostensibly grownups, and my betters in the world of international affairs:

William Luers is the president of the United Nations Association-USA and was formerly US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela.

Thomas Pickering is Co-Chair of the United Nations Association-USA, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and former US Ambassador to Russia, Israel, India, Jordan, El Salvador, Nigeria, and the UN.

Jim Walsh, a Research Associate at MIT, was previously Executive Director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

I’ll have to go look through Gaddis’ book “The Cold War” for the quote on why diplomacy didn’t work to end the Cold War; as I recall it in essence, because the diplomats were totally invested in the idea of stability, and in essence because invested in the balance of power between the two sides – regardless of which side they were on.

Here’s a perfect example of that. Where do we get such men?

So I Went To Hear Karl Rove Last Night

…and he’s hip enough to have an iPhone.

He’s as smart as you’d imagine him to be. And it’s interesting: I had a friend in college who’d bet you when you went shopping that he could tell you the starting and end points of the California highway with the number of the cents in the bill. Rove has that kind of detailed, visceral sense of American geography.

And what comes across is a deep sincerity and love for the country, and respect for the people who elect it’s leaders.

He listed 31 principles of running a Presidential campaign; many of them centered on the fact that over a long and grueling campaign season, you can’t hide who you are or what you believe. I started to take notes on my Treo, but fell hopelessly behind and gave up. But he was smart, funny, self-depricating, and had one of the clearest understandings of the mechanics of American politics that I’ve ever heard expressed.

And the audience – almost 3,000 people at the American Jewish University lecture series, that was equally divided between Democrats and Republicans (or what the guy who introduced Rove explained Rove would call “a clear plurality”). I was primed for outbursts or at minimum boos at the end – there were some gasps in the face of his strong defense of Iraq – but at the end the entire audience broke int owarm applause. He was that good.

The newsworthy part is his statement that Dana Jill Simpson – the woman who links him to the Spiegelman case on 60 Minutes – is flat-out lying.

He says: “She claims to have met with me in 2001 – when I was in the White House. Where are the records of the meeting? I’ve never taken a meeting with that woman. I have no idea who she is.”

He was absolutely certain in saying that.

And it was a brilliant piece of political jujitsu.

Because if you read the account she is sharing, her claim is that she “swears she heard a top G.O.P. operative in the state say that Rove “had spoken with the Department of Justice” about “pursuing” Siegelman, with help from two of Alabama’s U.S. attorneys.”

…so she’s not claiming Rove spoke with her, but with William Canary.

Ouch. Sincerity – once you learn to fake that, you can fake anything, I guess…

Other Than That…It Was A Fine Evening…

I stepped to the front of the stage and started speaking:

In the beginning was the bet, and the bet was good, because [the other guy] lost…

But I was wearing a hard hat when I said those words, so obviously this year…we lost. We performed as the Village People in front of an audience of fifty or so of our friends (and some somewhat stunned civilians). The picture is below, because I figure it’ll be all over the Internet tubes soon, anyway…


But there’s a light at the bottom of every bushel, because a) the guy in the sumo diaper (technically a mawashi) actually won the bet this year, until he foolishly made a side bet with me; and b) the drunk couple in the bar after we performed asked the bartender if “that band is coming back on”. We also passed the hard hat and raised almost $500 for Riders for Health, a pretty good charity.

Year before last, four friends made a bet against a fifth friend on the MotoGP motorcycle roadracing championship and won – American Nicky Hayden defeated Italian superstar Valentino Rossi.

Last year, we started talking terms on the bet and one of the four of us – hint, he had to dress as the Indian – accepted prematurely (he didn’t get points), and we bet on Nicky again. Sadly, Nicky was rewarded for his championship when Honda unveiled the motorcycle he had to ride this last season, and it was designed for his diminutive and humorless teammate, Dani Pedrosa instead of him, Vale beat Nicky, but I managed to get a side bet in on young Australian Casey Stoner, riding the Ducati.

And Stoner was flawless all season; technically superb, committed, and psychologically unflappable by master gamesman Rossi.

We’ve started negotiating the terms of the new bet…

(Yes, we did Y.M.C.A. We even rehearsed and had choreography and stuff. When we pay up, we pay up.)

The Netroots Delusion

I did a post criticizing Big Tent Democrat over at TalkLeft, and commenter Coldtype questioned how I could possibly disagree with his deep wisdom.In the comments thread below the post I criticize, a commenter pretty clearly summed up the Netroots position, quoting what I assume is a diary on Kos (searched, couldn’t find it, links welcome):

“Intuitively, you are saying to yourself, “How can we expand our party by kicking people out.” Sometimes logic is counterintuitive. It’s very simple. These DLC types represent 1-2% of the American people. That’s 3-6 million individuals and yes their votes count. But if we kick these 3-6 milllion people out and show the American people that we will not tolerate bad Democrats who sell out the middle class to special interests, we’ll gain 40 million new voters.”

In a nutshell, that’s the Netroots fantasy – on the Right as well as the Left, I must say. That if only the party can be more pure, if only they will be more left (or more right), the masses alienated from current dirty, impure politics will rise up and back them.

It’s an electoral version of the Vanguard fantasy.

Now let’s go to recent American political history, and see where this has actually worked.

I can pick three elections.

Paul Wellstone, 1990
Jesse Ventura, 1998
Arnold Schwatrzenegger, 2003

Can you think of any others?

Now each of them has particular features that make it different from the others.

But you know, a 66% chance that the mass of alienated voters will break center-right (which is the only way I can describe Ventura and Wellstone Ahnold) as opposed to a 33% chance that they will break left seems like a mediocre bet.

Now I agree wholly that many people are alienated from politics, and I’ll even agree with many of the commentators as to why.

But it is simply and completely a fantasy that if they all came into politics, they’d be standing behind the banner of progressivism (or radical conservatism). There isn’t any evidence at all in the polls that that’s the case.

Sorry about the typo re Schwartzengegger/Wellstone…they did look a lot alike, so I’m sure it’s understandable…

The Unity “Shtick”

Big Tent Democrat (You know, that pseudonym…’Big Tent’…I do not think it means what you think it means.) on the DLC (and, I guess, people like me) supporting Obama:

This is sad and hilarious because not for one moment can Kagro imagine WHY the DLC and Dan Gerstein might support Barack Obama. He can not imagine that Obama’s Unity Schtick is precisely what the DLC and Joe Lieberman have been preaching for decades and that the progressive blogs were supposed to be fighting AGAINST.

Excuse me, but has anyone in the progressive blogs actually been paying attention to what Obama has been saying? Probably not, too busy slamming Hillary Clinton.

I can’t add much to that this morning. But give me a day or two…


Here’s a critical article at abu muqawma that gave me a forehead-slapping moment – “I can’t believe we’re not doing this…”

Kip believes the US military has been way behind in understanding the power and uses of text messaging. SMS offers the ability to do everything from effective information operations, to paying Iraqi or Afghan police in ways that are more difficult to corrupt (if you’re interested in this, look into the CelPay disarmament program in Democratic Republic of Congo), to secure and simple communications between members of a third world army, to tips hotlines where insurgent movement can be reported at little risk to the informant.

Damn, this is so obvious even I assumed it was being done. We need both to be using SMS ourselves proactively in Iraq and Afghanistan, but compromising the SMS gateways so we can keep tabs on traffic there (assuming the OK of the local governments).

Someone kick someone at the Pentagon for me on this, will you?

Debate Ouch

I was playing chess with Littlest Guy, and missed the debate.

But I’ve been reading the blogs and news about it, and the reaction that resonated with me was Stephen Green’s:

I never thought I’d say this, but Hillary Clinton is too stupid, dependent, and timid to be President of the United States of America. A year ago, even a couple months ago, I might have said that Clinton was too shrewd, shrill, and bellicose to be President. But not anymore. Not after tonight.

…read the whole thing…

Another Moral Heavyweight Steps In

Brian Leiter, from the cushy chair he occupies at UT Austin, weighs in to defend Bertram’s air kiss to Castro:

Political philosopher Chris Bertram (Bristol) offers some sensible observations about Cuba on the occasion of Castro’s retirement, observations that wouldn’t be remotely controversial in most of the world. But since Professor Bertram’s blog also interacts, in some measure, with the right-wing American blogosphere, the reactions from the undereducated and suitably indoctrinated has been predictable.

Golly, I’m sure feeling bad about being edukated by people like Wolin, Schaar and Rittel – whose books Leiter isn’t fit to dust. Because as much as they maintained radical views of the American project, they had a very strong sense of what they believed in and who they were. As opposed to simply defining themselves as a teenager does by who they are not.

Leiter isn’t brave enough to have have comments, but here’s what I would have asked him:

Exactly what do you object to when I say “If the price of universal literacy is prison camps for writers, count me out”?