Obama Is Right About The Settlements

Barbara: So, when do I get out of here?
Sandy: As soon as Mr. Stone pays the ransom.
Barbara: What’s the problem? What is the ransom?
Sandy: Well, we asked for $500,000.
Barbara: That should be no problem.
Sandy: He wouldn’t pay.
Barbara: He wouldn’t pay?
Sandy: Then we asked him for $50,000.
Barbara: Yeah?
Sandy: He still wouldn’t pay. So now we’re lowering our price to $10,000.
Barbara: Do I understand this correctly? I’m being marked down?

Ruthless People

In the film, a couple who have been stolen from by a ruthless businessman kidnap his wife for ransom, only to discover that he really doesn’t care about her.

Israel’s ‘land for peace’ model has been similar; they took over the West Bank and Gaza in the hopes that the Palestinian people would be willing to trade for them – much as traditional nation-states trade for territory. And then they discovered that they were playing checkers and the Palestinians were playing whist, and that their moves were essentially valueless.

And every year, as they built more town into the Occupied Territories, they thought they were sending a message…”No ransom? We’ll send you a finger at a time!” But the Palestinian leadership didn’t want it’s land back, to devolve into a normal nation they’d have to lead; they want to keep leading a worldwide movement and if all the Palestinian people have to die to make that happen – well.

This doesn’t make the Israelis right – at all – for continuing to make it clear that they will keep a little more of the West Bank every year.

The reality is that continued encroachment – one house at a time – is the stupidest thing the Israelis can do. The settlements are hard to defend, they undermine Israel’s moral position as desiring a two-state solution, and the empower the worst hardliners in Israeli politics.

Obama is absolutely right when he said he “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions,” as Secretary Clinton explained this week.

And Netanyahu is saying he won’t.

Mr. Netanyahu is trying to find a middle ground. On Monday, he told lawmakers from his Likud Party that Israel would have to destroy 26 illegal outposts in the West Bank in order to win U.S. support for tough action against Iran. After his return from meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington last week, Mr. Netanyahu ordered a few structures built by teenage settlers on private Palestinian land in the West Bank razed. But none of them were among the 26, and settlers quickly started rebuilding some of them.

Meanwhile lawmakers from Mr. Netanyahu’s party responded coldly to his proposal. “The message from the party was clear: We were not chosen by voters to evacuate Jews from their property,” a Likud lawmaker said after a party meeting Monday.

Likud and the Israeli leadership would be wise to reconsider – not only because it is most likely the price of continued US support, but because it is in fact the best strategic position for Israel to take today. Building settlements is financially and politically very expensive, and those costs are ones that Israel really can’t carry any more.

This isn’t a new position for me. But for the first time, a sitting President is taking that position publicly. Israel – and Israel’s other friends – should listen.

Replace Hiltzik.

While I was working on the bookkeeping last night, a bunch of more nimble bloggers jumped on Michael Hiltzik’s latest fact- and conceptually-challenged column and pointed out that the premise of his column was false; California’s population didn’t increase 30% in the last decade, it actually increased about 14%.

Not to mention Hiltzik’s decision to exclude all of the bond-financed spending and accounting sleight-of-hand that has gone into the budget over the last 4 or 5 years. Therefore California government spending clearly, obviously, and factually didn’t increase at the rate of population increase plus an inflation index, it increased faster.

Gosh, who could have known? An eight year old with access to Google, perhaps – but not the lead business columnist for the leading newspaper in the State.

In my last post on Hiltzik, I pointed out that he similarly misread a tax-rate table and misrepresented California’s relative tax burden. He argued for a split property-tax roll, and then explained that homeowners should be able to defer the resulting tax increases until sale. Um, a split roll is one which reassesses commercial (income) property on a different basis (different assessment timing, different rates, etc.) than owner-occupied residential real property.

Does Hiltzik have a clue?

Look, I’m not an antitax warrior. I believe that government has an important role to play in our society. But government has an especial obligation to deliver value for our tax dollars, and California’s government isn’t. And we voters are not going to be inclined to up the credit limit until it is.

Patterico asks readers to write to Jamie Gold, the Reader’s Rep for the Times and ask for a new column correcting the error. I’d suggest we write to her and suggest a new columnist instead.

Hiltzik’s Baaaack. And He’s Baaaad. That’s Not Good.

There was an important column in the Los Angeles Times last week – not good, but important.

It’s by my old friend, the dishonest and foolish Michael Hiltzik. And it’s important not because of what he says, which is empty-headed, dogmatic, predictable, and dishonest, but because it provides a perfect window into what’s wrong with the thought leadership of the state I live in and love. And why it is that I’ll wave goodbye to the collapsing vessel of the LA Times with only a trace of sadness.

So let’s go to the column first, and make some points.

His opening is absolutely true – in part. Down around the 4th paragraph he says that:

Schwarzenegger had the kind of voter support in 2003 that would have allowed him to tell the voters the harsh but necessary truths about California governance and force real reforms down their throats.

Of course, he actually opens by blaming the bulk of the mess on Arnold, explaining that:

Instead, he uttered the same lies about state government and proposed the same nostrums as many of his predecessors: Californians are overtaxed and underserved, the budget can be balanced by cutting waste, fraud and abuse, etc. Like everyone else who has made these claims, he never delivered on his promise.

And repeating the core talking point of the mainstream California Democrats:

The most onerous lie is that Californians are burdened by the highest state taxes in the nation. The truth, according to 2006 figures derived from the U.S. Census, is that as a percentage of all personal income, California’s tax and fee schedule ranks 18th in the country.

That’s funny, because the table he links to says that we’re 14th – the ‘own-source revenue’ column he links to excludes subventions, which is covered in the ‘Tax Collections’ column to its right.

And even these numbers are often challenged – here’s crazy conservative (not really) Dan Walters, from the Bee:

Historically, at least until the tax revolt that began with Proposition 13 in 1978, California was a relatively high-tax, high-service state.

Data from the Washington-based Tax Foundation rank California as having the nation’s third-highest state-local tax burden in 1978, at 11.7 percent of personal income. The national average at the time was 10.3 percent.

Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes, and the state tax cuts quickly enacted by the Legislature to demonstrate that it had gotten the anti-tax message, dropped California to 22nd in 1979, at 9.8 percent of income.

Since then, taxation has increased to 10.5 percent, raising us to sixth-highest in the nation in 2008. And the income, sales and vehicle tax boosts enacted by the Legislature in February would presumably have pushed the percentage even higher – except that the severe recession has also cut deeply into state and local government revenues.

Now, I took 30 seconds, Googled the Tax Foundation, and went to their site to see if there was an explanation of why it is their numbers are different than the Census numbers. Here’s what I found:

People often ask how Tax Foundation rankings of state-local tax burdens compare to Census data, which include two popular state-by-state rankings. One of these popular Census tables covers only state-level taxes (click here to view tables). Local taxes are excluded, such as property taxes and local sales taxes. This exclusion allows Census to report up-to-date state-level collections, which would be impossible if Census waited for the time-consuming tally of tax collections by thousands of local governments. However, some states accomplish at the local level what other states accomplish at the state level, so a degree of comparability is lost as a result. For example, New York’s state sales tax rate is 4 percent, and its counties have local sales tax rates that range from 3 percent to 5.75 percent. Connecticut, on the other had, has a 6 percent state-level sales tax with no local add-ons. In a ranking that includes only state-level taxes, New York appears less taxed than it actually is, and Connecticut appears more taxed. Census also ranks combined state-local tax collections after it has amassed the local data (click here to view tables). This is closer to the Tax Foundation rankings, which take the additional steps of projecting collections into the current year, counting out-of-state tax payments in the state of residence instead of the state of collection, and dividing total tax payments by total income to calculate the “tax burden.”

For further explanation of the data in these charts, see this study.

Now, a good business reporter and columnist – the reporter we ought to have instead of Hiltzik – would dig into the discrepancies, review the various claims, and lay out what the real relative tax burden of California might be. But that’s not the reporter we have, I guess…on the face of it, though, I’d give this round to Walters.

Let’s go on.

Hiltzik is angry that we’re so nice to the rich:

Then there’s the canard that we unfairly soak our rich. This is supposedly a no-no, because the rich might flee, taking with them their sterling job-creating potential.

The dirty little secret, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, a left-leaning nonprofit group, is that California’s wealthiest residents shoulder the lightest burden of any income group in the state. The top 1% of California income-earners (average 2007 income: $2.3 million) paid 7.4% of their income in various state taxes last year, counting the federal deduction for state taxes. The highest rate was paid by the poorest residents. Those earning $20,000 or less, with average income of $12,600, forked over 10.2% of their earnings in sales, excise, property and other levies.

Now I’m not – at all – opposed to progressivity in taxes. the problem in California – as any number of experts have pointed out – is that it’s bad fiscal policy.

In the first post I ever did criticizing Hiltzik, I did so on exactly this issue:

The problem with doing this is that California is already highly dependent on high-income filers, and their income is variable.

In 2003, (the last year that the FTB has an Annual Report for -note, pdf) the top 5% of filers paid 58.8 of the personal income tax.

Since the personal income tax represented $33.7B of the $73.6B in revenues in the 03 budget, high income filers represented 58.8% of 45.8% of the budget, or 26.9% of the annual budget.

Since this represents 680,000 returns of the 13.6 million filed, it’s fair to say that half a million households provide about a quarter of the revenue to the state.

I think this is an amazingly bad idea. I don’t think that this is a bad idea because it’s unfair to the half-million rich households. I think it’s a bad idea because it builds insane levels of volatility into the state revenue stream.

Looking back on 2003 again, we note a few interesting things (go to page 14):

Exhibit Table B-1 Comparison by Taxable Years shows that, from taxable year 2000 to taxable year 2002, the total Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) declined from $829.5 billion in 2000, to $754.1 billion in 2001, to $731.2 billion in 2002, or an overall reduction of 11.9%. Consequently, the amount of personal income tax dollars deposited to the General Fund declined by 29.2%, from $40.4 billion in taxable year 2000, to $31.3 billion in 2001, to $28.6 billion in taxable year 2002.

The numbers of returns reporting incomes of $200,000 and above also declined between taxable year 2000 and 2002, as illustrated by the following table:

2000 = 414,746
2001 = 371,369
2002 = 349,845

There’s your fiscal crisis right there.

There’s an interesting research project, for someone with more time than I have, to decompose the state revenues for the past decade and really get to the bottom of this.

But by following Hiltzik’s plan, the state is in the position of a farmer with one cow. As long as the cow is healthy, all is well. But as soon as the cow gets sick…

Now taxing the hell out of the Malibu Mafia to pay for improving healthcare for the poor emotionally hits the all the right notes for me (I’m the Armed Liberal, remember). But I’m grown-up enough to notice that what feels good emotionally doesn’t necessarily make for good policy.

Note that the Legislative Analyst pretty much agrees with me

This was in 2006, before Hiltzik demolished his reputation by getting into a sockpuppet argument with Patterico.

It’s sad to note that his policy judgment isn’t any better today. his column continues to offer three solutions for our crisis:

One: Eliminate, or at least loosen substantially, the two-thirds legislative requirement to pass a budget or raise taxes.

This rule has allowed a small Republican minority to hold up all budget progress unless its reactionary program is incorporated in the deal. If the supermajority were pared back even to 60%, the minority lawmakers would be unable to block a budget unless they could enlist at least a few moderates in their cause. The improvement in the tone of legislating would be immediate.

In other words, make those pesky Republicans stop stopping the interests that elect the Democratic majority from simply raising taxes to a level that makes them happy on demand. I’d grade this one an F.

Two: Remove legislative term limits. This ridiculous provision has reduced the Capitol to a nursery full of would-be legislators needing afternoon naps. Worse, it has sapped legislative leadership of its vigor.

Since mid-1995, there have been nine speakers of the Assembly. Over the previous 20 years, there were two, including Willie Brown, the original target of the term-limit movement. You want to tell me that government in Sacramento has improved since then? As long as term limits exist, we’ll never have a 21st-century state government.

And without term limits, we can go back to a 19th-century one. Term limits exist in part to limit the professionalization of policits and policy; the idea being that the legislators are the voice of the people – as opposed to the Administration and lobbyists. Today they aren’t. Term limits were meant to make them more so, but I don’t think they really have; I knew Willie Brown (and admired him) but I’m not completely sure that what worked for a relatively powerless part-time legislature back in the 50’s and 60’s is really the best answer today. This one, I’d grade a C.

Three is the Big One: Revise Proposition 13. Prop 13 is often described as a tax-cutting measure, but that scarcely does justice to the damage it has caused.

Note that it has only done damage…

Hiltzik and I actually almost agree about something next:

By rendering the property tax useless as a revenue device, Prop 13 hit local governments especially hard. Key budgeting authority devolved from cities and counties up to Sacramento, where they have to compete with the state government for money. You want your streets paved or more teachers for your third grade? Stand in line behind the health department, or the corrections department, or Caltrans.

So city streets deteriorate and local schools get worse. Police and firefighters are laid off. All the places where the voters come into face-to-face contact with their governments crumble.

The result? Voters get more cynical, more convinced that government is expensive and useless. It’s a vicious circle — the more government is unable to do the things voters want it to do, the less faith the voters have in government and the less they’re willing to spend on it. Which leaves it with less money to do the things voters want. And on and on.

Let me flag this one and come back to it…

And then he descends into incoherence.

Reversing the worst effects of Proposition 13 doesn’t take rocket science. Commercial property should be subject to regular reassessment — the “split roll” that, inexplicably, can’t gain traction in Sacramento. Cash-strapped homeowners can be provisionally protected from the burden of higher residential assessments — say by allowing some assessments to be deferred until the home is sold.

I actually approve of a split roll – I discussed it some time ago. There’s an intermediate step, which is to tax the corporate sale of real estate (i.e. the change of control of the corporations that often own major properties) as a change in ownership. It’s supposed to work that way as I understand it, but it’s seldom enforced. Again – a good reporter would be pointing this out, doing research, running some numbers and point out the real fiscal impacts.

And what in the wide, wide world of sports does allowing homeowners to defer increased taxes until sale (i.e. borrow against their homes to pay them) have to do with a split roll? Unless he expects to both reassess commercial and residential properties…

Hiltzik isn’t that reporter.

Plainly, local government needs to recover its authority to collect revenue directly. That would help our political leadership make the case that, considering the quality of the services and institutions state and local government provide, Californians aren’t overtaxed but undertaxed — and the wealthy are the most undertaxed of all.


Look, I agree that the core issue on taxes is simple; call it the FedEx issue. When the post office charged $2.50 to send an express letter – but you got awful service – FedEx came along and charged $11. And you didn’t mind. Because you got great service from them.

Our public servants too often think we’re here to serve them, not the other way around; and as long as that’s the case, government will fail the Fedex test.

(this is the point I flagged where he and I sort of agree)

But let’s step back to the larger issue.

Hiltzik has never – once – looked in the mirror and validated his arguments and reconsidered his conceptual framework. He’s lazy when it comes to facts – even misquoting (in his argument’s favor) the very sources he quotes.

And this is the major voice of the economy and public policy in the LA Times – in the leading newspaper in the state. How can we possibly make informed, sensible decisions with people like this as our public ‘thought leadership’? It matters that you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Larry Gonzalez, who wrote the great book ‘Deep Survival’ recently was quoted as saying:

“My first rule of survival is perceive and believe…That means you accept the clear evidence of your senses and not engage in denial like ‘maybe it’ll get better’…”

Hiltzik and people like Hiltzik are destroying liberalism – my kind of liberalism that cares about improving conditions for working people and the poor more than scoring skyboxes because they refuse to accept or care about facts and reality. As long as they have power – the power of his position at the Times or the power of an elected official or senior policymaker, you can deny the evidence – for a while.

And California’s government has been taken over by these people, and that’s why were in the condition we’re in.

A long time ago, when Hiltzik got himself in trouble, I carefully said that I hoped he wasn’t fired for his transgressions. I hereby take that back; I’d like to see him fired – because he’s a lazy, lousy journalist and we need better if we’re going to save the state.
Updated to clarify point on Prop 13.

The Prodigal Returns

Sorry for the long absence; we scaled a wall at work (and now I get some more time…) and I’m just back from our annual motorcycle trip to the Sierra with a collection of friends (on my new motorcycle…).

I’ve got a backlog of stuff I want to write about, so please come by often and send your friends…

“Thing is, nobody here cares about the military, and nobody here knows anything about the military,” said New Yorker Editor John Bennett

Every so often you see something – some small fact – that nails shut a belief that you’ve held for a while and turns it into something solid you can truly take a stand on.

I have claimed for some time – along with many others – that the cultural gap between the media class and our military class was too large, and that the media persist in their devaluing of the military because of this gap.

Via local journalism blog LA Observed, I was brought to a series of tweets by New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum, describing his firing from his staff consulting writer gig there – but also describing how he’d been hired.

Still, the New Yorker is the New Yorker, and my next question to John was, “What can I do next?”

As any writer knows, editors almost never suggest stories. Generating story ideas is the real work; researching and

Writing them is the easy part. In one of our conversations, though, John let drop a real jewel:

“We have this sense that we should be paying more attention to the military,” he said. (This was now early 2003,

as the country was getting ready for war in Iraq. “Thing is, nobody here cares about the military, and nobody here

knows anything about the military.” Well, I certainly didn’t know anything about the military but I did find it

interesting, so I piped up, “I can do that!” I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience or knowledge in the field

of arms. Tom Wolfe is right, I think, when admonishes young writers to ignore the old advice about “writing what

you know,” and instead write about what you don’t know. If you have to learn about something from scratch, he

argues, you don’t bring any lazy preconceptions. John said I was welcome to give it a try. “Think about trying a

process story,” he said, using a term I’d never heard. “It’s a New Yorker standard,” he went on. “You simply

deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the master. It makes for a simple structure.”

By that time the improvised explosive device was the weapon of choice in Iraq, and limb loss was the signature

Wound of the Iraq war. So I followed one soldier from the moment he left his job at Wal-Mart in rural Wisconsin

To join the Army to the day he returned to speak to his high school without his leg. John Bennet gave me another

Great piece of New Yorker advice: “This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,” he said.

“Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.” Telling a story in strict

chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New

Yorker stories are so easy to read. Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer, following

Samuel Johnson’s immortal advice: “Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think

Is particularly fine, strike it out.”

My wounded-soldier story ran as “The Casualty” and can be found here:

Next I pitched a story about what killing does to soldiers, psychologically, and how the Army is ill-equipped to deal

With the damage that killing does. That proposal can be read here:

That piece, “The Price of Valor,” won the Medill School of Journalism’s 2004 John Bartlow Martin Award, and can be read here:

Now I was three stories in to the New Yorker, but I wasn’t about to let die my relationships with other magazines.

I’ll poke around in his proposal and other documents a bit and suggest that you do as well. It’s a very rare chance to lift the hood on modern high-end journalism.

Those Invincible Guerilla Armies

I’ll spend some time tonight collecting amusing quotes from defense commentators who explain that guerrilla armies and nationalist forces can never be defeated (and reining in my own hubris by pointing out that history shows us that things change over time), but for now let me toss out this:

Fierce fighting was reported Sunday in Sri Lanka in what appeared to be a final battle with Tamil separatist guerrillas as the country’s president declared that the quarter-century civil war had ended.

The Sri Lankan military reported that the last of tens of thousands of trapped civilians were pouring from the combat zone after months of bloodshed and that the remnants of the guerrilla force were launching suicide attacks as troops closed in on them.

On the verge of defeat, the rebels offered to lay down their arms, saying they wanted to protect civilian lives. There was no immediate response from the government, but it has ignored rebel calls for a cease-fire in recent months.

“My government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the L.T.T.E. militarily,” said President Mahinda Rajapaksa in reference to the rebels, who are formally called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

That’s verified by the LTTE themselves (h/t Moderate Voice):

Surrounded on all sides by the Sri Lankan Army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers as they are more commonly termed, have announced their surrender amidst news their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is dead.

The final round in what has been a long and drawn out campaign by the militant group for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka came as news surfaced that the Sri Lankan military has recovered more than 150 bodies from the last remaining LTTE stronghold.

Quick Take: Release All the Pictures

Obama did a neat political straddle yesterday on the issue of images of stated mistreatment of detainees by US and Coalition forces. First he’s for it and then he’s against it.

We’ll talk more about his weathervane-like characteristics some other time, but I thought I’d take a moment and think through a position that I think is defensible.

What isn’t defensible – in my mind – is either of the mainstream positions, which are really more about domestic political advantage than about really dealing with the hard, Jessup-like questions that do sometimes have to be asked and acted on. Note that at the end of Jack Nicholson’s impassioned speech, he was led off in irons.

Hiding the pictures means we’re ashamed of them, and gives license to fantasies of darker, more brutal secrets than probably are to be seen there.

Showing them is really about self – flagellation and the neat political trick of tying your political opponent to one’s back before picking up the whip.

Each of those acts is a puppet’s reaction to greater forces pulling on strings.

Let’s tie the strings in knots, and break the frame that is being hung around the images and around the events they depict. Let’s do that by hanging a larger, more powerful frame around them.

Let’s by all means release the pictures – all of them. Let’s release the pictures of the Al Qaeda torture cells in Fallujah, and of their victims. Let’s release the videos of torture and murder from jihadi websites.

Let’s not let our people off if they did wrong – but let’s please put their actions into context as we make that decision. I’ve publicly opposed torture for some time, and I think that we have a real issue with harsh treatment that scales into torture. I also think we have a real issue with people who (in the extreme) think that offering a detainee a stale Danish instead of a freshly-baked one is tantamount to getting out the blowtorch and pliers.

So let’s broaden everyone’s understanding, and see what kind of discussion emerges from that.

Quick Take: Afghanistan

So I’ve been silent on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East lately. Part of that is my newfound difficulty in picking apart my thinking about the issues and my personal feelings, as Biggest Guy gets ready to deploy to Afghanistan as an infantryman. And part of it has been my desire to let events unfold a bit as we see Obama’s initial policy steps and the world’s reaction to them.

I’m not massively anxious about BG going over there (as opposed to being massively anxious that his moms will – in their massive anxiety – do me harm); I am anxious that he do in the name of an overall policy that makes sense, is valid, achievable, and in the national interest.

And, to be honest, up until today, I haven’t heard such a policy about Afghanistan from Obama (or from much of anyone else, to be frank).

But then there was today…

Today I flew to San Francisco to have lunch with Craig Mullaney (along with a dozen or so other people),who is now (as Abu Muquama nee Andrew Exum explains – read the whole interview)

…about to be named the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Central Asia.

and is the author of ‘The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education‘ – a book I bought the week it came out and gave to BG after reading it in an afternoon, enthralled.

So when I heard he was talking at a lunch I could attend, I booked a ticket.

Meeting him I was shocked – frankly shocked – at how young he is and seems. My mental dialog was ‘How the hell could someone so young have done so much?’ and then I thought about my kid and all the kids he serves with, and the responsibilities they bear.

And we talked. And talked. And then I asked him, point blank, the Harry Summers question: We can’t win without knowing what winning looks like. What does winning in Afghanistan look like?

And his response was so damn sensible…..here’s a paraphrase of the priorities he laid out:

1) Our primary national interest lies in making sure that Afghanistan is not used as a national staging area for Al Qaeda and other radical Salifist attacks on us and our interests. This mission has been accomplished, with the caveat that it was in part accomplished by simply shoving them over the border to Pakistan.

2) The Taliban is a tiny fraction of the population, and Al-Quieda a smaller fraction. but they are strong enough to intimidate their way to power in the small towns, and to roll that power up to regional and then notional power unless stopped. By standing up the Afghan military and police capabilities, we can offer the Afghan government the capability to repress these forces on their own.

3) None of this matters of we don’t solve the problem of Pakistan, and there is no immediately clear way to solve that problem, politically or militarily.

He certainly did not lay out all his thinking; he artfully dodged some very specific questions.

But I can say that I asked if he had a core set of policy goals he was willing to risk my son’s life for, and he did. And that those policies make sense to me.

I continue to have concerns about Afghanistan (and the wider war). From my reading, it seems that the Afghan people have some trigger point at which they unite in opposition to outsiders; one thing I believed was that our original policies were brilliant because they kept us well below the trigger point. We were one tribe among others, rather than a uniting enemy. I worry that as we scale our involvement, we won’t be.

This isn’t the “invincible Afghan army” meme – they have been defeated and conquered before.

These issues bleed over to the broader question of Iraq and our interaction with the Arab and Muslim world (I separate them because I think they present two very different problems). In 2002, I believed that we could ‘shock’ the Arab governments into moving away from the radicals they were bribing and using as proxies by invading Iraq. In 2009, I called the war ‘a strategic failure‘ – in terms of meeting the goals I set out in 2002, and I believe that today. However, the opportunity exists for a far greater failure, and we need to be thinking hard today about what it takes to avoid that and to maximize the positive outcomes available to us there and in the region.

More on that later…

Quick Hit: Parties

Liberal blogger roy edroso at Alicublog dings me (appropriately) for making predictions that the Democratic Party was headed for civil war – when it is today clearly in the driver’s seat while the GOP is marshalling forces for its internal conflict.

…our old warblogger friend Armed Liberal, who complained in 2004 that an authentic liberal like Jeff Jarvis (!) “gets piled on for being ‘inadequately liberal’. And that’s a pisser. First, and foremost, it once again wraps up the smug ‘I know better than you’ that the Democratic Party has become associated with — and which lots of people, including me, find amazingly offensive.” He predicted that the Taliban Democrats “are going to lose a lot of political power.”

He’s right to bust me (my predictions were wrong) …and he deserves his moment of glory.

But…he ought to savor it while he’s got it.

Because while it’s obvious that the Republicans are snapping at each other’s heels – see this post from local blog Mayor Sam:

I was talking with a friend the other day who is a high-level figure in the Republican Party here in California. I discussed with him my theory that there is a Civil War brewing inside the Party. Two election cycles of defeats have made the party meetings and discussions very rancorous. Moderates and Conservatives have been wrestling for control of the party, and in the end, only one side can win.

“It’s too late” he said, “the war is already here.”

Which all depends on where ‘here’ is:

There was an article in The Hill the other day about Rep. Jane Harman’s plight:
Tangled in wiretap, opposed by left, Harman could face tough primary

Anti-war forces and liberal bloggers have despised Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) for years, and now they smell blood in the water.

Harman has taken plenty of heat from her left flank over the years for supporting the Iraq war and President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. And now that she’s in some political trouble for allegedly offering favors on a federal wiretap, her detractors might just have the ammo they need.

Already, 2006 primary opponent Marcy Winograd has opened an exploratory committee and others are also making their interest known. Plus, bloggers are talking about recruiting one of the their own to challenge Harman.

But that’s not the end of Harman’s troubles…from the same Hill post cited above:

Howie Klein, the Southern California-based author of the DownWithTyranny blog, said the new revelations could help change that.

“When Marcy ran the first time, it was a really tough road for her, because people didn’t understand,” Klein said. “Even on a really great website like Daily Kos, there were a lot of people that didn’t understand.”

Klein said a group of bloggers met earlier this year to discuss challenging Harman in a primary, weeks before the recent revelations. He said many in the blogging community would like a fellow blogger, John Amato, to challenge Harman and that Amato is considering it.

Winograd said that she would step aside for the right candidate, and that she’s taking up the mantle at least for now.

“I don’t know who else will answer the call, if not me,” she said. “People with great name recognition and track records in public office are not going to take her on.”

What’s clear is that not everybody is ready to go with Winograd again. And, in the heavily Democratic district, the Dem nominee is the likely winner. While Klein praised Winograd, other activists want to look elsewhere.

“There is a general sense that she would not be supported,” said a prominent activist focused on mounting a primary against Harman.

And the upshot, from John Amato:

I wanted to confirm to my readers that I am considering running for Jane Harman’s seat. I’ve had meetings with bloggers and activists way before this story broke and they have urged me on. I’ve also been contacted by established campaign managers who have won elections which included huge upsets in the past that have expressed a serious interest in managing my campaign. This is a very important step in the process. At this point I am considering it, but haven’t made a decision yet. I’m going to take my time before I decide, but I thought I owed it to you to confirm this report.

Sounds like a strange version of ‘Peace and Tranquility’ to me…it will actually be interesting to see if Obama campaigns for Harman or not. So far he has been an extraordinarily unifying figure for the party (and to an extent for the nation), and his position on this will be telling.

And here’s what really matters…from Pew Research:

Over the first four months of 2009, the Republican Party has continued to lose adherents. Interviews with over 7,000 respondents nationwide so far this year found fewer than a quarter (23%) of the combined total identifying themselves as Republicans. This is down from 25% in 2008, and from 30% in 2004. In total, the GOP has lost roughly a quarter of its base over the past five years.

But these Republican losses have not translated into substantial Democratic gains. So far in 2009, 35% of adults nationwide identify as Democrats, about the same as in 2008 (36%). While GOP identification has fallen seven points since 2004, the Democrats have gained only two points over that period. Instead, a growing number of Americans describe themselves as independents, 36% in 2009 compared with just 32% in 2008 and 30% in 2004.

Or, even clearer in pictures:


I don’t know a lot about the Republican Party compared to the Democratic one, but this suggests that there’s a long-term structural problem there…Andrew Breitbart has a lot to say about it, and it’s sensible. But today, what we have is a large minority of Democrats, a smaller minority of Republicans, and a larger minority of independents – some of them people who, like Jeff Jarvis felt drummed out of the Democratic Party, and who are – as I’ve been saying all along – vital to the electoral success of either party.

Imagine for a moment that Hillary had been the Democratic nominee – someone far less skilled at reaching out than Obama – how would the Democrats have done with those independents?

The reality is that political parties are the equivalent of record companies, movie studios, book publishers, and large law, accounting, and consulting firms – middlemen in an age of disintermediation. They will continue to be powerful brands, but they will not be the only powerful brands, and talent will be less and less controlled by and beholden to the intermediary. They just matter less.