What’s French for ‘Backpedalling’?

Victory has many parents, but defeat is an orphan (from The Guardian):

France faces isolation as strains show in anti-war axis

Summit Chirac under pressure at home and abroad

Paul Webster in Paris, Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow and John Hooper in Berlin
Friday April 11, 2003
The Guardian

Jacques Chirac faced a backlash from his peace campaigning yesterday after warnings from his own party that France had gone too far in opposing Britain and the US, and now faced international isolation.

The French president, described by the newspaper LibĂ©ration as the “king of peace without a crown”, was criticised by leaders of his UMP party for three weeks of silence since the invasion.

Only yesterday, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, did Mr Chirac issue a comment. “France, like all democracies, rejoices,” he said in a statement.

Read the rest and try not to chortle.

Has Chirac behaved less arrogantly and with more principle, his position in France might be more secure.

Even the French, it seems, have limits.


It’s a great day today. I’ve watched the news with anxiety over the last few days, because as I looked at the war, I saw two possible futures arising from it; one dark and bloody, couched in the resentful glare of the Iraqis who silently watched their conquerer’s tanks roll by; and another, hopeful, future – couched in the joyful kiss of a dark-eyed child on the cheek of a helmeted Marine.

Today I saw the joy and the hope – and the kiss – on the streets of Iraq, and a weight on my heart lifted.

Hope is the vital ingredient.

John Balzar, a columnist in the L.A. Times who I find intermittently fascinating and frustrating has a great one today. He is looking at the current mood in the country, and contrasting the determined hopefulness that the conservative, pro-war group has with the equally determined despair of the liberals and those who oppose the war.

Back to politics. Here at home, conservatives are mining this vein of American optimism and prospering as a consequence.

[Update: Check out Dan Hartung’s eloquent take on this.]

Mark Kann, chairman of the political science department of USC, says this is a traditional partisan advantage at moments of international engagement: “Conservatives always have been optimistic about the status and furtherance of America compared to the rest of the world. There is a whole body of literature on what is called ‘American exceptionalism.’ The idea of a shining city on the hill.”

Romantic? Perhaps. But I believe that cynics — and I’ll include myself here — owe it to our ideas, and our hopes, to pay fresh respect to that part of the American character. Not that optimism is always the avenue to political success. But sometimes it is; and at those moments, it’s hard to convince Americans of anything except their exceptionalism.

When citizens came to doubt their future in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appealed to the nation’s sense of optimistic renewal. It was “morning in America,” and nothing else mattered nearly so much. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton gave optimism to a citizenry knocked off balance by global economic competition and technological change. Out of uncertainty, he promised that Americans could find opportunity. George W. Bush, who has neither Reagan’s sunny disposition nor Clinton’s empathy, seems to have fashioned his own kind of hardheaded, can-do optimism out of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Today, the language of Bush and his conservatives is spoken in high notes of expectation: liberation, freedom, security, possibility. Opponents find themselves bogged in something of a rhetorical quagmire, stuck with words like mistake, immoral, imperialist, failure, fraudulent, cynical, doom.

An optimist, as the old wheeze goes, sees opportunity in calamity, while a pessimist finds calamity in opportunity. Thus far, Bush’s opponents have failed to match his optimism with much more than the gloomy promise of worse to come.

And boy, is that combination of self-loathing, negativity, and hopelessness a winning political combination for the left.

ly, I refuse to yield all the optimism to conservatives. I believe there are a number of liberals like me – who define their liberalism not by antipathy for the modern West, or more specifically for the U.S., but by a desire for more justice, more liberty, more equality, and a belief that we can have it all. I think that someone will find a way to channel our patriotism, our hope, and our energy into a political movement that can stand toe-to-toe with the conservative wave that is going to rise for the next few years in this country. Somone is going to outline a future for us, and challenge us to make it happen.

We may never get there…I certainly won’t live to see it…but we can set out on the road. And, more important, we can start down the road hoping that what we want will be at the end of it. I wrote about a Balzar column before:

He wrote:
Yet I sense a yearning among Californians. I’m not the only one who wants to believe in destiny. I don’t know a single person who is content to allow a future Kevin Starr to describe this as the era when we gave up on our dreams.

I was bicycling through Death Valley one winter, and came across a series of grave markers next to the road. Children and adults who died while attempting to cross to California and their dream of a future.

It had a huge impact on me to realize how badly people wanted a better future for themselves and their children…badly enough to walk and ride ox-drawn wagons across the country and end up out of water, of food, and still to press on and cross Death Valley.

For me it was paved roads, a 25-pound bicycle and a support van driven by my girlfriend with water, food, and the promise of an air-conditioned hotel at the end of the day.

Why is it so much harder for us to hope than it was for them?

Why is so hard for the Left to look forward with hope, rather than around with disdain? It isn’t for me, and it isn’t for many others that I know.

And I’m happy to admit that it isn’t for me because I am perfectly willing to stand with conservatives in believing in American exceptionalism.

I just think we got there for different reasons, and that we’ll build the shining future using different tools.

Risk and Politics (Part 4/6)

[Read Part 1: Risk | Part 2: Risky Business | Part 3: Risk & Reality | Part 4: Risk & Politics | Risk, Reality, & Bullsh-t ]

When I started this series, I said:

…it turns out that Tenacious G and the boys haven’t seen the Branagh ‘Henry V‘, so we jump it to the head of the Netflix queue, and it shows up in the mail. We watched it the other night, and it was still wonderful (Yes, Bacchus, I’m still supporting Branagh’s erotic reward). My boys loved it as well; Littlest Guy, who is six, wanted to watch it again the next day, and spent the time after bath and before bed wandering the house in his blue PJ’s-with-rocket-ships-and-feet and a stern look, declaiming “No King of England if not King of France.” I love my sons and they are wonderful, but they are a bit … odd, sometimes. Somehow that line over all the others had caught him, and he and I had a long discussion in which I explained that Henry wanted to be King of France, and that he was willing to risk losing England to get it.

I’m somehow amazed that only a few people have made the G.W. Bush > Prince Hal comparison.

And in this case, I think the comparison is apt; Hal became Henry, who staked his crown on defeating and conquering France.

We know that he won, and that at Agincourt, his technology (the longbow), strategy (setting up across a muddy and plowed field), and luck made him King of France and kept him King of England.

And I believe that Bush staked his presidency on the War with Iraq (and the consequent wars we will have with interests – I am hoping that we don’t have to fight any more nations – in the Middle East.

I believe that the 2004 election is being settled this month in Baghdad, and that Bush is about to win it.

Does that mean that all will play out as Bush & Co. intend in the Middle East? We’ll have to watch and see.

Remember that Henry won France, but ultimately his children lost his crown.
But Bush is coming out a winner, in no small part I’ll suggest, because as he is seen as being willing to take risks and that in an era of carefully machined, consensus-driven, ‘find a way to say things that won’t pin you into a corner’ politics he is, like Reagan, willing to take a stand.

If one were to look for the common strain in modern American (and to a lesser extent, European) politics, it’s the desire to avoid, at all costs, risk. One can’t take risks in what you say, one can’t take risks in the programs to propose. You don’t take risks, because in an era of ‘gotcha’ politics,

So we wind up with these featureless Pillsbury-Dough-Boy (and Girl) Politicians, who desperately try to take positions without taking any positions that could come back to haunt them later. That’s a problem. It’s a problem first, because it deprives us of a politics of issues. It is virtually impossible to have a debate on issues when neither party will take a clearly distinguishable stand on them. Next, it’s a problem because it builds into our politics a bias toward inactivity.

Now inactivity on the part of the government is often a good thing; one reason we are probably so tolerant of the long reach of the government is that it often doesn’t do much. Imagine what it would be like if they really enforced 100% compliance with speed limits or the tax codes.

But, over time, government inactivity begins to take a toll, as institutions and infrastructure begin to fall in to disrepair, and as we fail to even look at the difficult issues we need to solve in order to function as a society.

Right now, the California Legislature is in its … I think … fifth month of trying not to deal with the budget crisis the state is facing.

Given an annual deficit of $30+ billion, that means that we’ve spent TWELVE BILLION DOLLARS or so while waiting for the powers-that-be to get the budget under control.

Why haven’t we? because the costs of acting – of taking steps to cut programs and raise taxes – are viewed as being fatal to one’s political career, while the costs of not acting, of going along and letting the ‘process’ sort it out over time – is a burden you can share with the rest of the incumbents.

Not only does inaction directly create costs, it creates a set of risks itself; it is important to judge actions not in terms of their absolute risk (which is typically unknowable), but in terms of the risk relative to other choices, including taking no action.

And, we seldom retire incumbent politicians for failing to act when history shows they should have. That’s a mistake, because it deprives us of a dynamic market in the political sphere – we lose the ‘creative destruction’ Schumpeter talks about, and which is so vital to the strength and durability of a society.

And a part of the loss is to our political culture, as we begin to perceive politicians as failing to lead, failing to take stands, and, ultimately, failing to solve the problems we expect the government to face. This loss of legitimacy is, to me one of the great threats to modern political life.

But one positive thing GWB has done, I believe, is to show the benefits of taking political risks. Not only (I fervently hope) in terms of outcomes, but in terms of the direct political benefit to the risk-taker.

Now we just need to find some risk-takers on the Democratic side of the table so we can have a real marketplace of ideas…

This is Part I
This is Part II
This is Part III
Parts V > VI aren’t written yet.

Calling Alanis Morissette

Irony always makes me happy. In today’s LA Times, a story that conclusively proves that Peter Arnett either has a completely tin ear, is a fool, or most likely, simply belives in saying whatever his audience wants to hear.

Arnett Fuming at Loss of NBC Job

By Elizabeth Jensen, Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Peter Arnett said Tuesday he was upset with how NBC severed ties with him the day before, and sounded more defiant than apologetic over his decision to grant an interview to state-run Iraqi TV.

In an interview from Baghdad, where he hopes to stay if he can find enough work, Arnett called the controversy a “storm in a bloody teacup.” He said he was irritated that he had spent 19 days helping NBC, whose own reporters left citing safety concerns, and “then I’m being trashed.” Arnett’s official Baghdad employer was National Geographic Explorer, which agreed to let him report for NBC. National Geographic fired Arnett on Monday.

Indeed, many media observers have criticized Arnett more for where he made his comments than what he said.

NBC, he said, “was just grateful for anything I could give them” and used him up to 20 hours per day. “But in the end, I was thrown out on the street, and very casually, my reputation in shreds — for what? For helping them out.”

An NBC News spokeswoman said Tuesday: “Yesterday, on the ‘Today’ show, Peter Arnett said that he had made ‘a stupid misjudgment.’ And he apologized to us and the American people. We’ll leave it at that.”

Asked about that sober apology, Arnett said: “What choice did I have? I followed a young woman who was crying over the loss of her husband in a suicide attack.” He called the situation “bizarre,” noting, “I was fired on the ‘Today’ show, the most popular morning program.”

He said he still believes, as he said on “Today,” that it was a misjudgment to do the interview, “in view of the reaction to it.” But he added, “I don’t think anything I said to them was so terribly criminal.”

Many observers took issue with Arnett’s statement praising Iraq’s treatment of foreign journalists, noting that some reporters are missing and others have been expelled. Arnett, who is on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit group based in New York that promotes global press freedom, said one reason he did the interview and made that comment was “to remind the Iraqi police and authorities that we are reasonable people, here to tell their story.

“I wanted to give a human face to the journalists ….This is a dangerous environment.”

The irony part comes in the adjacent story on the same page:

4 Journalists Freed From Iraqi Prison

By Josh Getlin, Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Two Newsday journalists and two freelance photographers who had been missing in Iraq reached Jordan safely Tuesday after spending a week inside Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, an editor at the newspaper said.

Yup, the foreign press are treated well in Iraq.

Military Misperception

Like most people, I read the news in a kind of emotional spin cycle of pride, grief, anxiety, determination and wonder. And then every so often I manage to change my perspective, and grasp at something that amuses me. Usually it’s dark amusement these days, but it’s amusement nonetheless.

Recently, it’s been the litany from those who opposed the war in the first place who now trip over themselves to tell us how badly it’s going. They seize on the casualties and delays to explain that if we’re not actually losing the war, we’re certainly approaching a stalemate.

And, thinking about the misperception of risk in this, I manage a dry chuckle.

See, it’s like this.

The population of South-Central Los Angeles is about 300,000, last time I checked. Goes up and down as you define neighborhoods in and out.

Last year there were over 250 murders there.

Two hundred and fifty people died. Moms, dads, kids, grandparents, teenagers. Going to the grocery store. Selling groceries. Leaving church. (Yeah, some were selling drugs.)

That’s about twenty deaths a month, a little over two every three days.

In one neighborhood.

In all of California, we had about 2,066 murders (including non negligent manslaughter) in 2000. The total population of California in 2000 was about 38 million (as compared to an estimated population of Iraq of 29 million). That’s about five and a half deaths a day.

In one state.

Based on the list of deaths in Fox News, we suffered 43 deaths…including hostile action and accidents from March 20 to March 29. Ten days, 43 deaths. Each one a tragedy, as are the deaths here in California. Four and some tragedies per day.

So what does this tell us?

That in a country about the size of California, in a FREAKING WAR ZONE, the daily number of deaths among our soldiers is comparable to the daily number of murders in California as a whole. If I were to pull out the accidents from the war deaths…14 of them…there are fewer war deaths than murders. (Note: I know that some Iraqis are dying as well, and that the rates per population are higher…)

Let’s use a real population as a comparison. Figure that the population of South-Central LA is roughly the population of the US forces (it’s probably close); it is roughly five times more dangerous to be a soldier in Iraq than to simply go out and buy groceries in South Central.

Does this detract from the courage of the troops in Iraq? Of course not. Does it mean there are too many murders here in California? Of course it does.

But before we panic at the ‘slaughter’ of our troops caught in a ‘quagmire’, let’s remember than in any group of a third of a million people, a certain number will die every day. Add heavy equipment and guns, and even with no hostile action, we will see a significant number of deaths.

And our troops have a whole army facing them, and in spite of it, they are being killed at a rate comparable to that of the average resident of neighborhoods in California.

Now, I’m not a military historian or a tactician. And there are some alternative ways to look at the data. But I will suggest that this suggests that the opposition our troops are facing … relative to their individual abilities, training, determination, technology, and tactics … isn’t doing a very good job of fighting them.

Look, these numbers aren’t exact. I’m pulling them from quick Google searches and public databases, and if I was going to hold them up, I’d need to do a lot of refinement and adjustments (correcting time bases, getting exact populations, etc. etc.).

But they aren’t off by an order of magnitude (factor of 10).

So the next time you read someone who tells you that we’re being fought to a stalemate, that the war is lasting too long and there are too many casualties…ask yourself how it can be true when one can look at these numbers and have them be even roughly comparable.

I can only think of one answer, and it is that the war is going pretty darn well from our side.

Let’s hope it keeps doing so.

And let us keep in mind that those deaths that statistics can dismiss are real, and that to the loved ones they leave behind, it is no consolation that only a few died if it is their daughter, son, wife, husband, mother or father who comes home under a flag.