Exit Strategy? What Exit Strategy?

Alaa, writing about the election in The Mesopotamian, has a realistic look at how the election is likely to play out and what it means – and doesn’t.

He finishes with something I think we all need to keep in mind:

Moreover, no one should expect that the security situation and strife would somehow improve after the elections; it is more likely to intensify. This is an unfinished war; the Saddamists and their allies have fully regrouped and rearmed and are being very well financed and supported. The brave American people have given President Bush the mandate to finish this war despite the painful sacrifices and material cost. The Iraqi people are up in arms through the political groupings, new army, N.G. and various security forces and are suffering the greater part of the sacrifice. Despite all the snags and faltering, these forces are getting bigger and stronger and should be supported and nurtured until they can bear the full responsibility; this is the only viable “exit strategy” available. In fact, we do not like this phrase, for what is required is a “victory strategy”. This war must be fought to the bitter end, and there is only one outcome acceptable both to us and to you: Total and Complete Victory. Anything else is completely unthinkable.


And Wa alaikumus salaam to you, Alaa…good luck and all our support.

What’s Juan Cole A Professor Of, Again??

Listening to PRI on KPCC today, they started discussing the upcoming Iraqi elections, and my buddy Juan Cole comes on (audio file).

Listen to the gist of his comment: “The Iraqi people are being asked to vote for party lists or coalition lists…but they most often don’t know which politicians are running. I think it’s a little bit absurd to call that an election.

Mr. Cole, please take a look at this:

It’s a party ‘ticket’, one of the original paper ballots used up to the 19th Century here in the United States. Voters would drop the ‘ticket’ into the ballot box, and choosing a ticket was that way one voted.

I’ll skip over the history in the urban East Coast, where political machines like Tammany used ties with immigrant groups to induce them to vote for candidates whose names they couldn’t read, and simply suggest that the ‘blanket’ or ‘Australian’ ballot – one that listed all the candidates for a party and allowed the voter to select one – wasn’t implemented in the US until very late in the 19th Century.

…I could recommend some history books for the Professor, if he’d like.

And yes, I’m aware that we do a better job of it now, and that it’s the 21st Century. But might we allow that democracy – like every other thing that grows – might have a start in Iraq that will look much like our own?

1…2…3…What Are We Fighting For?

I listened to the 2004 U.S. Presidential Inauguration on the radio, and was neither thrilled nor depressed.

Bush places a framework around the global issues we face – that the only real defense against terrorism is to eliminate it by addressing the root causes, which are not poverty but lack of freedom and ideologies of rage which are growing up in response to oppression.

I like that.

But a lot needs to go into the framework.I have consistently hammered Bush for failing to make the case for the war, and for failing to go beyond high rhetoric to tie our policies to that high framework, and for being absent when it comes time to stand up and speak both to us in the West and to the real audience – those in the Muslim world who are facing the choice between Islamist rage and a future. We have to offer them a choice; we have to paint that future they may choose as one that is both attainable and worth having.

I’m going to make one of my messages a regular one trying to keep track of what the Administration is doing on that front.

It’s not enough. It’s not likely to ever be “enough”. But they damn well better do more.

California Dreamin’ (or You’ve Got To Be Kuehl To Be Kind)

Sheila Kuehl has announced a plan to offer single-payer all-encompassing health care for everyone in California. With amazing comic timing, she’s doing at a time when the state is reeling from a half-decade of insane government overspending combined with political gridlock on taxes. From The Bee:

Kuehl said the legislation would provide more services to more Californians by slashing administrative costs and enabling the state to negotiate lower prices for pharmaceuticals.

The legislation “sets up health care insurance through the state,” Kuehl said. “Each person and each business would pay into that.”

The system would be headed by an elected commissioner. Eligibility would be conferred based on residency, a provision that opponents said would encourage people with existing illnesses to move to California.

Kuehl’s legislation seeks to combine all federal, state and county money spent on health care with payroll taxes and eliminate patient deductibles and co-payments.

It’s interesting to wonder if Democratic Party strategists think this a good thing; that we’ll make a stand here in California, and see if we can pull the state further to the Blue. Kuehl is safe, because she represents Santa Monica. But boy, is this going to play badly in the rest of California – and boy, is it bad policy. Republican strategists have to be gleeful because from their point of view, they’ve got good templates for where this is going to lead.

From Democratic Governor Phil Breseden of Tennessee:

TennCare began in January 1994 as an experiment to expand Tennessee’s Medicaid program to deliver health care to a larger number of people for the same amount of money. But the program was beset by problems and cost overruns. Over the course of a decade, TennCare grew at an unexpected rate and now consumes roughly one in three dollars in the state budget. Prescription-drug costs are particularly problematic, in part due to the legal constraints. For example, TennCare’s pharmacy benefit in recent years has grown at a rate of 26% annually versus average growth of 17% in neighboring states’ healthcare plans. The total cost of TennCare’s pharmacy benefit ($2.11 billion) now is greater than the cost of Tennessee’s higher education system ($1.89 billion).

Yup, Sheila, you believe that doing this in California – a state with a larger and more litigious population, a larger population of people living in the cash economy, and a larger population of uninsured and elderly than Tennessee is a good idea. But God, I hope you’re the only one.

I think health care is broken in this nation. But, to be honest, it’s broken pretty much everywhere else as well. I’d like to see some kind of radical rethinking of it, but I’d like it to be one based in reality…

Poetic License or Slander?

I’ve calmed down enough after reading Sarah Boxer’s New York Times sliming of the Iraq The Model/Liberal Iraqi bloggers – the three brothers, two of whom I met and admired in Boston last month – to try write about it without sputtering in incoherent rage.

I’m not angry that she could credit the idea that they are plants without doing any research (hey, she writes for the Arts pages, why bother looking anything up?); I’m not upset that her approving comments only come in areas where the Administration or the war is criticized (hey, she works for the New York Times).

I’m angry because of the careless and cheap way she makes her case, and worse – that the vaunted editors who are supposed to be the boundary between bloggers and journalists, after all (that and the resources to do research, which in her case obviously don’t include an Internet connection capable of using Google or Technorati) let her make such a cheap and careless case.

N.Z. Bear mocked it perfectly, but let me push the point a little further and possibly make it clear why “I’m just sayin'” hearsay journalism is so infuriating.Let’s make believe that I’m a fervent anti-New York Times blogger – I even have as a part of my masthead a mission statement that “This blog campaigns for the removal of the Editor and Publisher of the New York Times.”

I seize on every opening to make the Times and their campaign to gain circulation and ad revenue look bad.

As a part of this, based on my discovery that one of their journalists is from Colorado, is from an area noted for hog farming, and in high school published a sexually explicit poem in a local alternative weekly about the rape of the virginal Gaiea by a giant hog – which in the poem represents the wasteful, patriarchal, white Anglo-Saxon oppression that makes up Amerikka – and I put up a post on my blog that asks:

Did New York Times reporter Suzie Creamcheese have sex with pigs? [Ed. – extra points if you can remember where this accusation came from…]

An internet chat board suggests that a subculture of transgressive high school students used pigs as sex toys. One reporter actually wrote a poem about it, and published it in a local newspaper, We can’t verify that this reporter actually did have sex with a pig, but there are suspiciously pro-pig writings in her high school yearbook, as reported to us by her ex-boyfriend.

Justifiably, my blog would be swamped in angry comments from people who point out that the poem could be interpreted in several ways that don’t support woman-pig sex, and that the chat board is one where people also suggest that Elvis, JFK, and Marilyn Monroe live together in a mansion on Cape Cod which suggests that the veracity of the posts ought to be questioned. The ex-boyfriend who sent the tip to the blog had a restraining order placed on him by Ms. Creamcheese, and there are dozens of other criticisms of the ‘facts’ that were presented on my blog, leaving me with little on which to base my conclusion.

But now – because I said it on the blog – we have a news story, and the Village Voice runs with it:

“Blogger calls New York Times Reporter Pig-F**ker”

In this case, it would be factually true – a blogger did say that.

But it’s also false, because the facts were ignored by the reporter who wrote the story, as was the side of the “controversy” that didn’t support the original blogger’s and the reporter’s biases.

In the absence of facts, you can report a controversy, but it’s fundamentally dishonest not to report the whole controversy. And the problem, of course, is that the targets of your smears have to – as LBJ famously suggested – publicly deny that they have sex with pigs.

Did a dingbat who explains on his blog that his goal in life is to bring down President Bush make these charges against the ITM bloggers on nonexistent facts? You betcha.

Were his facts immediately challenged, and in every case disproved? You betcha.

Did Sarah Boxer report on any of that? Nope.

Did she have sex with pigs? Well, I’ll leave that for her to deny. And yes, I’d love to hear her do it.

Pine Bluff and Mosul

Here’s a list of MSA’s (Metropolitan Statistical Areas) in the United States.

New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA
Victoria, TX
Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn, MI
Pine Bluff, AR
Laredo, TX
Shreveport-Bossier City, LA
Richmond, VA

…what’s interesting about them?According to the FBI, they had rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter comparable to the estimated rates in Iraq right now (14 – 20/100,000 population per year – from Strategypage, with a hat tip to Outside The Beltway).

|MSA | – | Rate per 100,000|
|New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA | – | 25.5|
|Victoria, TX | – | 25.4|
|Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn, MI | – | 19.5|
|Pine Bluff, AR | – | 16.9|
|Laredo, TX | – | 14.7|
|Shreveport-Bossier City, LA | – | 14.5|
|Richmond, VA | – | 13.6|

Does this mean all is well? No. Is this acceptable – in Iraq or in Pine Bluff? No.

But those of us who haven’t closed our minds are all struggling the question we keep coming back to – what are we facing? What are the facts? How widespread is the violence, and how likely is that we’ll be able to contain and reduce it? Is it as widespread and deep as suggested by the opponents of the war? As narrow and shallow as suggested by the supporters? Or – as is likely – somewhere in between.

When you read stories explaining that all is lost in Iraq – or that victory is just around the corner – take a moment and think about who’s saying it. I’d have more respect for the ‘all is lost’ folks if it didn’t fit so neatly into an anti-war or anti-Bush agenda, and for the “it’s a day at the beach” folks if the opposite wasn’t true.

I tend to fall into the “things aren’t as bad as Juan Cole, Robert Scheer, and the New York Times say they are” camp, in part, because I keep seeing numbers like these.

If there was a true uprising among the Iraqis, we’d be seeing far, far higher US and Iraqi death rates.

This is a data point – one of the many we need to figure out what’s up – that suggests to me two things: 1) that we don’t face a true uprising against the U.S. and Coalition presence; and 2) that we’ve got some serious work to do both in terms of actually improving things on the ground and in terms of getting a true(er) picture out of what things on the ground look like today.

Go Read The Atlantic

This month’s Atlantic is an absolute must-read issue. It’s not any one article (although there are two excellent – even if I disagree with their premises – articles on terrorism, including an ‘alternate future’ article by Richard Clarke that I’ll have to spend some time revisiting), it’s a list of some of them:

* ‘Ten Years Later‘ – the alternate future of the attacks in 2006
* ‘Success Without Victory‘ James Fallows’ policy vision – again, I don’t completely agree, but it has to be part of the debate
* ‘Lost in the Meritocracy‘ a brilliant essay on education – and the faking thereof
* ‘Redheaded Eskimo‘ – P.J. O’Rourke’s scathing view of the current corporate tax bill
* ‘The Widening Atlantic‘ – on the demographic and political gulf between Europe and America
* ‘Clintonism, R.I.P.‘ – great article on why you can’t triangulate against yourself.

Hell, it’s all good, go read the entire thing.

[Update: Apologies! Just realized that the links only work for subscribers to the magazine. Head over to the newsstand and pick one up, you won’t regret it. Plus there’s a great article by Brad DeLong and my old professor Steve Cohen]

Perles* Before Swine

I’d written James Wolcott off already as silly – I mean what can you possibly say about someone who says things like I will be as civil as I can be with a knife permanently wedged between my teeth and leaves you wondering exactly which pattern of Christofle butter knife it might be?

Wolcott says “that this whole business about pessimism versus optimism is, well, silly.” Which is, in fact, silly.

But I forget that as a journalist, he’s probably never been a leader. I have an acquaintance in Big Journalism in New York – her brother is a dear friend of mine, and my sons have been backpacking with her son.

I gather from their experience that the denizens of Gramercy Park don’t lead scout troops, they hire it out. Because had Mr. Wolcott led even a group of Brownies on a hike around Central Park, he’d realize the difference optimism and pessimism have on actually motivating people to get things done.

Here’s what I said once about optimism:

For someone who doesn’t go to church (except once in a while to hear my sweetie sing), I do seem to talk a lot about faith. I do because I believe that on a fundamental level, it is the intangible that really drives people; it is their faith in the future and each other that makes them willing to step up and shoulder burdens, take risks, accept loss, to move out of present comfort into pain in order to move to a future about which we can’t be certain.

…some of the critical things I’ve said about Bush; specifically that he hasn’t articulated or sold his plan. I think it is necessary that he do so, because ultimately this war will be won by the side with the stronger faith; we are matching our faith in our vision of the future against our opponents’.

Undue pessimism and unsupported optimism are, in fact the furthest thing from silly. They are dangerous and deadly serious. But as I said, you’d have to live somewhere except Manhattan to understand that.

*Perles is the Christofle pattern from my former wedding

Everything’s A Commercial

I’ve been watching with amusement as a genuinely interesting question – the overlap between one’s actions in ‘meatspace’ and one’s role as a blogger – deteriorates into a somewhat sordid pissing contest and score-settling both between the anti-Dean Right and the Dean folks (including Kos and Jerome) and within the pool of ex-Dean staff and supporters.

I will shake my head at the incredible lack of balance among almost all of the folks involved.

And, because I enjoy bonfires, I’ll toss some gasoline on the broader discussion which I hope will serve as a bit of a backfire to the arrival of POUM and the complete implosion of this discussion into score-settling.

There is an issue with the role of bloggers in tacitly promoting things which are part and parcel of their real lives – of spinning what they write and present as ‘free commentary’ to suit the financial or political winds that may advantage them. But if we lift our heads and look around, we’ll see that these are part of a set of much bigger trends.The amateur nature of blogging up to now has been a significant part of its delight; we may well look back on this as the Golden Age, before Duncan Black and Oliver Willis rode partisan commentary to advocacy jobs, before Lauck and Van Beek slammed Daschle in their blogs while taking cash from Thune’s campaign, and before Kos got hired to make sure he didn’t defect to Clark.

But the downfall – if it happens – isn’t something that’s unique to blogging, no not at all.

Here are two articles that I hope will place the issues in a somewhat larger context. First, from this Sunday’s L.A. Times Magazine:

Swagland. It’s not a mythical over-the-rainbow realm, an Eastern European country, a theme park. You might call it a state of mind, a wondrous alternate universe concocted by publicists, funded by corporations eager for media coverage of their wares and frequented by journalists who have cast off concerns about conflicts of interest and embraced a new creed of conspicuous consumption.

In Swagland, the streets are paved with freebies, from promotional T-shirts, CDs and DVDs, to designer clothing, jewelry and perfume, to spa treatments, Broadway show tickets and suites in five-star hotels, to cellphones, laptops and luxury sports cars on loan. Travel writers accept free trips to exotic foreign lands. Automotive reviewers take junkets to Switzerland or the sun-dappled hills of Italy to drive the latest high-end roadsters. Entertainment hacks hobnob with stars and directors at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. High-tech audio and video reviewers max out their home-entertainment centers with LCD HDTV screens, surround-sound systems and five-digit turntables, which they keep for months at a time—for research purposes. Surfing journalists travel to remote South Pacific atolls and stay with supermodels on “floating Four Seasons” luxury cruisers where the champagne never stops flowing.

Some journalists steal swag outright from photo shoot sets or magazine fashion closets. “I’ve had editors call me up and say, ‘I have two fur coats here in a bag. I’m at 38th and 7th Avenue, right on the corner. If you can bring me X amount of dollars in cash, they’re yours,’ ” Valenti says. “I said to one editor, ‘What exactly are you going to say to the company?’ She said, ‘I’ll just send back the bag empty and blame it on the messenger.’ “

For publicists who practice giveaway marketing, however, such hand-wringing is futile, even a little comical. As far as they’re concerned, the battle’s already been won. The glittering utopia of Swagland is governed by one supreme precept, and Kelly Cutrone, founder of the firm People’s Revolution, sums it up: “Here’s the deal: Everything’s a commercial.”

And in the New York Times Magazine back in early December:

The thinking is that in a media universe that keeps fracturing into ever-finer segments, consumers are harder and harder to reach; some can use TiVo to block out ads or the TV’s remote control to click away from them, and the rest are simply too saturated with brand messages to absorb another pitch. So corporations frustrated at the apparent limits of “traditional” marketing are increasingly open to word-of-mouth marketing. One result is a growing number of marketers organizing veritable armies of hired “trendsetters” or “influencers” or “street teams” to execute “seeding programs,” “viral marketing,” “guerrilla marketing.” What were once fringe tactics are now increasingly mainstream; there is even a Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

Marketers bicker among themselves about how these approaches differ, but to those of us on the receiving end, the distinctions might seem a little academic. They are all attempts, in one way or another, to break the fourth wall that used to separate the theater of commerce, persuasion and salesmanship from our actual day-to-day life. To take what may be the most infamous example, Sony Ericsson in 2002 hired 60 actors in 10 cities to accost strangers and ask them: Would you mind taking my picture? Those who obliged were handed, of course, a Sony Ericsson camera-phone to take the shot, at which point the actor would remark on what a cool gadget it was. And thus an act of civility was converted into a branding event.

This idea — the commercialization of chitchat — resembles a scenario from a paranoid science-fiction novel about a future in which corporations have become so powerful that they can bribe whole armies of flunkies to infiltrate the family barbecue. That level of corporate influence sounds sure to spark outrage — another episode in the long history of mainstream distrust of commercial coercion and marketing trickery. Fear of unchecked corporate reach is what made people believe in the power of subliminal advertising and turn Vance Packard’s book “The Hidden Persuaders” into a best seller in the 1950’s; it is what gave birth to the consumer-rights movement of the 1970’s; and it is what alarms people about neuroscientists supposedly locating the “buy button” in our brains today. Quite naturally, many of us are wary of being manipulated by a big, scary, Orwellian “them.”

It’s stupid and blind to lay these issues at the moral failings of an individual – if such failings really come into play – or the moral blindness of the Left, the Right, or the Administration.

It’s just that we live in a world where the watchword is simple: “Everything’s a commercial

As bloggers, we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that.