Saturday, February 27, 2010

Operation Moshtarak

On Thursday ISAF and Afghan forces raised the Afghan flag over the central market in Marjah (the town in Helmand province that has been the focus of this latest operation). This symbolic act means relatively little in itself, as a U.S. brigadier general obliquely acknowledged in an interview on the NewsHour Friday evening when he said that more remains to be done to clear the area of IEDs etc.

The real question, though, is whether Operation Moshtarak will eventually be able to claim some kind of long-term success, or whether the Taliban will just return to the area after the 'surge' begins to wind down in 2011. (This is one of a number of questions raised by V. Yadav at DofM a while back.) The operation so far has cost the deaths of 14 ISAF soldiers and twice that many Afghan civilians. Especially in view of this, it will be regrettable, to say the least, if it turns out that this operation does not have lasting effects. I'm not necessarily arguing it won't, I'm saying the overall situation is such that one has to worry about this.

Let's hope that those who have lost their lives in this operation have died for something more lasting and significant than the raising of a flag over a town's central market. Let's hope that the Afghan 'surge' will turn out to do what its proponents claimed it would. The jury is still very much out.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan?

A little over a year ago, in December '08, I had occasion to write:
"One aspect of a [U.S.] diplomatic strategy might be to offer Pakistan a nuclear deal similar to the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, on condition that Pakistan take a more vigorously constructive and helpful stance toward the U.S./NATO position in Afghanistan. Now that the A.Q. Khan network has stopped functioning [I might have been premature in this judgment], even if Khan himself remains something of a revered figure in certain Pakistani quarters, there is no principled reason to deny Pakistan the same sort of nuclear arrangement that India has with the U.S. (Concerns about the long-term stability of the civilian government, however, admittedly might be a complicating factor.)"
I was therefore interested to read Christine Fair's recent op-ed column ("Pakistan Needs Its Own Nuclear Deal," Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11; available on her website) in which she proposes "a conditions-based civilian nuclear deal" between the U.S. and Pakistan. She writes:
"This deal would confer acceptance to Islamabad's nuclear weapon program and reward it for the improvements in nuclear security that it has made since 2002. In the long shadow of A.Q. Khan and continued uncertainty about the status of his networks, it is easy to forget that Pakistan has established a Strategic Plans Division that has done much to improve safety of the country's nuclear assets."
What would Pakistan have to do in return?
"First, Pakistan would have to provide the kind of access and cooperation on nuclear suppliers' networks identified in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation. Second, Pakistan would have to demonstrate sustained and verifiable commitment in combating all terrorist groups on its soil, including those groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba that Pakistan often calls 'freedom fighters' acting on behalf of Kashmir and India's Muslims."
Although recognizing that this proposal would be hard to sell in both capitals, Fair thinks it is worth "putting...on the table now."

Unlike the linkage schemes I criticized here as overly ambitious, this one appears to make some sense. Recently, however, there has been increased cooperation between Pakistan and the U.S., especially in the area of intelligence sharing and related matters (see Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung, "Greater U.S. pressure led to Pakistan arrests: new level of cooperation emerging in struggle against Afghan Taliban," Wash. Post, Feb. 19, p.A1). As reported on the NewsHour today, Pakistani officials say that almost 15 senior and mid-level Afghan Taliban figures have been captured recently. If this sort of cooperation continues, the need for a nuclear deal may become less pressing. But it's hard to know whether it will continue.
P.s. Jim Walsh offers a somewhat different (i.e. more skeptical) view of Pakistan-U.S. intelligence cooperation.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

'Behind Taliban lines'

The Frontline program of this title, which aired last night, is worth watching; the second half of the program (also worth watching) dealt with Pakistan's public schools, mentioned earlier here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Annals of lunacy

Via Yglesias: A right-wing blogger saw a book by Nathan Glazer on Michelle Obama's bookshelf and concluded that she must be a secret Commie because the book is called The Social Basis of American Communism. Any comment would be superfluous.

The Straussian in Ford's White House


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kipling, again

Kipling has come up here before -- see this post and Hank's comment on it. Now I notice a BBC piece about Kipling's boyhood home in Mumbai: plans to turn it into a museum have been dropped and it will instead become a gallery for the work of local artists.

The piece, the transcript of a broadcast on BBC's Today show, contains this among other things:

"Some of Kipling's work, including lines like 'And a woman is only a woman; but a good cigar is a Smoke', jar with critics today [what a surprise--LFC]. But the debate surrounding their actual meaning remains active and vigorous.

For instance, one of his most famous poems, which begins: 'Take up the White Man's Burden/ Send forth the best ye breed' does not refer to British Imperialism at all but celebrates the US occupation of Cuba and the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War."

It's true that the poem "The White Man's Burden" was addressed to Americans in the wake of the Spanish-American War. It may also be true that there is "active and vigorous" debate about its meaning, although I would tend to doubt that it's all that active. It is, after all, hard to read a poem describing the colonized as "Your new-caught sullen peoples,/Half-devil and half-child," as an ode to universal equality.

An old textbook but still a good one, James Joll's Europe Since 1870 (1973), quotes the first stanza of the poem in a footnote (p.102) and adds: "It is worth noting that the general tone of the poem is pessimistic: the colonial administrator is there 'to seek another's profit and work's another gain,' and his reward is 'the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard.'" Pessimistic or not, the poem's central message embodies, as Joll observes, the basic imperialist assumption that "advanced" peoples had a duty to "bring civilization and good administration to the backward ones...."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Quote of the weekend

"The train was pretty empty, just a gaggle of Bronxville soccer moms going into the city to spend money. There was something creepily alike about all of them, as if they were the same model of car, just different years: one wore a white sundress with pink stripes, another wore a pink sundress with green polka dots. They all wore sandals and had designer sunglasses perched atop their similarly coiffed heads. I found this spectacle somewhat depressing, because I had always thought, or hoped, that adults weren't necessarily as hobbled by mindless conformity as so many of my peers seem to be. I always looked forward to being an adult, because I thought the adult world was, well -- adult. That adults weren't cliquey or nasty, that the whole notion of being cool, or in, or popular would cease to be the arbiter of all things social, but I was beginning to realize that the adult world was as nonsensically brutal and socially perilous as the kingdom of childhood. But beneath their gloss of confidence and entitlement, I could tell the ladies were nervous, almost scared, for they knew they didn't belong in the city anymore -- once they married the investment banker and moved to Bronxville they ceased to be New Yorkers. The city is cruel in that way."
-- Peter Cameron, Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful To You (Picador, 2009), pp.214-215.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tariq Ali on Obama's foreign policy

The current issue of New Left Review carries a piece by Tariq Ali (available on the NLR website) that purports to be an analysis of Obama's foreign policy. I say "purports" because even a quick look at the piece -- and that is all I have given it (though I have saved a copy for more careful reading later) -- reveals that Ali's fundamental assumption clouds whatever analytical acumen he might otherwise have been able to bring to bear.

Ali's fundamental assumption is that the U.S. is an aggressive imperialist state and that every president since at least Jimmy Carter has used the Middle East as the fulcrum from which to extend the malign hand of American power across the globe. Ali calls U.S. actions in Afghanistan imperialist aggression, he calls the actions of Pakistan in South Waziristan, Swat, and Bajaur "domestic ethnic cleasing," he labels Judge Richard Goldstone a "notorious time-server of 'international justice'" -- note by the way the quotation marks around "international justice" -- and he depicts Mahmoud Abbas as a servile client of the U.S.

Ali labels Obama's speeches in Cairo, Oslo and elsewhere as cant, hypocritical and emollient "homilies" designed to cover the fact of imperialist aggression with a tissue of banalities. Ali of course omits to note that these speeches contained a certain amount of self-criticism -- God forbid that anything should be permitted to disturb the picture of the U.S. as an unrelievedly malign hegemon.

Now, I have long had some sympathy for aspects of the left-wing critiques of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has tended to define its geopolitical interests much too expansively, so that even in periods of relative strategic retrenchment the long hand of American power can be seen in hundreds of military bases that ring the globe. And the U.S. has been far too uncritically supportive of whatever the Israeli government of any given moment chooses to do vis-a-vis the Palestinians. The U.S. should long ago have brought real pressure -- i.e., monetary and aid pressure -- to bear on Israel to change its stance on settlements, boundaries, and the other issues that will need to be resolved in any final Mideast settlement. The U.S. should realize that a clearer focus on Palestinian concerns and historical and contemporary grievances would ultimately benefit not only the Palestinians but Israel as well, by assuring the Iatter of a Palestinian neighbor that has an incentive to observe and implement any peace settlement. (In this respect, W.R. Mead's call for a "Copernican shift" in U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears in Washington.)

Having said that, I find Ali's piece to be a polemic masquerading as analysis. Starting from the assumption that the U.S. is by definition incapable of doing anything right, that it operates through a network of uniformly bloody, crooked and despotic puppets, and that virtually any entity that violently resists the American "empire" cannot be too misguided and indeed is probably praiseworthy simply by virtue of that resistance, Ali naturally comes to the conclusion that there is continuity between Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama -- they are all stewards of empire, he says, and all that has changed from Bush II to Obama is the "diplomatic mood music." Obama cannot be much different from Bush, in this perspective, because the structural imperatives of "empire" are what dictate policy, and rhetoric is conceived as simply a gossamer blanket thrown over a bloody fist.

But rhetoric and policy are not two hermetically separate compartments. The 'real world' of international politics does not consist only of the use of force, whether military or economic, and the cutting of deals of one sort or another. You don't have to be an IR scholar -- all you have to do is follow the news semi-attentively -- to realize that much of what goes in international relations is talk, and to that extent rhetoric is not separate from policy; it is policy. To dismiss Obama, as Ali does, as a "president of cant" is to ignore this point, among others. As for the rest, you can read the piece and judge its merits for yourselves.

P.s. In the section of his piece on Iraq, Ali refers to "Eastern European prostitutes" who service the large American military base at Balad. However, the New York Times article he cites in a footnote refers to "Mila from Kyrgyzstan" as a masseuse not a prostitute. I leave it to readers to determine whether this apparent inability to distinguish between f***ing and getting a massage says anything about Ali's perspicacity in general. (Also, Kyrgyzstan is not in Eastern Europe.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Quote of the day

From a column published under Nicolas Sarkozy's name in Le Monde in early December (my trans.):
"I say to my Muslim compatriots that I will do everything so that they can feel that they are citizens like all others, enjoying the same rights to live in accord with their faith, to practice their religion with the same freedom and dignity. I will fight against all forms of discrimination.

"But I also want to tell them that in our country, where Christian civilization [la civilisation chrétienne] has left a deep trace, where the values of the Republic are an integral part of our national identity, anything which could appear as a challenge launched at that heritage and those values would doom to failure the establishment of an Islam in France which, without renouncing any of its essentials [sans rien renier de ce qui le fonde], could travel the path to inclusion in our social and civic compacts [note: this is a very loose translation of the last phrase of the passage: aura su trouver en lui-même les voies par lesquelles il s'inclura sans heurt dans notre pacte social et notre pacte civique]."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Of rule, revenue, and raging violations of the Fourth Amendment

No one much likes to be taxed. Many Americans, however, actively hate to be taxed. The U.S. is, relatively speaking, an undertaxed society, especially since the Reagan years, and local, state, and federal governments must try to find ways to raise money that do not involve taxation. This is a problem even in good economic times, and in bad times an acute one. Here's a small example: Every two years I receive a notice in the mail telling me that I must take my car to a facility to have its emission system checked to make sure that it's not violating Maryland's emissions laws. I duly take my car to the facility, fork over fourteen dollars, watch while the technician does something -- and the 'something', to someone's credit, seems to have gotten quicker and more streamlined over the years -- and am handed a piece of paper saying that my car has passed the test. What does this accomplish? Well, I suppose it gives a number (albeit a relatively small number) of people jobs, and I am, all things weighed, definitely in favor of that. It also may make a very marginal contribution to cleaner air, but this is doubtful it seems to me, since how many owners of polluting vehicles are going to obey the notice? -- more than likely they're just going to rip it up. That leaves the real purpose of the exercise: to raise money for the local and perhaps the state governments, and to raise it in a way that does not involve taxation. (I think I'd rather pay fourteen extra dollars in tax every two years and be spared the time and inconvenience of taking my car in for the emissions check, but my preference is presumably not widely shared.)

This is all by way of preface to expressing some -- well, outrage seems the appropriate word -- at seeing tonight's NewsHour report on so-called DUI checkpoints in California. I say "so-called" because the real purpose of these checkpoints, the report made clear, is to find people driving without licenses, impound their cars for thirty days, and then either collect the fines that people pay to retrieve them or, if no one retrieves the vehicle, auction it off. The result is that millions of dollars flow into local government coffers, specifically the coffers of the local police agencies (with a chunk going to the towing companies). Never mind that the people whose cars are impounded are overwhelmingly undocumented immigrants (who often need their cars in the most imperative sense as their survival may depend on driving to a job); and never mind that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has already ruled that the warrantless impoundment of cars under these circumstances is unconstitutional. (The state's legal powers-that-be claim to be waiting for another ruling from the Ninth Circuit but I couldn't see anything unclear about the first one, judging from this report.) After all, the Ninth Circuit ruling is just a piece of paper to those who want to ignore it, and it would be hard as a practical matter (though not impossible, I think) to hold the entire police force of a city in contempt of court.

Now there are probably good reasons from a safety standpoint to get unlicensed drivers off the road, as a Berkeley professor suggested at the outset of the piece. But it's not clear that the impoundments accomplish this. One person interviewed said that when his car was impounded he just went out and bought another. He knew he was doing something illegal by driving unlicensed but he needed a car to get to his construction job. (Presumably some people in that situation can't afford to buy another car, but there were no statistics presented on that. And if you search hard, you can find some pretty inexpensive cars out there. How about driving unlicensed and in a clunker? What gain for safety then?)

If you want to reduce unlicensed driving, do it openly, not under the cover of a DUI check. If you want to reduce drunk driving, how about raising the age for a driver's license? If you want to raise revenue, do it the old-fashioned way, however unpopular. Don't have local police run ostensible DUI checkpoints whose real aim is to find undocumented immigrants driving without licenses and impound their cars for thirty days before selling them to the highest bidder. These checkpoints are discriminatory. They are unconstitutional. They are one small but not insignificant result of a society too immature, and a political system too dysfunctional, to fund essential public services in a conscionable, sensible way: by paying for them directly. The country of course is in the midst of an economic crisis and a recession, but this story underscores a more permanent problem in the U.S.: the survival of a me-first, devil-take-the-hindmost mentality that may have been in some ways beneficial during the first century or so of the republic's existence but became counterproductive in the twentieth century and is unqualifiedly disastrous in the twenty-first.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lowther's linkages; or, could a nuclear Iran be good for the U.S. and the Middle East?

In a recent New York Times op-ed ("Iran's Two-Edged Bomb," Feb.9), Adam Lowther argues that a nuclear Iran might be a blessing in disguise for the U.S. and the Middle East. He should have settled for making the point that a nuclear Iran would pose less of a threat than is generally supposed. Instead Lowther produces an intricate and implausible linkage scenario that makes the most convoluted aspects of Bismarck's diplomacy look like tiddlywinks by comparison.

Here's the gist of his argument: (1) a nuclear Iran threatens countries in its region, including, e.g., Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states; (2) the U.S. could offer security guarantees to these countries mainly in the form of "a Middle East nuclear umbrella" and in return (3) the U.S. would demand: (a) wide-ranging democratic and other reforms in Arab autocracies that would drain some of the major breeding grounds of Islamist militancy; (b) higher oil production and lower oil prices from the oil-producing countries and (c) cost-sharing by those under the 'umbrella' for the expense of maintaining it. The result of all this, says Lowther, could be defeat of al-Qaeda and other similar groups; "a victory in the war on terrorism"; lower oil prices; a "needed shot in the arm" for the U.S. defense industry as weapons systems are exported to U.S. allies (read: client states), etc.

Now I happen to think that Western governments and foreign policy establishments exaggerate the potential bad consequences of Iran's getting nuclear weapons. But Lowther's scenario rests on some weird assumptions. First is the notion that trading a U.S. nuclear umbrella for fundamental reforms in Saudi Arabia and other allies is something these allies would go for; if they felt as threatened by a nuclear Iran as Lowther says they would, why couldn't they turn to China or Russia for security guarantees instead of the U.S.? Unlike the U.S., China and Russia would not demand those pesky domestic reforms; instead they would probably be content with economic rewards and concessions. Secondly, Lowther seems to think it would be a wonderful thing to create a Cold War-style regional balance in the Middle East, with a nuclear Iran playing the role of the USSR and Saudi Arabia et al. playing the role of Western Europe under a U.S. nuclear umbrella. How this arrangement, even if it did lead to domestic reforms in the Arab autocracies, would result in the demise of Islamist militancy is something of a mystery. Doesn't Lowther recall that one of al-Qaeda's main complaints was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia -- i.e., in proximity to some of Islam's holiest sites -- during and after the Gulf War? The notion that the extension of a U.S. nuclear umbrella over Saudi Arabia would persuade al-Qaeda and similar groups that they should give up the struggle, because the price of said umbrella would be a fundamental transformation of the Saudi polity, doesn't really compute. Where is the evidence for the argument that autocracy breeds discontent which breeds terrorism; therefore get rid of autocracy and you are on the road to getting rid of terrorism? Are those attracted to the jihadist worldview really interested in seeing a parliamentary democracy in Saudi Arabia? To be sure, they want to remove the current Saudi regime, but I was under the impression that it was that regime's links to the U.S. that is one of their prime grievances.

The main argument of Lowther's column has the feeling of a fantasy, of a Rube Goldberg contraption dreamed up at a desk. Instead of arguing that a nuclear Iran could lead to all good things from "victory" in the "war on terror" to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Lowther should have written a column about why in fact a nuclear Iran poses less of a threat than is widely thought, how states that acquire nuclear weapons generally do not become irrational or insane in their foreign policy behavior, and why the West should therefore not be getting its knickers into such a twist over the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Now Lowther does make the point at the end of the piece that "unless the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and his Guardian Council chart a course that no other nuclear power has ever taken, Iran should become more responsible once it acquires nuclear weapons rather than less." But this sensible sentence has been preceded, unfortunately, by so many non-sensible sentences that I doubt many people will still be reading.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Did you hear about the Catalonia referendum?

A couple of months ago Catalonia voted for independence from Spain. Two asterisks: the referendum was entirely symbolic, and although it passed by a wide margin the overall turnout was low.

HC's pithy if perhaps slightly unfair verdict: "Sounds like something out of an early Woody Allen movie."

But seriously: it's a lot better to hold symbolic referenda than to kill people (cf. ETA, etc.).

Polonius vs. Goldman Sachs, with a note on oligarchy

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
Polonius, in Hamlet I.iii

That old blowhard Polonius -- does anyone pay much attention to him? Certainly Hamlet didn't, if memory serves. And Goldman Sachs, among others, isn't. One way Goldman has managed to post record profits recently is by borrowing and lending the federal government's money, as Paul Solman's reporting on the NewsHour this evening made crystal clear. As a bank holding company, Goldman borrows from the Fed at extremely low interest rates (a fraction of one percent), then loans the money back to the government by buying Treasury bills, which pay, say, 3 1/2 percent. Result? Big profits, big bonuses...and a sense among those hearing this that, hey, wait a minute, this just doesn't seem right. One hedge fund manager, not connected to Goldman Sachs, told Solman that the solution was either to raise interest rates or pass a lot of new laws and regulations "as thick as a phone book." Given what seems to be occurring, I think the right phone book might not be unwelcome just about now. But don't hold your breath.

Not long ago, one of the political science journals carried a piece called "Oligarchy in the United States?"* I haven't read it, but here's a sentence from the abstract: "Data on the US distributions of income and wealth are used to construct several Material Power Indices, which suggest that the wealthiest Americans may exert vastly greater political influence than average citizens and that a very small group of the wealthiest (perhaps the top tenth of 1 percent) may have sufficient power to dominate policy in certain key areas."

To paraphrase Claude Rains in Casablanca: I'm shocked, shocked to find oligarchy going on here.
Or Rains as an appropriately cautious academic: I'm shocked to find that oligarchy may be going on here.
*Jeffrey A. Winters and Benjamin I. Page, "Oligarchy in the United States?," Perspectives on Politics (December 2009), pp.731-751.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Drones -- again

Vikash Yadav at Duck of Minerva argues that a leadership decapitation strategy via drone strikes is not effective against the Taliban and associated networks in Pakistan. He says it creates only temporary disruption and causes civilian casualties. But this raises a question I just asked in comments there: what other military strategy against the Pakistani Taliban is available to the U.S.? This may be a case where doing nothing is preferable to doing something ineffective, but persuading the CIA and Pentagon of that would, I suspect, prove to be difficult.
Update: Yadav's reply is now up at the DofM comment thread.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The campaign finance case (Citizens United v. FEC)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last month in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is an example of judging divorced from reality. To mention at the outset something that has occasionally gotten lost, this case was not about direct contributions to candidates by corporations: such contributions remain illegal, although corporations’ PACs (political action committees) may contribute to candidates. Rather, Citizens United had to do with advertising by corporations that endorses or advocates the election of a particular candidate, either directly (vote for X) or by criticizing a candidate’s opponent (Y is no good; therefore [implied message]: vote for X). The decision basically says that it is unconstitutional to prohibit corporations from financing such ads with money in their general treasuries. The main reason? According to Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion, corporations are speakers and money is speech, and the statutory provisions in question violate the First Amendment by "banning" political speech. As the dissent argues, "ban" is a misnomer since the law at issue deals with one method of financing speech; corporations have been and still are free to form PACs, solicit contributions to them from shareholders, employees and their family members, and use that money to fund their electoral communications. The majority pooh-poohed this point.

In overturning a 1990 decision, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which held that the government has a compelling interest in checking the "corrosive and distorting effects" of unlimited corporate spending in election campaigns, the Citizens United majority purports to regard ‘the marketplace of ideas’ as incorruptible and inherently self-correcting. In the majority’s view, speakers -- defined to include corporations -- speak; the electorate then separates the wheat from the chaff, the true from the false, irrespective of how much one side’s voice is amplified by the money at its disposal. That the electoral process almost certainly does not and almost certainly will not work in this way in a polity and society where corporations have a privileged position -- and where their organizational attributes allow them to amplify their influence on the electoral process -- is reasonably obvious, or so one would have thought, to anyone who has not been living under a rock.

(Note: At the oral re-argument of the case last September, which I heard broadcast on C-Span radio the day the decision came down, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, arguing for the government, declined to offer a strong defense of the "antidistortion rationale" of Austin, though she did of course urge the Court not to overrule the case. The government, it’s now clear, was going to lose regardless of who said what at oral argument, but Chief Justice Roberts in his concurrence made a point of quoting Kagan’s statement that Austin was not the clearest opinion (she either said "not the most pellucid" [which is how I had heard it on the taped broadcast] or "not the most lucid" [which is how Roberts quotes her from the transcript].)

As Justice Stevens’s dissent points out, the Citizens United decision will greatly advantage corporations vis-à-vis political parties, since parties are prohibited from raising and spending "soft money." As the dissent also points out, the majority failed to understand that the regulations at issue did not pit certain interests having nothing to do with the First Amendment against the claims of free speech. Rather, the questions raised by limits on corporate money in elections bring one kind of First Amendment interest into tension or conflict with another kind. Since I can't say this better than Stevens did in his dissent, I will quote him:

"All of the majority’s theoretical arguments turn on a proposition with undeniable surface appeal but little grounding in evidence or experience, 'that there is no such thing as too much speech,' Austin, 494 U. S., at 695 (Scalia, J., dissenting) [footnote omitted--LFC]. If individuals in our society had infinite free time to listen to and contemplate every last bit of speech uttered by anyone, anywhere; and if broadcast advertisements had no special ability to influence elections apart from the merits of their arguments (to the extent they make any); and if legislators always operated with nothing less than perfect virtue; then I suppose the majority’s premise would be sound. In the real world, we have seen, corporate domination of the airwaves prior to an election may decrease the average listener’s exposure to relevant viewpoints, and it may diminish citizens’ willingness and capacity to participate in the democratic process.

"None of this is to suggest that corporations can or should be denied an opportunity to participate in election campaigns…or to deny that some corporate speech may contribute significantly to public debate. What it shows, however, is that Austin’s 'concern about corporate domination of the political process,' 494 U. S., at 659, reflects more than a concern to protect governmental interests outside of the First Amendment. It also reflects a concern to facilitate First Amendment values by preserving some breathing room around the electoral 'marketplace' of ideas….

The majority seems oblivious to the simple truth that laws such as §203 do not merely pit the anticorruption interest against the First Amendment, but also pit competing First Amendment values against each other. There are, to be sure, serious concerns with any effort to balance the First Amendment rights of speakers against the First Amendment rights of listeners. But when the speakers in question are not real people and when the appeal to 'First Amendment principles' depends almost entirely on the listeners’ perspective [this is a reference to the majority’s argument that the regulations deprive listeners of valuable information--LFC] it becomes necessary to consider how listeners will actually be affected."

I also urge those interested to read the powerful concluding section of the dissent.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A mess indeed

Wash Post headline re the snow storm: "A Historic Mess." That about sums it up.
I hope people in the area are managing to stay warm. I'm not writing this at home, which has no power. Still, nothing compared to an earthquake.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Angkor Wat exists

Two notes:

1) I will have a post up on Citizens United v. FEC; aiming for next week.

2) I can't resist saying this somewhere, and while perhaps it more properly belongs on the comment thread attached to this recent Duck of Minerva post, I'm going to put it here instead. ProfPTJ, in the course of explaining his philosophy-of-science position of "ontological monism," distinguishes it from a rejection of "common-sense realism" and writes: "One need not make profound ontological investments in order to assent to the proposition that Angkor Wat exists, even if one is very unlikely to ever go there and see it in person."
Well (how can I say this without sounding smug and insufferable?) I have actually been to Angkor Wat, albeit a very long time ago as a young child (seven-ish I'd say, maybe six) with my parents and brother. (We were living in E. Pakistan, as it then was, at the time, and we were either going on home leave or coming back from it.) This was obviously before the U.S. pulled Cambodia into the Indochina conflict and Angkor Wat became a dangerous place. I think I have no direct first-hand recollections, but there are photos somewhere, and for present purposes I admit them into evidence as equivalent to first-hand recollection. One of our fellow tourists was an Oxford don, no longer alive, whose books I read years later in college. Anyway, I don't have to make any ontological investment, profound or otherwise, to assent to the proposition that Angkor Wat exists.
And on that insufferable note, I wish you a nice weekend.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

One reason why the proposed 2011 budget is $3.8 trillion

Some things, discretionary but judged to be necessary, cost a lot of money. For instance, the proposed budget allocates $7 billion to maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and complex. As J. Lewis points out, the administration sees this as linked to its efforts "to find votes in the Senate for ratification of the START Follow-on Treaty and, at a later date, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

France and the veil

Wearing the full veil has become a hot-button issue in France, but the reasons may not be immediately obvious to many of those who don't live there. If countries can be said to have ideas of themselves, then assimilationism, the notion that Frenchness is a matter primarily of culture rather than birth, is an element of France's idea of itself. And "culture" here implies acceptance of certain substantive principles. Note, in the BBC article linked above, the French immigration minister's reference to "the principles of secularism and equality between men and women," acceptance of which is considered, at least in this official view, part of what it means to be French.

I recently had a conversation with the sociologist Rogers Brubaker (ah, the pleasures of name-dropping), and afterward I took a quick re-look at his book Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (1992), which I had read a long time ago. The book brings out, among other things, what Brubaker calls "the weakness of the ethnic moment and the correlative strength of the assimilationist moment in French self-understanding" and the way in which Frenchness has been defined "in social and political rather than ethnic terms, as a matter of social becoming rather than intrinsic being" (p.112). For his bio and more recent books, click

P.s. Two relevant blog posts: here (from last July) and here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Counterintuitive findings on Islamist militancy in Pakistan

The current issue of International Security carries an article by Jacob N. Shapiro and Christine Fair, "Understanding Support for Islamist Militancy in Pakistan," which is based on a survey of urban Pakistanis. According to the abstract, they find that poverty, personal religiosity, and support for sharia law, among other things, are poor predictors of support for militant groups, as is faith in the country's democratic process. The last line of the abstract ventures to suggest, on the basis of the findings, that economic development, democratization and the like "may be irrelevant at best and might even be counterproductive" in the effort to reduce support for militancy.

The absence of a link in the urban setting between poverty and militancy is not, I think, too surprising, but the statement that those "who support core democratic principles...are not less supportive of militancy" sounds so counterintuitive that one suspects the abstract has been consciously written as a tease, to entice people to read the whole article. It will be interesting to see if people do read it and if it stirs debate.

Yes we can -- well, maybe

"Let's end tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas." Pres. Obama said this numerous times during the '08 campaign. The line reappeared in his State of the Union speech, which shows how politically difficult it is to change this part of the tax code. Actually, right now it's politically difficult to do much of anything, at least in terms of legislation. The Founders, we are continually told, wanted a constrained, self-checking government, but this is ridiculous.

On foreign policy and trade policy, the State of the Union speech broke little new ground: the U.S. needs to export more - no surprise; trade should be on a level field - no surprise; we are in danger of being overtaken in technological innovation by other countries - no surprise. It was nice, however, to hear Obama reaffirm his commitment to a nuclear-free world. He also mentioned repealing the don't-ask-don't-tell policy (a line noticeably not applauded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff).

As for the rest of the speech, I thought Obama struck a number of reasonably good notes. The focus on unemployment was both substantively and politically necessary, as was the emphasis on measures to help small businesses borrow and to encourage them to hire. The spending freeze (not to take effect until 2011, since "that's the way budgeting works") was also something he probably did not have much choice, at least politically speaking, but to propose.

Moreover, it was entirely appropriate, despite what some have said, for Obama to criticize the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the campaign finance case that came down last month. I've read parts of the opinions, which taken together total more than 180 pages, and I had thought about putting up a separate post about the case, but I probably won't. I'm guessing readers of this blog are not that interested in the fine points of First Amendment law. Suffice it to say that the decision is pretty awful. Justice Alito's reaction to Obama's remarks during the speech, and the comment the reaction has occasioned, is a tempest in a teapot.

Obama's appeal to rise above partisanship and divisiveness was both eloquent and expected, though whether it will fall on receptive ears remains doubtful. "The politician looks to the next election, the statesman to the next generation": I seem to recall this line from an essay -- I don't remember which one -- by John Rawls, who was presumably repeating a distinction that had been drawn before. How many of the politicians in Congress are statesmen or stateswomen in this sense? Hmm...

Blog mini-roundup on Canada (specifically the proroguing of Parliament and related issues)

Here, here and here.