Saturday, August 29, 2009

A bit more on Kennedy

I've just been looking at the op-ed page of Thursday's Wash Post, which I bought in hard copy. It's entirely devoted to reflections on Ted Kennedy by regular columnists Will, Broder, Dionne, and Cohen, plus some shorter reflections by others. E.J. Dionne tells a story of Kennedy calling him and leaving an empathic message which Dionne found after returning from spending the day at the hospital in '95 with his ill young son (who recovered). David Broder also ends his column on a personal note. And George Will concludes that Kennedy's life showed "a substantial positive balance," though Will, as one might expect, also works some criticism into his column.

Appropriately, I guess, I'm finishing up Alan Wolfe's book on liberalism and will be posting a review in due course.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edward M. Kennedy

Off-the-cuff thoughts (more considered ones may come later):

His record of legislative accomplishment, which was very impressive even if one did not agree with every one of his positions, was a tribute both to his own skill and that of his staff, which was always one of the best in the Senate. (Not that I knew this first-hand, but it was what everyone said.)

In 1980 I supported his campaign for the Democratic nomination and even ran as a candidate for Kennedy delegate. (I think I might have gotten ten votes or so; I know my late grandmother voted for me because I personally escorted her to the voting booth.) One of the most vivid political memories I have is watching Kennedy's speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, probably the greatest convention speech of the last 40 or 50 years. It was written by Robert Shrum and delivered superbly by Kennedy. The line in the speech about Ronald Reagan having no right to quote FDR still sends shivers down my spine. Great stuff. Kennedy will be missed, especially now with health care reform on the front burner. R.I.P.

P.s. John Sides links to an audio clip from the 1980 speech.
And National Journal collects reminiscences of former aides and others.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Memo to whom it may concern: the "art community" has no "special rights" under the First Amendment

A poster at Reason opines that artists have a duty to question authority because the First Amendment gives the art community, as "counterpart" to the press, special rights (or, in other words, singles out artists for specific attention).

Um, no. The First Amendment, in relevant part, reads: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...."

Nothing about special rights for artists, and as far as I'm aware the Supreme Court has not interpreted the First Amendment as giving artistic expression any higher level of protection than that afforded to speech generally. Law school was a long time ago, but my recollection is that speech deemed commercial can be somewhat more easily regulated than political speech, and that artistic and literary expression is also (with the exception for obscenity) at the core of the First Amendment. But special rights for artists, because they are "counterparts" of members of the press? No. You can still argue, of course, that artists have a duty to criticize those in power, but any such duty cannot convincingly be rooted in the U.S. Constitution or the system of checks and balances. The press as an intended check on government power, yes. Artists as an intended check on government power -- I don't think so.

[Hat tip: The House of Substance]

Round-up of Afghanistan articles

T. Greer has a post listing some recent contributions to the debate on Afghanistan policy and strategy. (The only one I've glanced at is Stephen Biddle's piece in The American Interest, which I happened to pick up in hard copy.) You can find all the links at Greer's post.
P.s. See also Foreign Policy's new AfPak Channel (link FP at sidebar).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Would I vote?

If I were an Afghan living in Helmand province or in the eastern parts of the country which, like Helmand, must be considered active war zones, would I vote in the imminent election? It takes courage to vote in a war zone, more courage than I suspect I have. The NewsHour broadcast a British ITV report from a district in Helmand this evening, showing a meeting (shura) of Afghan elders being addressed by a government official and a British officer. After the meeting, one of the attendees remarked to the reporter that he wouldn't vote on Thursday if his own father were on the ballot.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The debasement of public debate

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, Churchill once supposedly remarked. One of democracy's virtues, at least as it is presented in civics books and the writings of some political theorists, is deliberation: the calm, reasoned, informed discussion of the pros and cons of alternative policies. Deliberation in the real world can never be purely disinterested: individuals and groups have economic and other interests and, in a capitalist democracy like that of the U.S., can be expected to organize to try to advance those interests in the public arena. But if deliberation cannot be disinterested -- if we cannot decide public policy questions behind a Rawlsian 'veil of ignorance' in which no one knows his or her particular socioeconomic position -- we nonetheless can, or at least we should, expect deliberation to adhere to certain minimal standards of civility and intelligence.

Public debate, of course, has often departed from such standards. To stick with the U.S. context, personal invective and ad hominem attacks have been a feature of American politics from the beginning. The Federalists and the anti-Federalists often attacked each other in the vilest terms imaginable, as did, especially somewhat later on, the proponents and opponents of slavery. The dispute over the Bank of the U.S. in Andrew Jackson's administration was hardly a model of temperate discussion. Many other examples could be given. Reasoned deliberation, purged of emotionalism and personal accusations, is a liberal ideal that is realized only very imperfectly in practice, when it's realized at all.

That said, it is nevertheless discouraging to observe the level and tone of debate now occurring on the subject of health care reform. The immediate occasion for this observation is my reading today of Charles Krauthammer's Wash Post op-ed and a few of the many reader comments on it. I disagree with Krauthammer's general opposition to any overhaul of the health-care system. But his specific point in this column, that prevention is not a 'magic bullet' when it comes to health care costs, is worth considering and debating on the merits. While some of the reader comments do address the merits, many others do not. Instead, they fling ad hominem charges -- a few go so far as to suggest that Krauthammer is endorsing human suffering, which he is not -- and they observe that Krauthammer has been wrong on other issues, such as the Iraq war.

Now it's true that Krauthammer was wrong on the Iraq war -- in my opinion he's been wrong on nearly every foreign policy issue of the last thirty years, or however long he's been writing his column. But that does not mean that he is necessarily wrong about the issue of prevention and costs. Some commenters point out that he underestimates the aggregate societal benefits of prevention, while others observe that his argument does not distinguish clearly between more-expensive and less-expensive types of prevention. Those commenters are contributing to reasoned debate. The commenters who hurl epithets -- "Nazi," "moron," "idiot" -- are not, any more than the people screaming and shouting at town meetings are.

The U.S. health care system, like the U.S. tax code and some other aspects of the American system, is byzantine, very wasteful, costly, inefficient. It produces excellent care for some while relegating others to second-tier treatment or none at all. As a 'developed' country with no universal or near-universal health insurance, the U.S. is an outlier. These are all obvious statements and they suggest that some kind of comprehensive reform is urgently required. I don't think myself competent to weigh in on the details of the current proposals, except to say that members of Congress should try to exercise the courage to admit that some taxes will probably have to be raised -- and not necessarily only on multimillionaires -- to fund the required reforms. Some savings can come from more administrative efficiency and competition (and maybe even from basic forms of prevention), but more taxes will still likely be necessary. I also tend to favor a public option. Beyond that, I can't contribute much to the substantive debate. But I feel that people committed to reasoned deliberation should speak up against the debased public discourse currently surrounding this issue.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blog mini-roundup, etc.

-- JM at Marx and Coca-Cola (link at the sidebar) has a late June post (the last long one up there) linking to, among other things, a Thomas Frank WSJ piece on regulatory capture.

-- Guest blogger Conor Foley is holding forth at Crooked Timber (link at sidebar) on issues related to humanitarian aid and advocacy, starting with a post on Darfur.

-- Rodger Payne at Duck of Minerva announces he will be blogging on climate change at the e-ir site.

-- Hank at Eclectic Meanderings has reviews of books on Baron de Steuben (Drillmaster of Valley Forge) and on the fall of the Roman Empire.


And in view of Sec of State Clinton's recent stop in the Dem. Rep. Congo, I take note of an article by two Swedish researchers in the June 2009 Int'l Studies Quarterly: Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, "Why Do Soldiers Rape? Masculinity, Violence, and Sexuality in the Armed Forces in the Congo (DRC)," pp.495-518.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hugo Chavez channels Herman Wouk

Referring to a recent agreement between the U.S. and Colombia giving the U.S. access to some military bases in Colombia, Hugo Chavez has said that the arrangement could lead to war in South America. Speaking at a meeting of the Union of South American Nations in Ecuador, Chavez said that the "winds of war are beginning to blow" across the region, according to the BBC.

The U.S. is of course already giving Colombia a substantial amount of money and support to fight drug trafficking and the Farc -- indeed Colombia gets more U.S. 'aid' (defined broadly) than any other South American country by far -- and the Obama administration says that the agreement in question simply updates Plan Colombia, as the initiative was called when it was passed during the Bush administration. As in the case of U.S.-India relations, the Obama admin seems to be following the Bush admin's approach with respect to Colombia. Following the Bush lead on India makes sense, but the same is perhaps not true in the case of Colombia. There were many critics of Plan Colombia at the time of its launch, and my impression (although admittedly I have not followed it) is that its record is mixed at best. Be that as it may, Chavez's remarks are unnecessarily incendiary. Perhaps they will be discounted because of who uttered them, but no politician, regardless of ideology, should go around talking about the "winds of war" unless the situation realIy warrants it. The 'winds of war' was an o.k. title for Herman Wouk's WW2 epic novel, but that's about it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Leaked memo on Israel-U.S. relations

Via Open Source Geopolitics (citing an AP report):
A memo by the Israeli consul in Boston, criticizing the Netanyahu government's settlements policy and approach to relations with Washington, was leaked to an Israeli TV station, which read part of it on the air. The memo apparently contains, among other things, a line saying that American Jews are being put in a "problematical position" by the tense relations between the two governments. Without having data to hand on this, I suspect that a great many American Jews disapprove of the Netanyahu govt's settlements stance and would feel "distanced" from that government whether it was openly spatting with the White House or not.

Friday, August 7, 2009

"The sheriff at the gates"

From The Boston Globe's site: how the Bard might have seen the Incident on Ware Street.

Here's a taste:

CROWLEY: Back speaks no man to the Sheriff; I arrest thee!

GATES: Knowest thou who I am? That I am coy with the Daily Beastmistress, Milady Tina? That I am most down with Lady Oprah, the Queen of afternoon tele-dalliances? That I am sworn liege to Dr. Faust, of whom Marlowe wrote? That I unravelest literary mysteries at the Greatest University Known to Man?

CROWLEY: Of Tufts you speak? Even so, thou art under arrest.

[Hat tip: Lee Sigelman at The Monkey Cage]

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Looking behind an endnote

I'm reading Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism (2009). On p. 45, Wolfe refers in passing to "some scholars [who] have relied on sociobiological arguments to develop theories of international relations supportive of neoconservative understandings of how the world works." Curious about which scholar(s) Wolfe had in mind (I guessed Bradley Thayer, author of a book on Darwinism and IR), I turned to his endnotes. My guess was wrong. The single work Wolfe cites in this connection is Stephen P. Rosen's War and Human Nature (2005).

It happens that I'd read Rosen's book, but it was a while ago and I didn't remember it especially well, so I took it down from the shelf. "Relie[s]
on sociobiological arguments to develop theories of international relations supportive of neoconservative understandings of how the world works" is not, I think, a particularly good description of much of what Rosen is trying to do. In his chapter 2, for example, "Emotions, Memory, and Decision Making," Rosen draws on animal and human research to argue for the importance of "emotion-based pattern recognition" in decision-making. Pattern recognition happens when the brain processes information "in blocks or chunks" (p.34), and "pattern recognition of events associated with past emotional arousal radically reduce[s] decision-making time" (p.35). With respect to foreign policy decision-making, Rosen hypothesizes, among other things, that "if decisions are made on the basis of emotion-driven pattern recognition, the decision will be made quickly and early in the process, despite the complexity of the situation and the availability of contradictory analysis and data" (p.55). He then examines several historical cases where this kind of decision making (arguably) occurred.

The argument may or may not be persuasive, but at least this chapter of War and Human Nature would appear to have little to do with "neoconservative understandings of how the world works." Indeed one might well be able to apply 'emotion-based pattern recognition' to the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. I doubt that the results would be pleasing to neoconservatives.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

'Afghanizing' the war

Either Shields or Brooks (I don't remember offhand which one) said last night on the NewsHour that Americans by and large are not paying attention to Afghanistan despite the fact that there were more ISAF casualties in July than in any month since the initial invasion in 2001. Gen. McChrystal is calling for much larger numbers of Afghan forces (and, perhaps, still more U.S. forces), more U.S. civilian experts are needed to work on development and related reconstruction issues, and the presidential election of Aug. 20 is approaching. One would hope that the attention deficit diagnosis is incorrect.

Writing in the current Foreign Affairs, Fotini Christia and Michael Semple say that "the 'patriotic' Taliban [i.e. those willing to break with al Qaeda and similar elements] must be allowed to claim some of the success for the Afghanization of the country's security. Commanders and fighters should be formally associated with or absorbed into the police or the army, for example, which would allow the foreign troops to slip into the background." Christia and Semple understand that this is not going to happen soon and they suggest that there should be a U.S.-supported "low-profile but intensive dialogue between internationally backed mediators and the networks of [Afghan Taliban] commanders in Pakistan.... Insurgent networks cohere at least as much on the basis of social and economic interests as on political and ideological grounds; thus, the success of engagement will depend on building confidence. Much tea will have to be drunk to persuade commanders to realign."