June 27, 2006

I'm always happy to learning something new about the art of deception with numbers. From the most recent White House press briefing, here's Tony Snow:

But, for instance, during the course of the Clinton administration, there were 110 signing statements -- I'm sorry, 105 signing statements, 110 at this point in the Bush administration.

What's interesting about this is that Tony is being just a little bit coy about what he's counting. According to the Boston Globe, Bush has challenged over 750 laws; according to Tony's count, these challenges came in the form of 110 signing statements. How does Clinton compare? His signing statements objected to 140 over his entire eight years.

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June 23, 2006

Eventually the U.S. will pull out of Iraq, and all the Republicans who are now accusing Democrats of favoring a "cut and run" strategy will have to perform an awkward flip-flop, saying that while it would have been cowardly to withdraw earlier, it's the honorable thing to do at whatever point we've reached.

Given the Bush administration's history, we have to think that American political considerations (rather than the reality in Iraq) will dominate the decision to withdraw from Iraq, if it happens before Bush leaves office. What are the possibilities for how the withdrawal plays out?

  1. Political pressure builds until Bush feels he has no choice but to start drawing down troops. He takes advantage of some minor piece of good news from Iraq and makes an unexpected announcement.

  2. Political pressure builds until Bush feels he has no choice but to start drawing down troops. He makes an unexpected announcement that commanders on the ground think withdrawal is appropriate.

  3. Bush sets up a set of political, social, and security conditions. As Iraq meets these conditions, troops are withdrawn.

Now, the last option is obviously something that a responsible administration would go for. I think that the first two are much more likely, however. It took me some time to come up with an explanation for why Bush seems unwilling to be explicit about what needs to happen in Iraq for us to leave. I think it's because until that happens, he's stuck saying that we're making incremental progress. If we had conditions against which we could measure progress, it would be much harder to put a happy face on our situation, which might go on for months or years. That would have bad political ramifications, which, after all, are Bush's main concern.

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June 22, 2006

Withdrawal

from - Buck

Well, this went exactly as expected.

"Withdrawal is not an option. Surrender is not a solution," declared Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who characterized Democrats as defeatists wanting to abandon Iraq before the mission is complete.

Now Richard Armitage says he believes the Iraqis will soon ask the US to leave their country.

Uh-oh. What if that newly formed Iraqi government that we are so proud of tells us to get our shit and go home.

Do you think we would? Would you think we should?

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June 21, 2006

Can you have it both ways?

Is it really against the law for school board's to ban books from their schools? I thought school boards ultimately made those kinds of decisions.

The longer I live the more confused I get.

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June 16, 2006

Ups and downs

from - RSA

Froomkin points to a Gallup survey showing that George W. Bush is apparently making Bill Clinton look better in retrospect and George H. W. Bush worse.

(Hmm, can't seem to get the table to display; oh, well, the link is above.)

What I find interesting is the Republican view of Bill Clinton, at a 30% approval. For comparison, that's 12 percentage points below Richard Nixon. Independents and Democrats have a far more positive view, of course.

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June 15, 2006

One thing that Bush emphasizes in his speeches is that we're making progress in Iraq. This may be true, but it really depends on how we measure progress. How should we? I thought I'd try to come up with a reasonable list of concrete, quantitative measures, which would help me see if I'm too pessimistic (or even too optimistic) about the war and its eventual outcome. In my Web search, though, I ran across an article from the Weekly Standard, by Robert Kagan and William Kristol, which slightly derailed my search. Here's a sample:

We may have turned a corner in terms of security. . .

This administration did not do a particularly good job of preparing for postwar Iraq before the invasion, and it has not always made the right decisions on how to proceed politically, diplomatically, and militarily in the reconstruction of Iraq. . . But the most important thing the administration has done is to make clear, both in word and in deed, its determination to see our mission in Iraq completed.

This article was written in March, 2004, a year after the invasion and, of course, well over two years ago. It's obvious that the same people are saying the same thing about Iraq and will probably continue to do so indefinitely. Nowadays they may add, "It's slow going."

This answer has become (actually, it's always been) unsatisfactory. Are we making progress? Are we losing ground? I want the President to tell us what we should look at to understand the situation.

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Numbers

from - RSA

When I read the White House press briefings, sometimes I just get mad:

Q: Tony, American deaths in Iraq have reached 2,500. Is there any response or reaction from the President on that?

MR. SNOW: It's a number, and every time there's one of these 500 benchmarks people want something.

I can't help thinking that someone who begins a response that way ("it's a number") has a problem with empathy. That number is the sum of individual deaths; for the guys who put the soldiers in harm's way, it should be much more than a number. (To be fair, Snow does go on to praise the soldiers in Iraq later in his answer.) And the second part of Snow's sentence ("people want something") is also tremendously dismissive. What people want, I expect, is for fewer Americans to be dying in Iraq. That's a very important "something" that shouldn't be lumped in with everything else.

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June 14, 2006

Danger in DC

from - RSA

Representative King is yet again explaining how the average citizen is safer in Iraq than in Washington, DC. Some explain that he's lying with statistics, but I prefer more direct responses:

  • Truthful contradiction: I've walked the streets of DC many times, day and night, and have felt entirely safe, but I've never been in Bagdad without being shot at.

  • Testing of implications: George W. Bush wears a flak jacket for a five hour visit to Iraq. Does he wear a bullet-proof jockstrap when he jogs in more-dangerous DC?

  • Total agreement: With 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq, it damn well better be safer than DC!

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Mehlman

from - smijer

Onegoodmove has Ken Mehlman on the Daily Show. I don't think that Ken meant for it to come out that way.

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June 12, 2006

I was against U.S. involvement in the Gulf War, back in 1990. Was I stupid? Looking back, fifteen years later, I don't think so (though I have gone back and forth in my opinion). My objections to it, now, are pretty easy to see as implications of the so-called law of unintended consequences. Basically, the idea is that if the U.S. hadn't gone into Kuwait, there would have been a downside for not having backed an ally, but it wouldn't have been nearly as bad as what has actually happened years later.

First the hypothetical downside:

  • America's international reputation suffers.
  • America's foreign policy becomes more constrained in response.
  • Americans pay more for gas.
  • A foreign despot in the Middle East increases in strength and influence.

I'll grant that I'm not especially knowledgeable about history, but I see an obvious pattern here, except perhaps for the last point (which I'll argue is pretty much inevitable no matter what we do).

What about unintended consequences? Here's one: According to Wikipedia, "[A]s of the year 2000, 183,000 Gulf War veterans, more than a quarter of the troops who participated in the War, have been declared permanently disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs." The other consequences that I have in mind are more psychological. What lessons did George W. Bush and his cronies learn from the Gulf War?

  • It's easy to line up an international coalition for a war in the Middle East. Not so much.

  • A war doesn't need to cost much, and the burden can be spread around internationally. Not so much.

  • A war can be won quickly and easily, with few casualties. Not so much.

  • The people in a war zone will be grateful to the soldiers. Some, but not all.

  • The American people will stand behind a man who stays the course. I do think this is true, but the underlying assumption is that the man is not a lying dunce.

I'm sure it would be possible to construct a very long list of comparisons of what went right in Desert Storm and what went wrong in Iraqi Freedom, but it would be a bit depressing.

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We'll All Be Gray...

from - smijer

...when Johnny Comes Marching Home.

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June 07, 2006

Radio rage

from - RSA

I heard Senator James Inhofe (R, OK) on the radio yesterday. He was talking about whether Senate hearings should be held on the incident in Haditha in which U.S. Marines are suspected of having killed 24 unarmed Iraqis. To quote Inhofe:

But Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who has backed the war, said, "It gives some justification or some credibility to some of the lies that have been told by people who are just anti-war. I think they're rejoicing in this."

I was briefly infuriated. "People who are just anti-war": well, I'm one of them, at least for the case of this ill-conceived preemptive war. So I'm a member of a group that has told lies about the war? And I'm rejoicing over the deaths of 24 people? I know that Inhofe is, technically speaking, a nutcase (he holds, for example, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict " is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true.") but it's still hard to make allowances. Have they run out of attics in Oklahoma? Doesn't the Bible have something to say about beams and motes and such?

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Senate Republicans have a strategy for charging up their base in the upcoming fall elections: schedule votes on hot-button items that are, realistically speaking, guaranteed to fail. From the Houston Chronicle:

Neither the same-sex marriage nor the flag-burning proposals are expected to win the two-thirds votes in both chambers of Congress needed to get the issues to the state legislatures. Nevertheless, the Republicans hope that their efforts will motivate a key constituency that needs to turn out in force at the polls in the November elections if the party is to retain control of Congress.

So let me get this straight. You completely ignore an issue while you're governing, but when it becomes likely that you might not be able to stay in power, you suddenly bring the issue up to show that it's important to you, even if there's no chance you'll get your way with it? How convincing is that? This maneuvering strikes me as a "Stop me before I do something stupid" policy: if they thought that Constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and burning flags were worthwhile on their own merits, they would have tried a bit harder and a bit earlier to get them passed.

Despite some misgivings about this approach to electioneering, Republican strategists seem to think it will make their base happy. I, on the other hand, suspect it will only appeal to a small number of people. I have a suggestion, however. Flag burning, gay marriage, abortion, and school prayer may not be issues that enough voters think are important to make a big difference in their voting. What Republicans need to do, following the strategy of making proposals that sound good but are guaranteed to fail, is to broaden the appeal. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Propose that every U.S. citizen should be sent a check for $1,000,000 from the government. Who wants to turn down free money?
  • Propose that every day be Christmas Day. Got to have opportunities to spend that money. And Christmas makes everyone happy, except perhaps for nonChristian malcontents.
  • Propose that peace reign on earth. The only constituencies they'd be neglecting would be prize fighters and people who watch Jerry Springer.

A party that made these kinds of proposals would be worth watching.

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June 02, 2006

Press zingers

from - RSA

I couldn't help laughing at the last exchange between the new White House press secretary, Tony Snow, and a reporter:

MR. SNOW: I understand, but you're asking me to respond -- April, I can't help you. I haven't seen it.

Q You haven't been able to help me since you've been here.

Q Thank you.

MR. SNOW: All right, thank you, Steve.

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...so they write a bill to punish providers with up to 10 years + $100,000. Those who hire the providers to carry out the deed get off scott free.

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No soup for you!

from - RSA

Tapped has today been filled with posts about the allocation of terrorism preparation funds: mainly away from DC and New York and toward smaller cities like Charlotte, NC, and St. Louis, MI. The Times gives an explanation from the Department of Homeland Security as follows, for the case of New York City:

The federal agency distributing $711 million in antiterrorism money to cities around the nation found numerous flaws in New York City's application and gave poor grades to many of its proposals.

New York's funding was cut by 40%. While there are good arguments to be made for and against allocating money to smaller potential terrorism targets, it's plausible to ask whether politics had a role to play. The process was described as being objective, involving peer review, and drawing on models of risk constructed by experts. I'll be watching the news for the next few days. If the process was really as open as the DHC claims, it should be possible to understand why they reached the results they did.

I have my doubts, given the Bush administration's opinion of openness and accountability. Here's the thing: One of the arguments the DHS makes against giving New York and DC more funding is that their proposals for using the funding were flawed. But it should be obvious that in the evaluation of the risks of terrorism, there are both problems and solutions. If you think that a problem is very dangerous and a proposed solution is inadequate, then one possibility is that funding should be granted to improve the solution. Let's take an extreme hypothetical case: next year New York City forgets about the deadline for submitting proposals for antiterrorism funding, and at the very last minute submits a single paragraph written in crayon on a page torn out of a notebook. A totally shabby proposal. Based on what seem to be the DHS's criteria, that should count significantly against New York's getting funding. But that doesn't seem right. Even if New York and DC's proposals were not well-conceived, that just the kind of issue that an influx of funding could address.

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June 01, 2006

Honestly, now

from - RSA

I caught a bit of a radio show on NPR yesterday, in which various people were talking about the new pick for Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson. One of the external talking heads said something that gave me a double-take. Here's a close paraphrase:

The President and the Treasury Secretary will regain credibility by being honest about the good and bad of the economy.

What struck me is a basic assumption underlying this prediction: What kind of person can be expected to regain credibility simply by being honest? This is the kind of thing said about people who have lost credibility through dishonesty--and it seems to be taken completely for granted about our President. It's sad.

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May 15, 2006

May 12, 2006

Fame at last!

from - RSA

Hey, I was one of the people whose question to Tony Snow was quoted in Dan Froomkin's latest column. Cool. (I'm the one from Raleigh, NC.)

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Guns and telephones

from - RSA

I've been discussing the current NSA eavesdropping scandal with a dwindling number of half-hearted conservatives, who are less and less willing to defend the actions of the Bush administration. The arguments on their side tend to run along the same familiar tracks: it would be naive to think that this kind of thing wasn't happening all the time; it all started with Bill Clinton; blame the phone companies rather than the government.

In trying to figure out how to reach people who are living with only a toehold in the real world, I thought to bring forward an argument that they might appreciate for its familiarity, one made by guns rights activists. Would you be happy if the government kept a record of whether you own a gun or not? Of course not (we can presume the answer to be). But what's the harm? It's not an infringement of the right to bear arms. But it's the first, necessary step toward such infringement. The possibility for misuse of gun ownershipe records is tremendous. Do you think there's any possibility of the government's misusing records of whom you call on your telephone? Oh.

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