Friday, 18 August 2006

Rashomon, Israeli conflict edition

Matthew Shugart and David Bernstein read the exact same passage in Ha’aretz and come to pretty much diametrically opposite conclusions—Shugart, that the war was foolhardy; Bernstein, that the Israeli defense minister didn’t take Hezbollah’s missile arsenal seriously enough.

Granted, I tend to think Shugart is right (far) more often than Bernstein, but here I’m just bemused by the juxtaposition—and would be more likely to be concerned that the IDF didn’t take Hezbollah’s missile capability all that seriously.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

QandO posts so I don't have to

Over at QandO, Dale Franks mocks James Miller’s idea that what the voters are clamoring for is a space elevator—for starters, the name “space elevator” needs to go, since who wants to spend a week listening to The Girl from Ipanema while they trundle towards geostationary orbit?—and McQ does a post-mortem on the DP World ports deal.

The latter of course points out the futility of trying to ask the American public questions about Middle Eastern politics; if the average American has the emirate of Dubai (which has been a consistent U.S. ally for its entire existence) equated to al Qaeda in their heads, what hope could he or she possibly have of meaningfully distingushing between Saddam Hussein (a known bad guy) and al Qaeda?

Tuesday, 24 January 2006


My daily dose of humor was supplied by the original headline for this article, which was “Report cites evidence that US ‘outsources’ torture.” I had brief visions of lines of ex-CIA types outside unemployment offices.

In all seriousness, though, I wonder how much real indignation there is about such things. All societies—including our oh-so-enlightened European allies—have practiced torture (or Gitmo-style “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Torture”) since time immemorial, and while its use has generally been restricted to suspected scumbags in recent history, it still happens, wink-wink nudge-nudge denials, treaties, commitments, ad nauseum notwithstanding.

And, ironically, the incentives for torture may be higher in a democracy than a non-democracy. If the Spanish Popular Party government had waterboarded a few folks to gain enough intelligence to stop the Madrid train bombings (or at least to avoid erroneously attributing the attacks to the Basque separatists), they’d still be running the show. No dictatorship has ever been turned out of office because they couldn’t stop terrorist attacks.

In democracies, when it comes to questions of “us or them,” the constituency for “them” is George Galloway, Michael Moore, Robert Fisk, and a few other demented fools; not the makings of a broad coalition of voters, particularly when you have smoldering ruins as the backdrop of your campaign. Any rational government, left, center, or right, is going err on the side of “us.” And thus, sadly, those of us utopians who’d rather not see torture are probably going to be stuck with it.

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

What a gas

The president’s poll numbers appear to be recovering as of late, and there are two major competing theories to explain the change. Charles Franklin appears to attribute the change to the new PR pushback from the White House, which we might term the Feaver-Gelpi thesis (see also Sunday’s NYT), while Glenn Reynolds says it’s the gas prices and the Mystery Pollster suggests good economic news in general.

It may be the most simplistic thesis, but I think the “pump price” explanation is probably the most plausible; unlike other information, gasoline prices are unavoidable information for most voters and not subject to partisan spin, unlike the presidential pushback on Iraq and news of the general economic recovery—both of which can be spun negatively in a way that falling gasoline prices really can’t. In a noise-filled informational environment, I suspect clear “pocketbook” signals like gasoline prices are much stronger cues for presidential support than the world of competing, ideologically-based claims over Iraq and interest rates.

Update: Al Qaeda appears to put some stock in the pump price explanation as well.

Friday, 18 November 2005

Bad strategery

While we can’t explore the counterfactual universe, I suspect ABC News wouldn’t have bothered with this story on CIA interrogation techniques if the White House weren’t stonewalling the McCain anti-torture amendment—putting aside whatever merits or demerits the McCain amendment may have. (þ:Orin Kerr)

Monday, 30 May 2005

Solving Gitmo

On the recommendation of Orin Kerr and Glenn Reynolds, I read this Jon Henke post that makes a fairly compelling case that there are systematic problems with detainee abuse in the War on Terror—relying on sources that most would consider to be objective.

Henke also proposes two solutions, POW status and real trials, both of which should be familiar to longtime Signifying Nothing readers—heck, it’s been a recurring theme from Robert and I for over two years now.

Saturday, 28 May 2005

Fahd’s dead, baby

The Moonie News Service is reporting that King Fahd of Saudi Arabia is dead, although the practical implications of this outcome are somewhat up in the air: Jeff Quinton thinks there is going to be a power struggle, while James Joyner thinks Crown Prince Abdullah has already consolidated power in the kingdom.

Amusingly, CNN’s headlines on both the King Fahd story and the al-Zarqawi story (he’s allegedly ailing too) both quote people as saying the protagonists are “well.” Somehow I suspect neither assessment is accurate.

Monday, 16 May 2005

Stopped clock watch

Eszter Hargittai and Brendan Nyhan point out (as I noticed sometime in the past few days when surfing eJobs) that the American Political Science Association has condemned the AUT boycott of Israeli universities. I’m glad to see the $77 I sent the association last year (not to mention the hundreds of dollars I have spent in the past) has finally produced something of even minor value.

Of course, the complete uselessness of the APSA has been a recurring theme on this weblog…

Friday, 7 January 2005

The Ecological Fallacy in Action

Say what you will about the Palestinians, but at least they aren’t any more impressed with our celebrities than we are; says one “man on the street”:

I don’t even know who the candidates are other than Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), let alone this [Richard] Gere. We don’t need the Americans’ intervention. We know who to elect. Not like them—they elected a moron.

This might be a good omen for popular sovereignty in Palestine after all (þ Sully).

Thursday, 6 January 2005

Tortured Reading

Both James Joyner and Glenn Reynolds recommend this post at Belgravia Dispatch regarding the whole Gonzales-Gitmo-Abu Gharib flap. My general point of view (similar to that expressed here a couple of weeks ago by Robert) is when you’ve resorted to semantics—“stress positions” versus “torture” and the like—you’ve already lost the battle in the court of public opinion, even if legally you might be in the right.*

On Gonzales in general, I have to say that I never thought I’d favorably compare John Ashcroft to anyone else (although it could be argued he was at least an upgrade from Janet Reno), but at this point I’d rather have the Prude over the Enabler any day.

Saturday, 25 December 2004

Bowling for Ramallah?

One for the News of the Weird file: the Palestinian Authority’s investments included, until this week, a $3.1 million stake in a chain of bowling alleys in the Northeast Corridor.

Monday, 20 December 2004

Another diplomatic success story

Raise your hand if you didn’t see this one coming:

Iran has drawn up secret plans to make large quantities of a gas that can be used to produce highly enriched uranium, despite promises to suspend enrichment activities.

Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, Iran’s atomic energy chief, has authorised construction of a plant to make Anhydrous Hydrogen Fluoride (AHF), a gas that has many uses, from petrochemical processing to uranium enrichment.

Cash money says the latter use is far more likely than the former. Ugh. (þ: memorandum).

Monday, 8 November 2004

Yassir "Dave" Arafat

Free hint to the Palestinians: you’re supposed to hire the actor to pretend to be the guy before he falls into the irreversible coma.

Friday, 29 October 2004

Tora Boring

Like Sebastian Holdsclaw, I was pretty well convinced that Osama was worm food. I guess that’s what they mean by an “October surprise.” Damned if I know what it means, or how it will play into things on Tuesday. (I guess it’s possible Osama made several tapes with different Democratic opponents, so I wouldn’t call it completely dispositive on his survival into recent months, mind you. But Occam’s Razor suggests that, if it was Memorex, he’d have made some vague reference to a Democratic challenger instead of making multiple tapes.)

Thursday, 30 September 2004

Say no to torture

Both Katherine R and Sebastian Holdsclaw of Obsidian Wings are rightly horrified that the so-called “9/11 commission bill” includes provisions that may lead to the institutionalization of the abuses that Maher Arar was subjected to by Syrian authorities, with the apparent complicity of both the United States and Canadian governments.

This isn’t a “Republican” or “Democrat” problem—most members of both parties are going to vote for this bill, because they want to look like they’re “doing something” about terrorism. But this is something that is simply unconscionable. Let your senators and representatives know that this is not how America is supposed to do things and is completely unacceptable.

There’s more on the bill in today’s Washington Post.

Friday, 17 September 2004

Osama: Dead or alive?

Tuesday, 24 August 2004


Our long national nightmare, the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson saga, may finally be nearing an end. The Kerry front organizations left wing of the blogosphere claims there’s an indictment of “Scooter” Libby on the way, while the Bush stooges InstaPundit (and the Washington Post) reports that Libby is cooperating with investigators by waiving his right of confidentiality in dealings with Time reporter Matthew Cooper.

Saturday, 19 June 2004

In the Garden of Allah

Steven Taylor debunks the theory that the Saudis didn’t care about saving Paul Johnson:

It seems that with the scant information available, that the logical conclusion is that something about the disposal of the body or the delivery of the video tipped off the Saudi security forces leading to al-Moqrin’s whereabouts and his subsequent death.

An alternative conclusion is that killing al-Moqrin would have pretty much guaranteed that Johnson would be executed; thus, the sensible course of action was to wait until after they confirmed Johnson was dead to go after al-Moqrin (who may not have been at the same physical location as Johnson anyway).

Friday, 18 June 2004

Tit for tat

As expected, Paul Johnson just became the latest victim in the “terrorism by beheading” campaign operated by al-Qaeda.

Reaction: Moe Lane said it best. As far as I’m concerned, the Saudi government’s response should be to immediately execute every single person whose release was demanded by the terrorists. My moral qualms about such a policy in general (I would actively oppose the U.S. engaging in such a policy, for example) don’t extend to actions by the Saudi regime, who routinely show less mercy to Saudis, guest workers, and western ex-pats accused of dubious crimes under their rule. We already know the Saudis have zero respect for human rights; such a policy seems like an excellent complement to a-Qaeda’s policy of zero respect for human life.

Saddamed if you do

Both Alex Knapp and James Joyner (writing at Tech Central Station, so feel free to dismiss accordingly) think the 9/11 commission’s standard of proof for al-Qaeda involvement in, well, anything might be just a tad too high.

As for Saddam himself:

Saddam’s government was never the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism. Iran and Saudi Arabia far outstripped him in that regard. Nonetheless, the fact that Saddam Hussein actively supported Islamic terrorists has been an article of faith since the Carter Administration. Indeed, Iraq was one of the original five states (along with Iran, Libya, Syria, and Cuba) on the original “Patterns of Global Terrorism” list compiled by the State Department in 1979. Saddam was a major sponsor of various terrorist groups, including the PLO, Hamas, and the Abu Nidal Organization.

Read the whole things.

Monday, 3 May 2004

Peace in our time

James Joyner is perplexed by the current Israeli political situation:

Matt Yglesias points to Shinui Party chairman and minister of justice, Yosef Lapid’s threats to leave the coalition and force new elections if Sharon doesn’t come up with a new plan and notes, “If the Likud insists that the plan be halted and Shinui insists that it be implemented, then there’s going to have to be new elections which, presumably, Likud will lose.” I haven’t seen any Israeli opinion polls and it may well be that they’re sufficiently fed up with Sharon as to want to dump him. Still, a Labor victory seems unlikely to me.

The Sharon plan was rejected because it wasn’t far enough to the right, seeming to give too much away in exchange for nothing. Labour is much more conciliatory. So, if anything, I would predict that Likud would drop Sharon in favor of a more hard-line leader. Likud would likely win fewer seats in the Knesset than it has now with extreme right fringe parties picking up more support. Lukud would then form a coalition which would be drawn even further to the right.

There are a few different dynamics going on: for one, the Sharon plan was only voted on by members of the Likud party (and a small fraction thereof—on the order of 10% of the membership)—it has not faced a popular referendum, which probably would be much more supportive. After all, Likud was essentially founded as an aggressively Zionist, “greater Israel” party that basically rejected the idea of “land for peace.” For another, the plan got less support than one might otherwise expect due to a terrorist attack on Gaza settlers on the eve of the vote.

The big questions are:

  1. Whether the parliamentary Likud can continue to support the Sharon plan, despite its repudiation by the Likud base. If Likud stays behind Sharon, he can take the plan to the voters and, if necessary, swap the religious parties in the coalition for Labor—who do support the plan—or carry on as a minority coalition for a while, scraping together votes as needed. If Likud doesn’t stay the course, then the party will probably fragment and either the Sharonists will join with Labor and Shinui in a coalition, or new elections will be called.
  2. How the parties would fare in a new election. If Likud dumps Sharon (who has legal troubles, in addition to the Gaza plan, as a handicap), it is doubtful that they will pick up nearly as much support as they now have, which opens the door for a Labor-led coalition under Shimon Peres, most likely with the left-wing Meretz and Shinui on board—a coalition that is likely to go even further than the Sharon pullout, but probably would continue the security fence. On the other hand, if Sharon sticks around, the Likud will probably do better—but will have a tough time articulating a position on the Sharon plan, which may lead to the fragmentation anticipated above.
  3. Whether Sharon’s domestic legal troubles will force a change at the top for reasons orthogonal to the pull-out plan.

Contra Yglesias, it looks like the Likud rank-and-file don’t seem to “get” it: by sabotaging the Sharon plan, despite its overwhelming public support, they have pretty much opened the door for either a Labor-led coalition that will go even further or an irreconcilable split within their own party between the “land for peace” wing represented (ironically) by Sharon and the Netanayu rejectionist wing. This suggests poor long-term thinking on the part of Likud voters.

Nor do I quite understand the cheap shot that Yglesias takes at the Bush administration, except on the domestic politics “hammer-nail” theory. There’s only so much mucking around in Israel’s internal politics that an administration can do before it backfires, and the current push for the Sharon plan has been rapidly approaching that line as it is.

Saturday, 17 April 2004

Domino dancing

Another week, another Hamas leader dies with a generous assist from the Israeli Defense Forces. Funny how that works.

Sunday, 11 April 2004


One of the reasons why blogging has been pretty light this weekend—in addition to my spending the Easter holiday with family in Memphis—is that I spent much of Saturday doing the work I’ve been trained to do, in this case anonymously reviewing the text of a forthcoming political science textbook for a publisher.

While the text doesn’t focus on ideology, as a way to motivate the material (am I being vague enough?) it discusses the ideological divisions of the American public, and the contrasts among conservative and liberal thought on economic and social regulation—one of the fundamental topics in the study of political behavior in the United States. After reading it, something about that discussion clicked in my head, and suddenly the debate over the August 6th PDB—and the conviction by liberals like Kevin Drum that it contained the key information needed to prevent an attack, despite the clear absence of any “new” information that would suggest an attack of the magnitude of 9/11 (despite the sensationalistic account of Middle Eastern men taking photos of a building in New York—mind you, it was a federal office building, not the World Trade Center complex)—made a lot more sense.

Steven Taylor apparently had essentially the same thoughts on the matter:

While clearly much (most?) of the wrangling over the PDB is partisan in nature, much of the debate may also be ideological. Part of what defines a conservative in the political vernacular of the United States is skepticism about government, while liberals tend to think that given the right people and information that practically any problem can be solved by government. ...

[O]ne’s view of government clearly colors how one interprets these events. As a conservative (and as a student of government, here and abroad), I am highly skeptical of the ability of governments to successfully execute policy. Hence, I am unsurprised by governmental failures. I am not saying that policy can never be successful—it can. However, it rarely is an efficient process, and the more complex the undertaking, the more likely failure is to happen. At a minimum I know full well that government is not very good at processing information. ... However, it would seem that from the liberal point of view the problem isn’t government and its complexity, but rather the people who occupy government at a given moment. Now, I am not saying that that doesn’t matter—it does. But, I do not think, and believe that empirical evidence backs my position, that government becomes more efficient and efficacious just because one set of persons occupy positions of power. ...

And no, I am not arguing that government always fails. Although I would note that that tends to be the default position. I am not an anti-government libertarian, but I am highly skeptical about the ability of governments to do what they set out to do. Hence, I am not surprised wen governments fail. Liberals in the US context tend to be more optimistic about the abilities of government, and hence are more shocked when it fails. And, as noted, that failure is usually attributed not to systemic problems of governing huge numbers of people, but, rather, to those who are doing the governing. Hence, the fault must lie with Bush and Rice must be a “moron”, etc.

Obviously, unlike Steven I’m not a conservative—but I share the conservative skepticism that government power can be universally effective, or that it can always stop bad things from happening. Governments are comprised of people, and people are inherently flawed: they make mistakes, they aren’t omniscient, and they tend to make decisions consistent with their own personal interests. Aggregating a bunch of fallible people in a government, while reducing the possibility that one person’s mistake won’t matter, doesn’t eliminate it entirely.

I think the disappointment of the 9/11 commission is that, rather than trying to figure out how we can prevent future attacks and ensure the mistakes of 9/11 aren’t repeated, its members have decided to engage in alternating displays of grandstanding and ass-covering, and are seemingly more concerned with their job prospects in future administrations sharing their party affiliation than figuring out what structural and practical obstacles stopped policymakers from getting even all the unclassified information that indicated a plot was afoot on their desks.

XRLQ does the PDB

Xrlq is kind enough to donate some of his web space to partisan hack valued former public servant Richard Ben-Veniste to discuss the August 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing. In other news, partisan hack valued random guy from California who somehow got The Washington Monthly to pay him to be a partisan hack blogger Kevin Drum seems to agree with Ben-Veniste-as-channeled-by-Xrlq, while partisan hack political scientist Steven Taylor disagrees.

Friday, 9 April 2004

Sure, we'll get right on that

If anyone ever tells you to take seriously the comments of a former British cabinet member, here’s a new counterexample to add to your arsenal (along with the ravings of Robin Cook and Claire Short):

[Former Northern Ireland secretary] Mo Mowlam has called on the British and American governments to open talks with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Bear in mind, of course, that Ms. Mowlam’s former bailiwick (i.e. trying to stop the Provos and Loyalists from killing one another and returning responsible government to Ulster) is hardly a model of efficiency and good order, even today. It might also be worth bearing in mind that, to open talks with Mr. bin Laden, first we’d probably have to find him. Even the peacenik Liberal Democrats aren’t buying this lousy bill of goods:

Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell criticised Ms Mowlam’s remarks.

“What possible result would there be from sitting down with al-Qaeda?” he asked.

“Their intention is to destroy the liberal values upon which our way of life is based.

“You cannot negotiate with those whose aim is your own destruction.”

It’s nice to see good sense is alive and well in at least some quarters across the pond.

Link via Jeremy of Who Knew?