Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Audacity of Everybody Else

It is a point that's been made by historians for some time now: no country stays on top for more than three generations.

My friends, we are the third generation... And so it is natural that as we gaze out from the pinnacle of American hegemony, we see on all sides, countries conspiring and cheating to knock us from our rightful place at the top of the world.

Our gripes may take the form of our traditional party platforms, but the crux of the complaint is the same: we can't compete and it's everybody's fault but our own.

There was an editorial in the LA Times this morning, lambasting conservatives for their protectionist opposition to a Texas freeway project designed to expedite trade with Mexico. The editorial began, "The U.S. is known for its 'paranoid style' of politics, so brace yourself for the next Big Scare coming down the pike (literally)-- the Trans-Texas Corridor. Isolationist conservatives, emboldened by their jihad last year against the Dubai Ports World deal, have identified this road project as the spearhead of a conspiracy to dissolve the United States of America."

It's funny, I'll give them that. But there are just as many "paranoid" and absurdly isolationist policies coming from the Left.

The following is a quote from Sen. Bernie Sanders' website (Independent from Vermont):

"Senator Sanders is a leading opponent of our disastrous trade policies, including NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China, and others. Sanders believes that our unfettered free trade policies have largely contributed to our shrinking middle class, job loss, and the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. If the United States is to remain a major industrial power, producing real products and creating good paying jobs, Sanders believes that we must develop trade policies with Mexico, China and other countries that protect not just the CEOs of large corporations, but the working people of our country.

Over the past 6 years, due to our unfettered free trade policy, the U.S. has lost over 3 million manufacturing workers, including over 10,000 in Vermont. In 2006, we experienced a record breaking $763 billion trade deficit. The U.S. trade deficit with China alone was $232 billion, the largest-ever bilateral trade deficit with any country. Sanders believes that trade is a good thing, but it must be based on principles that are fair to American workers. The U.S. Congress can no longer allow corporate America to sell-out the middle class and move our economy abroad."

I get tickled anytime I hear Americans talk about "fair" trade policy. This is absurd. Anybody who knows anything about our trade policy for that last 60 years knows that our policies haven't exactly been "fair". We have used our mighty position in the world (justifiably at times) to dictate our terms of trade to everybody else. We've been Wal-Mart: 'If you want to do business with us, it's going to be on our terms- and it's not going to be to your advantage.'

For you patriotic naysayers out there, a good documentary to explore this principle is Life and Debt. It looks at the IMF's policies in Jamaica. Here's a quick and crude example: Jamaica was extremely cash-strapped. They needed money to invest in infrastructure of all manor and variety. Reluctantly, they went to the IMF. The IMF says, "sure, you can have some money... but you're going to need to drop all of your protective tariffs, because if you want to be a member of the global economy, free trade is the only way..."

So, long story short, the Jamaicans took the deal and dropped their protective tariffs. The net effect was that Jamaican farmers, who had been feeding their population for decades, now had to compete head to head with American farmers. It wasn't exactly a positive result for the Jamaican agriculture industry.

As you probably know, American farmers are armed with massive acreage, GPS systems, millions of dollars worth of equipment, and oh yes, billions of dollars in subsidies.

There was no way the Jamaicans were going to be able to compete. In the years since, their farms have all but shut down. Once successful potato farmers now eat Idaho spuds because there is no market for their own goods. They're too expensive!

As you might expect, the Jamaican economy was devastated. But fortunately for them, their integration into the Global Economy was there to cushion the fall. Again at the behest of the IMF, the Jamaican government established 'free trade zones' (FTZs) throughout the country. American clothing companies (among others) started taking advantage of the cheap labor and tariff-free manufacturing.

Meanwhile, some poor garment worker in North Carolina was losing his job. He started furiously writing letters to CEOs and Congressmen excoriating them for moving off-shore to the detriment of American workers. It's not fair! We can't compete! We must have protective tariffs that preserve the American apparel industry!

This is silly. Americans whining about trade policy... about how unfair China, India, and our large multi-nationals are being is just about as hypocritical as it gets. Now I'm not an outright apologist for America, and while we have certainly done things all over the world that I'm not proud of, we made the most of the situation. And now that others are doing the same, we cry foul. That's ridiculous.

The point was made especially well in The World is Flat (Thomas Friedman) by a young Indian CEO, Rajesh Rao: "Instead of complaining about outsourcing, Americans and Western Europeans would 'be better off thinking about how you can raise your bar and raise yourselves into doing something better. Americans have consistently led in innovation over the last century. Americans whining- we have never seen that before. People like me have learned a lot from Americans. We have learned to become a little more aggressive in the way we market ourselves, which is something we would not have done given our typical British background.'"

Yet this 'whining' Rajesh refers to (and not raising our own bar) seems to be the cornerstone of our future trade policy:

If only China would revalue its currency, then American companies could compete. If only our corporations were less concerned about making money and more concerned about American workers, then American jobs would be secure. If only there weren't all the 'illegals' running around, then American wages would be higher.

I'm sorry, you all can kiss my ass. If we want to be competitive, we have to compete. That's the crux of the capitalist system we have done so well with. But we're not competing. We're resting on our laurels (or our couches). And while we are watching Monday Night Football, there are a billion Chinese and Indian students rising at 5 am for another eighteen hour day of study and work. They are simply working harder than we are... and we work hard.

If we can't work harder, we better work smarter. (I better finish this up so I can run to class...)

One final thought: Tom Friedman made another great point in his book: There are 1300 "one-in-a-million" people in China. We only have 330. So basically, we better be studying harder than they are. We really can't afford to rely on protectionist trade policy to make up for our laziness. We can't afford not be hungry anymore. We can't afford to feel entitled to our prosperity. And we certainly can't afford to be appalled at the audacity of anyone else who tries to use our system to achieve some of the same prosperity we have. Simply put, we don't have time to whine because we're losing at our own game- and besides, nobody is listening anyway.

Eh, such is the plight of the third generation. It's just too bad our kids will be the fourth...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Dawdling Politicians and Failed Politicial Reconciliation

The debate has failed. The American politicians are dawdling. They will never achieve political reconciliation. This is not only humiliating to me, but it represents a long history of American hubris and hypocrisy.

As I’ve listened to both parties and the radical wings of American society that they represent, I have come to the conclusion that neither side has a firm grasp on the realities of Iraq, that both sides are cherry picking their facts, that both sides are continuing to disregard the advice of the experts, and that they are all playing with the lives of thousands of people- Americans and Iraqis- for the sake of headlines and polling points. This is shameful and it is dangerous.

Since the President started this mess in Iraq, I’ll start my criticism with him. He has chosen to overlook, or at least omit, several vital facts about Iraq. First, in his speech last night, the President chose to spin the troop draw-down as being merely a function of success in Iraq. General Patraeus was candid this week, as were the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Peter Pace. In a Pentagon briefing today, and Patraeus’ testimony this week, all three stated that the logistical considerations regarding the strain on the U.S. Armed Forces “informed, but did not determine” the recommendations the President has accepted.

Second, the President chose to remind us again, as he did in 2001, that Iraq is a direct threat to the United States. While a failed state in Iraq will indeed jeopardize national security interests, this is certainly not the whole picture. Al Qaeda is operating with impunity in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The cargo through our ports is almost entirely unchecked. The border with Canada is as wide open as it was before September 11th. There are more than a few nukes unaccounted for in the world. And all of these things need vital intelligence and financial resources that they are not getting because of Iraq.

Failing to acknowledge both the scarcity of our resources and the gains of allocating those resources elsewhere is as dishonest as it is counterproductive. It prevents us all from thinking clearly about the situation. This is unacceptable. If it were just President Bush’s security and tax dollars at stake, I could accept this omission. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Similarly, Bush’s claim that losing in Iraq will make it easier for terrorists to recruit new members is insulting. It makes me angry. I don’t ever want to hear another word from George W. Bush about what makes it easier to recruit terrorists. Abu Ghraib helps Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. Guantanamo helps Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. Our policy toward Israel helps Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. Our bases in Saudi Arabia help Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. American soldiers on Iraqi help Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. George Bush's ugly mug helps Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. Failure in Iraq is not the end-all be-all of Al Qaeda recruitment (and if it is, he should have thought about that before he invaded).

Neo-con Republicans in general, this administration in particular, and the military leadership together have individually and collectively refused to acknowledge that this war will take years to complete. This is painfully obvious to the rest of us. By refusing to acknowledge this fundamental fact, they weaken their own appeals for support and they give left-wing liberals the ammo they need to take us in an equally misguided direction.

My rating of Democrats isn’t much better. I have become as incapable of listening to Harry Reid as I am of listening to George Bush. Senator Reid’s rhetoric, shallow and unconvincing, is equally plagued by omission and chicanery.

First and foremost, he and the Democrats have glossed over (that’s generous) the reality that pulling out of an unstable Iraq will have severe effects on the Iraqi people, the region, our economy, and on our continuing relationships in the Middle East.

This is not only political suicide down the road for the Democrats (leading to another thirty years with only a pair of Democratic presidents), but it will further jeopardize the fragile semblance of stability in the world.

Of course it is going to take a long time for Iraqis to achieve a functioning democracy. And of course they aren't going to be as far along in three years as we are after two hundred and thirty (it took us a hundred years just to get rid of slavery). And the Iraqi congress did pass more legislation this year than ours did (and they did it dodging bullets and car bombs).

There is a selfish reason for Democrats to embrace this war: they're about to own it. In 491 days, there is likely to be a Democrat in the White House; at which point, it will no longer be George Bush's war. Democrats will have to figure out how to deal with Iraq and the consequences if they leave it behind.

By not informing the public now and by not fostering a realistic and meaningful debate, they are sowing the seeds for disaster (literally and figuratively) down the road. If they are to truly earn the trust and respect that the Bush administration has lost, they must think beyond themselves and beyond 2008.

This brings me to my next point. We must collectively stop shaping our opinions about Iraq solely through the framework of bashing President Bush. While there is no limit to my anger with George W. Bush, I must remind myself that this is not simply Bush’s war. It is America’s war. We put George Bush in office as a country (election fraud aside), we kept him in office as a country, and most importantly, we signed off on his war as a country.

We can complain all we want that he sold us Iraq under false pretenses- and he most certainly did- but we, and perhaps most especially the media, failed to do our own homework. There was no shortage of people telling us how this war would end up. They were writing books and articles as quickly as they could. We didn’t read them. We don’t read period. That’s not George Bush’s fault. That is our fault.

This war is not just the result of George W. Bush being a spoiled lazy child who never had to do his work, who was bailed out at every turn, who never had to listen to anybody smarter than him. This war is a result of our collectively suffering the results of the very same shortcomings.

We don’t read the newspapers. We don’t read the books. Instead, we get eighty percent our information from television news. We do it because we are lazy and we are ignorant- just as lazy and ignorant, in fact, as our President. Our inability to ask tough questions, to identify whom we should and should not listen to, and to make good decisions is substantively no different from Dubya’s.

We never should have gotten into Iraq; no doubt. I think it highly unlikely that a political solution will emerge in the next three years. But we are there. And ne cannot now, nor should we ever, make decisions about the future because we regret the past. We cannot, in other words, make future decisions based on sunk costs.

We cannot make decisions for the same kind of ignorant, misguided, self-interested, and political reasons that got us into Iraq in the first place. If we leave Iraq to the Iranians, we will suffer. I don’t believe that another plane will fly into another building because we leave Iraq behind. But I do believe that our children will grow up in a less stable (and more nuclear) world because we didn’t make it work in Iraq. This may be inevitable, but we have to stop pretending that this isn’t a cause worthy of sacrifice- it is. George Bush may have sullied this notion by his very association with it, but we simply cannot allow Iraq to go up for grabs.

The gravity of the consequences in Iraq are not simply viable because they give us darts to throw at the President, they are viable because they are relevant. Invoking them only to criticize the President’s willful stupidity in the past, and not to make better decisions about the future is as foolish as getting into Iraq in the first place was. Choosing to ignore the realities on the ground because they are not politically or logistically convenient is dangerous- regardless of your attitude about little neo-con schmucks.

This is why I have come to resent the self-serving interests of Congressmen and women trying to legislate this war from the Capitol. While I have zero faith in George Bush, ZERO, I have all the faith in the world in the Constitution. There is one Commander-in-Chief for a reason. We screwed up and picked the wrong Commander-in-Chief- no doubt. But the best way to deal with that is not to attempt to force his hand for political gain, but to spend time raising awareness and making suggestions that will help us succeed or at least mitigate damage down the road.

Case in point, as Senator Biden pointed out on Meet the Press this past Sunday, we have to fund -TODAY- the specially designed vehicles that deflect the explosive blasts from IEDs. In my opinion, not another word should be uttered on Iraq, and not another dollar spent on anything else, until every single one of our vehicles in Iraq has been replaced.

Furthermore, we could be vocal about things like: the fact that Coalition Forces occupying Saddam’s former palaces sends the wrong message to the Iraqi people. Or, we could be more vocal about politicians falling to lobbyist pressure coming from former interim-prime minister Allawi and his self-serving campaign to undermine Maliki.

These are perhaps some things that we could do to affect change and make our chances of success in Iraq better. However slight that difference may be, it is more helpful than jumping up and down screaming we’re losing and our military is weak.

I assure you, if we are aware of the military’s weaknesses, so too are the Joint Chiefs. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out today in a Pentagon press briefing, saying we are ‘tapped out’, when in fact we aren’t, sends entirely the wrong message to our adversaries elsewhere around the world.

There are two million people in the military. We are stretched thin in Iraq because we are maintaining forces elsewhere (Korea, Croatia, etc) to maintain readiness around the globe. If China thinks we are tapped out, they may get the idea that they can go after Taiwan. North Korea might get the wrong idea and start its adventures again. And Russia, for instance, is already flying sorties into Norwegian airspace.

This rhetoric is not helpful for anybody.

Think about it from a management standpoint. We have forty-six brigades available. Twenty-three are active at a time. Managing them closely and carefully is extremely complicated. Making sure that individuals are getting enough time at home and not exceeding the mandated maximum tours is extremely complicated.

Congress is constantly writing legislation that will make that job even tougher. As Secretary Gates and General Peter Pace pointed out, managing the movements of units and individuals in and out of two combat theaters is extremely complicated. We don’t do our service personnel any favors by imposing added criteria onto the decision and plan making processes of our military leaders.

And moreover, we must stop second-guessing those leaders. We are stuck in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Democrats can’t come up with the sixty votes necessary to block a filibuster- let alone the sixty-seven needed to overcome a veto. This posturing is a losing strategy that is taking vital attention and resources away from more important business. It too should not be an open-ended commitment.

And what exactly do the Democrats want from Patraeus? When military officials have made predictions in the past, they have been crucified for it. Attacking Patraeus for not forecasting more than six months into the future is counterproductive and it’s hypocritical. If the military’s projections are positive, then they are liars. If their projections are reserved, then they are evasive. Democrats refuse to acknowledge anything positive about this war because it implicitly means they are acknowledging something positive about President Bush’s war. They refuse anything short of ‘it’s hopeless, we should quit today.’

I truly believe that the people in charge don’t think it's hopeless. But they don’t make guarantees about success either. They know it's a long shot. But in Gen. Peter Pace’s words, “as long as Iraqis love their children more than they hate their enemies, there’s an opportunity.”

Given the gravity of the situation, and some fortunate security gains, that’s good enough for me- for six more months.

And furthermore, as Secretary Gates pointed out, “when [he] was in the intelligence business, [they] divided things they wanted to know into two categories: secrets and mysteries- the things that were knowable and the things that were not. The situation on the ground next July is a mystery”, not a secret.

While I am skeptical that a successful counterinsurgency will take anything less than the historical ten year average, I do believe, in my heart of hearts, that it is worth more time. It is worth our best effort. I believe that a new president can heal the relationships with our allies in Europe and elsewhere, and that he or she can rally support for the cause. If Iraq collapses, make no mistake, we and the rest of the world will have to go back. And when we do, Iran, al Qaeda, and others will still be there waiting.

Furthermore, and this is the most important thing for me, I believe that we have the very best leaders making decisions in Iraq- from the Secretary of Defense on down. I believe it because I’ve listened to them speak unscripted and unrehearsed on C-SPAN and elsewhere. They are not George Bush. They got to where they are based on merit. Keep in mind I am a skeptical person by nature, a true contrarian at heart, but I do not doubt their intentions, their integrity, or their capabilities- not for a minute.

And in the end, if we can’t force George Bush to get us out of Iraq now, and I’m not sure we should anyway, we certainly should not spend our energy undermining the efforts of the military. We should focus on fixing the other security problems we still face. If we invested half our anti-war energy into pro-New Orleans energy, pro-education energy, or pro-humanitarian energy, the lives of millions of people would be better.

This is all a long way of saying, what’s done is done- now we have to make the most of it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

When Do The Iraqi People Appear Before Congress?

This appeared on the today. Assuming the Brookings Institution data is reliable, this is an extremely important and overlooked trend:

"In February 2004, nearly 80% of Iraqis wanted a unified country. By March this year, only 58% were in favor."

In all of the discussion about the future of Iraq, we assume that the goal is to keep the country unified. It seems more and more Iraqis no longer share the same goal. This is at once discouraging (given our regional security concerns), but at the same time, it does begin to reveal a likely outcome (and I strain to say a 'solution').

Any amount of predictability is surely an asset at this point.

It seems clear that whatever our American military strategy, we will never have enough troops to secure the country and to affect change through military means. And so, we must ask, what will determine the outcome in Iraq?

Ultimately, I think, it is up to the international community as stakeholders, and more importantly the Iraqi people (the biggest stakeholders) to determine the future of Iraq. Beyond the surge, our efforts alone will not change the course of history.

As I see it, there are two things that ultimately will make this determination:

Oil... and the will of the people.

Oil, which everybody seems to have stopped discussing at the macro level (perhaps because it is taboo), is of the utmost importance for two reasons. One, it is central to political deliberation within Iraq. And two, because it is one of the few things about Iraq that achieves nearly unanimous agreement in the international community.

There was broad international support for the first Gulf War, not especially because of the human rights and state sovereignty violations, but because everybody agreed that Saddam Hussein could not have sole control over Iraq and Kuwait's oil reserves (3rd and 4th largest reserves respectively).

I don't believe it is a 'conspiracy theory' to say that the international community is supremely reluctant to give a dictator so much leverage in international affairs. Furthermore, while it was not the reason we got into Iraq the second time, breaking our dependence on Saudi Arabia was certainly a reason.

I don't think the UN will ever allow Iraq to fall into the hands of Iran or Syria in the long term. The international community will, however, continue to enjoy watching America reap what it has sowed in the short term.

As for the will of the people, I'm not sure we've thought clearly enough on this. Our short term goal is to provide enough security that Iraqi politicians can achieve some kind of national conciliation. But does that mean conciliation through national unity or autonomous states?

For Iraqi politicians, voting the wrong way can mean having one's family murdered. In this sense, Iraqi politicians are acutely aware of the 'will of the people'. It is tough to gauge the will of the people from a distance, but it seems obvious that, at a fundamental level, the people of Iraq, including the politicians, are not enjoying this day-to-day reality.

As Americans, we are fixated on our own involvement, our own efforts, our own concerns, and our own long term interests. I hear politicians every day say, "we cannot afford to lose in Iraq because it will embolden our enemies- it will make us less safe." That's fine. And that makes sense. But we must understand that Iraqi citizens should not, and I would assume do not, give a rat's fiddle about why we "cannot afford to lose in Iraq".

Politicians in Iraq are concerned about getting as much power as possible. Civilians, I would imagine, are concerned about surviving as much as possible. If both of these concerns lead Iraqis to believe that they would be better off with regional or independent states, all of the Petraeus testimony, funding bills, think-tank panel discussions, and op-ed pieces wont mean a thing.

If they perceive that the quickest end to the violence is not through national unity but through partitioning the country, then that is what they will do. I'm not sure we could or should prevent that.

We spend a great deal of time asking each whether our efforts in Iraq are yielding results, whether those results are worth the commitment, whether we can 'win' or not, and a dozen other questions. What is less clear, as one astute Associated Press reporter asked Senator Lindsey Graham last week, "what is our goal beyond securing Baghdad- securing Iraq? What long-term outcome are we looking for?"

If we are in Iraq to provide an environment that will yield national unity, and the Iraqi people aren't interested in national unity, then we should take pause and seriously reevaluate the long term goals- particularly how our long term goals may differ from those of whom we are waiting on for progress.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

No Bureaucracy Left Behind

There was another important public service announcement from the media last week, lambasting the Bush administration’s failed No Child Left Behind law. Susan Goodkin and David G. Gold wrote a column entitled, “The Gifted Children Left Behind”. While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment and much of the substance of their argument, I take serious issue with one specific part of it:

“Perhaps if more policymakers sent their children to public schools they would address these unintended but disastrous consequences of No Child. Rather than trying to rectify this situation, however, many politicians advocate a voucher program that would only encourage more parents to desert public education.”

The writers have obviously overlooked that these politicians (and anybody else who believes in school vouchers) are trying to rectify the situation. I was under the impression that this kind of rhetorical chicanery was the exclusive purview of the Republicans. Goodkin and Gold have tried to use a massive logical fallacy to defend the system- one that only makes sense if you breeze by it.

They also commit a second egregious fallacy. They confuse the effects of No Child Left Behind with the reason it was implemented in the first place. They make it sound as if gifted children weren't being bored out of their minds before (trust me, they were) and that it is this stinking law that is to blame.

Then they continue:

"Some politicians justify vouchers with the Orwellian claim that taking money from public schools to pay private tuition will improve the public schools by forcing them to compete for students. This claim is absurd given the uneven playing field between public and private schools."

"Most obviously, private schools can reject any student who would require extra time from teachers. Thus it is left to public schools to handle children with behavior problems or severe learning impairments, and non-English speakers. Until private schools receiving vouchers are required to accept all applicants, vouchers simply allow them to cherry-pick public school students, giving them an insurmountable competitive edge."

"Orwellian"?! "Absurd"!? In my opinion, this rhetorical maneuvering is not only offensive, but it betrays the weakness of their argument. Why aren't we trying to expand the number of schools with an "insurmountable competitive advantage"? Why do we insist on conflating defense of the public school system with defense of children's education? They aren't the same thing.

As for the "cherry picking" concern, if there is public money available from students with behavior problems, severe learning impairments, and non-English speakers, then trust me, somebody will start a school to capitalize on that money. Goodkin and Gold act as if there won't be an increase in the number of private schools when there are suddenly billions of dollars to be made. That is Orwellian and absurd.

To put it bluntly, if your only argument against vouchers is that you think we should protect our non-functioning public school system (the single greatest threat to national security), then you need to reexamine your position... and your priorities.

My feeling on the matter is clearly not a popular one. I do think parents should desert the public school system. Or I think they should at least have the right to. Parents' allegiance is to their children, not the system or the teacher's union. And that is something I feel incredibly strongly about.

It is my fervent belief that the only hope of ensuring a brighter future for our children is to introduce accountability into the school system- ironically, the very thing the failed No Child Left Behind law was attempting to do.

The problem with the law it that it tries to fix the bureaucracy by adding more layers of bureaucracy to it. It didn't remove the bureaucracy from the system. And that's what needs to happen.

What's worse is that No Child's instrument of choice was more standardized tests. Anybody who thinks that more standardized tests will fix the schools hasn't been a student recently enough.

You cannot measure curiosity with a standardized test. You cannot measure a love of learning with a standardized test. Curiosity and a love of learning are more fundamental than arithmetics and spelling, because without this passion, students won't teach themselves for the rest of their lives. They won't tackle the big problems.

And it seems obvious to me that the only way to get kids excited about learning is to put their needs first.

But the public school system doesn't put kids' needs first. It puts its own needs first. It is simply trying to survive. No one can blame the stewards of the system for that- it's their livelihood. But we shouldn't let bureaucratic subsistence guide the future of education either.

Truly fixing the schools, and not simply maintaining the system, requires a new kind of accountability- one better suited for parents and students to gauge for themselves.

The strongest argument against giving parents this choice is that public schools will lose out because they can't compete.

Of course they will lose out. And of course they can't compete. That's the whole point. We should sacrifice thousands of kids' educations because we feel sorry for the schools!?

My goal is not to guarantee the future of the public schools- that's the goal of the teacher's union and the administrators. My goal is to guarantee that kids have the right to a decent education and not simply to decent day care.

The schools are there to serve the students, not the other way around. As such, before we are concerned about being fair to the schools, we need to make sure that we are being fair to the students.

And until opponents of vouchers can come up with a better argument, I will continue to hold them and the system they defend as being utterly contemptuous of the needs of children.

*To be sure, there are serious concerns that people have about the risks associated with privatizing education through vouchers. These concerns are legitimate and deserve to be addressed. For the sake of my readers, I will take those up tomorrow.

A Sad Day

In the New York Times last Wednesday, an innocuous article burried on page 6 caught my eye: “Colonel is Acquitted in Abu Ghraib Case”. As I understand it, Col. Steven L. Jordan was the only person facing a court-martial in the Abu Ghraib ‘incident’, and that this case was essentially the last time the courts were going to have a chance to hold somebody accountable. And while there seem to be a number of excellent arguments of why that somebody should not have been Col. Jordan (instead of somebody right at the top of the military food chain), I would have settled for anything.

The Times explained that, accoriding to his lawyer, “he served as a manager of sorts at the prison, focused on making living and working conditions at Abu Ghraib, a notorious complex that Saddam Hussein’s government had used to torture its enemies, as accommodating as possible.” As such, he is not responsible whatsoever for keeping his subordinates from committing human rights abuses.

This is unacceptable.

They didn’t convict anybody! Not a single soul could be identified as being responsible for breaking military laws in this case. Well, let me rephrase that. The soldier in question was convicted of talking about the case. And the soldiers at the bottom paid a price.

But the only person in charge to be charged was not found responsible for anything except gossiping. The brass had apparently told him not to discuss the case… he did.

I don’t know what Col. Jordan said that the pictures didn’t… apparently enough to potentially land him in jail for five years.

He’s in enough trouble to demonstrate that failing to follow orders is still a punishable offense. I just don’t understand why failing to follow the Geneva Convention is a less significant offense- how he (and every other warm body in the chain of command) wasn’t implicitly or explicitly failing to follow orders. And if the orders specifically allowed for this sort of behavior, somebody needs to explain to me why heads haven’t rolled from the very top.

I appreciate the troops more than words can express. I deeply respect the military as an institution. But I feel that both have been dishonored, discredited, and disserved by this. I have always raised a skeptical eye when liberals have called for President Bush’s impeachment. I think that is a silly suggestion- one that would do more harm than good.

But in this case, I feel that the decisions made are tantamount to treason and somebody needs to face that. The past abuses at Abu Ghraib and the continuing abuses at Guantanamo so far offset any gains we have made in gathering intelligence, that they should be dealt with in the severest manner.

I would gladly give up my life in a terrorist attack if it meant that I never had to wake up realizing that I no longer loved my country- that everything I have ever known about what it means to be an American was no longer relevant.

The attacks of September 11th were despicable. Friends lost family members. I am still angry. And I am still scared.

But what’s worse, what really makes me angry, is that I don’t love this country anymore. Everything I have ever known about what it means to be an American is no longer valid.

I will always support the troops. I will continue to thank them every time I see them. But the goose-bumps don’t come anymore when I hear the National Anthem. I am no longer thankful that I was born in this great land.

What's more, I think twice before writing these words for fear an NSA computer will read them and put me on a list.

I am profoundly less safe because of that.

Abu Ghraib has done more to undermine the efforts of our troops, aid workers, intelligence officers, journalists, and parents than any terrorist ever could- not only because tempers have been stoked, because recruiting terrorists is easier, or because our allies have even less reason to come to our aid, but because we are no longer defending a solid sense of self.

When we lose our identity and the values that make us who we are, then there is no America left to protect- just malls and subways and federal buildings.

If the actions that are responsible for this aren’t treasonous, I don’t know what is.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Cheney in 1994 on Iraq

Did he actually use the word "quagmire"?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Simple, It Isn't

In the ebb and flow of Darfur coverage, it is beyond refreshing to see some real analysis instead of what too often is the ‘Hollywood’ version of the conflict- that is to say, simply Darfur versus the bad guys. This morning in the Washington Post, Alex de Waal and Julie Flint wrote a piece that gets at the heart of the issue: “Simple, it isn’t.”

In researching for a documentary about Sudan over a year ago, I realized quickly that most of my conceptions about Sudan were misconceptions, and that until I could better understand the issue, anything I said would likely do more harm than good. It was easy to see, for instance, that the people of Darfur were suffering, that the government in Khartoum was largely to blame, and that the world, perhaps because of China ,was unable to do anything about it. Alas, clearly there was a great deal more at work.

The most fundamental misconception I had, was that the conflict was two-sided, good versus evil, and that the main problem was that the world was not paying enough attention to the conflict.

As I quickly realized, the conflict in Darfur was but one piece in a deadly and complicated house of cards- one whose history goes back half a century (or far longer, depending).

For simplicity’s sake, I started to think about Sudan as North, South, East, and West, with each region having a handful of groups whose aims overlap, contradict, and often oppose one another, even when the overarching goal is the same. Each of these relationships and conflicts is integral to the solution and dissolution of the others. Furthermore, every side, including the rebels in Darfur and in the South have committed atrocities of their own.

And so Darfur, in other words, both aggravates, and is aggravated by, the situation in the rest of the country. This is extremely important to keep in mind- something the media rarely bothers to do.

Darfur, it seems, receives 92.7% of the coverage, but is only one small, albeit tragic, part of the overall conflict. The war(s) between the North and South have been going on and off for decades. The people of Southern Sudan have faced much of the same brutality and suffering, for decades, that Darfurians have felt acutely for 5-10 years.

Some time ago, the SPLM (Govt of the South) struck a peace deal (the CPA) with the Northern government in Khartoum. This fragile treaty, to varying degrees over time, has teetered on collapse. If it does collapse, then all of Sudan, perhaps most especially Darfur, is at risk of turning once again into a wholesale bloodbath. This, as I see it, should be the primary concern of the international media- not simply highlighting the current atrocities to the exclusion of everything else.

While Darfur is a tragedy of epic proportions, the media (and advocacy groups) must realize that the way they cover Sudan (and don’t cover Sudan) can have effects that are contrary to the goals of the humanitarian community.

The way most people on the ground see it, at least at the most basic level, is that the bad guys in Khartoum have used a ‘divide and conquer’ tactic, quite successfully, for years and years. There is one simple reason for this: they are comprised of a small elite- keeping the anti-government groups fighting amongst themselves is the only was to keep themselves in power. If the various groups, in Darfur, in the East, in the South, and indeed even parts of the marginalized North were to band together, the government would not stand a chance.

Why has this not happened? There are 600 reasons why. One or two of which, the media and advocacy groups have contributed to. The people of the South, who have been persecuted for decades (and face the constant threat of continued persecution), look at the attention the world has lavished on Darfur and say, “Wait a minute. We’ve been suffering for years. Thousands of us died trying to be free and nobody ever cared. Why is everybody all of a sudden paying attention to Darfur?”

Right or wrong, this has a divisive effect. Millions of people were killed over the course of decade plus- long civil wars. The suffering was immense and still holds today. Perhaps the best thing that can be done, and it may well be too late, is for the international community to start taking a holistic view of Sudan, because this is the most important thing for continued ‘peace’ in the country.

This is why I believe that the Washington Post piece this morning is so necessary. Sudan isn’t simple, and the media seem to neglect this. The most important question, and hands down the most difficult to answer, is ‘what the hell is going on?’ It certainly isn’t as simple as Darfur versus the bad guys versus the uncaring world, and yet, if you listen to the advocacy groups and the occasional Nicholas Kristof column (well intentioned though they clearly are), this is mostly what you get. I realized the extent of the problem very quickly. Whenever I would mention that I was making a documentary about Sudan, people would immediately say, "Oh, about Darfur? That's cool." The whole point of the documentary was to address everything outside of Darfur. The world already knows about Darfur. They do not yet know about Abyei.

The situation in Sudan is nearly impossible to comprehend, even on the ground. It shifts and changes daily, as alliances and feuds shift and change daily. And this is where the real work takes place. UN troops and envoys are important, but one must not confuse this with a solution, it merely buys time for a solution. It mitigates the damage from the conflict, it does not solve the conflict. We must remember that troops cannot be called ‘peace keepers’ when there is no real peace to keep.

Neglecting the realities on the ground, as say President Bush has done elsewhere, will yield disastrous results. The groups who chant, "Out of Iraq-Into Darfur!" are dangerously wrong. People’s lives are at stake. This is more important than you and I feeling like we’re doing something to help. If we don’t know what we’re doing, best not to demand a specific course of action; better to spend that time and energy reading and talking to people who do know, first.

If political reconciliation across Sudan cannot be reached and cannot be maintained, then the situation in Darfur, already horrific, will degenerate much, much further. With millions of lives hanging in the balance, we need to check our tendency toward sensationalism and stop aggravating the situation by failing to account for its many stakeholders. The most important thing, and it’s well overdue, is to try to observe, understand, and most importantly, respect the complexities at work...

My thanks to Alex de Waal, Julie Flint, and the Washington Post for doing just that.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Circling Wagons / Circling Vultures

A little flour was sprinkled into the Iraq mess this week and the plot got thicker. It seems Nouri al-Maliki's future is getting more and more uncertain. Senator Levin returned from his trip to the 'battlespace' and immediately called for Maliki's replacement.

President Bush then shocked the world by implying that his faith was a little shaken. Bush suggested that if the Iraqi people are unhappy, then they will replace him (that's the generous version). Then he doubled back the very next day saying, "He's a good guy- a good man!- with a tough job and I support him." (Colby King, of the Washington Post, likened the President's comments to "you're doing a heckuva job, Brownie.")

In addition, the recent National Intelligence Report was more than a little pessimistic about the current Iraqi government. And Charles Krauthammer, one of the most influential conservative commentators, also bashed him this week.

What happened? Just a year ago, President Bush was presenting Maliki to the world in the most encouraging terms: "he's the man for the job and I trust him."

What's changed?

Glenn Greenwald (bestselling author and columnist at has a theory. Greenwald, in a piece he published Friday, cited CNN in what he described as a "solid piece of reporting". CNN reported:

"A powerhouse Republican lobbying firm with close ties to the White House has begun a public campaign to undermine the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, CNN has confirmed. . . .

"A senior Bush administration official told CNN the White House is aware of the lobbying campaign by Barbour Griffith & Rogers because the firm is "blasting e-mails all over town" criticizing al-Maliki and promoting the firm's client, former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as an alternative to the current Iraqi leader. . . ."

The focus of the Greenwald piece, and it's a brilliant one, was on Philip Zelikow, former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and senior adviser to the lobbying firm in question- specifically his appearing on ABC being critical of al-Maliki without disclosing BG&R's relationship to Allawi.

Zelikow disputed having any relationship, direct or indirect, with Allawi. His alibi, as it were, was solid but still smelled distinctly of fish.

Where this all gets really interesting though, is looking back at Allawi's relationship with the United States.

The relationship goes back to at least 1994 when the CIA was planning a coup to overthrow Saddam Hussein. According to a May 16th, 2003 column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, British officials apparently suggested that the CIA contact Allawi for assistance in the coup. And the relationship with the U.S. has continued right up until today. As CNN's Michael Weir described him on Late Edition, "he's a stalwart for American support".

So what to make of all this?

I think I've teed myself up enough here...

With all of the recent and long-standing comparisons to Vietnam, one in particular jumps out at me. I seem to remember learning about a succession of leaders that we (the CIA mostly) installed and removed in South Vietnam in hopes of finding one who could save the day... we never did.

And while the war in Iraq is sufficiently different to call into question comparisons with Vietnam (particularly the President's comparison), I can't help but wonder if we are yet again failing to learn from our own mistakes.

David Patraeus is likely to report in two weeks that the surge is yielding positive results militarily (which is true) but the political progress has been less than promising (which is also true). And while everybody is fumbling around with a plethora of bad options, Republicans and Democrats seem to be taking the opportunity to go on an intellectual vacation.

I'm no expert, but I just can't see how replacing al-Maliki with anybody, especially a "stalwart of American support" (well qualified though he may be), is going to change the fundamentals in Iraq. Maliki may be a problem, but he is not the problem.

As NBC correspondent Richard Engel rightly observed this morning on Meet the Press, "we cant just move the chess pieces around, we've got to change the game."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

NRA Diplomacy

This morning, David Ignatius of the Washington Post offered up an insight into what he calls a, "subtle but important shift in strategy for the Middle East". This 'shift', as he puts it, is characterized by the recent arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel in what will be the "cornerstone" of our policy in the region- a "military-political alliance with the dominant Sunni powers--especially Saudi Arabia."

The idea, of course, is to challenge Iran's growing power and ambition in the new paradigm of chaos. According to an unnamed State Department official Mr. Ignatius talked to, "The message to Iran is, 'We're still powerful, we protect our friends, we're not going away' ". In addition to sending that message, we are trying to continue stripping the non-radical majority away from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And by continuing to step up pressure, we are fairly certain we can do that.

I have all the respect in the world for Mr. Ignatius. He's been at this a long, long time. He is plugged in, he talks to the right people, and he knows his stuff. So, in deference to him, I'll frame my doubts in the form of an honest question or two.

Is selling billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia (and even more to Israel) either 'subtle' or a 'shift'? And will it really achieve the intended result?

Iran knows exactly how powerful we are and exactly how powerful we aren't. They know we could topple their government just as easily as we toppled Saddam's, but they also know we're not going to do that. So why the posturing- on our part and theirs (other than it's just how the game is played)? This is an honest question- not a rhetorical one.

As I understand it, Iran has got some pretty heavy duty economic issues that are likely to cause increasing strain for the government. Their growing middle class is consuming so much subsidized energy, that they're running out of crude to export. They will need foreign capital, technology, and expertise to boost current production and to exploit remaining reserves.

For this and other reasons, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has his hands full maintaining power and influence. The sanctions seem to be slowly but significantly taking a toll on the Iranian people's patience. Why would arming his adversaries serve as anything other than a rallying cry for the regime? Again, honest question.

This whole message we're trying to send: "we're powerful, we protect our friends, we're not going away"... will the Iranians really believe that? Does anyone believe that? Do we believe that?

I understand that there needs to be a counterweight to Iran. But perhaps that should be the rational Iranian public and not a bunch of shiny new Israeli bombs. And for that matter, what is the logic behind giving Israel even more bombs, and then asking the Palestinians to sit down and have peace talks (which is also supposed to put pressure on Iran)? I don't understand why this would do anything but encourage an arms race, which is exactly what we're trying to avoid in the first place, by keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

It's important to have allies, and it's particularly important to have Sunni allies. But if we believe so much in democracy- and I'm not just talking about nation-building neo-con belief in democracy- why are we so completely terrified to let it run its course?

Why, when we have proven ourselves so inept at meddling in other regions' affairs, when we have been an incorrigible control freak on every single continent for half a century, why don't we just let the Iranian people work it out? Why don't we keep just the sanctions in place (which the entire world minus Chavez supports) and get back to more important long-view business?

For example, we could've been building a whole lot of hybrids and investing in much-needed mass transit improvements and providing incentives for cleaner industry with the money we've spent in Iraq. And the billions we (actually defense contractors) got for the most recent sale could've done a little more.

Because, at the end of the day, if we really want to hurt the oil rich regimes we don't like (and to distance ourselves from the oil rich regimes we have to like), we shouldn't put more guns in the region... we should stop buying their oil.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The 'Central' War on Terrorism

I spend an inappropriate amount of my life listening to C-SPAN. But gems like these make it worth it...

Last night, at a town hall meeting for Americans Against Escalation In Iraq, Rand Beers, former counter-terrorism adviser to the President, gave the most lucid and succinct explanation of the situation in Iraq and what we need to do about it that I've ever heard:

(Quoted in its entirety)

“There is a multi-sided civil war going on, of which, Al Qaeda is but one participant in that violence.

The President often says that ‘this is the central front in the war on terrorism.’ I fundamentally disagree with that conclusion. And in my last job, for those of you who don’t know, I was special assistant to the president- this president- for combating terrorism. And it was clear to me then, and it’s become even more clear to me now, that Al Qaeda was not in Iraq, is only there now because we are there, and is there in a fundamental strategic choice to fight us there, so that we can’t fight them where they are, which is in Pakistan.

Think for a minute... If you were in Pakistan, and you aren’t all that strong, why wouldn’t you want to have the United States diverted to another conflict- that you didn’t even have to fight by yourself- that other people willingly joined in pinning down the United States- in a struggle that sapped our people, our attention, our resources, so that we couldn’t concentrate on Al Qaeda, and dealing with a real threat to the United States that exists and is centered in Pakistan?

The London Bombings were run out of Pakistan. The effort to blow up airplanes crossing the Atlantic was centered in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda in Iraq would be extremely unlikely to get to the United States. The people who will come to the United States who are Al Qaeda, will come with passports from Western Europe, without being required to have a visa. If they’re coming from the Middle East, our visa system, to the extent that it works, and it does work reasonable well, is not gonna allow those people to come into the country.

Where are they gonna go? They’re gonna go to North Africa or they’re gonna go to other places around the Middle East, but they’re not coming to the United States.

Al Qaeda in Pakistan is what we ought to be worrying about. And the larger struggle against Al Qaeda and the Al Qaeda movement, is what is most threatening to the United States. And I find myself feeling that, while we’re bogged down in Iraq, we are unable, in fact, to deal effectively with who is, in fact, our real enemy.

But Congressman Davis put his finger on the problem, though. Because it’s all well and good to say, ‘I’m opposed to the war.’ It’s all well and good to say that, ‘it’s a tragic mistake.’ The issue is how to responsibly redeploy from Iraq. And I think that is really where we all have to try to bring our effort. It’s a situation of withdrawing from Iraq because we can’t be more committed to Iraq than Iraqis. But it’s to do it in a fashion that will minimize the damage and maximize the prospects for some kind of enduring stability.

Congressman Davis mentioned the Iraq Study Group. A number of other groups have all endorsed the notion that we have to talk to the neighbors. We have to talk to Syria and Iran and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Kuwait. [clapping].

They offer the opportunity…if we can’t stop the violence in Iraq, at least to contain it. And if we can’t talk to them, then we don’t have any chance of reducing the violence that’s in Iraq- whether we stay or leave.

It’s that critical to begin that dialogue in a way that brings people to the table instead of push[ing] them away as we, in this Administration, have often done.

So I leave with that thought, that we need to find a way to look at the broader framework, outside of Iraq, and create the stability that we’re all looking for with other people who are in the region, with the United Nations, with our allies in Western Europe and elsewhere around the world- in order to mitigate against the worst possible outcomes that the President is often reminding us are going to happen if we withdraw.

They will happen if we don’t work in the broader context. But we have to begin the withdrawal in order to enable the ability to talk to any of the neighbors in any any successful fashion... Thank you.”

It is amazing to me, although perhaps not surprising, that the most clear understanding of our misguided policies come from disenchanted, former officials in the Bush Administration. I wish speeches like this got more press than they do.

Please give C-SPAN radio a chance...

Net Neutrality

As I was trolling the internet late last night, looking for sleep, I happened upon the Bill Moyer's Journal blog. Front and center was a poll asking readers how they felt about net neutrality. (If you're not familiar with the term, please, please, please click this link and learn about it. It is hands down, bar none, the single most important issue you don't yet know about.)

After answering the poll, I posted a comment on the PBS web site, which I've expanded here:

I took a class recently called, "TV Industry and Policy". I was surprised to find that the whole first third of the class was dedicated to the birth and development of American radio. The professor's reasoning was that it would be impossible to understand the form that television took in the U.S. (as compared to most other countries) without understanding its regulatory/commercial roots in radio.

What does this have to do with net neutrality?

Well, in the early days of radio, virtually everything was experimental. Everything was point-to-point, 'user-generated' content. Individuals were innovating daily, finding out just how far the new technology could be pushed. They were using homemade transmitters and receivers, which they fashioned out of coffee cans and bits of copper wire.

One could liken the level of excitement and anticipation to how we feel about the potential of the internet.

In the beginning, the airwaves were filled with content as diverse as the American people. Everyday citizens were sending out glorious sound through the air from small towns and big cities all over the country. Commentary, news, entertainment, and just plain old chatting ruled the day.

But before long, a bright young man named David Sarnoff (future head of RCA) realized that if a company could broadcast from a single location out to everybody else, they could make a bundle of money (and wield enormous power) in the process.

RCA, at the time, was primarily interested in selling radio receivers- they wanted to replace all of the coffee cans with their own models. But they needed to figure out how to consolidate the industry first.

RCA lobbied Congress hard (quite successfully as it turns out). Their argument was that space on the airwaves was limited. Interference and chaos were becoming a problem and order needed to be established.

The answer to this problem was simple: The government would allocate space on the spectrum using the careful distribution of licenses.

The only problem was, on what basis should licenses be granted? The answer, everyone agreed, was that licenses should be granted on the basis of an individual's or organization's ability to "provide for the public good". The ability to ensure both 'quality' of content and 'social benefit' was the rubric they would use.

It was clear that individuals could not be trusted with the responsibility of maintaining such lofty ideals. Even educational institutions such as universities were questionable.

RCA, on the other hand, was the perfect candidate (at least according to their lobbyists). And so the first network was born: the National Broadcasting Company.

Long story short, virtually all of the individual users who were generating content ended up getting shut down. Educational institutions and religious groups found that their broadcasts had no place whatsoever in the new paradigm.

Almost overnight, all of those individual voices were silenced. And one booming voice took their place.

Out of RCA came NBC. And out of NBC came ABC and CBS.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It took a almost half a century before public broadcasting found its place. Everything we know about television today (how limited and silly it is) was determined by 1930s, long before the first televisions entered American homes.

Why? Because limited and silly appeals to the broadest number of people- the lowest common denominator. This was what the FCC determined when it set out to define, "quality" and "public good". It just so happened that advertisers, network execs, and the FCC were all on the same page about this.

(This is in stark contrast to television in virtually every other country on the planet.)

The FCC has always been in the pocket of the Networks... and Congress just the same.

Sure there have been notable exceptions, but the overwhelming fact is that the "public good", in the eyes of those who represent us, has virtually always been determined by memos written by the industry- particu;arly since the '80s. They actually write the regulations that govern them. I'm not exaggerating- they literally write some of the legislation passed in the Congress and used by the FCC.

And now, as the Internet has been hoisted upon the chopping block, it is again to the FCC and Congress that the telephone, cable, and media conglomerates are now appealing.

As I understand it, Congress has to actively pass legislation to stop the conglomerates from conglomerating the internet. If they're not outspoken (meaning the public is not outspoken) the big companies will roll right over them. They can do what they want with it. After all, as they are quick to remind us, they laid the wires.

And so the bottom line is: If you ever find yourself wishing for a little more variety than than the mainstream media provides, if you ever wanted a little more NewsHour and a little less Situation Room, you would do well to keep a close eye on the Verizons and Viacoms involved in this debate.

Because somebody stands to gain an awful lot by consolidating the internet...I'm just not sure it's you and I.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Soiled Soybeans

I fear it has already begun. The downward spiral of tit-for-tat between China and the United States is starting to enter full swing. After product scares in the U.S. involving pet food, toothpaste, farmed fish, tires, toys, kids' jewelry, and ceramic heaters, the Chinese government has officially fired back.

Last month, after executing Zheng Xiaoyu (head of China's State FDA), Chinese officials felt they could do little more to head off the problem. The natural next move was to start pointing out shoddy merchandise coming from American shores.

According to a BBC World News article published on July 14th, the Chinese government suspended US meat imports citing, "salmonella and growth enhancers" as the primary concern.

And then again today, Chinese authorities announced that suspicious American soy beans had infiltrated their country. While it was unclear what the authorities wanted their US counterparts to do exactly (the problem was "weeds and contaminated dirt"), they have certainly taken aim at a sensitive area of U.S.-China trade relations.

From the Chinese perspective, going after the little green devils makes sense. As a Washington Post article today observed, "[soy] beans are the biggest single U.S. farm export to China, which has bought billions of dollars worth since the current market year began in September."

What effect this food-borne battle will have is unclear. But lurking behind the headlines is a certain significance:

In a masterful book entitled China: The Balance Sheet, writers from The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics explain, succinctly and powerfully, just how significant China's rise will be to the future balance of power in the world (and what we should and should not do about it).

Basically, given China's growing weight, it is exceedingly important that we learn to cooperate going forward.

As they put it, "Four fundamental conclusions for U.S. policy emerge...First, China clearly represents both an opportunity and threat to the United States in economic and security terms.

"Second, the extent to which China becomes either an opportunity or a challenge is not predetermined but will depend greatly on the policy choices and internal dynamics of China and the United States in coming years.

"Third, while U.S. influence over China should not be overstated, U.S. policy can play a role, for good or ill, in shaping the decisions China makes about its future.

"Finally, therefore, while a responsible strategic approach toward China must include preparation of U.S. domestic , foreign, and defense policies to deter and deflect Chinese actions that are contrary to to U.S. interests, the United States has an overriding stake in pursuing a strategy that effectively integrates China into the global economic and security systems in a way that reinforces the American people's long-term security, prosperity, and peace."

In other words, if the world is going to be the kind of place we want to raise children in, we're going to have to get along with the formerly-Red giant. And with so much of our economy (and their's) depending on positive trade relations, this doesn't seem like a good place to start picking fights.

Yet last month, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton signed on as co-authors of an anti-China bill threatening to issue "punitive duties" if China doesn't revalue its currency.

And while this may not seem sexy at first, if we're already picking fights over the most sensitive areas of our relationship, we may be in for a very long 21st century.

As I blogged about before, the U.S. economy is in a little trouble- and it's not China's fault. We like to buy stuff- lot's of stuff. And China has been able to provide that stuff at 'Everyday Low Prices'.

So why all the animosity? It's not going to make the U.S. auto industry healthy again. That's a problem the unions and management need to take care of... not Obama/Hillary and the Chinese government.

Important disagreements will inevitably emerge in the future over things like China's backing of Sudan, freedom of the press, pollution, etc. And we need to pick our battles very carefully- on both sides- as a result.

Bickering over soybeans and toothpaste, let alone the equally-tainted "punitive duties", doesn't exactly seem like the best battle to pick.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What's in a name?

This past week, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer dedicated time to shining some light on the net results of the No Child Left Behind law. I probably don't need to tell you too much about what they uncovered. Suffice it to say, there are still a few children getting left behind.

What really caught my eye about the NewsHour piece though, were not the myriad ways in which the law has failed to achieve its goals (and if you didn't see the program, you really should), but rather a single tangential point that one of the teachers made:

Early on in the third installment of the special report, correspondent John Merrow visied a handful of the nation’s very best teachers. One in particular, Anthony Cody, jumped out at me. Despite being one of only 2% of teachers who are nationally certified, Mr. Cody quit out of sheer desperation.

As was the case with so many of his colleagues, it was easy to see why he was so frustrated with the No Child Left Behind law. But the one frustrating thing for him that really interested me was not that the new system is a colossal failure, or that it's limiting teachers' ability to do their jobs, but that teachers like Anthony Cody feel they can't criticize the law.

Why? Because it's named too well. Who could argue with a plan to 'leave no child behind'?

As Mr. Cody points out, "If I say that No Child Left Behind sets unrealistic goals, then the very name of the law says that, by implication, I'm leaving children behind... I’m not interested in leaving anyone behind.”

This is a powerful concept: if you name an idea well enough, no one can oppose it- no matter what the substance is.

This is a phenomenon that's existed in American politics since the very beginning. It is, in fact, why our two political parties are called "Republicans" and "Democrats". Republicans were trying to suggest that their opponents didn't believe in a republic- that they wanted a monarchy or sovereign states or something. The Democrats countered, naming their party in such a way that suggested that their opponents were un-democratic.

But for a more recent example, just think about our long-standing debate over abortion:

People who want to ban abortions are called “pro-life”. The implication being, anybody who disagrees with them is “anti-life”. And that is the position liberals are stuck defending before the debate even begins.

That’s a strong name.

So what about "pro-choice"? It is perfectly in line with their position. But does it say anything pointed about the opposition? The fact that pro-lifers are "anti-choice" is a given. That is, in fact, the whole point of the debate. They're out there specifically protesting the right to choose.

Liberals aren't out picketing life. They’re not protesting birth or motherhood. But that's the corner they've gotten themselves backed into.

Without sounding like I'm offering an opinion on the debate itself (something I am loath to do), I would suggest that the "pro-choice" crowd should choose a less accurate and truthful title and settle on one that does more to box their opponents into some awkward place.

So, cynically speaking I guess, I'm saying the name "pro-choice" doesn't make conservatives look immoral or corrupt enough.

A better choice, for example, might be "pro-rights"; with the idea being that "pro-lifers" are a bunch of people who don’t believe in rights (a notion no red-blooded American will ever be comfortable with).

The name would have sufficiently summed up the pro-choicers' stance, protecting 'the right to choose', while also taking aim at the opposition's seeking to take away that right. At the very least, it would co-opt the conservative "right to life" sound byte.

Politics is, after all, the art of being tolerably disingenuous. And Republicans are masters at this.

Democrats, on the other hand, couldn't sell a popsicle on a hot day. (Not even a really compelling and timely popsicle.)

During the stem-cell debate, for instance, the Democrats allowed the Republicans to trademark terms like "snowflake babies" (referring to the fertilized embryos) without having something equally cute and compelling to fire back with.

Where was the comeback? Did somebody's aide forget to photocopy it?

Or when the recent Immigration Bill came up, the Democrats got completely stumped by, "illegal is illegal".

They were speechless… and they had the better argument- vastly better. They just couldn't figure out how to sell that argument in three words.

Why on earth not?

Here’s one right off the top of my head, "Racist is Racist". The last thing anybody wants is to appear racist on national television (just ask Trent Lott). And racisim was obviously the only substantive part of the "deport 'em"argument.

The stakes are really high these days. They've always been high. It's time to start actively shaping the national debate. And that process has to be begin with slogans, names, and perhaps even a few more clever liberal bumper stickers.

So Democrats, here's what I would say to you:

In the future, presidents will get elected, laws will get passed, judges will get appointed, and wars will get started because somebody figured out how to sell an idea- and for no other reason whatsoever.

Make sure it's your idea.

You have a couple weeks left on vacation. In that time, I hope you make a list of names. At the very least, hire somebody competent to do it for you. Get big tobacco's PR people... they're looking for work.

Because, when push comes to shove, if nobody reads your legislation, and nobody hears your speeches, you better have a pretty unbeatable slogan. You better have a name that does eighty percent of your work for you.

Otherwise, you're just that discount, off-brand toothpaste, that works just as well, but nobody ever buys.