Wednesday, August 30, 2006

And the leaker is...

...Richard Armitage.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the source who revealed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak in 2003, touching off a federal investigation, two sources familiar with Armitage's role tell CNN.

The sources said Armitage revealed Plame's role at the CIA almost inadvertently in a casual conversation with Novak, and it is not clear if he knew her identity was classified at the time.

So what does this mean?

Well, it does lighten the accusations levied at the Bush administration, namely that they revealed Plame's identity in order to discredit her husband. Armitage is an unlikely avenue for a Bush administration smear campaign, since he was a critic of the decision to invade Iraq.

But it doesn't appear to change some fundamental facts.

Cheney did ask Libby to find out about Plame's role in her husband's trip. That inquiry is why Armitage knew Plame's identity. Then, once Novak began asking questions, both Libby and Rove were only too happy to discuss the situation with reporters. And then tried to hide that fact later.

Nor does this directly change the basis for the charges against Libby: that he lied about his contacts with reporters.

Nor does it change the fact that a CIA agent's identity was revealed, however inadvertently.

Still, the likelihood that there was a crime committed here seems remote. If Libby had nothing to cover up, the cover-up charges make little sense.

It appears that what you have here is a bunch of senior officials being surprisingly careless with what they ought to have suspected was sensitive information, then trying to hide their actions; and the irony that Cheney's inquiry is what started the ball rolling on a scandal that roiled the White House for years. Incompetence and cowardice, yes, but not criminal intent.

Whether the Libby case should go to trial or be dropped depends on the basis for the charges. If they are independent of the Armitage revelation -- in other words, if Libby really did lie on the stand -- then he should be charged. But the prosecution will have to demonstrate that Libby had some sort of motive for doing so.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Polls and a grain of salt

The New York Times has produced a nice primer on the strengths and weaknesses of polls, and how to read them with a skeptical eye in order to draw insights while rejecting spurious data.

The main lessons: Look at the size and makeup of the sample and how it was selected; beware of attributing much significance to subsamples, most of which are too small to be valid; know what "margin of error" means; and look at how the questions were phrased.

As well roll into the election season, you will hear myriad polls quoted supporting one side or the other. A good rule of thumb is to treat polls the way you should treat horoscopes: "for entertainment purposes only." But if you want to take them seriously, do your homework first.

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Annan and Hezbollah

Some right-wing enthusiasts have accused the United Nations of being pro-Hezbollah and anti-Israel. Aspects of that criticism have merit: The UN has done little to curb Hezbollah's activities in Lebanon. And who can forget the abduction of three Israeli soldiers in 2000 -- an abduction that may have been aided by bribed Indian peacekeepers, and the investigation of which was flawed?

I think they miss the point. Reining in Hezbollah was outside both the mandate and the capabilities of the lightly-armed UN observers; trying to do so would at a minimum have compromised their neutrality, upon which their presence in Lebanon depended.

As for the 2000 incident, The UN is a self-protective bureaucracy with generally weak institutional oversight. As such there will almost inevitably be corruption, and the UN will never be good at admitting mistakes. But there's no evidence that the United Nations itself assisted or condoned the attack.

That said, sometimes things are clearer than that. And Kofi Annan provided one such moment today.

Sitting beside Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, Annan demanded Hezbollah return two captured Israeli soldiers, whose July 12 abduction touched off the 34-day war, and said Israel must lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon. ...

"It's a fixed menu. ... It's not an a la carte menu where you choose and pick," he said at the end of the first day of his 11-day Mideast swing that will include stops in Iran and Syria, the main backers of Hezbollah.

The demand that Hezbollah release the soldiers had been missing from much of the discussion leading up to and after the ceasefire. It's good that he said it so clearly, in Lebanon, with the Lebanese prime minister sitting next to him.

His words do, however, illustrate the complexity of the situation. He also called for Israel to end its naval blockade -- a blockade that Israel, reasonably, refuses to call off until the UN force is in place. And he once again reiterate that the UN force will not disarm Hezbollah, placing that responsibility squarely on Lebanon -- which has already indicated it will not do so.

Annan is correct not to want peacekeepers drawn into the conflict by attempting to disarm one side when Lebanon is unwilling to do so. Lebanon, besides having conflicting feelings regarding Hezbollah, faces the practical problem that any attempt at forced disarmament would likely fail, and fail bloodily.

The New York Times had a piece this weekend describing the dilemma. Disarmament is not a tactic; it's the end result of a political and diplomatic process. Unless a force has been thoroughly broken and defeated, it can only be disarmed with its consent -- and such consent only comes when that force comes to believe that it can gain more by laying down its arms. There's an element of hardball to the process -- the negative threat of military action. But barring the application of overwhelming force -- which neither the UN nor Lebanon is able or willing to do -- Hezbollah will not be disarmed at gunpoint.

So we have a ceasefire. We have Lebanon taking responsibility for the south. We have Hezbollah under pressure to keep its weapons out of sight and to release the captured Israelis. We have the parties trying to adjust the political reality so that Hezbollah is forced into a corner where disarmament becomes an appealing option.

On the Israeli side, there's the carrot/stick of a permanent peace and agreed-upon border with Lebanon, which might then stop providing a haven to anti-Israeli elements.

It's not clear what will come out of this situation, a situation so deeply dissatisfying to all involved. But there is reason to hope. And for now, with the guns silent, it's enough.

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Iranian brinksmanship

So over the weekend, Iran got frisky.

First, they called attention to the fact that they're building a heavy-water reactor.

Then, they test-fired a submarine-launched anti-shipping missile.

Neither of these are major events in and of themselves. The reactor move isn't helpful, but its far from complete and only a step in the nuclear process. And the missile sounds like more hype than major capacity. Even in the unlikely event that the missile is all it's cracked up to be, there's a big gap between being able to build a nuclear bomb and being able to miniaturize it and make it robust enough to form a reliable missile warhead.

Consider it, instead, one more splash of paint in the target Iran is painting on itself. A target that Israel, for one, appears to be preparing to hit if necessary.

Take that last link with a grain of salt. It's the Washington Times, after all. But they name their sources, and Israel would be stupid not to be developing some kind of contingency plan for dealing with a nuclear Iran. They hit Iraq's Osirek reactor back in 1981; there's no particular reason to think they'll be shy about doing the same to Iran.

Hmmm... maybe that prediction about an imminent nuclear war isn't so nutty after all.

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Rumsfeld's brain

Donald Rumsfeld wanted to invade Iraq with 50,000 troops and has steadfastly refused to deploy enough troops to quell the violence there.

So what to make of this?

The presence of several thousand extra U.S. troops in Baghdad in recent weeks showed that sectarian violence can be quelled by force of arms. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the gains will be lost unless the Iraqi government reconciles rival religious sects.

"There ... is no question but that you can go in and clear out an area and achieve a reduction in violence, and the test is not that," Rumsfeld told reporters in a joint appearance Friday at the Pentagon with Iraqi Deputy President Adil Al-Mahdi.

"The test is what happens thereafter. And the important thing is for the Iraqi government to achieve success with respect to its reconciliation process," he said. "It's important that they deal with the militia issue."

So let me get this straight. More troops actually does equal more security? And so, as Iraq has spiraled more and more out of control, we've refused to send more troops because.... why? Because what's more important is the reconciliation process, as if that's supposed to take hold while Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other due to an inadequate security presence.

He's right that a reconciliation process is the only way to achieve long-term stability. But he just blithely ignores that short-term stability is needed to get the reconciliation process started.

Further, Rumsfeld is taking credit for the local success of a strategy that he and the administration have fought against, tooth and nail, since the Iraq invasion was nothing but a gleam in their neocon eyes. A strategy that everyone with any experience in peacekeeping was practically screaming at them to adopt.

And now not only does he brag on the success in Baghdad, but he point-blank refuses to draw the larger lesson.

Why does this guy still have his job?

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Nuclear war predicted for Sept. 12

You know, it's bad enough that my birthday falls the day after Sept. 11; talk about a buzzkiller.

Now there's this:

Yisrayl Hawkins, well known Bible scholar and author, reports that the Bible predicts the exact date and the location that nuclear war will begin. Hawkins states that the current crisis in the Middle East will go nuclear on September 12, 2006 in the area around the Euphrates River. Calling upon his 50 years of biblical research, Hawkins correlates numerous Bible prophecies with world events to support his claim.

According to Yisrayl Hawkins, the countdown to nuclear war began with the signing of the Oslo accords on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. He says that the book of Daniel shows that although this is a seven-year agreement, it would take fourteen years to be fully carried out, ending on October 13, 2007. He then cites prophecies in the book of Revelation showing that nuclear war would begin a year, a month and a day prior to the end of the Oslo agreement.

Maybe I'll hold off on painting the house this year.

Update: A pretty funny video report on Mr. Hawkins at World of Wonder.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

The cracks appear

Iran hoped its nuclear proposal would split the six-nation group that is attempting to tame Iran's nuclear program.

Looks like it might have succeeded.

Russia rejected talk for now of sanctions against
Iran and France warned on Friday against conflict with Tehran, raising doubts whether it will face swift penalties if nuclear work is not halted by an August 31 deadline.

Spain and some other European countries expressed reservations on that score, as well.

If it all works out in the end, then no harm, no foul. And we still have plenty of time to let negotiations work. But failure to enforce a self-imposed deadline only weakens the credibility of the six-nation coalition, and encourages Iran to play even more diplomatic games. Unless something emerges in the next few days to justify backing off from the deadline, this round will go down as an Iranian victory.

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Lebanon roundup

Lots of stuff happening in Lebanon now.

The French agreed to contribute 2,000 troops to the new, beefed-up UN peacekeeping force, breaking a logjam that had threatened to derail the deployment. European countries eventually pledged to provide a little less than half of the 15,000-man force -- 6,900 troops, including 3,000 Italians and an undisclosed number from other parts of Europe. Another meeting is scheduled for Monday to flesh out the committments.

The bulk of those troops won't arrive for weeks or months, but a small French force of 150 engineers arrived today, and more are expected to trickle in over the coming days.

Israel, meanwhile, is maintaining its blockade of Lebanese ports to prevent resupply of Hezbollah, and wants UN forces to patrol Lebanon's border with Syria for the same reason -- something that Syria objects to. The Lebanese Army, meanwhile, has already deployed troops to that end, trying to close smuggling routes across the Syrian border.

Delays and such aside, the situation continues to look promising. The ceasefire is holding, Lebanon is taking responsibility for its borders, the UN force is developing. ... so far, so good.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Iranian proposal draws more fire

The West looks likely to reject the recent Iranian nuclear proposal because it doesn't mention suspending uranium enrichment.

The diplomats variously described the reaction to the Iranian reply in the capitals of the six powers as disappointed and even angry because of the lack of response to the main demand — a freeze on enrichment, which can be used to generate energy but also to make the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

The Iranians had to know that would be the response from the four Western powers. What remains to be seen is whether they will retain support from Russia and China -- or whether those two countries are sufficiently disappointed to let sanctions or some other censure proceed.

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Not 12 planets; just 8

Speaking of numbers, the members of the International Astronomical Union have rejected a proposal by the union's leadership to expand the definition of planet, and instead have decided to kick Pluto out of the "planet" class, reducing the official number of planets in our solar system to eight.

Much-maligned Pluto doesn’t make the grade under the new rules for a planet: “a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a ... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”

Pluto is automatically disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps with Neptune’s.

Instead, it will be reclassified in a new category of “dwarf planets,” similar to what long have been termed “minor planets.” The definition also lays out a third class of lesser objects that orbit the sun — “small solar system bodies,” a term that will apply to numerous asteroids, comets and other natural satellites.

At least we have a definition. And while it would be neat to have more planets, I mentioned in my previous post that the leadership's proposed definition was pretty loose -- covering objects as small as 250 miles in diameter -- and would probably cover all sorts of as-yet-undiscovered space debris. So this more exacting standard does a nice job of keeping things manageable.

My only regret is that the old system would have designated Pluto-Charon as a double-planet -- two planets orbiting each other. That would have been cool.

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A nice round number

In the next few minutes Midtopia should record its 10,000th visitor. Not too bad for a blog that launched less than 6 months ago. I've enjoyed publishing it, and thanks to everyone who makes Midtopia a part of their day.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

U.S. unimpressed by Iranian proposal

Only scant details of the Iranian nuke proposal are emerging, but there don't appear to be any real surprises. Iran refuses to give up its enrichment capability, The U.S. is unimpressed, and Russia and China are pushing for further negotiations.

The real test is whether Iran will successfully split the six-nation coalition, a question that will be answered on Aug. 31. Expect negotiations to be extended in one form or the other, as Europe and the United States try to keep pressure on Iran while keeping Russia and China on board.

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Gutknecht gets on the ballot

Rep. Gil Gutknecht will be on the ballot after all, avoiding what would have been an embarassing way to lose re-election.

That's good for him -- although his race has just been upgraded to one of the most competitive in the country. He's got his work cut out for him.

But what about Brian Smith, the Independence Party candidate I wrote about in the same post? He's petitioned the court to be allowed on the ballot, but there's been no decision yet.

They both deserve to get on. Bureaucratic snafus are not sufficient reason to deny voters a choice at the polls.

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Marines to recall troops to active duty

Up to 2,500 of them, the first such callback in the Iraq war.

Anyone out there still claim that our military isn't being stretched thin by Iraq?

Anyone out there still think it was a good idea to reject proposals to expand the Army by a couple of divisions?

Anyone out there think it's a good idea that Bush's budget proposal calls for cutting 30,000 Army soldiers next year?

Anyone out there think this administration is handling this in a responsible manner?

Because I don't.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Iran finally responds....

And we'll have to wait and see what they said, because the parties involved aren't saying.

But since Iran has publicly vowed not to give up its enrichment program -- the main purpose of the six-nation proposal -- it doesn't seem likely that their offer, whatever it is, will be acceptable.

Iran recently prevented UN inspectors from examining its main nuclear site at Natanz, a violation of its Nonproliferation Treaty responsibilities. Which would suggest that it is not seriously interested in compromising on the program.

And given that it has taken them weeks and weeks to reply to the Western proposal, it seems apparent that they're content to simply stall and play for time and put off a confrontation as long as possible. It plays well domestically and in certain world quarters, and it lets them pursue the program as far as possible before they have to make a hard decision or face retaliation.

Luckily they're a long ways away from having the bomb. So, irritating as stalling tactics can be, patience is called for. We need to make clear that we prefer to resolve this diplomatically -- but we will take military steps if that is what the situation requires.

And we should identify interim steps to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, like targeted sanctions and inspection demands.

The first decision facing the six-nation coalition is what to do when Aug. 31 rolls around -- the deadline the group gave for Iran to agree to the proposal or face sanctions. Iran clearly is betting that either the coalition is bluffing, or that its proposal will split the coalition and prevent it from acting if the deadline passes.

What they do, and whether I agree with it, will depend on the content of the Iranian proposal. So, once again, we wait.

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I swear, conspiracy theorists are dumb as posts

Here's the latest one: Did you know that the actual U.S. military death toll in Iraq is 12,000?

We have received copies of manifests from the MATS that show far more bodies shipped into Dover AFP than are reported officially. The actual death toll is in excess of 10,000. (See the official records at the end of this piece.)... When our research is complete, and watertight, we will publish the results along with the sources

Yeah, I'm holding my breath.

The government gets away with these huge lies because they claim, falsely, that only soldiers actually killed on the ground in Iraq are reported. The dying and critically wounded are listed as en route to military hospitals outside of the country and not reported on the daily postings. Anyone who dies just as the transport takes off from the Baghdad airport is not listed and neither are those who die in the US military hospitals.

This claim is itself false.

It's true that injuries and deaths caused by non-hostile action -- a soldier getting run over by a truck in his convoy, for instance -- aren't counted as combat casualties.

The reasoning for that is that accidents happen, war or no war, and it's wrong to attribute a death to a given war simply because it happened to occur during that war.

That rationale isn't perfect: Operations in a war zone are probably inherently more risky than the same operation in peacetime, in a well-controlled domestic environment. So there are likely to be more accidents in Iraq than the unit would have experienced back home.

But you have to draw the line somewhere, and the overall reasoning is sound. Accidents are a separate category from KIA and WIA.

And even though they're not counted as combat deaths, they are counted. Noncombat deaths are listed on the weekly report under a separate column.

The only category that isn't reported in any coherent way is soldiers who are injured in non-combat situations. Estimates put that number at around 15,000, for what it's worth.

Another category that isn't counted is psychiatric issues that manifest themselves after a soldier leaves Iraq. So a soldier that kills himself after arriving back home doesn't count against the Iraq total. That will tend to understate the total human toll of Iraq, but again the basis is reasonable: how is the military supposed to determine that an action taken after leaving Iraq is related to Iraq? And to what degree? How much time and effort should it put into such classifications?

So one can plausibly argue that the true human toll of Iraq is not reflected in the official casualty figures. But to claim the Pentagon is hiding 8,000 deaths is ludicrous. It doesn't matter what you think about what Bush would be willing to do; it's physically impossible.

If there were 8,000 uncounted deaths, that would mean an average of 160 families per state wondering why their kid's name never appeared in the newspaper as a war casualty.

In addition, these soldiers come from units. The soldiers live together at home as well as fight together abroad. They know each other; the families hang out. They talk. If a given unit lost 20 people but only 5 were listed as official casualties, everyone would know. For your conspiracy to work, EVERYONE in the unit, their families, friends and up and down the chain of command would have to be in on the secret. Which just isn't going to happen.

When constructing conspiracy theories, maybe these folks should construct ones that are actually plausible.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Are large sums of cash illegal?

Apparently, yes.

A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that if a motorist is carrying large sums of money, it is automatically subject to confiscation. In the case entitled, "United States of America v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency," the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit took that amount of cash away from Emiliano Gomez Gonzolez, a man with a "lack of significant criminal history" neither accused nor convicted of any crime.


Clearly, the details are important here. But shouldn't the money -- or at least the owner -- be actually connected to a crime before police can seize his property?

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More excessive secrecy

In example #2,912 of how the Bush administration has a heard time learning:



The Bush administration has begun designating as secret some information that the government long provided even to its enemy the former Soviet Union: the numbers of strategic weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.

The Pentagon and the Department of Energy are treating as national security secrets the historical totals of Minuteman, Titan II and other missiles, blacking out the information on previously public documents, according to a new report by the National Security Archive. The archive is a nonprofit research library housed at George Washington University.

"It would be difficult to find more dramatic examples of unjustifiable secrecy than these decisions to classify the numbers of U.S. strategic weapons," wrote William Burr, a senior analyst at the archive who compiled the report. " . . . The Pentagon is now trying to keep secret numbers of strategic weapons that have never been classified before."

Aargh! Stop it!

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As the pundits turn, insiders seek to sway Bush

A couple of interesting developments.

Publicly, conservative pundits are rounding on Bush with increasing ferocity.

For 10 minutes, the talk show host grilled his guests about whether "George Bush's mental weakness is damaging America's credibility at home and abroad." For 10 minutes, the caption across the bottom of the television screen read, "IS BUSH AN 'IDIOT'?"

But the host was no liberal media elitist. It was Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman turned MSNBC political pundit. And his answer to the captioned question was hardly "no." While other presidents have been called stupid, Scarborough said: "I think George Bush is in a league by himself. I don't think he has the intellectual depth as these other people."

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, James Baker leads a rescue effort:

Amid the highly charged political infighting in Washington over what to do in Iraq, you might be excused for not noticing that a bipartisan commission quietly started work last spring with a mandate to help the Bush administration rethink its policy toward the war. Of course, anything labeled "bipartisan commission" seems almost guaranteed to be ignored by a highly partisan White House that is notoriously hostile to outside advice and famously devoted to "staying the course." But what makes this particular commission hard to dismiss is that it is led by perhaps the one man who might be able to break through the tight phalanx of senior officials who advise the president and filter his information. That person is the former secretary of state, Republican insider, and consigliere of the Bush family, James A. Baker III.

Since March, Baker, backed by a team of experienced national-security hands, has been busily at work trying to devise a fresh set of policies to help the president chart a new course in--or, perhaps, to get the hell out of--Iraq. But as with all things involving James Baker, there's a deeper political agenda at work as well. "Baker is primarily motivated by his desire to avoid a war at home--that things will fall apart not on the battlefield but at home. So he wants a ceasefire in American politics," a member of one of the commission's working groups told me. Specifically, he said, if the Democrats win back one or both houses of Congress in November, they would unleash a series of investigative hearings on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and civil liberties that could fatally weaken the administration and remove the last props of political support for the war, setting the stage for a potential Republican electoral disaster in 2008. "I guess there are people in the [Republican] party, on the Hill and in the White House, who see a political train wreck coming, and they've called in Baker to try to reroute the train."

I wish Baker well; I respect the deft foreign-policy hand of Bush the Elder, and Lord knows someone needs to break through the barriers surrounding this administration and convince them that their chosen strategy isn't working.

If Bush persists on his current course, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the Republican-led Congress tosses him overboard in order to save their own skins in November -- while non-Congressional conservatives and other party operatives throw him overboard in order to strengthen their hand for 2008. The next two years may feature Bush being used as a whipping boy not just by the left but also by the right, as they look past him and try to figure out a way to detach the anchors of his presence from their political ambitions.

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Relearning expensive lessons

One thing that bothered me about the Israeli campaign in Lebanon was the clear belief that they could win largely through the use of airpower. I'd end up talking to myself or yelling at the television: "Don't you guys read history books?!?"

I'm an ex-tanker, and some of my best friends were groundpounders, so maybe I'm biased. But if there's one thing that's clear from reading military history, it's that airpower alone does not win wars -- however often the Air Force commanders make that argument, and however enticing the idea is to a casualty-wary politician.

I missed this article when it first came out, but it sums up the situation very nicely.

Military historians have a name for the logic behind Israel's military campaign in Lebanon. It's called the "strategic bombing fallacy." Almost since the dawn of the age of military air power, strategists have been tempted by the prospect that the bombing of "strategic" targets such as infrastructure and transportation hubs could inflict such pain on a population that it would turn against its leaders and get them to surrender or compromise.

Unfortunately -- as the United States itself discovered during World War II and Vietnam, to cite just two examples -- strategic bombing has almost never worked. Far from bringing about the intended softening of the opposition, bombing tends to rally people behind their own leaders and cause them to dig in against outsiders who, whatever the justification, are destroying their homeland.

What's surprising is that the above fallacy is very well known -- or should be to anyone who pays attention to military history. It astonishes me that an organization as practical and experienced as the Israeli military would fall for such a thing.

Is it me, or is the entire world suffering from a giant case of the ignorant stupids?

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A troubled Experiment

One of my earliest posts, back in March, was about the troubles at the Center for the American Experiment here in the Twin Cities. Basically, switching from "conservative think tank" to "partisan propaganda-spewing electoral machine" was a hugely expensive failure.

Now Minnesota Monthly magazine has an in-depth exploration of what happened, and where the Center is going now -- mostly, adopting a less-strident tone and seeking to rebuild its mindshare as it tries to pay off more than $300,000 in debts.

I respected the previous incarnation of the CAE. I despised the Meeks version. Let's hope the Center's founder, Mitch Pearlstein, can resurrect the good and leave the partisan toxic waste behind.

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Iraq and Vietnam

An entire cottage industry of blogs has sprung up that try to compare Iraq to Vietnam, from any number of political perspectives. Iraq is another quagmire; Iraq, like Vietnam, will be lost by the antiwar protesters; Iraq isn't even close to being Vietnam because we've had far fewer troops killed so far.

Most of it is noise. There are ways in which the two wars are comparable, but it's not the common ones you keep hearing.

Quagmire
While there is a rational argument to be made that Iraq is an unwinnable mess given our current resource allocation, the fundamentals of the situation bear little resemblance to Vietnam, where South Vietnam faced an insurgency/invasion backed by a dedicated nation state that was itself supported and protected by the Soviets and Chinese. That's far more resources and force than this insurgency will ever be able to apply.

Losing the war at home
This is a common trope, but it ignores two things.

1. Coverage of antiwar protesters tends to increase support for any given war, since many people are turned off by the often anarchic tactics of such protesters.

2. Policy and opinion shape each other. If a war is going well, antiwar protesters would be marginalized. If a war is going poorly, they gain credibility. The protesters themselves don't sway opinion very much; they are more a symptom than a cause of falling support.

Casualty rates
Comparing casualty rates is silly, as if every conflict carries the same geopolitical interest, or as if it's not worth complaining until we've flushed X number of lives down the rathole.

The only calculation that matters is this: Are our objectives achievable at an acceptable cost. That calculation is different for each conflict, turning as it does on the importance of the conflict and the scope and achievability of the objectives.

"They will have died in vain"
The silliest argument of all for reinforcing failure. We've already had people die in this war; if we pull out now we'll be saying they "died in vain."

In Vietnam we lost 58,000 soldiers -- not to mention the million or so dead Vietnamese combatants on both sides -- and lost. In the simplest analysis, we could have achieved the exact same result at far lower cost had we pulled out after the first advisor was killed back in the 50s. Arguably the result would have actually been better, because we would not have staked our national prestige on the conflict and not have had to endure the disintegration of our armed forces that followed Vietnam.

I'm not saying we should pull out every time the going gets rough. I'm merely trying to point out the absurdity of casualty comparisons or the "died in vain" argument. Using that logic, 58,000 people died in vain in Vietnam. Had we pulled out earlier, tens of thousands of people *wouldn't* have died in vain.

So what are the parallels to Vietnam? This: Both wars had at best a murky connection to any compelling national interest, were entered into without building and sustaining public support, undertaken with inadequate planning and fought with a flawed strategy.

As Churchill learned in the Dardanelles campaign during World War I, reinforcing failure merely creates an even bigger and bloodier failure. The relevant question here isn't "have we bled enough". It's "is our objective achievable at acceptable cost."

Given our refusal to sent sufficient troops to actually achieve our objectives, I think the first question is more relevant than the second. We have already decided there is a cost we are not willing to pay; and given that, our objective is not achievable.

And you can't blame the Dems for this one.

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Some home truths about our Iraq strategy

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine had an excellent piece on the progress of the Iraqi army, from a reporter who traveled to Anbar province to see them in action.

Some excerpts:

Anbar has long been what the military calls an “economy of force” operation, which is a polite way of saying that troop requirements elsewhere in Iraq have led American commanders to employ fewer forces in the province than the situation warrants. As a consequence, counterinsurgency operations have taken on the quality of a whack-a-mole arcade game. Every time the Americans have massed force to put out one fire, they have created a vacuum elsewhere that the insurgents have rushed to fill. When the Marines gathered forces to clear Falluja in 2004, they drew troops from the Haditha area, where the insurgents promptly moved in and executed the defenseless local police near the town’s soccer field. The Marines returned in strength to Haditha and established several forward bases, including the one at Barwana, but then many of the troops were sent to the far west when commanders decided to clear Al Qaim, near the Syrian border. And the insurgents filtered back to Haditha.

Gosh. How surprising. Been saying that for years.

Some of the Marine officers I talked with were frank about the need for more American troops. Lt. Col. Ronald Gridley, executive officer with Regimental Combat Team 7, which has responsibility for a major swath of the province, told me during a visit to the unit’s headquarters at Al Asad that the regiment has recommended that additional troops be allocated to its section of Anbar. A battalion or two, he said, would help a great deal. “What we recommend and what we get is going to be two different things,” Colonel Gridley said. “In our perfect world, we could use some more infantrymen to be able to patrol the streets and partner with the Iraqi Army.”

But wait. I thought the commanders were getting all the troops they needed?

Officially, the Bush administration’s strategy is: Clear, hold and build. But with limited American forces to do any clearing, the war in western Iraq looks much more like hang on and hand over. Hang on against an insurgency that seems to be laying roadside bombs as quickly as they are discovered, and hand over to an Iraqi military that is still a work in progress.

Yep. We have refused to commit the resources necessary to execute our stated strategy. Not sure what you would call that, but it sure isn't "success."

The Iraqi Army itself, while all-volunteer and reasonably well motivated, is hobbled by corruption, bureaucracy and a society lacking in some basic infrastructure.

Greenwood explained that the pay issues in Haditha were quite common. In the Anbar region, about 550 Iraqi soldiers received no pay for June, while another 2,200 were receiving less pay than they were entitled to by rank. During one of his many trips to Baghdad to wrestle with the Iraqi bureaucracy, Greenwood was told that 19 men who were owed back pay had mysteriously vanished from the rolls of trained soldiers — and the only way they could get back on the payroll was to go through boot camp all over again.

Logistics was another of Greenwood’s worries. American commanders in Baghdad had pushed the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own logistics, but that led to cases in which Iraqi soldiers had received spoiled meat and rotten vegetables. ...

Each month, Iraqi soldiers are granted about a week’s leave to deliver their pay to their families, who may live hundreds of miles away, a tradition that reflects the lack of an effective banking system in Iraq. With all the dangers, hardships and problems in receiving pay, the soldiers do not always come back.

The article notes that the people on the ground are professional, capable and motivated. But the problems appear to be endemic and pervasive -- and getting worse rather than better.

This is not winning. This is hanging on -- while the insurgency gets stronger.

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The reviews are getting worse

As we march toward the November elections, the reviews of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq are getting worse.

Joe Lieberman turns around and bites the GOP hand that was wooing him, joining Hillary Clinton in saying Donald Rumsfeld should resign.

"With all respect to Don Rumsfeld, who has done a grueling job for six years, we would benefit from new leadership to work with our military in Iraq," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Lieberman said the Bush administration should have sent more troops into Iraq "to secure the country."

"We had a naive vision that the Iraqis were going to embrace us and then go on and live happily ever after," he said.

It's kind of sad when it takes a senior senator three years to reach the same conclusion many of us reached soon after the invasion.

Meanwhile, Chuck Hagel says the GOP has lost its way.

"First time I voted was in 1968 on top of a tank in the Mekong Delta," said Hagel, a Vietnam veteran. "I voted a straight Republican ticket. The reason I did is because I believe in the Republican philosophy of governance. It's not what it used to be. I don't think it's the same today."

Hagel asked: "Where is the fiscal responsibility of the party I joined in '68? Where is the international engagement of the party I joined _ fair, free trade, individual responsibility, not building a bigger government, but building a smaller government?"

His frustration does not lead him to think Democrats offer a better alternative. But Hagel wants to see the GOP return to its basic beliefs.

"I think we've lost our way," Hagel said. "And I think the Republicans are going to be in some jeopardy for that and will be held accountable."

Besides opinion polls showing sagging support for our strategy in Iraq, there might be a couple of other explanations for the increasingly pessimistic views.

One is a NYT Magazine piece from this Sunday, which I'll blog about next.

The other is the increasing opinion among security experts that we're losing. Foreign Policy magazine surveyed 100 experts -- conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. A whopping 84 percent said we're not winning the fight against terror. Most were critical of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, our overreliance on force, and many other aspects of our antiterror strategy.

The list of respondents is here.

Administration supporters like to criticize their opponents for not having an alternative plan. That's false on the face of it: Lots of plans exist, from "send more troops" to "pull out now." But the argument skips over the real issue. A basic military maxim is "don't reinforce failure." Continuing to tout a failing strategy -- and that's essentially what "stay the course" means -- is a worse failure. You may not like the alternative options, but if the choice is between a failed plan and trying something else, you try something else.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Bush signs pension bill

Back in May I lauded a Bush administration proposal on pension reform.

Today, Bush signed the pension bill into law.

It doesn't mirror the president's proposals exactly, but the big stuff is there: stricter funding rules and greater disclosure. Most of the noise and criticism surrounding the bill have focused on Congressional provisions, such as special treatment for airlines and defense contractors and legislation covering cash-balance plans.

Overall it appears to be a decent bill that will force companies to make good on the promises they make their workers -- and hopefully prompt them to make more realistic promises in the future.

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GOP losing support in the heartland

David Broder lays it out:

What I heard here -- and in subsequent interviews at the National Governors Association convention in Charleston, S.C. -- from one Republican after another signaled serious trouble for the GOP across a broad swath of states from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma in key midterm election contests for House, Senate and governor.

The impression these Republicans had is that support for GOP candidates had nose-dived this summer -- in part because of the chaos conveyed by the daily televised scenes of destruction in Iraq and Lebanon and in part because of the dismal reputation built by the Republican Congress that is home to many of the endangered GOP candidates.

Remember, this is Republicans saying the GOP will lose big.

He even touches on Minnesota, noting that Mark Kennedy badly trails Amy Klobuchar in the Senate race.

It's only August, and never underestimate the ability of Democrats to fumble away a sure thing. But the signs increasingly point to a GOP massacre in November.

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Harris' destroying touch

Katherine Harris' Senate campaign makes another misstep.

In the U.S. Senate primary, Rep. Katherine Harris has been touting key political endorsements from fellow Republican lawmakers. The problem is, some of them never endorsed her.

Several members of the U.S. House called the Harris campaign to complain Wednesday after the St. Petersburg Times notified them of the endorsements listed on Harris' Web site. Minutes later, their names were removed.

Apparently any sort of connection to Harris is enough to bring down doom. The frontrunner in the GOP primary to replace Harris in her House seat has apparently self-destructed after an anecdote about blacks' swimming ability was caught on video.

This is the state that we let decide presidential elections?

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Judge rules NSA wiretapping unconstitutional

Judge Anna Diggs Taylor's ruling was in response to an ACLU lawsuit.

She said the taps violate free speech and privacy rights. I'm not so sure about the free speech argument. The privacy argument is stronger, though a lot of people argue that the idea of a right to privacy is a myth.

In any case, this bumps the pressure on the government up several notches. I presume the government will appeal the decision, which could lead to a Supreme Court ruling depending on what the appeals court does.

Update: The Detroit Free Press has a bio of the judge.

Update II: Here's the text of the ruling, in PDF format.

Update III: The link is updated to note that the judge issued an immediate injunction against the taps, meaning this will be decided very quickly at the Appeals level.

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Mideast moves

The Lebanese Army began deploying into south Lebanon today.

In Marjayoun, a key town near the Israeli border that was briefly occupied by Israeli forces during their incursion into Lebanon, flatbed trucks carrying 20 Lebanese tanks arrived early Thursday along with a dozen trucks loaded with troops and hoisting Lebanese flags.

Residents welcomed the troops in Marjayoun and nearby villages, a largely Christian area where Hezbollah's Shiite Muslim militants have little support.

"I feel safer now," said Shadi Shammas, a 30-year-old Marjayoun native. "The army before was not like now. Now, if Hezbollah has guns, the army can take them and that wasn't the case before."

Lebanese troops are in Marjayoun for the first time in 40 years.

The deployment has been accompanied by some fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric, but at the moment actions are the important thing.

Separately, Palestinian President Mahmous Abbas said he struck a deal with Gaza militants to stop firing rockets into Israel.

And he said more:

In his speech, Abbas said the Palestinians were putting together a plan to be presented to the United Nations to try to revive the stalled peace process. He gave no details about the plan but said he was working on it with Arab states.

Sounds like the talk-violence cycle in the Mideast is coming around to a talk phase.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Israel begins handing over positions

The Lebanese government finally approved plans to deploy troops to South Lebanon, and Israel began handing positions over to the United Nations. The Israeli Army said it had already handed over half of the Lebanese territory it holds.

As expected, the developing reality is not perfect:

The Lebanese Cabinet decision fell short of agreement on disarming the Shiite Muslim militant group, which has insisted it has the right to defend Lebanese territory as long as Israeli troops remain in the country.

But we shouldn't let the perfect get in the way of the pretty good. Hezbollah is being ejected from south Lebanon, arms or no arms. And Lebanon is insisting that the government will have a monopoly on the use of force.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora praised Lebanon's resistance, saying it showed that Israel's military was "no longer a force that cannot be resisted, an army that cannot be defeated."

He said Lebanon has the right to take charge of its destiny and warned of foreign meddling that has made the country into a battleground for Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Iranians over the decades.

The government ordered the army to "insure respect" for the Blue Line, the U.N.-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel, and "apply the existing laws with regard to any weapons outside the authority of the Lebanese state."

This is progress.

The Lebanese are assembled north of the Litani River and will begin crossing into south Lebanon on Thursday.

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Moderate support

Just as the netroots left of the Democratic Party led a charge to unseat Joe Lieberman, the conservative Club For Growth -- fresh off a victory against moderate Republican Joe Schwarz in Michigan -- is leading a charge against Rhode Island's Republican senator, Lincoln Chafee.

One difference between Chafee and Lieberman, however, is that if Chafee loses the primary to his conservative opponent, his seat is almost guaranteed to go to a Democrat. The Club For Growth figures that's a small price to pay for ideological purity.

I wrote a few weeks ago about what moderates need to do to put more moderates in power. One of the tactics was to support the moderate candidates of both parties in their primaries, so that as much as possible the general election becomes a contest between two moderates. That way we win no matter what the outcome.

The Rhode Island race would seem to be the perfect example of this: Support Chafee in his primary fight so that we don't much care who wins in November.

Some people will note tactical considerations that complicate the question. I've also written that I consider the November elections a referendum on the ruling party, and in that context the Republicans deserve to lose big; I want the Democrats to take over either the House or the Senate, and I wouldn't weep if they captured both. Given that, wouldn't it be better to have the seat go Democratic, improving the chances that the Dems could take over the Senate?

I think this comes down to an exercise in principle and risk management. What's more important to you -- Democratic control of the Senate, or maximizing the number of moderates in Congress? If the former, hope Chafee loses the nomination. If the latter, help him win it. Because I would prefer to not even risk an ideological conservative getting into that seat. Even if you're a strong Democrat, showing support for Chafee is just good politics. If he wins, he'll remember the cross-aisle backing. Even if he loses, it sends a message to other moderates that there's a reservoir of support they can draw on to counter the partisan party bases.

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As of today, 12 planets

A while back I wrote about the debate over Pluto's planetary status. This was followed by a proposal by some astronomers to strip Pluto of its designation.

Well today, the International Astronomical Union went the other way. It's executive panel has proposed a definition of "planet" that is expected to be approved by the membership. It adds three new planets to our solar system -- including Pluto's largest moon, Charon.

The panel suggests retaining Pluto and immediately adding three new planets to the nine that are familiar to any schoolchild: Ceres, currently considered a large asteroid; Charon, now considered a moon of Pluto; and Xena, a recently discovered object that is larger than Pluto.

The definition of "planet" is complicated but interesting:

The proposal defines a planet as an object that circles the sun and is massive enough that its own gravitational forces compress it into a roughly spherical shape. Depending on its composition, a planet would have to be at least roughly 250 to 500 miles in diameter to qualify. It designates a new subcategory of planet, the ``pluton," a Pluto-like planet that takes at least 200 years to circle the sun. Pluto, Charon, and Xena are all plutons, and scientists expect many more to be discovered. Under the proposal, Ceres is an ordinary planet.

Moons are excluded from planetary status, using a criterion that depends on the relative mass of two bodies that are gravitationally tied. If one body is much smaller than the other, then it is considered a moon. Pluto and Charon are closer in mass, and so they are dubbed a double planet. The Earth's moon is round and much larger than Pluto, but it is so much smaller than Earth that it is considered a moon, not a planet.

250 miles in diameter isn't very big from a solar perspective -- the Earth, for instance, is about 8,000 miles across. But at least the definition is clear, even if it changes the colloquial meaning of the word "planet", making it a far less exclusive club. Indeed, astronomers expect to discover even more bodies meeting the criteria for planet as new and more powerful telescopes probe the outer reaches of the solar system.

One strength of the scientific method is that old dogmas are shed relatively easily in the face of new evidence. This is a prime example of that. I grew up learning about 9 planets; my children will grow up learning about 12 or more. And human knowledge marches on.

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The right flood insurance ruling

A judge in a Katrina-related case has ruled that insurance policies that don't cover flood damage don't, well, cover flood damage.

There is some legitimate complaint about the ambiguity of the policy in question. And agreeing on what is flood damage and what is wind damage can be a contentious matter, with the insurance company wanting to attribute all of it to flood damage (and thus not covered) and the homeowner wanting to attribute none of it to flood damage (and thus be fully covered).

But insurance works by covering specific risks for a specific amount for a specific premium. The system breaks down if insurers can be forced to cover uncovered costs after the fact.

If people want to be covered for flood damage, buy flood insurance.

Speaking of flood insurance, it's time to end the taxpayer subsidy of such insurance. Such insurance should be market-priced. If homeowners can't afford those prices, or If private insurers are unwilling to sell such policies at an affordable price, perhaps that's a sign that people shouldn't be building homes in flood plains and hurricane-prone coastal zones.

A positive side effect of such a policy would be the reversion of many fragile coastal and riparian areas to their natural state, providing habitat for animals and buffer zones for rivers and coastlines -- making future flooding and storms less severe and costly.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

George Will: John Kerry was right

You know things are going badly when you see a headline like that.

[The foiling of the London plot] has validated John Kerry's belief (as paraphrased by the New York Times Magazine of Oct. 10, 2004) that "many of the interdiction tactics that cripple drug lords, including governments working jointly to share intelligence, patrol borders and force banks to identify suspicious customers, can also be some of the most useful tools in the war on terror." In a candidates' debate in South Carolina (Jan. 29, 2004), Kerry said that although the war on terror will be "occasionally military," it is "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world."

Did the world just shake for a moment?

Will quotes the Weekly Standard capturing a beautifully insane response by a "senior administration official":

"The idea that the jihadists would all be peaceful, warm, lovable, God-fearing people if it weren't for U.S. policies strikes me as not a valid idea. [Democrats] do not have the understanding or the commitment to take on these forces. It's like John Kerry. The law enforcement approach doesn't work."

What? As Will says:

This farrago of caricature and non sequitur makes the administration seem eager to repel all but the delusional. But perhaps such rhetoric reflects the intellectual contortions required to sustain the illusion that the war in Iraq is central to the war on terrorism, and that the war, unlike "the law enforcement approach," does "work."

Yep. I've been saying that all along.

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Israel begins pullout from Lebanon

Even though the Lebanese army has yet to cross into southern Lebanon, Israel has begun to leave certain areas and thin out its forces elsewhere.

Hezbollah fired 10 rockets yesterday, but none reached Israel and the ceasefire continues to hold.

Lebanon is under strong pressure to fulfill its agreement and take control of southern Lebanon. The latest timetable indicates they might be ready to do so by the end of the week.

So we wait.

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Ballot access idiocy

Ballot access is restrictive enough without adding inflexible bureaucracy to the mix.

Two examples from this election season in Minnesota:

Rep. Gil Gutknecht, who routinely files petitions to get on the ballot rather than pay a $300 filing fee (a gimmick meant to highlight his fiscal conservativism), is facing a challenge because he gathered the signatures for the petition outside of a two-week window prescribed by state law.

As an aside, I'm not sure how this highlights Gutknecht's careful use of money, since it seems to me that it could easily cost more than $300 to gather the necessary signatures.

But more importantly, this is stupid. The purpose of a petition requirement is to demonstrate some minimal level of support so that the ballot isn't cluttered with dozens of cranks and protest candidates. It's reasonable to have some sort of time requirement to ensure that the signatures are relatively "fresh", but a two-week window right before the filing deadline is unnecessarily restrictive.

And trying to disqualify Gutknecht from running on such a technicality -- when he could have just paid the $300 to file -- is a tactic that damages democracy.

Meanwhile, an Independence Party candidate for the state House, Brian Smith, has been left off the ballot for following instructions from the Secretary of State's office.

Smith, 35, went to the office of Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer on July 18, the final day of filing, to throw his hat in the ring to succeed state Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis. He paid a $100 filing fee to enter the Independence Party primary election and gave an affidavit of candidacy to Kiffmeyer.

There was one problem: Under state law, Smith was supposed to file in Hennepin County, not at the secretary of state's office in St. Paul

Okay, two things. First, Smith should get a pass simply because he was given bad info by Kiffmeyer's office. Second and more importantly, though, should someone really be kept off the ballot because they filed in the wrong office? Is that really supportive of democracy?

Ballot access should be considered a near-right. Restrictions on it must be reasonable and narrowly construed. And candidates should be given the benefit of the doubt in nearly all cases, rather than kept from running because of stupid technicalities. Give voters more choices, not fewer.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Giving Hutchinson a look

Faced with a choice between Tim Pawlenty and Mike Hatch as the major-party candidates for governor, I'm leaning toward option #3: Peter Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was Rudy Perpich's Finance Commissioner. He also has had a long career in corporate America and in 1993 was superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools.

He gave a talk at the Humphrey Institute on Thursday; you can listen to the audio here at MPR.

In the talk he discussed "outcome-based" government -- not blindly cutting or raising taxes, but figuring out how best to use the taxes Minnesotans are willing to pay. Giving them their money's worth, in other words.

That's a pleasant generality, of course; the devil is in the details. But he has provided some level-headed details, liks his transportation and health-care proposals.

The latter is especially promising, combining a version of the Romney plan for mandatory health coverage with a shift in reimbursement practices to pay for healthy outcomes, not just procedures performed.

And I liked his promise not to get distracted by side issues. Asked if he would sign a bill loosening abortion restrictions, he said no -- but he also wouldn't sign a bill tightening them. Why? Because such bills are a distraction from the real business of government. You could criticize that as a deft attempt to sidestep a controversial issue. But I like the idea of keeping our eye on the ball and concentrating on accomplishing things that all Minnesotans want and need -- not satisfying partisan constituencies.

Are all of his ideas great ones? No. But at least he has some, not just trotting out the same tired rhetoric like Pawlenty and Hatch are doing. At this point in the game, I'm leaning toward giving him an opportunity to show what he can do.

Find out more: Here's his campaign web site.

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Ceasefire takes hold in Lebanon

The guns fell (mostly) silent today in Lebanon, and refugees began heading home in droves.

The fighting went right up to the deadline, and afterwards there were hiccups: scattered clashes between Israel and Hezbollah. But nothing serious or unexpected.

The biggest question now is when the Lebanese/UN force will deploy into South Lebanon. Various observers have raised concerns, such as:

1. Whether it will happen (Captain's Quarters).

2. Whether it will involve disarmament of Hezbollah (Times of London).

3. When it will happen (Jerusalem Post).

Regarding the first question, I think the answer is "yes." As to the last two, it's still up in the air. Here's what Lebanon's UN ambassador had to say:

"Lebanon will be, I think, the last state to sign a peace treaty with Israel," UN ambassador Nouhad Mahmoud told CNN television's "Late Edition" program, without explaining the remark.

He called the agreement a "crucial" test for all the parties involved.

"Now it is the moment of truth for everyone, and we'll see who will abide by the Security Council resolutions and who will not, so (what) we have this week is very crucial," Mahmoud said.

The diplomat added that the 15,000 Lebanese soldiers to be dispatched to south Lebanon to help keep the peace alongside a similarly-sized international UN force "are not going to use force" to disarm the Hezbollah militia which has been battling Israel.

"Hezbollah will just leave the area as armed elements as I understand it, and the Lebanese army will take over the whole region along with the
United Nations forces," he said.

This is probably how it'll shake out -- Hezbollah heading north, but keeping its weapons. That's less satisfactory than disarmament, but it still accomplishes the two key objectives: Pushing them out of rocket range of Israel, inserting Lebanese and UN troops in between as a buffer force, and finally getting Lebanon to assert responsibility for what goes on in its territory.

Lots of things could still go wrong. But for now, there's hope.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Tip led to foiled plot

To all my readers that have e-mailed me in the past explaining that the problem is Islam and there are no peaceful or moderate Muslims, I give you this:

It all began with a tip: In the aftermath of the July 7, 2005, subway bombings in London, British authorities received a call from a worried member of the Muslim community, reporting general suspicions about an acquaintance.

From that vague but vital piece of information, according to a senior European intelligence official, British authorities opened the investigation into what they said turned out to be a well-coordinated and long-planned plot to bomb multiple trans-Atlantic flights heading toward the United States -- an assault designed to rival the scope and lethality of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.

Had we treated all Muslims as the enemy, we would not have gotten that tip, and 4,000 people might be dead.

Let's focus on the real bad guys, not define our enemies so broadly that we create a conflict we cannot win.

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US, France, Israel agree on cease-fire proposal

A revised US-France ceasefire proposal has been submitted to the UN Security Council. A vote is expected later today.

It looks pretty good, to my mind.

sources close to the negotiations said the deal would create a 400-square-mile zone inside Lebanon from which Hezbollah militia would be excluded.

Under the draft resolution, the number of U.N. troops in the area would be increased from 2,000 to a maximum of 15,000; they would be joined by 15,000 Lebanese troops.


This accomplishes two very important things: Makes Lebanon responsible for its entire territory, and gets Hezbollah out of South Lebanon. Those hold real promise if they can be pulled off.

There are still things left undone by this proposal: A related step should be finally settling the Lebanese-Israeli border and signing a permanent peace agreement.

Lebanon's reaction isn't known yet; that might be a hurdle, because Lebanon didn't want an international peacekeeping force. But the UN cover might address that.

Israel has endorsed it even while preparing a new ground offensive.

Cross your fingers and hope Lebanon accepts it.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Me and Max Boot

Here's an interesting discovery. My opinion on Iraq -- either get serious or get out -- is shared by Max Boot, a conservative former Wall Street Journal editorial writer and general war supporter.

Which path should we take? My preference remains deploying more soldiers, not fewer. A couple of divisions in Baghdad, if skillfully led, might be able to replicate the success that Col. H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had in pacifying the western city of Tall Afar, where the troops-to-civilians ratio was 10 times higher than in Baghdad today. But at this point, I am also open to a substantial reduction in troop numbers because the current strategy just isn't working.

Bush needs to do something radical to shake up a deteriorating status quo if we are to have any hope of averting the worst American military defeat since Vietnam.

He even shares my opinion about Tall Afar!

Either I'm more of a neo-con than I thought, or Max Boot is more of a liberal than he thinks, or else the situation is getting so bad that even war supporters can see it.

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British terror plot foiled

Yeah, me and a million other blogs noticed.

British authorities said Thursday they had disrupted a well-advanced "major terrorist plot" to blow up passenger flights between the United Kingdom and the United States using liquid explosives, prompting a full-scale security clampdown at U.S. and British airports and a cascade of delays in transatlantic flights.

The plot was well planned, well financed and "well advanced," U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said at a news conference Thursday morning in Washington. It was "about as sophisticated as anything we've seen in recent years as far as terrorism is concerned. . . . This was not a situation with a handful of people sitting around dreaming about terrorist plots."


The Brits arrested 21 people, and speculated that the plan bore all the hallmarks of an Al-Qaeda operation.

First, nice work by the Brits. This was a real plot, with real bad guys -- unlike, say, the doofuses we arrested in Miami a while back. These are the kind of people we are talking about when we discuss fighting terrorism.

Even better news, despite breathless hyperbole from some right-wing sites about how close we came to disaster, is that the plotters had been under surveillance for months. The cops moved in when it looked like the plot was about to be set in motion. So the actual danger -- from this plot, anyway -- was practically nil thanks to good police work.

Predictably, a lot of Bush backers are trumpeting this as evidence we need to give the government even more intrusive surveillance powers. They criticize people who oppose "surveillance" of terrorists.

Speaking as one of those people, however, they're misstating the debate. The issue isn't "should we fight terrorists?" It's not "should we use wiretaps?" It's not "Should we take security concerns seriously?"

It's about method, not goal. It's whether serious inroads on civil liberties are really necessary in order to make us secure. It's whether, even if such methods make us somewhat more secure, they are worth the loss of freedom.

Just as an example, nobody I've run into opposes wiretapping suspected terrorists; many of us just think the government should have to get a warrant to do so. That's not being "soft" on security. It's taking seriously the threat of government abuse of power.

But that's neither here nor there at the moment. A plot was foiled. For one day, let us merely be thankful.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Opposition to Iraq war keeps growing

This could rewrite the electoral landscape in November.

Sixty percent of Americans oppose the U.S. war in Iraq, the highest number since polling on the subject began with the commencement of the war in March 2003, according to poll results and trends released Wednesday.

And a majority of poll respondents said they would support the withdrawal of at least some U.S. troops by the end of the year, according to results from the Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted last week on behalf of CNN. The corporation polled 1,047 adult Americans by telephone.

I don't put much stock in polls, and I don't recommend getting too hepped up about this one. But the trend line is steep enough to grab attention.

If you take it at face value, it helps explain the defeat of Joe Lieberman in a way that doesn't focus on the myriad shortcomings of Ned Lamont. If 60 percent of Americans feel this way, then being a war supporter could be ballot-box poison nationwide, not just among Connecticut Democrats.

To address that, however, you'd have to examine how the poll breaks down by party and geography -- and given a sample size of 1,047, those subsamples would probably be small enough to strain margin-of-error boundaries.

It's an article of faith among pro-war Republicans that Iraq is still a winning issue for them, as they try to frame the debate as being between "stay the course" Republicans and witless "cut-and-run" Democrats.

Whatever you may think of that spin, this poll suggests that the Republicans may simply be wrong about the fundamentals, badly misreading the public mood.

It bears watching, if nothing else.

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Moderate Schwarz loses in Michigan

Demonstrating why moderates need to get more involved in their local parties, incumbent Rep. Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican in Michigan, lost his primary race yesterday.

Rep. Joe Schwarz's re-election campaign turned into a clash of Republican titans: moderates versus conservatives, President Bush and John McCain versus the Club for Growth, and abortion rights versus right-to-life groups.

Schwarz lost and the conservative movement won. Republican Tim Walberg will be heavily favored to succeed the moderate in Congress, but the implications could reach far beyond the borders of the rural southern Michigan district.

Schwarz had the endorsement of people from both the left and the right, including Bush, McCain and even the NRA. And he still lost.

This is less momentous than it seems, because the district is conservative and the only reason Schwarz won in the previous go-round is that four conservative candidates split the vote; Schwarz won that primary with just 28 percent of the vote. So it was almost inevitable that a conservative candidate would eventually emerge to take the seat.

But it was the clearest defeat for a moderate in yesterday's primary races. As the man himself says:

"I look at this election as probably a victory for right to life, anti-abortion, anti-embryonic stem cell groups but it's a net loss for the Republican party because it just pushes the party farther to the right," Schwarz said.

If the Lieberman race was a referendum on the face of the Democratic Party, could this be a referendum on the face of the Republicans? I think the answer is "no" in both cases, but those who wish to make the case for the former should apply the same logic to the latter.

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Lieberman, McKinney lose

The story on Cynthia McKinney.

The story on Joe Lieberman.

The Lieberman race has gotten a lot of attention as some sort of referendum on the "soul" of the Democratic party. But the McKinney race was another primary involving a high-profile Democrat, and it tells a different story.

In the first race, an antiwar upstart overthrows a moderate (conservative) pro-war Democrat. In the other, a radical Democrat is beaten by a more moderate one.

So is Ned Lamont the "face" of the Democratic Party? Or is Hank Johnson?

Or is pointing to one Congressional race out of hundreds as the definitive battle for anything just a touch hyperbolic?

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

DeLay to withdraw from race

Quashing speculation about his status, Tom DeLay said he will withdraw from the House race in his district to make room for a write-in candidate.

"I will take the actions necessary to remove my name from the Texas ballot. To do anything else would be hypocrisy," DeLay said in a statement. "I strongly encourage the Republican Party to take any and all actions necessary to give Texas voters an up-or-down choice this fall between two major party candidates."

If any write-in candidacy has a chance, it's this one. But I wouldn't hold my breath; Democrat Nick Lampson was a strong candidate even against DeLay; he'll still be a strong candidate no matter who the Republicans get to run.

It looks like DeLay's district could go Democratic in November.

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Oy Ney

There's a snag in Ohio, where Bob Ney attempted to annoint State Sen. Joy Padgett as his replacement on the November ballot.

State Sen. Joy Padgett was a losing contender for lieutenant governor in Ohio’s Republican primary earlier this year, and a state law bars politicians who lose one primary from entering another one during the same year.

One Republican strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said lawyers had concluded Padgett was likely covered by the law and thus would not be eligible to run.


Boy, there are a lot of silly laws designed to keep people from having a fair choice among viable candidates.

But if the law taketh away, the law also giveth. State law only requires a primary if a candidate withdraws more than 80 days before a general election. So if Ney waits until after Aug. 21 to officially withdraw, the GOP would have four days to appoint a replacement.

Any bets on what he'll do?

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