David Brooks rethinks

David Brooks once called John Kerry "a fraud with a manly bearing." He made fun of him for correctly understanding the nature of terrorism–that it wasn’t a question of armies and generals and nation states, but rather a matter of politics, and of course, law and order. Now this:

The war on terror has shredded the reputation of the Bush administration. It’s destroyed the reputation of Tony Blair’s government in Britain, Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel and Nuri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq. And here’s a prediction: It will destroy future American administrations, and future Israeli, European and world governments as well.

That’s because setbacks in the war on terror don’t only flow from the mistakes of individual leaders and generals. They’re structural. Thanks to a series of organizational technological innovations, guerrilla insurgencies are increasingly able to take on and defeat nation-states.

So he was wrong. But it turns out that it wasn’t anyone’s fault after all. Not so. The mistakes in Iraq–and in Afghanistan–flow from one single source–the commander guy. Had he not envisioned the whole thing–wrongly–as an epic battle between good and evil, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. And it seems wrong therefore to call all insurgency, as Brooks does, "war on terror." If you take what he says seriously, that’s the problem.

Full of gas

George Will’s faith in free markets knows no bounds. Any suggestion that gas prices are too high results in all sorts of unrestrained sophmoric vitriol–supported by research from the American Enterprise Institute of all places. As always, an argument can be made that gas is not as high as it used to be (adjusted for inflation and so forth), but that’s not really the point. Gas has more than doubled in price very suddenly. On top of that, more and more people are dependent on it being cheap (don’t get me wrong, that’s not a right). That creates a good deal of shock. But the fact that people keep driving doesn’t mean they don’t care about the price, as Will seems to think:

>Democrats, seething at the injustice of gasoline prices, have sprung to the aid of embattled motorists. So resolute are Democrats about defending the downtrodden, they are undeterred by the fact that motorists, not acting like people trodden upon, are driving more than ever. Gasoline consumption has increased 2.14 percent during the past year.

It means they don’t have a choice. The more relevant question would be whether people continue to engage in frivolous driving. Or if people who engage in unnecessary driving make cuts elsewhere. In either case, the simple fact of continued gas buying doesn’t establish anything about the mental state of the purchaser.

But here’s the real gem of whiny sophomoric libertarianism:

>Pelosi announced herself “particularly concerned” that the highest price of gasoline recently was in her San Francisco district — $3.49. So she endorses HR 1252 to protect consumers from “price gouging,” defined, not altogether helpfully, by a blizzard of adjectives and adverbs. Gouging occurs when gasoline prices are “unconscionably” excessive, or sellers raise prices “unreasonably” by taking “unfair” advantage of “unusual” market conditions, or when the price charged represents a “gross” disparity from the price of crude oil, or when the amount charged “grossly” exceeds the price at which gasoline is obtainable in the same area. The bill does not explain how a gouger can gouge when his product is obtainable more cheaply nearby. Actually, Pelosi’s constituents are being gouged by people like Pelosi — by government. While oil companies make about 13 cents on a gallon of gasoline, the federal government makes 18.4 cents (the federal tax) and California’s various governments make 40.2 cents (the nation’s third-highest gasoline tax). Pelosi’s San Francisco collects a local sales tax of 8.5 percent — higher than the state’s average for local sales taxes.

The absence of an entire quotation ought to be a sign to the kids out there that a straw man is in the works. Why not just tell us what the law says in its own words–like snot-nosed internet critics do for you? Here’s an example:

>B) indicates the seller is taking unfair advantage unusual market conditions (whether real or perceived) or the circumstances of an emergency to increase prices unreasonably.

That seems far less unreasonable than the selective quotes. He doesn’t even link to the text of the bill. If he had, he could make a stronger case for his position. But having distorted the purpose and content of the bill, Will now grasps even further: but the government gouges too! Jeez. That’s not even close. If you don’t know what “gouges” means, look it up in the dictionary.

Another response

Sunday’s Outlook section in the Washington Post featured an essay entitlted, “What We Got Right in Iraq,” by L.Paul “Gerry” Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq (May 2003-June 2004). What I found striking about this piece was the immediate reach for the Nazi analogy. In the second paragraph of a long essay, Bremer writes:

>Like most Americans, I am disappointed by the difficulties the nation has encountered after our quick 2003 victory over Saddam Hussein. But the U.S.-led coalition was absolutely right to strip away the apparatus of a particularly odious tyranny. Hussein modeled his regime after Adolf Hitler’s, which controlled the German people with two main instruments: the Nazi Party and the Reich’s security services. We had no choice but to rid Iraq of the country’s equivalent organizations to give it any chance at a brighter future.

Laus Deo that I’m not the only one to have noticed the silly desperation of the Nazi analogy. In today’s Post, Nir Rosen, fellow at the New America Foundation writes:

>Bremer claims that Hussein “modeled his regime after Adolf Hitler’s” and compares the Baath Party to the Nazi Party. Set aside the desperation of the debater who reaches immediately for the Nazi analogy and remember that there is no mention of such “modeling” in any of the copious literature about Iraq. This ludicrous Nazi analogy permeates the entire article; it also permeated the proconsul’s time in Baghdad, when Bremer imagined himself de-Nazifying postwar Germany, saving the Jews (the Shiites) from the Nazis (those evil Sunnis).

>This thoughtless comparison is one of the main reasons why he performed so horribly in Iraq. (Remember, most Baath Party members were Shiites; so in Bremer’s analogy, I suppose most of the Iraqi “Nazis” would be “Jews.”)

He’s right about both the silly comparison (Hussein admired Stalin more) and the fact that it’s the logical trope of the entire piece (if not whole belief systems of some who think about Iraq). Saddam wasn’t Hitler, no matter how evil he was. Whatever their many faults, one has to be thankful that the Post op-ed page editors published a rebuttal.

At long last, a response

Not often does one see columnists argue openly with each other–especially columnists of the same newspaper. The best they can usually muster is the straw man “some say . . “. That’s why it’s refreshing to read the following from Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post:

>Some say the bank isn’t worth rescuing. My colleague George F. Will asserts that 90 percent of the bank’s loans go to 27 middle-income countries that can get all the development finance they need from private capital markets. But this statistic leaves out the bank’s soft-loan and grant-making arm, which serves countries with gross domestic products of less than $965 per capita. Counting that, just under half of the bank’s money went to poor countries in 2006. The middle-income countries that received the rest of the cash include such places as China and Brazil, which are home to millions of poor people.

>The bank’s critics ought to understand that while capital markets are marvelous things, they can’t be expected to do everything. Private investors won’t provide loans in the midst of a crisis, as the World Bank did during the East Asian meltdown a decade ago. Private investors tend not to finance global public goods — projects that are important for the world but not a priority for any one country. The world needs to curb carbon emissions, for example, but an individual country won’t capture all the benefits of a clean coal plant, since these benefits are shared globally. Because of this “externality” problem, there is a role for the World Bank in subsidizing anti-carbon policies.

We were struck by that same op-ed (for a different reason). Notice two things. Mallaby names his opponent specifically and he provides a link to the original argument (rather than a partial contextless quotation (so often the hoist by your own petard strategy employed by Will) or an unfriendly synopsis). If you have a question about Mallaby’s fairness (which you might) he tells you where to look. It’s almost as if Mallaby were some kind of media critic blogger. Now one can hardly expect the op-ed page to turn into the debate page. But a little awareness of each other seems to be a step in the direction of actual intellectual engagement.

A la mode

One fun and snobby way of undermining the sincerity, originality, and appropriateness of someone else’s moral claim is to call it “fashionable.” Perhaps not surprisingly philosophers do this to each other all of the time. “Oh that’s really hot right now” is another way of suggesting that someone is a follower rather than an original thinker.

With that broad theme in mind, let’s turn to today’s lesson from George Will. The World Bank scandal–in which Paul Wolfowitz, patient listener and student of foreign languages used his leadership role to score a lucrative job for his girlfriend–teaches us not about the incompetence, arrogance and corruption of its president, but it informs us about the decades long retreat from “statism” and of the absurdities of fettering capitalism. In the course of making this argument (which someone else can bother with), Will points to the superficiality of the World Bank’s causes:

>Much of what recipient countries save by receiving the bank’s subsidized loans they pay in the costs of ” technical assistance,” the euphemism for being required to adopt the social agendas of the rich nations’ governments that fund the bank. Those agendas focus on intrusive government actions on behalf of fashionable causes — the empowerment of women, labor, environmentalism, indigenous peoples, etc.

Take that girls, workers and environment. When will misogyny, slavery, pollution, and imperialism come back in style? Those were the days.

Value claims

Stanley Fish argues that advocacy is unavoidable. His argument has a kind of definitional inevitability about it. You know therefore that there’s something wrong with it. In his Times Select (sorry about the firewall for those without NYTimes accounts), he claims that it’s silly to look to eliminate spin from public discourse. Speaking of Unspun, a recent book about spin by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Fish writes:

>But some of their examples suggest that active open-mindedness (even if it could be practiced, and I don’t think it could) may not be enough. The first example in the book of the spin you should be able to see through if you are sufficiently alert is a 2006 statement by Karl Rove to the effect that “Real disposable income has risen almost 14 percent since President Bush took office.” Jackson and Jamieson regard this claim as “so divorced from reality as to seem unhinged.” Why? Because the real disposable income Rove cited “was a statistic that measures the total increase in income, not how that income is distributed.” That is to say, the 14-percent increase did not benefit everyone, but went largely “to those in the upper half of society”; the disposable income of the lower half had “fallen by 3.6 percent.”

>Does this prove spin? I don’t think so. What it proves is that in Rove’s view, the health of the economy is to be gauged by looking at how big investors and property owners are doing, while in Jackson’s and Jamieson’s view, an economy is not healthy unless the fruits of its growth are widely shared. This is a real difference, but it is a difference in beliefs about what conditions must obtain if an economy is to be pronounced healthy. It is not a difference between a clear-eyed view of the matter and a view colored by a partisan agenda. If the question of fact is “do we have a healthy economy?” there are no independent bits of evidence that can tip the scale in favor of a “yes” or “no,” because the evidence put forward by either side will only be evidence in the light of economic beliefs that are structuring the arena of assessment. Those beliefs (roughly, “trickle down” and “spread the wealth”) tell you what the relevant evidence is and what it is evidence of. But they are not judged by the evidence; they generate it.

This smacks of a fairly undergraduate relativism about value claims (which, ironically, few of my undergraduates would hold). Evaluative terminology has an obvious flexibility–but it’s hardly true to lump all such claims into the same category. Economic health is not a matter of taste–some like hotdogs and trickle down economics, others socialism and foie gras. As the authors of the book seem to argue, one ought to be point out that what Rove means by health is at variance with what the listener–or for that matter the majority of mainstream economists–might consider health. So value claims ought to be unspun in front of their likely and incorrect interpretations. If Bush calls occupying a foreign country a “freedom plan,” it ought to be pointed out that it’s an abuse of language to call it “free.” While this is not a matter of simple fact, as Fish seems to imagine the author’s claiming, it is a matter of reasonable judgment.

The depressing thing here though is Fish’s embracing the mode of perpetual advocacy. On this silly view, no one is ever free from advocating his or her point of view–not even Fish, when he talks about advocating a point of view.

The man with the plan

I don’t often read David Broder, the Dean of the Washington Pundits, mostly because I have a hard enough time understanding the straightforward opinion columnists to think about the meta-political crystal-balling that seems to be Broder’s special expertise. Broder’s columns seem to me to be descriptive and interpretive, rather than normative, political analysis. That’s not a criticism. There’s whole lot more that goes on in newspapers–and on op-ed pages–that we don’t have the time, inclination, or expertise to deal with here. Others, such as Glenn Greenwald and Bob Somerby have cultivated an expertise on the language of political analysis (they even have the patience to read Maureen Dowd).

But there has been a lot of flap about Broder lately, partly because he’s been colossally and obviously wrong about Bush’s political fortunes. He claimed many months ago that Bush was poised for a comeback, when, as it turned out, he has continued his dismal run of low approval ratings and policy failures.

Broder, however, continues to find ways to support him. He writes:

>In this moment, the commander in chief has a clear plan — to apply more military force in and around Baghdad in hopes of suppressing the sectarian violence and creating space for the Iraqi politicians to assemble a functioning government.

>It is a high-risk policy with no guarantee of success. But it is a clear strategy.

Many have argued in fact that it’s not a “clear” plan at all and more importantly that it has shown almost innumerable signs of having already failed. But that’s another matter (a factual one). What I find interesting is the aesthetic appraisal of the plan–it’s “clear” (notice he says it twice). It’s clarity is a feature of the descriptions of the plan, but not it’s not a metric of success or failure of the plan itself. For, after all, lots of plans could be clear: “run away” is a clear plan; “more rubble less trouble” is a clear plan (a really silly one I think); re-invade is a clear plan. It’s obvious in other words what these involve. And furthermore, the clarity of the plan is a minimal condition. It’s like saying, for instance, but the President’s plan is printed on glossy paper, with charts.

Now, contrast this aesthetic appraisal of Bush’s plan with Broder’s picture of the Democrats:

>The Democratic-controlled Congress, on the other hand, lacks agreement on any such plan. Most Democrats are unwilling to exercise their right to cut off funds for the war in Iraq, lest they be accused of abandoning the troops in the middle of the fight.

In the first place, as Broder has already pointed out, the President is the commander guy, so the Congress doesn’t have a plan on the same order as he does. They can’t control military strategy–the can’t do so even through funding the military or, get this, voting to allow the President to use military strategy. What that particular strategy is, as anyone knows, rests with the President. The Congress can influence the policy objectives with the purse strings, but they don’t propose and have no means or proposing alternative military strategies. As a result, it makes no sense to compare the President’s “clear plan” with Congress’s “lack of a clear plan” unless you mean only to assess their relative aesthetic value.


Sometimes, more often than I like actually, I’m wrong about stuff (feel free everyone to point that out–I’ll deny and defend myself, but that’s what makes me wrong, so don’t lose heart). Others are like me–they can be wrong to, even about stuff they’re supposed to be experts in. And sometimes when they’re wrong, they make a big mess that the others have to clean up.

As Glenn Greenwald has tirelessly pointed out, no one who was wrong about the Iraq war (we’d be greeted as liberators!) has ever paid a price in diminished authority. Finally, Charles Krauthammer makes the same point, though in the context of shaming George Tenet, Medal of Freedom winner and intelligence bungler, who has recently turned on Bush. Krauthammer writes:

>The decision to go to war was made by a war cabinet consisting of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. No one in that room could even remotely be considered a neoconservative. Nor could the most important non-American supporter of the war to this day — Tony Blair, father of new Labor.

>The most powerful case for the war was made at the 2004 Republican convention by John McCain in a speech that was resolutely “realist.” On the Democratic side, every presidential candidate running today who was in the Senate when the motion to authorize the use of force came up — Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd– voted yes.

>Outside of government, the case for war was made not just by the neoconservative Weekly Standard but — to select almost randomly — the traditionally conservative National Review, the liberal New Republic and the center-right Economist. Of course, most neoconservatives supported the war, the case for which was also being made by journalists and scholars from every point on the political spectrum — from the leftist Christopher Hitchens to the liberal Tom Friedman to the centrist Fareed Zakaria to the center-right Michael Kelly to the Tory Andrew Sullivan. And the most influential tome on behalf of war was written not by any conservative, let alone neoconservative, but by Kenneth Pollack, Clinton’s top Near East official on the National Security Council. The title: “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.”

>Everyone has the right to renounce past views. But not to make up that past. It is beyond brazen to think that one can get away with inventing not ancient history but what everyone saw and read with their own eyes just a few years ago. And yet sometimes brazenness works.

That’s right Charles. And you were all wrong. All of you.

Ad Hominize

Props to Richard Cohen for verbing:

>Kucinich is an odd guy for whom the killer appellation “perennial presidential candidate” is lethally applied. But he is on to something here. It is easy enough to ad hominize him to the margins — ya know, the skinny guy among the “real” presidential candidates — but at a given moment, and this is one, he’s the only one on that stage who articulates a genuine sense of betrayal. He is not out merely to win the nomination but to hold the Bush administration — particularly Cheney — accountable. In this he will fail. What Cheney has done is not impeachable. It is merely unforgivable.

Other than the “skinny guy” comment, however, it’s not really ad hominem. The observation about Kucinich is that he won’t get anywhere with his charges. Why should that be a surprise? Cohen has proclaimed what Cheney has done as unimpeachable.


A major in the Marine reserves writes a guest op-ed in today’s New York Times in favor of the surge, he argues toward the following rhyme scheme:

>The idea is that, starting this fall, the Iraqi units would bulk up so the American units could begin to break up, moving to an advisory model in which the number of American soldiers embedded with Iraqi units triples while the overall United States force declines. Today many American patrols operate independently. In a year’s time, ideally, no American patrol would leave its base without a fully integrated Iraqi presence.

Fair enough, but that seems to me like the warmed over stand up/down view. But back to how he makes the case. Two things I think are worth noting.

First, the confusion of the war in Iraq with the war some kind of war against expansionist ideologues:

>The two Congressional votes last week establishing timelines for withdrawing American troops completely undermined such assurances. The confusion stems from an inherent contradiction in our politics: Though the burden of war is shouldered by few, the majority of Americans want to vacate Iraq, and the percentages are increasing. Something has to give.

>We’re four years into a global conflict that will span generations, fighting virulent ideologues obsessed with expansion. It’s time for those who are against the war in Iraq to consider the probable military consequences of withdrawal. But it is also time for supporters of the war to step back and recognize that public opinion in great part dictates our martial options.

Others say we’re in the midst of a civil war in Iraq. And the fight against the other guys–the big trash talking guys bent on expansionism, is another fight of another type. Worse than that, they argue that our presence in Iraq, however well-intentioned, does naught but give the trash-talking expansionists reason to enlist more into their terrorist enterprise. Iraq, after all, is a mostly Shiite country, al Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist movement; the Sunnis aren’t going to take over Iraq.

Second, support the troops:

>It’s hard for a soldier like me to reconcile a political jab like Senator Harry Reid’s “this war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything” when it’s made in front of a banner that reads “Support Our Troops.” But the politician’s job is different from the soldier’s. Mr. Reid’s belief — that the best way to support the troops is by acknowledging defeat and pulling them out of Iraq — is likely shared by a large slice of the population, which gives it legitimacy.

Yet another reason to dump the now ironic phrase “support our troops.” But this sets up the argument by anecdote:

>It seems oddly detached, however, from what’s happening on the battlefield. The Iraqi battalion I lived with is stationed outside of Habbaniya, a small city in violent Anbar Province. Together with a fledgling police force and a Marine battalion, these Iraqi troops made Habbaniya a relatively secure place: it has a souk where Iraqi soldiers can shop outside their armored Humvees, public generators that don’t mysteriously explode, children who walk to school on their own. The area became so stable, in fact, that it attracted the attention of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. In late February, the Sunni insurgents blew up the mosque, killing 36.

That’s only one battlefield, some would argue, in big war. The rest, as almost no one disputes, is going so well as to have only 36 people killed.