2005 - %3, July

Party of Ideas

| Sun Jul. 3, 2005 12:10 AM EDT

Bill Clinton has a Social Security reform idea that I can really get behind:

Legalizing more immigrants would help bolster the Social Security system, former President Bill Clinton told the nation's largest Hispanic-rights organization Friday.

"Those of you who want immigration reform should use Social Security more," Clinton said to about 1,300 members of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "If we legalize just 250,000 more immigrants a year, it would solve half of the shortfall in the Social Security Trust Fund."

Indeed. Now I'm not sure about his numbers, but besides actually being good policy, this seems like the perfect idea to start banging on at every opportunity, no? It's a clear alternative to privatization, it's easy to understand, and it's a horrific wedge issue for Republicans but not so much for Democrats. Well, maybe I'm wrong about that last bit. But I assume Bill Clinton knows what he's doing.

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Friedman Goes to Ireland

| Fri Jul. 1, 2005 5:03 PM EDT

Henry Farrell's post on leprechauns is not to be missed. Well, okay, it's not quite about leprechauns. A couple of days ago Tom Friedman gushed over Ireland, arguing that the country's rapid economic growth of late came all thanks to it's bold and innovative "Anglo-Saxon" model—which, as you might guess, is a putdown of the Franco-German welfare state and a sly encomium to the stripped-down labor laws, low wages, and low income taxes here in America. The only problem is: it's not true. Not only does Ireland have all sorts of nifty labor and employment protections much-bemoaned by free-marketeers, but many economists believe that it's those very non-"Anglo-Saxon" features that have contributed to Ireland's success. Friedman's wrong yet again; I for one can't wait until I have to pay $50 a year to read his columns online.

The Easy Way Out?

Fri Jul. 1, 2005 4:02 PM EDT

If Bush wants a quick Supreme Court confirmation with guaranteed conservative results, he need look no further than the Capitol building. Fourteen senators have gone on to serve in the Supreme Court (though it's been almost fifty years since the last ex-Senator Sherman Minton left the court) and at least a half-dozen current ones have been mentioned as potential picks. USA Today has a conservative judicial watcher giving the nod to John Cornyn of Texas as an O'Connor replacement. The same article puts Arizona's Jon Kyl in the running.

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (the anti-abortion Senator now charged with saving Roe) has said that neither would meet his standards. Both serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, so they'd have to recuse themselves from that round of consideration. On the other hand, the Republicans would still have a 9-8 majority in the committee, and would have no problem reporting either one, even in the unlikely event of serious Democratic objections. One obvious line of defense that the Dems would have against Senators as nominees would be to argue that it's inappropriate to send conservative politicians to the court—remember middle school civics lessons about that special non-politicized branch of government. But on Tuesday, Harry Reid left that argument dead on arrival by, yes, suggesting that Bush nominate Mike Crapo (ID), Mike DeWine (OH) or Mel Martinez (FL).

David Corn makes for worthwhile reading today. He suggests that Utah's Orrin Hatch is another possible choice, putting six names in the mix. But Corn also notes that the upcoming Supreme Court nomination battle is already stacked in Bush's favor, and that he has little to lose by going for the conservative gold. So Sherman, your record is probably safe.

The Girl in the Cafe

Fri Jul. 1, 2005 1:00 PM EDT

On Wednesday, the leaders of the world's seven largest industrialized nations and Russia will convene in Gleneagles, Scotland for the 2005 G8 summit. In Britain, this is big news, as both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have placed African development high on the conference agenda, and will be pushing the United States to put up more aid. This past Saturday HBO premiered The Girl in The Café, a joint effort with the BBC that presents the struggles of a fictional British G8 delegation in a similar position. It's a straight-to-TV drama that grafts a simple romance story onto a fairly radical critique of the anti-poverty lip service usually spouted by the industrialized world.

The plot? Pathetic overworked British bureaucrat meets beautiful and mysterious girl. He soon invites her to accompany him to the G8 conference in Reykjavik. After reading a stack of her escort's conference documents, she becomes the ball's radical Cinderella, stridently advocating for the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (which aim to eradicate third world poverty, hunger, etc.) until she is thrown out of the conference. You know, a classic love story.

Even though Richard Curtis (Notting Hill and Love Actually) serves as screenwriter, the actual romance part of the story seems a bit dull and uninspiring, especially standing side-by-side with the sharp denunciations of the hypocrisy and callousness exhibited by most of the Western polity to suffering in the developing world. The female lead obviously has a thing for far-fetched charity cases, both in love and humanitarianism. The movie closes with white on black text reminding viewers that next week, millions of lives could be saved if only eight men display a bit of political courage. (Hint, hint.)

The film, and the development agenda it champions, has been getting a lot of attention in the U.K. as the conference grows near. Of course, it's hard to say why that is, but it seems safe to say that pop-culture efforts like Café or Bob Geldof's Live8 have gone a long way towards increasing awareness about the G-8 conference and the issues surrounding it. Café is perhaps a more mature way to raise these issues than a series of rock concerts. The gatecrasher's words shame both her antagonists and the film's viewers. And the producers hope that their audience's outrage will shame the G8 into action.

O'Connor Retires

| Fri Jul. 1, 2005 11:01 AM EDT

As far as Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement goes, along with the all-consuming question of "Who will replace her?," I'm afraid David Sirota has this exactly right. Some lunatic winger will get nominated -- maybe even Janice Rogers Brown -- the Democrats in the Senate will say, "Oh hell no" and launch a filibuster. So the battle will rage on for a while, Bush's "base" will get riled up and motivated to send in lots and lots of money, conservative judicial activists will blast their opponents with fairly superior firepower, and bobbing heads in the media will start carping on those "obstructionist" Democrats (bonus carping here if the nominee is a woman, minority, and/or Catholic). Finally Bush will give a very somber speech about withdrawing his nominee, announce that he's very disappointed in the Senate, toss in a few bonus 9/11 references, and nominate some slightly-less-lunatic ultraconservative instead. The new nominee gets treated as the "compromise" candidate, is lauded far and wide as a moderate, and finally gets confirmed after pressure on the Senate Dems to "act like grown-ups" by television pundits who can afford to get their abortions abroad and will have no problem with a Supreme Court hostile to labor and environmental protections.

One would hope not, of course, but is there anyone who finds this scenario wildly implausible?

UPDATE: Jeff Dubner disagrees, and offers a variation on the theme that also sounds quite realistic, this one involving the nuclear option.

Pollack on Iraq

| Fri Jul. 1, 2005 10:07 AM EDT

So does anyone have any bright ideas on what to do about Iraq? Ask Ken Pollack, he's got a few:

[M]ost of our operations against insurgents have done little but further antagonize the Sunni tribes of western Iraq. We should instead be building safe zones in cities and rural areas, and guarding communications and transportation sites, to allow Iraq's political and economic life to revive. We need to shift the bulk of our troops from trying to pacify insurgent hotspots that may never support reconstruction and toward keeping the peace in areas dominated by Shiites and urban Sunnis, who for the most part want nothing to do with the insurgency but long to live normal lives.

This is a variation on a proposal first made by Frederick Barton and Bathsheba Crocker of CSIS. I don't want to criticize too harshly, but there seem to be a couple of problems with this idea. For one, we don't appear to have the troops to switch to policing, even if US forces did pull out of al-Anbar province, vacate Fallujah, all that. My understanding, from what I've been told, is that our soldiers don't do much policing right now because of concerns about force protection. If they were to spread themselves thin, patrolling on foot, mingling with the locals, cultivating intelligence ties, then a lot more of our soldiers would be coming home in flag-covered coffins, at least in the short term. So instead, US forces understandably prefer to go zooming down the streets in armored columns, guns pointed at anything that moves, and there's rarely a lasting US presence in any one civilian region. They don't do this because they're dicks; they do it because getting blown up isn't their idea of a good time.

Now the way around this problem, obviously, is to send more troops to Iraq. How many? To maintain North Ireland-esque ratios of 20 security force personnel for every 1,000 citizens—and Pollack cites North Ireland as his ideal—in the non-Sunni areas, however, would require at least 250,000 troops all told. That's a pipe dream, as Fred Kaplan explained yesterday. Plus, we'll need our troops to do the sort of police-work they aren't normally trained to do. Can this be done? I honestly don't know. And even if that all happened, we'd still be dealing with, in all likelihood, a big uptick in American casualties in the short-term, since insurgents would have many more targets, and less-protected targets at that. The stream of body bags might be a bit thorny when trying to maintain support back on the home front, especially with midterm elections coming up.

Meanwhile, I assume that the US would have to use air and ground raids to prevent any of the now-vacated Sunni areas from becoming major, Afghanistan-style terrorist sanctuaries. But that's not nearly enough. The Sunni insurgents would still be able to establish themselves in many areas, find new strongholds like Fallujah, and in the end grow much, much stronger from their newfound safe havens. Meanwhile, presumably a focus on policing would make patrolling the borders all the more difficult, no? Now one possible solution to this problem, as Pollack says, is that we could try bribing many of the Sunni tribal leaders to keep the peace. That doesn't make for a very stable situation in the long term, I would think, but it could work. Given that they'd be allowed to police the region on their own, free from an immediate US presence—although we'd still, of course, be bombing many of their houses—perhaps many of these Sunni tribal sheikhs would actual bite. Though we also saw what happened when we let the Sunnis govern Fallujah themselves, didn't we?

Anyway, my rough guess is that Pollack's strategy would be no less likely to achieve our ostensible "goals"—a stable Iraq with a central government that has a monopoly on violence—than the current course would, but it would take a long time. And it also all depends on whether we can get those extra soldiers or not. That seems pretty unlikely, no? On another note, Jim Henley outlines a possible "cut-and-run" scenario that seems realistic. Ultimately, the idea is to entice the Sunnis into the central government by dangling the carrot of US withdrawal. It works if the Sunnis we're negotiating with are large enough and influential enough to make a difference. If not, then it's a bust and Iraq implodes. But as I've been saying for awhile now—and this is something Pollack doesn't acknowledge—we might have to start coming to terms with the fact that failure really is an option here.