Quote of the Day

From Barack Obama, asked what he thinks about Afghan president Hamid Karzai:

He has some strengths, but he has some weaknesses

Obama went on to say, basically, that he didn't care much about Karzai anyway: "I'm less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people."  Not exactly a warm, personal relationship there, is it?

Matt Yglesias on how we should distribute additional troops in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan is a big country. So in addition to the question of how many resources should be sent to Afghanistan, there’s the question of where they should go. Recently, the tendency has been to throw additional resources at the parts of the country where things are worse. In his latest Carnegie Endowment report “Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan”, Gilles Dorronsoro argues that this would be a big mistake. The resources being contemplated, he argues, aren’t enough to win the war in the South. Sending them there would merely guarantee that we also lose the war in the North and the East, without making much progress in the South.

Instead, he prefers to adopt a more defensive posture in the South—securing main cities where the Taliban is disliked—and focus our attention on winning what he regards as the more winnable struggles in the North and East where the Taliban is making gains but isn’t deeply intertwined with local communities.

Hmmm.  This reminds me of the crime fighting strategy Mark Kleiman outlines in When Brute Force Fails.  It's too complicated to explain the whole thing here, but basically the idea is to concentrate overwhelming force on a small fraction of the population, which then shapes up because they have zero chance of getting away with anything.  As they become better behaved, resources then move to other areas, and eventually the whole population is well behaved.

In other words, it's pretty much the crime equivalent of clear and hold, which is a counterinsurgency staple.  It's also (very roughly) what the surge did in Iraq.  The overall increase in troops from the surge was only about 20%, which seemed plainly inadequate to the task, but most of those troops were concentrated in Baghdad, and it turned out that this was enough to clean up the city.

Now, cleaning up petty crime among drug probationers is not the same thing as stabilizing Afghanistan, but some of the principles are the same.  And as I recall, whether "dynamic concentration" works depends a lot on how widespread violence is to begin with; how good your monitoring and response is; whether your resource level is high enough in the initial target areas; and how much time you have.  Those would all be excellent things to stuff into a game theoretical model to see if an additional 40,000 troops can really make a difference in Afghanistan.  As I've said before, I'm less interested in the argument over the number of troops we send there (which tends to get sterile pretty quickly) than I am in what the detailed strategy is to deploy those troops.  Still waiting on that, though.

The rest of today promises to be big for health care reform. At 5:00 p.m., Sen. Harry Reid plans to explain the Senate's merged health care bill to his Democratic colleagues at a caucus meeting. The bill will probably be unveiled to the public later in the evening, and the crucial Congressional Budget Office "score" of the bill—estimating its costs and benefits—is expected sometime today, too.

TPM's Brian Beutler reports that Reid may adhere to the 72-hour rule for public comment on legislation before trying to pass a motion to proceed with debate—something that requires 60 votes and will be the first big test for the Senate bill. Beutler also reminds readers that a Republican stunt calling for reading the entire bill aloud is likely to delay actual debate until after senators return from next week's Thanksgiving recess.

You can expect all sorts of ludicrous comments, misinformation, and silliness about the Senate bill all over cable television, the internet, and the print media starting, well, just about now.

World leaders may have failed to lay the necessary groundwork to sign a climate treaty in Copenhagen. But some good news did emerge from President's Obama's trip to China this week. Obama's meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao on Tuesday provided a few hopeful clues that the world's two heavyweight polluters are inching toward a climate consensus.

China and the US account for roughly 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so what they decide to do about climate change will determine the success or failure of a global treaty. Following the meeting, Obama said that he and Hu had agreed that any treaty at Copenhagen should have an "immediate operational effect." He added, "We agreed that each of us would take significant mitigation actions and stand behind these commitments."

Of course, with any international negotiation the devil is in how you define vague terms like "significant mitigation actions." Obama and Hu's announcement was short on specifics, although a joint statement said they had agreed to collaborate on, among other things, designing electric and other clean-fuel vehicles, improving the energy efficiency of building stock, and developing carbon-capture-and-sequestration for coal plants, according to the New York Times.

But perhaps the most significant development was that the leaders appeared to agree that China and the US can take different paths to reducing emissions. Hu touted the acknowledgement that the two nations could have "common but differentiated responsibilities." Translation? This language allows for a scenario in which rapidly developing countries like China commit to reducing emissions—but not at the same level as developed nations.

Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Justice Department's decision to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused 9/11 plotters in civilian courts was bound to be contentious. Senate Republicans didn't disappoint, moving quickly to accuse Attorney General Eric Holder of putting politics ahead of national security by prosecuting KSM blocks away from where the twin towers once stood. Holder stood his ground. "There was not a political component to my decision," he insisted.

It's true that at first glance, Holder's decision doesn't seem to have much to do with politics. The Justice Department's current plans—to try some terrorist suspects in the US court system but not others—are drawing fire from both liberals and conservatives. Influential commentators like the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder have argued that the decision is so politically toxic it must be non-political. "If this is politics, it's really dumb politics," Ambinder writes. "And that's why it's probably not politics."

Ambinder argues that Occam's razor—the logical principle that the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct—supports his theory. But Occam's razor suggests that Holder, like every Attorney General before him, considers the political ramifications of all his decisions before he makes them. It would be truly remarkable for any AG to do otherwise.

When you think about it, the Obama administration's decision on how to deal with terrorist suspects—upsetting both the left and the right—fits in perfectly with the Andrew Sullivan theory of Barack Obama. Sullivan believes that Obama and his team play the long game (Obama claims as much in interviews) and don't worry too much about the short-term politics of their decisions. Bringing people like KSM to trial doesn't have much public support right now (just 29 percent of Americans support this move, according to a recent Rasmussen poll). If you want to bring terror suspects to trial in the future, you're going to need to change the paradigm. But wholesale change—trying all of the Gitmo detainees in federal court—could be politically disasterous. So you start with a few, high-profile trials—provided you firmly believe they will result in convictions and ultimately bolster support for working within the US justice system to try more terrorism detainees. You take some knocks now from civil libertarians who are upset that you're only trying five people in federal court and from conservatives who are upset that you're trying anyone. But neither side is truly enraged because neither side has truly lost. Meanwhile, you're changing the only minds that matter—those of the American people.

The administration's strategy is already demonstrating its short-term political usefulness, too.  As the judiciary committee's ranking Republican member, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, interrogated Holder on Wednesday morning, the AG repeatedly brought up his decision to send Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the accused planner of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, to a military commission. In essence, Holder used the al-Nashiri decision as a shield against conservative criticism. Every time Sessions hit him for transferring KSM to federal court, Holder brought up the administration's continued use of the military commissions. You can bet that when the administration gets hit from the left over al-Nashiri, they'll bring up the KSM trial. Either way, they'll have a counterargument. Being in the middle can have its benefits. The only charge they'll have trouble rebutting is one of inconsistency.

In July, I was the first to report that the National Archives was considering conducting high-tech forensic tests on two pages of presidential records that could provide key clues to one of the great political mysteries in US history: what was on the 18 1/2 minutes of White House tapes suspiciously erased during the Watergate scandal? Last year, Phil Mellinger, a one-time National Security Agency systems analyst and Watergate researcher, made an intriguing discovery—that meeting notes written by H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon's chief of staff, seemed to contain a gap corresponding to the gap in the recording of the infamous June 20, 1972 conversation during which Nixon and Haldeman discussed the Watergate break-in. Mellinger asked the Archives to test other pages of Haldeman notes from this meeting to determine if indented writing could be found on these pages. The goal would be to find impressions indicating what Haldeman had written on possibly missing pages that covered the part of the conversation obliterated from the tapes. On Wednesday, the National Archives announced it was proceeding with the testing Mellinger requested.

Here's the press release:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The National Archives and Records Administration announced today that it is convening a forensic document examination team to study two pages of the handwritten notes of H. R. Haldeman, a chief of staff to President Richard M. Nixon, 1969-1973. The notes are among the permanent records in the holdings of the National Archives.

The two pages of notes under investigation were purported to have been created during Mr. Haldeman's 11:30 A.M. meeting with President Nixon on June 20, 1972, in the Executive Office Building, three days after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This is the same meeting in which 18 1/2 minutes of tape-recorded conversation between Mr. Nixon and Mr. Haldeman were erased, prior to the White House tape recorded conversations being turned over to Judge Sirica in response to a subpoena from the Watergate Special Prosecution Force.

The National Archives has assembled the examination team in attempt to clarify some mysteries surrounding the June 20 meeting, of which Mr. Haldeman's notes are the only extant account. Historians and scholars have long speculated on the subject of that meeting. The team will attempt to determine whether there is any evidence that additional notes were taken at the meeting that are no longer part of the original file.

Instrumental examinations of the documents will include Hyperspectral Imaging at the Library of Congress to study the ink and to possibly reveal latent or indented images on the paper; Video Spectral Comparison (VSC) of the ink entries and paper substrates; and Electrostatic Detection Analysis (ESDA) to reveal indented images that could correspond to original handwriting on these or other pages - present or no longer present - among documents from the Haldeman files.

Team members include experts from the Library of Congress Preservation Research and Testing Division, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Forensic Science Laboratory, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Forensic Science Laboratory.

The National Archives will announce the test results in a press availability event as soon as the testing is complete. The expected time-frame is early 2010.

My original article was headlined "CSI: Watergate." Indeed. Good luck to the real-life forensic experts working this caper.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Sleazy Web Marketing

Have you ever purchased something online, pressed the "Continue" button, and then, months later, discovered that you had signed yourself up for a membership program that was charging your credit card 20 bucks a month for something you had never heard of and never knew you were buying?  Well, guess what: these scams are a multi-billion dollar business, they're partnered with lots of brand name sites you'd think you could trust, and they do everything they can to sign you up for their "services" without you knowing about it.

More here from Felix Salmon, but make sure your blood pressure is in good shape before you click over to read about it.  Previous background about legal harrassment of a blogger who wrote about this a couple of months ago here.  (Note: blood pressure warning still applies.)

So how about that big 11-person fact-check that AP did of Sarah Palin's book?  Over at CJR, Greg Marx is unimpressed:

Leaving aside the issue of resource allocation, the question is: Did the fact check deliver?

Not so much — at least not if the phrase “fact check” is going to have any specific meaning....Even accepting all of the AP’s claims, several of the cases it mentions are as much matters of interpretation and analysis as factual accuracy. And in some, the Palin statements that it scrutinizes don’t even make factual claims — meaning that there’s not much to “check.”

....This sort of thing matters because, in an increasingly contested political landscape and wide-open media environment, there really is a need for fact checking....But for the idea of fact checking to have any weight — and any hope of broad credibility — it must mean something more specific than “contesting a statement that we disagree with.” When Sarah Palin talks about “Obama’s ‘death panel,’” she’s spreading misinformation that needs to be repudiated. When she talks about being beckoned by purpose, she’s being a politician. We need to recognize the difference.

I wasn't very impressed with AP's effort either, which is why I didn't blog about it at the time.  Somerby is pretty unthrilled too.  Better fact checking, please.

Collateral Damage

Via Dan Drezner, Charli Carpenter tells us that although war crimes are down over the past couple of decades compared to historical averages, collateral damage is up.  Way up:

But collateral damage is not only increasing as a percentage of all civilian deaths. The number of collateral damage victims is also increasing over time in absolute terms. Between 1823 and 1900, 84 civilians per year on average were the victims of collateral damage. Since 1990, the number is 1688 per year — a twenty-fold increase.

Dan comments:

This finding, if it holds up, is surprising for two reasons.  First, the number of interstate wars has been trending downward for the last thirty years — so an increase in the absolute numbers of civilian collateral damage would not be expected.  Second, this bump in collateral damage also took place during a revolution in precision-guided munitions — which, in theory, was supposed to reduce the likelihood of collateral damage.

Note that these figures are only for interstate wars, not civil wars or local insurgencies.  And I wonder how much of it has to do, essentially, with reporting problems.  Intentional killing of civilians is far more vigorously condemned today than it was in the 19th century, which provides both individual soldiers and the military at large with enormous incentives to categorize all civilian deaths as "collateral."  Some of the decline in intentional murders is probably real — that widespread condemnation certainly has had some effect, after all — but probably not as much of it as we think.

Alternatively, this might just be an artifact of the time periods chosen for study.  The 1990s and beyond might have been an era of precision-guided bombs, but precision guided or not, they're still bombs, and bombs do a lot of collateral damage.  In the 19th century, it was all artillery and small arms, which are just fundamentally less likely to cause lots of collateral damage.  Still, the post-90s number is up even compared to the 1945-1989 period, so there's probably more to it than just that.

Other ideas?

Paul Krugman writes about the knock-on effects of the government paying off all of AIG's obligations at 100 cents on the dollar:

Brad DeLong says that the loss of public trust due to the kid-gloves treatment of bankers has raised the probability of another Great Depression, because the public won’t support another round of bailouts even if it becomes desperately necessary. I agree — but I think the bigger cost is that we’ve greatly increased the chance of a Japanese-style lost decade, with I would now give roughly even odds of happening. Why? Because bank-friendly policies have squandered public trust in all government action: try talking to the general public about stimulus, and it’s all confounded in their minds with the deeply unpopular bailouts.

By itself, the AIG story would be damaging enough. But it’s part of a pattern — and that pattern has ended up undermining the economy’s prospects, big time.

It's surprisingly hard to disagree with this.  The most optimistic take, I suppose, is that the economy will continue to recover slowly, there won't be another big shock that requires extraordinary government action, and we'll get out of this OK.  And I suppose that's still the most likely scenario.  But public anger over the bank bailout, which was blazing earlier in the year, hasn't really abated.  Sure, the tea parties are mostly over, but anger over the bailout is still smoldering, and it's pretty likely to increase as we continue to see headline after headline about how happily Wall Street is recovering in the middle of a deep recession thanks to all those bailout dollars.  Congress could tamp down some of this anger if it enacted some serious regulatory reforms over the next few months, but what are the odds of that?  Call me a pessimist, but I don't think they're very good.