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Maliki and the Sunnis

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 6:22 PM EDT

MALIKI AND THE SUNNIS....I've written before about this, but today Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl tell us yet again that Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government in Baghdad is refusing to incorporate former Sunni militiamen into Iraq's security forces — and that this may soon lead to a renewed outbreak of insurgency. There are lots of things to say about this, but I think this paragraph gets to the heart of things:

The "surge" strategy in Iraq, as described by President Bush in January 2007, rested on the belief that tamping down violence would provide a window of opportunity that Iraq's leaders would use to pursue political reconciliation. But this has not occurred, despite the dramatic security improvements. Indeed, if the problem in 2006 and 2007 was Maliki's weakness and inability to pursue reconciliation in the midst of a civil war, the issue in 2008 is his overconfidence and unwillingness to entertain any real accommodation with his political adversaries. America's blank check to the Iraqi government feeds this hubris.

This problem repeats itself constantly in debates over Iraq policy: no matter what happens, there's a reason to continue doing what we're doing. If Maliki is too weak, he can't compromise with the Sunnis. But now he's too strong, so he doesn't have to compromise with the Sunnis. In either case American troops need to stick around. Likewise, when violence is high, we have to stay to crush it out. But when violence is low, we can't leave because the peace is so fragile. Elections, ditto. Infrastructure, ditto. Regional squabbles, ditto. It's never quite the right time for us to leave.

Brimley and Kahl, like a lot of others, are convinced that there's still some kind of magical middle ground where Maliki is a strong enough leader to enforce his will on a fractured country but a weak enough leader that the U.S. can exert meaningful leverage over him. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly a delusion. That middle ground is a target about an inch wide and nearly impossible to hit, let alone keep our balance on for long. So what happens when Maliki decides it's time to consolidate Shiite power? Joe Klein:

The question now is: what can — or should we do about this? Whose side are we on if Maliki launches the crackdown? Brimley and Kahl think we can influence Maliki's behavior by threatening to withold U.S. military support — but that may be exactly what the overconfident Maliki wants. Then again, what choice do we have? I doubt that even John McCain will argue that the role of the U.S. military will be to defend the Sons of Iraq in the coming battle. My guess is that the end result in Iraq is an authoritarian Maliki- or military-led Shi'ite government, less toxic than Saddam Hussein's, which will stand closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia in the regional Sunni-Shi'ite contest. The war in Iraq will not have been "lost," but can this be reasonably described as "victory?" I think not. It can be best described as a terrible, shameful waste of lives and resources.

One way or another, Iraqis are going to solve Iraq's problems. Our presence only puts off that day, it doesn't eliminate it. More here from Marc Lynch.

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California's Gamble: Building More So People Drive Less

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 6:12 PM EDT

sprawl.jpgIn a so-crazy-it-just-might-work attempt to combat global warming, California legislators are trying to get people to drive less by building more—and more intelligently.

Acknowledging that passenger cars account for 30% of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, lawmakers want to make it easier for people to avoid using their cars by encouraging denser development.

A bill now making its way through the legislature would dole out state transportation funds—about $15 billion—only to those communities that pursued "smart-growth" development plans, such as filling in commercial strips and building new homes around existing roads and rail lines. "We know people are going to drive. We want them in their cars for less time," said the bill's author, state Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). It's a pragmatic approcah to a persistent problem: Instead of preventing new development—a move that business interests say stunts economic growth—the measure would encourage cities to build responsibly.

Conventional wisdom says that if they want Californians to stop driving, politicians will have to pry the steering wheels from their cold, dead hands. But if they do this right, residents of the Golden State can have their cake and eat it too. Development isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if it means that more people can work in the communities where they live. The higher gas prices climb, the more crucial such choices will become.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from the pink sip.

Merge Records's 20-Year Anniversary Collections to Remind Us of the Greatness of Merge Records

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 4:23 PM EDT

mojo-photo-merge.jpgIf you look up "Indie Record Label" in the dictionary, does it have a picture of North Carolina's Merge Records' logo there? Yeah, I know, "what's a dictionary." The legendary imprint will celebrate its 20th anniversary this fall with a set of subscription-only specially-curated compilations, which, as Idolator put it, are guaranteed to open the wallets of nerds worldwide. The first CD will be curated by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Junebug director Phil Morrison, while celebs like Jonathan Lethem, David Byrne an Amy Poehler are lined up to take charge of future discs. You can start ordering them on September 8th, and they're limited editions, so set your alarms, my fellow nerds.

The label's 20-year existence is bookended by two bands who are symbolic of the "indie culture" of their time: Superchunk, whose music Merge was formed specifically to release, and Arcade Fire, whose two recent full-lengths were the label's greatest financial successes by far. But they've released a lot of other fine music in the interim. After the jump, some Merge-tastic videos from a few of my faves.

POW as Crutch

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 3:47 PM EDT

Tell me how McCain's response here is in any way relevant to the question:

JAY LENO: Welcome back, Sen. McCain, for one million dollars, how many houses do you have? (Laughter)
JOHN MCCAIN: You know, could I just mention to you, Jay, and a moment of seriousness. I spent five and a half years in a prison cell, without—I didn't have a house, I didn't have a kitchen table, I didn't have a table, I didn't have a chair. And I spent those five and a half years, because—not because I wanted to get a house when I got out. And you know, I'm very proud of Cindy's father, he was a guy that barely got out of high school, fought in World War II in the Army Air Corps, came home and made a business and made the American dream...

That is just so bald! So shameless! The gall it takes to invoke something so serious and so redoubtable simply to avoid a politically difficult question is truly astounding.

We've been here before on MoJoBlog, but I don't have faith that the rest of the Left will join me in talking about McCain's exploitation of his POW experience. In 2004, the Right took John Kerry's frequent invocation of his Vietnam service as license to criticize an aspect of Kerry's candidacy that Kerry had hoped to turn into a major strength. I would argue that McCain has given the Left the same opportunity. The Right used lies and smears and I would never suggest the Left do the same. No one needs to claim that McCain left other prisoners behind, for example. But pointing out that John McCain's willingness to exploit his imprisonment in Vietnam for political gain is a sign of character strikes me as entirely within acceptable bounds.

Progress in Iraq Might Have Been Possible Without "Surge," Says Petraeus

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 3:28 PM EDT

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General David Petraeus is a popular man in Washington and not without good reason. Under his watch, Iraq has gone from total chaos and anarchy to partial chaos and anarchy. No small achievement when you remember back to how things were just a year and a half ago. So it may come as no surprise that politicians seeking election—particularly those, like John McCain, who point to recent security gains as evidence we we are "winning" in Iraq—love to bask in the Petraeus glow. McCain has pointed time and again to the "surge" as proof that things are going well, and on at least one occasion declared the US has already succeeded in Iraq. But Petraeus, bound next month for his new post as CENTCOM commander, warned in a recent interview with Newsweek against rushing out to buy some ticker tape. From Newsweek:

Petraeus acknowledged that this policy of modesty in the face of success is very much informed by our premature victory ejaculations of previous years (before he took charge, of course). "The champagne bottle remains in the back of the refrigerator," he says. "When you've been in Iraq for as long as actually both of us have, coming up on four years, you're a little less prone to get too excited too quickly."
..."Yes, Al Qaeda in Iraq has been significantly diminished, its capability substantially degraded," he says. "But we assess they remain lethal—what we call the 'wolf closest to the sled'." And, he adds, "every time you start to feel really good, there will be some kind of incident. There will be a suicide-vest attack; there will be a car bomb attack or what have you."

Lanny Davis, President of the "You're Not Helping" Caucus

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 3:00 PM EDT

Updating David's post from yesterday: Lanny Davis is at it again. From Fox's "America's Election HQ" today:

That red meat is issue differences and not talking about a gaffe about remembering how many houses. Gaffes and 'gotcha' politics is what Barack Obama is opposed to, yet there are ads focusing on a gaffe.

Lanny Davis. Undercutting Democratic party unity since 2008.

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Housing Update

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 2:33 PM EDT

HOUSING UPDATE....The latest housing market news:

Home prices fell a record annual 15.9 percent in June, but the monthly rate of decline slowed from May which suggested the decimated housing sector may be stabilizing, according to Standard & Poor's on Tuesday.

This stuff is notoriously hard to get a handle on, but it's possible that the housing market really is stabilizing. I originally posted the chart on the right a couple of months ago, and when the numbers are updated through June they look even more encouraging than they did then. Month-to-month declines in the Case-Shiller 20-city index have been getting steadily smaller, and in June there was barely any decline at all.

On the other hand, this stuff is seasonal and we might start seeing larger declines again in a couple of months. Past performance is no guarantee of future results etc. etc., and plenty of teaser rates have yet to reset. Still, it's a tiny ray of sunshine.

This Just In: Republicans Really Good at Attack Ads

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 2:25 PM EDT

McCain's newest ad is the fourth in the past week to invoke Hillary Clinton's primary-era criticisms of Barack Obama. This time, though, it's a double whammy. McCain is also going the scare tactic route, using images of tanks, missiles, and masked men under the words, "Uncertainty. Dangerous aggression. Rogue nations. Radicalism." It quotes Clinton questioning Obama's readiness to be Commander-in-Chief and ends with, "Hillary's right. John McCain for president."

Kevin argues that until we know this ad is running widely, we should treat it like a flyer or blog post put out by two-bit crazies. I tend to disagree. (1) The very first "celebrity" attack ads against Obama weren't widely circulated, but the McCain campaign's internal polling or focus groups must have told them they were on to something because that meme exploded over the course of late summer. If Democrats are going to keep hurtful frames from dominating the campaign for weeks or months at a time, they need to look at and respond to new McCain approaches in their nascent stages. And (2) these ads are excellent examples of how to go negative well. The Democrats look like they need every lesson they can get in that respect.

YouTube

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 1:52 PM EDT

YOUTUBE....Jason Zengerle on John McCain's recent spate of attack ads:

Eve asks whether the McCain campaign will release a new Hillary ad every day this week. Of course it will — so long as we in the media keep linking to the ads and doing news segments about them on TV. I'd love to know from our readers in these "key battleground states" where the ads are supposed to air whether they've actually seen any of them on TV, other than the times they've seen reports about them on CNN and Fox and MSNBC.

I'll go a little further. The majority of these "YouTube ads" are designed solely to get media attention, not to be seriously used as part of the campaign. If they were podcasts, or blog posts, or flyers, or email blasts, the media would ignore them if their purpose were so transparent. I mean, who cares about a flyer produced in small quantities and handed out only to the media?

But if it's video, it's news! I couldn't really say why, aside from the fact that the media is convinced that YouTube is a transformative election medium even though there's precious little evidence to back this up. So I'd say this: cable news stations need to stop being played for suckers. Unless a campaign says it's committed to a serious ad buy for the video in question, it's time to quit playing the game. Wise up and treat 'em the same way you treat attack email blasts.

Reinventing John McCain

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 1:01 PM EDT

REINVENTING JOHN McCAIN....Eric Alterman listens to Tom Brokaw and can't believe his ears:

Discussing McCain's success in the Republican primaries, Brokaw attributed it to the candidate's "indomitable will," and opined that McCain won by simply being "the most authentic...he wasn't trying to reinvent himself."

This is not only wrong, but diametrically, screamingly wrong. It's not a difficult point — McCain won the primaries specifically by reversing himself on taxes, immigration, the religious right, and virtually every other issue important to the hard right. These policies were not only blazingly visible — Mitt Romney and others called him on it loudly during the Republican debates — but obviously destructive, as the last eight years have proven.

And yet, here is Brokaw saying of the candidate who by far has done the most to change his positions that McCain was "the most authentic...he wasn't trying to reinvent himself."

It is indeed a vast mystery. It's not just that McCain has changed a lot of his positions, it's the fact that he's so plainly changed them purely for the sake of political expediency. "Learning his lesson" on immigration in front of CPAC. Knuckling under to the Club for Growth on tax cut inanity. Demonstrating his right-wing bona fides to the Wall Street Journal editorial page by quietly watering down his energy plan into near uselessness. Embracing Jerry Falwell on the stage at Liberty University. ("Are you going into crazy base world?" asked Jon Stewart at the time. "I'm afraid so," McCain answered, in a rare display of naked honesty.)

McCain has been desperately pandering to the GOP base for the past two years, and he's been doing it perfectly publicly and with only the thinnest veneer of explanation. But I guess it's indelicate to mention it for some reason. After all, haven't I heard somewhere that he spent a few years as a POW during the Vietnam War?