Kevin Drum - September 2008

Russia's Military

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 2:03 PM EDT

RUSSIA'S MILITARY....Eric Alterman's buddy, LTC Bob Bateman, suggests that Russia's upcoming "training mission" with Venezuela's navy shouldn't worry us too much:

Today the Russian Navy is a shell of its previous self. Someday that may change, but for now it seems they have only one small aircraft carrier (which would not even have that title in the US Navy, because it is too small), two "Battlecruisers," three Cruisers, 26 Destroyers, and 16 Frigates. It is unknown how many of these can do more than float while securely tied up at a pier....Of their once-vaunted (and frankly, feared) undersea capability there is also little left but a skeleton. At the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union could field some 170 submarines, many, if not most of them, nuclear powered. Today there are but fifty still in the inventory, and of that only 26 were operational as of 2006 according to open source reporting in Russia.

On the other hand, Russian airpower, which also fell on very hard times after 1991, has started to revive. But it's still a shell of its Cold War self too, which is yet another reason not to panic too strongly over recent events in Georgia. Putin's bluster aside, Russia's military capabilities these days are distinctly limited.

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The War Within

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 1:19 PM EDT

THE WAR WITHIN....Yesterday I linked to Derek Chollet's suggestion that Bob Woodward's The War Within was, counterintuitively, actually fairly sympathetic toward George Bush. Today, Tim Rutten reviews the book in the LA Times and says exactly the opposite:

Bush, in Woodward's view, is the worst kind of wartime president: controlling and disengaged, all at once. Worse, he frequently is not only detached from unpleasant or inconvenient facts but is also positively hostile to those who recite them. As Woodward reconstructs the last two years — in a stunning series of on-the-record interviews with participants — this willful blindness has spilled out of the White House and into the departments of Defense and State in a perfect maelstrom of dysfunction.

That certainly sounds more like the George Bush we've all come to know and love, but I suppose I really better read the book myself and see what Woodward has to say. I'm extremely unfond of Woodward's technique of reconstructing events and conversations based on reams and reams of anonymous and obviously self-serving interviews, but if The War Within is based mostly on on-the-record interviews it might go down a little easier. I'll start in on it tomorrow.

The Nature of Existence

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 12:59 PM EDT

THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE...The Large Hadron Collider has been turned on and I'm still here. At least, I think I am. How about you?

Passion Play

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 2:33 AM EDT

PASSION PLAY....I'm not generally a big fan of Tom Friedman, but his advice today to Barack Obama seems right on target:

Whoever slipped that Valium into Barack Obama's coffee needs to be found and arrested by the Democrats because Obama has gone from cool to cold.

....Forget trashing McCain's ideas. If Obama wants to rally his base, he has to be more passionate about his own ideas. I have long felt that what propelled Obama early was the fact that many Americans understand in their guts that we need a change, but the change we need is to focus on nation-building at home. We're in decline. We need to get back to work on our country. And that is going to require strong, smart government.

Who is bailing out Fannie Mae? Who is going to build a new energy system? Health care? More tax cuts are not going to do it. But I am just not sure that Obama is making the sale that he has the plan and passion to unite and mobilize the country for this task.

All politicians are sales people first and foremost, and the first thing they sell is themselves. But Obama, I think, has done a pretty good job of that already. His next step, then, is to sell the country not just on change, but on specifically liberal change. As Friedman says, "When you say Obama's name today and ask people for their first impression — a quick, flash, gut, first impression — no single word or phrase or policy comes to mind."

Obama needs to correct this, and quickly. He needs to sell the country on a few core liberal ideas the same way Ronald Reagan sold the country on a few core conservative ideas three decades ago. So far, though, he's been too cautious to really try this, and it's showing. He better start showing a little more liberal conviction, and soon, if he wants to sit in the Oval Office come next January.

Quote of the Day - 9.9.08

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 1:25 AM EDT

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Republican strategist John Feehery, commenting on the McCain campaign's habit of lying about Sarah Palin's positions:

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent. As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

Indeed. Pesky little facts should never be allowed to get in the way of bigger truths.

Ungovernable?

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 11:39 PM EDT

UNGOVERNABLE?....Via TPM, I see that the McCain campaign has pretty much decided to go all-in on the culture war front. Their latest ad, which Lee Atwater must be chuckling over from wherever he's warming his toes these days, basically says that Barack Obama wants to teach your five-year-old how to put on a condom. This is, the narrator warns ominously, "Wrong for your family."

Which it no doubt would be if it were true. It's not, of course, which certainly raises the pressing question of how Obama ought to respond to this kind of swill — since it's now plain that this is what the McCain campaign plans to spoon out for the next eight weeks. I don't know the answer to that, though, so instead I'll toss out another thought.

John McCain has obviously decided that he can't win a straight-up fight, so he's decided instead to wage a battle of character assassination, relentless lies, and culture war armageddon. So what happens on November 5th?

If McCain wins, he'll face a Democratic congress that's beyond furious. Losing is one thing, but after eight years of George Bush and Karl Rove, losing a vicious campaign like this one will cause Dems to go berserk. They won't even return McCain's phone calls, let alone work with him on legislation. It'll be four years of all-out war.

And what if Obama wins? The last time a Democrat won after a resurgence of the culture war right, we got eight years of madness, climaxing in an impeachment spectacle unlike anything we'd seen in a century. If it happens again, with the lunatic brigade newly empowered and shrieking for blood, Obama will be another Clinton and we'll be in for another eight years of near psychotic dementia.

Am I exaggerating? Sure. Am I exaggerating a lot? I don't think so. McCain, in his overwhelming desire for office, is unloosing forces that are likely to make the country only barely governable no matter who wins. This would be very bad juju at any time, but George Bush has so seriously weakened the country over the course of his administration that we don't have a lot of room for error left if we want to avoid losing the war on terror for good and turning America into a banana republic while we're at it. We need to start turning the ship around now.

McCain doesn't seem to care much about this anymore, but the rest of us ought to. Unfortunately, no one asked us. I'm afraid we have some rocky times ahead.

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Pedestrian Friendly

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 8:45 PM EDT

PEDESTRIAN FRIENDLY....Atrios has a couple of links today to (a) a new suburban development somewhere in Indiana and (b) his own Philadelphia neighborhood. The Indiana burb was chosen specifically because it was fairly extreme in the sense of being completely isolated and therefore 100% car-centric, about which he says:

Suburban development is inevitably going to be automobile-centric....However, being automobile-centric and being designed in a way which almost entirely excludes the potential for other modes transportation are very different things. The car and the light rail can coexist. Sidewalks can run to areas with retail. One could even allow a corner store and a pub within a residential neighborhood! Maybe, just maybe, there can be small corridors of street level retail without giant parking lots, small town style. Places like this do exist, mostly but not just in older suburbs.

Developo-blogging is pretty far outside my wheelhouse, but I want to wade into this momentarily. Not because I have any huge point to make, but just to provide an illustration of how hard it can be to create genuinely non-car-centric spaces outside of small towns and urban cores.

I live in a subdivision of Irvine, California, called Woodbridge. It's actually fairly famous as one of the original master planned communities of the 60s, and believe you me, it's master planned to within an inch of its life. This has its drawbacks (lots and lots of beige houses), but there are also benefits. The main one is that it really was planned as an integrated community of sorts.

To get an idea of what I mean, here's a Google Earth picture of Woodbridge. It's the piece inside the yellow oval loop plus the strip just outside it, and the total population is about 30,000. There are houses and apartments on the north and south, with the central section reserved mostly for shopping, churches, schools, medical offices, parks, and so forth. There are sidewalks everywhere, of course, and also bike lanes.

The central section is actually pretty handy. There are six separate areas designed for shopping (outlined in red), and those areas include four supermarkets, a couple dozen restaurants, three department stores (though one is shutting down), a bookstore, two movie theaters, two drugstores (with one more about to open), several banks, a hardware store, two Blockbusters, and lots of other miscellaneous shops. Every single one of these places is safe, easily accessible, brightly lit, and a maximum of 1.5 miles from every single point within Woodbridge. Short of being downtown, this is about as walkable as it gets.

And walk it I do. All the time. (This isn't out of environmental altruism, it's because I shop for food daily as a way of forcing myself to get out of the house and get some minimal exercise.) And here's the thing: aside from occasional dog walkers, I have the place to myself. Despite the fact that it's about as pedestrian friendly as a suburb can be, nobody walks anywhere. They don't bike either — the only cyclists I see are biking for exercise. Woodbridge is, as near as I can tell, about 99.9% car-centric despite having a design that's about as pedestrian friendly as you'll find in a suburb.

Like I said, I don't have any big axe to grind here — except to say that as important as pedestrian-friendly design is, it's also possible to overstate that importance. Something more has to happen to reduce our dependence on cars. Maybe the price of gas just needs to double a couple more times. Maybe better mass transit is the key. Maybe something else. But here in Woodbridge, anyway, we built it and they did not come. Not on foot, anyway.

Intelligence

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 3:36 PM EDT

INTELLIGENCE....Juan Cole on the latest reports from Iraq:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Ali al-Lami, an Iraqi politician, protege of Ahmad Chalabi, and member of the Debaathification Committee, is being charged by a high unnamed American official with providing information on Iraqis to the "special groups" (Iranian-run cells within Iraqi Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army), which was useful to them in assassinating these individuals.

....So what is being alleged is essentially that the United States (Rumsfeld & Paul Bremer) installed on the Debaathification Commission a secret agent of Iran who was running Iran-backed death squads based on the information to which he became privy by virtue of being on the commission!

Well, points for efficiency, I guess. Of course, I imagine the odds are pretty good that Rumsfeld and Bremer had no idea this was going on, something that's always been our biggest problem in Iraq: we don't know what's going on nearly as well as all the various local actors. How could we, after all? And I'll bet we still don't.

Arnie and the Guards

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 2:09 PM EDT

ARNIE AND THE GUARDS....You may be wondering what I think of yesterday's announcement by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. (i.e., the prison guards union) that it plans to launch a recall effort against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Answer: I laughed. Yes, Arnold's approval rating has been steadily shrinking because of our ongoing budget crisis, but there's still one group in California that has him beat on every possible metric of unpopularity: the prison guards union. They may have a lot of money, but the idea that the public will follow their lead on much of anything is risible.

Or so it seems to me, anyway — but I've been wrong before. And maybe I am again. Still, this seems more like a negotiating stunt than a serious recall effort. Schwarzenegger deserves eternal opprobrium for his cynical (and vastly underappreciated) role in causing the exact budget crisis he's now trying to dig himself out of, but I still won't take the guards seriously on this until I see platoons of signature gatherers deployed to every supermarket within a ten mile radius. I'll let you know when that happens.

The Spin Within

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 1:32 PM EDT

THE SPIN WITHIN....I haven't yet read The War Within, Bob Woodward's "secret White House history," but I've read the excerpts in the Washington Post and my reaction so far is pretty similar to Derek Chollet's. Far from being a critical account of George Bush's management of the war, it reinforces exactly the narrative of himself that Bush himself is so fond of:

Beneath the surface, the core of Woodward's account actually seems to reinforce the narrative that Bush is trying to spin about Iraq — that against mighty resistance inside and outside the government, a small group made the gutsy decision to double-down with the surge. As with every Woodward book, there's a story within the story. His sources share their tales (or in some cases, secret papers) to settle a score or shape the historical narrative. And here we see National Security Adviser Steve Hadley taking over Iraq decision-making and guiding Bush as he stared down leery Generals and worried political advisers to push the 2007 surge.

....Now, former White House aides and loyal Bush defenders like Peter Wehner are using Woodward as Exhibit A to support their depiction of a heroic President. But perhaps the happiest reader will be John McCain. After all, he has as much at stake as Bush in having this "surge victory" narrative take hold. Woodward's story also enables McCain to have it both ways, distancing himself from the chaos of the Bush Administration's internal battles, while associating with the core message of defying conventional wisdom to support the surge. Woodward's account of McCain is exactly as McCain's campaign wants it to be.

That seems about right. Woodward has a pretty standard m.o. on these books, and it looks to me like the White House has finally figured out how to make that work for them instead of against them. Hadley looks good because he drove the planning of the surge, Bush looks good because he stayed out of the muck but nonetheless stood by his principles, and in the end, the mythology of the surge being solely responsible for the security improvements in Iraq gets a big boost. The White House must be pretty happy with Woodward right about now.