Kevin Drum - June 2009

Adventures in Diplomacy

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 12:09 PM PDT

From Marc Lynch:

While it hasn't received much attention, Iraq's relations with two key Arab Gulf states have jumped the tracks over the last week.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has publicly declared that he has given up on trying to reconcile with the Saudis. Meanwhile, Iraq and the Kuwaitis are in an increasingly nasty spat over the question of compensation claims dating back to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It's gotten to the point that a majority of the members of the Iraqi Parliament are demanding that Kuwait pay compensation to Iraq for allowing U.S. troops to invade Iraq in 1991!

In other news, I'm planning to sue that dude whose nose injured my fist a few days ago.  He should have been more careful.

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Them Boiling Frogs

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 9:26 AM PDT

Hoo boy.  I sure hope James Fallows doesn't watch this video snippet.  He's already annoyed at Anne Applebaum's China fearmongering, and seeing all his good work on the boiling frog myth blown up on prime time TV in a matter of seconds — well, that might just drive him over the edge.  Don't watch, Jim!

Summer Passport Woes

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 9:02 AM PDT

Matt Welch writes:

Do you feel safer today? Let's hope so, since you're certainly less free to travel about the Northern Hemisphere. Beginning just after midnight, every American returning from Canada, Mexico, and various island paradises now have to flash a U.S. passport to get back in the country. For the 70 percent of citizens who don't have passports, that means a minimum four to six weeks waiting time (and probably more, given the new filing rush) to legally escape the national boundaries.

Great.  My passport is expiring in a couple of months and I downloaded the forms just yesterday to get it renewed.  I didn't realize I was going to get caught up in Phase 2 of the great Canada/Mexico passport debacle. Thanks for warning me just in time, Matt.

Of course, this is only a partial change.  I learned to my chagrin some years ago that at least some Canadian border officials have wanted to see a passport all along.  Flying into Toronto in the mid-90s, I got hassled by a security guy at the airport for having only a driver's license to prove my bona fides ("that doesn't prove citizenship," he said, "it just means you're licensed to drive in California," which, admittedly, is perfectly correct).  He still let me in, but I've made sure to take my passport on trips to Canada ever since.

Pressuring Israel

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 8:08 AM PDT

President Obama has taken a surprisingly hard line on expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but what's even more surprising is how little pushback he's gotten so far from Israel's supporters in the U.S.  Ben Smith reports that this might be changing:

“My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.). “I think it would serve America’s interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements.”

....“I don’t think anybody wants to dictate to an ally what they have to do in their own national security interests,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who said he thinks there’s “room for compromise.”

....And Republicans have been more sharply critical of the pressure on Israel. “It’s misguided. Behind that pressure is the assumption that somehow resolving the so-called settlements will somehow lead to the ultimate goal” of disarming Iran, said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip.

....The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC last week got the signatures of 329 members of Congress, including key figures in both parties, on a letter calling on the administration to work “closely and privately” with Israel — in contrast to the current public pressure.

For what it's worth, the story here still seems to me to be less about the pushback and more about the fact that pushback to Obama's policy pronouncements remains surprisingly muted.  "It's misguided" is not the kind of temperate rhetoric you'd expect to hear about this from Republican leaders, after all.  Either this means that things have changed, or merely that the AIPAC-centric crowd has decided they're better off working behind the scenes and keeping a quieter profile.  Hard to say which right now.

China and North Korea

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 9:59 PM PDT

It's true, as Anne Applebaum says, that China is the only country in the world with any real influence over North Korea.  So why do they put up with Kim Jong-il's antics?  The usual answer is that they're afraid of pushing too hard lest his regime collapse and send millions of refugees streaming across the border into Manchuria.  Applebaum, however, speculates that that isn't it at all.  China actually wants North Korea to continue its hotheaded ways:

Despite the risks, there are good reasons for the Chinese to prod Kim Jong-il to keep those missiles coming. By permitting North Korea to rattle its sabers, the Chinese can monitor Obama's reaction to a military threat without having to deploy a threat themselves. They can see how serious the new American administration is about controlling the spread of nuclear weapons without having to risk sanctions or international condemnation of their own nuclear industry. They can distract and disturb the new administration without harming Chinese-American economic relations, which are crucial to their own regime's stability.

And if the game goes badly, they can call it off. North Korea is a puppet state, and the Chinese are the puppeteers. They could end this farce tomorrow. If they haven't done so yet, there must be a reason.

I don't really have much to add to this.  It's just that the refugee explanation of Chinese behavior has always struck me as moderately unconvincing, so I'm sort of interested in alternatives — even if they do come wrapped in some variant of "China must be stopped!" fearmongering.  Which this one does.  But it's worth a thought anyway.

The U-Turn on the Photos

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 9:32 PM PDT

Why did Barack Obama reverse course a couple of weeks ago and decide not to hand over those additional detainee abuse photos that the ACLU is fighting to get released?  Conventional wisdom says it was because of pressure from the Pentagon, but McClatchy reports today that it was actually because of pressure from Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki:

When U.S. officials told Maliki, "he went pale in the face," said a U.S. military official, who along with others requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.

The official said Maliki warned that releasing the photos would lead to more violence that could delay the scheduled U.S. withdrawal from cities by June 30 and that Iraqis wouldn't make a distinction between old and new photos. The public outrage and increase in violence could lead Iraqis to demand a referendum on the security agreement and refuse to permit U.S. forces to stay until the end of 2011.

Maliki said, "Baghdad will burn" if the photos are released, said a second U.S. military official.

A U.S. official who's knowledgeable about the photographs told McClatchy that at least two of them depict nudity; one is of a woman suggestively holding a broomstick; one shows a detainee with bruises but offered no explanation how he got them; and another is of hooded detainees with weapons pointed at their heads.

If the ACLU wins its suit, they better hope this is just a bunch of spin from administration sources trying to make the boss look good.

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The Triumph of Narrative

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 5:28 PM PDT

Ta-Nehisi Coates isn't too happy with a new HBO documentary that tries to puncture the mythology surrounding Muhammad Ali:

The core problem with this doc, as it is with most correctives, is that it subscribes to the same sort of moralistic, heavy-handed, simple-minded logic that it allegedly seeks to debunk. Thus while the public image of Ali as this gleaming unvarnished hero is ridiculous, Thrilla's answer is to offer an equally ridiculous image of Ali as a scheming villain who didn't really win the two fights against Frazier, and robbed him of his rightful place as the greatest of all time.

I have a long post in mind about our (seemingly) increasing addiction to simplistic narratives and the (seemingly) increasing difficulty in finding writers who even try to avoid it these days.  But since I haven't written it yet, you won't have to suffer through it right now.  Maybe someday, though.

Oprah and America

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 1:43 PM PDT

Ezra sez:

I didn't exactly wake up this morning thinking, "what I need to read is a brutal, almost overwhelming, takedown of the pseudoscience and snake oil that has come to define a large chunk of Oprah Winfrey's show and brand." But I'm sure glad I did.

Really?  I've popped out of bed on many mornings thinking exactly that.  And this week's cover story in Newsweek delivers.

In fairness to Oprah, she's not really any worse than the thousands of other purveyors of freak show voyeurism, inane pop psychology, and pseudoscientific nonsense that practically define the modern media universe.  But she's by far the most influential.  Anyone who's responsible for foisting even more of Jenny McCarthy on the world deserves whatever Newsweek can dish out.

Sotomayor's Record on Race

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 10:13 AM PDT

Is Sonia Sotomayor a bitter closet racist unable to control deep-rooted feelings of race solidarity in her judicial opinions?  Of course not.  Frankly, I feel stupid for even lowering myself to blog about this idiocy.

But just in case you need some expert opinion on this, Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSBlog has reviewed Sotomayor's entire canon of race-related opinions.  The post isn't very long, and his conclusion is clear:

In sum, in an eleven-year career on the Second Circuit, Judge Sotomayor has participated in roughly 100 panel decisions involving questions of race and has disagreed with her colleagues in those cases (a fair measure of whether she is an outlier) a total of 4 times. Only one case (Gant) in that entire eleven years actually involved the question whether race discrimination may have occurred. (In another case (Pappas) she dissented to favor a white bigot.)  She participated in two other panels rejecting district court rulings agreeing with race-based jury-selection claims. Given that record, it seems absurd to say that Judge Sotomayor allows race to infect her decisionmaking.

Absurd, yes.  But that won't stop the screamers.  Nothing ever does.

Chart of the Day

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 9:38 AM PDT

This isn't really big news or anything, but Gallup's latest poll shows just how big a hole the Republican Party has dug itself into: they now have virtually no appeal to anyone non-white.  They're almost exclusively a party of white men and women, which explains why their base has convinced them to haul out racial fears as their main line of attack against Sonia Sotomayor.  I just hope they aren't surprised when their meager 11% non-white base declines even further after this is all over.