• The Inevitability of Afghanistan


    Like me, Fred Kaplan is glad he’s not president right now.  Why?  Because he can’t figure out what he thinks we ought to do in Afghanistan:

    As with confronting most messes in life, the initial impulse is to flee. But if we simply pulled out, it’s a near-certain bet that the Taliban would march into Kabul, and most other Afghan towns they’d care to, in a matter of weeks….Another problem with withdrawing is that it would signal, correctly or not, a huge victory for anti-American forces generally. If we left Afghanistan to the Taliban (and, by extension, al-Qaida), especially after such a prolonged commitment (at least rhetorically), what other embattled people would trust the United States (or the other putative allies in this war) to come in and protect them from insurgents? None, and they could hardly be blamed.

    ….I am uncomfortable making this case for two reasons. First, it’s reminiscent of the bankrupt rationales, involving “credibility” and the “domino theory,” for staying in Vietnam long after that war was widely viewed as a horrible mistake. But Afghanistan is different. The Taliban are not the Viet Cong, and Osama Bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh; there is no case, this time, that the enemy has a just claim to power. And the stakes are much higher: Communists ruling South Vietnam was never a serious threat to our security;1 al-Qaida controlling a huge swath of South Asia is.

    The second reason I’m uncomfortable about even saying this is that the argument can, and almost certainly will, be used to justify staying in Afghanistan if it turns out that this war is futile, too. It’s easy to hear the generals saying, a year from now, “Three more brigades should do the trick, Mr. President” and “If we pull out now, Mr. President, our credibility will be severely compromised.”

    It’s pretty hard to see how this ends well.  But I think what it demonstrates most strongly is the fantastic political nightmare involved in ever pulling out of a war that hasn’t been decisively won.  Vietnam is the big-ticket example here, of course, but there are better ones.  Take Somalia.  After the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, conservatives demanded that Bill Clinton pull out immediately.  Not another American life was worth risking for a barren patch of dirt on the Horn of Africa.  Clinton refused, insisting that we “finish the work we set out to do,” and kept troops in country for another six months before withdrawing in an orderly way.

    And what happened?  Conservatives turned around and immediately started building up a mythology that Clinton had lacked spine and immediately ran for the exits at the first sign of trouble.  Just like a Democrat to be so weak-kneed!  What’s more, it’s now received wisdom on the right that it was this panicky withdrawal that first convinced Muslim fanatics that America was weak and could be attacked with impunity.  In the end, Clinton took a hit for withdrawal even though he was the one who insisted on not cutting and running.

    If that’s what happens to a Democratic president who played a hawkish role in a small, unimportant war, what would happen to a Democratic president who played a dovish role in a big, important war?  Nothing good.  Pulling out of Afghanistan would have all the actual effects Kaplan talks about, but it would also be a political disaster.

    I still plan to wait for Obama’s speech tomorrow before I decide if his Afghanistan strategy is smart or not.  But even if it is, it was probably sadly inevitable.  The institutional support for war among the American chattering classes is just too powerful.

    1Hoo boy.  That’s easy to say now, but at the time it sure seemed every bit as important as al-Qaeda controlling a big chunk of Afghanistan seems to us.

  • Protectionism


    I think Matt Yglesias makes a pretty good political point here about trade policy:

    If you convince people that it’s not possible for monetary authorities to boost employment, and that it’s unwise to use fiscal policy to boost employment, then it starts to look irresponsible for politicians not to use trade restrictions to protect the jobs of people in their state/district. When an economy is near full employment you can say trade makes the pie bigger and people who lose their jobs will get new jobs. But [if] we’re years away from full employment — which both the Fed and the White House seem to think — then getting laid-off is catastrophic.

    The Fed is obviously more concerned about inflation than it is about unemployment right now, and Congress likewise seems unwilling to do very much more to help create jobs.  In an environment like that, public pressure for trade restrictions becomes hard to resist.  So if free traders really want to keep protectionist sentiment tamped down, they’d be well advised to start supporting domestic policies that create jobs, bring down unemployment, and reduce the kind of financial fear that drives protectonist sentiment in the first place.

  • ClimateGate


    As near as I can tell, ClimateGate is almost entirely a tempest in a teacup.  Among the stash of emails recently hacked from computers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, one mentioned a “trick” for producing a nice looking graph, but the word “trick” was plainly used in the sense of “technique,” not chicanery.  There’s nothing questionable there.  Another bunch of emails shows that when scientists are communicating privately they can be as catty and nasty as anyone else.  It’s good gossip fodder, but nothing more.  Another set of emails deals with outraged reaction to a particular journal article, but this isn’t news.  It was an entirely public incident when it happened a few years ago, and half the board of the journal resigned in protest.  The emailers were determined not to have shoddy science published in peer-reviewed journals, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Then there are some emails about which research should and shouldn’t be included in the next IPCC report, which, again, is entirely normal.  Every scientist who worked on the IPCC report surely had opinions about which research was on point and which was shoddy.  Finally, there’s the revelation that CRU has destroyed some raw temperature data, but this happened back in the 1980s, before global warming was even on anyone’s radar screen, and was obviously motivated by space considerations (they were paper records), not any kind of coverup.  What’s more, the raw data is still available from the original sources that provided it to CRU anyway.

    Unfortunately, there are also a couple of messages that suggest an effort to destroy emails that might have been subject to a Freedom of Information request.  That’s a genuine problem, though it’s not clear to me just how big a problem it is.

    So on a substantive level, there’s really very little to this.  Certainly nothing that changes the actual science of climate change even a little.  The earth is still warming and disaster is still highly likely if we sit around and do nothing.  But George Monbiot thinks we lefties have our heads in the sand if we think that makes any difference:

    I have seldom felt so alone. Confronted with crisis, most of the environmentalists I know have gone into denial. The emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, they say, are a storm in a tea cup, no big deal, exaggerated out of all recognition. It is true that climate change deniers have made wild claims which the material can’t possibly support (the end of global warming, the death of climate science). But it is also true that the emails are very damaging.

    ….The crisis has been exacerbated by the university’s handling of it, which has been a total trainwreck: a textbook example of how not to respond….When the emails hit the news on Friday morning, the university appeared completely unprepared. There was no statement, no position, no one to interview. Reporters kept being fobbed off while CRU’s opponents landed blow upon blow on it. When a journalist I know finally managed to track down Phil Jones, he snapped “no comment” and put down the phone. This response is generally taken by the media to mean “guilty as charged”.

    ….The handling of this crisis suggests that nothing has been learnt by climate scientists in this country from 20 years of assaults on their discipline. They appear to have no idea what they’re up against or how to confront it. Their opponents might be scumbags, but their media strategy is exemplary.

    It’s hard to argue with this.  Climate change skeptics have gotten fantastic mileage out of this affair, but that’s only partly because technical explanations of facially damaging statements are never very convincing to the general public.  An even bigger part of the problem is that a lot of the scientists involved haven’t even been providing the technical explanations, leaving that up to others who are trying to get a handle on what’s going on.  From a PR standpoint, it’s been a disaster so far.

    For years the CRU has resisted public release of its underlying datasets, partly for the understandable reason that they’re tired of dealing with amateurs who comb though raw data looking for ways to pretend that warming isn’t really happening, and partly because they don’t have the authority to release it all.  Still, science is all about transparency, and annoying or not, the data should be available.  Now it probably will be, and under the worst possible circumstances.  It’s going to be rough sledding for the next couple of years against the fever swamp crowd, aided and abetted by the coal industry.  Buckle up.

  • Too Big To Fail


    The Financial Stability Board (what a great name!) has created a list of the world’s top 30 “systemically important” financial institutions — aka banks that are too big to fail.  Citi and BofA make the list; Wells Fargo doesn’t.  If you were in charge of Wells, would you be pleased or annoyed?

    Via Felix Salmon, who wants to know why there are no American insurers on the list.  Probable answer: AIG has already failed, so they can hardly make the list, and America’s other big insurers are mostly purely domestic affairs.  They’re the Fed’s problem, not the world’s.

  • Chart of the Day


    I think I published an earlier version of this, but here’s the latest analysis of the Senate healthcare bill from MIT economist Jonathan Gruber:

    Analysis of the non-partisan information from the CBO suggests that for those facing purchase in the non-group market, the [Senate] bill will deliver savings ranging from $200 for singles to $500 for families in today’s dollars — even without subsidies. The savings are much larger for lower income populations that receive premium credits. This is in addition to the higher quality benefits that those in the exchange will receive, with actuarial values for low income populations well above what is typical in the non-group market today. It is also in addition to all the other benefits that this legislation will deliver to those consumers — in particular the guarantee, unavailable in most states, that prices would not be raised or the policy revoked if they became ill.

    There are three important things to note about this.  First, the Senate bill lowers the premiums for low-cost plans across the board.  Second, in addition to this reduction, the Senate bill provides subsidies to low- and middle-income familes that makes health insurance even less expensive.  Third, it does this for a plan that covers about 70% of all medical expenses, compared to a non-reform plan that covers only about 60% of all expenses.  On an apples-to-apples basis, the Senate bill lowers premiums by about 20% and then subsidizes that lower price to reduce the cost of coverage even more.

    I hardly need to mention what an enormous boon this would be for millions and millions of real flesh-and-blood people, do I?

  • Holiday Sales Update


    Here are the holiday weekend shopping results for 2009:

    Roughly 195 million consumers shopped in stores and online over the Black Friday weekend, up from 172 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. But average spending dropped to $343.31 per person from $372.57 a year ago. Overall sales for the four-day weekend totaled $41.2 billion, up marginally from $41 billion last year, the NRF estimated.

    ….November sales were likely boosted by a spate of pre-Black Friday deals. Spending on Black Friday itself rose 0.5%, or $54 million, to $10.7 billion this year from last, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp.

    Everyone is probably tired of hearing this from me, but as usual, these numbers are misleading because they aren’t adjusted for inflation.  CPI numbers for this month aren’t in yet, but most likely the November-November inflation rate was about 2.0%, which means that sales volume was actually down 1.5% this year in real terms.  That compares to an increase of about 2% last year in real terms.

  • Minarets in Switzerland


    No more minarets in Switzerland:

    Swiss voters have supported a referendum proposal to ban the building of minarets, official results show. More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons — or provinces — voted in favour of the ban.

    The proposal had been put forward by the Swiss People’s Party, (SVP), the largest party in parliament, which says minarets are a sign of Islamisation.

    Is this a sign of the resurgence of hard-right anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, or is it just an exceptional result from an exceptional country?  Switzerland is a very socially conservative place (its famous multilingual tolerance notwithstanding), so in one sense it’s not a surprise that this referendum passed.  Still, it was polling at only 37% support a week ago and ended up winning with 57% of the vote.  That’s a big swing from just a few final days of campaigning,1 and it suggests that it would hardly be impossible for other European countries to follow suit.2

    1Unless, of course, Swiss voters have a tendency to lie to pollsters on sensitive questions like this, as they seem to in America.

    2If they had referendums, that is.  Which most of them don’t.  But obviously a referendum isn’t the only way to accomplish something like this.

  • War and Peace


    On Tuesday Barack Obama will announce a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan.  A week later he’ll be in Oslo accepting his Nobel Peace Prize.  Pretty good timing, no?

  • Watching the World


    John Judis a few days ago on the possible fallout from the Dubai World crisis:

    You have to remember that the Great Depression only became “great,” that is, global, when an obscure Austrian bank went under in 1931, and set off a massive financial explosion around Europe.  Capitalism is an irrational system that is often full of unpleasant surprises. The collapse of Dubai World may turn out to be nothing.  But it could also turn out be one of those unpleasant surprises.

    Hopefully not.  But this has always been my biggest concern.  A slow jobless recovery seems all but certain at this point, but I also think we’ll be lucky if that’s as bad as it gets.  The nightmare scenario is that something like Dubai World panics investors and sends them fleeing back to quality; Eastern Europe can’t roll over its debt; Brazil goes kaboom as hot money suddenly stops flowing; Western European banks start to fail; etc.  You can fill in the rest.  I was unpleasantly reminded of all this by the lead to this story in the Washington Post today:

    DUBAI CRISIS IS WAKE-UP CALL
    Investors weigh risks in emerging economies

    Global markets were jolted in recent days following the threat by a state-owned company in Dubai to default on its debt, as investors reawakened to the risks posed by mammoth debts in developing economies.

    After the credit collapse of 2008, financial folks rushed to tell us that they had learned their lesson.  But a lot of us were skeptical: sure, maybe they’d learned their lesson for a few years while the wounds were still fresh, but what about five years from now?  Ten?

    In the end, though, it didn’t take five or ten years.  It took one.  Twelve months after the catastrophe of September 2008, hot money is racing around the globe, the carry trade is as big as ever, Wall Street profits are at record highs, and the chase for supposedly risk-free returns seems to be as widespread as it’s ever been.  That combination didn’t end well even when it took place against the background of a strong economy, so how’s it likely to end against the background of a weak and fragile one now that investors are “reawakening”?

    Beats me.  I sure hope I’m just a worrywart.

  • Thanksgiving Catblogging


    It’s time to stop thinking about politics for a few days and instead think about turkey and mashed potatoes and football games and 4 am sales.  And cats.  It is for me and mine, anyway.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

  • Finance Lobby Update


    I’ve sometimes wondered what it would take to get a guy like Dana Milbank to wipe the smirk off his face and get genuinely outraged.  Now I know: listening in on a call with the finance lobby.

    On Tuesday, the American Financial Services Association even held a conference call with reporters to update them on its efforts — successful so far — to torpedo plans for a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would protect people from the sort of lending abuses that led to last year’s implosion.

    ….”It looks more and more like Senate banking won’t take it up until January or February, and with next year being an election year, that does raise the concern level,” [Bill] Hempler reported with satisfaction. “This could delay the overall effort.” Or, with a bit of luck, kill it outright.

    ….In Tuesday’s conference call, AFSA’s executives offered the many familiar reasons why government regulations are bad….But the argument most likely to prevail for the financial firms on Capitol Hill was offered by Chris Stinebert, the trade group’s chief. “Especially now, when we’re in a very, very sensitive time, when the capital markets are just starting to recover,” he said, “introducing a high level of uncertainty in the marketplace could be very detrimental.”

    Or, to put it another way: Don’t regulate us now because the economy is still suffering from the mess we made because we weren’t regulated the last time. Chutzpah, it appears, is recession-proof.

    In other finance lobby news, Simon Johnson reads and explains a new research report from Morgan Stanley insisting that increased capital requirements for large banks would be a terrible thing for the economy:

    The bottom line, translated: let us adjust our balance sheets (downwards to some degree) and continue with our existing business models (including unconstrained bonuses), and we will bring you back to growth eventually.  If you mess with us, unemployment will stay high for a long time.  And any future crises that may befall us are just a cost of doing business, and making us whole is just what you have to do.

    All this lobbying and more1 will be crashing down on the United States Congress soon, insisting that any but the most anodyne new regulations will wipe out the economy, wreck the banking system, and turn the country over to the Chinese with barely a whimper.  They will be eagerly assisted by Fox News, the entire Republican Party,2 the Wall Street Journal, the business community, and — in a tremendous irony — tea partiers of all stripes, who will somehow be gulled into believing that good, hardworking bankers are under attack from the same malign forces that are trying to kill grandma.  Raise your hand if you think a majority of our members of Congress have the stones to stand up to this.

    1And by more, yes, I mean tidal waves of campaign cash.

    2Plus, as several commenters have mentioned, a dispiritingly large portion of the Democratic Party.

  • Messages From the Past


    Wikileaks has released an archive of half a million wireless pager messages from 9/11.  Here’s a random sampling:

    13:37:52 All, feel free to work from home the remainder of this week.  All is fine and I am in Kansas City now.  I am attempting to get to Denver tomorrow, but do not know if I will get there or not.
    13:37:52 Call me ASAP All TEA travel has been cancelled until further notice.  You will have to stay where you are for now.
    13:37:54 ]!z00]”AJ];0a]<6America Under Attack  ]<4Breaking News:  ]<2The U.S. stock markets are closed u
    13:37:56 National Preparedness Responce Team Update: Due to terrorist action in New York 23 DS3’s leased from TCG are down
    13:37:59 PLEASE CALL WIFE ON CELL OR ANYWAY YOU CAN.
    13:38:50 IM GLAD YOUR SAFE. I LOVE YOU. CALL ME IF YOU CAN GET THROUGH.  SUNSHINE
    13:38:56 Russ, I am going to work from home, honestly I can not concentrate here, news, radio, hope you understand
    13:38:56 Mike, The Center has been asked to evacuate
    13:38:57 Pizza has been ordered if you haven’t had lunch yet.  Come by fish bowl.   sd
    13:38:57 YOUR SISTER CALLING TO CHECK TO SEE IF YOU ARE OK.

    Where did all these messages come from?  Wikileaks says: “While we are obligated by to protect our sources, it is clear that the information comes from an organization which has been intercepting and archiving national US telecommunications since prior to 9/11.”  I wonder who that could be?

  • Phil Carter Leaves the Pentagon


    Earlier this morning I said that whenever I settle down and take a serious look at the policies Barack Obama has pursued so far, “nine times out of ten” it’s pretty much what I expected.  Among big-ticket items, the biggest one-time-out-of-ten where he’s not doing what I expected is in the area of detainee and civil liberties issues.  Glenn Greenwald wonders if this is what led to the abrupt resignation of Phil Carter the other day:

    I have no idea what actually motivated Carter’s abrupt resignation, but here’s what I do know:  so many of the detention and other “War on Terror” policies Obama has explicitly adopted were the very same ones which Carter (as well as Obama) repeatedly railed against during the Bush years, in Carter’s case primarily in blogs he maintained both at The Washington Post and at Slate.  Whatever else is true, the policies Obama has adopted in the last six months in the very areas of Carter’s responsibilities were ones Carter vehemently condemned when implemented by Bush.

    Last week, the Obama DOJ announced that it would deny trials to several Guantanamo detainees and instead send them to military commissions….announced two weeks ago that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, whose case originated as a criminal investigation with the FBI, would now be turned over to a military commission for prosecution….use of the “state secrets” privilege as a means of evading vital constitutional and other legal questions.

    ….Following Greg Craig, this is now the second high-profile resignation of a relatively devoted civil libertarian in a short period of time.  Combine that with the still-missing-and-unconfirmed Dawn Johnsen, and all of this leaves those who are indifferent or hostile to civil liberties values — people like John Brennan and Rahm Emanuel — with even fewer counter-weights than before.

    I don’t have any special insights here either.  Maybe Phil was disappointed in Obama, or maybe he really did resign for personal reasons.  There’s no telling.  But it’s a disappointment either way, as is Obama’s unwillingness to fight harder for civil liberties.  The shoals of reality have just proven a little too rocky.

  • More Stimulus, Please


    Matt Yglesias thinks the Fed needs to do more to stimulate the economy:

    I’ve had some correspondents suggest that the Fed really does want to be more accommodating but there’s nothing more they can do. That’s certainly not the way recent statements have sounded to me. On the contrary, it seems to me that Ben Bernanke and co. are just flagrantly ignoring their actual legal mandate to balance considerations of employment, growth, and price stability. If we had five percent unemployment and five percent inflation instead of 10 percent unemployment and no inflation, the Fed would be freaking out. So why not freak out at 10 percent unemployment.

    Actually, I’d like an answer to that question.  What should the Fed do at this point?  When inflation is high, the answer is obvious: if it wants to, the Fed can simply keep raising interest rates until inflation is under control.  The sky’s the limit.  But the other direction is harder.  With interest rates already at zero and trillions of dollars of quantitative easing already in place, what’s left to bring down unemployment?  Brad DeLong suggests that the Fed announce a long-term inflation target of 3% instead of 2%, but I haven’t heard a lot of other proposals.

    If the answer is even more dramatic quantitative easing, that’s fine.  But is it?  Inquiring non-economists want to know.

  • HIV Travel Ban Update


    The HIV travel ban will officially be lifted on January 4.  It’s about time.

  • Has Obama Fizzled?


    I haven’t read one of Richard Cohen’s columns in a long time, but yesterday a regular reader alerted me to his latest buffoonery.  Apparently Obama’s “moral clarity” has disappeared:

    As president [] he has tried so hard to be the un-George Bush that the former president’s overweening moralism — his insistence on seeing things as either black or white — has become an Obama gray. Human rights in general has been treated as if it’s a Republican idea. Obama should reread his Philadelphia speech. He’ll find a good man there.

    Blah blah blah.  Obama the famously supple and nuanced campaigner saw things in black and white?  WTF?  [Oops.  Sorry.  Cohen is talking about George W. Bush here.  I misread.  But the general point stands: Cohen thinks Obama has lost his “moral clarity.”] But apparently this has become a trend.  Here’s Michelle Cottle:

    As its “Arena” question to pundits this morning, Politico has “Obama’s Charisma: Where Did He Leave it?”

    The implication seems to be — and I feel as though I’ve heard a variation on this question asked not infrequently of late — that Obama was such a dazzling, inspirational, transformational campaigner that it’s hard to fathom where this wonky, chilly, pathologically measured grind of a president came from.

    What? Are we all suffering from short-term memory loss?….Yes, Obama has the juice to thrill the globe with his from-the-pulpit-esque speeches. (Which he still delivers when occasion calls.) But it’s not as though the guy has ever been known for his overwhelming warmth or charisma in the daily ebb and flow of things. He is as he has always presented himself to us.

    Liberals are mad at Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan.  The gay community thinks they’ve been betrayed because he hasn’t instantly repealing DADT.  M.J. Rosenberg is unhappy because Obama has turned out to be a “conciliator,” not a fighter.  Conservatives are apoplectic because the guy who billed himself as a moderate is trying to push through healthcare reform and a climate change bill.

    But this is all kind of crazy.  Obama said repeatedly that he planned to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.  He made it as clear as any candidate could that he wanted to dial down the temperature on the culture wars and avoid big social issues early in his presidency.  He spent an entire primary campaign selling himself as a post-partisan reach-across-the-aisle guy in contrast to the brawling Hillary Clinton.  And healthcare reform and cap-and-trade were the main pillars of his presidential campaign.

    Once you get elected, real life is messy, politics intrudes, and mistakes are made.  Sure. And Obama has disappointed me in a bunch of respects.  But nine times out of ten, when I actually think through the ways I’m disappointed, I find that things are actually going almost exactly the way I expected them too.  That disappoints me sometimes, but it’s not because Obama has turned out to be a fraud or a fizzle.  It’s because he hasn’t.

  • Social Security Revisited


    Atrios isn’t impressed with my support of a plan to bring Social Security into long-term balance:

    I really don’t get why people think there’s some grand deal to be cut on Social Security which would take it off the table. A couple of years after the deal is cut, new projects with slightly different facts/assumptions will show it “going broke” in “only” 65 years or something and then they’ll be back to hack away at it again.

    They don’t want the programs to survive, they want to kill them.

    I know this is a fashionable view among battle-hardened liberal bloggers, but I just don’t think it’s true.  The demographic basis of Social Security’s finances is extremely steady and generally changes by only hundredths of a percentage point each year — and with the retirement of the baby boom generation now finally upon us and better understood than ever, this is even truer than before.  If Congress enacted a combination of small revenue increases and small benefit cuts (amounting to less than 1.5% of GDP, as shown in the chart on the right) that phased in slowly and brought the program into long-term balance, it’s almost a certainty that the financial projections would continue to show long-term balance for another 20-30 years.  Granted, that’s not forever, but it’s as long as anything ever lasts in politics.

    As for “slightly different facts/assumptions,” even during the heyday of Social Security privatization in 2005, virtually everyone accepted the midpoint assumptions of the Social Security trustees report as gospel.  Obviously there will always be some fringe groups with their own doomsday scenarios who can’t be satisfied no matter what, but the trustees report will satisfy virtually everyone who matters.  What’s more, unlike most subjects, this is one where Democrats could almost certainly pick off enough Republican votes to get something passed.  It really would take Social Security largely off the table as a political football for a very long time.

    And I’d rather take it off the table now, under some kind of reasonable terms, than have it taken off the table a decade from now when some shiny new Republican is back in power.  It’s not something that’s a high priority right now, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make it a priority sometime in the near future.

  • 34,000 New Troops for Afghanistan


    Two weeks ago McClatchy reported — with details — that Obama was planning to send 34,000 new troops to Afghanistan.  On Monday they confirmed this:

    As it now stands, the plan calls for the deployment over a nine-month period beginning in March of three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

    In addition, a 7,000-strong division headquarters would be sent to take command of U.S.-led NATO forces in southern Afghanistan — to which the U.S. has long been committed — and 4,000 U.S. military trainers would be dispatched to help accelerate an expansion of the Afghan army and police.

    ….The administration’s plan contains “off-ramps,” points starting next June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or “begin looking very quickly at exiting” the country, depending on political and military progress, one defense official said.

    “We have to start showing progress within six months on the political side or military side or that’s it,” the U.S. defense official said.

    ….As part of its new plan, the administration, which remains skeptical of Karzai, will “work around him” by working directly with provincial and district leaders, a senior U.S. defense official told McClatchy.

    A few comments:

    • The McClatchy crew has been way ahead of everyone else on this story.
    • If they’re right, Obama essentially made this decision in early November.  It’s not entirely clear what all the meetings since then have been for.  Getting their PR ducks in a row?
    • If their “senior defense official” is correct, the plan does indeed include a strong tribal component, as blogged about last night.

    One other thing: I’m sort of a connoisseur of the excuses that reporters use these days for relying on anonymous sources, and I really like this one: “U.S. officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because…one official said, the White House is incensed by leaks on its Afghanistan policy that didn’t originate in the White House.”  That’s admirably direct.  Nobody wants to piss off the CinC!

  • Long-Term Deficits


    Martin Wolf says that although long-term deficits are a problem, it’s too early to rein in spending right now:

    What is needed, instead, are credible fiscal institutions and a road map for tightening that will be implemented, automatically, as and when (but only as and when) the private sector’s spending recovers. Among the things that should be done right now is to put prospective entitlement spending — on public sector pensions, for example — on a sustainable path. It is, in short, about putting in place a credible long-term tightening that responds to recovery automatically.

    That sounds like a good idea to me.  That is, it would sound like a good idea if I could think of any way to make automatic future stabilizers truly credible.  Right now, I don’t think you could pass any significant entitlement cuts or tax increases in the first place, let alone pass them embedded in a some kind of structure that seemed truly invulnerable to future political shifts.  But I’m all ears if anyone has any ideas.

    (Adding: I’m entirely in favor of a Social Security commission, similar to the 1983 commission, tasked with producing a conventional basket of small revenue increases and small benefit cuts that would balance Social Security’s book in the long term.  This is, admittedly, a relatively small thing, since Social Security’s fiscal condition has improved over the past few years and is now projected to eventually go out of balance by only about 1.5% of GDP.  But aside from the virtue of even small acts of fiscal rectitude, it would also have the huge virtue of taking Social Security off the table as a political issue.  If we could, at long last, get the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and the Peterson folks to quit droning on endlessly about this, we might actually clear the way for discussion of some real issues. And it’s the kind of thing that can be put in place now and credibly be expected to unfold as planned.)

  • Chart of the Day


    ABC News reports that in the past 16 months the number of people who believe in global warming has dropped 8 percentage points.  But the drop is skewed almost completely by ideology: among liberals and moderates there’s been a change of only a couple of points, which might just be statistical noise.  Among conservatives, belief in global warming has dropped a whopping 13 points.

    Note that this isn’t a drop in conservatives who think that global warming is manmade.  It’s not a drop in the number who think it will continue in the future.  It’s not a drop in the number who think it’s too expensive to do anything about it.  The question ABC asked was whether or not temperatures had increased over the past hundred years.  It’s a simple factual question like asking if the Allies won World War I.  But only a bare majority of conservatives believe it.  It’s Jim Inhofe’s party now.