Kevin Drum

Mosul

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 1:53 AM EDT

MOSUL....For years, Iraq observers have been warning about the ongoing tensions in Kirkuk between Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds. That tension is now in danger of exploding into outright war, but it turns out the initial flashpoint isn't Kirkuk after all. It's Mosul:

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is squeezing out Kurdish units of the Iraqi Army from Mosul, sending the national police and army from Baghdad and trying to forge alliances with Sunni Arab hard-liners in the province, who have deep-seated feuds with the Kurdistan Regional Government led by Massoud Barzani.

...."It's the perfect storm against the old festering background," warned Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, who oversees Nineveh and Kirkuk Provinces and the Kurdish region. Worry is so high that the American military has already settled on a policy that may set a precedent, as the United States slowly withdraws to allow Iraqis to settle their own problems. If the Kurds and Iraqi government forces fight, the American military will "step aside," General Thomas said, rather than "have United States servicemen get killed trying to play peacemaker."

I don't blame Thomas for taking this attitude. At the same time, if American troops aren't there to keep the peace, what are they there for?

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The War Against Gore

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 7:39 PM EDT

THE WAR AGAINST GORE....Today Bob Somerby finds yet another excuse to remind us all of how badly Al Gore was treated by the press during the 2000 campaign. And, as usual, he's pissed that the rest of us aren't as obsessed by this as he is:

To this day, our side has agreed to keep its traps shut about the trashing of the Clintons and Gore. As we've done so, we've given away a giant political advantage. Millions of people [] hear that the press corps just hates Big Republicans. And they rarely hear a peep from our side. We've agreed not to tell them the truth.

In large part, our side has kept its traps shut about the Clinton/Gore era for corrupt, careerist reasons....Kevin won't tell you. Josh won't tell you. Ezra spoke once, then shut the f*ck up. Your "nominal allies" are very quiet. Atrios rarely offers a peep.

First things first: Yes, Gore was indeed treated badly. He never said he invented the internet, he never said he discovered Love Canal, he wore pretty much the same clothes he'd always worn, he didn't hire Naomi Wolf to teach him how to be an alpha male, and he wasn't a serial liar. Etc. Bob is right about all that stuff.

But here's what I don't get: why does Bob think that liberals are giving away a "giant political advantage" by not harping on this constantly? Frankly, I'd be delighted to harp away if I actually thought this was one of the top 100 issues that might help the future of liberalism, but it's not, is it? Media criticism in general helps our side, but what exactly would it gain us to relate everything back to Al Gore's decade-old mistreatment with the Ahab-like intensity that Bob does? Wouldn't it just cause everyone to tune us out as cranks and fogeys? Anyone care to weigh in on this, on either side?

Stevens Guilty

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 5:34 PM EDT

STEVENS GUILTY....Ted Stevens, whose defense against corruption charges was that he was just "borrowing" stuff from campaign donors, lost his case today:

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted today of lying on financial disclosure forms to hide tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and renovations to his Alaska home that were financed mostly by a powerful business executive and his oil services company.

....Despite the guilty verdict, Stevens remains on the ballot in Alaska, where he is locked in a tight race with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

If he can pull off an upset victory, Stevens could remain in the Senate for months, if not longer, if he chose to appeal the verdict. Tradition allows him to exhaust his appeals before the ethics committee begins expulsion hearings, according to the Historical Office of the Senate.

A reader asks, "If Stevens is re-elected and the US Senate then kicks him out, can Palin then name herself to replace him?" I assume the answer is no, and I further assume that even if the answer is yes Palin wouldn't have the chutzpah to do it. But of course, those are my big city values talking, so I might be off base here.

In any case, I assume that Stevens is now considerably more likely to lose his seat next week, thus making this point moot. Any Alaskans care to weigh in on how this is going to play up in the Great White North Last Frontier?

UPDATE: False alarm. Sorry. After Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter Lisa to an open Senate seat in 2002, Alaskans approved a ballot initiative to change the law. An open Senate seat in Alaska is now filled via a special election.

Watching the Polls

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 1:56 PM EDT

WATCHING THE POLLS....I sometimes feel a little guilty for not posting poll results more often, but I figure you hardly need me for that, do you? Still, we're down to the wire and it's worth seeing the big picture of public opinion as the race careens to its end. And the big picture is....no change. In the RCP poll of polls, Barack Obama is still way ahead of John McCain.

Obama and the Courts

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 1:29 PM EDT

OBAMA AND THE COURTS....I see that Drudge is blaring a headline about how Barack Obama believes it's a tragedy that the Supreme Court hasn't confiscated all your money and given it to poor people. Turning on the TV, I see that Fox New is all over it too. So is John McCain. Clearly, the guy's a total socialist.

Except, you know, he's not. The whole thing is based on a distinctly academic radio panel Obama was part of seven years ago, and over at the Volokh Conspiracy even conservatives Orin Kerr and David Bernstein aren't buying this nonsense. After all, Obama specifically says in the interview that it's a mistake for liberals to rely too heavily on the courts, rather than on public opinion and the legislative process. And supporting a progressive income tax or equal funding for school districts is hardly a sign of incipient socialism.

I dunno. Maybe this stuff would have worked four years ago. But now? After eight years of stagnant middle class wages and an epic collapse of the world financial system? Not so much. Is this really the best McCain can do?

UPDATE: Meanwhile, in other "Obama is a secret radical" news, ABC's Brian Ross is busily trying to dragoon washed-up terrorist and noted Obama pal Bill Ayers into an interview as he tries to catch a cab. Enlightening stuff.

More on Prop 1A

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 12:47 PM EDT

MORE ON PROP 1A....You will be unsurprised to learn that I took a ton of flak in comments yesterday over my opposition to California's Proposition 1A, a bond measure that would fund a high-speed train between LA and San Francisco. My position was primarily based on a generic opposition to bond measures, but since that isn't enough for most people, how about if we discuss the project on its merits too? That will give you all a second chance to yell at me.

(I also took some flak for supporting Prop 11, a redistricting initiative, because it might dilute the power of the Democratic Party slightly. Actually, based on how redistricting was done the last time around, I'm not sure it would, and I'm OK with forcing both parties to fight harder for their seats anyway. Still, the issues there are more obvious, so I'll leave it alone for now.)

So here's the thing about Prop 1A: yes, it's a high-speed rail initiative. And we all love high-speed rail. But if we're going to continue living in the reality-based world, we have to accept that there are both good rail projects and bad ones. And I have some very serious doubts that this is a good one.

In order to be competitive, it relies heavily on a projection that the train will make the LA-SF run in about 2.5 hours. This is almost certainly a fantasy given terrain, trackage, and existing technology. It will probably be closer to 3.5 or even four hours, which would make it almost completely noncompetitive with air travel. It also relies heavily on a projection of 100 million users by 2030. This is fantasy squared. And it further relies on funding assumptions that are practically laughable. Even if Prop 1 is passed, there's a good chance this train won't even be built by 2030, let alone carrying 100 million people per year.

There are plenty of promising short-haul rail projects that we should be considering, but long-haul rail is just really problematic. The numbers don't work out most of the time without heroic assumptions, and the money could almost certainly be better used on other things. So even if California were in good shape fiscally, I doubt very much that Prop 1A would be a good dea.

For more, click the link to read an email on the subject from an extremely dedicated rail proponent. I find it pretty persuasive.

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The Two Ps

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 12:13 PM EDT

THE TWO Ps....Nicholas Burns makes the case for quiet, persistent diplomacy:

Talking to our adversaries is no one's idea of fun, and it is not a sure prescription for success in every crisis. But it is crude, simplistic and wrong to charge that negotiations reflect weakness or appeasement. More often than not, they are evidence of a strong and self-confident country. One of America's greatest but often neglected strengths is, in fact, our diplomatic power. Condoleezza Rice's visit to Libya in September—the first by a U.S. secretary of state in five decades—was the culmination of years of careful, deliberate diplomacy to maneuver the Libyan leadership to give up its weapons of mass destruction and renounce terrorism. She would not have achieved that victory had she refused to talk to the Libyans.

Burns, of course, has no time for campaign claptrap about "preconditions" being the same thing as "preparation." In fact, he doesn't even mention it, saying only this about Iran: "I'm not saying the next president should sit down immediately with Ahmadinejad. We should initiate contact at a lower level to investigate whether it's worth putting the president's prestige on the line."

Of course. That's preparation. A precondition, by contrast, would be a demand that Iran agree to halt its nuclear program before we even sit down to talk, even though their nuclear program is supposedly one of the very reasons for the talks in the first place. It's just a backhanded way of ensuring that no talks will ever take place.

Unlike John McCain, Barack Obama favors preparation but generally opposes preconditions. That's the right attitude.

Digging Into the Meltdown

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 11:54 AM EDT

DIGGING INTO THE MELTDOWN....Tyler Cowen notes Europe's disastrous exposure to emerging market debt and says:

By the way, this is further evidence that the driving force behind the earlier boom was the global savings glut, and sheer giddiness, not the excessively loose monetary policy of Greenspan's Fed.

But why not both? And a few other things as well, including the increasing concentration of income and wealth in the hands of the rich? Are they really all mutually exclusive?

A Wee Question

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 11:18 AM EDT

A WEE QUESTION....In 2004, John Kerry lost the popular vote by a couple of percentage points and the electoral vote by 120,000 votes in Ohio. Now, suppose Kerry were running this year and therefore had the following three advantages over his previous self: (a) he was running after eight years of Republican rule instead of four, (b) the economy sucked, and (c) he had a fantastic fundraising advantage over his Republican opponent.

Question 1: how well do you think Kerry would do? Question 2: how well do you think Obama is going to do this year? Question 3: how big is the difference between the answers to Q1 and Q2?

Meltdown Watch

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 1:48 AM EDT

MELTDOWN WATCH....The latest beacon of sunshine from the Wall Street Journal:

A rash of new job data show the labor market is now the worst it's been since the two prior recessions in 2001 and the early 1990s. One of the starkest indicators is that the number of people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more reached two million in September. That's 21% of the total unemployed, and approaching the prior peaks of about 23% in 2003 and 1992. The prospects of these job seekers grow dimmer as layoffs spread beyond the financial, home-building and auto industries.

....What worries many economists is that labor markets usually reach their weakest point after a recession has ended. During the so-called "jobless recovery" following the 2001 recession, jobs continued to be shed after it was officially declared over. But the current weakness comes as the country heads into a recession that is now forecast to be deeper and longer than previously thought.

"No one thinks we are anywhere near the bottom of this, and we're already rivaling these other recessions," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

Elsewhere, we learn that U.S. retailers expect a lousy Christmas; the global slowdown has hit Poland hard; the IMF has just unveiled a rescue package for Ukraine; Asian economies are slowing sharply; and even oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are barely staving off bank failures. Meanwhile, Krugman's latest column ends on this cheery note: "Whatever the reasons for the continuing weakness of policy, the situation is manifestly not coming under control. Things continue to fall apart." Wonderful.