Glenn Greenwald points out something today that I'm embarrassed to say hadn't occurred to me:

On Saturday in Somalia, the U.S. fired missiles from a drone and killed the 27-year-old Lebanon-born, ex-British citizen Bilal el-Berjawi. His wife had given birth 24 hours earlier and the speculation is that the U.S. located him when his wife called to give him the news…El-Berjawi’s family vehemently denies that he is involved with Terrorism, but he was never able to appeal the decree against him for this reason:

Berjawi is understood to have sought to appeal against the order, but lawyers representing his family were unable to take instructions from him amid concerns that any telephone contact could precipitate a drone attack.

Obviously, those concerns were valid. So first the U.S. tries to assassinate people, then it causes legal rulings against them to be issued because the individuals, fearing for their life, are unable to defend themselves. Meanwhile, no explanation or evidence is provided for either the adverse government act or the assassination: it is simply secretly decreed and thus shall it be.

I'm already opposed to assassinations of U.S. citizens, and not especially excited about assassinations of non-U.S. nationals either (el-Berjawi was a dual Lebanese British national whose British citizenship was stripped in 2006). So this doesn't really change my mind about anything in a serious way. But it does make the whole thing a lot more Kafka-esque than I had imagined.

Still, in the case of non-U.S. nationals, I think the question of targeted assassinations is more difficult than some critics make it out to be. As always, it gets back to the fundamental question of (a) whether we're at war and (b) what the battlefield is. In a shooting war, obviously you're allowed to go after enemy combatants without a court order, and that's the essential rationale for these killings. But where does the line get drawn? Does this war ever end? Is its scope the entire world? Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations have ever been willing to say, claiming simply that the AUMF, along with the president's inherent commander-in-chief powers, gave them all the authority they needed to make decisions solely within the executive branch.

And yet…it's not clear what other option there is. Genuine judicial hearings, even if you think that's the right way to go about this, are obviously nonstarters in practical terms. You could have something like the FISA court, authorizing targeted assassinations in secret hearings, which would be an improvement in technical terms but probably not in real life. It's not as if FISA turns down government requests very often, after all. Or we could simply stop killing suspected terrorists overseas unless they're in a declared war zone.

I'm a squish. I don't know the answer. One way or another though, I can't help but think that this is all going to turn out badly eventually.

Most news articles about a company or a person include a rote disclaimer somewhere in the text: "_____ declined to comment on the matter." This is often a pro forma statement, since the writer knew perfectly well she was never going to get a comment in the first place.

Ed Bott is tired of the game. After reading Apple's end-user license for its eBook authoring program with mounting outrage, and then writing a blistering column about it, he ended with this:

Oh, and let’s just stipulate that I could send an e-mail to Apple asking for comment, or I could hand-write my request on a sheet of paper and then put it in a shredder. Both actions would produce the same response from Cupertino. But if anyone from Apple would care to comment, you know where to find me.

Atta boy! I view Apple as much like China: overseers of a huge market that's irresistible, and well aware that they can use their market power in any way they like without having to answer to anyone. In most ways that I can think of, they're really far more of an evil empire than Microsoft ever was. They're just not as big.

(On the merits of this particular case, though, I suspect that Bott is overreacting. The core problem is that Apple insists that if you write a book using its program, you can sell it only through Apple. But I'd be surprised if someone didn't very quickly create a translator that converts Apple's almost-ePub files into genuine, clean ePub files that can be used anywhere. In practical terms, Apple's EULA may not really amount to much.)

Via Ryan Cooper.

Are we doomed to a future in which we are mere vassals to a burgeoning and aggressive Chinese hegemony? If you vote for Barack Obama, yes! In fact, according to Mitt Romney, he's actively working toward such a future.

But seriously. Are we? I don't think so. Sure, China is going to grow and there will inevitably be some shifts in influence as that happens, but if I had to make a 50-year bet on any region of the world, I'd pick the United States. Europe has demographic and growth problems; Russia is doomed once their energy resources run out; Africa will remain a basket case for the foreseeable future; India is starting from a poor base and I'm not convinced they have the governance or institutions to maintain rapid growth over the long term; and China — well, China has its problems, as I've noted multiple times in this space.1 I don't think they're going to collapse or anything like that, but I do think their growth will inevitably slow down long before their per-capita income is anywhere close to ours. It will likely take them at least a century to catch up.

Meanwhile, the United States is really in pretty good shape if we can just get our political affairs in orders.2 Compared to the rest of the world, our economy is pretty solid, our demographics look good, and we have more energy resources than most other rich countries. Dan Drezner has more here. It's worth a read if you want to see the optimistic case for American influence and wealth in the 21st century.

1And what about South America? I'm not sure. That's why I didn't include them in my list.

2Yes, yes, I know.

Let's start off the week with some good news. We now have a ruling in the case of Antoine Jones, who was convicted on drug charges after police attached a GPS tracking device to his car:

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that police must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects....Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said that the government’s installation of a GPS device, and its use to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search, meaning that a warrant is required.

“By attaching the device to the Jeep” that Jones was using, “officers encroached on a protected area,” Scalia wrote.

....Justice Samuel Alito also wrote a concurring opinion in which he said the court should have gone further and dealt with GPS tracking of wireless devices, like mobile phones. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

Count me with Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. If police want to track your cell phone, they should get a warrant. End of story.

As I was watching the NFL playoffs tonight, it occurred to me to wonder where the word "punt" comes from. Several places, it turns out:

  • The Irish punt, their currency prior to the euro, is derived from the English pound.
  • The kind of punt that you pole down the Thames gets its name from the Latin ponto, or pontoon.
  • The verb punt, meaning to gamble, derives from the Spanish punto, or point.
  • The football version of punt derives from.....something. No one knows what, but apparently it originated with rugby. Several sources suggest it's an alteration of the Midlands dialect bunt, "to push, butt with the head," which is itself of obscure origin.

So the internet has failed me. In fact, it even forced me to refer to my dead tree dictionary, which also has no idea where the football form of the word originated. Isn't that great? We know where all the ancient versions came from, but the only modern usage has its origins lost in the mists of time.

Still, it's a great sounding word, isn't it? Personally, I think it derives from the fact that when you kick a football (or a rugby ball, I suppose), the sound it makes is a lot like punt. Go ahead. Say it five times fast. It's kind of soothing.

Ross Douthat makes a good point today about the endlessly repeated observation that Republican voters don't seem very thrilled by any of the presidential candidates on offer:

What’s remarkable is how often this seems to happen. As weak as this year’s Republican field has proved, it’s not that much weaker than a number of recent presidential vintages, from the Democrats’ lineups in 1988 and 2004 to the Republican field in 1996. In presidential politics, the great talents (a Clinton, a Reagan) seem to be the exception; a march of Dole-Dukakis-Mondale mediocrity is closer to the rule.

There's a lot of truth to this. When it comes to presidential candidates, we are a nation of whiners. Let's refresh our memories about the candidates who ended up winning their primaries and running for president over the past 30 years.

Among non-incumbents, I think it's fair to say that Reagan in 1980 and Obama in 2008 were unquestionably inspirational figures among their party's base, not just candidates they were willing to settle for. I think it's also safe to say that Mondale, Dukakis, Bush Sr., Dole, Gore, Kerry, and McCain, weren't.

Clinton in 1992 and Bush Jr. in 2000 I'm less sure about. Clinton has taken on elder statesman status since he left office, but I don't recall Democrats being thrilled about his candidacy in 1992. Bush Jr. is a little harder to call. I think I'd probably have to ask some Republicans to weigh in on this.

In any case, this means that out of 11 non-incumbent candidates over the past three decades, only two were clearly inspirational at the time, two more were possibly B-list inspirational, and seven were basically duds. Long story short, we Americans aren't usually very happy with the presidential choices put in front of us. The 2012 Republican primary is much more the rule than the exception.

From John Boehner, asked about President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address:

I’ve read a lot about what the president will talk about Tuesday night. It sounds to me like the same old proposals we’ve seen — more spending, higher taxes, more regulation — the same policies that haven’t helped our economy, they’ve made it worse. If that’s what the president is going to talk about Tuesday night, I think it’s pathetic.

Pathetic! That's one of Newt Gingrich's favorite words! I take this as a subtle hint that the Republican establishment is starting to accept the possibility of a doomed, Newt-inflected future. Further Kremlinological observations will follow in future posts.

What's the big difference between the Republican primaries this year and the primaries in 2008? I think one of the key changes is how sparse the early schedule is. This year we had Iowa, then a week until New Hampshire, then eleven days until South Carolina, and now another ten days until Florida. In 2008, there were a bunch of other primaries sandwiched in: Wyoming, Michigan, Nevada, Louisiana, and Hawaii.

That sure feels like a big difference to me. The primaries were so fast and furious in 2008 that there wasn't much time for voter sentiment to change. Momentum was a big deal. This year, the eleven days from New Hampshire to South Carolina felt like forever, and the next ten days are going to feel like forever too. If Newt Gingrich has a chance to win, it's going to be because there was so much time for him to get a bit of a bandwagon going in South Carolina and (perhaps) again in Florida.

If Gingrich pulls this out (which I still doubt) and then goes on to get clobbered in November (which I have little doubt about), I suspect that the Republican leadership will be none too pleased with the way they tweaked the early schedule this year. More early states, please.

This isn't going to come as a surprise to anyone, but the chart below is instructive nonetheless. It comes from Matt Glassman, a fellow skat fan, and it shows the cost per rider to buy up all the ad space in a DC Metro station (i.e., "station domination"). For the most part the cost runs around $2,000 per thousand riders. The two exceptions are just where you'd expect: the Pentagon station and the Capitol South station, where all the congressional staffers get off. Those staffers' eyeballs, it turns out, are worth about 4x what all the rest of our eyeballs are worth.

(I'm actually a little surprised that congressional staffers are apparently more valuable than military procurement folks, but I suppose the military suppliers have so many other outlets for their money that a Metro station is hardly worth the bother.)

Steve Benen sends me to Benjy Sarlin and Kyle Leighton, who write:

What If Voters Just Don’t Like Mitt Romney?

Mitt Romney may be on the verge of securing the nomination, but his campaign is still struggling with a pretty basic problem as it looks towards the general election: people just don't like him very much.

I admit that what I'm about to write sounds like a snarky #slatepitch ("America is Falling in Love With Mitt Romney!"), but is it really true that people don't like Romney? Well, I don't like him much. Most of my readers don't like him much. The press corps probably doesn't like him much. But the truth is that the only reason Romney has this label pinned on him is because the media anointed him a front runner and is now feigning surprise that he hasn't sewn up the nomination sooner than any candidate in history. But that doesn't mean Romney is unlikeable. It just means he's fairly normal.

As further evidence, Sarlin and Leighton cite a new PPP poll showing that Romney's unfavorables are high. But let's take a look at everyone, not just Romney. Here are the unfavorables for all five candidates still in the race as of early this week:

  • Rick Perry: 63%
  • Newt Gingrich: 60%
  • Ron Paul: 57%
  • Mitt Romney: 53%
  • Rick Santorum: 51%

Not bad! Especially for a candidate that everyone knows is starting in a hole because a certain segment of the evangelical community is just never going to approve of a Mormon for president. The fact is, these are just not the numbers of a guy that no one can stand. Rather, they're the numbers of a candidate in a tough race, where negative ads have forced everyone's unfavorables pretty high.

Sarlin and Leighton acknowledge this later in their piece. But the headline and the lead are all about the fact that people just don't like Romney. Watch out, though. The DC media invented an identical narrative for Al Gore in 2000, and it was more a self-fulfilling prophecy from a bunch of reporters who disliked Gore than it was a reflection of the actual truth.

Look: I'm not going to vote for Romney. His willingness to abase himself to the tea party wing of the GOP is nauseating, his obvious fealty to corporate interests is offensive, and — well, you know, he's a conservative. Of course I'm not going to vote for him. But that doesn't mean he's unusually unlikeable. Frankly, of the five guys listed above, I'd probably prefer him as a next-door neighbor to any of them.