Kevin Drum

Why They Hate Us

Thu Dec. 3, 2009 12:58 PM EST

Stephen Walt pushes back on Tom Friedman's view that Muslims ought to realize that over the past couple of decades "U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny."  After estimating the fatalities in various conflicts, he figures that since 1983 Muslims have killed about 10,000 Americans while Americans have killed about 300,000 Muslims:

I have deliberately selected "low-end" estimates for Muslim fatalities, so these figures present the "best case" for the United States. Even so, the United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American lost. The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of "excess deaths" in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.

[Several paragraphs of caveats.]

....If you really want to know "why they hate us," the numbers presented above cannot be ignored. Even if we view these figures with skepticism and discount the numbers a lot, the fact remains that the United States has killed a very large number of Arab or Muslim individuals over the past three decades. Even though we had just cause and the right intentions in some cases (as in the first Gulf War), our actions were indefensible (maybe even criminal) in others.

....Some degree of anti-Americanism may reflect ideology, distorted history, or a foreign government's attempt to shift blame onto others (a practice that all governments indulge in), but a lot of it is the inevitable result of policies that the American people have supported in the past. When you kill tens of thousands of people in other countries — and sometimes for no good reason — you shouldn't be surprised when people in those countries are enraged by this behavior and interested in revenge. After all, how did we react after September 11? 

Raw numbers like this obviously aren't the whole story.  On the other hand, when you get beyond the raw numbers it's not as if the scales suddenly tip overwhelmingly in our favor.  So whole story or not, it's a data point worth keeping sharply in mind.  Click the link for Walt's entire list.

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Cheap Oil!

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 12:35 PM EST

A headline today from CNN Money:

Why cheap oil is here to stay

Bruce Bartlett says this must mean that oil prices are due for a runup.  Sounds right to me.

Just Another Day in the Senate

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 11:59 AM EST

The LA Times reports on Ben Bernake's confirmation hearings for a second term as Fed chairman:

Reflecting the antagonism Bernanke faces in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont placed a hold on the Fed chief's nomination late Wednesday.

The move by Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Senate's Democrats, isn't expected to derail Bernanke's confirmation.

Aside from my general dislike of the whole hold process, this is a pretty good example of a big specific problem with it: namely that I don't think Sanders has even the slightest hope that his hold is genuinely going to keep Bernanke from being confirmed.  I mean, Paul Krugman and Dean Baker both favor his reappointment, for God's sake.  So all this does is gum up the gears and force the Senate to spend time on Bernanke instead of the million other things it should be spending time on.

Alternatively, I suppose maybe Sanders is just using this to get leverage for something he wants.  I still think holds are a lousy way to do this, but I suppose some good could come out of it if it raises public awareness of the fact that the Fed is supposed to bear some responsibility for maintaining full employment, not just controlling inflation.  Unfortunately, it's more likely to raise public awareness of cranky Ron Paul-esque Fed bashing, which doesn't do anyone any good.  (Except for Ron Paul, of course.)  All in all, just another day in the Senate, the world's worst legislative body.

The Political Ecosphere

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 11:45 AM EST

Glenn Greenwald on Jane Hamsher:

“I think Jane’s success in a prior career has made her immune to the rewards of access — and fear of punishment — which keep most younger inside-the-Beltway progressives obediently in line,” he said. “She’s not 26 years old and desperate to work for a DC think tank, a Democratic politician or a progressive institution. She doesn’t care in the slightest which powerful people dislike her, but rather sees that reaction as vindication for what she’s doing.”

Matt Yglesias objects to this because he's 28 years old and works for a DC think tank.  Fair enough.  But the bigger problem with this quote, I think, is that it misapprehends the incentive structure at work in political activism.  Implicitly, the idea here is that Jane sits outside that structure completely, but that's really not true.  Just as beltway types have incentives that generally lead them to compromise in a centrist direction, base activists have incentives that push them in exactly the opposite direction.  They can get ostracized for being too accomodating exactly the same way that think tank folks can get ostracized for being too shrill.

In any case, I really think temperament drives most of this stuff in the first place.  After all, I'm in pretty much the same situation as Jane.  Maybe more so, in fact, since I live 3,000 miles away from DC and rarely even socialize with other bloggers.  And yet, obviously, I have a pretty moderate, accommodating blogging style.  But that's more because of who I am than because of who I work for.

Anyway, I generally like both the activists and the beltway types and figure they have symbiotic roles in the political ecosphere.  So more power to both of them as long as they're roughly on my side.  How's that for accommodating?

Where are the Jobs?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 1:52 AM EST

Here's the end of Robert Samuelson's column today:

Obama can't be fairly blamed for most job losses, which stemmed from a crisis predating his election. But he has made a bad situation somewhat worse. His unwillingness to advance trade agreements (notably, with Colombia and South Korea) has hurt exports. The hostility to oil and gas drilling penalizes one source of domestic investment spending. More important, the decision to press controversial proposals (health care, climate change) was bound to increase uncertainty and undermine confidence. Some firms are postponing spending projects "until there is more clarity," Zandi notes. Others are put off by anti-business rhetoric. The recovery's vigor will determine whether unemployment declines rapidly or stays stubbornly high, and the recovery's vigor depends heavily on private business. Obama declines to recognize conflicts among goals. Choices were made — and jobs weren't always Job One.

Is he serious?  Unemployment is high because we don't have a trade agreement with South Korea and new oil fields haven't been opened up?  To say that's tissue thin is to insult tissues everywhere.  And suggesting that healthcare reform and "anti-business rhetoric" are slowing down the recovery hardly passes the laugh test either.  Surely Samuelson could have invented something better than this if he was really that desperate to hang something on Obama?

If Samuelson really cared about job growth, he might have spared a word or three for Republicans in Congress, who have steadfastly refused to consider the kind of serious stimulus measures that might actually promote employment.  But they stay oddly out of the picture.  I wonder why?

Housekeeping Update

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 1:14 AM EST

Ok, let's see if everything works.....

Hooray, it works!  Normal blogging to commence shortly.

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Housekeeping Note

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 1:55 PM EST

We're upgrading our site today to newer, faster, better, and more reliable software.  Hooray!  That also means the site will be shut down for the next few hours.  Boo!  You'll still be able to read everything, but comments will be shut down and there will be no new posting for the rest of the afternoon.

I'll be back later tonight if everything goes well.  We may encounters a few hiccups as we settle in (did I mention that this is a software upgrade?), but after that everything should be much smoother around here.  Keep your fingers crossed.

New Frontiers in Obstructionism

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 1:49 PM EST

The filibuster is far from the only delaying tactic available to Republicans as they try to hold off healthcare reform.  Taegan Goddard glosses an article from Roll Call for us:

For instance, instead of offering a conventional amendment to the bill this week, Republicans used "an esoteric procedural tactic" that would send the bill back to committee with instructions to eliminate certain cuts. If successful, Republicans would force Democrats to "hold another filibuster-killing vote on whether to restart debate on the bill."

"Republicans said they are likely to use the procedural tactic repeatedly during debate this month as they seek to make the point that the Senate should go back to the drawing board on the health care bill."

This is going to be fun couple of months, isn't it?

 

Chevy Volt Near Release

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 1:37 PM EST

Atrios writes about the new Chevy Volt:

Plug-in hybrid car goes on sale next year. I don't think "pure" electric vehicles will really be viable until the range goes up a bit and fast charging stations are more widely available, though an exception would be for certain government and business fleets. Obviously some people might want one!

Atrios gets this right: the Volt is basically a hybrid, though not of the same type as a Prius.  I'm not sure why I care about this, but for some reason an awful lot of people think the Volt is a "pure" electric vehicle.  It's not.  It's got a gasoline engine that kicks in when the battery gets low, charging the battery as you drive.  It's true that the drivetrain is pure electric (the gasoline engine is there purely to charge the battery), but the range of the Volt is far more than the 40 miles you usually hear about.  Basically, if you do, say, 90% of your driving around town, there's a good chance that 90% of your driving will be purely electric.  When you take longer trips, though, the gasoline engine will kick in to keep you going for as long as you want.  That makes it a pretty versatile car.

Of course, it still costs $40,000.  That's probably a bigger drawback than the technology.  Still, if you do most of your driving locally, and then add in a government subsidy that you might get, the Volt could end up being a decent deal in the long run.

Leaving Afghanistan

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 12:30 PM EST

So are we really planning to leave Afghanistan in 2011?  Michael Crowley rounds up some reasons to be skeptical:

I wonder how many Americans who may be paying only cursory attention appreciate the thinness of Obama's pledge to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2011. Subsequent commentary from administration officials has made this point clearer than Obama did last night.

First, there was Michèle A. Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy, who told the New York Times this morning that "The pace, the nature and the duration of that transition are to be determined down the road by the president based on the conditions on the ground."

Next there was Centcom commander David Petraeus....When it comes to expectations about a near-term withdrawal, he added: "Conditions-based [are] very important words that need to be focused on."

And then there was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton...."I do not believe we have locked ourselves in to leaving," Clinton responded, before repeating the core administration talking point: "By July 2011 there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will of course be based on conditions."

This was something struck me pretty starkly too.  All Obama promised to do was to begin withdrawals in 2011.  He didn't say how many troops would be withdrawn, how fast they'd be withdrawn, when he expected the withdrawal to be complete, or whether he intended to keep some number of troops there forever.  In other words, he really didn't promise much of anything.

At the same time, I still think it was an important promise.  Vague as it was, it set some very public expectations that we don't plan to stay in Afghanistan forever.  This is good for the Afghans, who now have a clearer incentive to take control of their own security.  It's good for the troops, who now have a specific goal and don't feel like they're stuck in an endless quagmire.  It's good for our allies, who might be better able to sell their own publics on the war if it's seen as a time-limited commitment.  It's good for Muslim public opinion, since it reduces fears of a permanent American empire in the Middle East and central Asia.  And for the Taliban, which already hopes to stay around forever regardless, it really doesn't make any difference.

So it's a positive step, setting expectations and aligning incentives in the right way.  At the same time, Crowley is right: there's a helluva lot of wiggle room in this promise, and even in the best case Obama plans to keep us in Afghanistan in force for at least four more years.  Maybe longer.  That's a pretty thin promise.