Kevin Drum

Political Correctness

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 1:22 PM EST

Is "political correctness" to blame for the Ft. Hood massacre?  Did the military fail to confont Nidal Malik Hasan's growing disillusionment with the war because it was afraid of appearing overly critical of Muslims?  Marc Lynch pushes back:

This framing of the issue is almost 100% wrong. There is a connection between what these critics are calling "political correctness" and national security, but it runs in the opposite direction. The real linkage is that there is a strong security imperative to prevent the consolidation of a narrative in which America is engaged in a clash of civilizations with Islam, and instead to nurture a narrative in which al-Qaeda and its affiliates represent a marginal fringe to be jointly combatted.

....The grand strategy of al-Qaeda and its affiliated ideologues is, and has always been, to generate a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West which does not currently exist....To make inroads with mainstream Muslim communities, they need to change the context in which they live — to render their status quo unacceptable and to make their narrative resonate.  And for that to happen, they need a lot of help — for the targeted governments to take inflammatory measures against their Muslim populations, for the non-Muslim citizens in the targeted countries to discriminate against them, and for the media to fan the flames of hatred and mistrust.

....A lot of people — some well-meaning, some clowns or worse — evidently want the American response to the Ft. Hood shootings to revive the post-9/11 "war of ideas" and "clash of civilizations" anti-Islamic discourse.  It's a jihad, they shout, demanding careful scrutiny of the loyalty of American Muslims.  That's what they seem to mean by the demand to throw away "political correctness" and confront the ideological menace.  The overall effect of their recommendations, however,  would be to revive the flagging al-Qaeda brand and to greatly strengthen the appeal of its narrative.  And that's exactly what we should not want.

The whole piece is worth a read.  The military almost certainly has some lessons to learn from this tragedy — as do the rest of us — but that plural is deliberate.  Lessons, not lesson.

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Quote of the Day

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 12:36 PM EST

From RNC chairman Michael Steele, talking to Roland Martin on a new Sunday talk show aimed at black audiences:

MARTIN: One of the criticisms I've always had is Republicans — white Republicans — have been scared of black folks.

STEELE: You're absolutely right. I mean I've been in the room and they've been scared of me.

Via Steve Benen.

Going Big in Afghanistan

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 11:22 AM EST

Counterinsurgency or counterterrorism?  Traditionally, the former requires lots of troops in order to root out and defeat a local insurgency while protecting the civilian population, while the latter requires only a small, light force to chase after bad guys and kill them.  But Spencer Ackerman reports that in addition to top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the two commanders of U.S. special forces, Vice Adm. William McRaven and Vice Adm. Robert Harward, both favor big troop increases to back up their counterterrorism efforts:

The fact that JSOC veterans like McRaven, Harward and McChrystal favor an overall counterinsurgency strategy with a counterterrorism component demonstrates that the military no longer believes distinguishing between the two is tenable in the Afghanistan war. “Special Operations Forces that were traditionally used for counterterrorism better understand how their capabilities fit into a counterinsurgency campaign than perhaps they did when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began,” said Andrew Exum, a veteran of both wars and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who over the summer advised McChrystal in a review of Afghanistan strategy.

....McRaven runs a secretive detachment of Special Forces known as Task Force 714 — once commanded by McChrystal himself — that the NSC staffer described as “direct-action” units conducting “high-intensity hits.”....In a move signaling his own importance to McChrystal, Harward will arrive in Afghanistan later this month to command a new task force, known as Task Force 435, that will take charge of detention facilities in Afghanistan.

....The advice of McRaven and Harward to the White House strategy review, the [NSC] staffer said, was to push for a “heavy, heavy, heavy COIN [counterinsurgency] presence” in select population centers like the capitol city of Kabul, while relying on new or expanded counterterrorism units like Task Force 714 for hunting and killing terrorists outside of those population centers — particularly in areas like the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a key transit point for Taliban and al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents.

Basically, there seems to be no support anywhere in the military for a light footprint in Afghanistan.  In a way, that's no surprise: why not get as many troops as you can, after all?  But it also highlights Obama's dilemma: regardless of where his heart is, it's almost impossible to defy military advice when it's nearly unanimous.  Picking one side vs. another is one thing, but trying to impose your own strategy on the entire bureaucracy is quite another.  It sounds like the light footprint never really had a chance.

Hasan and the "Koranic World View"

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 1:55 AM EST

Dana Priest has gotten hold of the presentation that Nidal Malik Hasan delivered to a group of fellow doctors at the end of his residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center:

In late June 2007, he stood before his supervisors and about 25 other mental health staff members and lectured on Islam, suicide bombers and threats the military could encounter from Muslims conflicted about fighting in the Muslim countries of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a copy of the presentation obtained by The Washington Post.

"It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims," he said in the presentation.

....The title of Hasan's PowerPoint presentation was "The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military." It consisted of 50 slides. In one slide, Hasan described the presentation's objectives as identifying "what the Koran inculcates in the minds of Muslims and the potential implications this may have for the U.S. military."

....The final page, labeled "Recommendation," contained only one suggestion: "Department of Defense should allow Muslims [sic] Soldiers the option of being released as 'Conscientious objectors' to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events."

Does this make the "terrorist" theory more or less likely than before?  I'm not sure.  But this, along with other reports, certainly suggests that this stuff had been on his mind for quite a while.

Watching the Watchdog

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 12:56 AM EST

The International Energy Administration is, supposedly, the gold standard for projections of future oil supply.  In 2004 they projected that the world would produce 121 million barrels per day of crude oil.  In 2005 they lowered that to 115 million bpd.  Last year they lowered it again to 106 million bpd.  Today, the Guardian reports that a "whistleblower" at the IEA says that even this number is rubbish and the IEA knows it:

The senior official claims the US has played an influential role in encouraging the watchdog to underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves...."The 120m figure always was nonsense but even today's number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this.

"Many inside the organisation believe that maintaining oil supplies at even 90m to 95m barrels a day would be impossible but there are fears that panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further. And the Americans fear the end of oil supremacy because it would threaten their power over access to oil resources," he added.

....A second senior IEA source, who has now left but was also unwilling to give his name, said a key rule at the organisation was that it was "imperative not to anger the Americans" but the fact was that there was not as much oil in the world as had been admitted. "We have [already] entered the 'peak oil' zone. I think that the situation is really bad," he added.

It's pretty much impossible to know how seriously to take this.  It's almost certainly true that analysts within the IEA disagree with each other about long-term projections, and it's also probably true that there are regional pressures of various kinds within the organization.  That's pretty normal for international groups.

But is the U.S. actively pushing the IEA to produce figures that it knows to be wrong?  And are these two anonymous sources the first ones to ever go public with this?  Hmmm.  I'm not so sure about that.  But the IEA's 2009 World Energy Outlook comes out on Tuesday (last year's projections are above), and we'll see what they have to say then.

The DMCA and You

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 7:14 PM EST

The long arm of the law has reached out and grabbed Brad DeLong by the throat:

Well, this is new. My first ever DMCA takedown notice — from HarperCollins, publisher of Levitt and Dubner's Superfreakonomics. While other publishers these days are happy to have sample chapters of their authors' works read and distributed on the internet, not so with HarperCollins.

One thing I can do in response is — tit-for-tat — to remove my praise of and link to E.M. Halliday's Understanding Thomas Jefferson: there are other better (albeit longer) Jefferson biographies published by firms that have not sent me DMCA notices: read them instead.

I urge everybody — authors and readers alike — to just say no to HarperCollins in the future.

Well, what does everyone think about this?  My first reaction is: fair use excerpts aside, authors and publishers all have the right to decide whether they want large chunks of their material available for free on the internet.  If HarperCollins decides against that, fine.  There's really no reason to be upset about it.

My second thought, though, is that I'd be plenty pissed off if HarperCollins did this to me without first sending me an email asking me to take down the offending material.  Hauling out the lawyers and the DMCA artillery is really uncalled for unless someone refuses a polite request first.

But I don't know if that's what happened.  Did HarperCollins ask first and shoot later, or was it the other way around?

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Subsidizing Healthcare

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 5:47 PM EST

Bart Stupak's abortion amendment prevents any insurance plan that is purchased with government subsidies from covering abortions.  These subsidies, of course, go only to poor and low-income workers.  Ezra Klein takes it from there:

Rep. Bart Stupak's amendment did not make abortion illegal. And it did not block the federal government from subsidizing abortion. All it did was block it from subsidizing abortion for poorer women.

Stupak's amendment stated that the public option cannot provide abortion coverage, and that no insurer participating on the exchange can provide abortion coverage to anyone receiving subsidies. But as Rep. Jim Cooper points out in the interview below, the biggest federal subsidy for private insurance coverage is untouched by Stupak's amendment. It's the $250 billion the government spends each year making employer-sponsored health-care insurance tax-free.

That money, however, subsidizes the insurance of 157 million Americans, many of them quite affluent. Imagine if Stupak had attempted to expand his amendment to their coverage. It would, after all, have been the same principle: Federal policy should not subsidize insurance that offers abortion coverage. But it would have failed in an instant. That group is too large, and too affluent, and too politically powerful for Congress to dare to touch their access to reproductive services. But the poorer women who will be using subsidies on the exchange proved a much easier target. In substance, this amendment was as much about class as it was about choice.

Yes.  But aside from the iron hand of path dependence, there's another dynamic at work here: most people simply refuse to view tax breaks as the equivalent of federal subsidies.  But in most cases they are.  In the case of health insurance, the employer tax break means that workers whose employers offer insurance pay less for coverage than they otherwise would.  Likewise, subsidies mean that workers whose employers don't offer insurance pay less for coverage than they otherwise would.  The differences between the two are slight.

But nobody who gets a special tax break sees it that way.  So we continue to pretend.

Defining Terrorism Down

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 2:19 PM EST

Writing about the Ft. Hood massacre, one of Jonah Goldberg's readers offers the following: "I would say that an act which is unexpected and carried out with the intention to kill indiscriminately for the sole purpose of punishing those who do not hold your beliefs is an Islamic terrorist act."  Goldberg responds:

I am very uncomfortable with the idea that I might sound like I'm trying to diminish the guy's crimes. He committed treason and murder. It was a cowardly act. If we are at war, then it was a war crime.

But I think the reader's definition of terrorism might move us into dangerous territory. In Pakistan, we launch missiles at people's homes with civilians in or around them to take out al Qaeda leadership. But I wouldn't call that terrorism. I'm just uncomfortable with the word terrorism metastasizing into "anything the bad guys do to us." Why not call what Hasan did a war crime? Terrorism is a war crime but not all war crimes are terrorism.

I think that's right, and it's nice to see some pushback from the right on this.  There's a lot of evidence to suggest that Nidal Malik Hasan was (a) quite mentally disturbed and (b) motivated by religious beliefs, but that doesn't make what he did a terrorist act.  Unlike, say, a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, there's hardly even a hint that he was trying to make any kind of political statement.  There was no note, no videotape left behind, no explanation while he was shooting, no nothing.  What kind of terrorist does that?

Voting on Cap-and-Trade

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 1:04 PM EST

Ezra Klein writes today about Nancy Pelosi and the politics of voting in the House of Representatives:

On June 26, Pelosi passed cap and trade out of the House. Many considered it a huge, unforced error. The Senate wouldn't consider the bill for many months, if it ever took it up at all. Health-care reform was in full swing. And Pelosi had just forced her most vulnerable members to take an incredibly difficult vote.

....Talking to congressional Democrats over these past few months, Pelosi's decision to push cap and trade came up in almost every conversation. Coaxing support from vulnerable members who hadn't yet forgiven the leadership for cap and trade had, according to some of these sources, become one of the biggest obstacles to health-care reform.

I confess that I never understood the problem that swing-district House members had with this.  If I were a vulnerable congressman, I'd want this vote taken as far before the midterm elections as possible.  If it turns out to be a risky and ultimately wasted vote because the Senate doesn't act, well, at least it was a risky vote 17 months before next November.  That's an eternity.  A vote in June is a lot less likely to be a salient campaign issue than, say, a vote in December or January.

In any case, as Ezra says, Pelosi's early vote now looks very smart: "It's virtually impossible to imagine the House passing cap and trade in the coming months, not after the exhausting health-care reform battle and not as the midterm election draws closer."  The whole thing is now out of the way and largely forgotten unless the Senate passes a bill, and if that happens, at least House members will be voting next year on something real.  It's a lot easier to talk yourself into taking a risk for a real accomplishment than it is merely to make a quixotic point.

Untangling California

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 12:37 PM EST

For years, a shifting alliance of activists here in California has been pressing the idea of calling a constitutional convention to try and cut through the partisan tangle in Sacramento.  Unfortunately, since only the legislature can call a constitutional convention, the partisan tangle in Sacramento stands in the way of cutting through the partisan tangle in Sacramento.

But the effort has picked up steam lately, with a couple of ballot initiatives being filed that would (a) allow the people to call for a convention and (b) call a convention.  If backers can get a million signatures for these initiatives, they'll be on the ballot next November.  Unfortunately, the public isn't yet on their side:

Backers of an overhaul of California's government, who hope to leverage disgust with Sacramento into support for changing how the state raises taxes and spends money, have a difficult path ahead, according to a new poll of California voters.

....Voters don't want the tax code overhauled in the ways that many fiscal experts promise would tamp down the wild revenue swings that have led to a constant state of budget crisis in California. They don't want the Constitution changed to allow a simple majority of lawmakers to push a budget onto the governor's desk, as most other large states allow. And they don't want the state to touch Proposition 13 property tax restrictions, even if residential property taxes would remain strictly limited.

The problem is that the partisan tangle in Sacramento is basically a reflection of California itself. My fellow residents have no desire to pay higher taxes and no desire to cut services in any significant way, and they're apparently willing to destroy the state before finally admitting that they can't have both.  But we haven't quite reached that point yet, and the purpose of a constitutional convention is simply too clear to be covered up: backers want the legislature to have the power to raise taxes.  The anti forces will have absolutely no trouble making that clear, and that in turn means that these two initiatives are almost certainly doomed.

But we'll see. It's possible — unlikely but possible — that things will deteriorate enough in the next year to make Californians realize that they don't have many choices left.  There's not much left to be squeezed out of higher education without simply abandoning it completely; K-12 is inviolate; nobody seems willing to get rid of our insane sentencing laws and fantastic prison population; public employee unions have no intention of moderating their pension demands; and taxing marijuana isn't going to get the job done.  All those things have been true for years, though, and the battle lines are pretty much the same today as they were a decade ago.

So what's left?  Beats me.  But unless some kind of catastrophe drives home the scope of our problems to 50% + 1 of our citizens next November, it's hard to see how anything changes.  Maybe the initiative backers need to hire Roland Emmerich to produce a few ads for them.