Kevin Drum

Operation Orchard

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 10:57 PM EST

Remember that Syrian nuclear plant that was destroyed by the Israeli air force in 2007?  I don't quite remember who pointed me to this, but I've had a tab open all weekend to a recent Spiegel article about the whole affair — and after finally getting around to reading it, it turned out to be pretty interesting stuff.  Here's the short version of how the plant was originally detected:

In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military's "8200" unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv. Al-Kibar was "flagged," as they say in intelligence jargon.

....In late 2006...a senior Syrian government official checked into a hotel in the exclusive London neighborhood of Kensington. He was under Mossad surveillance and turned out to be incredibly careless, leaving his computer in his hotel room when he went out....The hard drive contained construction plans, letters and hundreds of photos. The photos, which were particularly revealing, showed the Al Kibar complex at various stages in its development....One of the photos showed an Asian in blue tracksuit trousers, standing next to an Arab. The Mossad quickly identified the two men as Chon Chibu and Ibrahim Othman. Chon is one of the leading members of the North Korean nuclear program, and experts believe that he is the chief engineer behind the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Othman is the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

....February 2007....An Iranian general [] decided to switch sides....Ali-Reza Asgari, 63, a handsome man with a moustache, was the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s and became Iran's deputy defense minister in the mid-1990s....According to Asgari, Tehran was building a second, secret plant in addition to the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, which was already known to the West. Besides, he said, Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans.

....On an overcast night in August 2007 [] Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant. The group had to abort its daring mission prematurely when it was discovered by a patrol. The Israelis still lacked the definitive proof they needed. However those in Tel Aviv who favored quick action argued that the results of the samples "provided evidence of the existence of a nuclear program."

A month later, Israeli jets destroyed the Al Kibar facility.  The Israeli prime minister sent a message to the Syrians via Turkey that no further attacks were planned, and if they'd clam up about it, so would he.  They did.  Furthermore, Spiegel reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad has more recently "been considering taking a sensational political step. He is believed to have suggested to contacts in Pyongyang that he is considering the disclosure of his "national" nuclear program, but without divulging any details of cooperation with his North Korean and Iranian partners."  North Korea and Iran are decidedly not excited about this prospect.

The sourcing for that last bit is obscure, so there's no telling if it's really true.  But the whole piece is worth a read.  It's pretty good cloak and dagger stuff.

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Abortion Politics

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 2:51 PM EST

Ann Friedman quotes Pilgrim Soul on the passage last night of Bart Stupak's appalling amendment to prevent anyone receiving a federal subsidy from buying a health insurance plan that covers abortions:

Charmingly I expect that in the next few days all your liberal dude friends will be trying to explain to you that this is really no big deal, look, they had to get the Republicans/"Democrats" onboard SOMEHOW, this is just a battle but we won the war, etc etc.

God knows we liberal dudes can be clueless sometimes, but are any of us really saying that this is no big deal?  That's hard to believe.  What I can imagine us saying is that Bart Stupak had the votes and we didn't.  That's a huge problem.  But not a big deal?  Hardly.

On a related note, I wonder what the insurance industry thinks of this?  I know that if I were an insurance company, I'd sure rather cover an abortion (cost = $500 or so) than a pregnancy carried to term (cost = $10,000 or so).  But they're probably too scared to speak up.

Precision Shooting

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 2:29 PM EST

And now for something completely different, here is Matt Yglesias on three-point shooting in the NBA:

In general, there’s not enough three point shooting happening in the NBA. In the 2008-2009 NBA season the average possession resulted in 1.083 points. The league average on three point shooting, meanwhile, was .367 meaning that the expected value of a three point attempt was 1.101 points. Better than average. Indeed, last year only four teams scored at a more efficient rate than 1.101 points per possession.

My takeway from this is a little different: it's astonishing how close these two averages are.  If you assume that players generally attempt the best possible threes, then additional attempts are going to have a poorer success rate.  Probably much poorer, since I imagine that effectiveness falls off exponentially with distance and coverage.  In other words, if NBA players attempted even 1% more threes, the expected value of triples would probably fall below the average possession.

That's no big surprise, I suppose.  Professional basketball players, it turns out, have an extremely precise sense of how effective various plays are.  Still, the fact that they take threes at something like 99+% of the ideal rate is pretty remarkable.

Quote of the Day

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 1:01 PM EST

From 2012 director Roland Emmerich, on whether real life slows down his moviemaking:

If I cannot destroy a big high-rise anymore, because terrorists blew up two of the most famous ones, the twin towers, what does this say about our world?

Quite so.  If you can't cinematically destroy New York and Los Angeles, then the terrorists have won.  Still, apparently there are limits.  Emmerich also reports that he avoided destroying Mecca in 2012 because his cowriter told him, "I’m not writing this to get a fatwa on my head."

As an aside, I was quite disappointed in Emmerich's last big disaster flick, The Day After Tomorrow.  Not for all the usual reasons, though.  There's a book by Allan Folsom also called The Day After Tomorrow, and I was hoping that it was the inspiration for the film.  It was quite a terrible book, but after 600 pages of terribleness its final sentence is one of the finest in popular literature: "The severed, deep-frozen head of Adolph Hitler."  How could you not make that into a movie?  But he didn't.  Instead, it was just another ice age.

Afghanistan Endgame

| Sun Nov. 8, 2009 12:30 PM EST

The gang at McClatchy say their sources tell them that Obama has made up his mind about Afghanistan. He plans to increase troop levels by 34,000:

As it now stands, the administration's plan calls for sending 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, for a total of as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

Another 7,000 troops would man and support a new division headquarters for the international force's Regional Command (RC) South in Kandahar, the Taliban birthplace where the U.S. is due to take command in 2010. Some 4,000 additional U.S. trainers are likely to be sent as well, the officials said.

The first additional combat brigade probably would arrive in Afghanistan next March, the officials said, with the other three following at roughly three-month intervals, meaning that all the additional U.S. troops probably wouldn't be deployed until the end of next year. Army brigades number 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers; a Marine brigade has about 8,000 troops.

But apparently Team Obama wants some more time to work on their PR campaign before they announce this publicly.  "This is not going to be an easy sell, especially with the fight over health care and the (Democratic) party's losses" of the governors' mansions in New Jersey and Virginia last week, according to one unnamed source.  I'll buy that.

Healthcare Wins in the House

| Sat Nov. 7, 2009 11:51 PM EST

I decided to watch football today instead of following the healthcare debate in the House, and I think I stand by that decision.  It turned out to be a close call, though: USC almost gave me a heart attack against lowly Arizona State, but the Democrats would have nearly given me a heart attack against the lowly Republicans if I'd been watching them.

In the end, though, both eked out a win.  For some good background on the horrible last-minute abortion amendment, see Amy Sullivan here.  Sounds like some bad play calling there.  Still, congratulations to Nancy Pelosi.  She only won by a couple of votes, but a win is a win.  Now, on to the Senate.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 6 November 2009

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 2:52 PM EST

On the left, Domino is snoozing the morning away while Inkblot ponders his options.  After I took this picture I hopped in the shower, and when I got out Domino was gone and Inkblot had buried himself under the blankets.  What happened in between?  Is that a guilty look on his face?  As with Schrödinger's cat, no human will ever know.

Chart of the Day

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 2:33 PM EST

I barely even understand this chart, but it looks pretty cool, doesn't it?  It's an analysis of the Senate vote on Tom Coburn's screwball amendment to defund political science research, which failed 36-62.  The dark blue and dark red are nay votes, while bright blue and bright red are yea votes.  Brendan Nyhan:

Each senator is placed at their estimated ideal point in the ideological space. The diagonal cutting line, which represents the best-fitting line dividing yes from no votes in the space, indicates that the vote reflected both the primary ideological division between the parties (in this case, cutting "wasteful" government spending) and the second "social issues" dimension (feelings toward pointy-headed academics?).

Sure.  I guess I'll buy that.  More charts for other votes here.

Actually, though, I think I'm more interested in the placement of senators themselves.  Democrats are almost all bunched into a single grouping, with only four outliers.  Republicans, by contrast, are spread through considerably more space on both the economic and social dimensions.  That doesn't seem intuitively right to me, but it strikes me as more complimentary toward Republicans than Democrats.  So tell me again why they want to defund pointy-headed political scientists?

What's the Deal With Nukes?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 1:47 PM EST

I've long wondered just why conservatives are so obsessed with nuclear power.  If nukes had the potential to do away with our climate change problem entirely, then I could see it.  Hooray, no new regulations!  But even cheerleaders for nuclear power don't suggest that it could produce more than a small fraction of our electricity in the next 20 or 30 years.  So why has it become such a hobbyhorse?

Brad Plumer investigates today and basically says he's not sure either.  But it seems to boil down to yet another culture war issue: since hippy lefty types are against 'em, all right-thinking patriots are apparently for 'em.  Dreary stuff.  But it is what it is, and if it might serve as the basis for a bipartisan compromise on a climate change bill, maybe it's worth playing along.  But will it?  Here's Brad with the bottom line:

There's little point in acceding to the GOP's nuclear demands without getting anything in return. [Lamar] Alexander, for one, recently admitted that, even though he's taking part in talks over new nuclear provisions, nothing will persuade him to support a cap on carbon — which is the crux of any climate bill. "That's something to watch out for," grumbles one observer. "Is [the Nuclear Energy Institute] actually going to work to bring new votes to the table?" Perhaps it's finally time to see just how much this love affair is worth.

I have a guess about that, but I'll keep quiet about it for now.  There's no need for puerile cynicism while more optimistic negotiators are still taking a crack at getting a nonnegative answer, after all.  There'll be plenty of time for that later.

Bring Back the WPA?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 1:11 PM EST

Channeling Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias wonders why we don't fight unemployment by essentially bringing back the WPA:

Instead of saying to people whose UI benefits are about to expire “just kidding, here’s an extension” we could say “you’ll keep getting checks but you need to show up at such-and-such a place and pick up trash in parks.” This would be somewhat more expensive than a UI extension — you’d need to pay for garbage bags and supervisors — but it would have less of a disemployment effect than UI extensions and we’d also get cleaner parks in the bargain. It’s a little bit perverse to be paying people to do nothing when there’s work that could use doing.

I think this is more difficult than it sounds.  Matt admits later that public sector unions would — with good reason — oppose the idea of bringing in unemployed workers to do their jobs, but the problems go way beyond that.  The WPA didn't just send people to parks to pick up trash.  It was a huge bureacracy.  It was a program set up to last for years.  After all, there was a Depression on.

But that's not what we have today.  Nobody thinks the current recession will last for five years, and by the time a government bureacracy was up and running to provide jobs it probably wouldn't be needed anymore.  Like it or not, hiring people takes longer than it used to, building roads and post offices requires years of design and preparation, and there just isn't that much easy makework available.  It's a different era.

I might be missing something obvious here, but unemployment insurance can be extended instantly (barring Republican game playing, of course) and the money gets out to workers and then into the economy almost instantly too.  Conversely, creating useful jobs of some kind would take, I imagine, an absolute minimum of six months, and probably more like a year or more.  By then they wouldn't be needed.

It really does seem more efficient to write checks to the private sector, as well as to state and local governments, and let them hire people.  The federal government is good at writing checks!  But, at least in the 21st century, not so good at creating nationwide jobs programs, I suspect.