Mojo - September 2005

And I wonder, wonder who...who wrote The Book of Virtues

| Fri Sep. 30, 2005 3:16 PM EDT

Bill Bennett, America's former "morality czar" and author of The Book of Virtues, spoke frankly today in a remark he made on his radio program, "Bill Bennett's Morning in America." In response to a caller who wanted to talk about an assertion made in the book, Freakonomics, that the crime rate is down partly because abortion rates have increased:

But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.

Both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and the NAACP rushed to demand an apology from Bennett, and Bennett quickly responded by saying that he was using the scenario of aborting black babies to explain that opposing abortion for economic reasons was as wrong as opposing it for reasons related to racism. That is indeed exactly what Bennett was doing--I'll give him that--context is everything.

But though I accept Bennett's explanation of context, I have to ask: Of all the things he could have said by way of example, why did he choose to say something so totally inflammatory? He could just as well have said "You could abort every fetus (it didn't go by me that he said "baby") in high-crime cities, and your crime rate would go down...." But he didn't. He said "black baby." There is no way to get around his selection of a particular race in constructing his example. The metaphor excuse goes only so far.

Bennett, a peculiar kind of morals maven, is a compulsive gambler. It is very unusual for someone with a compulsive gambling habit to escape doing harm to his family, but Bennett insists that he didn't. At any rate, the revelation about his gambling doesn't seem to have hurt him in conservative circles, just as the revelation of Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction didn't hurt him. And I doubt that Bennett's suddenly finding that the only rhetorical example available to him was "black baby" will cause him to lose his status as the conservative steward of our morals.

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Exit Strategies

| Fri Sep. 30, 2005 2:21 PM EDT

The latest "secret" military plan for Iraq, apparently just approved by Gen. George W. Casey, is suitable cryptic, but the following seem to be the main points, judging from an Inside the Pentagon interview with officials who reviewed the plan:

  • The military is planning for a wide range of changes the number of military personnel in Iraq between now and spring of 2006, from slightly increasing the Army to, in the most wildly optimistic scenario, bringing home 70,000 troops.
  • It will, however, be almost impossible to sustain the current force through 2006.
  • There's no set timetable for withdrawal. The conditions for reduction will include "the state of the insurgency, the capability of Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi government's ability to support military operations," to be determined by a "multinational advisory panel."
  • "[S]ome defense analysts" think that "phasing troop reductions over the long term" is the best way to avoid instability.
  • How long term? "Some estimates" think the Pentagon will retain at least 20,000 military personnel in Iraq for perhaps a decade or more.
  • Seeing as how training the Iraqi Army doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, this likely means staying for a long, long time. The alternative, it seems, is the Center for American Progress' recently-released "progressive" proposal to withdraw 80,000 troops by the end of 2006—no matter what—and then… deploy them elsewhere around the world. Because, really, the most sensible way to withdraw from Iraq is to get entangled in yet another quagmire. No, but seriously, is there any reason to think that putting 1,000 more troops in the Philippines, as CAP proposes, is a good idea? Is the plan to invade Mindano province and wipe out Abu Sayyaf? Maybe we can broaden the war to the MNLF and other Islamic separatist groups too? Should be fun, I'll make popcorn.

    Lost in Translation

    | Fri Sep. 30, 2005 1:28 PM EDT

    This is a few days late, but in the Washington Post last week, Tong Kim had a fascinating article on the ways in which mistranslations and misinterpretations of language led to confusion between the United States and North Korea, during their haggling over the latter's nuclear program:

    For example, the statement issued in Beijing defined the goal of the six-party talks as "the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," which could allow the Pyongyang regime to link inspections in the North to demands that South Korea, as part of the "Korean peninsula," also be subject to verification -- which I'm certain is not what Seoul had in mind. North Korea made a commitment to "abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" -- but its translation used the Korean verb pogi hada, which could be interpreted to mean leaving the weapons in place rather than dismantling them. And what exactly did the United States mean when it agreed to help North Korea obtain a nuclear energy reactor at an "appropriate time"? Somewhere between yesterday and never, no doubt…

    The words are hard enough to decipher. They come with traditions, hang-ups and history. Often the North Koreans deliberately choose ambiguous expressions. Until they revealed their alleged possession of nuclear weapons last February, their term for "nuclear deterrent" connoted a "nuclear capability" but didn't spell that out. It could mean nuclear weapons, or technology, or fissile material or processing facilities -- or all of these. To make matters worse, the North's interpreter repeatedly and incorrectly translated the Korean word for deterrent, okjeryok, as restraint. When pressed about the uranium enrichment program, a North Korean official said that Pyongyang was "bound to produce more powerful weapons than that." The North Korean interpreter translated the Korean phrase mandlgiro deo itta as "entitled to." If you're entitled to do something, you have a right that you may or may not exercise. But the Korean phrase really means that you're going to do it -- not just that you have the option.

    In the same edition, the Post's Glenn Kessler went through the recent agreement line-by-line, hashing out the various ambiguities in the text. Short version: It turns out there's a lot more wiggle room—for both North Korea and the United States—then early reports suggested, which doesn't exactly make one optimistic that this deal will hold.

    Meanwhile, in Sudan...

    | Thu Sep. 29, 2005 5:36 PM EDT

    Darfur is getting worse, by the way:

    Top UN aid official Jan Egeland warned that relief operations in Darfur may have to be halted because of an upsurge in violence in the western Sudanese region. Egeland, the overall humanitarian aid coordinator for the United Nations, said the risks faced by the world body's 11,000 relief workers in Darfur could soon be too great.

    "The level of violence has been escalating again sharply," he told reporters.

    Renewed fighting is undermining a cease-fire between government and rebel movements which was agreed in April 2004 and which had largely held despite sporadic attacks.

    Meanwhile, Eric Reeves discusses in detail how the North-South agreement in Sudan seems to be crumbling before everyone's eyes, as the National Islamic Front is "delaying implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, reneging on benchmark commitments, and engaging in threatening military behavior." Fortunately, there's not much there but instability, Islamic terrorism, and millions of dollars worth of oil money. Surely not the sort of thing the West needs to pay any attention to.

    When Conservatism Goes Awry

    | Thu Sep. 29, 2005 1:53 PM EDT

    In Michael Scherer's Salon piece on the fall of the conservative machine, we get this little bit of self-distancing from Stephen Moore:

    Even some conservatives have begun to distance themselves. "The Tom DeLay machine that he built, there were corruptive elements to it," said Stephen Moore, a longtime conservative activist who sat at the head table at a recent dinner celebrating DeLay's career. Moore, who founded the Free Enterprise Fund, still describes himself as a "Tom DeLay fan," who considers the congressman a "conservative hero." But he has misgivings as well. "All of these guys getting rich off this process rubs some conservatives the wrong way."

    Oh please. We've known from day one that the Republican revolution wasn't a conservative free-market enterprise, as per Moore's ideal vision, but a pro-business one, because that's the only way anyone can get elected these days. Corporate donors don't shell out campaign bucks in the hope that Republicans will create some pure and uncorrupted conservative society, they donate money in exchange for favors. As a result, it's not at all surprising that you're going to see "guys getting rich off this process." This is exactly what happens with a movement that doesn't believe in oversight, believes in crushing the opposition at all costs, and spends years building a cozy alliance with business interests.

    Is There Actually a Strategy in Iraq?

    | Thu Sep. 29, 2005 1:42 PM EDT

    Laura Rozen notes intelligence officials who are now questioning whether the recently-killed Abu Azzam was really Zarqawi's second-in-command for al-Qaeda in Iraq after all. On the other hand, Bill Roggio says that whoever he is, Abu Azzam was still important, and also puts up a handy flow chart noting that several top al-Qaeda operatives have been captured of late. The Belmont Club says that decimating the upper ranks of al-Qaeda like so really does have an effect:

    But the worst of it is the wastage to cadres. Those who write that body counts are a meaningless metric to apply against the insurgency ignore the fact that formations which sustain heavy casualties lose their organizational memory while those who suffer lightly retain them. Lt. Col. Joseph L'Etoile is on his third and half of his men are on their second tours of Iraq. For Abu Nasir and many of his foreign fighters, the memory of what to avoid next time has been lost on this, their last tour of Iraq.

    Well, in some ways that's true. Note that the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam war, a CIA assassination campaign intended to find and kill Viet Cong cadres in the south which was similarly measured in body counts—and, for that matter, ended up killing lots and lots of South Vietnamese civilians—really did ended up weakening the Viet Cong infrastructure in the south. Overall, the program was a massive failure, and alienated the rural population, but it proved that, strictly speaking, if you kill enough people, you can disrupt an organization, that the ranks aren't infinitely replenishable. On the other hand, nothing like the Phoenix Program is going on in Iraq, and Douglas Farah's analogy seems far more apt:

    Having covered conflicts and the war on drugs for two decades now, it is clear how unhelpful it is to repeatedly trumpet the supposed damage to an organization when one person is taken out of action. The closest parallel I find is in the drug wars, when first Pablo Escobar then other leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel were taken down. Then the leaders of the Cali cartel were killed would simply step into the breach. While each generation of traffickers or arrested, then the Northern Valley gangs were decapitated. At every step, the DEA and U.S. government would hail the actions as a major triumph, destined to end or greatly diminish drug trafficking. Yet, after each major killing or arrest the amount of cocaine entering the United States remained unchanged. New people was able to individually control less of the market, and each succeeding organization was small and less vertical in its structure, the aggregate amount of drugs they are able to produce and export did not diminish, and ultimately grew.

    There's no reason to think Zarqawi doesn't operate like that, especially since everything we've seen has indicated that attacks continue even after this or that latest "top lieutenant" has been captured or killed. Meanwhile, as Anthony Cordesman argues—and U.S. military officers in Iraq are now recognizing, according to the Washington Post—Zarqawi and the foreign fighters have essentially "hijacked" the Sunni insurgency, and are steering it less in an anti-occupation direction, although there's that, and more in a pro-civil war direction, by directing an increasing number of attacks against Shiites and other Iraqis.

    What about the rest of the insurgency? The Baathist and Iraqi "nationalist" elements, according to the Post, seem now to have quieted down—content to lay low for now, infiltrate the new government, and are perhaps waiting to stage a coup a few years down the road. Who knows? Nevertheless, Cordesman has also noted before that Zarqawi receives ample domestic support from the thousands of radicalized Iraqi salafists who grew up during Saddam Hussein's "revival of Islam" campaign in the Sunni provinces during the 1990s. (Ahmed Hashim's old analysis of the insurgency here still holds up incredibly well.) Cordesman points out that "rifts" between elements of the insurgency are few and far between, even if some Sunni clerics have been denouncing Zarqawi. This may be because, as Anthony Shadid recounted in his recent book, those clerics discredited themselves among the young Iraqi fundamentalists by their collaboration with Saddam's regime, much as the Shiite clergy in Najaf partly discredited itself among the young Sadrists.

    What this all means, it's hard to say. It doesn't seem like the most active elements of the Sunni insurgency, currently, would lose steam if the United States announced a pullout right now. The obvious way forward, which seems to be the U.S. military's current strategy, is to focus mainly on uprooting and weakening Zarqawi's network—at least to the point where it can be handled by a native Iraqi force—which would drastically reduce the risk of Sunni-Shiite civil war, ala 1980s Lebanon, after the United States starts drawing down. Weakening Zarqawi would also, as Army Maj. Gen. Richard Zahner says, allow the political process to "mature." At least that's the hope. If everything written above is correct, then it's not an unreasonable strategy, I think, but it's also not clear that the U.S. can actually do it, as per Doug Farah's post, or that Iraq would stay intact even if you killed every last member of Zarqawi's network (along with all the civilians in the way). There are still a thousand other sources of instability, including the new constitution, or the squabbles in Kirkuk, or the skirmishing among Shiite militias, or the hundreds of thousands of ex-Baathists now biding their time.

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    "What you allowed to happen happened"

    | Wed Sep. 28, 2005 7:49 PM EDT

    Jeanne of Body and Soul has, as one would expect, some of the best commentary on the recent detainee abuse reports, including this: "They have created a world in which it is not safe to go along, but neither is it safe to report a crime. The only people who can survive such a system are those who are ruthless enough to commit crimes, and smart enough to cover them up. Bush and Company have created a military that can't make room for decency. The astonishing thing is that the good people still keep raising their voices, even if it costs them a career."

    David Dreier, "Moderate"?

    | Wed Sep. 28, 2005 3:54 PM EDT

    Like Kevin Drum, I don't much care whether David Dreier, the GOP's "interim" House Majority Leader, is gay or not, but I do take exception to this profile of the guy from the Washington Post:

    Dreier has a more moderate voting record on some social issues than DeLay, for example opposing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that DeLay supported.

    That's what passes for moderate these days? Here's some better reporting, from the LA Weekly:

    [Dreier's] voting record is strewn with anti-gay positions. To cite just a few: He opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would have banned discrimination against gay people in hiring; voted for the gay-bashing Defense of Marriage Act; voted for banning adoption by gay and lesbian couples in the District of Columbia (3,000 miles away from Dreier's district); voted to allow federally funded charities to discriminate against gays in employment, even where local laws prohibit such bias; and voted against the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

    To be clear, I don't think that justifies digging into Dreier's personal life, or outing him. But it would be nice if the major papers didn't have to pretend he was a moderate guy on social issues. Here's more of his record—the guy's as conservative as they come.

    UPDATE: Ah, now it looks like Dreier will just be sharing duties with GOP whip Roy Blunt and deputy whip Eric Cantor while DeLay's under indictment.

    Now Is It Time for Higher Labor Standards?

    | Wed Sep. 28, 2005 2:36 PM EDT

    Speaking of labor and globalization, Hassan M. Fattah of the New York Times had a stunning look a few days ago at the dismal labor practices in the United Arab Emirates:

    Of the one million Dubai residents, fewer than 200,000 are citizens; two-thirds of the rest are from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines, the Dubai Development and Investment Authority said. A vast majority of the foreigners work in the service and construction sectors. Last year alone, Mr. bin Dimas said, the government granted 250,000 visas to laborers. The United Arab Emirates has earned the dubious distinction of having some of the worst labor conditions. Human Rights Watch has cited the country for discrimination, exploitation and abuse. Many foreign workers, especially women, face intimidation and violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of employers, supervisors, and police and security forces, the rights group said, while children are especially vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation and denial of basic rights.

    The end of the article notes that UAE is trying to enter into trade agreements with the United States and others. So the big question, of course, is whether the U.S. will try to tie those agreements to labor rights and standards—for instance, legalizing unions. Oftentimes free traders say that it's unfair to saddle developing countries with expensive regulations and labor standards that would deter foreign investment. Despite the fact that, as per the David Kucera study linked below, that doesn't seem borne out by the facts, there's no excuse to avoid putting pressure on UAE, which is one of the wealthiest countries on earth.

    UPDATE: This Post story, from last week, might offer a sign of how the Bush administration handles UAE: "President Bush decided Wednesday to waive any financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Washington's closest Arab ally in the war on terrorism, for failing to do enough to stop the modern-day slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers."

    Reversing Labor's Decline

    | Wed Sep. 28, 2005 2:22 PM EDT

    Katherine V.W. Stone, a professor at UCLA, has written a paper entitled, "Flexibilization, Globalization, and Privatization: The Three Challenges to Labor Rights in Our Time," that deserves a look. It gives a solid overview of the three main reasons why unions in the United States have withered over the past few decades. First, companies have increasingly sought greater flexibility in the workplace—often out of necessity—which has reduced the appeal, for them, of the old unionized workplace model, with its narrow job definitions and rigid hierarchies. Second, thanks to globalization, many companies now have the ability to shift operations abroad, thus weakening the leverage unions can wield. And third, active government policies dating from the Reagan era, including the privatization of labor arbitration, have decimated the strength of organized labor.

    Granted, it often depends on which industries we're actually talking about: the policy aspect seems more important for the service and retail industry—there's no good structural reason why Wal-Mart workers shouldn't be unionized, except that public policy works against this—while globalization seems more important for, say, some manufacturing. (Although even on this, I'm skeptical of her point that companies move to countries with lowest labor standards, thereby forcing nations to "compete" over deregulations; see David Kucera's work here.) Still, it's a hostile environment out there, and voting in a more labor-friendly government into Washington won't necessarily get rid of the economic reality here. The current union model, in some ways, has become obsolete.

    So how to get around that? Stone, building off Edward Glaeser's work on cities, notes a striking fact: many industries tend to "agglomerate" in a single area, likely because they gain some benefit by being near each other. With tech industries, for instance, you can see why it would pay to find one specific region—Silicon Valley, say—where a large portion of skilled workers can live. Insofar as this actually happens, then, workers can form together in local "citizens unions" to put pressure on local companies concentrated in that area:

    While training can help make a locality's workforce more flexible and skilled, no individual employer has an incentive to establish such programs unilaterally because it cannot capture all the benefits for itself, or preventing their capture by a competitor. However, if a group of workers, organized as a citizens association or a local union, pressures firms in an area to contribute, it would create a benefit from which all would share. Similarly, if enough corporations were induced to contribute to a locality's social infrastructure – its school system, hospitals, parks, cultural activities, and child care -- that would help attract a highly skilled workforce who want quality educational opportunities for their children. Such community investment would benefit all local firms in a locality.

    Easier said than done, naturally, but she might be onto something. In essence, her idea takes advantage of the fact that many companies, especially those with high turnover, draw on the collective skills, knowledge, and experience of the broader local workforce, rather than just those specific workers working in the company at a given point in time. I don't know if that's always true—again, many retailers often draw on the collective lack of skill in a given locality—but it seems like a promising way to think about the structural obstacles unions face. Many local campaigns, such as Mass Global Action, or local "living wage" campaigns, or the Industrial Areas Foundation have all had a great deal of local success that bring many of the benefits of unionization without resorting solely on organizing within a specific company or industry (the campaigns usually combining local activists, church groups, community organizations, worker's groups, in addition to unions). I don't think this sort of thing can ever adequately replace a robust labor movement in this country, but they're definitely complementary in all sorts of crucial ways.