Monday, February 28, 2005

Useful reading

A piece from TomDispatch about Bush's 'Potemkin World' puts together Gukertgate, Bush's European 'charm offensive' and the unraveling of American influence in the world. A good read w/ plenty of nice links, too.

And via Kevin Drum, a LA Times series on the increasing insecurity of the American middle class: 'If America Is Richer, Why Are Its Families So Much Less Secure?'

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Good from evil?

There have been some positive developments in the Middle East recently: the Iraqi elections went much better than most supposed they would; Israel and the new leadership of the Palestinian authority are talking again; and Hosni Mubarak has proposed allowing contested elections in Egypt. All good things, I think most will agree. More contentious for those on the left is the question of how much credit the Bush administration and its invasion of Iraq deserve for these developments.

Pundits of the open-source and mainstream varieties have mulled this question lately, and the more general issue of how to a) oppose the Bush administration--especially the war in Iraq, and b) work for a progressive foreign policy that calls for the spread of freedom and democracy. See, for example, this recent Thomas Friedman article, this post from Ripple of Hope, and the March 2005 of the American Prospect magazine.

In essence, the question is 'Can good come from evil?' Or, to put it more in context, 'Can progressives embrace positive results from the invasion of Iraq without being hypocrites?'

One response to this is simply to deny that moral questions should play any part in the means of foreign policy. Those sympathetic to the administration's foreign policy, but who aren't big fans of the current situation in Iraq might speak thusly: Hey, you want a dictatorship to hold free elections? Well an invasion by US troops, or the threat thereof, is a great stimulus for that sort of thing. Sure, things in Iraq haven't gone very well for us. But things haven't gone so well for Saddam Hussein, either--and that is the lesson other strongmen in the region like fellow Baathist Bashar al-Assad will take to heart. So yes, the occupation of Iraq has been pretty ugly, but you don't spread freedom cheaply, and in the end, you can't argue with results.

In this view, Bush's foreign policy gets to be both idealistic--spreading freedom and democratic values around the globe--and realistic, capable of using US power, unilaterally if need be, in the service of a future greater good. This moral-ends-through-whatever-means to a degree also protects the administration from charges of hypocrisy in that while it pushes autocratic regimes to become more democratic, it also (to take only one example of the administration's hypocrisy) relies on many of those same autocracies to hold and torture terror suspects. The world is not pretty, the administration's supporters might say, and if you want to make it a better, safer place, you can't be afraid of breaking some international laws along the way, maybe invading a despotic country or two.

An opposing response would be to argue that immoral means lead to immoral ends. Full stop. The recent developments in the Middle East are positive, yes, but a) they can plausibly be described as happening in spite of rather than because of the Bush administration's policies; and b) it's far too early to talk about these developments as 'results' at all--they are small hopeful beginnings, but in the long term the unwarranted invasion of Iraq and the many other examples of Bush administration hypocrisy in the region will lead to greater danger, greater evil, down the road. Scenarios of what this future 'greater evil' might look like are not too difficult to imagine. Here's one: Iraq dissolves into civil war; US troops still in occupation are targeted by all sides of the conflict; the Kurds in northern Iraq declare themselves a country and Turkey invades; meanwhile, US relations with Europe continue to deteriorate and Iran develops its nuclear weapons program; Israel, which had been close to a peace deal w/ the Palestinian Authority, launches missile and air attacks aimed at destroying Iran's nuclear capability; Hezbollah and other radical groups riot and overthrow the moderate leadership of the PA and terrorist attacks against Israel are resumed w/ help from Syria; Mubarak has to impose even harsher restrictions on Egypt's radicals; & etc....

Granted, I'm not an expert when it comes to knowledge of the history and politics of the Middle East. But to this educated layperson, it does seem that while there are certainly some reasons for optimism about the Middle East recently, the invasion of Iraq has made the region less likely to end up peaceful and stable, rather than more likely. Evil does come from evil, and with almost 1,500 troops lost and billions spent in Iraq, the US has probably only begun to pay the price for this horrendously stupid adventure.

So, as a progressive, I'm very glad that the chances for a democratic and peaceful Middle East seem a little higher this week. And I'm glad that the Bush administration has placed the spread of democracy at the center of their foreign policy. Indeed, I wish it had been at the center of their policy from the beginning, rather than an attempt to give a gloss of idealism to their fear mongering, and to retroactively justify a senseless invasion. And I wish their pursuit of their policy was more consistent than convenient, applied wherever democracy was denied, not just in places they didn't like, anyhow. And perhaps they could limit their own use of the autocratic police powers they say they're dead set against.

Much of the 'Dems better get behind spreading democracy in Iraq' rhetoric from politicos and pundits who supported the invasion of Iraq--like the Friedman article linked above--is aimed, I think, at laying the groundwork for a 'stab in the back' argument once the situation in the Middle East completely falls apart on the Bush administration or its successor. If the idiotic invasion fails to be the beginning of the fall of the undemocratic dominoes in the region, neocons and their apologists can say 'well of course not--without bipartisan support at home, our fabulous foreign policy was doomed to failure!' Picture Richard Perle and Juan Cole a decade or so from now, stuck together at the bottom of a well (with apologies, Prof. Cole). Licking his comb to stick a some hair back in place, Perle sighs, 'If only you had dug with me when I asked you to.' The Bush administration screwed up big time in Iraq, and there's no denying it. I'm glad they're doing better lately, but time will tell if they truly have the skill and commitment necessary to avoid the traps they have dug for the US--traps that will not only be bad for us, but for peace and freedom in the Middle East.

I will be cheering all the good news I hear, and praying I hear far more of it. But this does not mean merely accepting the Bush foreign policy--it means holding it true to its rhetoric, and remembering what a vastly more difficult job is in store for advocates of freedom and democracy around the world since the first Bush administration.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Military hiding casualty count? And casaulties?

This post from Suburban Guerilla looks at discrepancies between the 'official' Iraq war casualty count and the actual number of US troops and civilian personnel killed and wounded in Iraq. As the material in her post make clear, this issue has been touched on at various points by the US and foreign press, but like so many Bush administration frauds, no comprehensive investigation has ever been undertaken. (That's one of the perks of controlling both the White House and the Congress.) Particuarly intriguing, to me, are the reports that soldiers or contractors with no Green card are never listed in any US govt. casualty count. There are even reports--and supposedly some video footage--of graves of tens of people w/ US military uniforms being discovered in Iraq. That the Pentagon is using bureacratic rules to hide casualty counts is very plausible. That they might be hiding actual bodies in Iraq is less credible.

Christian Militarism, right here in River City!

Oh. My. God. Check out this description of a military recruiting event staged at a Baptist church in Kentucky. The photos and descriptions of the event were written by a self-proclaimed Christian conservative who supports the war in Iraq. The site that this posts links to is run by someone else, who is only playing host to the pictures. I found this jaw-dropping exercise in religious militarism thanks to a post at Daily Kos.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Summers' remarks: full text

One last flog for that poor old horse we've been beating. Now that the transcript of Summers' remarks and the Q and A session afterwards has been made available, thought some of you might want to read it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Voyage to the Blogosphere!

Did you know that for two years the White House gave press credentials to a gay prostitute with a fake name and no background in journalism so that he could lob softball questions repeating GOP talking points to White House officials and plagiarize GOP press releases on the website of his 'news service' funded by a rich Texas Republican? If you didn't, then you haven't been following the Jeff Gannon/Guckert scandal. The current state of the affair gets a good write-up at Salon, if you care to subscribe or watch an ad for a day pass. The whole thing started with some open-source sleuthing by some posters at
DailyKos, and the gay prostitute angle was, uh, beefed up by AmericaBlog. Good job, guys. Together with the revelations about conservative pundits on the administration's payroll, what we're seeing is an unravelling of a small part of the Republican program to flood the media w/ right-wing messages.

So what is Bush *really* up to with his social security phase-out plan? Now that prospects are looking dim for the legislation passing (if a bill ever actually shows up on Capitol Hill, that is), lefties are puzzling about possible White House motives behind pushing a bill that even a leading Republican has called a "dead horse." Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has been following the social security embroglio very closely, and he suspects that the Prez plans to default on the trust fund's government bonds. But Mark Schmitt at the Decembrist thinks that the whole proposal is just to stockpile some rhetorical ammo for the next election cycle.

Some might also be interested in Mr. Schmitt's recent discovery that Chinese characters are not ideograms, and that a favorite chestnut of management experts and motivational speakers is completely mythical.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Perverted, God-hating Frenchies

The full title of an article on is: "Perverted, God-hating Frenchies vs. Inbred Sex-obsessed Yokels." It's written by Steve Waldman -- and is quite interesting. He points out both liberals and conservatives (the blues and the reds) tend to stereotype each other, and would rather make jokes based on those stereotypes than attempt to understand the real foundation of the other's views. I know that's true for me. However, if a progressive agenda is ever going to succeed, we need to be creating some alliances and not fortifying our hostilities.
I know -- yada, yada -- but I do think it's worth reading. See what you think.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

What's Wrong with Food Pantries and Soup Kitchens?

On this Super Bowl Sunday (GO EAGLES!) when so many emergency food programs are organized, I thought this would be an appropriate blog posting:

I recently finished reading Janet Poppendieck's provocative book, Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement (New York, Viking, 1998). Examining the proliferation of emergency food providers--i.e. food pantries, soup kitchens, etc.--in the U.S. since the early 1980s, Sweet Charity argues for a strong connection between the expansion of these kinds of programs and the continuing erosion of wages, jobs, and government entitlements for the working poor and unemployed. One's first reaction is likely to be, "Yes, I agree that the poor have been shafted during the past few decades, but aren't food pantries and soup kitchens part of the solution? What would poor people do without these resources?"

Or, at least that was my first reaction. And it has basically been the first reaction I have gotten from nearly everyone I have mentioned this book to. Just reading a few pages of the introduction, however, was enough to convince me that her argument has merit. She does a good job of making us all think about the bigger picture behind the individual acts of kindness involved in providing emergency food to hungry people in our society. Serving food to the hungry might provide us relief from the guilt we would otherwise feel about deprivation and inequality in such a wealthy society as ours. Nevertheless, Poppendieck does sympathize with emergency food staff and volunteers, and even provides lots of evidence that those at the heart of many such operations often share her views. That is, they can see that "emergency" food is not an emergency at all, but rather a substitute for dealing with the root causes of hunger, which would involve a more serious reckoning with poverty and economic inequality.

After the introduction, Poppendieck spends several chapters outlining the history of emergency food provision, emphasizing how it arose out of the economic downturn of the early 1980s and has just kept growing since then. But my favorite chapters were the last few, where she deals head on with what she sees as the main problems of emergency food: insufficiency, inappropriateness, nutritional inadequacy, instability, inaccessibility, inefficiency, and indignity. It is, in fact, the last of these--indignity--that Poppendieck dwells on the longest, and appropriately so. For receiving emergency food puts the poor at a profound distance from the rest of society, requiring that they supplicate themselves to the givers. A poignant moment in the book is when the author herself recounts being mistaken for a needy person at one point, and the shame she feels at that instant rings true: by "solving" poverty through emergency food, we in fact extract a tremendous wage of dignity from the poor.

Of course, the solution to the problem is not to just close down food pantries and soup kitchens. Such a move would be a short-term nightmare for the poor. (After all, Poppendieck herself admits that she has participated in such programs, as have I from time to time...) We can, on the other hand, work to oppose the notion that by providing emergency food we are somehow letting ourselves off the hook, opting for a "moral safety valve" in Poppendieck's apt words.

We must, therefore, view political action as made more necessary, not less, by the epidemic of emergency food operations. And I think this lesson can be applied to many other instances of charity or philanthropy in our society, such as homelessness or even aid to poorer countries in the world. (Oh, to think that we would have even gotten to the point of providing minimally adequate aid to the have-nots of the world...) Only when we refuse to view charity as a great noble act--and, after all, as Poppendieck points out, the majority of Americans do participate in emergency food provision in some way or another--and instead view it as a mimimal response to what is a much larger and morally serious problem, can we truly begin to talk about dealing with the great problems of the present age.