OxBlog

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

# Posted 5:52 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY: Yesterday's post on Social Security generated more of a respone than any single post I've written in a good six months, so I thought I'd summarize three of the critical points that all y'all raised:

1) Shouldn't we deal with the problem now, before Social Security reform becomes more divisive and more expensive?

Ideally, yes. In practice, the question is one of priorities. In other words, should reforming Social Security, which may or may not be in crisis, take precedence over efforts to deal with skyrocketing Medicare costs and federal budget deficits?

2) What is the precise nature of the Social Security trust fund? When held by a government agency such as SSA, do government bonds represent a true asset or simply an accounting fiction?

These are the issues that begin to get over my head. Many of you have been kind enough to provide concise answers to such questions. Please feel free to recommend any articles or posts designed to explain these issues to a non-expert. For the moment, I'll cite one passage from an article by Donald Luskin:
The trust funds will redeem the last of their bonds in 2041 — demanding from the government $1.003 trillion that year. From 2018 through 2041, the trust funds will redeem bonds worth, cumulatively, $11.9 trillion. Once again, just to be perfectly clear, let me emphasize that the federal government will have to come up with this $11.9 trillion somehow — either by tapping the capital markets, raising taxes, or trimming spending.

This should illuminate the debate on whether the trust funds are “real” or not. They are perfectly “real” in the sense that the Treasury bonds they hold are valid legal claims on the government. But they are not “real” in the sense that they, as a June, 2004, Congressional Budget Office report put it, “contain no financial resources” in and of themselves. For their value to be realized, the Treasury bills they hold must be redeemed for cash by the government — and that cash has to come from somewhere. [Hat tip: SP]
Naturally, many people disagree with Donald Luskin, so I welcome other points of view. Albeit unintentionally, I think his comments point to the fact that as long as the government avoids defaulting on its bonds, then Social Security will remain solvent until 2042.

3) No, the government won't default. But where will all of the money necessary to pay off those bonds come from? Higher taxes? Additional borrowing? Cutbacks on other programs?

The question touches on an accounting issue which seems to be way over my head. How does an insitution like the federal government plan for complex transfers of funds that will take place decades from now? How will the amount of money "owed" to SSA compare the amount of money owed to other bondholders? In other words, will the additional liability represented by the trust fund stretch our ability to cover outstanding debts, or is it something the government can take care of in the normal course of business?

Well, that's it for now. It looks like this debate is far from over.
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Monday, January 24, 2005

# Posted 6:15 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT SOCIAL SECURITY TELLS US ABOUT IRAQ: With great caution, I have begun to read about Social Security. Lacking the expertise necessary to have an independent opinion about the subject, I restrict myself to tentative conclusions about the subject.

In search of a primer on the current debate, I turned to the Outlook section of yesterday's WaPo, which compiled seven different experts' brief essays on the subject. For the moment, I find the arguments of the President's opponents to be more persuasive.

The Social Security Administration's own projections indicate that SSA's revenue will continue to exceed its outlays until 2018. The trust fund generated by this surplus will enable the SSA to fully fund all of its commitments until 2042.

This seems to be the point from which all debate must begin. If the status quo will enable the SSA to remain solvent for another four decades, one cannot say that Social Security is in the midst of a crisis.

Which is not the same as saying as private accounts are a bad idea. According to both U-Illinois economist Jeffrey Brown and Clinton adviser Laura D'Andrea Tyson, can spread the benefits of the market economy to the working class.

Whereas Brown suggests that private accounts might replace a percentage of current benefits, Tyson wants private accounts to supplement current benefits.

Replacement seems to have considerable costs. First of all, the transition will be expensive, an expense that will be hard to justify in the presence of a major budget deficit. Unless you believe that there is a crisis, it's hard to see why this kind of expenditure makes sense right now.

What I don't understand about Tyson's proposal is how it would create any new incentives to save and invest. Tax-free 401(k) investment accounts already exist. As Alicia Munnell points out, 401(k)'s are both under-utilized and recklessly misused.

Tyson does mention that she wants to limit the options available to investors. But I don't want the government to limit my options. Just because other people invest without caution doesn't mean I should be punished.

Munnell says that a private accounts system can only work if it is extremely simple. She cites the failures of government-sponsored investment account in Britain, Chile, and Sweden as evidence for this point.

In spite of living in the UK for almost three years, I must confess total ignorance of its investment program. Moreover, I am totally bowled over by the fact that the welfare-worshipping UK would inaugurate a market-based government pension program a full twenty years before the serious consideration of a similar program in the United States. I guess Thatcher was just that tought.

Now, presuming for the moment, that the analysis above is basically sound, one might ask why the President seems so passionately committed to an agenda of reform that is both unnecessary and may seriously jeopardize the political health of his administration.

Jonathan Rauch argues that the President's commitment to reform is fundamentally an ideological issue. He writes that
Republicans frame Social Security reform as a dollars-and-cents issue, but what they really hope to change is not the American economy but the American psyche.
From a certain perspective, dependence on the government for one's security in old age is a moral hazard. Thus, Social Security is both a symptom and a cause of an insufficient commitment to traditional American values.

I have to admit that I am uncomfortable with this degree of dependence on the government. I was stunned to learn, also courtesy of the WaPo, that more than 46 million Americans receive Social Security benefits.

Yet given that Social Security is both popular and cost-effective (how often can you say that about big government?), I am willing to accept the moral cost of dependence on the government. After all, Americans are still pretty much the most individualistic people in the world.

On the political front, I think that George Bush's commitment to reform has to be understood in the context of his commitment to building democracy in Iraq. For quite a long time, liberals insisted that Bush only got behind the invasion because it was a guaranteed winner on the homefront.

Yet within six months of taking Baghdad, it became clear that the occupation was a liability. Voters may have had even less faith in Kerry's ability to administer the occupation than they did George Bush's, but the situation in Iraq was still a major drag on Bush's approval rating.

By now, it is apparent to all that Bush will stay committed to Iraq regardless of the political cost. He took an uncompromising stand on principle and still got re-elected. Now there are no more elections to face. Now the President's eyes are on the history books. That's what second terms are all about.

George Bush has faced down unpopularity before and won't let it stop him from tackling Social Security.
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# Posted 6:02 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

STOCK ANSWERS FROM KRUGMAN: Reader AG, who knows a lot about this subject, has provided an insightful response to my earlier comments on Paul Krugman and the stock market:
It's impossible to cram serious analysis into an op-ed column, and this sometimes gets Krugman in trouble. In fact, you're both right.

Stocks are riskier than bonds. There have been periods, as you point out on your BLOG when stocks have done poorly. (Your example of the 1970s isn't a good one, though, because bonds were also performing horribly at the time as inflation and interest rates skyrocketed.) So no rational investor would buy stocks unless he or she expected a higher return on equities than on fixed-income securities.

Careful analysis of the relative returns and risks of bonds and stocks over long periods of time (e.g., the 20th century, the post-WWII period) indicate that the excess return of stocks over bonds has been greater than one would expect just given the relative riskiness of the two asset classes. This extra risk-adjusted return on stocks is referred to as the "equity risk premium." Such a premium is something like a free lunch for equity investors. The point Krugman is making is that this premium is unlikely to be as large in the future as it was in the past. That's probably true, too.

Why is this relevant? The question being debated is: "The level of average economic growth over the next 50 to 100 years held constant, how likely is it that distant future retirees and taxpayers would be better off under the Bush plan (whatever it actually is) than they would have been under the current system?" If the forward looking equity risk premium is still high, then partial privatization will look good in retrospect. If not, not. No one knows. And, from the point of view of the next generation of Adesniks, it almost doesn't matter.

When you look at this issue this way it's easy to see that this whole debate, while in the center ring politically, is an economic side show. How well off retirees and workers are in the future absolutely depends much much more on how fast the economy grows between now and the distant future. One of the most important ways in which the Federal government can create a growth-friendly policy environment is to keep its overall fiscal house in order. But getting that right involves dealing with the bigger, nearer-term issues like the government's structural operating deficit and medicare.

More broadly, American's want European social public services, Japanese taxes, and the savings rate of an undergraduate. They can't have them all, and the Bushies have decided to go after social security first because dealing with it requires no short-term pain and because Asian central banks seem willing to buy as much of our debt as we can produce.

So the real problem with Bush's proposal is not that it is or isn't a good idea in the very narrow sense of what the equity risk premium might be. No one can know that now or even make a good guess. The real problem is that the whole thing is a distraction.

The reason for despising this policy initiative is not that the Administration is overstating the equity risk premium but that the right way to deal with our fiscal problems is to raise taxes, preferably on gasoline, and right now.
Now that OxBlog has a car, it doesn't like gas taxes. So let's tax the wealthy instead! (NB: OxBlog reserves the right to reverse this proposal should it become wealthy at some point in the indefinite future.)
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Sunday, January 23, 2005

# Posted 7:21 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ELECTIONS 101: David Holiday teases Prof. Cole for letting his politics get the better of his political science.
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Saturday, January 22, 2005

# Posted 8:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE QUANTIFICATION OF CARMEN ELECTRA: What else would you expect from a political scientist?
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# Posted 8:40 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

YOU GIVE A SNARK, YOU GET A SNARK: With regard to the inaugural address, Matthew Yglesias writes that
As a substantive intervention into American and world politics, however, it's utterly trivial. I expect it will have set the hearts of Oxbloggers all 'round the world a-twitter, but minds are made up.
You'd think Matt would've have waited for myself or Josh or Patrick to say something about the inaugural address before dismissing our views as naive, but as Matt correctly observes, "minds are made up."
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# Posted 8:02 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT THE OTHER GUYS SAID ABOUT DEMOCRACY PROMOTION: There are two attributes that distinguish Bush's second inaugural from those that preceded it. Its talk of democracy spreading across the globe is not one of them. That is a cliche.

But the intensity of Bush's emphasis on democracy promotion is unprecedented. His emphasis has forced all those who comment on the inaugural address to grapple with that issue.

But more importantly, Bush repeatedly emphasized that the United States must take an active role in spreading freedom and liberty across the globe. In contrast, his predecessors have relied on passive formulations that, as John Quincy Adams might have said, present the United States as a "well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all" but "the champion and vindicator of only her own."

For example, Clinton's first inaugural declared that
Our greatest strength is the power of our ideas, which are still new in many lands. Across the world we see them embraced and we rejoice. Our hopes, our hearts, our hands are with those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom. Their cause is America's cause.
In his second inaugural, Clinton stated that
For the very first time in all of history, more people on this planet live under democracy than dictatorship...

[Someday], the world's greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies...

May those generations whose faces we cannot yet see, whose names we may never know, say of us here that we led our beloved land into a new century with the American dream alive for all her children, with the American promise of a more perfect Union a reality for all her people, with America's bright flame of freedom spreading throughout all the world.
In other speeches, Clinton suggested that democracy promotion would be the foundation of his grand strategy. Although Clinton's achievement in that domain were significant, his aspirations were often frustrated.

Suprisingly, George H.W. Bush was more emphatic about democracy in his inaugural address, although his careful constructions also implied a passive role for the United States:
I come before you and assume the Presidency at a moment rich with promise. We live in a peaceful, prosperous time but we can make it better. For a new breeze is blowing and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man's heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree... [This was 10 months before the Berlin Wall came down. --ed.]

Great nations of the world are moving toward democracy -- through the door to freedom. Men and women of the world move toward free markets -- through the door to prosperity. The people of the world agitate for free expression and free thought -- through the door to the moral and intellectual satisfactions that only liberty allows.

We know what works: Freedom works. We know what's right: Freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.
To the suprise of many, myself included, it turns out that George W. Bush also spoke quite clearly about the spread of democracy in his first inaugural:
Through much of the last century, America's faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations. Our democratic faith is more than the creed of our country, it is the inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along. And even after nearly 225 years, we have a long way yet to travel.
This time around, Bush has no intentions of letting the wind decide where the seeds will fall. Even Reagan, who became more committed to democracy promotion as time wore on, did not escape the language of passivity in his second inaugural, let alone his first, when he stated that:
As we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.

To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment. We will match loyalty with loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations. We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty, for our own sovereignty is not for sale.
Finally, there was Jimmy Carter, who stated that
The best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation...

The world itself is now dominated by a new spirit. Peoples more numerous and more politically aware are craving and now demanding their place in the sun --not just for the benefit of their own physical condition, but for basic human rights...

Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clearcut preference for these societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights.
Presumably, I have taxed your patience with a post of this length. But it is only in the context of his predecessors' words that the uniqueness of George W. Bush's inaugural address can be understood.
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# Posted 6:31 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NOW THAT'S USEFUL: Scroll down a bit on the NYT's Inauguration Website and you'll find links to the full text of the inaugural addresses given in '89, '93, '97 and '01. You can find Reagan's inaugural addresses here and here.
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# Posted 6:25 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TASTY: The Times mocks ABC, NBC and CBS for their no-substance coverage of the inauguration. By the way, what substance consists of is being nasty to the President. Hence:
The self-consciousness of network news anchors worried about accusations of liberal bias coincided with unselfconscious display of Republican triumphalism - the extraordinary confidence that veined the president's speech ("We are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom").
Personally, I think it's all the bloggers' fault.
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# Posted 5:27 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OUT-EXPERTING THE EXPERTS: I don't know much about economics, so I am a little bit surprised at my ability to spot an apparent flaw in Paul Krugman's economic logic. Krugman's political logic may have less value than a junk bond, but you figure he'd get his economics right. In Friday's column, Krugman tells us to
Remember the disclaimer that mutual funds are obliged to include in their ads: "past performance is no guarantee of future results."

Fifty years ago most people, remembering 1929, were afraid of the stock market. As a result, those who did buy stocks got to buy them cheap: on average, the value of a company's stock was only about 13 times that company's profits. Because stocks were cheap, they yielded high returns in dividends and capital gains.

But high returns always get competed away, once people know about them: stocks are no longer cheap. Today, the value of a typical company's stock is more than 20 times its profits. The more you pay for an asset, the lower the rate of return you can expect to earn. That's why even Jeremy Siegel, whose "Stocks for the Long Run" is often cited by those who favor stocks over bonds, has conceded that "returns on stocks over bonds won't be as large as in the past."
Krugman may be right that stocks are now overpriced and thus can no longer provide the historic returns of the 1990s. That is plausible.

But fear of another Great Depression didn't always make stocks a good investment. If memory serves, there was a lot of hype about stocks, especially blue chips, in the early 1970s. But the price of those stocks promptly fell and the market stagnated for the rest of the decade. Clearly, something more complex was going on here. By the same token, something more complex than low prices was probably responsible for stock market growth in the 80's and 90's.

Since all of this is way out of my area of expertise, I wouldn't surprised if there is some fundamental flaw in my analysis that I have failed to recognize. With any luck, some of you (presumably including AG) will be able to point out the error of my ways. But until then, I will enjoy some tentative schadenfreude.
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# Posted 5:22 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NOT A METAPHOR: Nicholas Kristof reminds us that when President Bush says that "no one deserves to be a slave", we should take him literally.
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# Posted 4:59 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MASOCHISTS OR ALTRUISTS? David Brooks notes in passing that
Bush's inaugural ideals will also be real in the way they motivate our troops in Iraq. Military Times magazine asked its readers if they think the war in Iraq is worth it. Over 60 percent - and two-thirds of Iraq combat vets - said it was. While many back home have lost faith, our troops fight because their efforts are aligned with the core ideals of this country, articulated by Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Lincoln, F.D.R., Truman, J.F.K., Reagan and now Bush.
Our soldiers in Iraq (and Afghanistan) have suffered and will continue to suffer more than any other Americans committed to bringing democracy to the Middle East. Why?

One might say that impressionable young men recklessly believe what their officers tell them. One might say that those who grow up in Red States recklessly believe what their President tells them. One might even suggest that some of them are still under the impression that Saddam was responsible for 9-11. But I don't buy it.

If there is any subsconcious motivation for our soldiers' surprising faith in their mission, it is this: that when you have invested so much in a cause, when you have watched your friends die for that cause, abandoning it becomes unthinkable.

But even that is unfair to our men and women in uniform. Americans are not afraid of sacrifice, but we also tend to protest quite loudly when our government wants us to sacrifice more than we should. Remember the soldier who demanded that the Secretary of Defense explain why the Pentagon hasn't provided armor for every vehicle in Iraq? I'm curious to know whether he still thinks this mission is worth it.

Perhaps not. But I think that even 18 year-olds in uniform are sophisticated enough to separate the failures of their generals, their secretary and their president from the failure of their ideals.
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# Posted 4:48 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

REMARKABLE IF TRUE: "Despite Insurgent Threats and Lack of Democratic Tradition, 80 Percent Say They Are Likely to Vote." I can only imagine the avalanche of "I told you so"'s that would follow this kind of result in the Iraqi elections. (Naturally, OxBlog reserves the right to participate in the avalanche.)

The poll that discovered the 80% figure was conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), the GOP affiliate that is part of the National Endowment for Democracy. I would feel better if someone else conducted the poll, but there is no reason to doubt IRI's integrity. And in eight more days, we'll know if the poll was right.

UPDATE: Here's a classic bit from the NYT:
Every single Shiite interviewed for this article said he or she planned to vote. Though there are a few Sunni leaders running for office, all the Sunnis interviewed, except one, said they were going to boycott. That could mean a humiliation for American forces and the new Iraqi government, who have relentlessly pounded the Sunni areas in a so far unsuccessful campaign to wipe out the resistance.
Hmmm. I never thought "humiliation" consisted of overwhelming support from Shi'ites and Kurds, who together make up 80% of the Iraqi population. Pray tell, twelve or fifteen months ago, how many journalists expected even majority support from the Shi'ites? If memory serves, all we were hearing back then was how Moqtada Sadr represented the true face of Iraqi Shi'ism.

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the IRI poll. Also check out his post about Iraqi politicians' vague stance on how long American troops should stay in Iraq.
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# Posted 4:31 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THAT SPEECH WAS NO ACCIDENT: Bush's second inaugural address was the result extensive consultation with this administration's conservative brain trust:
The planning of Bush's second inaugural address began a few days after the Nov. 2 election with the president telling advisers he wanted a speech about "freedom" and "liberty." That led to the broadly ambitious speech that has ignited a vigorous debate. The process included consultation with a number of outside experts, [William] Kristol among them.

One meeting, arranged by Peter Wehner, director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, included military historian Victor Davis Hanson, columnist Charles Krauthammer and Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, according to one Republican close to the White House. White House senior adviser Karl Rove attended, according to one source, but mostly listened to what became a lively exchange over U.S. policy and the fight for liberty.

Gaddis caught the attention of White House officials with an article in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine that seems to belie the popular perception that this White House does not consult its critics.

Gaddis's article is, at times, strongly critical of Bush's first-term foreign policy calculations, especially what he calls the twin failures to anticipate international resistance to Bush's ideas and Iraqi resistance to peace after the fall of Baghdad. But the article also raises the possibility that Bush's grand vision of spreading democracy could prove successful, and perhaps historic, if the right choices are made in the years ahead.
Unsuprisingly, accusations of hypocrisy (at home and abroad) began to emerge not long after the inaugural. But the President's critics would be wise not to forget that there is considerable substance to his message
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Friday, January 21, 2005

# Posted 1:49 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WOODROW WILSON LIVES.
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# Posted 1:45 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

COMPARE BUSH'S ADDRESS TO REAGAN'S SECOND INAUGURAL: Reagan's emphasis is on freedom from government at home, an idea that Bush touched upon indirectly at best. Yet Reagan devoted one critical paragraph to the ideal of freedom abroad. He declared that:

We strive for peace and security, heartened by the changes all around us. Since the turn of the century, the number of democracies in the world has grown fourfold. Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than in our own hemisphere. Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. People, worldwide, hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human dignity and progress.

America must remain freedom's staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally and it is the world's only hope to conquer poverty and preserve peace. Every blow we inflict against poverty will be a blow against its dark allies of oppression and war. Every victory for human freedom will be a victory for world peace.

This is the seed from which Bush's rhetoric of freedom has grown. Yet as Reagan learned, freedom is easier said than done.
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# Posted 1:41 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NOT WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR WHEN IT'S SNOWING:
"Does this SUV have anti-lock brakes?"

"Well, it used to."
Charlottesville got its first real snowfall tonight, and that is an actual conversation I had with my friend JB. Great guy. Really.
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# Posted 1:19 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TOWARDS AN ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE RED STATE PRIMITIVE: David Von Drehle means well. In his cover story for the WaPo magazine, he recounts his 700 mile road trip from Nebraska to Texas, in search of what makes Red State voters tick.

Von Drehle is driven by the liberal impulse to understand that which is foreign rather than condemning it. But think about the whole premise of his article; the basic idea behind it is that you can't understand Republican voters by assessing the merit of rational arguments advanced on behalf of their presidential candidate.

Instead, you have to treat them like the indigenous tribes of the Brazilian rainforest or southeast Asian highlands; you have to abandon your notions of rationality in order to understand why their irrational behave makes sense according to some foreign cultural standard.

Now ask yourself: Could you imagine this scenario in reverse? Could you imagine a reporter for the WaPo or even Wall Street Journal embarking on a road trip from Boston to Pittsburgh in order to "understand" why Blue State voters supported Kerry? Of course not. (Then again, an anthropological approach may help explain why entire institutions nominally devoted to rational thought, e.g. the American university, have become prisoners of the far left.)

That said, Von Drehle deserves credit for putting together a major article that almost totally avoids outright condescension towards people who believe in God, oppose abortion, oppose gay marriage and vote for Bush. In the end, I don't think he does much to help explain why Bush peformed so much better in this election than he did in his first. After all, the shift that won it for Bush happened in the swing states, not in the Redlands. Almost every demographic group registered a small but significant shift to the right, not just evangelicals.

Van Drehle explains his ability to transcend liberal stereotypes by providing a short autobiography. He writes:
Here, on the eve of the president's second inauguration, is an honest effort to set down what I saw, what I heard, what I thought and what I learned.

But who is doing this seeing and hearing and filtering?

For the purposes of this story, I'd say I'm a man who has lived among blues and lived among reds and never felt like a proper fit anywhere. My current home is one of the bluest places in America -- the District of Columbia, which voted 10 to 1 in favor of Kerry. I have friends and neighbors who were literally in tears the day after the election. Politics for many Washingtonians is more than just a civic duty or an every-few-years diversion. It is a passion and a livelihood. They find the Red Sea hostile, baffling and, frankly, menacing.

On the other hand, my roots are out there. I grew up at the western end of the nation's unbroken red high prairie. Aurora, Colo., has become a populous place, miles of suburb shading into more miles of exurb, but I remember it when tumbleweeds three feet high blew through our yard, and jackrabbits burrowed under the back fence, and asphalt gave way to dirt farm road a scant quarter-mile from our front door.
That stuff about the prairie and the jackrabbits is nice and all, but Van Drehle presentation of himself as a red-blue hybrid won't have any credibility in my mind until he answers the question that really matters: How many times has he gone into the voting booth and pulled the lever for Bush or any other Republican presidential candidate?

From talking to some of them, I know that Big Media correspondents are often paranoid about letting anyone know their real opinions about politics. They say that if they admit that they voted Democratic, Republicans would attack everything they publish as biased. And you know what? They probably would.

But Republicans already attack the media -- constantly -- for being biased. Perhaps if the press corps abandoned its faux non-partisanship, they would get some more respect from the GOP. But more importantly, if the press could admit to itself what it believed, it might not have to embark on anthropological expeditions across the midwest in order to understand Republicans.
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Thursday, January 20, 2005

# Posted 2:45 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHY IS THE NYT BEING SO NICE TO DICK CHENEY? Beats me. But Noam makes a pretty strong case that the Times recently wnet soft on the man from Wyoming.
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# Posted 1:23 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DIRTY WARS, DIRTY BOMBS: It isn't everyday that the Big Media muckamucks decide to extend their hand in friendship to the blogosphere. So when HBO, PBS and the Council on Foreign Relations invited me to a film premiere at the French Embassy, I decided that free food and alcohol are justification enough for consorting with the enemy.

The film in question is Dirty War, a BBC production (to be aired in the United States by HBO and PBS) that dramatizes the explosion of a massive, radiation-enhanced "dirty bomb" in central London. On a gut level, the film just works. Once the bomb went off, my heart jumped up into my throat and stayed there for the rest of the movie. What I felt was a combination of adrenaline and nausea.

In other words, this isn't a film you are exactly supposed to enjoy. Although it borrows heavily from Hollywood's crime-thriller and natural disaster genres, it is, above all, a political film. And this film amounts to nothing less than a vicious broadside against the Blair government for leaving Britain tragically vulnerable in the face of an impending terrorist attack.

When I say vicious, I mean vicious. The first half hour of the film devotes itself to the systematic humiliation of the fictional cabinet minister responsible for London's security. In rapid succession, the minister exposes her ignorance, selfishness, incompetence, and unhesitating willingness to deceive the British public.

But what difference does it make if the minister is fictional? Tony Blair has been in charge of the British government for almost eight years. The film's message is unequivocal: Tony Blair has utterly failed to fulfill his obligation to protect Britain from terrorists.

If ABC, NBC or CBS produced a similar film about an attack on New York or Washington, even those critics less than favorably disposed towards the President would have to write it off as hatchet job bought and paid for by the liberal media. But perhaps the BBC can get away with this sort of thing.

Although I lived in the UK for almost three years, I never learned much about its domestic politics. Turned off by the intense biases of The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and BBC News, I went online to get my news. From what I understand, the BBC is an independent institution funded by the government. What that actually means in practice, I'm not sure.

On the one hand, I have to marvel at the democratic ideals that inspire government support for an institution devoted to embarrassing the government. On the other hand, one has to wonder whether the BBC suffers from a constant compulsion to demonstrate its independence by attacking its patrons in the most sensational manner possible.

What it comes down to, I suppose, is the degree to which a film such as Dirty War represents a constructive response to the dangers that Britain (and America) faces. The film certainly has such pretensions; before the film starts, white letters on a black screen inform the audience that the film is based on extensive factual research.

Another good indication of the film's seriousness its American premiere was sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. Thus, along with dinner, the guests at the premiere were treated to a discussion of terrorism and homeland security led by Stephen Flynn of CFR and Michael Wermuth of the Rand Corporation, both experts in the field.

So, does the film blend drama and realism in a manner worthy of its creators highest hopes? Frankly, I have no idea. If the film taught me one thing, it is how little I know about homeland security. Perhaps because I have spent the last four and a half years studying foreign policy, I never devoted enough attention to the homeland side of the equation.

In order to remedy this situation, I hope to read Dr. Flynn's new book, entitled America the Vulnerable. Although you shouldn't judge a book by its (back )cover, it's hard to ignore Fareed Zakaria when he writes that
If officials in Washington would read just one book, this is it. Stephen Flynn describes how utterly unprepared we are for the next terrorist attack, More important, he explains that our vulnerabilities are not inevitable consequences of being an open society. It is a scary book, and it should scare us into action.
I actually read the first two chapters of the book after I got home last night. As soon as I finish it, you can expect a full review on OxBlog.

In the final analysis, regardless of whether the film gets sidetracked for half an hour by its anti-Blair agenda, I have no choice but to respect a creative enterprise that forced me to confront my apalling lack of knowledge about a subject so integral to our national security.
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# Posted 1:19 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

LIVING WITH THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA. LITERALLY. My housemate MB is a journalist and one of her articles was just published on the web. If you are interested in water sports, then you should definitely check out MB's short profile of the unlikely rowing scene in Dubai. Yup, Dubai.
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Monday, January 17, 2005

# Posted 6:24 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OXBLOG VISITS THE AMERICAN SCENE: While in DC to interview Dr. Kirkpatrick, I will be crashing with the illustrious Reihan Salam. If you haven't already, head over right frikkin' now to The American Scene, which Reihan edits along with Steve M. and Ross D.

Recently, Reihan has compared himself to Cyrano de Bergerac. It seems that vertically-challenged folks such as Reihan may face social handicaps almost as dramatic as he of the long nose. (Full disclosure: I myself am a good inch shy of the national average of 5'9".)

Meanwhile, in a heartening display of intra-blog solidarity, Steve M. admits to his own insensitivity about the ridicule that vertically-challenged individuals suffer at the hands of corportate titans such as Burger King.

In contrast, Ross D. has decided to ignore the plight of the vertically-challenged on focus on some good old-fashioned prejudice against women -- at Harvard of all places.

That, my friends, is America.
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# Posted 6:16 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OXBLOG TO INTERVIEW NEO-CONSERVATIVE ICON: Tomorrow, I will have the chance to sit down for thirty minutes with none other than Jeane Kirkpatrick. FYI, Dr. Kirkpatrick was Reagan's first ambassador to the United Nations, serving from 1981 through 1984.

I won't be able to provide excerpts from the interview since it is for academic purposes only, although I do hope to write a little more about Dr. Kirkpatrick's ideas.
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Sunday, January 16, 2005

# Posted 9:27 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

POSTPONE THE ELECTIONS? Larry Diamond is one of America's most respected scholars of democratization in the developing world. One week ago, he argued in the NY Times that going ahead with elections on Jan. 30 may derail democracy in Iraq.

Diamond makes a number of valid points, especially regarding the ways in which a voting system based on proportional representation will unfairly damage Sunni interests. Yet Diamond simply seems to ignore the major arguments against a postponement. For example, Diamond writes that
Sunni political and social leaders are not calling for an open-ended cancellation of the election. They are requesting a one-time postponement of several months, in order to establish the "necessary conditions" for a fair and inclusive vote.
In contrast, one might argue that in the absence of an election in January, conditions will be just as bad several months from now. Yet Diamond believes that negotiating with the Sunni leadership can ensure substantial Sunni participation in the next election:
Fortunately, it is no longer true, as has often been argued, that there is no one to negotiate with. Over the last few months, Sunni religious, tribal, civic and political leaders have begun meeting and forming alliances. At a conference in Tikrit on Dec. 23, Sunni representatives from seven provinces met, released a statement articulating their concerns and requests, and elected an "executive body" to negotiate on their behalf...

The outlines of a compromise are visible. The Sunnis could get a one-time postponement of the vote, an electoral system based substantially on provincial districts, and certain other political and administrative reforms. The leading Shiites, who have drawn together into the United Iraqi Alliance and seem set to win an election no matter when it is held or under what system, could get a commitment on the part of the Sunni opposition groups to end the electoral boycott and to work to reduce the violence, and thus to create a political situation in which their victory will be worth having.
But can the Sunni leadership really do anything to reduce the violence? Is there any reason to believe that insurgents will respect the requests of (relatively) moderate Sunni leaders? If the insurgents are given several more months to prepare for disrupting elections, should we really expect that much in the way of Sunni turnout, even if there are successful negotiations between the Sunni leadership and the Allawi government?

Diamond is correct to argue that holding elections now is hardly a cost-free proposition:
These elections will only increase political polarization and violence by entrenching the perceptions of Sunni Arab marginalization that are helping to drive the violence in the first place. This would not be the first instance when badly timed and ill-prepared elections set back the prospects for democracy, stability and ethnic accommodation. Think of Angola in 1992, Bosnia in 1996, Liberia in 1997.
Unfortunately, I don't know enough to comment on thesee examples of counterproductive elections that Diamond mentions. Of course, there are also positive examples, such as El Salvador in 1982.

Moving on, I think Diamond is right to suggest that voting with the current system will further marginalize the Sunnis. Yet given how marginalized the Sunnis already are and how much influence the insurgents have, should the United States or the Shi'ites and Kurds really want to take the dramatic risk of postponing the election in order to placate the Sunnis?

More importantly, Diamond ignores the benefits that will come with holding an election. First and foremost, Iraq will finally have a government chosen by almost 80% of its citizens, rather than one appointed primarily by the United States. With the government in their hands, the Shi'ite parties will have a very strong incentive to take ownership of the challenges facing the nation.

An elected government will also have the right to set the conditions under which Coaltion forces can stay in Iraq (or possibly be expelled). Of course, no one should think that the new government will be able to make an entirely independent decision about the fate of Coalition forces. Above all, Baghdad will still need someone to fight the insurgency for it.

Yet if an elected government permits Coaltion forces to remain, the Shi'ites will no longer feel that they are living under an full-fledged occupation regime. The presence of troops will still be problematic, but I think an election would put a permanent end to the kind of resentment that allowed Moqtada Sadr to launch his failed yet dangerous rebellions.

At this point, I think that the best course for the United States is to go through with the January elections and work behind the scenes to ensure that the constitutional assembly produces a document that addresses Sunni concerns. While it may be hard to persuade the newly-empowered Shi'ites to compromise, the same incentives that Diamond mentions will still be there.

In fact, the assembly might prove to be far more effective in negotiating with the Sunni leadership since it will have a democratic mandate, unlike the Allawi government. Instead of enticing the Sunnis with a postponed election, the Shi'ites can hold out the prospect of a constitution that favors district-based elections rather than proportional representation. If the assembly completes it work on time, then the Sunnis will be able to reap the benefits of a district-based system by the end of the 2005.

Admittedly, I have limited confidence in the ability of the United States to steer the assembly in the direction it prefers. Thus, the real question is whether the Shi'ite majority, once it has power, will live up to the ideals of democracy and tolerance it has advocated so consistently during the occupation. I believe it can.
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# Posted 2:22 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DEATH SQUADS, PART II: There have been many passionate responses to my initial post, both via e-mail and on other websites. I will do my best to address all of them.

First, let me to direct you to this very long and very informative post by David Holiday. I should have pointed out before that David has considerable expertise on this subject because he worked for America's Watch/Human Rights Watch more than a decade ago, when El Salvador was still a major subject of public debate.

The main thrust of David H.'s argument is that the Newsweek article which provoked the current round of debate about the death squads may have fundamentally misunderstood what the Pentagon meant when it suggested developing a "Salvador option" for Iraq.

Newsweek presumed that a "Salvador option" entailed the training of something similar to death squads, or at least abduction squads, yet David H.'s careful review of military publications suggests that the Pentagon has a very different understanding of the lessons of El Salvador. Rather than emphasizing the role of death squads in counter-insurgency operations, the Pentagon's interpretation of El Salvador focuses on how best to train the entire armed forces of a developing nation.

As David H. points out, military papers on this subject tend to avoid discussion of the horrific human rights violations that the Salvadoran armed forces committed while under the tutelage of the Pentagon.

While I find David's general argument about the Pentagon's thought processes persuasive, it is still impossible to know whether it is correct in this specific instance since Newsweek provided so little concrete information to substantiate its suggestion that the Pentagon has nefarious plans for Iraq.

Next, I would like to address the concerns of AS, who writes that my initial post
Repeated some false and misleading notions: first, that even without actively supporting the death squads, American officials were happy to tolerate them; second, that they were at all effective.

There were undoubtedly those who supported any measure that would kill comunists. Outside the Oliver North school of Latin American politics (and the naive Reaganites who followed along) however, you'd behard-pressed to find any.
While the "naive Reaganites" may have constituted a small minority, they counted among their number the President, the director of the CIA and certain other high-ranking officials. Thus, their influence far outstripped their strength in numbers.

Nonetheless, AS is right to emphasize -- as I failed to do in my initial post -- how fiercely many of the Americans involved with the situation in El Salvador opposed the mindless brutality of the Salvadoran anti-communists. At the height of the brutality, all of our ambassadors and the overwhelming majority fo embassy officials opposed the violence.

My sense is also that a strong majority of the soldiers assigned to train the Salvadoran armed forces were viscerally opposed to the wanton violation of human rights, yet at the moment I am not familiar with sufficient documentary evidence to make that claim more forcefully.

With regard to efficiency, I think all except the most committed of the "naive Reaganites" understood that human rights violations strengthened the guerrillas and aggravated the civil war. Had the Salvadoran officer corps truly been willing to reform itself, the civil war might have ended a decade earlier, or perhaps never started.

At this point, I'd like to address Matt Yglesias' observation that
I'm not sure the distinction between America supporting a government that supports death squads while tolerating the existence of the death squads and America supporting death squads can really bear as much weight as David [Adesnik, not Holiday] wants to put on it. Being clear on the historical record is worthwhile, but it sort of doesn't make a great deal of difference morally.
I think Matt's observation may reflect the fact that my initial post failed to point out how few Americans wanted to turn a blind eye to the death squads' activities. Moreover, I think there is an important point to be made about the moral status of President Reagan's ability to persuade himself of the virtuous nature of the Salvadoran armed forces.

Even Reagan's harshest critics seem to recognize that the President's ignorance on this subject was sincere. Should some historian discover evidence which clearly indicates that Reagan understood the true nature of the Salvadoran armed forces and intentionally lied in order to defend their conduct, we will all have to revise our assessments of the 40th President. Although ideologically-motivated negligence is damnable enough, it is a far cry from intentional and explicit support for mass murder.

Finally we come to the comments of GC, who writes that
You seem incredulous, but there is ample evidence of active U.S. support for so-called "death squads" in El Salvador, based on recently declassified communications. Of course, we didn't call them "death squads" at the time. We called them "rapid response battalions."

Note that these "rapid response battalions" were created by the U.S. military specifically for the purpose of _counterinsurgency_, which is why they are relevant to discussion of Iraq today. Other far-right armed groups operating at the time in El Salvador, also sometimes labeled "death squads", were not created for this purpose and therefore are not relevant to your discussion of a counterinsurgency "Salvador Option".

In your post, you mention the El Mozote massacre as an example of "death squad" activities. Do you know who was responsible for that particular massacre? A "rapid reaction battalion" created by, trained by, and supported before, during, and after the massacre by the U.S. military. [Specifically the Atlacatl Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa. --ed.]
GC is correct that the United States trained the rapid response battalions (RRBs), often at American installations such as Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. GC is also correct that an RRB perpetrated the massacre at El Mozote, which I mentioned in my initial post but did not attribute to an RRB. Finally, GC is correct that American support for the RRBs did not stop after they committed the massacres.

The critical oversight in GC's argument is his failure to ask whether the RRBs' massacres at El Mozote or elsewhere had anything to do with their American training or whether their brutality reflected their Salvadoran origins. In fact, American trainers made an effort, albeit an insufficient one, to disabuse the Salvadorans of their murderous habits. The curricula for the RRB's included material on the importance of respecting human rights, although this message clearly did not get through.

There is also an important semantic point to be made here. As I mentioned in my initial post, the death squads were not simply uniformed soldiers, such as those in the RRBs, who committed atrocities. They were special units devoted to killing suspected insurgents. Although murder is murder is murder, it would be a very different story if the United States government created and trained special units responsible for murder, as opposed to training soldiers who committed atrocities despite being instructed not to.

(As WAB points out in a separate e-mail, there were individual Americans, some with extensive military experience, who acted in a private capacity to help create certain death squads.)

In many ways, GC's comments point to the crux of the issue being debated here. Newsweek seemed to suggest both that the US government intentionally set up death squads in El Salvador and that it was considering doing so in Iraq. I have tried to show that the United States deserves a different sort of criticism for a different sort of crime.

As part of a poorly-designed effort to prevent a Communist takeover in El Salvador, the Reagan administration turned a collective blind eye to the atrocities perpetrated by the Salvadoran armed forces, at least until December 1983, when Vice President Bush personally lectured the Salvadoran colonels about the total unacceptability of their behavior. Even before Bush's visit, many Americans (and, of course, even more Salvadorans) tried to defend the cause of human rights. But without the support of the White House, their efforts were not enough.
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Saturday, January 15, 2005

# Posted 11:22 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE BLOGOSPHERE'S DISTANT COUSINS: If you are as hip as OxBlog (which isn't saying much), then you probably know that "mashups" are the latest trend in popular music. A "mashup" is the result of a DJ using software to mix together two entirely different songs, for example Madonna's "Ray of Light" and the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen".

What I find so interesting about mash ups is how they represent the triumph of individual pajama-clad keyboard cowboys over the corporate titans supposedly in charge of their industry. The New Yorker observes that
Mashups find new uses for current digital technology, a new iteration of the cause-and-effect relationship behind almost every change in pop-music aesthetics: the gear changes, and then the music does. If there is an electric guitar of mashup, it is a software package called Acid Pro, which enables one to put loops of different songs both in time and in tune with each other. Mark Vidler, known professionally as Go Home Productions, explained some other benefits of digital technology to me in London not long ago: “You don’t need a distributor, because your distribution is the Internet. You don’t need a record label, because it’s your bedroom, and you don’t need a recording studio, because that’s your computer. You do it all yourself."
Yet as in the blogosphere, the work of outsiders is often integrated -- rapidly -- into the mainstream hierarchy. According, the New Yorker a mashup entitled "A Stroke of Genius"
Is so good that it eventually led [DJ] Freelance Hellraiser to do official remixes for [Christina] Aguilera and others, and he has just completed, at Paul McCartney’s invitation, an entire album of McCartney remixes. “Stroke” also inspired a fourteen-year-old named Daniel Sheldon to start a Web site called boomselection.info. “The Remix” remains England’s main hub for mashups, but the rest of the world is being served through Sheldon’s site and getyourbootlegon.com, a message board started by Grant McSleazy, who recently graduated to doing legitimate remixes of Britney Spears.
Although I am concerned about the use of the words "legitimate" and "Britney" in the same sentence, I won't dwell on that subject. Instead, I'd like to note that trends driven by pajama-clad inviduals working out of their own homes on their own computers often produce results very quickly:
Once a graphic designer working for a company that made travel pillows, and long before that a guitarist in a rock band called Chicane, [Mark] Vidler, too, was converted in October of 2001. “I heard ‘A Stroke of Genius’ on the radio and I thought, That’s clever. I could do that,” he said. By April of 2002, Vidler was making his own mashups. His first was called “Slim McShady,” a combination of Eminem and Wings. “I created it on a Saturday, posted it on the Tuesday, and got played on the radio that Friday, on ‘The Remix.’”
Not bad!
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# Posted 11:15 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

LOSING THE OIL WAR: The WaPo has an important article about the rising effectiveness of insurgent attacks on the oil industry in Iraq. The government depends on oil taxes for its revenue, so these attacks have a direct impact in Baghdad.

Also worth noting is that a Sunni insurgent group has taken credit for the murder of one of Ayatollah Sistani's aides. Although terrorists have killed numerous Shi'ite clerics before, I can't recall them taking credit for it.

Depending on where you stand, the insurgents' decision to identify themselves reflects either the fact that Iraq is approaching the outbreak of total civil war or that Sunni insurgents have recognized that they do not represent the people of Iraq, but instead an embittered minority. Or perhaps both.
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# Posted 11:11 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WELCOME TO THE IMAMOSPHERE: I am little embarrassed to admit that I am getting my news about the blogosphere from the NY Times, but I still recommend reading the NYT profile of Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice president of Iran and Islamic clergyman who has begun blogging (here) in order to speak out against the hardliners in Teheran.
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# Posted 10:50 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT WAS ARIK SHARON THINKING? Mahmoud Abbas took office as president of the PA this afternoon. Yet even before his inauguration, Israel suspended contacts with the PA and accused Abbas of not doing enough to stop terrorist attacks.

Unsurprisingly, the NYT's straight news account of the suspension suggested that Sharon was acting in a foolish and impulsive manner. Rather than finding an expert to voice his opinions for him, NYT correspondent Stephen Erlanger simply reported that
Mr. Sharon's decision was unexpected, because it seemed to allow the militants to distort the Israeli-Palestinian agenda before Mr. Abbas could even form a new government.
Unstated rule of journalism #309: Objectivity consists of inserting the verb "to seem" (or a conjugation thereof) into a correspondent's statement of opinion. On the bright side, the NYT does allow the Sharon government to explain its decision, which was made in response to a recent attack that left six Israelis dead:
"We are not going back to the days when we had attacks in the morning, funerals in the afternoon and negotiations at night, as if nothing had happened," said Silvan Shalom, the foreign minister.
Fair enough. But I also wonder whether Sharon & Co. want to build up Abbas' credibility by portraying him as an enemy of Israel -- credibility that he will need in order to challenge the terrorists Sharon also wants to stop.

On a related note, Israel' suspension of contacts can easily be reversed at a moment when Sharon wants to demonstrate that he is a friend of the peace process. In the meantime, Sharon can tell the right-wing of Likud that the suspension demonstrates just how tough his government is. Convenient, no?
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# Posted 8:14 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CONSERVATIVES ARE NOT THE ONES SUFFERING FROM SEXUAL REPRESSION: In his review of the film "Spanglish", The New Yorker's David Denby observes that director
[James] Brooks has committed one of the habitual errors of liberal-Hollywood nice-guyism: he has tried to make a man good by making him sexless...

Since thousands of affluent whites in Los Angeles employ immigrant Latinos as housekeepers, the movie is at least grounded in something real—white guilt, a powerful force in Hollywood. But guilt, when acknowledged, has a way of producing self-consciousness rather than art. In preparation for writing the character of Flor, Brooks spent two years talking to groups of Latina women, and what he’s come up with is an exemplary figure, a successor to the sternly virtuous blacks, dignified Native Americans, staunch Asian-Americans, and other stiff-jointed role models produced by Hollywood over the years as a mistaken way of honoring ethnic minorities...

In the end, we’re meant to believe that [the Hispanic maid] Flor is too fine a person to have any desires of her own. Poor Brooks! His anxiety about giving offense to Latinos has itself become offensive—a classic high-minded blunder. Again and again, liberal Hollywood has to go through the ghastly ritual of ennobling people before it can allow them to become recognizably human.
Then again, who really wants to be human? I'd prefer for everyone to think of me as a noble stereotype, say pajama-clad network-thrashing blogger.
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# Posted 8:08 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY: It was a simple plea for the NY Jets: lose with dignity. But even that turned out to be too much.

At first, it seemed that the Jets would do the unthinkable and defeat the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. Then they missed two field goals in the last two minutes of regulation. The Steelers won in overtime.

Had they simply lost a fair fight, I would have been satisfied. The Steelers are the best team in football. But why tempt one's fans so cruelly with the prospect of victory? We are haunted by the ghost of Michael Dukakis.
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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

# Posted 6:22 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BE CAREFUL WHEN YOU SAY "DEATH SQUAD": Newsweek reports that the Pentagon has now developed a plan for Iraq described as "the Salvador option", which
Dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.
There are so many things wrong with Newsweek's statement that it's hard to know where to begin. First of all, the US military provided extensive aid to El Salvador's uniformed armed forces, which were fighting against Marxist insurgents. The reference to "nationalist" forces is therefore confusing, because it implies the US aided unofficial, paramilitary forces.

Especially during the first years of the war, the Salvadoran armed forces slaughtered peasants indiscriminately in provinces controlled by the guerrillas. The most notorious massacre was the one at El Mozote, reported by the NYT and WaPo, long-denied by the Reagan administraiton, and confirmed after the war by extensive forensic evidence.

In addition to murdering peasants, numerous special units within the Salvadoran military and national police forces devoted themselves to murdering anyone with a leadership role in the Salvadoran oppostion, civilian or guerrilla. There were also independent groups, not linked to the military but supported by wealthy businessmen and right-wing politicians, who also committed such murders.

These two types of organizations are properly known as death squads. Newsweek uses the word "allegedly" in connection with the death squads because the US government, in spite of knowing better, consistently denied that the Salvadoran military tolerated such behavior by its officers. Nonetheless, the role of uniformed officers was an open secret in El Salvador and the CIA had extensive knowledge of which Salvadoran officers and politicians were involved in such operations.

The biggest problem with the Newsweek article is its clear implication that the United States developed an intentional strategy of supporting the death squads. That is simply false. What one might say was that the Reagan administration's efforts to shut down the death squads were pathetically inadequate. As such, one might suspect that certain administration officials might have been glad to let the death squads do their dirty work for them.

However, US advisers were strictly prohibited from having anything to do with such illegal activities. Some might believe that American military advisers in El Salvador turned a blind eye to their pupils' extra-curricular activities, and David Holiday mentions one report to that effect.

David H. also writes that what the authors of the Newsweek article
Describe as a potential strategy is in fact what the U.S. government supported in El Salvador...

Now it seems that the U.S. military (or the CIA?) is finally and rather brazenly owning up to its role in the Salvadoran conflict. [Boldface in original]
If by "supported" David means "tolerated", then he is partially correct. Yet once again, there was no strategy to cooperate with or assist the death squads.

By the same token, it's hard to know what the Pentagon is "owning up to" by talking about a "Salvador option" for Iraq. That there were death squads in El Salavador? That the US turned a blind eye to their work? Or that there was active support for the death squads, an allegation for which there still is, to the best of my knowledge, no evidence?

Moving on, another misleading statement on Newsweek's part is that "eventually the insurgency was quelled". Actually, there was a negotiated end to the Salvadoran civil war, prompted in no small part by the rebels' spectacular assault on the capital in November 1989. On a similar note, David Holiday writes that the death squad strategy
Turned out to be quite effective in military terms in El Salvador, but it's also a morally abhorrent one.
Even if the death squads didn't win the war, they did kill thousands of actual guerrilla supporters. If those supporters were civilians who provided logistical support, that is abhorrent. Yet as David H. points out, many of the death squads' victims were urban commandos, who presumably were legitimate targets.

As David points out, one moral drawback to the death squad approach is that it's very hard to separate the logistical men from the urban commandos. But far more importantly, at least in El Salvador, the existence of the death squads helped create an environment of total impunity in which military officers could murder almost anyone for almost any reason.

That impunity led to the indiscriminate slaughter of peasants mentioned above. It also means that powerful officers could murder their personal enemies or operate massive crime synidcates. In the early 1980s, it was common to see fresh bodies, often multilated, lying by the side of major thoroughfares almost every morning

So what would it actually mean to have a Salvador option for Iraq? According to Newsweek,
It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation.
One safe conclusion to draw is that naming this "the Salvador option" was one of the stupidest ideas ever, since it would inevitably generate highly misleading press coverage. If you are going to give this strategy a name, perhaps you could call it "the Israeli strategy", since it sounds a lot more like what the IDF does to Hamas than what the Salvadorans did to their guerrillas. But that's a whole 'nother ballgame.

UPDATE: For more on this subject, see Greg and Glenn.
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# Posted 5:50 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DO THE MATH: I just came across this bizarre letter to NYT from November 13, 1983:
To the Editor:

I have just returned from a visit to the People's Republic of China and write this not to suggest to future tourists what to take with them but what to leave at home - gifts for the children of China.

As our bus rounded a curve outside Guilin and stopped for picture-taking, I was shocked to see a group of children gathered there, ready for a handout. This was my second trip to China and I had never witnessed this before.

Please, American visitors, don't make a generation of beggars out of the children of China. (I still remember clearly the little beggars in the Philippines who made it uncomfortable for tourists to leave the confines of the bus.)

China knows it will have problems with spoiled kids in their one-child families. Let American visitors restrain themselves from sharing largesse and not contribute to the problem.

JOSEPHINE BIDDLE MCMEEN Huntingdon, Pa.
I have no idea what this woman's politics are, but she seems to be missing some basic truths here. First, charity does not turn children into beggars. Hunger and poverty do. In China, the cause of that hunger and poverty was communism.

Second, just how many American tourists bearing gifts would it take to create "a generation of beggars" in a nation with, c. 1983, 800 million inhabitants?
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# Posted 2:08 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

GRAND STRATEGY 101: If you have enjoyed OxBlog's occasional rumblings about American grand strategy or the lack thereof, then the one you should really be thanking is John Gaddis, who taught me almost everything I know about that subject.

If you think OxBlog's occasional pronouncements about American grand strategy are a load of misguided and pretentious balderdash, then you should hold Prof. Gaddis directly responsible, because he encourages his students to grapple with the Big Questions that that supposedly must be answered only by those the well-groomed experts over at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Anyhow, for the moment, I will spare you from any further ramblings on my part, since Prof. Gaddis's own thoughts on American grand strategy can be found in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. (But I won't spare you from my commentary on his thoughts!)

Here's what I found toe be the most thought-provoking paragraph in Prof. Gaddis' essay:
And what if the United States, despite its best efforts, ultimately fails in Iraq? It is only prudent to have plans in place in case that happens. The best one will be to keep Iraq in perspective. It seems to be the issue on which everything depends right now, just as Vietnam was in 1968. Over the next several years, however, President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger showed that it was possible to "lose" Vietnam while "gaining" China. What takes place during the second Bush term in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian relationship may well be as significant for the future of the Middle East as what occurs in Iraq. And what happens in China, India, Russia, Europe, and Africa may well be as important for the future of the international system as what transpires in the Middle East. All of which is only to say that Iraq must not become, as Vietnam once was, the single lens through which the United States views the region or the world
This one paragraphs slices though the conventional wisdom of our day like a hot knife through butter. While our strategic commitment to Iraq forces us to treat the situation there as a constant priority, the instransigence of both the war on the ground and the partisan divide at home means that the greatest opportunities for progress may lie elsewhere.

The elsewheres that seems most important to me fall into two categories. First, aspiring nuclear states such as Iran and North Korea. Second, pro-Western Arab dictatorships such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Gaddis himself points to the importance of the first category, writing that
The Bush team made the worst of Saddam Hussein's alleged WMD, while making the best of the more credible capabilities Iran and North Korea have been developing. Whatever the reasons behind this disparity, it is not sustainable. For even if the United States should succeed in Iraq, its larger strategy will have failed if it produces a nuclear-capable Iran or North Korea, and those countries behave in an irresponsible way.
That being the case, one might hope that Prof. Gaddis would have something more specific to say about what exactly we should do about Iran and North Korea. Not that I have any answers myself, but the thing about grand strategists is that their (our?) global prescriptions don't mean much if you can't apply to them to specific cases, especially hard ones.

Although Prof. Gaddis doesn't make specific comments about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, I think they are pivotal states because the first objection always raised to George Bush's vision of a democratic Middle East is that the US supports some of its most backwards dictatorships. Once again, I don't have specific ideas about what to do here. However, my suspicion is that there is a lot more room for American pressure and Egyptian/Saudi compromise than currently thought possible.

Part of what informs this suspicion is an analogy, like Prof. Gaddis, to a situation faced by an earlier Republican president at the beginning of his second term. Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan considered the Philippines, South Korea and Chile as critical bulwarks against the expansion of global communism. Yet during his second term, the Reagan administration -- sometimes over the objections of the President himself -- did quite a lot to push all three of those dictatorships toward dramatic, democratic openings.

It's hard to say whether Prof. Gaddis would endorse such a notion. Although he has been far more generous toward the President's vision of a democratic Middle East than any other scholar of comparable stature, his essay doesn't envision democratic values as a focal point around which the West can unite in the war on terror.

For example, the most important recommendation Gaddis has for the Bush administration is that it must persuade Europe to support its approach to the war on terror. Gaddis writes that:
The American claim of a broadly conceived right to pre-empt danger is not going to disappear, because no other nation or international organization will be prepared anytime soon to assume that responsibility. But the need to legitimize that strategy is not going to go away, either; otherwise, the friction it generates will ultimately defeat it, even if its enemies do not. What this means is that the second Bush administration will have to try again to gain multilateral support for the pre-emptive use of U.S. military power...

The president and his advisers preferred flaunting U.S. power to explaining its purpose. To boast that one possesses and plans to maintain "strengths beyond challenge" may well be accurate, but it mixes arrogance with vagueness, an unsettling combination. Strengths for what purpose? Challenges from what source? Cold War presidents were careful to answer such questions. Bush, during his first term, too often left it to others to guess the answers. In his second, he will have to provide them.
Yet Gaddis often seems to dodge the quesiton of what basis there actually is for true unity of purpose between American unilateralists and their multilateral counterparts in Europe. On a hopeful note, the good Professor writes that winning multilateral support:
Will not involve giving anyone else a veto over what the United States does to ensure its security and to advance its interests. It will, however, require persuading as large a group of states as possible that these actions will also enhance, or at least not degrade, their own interests. The United States did that regularly--and highly successfully--during World War II and the Cold War. It also obtained international consent for the use of predominantly American military force in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in Bosnia in 1995, in Kosovo in 1999, and in Afghanistan in 2001. Iraq has been the exception, not the rule, and there are lessons to be learned from the anomaly.
I'm not sure I find any of these examples persuasive. In 1991 and 2001, the United States used overwhelming force to punish aggressors who had clearly violated international law. In 1995 and 1999, it used limited force to confront human rights violations that had minimal direct impact on US national security. Thus, what potential is there for winning multilateral support for controversial enterprises such as the second invasion of Iraq, which are of dubious legal standing and are not framed as humanitarian ventures?

My tentative answer to this question is that our best hope of winning belated European support for the invasion of Iraq is to demonstrate that this controversial action really can create a democratic opening in the Middle East. Although the Europeans may never sign off on the way such an opening was created, they do care about spreading democratic values. If Europeans really come to believe that all of our talk about democracy promotion is part of a sincere commitment rather than a cynical front for aggression, then further debates within the alliance will seem more more like arguments within the family rather than threats to the entire postwar global order.

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# Posted 1:37 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IS YOUR NAME ON THE BLACKLIST? Although OxBlog generally thinks that not linking to your adversaries' websites is immature and childish, racist and anti-Semitic sites like that of the "Anti-Defamation League -- USA" don't deserve even a single hit from OxBlog.

It turns out that ADL-USA is a white supremacist knock-off of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith. (NB: ADL-USA also seems to be known as the "American Defense League")

I came across the ADL-USA website while trying to find a current address for an old contact of mine, someone I didn't even know was Jewish. Yet when I Googled him, his name came up on a list of "Jews in Key U.S. Government Positions", since he was an NSC staffer under Clinton. Incidentally, I can't vouch for the accuracy of the list, since it is attributed to a publication called 'My Awakening' by David Duke.

So why I am writing about all of this? I don't really know. I guess it was just strange to be confronted with such rabid hatred in the middle of a normal working day. It is out there.
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Monday, January 10, 2005

# Posted 3:19 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THERE HE GOES AGAIN: It seems we haven't heard the last from Scott Ritter. While American publications may no longer have much interest in the writings of such an unusual fellow, Mr. Ritter has found an occasional home with Al Jazeera.

In his latest column, Mr. Ritter explains that Abu Musab al Zarqawi is a "phantom menace" invented by Ba'athist intelligence officers in order to provoke the United States into launching assaults that will cause civilian casualties and thereby turn the Iraqi people against the US-backed Allawi government.

Ritter reminds me of Oliver North -- a self-important fool who will believe anything his unnamed "contacts" tell him. On the other hand, Ritter must be brimming with confidence as a result of the fact he was one of a handful of those who insisted long before the invaison that Saddam had no WMD, chem-bio or otherwise. The only problem is, Ritter may have been paid to say it.

UDPATE: Citing Common Dreams, Lapin (from Daily Kos) says Ritter was the victim of a US smear job. Talk about belieivng one's contacts. More usefully, Lapin points to this CSM article which provides some useful information about Zarqawi and his relationship to the Ba'athists.
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# Posted 2:11 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

FAMILY BUSINESS: A different Kagan bashes Rumsfeld.
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# Posted 1:59 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IRONY WATCH: Yglesias points to a good one -- a lot of the problems associated with the current election in Iraq reflect the fact that the US listened too closely to the UN, instead of ignoring its advice and making decisions unilaterally.
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# Posted 1:28 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JUST HOW BAD WAS OUR PLANNING FOR THE OCCUPATION? Michael O'Hanlon tries to answer that question (among others) in a well-written essay in the latest edition of Policy Review. O'Hanlon makes a lot of strong arguments, but I think his criticism of the administration should be tempered by an awareness of how little we still know about what went wrong in Iraq and why.

In this situation, there are two proverbial "dogs that didn't bark". First, and rarely noticed, is the fact that the Bush administration has failed to come up with any sort of evidence to show that it actually had a reasonable pre-war plan for the occupation and that something resembling this plan was implemented. Instead of arguing that that the Democrats of the media have ignored their plans, Bush & Co. simply try to argue that things aren't as bad as they seem. I agree, but that's no excuse for not having a plan.

Second, and also rarely noticed, is that precious little was said before the war began about what was expected from the occupation. Quite often, critics of the administraiton mock Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz's delusional expectation that the people of Iraq would greet us by throwing flowers. While the Pentagon clearly underestimated the number of troops necessary to sustain the occupation, I can't recall Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz expressing the kind of naive hopes often attributed to them.

At the same time, I suspect that if any of the high-level memo traffic from the Pentagon or the White House was ever made public, there would be more than enough embarrassing statements to go around. Yet that is just a suspicion. It is also possible that there would be no embarrassing statements because no one at Cabinet level or higher spent enough time thinking about the occupation to think such potentially embarrassing thoughts. By the same token, opponents of the war never concerned themselves much with how to handle the occupation.

As I discovered while trying to organize a forum on the coming occupation at Oxford in February 2003, i.e. before the invasion, I discovered that anti-war folks resisted thinking seriously about the occupation because preparing for the occupation, in their mind, meant abandoning the struggle to prevent the war. Ultimately, in order to persuade anti-war groups to participate in our forum on democracy in the Middle East, we had to agree to debate the merits of the yet-to-happen invasion.

But let's get back to O'Hanlon. He writes that
What is now commonly called Phase IV [i.e. the occupation] was handled so badly that its downsides have now largely outweighed the virtues of the earlier parts of the operation...

The problem was simply this: The war plan was seriously flawed and incomplete. Invading another country with the intention of destroying its existing government yet without a serious strategy for providing security thereafter defies logic and falls short of proper professional military standards of competence. It was in fact unconscionable.

Lest there be any doubt about the absence of a plan, one need only consult the Third Infantry Division’s after-action report, which reads: “Higher headquarters did not provide the Third Infantry Division (Mechanized) with a plan for Phase IV. As a result, Third Infantry Division transitioned into Phase IV in the absence of guidance.”
That's an interesting bit of evidence, but in this instance, I think silence speaks much louder than words. We don't need the Third Infantry Division to tell us there was no plan because the administration never pretended to have one.

Now, in contrast to the incompetence of those in charge of the invasion,
Many people outside the Pentagon did recognize and emphasize the centrality of the post-Saddam security mission. Some were at the State Department, though State’s Future of Iraq Project produced an extremely long and somewhat unfocused set of papers. Other analysts were also prescient, and much more cogent, in their emphasis on the need to prepare for peacekeeping and policing tasks. One of the more notable was a study published in February 2003 by the Army War College. It underscored the importance not only of providing security but also of taking full advantage of the first few months of the post-Saddam period when Iraqi goodwill would be at its greatest.
The administration deserves no quarter for failing to make better use of the State Departement and War College papers. Moreover, it should have commissioned such studies far earlier. Yet it is also interesting to note that it was other government agencies and not external critics who were paying most attention to the challenges of the upcoming occupation.

One person not thinking about the occupation realistically was Douglas Feith. According to O'Hanlon, who cites George Packer's reporting from the New Yorker,
Such planning as there was, conducted largely out of the office of Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, was reportedly unfocused, shallow, and too dependent on optimistic scenarios that saw Ahmed Chalabi (or perhaps some of Saddam’s more moderate generals) taking charge without the need for a strong U.S. role in the stabilization mission.
Packer, writing in November 2003, presented the situation as somewhat more complicated, although I'm sure O'Hanlon had space limitations to consider. First of all, there were extensive plans for the humanitarian crisis that might follow an invasion of Iraq. The UN had predicted as many as one million civilian casualties among children alone as a result of disease and starvation. Although such estimates were ridiculous even at the time, the US deserves credit for taking such humanitarian concerns serioulsy.

But there was no seriousness about the political crisis that might come after the humanitarian one. Packer reported that
“There was a desire by some in the Vice-President’s office and the Pentagon to cut and run from Iraq and leave it up to Chalabi to run it,” a senior Administration official told me. “The idea was to put our guy in there and he was going to be so compliant that he’d recognize Israel and all the problems in the Middle East would be solved. He would be our man in Baghdad. Everything would be hunky-dory.” The planning was so wishful that it bordered on self-deception. “It isn’t pragmatism, it isn’t Realpolitik, it isn’t conservatism, it isn’t liberalism,” the official said. “It’s theology.”
As usual, the words of anonymous officials need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White did go on the record with Packer to say that Feith's team
Had the mind-set that this would be a relatively straightforward, manageable task, because this would be a war of liberation and therefore the reconstruction would be short-lived.
Although White has his own axe to grind, the total weight of such evidence is suggestive. Even so it is an unsure foundation on which to describe the pre-war mentality of the administration.

Where am I going with all of this? In some ways, nowhere. With Bush re-elected, the apportionment of blame has become an academic exercise. Yet I still suspect/hope that there is something practical to be gained -- now, on the ground, in Iraq -- by developing a better understanding of what went wrong in the first place.

It is still an open question how wrong things went. An impressive turnout in the Jan. 30 elections may change the nature of hindsight to a certain extent. But I will still believe, regardless of what happens on the 30th, that we could've done a lot better from April 2003 until then. But the problem with the Bush administration was not an ideology of democracy promotion that I defend but many consider to be delusional. The problem was lack of attention to detail, which will be just as necessary after Jan. 30 as it is now.
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Sunday, January 09, 2005

# Posted 5:22 AM by Patrick Belton  

CONGRATULATIONS to Cork, which this weekend begins a year as European Capital of Culture, and has marked the occasion by constructing ten giant hillbillies.
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# Posted 3:50 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TESTIFY! Everything they say about German toilets is true (and very funny). I spent the summers of 1997 in 1998 in Deutschland and returned for two more visits in 1999. Germany is a wonderful and beautiful country full of friendly and welcoming people, not to mention delicious pastries such as the legendary mohnschnecke. Sadly, it seems that all of Germany's qualified engineers build cars, leaving only the scheisskoepfe to design toilets. (Hat tip: Glenn)

UPDATE: Sasha Castel kindly points to some further commentary on the state of German plumbing.
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# Posted 3:06 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BLACKER THAN THOU: I sure like the way Colbert King began his column in yesterday's WaPo:
Drive-by news gathering, which passes as journalism today, conveys a superficial and misleading picture of gentrification in the nation's capital. The stories tell nothing of the wrenching consequences of people being pushed out of their neighborhoods. But how would those journalists know? They've never lived through the process of gentrification, and they don't spend nearly enough time in the community getting to know what they write about. Facile writers with clueless editors can get away with anything.
Damn right they can. Not all that long ago, I myself made some brief comments about gentrification in the nation's capital. After I spent this past Thursday and Friday in DC, my prior amazement at the pace and intensity of this process continued to grow.

On Thursday night, I stayed over with a friend who lives in a renovated townhouse at 15th St. & Constitution NE. I did a lot of walking on Thu. and Fri. because 15th & Constitution is nowhere near the Metro. Yet by walking, I had the chance to see just how far the gentrification had spread.

Personally, I think it's amazing and good that an ever-expanding part of Capitol Hill has begun to look and feel more and more like Georgetown. The heart of our nation's capital should be a safe, properous and intimate neighborhood. Yet according to Mr. King,
The tragedy is that this benign view of what's taking place in the city is also shared in top D.C. government circles, where our town's tightly drawn class and racial fault lines -- and those established residents who have been made to feel marginalized -- are ignored.
Now, I appreciate how gentrification uproots long-time residents by pricing them out of the neighborhood. Yet given the severity of Washington's decay before the current revitalization began, I don't think there is any other choice.

Colbert King may be right that the DC government should do more to encourage the construction of affordable housing. But he approaches the edge of delusion when he imagines that the alternative to gentrification is the sort of working-class utopia that King grew up in. According to King, the West End/Foggy Bottom of the 1950s
Was a community where a child could walk three blocks and run into someone, a relative or friend, who was known to the family. Financially embattled, yes. But no one went hungry. Neighbors, black and white -- like the Jones family down the block -- didn't let neighbors starve. People looked each other squarely in the eye. They spoke on the streets. We weren't afraid of each other. We enjoyed the same kind of food and music, and played the same childhood games. We were the community.
I will admit to being ignorant about the precise details of what came before gentrification on Capitol Hill. Yet I suspect that in addition to the good citizens Mr. King describes, the neighborhood had its fair share of drug dealers, gang violence, teenage mothers and illiterate adults. If those things are good enough for Anacostia, then why not for Capitol Hill?

King only makes things worse by compounding his self-serving view of the past with racially divisive attacks on (African-American) DC Mayor Tony Williams. King writes that Williams
Is much like the fabled senior black Army officer who, when confronted by overly familiar black enlisted men who thought they had something in common with him, put them in their place with the gibe, "I'm your color, not your kind."
That kind of reverse race-baiting will only anatagonize the corporate interests and white, middle-class Washingtonians who might otherwise welcome a more humane approach to gentrification. Calling the mayor a race-traitor may feel good, but it won't do much to prevent the dislocation and social disruption that King claims to be so concerned about.
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