Monday, 31 May 2004
In 1625, in the middle of the Thirty Years War, Sweden's King Gustav II Adolf ordered his shipyards to build the Vasa. A warship fiercer than any that had ever sailed the Baltic, the Vasa was to be the pride of the Swedish navy; she was Sweden's first attempt to build a ship with two full decks of cannon, and during construction the King decreed that the cannons would be of a heavier caliber than the original design.
The King's orders were carried out to the letter, of course, and three years later the Vasa was completed to his exact royal requirements. (In other circumstances a bold engineer might have whispered something in the King's ear about the laws of physics, but His Majesty was in Poland prosecuting the war at the time, which made communication difficult.) And so the mighty Vasa sailed into history… as the most ridiculously top-heavy ship ever constructed. She had all the balance of a bicyclist carrying an anvil, and her maiden voyage lasted about an hour before the inevitable happened: The ordinary rocking of ocean waves was enough to capsize the Vasa, and the pride of the Swedish navy promptly sank to a watery grave.
Now, when a wooden ship sinks it usually provides an excellent meal for the shipworm, a saltwater creature that feasts on timber—but the Baltic Sea is not very salty, and so the shipworm doesn't live there. The ship's hull remained intact, sitting peacefully on the ocean floor… but 17th century technology wasn't up to the challenge of raising it. Swedish divers in primitive diving bells did manage to recover the ship's cannons, but that was the most they could achieve; sometime after their exploits in the mid 1660s, the ship's location was lost to history.
The Vasa then sat undisturbed for almost 300 years, until some enterprising Swede with a homemade core sampler went looking for her. In 1956 Anders Franzén found the ship, and five years later the Swedish government carefully floated her to the surface, pumped out all the mud and sea water, and towed her into a museum. Among the wreckage the Swedes found everything from personal effects to the ship's sails, still neatly folded in their storerooms; the ship yielded up a treasure trove of historical artifacts, although it held no actual treasure—save for one gold ring, believed to be the admiral's.
Thus the Vasa became the only actual 17th century sailing ship to survive into the 21st, and a major tourist attraction for Stockholm. The specially constructed museum keeps the ship in constant temperature, high humidity—and low light, which makes photography a challenge. The ship is too big to illuminate with a flash, so I turned it off and took blurry photos; thanks to the digital camera I took 200 blurry photos, some of which (shown here) were less blurry than others.
Posted on November 20th. I'm trying to catch up to the present here, as you can see, but it's also my first week back in the office, my first week to play with the new computer, and lots of other busy stuff.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 1:55 am. comments.
Monday, 31 May 2004
I've always believed that the least effective advocate is the one who calls for something that benefits himself. Whether it's the college student who says tuition is too high, the record-label executive who wants longer copyrights, Jesse Jackson, or the wealthy aristocrat who decries the estate tax… when the premise of your argument is "let's all agree on something that benefits me," your credibility goes down the drain.
So when I learned today that the Senate voted to raise taxes on expats to pay for Dubya's cherished tax cut on stock dividends, I took a deep breath. I'm one of those crazy people who thinks paying taxes is a patriotic duty; it's not an especially pleasant duty, but nonetheless I look at it through JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you" prism. If one-third of my paycheck is what it takes to keep my country safe and sound, then here's my share, and God Bless America. I may grumble like everyone else when I'm signing over the check, and I'll surely raise heck when I find out the gubmint spent my money on million-dollar hammers and junkets to Hawaii—but I won't argue that I'm paying too much, because I've been to Cambodia, and I've come back here to tell you the United States Government is the best damn bargain your tax money can buy.
But I know first-hand about taxes and expats. I thought my tax returns were baroque and confusing before I left the United States, but for the past three years the governments of Australia, New Zealand and America have made it legally impossible for me to exist, much less determine how much I owe them in taxes. Entire consulting firms pore over my tax documents like gypsies reading a Tarot deck. I don't even dare to dream anymore of the carefree days when I could prepare my own return.
As it happens, the United States is one of only a handful of countries in the world that taxes its citizens no matter where they live. (Depending on who you ask, the others are North Korea, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Egypt, or some combination thereof.) If you're a Canadian citizen and you go off to work in Brazil, you only have to pay Brazilian taxes; the Canadian government doesn't follow you. Likewise if you're a Russian in Indonesia, or a Norwegian working in America: You only pay the taxes of the country that you're living in. You don't pay taxes to fund Canadian government services, and then pay another set of taxes for the same services in Brazil.
There is, one must admit, a certain logic to this situation—unless, unfortunately, you're an American. An American abroad has the special joy of seeing tax dollars fly out of his pocket and do almost nothing for him: My taxes, the ones I send to America, are spent on courts and police and armies that I can't call upon to protect me. My tax dollars are put to work in hospitals I can't use, schools I can't attend, highways I can't drive, benefits I can't collect, fire trucks that won't come to my house. At most my tax dollars go to a consulate building somewhere nearby that I can call if I lose my passport or get arrested; imagine how you'd feel if you paid your taxes and got only the Department of Motor Vehicles in return.
So I know this issue first-hand. And, as it happens, this tax increase will not affect me directly, because Australian tax rates are even higher than American ones, and the "foreign tax credit" is still in effect: Instead of paying one-third of my paycheck to America, I pay one-half to the Australian government— which the IRS, in an uncharacteristic display of mercy, credits against what I owe. So I wouldn't see a tax increase under the proposed new rules; the people who would be affected are the Americans who just got bombed in Saudi Arabia, where there's no income tax, or the ones in Hong Kong or Kenya or other places where the taxes are lower than in America. Until now, the federal goverment waived tax liabilities on the first $80,000 of income for those people, which meant bluntly that they paid about $30,000 less in taxes in exchange for giving up the legal protections, civil rights, health, safety, security, and all the other taken-for-granted benefits of being an American citizen, with the added bonus that many locals in these countries think killing an American would make a grand political statement.
What this will do to me, indirectly, is fire all of my colleagues in those danger-pay countries. For most expats the company is paying all or part of their taxes, as part of the package deal that convinced them to go overseas in the first place—which means the company will see a potential $30K increase in the cost of keeping Americans out in the field, which means that suddenly the local talent is looking that much more attractive. It'll be good for the Saudis or the Chinese or the Kenyans, because it'll open up jobs for them to fill… but my expat counterparts will likely end up on the unemployment line back in America: With the economy as it is, they'll have to scramble to find jobs back in the States.
For American companies in undeveloped nations where there's no "local talent" to speak of, or even in developed countries where a given skill is in high demand, this is a tax increase that will penalize those companies for hiring Americans. For Americans working independently in third-world countries, it's a surprise tax burden that will make it difficult or impossible for them to continue. For some it will mean tax evasion (since the wages you're paid abroad are not reported to the IRS, compliance is truly voluntary); for some it means "taxation without representation" and renouncing their American citizenship. I'd like to think that, if I weren't an expat but had all the facts at my disposal, I'd still be strongly opposed to this tax; if anything I think Americans should be encouraged to travel and live abroad: It makes us healthier as a nation, and I don't think we should penalize and double-tax Americans who go overseas. If that's what Senator Grassley wants, then he's not my kind of Senator; my hope is that he's been misquoted or misinformed, and that this "tax cut" proposal to raise taxes on expats dies in committee.
Thanks to The Gweilo Diaries for spotting this. The Gweilo would immediately owe Uncle Sam an extra $30,000, so his opinions of this bill are expressed a bit more pungently.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 1:33 am. comments.
Wednesday, 26 May 2004
Walden O'Dell, CEO of a company that makes insecure touchscreen voting machines that lack verifiable paper trails, says that it was a "huge mistake" for him to publicly endorse George W. Bush. O'Dell sent out an invitation to a Bush fundraising party last August, writing "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."
O'Dell, whose Texas-based Diebold Election Systems Inc. is facing possible criminal charges for violating California election laws, said he had didn't write the letter himself… and pledged that Diebold would not support political parties while it was "in the voting business." (!)
Find out if these machines are in your district, and then have them removed. Seriously.
(This is probably a good time to mention TellAnAmericanToVote.com, a web site for expat Americans who need an absentee ballot — and, as the name implies, a link that you can pass on to your expat American friends. At least when voting from overseas you don't have to worry about rigged machines.)
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 5:12 am. comments.
Monday, 24 May 2004
Meanwhile, here's the man who should be our Secretary of Defense, if not Kerry's choice for Vice President (link via the DNC's Kicking Ass):
For a president who claims that everything changed after September 11, how can George W. Bush fail to take the gravest threat to national security — a terrorist acquiring fissile nuclear material — seriously?
"What's missing is a sense of urgency," said former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who heads the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, which funded the 111-page study. Nunn believes President Bush must focus on removing bureaucratic hurdles and work more pointedly with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"If one of the great cities of the world goes up in smoke, and you look back on these obstacles, it will make our retroactive rear-view mirror look at September 11th look like a waltz," Nunn said yesterday in an interview. "It would be so obvious that the obstacles should have been overcome by the presidents."
Instead of making up threats that don't exist, the administration ought to be doing something about the real ones. It's time for a president who takes national security seriously.
Nunn, the Democratic co-sponsor of 1991's Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, has been out in front sounding this alarm for over a decade: The former Soviet Union has dozens of storage facilities containing weapons-grade uranium, plutonium, sarin, and other chemical and biological weapons, most of them secured with a chain-link fence and maybe a security guard.
We've spent billions searching for Iraqi WMDs when the world's largest inventory of WMDs is sitting in unsecured warehouses, waiting to see whether America will overcome its own bureaucratic inertia… or whether the terrorists will get there first.
This is one of these issues that, if you have all the facts, will drive you stark raving mad: We have a plan to destroy 68 metric tons of plutonium that would otherwise be at risk of falling into the hands of terrorists — but we've never gotten around to carrying it out, because we're still haggling over insurance issues. As in, who'll pay for the Superfund cleanup if there's an accident in Russia while we're destroying the plutonium.
Plutonium! Sixty-eight TONS of plutonium! Why are we wandering around Iraq with tweezers and a magnifying glass when there's
— I can't even talk about this without losing it completely, but Sam Nunn can, and for that I thank him. Make Sam our VP. Make him our Secretary of Defense. But, for goodness' sake, listen to him
. Get those nukes under lock and key.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 10:45 pm. comments.
Monday, 24 May 2004
Shooting the messenger.
Faced with the growing danger of a well-informed populace, Donald Rumsfeld takes decisive action:
Mobile phones fitted with digital cameras have been banned in United States Army installations in Iraq on orders from Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, The Business newspaper reported on Sunday.
Quoting a Pentagon source, the paper said the US Defence Department believes that some of the damning photos of US soldiers abusing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad were taken with camera phones.
A year ago we had camera crews with our troops. Why is Rumsfeld still in office?
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 1:06 pm. comments.
Monday, 24 May 2004
That I will bear true faith and allegiance…
Donald Sensing, at the end of a long article discussing media bias and pundit bias, declares there are four possible outcomes to the War on Terror — and that your bias, since we're all biased in one way or another, should reflect the outcome you want. The right-wing pundits are playing up Nick Berg's murder, and downplaying the Abu Ghraib scandal, because they love our country and want to see us defeat the terrorists; the "liberal media" and left-wing pundits are still rehashing Abu Ghraib because… they hate America and want the terrorists to win.
This is going to be lengthy, but I want to give that premise the response it deserves.
The slander of the lambs
I've pointed out in Donald's comments that it's not just Abu Ghraib — the claim that Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident, by a few bad apples acting on their own initiative, doesn't pass the smell test — but I want to address a common, deeper problem with Donald's analysis: The belief that the Left hates America.
Part of the reason the liberal left is losing to Fox News in the war of public opinion is that we haven't fought that particular slander fiercely enough. It's absurd to claim that half of Americans hate the United States, but that doesn't matter: If someone in a respectable forum suggests that you hate America, the appropriate response is Don't you ever dare to suggest that I love my country less than you do. Call them on it, and do it immediately.
We need to fight tooth and nail against the left-hates-America crowd, because their poisonous bile is infecting the mainstream… and because many right-wingers are from the Jacksonian school of thought, where the traditional response to an outrageous slur is to invite the speaker to step outside. In that world, failing to protest strongly enough is either a sign of cowardice or a sign of acceptance; I'm not calling for a return to the private duel, but we do need to draw a line between civil debate and fighting words, and then defend that line as though our society depended on it. You have the right to an opinion, the right to free speech, but not the right to slander — not if you want to keep this civil, and I'll assume that civility is something we all value.
The rule of law
Now that we've dealt with that issue, I'm going to talk about the rule of law. And, since the rule of law is a phrase that means different things to different people, I'll start by saying what I think it means.
First, law means a set of rules that applies to everyone equally. Rich or poor, black or white, Sunni or Methodist, American or Iraqi, the law remains the same: If you do X, you get Y. Enforcement is not a question of the offender's faith, family or political party; if (for example) a Democratic president can be compelled to testify under oath, then a Republican president can also be compelled. Establishing the rule of law means setting up a system whereby the overwhelming majority of criminals are caught, tried and punished, and where law-abiding citizens can go about their business without fear of crime or arrest.
Second, the rule of law means that, in virtually all disputes, we appeal to the law as our first and only resort. Where the rule of law is in effect, violence is off the table; we've agreed to put aside our guns and rely on the police and the courts. There are rare situations where you or I might endorse "taking the law into one's own hands" — but these are exceptions, usually involving self-defense against imminent bodily harm, and we investigate such claims for evidence of wrongdoing.
By these definitions, the rule of law is strong throughout the "civilized world" — America, Europe, Japan, et al. — and weak at best throughout the Mideast. Terrorists, by definition, go against the rule of law; in fact, terrorism is best understood as an effort to weaken the rule of law, or to abandon it entirely. By retaliating against those who apply the law, by creating anarchy and reducing faith in the system, and by taunting authorities into trampling the law and giving up their claim to legitimacy, terrorists undermine the fabric of our society in the hopes of destroying and replacing it.
These definitions also make it clearer who our enemies are. We aren't in a war with all of Islam, or even the whole of Islamic fundamentalists, any more than the IRA meant Britain was at war with all Irish Catholics — or any more than a struggle against the Ku Klux Klan could be described as a war against all Southern whites. It's the means, not the ends, that we're fighting against: If religious crazies want to convert us to Islam, that's fine. If they want to go door-to-door with pamphlets, great. If they want to pour millions into a money-losing right-wing newspaper in the nation's capital, we allow that. The fanatics become our mortal enemies only if they take up the tools of terrorism, and only those who take this step deserve to be called our foes.
The double-edged sword
Randolph Bourne once declared that "War is the health of the state" — but for advocates of the rule of law, war is a dangerous practice. It invites chaos and anarchy, and suspends the civil contract in favor of brute survival; the case can be made to justify war, when the alternatives are worse, but war is inherently damaging to the premise that men are ruled by laws.
For that reason, among others, war is our last resort: If there's another way to achieve our goals within the rule of law, then our own self-interest demands we try it first. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was an affront to the very concept of law, with tortures, executions and genocides as the order of the day; the case for war could be made on those grounds, and you could argue that we spent twelve years exhausting the alternatives. Saddam was not going to be dislodged from Iraq by anything short of military force; the question was not whether getting rid of Saddam was desirable — it was — but whether the benefits of deposing Saddam by force outweighed the risks of turning Iraq into New Lebanon.
Western civilization, to its benefit, has made great efforts to civilize war and minimize the 'collateral damage' to our principles. We've established conventions and codes of conduct, put certain weapons (e.g., poison gas) off limits, and we make efforts to limit civilian casualties. We do these things in part because we hope the enemy will reciprocate, but also in part because they show how highly we respect the rule of law. Even in the midst of a war zone, we attempt to establish some rules and enforce them; we have given up some tactics that might bring short-term advantage on the battlefield because we think there's a longer-term gain in renouncing them.
We have also, in this war, sought to establish ourselves as the legitimate (if temporary) sovereign of Iraq, on the basis that we are liberating the Iraqi people from a genocidal tyrant; we're just running things for a little while until we can establish a government of the Iraqi people, or so the theory goes. This too requires that we limit our actions to those a legitimate sovereign would perform — and America established centuries ago that cruel and unusual punishment is out of bounds.
Why Abu Ghraib matters more
Nick Berg's murder was a deplorable act by a band of terrorists. It joins the murder of Daniel Pearl, the 9/11 attacks, the Bali bombings, the USS Cole attack, and many other acts on the list of atrocities for which the terrorists will be made to answer — and we'll all celebrate the day when that happens.
The Abu Ghraib scandal was a series of deplorable acts by U.S. soldiers, carrying out orders from senior officers, in support of a policy that came from Donald Rumsfeld's office. If our goal in Iraq is to establish the rule of law there, then Berg's death is a matchstick compared to the raging, burning inferno that Abu Ghraib represents: How can we possibly bring the rule of law with one hand while holding instruments of torture in the other?
Individual terrorist acts are not going to prevent us from establishing a peaceful and secure Iraq. Collectively, if there are enough terrorist attacks, they may lower Iraqi confidence in the rule of law below the breaking point… and Nick Berg's murder is one step in that direction.
Abu Ghraib is an Olympic-class sprint in the direction of destroying whatever faith Iraqis have left in American competence. Not faith in our goodwill, or trust in our motives (though arguably these are up for grabs as well), but a renewed disbelief in American promises — of which the Iraqi people have a long, bitter memory.
The only reason Berg's murder comes up in the same sentence as Abu Ghraib is because of the "blame Americans first" crowd — the right-wing pundits whose constant refrain is that everyone to the left of Paul Wolfowitz is a traitor. The libruls are all worked up about a few frathouse shenanigans in Iraq's prisons, goes the claim, but beheading an American doesn't bother them. Beating an Iraqi prisoner to death is good clean fun for all involved (except perhaps the Iraqi, but he was probably a terrorist), but beheading an American prisoner is an act so brutal and savage that the Right questions your patriotism if you're not shaking your fist right now.
It's a moral equivalence (or, rather, a moral unequivalence) that should disgust any decent person, regardless of your political beliefs — as should the transparent lie that the tortures at Abu Ghraib were an isolated incident by low-level soldiers acting on their own initiative. We already know the same tortures were being applied at Gitmo and in Afghanistan, and that they are still going on. We're setting fire to the house at the same time we're trying to build it, and that requires our full attention; the shame isn't that liberals lack compassion (never thought I'd hear that from the right), but that conservatives would use Berg's death as a partisan cudgel, to distract attention from their incompetence.
A "bias for reformist impulses", indeed
Donald Sensing says there are "only four basic outcomes of this war", which I'll summarize as follows: Democratic reform in the Mideast (and, with it, an end to the terrorist threat); restoration of the Islamic caliphate; Armageddon; or stalemate.
No one, left or right, is wishing for Armageddon; no Americans would want a pan-Arab nation hostile to Western interests; and stalemate isn't an outcome we'd pursue unless the only alternatives are defeat and Armageddon. So we're left with democratic reform as the only serious option… and with the oft-repeated false dichotomy: You're with us, or with the terrorists.
The real question isn't whether we support democratic reform: The question is how we support it. If you don't care what the international lawyers say, because you're going to kick some ass… then you might not be in a good position to engender respect for the rule of law. If you're criticizing the media because they keep bringing up Abu Ghraib, then you're probably not ready to sell the Arabs on a free press. And so on.
Winning this war will take a long time, and it will require that we stick to our principles — including the ones about cruel and unusual punishments. The moral choice isn't between the goals of the West or the goals of the terrorists; the choice is between standing up for American principles… or for voting to continue to cast them aside.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 12:21 am. comments.
Monday, 24 May 2004
Signs of the apocalypse:
Hordes of locusts… check.
Sun darkened… check.
False messiah… check.
David Hasselhoff is becoming a hip-hop rapper… check.
Yep, we're doomed. (But why haven't the neocons ascended to heaven yet?)
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 12:16 am. comments.
Sunday, 23 May 2004
Voices of Reason.
I don't think putting John McCain on the ticket would be good for the Democratic party — I think we can win without him, and there are plenty of Democrats who could fill the VP role — but how can I deny a man who says this about deficit spending?
McCain gave a speech Wednesday to the Progressive Policy Institute calling for sacrifice during time of war.
"From pork-barrel spending to expanding entitlements to tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens, both parties have proven who they are working for and it's not the American taxpayer," McCain said. "My friends, we are at war. Throughout our history, wartime has been a time of sacrifice."
That provoked House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to question the senator's Republican credentials. Then he went a step further and questioned the patriotism of the decorated veteran who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam by suggesting he visit the wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan at military hospitals.
"If you want to see sacrifice, John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda," Hastert said. "There's the sacrifice in this country."
McCain fired back with his own definition of being a Republican.
"I fondly remember a time when real Republicans stood for fiscal responsibility," he said. "Apparently, those days are long gone for some in our party."
McCain and three other moderate Republicans (that rarest of endangered species) are holding the fiscal line against Bush's proposed budget, which proposes a $367 billion deficit and up to $55 billion in tax cuts. I've said before that deficits are the only way to make me a single-issue voter — and McCain's stance is music to my ears.
The Washington Post got it right today when they said McCain was "perhaps the most popular Republican legislator in the country, except among Republican legislators" — if the GOP had nominated McCain in 2000 instead of a one-term wonder like Dubya, they'd be riding his coat-tails to re-election right now.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 1:29 pm. comments.
Friday, 21 May 2004
The Reagan Myth.
Retired general and ex-presidential candidate Wesley Clark makes the case (link via Talking Points Memo) that Bush's Iraq policy failed because the neocons drew the wrong lesson from the Cold War's endgame: They believed that Ronald Reagan alone was responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, and that the keys to his success were the "Evil Empire" speech and aggressive use of the military.
And so Bush delivered his "Axis of Evil" speech, invaded Iraq, and waited for the wave of democratic reform to make its way across the Mideast… just as it did in Eastern Europe in the Nineties. No further action was thought necessary to topple the dominoes — just denounce the countries, wave the sword, and voila! You've got democracy.
Clark describes it as "an almost unprecedented geostrategic blunder," and cites American diplomat George Kennan, author of the legendary 1946 "Long Telegram" that predicted the next half-century of U.S.-Soviet relations. Kennan, who turned 100 last February, said this of the Iraq war in 2002:
Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before. In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.
In the Long Telegram, Kennan argued that Soviet power "bears within it the seeds of its own decay," and that "no mystical, Messianic movement […] can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs." In his view, Communism was destined to fail because it promised utopia and couldn't deliver one; the key to defeating them was to disprove their ideologies, to foster the belief that America and democracy were the way forward, while preventing the Soviets from expanding their sphere of influence.
In other words, Reagan's "morning in America" and his "shining city on a hill" speeches were at least as important as his "evil empire" sound bites… and his military buildup wouldn't have ended Communism without the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Apollo missions and the Helsinki Accords to back it up. It was our conduct and our character that made us the leaders of the free world: Other nations didn't follow us because they feared our guns, but because they admired the example we set.
Apparently the neocons learned a different lesson.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 2:39 am. comments.
Tuesday, 18 May 2004
The hollow men.
Fester at Fester's Place beat me to this by a few hours, but he and I had the same "eating the seed corn" reaction to this news: Bush is purportedly drawing up plans to deploy the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment — the regiment permanently stationed at the National Training Center, and by all accounts deliverers of the most effective combat training that any army has ever received — to Iraq.
Bush is hollowing out the United States Army. Whether by conscious choice or by the path of least resistance, he is effectively abandoning South Korea: If a million starving North Korean conscripts start massing along the 38th parallel, we no longer have the resources even on paper to mount a conventional repsonse. But mothballing the National Training Center is worse than even that: It would do long-term damage to the efficiency of our combat troops.
The Bush administration's track record is one of military success and political failure: Of political leaders failing to capitalize on military triumphs, and of questionable orders from the top that have led us to chaos and disgrace. Bush's team, not our armed forces, was responsible for planning to keep the peace with only 130,000 troops, for disbanding the Iraqi army, for creating a powerless Iraqi government and then discrediting it, and for creating conditions at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib that encouraged (if not ordered) American soldiers to violate the Geneva Convention. Sending OPFOR to Iraq would be another sign of desperation from an administration whose post-war Iraq plans have exploded in all our faces — and a sign that Bush's regard for our soldiers, and our long-term security, is held hostage to his election plans.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 11:51 pm. comments.
Tuesday, 18 May 2004
A "no-torture" zone?
Gen. Ricardo Sanchez announces that (ahem) "certain prisoner interrogation techniques" will no longer be used in Iraq. From now on, prisoners that we intend to torture will be flown to Guantanamo Bay first.
It would have taken all of thirty seconds for Donald Rumsfeld to announce a military-wide ban on interrogation techniques that violate the Geneva Convention… but, once again, Rummy drops the ball. Bush should have accepted his resignation months ago (along with his neocon deputies) and put in a team that could win the peace; instead, domestic political concerns and the Abu Ghraib scandal have tied Dubya's hands.
If Bush fires Rummy (or "accepts his resignation"), he'll look weak and indecisive, which would fatally damage his election hopes. If he keeps Rummy, he's unable to distance himself from a disgraceful policy of torture — which would also damage his election hopes and wreak havoc on our ability to promote democracy in Iraq and elsewhere.
Either way, it's the end of the line for George W. Bush — and, if the GOP ties their fortunes too tightly to his, it'll be the last time we see a Republican in the White House for years and years to come.
: In the comments, Sean Riley asks:
If it is /not/ the end for Bush, if he is re-elected, then what the hell does this bespeak of America? Has Sept. 11 and the threat of terrorism truly shaken the spirit of liberty, democracy and human rights that used to found the nation's core?
America's current system of government has endured for 215 years. Our Constitution and our Bill of Rights have proven both strong and adaptable, and have sustained us through civil wars, economic collapses, societal changes, and constitutional crises far worse than the scandal now unfolding in Washington.
But for twelve years now, if not longer, right-wing extremists have been eating away at the glue that holds our society together. With one hand they've sought to make our Constitution rigid and inflexible, when it suits their goals; with the other they've worked to undermine the rule of law itself. One law for thee, another for me: Clinton deserves impeachment for lying under oath, but Rumsfeld deserves to stay in office after doing the same. (And Dubya is allowed to refuse to testify under oath, an option which the GOP warned Clinton would lead directly to his impeachment.)
Bush and the neocons would prefer that we focus on the external enemy, on the threat of terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists, and ignore the men behind the curtain who are desecrating the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. If Bush succeeds and wins the election, he gets four more years to continue his work — and then we get to see whether the Bill of Rights can survive that much punishment.
If we had to, I think America could endure four more years of George W. Bush… though I suspect we'd no longer be a world power by the time he was done. Four more years of half-a-trillion deficits and China will be holding our purse strings; we'd still have (some of) our military strength, but our economic might would be fragile and our global leadership would be long gone.
But I'm optimistic. I'm optimistic that Bush will lose the 2004 election, for one: His coalition is splintering, and good people are fleeing it. If anything, I think the danger is not that Bush will be (re-)elected, but that we'll relax and lower our guard once he's out; the pillars of our society — the rule of law, the concept of limited government, the separation of church and state, and the duty of the government (and the "fourth estate") to keep the public well informed — will still be under attack, and we've only just begun to recognize that and to mount a defense.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 11:25 am. comments.
Friday, 14 May 2004
The Princess Bride.
Today's top story in Australia is the royal wedding of Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik to one Mary Donaldson, formerly of Tasmania — who, in a matter of moments, will become the first Australian ever to marry into royalty.
The couple met in a local bar four years ago, during the Sydney Olympics (the bar, delighted by all the publicity, is now serving free drinks to anyone with a Danish passport), and they courted in secret for a year or two before announcing their engagement. People across Australia are staying up past midnight to see the wedding on live television; people from across Denmark are lining the streets of Copenhagen, waving Australian flags and cheering their new princess.
It's probably the biggest day ever for Danish-Australian relations, and certainly the best news we've had here all week. Congratulations to the happy couple.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 2:16 pm. comments.
Tuesday, 11 May 2004
Connecting the dots.
An insighftul commenter at Billmon's Whiskey Bar raised this question, and the more I think about it the more I wonder.
On September 10, 2003, Army chaplain Capt. James Yee was arrested in Jacksonville, Florida as he arrived back in the United States from Guantanamo. Federal agents said they found Yee carrying "sketches of the military prison."
On October 10, he was charged with two violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: Taking classified material to his home, and wrongfully transporting the material without proper security containers or covers.
On November 26, Yee was further charged with adultery with an unspecified woman at Guantanamo and with storing pornography on a government-issued computer in Cuba.
On March 20, 2004, the Army dropped all charges, citing "national security concerns that would arise from the release of the evidence." Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller — the man who is now in command at Abu Ghraib — made the decision to drop the charges.
On April 6, the Army handed Yee a gag order, preventing him from speaking publicly about the case.
Now, I don't have any basis to prove it — but here's a theory that fits the facts: Yee's "sketches" and "pornography", the evidence whose release created national security concerns, were images of Gitmo detainess being abused.
Perhaps the greatest collateral damage of all is that I can't dismiss that theory.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 7:43 pm. comments.
Thursday, 06 May 2004
Collateral Damage, part II:
Last month the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Rasul v. Bush and al-Odah v. United States, both involving detainees at Guantanamo Bay and whether they have any legal rights whatsoever.
The Court's verdict will likely be announced in June… right in the middle of the ongoing investigation into abuses committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
No matter what the verdict, it's a black eye for the Bush administration: If the Court rules against Bush (as it should), it's a political defeat; if it rules in Bush's favor, then the Court looks foolishly naïve and partisan — again — which will energize Kerry's base.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 1:22 am. comments.
Thursday, 06 May 2004
Collateral Damage, part I:
They are torturing people. They are torturing people on Guantanamo Bay. They are subjecting them to cruel and unnecessary treatment. And people sometimes argue about the definition of torture. What they're doing clearly comes within the definition of torture under the convention, under the international convention, but it also… they are engaging in acts which amount to torture in the medieval sense of the phrase. They are engaging in good old-fashioned torture, as people would have understood it in the Dark Ages.
— Richard Bourke, lawyer for Australian Guantanamo detainee David Hicks, October 8, 2003 (emphasis mine).
Q: Well, what about the suggestion from your critics that while you won the war, the peace is being bungled?
THE PRESIDENT: They're wrong. We're making great progress in Iraq. We've got a pretty steep hill to climb. After all, one, we're facing a bunch of terrorists who can't stand freedom. These thugs were in power for awhile, and now they're not going to be in power anymore, and they don't like it. And they're willing to kill innocent people. Their terrorist activities … we'd rather fight them there than here.
And secondly, that life is pretty darn good compared to what it was under Saddam Hussein. People aren't going to be tortured; they're not going to be raped; they're not going to mutilated; there are not going to be mass graves. And plus, that the infrastructure is improving. I talked to our Secretary of Commerce today. His exact … he's in Baghdad. He said, look, he said, Mr. President, he said, you're not going to believe the world here is a lot different than some in America think it is. There's a burgeoning marketplace. He met with women business owners. I mean, there's excitement there about a free society emerging. And it's in our interests that this society be free.
Q: Sir, there are two Australian citizens being held in Guantanamo Bay.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q: What's going to happen to them? And what do you say to people in Australia who think they should be either charged or released?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we would be glad to work with the government on the issue. And if John wants to discuss it, I'm more than happy to discuss it. We're working with a variety of countries that have got people in Guantanamo Bay. These are people picked up on the battlefield. We're trying to learn more about them to make sure we fully understand --
Q: Are they being tortured?
THE PRESIDENT: No, of course. We don't torture people in America. And people who make that claim just don't know anything about our country.
— President George W. Bush, October 18, 2003 (emphasis mine).
Sixth, early this … earlier this month, the U.S. Navy inspector general was asked to assess detainee operations at Guantanamo Bay and at Charleston Naval Station brigs. From these investigations thus far, six individuals have been identified for Article 32 criminal hearings. At least six other individuals have been given letters of reprimand. Of these six, two individuals were relieved of their responsibilities.
— Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, May 4, 2004.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 12:57 am. comments.
Monday, 03 May 2004
On a much lighter note, I've uploaded the photos from last month's trip to Heron Island, on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and from an afternoon at Sea World a couple of months ago.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 1:46 pm. comments.
Sunday, 02 May 2004
Eons ago, Ayers Rock (or "Uluru," as the Aboriginals call it) was the heart of a great mountain. Thousands of years later, wind and rain have eroded that original mountain down to a stub, and there haven't been any new mountains to take its place: Australia is all one big tectonic plate, and it's been millenia since it had anything to push against.
Uluru is a sacred place to the local Aboriginals, but it's also the only tourist concern (in fact, the only anything) for several hundred miles in any direction. The Aboriginals don't like people climbing on their rock (specifically, they don't like people falling to their deaths, which has happened about 35 times over the years), but they also don't want to shut down the one local attraction that brings in tourists. So, the brochures for Uluru take the unusual position of trying to guilt-trip people into not climbing the rock. "Please don't climb," they say. It's permitted, but discouraged. I suspect this was some sort of compromise between the Guardians of Culture and the local chamber of commerce. They also ask you not to photograph Uluru except for private use; I'm not sure where blogging falls on the tribal elders' "private" scale, but I figure no one is reading this anyway, so here goes.
Climbing Ayers Rock is not for the faint of heart: It's strenuous physical activity, and steep besides. You know those signs at Disneyland that say "you must be this tall to go on this ride?" There's a sign at Ayers Rock with my picture, that says "you must be slightly more physically fit than this man." Nothing says "you are carrying ten extra pounds" like an hour-long climb at a 45° angle.
The first part of the climb has an iron chain to help you up; unless you're some kind of mountain gazelle (and if you are, I don't want to know), you'll be using the chain to pull yourself. After stopping to pant like an old man about five times, I eventually made it to the end of the chain, about halfway up; after that the route is marked by a dotted line painted on the rock, and the going gets (slightly) easier.
The collection of rocks off in the distance at right is called "The Olgas," and looks like something you'd find in Utah or New Mexico. It's another old mountain, but this one has eroded into individual (large) boulders. You can see the dotted line off to the left, as it dips into valleys and slopes near the top.
At the top of the rock you will find this majestic trash-can shaped thingy, courtesy of the Australian National Survey. Here's a close-up of the thingy, which has a compass rose on top, and points out various geographical features nearby.
Turning around and walking back down again was much easier than the journey to the top, which was fortunate, because we drank all our water getting there. (Luckily some fellow travelers were willing to sport us a few mouthfuls. Take at least 1.5 liters per person. Also, the park rangers will close the climb if it's too windy or if the temperatures are too high, which usually means the climb is only open for a few hours after sunrise.) I can say with complete confidence that climbing Ayers Rock is one of those things I'm glad I did, but will never, ever, do again.
Later that evening (at sunset) the four of us went on a tour called "Sounds of Silence," which is an outdoor three-course meal delivered in the middle of the Outback. Once the sun went down and the flies went away, we sat down at tables that could easily have come from a fancy restaurant, dined on steak and kangaroo, and then just before the dessert course a local astronomer gave one of the more fascinating dinner speeches I've heard: Using a narrow-beam spotlight, he pointed out the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere, including those of the Zodiac that were visible at that time of the evening, and then brought out telescopes to look at the rings of Saturn and the bands of Jupiter. Very entertaining and educational, and a good meal besides.
All in all, it was an excellent way to spend five days in the middle of Australia. You can see my other photos from the trip here, if you like. After three years of living here, most of it working in Sydney or the Gold Coast, I finally feel like I've seen (part of) the country.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 8:31 am. comments.
Sunday, 02 May 2004
An open letter:
On behalf of the American people, I apologize to the people of Iraq — to the individuals, their families, and their loved ones — who have been humiliated and abused by U.S. soldiers, agents, and contractors under American employ. I promise to see that these barbaric incidents are investigated, prosecuted, and that the responsible parties are punished; that the Iraqi victims of these acts are compensated for the abuse and humiliation they endured; that America's armed forces are held to the highest standards of conduct in their treatment of prisoners and civilians; and that the United States in its words and actions respects the inalienable rights of the Iraqi people.
I believe that hundreds of thousands of men and women have served honorably and decently in our effort to rebuild Iraq, and that these despicable actions are not reflective of the U.S. armed forces as a whole. Nonetheless, these actions are intolerable. Our exercise of authority in Iraq is a temporary measure, a necessary step in restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people; we are custodians of that sovereignty only because we took from Saddam Hussein that which he had unlawfully stolen. Our duty is clear, and our intent is clear: We will restore the sovereign rights of the people of Iraq, and look forward to the day when the Iraqi people exercise the powers we've fought for them to obtain.
These photographs document crimes against the Iraqi people, and I applaud the media outlets that have exposed them to the light. Some would say the publication of these photos is harmful to our efforts: That it damages America's reputation, and fans the flames of Iraqi extremists who would fight our peacekeeping efforts. I would say that the damage had already been done — not by the people who published these pictures, but by the people who made them. The truth could not be hidden from the victims of these acts. Suppressing the evidence would only avoid our duty to see things made right.
We are fighting a terrorist movement that considers mass murder without moral pause. We are fighting to protect the rights that we hold to be universal: Rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that we believe are the birthright of all humanity. But we cannot secure these rights for ourselves while denying them to the Iraqi people, and we cannot build a democratic Iraq with the tools of a police state. I condemn and regret these acts of sadistic cruelty, and support all efforts to ensure justice is served.
I'm not really empowered to speak "on behalf of the American people," but somebody needed to say it. Watching Dubya stammer that he "didn't like it one bit" just wasn't good enough.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 6:57 am. comments.
Sunday, 02 May 2004
Dead man campaigning.
Back in January, during the primaries, I asked whether a vote for John Kerry was a vote for the charismatic Kerry, the "bring it on" Kerry who surfaced two weeks before the Iowa caucus… or a vote for the dead-fish Kerry, the mealy-mouthed zombie who lurched around in November and December.
Four months later, many observers (including the Village Voice) have decided we got the zombie — but I'm not sure yet. The book on Kerry is that he rallies down the stretch; he's best when his back's to the wall, and so on. We already know the race is going to be close, and Kerry may be getting more benefit from being a few points behind Bush at this stage: If Bush were ahead, he could claim the "underdog" mantle and use it to rally his base… but Bush has a narrow, insignificant lead, so his base remains distinctly un-rallied.
Some are starting to think that this year's Presidential election will be decided more by events on the ground in Iraq than by the actions of either candidate — but I think that's mostly because neither candidate has done anything, yet, that would overshadow recent events. A policy speech, unless it proposes a radical change of direction, isn't going to crowd Fallujah out of the headlines or replace the photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners (in heaven's name, what were these idiots thinking?) on the news reports.
Kerry's choice of a running mate will be the next campaign event that captures the news media's attention, and Kerry's decision will have some impact. (Just not Gephardt. That's all I ask. Edwards is fine. Sam Nunn is fine. Tom Vilsack is "Tom who?", but I'm sure he'll do fine. John McCain is either a Bush nightmare or a Nader opportunity; I can't tell which.) But, for now, the best one can say is that Kerry has avoided the problem of peaking too early.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 5:06 am. comments.