Tuesday, 31 August 2004
With Oz's elections now scheduled for October 9th, Tim's written an Australian election primer for American readers that's worth reading.
Sunday, 29 August 2004
Moonlighting. I'm guest-blogging (in a manner of speaking) at One Hand Clapping today, making the case for John Kerry at Donald Sensing's invitation. I'm not sure how many swing voters I'll sway (zero would be my guess), but there's something to be said for trying.
Thursday, 19 August 2004
The case for war, revisited. Back before the Iraq war began, I read a blog post — I've forgotten where — by someone who said "I support a war to depose Saddam Hussein, but only with a Democrat in the White House. The Democrats would rebuild Iraq after the war; the Republicans would screw it up."
At the time, I thought he was joking.
John Kerry has talken a lot of flack for his position on the Iraq war: He voted to give President Bush the authority to wage war (a decision that left-wing cartoonist Ted Rall mercilessly skewers here), but he's been sharply critical of Bush's post-war performance. Many of Kerry's supporters opposed the war (or, more to the point, anyone who opposed the war is fervently opposing Bush this election), and many who told the pollsters they supported the war in mid-2003 are now swinging into the "bad idea" camp.
My own position is not far removed from Kerry's: I supported the war, but criticized the Bush administration repeatedly — both before the war and after it. Here's what I said over a year ago, when we were still coming down from the post-war euphoria:
A bold leader would have declared that Saddam must go whether he has WMDs or not, instead of trying to manufacture the proof we didn't have and strong-arm other nations into accepting it. Saddam had plenty of sins that justified armed intervention to remove him, and opening up a real live debate on how well the Peace of Westphalia is holding up after 400 years just might do wonders for America's reputation and security and silence the critics who fear a world where America alone determines the limits of national sovereignty.
So I have to confess some sympathy for where Kerry is right now: If I'd been in his shoes, I might have been a bit clearer about my reasons for voting as I did — but I'd have voted to depose Saddam. (Then again, my reasons can't be reduced to a single sound bite either… so if I were Kerry I'd probably be accused of flip-flopping and straddling too. On the national stage you can only have one of two positions; nuance is not an option.)
If I could go back to the Democratic primaries, and contrast the candidates' positions on Iraq in short, pithy sentences:
- Lieberman: I trusted President Bush, and still do. The war in Iraq was a good idea. I'm Serious About Terrorism. Neocons love me. Dean is a nut.
- Kerry: I made the mistake of trusting President Bush with powers I'll want to have myself very shortly. Everyone is lukewarm about me. I'm a combat veteran.
- Dean: I never trusted the President — and I was right. He fudged the case for war. Invading Iraq didn't make us safer. Liberals love me. Lieberman is Bush Lite.
- Clark: I'm a general. I don't know the first thing about campaigning for public office. What was the question again?
- Edwards: I'm running for Vice-President!
- Kucinich: I'll pull our troops out within 90 days. I'm really from the liberal wing of the Green Party, but I'm cleverly disguised as a Democrat.
- Sharpton: I'm just here for the free publicity.
- Gephardt: Bush's Iraq strategy was a miserable failure. Free trade is bad. Labor unions like me. Dean is a nut.
Looking back, it's no wonder that Kerry won the nomination… and that he has trouble expressing his views on Iraq without it sounding like a straddle. Of all the primary candidates, Dean and Lieberman were the only ones who managed to map out clear, concise, memorable positions on Iraq — and Lieberman's position was out of step with a party that wanted to oppose Bush in 2004. Gephardt's "no daylight between us and the President" strategy was the one Democrats took to the polls in 2002; Karl Rove and the voters punished them for it, and the rank-and-file members weren't going do that again.
Howard Dean, meanwhile, staked out the position that appealed most strongly to the anti-Bush forces — and, arguably, Dean was right about the Bush administration overstating the case for war. As I've said, I think there was a good argument for deposing Saddam by force… and the Bush administration botched that argument. Badly. Bush's case for war included too many red herrings: Cherry-picked intelligence reports, inaccurate claims about Saddam's ties to 9/11, and patently false statements about Iraq's nuclear program. If I had relied on George W. Bush to argue the case for war in Iraq, I'd have a lot of egg on my face right now.
And we do have a lot of egg on our face. Bush's bungled diplomacy has left us holding the bag in Iraq — we don't have, and never had, the legitimacy required to face down the likes of Al-Sadr. If we'd had a stronger mandate going in, then there'd be much stronger public support (in Iraq, in America, and around the world) for going into Najaf and putting down Al-Sadr's militia; as it stands, our hand-picked interim government is too weak to impose itself on him. This isn't a military problem: It's a political problem, and we've dug ourselves a political hole.
I'm supporting Kerry for a number of reasons, but one of them is to stop digging.
In terms of election-year gotcha politics, Kerry's position on Iraq is weakened by the fact that he voted to authorize the war — but, as conservative pundit Fareed Zakaria writes in this week's Washington Post, Kerry's position is the most defensible on the subject. Knowing what I know now, I still would have supported in principle a decision to depose Saddam Hussein by military force; in practice, the Bush administration's incompetence at nation-building has erased the gains I expected to realize.
We're rid of Saddam, but we've replaced his tyranny with a failed state — one where the central government does not have a monopoly on force — and we're no closer to solving the terrorism problem than we were in 2002. It's too late to reverse the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army, or to re-open the window of opportunity that we squandered when capturing Saddam… but Kerry's election will at least give us the opportunity to start moving in the right direction again.
Tuesday, 17 August 2004
Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds is how long I can talk about the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and the lack of attention given to it, before flying into an incoherent rage. Fortunately, the New York Times's Nick Kristof can speak to the issue more eloquently than I can, and explains how George W. Bush has left America more vulnerable to the number one, highest priority, most pressing and urgent danger we face: A nuclear weapon smuggled onto our soil.(Link via Matthew Yglesias.)
Sunday, 15 August 2004
The bounce that stayed. The pundits sniffed at the four-point "bounce" that John Kerry received from the Democratic National Convention — previous candidates had climbed in the polls, at least temporarily, by as much as 16 points. But in the weeks since he accepted the nomination, something unusual has happened with Kerry: His "bounce" never came back down again.
Kerry is now leading by as much as seven points in Florida polling, and is up by three points in Ohio — both of which are must-win states for the Bush campaign. In Pennsylvania, which was expected to be a battleground state, Kerry is up by eight points; in New Hampshire, a state Bush carried in 2000, Kerry has a seven-point lead.
Bush's support is eroding across the near South, with Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina all wavering (say it with me: "Vice President John Edwards"). In the West, Nevada and Arizona (both Bush states in 2000) are on the bubble; in the Midwest Missouri is a statistical tie. Bush still has the support of his base in the Deep South and the Rocky Mountains — but Kerry's numbers are slowly trending upward, week after week, and the GOP's desperately negative campaigning does not appear to be swaying voters.
This year's election is far from over — one pollster says if the election were held today, Kerry would win 228 electoral votes, Bush 197, and the other 113 are too close to call — but as Kerry's "bounce" becomes a sustained climb, Bush is running out of time to turn his campaign around. Eleven weeks from now, America goes to the polls; eleven weeks after that, if the current trends continue, John Kerry goes to the White House.
Friday, 13 August 2004
Domino theory. Beneath all the scare tactics about WMDs and Al Qaeda, the neocon case for war in Iraq was based on a radical premise: That we could invade Iraq, topple Saddam, establish a democratic government, and then leverage that success to spread democracy throughout the Mideast. It was the Cold War's domino theory in reverse; knock down a tyrant, they said, and the surrounding despots will fall.
Spreading democracy throughout the Mideast is an excellent, excellent goal, and ultimately it's the key to victory in protecting America from terrorist attack. We know that terrorism finds its motive in politics, and in political pressures that have no outlet within the ruling system: From Basque separatists to the Irish Republican Army, from Al Qaeda to the Ku Klux Klan, the common theme among terrorists is a cause that authority has denied. We know that democracy grants a hearing to even the most radical of proposals: By offering hope that they too might someday sway the masses, free speech gives fringe groups an incentive to follow the law. In principle and in practice, democracy is an effective antidote to terrorism — and, regardless, democracy is the only form of government that America holds to be legitimate. We should encourage it wherever we can.
So the problem with this grand neocon strategy isn't the objective. It's the execution where I think the Bush administration has run aground; we achieved the "topple Saddam" part flawlessly, but the step where we were supposed to build a democracy has turned out to be much harder than the initial neocon projections. It turns out setting up the initial conditions for a democracy is harder than it looks, especially in a country that's never had one and has no nearby example to follow. (Our success in transplanting democracy to Eastern Europe was much more a function of proximity to Western Europe; neocons like to think it was the spontaneous result of Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, but I think all those role models on the other side of the Iron Curtain had more than a little to do with it.)
I have nothing but admiration for the men and women of our armed forces, who are over there flailing away trying to establish civil order — but building a successful democracy in Iraq requires more than just military force. Iraq's middle class, the doctors and lawyers and professors who would form the backbone of civil society, are in hiding; the diplomats and foreign aid workers who should be building Iraq's social capital have fled. The political system we've established is starting to look more like Hosni Mubarak's Egypt than a functioning democracy; Ayad Allawi is consolidating his hold on power, and possibly setting himself up to be Prime Minister-for-life.
My sense now is that George W. Bush has neither the political capital nor the international prestige to follow through on the neocon vision, if indeed that vision was ever possible. In fact, I suspect that no Republican, in the present circumstances, can lead us to victory in the so-called War on Terror: It's an "only Nixon can go to China" problem, but in reverse. Only a Democrat can now argue the case for democracy without getting tangled up in doctrines of pre-emption and intelligence failures; Bush and his GOP colleagues can't make the argument effectively.
Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Nobel Prize watch: Brazilian scientists have decoded the coffee genome. Brazilian agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues proclaimed that Brazil would use the genetic code to create a "super-coffee," which will undoubtedly become the earth's dominant life form.
The BBC's Steve Kingstone is having fun with this one as well; his report includes the quip "Suddenly, scientists know an awful lot about coffee in Brazil."
Sunday, 08 August 2004
No pain, no gain. Today was Sydney's annual "City to Surf" run, a 14-kilometer (8.75-mile) race from Hyde Park to Bondi Beach, and let me just say: Ow. Ow ow ow. I wasn't sure I'd be healthy enough for this, given last week's Adventure of the Throat Infection (below) and my general out-of-shapeness; I did it in 2000, but I was younger and pounds lighter then.
Of course, I didn't run the race — I walked the course in a completely un-respectable time of 3 hours, 15 minutes — but even so it was more exercise than I usually get. My feet and legs are now sending an important message to the brain, along the lines of "thought you could get away with this, eh?" and involving the pain receptors…
…but it was for a good cause. There were about ten of us walking with our Kerry/Edwards T-shirts (you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to get campaign gear over here; until today we had a grand total of two Howard Dean buttons between the 180 of us), intimidating the lone Bush/Cheney supporter who wore his shirt (and turned out to be a Young Republican on a summer internship) and handing out flyers to Americans in the 30,000-strong crowd.
Meanwhile, the other runners included everything from samurai warriors to inflatable dinosaurs. There are three starting times for the participants: One for the serious runners, one for the wannabe serious runners, and one for people who are just in it for fun. Even after four years of living in Sydney, it still amazes me they can confidently schedule an outdoor event for August (which is the middle of winter down here) and get shorts and t-shirt weather.
A good time was had by all, except for my legs and feet.
Friday, 06 August 2004
Today's Aussie trivia question: The Australians call it glandular fever. For ten points, what's the American name of this disease?
[Jeopardy theme music]
If you said "mono" or "mononucleosis", award yourself ten points. I've spent the past week talking like the Elephant Man and looking like I swallowed a football; the good news is that I don't appear to actually have mono — it's just a nasty throat infection. (The local doctor's advice: Take these antibiotics. If they clear up the problem, you had a throat infection. If not, you have glandular fever.)
The good news is that, since I'm an Australian permanent resident now, I get to use the public health system and receive my drugs for free. ("Free" in the "already paid for by my tax dollars" sense, that is. I pay taxes to the Australian government, just like resident aliens in America pay to Uncle Sam — except that I also have to file returns with Uncle Sam, because America taxes its citizens whether they are. Most countries only tax residents.)
Anyhow, Australia's public health system isn't bad: It isn't the best thing since sliced bread, but it's a good use of tax dollars. It raises health care up to the level of fire prevention, education, or public safety, providing a basic service that anyone can access. If you want better health care you pay for private insurance and get access to private hospitals, which generally have fresher coats of paint, more doctors and nurses on call, newer equipment, and so on… which, if you think about it, isn't too different from what you do when basic police protection doesn't meet your needs. You buy an alarm system or hire your own security guards.
There's an underlying issue here about the fundamental role of government, which if I were Steven Den Beste I'd rattle off a few thousand words about butterfly mating rituals and then segue into The Purpose of Government as my main theme; but since I'm slightly under the weather I'll save that for another day. For now I'll just nominate penicillin as the 20th century's best discovery.