One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

A Potemkin everyone already knows about

Of all the commentary and analysis of Iran’s upcoming elections that I have read, this strikes me as definitively the worst.  Titled “Iran’s Potemkin elections” and penned by Con Coughlin, of London’s Daily Telegraph, the piece ledes off (pun intended) with this bombshell: “Only candidates vetted by the ruling clerics have been allowed to stand.”  No!  You mean that the Ayatollah had some say in determining who was allowed to run for election?  I am shocked.  Shocked.

Sarcasm aside, it is indeed puzzling why anyone would be surprised by the one part of Iran’s power structure that seems relatively transparent.  Twelve members of what is called the Guardian Council — six picked directly by the Ayatollah, six more or less indirectly so — are the ones to pre-approve candidates.  This year, though more than 400 offered their name — including women, who were allowed to do so for the first time — only four survived the cut.

iran electionThis is far from democratic; I don’t know of anyone who argues that it is.  But one of the odd aspects of the Iranian political system is that much of what follows is, in fact democratic.  And partially due to the actual ability of Iranians to vote, partially because we don’t know what un-democratic dynamics are operating behind the scenes, the foregone conclusion that Coughlin assumes, without evidence — that Ahmadinejad is “widely expected to win re-election” — is simply not substantiated.

While many Iran hawks spend the bulk of their time pointing to Ahmadinejad’s hostile and ham-handed provocations, others contend that Iran is the plaything of the “mad mullahs.”  Neither of these oversimplifications is accurate.  The Ayatollah and his clerics exercise a good deal of power, for certain.  But, in a telling example, Khamenei did not, by all accounts, prefer Ahmadinejad to win the first time around — nor was he at all expected to do so — and it is not clear whether Ahmadinejad or Mir Hossein Moussavi (who is not, as Coughlin calls him, a “conservative hard-liner”) will prevail this year.  That all we can expect out of what has been a very interesting election campaign is “more of the same” is also very much not necessarily true.

And I know the phrase “Potemkin” has come to mean any sort of façade, but Coughlin definitely has his history backwards.  The original Potemkin village was designed to deceive the Empress Catherine the Great; in this case, it’s the Supreme Leader who knows more about what’s going on than anyone else — though not, most probably, who’s going to win this election.

(image from flickr user Shahram Sharif under a Creative Commons license)

(cross-posted, hopefully soon, at Dispatch)


June 10, 2009 Posted by | Iran | , , | Leave a comment

Missing Colbert’s satire

As just one example of the high-minded scorn with which the media has treated Stephen Colbert’s publicity stunt in visit to Iraq, take the analysis of this Baltimore Sun television critic:

With the golf club and all the jokes about being a coward in his opening monologue, Colbert’s offering a post-post-post modern take on Bob Hope. But most of the jokes do not have a real point of view, because this gung-ho makebelieve character Colbert plays lacks a moral or emotional center. Are we ironic-izing (through a post-modern humor that is 99 percent irnony) ourselves into a kind of emotional death in which we can no longer feel the horror of war?

The most relevant description of Colbert’s character is not that he “lacks a moral or emotional center;” it is that he is a caricature of a trueblood conservative.  Viewed through this lens, his trip to Iraq is not about the lack of media attention that Iraq has received; that is just an easy peg on which to hang his satire.  The basic plot line of the piece — that the war is only still going on because no one has yet declared victory, and that Colbert will therefore be the one with sufficient cojones to make that declaration — brilliantly evokes all of the foolishness of the dozens hundreds of Bush-era speeches repeating nothing more coherent than the word “victory.”  That reality was a farce, and in mocking it, Colbert has produced something more revealing than Bush policy (and the conservative stance on the war writ large) ever was.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Obama Orders Stephen’s Haircut – Ray Odierno
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Stephen Colbert in Iraq

June 9, 2009 Posted by | Conservatives, Iraq | , | Leave a comment

Sarah Palin not corrupt, says Sarah Palin’s Web site

sarah palin maskI just read on Mike Tomasky’s blog that the Web site for Sarah Palin’s political action committee, “SarahPAC,” doesn’t “offer anything that resembles, you know, an idea or proposal.” That couldn’t be true, I thought. This is the woman who is…you know, from Alaska. And…something about a pitbull. And all those other substantive ideas and proposals that she brought to the GOP ticket last fall!

Turns out, I was right! The SarahPAC Web site features a “news update” on the latest “frivolous” ethics “complaints” against her to have been dismissed. That’s it. There’s nothing that says Palin 2012 than “I’m not just another corrupt Alaska politician…despite what everyone else says about me!”

(image from flickr user billypalooza under a Creative Commons license)

June 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

Scooby Doo as counter-terrorism model

(cross-posted at Dispatch, with reacts here and here)

Esteemed foreign policy commentators like Dan Drezner, Stephen Walt, Fred Kaplan, and Michael Tomasky have already plied their film knowledge in listing the top international relations movies.  I’ll try to pick up what Matt started earlier today and start an internet meme about the cartoons with the most interesting implications for foreign policy and geopolitics.

I’m tempted to draw a lesson about hubris, paranoia, the place of cold and calculating intelligence in world politics, and the futility of global domination from — where else? — “Pinky and the Brain.”  But I don’t think neoconservatism needs any further rebukes.  Instead I’d nominate Scooby Doo.

Consider the Scooby Doo villains as rudimentary terrorists.  They dress up as scary monsters, terrify the local population, and chase Shaggy and Scooby through endless halls and mismatched doorways.  That they wear masks, and often are after financial gain, may make them seem to resemble old-school bank robbers, but the crux of their power is the terror they invoke in residents.

The mysteries are inevitably solved by the members of the team — Fred, Daphne, and Velma — who remain relatively calm and treat the monsters as criminals — not, say, “enemy combatants” of the beleaguered town.  This is despite the fact that they are impersonating what is, in terms of fear-inducing presence, essentially a child’s equivalent of a bomb-laden terrorist.

But no lockdowns are conducted, there is no torture for information on the monster’s identity, and no pre-emptive strikes.  (The only “operations” are limited to Rube Goldberg-esque traps that are conducted only once the team has accumulated enough evidence to identify the villain, who, naturally, “would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you lousy kids!”)  The culprit is then arrested by the local police, and, instead of bundling him in the Mystery Machine and sending him/her to Guantanamo, s/he is presumably headed for a normal civilian jail.

June 4, 2009 Posted by | U.S. Foreign policy | , | 1 Comment

Mainers respond to topless coffee shop with mindless arson

Via The Daily Beast, the topless coffee shop in Maine that I mused about a few months ago has been burned to the ground.

Crabtree said he did not have insurance for the Grand View. If necessary, he said, he would be willing to reopen in a temporary mobile trailer on the site of the topless — and now roofless — coffee shop.

Crabtree said his 10 female and three male employees are “in shock.”

I implied objectification in my earlier post, but this stupid act of protest reorients my feelings about this; if it was indeed a business modeled on free expression, not exploitation, then down with the ignorant arsonists of puritanism (and even if it were a crassly sexist enterprise, engaging in criminal activity is obviously completely inappropriate).

Title of this post notwithstanding, I think it is in poor taste for CNN to mock the “roofless” coffee shop, which was also connected to the home of the owner, Donald Crabtree, and his family.  And I can see nothing but prurience in the decision to divulge that a preponderance of the employees happened to be female.

June 4, 2009 Posted by | media, Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Saddam’s nukes were in France all along

In the midst of humping the perpetual favorite theme of conservatives — the enduring, albeit thoroughly debunked, “axis of evil” — the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens slips in the fact that Saddam Hussein apparently didn’t get build his still-elusive nuclear weapons from uranium from Niger, but from the French surrender monkeys!

Britain gave France the secret of the hydrogen bomb, hoping French President Charles de Gaulle would return the favor by admitting the U.K. into the European Economic Community. (He Gallicly refused.) France shared key nuclear technology with Israel and then with Iraq. [emphasis mine]

That’s it, no further discussion.  Perhaps there was some cooperation on something vaguely related to nuclear stuff and/or technology between France and Iraq, but the implication of this throwaway sentence — one of a series of throwaways meant to connect “the nuclear daisy chain” (presumably with something even flimsier than daisies) — is that Iraq still has nuclear weapons.  Good to know not only is the Right hewing to the same “axis of evil” canard, but they have not even moved beyond peddling WMD deception in Iraq of all places.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Conservatives, Foreign politics | , , , | 1 Comment

The burial of history, in photographic form

FP’s Annie Lowrey on a bill introduced by Senators Graham and Lieberman that would bury every single photograph or video taken during GW Bush’s tenure in a deep dark secret cave classify detainee treatment photos/videos taken between 9/11/01 and 1/22/09 as impervious to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests:

It seems to me to be a dangerous thing — to group all photographs of detainees together, and ensure they never see light. This is no longer really about the Abu Ghraib photos; at this point, we know what happened, the perpetrators have been punished. But the Bush administration codified the abuse of detainees in secret prisons. It was systemic, and it was law. And if there are photographs of those interrogations, they should be open to FOIA requests, at the very least.

abughraib photoI agree wholeheartedly with sentences 1, 3, and 5; concerns should be taken into account when determine whether and which photos to release — namely the consent of those being abused in the photos, for example — but a blanket cover-up is in the interests of neither ensuring accountability, moving forward, or, chiefly, maintaining a free and open society. This smacks of a political move, and the fact that the chosen end date for the period is only two days after Obama’s inauguration seems designed to ensure that certain elements of Bush’s legacy are simply kept out of history.

So I cannot agree with the last two-thirds of the second sentence in the above graf. This may not be about the Abu Ghraib photos — let alone those at Bagram and any other black sites — and it certainly is not for those like Graham and Lieberman trying to politicize the issue in the other direction. But it is about torture, and U.S. policy, and what the highest-ranking officials in this country claimed to be law (I maintain that, Yoo/Bybee memo-like travesties aside, the prevailing laws of the United States and international human rights conventions never actually authorized such practices — the Supreme Court has already partially, retroactively, vindicated this view).

And the most chilling part of this whole historical episode is that we don’t necessarily know all the happened — and, quite clearly, the perpetrators have not been punished. We know much — the most fundamental outlines of the story — and we have known this for a very long time. I’m open to arguments that filling in lurid details right now could be counter-productive, but the moral affront of torture porn has never dissuaded 24 viewers, and, as damaging as these images may be to the United States’ position and reputation in the world, they are reality, not reality TV.

(image from flickr user ManilaRyce under a Creative Commons license)

June 2, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | , , | Leave a comment

George McGovern in the Wall Street Journal

mcgovernI’m not sure whether to praise the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s open-mindedness or condemn its cynical liberal-baiting in giving George McGovern a spot today with a piece that it subtitles “We could defend ourselves with a military budget half the current size.” But I’m inclined to think the latter…Don’t get me wrong, I happen to agree with McGovern — who happens to be hilarious, by the way — on everything he suggests in his “My Advice for Obama” column, but could there be something more likely to galvanize the broad right, more perfectly aligned with conservative anathema, than an op-ed, during brewing crises in Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, that suggests substantial cuts in the military? As true as it is, it seems to play right into the territory of conservative messaging to argue that the military is bloated and — even invoking 9/11! — that terrorism should be treated as a criminal enterprise, not a military threat.

And it’s as if pushing for America developing the world’s best public transportation system was just added in at the end for conservatives’ to have just one more good poke at poor old George. I mean, he ends the piece with “All aboard!” — even though I agree with him, that makes it seem like a dead giveaway that he was played here.

(image from flickr user Runs with Scissors under a Creative Commons license)

June 1, 2009 Posted by | Conservatives | , , , , | 1 Comment

With missiles, geography just doesn’t matter

More foolhardy North Korea spitballing, this time from Greg Sheridan in The Australian, via Real Clear World:

Investment in missile defence is another precaution dictated by North Korea’s nuclear delinquency and here Obama foolishly is pulling back from Bush’s position. Missile defence, ineffective against large numbers of missiles, does have a good chance of working against a couple of missiles launched by a rogue regime.

Because an elaborate missile defense system in the Czech Republic will do wonders in intercepting short-range nuclear weapons launched from North Korea to Japan.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | North Korea | , , , | Leave a comment

Let’s make a plan for something that won’t happen

Fortunately, Michael O’Hanlon is around to tell us what to do in worst-case scenarios that even he admits are unlikely. With North Korea, he sees two options: either Pyongyang agrees to give up its nuclear program (uhh…has he been paying attention?), or…the terrorists will get it!

We might, for example, discover that North Korea had made contacts with a terrorist organization to explore the possible sale of plutonium (or even an assembled nuclear bomb). This scenario is unlikely – probably less likely, in fact, than a successful negotiation to dismantle the North Korean nuclear arsenal. But it cannot be dismissed.

And dismiss it O’Hanlon does not. He spends the next seven paragraphs describing the military procedures for enforcing the “quarantine” that will unlikely be required. This is the only insight in O’Hanlon’s piece beyond the realization that it’s “tough to deal with the North Koreans.” Maybe he should stick with informing us when things are going badly in bad places in the world.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | North Korea | , , | Leave a comment

The craziest country between South Korea and China

northeast asia mapAn odd choice of geographical description from NYT‘s David Sanger:

The sanction has never been enforced, partly because of concerns that it could escalate hostilities with North Korea, the poorest and least predictable state in Northeast Asia. [emphasis mine]

In Northeast Asia? I’d venture that North Korea takes the cake for poorest and least predictable state out of a group larger than just China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia (and okay, maybe Mongolia). But, um, yes, that is the correct quadrant of the correct continent in which North Korea is poor and unpredictable.

(image from flickr user earthhopper under a Creative Commons license)

May 26, 2009 Posted by | Foreign politics, media | , | Leave a comment

If you’re near a prison in New York, you better run in fear!

See, now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

An al Qaeda suspect accused in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa will become the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to go on trial in a civilian U.S. court, the Justice Department said on Thursday.

And this is a guy with 286 different charges against him. If anyone can pull a Magneto-esque escape, then this might be the one.

May 21, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | , , | Leave a comment


Okay, so there are some interesting things to learn about in ponder in this month’s Atlantic cover story, about a 72-year longitudinal study of — well, of what, really?  Of the life trajectories of a group of white male Harvard students from before World War II.  What this can tell us about the nature of happiness, the “good life,” or “normality,” is just a tad debatable, but surely that’s not what the piece’s author, Joshua Wolf Shenk, or the study’s lead psychologist, George Vaillant are going for.  Right?

Vaillant brings a healthy dose of subtlety to a field that sometimes seems to glide past it. The bookstore shelves are lined with titles that have an almost messianic tone, as in Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. But what does it mean, really, to be happier?

Why I don’t just consult this serious, interesting article, then — titled, uh, “What Makes Us Happy? Friends Matter, Cholesterol Doesn’t: Lessons From an Amazing 72-year study” — to find out?  I just need to make my way to the nearest bookstore shelf and open my copy of the, um…Atlantic.

Hypocritical marketing bombast aside, there’s a lot to think about and critique in the article and the study.  Aside from the point I already alluded to — how much can you learn about happiness from studying elite white males who attended Harvard? — the only one I’ll blog about is Shenk’s disconcerting failure to discuss any sort of Heisenberg Principle effect (observation of a phenomenon changes the phenomenon itself).  The participants in the study were kept very much aware that they were participants in a study on happiness; they even admitted that they “saw themselves as part of an elite club.”  They discussed the study with the psychologists who interviewed them, they thought about it in an assuredly meta way, and I’m certain they were aware how their responses were affecting the findings of the study.  Vaillant even sent a draft of his conclusions to one of the study participants.

I’m not saying that this sort of interference could possibly be avoided, or even that it disrupted the study’s goals and outcomes.  It’s just something worth considering, and certainly worth discussing in the article.

May 20, 2009 Posted by | media | , , | Leave a comment

Hockey players are likeable because they are white?

Don’t get me wrong — it’s great to see a WaPo op-ed extolling NHL hockey, which indeed seems to have vaulted into the second position in Washingtonians’ sports hierarchy, above the mediocre Wizards and the hapless Nationals, but inevitably trailing the beloved RedPeopleskins. But I have to wonder about the assumption that the author, Post contributing writer John Feinstein, is making in this assertion:

ovechkin fansHockey players are the most likable professional athletes on the planet. Maybe it’s because so many are small-town kids, or because so few become marketing superstars, or maybe it’s just the nature of the sport — selflessness is an absolute for any team to succeed.

Surely it could not be because hockey players also happen to be the whitest professional athletes on the planet. I’m not going to impute any subconscious racial animus on Feinstein (just, um, imply it portentously), but this would be consistent with the all-too-ready tendency to label certain professional football and basketball players (who happen to play in majority African-American sports) as troublemakers, delinquents, and other unsavory types.

That Feinstein cites the “small-town kids” rationale is not helping his cause. By buying into the myth of virtuous “small-town” America (where, it’s worth mentioning, most hockey players don’t even come from), Feinstein’s argument rests on deeply problematic assumptions of race, demographics, and morality. If small-town white kids (who happen to be able to afford expensive hockey equipment) are more likeable than inner-city, basketball-playing black kids, then what are we supposed to assume?

As much as I enjoy watching them play, hockey players, as a monolithic group, are not any more or less “likeable” than other sports’ professional athletes. To date, for example, I don’t recall a professional of any other sport using their equipment as a weapon with which to attack another player’s head.

(image from flickr user clydeorama under a Creative Commons license)

May 18, 2009 Posted by | Sports | , , , | 5 Comments

Twittering Republicans

In the midst of this somewhat silly Michelle Cottle article on the even sillier CNN “reality show” about freshmen Representatives, I found this surprising nugget:

While the culture of reality television, YouTube, and Twitter has put down roots on both sides of the congressional aisle, Republicans seem to be embracing it in disproportionate numbers. (At last count, GOP Twitterers on the Hill outnumbered Democratic users by more than two to one.) [emphasis mine]

The explanation of one of the featured legislators, Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, is that, since Republicans can’t legislate, they have to “win the communications battle.” I don’t doubt that this is why Republicans should be using new media (except doing so in actually effective ways, rather than, say, complaining about beaver management and sending shitty emails, might help), but I don’t think this explains the unexpected phenomenon.

I’d venture that Republicans — the party of old white men whose presidential candidate, an old white man par excellence, admitted he did not know how to use a computer — are exhibiting the same tendency as old media celebrity types everywhere: make sure to mention Twitter, smirk about it, and show how hip and “with it” you are by knowing that the correct verb form of “twitter” is to twat tweet. By embracing in particular the newest, and easiest, form of social media, they can try to distract from their extant stodginess in a flurry of tweets. I don’t think it’s going to work.

May 6, 2009 Posted by | Conservatives, media | , , | 1 Comment