Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bad Columns: Holiday Edition

I've been quite busy thanks to a combination of good and bad circumstances, and as such there's a bit of a bad column backlog. Time to flush.

Reason Magazine would tend to not be a place where I link in this context, but here we are. Brian Doherty isn't a fan of the Iraq war and has a heavy dose of pessimism in regards to security gains from the surge. I can't argue with "bad things have a way of happening in Iraq" as a line of thinking, but Brian doesn't stop there, and thus my rebuttal.

After all, we can be pretty confident, barring eco-catastrophe or full-on nuclear World War III, that things will, someday, be better in Iraq—on the whole, for most people—than they are now, than they were in 2004, or than they were under Saddam.
Judging whether the Iraq war and occupation was a good idea or the right thing to do based on the principle that things are, or seem like they soon will be, better there than they were before treats war as merely a neutral policy tool.

Brian is attacking a strawman that I've never seen before. Pre-war, hawks had a number of varying reasons for backing the invasion, the bottom line of which was that it would improve national/regional security. You can disagree with the conclusion, but you can't disagree that this was the stated goal. Even the basic neocon/Wilsonian boilerplate is focused on long-term security through democracy-spreading, not generic "things are slightly better in Iraq".

Not content to strawman hawks, Brian then strawmans AMERICA.

Just as public perception of whether the war was worth it didn’t shift toward “no” until May 2004—the first month U.S. troop deaths broke 100 in a month—a continuing decline in Iraq violence seems likely to calm down American dudgeon over a war that, after all, in a draftless world, most of us are affected by only as tragic TV entertainment. It could well be the standard accepted opinion a year from now that Iraq, while perhaps not always managed best every step of the way, has turned out well enough in the end, or so far.
If this turns out to be true, what will this mean for the future of American foreign policy? The Republicans will be emboldened to think that any move they can frame as part of the “war on terror” will work out for them in the end, making future wars in Iran and maybe Syria far more likely.
The real question before a war needs to be: “is this absolutely necessary given a fair consideration of the horrors and unpredictability of war and the purpose of the U.S. military?” Which is not: “make the world a better place, somewhere down the line, killing lots of people on the way.” For America's future, this kind of victory in Iraq could really mean defeat.

Still, the next war will doubtless begin with high approval ratings.

What utter dreck. First of all, polls are drifting towards the "things are getting better in Iraq", but they aren't drifting towards "boy howdy invading Iraq sure was great" and they aren't even in the same neighborhood as "let's go bomb Damascus!". Secondly, current poll movements are just that, poll movements; to end with that line based on a couple polls is shoddy analysis. Third, he's taking the strawman hawk mindset and is applying it to the entire US public. Finally, he's implying that we'd be better off if there was more carnage in Iraq, which is always a sure sign that someone has gone off the deep end.

The bottom line is this: hawks don't think that way, the public is a hell of a lot less "let's roll" than it was in early 2003, and Brian Doherty as a "senior editor" makes me question Reason's reason.

Naomi Klein is someone I find quite disagreeable, but with a column of this length I'm not going to go for an in-depth rebuttal. Instead I'm going to just focus on the start.

In less than two years, the lease on the largest and most important US military base in Latin America will run out. The base is in Manta, Ecuador, and Rafael Correa, the country's leftist president, has pronounced that he will renew the lease "on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami--an Ecuadorean base. If there is no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States."

Since an Ecuadorean military outpost in South Beach is a long shot, it is very likely that the Manta base, which serves as a staging area for the "war on drugs," will soon shut down. Correa's defiant stand is not, as some have claimed, about anti-Americanism. Rather, it is part of a broad range of measures being taken by Latin American governments to make the continent less vulnerable to externally provoked crises and shocks.
If the US military loses its bases and training programs, its power to inflict shocks on the continent will be greatly eroded.

See, that US military base exposes Ecuador to 'shocks'. Or something. This is a statement that could lead to a rousing debate during the Reagan administration, but is just silly today. When was the last time the US was neck-deep in a big coup/civil war in Central or South America? There are good reasons to dislike the "our son-of-a-bitch" Cold War policy towards Latin America, but to make that statement primarily based on things circa Pinochet is baffling to me. Naomi spends most of the time railing against capitalism, which is standard fare for her... and which also demonstrates why the military base comment is so out of place. But for Naomi, the US military is bad, so anyone opposed to it is good and deserves to be highlighted.

David Shribman combines a lack of recent historical knowledge with overemphasizing trends. He wants to prove that the Reagan Era is over. That doesn't seem terribly difficult to me, but he manages to bumble worse than JP Losman in the red zone.

But some of the vital elements of the Reagan era have already passed into the mists of history:

The iron bond between religious conservatives and Republicans.
It didn't matter that Reagan hardly went to church and was estranged from some of his children. What mattered was that every GOP platform carried a strong anti-abortion message. And then, with the election of a true religious conservative, George W. Bush, the bond seemed stronger than ever.

Now the leading Republican presidential candidate supports abortion rights, has been married three times and doesn't possess the sort of family-values personal life religious conservatives demand in their leaders. Do not doubt that the political earth has shifted.

Rudy leads in the polls, without 50% of GOP support mind you, and this by itself is proof that the Christian/Republican link is gone. Riiiiiiiight.

The conviction that a smaller government is a better government. Reagan spoke of this precept in his inaugural address, a remark that pleased his supporters and sent trembles of fear through liberals. The extent of the conversion of the American people to the smaller-government ethos can be measured by the fact that Bill Clinton himself declared the era of big government to be over.

Except that Reagan signed off on massive amounts of entitlement spending and oversaw large growth in real, per capita federal spending in both the military and domestic spheres. That Democrats in congress drove much of the spending is moot; Reagan went along, and thus the "Reagan = smaller government" sentiment is flat-out wrong. I've seen this meme used by people across the political spectrum and it's wrong every time.

Gregory Scoblete has an example of a meme I despise: that if Iran gets nukes it can easily be "contained" and thus there's no real threat. This ignores several very real problems even if Iran never uses its nukes. First, Iran has shown a willingness to engage in arms trade with rogue nations and groups. Its nuclear expertise would not necessarily stay put. Second, and more immediately, Iran with nukes would have much more of a free hand to support and foment terrorism. At present Iran barely disguises its arming of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias; with nukes on hand it can do more and do so openly with no fear of military retaliation. This would not only help terrorist groups materially, but also it would make them feel more confident, as they would have a nuclear sponsor.

Those issues by themselves don't lead to "we need to be dropping bombs on Tehran and anyone who disagrees is a terrorist". Rather, those issues absolutely must be addressed by those who argue that a nuclear Iran is okay because it can be contained. I've seen many anti-war laundry lists of problems that would happen if the US bombs Iranian nuclear facilities, but hardly anything that deals with these things from the perspective of a dove.

A trio of gentlemen argue that it's important for Democrats to oppose Bush. They do this by saying "drift" a lot. There's just so many bad talking points I have a hard time focusing on any one thing.

-They never make an attempt to say WHY the surge represents 'drift'. Drift tends to imply just going with the flow, which would be accurate for "stay the course"-era Bush policy, but isn't accurate this year. By the end of the column it's clear that "drift" means "a policy that doesn't involve a firm withdrawal date", and that's incredibly ineffective when you're on the op-ed page of the Washington Post.

-They complain that the surge has been 'accompanied by' large sectarian migrations, as though the surge caused it. In fact, the migrations were caused by the security breakdowns, and now that security is being restored, refugees have stopped leaving and are in fact returning by the thousands. If the surge is helping the refugee situation, how is the refugee situation a refutation of the surge?

-"progress being made at the local level often undermines the stated goal of creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq". And they say this because... oh wait they don't say why. Lovely.

-They say that foreign governments won't meddle in Iraq after we leave because they don't want Iraq to fail. This ignores what foreign governments want in Iraq: to have their chosen groups in charge. Saudi radicals supported Sunni terrorists in the hope of restored Sunni dominance. Iran backs one big Shiite group against another in the hopes of having control of the Iraqi government. That's how they do things in the Middle East. Why would Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia et al work in harmony in the absence of a US presence? They tolerated a very chaotic situation in Iraq before the surge, they tolerate chaos in Lebanon and Palestine, why is Iraq different? A very sloppy rehash of an old talking point here.

These are serious foreign-policy bigwigs; they can do a lot better.

Allen Smith must not proofread.

In arresting climate change and solving related energy issues, we should follow the physicians' oath - first, do no harm - and avoid alternatives with equal or greater impacts than our present energy supply.

Consider the example of ethanol. Production requires large amounts of petroleum, farmland, corn, and water, yet it has questionable alternative energy value, has its own emissions and siting problems, directly competes with food supply, and its transport requires special vehicles instead of pipelines. Market-driven production capacity has raced ahead of available delivery infrastructure. This has caused the price of ethanol to crash from overproduction, while at the same time increased demand for corn to produce ethanol has raised corn prices and reduced the availability of corn for food, raising food prices.

Our preoccupation with letting the free market determine our national energy policy is wasteful folly and not in the public interest.

Yes, the current state of ethanol proves that the free market has failed. Except for the fact that ethanol has been ENTIRELY DRIVEN BY GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES AND FUEL MANDATES. *gives Allen a backdrop driver*

Finally, Mark Winne tugs on your heartstrings by discussing the plight of food banks and feeding the poor. He wants to solve it. His solution is simple: end poverty. Boy, thanks Mark, I had no idea poverty and hunger were tied! Mark eventually stumbles into a progressive fantasy sequence of food pantry volunteers solving hunger by picketing governments on minimum wage laws. News flash, Mark: everyone wants to solve poverty, we just disagree on how to do it. Acting as though 'we should end poverty' is a revelation is not the mark of a writer who, once again, is published on the Washington Post op-ed page. It would be like me saying "let's stop our fiscal problems by ending all crime so we don't need police or prisons anymore".

Am I asking for too much out of these writers? I sure hope not.