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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Tuesday, 12 December 2006
Something Is Up
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Something Is Up

Tuesday, December 12, 2006, was a day of very odd news and views. The epicenter seemed to be the Washington Post, perhaps attempting to prove newspapers, with their primary reporting and editorial clout, aren't dying dinosaurs at all.

Robin Wright was the reporter with the big scoop, with Saudi Ambassador Abruptly Resigns, Leaves Washington - "Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, flew out of Washington yesterday after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his staff that he would be leaving the post after only 15 months on the job." She had the story first.

What is this about? Wright speculates another key Saudi prince is ill, and there's some sort of internal realignment going on over there - but that's only speculation. This is a mystery, and a bit of a diplomatic earthquake.

Josh Marshall notes all sorts of officials are giving various unconvincing explanations, the best of which is that, in the words of an unnamed embassy official, "He wants to spend more time with his family." Right - or as Marshall comments - "Perhaps we can take that as a foreigners gently parodic homage to the American tradition of political white lies."

But what's the reason for the standard white lie in this case? He dismisses Wright's speculation about illness or some palace intrigue in the Saudi royal family. He suggests we look at the geopolitical context -
Saudi Arabia's neighbor Iraq is in some sort of slow motion civil war. The neighbor across the water, Iran, has been empowered tremendously and stands to gain even more power if their Shi'a coreligionists in Iraq take over the country and slaughter or dominate the Sunni Arab minority. And the White House is signaling that it might opt to take the side of the Shi'a in that cataclysm and, shall we say, go along for the slaughter.

That would cut at the heart of the seven decade US-Saudi alliance, though admittedly it's taken quite a few cuts already of late. The White House has also just been presented with the Baker-Hamilton report which has, I think fairly, been characterized as a bid to return to the earlier US policy of aligning its regional interests with those of the Sunni autocracies in the region. The White House has dismissed that out of hand.

I'm no expert on the finer points of US-Saudi relations. But I don't think you need to be to see that the underpinnings of the relationship are on the table right now. And just at this moment, the ambassador resigns and gets on the next plane home. To borrow a phrase from our judicial pals, I think any excuse that this is just some personal matter deserves the strictest scrutiny. Something must be up.
You think? The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, wrote in that recent leaked memo, the one about how totally useless Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki was, that Washington should "step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq, by using its influence to move Sunni populations out of violence into politics." But then, the week before, a Saudi who headed a security consulting group close to the Saudi government, Nawaf Obaid, wrote in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would use money, oil and support for Sunnis to counter Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq if American troops pulled out (previously discussed here). The Saudi government denied the report and fired Obaid. Actually, Prince Turki al-Faisal fired the guy - he was the prince's advisor.

But something was up with that. This thing is going regional, and the Saudis may be jumpy. The word is the administration is seriously considering siding with the Shi'a in all this, if something can be done about that Sadr fellow and we can keep them from being too friendly with Iran, and writing off the Sunnis, to get us out of the current mess - reportedly Cheney's position. And, as noted last week, things are getting serious - "Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to key Iraqi officials and others familiar with the flow of cash." That was discussed in the pages in Hope as Strategy. It seems we've got to do something, no matter how much it looks like assured genocide.

Marshall says his readers have written in to say that "there's just no way we're going to let ourselves take sides in what would likely be at least a borderline genocidal civil war between Iraq's Sunni minority and Shi'a majority." He notes that, and responds why not? -
Is there anything we've seen in the last six years that makes you think we wouldn't pull the trigger on a ridiculously foolish new plan? I don't just mean that as trash talk. I think it's the only sensible way to approach the case at hand.

The main mistakes I've made thinking about foreign policy over the last half decade were, I think, all cases where there were certain outcomes I just didn't find credible because they were just too stupid and dangerous for anybody in a position of power to try.
Marshall is an experienced political reporter who now has his widely-read blog empire, and decides to raise another point he is not sure is widely appreciated -
The folks who brought you the Iraq War have always been weak in the knees for a really whacked-out vision of a Shi'a-US alliance in the Middle East. I used to talk to a lot of these folks before I became persona non grata. So here's basically how the theory went and, I don't doubt, still goes ... We hate the Saudis and the Egyptians and all the rest of the standing Arab governments. But the Iraqi Shi'a were oppressed by Saddam. So they'll like us. So we'll set them up in control of Iraq. You might think that would empower the Iranians. But not really. The mullahs aren't very powerful. And once the Iraqi Shi'a have a good thing going with us, the Iranians are going to want to get in on that too. So you'll see a new government in Tehran. Plus, big parts of northern Saudi Arabia are Shi'a too. And that's where a lot of the oil is. So they'll probably want to break off and set up their own pro-US Shi'a state with tons of oil. So before you know it, we'll have Iraq, Iran, and a big chunk of Saudi Arabia that is friendly to the US and has a ton of oil. And once that happens we can tell the Saudis to f$#% themselves once and for all.

Now, you might think this involves a fair amount of wishful and delusional thinking. But this was the thinking of a lot of neocons going into the war. And I don't doubt it's still the thinking of quite a few of them. They still want to run the table. And even more now that it's double-down. I don't know what these guys are planning now. But there's plenty of reason to be worried.
Talk about hope as strategy! If Marshall heard them right, those directing the foreign policy of the United States have been smoking some good stuff. Perhaps Prince Turki al-Faisal, and his government, just gave up on the whole crew, and caught the next flight out to go home and help prepare for the regional war we seem to want. The Saudis had asked Cheney to drop by for a chat in late November. It seems they didn't like what they heard from him.

Stepping back, it is possible to see that this the abrupt departure of the Saudi ambassador, could mark the precise start of the major regional Middle East war - from the edge of the Mediterranean to the western border of India - to realign everything, and that may have been the plan all along. You thought we were looking to eliminate Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? How quaint. Wheels within wheels were turning - big plans and a mad dream of how things could be. So this may be it - the big one. That or the prince really did want to spend more time with his family. That too is possible after all.

Then, late Tuesday, the news broke -
Saudi Arabia has told the Bush administration that it might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in a war against Iraqi Shiites if the United States withdraws from Iraq, The New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing American and Arab diplomats.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia delivered that message to Dick Cheney during the U.S. vice president's brief visit last month to Riyadh, the newspaper said, citing the officials it did not name.

... During the visit, King Abdullah expressed strong opposition to diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, which is largely Shi'ite, the Times said. The Saudi leader also pushed Washington to encourage the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the newspaper reported, citing senior officials of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration.

The White House could not immediately be reached to comment on the report.
So things are lining up - until now the Saudis promised they would refrain from aiding Iraq's Sunni insurgency, but that pledge holds only as long as we remain in Iraq. We cut out or cut back, or side with the Shi'a, and they will act. They will not let Iraq's minority Sunni population be massacred, even if Cheney thinks that would be okay, given the fix we're in.

This was such a small news item, but something was up.

As for the other shake-up-everything item in the Post, that was a looking backward item. Fred Hiatt and his crew penned the lead editorial of the day, on the recent deaths of both Augusto Pinochet and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, sure to raise some hackles. They, we are told, were both fine folks and will be missed.

To review, Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte was the general who became the president of Chile - he led a military junta to power in 1973 through a coup d'état, deposing the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. Pinochet stepped down from power in 1990, after losing a national plebiscite in 1988. The story is familiar to those who follow such things. In 1970, Salvador Allende, the leader of the Chilean Socialist Party, had been elected president - the first Marxist in the world to gain power in a free democratic election. The business folks hated him - what with his efforts to redistribute wealth and land, with wage increases of around forty percent and companies not allowed to increase prices, and then the copper industry was nationalized, and then the banks. Then he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, China and East Germany. Something had to be done. The CIA set up a task force to get rid of the guy, and Pinochet was our choice to replace him. Henry Kissinger admitted that in September, 1970, President Nixon ordered him to organize a coup against Allende's government. A CIA document written just after Allende was elected said - "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup" and "it is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG (United States government) and American hand be well hidden." So Chile had its September 11 - in 1973. Allende was killed in his office that day, or committed suicide. And we deny everything. Kissinger is considered a wise elder statesman these days.

But Pinochet turned out to be one nasty piece of work. He was notorious for "disappearing" his enemies, and for all sorts of torture, the most dramatic taking people for airplane rides over the ocean and dropping them from high altitude, one by one, until someone not yet escorted to the door talked. Some of our guys in Vietnam found that useful too. These acts got Pinochet indicted in Spain, as some of the dead or tortured were Spanish citizens, and he was arrested in London. The rest is old news - he fought all the indictments, unsuccessfully, but died before anything could come of it all. He was an old man. The heart attack was inevitable.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Republican - a brilliant scholar and a rather mean lady, who Reagan sent to the UN as our ambassador there. Her big thing was that there was a real difference between authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. The former were unpleasant, but the latter - they were all communist, as she said - were unacceptable. So Pinochet was just fine by her - he would evolve and the place would be fine. It was the same with Marcos in the Philippines and all the rest. The problem was the damned Marxists. Everyone knew no good would evolve from any Marxist regime. That was the "realism" of the day, in her day. She died the same week Pinochet died - of old age, pretty much.

Fred Hiatt and his crew decided to offer an assessment of these lives. And the opening is classic - "Augusto Pinochet tortured and murdered. His legacy is Latin America's most successful country."

Now you would expect what follows would be a stirring defense of torture and murder - we may have done those very things in Iraq and elsewhere, but it is obvious and logical that torture and murder are good things. They lead to real success.

Fred Hiatt and his crew just aren't that dumb. They aren't going to endorse torture and murder as fine and dandy. They just want to point out some things -
It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. In the past 15 years, Chile's economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved. It's leaving behind the developing world, where all of its neighbors remain mired.
So he must have done something right. Sorry about the thousands of dead people, and those who just disappeared. Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do. And anyway, the Post says, Augusto Pinochet wasn't Castro - and when Castro finally kicks the bucket the left will probably defend him, so in your face, lefties.

Matthew Yglesias, for one, differs -
Seriously? The justification of Pinochet's 1973 coup and subsequent seventeen-year dictatorship is Chile's strong economic growth record after Pinochet left office? Then we learn that Pinochet was a good guy because Fidel Castro is a bad guy, which I think is the moral philosophy of six year-olds. And then Kirkpatrick: "Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right."

I don't really see what's obvious about this. Communist regimes in Central Europe were replaced by liberal democracies, much as Pinochet's right-authoritarianism was replaced by liberal democracy in Chile. But Communist regimes elsewhere have often been replaced by non-Communist authoritarianisms. But then again, right-wing authoritarianism in, say, Venezuela doesn't seem to have paved the road for liberal democracy. And, of course, Communism arose in Russia in the wake of the Czar's right-wing authoritarianism and, indeed, Communism arose in Cuba as the aftermath of right-wing authoritarianism under Battista.

UPDATE: Sorry, Venezuela's a bad example; I thought the military was in charge there in the 80s. Consider, say, Haiti where the Duvaliers hardly seem to have paved the road for a smooth transition to liberalism.
So Jeanne Kirkpatrick was full of crap - arguing against historical fact - and the Post is too, arguing that what happened after the old man was gone from office proved what he did in office was fine and dandy.

It doesn't matter. What is in the air is obvious here. Supporting some awful people, and doing awful things ourselves, may be just fine. It's all how you look at it. It's setting up what we will be doing in the Middle East next, and what we have done already.

But Margaret Thatcher is reported to be sad about the old man's death - Pinochet, not Ronald Reagan (she's over that) - to which Christopher Hitchens adds some thoughts -
There were those who used to argue that, say what you like, Pinochet unfettered the Chilean economy and let the Friedmanite breezes blow. (This is why Mrs. Thatcher was forever encouraging him to take his holidays and shopping trips in London; a piece of advice that he may well have regretted taking.) Yet free-marketeers presumably do not believe that you need torture and murder and dictatorship to implement their policies. I read Isabel Allende not long ago saying freely that nobody would again try the statist "Popular Unity" program of her uncle. But Salvador Allende never ordered anybody's death or disappearance; he died bravely at his post, and that has made all the difference. Meanwhile, a large part of Pinochet's own attraction to "privatization" has been explained by the disclosures attendant on the collapse of the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., which revealed large secret holdings in his name. This, combined with the cynical delaying tactics that he employed to delay or thwart prosecution, made his name stink even more in Chilean nostrils while he was still alive.

It is greatly to the credit of the Chileans that they have managed to restore and revive democratic institutions without any resort to violence, and that due process was scrupulously applied to Pinochet and to all his underlings. But there is a price to be paid for the slowness and care of these proceedings. We still do not know all that we might about the murder of U.S. citizen Charles Horman, for instance. And many Chilean families do not know where their "disappeared" loved ones are buried or how they died. (Perhaps sometimes it is better not to know the last bit.) Not once, in the prolonged process of investigation and clarification, did Pinochet offer to provide any information or to express any conscience or remorse. Like Slobodan Milosevic (who also cheated justice by dying) and Saddam Hussein, he was arrogant and blustering to the very last. Chile and the world are well rid of him, but we can thank his long and brutish rear-guard action for helping us to establish at least some of the emerging benchmarks of universal jurisdiction for tyrants.
Hitchens is no Jeanne Kirkpatrick, whatever else he is.

But the Post was on the Pinochet bandwagon. Elsewhere, in a retrospective, Pamela Constable offers this - "Pinochet, who died Sunday at age 91, was a man with a mission. He genuinely believed he was doing the right thing, carrying out a grim duty in order to save his country from evil. In every speech and interview, the strongman of Santiago returned to the same theme: his sacred, patriotic calling to rid Chile of communism, whatever the cost."

It's hard to remember why everyone was so worked up about communism. Communism didn't work out, as it didn't actually work. And it collapsed under its own weight. There was no cost to be paid. You just had to wait. Pinochet didn't get it.

But then, as Yglesias notes, the costs weren't exactly his costs -
Pinochet believed it was his calling to rid Chile of Communism, whatever the cost to other people. He wasn't eager to pay a price personally, or to have members of his circle do so. Indeed, though Pinochet's corruption was hardly on a Mobutu-style scale, it's clear that he and his retainers profited personally from his dictatorship. And when he left office, he didn't throw himself on the mercy of the people, pleading justification but willing to accept whatever verdict - pay any price - they might render. Instead, he had himself made a senator for life to obtain immunity from prosecution. Once that stopped working, he adopted a number of other methods to try - successfully, in the end - to avoid bearing the cost of what he'd done.

This line of thought is, of course, entirely typical of the authoritarian mindset. You hear it in contemporary political disputes about torture and about the use of brutal force abroad. We must do what it takes to succeed whatever the cost. Always suppressed is the proviso - whatever the cost, to other people.
According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet in 1990, at least 3,200 people were killed for political reasons and another 1,197 disappeared. He himself was just fine.

And the Post editorial says we were right to support him, as he wasn't a damned communist like Castro -
The contrast between Cuba and Chile more than 30 years after Mr. Pinochet's coup is a reminder of a famous essay written by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the provocative and energetic scholar and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who died Thursday. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.
No, she was just deeply and vitally angered by, and deliciously frightened of, communism. She didn't know that system would fold like a house of cards, if left to do so, or if just ridiculed (that worked just fine for Havel and his folks in Czechoslovakia). On the other hand, she became famous and powerful with her anger and fear. That works well in the political marketplace. It did then, it does now.

It's just too bad that the rehabilitation of Augusto Pinochet as a hero and role model is underway. That says a lot about us.

On the other hand, again, this too may say a lot about us -
Liberal and progressive Christian groups say a new computer game in which players must either convert or kill non-Christians is the wrong gift to give this holiday season and that Wal-Mart, a major video game retailer, should yank it off its shelves.

The Campaign to Defend the Constitution and the Christian Alliance for Progress, two online political groups, plan to demand today that Wal-Mart dump Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a PC game inspired by a series of Christian novels that are hugely popular, especially with teens.

The series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation and takes place after the Rapture, when Jesus has taken his people to heaven and left nonbelievers behind to face the Antichrist.

Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.
Oh, that makes it better. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said they have no plans to pull the game from any of their 3,800 stores.

Details -
In Left Behind, set in perfectly apocalyptic New York City, the Antichrist is personified by fictional Romanian Nicolae Carpathia, secretary-general of the United Nations and a People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive."

Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story.
As for the names, Frichner said the game does not endorse prejudice - "Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ and thus can't be on Christ's side in the game. That is so obvious." Indeed.

And evil communists are fifties, aren't they?

And the reviews? There's this -
Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor at Gamespot.com, an online publication, said the game isn't popular. The game itself, which Gamespot rated 3.4 out of a possible 10, has lots of glitches.

"And it's kind of crazy," Gerstmann said. "One of the evil characters is a rock musician. ... If you get too close to him your spirit is lowered."

But Plugged In, a publication of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, gave the game a "thumbs-up." The reviewer called it "the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior - and use to raise some interesting questions along the way."
It will raise questions. We're told the company's ultimate goal in offering the game is "to bring parents and kids together to talk about the Bible." God help us all. Something is up.

Posted by Alan at 22:03 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006 08:18 PST home

Monday, 11 December 2006
Embracing the Homogenized Surreal
Topic: The Culture

Embracing the Homogenized Surreal

You have to love the contrarian point of view, especially on cultural matters. There are plenty of contrarians on matters of domestic and foreign policy, and on social policy. Everyone writes about that stuff - illegal immigration is awful, or it isn't so awful, universal healthcare would be wonderful, or a socialist evil portending the end of the nation as we know it, the vice president's lesbian daughter really shouldn't be pregnant and her father happy about it, or that is a big whatever, we should stay in Iraq, we should leave, we should stay in a different way, or something. On his last day in office George Bush should bomb Iran back into the Stone Age and let the next president worry about the blow-back, or not. It's all on the table. Everyone has an opinion.

But then there are the true contrarians, like Virginia Postrel, who, in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, offers this - In Praise of Chain Stores. Of course this hit the newsstands as most American hit the malls to buy Christmas presents, and found themselves staring at the jammed parking lot and the depressingly uniform stores beyond. The mall could be anywhere, they all look alike. The stores are the same.

But she says these chain stores aren't destroying local flavor - they're actually providing variety and comfort. She has an odd view of comfort.

Those of us who spent a decade or two as "cooperate road warriors" know this issue well. You fly back and forth across the country each week and there that sense of dislocation - is this London, Ontario, or Ontario, California? There's the Starbucks and the Gap. It could be Pittsburgh or Tucson. You never know - it's all a blur. You take a break, use the frequent flier miles, and take a vacation. You fly Paris and one afternoon need new jeans - and you find yourself in Gap on Rue des Rennes. Inside you might as well be in Tulsa (except the sizes have odd numbers). Next door, even Monoprix seems comfortingly familiar - except for the language. It has the feel of Albany or Denver. And Starbucks hit Paris two years ago. And every major airport certainly seems familiar - which is either comforting or surreal. They all look alike. This may or may not comfort you. At least it's easy to find the restrooms.

Virginia Postrel sets up the expected -
"Every well-traveled cosmopolite knows that America is mind-numbingly monotonous - the most boring country to tour, because everywhere looks like everywhere else," as the columnist Thomas Friedman once told Charlie Rose. Boston has the same stores as Denver, which has the same stores as Charlotte or Seattle or Chicago. We live in a "Stepford world," says Rachel Dresbeck, the author of Insiders' Guide to Portland, Oregon. Even Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, she complains, is "dominated by the Gap, Anthropologie, Starbucks, and all the other usual suspects. Why go anywhere? Every place looks the same."
Need proof? The array at Faneuil Hall can be examined here, although it should be noted that those of us who are pipe smokers can find a good selection of pipe tobacco at the newsstand near the southeast entrance. In any event, Postrel says what we have now is a variation on an old worry dating back to the twenties - the big guys are putting the Mom and Pop stores out of business. Today everyone knows the little small independents are doomed - and really mostly gone. That's probably most evident with the oddly charming, small, dusty bookstores - Border's and Barnes and Noble buried most everyone and they're long gone, except in period movies for a "cute meet." (A classic is Fred Astaire discovering Audrey Hepburn in that Greenwich Village bookstore in Funny Face, but that was 1957 and seems another world.) Given the small independents have been squeezed out, and that really is a given, the issue now is what's left - and it's just all the same, everywhere.

And it is worst in the suburbs. Postrel's example is the Chandler Fashion Center - Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix, the area's big shopping mall. You have the usual suspects - P. F. Chang's (the nearest here is at Beverly Center on La Cienega), California Pizza Kitchen (Sunset at Laurel Canyon, here), Chipotle Mexican Grill (everywhere), and the Cheesecake Factory (the original is out here in Marina del Rey, started by exiles from Rochester, New York, in the early eighties). One place is as good as another. And it's not just the mall itself -
Drive along Chandler's straight, flat boulevards, and you'll see Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens-n-Things; Barnes & Noble and Borders; PetSmart and Petco; Circuit City and Best Buy; Lowe's and Home Depot; CVS and Walgreens. Chandler has the Apple Store and Pottery Barn, the Gap and Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and DSW, and, of course, Target and Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald's. For people allergic to brands, Chandler must be hell - even without the 110-degree days.
Been there - she's right - the heat is brutal - and the place is just like any other once you walk into Target.

Or as she puts it -
One of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Chandler is definitely the kind of place urbanists have in mind as they intone, "When every place looks the same, there is no such thing as place anymore." Like so many towns in America, it has lost much of its historic character as a farming community. The annual Ostrich Festival still honors one traditional product, but these days Chandler raises more subdivisions and strip malls than ostrich plumes or cotton, another former staple.
So there you have it, the place might as well be Altoona. No ostriches there either.

Then comes the contrarian view - the stores don't really matter. National chains are not some blight on the landscape, and they've not turned American towns into an indistinguishable "geography of nowhere."

That, we are told, is just silly. The idea is what else is there matters far more -
The first thing you notice in Chandler is that, as a broad empirical claim, the cliché that "everywhere looks like everywhere else" is obvious nonsense. Chandler's land and air and foliage are peculiar to the desert Southwest. The people dress differently. Even the cookie-cutter housing developments, with their xeriscaping and washed-out desert palette, remind you where you are. Forget New England clapboard, Carolina columns, or yellow Texas brick. In the intense sun of Chandler, the red-tile roofs common in California turn a pale, pale pink.
So, 1.) Stores don't give places their character, and 2.) Terrain and weather and culture do. The national chain stores, the claim is, just offer contrast. And in doing so they "make it easier to discern the real differences that define a place: the way, for instance, that people in Chandler come out to enjoy the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools."

That's a quite romantic notion. It's more likely not many of these "Zoners" are out enjoying the summer twilight - they're at Target buying this or that, or at home watching some comedy taped out here in Hollywood, on a set in Studio City that's supposed to be New York (think Seinfeld). A sense of place may be a mere indulgence, something for oddballs.

As for the stores mentioned here, we're told that the idea that America was once filled with wildly varied business establishments is largely a myth -
Big cities could, and still can, support more retail niches than small towns. And in a less competitive national market, there was certainly more variation in business efficiency - in prices, service, and merchandise quality. But the range of retailing ideas in any given town was rarely that great. One deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one. A hardware store was a hardware store, a pharmacy a pharmacy. Before it became a ubiquitous part of urban life, Starbucks was, in most American cities, a radically new idea.
And there is economic reality - national chain stores bargain down prices from suppliers and divide fixed costs across a lot of units, a good thing, And the contention here us that they "rapidly spread economic discovery." That would be "the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work." That sure beats trial and error - "Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals." So scale is a good thing, or large-scale is.

There's more -
Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain. When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler - or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles - didn't have much in the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at the L.A. Daily News declared it "the kind of place every neighborhood should have." So what's wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood CPKs instead of one or two?
So we have democratization, along with homogenization - good and bad. (Los Angeles used to have many fine, small bookstores, by the way, before the folks from Ann Arbor arrived.)

And there's the matter of growth, which is supposed to be good, and can provide comfort at the same time -
The process of multiplication is particularly important for fast-growing towns like Chandler, where rollouts of established stores allow retail variety to expand as fast as the growing population can support new businesses. I heard the same refrain in Chandler that I've heard in similar boomburgs elsewhere, and for similar reasons. "It's got all the advantages of a small town, in terms of being friendly, but it's got all the things of a big town," says Scott Stephens, who moved from Manhattan Beach, California, in 1998 to work for Motorola. Chains let people in a city of 250,000 enjoy retail amenities once available only in a huge metropolitan center. At the same time, familiar establishments make it easier for people to make a home in a new place. When Nissan recently moved its headquarters from Southern California to Tennessee, an unusually high percentage of its Los Angeles–area employees accepted the transfer. "The fact that Starbucks are everywhere helps make moving a lot easier these days," a rueful Greg Whitney, vice president of business development for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, told the Los Angeles Times reporter John O'Dell. Orth Hedrick, a Nissan product manager, decided he could stay with the job he loved when he turned off the interstate near Nashville and realized, "You could really be Anywhere, U.S.A. There's a great big regional shopping mall, and most of the stores and restaurants are the same ones we see in California. Yet a few miles away you're in downtown, and there's lots of local color, too."
But who cares about local color? The idea is to reduce anxiety. Local color is for tourists. And "contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites," most cities don't exist primarily to please tourists (exclude Paris and Hollywood of course). They're just places people live, and do their best to do well. So you're not supposed to scoff at "the children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals" who are "no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis." They'll be fine.

But there is the conflict -
The contempt for chains represents a brand-obsessed view of place, as if store names were all that mattered to a city's character. For many critics, the name on the store really is all that matters. The planning consultant Robert Gibbs works with cities that want to revive their downtowns, and he also helps developers find space for retailers. To his frustration, he finds that many cities actually turn away national chains, preferring a moribund downtown that seems authentically local. But, he says, the same local activists who oppose chains "want specialty retail that sells exactly what the chains sell - the same price, the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes, the same brands, even." You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with nothing but the name changed, he says, and they'll love the store. So downtown stores stay empty, or sell low-value tourist items like candles and kites, while the chains open on the edge of town. In the name of urbanism, officials and activists in cities like Ann Arbor and Fort Collins, Colorado, are driving business to the suburbs. "If people like shopping at the Banana Republic or the Gap, if that's your market - or Payless Shoes - why not?" says an exasperated Gibbs. "Why not sell the goods and services people want?"
Fine. No oddly charming, small, dusty bookstores - except perhaps for "reconstructions" of what one might be like, for tourists. Embrace the homogenized surreal. Actually, you probably have no choice. And you can always skip the trip to the mall, turn off the television, and step out into the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools. People will just think you're odd. They'll probably call the cops.

Posted by Alan at 21:21 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006 06:44 PST home

Sunday, 10 December 2006
Offered Without Comment
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Offered Without Comment

The events are arrayed below. Draw your own conclusions.

See Andrew Sullivan in the Sunday, December 10, 2006, Times of London with this -
Jose Padilla was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1970, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. He was a troubled youth, joining a street gang when the family moved to Chicago, and was once jailed for aggravated assault.

After serving his sentence, he converted to Islam and professed non-violence. He went to the Masjid Al-Iman mosque in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and worked for a charity suspected of Islamist terror ties. He visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Returning to Chicago on May 8, 2002, Padilla was arrested and held under a warrant related to the 9/11 attacks. A month later, as a court was about to rule on whether there was any evidence to merit his detention, President George W Bush declared Padilla an "enemy combatant" and he was sent to a military brig in South Carolina. No charges were brought against him for 3½ years.

The basic principle of Anglo-American liberty for several hundred years has been habeas corpus - the notion that the government cannot detain a citizen without charging him with crimes that can be brought before a court and a jury of his peers. It is the keystone of any notion of a free society. For the first time in the history of the United States, it has been indefinitely suspended, and Padilla is the proof.

Padilla was not charged for three years, but he was accused. He was accused by government sources of being part of a plot to detonate a dirty bomb in an American city; he was accused by talk radio of being John Doe No 2 in the Oklahoma City bombing; and he was accused of plotting terrorist acts in the US.

After three years in solitary confinement, the Bush administration feared its detention of Padilla might be struck down by a court, and so it finally decided to charge him with a crime. The charges it brought in November 2005 included no mention of any dirty bomb, no link to Al-Qaeda, and no charge of conspiracy to commit acts of terror in America. A judge threw out other charges. None of the charges that remain involve actual terrorist activity, just of being connected to a group that may have financed such activity in Bosnia and Chechnya.

So Padilla, an American citizen, was detained without being charged for 3½ years. It was nearly two years before he had access to a lawyer.
Now his lawyer claims this -
Mr Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell.

Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr Padilla was denied even the smallest and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors.

… He was threatened with being cut with a knife and having alcohol poured on the wounds. He was also threatened with imminent execution. He was hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long periods.

He was forced to endure exceedingly long interrogation sessions, without adequate sleep, wherein he would be confronted with false information, scenarios and documents to further disorientate him. Often he had to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake and otherwise assault Mr Padilla.
Now his legal team says he is mentally unfit to stand trial. Angela Hegarty MD, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, says now that "during questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body. The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel."

Sullivan -
To put it bluntly: he has been sent mad. Last week, new photographs surfaced of the way in which Padilla has been treated. He needed to be escorted from his cell to get root canal treatment. Padilla has never exhibited any violent behavior in detention of any kind, according to his jailers. Yet he was manacled head-to-toe, he was barefoot, and given blackout goggles so he could see no light and soundproof ear-muffs so he could hear nothing. He was escorted by three soldiers in full riot gear, visors and weapons. Suddenly, you get a glimpse of the sadism inflicted on him for three years of total isolation.

Could this still happen? Yes, it could. In fact, if another American citizen were today to be arrested by the president, and declared an enemy combatant, he would be barred from any recourse to the federal courts. The Military Commissions Act - passed in the last week of the outgoing Congress before the recent elections - stripped the courts of any jurisdiction over new military commissions set up to try and convict American citizens.
Is that troublesome? The statute - "Notwithstanding any other law (including section 2241 of title 28, United States Code, or any other habeas corpus provision), no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever, including any action pending on or filed after the date of enactment of this chapter, relating to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission convened under this section, including challenges to the lawfulness of the procedures of military commissions under this chapter."

So that's that. Sullivan notes that "the president can now detain any citizen he so designates, remove him from the judicial system and subject him to a military commission, with much weaker rules than a civilian court." Yes, torture is formally banned, but torture techniques such as waterboarding are still at the president's discretion. So two hundred years after the nation was formed, and almost eight centuries since the Magna Carta, Americans are "at the mercy of a new king, who can jail without charges and torture at will." So much for habeas corpus.

Is Sullivan wrong to be upset? The New York Times set him off with its December 4 item on this matter.

They note the solitary confinement -
One spring day during his three and a half years as an enemy combatant, Jose Padilla experienced a break from the monotony of his solitary confinement in a bare cell in the brig at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, S.C.

That day, Mr. Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert whom the Bush administration had accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack and had detained without charges, got to go to the dentist.
Followed by the classic depersonalization -
Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla's bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla's legs. Next, his hands emerged through another hole to be manacled.

Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla's cuffed hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next: noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors, marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall to his root canal.
And they note the sensory deprivation -
In the brig, Mr. Padilla was denied access to counsel for 21 months. Andrew Patel, one of his lawyers, said his isolation was not only severe but compounded by material and sensory deprivations. In an affidavit filed Friday, he alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators; that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, "as part of an interrogation plan."
And although the Times is not saying the man was tortured, they do note "his interrogations… included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of 'truth serums.'"

And they quote Hegarty, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, in her affidavit filed that Friday - "It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation."

And note this -
The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Punishment or Treatment (United Nations, 1985) defines torture as: "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." Acts that would be considered torture under the above definition include a variety of methods: severe beatings, electric shock, sexual abuse and rape, prolonged solitary confinement, hard labor, near drowning, near suffocation, mutilation, hanging for prolonged periods, deprivation of basic biological needs (e.g., sleep, food, water), subjection to forced constant standing or crouching, and excessive continuous noise (e.g. McCoy, 2006; Walsh, 2006). Torture may also include actions inducing psychological suffering such as threats against the victim's family or loved ones (e.g., McCoy, 2006).

McCoy, A. W. (2006). A question of torture: CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Metropolitan Books.

United Nations, Department of Public Information (1985). Outlawing an ancient evil: Torture. Convention against torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment. New York: Author.
So that's that. The argument we are given justifying all this is that we live in a new age of terror, and we face an existential threat unlike any we have ever faced before. What we face is a threat far more dire than the nuclear annihilation we faced in the pervious decades before the Soviet Union finally collapsed, far more serious than the threat posed by the combined Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo. This time we must play dirty and change the rules about how our government treats its own citizens. Whether that is so is a judgment call. But the idea is that, if you grant that premise, what has happen in this case presents no real issues. Even if this one citizen was a nobody - the charges were pretty much dropped, but for so minor issues - he might have been a major terrorist, and we needed to get information from him, by any means possible, even if the means were both illegal and massively counterproductive. The almost four years of what seems like torture that turned him into a useless basket case, while getting us nothing, might have gotten us something. It just didn't work out. Are you to fault the government for trying to protect us? Yes, what happened to this man could, theoretically, happen to any of us now, but the odds are against that, and you ought to trust the government. They're just trying to keep us all safe. They're not unhinged sadists, after all. That's the line. Buy it or don't.

Just note this - on December 8 the president met with a number of Democratic leaders to review the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, and discuss "the way forward in Iraq." But the president didn't want to talk about that at all -
Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.

Bush said that "in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America," recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism."

Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now - work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.

Bush, Durbin said, "reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response" and emphasized that he is "the commander in chief."
Make of that what you will. There's two more years of this in store for us all.

Posted by Alan at 21:07 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Saturday, 9 December 2006
Denial and Delusion
Topic: Perspective

Denial and Delusion


Just a few quotes to go along the the administration response to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report -

QUOD VIDES PERISSE PERDITUM DUCAS - Catullus ("What you see is lost, set down as lost.")

"One popular human strategy for dealing with difficulty is autosuggestion: when something nasty pops up, you convince yourself it is not there, or you convince yourself it is pleasant rather than unpleasant. The Buddha's tactic is quite the reverse. Rather than hide it or disguise it, the Buddha's teaching urges you to examine it to death. Buddhism advises you not to implant feelings that you don't really have or avoid feelings that you do have. If you are miserable you are miserable; that is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront that. Look it square in the eye without flinching. When you are having a bad time, examine that experience, observe it mindfully, study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics. The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can't trap you if it has been taken to pieces. The result is freedom." - Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English

"It's not denial. I'm just selective about the reality I accept." - Bill Watterson

"Delay is the deadliest form of denial." C. Northcote Parkinson

"How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him." - Frank Herbert

"The first step in the risk management process is to acknowledge the reality of risk. Denial is a common tactic that substitutes deliberate ignorance for thoughtful planning. - Charles Tremper

"Refusal to believe until proof is given is a rational position; denial of all outside of our own limited experience is absurd." - Annie Besant (English social reformer, sometime Fabian socialist, theosophist, and Indian independence leader, 1847-1933)

"I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it." - Garrison Keillor

"At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the heart of man: one very reasonably tells the man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of avoiding it; the other even more reasonable says that it is too painful and harassing to think of the danger, since it is not a man's power to provide for everything and escape from the general march of events; and that it is therefore better to turn aside from the painful subject till it has come, and to think of what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally yields to the first voice; in society to the second." - Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

"The great law of denial belongs to the powerful forces of life, whether the case be one of coolish baked beans, or an unrequited affection. - Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

"Many people have delusions of grandeur but you're deluded by triviality." - Eugene Ionesco, Exit the King

"There is nothing more fatal to a man whose business is to think than to have learned the art of regaling his mind with ... airy gratifications. Other vices or follies are restrained by fear, reformed by admonition, or rejected by the conviction which the comparison of our conduct with that of others may in time produce. But this invisible riot of the mind, this secret prodigality of being, is secure from detection and fearless of reproach. The dreamer retires to his apartments, shuts out the cares and interruptions of mankind, and abandons himself to his own fancy; new worlds rise up before him, one image is followed by another, and a long succession of delights dances around him. He is at last called back to life by nature or by custom; and enters peevish into society, because he cannot model it to his own will." Samuel Johnson, Rambler, Number 89 (January 22, 1751)

"However we may labor for our own deception, truth, though unwelcome, will sometimes intrude upon the mind." - Samuel Johnson, Idler, Number 80 (October 27, 1759)

"It is a common delusion that you can make things better by talking about them." - Rose Macaulay

"Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it." - Lily Tomlin


Posted by Alan at 14:18 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Friday, 8 December 2006
Management 101 - Systems Management and Self-Management
Topic: Bush

Management 101 - Systems Management and Self-Management

After a moderately successful career in management a few things become painfully obvious. No matter what, you don't know everything, and you'd better listen to both those who do the work and those for whom the work is done. And being bullheaded not only makes enemies of those who you lead, it alienates (putting it mildly) the customer, or whoever it is that pays for what your folks provide. You may think you know what's best, and fancy yourself a firm decision maker, but your career will crash on the rocks with your ego. "Tell me more" and "I didn't think of that" are not just manipulative catch-phrases you toss out to impress others in the crisis meeting. You actually have to want to know more and assume you don't know what's really going on. It's not much fun, but it pays well.

On the other hand, there are various management theories. William Arkin, who writes the "Early Warning" thing at washingtonpost.com (the online site, not the print newspaper), notes the other style -
Extremist-in-chief George W. Bush yesterday continued along his merry way, going over the heads of the wise men and defying Washington moderation and the glories of bipartisan centrism to remind the American public that he is also the protector.

"The only way to secure a lasting peace for our children and grandchildren is to defeat the extremist ideologies," the president said.

Mark his words: the only way.

Those yearning for a tidier world can produce studies and recommendations galore, but the president firmly believes he is the one who has to deal with the real world, and that he and not the ivory tower uniquely understands how dangerous it is.

Thus we are witnessing the emergence of a new divide in American politics. It is no longer Democrats vs. Republicans or withdrawers vs. stay-the-coursers. The majority, bucked up by strong majority in American public opinion, is clearly in favor of change. In English, that means it's over in Iraq.

The new battleground will be between the believers and the non-believers. Bush and Cheney command the believers, who remain the custodians of the Sept. 11 aesthetic that America and the world are threatened, leaving no room for niceties and togetherness.

But it is not just Bush and Cheney, and the Washington-New York-Hollywood axis should take notice. The protectors are mobilizing. They see American "will" dwindling and think they need to do something about it.

In our naïve ways, we might believe that that means they have to change policy. But in the ways of national security, the protectors believe just the opposite….
It's that "I hear what you're all saying but there's only one way to fix this" attitude that's telling. It's a confusing of "firm principles" with "I know the best way to do this and you don't." They're quite different things, actually. The first has to do with your values, and the second with what you actually do, operationally, as they say. The latter is where you manage - where you get things done. Confusing the two is deadly. And that may be the problem here, with this whole business of how the administration will deal with the report of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.

Of course the report says what we're doing just isn't working. But a good summary comes from Lindsay Beyerstein - the report is "demanding that our failed strategy start working better, and fast." Or as Ivo Daalder puts it - "The biggest problem with the ISG report is that it, like much of Washington, buys into the notion that because the consequences of defeat are so dire we should not accept the reality that we have lost." Perhaps this is so. "Tell me more" and "I didn't think of that" are not in the mix here.

It is certainly clear that the report does not recognize that Iraq is in civil war, or that the government there is inherently weak but dominated by one side in this conflict, the Shi'a, or that the Iraqi army and police are pretty much shell organizations made up of Kurdish and Shi'a militias. That's a bit of a problem. To get to the "should be" one usually has to get everyone to agree on the "as is." You don't dwell on the "as is" - you just document it. It's what you have to work with, unfortunately. It's Management 101, not rocket science.

And the problem may be systemic. There may be a major management issue here, one Arkin on touches in passing.

Martin Kettle in the Saturday, December 9, Guardian (UK) agues that the report actually addresses the management theory problems the administration faces.

Kettle tosses in the expected nod to what everyone saw in the report, that it was a "shatteringly critical verdict" of the conduct of the war that "left George Bush looking more than ever out of his depth at his White House press conference on Thursday." So what else is new?

But then he calls out key passages from the report - "The US military has a long tradition of strong partnership between the civilian leadership of the department of defense and the uniformed services. Both have long benefited from a relationship in which the civilian leadership exercises control with the advantage of fully candid professional advice, and the military serves loyally with the understanding that its advice has been heard and valued. That tradition has frayed, and civil-military relations need to be repaired."

And there's this - "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."

And this - "A lack of coordination by senior management in Washington still hampers US contributions to Iraq's reconstruction."

These are management issues, not foreign policy issues. So, really, the report is a repudiation of the way the Bush administration works internally -
Nowhere is this more resonant than in what it says about the Pentagon. For it was the Pentagon that ran the administration's Iraq policy, and the senior civilian officials - Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith - who did things their own way and marginalized any service chiefs who disagreed with them.

But the Pentagon ran the policy because the president allowed and encouraged them to do so. This was a huge disfigurement of the traditional inter-agency way of doing things, in which the president, as commander-in-chief, was supposed to make the decisions after taking advice from the inter-agency policy-making apparatus coordinated by the national security adviser.
Kettle calls this "institutional failure on the epic scale"

And it is not as if there were no warnings about this. Ron Suskind's The One-Percent Doctrine - "Sober due diligence, with an eye to the way previous administrations have thought through a standard array of challenges facing the United States, creates, in fact, a kind of check on executive power and prerogative." But that's not the management model they guys work from. And that come from the top, from the president - "He is suspicious of officials, bureaucrats and departments. He is impatient with policy intellectuals. He doesn't want information. He prides himself on his certainties." It's a classic confusing of "firm principles" with "I know the best way to do this and you don't."

Woodward's State of Denial noted the president has a "distrust of the inter-agency" and this instinct became even more pronounced after the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, and that as things went bad in Iraq he wanted "a process" even less. Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books - "What is striking is the way that the most momentous of decisions were taken in the most shockingly haphazard ways, with the power in the hands of a few Pentagon civilians who knew little of Iraq or the region, the expertise of the rest of the government almost wholly excluded, and the president and his highest officials looking on."

Kettle sees the pattern here, and sees the Iraq Study Group as a management document - an indictment of "the way the Iraq policy was generated and maintained." It's really about how things were done, as much as it is about what was done, or not done.

Although Kettle doesn't say so directly, the idea seems to be that the "what" here isn't as important as the "how" - broken processes produce broken policies, as he would have it. Everyone makes mistakes, but you don't establish a system that is guaranteed to produce mistakes. The leader may have his firm principles, but combine that with a weak ego and a need to prove this or that, and a default trait of petulant, angry defiance when challenged, and the "management style" follows, as does this mess we're in. And this man has an MBA?

Perhaps the new defense secretary, Gates - who comes with a far different management style than Rumsfeld (from the president's father's group, not the president's circle like Rumsfeld) - will work the "how" of it all differently, and the senior military will once again "feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the president and the national security council." He seems to have done a fine job as a university president, where managing hissy fits among strong-willed and over-educated prima donnas to get useful things done is simply what you do. Here the stakes are higher.

But if Kettle is right - "bad forms of government contribute significantly to bad decisions" when there are "fewer effective ways for reasoned objections to affect the decision-making process" - it is obvious one thing that the Iraq Study Group was saying was it may be time to pull out the books from graduate school and read what was no doubt skipped way back when - basic management and organizational theory and all that sort of thing. Keep your firm principles - fine, no problem - but do some basic common-sense managing. Getting all defensive and shutting down or manipulating the organization is more than counterproductive. It is deadly. The dead bodies prove that, not to be too literal or anything.

As for self-management, that's a different kettle of fish - so forget Martin Kettle and turn to Jim Holt in the New York Times of 3 December, where he explains The New, Soft Paternalism.

This is very curious, and opens with this teaser -
When the government tells you that you can't smoke marijuana or that you must wear a helmet when you ride your motorcycle even if you happen to like the feeling of the wind in your hair, it is being paternalistic. It is largely treating you the way a parent treats a child, restricting your liberty for what it deems to be your own good. Paternalistic laws aren't very popular in this country. We hew to the principle that, children and the mentally ill apart, an individual is a better judge of what's good for him than the state is and that people should be free to do what they wish as long as their actions don't harm others. Contrary to what many people believe, you can even commit suicide legally (although if you don't live in Oregon, you should think twice about seeking assistance).

But what if it could be shown that even highly competent, well-informed people fail to make choices in their best interest? And what if the government could somehow step in and nudge them in the right direction without interfering with their liberty, or at least not very much? Welcome to the new world of "soft paternalism." The old "hard" paternalism says, We know what's best for you, and we'll force you to do it. By contrast, soft paternalism says, You know what's best for you, and we'll help you to do it.
The example if this Holt cites has to do with casino gambling. It seems in Missouri and Michigan compulsive gamblers have the option of putting their names on a blacklist. This is a "self-exclusion" list, and it bars them from casinos - they're banned for life. If they violate the ban they can be arrested and have their winnings confiscated. And people have actually signed up - seeking help, one assumes - in Missouri ten thousand have. Holt notes that in Michigan, the first person to sign up for it was also the first to be arrested for violating its terms. He couldn't resist sneaking back to the blackjack tables - he got a year a year's probation and the state kept his winnings. Who'd have even imagined such a thing?

This is what's called a self-binding scheme - "a way of restructuring the external world so that when future temptations arise, you will have no choice but to do what you've judged to be best for you. The classic case is that of Ulysses, who ordered his men to tie him to the mast of his ship so that he could hear the song of the Sirens without being lured to his destruction. As a freely chosen hedge against weakness of the will, self-binding would seem to enlarge individual liberty, not reduce it."

But that may be wrong, or so the libertarians say -
To begin with, they don't like soft paternalism when it involves the state's coercive power; they are much happier with private self-binding schemes, like alcoholism clinics, Christmas savings clubs and Weight Watchers. They also worry that soft paternalism can be a slippery slope to the harder variety, as when campaigns to discourage smoking give way to "sin taxes" and outright bans. But some libertarians have deeper misgivings. What bothers them is the way soft paternalism relies for its justification on the notion that each of us contains multiple selves - and that one of those selves is worth more than the others.
You can read the multiple personality discussion if you will, be it's rather mind-bending -
You might naïvely imagine that you are one person, the same entity from day to day. To the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, however, the idea of a permanent "I" was a fiction. Our mind, Hume wrote, "is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement." According to this way of thinking, the self that inhabits your body today is only similar to, not identical with, the self that is going to inhabit your body tomorrow. And the self that will inhabit your body decades hence? A virtual stranger.

… Further evidence for the fragmented self comes from neuroscience. Brain scans show that the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, is especially active when the prospect of immediate gratification presents itself. But choice among longer-term options triggers more activity in the "reasoning" part of the brain, located (suitably enough) higher up in the cortex. Now suppose you're tempted by a diet-violating Twinkie. Which part of your brain - the shortsighted emotional part or the farsighted reasoning part - gets to be the decider? There may be no built-in hierarchy here, just two autonomous brain modules in competition. That is why you might find yourself eating the Twinkie even while knowing it's bad for you. (A similar disconnect between two parts of your brain occurs when a visual illusion doesn't go away even after you learn it's an illusion.)

The short-run self cares only about the present. It is perfectly happy to indulge today and offload the costs onto future selves.
There's great deal of this. Click on the link if you dare - but it comes down to an interesting question. Should we outsource our self-discipline? That's a fascinating question. The president outsourced his drinking problem to Jesus, or so he says. Are all those anti-smoking ordinances just outsourcing our self-discipline to the state? And what about that trans-fat ban in New York City? Should the state keep me from that doughnut that tastes a certain way? Did we all agree to that self-binding decision?

Holt notes The Economist warned that "life would be duller if every reckless spirit could outsource self-discipline to the state." But we can, and we do.

Jean-Paul Sartre used to insist that each of us is free to redefine his character through "an act of radical choice." What choices do we have. Bush chose Jesus. Some of us liked those doughnuts down on 34th Street. This self-management business is even trickier than systems management in large organizations.

Ah well, somehow we'll manage - whatever that means these days.

Posted by Alan at 22:30 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 8 December 2006 22:32 PST home

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