Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, June 30, 2005
On a brighter note, the new design for the Freedom Tower is a considerable aesthetic improvement. It almost looks like a normal skyscraper. And I am glad they didn't put a hole in the top for the planes to fly through.

Now if we can only kill the museum, we'll be getting somewhere.

I get very tired writing about Iraq. But I thought I should follow up my last post.

Here are some things we need to know about the war:
  • How important are the "foreign fighters" to the insurgency? Are the suicide bombers predominantly foreign fighters, or Iraqis? Is Iraq basically drawing no-account jihadi hangers-on from across the Muslim world, the way many other hotspots have done (e.g., Bosnia, Kossovo, Chechnya) or are we really fighting the A-list guys there? If I had to guess, I'd say the "leaders" of the insurgency are local Sunni clan leaders and former Baathists, and that the jihadi foreign fighters are no-account cannon fodder. But it would be very useful to know where the suicide bombers are coming from, because suicide terrorism is much harder to defend against than other kinds of terror, and if the suicide bombers are primarily Iraqi that suggests (a) that the local insurgency has mastered the psychological techniques of creating human bombs pioneered by Hezbollah; and (b) that there's a pool of radicalized human-bomb-material in Iraq. It would be much more comforting to think that the most deadly enemies are coming from the outside, because if we can separate them from the locals and kill them, then we win, whereas if they are locals then they can be readily replenished.

  • How effective are the private armies that we are attempting to merge into the so-far quite ineffective Iraqi army? By private armies, I mean the Shiite and Kurdish militias. The Iraqi army is reportedly characterized by massive corruption and infiltration by the insurgency, and is essentially useless as a fighting force. The peshmerga gets better press. The Badr Brigade I haven't heard as much about. If we chose to, could we hand Iraq over to these forces, to fight their civil war themselves? Or would the result be catastrophe? There would be serious diplomatic consequences to letting the Shiite Arabs and Kurds conduct a reign of terror in the Sunni areas; key allies of ours - Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan (I'll leave Saudi Arabia off the list) are overwhelmingly Sunni-dominated, and would be, to put it mildly, a bit put out by such a result. But that is our only fallback if the Iraqi armed forces don't "stand up" in fairly short order. So? Is it an option?

  • The invasion of Iraq was justified in part by the argument that Iraq was involved with international terrorism. Which it most certainly was - but not as closely as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria or the local granddaddy of state-sponsored terrorism, Iran. We reasonably have a causus belli against all of these countries to the extent that they harbor (or even sponsor) individuals who have killed Americans, but we haven't invaded and conquered all of them because (we believed) it wasn't prudent to do so. In any event, it's not obvious to me that state-sponsored terrorism is really our problem, or was what led to 9-11. Rather, it seems to me that the decisive factor that made 9-11 possible was the development of the terrorist-sponsored state. Afghanistan didn't harbor or sponsor Osama bin Laden; rather, to a considerable extent, al-Qaeda ran the Taliban state. That's why the Taliban was willing to greenlight an outrageous stunt like blowing up the World Trade Center: because al-Qaeda didn't care if Afghanistan got flattened in response, and al-Qaeda effectively called the shots. Iran's leadership, however hard-line (and getting harder) is unlikely to make the same calculation. Which leads me to my question: one of the justifications for expansive war aims in Iraq is that we cannot afford to let that country become a harbor for terrorists again. How likely is it, really, that Baghdad becomes Kabul circa 2000 - a failed state effectively hijacked by jihadis? And what are ways of preventing that outcome apart from remaining an occupying power indefinitely?

Here's why I'm asking these questions. We have 140,000 troops in Iraq. We show no signs of wanting to dramatically expand the size of our military. We need to be prepared for major contingencies on Korea and in the Taiwan strait. We may need to be prepared for military conflict in Iran. We need to be prepared to act quickly if the government of Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan were to fall violently; Pakistan is the one place on earth where terrorists really could get their hands on nuclear weapons (well, Russia is another possibility, and North Korea a third, but Pakistan is the most frightening possibility because the nuclear scientists there actually have ties to the terrorists). We need to be engaged in both the Philippines and Indonesia. We need to be prepared to support the Colombian government and, if things get really bad in South America, to defend the Panama Canal. We have a lot of commitments, and it seems to me that the ongoing Iraqi occupation is making it very hard for us to fulfill all of them. Yes, a retreat under fire in Iraq would embolden all of our enemies and rivals, and make conflict at one of these other hot-spots more likely, so that's one reason only to leave Iraq after achieving victory (whatever that means). But the latter truth does not somehow make the former go away. We're overstretched and overtaxed, and it's becoming a problem, as more and more military leaders are willing to admit.

So we need to have an exit strategy. We don't need to announce it, but we need to have one. We need to know what we can live with in terms of an ultimate outcome in Iraq. Knowing what we can live with actually gives us leverage; it makes a threat to withdraw, or cut one deal or another with one or another party, more plausible. We are currently talking to local leaders of the insurgency. What kind of a deal can we promise them? We've developed a decent relationship with the Shiite political leadership. To what extent do they feel the pressure of time to make progress on both the political and the military front? Only to the extent that any threat on our part to reduce our deployment is credible.

Without going into whether the war as such was justified, we're there, and we actually have made some real progress towards our stated goals. The Kurds have not moved sharply in a pro-independence direction, but appear to believe that their best chance remains within a federal Iraqi state. Moktada al Sadr has been neutralized and brought into the political process. Sovereignty was transferred, an election was held, and the former President Allawi is now both alive and sitting in the opposition. That's not nothing. Now we have to plan to cut our deployment dramatically and in a relatively short amount of time, and hand Iraqi security over to the Iraqis. Which means we need to know the answers to my questions above, the answers to the question of what we can live with.

We won't leave Iraq entirely, of course. We'll keep a base in the Kurdish north and a base in Kuwait, and a big contingent of troops, advisors and diplomats in Baghdad, to help the new government and to be there in case trouble erupts. But the deployment will be 10% to 20% of what it is now.

We cannot bear any burden and pay any price, after all. And simply repeating that we must and will makes any attempt to do otherwise look like weakness and failure, which is exactly what staying the course is supposed to prevent.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Well, I expected President Bush's speech to be fairly content-free, and he delivered.

But I do wish he would stop doing one thing: changing the subject from how we are going to win in Iraq to why we are in Iraq.

I wish he'd stop doing that for two reasons.

First, because I hate when people change the subject like that. I really do want to know how we are going to win in Iraq. Rehashing how we wound up there, or why we're still there, is not an answer to that question.

Second, because I'm not sure going there gets him anywhere. Let me explain why by reference to NRO's new editorial about the Iraq War and 9-11. I'll go point by point.

"Bush was absolutely justified in invoking repeatedly Sept. 11 and the fight against terrorism in his speech from Fort Bragg Tuesday night," the editorial reads. "Let's count the ways."
  • There never would have been an Iraq war without 9/11, which drastically reduced the country's tolerance for a hostile Arab dictator thought to be in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

    That's true. And yet, that's a also a fairly damning indictment, inasmuch as it amounts to saying: because of 9-11, we erred on the side of war when the threat was ambiguous. That may (or may not) excuse an error - but it does not transform an error into a retrospectively correct course of action.

    Moreover, while it's true that 9-11 made us far more willing to risk war with Saddam, it's not at all clear to me that it drove the assessments of the WMD threat specifically. Because, after all, we've done almost nothing about North Korea, which actually has the bomb (so they say, and we believe). Rather, I think in retrospect the fairest way to characterize our approach to the WMD question was: we knew what we wanted to believe, because that would provide another justification for a war we felt was necessary, and we interpreted the ambiguous facts to suit that desire. That kind of thing happens alot, particularly under stress. But there comes a point where you stop repeating in public things that aren't quite so, even if you once believed them, and that point has certainly passed when the public knows they aren't quite so.

  • Saddam's regime had a web of connections to Islamic extremists and terrorists, as explained by Andy McCarthy elsewhere on NRO.

    Well, that certainly distinguishes Iraq from, say, Iran, or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, or Syria, or Libya, or Sudan, or . . . you get the idea. The question is not whether Saddam was willing to work with al-Qaeda, because a whole host of regimes in the region have had one or another degree of involvement with al-Qaeda. The question is: how important was Saddam to al-Qaeda, and, to the extent that Saddam was a threat, what was the best way of neutralizing it? The Administration has consistently refused to embrace the strongest claims made by some war supporters that Saddam was actually involved in 9-11 or was importantly involved with al-Qaeda for any purpose other than to plan for his own defense of Iraq in the case of an American invasion. There is no plausible reason why the Administration would not embrace these claims if they were credible. That ends the conversation as far as I'm concerned.

    I'll take the next several points together.

  • Foreign jihadists are now pouring into Iraq to fight on behalf of Abu Zarqawi who has explicitly allied himself with Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept 11 attacks. The case for a connection between the Iraq war and the sort of terrorists who perpetrated 9/11 is — sadly — stronger than ever.

  • Bin Laden himself has, as Bush noted Tuesday night, called the Iraq war a crucial front in the war on terror. He has said that the war will end in “victory and glory or misery and humiliation.”

  • If we lose in Iraq, a Sunni rump state could emerge that would provide a haven for terrorists, the same way Afghanistan provided a haven for the 9/11 terrorists.
    If we fail in Iraq, it will be a blow to America's prestige. One reason the terrorists struck on 9/11 is that they thought America was weak and making it bleed would prompt it to abandon its allies in the Middle East. The signal of weakness sent by a loss in Iraq wouldn't placate our enemies, but invite more attacks.

  • Supporters of a radical Islamic ideology struck American on 9/11. The war on terror is not a fight against a tactic (as the name falsely suggests), but against that ideology. The appeal of an ideology ebbs and flows with perceptions of its success. Communism advanced in the third world after its victory in Vietnam. The Islamists would get a similar boost if they were to prevail in Iraq.

    All of the above are true, and they are good reasons for seeing the war through to a reasonable conclusion. But they all describe threats to America that are consequences of the war in Iraq, rather than reasons to have gone in already. It is certainly the case that now that we are there, we have to finish the job in a way that leaves us more rather than less secure. It does not therefore follow that going in the first place was a good idea.

    I remember Mickey Kaus during the election campaign saying something very smart along the following lines. He view was that the Iraq war had been a serious mistake that had made America less secure. But it was obvious that, once begun, ending the war badly - cutting and running, say - would make America even less secure. Because Bush "owned" Iraq, and Kerry didn't, it actually made sense to prefer Bush to Kerry on the question of Iraq - while (in Kaus's view) preferring Kerry to Bush on the question of overall strategy in the War on Terror - because Bush could not afford to "lose" Iraq, while Kerry could (and would be tempted to do so). Without endorsing every aspect of that analysis, it struck me at the time and still that there was a lot of sense there.

  • Competing interpretations of Islam are at war in Iraq — that of Aytollah Sistani, who says Islam is compatible with democracy, and that of Zarqawi, who believes like bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers that Islam is a religion of violence. It is imperative that Sistani win out.

  • Islamic extremists justifiably fear a Middle East that turns away from radicalism and anti-Americanism. Victory in Iraq will be a step toward that goal.

    Well, I've written before about Sistani, and how his notion of what democracy is might not be precisely what we mean by the term (he differs importantly from the Iranians in that he opposes clerical rule, but on the other hand he certainly expects Iraqi law to conform to Islamic law, and he would support clerics telling people how to vote - so long as clerics did not themselves wield power). But that's a nit-pick; Sistani is, in the spectrum of Iraq and the Middle East generally, both a good guy and an important guy.

    But the real point is that these are precisely the political objectives that are so hard to achieve by military means. It is one thing to topple Saddam Hussein, and quite another to shepherd Iraq to the place that, apparently, our war aims require it to get to. We need to hear from the President how we are going to get there, and not only what the goal is. Simply reasserting the goal without any substantive explanation of how we're making progress towards it only reduces our - and the President's credibility.

Look: I supported the war, and many of the reasons why I supported it do not hold water in retrospect. Repetition of those reasons is not reassuring.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Ross Douthat has a lovely meditation on Lolita and why he keeps returning to it. And if you scroll down, there's also an extremely intelligent comment posted below.

I haven't had much to say about the Jack Abramoff scandals, because, well, what can one say?

But I finally do have something to say. I am particularly ashamed of the whole business because Abramoff appears to have been involved with (a) legitimate Jewish charities; (b) a number of Orthodox rabbis; (c) the Israeli settlers' movement.

Abramoff not only fleeced his clients and corrupted his government, but he seems to have thought this was OK in part because he was stealing money (partly) to finance Jewish charitable and political/religious/nationalist activities.

This is deeply wrong on a variety of levels. Not only because violating the law of the land is, where that law itself is not unjust, a religious transgression (the rabbinic dictum is: dina di malkhuta dina - the law of the land is law). Not only because these kinds of games are "bad for the Jews" in that they may lead people to think that all Jews are similarly corrupt, or that Jewish involvement in politics is potentially corrupting. But because it is categorically wrong to fulfill a mitzvah - a commandment - by means of an avera - a transgression. You get no points in heaven for behaving like the Bad Baronet of Ruddygore.

It is one thing to say, such-and-such law is unjust, so breaking it to do good is not a transgression. But theft is wrong, corruption is wrong - the laws against such behavior are not unjust, and breaking them in order to do "good" - leaving aside whether the particular activities he supported were indeed good - is sinful on a number of levels.

And yet, for some reason, over and over again I read about rabbinic authorities who have failed to comprehend this basic principle, and accept dirty money and corrupt relationships for their charities or other activities.

This kind of behavior has got to be anathematized in the Jewish community, and especially in the more insular parts of the Orthodox world - not for my sake, but for theirs, and for the sake of Heaven.

A good post by Paul Cella on Iraq, and the difficulty in sustaining public support for the war. It's not about the daily news cycle, nor is it about being duped into war. It's about clear and defined objectives, which in Iraq are lacking - not because Americans can't possibly follow the argument about how Iraqi democracy is in our interest, nor because they are insufficiently enlightened to accept said argument, but because achieving Iraqi democracy is not a military objective. It's a political objective. The army, however hard it fights, cannot assure victory if victory is defined this way. And Americans have enough horse-sense to see this. We are fighting a civil war on behalf of our allies in Iraq, and civil wars are not only bloody and ugly but very hard to *end* because victory in such a war (unless it is a war of extermination - which Iraq is not, thank God) is not something that can be achieved by strictly military means.

Steve Sailer's point is also apposite in this regard - the lack of a leadership to the insurgency makes it harder to defeat, not easier. But these kinds of conflicts can be very hard to end even when the other side does have a charismatic leader to negotiate with (or kill). Ask the Israelis. They've tried both strategies.

Based on my email, there appears to be a little bit of confusion as to what my opinion is on Gonzales. I'll try to make it plainer.

First, I think that pro-lifers would probably be right to feel betrayed by a Gonzales nomination, and that therefore such a nomination is a huge risk for Bush to take. He'd be asking his base to support him out of loyalty, after he prized loyalty to his loyal steward above loyalty to them. That's a tough one to swallow.

Second, I think Bush, to the extent that he promised to appoint Justices who could be confidently expected to vote to overturn Roe, promised too much. It is certainly appropriate for prospective Justices to opine on whether Roe was well-decided, but that's not actually the same thing as opining on whether or in what terms it should be overturned, as the latter amounts to prejudgement which I think is categorically inappropriate. This may sound like nit-picking (does anyone doubt that Antonin Scalia would vote to overturn Roe?) but I don't think it is. These sorts of fine distinctions really do matter when you're talking about the integrity of the law.

For that very reason, I think that opposing Gonzales simply because he is not a clear anti-Roe vote is a bridge too far, as a matter of principle, even though it is probably right as a matter of politics. To put it plainly: if I were an advisor to the President, I would urge against nominating Gonzales. If I were a Senator, and Gonzales were nominated, I would likely vote to confirm.

Third, apart from Roe the other Gonzales red flag is his support for affirmative action. I think many affirmative action policies are poorly constructed, and that the entire concept may be both pointless and counterproductive. (I certainly feel that way about gender-based affirmative action.) But no originalist can argue with a straight face that the Fourteenth Amendment outlaws affirmative action. The Fourteenth Amendment does not even plainly outlaw segregation (as evidened by the record of debate on said amendment and the views of many of the ratifiers)! So I find it bizarre that supposed partisans of an originalist hermeneutic object to Gonzales on these grounds. For myself, I'd far rather see a general retreat from the extremes of equal-protection jurisprudence and let affirmative action get debated in the political arena than increase the scope of equal-protection even further, and wind up in the same situation as we currently are with voting rights and redistricting (where, if a district is either too black or not black enough, Justice O'Connor may decide that it violates the Fourteenth Amendment).

My advice to the President is the same as it was last time I opined on this subject a year or two ago: if and when Rhenquist retires, nominate Clarence Thomas for Chief and Michael McConnell for Associate Justice. Thomas is not really an originalist; he's heavily influenced by natural-law thought that, frankly, I think is more in-tune with the President's own views (such as they are) on the Constitution, as well as with those of his strongest supporters. And McConnell is both respected by a broad political spectrum and supported by Christian conservative groups. I think such a strategy would give Bush the best shot at victory while simultaneously making his base very happy, and would add a Justice to the Court (McConnell) who would be a real credit to the institution. And victory begets victory; if he wins his first fight over a Supreme Court nominee, subsequent fights get easier to win.

I believe that Jonah Goldberg has apprehended the gist of the recent 10 Commandments cases precisely.

I will add only one thing, though it makes his formulation less elegant. The reason why it was permissable to display the 10 Commandments in the past, but impermissable to put up a new display now, is that while in the past the officers of our government more regularly paid respect to religion, in the view of the Court, they didn't really mean it, whereas those who do so today do mean it.

So: the 10 Commandments used to be constitutional because we used to say this was a religious country, but we really weren't. Now, when we really are a religious country, we need to say we aren't, and hence they are unconstitutional.

Friday, June 24, 2005
So two articles caught me eye recently, and they make an interesting combination.

First, a piece by Fareed Zakaria about regime change and how we appear to stink at it. After all, we've been trying to topple Castro for decades without luck; we've isolated Iran for decades as well without noticeable effect on their behavior; and, most notably, we quite aggressively tried to strangle Saddam Hussein to death, and in the end we still had to invade if we were determined to get rid of him - and years of sanctions had made the post-war much more difficult than it would have been ten years earlier. Burma, North Korea, maybe Venezuela if they keep up their recent behavior - it's hard to find many good examples where our default policy of isolation and sanctions has achieved its stated objection of regime change. And Iraq is certainly a cautionary tale about the costs of imposing such change by force.

Zakaria contrasts this approach with the more diplomatic route. We negotiated a return of Libya to the "family of nations" recently, even though they used to be a rogue state and a major sponsor of terror (as well as a major cheater on anti-proliferation treaties). We've normalized relations with Vietnam, and that society is certainly healthier, stabler and more friendly towards America than, say, North Korea. He also notes that recent events in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan support his point: we had no policy of isolation before the Orange, Rose and whatever color Kyrgyzstan is (Chartreuse?) Revolutions, and indeed our open relations with the previous, less-savory regimes - and their people - may have helped make these revolutions possible.

All well and good, and his criticisms of our knee-jerk policy of isolation are entirely on-point. But with respect to the other side of the ledger - how engagement has promoted liberalization - there's a bit of a chicken-or-egg problem. Libya, after all, turned to us, for a variety of reasons. Among them: they had plainly lost their bid for leadership in the Arab world, and were shifting to an African orientation; the wacky cult presided over by Qaddafi is not exactly what the Islamists want in power, so to some degree we have common enemies; and Qaddafi saw what happened to Saddam Hussein. Vietnam is a similar story: China is more a threat to them now than we are, and we frankly have no real opposing interests anymore. Why not reconcile?

The real problem is not whether to engage or not to engage with regimes that we find "unsavory" because we do that all the time. We are currently allied with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan - these are savory regimes? Yes, we're pushing - sometimes softly, sometimes more loudly - for reform in the Middle East generally, because we think that the profound dysfunction in these societies is ultimately threatening to us, and that political and economic reform are necessary if not sufficient conditions to redressing that dysfunction (we can debate whether we're right about either part of this conclusion elsewhere; that does, however, appear to be our policy). But how hard or how soft we push, and how important other considerations are in a particular instance, varies based on circumstances, just as it was when we confronted right-wing dictatorial allies in Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s.

And that's really my point: the situations where a combination of engagement and pressure to reform has had a beneficial impact on the internal situation in a country have been situations where we're dealing with allies, or at least non-enemies. What characterizes Cuba, Iran, North Korea, post-1991-Iraq and the other objects of American sieges (which is what the policy of isolation and sanctions amounts to) is not their odiousness (North Korea may arguably be uniquely odious, but Iran and Cuba are more run-of-the-mill on the odiositimeter) but their enmity.

Of course, it is sometimes possible to turn an enemy into a friend, or at least a neutral, and by means other than invasion and conquest. We "flipped" China in the early 1970s, for example (and at a time when that regime was profoundly odious). But that's because China, having split long ago from the Soviet orbit, now considered the Soviet Union a greater threat than we were. We "flipped" Egypt in the mid-1970s. But that's because Sadat made the bold decision that war with Israel was not working out, pan-Arabism wasn't working out either, and America had more goodies to offer than the Soviet Union did.

How, by contrast, could we turn Iran, or Cuba, or North Korea into a friendly, or at least neutral, state? It's not obvious. I think a reasonable case can be made that, in each case, our existing policies do little to advance our stated policy of regime change, and that more aggressive policies could be potentially catastrophic. But I think it's a great leap from that contention to the contention that these regimes - whose basis of legitimacy derives in considerable measure from antagonism towards the United States - could be "flipped" or neutralized by any plausible combination of carrots or sticks, especially in the absence of a common enemy.

But really, I wonder whether Zakaria doesn't miss the real point of the policy of isolation of such regimes. Is the point to rapidly precipitate regime change? Or is the point to keep the countries in question weak, with little capability to do us harm? If the latter, then the real reason why our policies are failing is that we are not operating in a world of universal entente among the great (to say nothing of lesser) powers. Cuba holds on because Europe, Canada, Mexico and now Venezuela do not abide by our policy of isolation, and provide the country with a great deal of support. North Korea holds on because China and South Korea prop it up, as they each have a strong interest in avoiding the collapse of that regime and the costs that would be entailed by such. Iran holds on because it has substantial internal resources and Europe, Russia and China have no interest in supporting our policy of isolation. Our long siege of the Soviet Union worked in part because of that regime's ambitions, which the regime could not by any means afford. North Korea's ambitions are considerably more modest, and for that reason among others they've held out much more effectively.

If our policy of isolating certain regimes has failed to achieve regime change, and arguably failed as well in limiting the capacities of these regimes, perhaps the most important question is how it has impacted relations among the great powers. Which brings me to my next post, and the next article that caught my eye.

There is something I don't understand about these rumors that Bush will nominate Gonzales to replace O'Connor. How much leverage does the President have over GOP Senators to vote for Gonzales to the Supreme Court?

There are 55 GOP Senators. Assuming the Democrats want to bloody Bush's nose (can we safely assume that? I think so, even though killing Gonzales would mean making common cause with conservatives and making a more conservative nominee more likely), Bush needs 50. Can he count on that many?

There are five GOP Senators with 2008 on their minds who might not be totally reliable if Christian conservatives express dismay at a Gonzales pick.
  • Sam Brownback is a very staunch pro-lifer with 2008 ambitions.
  • Bill Frist is no slouch in the staunchness department, and has at least as strong ambitions.
  • George Allen is currently one of the front-runners for 2008, and he won't want to blow that by annoying a key constituency.
  • Chuck Hagel is also strongly pro-life, and has no reason (or hope) to curry favor with the President, and he thinks he's a plausible 2008 candidate.
  • John McCain is pretty comprehensively unreliable, and needs to burnish his pro-life credentials if he wants to be credible in 2008.
And there are plenty of strongly pro-life Republicans without 2008 ambitions, who might be thinking further down the road or just deciding to stick to their guns. Some of these owe Bush for his support in 2002 or 2004, but unless they are up for re-election in 2006, to them Bush is already a lame duck.

(And I note that Conrad Burns did not vote when Gonzales came up for Attorney General, though I don't know why; perhaps he was simply out of town.)

And then there's Lincoln Chafee. He might want to curry favor with Bush for support in a GOP primary in Rhode Island. But it's at least as likely he'd try to please both liberals *and* conservatives by voting against Gonzales.

And here's the thing: it only takes one defection from the Right to bring (potentially) serious trouble for the nomination. If, say, Sam Brownback comes out against, doesn't that put pressure on, say Rick Santorum, who faces a tough fight against pro-life Democrat next year? It's one thing if the only defectors are the usual mavericks and/or liberals - a McCain or a Chafee. But if even one Senator from the conservative core defects, I think it's likely that others follow quickly.

Now, of course, I'm painting the picture more dire than it really is. We don't know that the Democrats could maintain discipline against a Gonzales nomination (6 Democrats voted "Yea" for AG - Landrieu, Pryor, Salazar, the two Nelsons and Lieberman - and at least Lieberman and Salazar would be pretty inclined to vote "Yea" again, I should think). We don't know that the Democrats wouldn't welcome a Gonzales nomination, saying, effectively, "if we give him this one, then we can vote against whatever fire-breather he nominates next, and our Gonzales vote makes us look non-obstructionist." And we don't know that the Christian Right would be willing to take on President Bush over this, whatever rumblings we're hearing now.

But Bush would be demanding loyalty for what is, essentially, its own sake. Bush wants Gonzales, assuming he does, because Gonzales has been loyal to him, and he wants to reward that loyalty. That's the only value at stake here; Gonzales doesn't represent any particular philosophy or faction.

Bush would effectively be playing a game of chicken with the Christian Right if he nominates Gonzales, because if they revolt, they would effectively be revolting because Bush didn't impose an abortion litmus test. In the national media, that means they lose - and, worse, it makes it harder for them to press their case in the future on judicial issues, since it will be apparent that they, like the Democrats, think ideology, not merely competence, fairness and temperament, should determine who gets appointed to the judiciary. Pro-lifers will realize this, and it will give them pause about openly revolting.

But I think this is a dangerous game for him, because he needs the loyalty of the Christian Right to advance his larger agenda and to keep or expand his legislative majority in 2006. If they knuckle under when Bush plays hardball, will he still have that loyalty when he needs it more?

As for Gonzales himself: I don't have a very strong impression of him. I tend to gravitate to Justices with an intellectual bent and with strong but modest principles. That's why I like Michael McConnell so much. Rhenquist actually fits that bill reasonably well, too. Gonzales, from what little I can tell, seems more like O'Connor than like Souter or Kennedy - that is to say: he's more likely to be a common-law pragmatist who calls 'em like he sees 'em rather than a modest and deferential liberal (like Souter) or a one-man crusading philosopher-king (like Kennedy - can you tell I don't like Kennedy?). That doesn't thrill me, but it certainly isn't the worst thing in the world.

And as for overturning Roe: I think pro-lifers are delusional if they think the Court is going to flat-out overturn Roe. I think Roe is fairly incoherent, and that it's founded on a privacy doctrine in Griswold that is worse than incoherent. But Miranda never made any sense either, and Rhenquist voted to uphold it because it had become part of the fabric of American law and custom. If the GOP manages to slowly change both the judiciary and American hearts-and-minds on the subject of abortion (which, I believe, it is doing; Americans have moved several percentage points in the pro-life direction in the past 10-20 years), you will start to see decisions hollowing out Roe from the inside, much in the way that through the 1940s and early 1950s there were a number of cases decided against segregation laws that chipped away at the edifice of segregation without directly challenging the legitimacy of segregation as such. And if and when Roe is overturned outright, it will probably be more in the way that Brown overturned Plessy than by direct repudiation of the idea of a right to privacy. Why do I say this? Because the absurd doctrine of "substantive due process" is still with us long after Lochner was consigned to the dustbin of history.

If I'm right about this - about how the Court works, about how Constitutional doctrine evolves, about the limits of what can be achieved by replacing one or another Justice - then Gonzales is probably not a calamity for the pro-life cause, though certainly a disappointment.

But if I were a single-issue pro-life voter, I might not listen to me.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Someone at The New York Times should run their stuff by the folks at GNXP before publication. The response to the article on the heritability of political/ideological outlook is clarifying and very sensible. (Thanks to Steve Sailer for pointing in that direction.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005
I think with this piece, the forces of genetic-determinism have officially jumped the shark.

Two things are peculiar about this, but not so peculiar once you think about it:

1. It's the NY Times that is taking genetic-determinism to silly lengths. This is surprising on its face, because only last week it seemed genetic-determinism was outright heresy, racist, sexist, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. But in fact it's not that surprising, because today's right is far more invested in the notion that there are no hard-wired differences than is the left. Why do I say that? It's the left that is wedded to the notion that sexual orientation is hard-wired, the right that yearns to believe it's a matter of choice. It's the left that has been preaching diversity, diversity, diversity for over a decade now, and while they usually meant something akin to "we should all look different but think alike" I think it's nonetheless true that saying the word over and over has made them a bit more receptive to the notion that differences are more than skin deep. And, relatedly, the left is comfortable with race-conscious policies, where the right is intermittently committed to the notion that opportunity and determination is the answer to all questions. Finally, the increasing Christianization of the American right has made for a very strong commitment to anti-racism, while the left, convinced of its rightness but doing a lousy job of convincing others of same, is increasingly open to the notion that some people are just born too thick to see the truth.

2. It happened so quickly! Again, it was only the day before yesterday that Larry Summers was raked over the coals for daring to suggest that biological sex differences have some bearing on the paucity of female physics Nobelists. Then yesterday we got the Cochran-Harpending paper on Ashkenazi intelligence, and today the Red State/Blue State divide is genetic. But, again, that silliness should follow so swiftly upon the first opening of the mind should not surprise upon reflection. Settled ideas are the ones less likely to wander off in silly directions. By contrast, someone first entertaining a new thought, or even more so a new way of thinking, is apt to see analogies and applications everywhere. When Einstein's General Relativity and Bohr's quantum mechanics first impinged upon the public consciousness, artists and other unacknowledged legislators of the world rushed to find applications to moral and cultural life, applications that were at best pointless and at worst mad, and in all cases merely indicative of an utter lack of comprehension of science generally, much less the meaning of these particular theories. So as the culture opens up to discussions of deep difference, expect to see lots of really dumb ideas mixed in with genuine research.

I only hope the dumb ideas don't produce a backlash, different in kind but comparable to the early-90s backlash from political correctness.

As to the article itself: our personalities, our characters, are far more complicated than this kind of scheme suggests. There is lots and lots of evidence that the deep structure of our personality is largely hard-wired. There's also lots of evidence that notable talent - musical ability, mathematical ability, athletic ability, etc. - is to a considerable extent hard-wired. There's also lots of evidence that a variety of abilities and traits are distributed unevenly among different population groups, as well as between the sexes and between straights and gays.

But it's also manifest to anyone who has done serious introspection that we build personas that lie on top of our deep personality, that can compensate for that deep personality's deficiencies and even produce what appears to be the opposite of what the deep personality would suggest. We can write software to produce a front-end that looks like it's running on a different O/S than it really is. And we can do this in very complex ways, not only in the obvious ones (such as: a shy person who overcompensates by being extra-gregarious). I know I do. For many people, that deep personality is a bit frightening, the source of most of our creativity on the one hand, but of our most anti-social impulses on the other, as well as of our most disabling fears. Which is why we write software to work around it.

This software is going to work differently for different people. What works around the pitfalls of my deep personality would do very little, or even be destructive, for working around yours. But it's the product of the interaction of my conscious mind, the conscious minds of my parents, teachers and peers, and my deep personality. And, as the product of these different forces, it can't possibly be determined by me genes. Your body shape will certainly determine what size and cut will suit you, but you still need a tailor if you don't want to go naked to the dance.

I guess what I'm saying is: while our talents and our personalities likely have a large genetic component, our characters are something else. We would do well to remember that distinction.

Thank-you, Mr. Teachout, for playing tag. And I like your own I-am-ridiculous game so well, I think I'll play a few rounds:

Borges: No; Kafka: Yes.
Dante: No; Chaucer: Yes.
Wagner: No; Mahler: Yes.
Cezanne: No; Picasso: Yes.
Yeats: No; Eliot: Yes.
Arendt: No; Orwell: Yes.
And yet, I suspect, C. Hitchens, No; P. Hitchens: Yes.
Reed: No; Cale: Yes.
Streisand: No; Midler: Yes.
Paul: No; George: Yes; John: Sometimes yes, sometimes no; Ringo . . . let's not go there.
Thatcher: No; Reagan: Yes.
Gorbachev: No; Andropov: Yes.
Jefferson: No; Adams: No; Hamilton: No; Madison: No; Washington: No; Burr: Yes.
Franz Ferdinand: No; Franz Josef: Yes.
Bobby: No; John: Yes; Teddy: Yes.
Franklin: No; Teddy: Yes.
Sullivan: No; Gilbert: Yes, but bitterly.
Ibsen: No; Chekhov: Yes.
Columbus: No; Cortez: Yes.
Patton: No; MacArthur: Yes.

Went out on a limb on some of those. Anyone disagree? Other entries in the "I am ridiculous" sweeps? (Remember: the point is not who is ridiculous and who isn't, but who can say it.)

Monday, June 20, 2005
Listen, can we just agree that Dick Durban's - or, rather, America's - problem is a simple lack of historical knowledge?

The technical term for Senator Durban is "idiot" because a sure way not to make your point successfully is to compare the opposing side to Nazis. It doesn't matter what he meant; whoever says "Nazis" first loses.

Had he said, does this sound like America or does it sound like the Argentine junta during the dirty war; had he said, does this sound like America or does this sound like the French in Algeria; had he said, does this sound like America or does this sound like the British during the Boer War - had he said any of these things, defenders of the Administration's interrogation record would have disagreed, perhaps furiously, but no one would be talking about censure. And, as well, no one in America would have had any idea what Senator Durbin was talking about.

Which is why, instead of saying any of these things, he said, does this sound like America or does it sound like Hitler.

Two cheers for Ross Douthat and the effort to make sure the literary life remains unspeakably horrible.

One cheer for a blow struck against the tyranny of nice.
A second for taking Foer seriously, which is far more damning (and fair) than treating him as a cynic.

Why not three cheers?

Well, because agon isn't everything. Pace Harold Bloom, not every writer is engaged in a titanic struggle to assert himself against his forebears. For one thing, some are just in it for the money. Shakespeare certainly was. For another, some are struggling against something else, something other than a place in the canon. Jane Austen is certainly asserting herself, as is Emily Dickinson (their work was in no wise analogous to quilting), but they read rather differently, on this metric, from Dante or Milton or Tolstoy or Joyce.

And then, what does one do with writers who are simply delightful? With Ovid, with Moliere, with Cervantes, with Beckett? (Yes, Beckett is delightful.) I don't say these writers did not reckon with forebears, that they did not want fame and recognition and immortality, even. But there is a difference nonetheless. Ovid doesn't strut so.

The sad fact, the fact that the Eggerses and Foerses and the rest of the hobbitses have to grapple with, is that the social function of the novel (or at least the literary novel) is going the way of verse, or so it sometimes seems, and that is what has made them huddle closer 'round the campfire and sing each other comforting songs. Ernest Hemmingway, more a legend than a writer at the best of times, is no answer to that.

Hmm . . . I've said some flip and unflattering things about Condoleeza Rice in the past (mostly in reaction to what I saw as grossly inflated assessments from internet opinionauts). But I'm beginning to reassess. No need to reassess my longstanding opinion on the indispensibility of reading Mickey Kaus.

Friday, June 17, 2005
I've been tagged by Paul Cella.

(1) How many books do I own? I haven't a clue, but certainly in the hundreds.

(2) What's the last book I bought? Well, assuming I bought it from Amazon (which seems likely) the last two books I bought (same order) were A House for Mr. Biswas and Albion's Seed, which both fall into the category of "don't I own this already?" and then I discover I don't, and so order them. BTW, I want to buy a good translation of the complete short stories of Anton Chekhov; can anyone recommend one?

(3) What's the last book I read? Well, readers of this blog know that the last book I read is A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity by Daniel Boyarin. Now, I'm reading Ovid's Metamorphoses and The United States and the Pacific by Jean Heffer.

(4) Five books that mean a lot to me? Right.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I first read this book in college, when I had fairly conventional left-leaning views. This is the book that made it clear to me that the only Socialism worth talking about is the solidarity of the barricades, and that therefore (this is not Orwell's conclusion; it's mine) Socialism as a political theory requires eternal war. Also a marvelous introduction to Orwell's style, which is the among the best plain styles executed in English. And if for nothing else the book is worth reading for the description of what it's like to be shot.
  • Nationalism and the Jewish Ethic, by Ahad Ha'am. I feel a little weird mentioning this one because I haven't read it since I was in college, but it had a big impact on me then. Ahad Ha'am gets tagged as a utopian rather than a realist, a critic rather than a builder, and a sentimental Jewish nostalgist rather than either a hard-headed secularist or a believer. He probably deserves all of those descriptions - but he's also been proved right on a host of matters that still bedevil Israel and Judaism. His solutions are often wrong (and always outdated) but many of the questions are still highly relevant.
  • Henry IV part I. The play that made me fall in love with Shakespeare. I had an English teacher sophomore year of high school who, when he was ready to begin teaching this play, began with a lecture entitled, "Everything You Need To Know." This was the history of the Kings and Queens of England, from Boadicea to the Glorious Revolution. I remember almost none of it. But I remember reading through the play line by line in class, and learning how to read both in the sense of how to understand such a rich text as a play like this and how to read it, aloud, so that it will play with the hearer. And the play itself is a masterpiece, one of Shakespeare's most complex plays in terms of poetic imagery and plot, with some of his most compelling characters (Falstaff first among them). I still get excited when I find that someone's going to be putting it on.
  • Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. Another book I read in college, and another epiphany contrary to the author's intentions. Hobbes, after all, was just trying to illustrate the importance of a strong sovereign to social peace. But what he achieved was something different: proof that a natural rights/contractarian view of society can, with complete logic, devolve into a manifest totalitarianism. And I don't think that's an exaggeration: Hobbes is quite clear that the sovereign is - and must be - above the law, and the only way to make that fact manifest (which it must be, to be effective) is to violate the law - that is, to rule through terror. Hobbes could never have forseen the ideologies that would justify the great terrors of the 20th century, but he laid out the unimpeachable reasoning that leads to that conclusion. This is also the first book of philosophy that I really got, and that made me understand what the whole point of the philosophical game was. And I have been wary of foundational as opposed to historical understandings of society and the state ever since I read it.
  • Ulysses, by James Joyce. I considered naming Middlemarch, or Anna Karenina, or Moby Dick, or Don Quixote instead, all personal lode-stars in the realm of the novel. Or I considered naming a more personal lode-star, like The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, or Housekeeping, or The Unconsoled. But Ulysses is personal in a way that the other giants are not, and is a giant in the way that the more personally-connecting books are not. I first got an inkling that I would marry my wife when wandering around Ireland together in 1993, reading Ulysses as we went. And I still identify with both Bloom and Stephen, and I still weep with pity and joy when I think about poor Bloom's little life, its tragedy and its luminocity.

But really, who can reduce oneself to just 5 books? I can easily think of another dozen that had a big impact on my thinking and my life. And I hope I continue to encounter books that can so move me. What a sad thought to think that I might not.

(5) Tag five more people? I suppose this means you're it.

Ross Douthat
Terry Teachout
John Derbyshire
Jerry Pournelle (though perhaps I should have cited The Mote in God's Eye as a book that meant a lot to me - which it did, back when I read it - if I wanted him to play)

A reader directs me to a review of Boyarin's book in Commentary from 1995. (The article is only available to archive subscribers.) The reviewer (Jay Harris) reads Boyarin's patent anti-Zionism back into the remainder of his book, and gives it a very negative review. I think Boyarin is, to an extent, asking for this, inasmuch as he included that ridiculous last chapter in the first place. But I think his arguments in the remainder of the book need to stand and fall on their own merits, and not merely because Boyarin's motivations may be suspect.

Harris makes one key point that I failed to make in my little book review, though it occurred to me as well. Boyarin makes much of Paul's desire to transcend difference, and grounds his objection to Jewish law in the fact that this law is mightily concerned with preserving difference. As I noted in my review, I think there are much deeper and more important reasons why Paul rejects observance of the law - to whit, such observance is, for a Jew, about salvation, not about quaint ethnic customs, and so observance implies a rejection, or at least doubt, about the comprehensive salvific power of faith in Christ. But Harris makes another valid point in his review: that Paul's exclusivism is no less exclusive than rabbinic Judaism's (only Christians are saved), and his universalism no less universal (you can convert to Judaism, after all). The important differences relate to the "carnality" of Judaism (Jews and Christians alike practice immersion as part of conversion, but Jews practice circumcision for males - converts or born Jews - whereas Christianity has no similar physical sign, and doesn't "transmit" by blood, so even the children of Christians need to be baptised), and to the timeline for the achievement of universality (Judaism defers the unification of the world at God's holy mountain until the Messianic Era, while Paul and Christianity sought/seek to convert the world now).

Anyhow, as I say, this occurred to me as well, and it's a vital point that undermines Boyarin's thesis. But there's still other interesting stuff in the book, I'd say, and I don't think everything Boyarin says is "tainted" by his (manifestly idiotic) political ideology.

But, like I said, I'm still eager to hear from someone reasonably fluent in Pauline scholarship to tell me if Boyarin if full of it, because this is not my area of expertise.

Thursday, June 16, 2005
So a friend from synagogue lent me Daniel Boyarin's book, A Radical Jew. Difficult as I find it to get into a book that makes frequent resort to ideologically-driven neologisms like phallogocentrism, I completed the slog, and I can say it was worth it. I wish I knew more about St. Paul, the subject of the book, so I could react more intelligently.

The thesis is relatively simple. Boyarin is going to battle with the traditional Lutheran reading of Paul, a reading that takes the view that the Law (i.e., Judaism) actually increased sin (because it gave more commandments to violate and because it engendered the sin of pride when one did not violate the commandments), and that this was indeed part of its purpose, in order that God's gift of grace through Christ be more manifest. Boyarin argues that Paul, as a normative Jew, could not have argued that Judaism was actually evil. Christ came not to overthrow the Law but to fulfill it; this means that, Christ having come, the Law must mean something different than it did. The Law is, in fact, an allegory of Christ, and because that is what it is it cannot conflict with what Christ is, namely the unity and salvation of all through faith and love. The letter of the Law must be abrogated because the Law divides people into Jew and gentile, and because the letter itself is on a lower plane than the spirit, the former analogous to Christ before and the latter to Christ after the Resurrection.

Nothing in this sounded wildly off to me, but some of the emphases struck me as odd. Boyarin confuses matters by referring to Paul's body/spirit dichotomy as "dualism" but then contrasting his dualism with Platonic dualism that values the body negatively. Paul, he argues, valued the body positively, but subordinate to the soul. Boyarin thinks this is also different from rabbinic Judaism, which he describes as "carnal", but that sounds wrong to me; the rabbinic Judaism I'm familiar with similarly positively values the body (hence the positive valuation of sex, at least in marriage; hence circumcision, tefillin, and many other mitzvot performed with the body; hence the belief in bodily resurrection) but subordinates it to the soul.

Boyarin also never explains what the positive value of the letter of the Law is for Paul; presumably it has one if Boyarin is right that Paul positively values the revelation to Moses, and makes the letter analogous to the body as the spirit of the Law is to the human soul. Boyarin centers his argument on Galatians, where Paul argues that observing Jewish law after having accepted Christ is positively wrong; he argues that Paul's reason rests on the conviction that the Law is predicated on separating Jew from gentile, but that in Christ there is no such separation because Christ came to redeem everybody, hence the Law must go. But it seems to me that an argument he makes, but makes much less central, is actually at the core of the matter: if Christ is the real meaning of the revelation to Moses, then to follow the old hermeneutic is to "hedge one's bets" and, hence, testifies to a lack of faith. That's a much more powerful, and less pragmatic, reason for Paul to take the stance he does.

And Boyarin runs into trouble explaining why Paul accepts marriage and traditional sexual morality as the second-best way to live (after celibacy). He wants to argue that Paul is not merely "reverting" to Jewish "prejudices" but his argument boils down to saying exactly that: Paul knows not everyone can be celibate, and therefore concedes that the Jewish understanding of sexual morality still obtains for people who can't make the leap to celibacy. How exactly is this different from what he's arguing against, apart from the value signs? (Boyarin clearly seeing traditional sexual morality, if emphatically not traditional sex roles, as basically good, where radical Christian critics of Paul on this subject see it as bad, and hence refer to Jewish "prejudice".)

The last chapter of the book is dreadful, an irrelevant and manifestly unconvincing defense of Jewish quietism in postmodern terms. The Jewish gift to the world, apparently, is the powerlessness of Diaspora conditions; if only, Boyarin wishes, everyone could be a slave, and nobody a master. Pardon me while I reach for my gun. I have respect for a serious, thoroughgoing quietism or pacifism, of the kind represented by the Satmar Hasidim or the Amish, even though I disagree with it. I have no respect for this warmed-over Edward Said.

But the book as a whole had its virtues, and certainly made me think harder about Paul's relation to Jewish tradition. (Boyarin's explication of the midrashic nature of some of Paul's scriptural proofs was well done.) I thought Peter Brown's The Body and Society was a more thorough and impressive treatment of many of the same themes, but Boyarin's book had some new things of its own to say.

Anyone more informed about Pauline scholarship and related matters care to weigh in? I freely confess my ignorance, so don't feel shy about correcting me (or Boyarin).

Now I'm simultaneously reading Ovid's Metamorphoses and The United States and the Pacific, by Jean Heffer. I'm increasingly interested in the origins of the US-Japanese war (the Pacific Theater of WWII), and wanted to get some background. Other recommendations on that topic very welcome as well.

By the way: if you were looking around at the newspaper/magazine/web-zine-blog-thingy scene today, where would you see an opening? An opportunity? An ecological niche not entirely filled? Pure curiosity on my part, I assure you.

By the way, I've become rather a fan of The Atlantic Monthly lately, though with substantial reservations, and the latest issue is a good mix of what I like and find annoying about the magazine.

The cover story is an impossible-to-take-seriously gloom-mongering piece about the imminent collapse of the American economy. I think James Fallows has been writing this piece annually since 1980. Well, not really, but it's a classic example of how raising the volume reduces the number of people you convince. Among the many things it would be nice for Fallows to acknowledge: that raising taxes does not increase the national savings rate; that our trade relationship with China is a co-dependency that they need at least as much as we do; that while the trade imbalance is extraordinary, the budget imbalance is pretty much in-line with other industrial countries, and much smaller relative to the American economy than the Reagan deficit; and that while Bush signed a terrible Medicare bill, the Democrats are the ones complaining that he didn't make the entitlement big enough, and who are resolutely against any serious attempt to restructure the other entitlement gorilla, Social Security.

But then there's an excellent (if thoroughly depressing) war game of the North Korean situation. They did a similar piece on Iran last year, also excellent, but this one is better because there is more consensus among the participants about just how serious the situation is and more acute disagreement about what to do. As the article says: everyone who walks through the North Korean crisis becomes convinced that it will only get worse, and that there's no good solution. I can attest to that myself, having walked through several times and always come to that conclusion. This piece certainly didn't change my mind. The war game is played by players that run the gamut of the political spectrum: an ultra-hawk who favors war, a Reagan Pentagon official who counsels pulling out, a Carnegie Endowment type who favors one-on-one talks, a Clinton official involved in negotiating the Agreed Framework who defends that deal, and the leader of the game, a former Pentagon wargamer of many years who plays the PAC-COM chief, and argues on the one hand that the target set for any military action is already very difficult, and that protecting Seoul is impossible, but that if we want to have any real military options we need to fight within the next 12-18 months. Sobering indeed.

Then there are the lesser contrasts. We get the latest excruciating installment of Bernard-Henri Levy's travels in search of actual Americans. And we get a delightful romp through English fieldsports with P.J. O'Rourke. We get a lame Iraq board game from Spencer Ackerman and a number of delicious book reviews.

And then we get the Wolfowitz interview with Mark Bowden. Of all the people in this Administration, Wolfowitz is the one I find the most fascinating, and one about whom I have the most conflicted feelings. He is, after all, a nice Jewish boy trying to save the world. And he's a genuine liberal, with real sympathy for the sufferers of the world, even those who suffer at the hands of those with whom he sympathizes (hence, for example, his avowed support for Palestinian statehood and Israeli disengagement, in contradistinction to his friends and colleagues, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith). He is the embodiment of the fusion of Jacksonian and Wilsonian strands in American foreign policy tradition that best characterizes the Bush Administration's first term. (It's not an accident that Wolfowitz is the one that Christopher Hitchens likes best; Cheney and Rumsfeld by contrast, he has never entirely trusted.) In many ways, I admire him. And I'm convinced, against my longstanding political inclinations, that in certain fundamental ways he was dead wrong - not just about Iraq, but about the fundamentals, about how power works.

Iraq itself was clearly in part a personal drama for him as well as a matter of policy. Wolfowitz, after all, was there when America betrayed the Shiites who rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991. He was Dick Cheney's deputy at the time, and I don't think he ever forgave himself for those events. I'm not saying that this was all that motivated him; he clearly still believes that the Iraqi bank-shot strategy (take out Saddam and empower the Shiites to put America on the side of liberation and even Islam, removing much of the rhetorical force of the jihadist message, and incidentally remove both our troops from and our dependency on Saudi Arabia, making us less beholden to their own interests which run largely counter to ours in the region) was a good bet. Whether it looks like a good bet in retrospect, I leave to the reader to decide. But I don't think the personal angle was irrelevant. It rarely is.

He'd make a great character for a novel. (Hmmm . . .) And it's an interesting, if periodically maddening interview.

Anyway, I'm enjoying the magazine.

Why does it depress me that Derb is right about the space shuttle? I've come a man and all; why can't I put aside childish things?

Centuries on, does anyone - Chinese or not - romanticize the search for the immortality fungus in the isles of the mystic east?

Space is really cold, really far, and really expensive. The only good reasons to be there are science (better done by machines) and to diversify away from our current one-planet condition.

We should end all manned spaceflight and spend the money saved on ramrobots.

Well, it's Bloomsday again, and the weather in NY has finally broken (meaning: the horrible heat has been replaced by a refreshingly Irish drizzle). We'll be having a couple of friends over to drink Burgundy, Jamesons and Guinness, eat gorgonzola and mustard sandwiches, and read selections from the holy text. (If you want to read my thoughts on the book from a year ago, check here.)

What is it about Joyce? I can't think of another writer who so divides intelligent readers. Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot come close; each has highly intelligent partisans and equally intelligent (and vehement) detractors. But I still think Joyce takes the palm, for three reasons.

First, because both Woolf and Eliot earn praise and suffer its opposite for ideological reasons. Feminists are partisans of Woolf, and anti-feminists her opponents; meanwhile, a certain kind of conservative reader with a fondness for Eliotic New Criticism or traditional Catholicism will go to bat for Eliot the poet out of general ideological affinity. Joyce stands on his own: his idolators worship the work for itself, and the idol-smashers abominate it for itself (and what it has done to writing, rather than to "society").

Second, because Joyce is just plain harder than Eliot or Woolf. This allows highly intelligent readers to piss on his detractors as simply not being up to snuff, while putting detractors - who, if they are highly intelligent, are frequently cultural conservatives - in the odd position of attacking a canonical work for being inaccessible. (You will not, for example, find Joyce detractors lining up to badmouth Gerard Manley Hopkins, who can be frighteningly hard to figure out but in an utterly different way.) Neither Woolf nor Eliot is nearly so hard to make sense of, and so their opponents can be bolder in asserting that the Emperor is, if not altogether in the altogether, at least not so splendidly attired as one has been led to believe.

Third, because of the three Joyce is the only comic writer, and exuberantly so, and there is always something peevish (as well as pointless) in disputing someone else's sense of humor - yet nonetheless one feels the right, I think, to judge someone morally aberrant merely because that someone's sense of humor seems so.

I love Joyce, and specifically I love Ulysses. Leopold Bloom is one of the most splendidly realized human beings in fiction, as alive as Hector or Falstaff or King David. He is, ultimately, a fairly pedestrian fellow, and yet one does not tire of his mind. He is who Sancho Panza would be if he had eaten the books himself instead of feeding them to the Don (debt to Kafka acknowledged). He is the only character Joyce created who does not seem a surrogate and yet whose interiority is complete, fully-realized. Ulysses is stuffed with glorious miniature portraits, but they are as embroidery on a coat for Bloom to wear.

The formal experiments have mostly not worn well, or were not done as well as Joyce thought the first time around. Flann O'Brien was a better satirist. And Molly's monologue is one of the more over-rated pieces of the Joyce oeuvre. (Forgive me if I prefer Gretta to Molly.) But Bloom, and his Dublin, remain incandescent.

There is a word for people who don't like Ulysses.


Thursday, June 09, 2005
Okay, some things I learned about Governor Mark Sanford.
  • He is very tan. I mean bronze god tan - really, really tan.
  • He is surprisingly short.
  • He's funny enough that you can see how he succeeded in politics. He doesn't laugh at his own jokes and his sense of timing is good, but he doesn't seem like he's an entertainer, just someone who knows how to deliver humor as part of a speech.
  • He's still sufficiently provincial that he's kind of goggle-eyed at New York - and the amount of money to be raised in New York. I didn't feel like this was faked. Whether it's faked or genuine, it's obviously an asset in a politician.
  • He either has an excellent nose for the sorts of books that a New York crowd would like and expect him to be reading, or he has terrible taste in books. He name-dropped both Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat and Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class. The latter actually made me cringe. But, on the positive side, the "lessons" he drew from these books were much more sensible than the books themselves. From Friedman: that China and India have huge reserves of cheap talent, so the competitive challenge for a kid from South Carolina is very tough. From Florida: that South Carolina should try to attract rich, well-connected retirees who might invest locally, and that protecting quality of life (which means protecting the coastal environment and making sure roads are in decent condition) is important to attracting said retirees. Those don't sound like bad lessons.
  • He has national ambitions. He's already got a bunch of money in the warchest, and while he's had trouble with South Carolina's (Republican) legislature, he's not expected to have any trouble defeating whichever Democrat runs against him next year. So why's he doing a New York fundraiser? There's only one good answer.

I spoke with the Governor for about 5 seconds, as you'd expect. He assumed I was a friend of one of the hosts (which I'm not) and said it was very generous of me to come and give money on his say-so. But I spent more time talking with his legislative director. Basically, Governor Sanford has a complicated and ambitious agenda for South Carolina, and he's not going to get most of it done. He's trying to cut taxes dramatically and streamline government services, and he's getting some (but not all) of that done. But he's also trying to radically reshape South Carolina's government, and I get the feeling he's losing most of those battles. South Carolina is run to a considerable extent by commissioners chosen by the legislature, rather than by the Governor. The school system, which consumes 50% of the state budget, is not under the Governor's control, for example, nor is the highway system (which is in considerable disrepair). Governor Sanford is trying to strengthen his own office at the expense of the legislature and, especially, these independent commissioners. And the legislature - unsurprisingly - is fighting back.

It's a surprising agenda for a conservative, given that conservatives - especially in the South - have tended to favor weak executives and weak central governments. But Sanford is a Republican, not a conservative Democrat, and he's one of a new generation of "reform conservatives" so it's not so surprising when you consider that. I've written before about how the Progressive tradition is now more alive in the GOP than among the Democrats (just as, I believe, the realist/internationalist Hamiltonian/Eisenhower tradition in foreign policy has better prospects among the Democrats these days than among Republicans, where it traditionally found its home). Governor Sanford is a good example.

After the George W. Bush Adminstration, Republicans are going to be looking for someone who carries forward what they like about Bush, but who is a contrast in other ways and reverses course on matters where they disagree. There is no question in my mind that the next GOP nominee, and the one after that, will be acceptable to what gets called the Christian Right. They are a huge percentage of the GOP vote, and there is no sign (yet) that they are a threat to the GOP's ability to govern nationally (albeit they have hurt receptivity to the national GOP in states like California and New York). Areas where many Republicans dissent from the Bush agenda are: immigration, foreign policy, and domestic spending. Sanford will be a candidate who is certainly acceptable to Christian conservatives and who will be very appealing to conservatives concerned about the level of domestic spending under Bush.

He's one to watch. I'll keep watching him.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005
I know, it's been a long time since I blogged. Work and all that. Where do I begin?

I was talking with my wife last night about political matters, something I rarely do (since she rarely has an interest). I have resolved on two matters: I will, firmly if not quite with enthusiasm, be supporting Mayor Bloomberg for reelection. And I will not be voting to reelect Governor Pataki (should he choose to run for yet another term).

Why will I be supporting Mayor Mike? Bloomberg was elected to do three things.

First, and above all, to hold the line on crime, and not allow the essential achievement of the Giuliani Administration to unravel. This he has done. If he did nothing else, good or bad, that would be sufficient for him to deserve reelection.

Second, to reform New York's manifestly disfunctional education system. Here his record is a mixed bag - but included in the mix are a handful of strongly positive developments. Political accountability to the Mayor, and hence to the people, is an essential reform. Once upon a time, shielding education from political meddling and patronage was a step to improving public education (if you want to see how political meddling and patronage can destroy an education system, take a look at the State of Israel), but among many ailments New York's education system suffers from pervasive corrupt self-dealing, and a precondition to improvement is political accountability. Bloomberg got that, and that's a real achievement because he could not simply implement it by fiat: he needed Albany's approval. Beyond this, positives are Chancellor Klein's enthusiasm for lifting the cap on charter schools (another Albany matter), Bloomberg's opposition to social promotion, and Bloomberg's occasional toughness on the principals' union; the big negatives are Bloomberg's capture, at the beginning of his term, by brain-sucking ed-school droids, his willingness to manipulate scores to manufacture progress (which is, to be fair, a widespread problem nationwide and in both parties), and his lack of enthusiasm for seriously taking on the UFT (which, again, is understandable; they are stronger than he is). The record is not what I'd like it to be, but it's a passing grade.

Third, to shepherd New York economically through the post-9-11 downturn, and to rebuild the city. Here, again, Bloomie's record is mixed. On the one hand, he raised a number of taxes, without looking at any real reforms of the tax code or of spending. On the other hand, much city spending is mandated, Bloomberg couldn't allow essential services to be cut, and, frankly, the political climate in New York leans so far to the left (and farther than it used to in the City Council, thanks to term limits) that Bloomberg's political room was limited. With respect to development, Bloomberg has put forward a number of very intelligent plans; his plan for downtown (ex-Ground Zero, over which he has no authority - that's Pataki's problem, and his scandal, and one of the reasons I will not be voting for him) is excellent, and his enthusiasm for the Far West Side is right on. Unfortunately, Bloomberg became convinced that the only way to get development done in New York was on the back of a stadium boondoggle. I didn't - and don't - agree. This city is more pro-development than it has been in a generation. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it isn't. I truly believe that a more taxpayer-friendly proposal to develop the Far West Side - the sort of thing that Steven Malaga at the Manhattan Institute has been pushing for years - could have gotten serious public support if Bloomberg took it to the people (remember: this area is a wasteland; there are no neighbors to complain about overdevelopment or increased traffic - this is not, in other words, the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, the big development issue around where I live). Bloomberg made a different political calculation. And he lost. If, having lost, he decides to do whatever he can to change the way business is done in Albany (Silver and Bruno are the guys who killed his beloved stadium) then something truly good will have come of the whole mess. On the whole, I give Bloomberg a passing grade for economic policy as well.

What's not to like about Mayor Mike? Yes, he's a nanny-state type - but frankly, who isn't these days? Yes, he's a down-the-line social liberal (except, take a big, big note, on crime) - but he's Mayor of New York. No, he has no particular feel for outer boroughs types - but if he does what's right for Manhattan, that'll benefit the outer boroughs enormously, and I do think that, overall, he wants to do what's right for Manhattan, and has some idea of what that is.

And then there's the opposition.

The Democratic Party in New York City is completely and totally unfit to govern. Period. Paragraph.

Freddy Ferrer is an idea-less, agenda-less hack, of whom the best that can be said is that he won't go out of his way to wreck the place. Virginia Fields would be a pushover for every self-serving social service special interest in the city, plus she would undo all of Giuliani's important reforms in policing and welfare. She'd be so awful she'd actually make David Dinkins look good. Anthony Weiner is a painful caricature of the far more able Chuck Schumer (whose seat in Congress he now holds), and is inconceivable as Mayor. And Gifford Miller, while not an idiot, has all of Bloomberg's defects (Manhattan-centric, even more of a down-the-line-liberal, not tough enough on spending) and few of his assets (Miller has no administrative experience, has neither incentive nor inclination to buck the powers-that-be that hold the city back, does not understand what it takes to run a business in New York, is not fully committed to holding the line on crime). The only good thing I'll say about him is he knows something about education. And anyway he won't win. And he looks like something out of Metropolitan.

That's why I'll be supporting Bloomberg: because he deserves reelection and his opponents must be kept out of office at all costs.

So why will I not be voting for Pataki? Because he's turned into the Republican Mario Cuomo without the purported eloquence. He stands for nothing anymore but the delusional notion that he's an important national player, and for remaining in office. He has trashed the state's - and the city's - finances by making his deal with the hospital workers to win reelection. He is overwhelmingly responsible for the disaster at Ground Zero - and it is a disaster of epic proportions, an indictment of our very civilization. Pataki was a decent governor for one term, but it is time for him to go, and if he doesn't know that he deserves to have it explained to him.

I'm worried about Elliot Spitzer. I suspect he's basically a shake-down artist. I do think he's brought to light a number of practices that deserve prosecution, particularly the scandalously corrupt market-timing trade some hedge funds were doing with mutual funds (basically, entering into private agreements with mutual funds to fleece retail investors in those funds). But his crusade against Wall Street research is far less defensible, and the way in which so many of his crusades end in settlements with the state suggest that he's mostly practicing a form of extortion. A lot of Democrats think Spitzer could go all the way. I'm very skeptical.

But I think the state could survive Spitzer, and the GOP has got to get out from under Pataki's thumb. If that takes 4-8 years in the wilderness, so be it. Hopefully, Pataki won't run again, but I'm expecting him to run until he's defeated or has a stroke.

The real problem, though, is New York's small-d democratic deficit. The state is basically run by 3 guys: the governor, the Senate Majority Leader (Bruno) and the Speaker of the Assembly (Silver). Except, of course, for the large chunks of the state that are owned by, say, the Port Authority, which is responsible, ultimately, to nobody. Bruno and Silver, meanwhile, rule their respective houses of the legislature with an iron fist, and hold effective life tenure. And they control not only the state but hold much of the power in New York City as well. I mentioned that Bloomberg couldn't take control of the City's schools without Albany's approval. He also can't reform rent control (something he's interested in doing) without Albany's approval. Spending on medical benefits for poor and aged New Yorkers? Albany mandates that. He even lost his beloved stadium because Silver doesn't want the Far West Side to develop a new business district - he's worried that will draw companies away from the downtown district he represents. I'm glad the stadium is dead, but I'm disgusted by how it died. Silver simply should not have the power to dictate whether and where New Yorkers choose to build a stadium. He's the most dangerous and destructive man in New York politics. And he will serve until he dies. I'm telling you, they don't torture dissenters here, but we've got not much more control over our government than they do in Cuba. If anyone has serious, well-informed ideas about how to change that, I'd love to hear them. The New York State Constitution is not very congenial to a latter-day small-d democratic reformer.

Tonight I'm going to a fundraiser for Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina. Along with Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, I think he's one of the most promising up-and-comers in the party, and if either is interested in the slot he'll be on the short list for the VP slot in 2008. (I bet neither is interested, but I'm sure both are thinking ahead to 2012 or 2016, so you never know.) In fact, Sanford and Pawlenty are both being batted about as dark-horse candidates for 2008 (the front-runners being, presumably, Frist, Romney and Allen, and, in some people's opinion but not mine, Giuliani). I'll let you know what I think of him in person.

Meanwhile, across the river, New Jersey's GOP has nominated Doug Forrester, about whom I know next to nothing. Anyone know anything - good, bad or ugly - about him?