Monday, September 19, 2005

Good News ... The paint is now dry, the boxes are unpacked, and the door is most definitely open.

Please come on over to our new home, at

Thursday, September 15, 2005

India & Iran ... Two days ago over Tapped, Matt Yglesias published a brief post on Iran. The gist of his argument was this: "Both militarily (thanks to the awkward position the Iraq War's put us in) and economically (thanks to the energy situation) Iran has more capacity to damage our interests than we do to damage Iran's."

That's more or less what I've been saying here for a while now. Simply put we have no recourse for imposing any kind of hardline policy on Iran. Large-scale military strikes are out, as are, for different reasons, small-scale ones. Meanwhile, national economic sanctions aren't working because of the energy crisis, and specific corporate sanctions wouldn't work because the individual companies in Iran are typically Russian banks which operate outside our purview.

As a sign of just how desperate the administration is getting, the Times reported today that the U.S. is now leaning heavily on India to join the EU effort to refer Iran's nuclear activity to the United Nations Security Council. It'll be interesting to see which way India goes on this. On the one hand, they should side with us because of the nuclear technology we promised them this summer; on the other, India's alternate estival accord was with Iran, which agreed to a pipeline deal that would pump natural gas directly into India.

But the real trouble here is that the U.S. should have to rely on India at all. Bush administration policies may not be directly responsible for the current political climate within Iran, but they are responsible for having deprived the State Department of the resources needed to confront and contain Ahmadinejad's nuclear program effectively. Beginning with the rampant unilateralism prior to the Iraq war, we have systemically stripped ourselves of the political leverage necessary to engage Tehran successfully.

Consequently the regional threat Iran now poses is very much a problem of our own making. And while it would be nice if India opts to help us out of this mess, we should bear in mind that it should never have come to this point in the first place.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Cheney's Pipeline ... At this point Josh Marshall is probably best known for the lead role he took in staving off Bush's "private accounts" social security reform.

Yet well before that effort Josh had already established himself as the preeminent blogger of the American left. Although part of that reputation owes to how well he conveys the news behind the news, Josh's greater talent lies in how acutely he perceives the national implications of seemingly local stories.

A great case in point is his post this morning about an oil pipeline in Mississippi. Evidently Vice President Cheney ordered the pipeline up and running on August 30 -- a day after Katrina hit, and even though getting the pipeline on-line meant that two rural hospitals went without power.

To get the story, Marshall followed a brief tip in the Washington Post back to its source in the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American. In the process his post becomes, however unwittingly, a textbook example of how local news analysis ought to inform political commentary.

Definitely check it out if you get the chance.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

More housekeeping ... Between Iraq, Katrina, China, the Chief Justice, North Korea, the economy, and oh by the way Iran, there's about a thousand and one pressing things to write about today. However, before I can get to those issues I need to do some housekeeping first.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, we're in the process of moving this site over to its own domain, or more simply, to But to make the switch extra special, I also decided to switch to a different blogging software.

Fortunately, anyone who visits the site itself won't notice a change. The homepage will look the same, the comments will work the same way, etc. The difference is that I'll be able to do some technical things that will make the site significantly easier to find for media members and media observers alike.

I mention this now because several weeks ago I started putting the new software through a demo run. Fortunately, it's as good as promised. Unfortunately, I realized today -- when one reader officially subscribed to the demo site -- that the demo site's server completely warps search engine results. Of course, in the long run that warp promises to be a boon. But for now it means that a Google search of, say, "democratic vista" will land you at a site that isn't fully ready yet.

If you've also noticed the anomaly, my apologies for the confusion. Although there's little I can do about it now -- search engine entries are notoriously difficult to erase -- we should be up and running at our own domain soon. Until then, I'll keep posting here.

Finally, as a reward for those of you who're still reading this post, here's my quote of the day, by the inimitable Ben Stein: "We do not need to have 6,000-pound cars driving 100-pound humans to buy one-liter bottles of imported water."

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Danner on Al Qaeda ... Last May Mark Danner crafted one of the finest pieces of prose in recent memory.

Now he's done it again.

Update: The latter link is not to the long-form article that ran in this week's New York Times Magazine. Rather, it's to the abridged piece that ran in the weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune. The latter version may not be as exhaustive in its references, but the quality of writing is far better. (Perhaps in a later post I'll get to why this is almost always the case.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Open Convergence ... Mention the term open source, open access, or open science to someone, and even in today's information age you're likely to get a blank stare. Maybe a vague idea of what they are, or a hesitant reference to "that Linux thing". But the names of Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman, the closest figures the open source movement has to Bill Gates, almost certainly will not be cited.

Part of that ignorance has to do with the anonymous nature of "open" productivity, but it owes more, I think, to the antagonism that long dominated the relationship between a predominantly academic open access community and a society at large organized by proprietary law. Simply put, both open source and open access were long viewed as threats to the core principles of capitalist enterprise. As a result, it really wasn't until IBM began airing its Linux ads last year that their relationship was popularly understood as complimentary rather than inimical.

I mention all that because for those of you interested in getting caught up on the history of the open access movement, I'd recommend this paper by John Willinsky. Thanks to Lawrence Lessig I just came across the article today, and I have to say it does a fantastic job of weaving together the recent convergence of the open source, open access, and open science movements.

I should also note that it starts with a remarkable comparison between the convergence today and the intellectual, political, and scientific convergence of late 17th century England. For someone like myself -- who has nothing better to do on a Friday night -- that's about as good as it gets.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Katrina and the News ... Twenty years from now, when New Orleans has been rebuilt and things have long since returned to a new normal, Katrina will be remembered for at least two things. The first is the obvious incompetence demonstrated at all levels of government, both in its response to the storm and in its failure to adequately defend against it. (One reader even sent in this National Geographic article, which reads like an exact description of Katrina -- until you realize it was published in 2004.)

The second is that Katrina established the model for how network newscasts will work in the information age. Far from dying out, network news still have a lot of life left. The catch is that news programs now must have an anchor whose "brand" extends across a variety of media platforms.

If you haven't guessed it by now, the example I'm thinking of here is Brian Williams. His on-air reporting last week may have validated his selection as Brokaw's successor, but it was his on-line reporting for which he will be remembered. Earlier this summer numerous commentators noted the unprecedented access that Williams' blog granted his audience, particularly with regard to NBC News' editorial process. Now he has just one-upped himself. His on-line reporting just altered a story in a way that was once possible only on-air; this post yesterday forced FEMA to reverse course dramatically in its attempt to exclude reporters from New Orleans.

Unfortunately, to really flesh out the story of that post requires more time (and energy) than I currently have to spare. But the bottom line is that in a way Brian Williams has just reinvented network news, and it is for that transformation -- among many other, more troubling things -- that Katrina will in part be remembered.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Egyptian elections ... The early reports of today's presidential election in Egypt have been predictably muddled -- most praised the appearance of a democratic process but criticized how insubstantial that appearance was. The Times was typical: "Egyptian voters went to the polls today in this nation's first multicandidate race for president, but the initial refusal to allow any form of nongovernment poll monitors and the ruling party's overwhelming presence on the streets and at the voting stations led to concerns about the integrity of the process."

Yet what I found most interesting is that none of the articles I read placed the significance of these elections in a regional context. It was only discussed within a national framework, as if Mubarak felt compelled to offer a semblance of democracy apropos of nothing, or as if the Egyptian people -- and particularly the "Kafiya" movement -- began pressing for political reforms out of the blue.

I can't imagine that that was the case. Others have written about this more extensively, but at a minimum I think one has to acknowledge the role satellite television has played. The substance of democracy may be notoriously difficult to transmit, but the images of democracy are not; and over the last several years, there have been any number of iconic images -- most notably the purple fingers on Jan. 30 -- that have been beemed throughout the Middle East. As a result, there is now enough popular momentum for democracy that Mubarak was forced to cede a thin layer of control.

At a maximum, meanwhile, I think you also have to tip your cap to the foreign policy initiatives of the infamous neocons. Don't get me wrong: those initiatives overall have proven a horrific failure and inflicted irreparable damage on countless U.S. interests. But at a certain point you also have to call a spade a spade. And this is one instance in which the "democratic domino" scenario is in fact playing out, albeit in a limited way. We would not be observing the introduction of reform in Egypt now had the U.S. not radically altered the regional balance of power and fostered a sustainable environment for reform.

However inconsistent it is with the other consequences our policies have had, we ought to be hearing about that success now.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Political bifurcation ... Juan Cole's take today on Spencer Ackerman's latest at TNR:
As Ackerman says, this alignment of Washington and Najaf has been a long-term project of the Neoconservatives. I think they just want to divide the Arab world between Sunnis and Shiites so as to make trouble and weaken the Arabs, for the benefit of the Likud Party in Israel. Frum and Perle even want to encourage Shiite separatism in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia so as to split up Saudia and defund the Wahhabis ... As if the Shiites of Qatif and Hufuf would necessarily be pro-American!

Anyway, if Bush wants a constitution to be passed in Iraq, he needs it to be endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. The provision that no law may be passed contravening Islamic Law (article 2A) is a non-negotiable demand of Sistani. Without it, he might well come out against the constitution, which would certainly sink it. He has bucked Bush quite successfully before. Ackerman's concerns all flow from the Jan. 30 elections, which the fundamentalist Shiites and Iran won, and which Bush lost. It's been over with all this time.

To begin with, I want to clarify that I stopped reading Juan Cole regularly some time ago -- not because I necessarily disagreed with him, but because he'd become manifestly careless when it came to checking himself against the contrapositive. Or put differently, Cole has simply drawn the same conclusions from the same arguments for so long that he now treats them as premises. And when critics stop being self-critical, it's tough to trust their criticism in general. (The Likud reference above demonstrates this: certainly the neoconservatives overwhelming align themselves with Likud, but it's not an absolute alignment.)

Now. All that said, the two thrusts of the particular passage above both play out. Let's start with the election. Despite the exultant coverage at the time, Bush got creamed in the actual voting. And when Cole says "it's been over with all this time", he's really going back not to Jan. 30, but to the crucial post-war decisions to dissolve the Iraqi Army and to prohibit Ba'ath party officers from holding office in the new government. Once that happened Sistani became central, which meant that the "Article 2A" provision became a given. And that, in turn, meant that the constitutional referendum we're now facing was lost long before it began. As with so many other aspects of the occupation, the decisions made in April and May 2003 still haunt us today -- and will do so for years and even decades to come.

Which brings me to Cole's other point. The "divide and conquer" principle is not knew. In the West it goes back to imperial Rome and classical Greece and undoubtedly even before. But what is new is that in the last fifty years we now have examples of how disastrous bifurcation can become when those divisions are then forcibly incorporated into a self-determinative national sovereignty. For instance, that the Kurds are spread over Turkey, Iraq and Iran is not an historical accident; it was an intentioned consequence of British colonial policy, and it continues to have profound regional effects today. Given how many examples like the Kurds history offers, the fact that neoconservatives consider ethnic bifurcation to be viable indicates both an astonishing disregard for the lessons of history and a reckless faith in the lasting efficacy of contemporary political solutions.

Cole may be a little over the top at times, but he's dead on the money with this one.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Lincoln's Melancholy ... Fresh from the cover of this month's Atlantic Monthly: had Hamlet lived to be king, he'd have been Abraham Lincoln.

Update: It would seem some clarification is in order. Obviously there's no connection between the two where royalty is concerned, and further, there's scant correlation between the events of the play and the history of Lincoln's life. But when it comes to the anguish of introspection and the urgency of political action, I'm not sure literature has ever produced a greater character than Prince Hamlet, nor reality a greater human than Abraham Lincoln. Each knew well the isolation of power, and each felt acutely a profound separation from the "divinity which shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will." The Atlantic story makes no mention of this connection -- it's just a thought I've had for a while now -- but for myself at least, the essay's long-overdue emphasis on Lincoln's depression as a principle source of his political genius only illuminated that connection all the more.