Tuesday, August 30, 2005

turning back the clock in China

According to the NY Times:

Chinese police raided the office of a American-financed human rights group shortly before the arrival of the United Nations human rights chief today, as authorities sought to keep a tight lid on dissent during the sensitive visit.

Police searched the offices and copied computer files at the Empowerment and Rights Institute, a leading legal and human rights advisory group, employees and visitors to the offices said. The group's director, Hou Wenzhuo, said that as many as 10 plainclothes and uniformed police came to her home as well, but did not arrest her.

The raid came shortly before Louise Arbour, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, arrived in Beijing to discuss China's rights record with senior Communist Party officials.

Ms. Hou said she had hoped to meet with Ms. Arbour to present evidence she has collected about human rights abuses. Her group has documented what she described as systematic suppression of people who complain about problems like land confiscations and police torture.

One might think that the Chinese government fundamentally misunderstands the public relations dynamic surrounding human rights and foreign opinion—it is cracking down on human rights groups just as they will have maximum international exposure in the wake of a visit from the top UN human rights official. However, the government has not shown particular concern for foreign opinion in the past, and may be banking on relative silence from Western governments distracted by more pressing concerns of Islamic terrorism.

Also, the government's greatest concerns may be with the domestic impact of a visit from the UN high commissioner for human rights. Such a visit, even if scripted and sculpted by the government-controlled media to have minimal direct public effect, could galvanize the human rights/reform/intellectual community. Transnational linkages between Chinese activists and a broader human rights community have already caused trouble for the government:
Ms. Hou, 35, founded the group after studying human rights law at Oxford University and Harvard Law School. It is funded primarily by the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

The government's fear is that the nascent human rights community will tap into popular discontent of millions of Chinese left behind by the country's stellar economic growth.
[Ms. Hou's] organization came under heavy pressure this month after it advised farmers in Guangdong Province in a land dispute. The farmers have sustained a pointed and sometimes violent uprising against local leaders, and Ms. Hou was briefly detained by police there before being told to return to Beijing.

"The space for doing this kind of work is shrinking," she said. "The pressure is already much greater than it was a couple of years ago."
. . .

Some legal experts have argued that China has begun to take small but promising steps toward respecting individual rights, partly as a way of improving its image before it hosts the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

But a rash of social unrest around the country in recent years - China experienced at least 74,000 protest incidents in 2004, according to the police - has prompted authorities to sharply curtail grassroots activists groups and harass or arrest rights workers.

The Economist magazine ran a pair of stories last week suggesting that the government, under the increasingly authoritarian Hu Jintao, is tightening control over civil society (what there is of it in China). First, the magazine argues that Mr. Hu is behind recent moves to combat economic and political liberalism.
Given the increasingly conspicuous inequalities emerging in China as a result of the country's embrace of capitalism, it suits Mr Hu to appear to pour cold water on the idea of laisser-faire economics, blamed for a growing gap between rich and poor, between regions and between urban and rural areas. In the past couple of years there has been an upsurge in the number of protests triggered by these disparities, as well as by rampant corruption. Mr Hu is trying to strengthen the party's legitimacy by stressing its sympathy for the disadvantaged.

Second, the government has reversed a two-year trend toward a more open media.
[T]he comprehensive nature of this about-face on media deregulation points to hardline convictions at the top. President Hu Jintao seems determined to avoid even a hint of glasnost, which he is said to blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By combining steady economic results with tight control over civil society, the government has shown with consistent deftness that it can resist external and internal pressures to open up. However, it plays a dangerous, potentially unsustainable game when it plays the growing middle class against the disenchanted underclass.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

back from the dead

This is not my area of expertise, but it is rather incredible, the stuff of science fiction:

Soldiers in combat and gunshot or stabbing victims often bleed to death because medics don't have enough time to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or deliver blood. This type of injury kills about 50,000 Americans every year and is the leading cause of death among troops killed in action, said nationally recognized trauma surgeon Dr. Howard Champion, who lives in Annapolis, Md.

In the 1980s, Dr. Peter Safar -- inventor of cardiopulmonary resuscitation and founder of the center that bears his name -- collaborated with Army officials to develop a novel "big chill" concept for bringing people back to life after their hearts stop beating because of massive blood loss.

Safar, who died two years ago, proposed flushing the circulatory system with an ice-cold salt solution, which would drop the core body temperature to about 50 degrees compared to the usual 98.6 degrees.

Cooling the body in this way would buy extra time to transport injured soldiers or trauma victims in cardiac arrest to the hospital, Safar reasoned. The cold temperature would have a preserving effect so no damage would occur to tissues and organs, even though the heart would be stopped.

"The idea is to preserve the victim for just a little while in this state called suspended animation so the surgeons can locate bleeding sites and make the necessary repairs," Kochanek said.

Patients could then be revived by slowly pumping warm blood back into their bodies and administering a brief electric shock to their hearts.

The news here is that scientists have recently tried this technique successfully on dogs:

Scientists at Pitt's Safar Center for Resuscitation Research in Oakland announced at the meeting last week that they have found a way to revive dogs three hours after clinical death -- an hour longer than in previous experiments, said the center's director, Dr. Patrick Kochanek.

Now we just need to locate and disable that pesky aging gene . . .

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bolton and UN Reform

The current negotiations over UN reform are intended to lead to a proposal outlining reform of the organization that world leaders are supposed to adopt at a UN summit in three weeks. The principal issues on the table are:

--creation of a UN Peacebuilding Commission to assist post-conflict countries in building lasting stability;

--completion of a comprehensive anti-terrorism convention [including settling on an internationally accepted definition of "terrorism"] and a fissile-material cut-off treaty to limit the spread of nuclear materials;

--establishment of a small, standing Human Rights Council to replace the Commission on Human Rights;

--expansion of the Security Council;

--institutional changes within the Secretariat to make its operations more flexible, efficient and accountable;

Everyone seems to think UN reform is a good idea—the US, other member-countries, even the UN Secretariat. However, UN reform means different things to different people.

The Bush administration's top priority is administrative reform, which is badly needed but low on the list of objectives for many countries. For developing countries, following up with meaningful implementation of the Millennium Development Goals is a priority. The Bush administration would rather have the flexibility to pursue development goals on its own.

Brazil, Japan, India, and Germany are clamoring for seats on an expanded Security Council; other countries have their own ideas for Security Council expansion. This aspect of reform is one the permanent five members of the Council, especially the US, least want to address, but is probably the most important item on the agenda. International decisionmaking by the current permanent Security Council is deeply undemocratic and arbitrary, and represents no principle or rational balance of power, but rather the stale status quo of 60 years ago. The war on terror will ultimately go nowhere unless more of the world's people are represented in international security decisions.

The US has not been happy with the direction the negotiations were taking:

[E]arlier this month, U.S. deputy Ambassador Anne Patterson complained that the 15-page development section was too long, that the document focused too much on disarmament and not enough on nonproliferation, and that it included language on the International Criminal Court which the United States opposes.

She also reiterated that the United States wants action on overall reform before the most contentious issue in the document -- Security Council expansion -- is tackled.

Then last week the U.S. tried to scrap the plan that had been drafted. It wasn't clear from statements made by those involved whether this was simply a negotiating tactic or an attempt to torpedo the negotiations. One thing seems clear: few countries are happy with the current draft.

Then in yesterday's news:

U.N. General Assembly President Jean Ping said on Tuesday he wanted to try a new negotiating tactic to complete work on a comprehensive U.N. reform plan after the United States raised extensive objections to the most recent draft.

A core group of 20 to 30 nations, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, would be named to resolve remaining differences in the reform plan in time for a U.N. world summit opening in three weeks in New York, Ping told reporters.

That would ensure Washington a seat at the table to make its case, along with other permanent council members Russia, China, France and Britain. Until now, the drafting has been conducted informally, in hopes of keeping the focus on the whole package and off the details.

I don't know whether negotiations such as these are normally conducted informally, but "keeping the focus on the whole package and off the details" to me sounds like those in charge are hoping to salvage any proposal they can, but don't expect what emerges to contain much of substance.

Internationally, the US has a lot staked on successful UN reform after its failure to utilize the UN to bring other countries on board for the Iraq war, especially now that things are going badly there. Domestically, Bush appointed Ambassador Bolton with the stated objective of reforming the UN. However, Bush's conservative base wants the most inefficient, marginalized UN it can get, and would be happy if no accord were reached, especially if the blame could be pinned on the intransigence of other nations or the UN itself. Hence, the US negotiating team must walk a fine line, producing some sort of accord to placate Democrats baying for Bolton's blood and convince moderate Republicans they weren't hoodwinked into supporting the nomination, but ensuring little meaningful change aside from administrative reform.

Since Bolton is supposed to be a tough negotiator who will "get things done" with UN reform, he is under considerable pressure to reach an agreement. This will weaken his bargaining position to some degree, but I wouldn't bet on any major capitulations from this administration. In short, meaningful reform is unlikely to emerge in September. The issues most important to the US are least important to most other countries. Furthermore, the US does not want comprehensive reform, and the US team, with Bolton at the head, is particularly ill-equipped to achieve it.

Update: Steve Clemons, guest blogging last week at TalkingPointsMemo
has a series of posts on how Bolton may be undermining Secretary Rice's efforts at UN reform. Scroll down to read them all.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

a public question

New York City Mayoral candidate Gifford Miller came under fire in a recent televised debate when asked whether he would send his young children to public school. He punted on the issue, eliciting boos from the audience, and then became visibly defensive. The NYTimes reports on some follow-up comments from Miller:

Mr. Miller, who attended the St. Bernard's all-boys private school on the Upper East Side, said yesterday that his school choice for his children should not be a campaign issue.

"My kids' education is a private decision, not one I make as part of the campaign or as part of a public pronouncement," he said.

Basically, there are two education systems in this country: a system that works and one that doesn't. Those who have the benefit of the functioning system often achieve economic success, and pass the benefit of a good education to their children, who pass it on to theirs. The efficiency of the system that works and the dysfunctionality of the one that doesn't means that class mobility is now lower here than in Europe. Until the beneficiaries of the system that works put real time and energy into the system that doesn't, it will remain a non-working system. When wealthy politicians start putting their kids into public schools, they then have a real incentive to take steps to unite the two disparate systems into a single system that works for everyone.

I appreciate the dilemma that Miller faces—sacrificing the well-being of his own children in a very real way vs. adding incrementally to the general well-being of poor children in New York City. The current middle to upper-class liberal approach seems to be "let's work on making public schools better, but in the meantime, I'll make sure my kid has the best education money can buy." This is an understandable position to take, but "in the meantime" seems to have dragged on for several decades without much improvement in the public schools. We should have learned a long time ago that "separate but equal" is not a workable solution to any problem.

I think this is very much a legitimate campaign issue, but it shouldn't be limited to politicians. Any liberal parents with money should ask themselves not only "Where will my children attend school?" but "How can I support an unjust system given my political beliefs?"

On a related note, many people should reevaluate the No Child Left Behind act and similar state initiatives to implement rigorous public education reforms. Outside of suburbia, the public education system is broken. Poverty and inadequate education reinforce each other in a persistent cycle of despair. Strengthening education gives people the tools they need to rise out of poverty. NCLB is the best, most realistic shot we are likely to have at fixing the public education system for the next 10-20 years. Arguing simultaneously that NCLB is underfunded and unworkable is contradictory and counterproductive. It allows the administration to take the moral high ground on reform while quietly diverting resources away from education. We have to find a way to bring teachers on board, and the system does need more money. But opposing NCLB simply because it was a Bush initiative ends up sabotaging reform. The problem of bad schools isn't going to go away on its own.

Another swing of the pendulum?

Gideon Rose, editor of the influential journal Foreign Affairs, writes that idealist leaders present and past have taken the country into ill-considered wars in response to some undefined American urge to go "have an adventure" abroad, like taking a semester in Europe during college. This analysis ignores the crucial motivating element behind every war: fear.

In explaining the recent Bush shift away from the idealism of the neocons, Rose asserts:

Seen in proper perspective, in other words, the Bush administration's signature efforts represent not some durable, world-historical shift in America's approach to foreign policy but merely one more failed idealistic attempt to escape the difficult trade-offs and unpleasant compromises that international politics inevitably demand - even from the strongest power since Rome. Just as they have so many times before, the realists have come in after an election to offer some adult supervision and tidy up the joint. This time it's simply happened under the nose of a victorious incumbent rather than his opponent (which may account for the failure to change the rhetoric along with the policy).

BEING fully American rather than devotees of classic European realpolitik, the realists-today represented most prominently by Ms. Rice and her team at the State Department-offer not different goals but a calmer and more measured path toward the same ones. They still believe in American power and the global spread of liberal democratic capitalism. But they seek legitimate authority rather than mere material dominance, favor cost-benefit analyses rather than ideological litmus tests, and prize good results over good intentions.

So what can we expect next? A spell of calm without dramatic visionary campaigns or new wars, along with an effort to gradually wind down the current conflict while leaving Iraq reasonably stable but hardly a liberal democracy. This is likely to play well - until domestic carping over the realists' supposedly limited vision starts the wheel of American foreign policy turning once again.

Rose has vaguely attributed our bad wars to "idealism" when there is a simpler explanation. Politicians have taken the country into wars of choice that ended badly in scary, uncertain times to console a fearful public anxious for some kind of action. Whether such action was defensive or offensive didn't really matter in the eyes of an uninformed, frightened populace. Any offensive action would be justifiable as self-defense, since the country perceived itself to be in danger from an outside threat. (Whether or not the perception was initially accurate is kind of irrelevant. A cornered animal, in addition to being more dangerous than usual, is itself at greater risk of being attacked.)

In the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, the specific location of the war was not as important as the circumstances in which the U.S. found itself at the time. At a time of high tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, shortly after Cuba had fallen to the communists and after the country had narrowly avoided catastrophe during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK and LBJ needed a war to make the American people feel more secure against the perceived communist threat. Really, any war would do. It didn't so much matter where it took place—Afghanistan, Guatemala, or Angola would have worked just as well as Vietnam [Update: Afghanistan would not have worked, since fighting there would almost certainly have drawn the USSR into a major confrontation]. The important thing was that that the government be seen as "doing something" to confront the communist threat without drawing the Soviets into a direct confrontation. The same dynamic was at work in 2002-2003. The invasion of Afghanistan had generally gone well, but Bin Laden was still at large and the mood in the U.S. remained tense and uncertain. Bush decided to go for broke, knowing that so soon after 9/11, he'd have a relatively free hand. A fearful, uninformed public acquiesced, not bothering to ask for much of an explanation.

I don't know the history of the Korean war that well, but if memory serves, MacArthur became overconfident after early success and pushed on past the 38th parallel towards China, drawing the Chinese into the war and ensuring a protracted, bloody conflict. The problem there was not the idealism of Truman, as Rose suggests, but the folly of his lieutenant. Nixon did not technically extricate the U.S. from Vietnam, as Rose indicates, so much as he was pushed out after escalating the bombing campaign in a failed attempt to win the war. Also, he had already resigned by the time the U.S. was finally forced to leave Saigon. The limited wars in Kosovo and Iraq 1991 were less ambitious and enjoyed wide international support, and occurred during periods of relative peace and stability. They were not driven by the panicky urge to strike out at a shadowy enemy, as were the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Rose alludes to Clinton's debacle in Somalia, but fails to mention the 800,000 Rwandans that Clinton watched be slaughtered rather than face a public still angry over the American lives lost in Africa.

Rose tries to link America's misadventures abroad with idealism, but the distinctions between realist and idealist presidents that he makes break down under scrutiny. And he fails to acknowledge that the U.S. has a history of launching bad wars under particular circumstances—when its people are afraid and its leaders decide that doing anything is better than doing nothing.

2006 and Iraq

The NYTimes reports that Republican politicians are getting increasingly worried about their prospects in the 2006 elections if things continue to go badly in Iraq. It's too bad the Democrats, given their role as craven lapdogs of the administration in the run-up to and prosecution of the war, are now in no position to guide the public to a saner foreign policy and reap the attendant political benefits. A "leader" should lead, not pander to the latest stampede of public opinion. Of course, listening to the public is important. But it's also important to take a stand on issues you believe in, and help shape public opinion in productive ways. That's why it's a shame virtually no Dems took a principled stand against the war from the start.

The article quotes NY Senator Chuck Schumer:

"There is no question that the Iraq war, without any light at the end of the tunnel apparent to the American people, is becoming more and more a ball and chain rapidly weighing down the administration."

Mr. Schumer, reflecting continued Democratic nervousness at being portrayed as disrespectful of troops, added, "I have been more supportive of the president's war on terror than many Democrats."

Mr. Schumer, you are as responsible for our predicament in Iraq as anyone in Congress. Even now, you refuse to forcefully criticize the President's damaging policies. Here's the line to use: this administration has led our country to a war of choice in which 1,800 U.S. soldiers have died and tens of thousands have been maimed, it has failed to provide necessary logistical support and manpower because the administration can't afford to transparently account for the cost of the war, and has abused the trust of countless reservists who have been effectively drafted into full-time service. That's not "supporting the troops".

Unfortunately, this line of argument would be much more convincing coming from someone who hadn't calculatingly supported the scam in the first place. Kerry tried many of those same arguments, and failed to persuade because he'd been baying for Saddam's blood back when it was politically expedient. The Democrats will remain a minority party so long as they are afraid to lead rather than react.

Update: Kevin Drum predicts that the Iraq issue could splinter the Democratic party in 2006--partly because doves are unwilling to forgive being sold down the river by the party, and partly because no major Democrat has been willing to say "I was wrong, it was a terrible idea from the start, now lets find a workable solution." Drum makes a good case for a managed withdrawal. I've been reluctant in the past to support setting a timetable for withdrawal, since that seemed likely to destabilize the country further, but it's now been 2 1/2 years since the invasion, the situation is not improving much, and we need to get some idea of how long we're going to be there.

It is somewhat incredible that, in the face of the governing party's consistently poor judgment and incompetence in Iraq, no major Democrat has any measurable credibility on the war. Proposing a meaningful alternative to the government's current "wait and see" policy might be a way to start regaining some public trust.

Apologists under attack

This article by Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect calls out prominent journalists who made the case for the war in Iraq back when it mattered, who rallied public opinion around what was objectively a tough sell. I remember when I first heard Bush making serious noises about invading, back in July of 2002, while I was in Costa Rica. The idea seemed so implausible, so laughable, I barely gave it notice. Who could fail to see an attack on Iraq as anything other than a transparent attempt at distraction, an adolescent, indiscriminate lashing out? It didn't even make sense—what purpose would invading a country with virtually no involvement in the 9/11 attacks serve but to infuriate both friends and enemies? A wartime president needs a war to stay in business, and I assumed Bush was reaching out for any conflict he could get his hands on. War is addictive and ultimately damaging to the user, like a narcotic--but who would hand an addict $50 and a syringe, no questions asked? I was the one, however, who failed to acknowledge the intense loyalty to king and country of the American public, its apathetic approach to the details of foreign policy, and the neocon/conservative scheme underlying the entire project. I can't help but think that anyone, especially on the left, who claims to have been misled by Bush's propaganda-fueled push to war, is either desperately naive or disassembling (that means "not telling the truth"). The greater the shock and betrayal now evoked by these early war supporters, the greater my skepticism. I imagine, as public sentiment belatedly turns against the war, rafts of Democratic politicians castigating themselves for not realizing earlier that getting on the record against giving Bush authority to go to war in October 2002, aside from being the right thing to do, would also have been a good political move.

Even now, the number one complaint from the left and the center is the plaintive "he Lied to us". Yes, but you believed him! Number two: "they've mismanaged the war". This is the mother of all red herrings, allowing former war supporters to condemn Bush now that things aren't going well while maintaining the appearance of logical consistency with regard to their previous enthusiasm for the endeavor. It's a copout. I have to give Hitchens some credit for not taking the easy way out like Friedman and other moderates. Although it is interesting to watch him twist into increasingly awkward positions under the pressure of uncomfortable reality, particularly given his spirited (and accurate) condemnations of leftists who turned a blind eye to the fact of communist abuses during the Cold War.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no party-line fanatic (look how witless the Democratic party line was in late 2002), and I appreciate a healthy dose of contrarianism in an argument. But the conventional wisdom, the main current of political opinion against which radical ideas make little headway, should be "we do not attack other countries without good reason", not "we support the President in matters of foreign policy without asking questions, because he will act in our best interest".

Update: To those, including myself in moments of optimism, who point to the possibility of a democratic Middle East as the end result of the current chaos in Iraq, I say: 1) that was not why we went in—it was not conceived or sold, and certainly not executed, as a humanitarian project; 2) too many lives were lost and will be lost, for which we bear direct (for non-insurgents killed by Americans) or indirect (for those killed by the insurgents) responsibility; and 3) we have made things worse for ourselves than before. Democracy is a worthy end, and I sincerely hope it comes to the Middle East, but this was not an efficient or morally consistent way to achieve it.

Enron part III: the Banks

Enron was not a case of a "few bad apples". The whole economic/financial system failed —or rather, the system succeeded in producing money, but no value. What failed or didn't exist were the necessary preventive regulatory/legal safeguards. Everyone involved—the banks, the accountants, the lawyers, the executives—took their cut, and they all have a piece of the blame. For the most part, it was business as usual, and, if the past is any indication, a comparable scandal will come along sometime in the next 5-10 years. On a smaller, less detectable scale, it happens every day.