Sunday, December 31, 2006

material support

The LA Times reports on the post-9/11 laws denying admission to the U.S. to refugees and asylees who have provided “material support” to terrorist groups:

The first time they came for her, the Colombian guerrillas shoved the 31-year-old nurse blindfolded into the back of a green Renault sedan. Her kidnappers took her to a house and forced her to treat one of their commandants, who was writhing in pain from a bullet wound to the leg.

The woman said she was abducted seven more times in 1997 and 1998 to give medical care to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia members. They warned her not to go to the police. "I know you have a daughter," one man said, prodding her with a gun. In 2000, after her cousin was tortured and killed, she fled. Now she is in Northern California, working as a nurse and raising her daughter.

Today, her hopes of staying in the U.S. have run smack into the war on terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security rejected her asylum claim. Their reason: By giving the guerrillas medical care — willingly or not — she was supporting terrorism.

Laws passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, deny admission to anyone who has provided "material support" — money, food, clothing, advice — to terrorist groups. In the last few years, these provisions and the definition of terrorism have been expanded to the point that they are disqualifying people who even immigration judges agree pose no threat to the U.S.

Refugee advocates cite cases in which the administration has denied asylum to Liberian women forced to cook and clean for rebels who raped them and killed family members. Colombians who paid kidnappers' ransoms to free family members also have been barred for providing material support. So many refugee applicants have been blocked for this reason that last year the United Nations Refugee Agency stopped trying to settle Colombians in the U.S.

This is seriously problematic, and it fundamentally undermines the asylum/refugee system, such as it is. It’s not even a rational policy, since we’re effectively giving a green light to guerilla groups to go ahead and abuse the local population. As far as we’re concerned, victims of terror, if they’re not American, merit the same treatment as perpetrators of terror. The raped are as culpable as the rapists. This administration can’t be bothered to distinguish between the two groups.

This is par for the course for an administration that has allowed the immigration system to fall into shameful disrepair—intentionally or out of sheer incompetence and carelessness, it isn’t clear—for instance, by failing to enact any implementing regulations whatsoever to govern U-visa applications (available to victims of crimes who cooperate with law enforcement authorities) 6 years after the visa category was created by Congress. Let’s say you have no legal status in this country and you’ve been kidnapped and brutally raped by a U.S. citizen, then overcome whatever qualms you had about going to the authorities, knowing you could potentially be deported, to provide the DA’s office with the information it needs to have your rapist convicted and jailed. Even so, you can’t actually get a U-visa yet because the Department of Homeland Security has not yet written the rules for how such visas are to be processed.

The main take-away message with all of this is that unless you have a U.S. passport, we don’t really care what happens to you. Rest assured that the rest of the world hears this message loud and clear even if ordinary Americans have no idea we’re sending it.

pursuit of happine$$

The NY Times has a story about how many middle to upper-class blacks are having trouble finding nannies:

As more blacks move up the economic ladder, one fixture — some would say necessity — of the upper-middle-class income bracket often eludes them. Like hailing a cab in Midtown Manhattan, searching for a nanny can be an exasperating, humiliating exercise for many blacks, the kind of ordeal that makes them wonder aloud what year it is.

“We’ve attained whatever level society says is successful, we’re included at work, but when we need the support for our children and we can afford it, why do we get treated this way?” asked Tanisha Jackson, an African-American mother of three in a Washington suburb, who searched on and off for five years before hiring a nanny. “It’s a slap in the face.”

Numerous black parents successfully employ nannies, and many sitters say they pay no regard to race. But interviews with dozens of nannies and agencies that employ them in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Houston turned up many nannies — often of African-American or Caribbean descent themselves — who avoid working for families of those backgrounds. Their reasons included accusations of low pay and extra work, fears that employers would look down at them, and suspicion that any neighborhood inhabited by blacks had to be unsafe.

The result is that many black parents do not have the same child care options as their colleagues and neighbors. They must settle for illegal immigrants or non-English speakers instead of more experienced or credentialed nannies, rely on day care or scale back their professional aspirations to spend more time at home.

. . .

The problem may be as much about class as race, said Kimberly McClain DaCosta, a Harvard sociologist who is researching how blacks care for family members. For nannies, working for an employer of the same background or skin color “highlights their lower economic status,” she said, but “the fact that their employers are black just makes that more intense.”

Given that Ms. DaCosta employs a nanny herself, I found her statement troubling for her seeming lack of self-awareness. I also noticed that reporter Jodi Kantor nearly managed to avoid any discussion of class issues at all.

Maybe Ms. DaCosta was quoted out of context, or perhaps the reporter cherry-picked the juiciest snippet out of an otherwise sensible conversation. But I’m led to believe that Ms. DaCosta recognizes the inequality inherent in her personal situation, and feels it is regrettable, but also feels that unfortunately there’s not much to be done about it. So she analyzes the situation dispassionately while peeking out the window to see whether the “help” walking up the steps is suitable.

Not infrequently I read something in the Times to remind me why the ads in the print version are for Saks Fifth Avenue and Ermenegildo Zegna. The reason being that many of the Times’ readers and reporters inhabit the world of $25,000/year competitive pre-school, summers at the Hamptons, and year-end bonuses larger than many people’s annual salaries. This was brought home again by this somewhat warped, seriously insulated article. The existence of a modern-day servant class to provide the wealthy with low-cost child-care, housekeeping, yardwork, food services, etc. is apparently not worthy of comment in the rarified air in which the Times reports. The important thing is that all upper-middle class Americans, regardless of race or national origin, have the nannies that they have rightfully earned!

I remember watching an early episode of Weeds on Showtime with Mary Louise Parker as a newly-widowed mother struggling to make ends meet for her family in the suburbs somewhere. Things got so bad that she had trouble scraping together enough money to pay the maid. Oh, the humanity!

Um, for starters, you could, like, not employ a maid and clean the house yourself. Or have the kids do it—a little housework won’t break a child’s will to live. If you want to save some money, I mean. Just a suggestion.

I don’t know how the Times maintains its reputation as a left-wing rag with stories like this.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

culture of life

Saddam is dead. I will shed no tears—he caused immeasurable suffering. I would have preferred, however, to let him die of old age in ignominy like Pinochet. But the two societies in charge of Saddam’s custody still have a deep attachment to this medieval form of punishment. As if killing one man could compensate for all the people he killed or whose lives he destroyed. An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. It certainly wasn’t what Jesus taught.

Update: Juan Cole takes a trip down memory lane with the top 10 ways the US enabled Saddam. Up until he invaded Kuwait, he was very much our man in the Middle East. We helped bring him to power, we helped him stay there, and we helped deflect international criticism of the genocide he perpetrated in the 1980s. This isn't something most Americans understand very well--including many of our elected leaders--and most journalists can't be bothered to tell them. Our favored foreign policy approach for decades has been to somewhat arbitrarily pick enemies and friends abroad based on the domestic political dynamic of the moment, with little concern for what is actually going on in that area of the world. This has led to problem after problem, but we've thus far shown little appetite for changing our approach.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

i am not a nerd either

contradiction: a logical incompatibility between two or more propositions.

Kevin Drum last week:

Proposition 1:

Hell, I'm not even enough of nerd to have funny ultra-nerd stories to tell.

Proposition 2:

I once wrote a program to automate dungeon mastering tasks for a TRS-80 Model 3. It worked pretty well, but the damn computer was just too big to make this a useful idea.

[Corollary to Proposition 2:] Speaking of TRS-80s, does anyone remember the old Decathlon game for the Model 1/3? Now that was a computer game!

Friday, December 22, 2006

rocket science, it's not

Publius has a good analysis of the likely political impact of the "surge" strategy currently under consideration by the White House. It doesn't take a genius to see that it would probably spell disaster for the Republicans' political fortunes.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

how useful is charity?

As it’s almost Christmas, Peter Singer writes in the NY Times about charitable giving and how there’s not nearly enough of it.

[T]he amount of foreign development aid given by the U.S. government is, at 22 cents for every $100 the nation earns, about the same, as a percentage of gross national income, as Portugal gives and about half that of the U.K. Worse still, much of it is directed where it best suits U.S. strategic interests — Iraq is now by far the largest recipient of U.S. development aid, and Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Afghanistan all rank in the Top 10. Less than a quarter of official U.S. development aid — barely a nickel in every $100 of our G.N.I. — goes to the world’s poorest nations.

He talks about Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, both of whom have donated roughly $30 billion dollars to charity, much of it to improving global health. Singer comments on Zell Kravinsky, who made a $45 million fortune and then donated virtually all of it to charity.

He comes across as anguished by the failure of others to see the simple logic that lies behind his altruism. Kravinsky has a mathematical mind — a talent that obviously helped him in deciding what investments would prove profitable — and he says that the chances of dying as a result of donating a kidney are about 1 in 4,000. For him this implies that to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means valuing one’s own life at 4,000 times that of a stranger, a ratio Kravinsky considers “obscene.”

What marks Kravinsky from the rest of us is that he takes the equal value of all human life as a guide to life, not just as a nice piece of rhetoric. He acknowledges that some people think he is crazy, and even his wife says she believes that he goes too far. One of her arguments against the kidney donation was that one of their children may one day need a kidney, and Zell could be the only compatible donor. Kravinsky’s love for his children is, as far as I can tell, as strong as that of any normal parent. Such attachments are part of our nature, no doubt the product of our evolution as mammals who give birth to children, who for an unusually long time require our assistance in order to survive. But that does not, in Kravinsky’s view, justify our placing a value on the lives of our children that is thousands of times greater than the value we place on the lives of the children of strangers. Asked if he would allow his child to die if it would enable a thousand children to live, Kravinsky said yes. Indeed, he has said he would permit his child to die even if this enabled only two other children to live.

Kravinsky has taken a statement that many people pretend is axiomatic, but that very few people actually believe—that all human life is of equal value—and actually uses it as the basis for all his actions. Most people think he’s off his rocker.

As it turns out, he’s not all that different from Warren Buffet, whom very few people think is off his rocker.

[E]ven if Buffett left each of his three children a million dollars each, he would still have given away more than 99.99 percent of his wealth. When someone does that much — especially in a society in which the norm is to leave most of your wealth to your children — it is better to praise them than to cavil about the extra few hundred thousand dollars they might have given.

Philosophers like Liam Murphy of New York University [my contracts professor in law school] and my colleague Kwame Anthony Appiah at Princeton contend that our obligations are limited to carrying our fair share of the burden of relieving global poverty. They would have us calculate how much would be required to ensure that the world’s poorest people have a chance at a decent life, and then divide this sum among the affluent. That would give us each an amount to donate, and having given that, we would have fulfilled our obligations to the poor.

Singer then goes ahead and estimates this amount for the 10% richest Americans on a sliding scale based on income—the more you make, the more you give, but never more than a third of your total income.

[T]he remarkable thing about these calculations is that a scale of donations that is unlikely to impose significant hardship on anyone yields a total of $404 billion — from just 10 percent of American families.

Singer thinks we may have a somewhat weaker moral obligation to donate some additional amount if it will do significant good and not harm us much.

While I agree with most of what Singer says and find his arguments compelling, I think he is focused on the world as it is, and not as it could be. In the end, this approach will not work as well as other options could. At best, charitable giving is a medium-term, partial solution to the problems of global poverty and conflict.

Maybe Singer is thinking practically, assuming that the world is what it is and we must act in the parameters within which we live to have any hope of doing much good. And it is fair to assume that his work since the 1970s and the work of others is responsible in part for the moral climate that prompted Gates and Buffet to donate truly astounding amounts to the world’s poorest, and Kravinsky to donate his entire fortune and his kidney.

But I think that as long as we rely on the charity of the planet’s wealthiest billion people rather than their self-interest, the poorest of the world will continue to suffer.

Most people pay taxes to their government because they understand that they must contribute to the maintenance of a stable, orderly society in order to reap the benefits of living in that society. Citizens pay taxes so the government will defend their homes and families from foreign attackers, to support a government-enforced legal system that protects them from fellow citizens who might otherwise do them harm, to build and maintain a basic physical infrastructure that makes it possible to work and procure the basic amenities of life, and to provide a social net so that the worst off within a society don’t die or live in abject misery. Even hard-core libertarians generally agree that the first two reasons above make government taxation necessary. You need the rule of law to provide the stability necessary for the productive commercial exchange that allows people to live stable lives. And in nearly all of the developed countries, democracy has been chosen as the best mechanism for making the social contract work.

As a consequence of successful implementation of this basic social contract in parts of the world, armed conflict within and between developed nations has all but disappeared. Wealth disparities exist, especially in countries with weaker social safety nets like the U.S., but grinding, life-threatening poverty in developed countries has also mostly been extinguished. Meanwhile the long-promised benefits of development that would bring the southern hemisphere out of poverty and strife have not materialized in many parts of the world. Much of Africa is worse off than it was a generation ago. Wealth-polarized societies in Latin America have also stagnated. Many governments have tried to follow the rules set out in the Washington Consensus but have seen piddling results. Many governments are too corrupt or incompetent to do much of anything useful.

The problem with Singer’s focus on charitable giving is it allows people to avoid more comprehensive solutions. If the richest and most powerful are able to give enough money to assuage their guilt, they can say “we’ve done our part, the rest is up to God.” (Aside from Buffet and Gates, who, as Singer points out, are unbelievers.) People in the rest of the income spectrum either feel they can’t spare much extra or are not obliged to or both. And most people feel that more or less, when the chips are down, their obligation to promote the welfare of others ends at the border. “After all, what are people in other countries doing to promote our welfare? Seems like they’re busier either trying to kill us or keep us from defending ourselves,” goes the thinking.

And it’s true, in the current anarchic international system, rich countries have more to lose than to gain from many poor countries. If the U.S. and Europe opened their borders completely, the influx of people could create economic and societal chaos. Security threats would be extreme. Rich countries in the current system have every incentive to seal themselves up with armies and exclusive laws, locking in the benefits from their productive economies and keeping out would-be attackers. Meanwhile this sealing effect greatly retards economic growth elsewhere and creates conditions where security threats fester and then explode, sometimes even through the walls the rich countries have erected.

Feel-good rhetoric notwithstanding, very few citizens of rich countries actually believe in any meaningful way that their lives are worth the same as lives of people in poor countries. As I posted earlier this month:

Samantha Power wrote in A Problem from Hell (paperback, p. 381) that, before President Clinton sent in 200 troops to stabilize the Kigali airport so relief could be flown into Rwanda (well after the killing was finished), a U.S. officer called Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN mission there, to find out how many Rwandans had died. Dallaire asked why he wanted to know, and the officer replied, “We are doing our calculations back here, and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”

There it is in black and white; it doesn’t get any clearer than that, although the government and punditry don’t normally come right out and say it like that. The calculation presumably varies from country to country—a developed-country life would be worth more than a developing-country life, but only ever some fraction of one American life.

And the other rich countries ignored the slaughter in Rwanda just as studiously.

As Benedict Anderson has asserted, national identities are largely a modern phenomenon and many of them were politically constructed. They are by no means innate, as the American immigrant experience shows. If you could expand the highest political unit beyond the nation-state to include the very poor and the very rich, you would provide the right incentives for the rich to help the poor. It would then be in the interest of the rich to help the poor because both would be part of the same social contract. More importantly, the poor would be able to direct the use of resources within the political unit to their benefit to a much larger degree.

Of course getting there is the hard part. The oilspot technique the EU has implemented—slowly consolidating layers of government at a small center and expanding outward from the core—may be the least disruptive method. But right now very few people even consider some form of supranational government to be a desirable endpoint. Perhaps charitable giving can be a first step towards a more truly democratic world. But I think economic change won’t come without political change. Global poverty is not a problem that can be solved by relatively small (compared to our military budget, for instance) infusions of cash—global poverty can only be eliminated through global democracy. Acknowledging this would be a helpful first step.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

one hand taketh, then the other hand taketh some more

The LA Times reports that some companies that employ immigrants get in trouble no matter what they do:

The raid of six Swift & Co. meat packing plants last week spotlighted the fine line employers face because of increased government scrutiny: Make sure your employees are in the U.S. legally, but don't push too hard to find out.

This time, federal inspectors detained 1,300 Swift workers suspected of providing stolen Social Security numbers to the company. But four years ago, the company's requirement that Latino job applicants provide proof of their legal status led to a $200,000 fine for discrimination.
In my experience, different Assistant US Attorneys in the same office could be involved in actions like these: one trying to deport illegal immigrants and the other suing a company for employment discrimination for tactics used to avoid hiring illegal immigrants.

It is clear that the immigration system is thoroughly broken. It has only lasted this long in its present form because it works relatively well for businesses. That seems to be changing. One would hope that the government would have the decency to incentivize change to the system in a way that did not ruin people's lives, but one would be mistaken in that hope.

liberal tyranny

Matt Yglesias has an update on right-wing wish fulfillment masquerading as science fiction, including Orson Scott Card's new book:

The problem is that liberalism's alleged weakness is crucial to the conservative critique of liberalism, which makes it hard to outline a coherent liberal totalitarianism.

. . .

Liberal weakness is supposed to lead to jihad run amok. But they want to make liberals rather than jihadis the real bad guys for emotional reasons so the liberals need to be tough and repressive. But if the liberals are so tough, why are the jihadis run amok? It's well known, after all, that jihadis don't like liberals (feminists, gays, etc.) very much. If the jihadis are strong, they kill the liberals, not leave them around to repress conservatives. And if the liberals are strong enough to repress conservatives, they should fight the jihadis. The upshot is dystopias that are not only "implausible" but that don't really make sense.

conservatives against Pinochet

Surprisingly, the last word on Pinochet comes from the Weekly Standard.

Pinochet and his apologists argue thus: "Castro and the far left are worse than Pinochet, they kill more people and deliver fewer benefits than did the military government of Chile." Are we to admire Pinochet because his murderous regime was more efficient than tyrants on the left at producing higher GDP? Without the torture, rape, and killing, would economic and political freedom have been impossible in Chile? Hardly! But this is the argument insinuated by Pinochet. He successfully appropriated the utilitarian fallacy to which many on the left fall prey: that murder and torture are acceptable if they hasten the advent of the utopia implied by one's ideological model. That fallacy probably killed more people during the 20th century than typhus, and it stands to do so again in this century if we do not inoculate ourselves against it.

Pinochet tied his advocacy of free markets about people's eyes like a blindfold, to keep them from seeing his firing squads. Nothing that was achieved during his years of tyranny justifies the crimes he committed. Nor is there any meaningful sense in which the policies adopted by the Pinochet government should be viewed as paradigmatic for economic freedom. The military government long pursued a badly misguided policy of overvaluing the local currency; during the debt crisis of the 1980s it took the outrageous step of converting private debts to foreigners into public debt. And then there was its corruption, details of which continue to gradually leak into public view. Indeed, there continues to be a need for economic reform and openness in Chile, where a "good old boy network" acts as a powerful check on economic and social mobility.

(via Matt Yglesias)

Also the Economist.

Take note, Pinochet defenders—while your eye was on the enemy, your legs were shot out by your comrades.

And then there’s this:

I hope dying hurt a whole lot, you rat-faced son of a bitch. I hope you suffered the tortures of the damned. I hope no one wiped your brow or comforted you while you suffered and died. I hope you died alone.

Exactly right. Unfortunately, my guess is that none of that happened.

surge and destroy

It seems that we have our answer on Bush’s plan for Iraq.

Monday, December 18, 2006

free money

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has a money-making scheme for those intelligent enough to take it:

Reading an article about the current snow shortage in Europe’s ski resorts , I came across the following passage:

“Already banks are refusing to offer loans to resorts under 1,500 metres as they fear for their future snow cover.”

This surely presents a tremendous money-making opportunity for global warming “skeptics”. If the banks won’t lend these resorts money, then there’s a gap which the denialists could exploit and thereby make themselves rich. What could possibly go wrong?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

outlook not so good

So says the Magic 8 Ball on whether we'll see McCain or Romney moving into the West Wing in two years. Based on my very amateur, probably completely wrong analysis, the Republicans will have a tough row to hoe in 2008, mostly due to the war in Iraq.

As Matt Yglesias and other commentators have pointed out, during the remainder of his presidency, Bush seems unlikely to (a) withdraw significant numbers of troops from Iraq or (b) find a way to stop the bloodshed and manage a political resolution to the country’s problems. This most likely means that Iraq—and the Republicans' political fortunes—will continue to bleed until Bush leaves office.

Given this, I don’t see a scenario where a Republican nominee for president has a good chance of winning in 2008. Right now, as possible candidates (in rough order of popularity), you have Giuliani, McCain, Rice, Gingrich, Romney, Brownback, Pataki, Bloomberg, Huckabee, Hagel, Hunter, Thompson, and Tancredo.

Gingrich and Pataki are not viable candidates in a general election—probably enough Republicans will realize this to stymie their nomination. Also, Giuliani, Bloomberg, and Pataki don’t have a chance of winning the primaries—they’re too liberal on too many issues. I don’t know much about Hunter and Thompson, but I’ll count them as long shots. Rice is too closely identified with Bush and the failed Iraq policy to have a chance—also, no matter how much conservative elites love her, count me unconvinced that a black woman has a chance of winning the Republican primaries in the South and Mountain West. Romney and McCain—the two candidates with perhaps the best chance of winning a general election who could also conceivably win the nomination—have been strong supporters of Bush’s Iraq policy. As Digby has pointed out, McCain’s recent calls for more troops could backfire if the president actually goes down that road and the situation does not improve. Given my assumptions that Iraq will still be screwed in two years and that U.S. troops will still be in the middle of it, McCain and Romney would have a tough time explaining their support for what is already a toxic policy—by then it will be pure poison. Also, Romney’s religion and past support for gay rights are likely to trip him up in the primaries.

McCain has publicly opposed the president on some high-profile issues—torture being foremost—which would advantage him in the general but hurt him in the primaries. (Never mind that McCain actually accomplished very little in rolling back officially-sanctioned torture--he managed to convince the press that he was really socking it to the president.) Also, he makes a lot of Republicans uneasy because of his stances on the environment and immigration, and because of some ambiguity in his position on abortion.

Hagel has the advantage of having distanced himself from the administration’s Iraq policy (helps him in the general, hurts him in the primary). He has a moderate image—probably due to his foreign policy positions—but he’s actually fairly conservative. His Achilles heels are his support for comprehensive immigration reform and his tenure in the Senate—he’s easy to tar as a Washington insider (I think McCain overcomes this problem through his high visibility and reformist credentials).

Brownback is actually similar to Hagel in many ways, but I’d say his chances are better. He’s more socially conservative, and he’s taken care lately to strike out on his own on Iraq. Also he’s not as well-known, which, given the recent history of the Republican Congress, is a benefit. However, he voted for comprehensive immigration reform, which conservative voters are unlikely to forgive unless he changes his tune.

The wild card is immigration—if the Democrats pass an immigration bill that is perceived as overreaching, it could propel a hardline anti-immigrant demagogue like Tancredo to the nomination. I don’t think the Democrats will do this, though. As long as they maintain their standing among latinos as the lesser of two evils on immigration—which seems likely given the way this issue motivates conservatives to do stupid things—they will not risk creating a new generation of Reagan Democrats by “going too far” on immigration.

Huckabee is well-positioned as an outsider who can reshape his position on Iraq as necessary. But he seems less able than Romney and McCain to withstand the sort of intense, damaging scrutiny they are receiving now.

A caveat I would add is that if Republican elites realize they are doomed in 2008 without an about face on Iraq policy, you might see heightened pressure on Bush to pull troops out quickly. But if he actually does so, I don’t see how any Republican wins the general election. (It’s a Catch 22—conservatives have invested so much in success in Iraq that they have to advocate staying and winning to salvage any credibility on national security. But the longer we stay in Iraq, the more unpopular the war becomes and the less credibility conservatives have on national security.) If Bush doesn’t pull out, you might see McCain, Romney, and others turning on the president as he descends into Nixon-land. But I don’t know how they would then neutralize everything they’d committed to on the war up to that point.

The best possible candidate for the Republicans would be Lou Dobbs. Anti-immigrant, populist, anti-government, against the war in Iraq—he would kill in the current political environment. Fortunately for Democrats and the country, I don’t see anyone with those attributes among the current crop of candidates. We’ll see how much the candidates modify their stances in the next two years to approximate Dobbs’s.

In short, I think Republican support for the war in Iraq gives a Democrat the White House in 2008.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

forcing Congress's hand

The NY Times reports on the recent immigration raids on meatpacking plants in the West:

Homeland security officials emphasized that only the company’s workers — not the company — had been charged with wrongdoing, though the investigation is continuing. They said Swift’s situation demonstrated the need for a temporary worker program, such as the one advocated by President Bush, to ensure that companies have access to foreign workers.

Looks as if the government is consciously using enforcement as a tool to push for legislative change—acknowledging that the system is broken and applying the law in such a way as to get maximum pushback from both immigrant advocates and the business community. Businesses will lose money; meanwhile families will be separated and lives destroyed. It is certainly messy, but will it work? Even if many of the most extreme anti-immigrant Republicans lost in the recent election, it seems that some Democrats who won office also took a hard line on immigration. There’s no guarantee that the Democrats will put the immigration issue high on their priority list once they take control of Congress. Also, is the administration really pushing for productive change to the system (albeit through cruel and hamhanded measures), or is it simply trying to salvage what little credibility it has left on immigration with conservatives?

"sadness overwhelmed me"

Here is an interesting biographical essay by a gay Mormon convert (via the General). It seems odd to read now about how accepting his local leaders were before the Church laid down the party line on gays and lesbians. Of course, I don’t really know what the practice is now at the ward level—if there is a consistent position—since I haven’t been to church regularly for almost 10 years. My roommate during my first semester at BYU was a grandson of Elder Packer. He was smart and unassuming, and he preferred that people not know who his grandfather was. I get the impression—again, having been out of the loop for quite some time—that Elder Packer is looked to as a leader among the apostles. He certainly seems to have taken the lead on the Church’s position on LGBT members, and that is too bad.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

a new approach to immigration enforcement

From the WaPo today:

Federal agents targeting illegal immigrants raided meatpacking plants in six states yesterday, arresting hundreds of workers on the uncommon charge of identity theft and shutting down the world's second-largest meat processing company for much of the day.

About 1,000 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents with search warrants entered plants owned by Swift & Co., of Greeley, Colo., charging that "large numbers" of workers illegally assumed the identities of U.S. citizens or legal residents by using their Social Security numbers to get work, ICE officials said.

. . .

U.S. authorities cast the 11-month investigation as an attack on identity theft, not more typical immigration violations. Swift officials were not charged, despite recent administration vows to get tough on companies as well as workers.

Reframing the immigration debate in terms of “identity theft” does not productively advance the discussion. It is another way to criminalize what Congress had originally chosen to characterize as a civil offense—working without authorization and living in this country with no immigration status.

Identity theft connotes stealing someone’s credit card information and running up large bills, or using someone’s identity to take out credit cards and run up large bills. Implicit in the term is harm to the person whose identity is stolen. It is not clear to me how using nine numbers chosen at random that happen to constitute a social security number belonging to someone else harms the person whose number is used. At least it is not clear from the article. If these immigrants were using the social security numbers to steal something of value from the rightful owners, then “theft” would be a more accurate description. If immigrants are using the fake social security numbers to apply for credit cards, take out loans, etc.—things that might affect the credit rating of the true owners, then I would see more cause for concern. I’m not sure whether this is happening, and if so, if it is the reason the feds are taking this approach now. If so, it was nowhere mentioned in the article. Certainly the vast majority of illegal immigrants will not be attempting to steal money from people by fraudulently using their identities—you know, engaging in identity theft—because the last thing most of them want to do is get in trouble with the law. Most of the immigrants caught up in these raids have probably never even used a computer, much less perpetrated complicated electronic financial fraud.

Use of the term “theft” is generally understood to mean appropriation of something that belongs to someone else—taking for your own benefit something at someone else’s expense. Now, these immigrants are looking for the opportunity to work 70 hours a week at very low wages in order to make large companies billions of dollars. Since, for most of them, there is no legal channel for accomplishing this, they bend the rules in order to have the chance to basically be exploited. Accusing the immigrants of theft is simply Orwellian.
"Swift believes that today's actions by the government . . . raise serious questions as to the government's possible violation of individual workers' civil rights."

This is true, but also fairly hypocritical, since these companies benefit a great deal from the current system where their workers have no legal or political status in this country. Illegal workers can be easily fired or intimidated, can’t unionize, and will gladly take low wages with little complaint. I’d like to see the business community come out strongly and publicly in favor of a fair immigration program that provides them with the workers they need and provides those workers with the legal status they need, but so far I haven’t seen it.

If we continue to see ramped-up enforcement with no serious effort to address the underlying problems with the system, I think we will see more mass protests, more immigrant-friendly voters (principally, but not solely, latinos) becoming politically active, more legal challenges to the system, re-energized unions becoming more active, and serious erosion of the American bargain that if you work hard and keep your nose clean, you will get ahead.

Unfortunately, I don't see any easy solutions since the problems stem from an international legal/political system that is not currently able to deal with the changing global economic landscape.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

who killed the electric car

I watched the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car" from NetFlix tonight. It was some good muckraking--turns out the car and oil companies put the kibosh on a product for which there was pretty strong demand. GM actually had to threaten legal action and physically take back the electric cars, all of which were leased, from customers who didn't want to give them up. They refused to sell the cars to the lessees. Then they drove the cars off to the desert and crushed them. I guess this is the kind of visionary leadership that led the US automakers to embrace SUVs just before the longest period of high gas prices since the 70s. At least now that Ford and GM are facing bankruptcy, maybe someone will give consumers what they want.

Orson Scott Card on Iraq

My dad’s cousin always said Orson Scott Card was a weenie. She went to high school with him, so I guess she would know. Weenie or not, he seems to have gone off the deep end after 9/11.

He is one of those unfortunate “liberals” who has latched onto the war in Iraq as the single transcendent issue of our time, and then drawn exactly the wrong conclusions from the experiences of the past five years. I stumbled onto an essay of his through Glenn Reynolds shortly before the election—a true gem, its length is only exceeded by its stunning and complete wrongness.

Wrong on the “war on whatever”:

[W]e are not waging a "War in Iraq." We are waging a world war, in which the campaigns to topple the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan were brilliantly successful, and the current "lukewarm" war demands great patience and determination from the American people as we ready ourselves for the next phase.

Wrong on the "war of choice":
No matter which miserable dictatorship we moved against after the Taliban -- and we had no choice but to keep moving on if we were to eradicate the grave danger we faced (and face) . . .

Wrong on Vietnam:
As happened in South Vietnam. The negotiated peace was more or less holding after American withdrawal. But then a Democratic Congress refused to authorize any further support for the South Vietnamese government. No more armaments. No more budget.

In other words, we forcibly disarmed our allies, while their enemies continued to be supplied by the great Communist powers. The message was clear: Those who rely on America are fools.

Wrong on Iraq Adventure, the First:
Bush Senior did nothing as Saddam moved in and slaughtered them. The tragedy is that all it would have taken is a show of force on our part in support of the rebels, and Saddam's officers would have toppled him. Only when it became clear that we would do nothing did it become impossible for any high-ranking officials to take action. For the price of the relatively easy military action that would have made Saddam turn his troops around and leave the Shiite south, we could have gotten rid of him then -- and had grateful friends, perhaps, in the Shiite south.
Wrong on Iraq Part II:
In Iraq and Afghanistan -- but especially Iraq -- President Bush is behaving according to America's best and most honorable tradition. We did not come to destroy, we came to liberate and rescue, he says -- by word and deed. We bring freedom and opportunity. Our money will help rebuild your devastated (or never built-up) economies; our expertise will help train your most talented people to be ready for prosperity and self-government; and our military will keep enemies from overwhelming you as you reinvent yourselves.

Wrong on Muslim perceptions of the West and Bush’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East:
[T]hrough nation-building, through the promise of democracy, Bush has created a rallying point with far stronger resonance than anything the Islamic puritans have to offer.

What is their program, after all? We'll take your sons and get them to blow themselves up in order to murder westerners! Forget the rhetoric -- Muslim parents are human beings, and there is nothing more devastating than to lose a child. The only consolation is when it seems to be in a noble cause. But because of President Bush's promise of democracy, the Muslim puritan cause does not seem noble to more and more Muslims.

. . .

There are, of course, fanatics who will embrace Islamic terrorism because they choose to blind themselves to the truth and embrace the noble-seeming lies of the tyrants. Al-Qaeda does not lack for recruits.

But it also does not lack for people who fear and hate them. There are few pro-Al-Qaeda demonstrations on the Arab street. The people remember the images of liberated Iraqis tearing down the images of Saddam. And they know -- because they have relatives and friends, they hear from merchants and travelers -- that in most of Iraq, there is freedom and prosperity like never before.

(Wow. You really need special training to be this detached from reality.)

Wrong on Iraqi support for continued American presence in the country:
even more than they fear terrorist bombs, the pro-democracy forces within Iraq and Afghanistan fear American withdrawal.

Wrong on . . . so many levels:
Critics of Bush love to cite the many "mistakes" his administration has made. Most of these "mistakes" are arguable -- are they mistakes at all? -- and when you sum up the others, with any kind of rational understanding of military history, the only possible conclusion is that this is the best-run war in history, with the fewest mistakes. And most of the mistakes we've made are the kind that become clear to morning-after quarterbacks but were difficult to avoid in the fog of war.

Wrong on the future (I hope):
If we do not win this containable war now, following the plan President Bush has set forth, we will surely end up fighting far bloodier wars for the next generation.

Only if people like you are still in charge of our foreign policy, which looks increasingly less likely. Oh, wait:
If we, the American people, are stupid enough to give control of either or both houses of Congress to the Democratic Party in this election, we will deserve the world we find ourselves in five years from now.

That might actually be true!

Card also goes into an "incisive analysis" of the politics of the Middle East that, on its own, should safely ensure he is never taken seriously on the topic again. Well, maybe that’s too much to ask of the blogosphere. We go to war with the brains we have, not the brains we want.

This essay is a gift that keeps on giving. Somehow I don’t think any amount of empirical evidence will ever convince this man of anything new.

He’s been so thoroughly and consistently wrong that he couldn’t limit himself to penning lengthy discourses of wrongness located in the world we currently inhabit—the nonfiction genre did not provide sufficient ground for developing his wrong ideas—he had to write a work of fiction to bring to pass the fullness of his wrongness. (The liberal sphere took a look at it a couple weeks ago here, here, and here.)

Here’s an excerpt:
What the terrorists aren't counting on, thought Cole, is that America isn't a completely decadent country yet. When you stab us, we don't roll over and ask what we did wrong and would you please forgive us. Instead we turn around and take the knife out of your hand. Even though the whole world, insanely, condemns us for it.

Cole could imagine the way this was getting covered by the media in the rest of the world. Oh, tragic that the President was dead. Official condolences. Somber faces. But they'd be dancing in the streets in Paris and Berlin, not to mention Moscow and Beijing. After all, those were the places where America was blamed for all the trouble in the world. What a laugh -- capitals that had once tried to conquer vast empires, damning America for behaving far better than they did when they were in the ascendancy.

"You look pissed off," said Malich.

"Yeah," said Cole. "The terrorists are crazy and scary, but what really pisses me off is knowing that this will make a whole bunch of European intellectuals very happy."

Orson, for the love of God, stop calling yourself a Democrat. It’s embarrassing for all of us.

And whatever happened to that movie version of Ender's Game?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Kofi Annan on human rights

I went to hear Kofi Annan speak yesterday in Manhattan at a Human Rights Watch event to mark International Human Rights day, coming up on December 10. “After ten years as secretary-general, he promises to speak his mind,” the organizers claimed. Not having heard him speak before, I don’t know if he spoke more of his mind than usual, but I thought he made some fairly blunt points for a sitting secretary-general.

In his introduction, Ken Roth, executive director at HRW, clearly promoted the narrative that Annan has been the “human rights” secretary-general. This even though as head of peacekeeping under Boutros Boutros (Boutros) Ghali, Annan presided over both Rwanda and Srebenica. In a new account of the Annan years reviewed by Stephen Schlesinger in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, James Traub

compliments Annan's calm in the midst of diplomatic tornadoes swirling around him as being almost "extraterrestrial." "There was something uncanny, even a bit weird," Traub writes, "about the perfect equipoise [Annan] maintained in all settings."

He was calm, unflappable, possessed of a serenity I associate with Mormon leaders of my youth who had complete inner assurance of the truth of their message. Not elected in the way most politicians are, he displayed few traits common to them—he was soft-spoken and very low-key. He managed to maintain a relentlessly positive outlook while describing dire situations in many parts of the world.

In his prepared remarks, he worried that the world might not be any better off than it was ten years ago with regard to advancement of human rights by intergovernmental organizations like the UN. He urged that national sovereignty not be considered sacrosanct in cases of dire threats to human rights—an obvious reference to Darfur. He rejected the claim that peace must come before justice in societies recovering from conflict. He called for anti-terror programs to be built on human rights, and rejected the need for secret prisons and “ghost detainees” kept away from Red Cross workers—a clear rebuke to current U.S. policies. He characterized human rights as individual rights, and emphasized that individuals may have multiple or shifting identities and cannot easily be pigeonholed—reminiscent of Amartya Sen’s recent work on identity and armed conflict.

He then answered questions from a panel of human rights practitioners from around the world: Argentina, Kenya, Russia, Egypt, and South Africa. He sat patiently as Ann Njogu from Kenya berated him for what seemed like forever, asking again and again when Africans could expect to see results from all this talk about human rights. He responded diplomatically that yes, there are many problems and difficulties, but we should not focus too harshly on the gap between principle and action. To me his answer rang a bit hollow. He also said that African women didn’t know the power of their numbers—I didn’t know quite how to interpret that. I don’t see much use in laying the blame for Africa’s problems at the feet of African women for being politically marginalized.

Tanya Lokshina
posited that the rest of the world was ignoring rampant human rights abuses by Russian security forces in Chechnya in order not to upset the Russian government. Annan responded that the Security Council has accepted Russia’s claim that the Chechen conflict is an internal matter. He asked whether the UN could apply its principles fairly across the board or whether principles were applied differently depending on how powerful the country under scrutiny was. “I think we all know the answer,” he said. I took that to mean that the rule of law has little meaning in the context of the Security Council.

After the panel, Annan took questions from the press. Someone asked him if he felt vindicated on Iraq. He managed not to gloat. The conventional wisdom, as expressed in the Traub book on Annan’s tenure, has been that he started out with several successes during the Clinton years and then faced a series of setbacks during the Bush years, Iraq being principal among them. Schlesinger writes:
Bush's . . . decision to invade Iraq in defiance of the UN came as a sharp rebuke to the organization. It was also a shattering personal experience for Annan. Traub writes that as he saw the UN pushed aside in Iraq, Annan "suffered a kind of slow-motion collapse." He retreated to his New York residence, started taking antidepressants, and even temporarily lost his ability to speak.
It seems clear by now that history will be kinder to Annan than to Bush on the issue of Iraq, and probably on many other issues as well (the International Criminal Court and human rights, to name two).

One journalist asked what the impact has been of the US’s relinquishment of its traditional leadership role in the area of human rights. Annan said this had an impact on the negotiations for the new UN Human Rights Council. Given his previous admission that the Council had not yet lived up to expectations, one could surmise that he thinks the US is to blame to some degree for the failure of the Council thus far to do anything meaningful. But he said he interpreted the US’s decision not to seek a seat on the Council as a “soft no” rather than a “hard no” (meaning the US would not participate but would also not stand in the way of the Council's work) and he held out hope that the US would support the Council in the future.

Someone asked him whether his experience presiding over Rwanda affected his views on state sovereignty and the need for intervention. He said that the governments that failed to act were to blame—many of them knew more about the genocide as it was occurring than did the UN, and even if they didn’t know the full extent of it, as some countries claimed, when they found out, their first (and for many, only) action was to send in troops and planes to evacuate their own nationals. It was clearly a sensitive subject for Annan, but it is also the height of hypocrisy for nations that failed to act during the slaughter to blame the UN for their own very calculated inaction.

It is hard to overstate the calm assurance that Annan projected. He was never caught without an articulate answer. His comments were permeated by a contagious optimism. It is too bad that his goals—and the goals of human rights advocates around the world—have been largely hamstrung by the US reaction to 9/11. I believe that he leaves office with the international stature of a Clinton or a Mandela. I look forward to good things from Kofi Annan as he moves into the private sector.

Friday, December 08, 2006

the Economist--just say no

The Economist weighs with a cover story on the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. From the leader:

What will not help is scuttling from Iraq before exhausting every possible effort to put the country back together. The Baker-Hamilton group is right to say that America should neither leave precipitously nor stay forever. Leaning harder on Iraq's politicians is an excellent idea. But setting an arbitrary deadline of early 2008 for most of the soldiers to depart risks weakening America's bargaining power, intensifying instead of dampening the fighting and projecting an image of weakness that will embolden enemies everywhere. On this recommendation, Mr Bush needs to insist on his prerogatives as custodian of America's foreign policy and just say no.

I forget who in the shrillosphere has said the best way to determine an effective foreign policy is to do the opposite of whatever Bill Kristol is advocating at any given point. I’d like to extend this principle to the Economist’s analysis of the war in Iraq. As far as I can tell, the newspaper's editorialists have never been right about any aspect of Iraq policy.

vivir sin fronteras

I came across an interesting survey conducted by the BBC:

Four out of five youngsters believe people should be able to live in any country they choose, a BBC global survey of 15 to 17-year-olds suggests.

Two-thirds also say that they would emigrate to secure a better future, and one in seven said they would risk their life to reach another country.

. . .

The 10 key cities involved in the poll, conducted by Synovate, were New York, Nairobi, Cairo, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, Baghdad, Delhi, Jakarta, Moscow and London

. . .

The results show the desire of young people to be highly mobile, with very little difference between developed and developing countries.

Well, with the caveat that these are all city-dwellers. The opinions of New Yorkers are not particularly representative of the country as a whole, and I imagine this is true in many of the other countries surveyed.

Based on my experience studying in Buenos Aires three years ago, educated, urban, globally mobile middle/upper class youth often have more in common with their global counterparts than with working class and rural people in their own countries. Europeans, Japanese, porteƱos (residents of Buenos Aires), North Americans, Australians, Mexicans, and Lebanese all spoke the same languages—Spanish and English—listened to the same music, watched the same movies, drank the same kinds of alcohol, went to the same dance clubs, and all hated George Bush (he’s a uniter, not a divider. I once met a Romanian law student in Geneva who had good things to say about Bush’s foreign policy—he’s the only one that comes to mind out of the places I’ve been.)

Of course, most of the people I met in Buenos Aires who could afford to live abroad were fairly wealthy in their home countries—probably the vast majority of kids outside of Europe either don’t have the opportunity or the inclination to travel for pleasure. But many of those who can't travel for pleasure will travel for work. This generation, more than any other, does not believe in borders. To many kids around the world, the idea that you should be able to live and work where you choose feels like a human right. The idea that your opportunities should be limited by something as arbitrary as where you are born or who your parents are makes little intuitive sense.
When asked which was the most important issue globally right now, 36% of the respondents listed terrorism.

The issue caused most concern in New Delhi (66%), New York (63%) and Baghdad (59%).

And an overwhelming majority, 71%, said that the so-called US war on terror was not making the world a safer place. Just 14% of respondents disagreed.

Ninety-eight percent of Baghdadi respondents said the war on terror was not making the world a safer place.

Lucky for them, they’re the most direct beneficiaries of the US war on terror.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bolton resigns

Great work, Steve Clemons. America thanks you.

This headline from the NY Times made me laugh:

At the U.N., a Mixed View of Bolton’s Tenure

On the one hand, we had:

[Mark Malloch Brown, the deputy secretary general] had angered Mr. Bolton during the summer by accusing the United States of “stealth diplomacy” — turning to the United Nations when Washington needed it while showing public disdain for the institution.

At the time, Mr. Bolton demanded that Secretary General Kofi Annan “personally and publicly” repudiate Mr. Malloch Brown’s remarks, but Mr. Annan stood by them.

Brown is a Brit--installed by one of our closest allies--and he visibly can't stand Bolton. Bolton completely alienated Annan, also selected with US support 8 years ago.
A year ago, at a monthly lunch for Security Council ambassadors, Mr. Annan signaled how deep the divide had become by chastising Mr. Bolton for trying to “intimidate” him.

Here are the good things diplomats had to say about Bolton:
Security Council ambassadors said they respected Mr. Bolton’s professionalism and command of the subject matter, and thought he had represented the Bush administration’s foreign policy goals well.

Keep in mind these are diplomats--congenitally incapable of giving offense directly--most of whom thought the Bush administration's foreign policy goals were batshit crazy. Some compliment!

This is about as close as you'll hear a diplomat come to complaining about a colleague:
On the other hand, they said his manner, often described as abrupt, unyielding and confrontational, had alienated traditional American allies and undercut American influence.

In the end, Bolton failed in his stated goal to engage in meaningful reform of the UN because he was such an abrasive asshole. You can't be an effective diplomat if you don't believe in diplomacy. Sending Bolton to the UN was like sending Strom Thurmond to reform the NAACP or Dick Cheney to reenergize the ACLU. Thankfully in the end the Republican Senators who would have had to sign on to this madness wouldn't do it. Chalk up one more wasted opportunity for Bush's legacy.

Update: Matt Yglesias puts his finger on one reason Bolton's effort at the UN was doomed to fail: he didn't want to reform the UN so much as destroy--or at least eviscerate--it.
Bolton and his biggest fans think the UN is a menace. Not that the UN is a flawed institution that sometimes can't or doesn't accomplish everything one might like. Rather, it's a menace. Not something that should be improved, but something that should be wrecked. Hit, in other words, with a wrecking ball. People who believe that a "strong American presence" in Turtle Bay means strident efforts to destroy the institution.

Friday, December 01, 2006


This nifty site shows the total number of asylum cases granted by immigration judges in the U.S. and the percent approved vs. denied.

Note that (per a recent NY Times article which has now vanished into the archive) in New York between 2000 and 2005, Judge McManus had a denial rate of 9.8% while Judge Hom denied 91.4% of the asylum cases he heard, and Judge Vomacka denied 95.8%!

These extreme differences should put safely to bed the claim that asylum-seekers can count on any sort of fair and impartial process to determine the truth of their claims. (Immigration judges aren't even part of the judiciary, they're part of the same executive branch as the government attorneys laboring to send asylum-seekers back to their home countries.) The immigration judges have so much discretion to bend facts and law to fit their ideological preferences that asylum proceedings are often a sham. Due process? We’ve decided, through our legislators, that it is not particularly relevant to the life and death situations that many asylum-seekers find themselves in.

stabbing ourselves in the back

Digby writes:

Josh Marshall is chronicling the rapidly emerging rightwing "stab in the back" meme in which George W. Churchill was betrayed by both the American and Iraqi people.

. . .

[I]f the current stab-in-the-back argument is that the American people should have supported the war more, perhaps the people who are making that argument should go back and look at what the American people actually thought at the time we went in. It's not something that couldn't have been anticipated. A majority backed the war if the US could get an international coalition together. Throughout the run-up polls said over and over again that Americans expected Bush to get UN backing. He did not feel he needed to do that, he lied repeatedly, invaded anyway and once the invasion began most Americans rallied because they felt they had no choice. They hung in longer than they had any reason to.

So Kurtz is essentially right. The public had never fully approved of the war in the first place.

I don’t know about this. It certainly seemed as though the American public, to the extent that you can talk about it as a coherent entity, strongly supported the war at the time we went in. Approval of the invasion was above 70% in March 2003.

I think the “stabbed in the back” analysis by the left right now is misguided. The American public might not be responsible for losing the war (to the extent that "losing the war" has any meaning in this context), but it’s harder to say it is not responsible for supporting the war in the first place. It would be nice if the American public had cared enough at the outset of the war to really find out what it was they were supporting. But the fact is that most didn’t. I laid out the case against war to a sophisticated, well-informed hawkish friend of mine before we went into Iraq. I said something along the lines of “We aren’t going in for the right reasons, therefore it is likely to go badly for the Iraqis. We are going to do this for our benefit, not theirs, and they are expendable, and lots of them will probably die as a result.” His response was that he didn’t really care how many Iraqis died. It wasn’t his concern. I was a little shocked, but I have to give him credit for saying what many others who supported the war thought but wouldn’t say—or would have thought, had they taken the time to think it through. I believe that many Americans, if feeling sufficiently threatened, feel little compunction about trampling however many non-American lives it takes to protect “me and mine,” which doesn’t typically extend to anyone outside of our borders.

There is little moral justification for this position, but it’s such a deeply-held, unspoken assumption of American foreign policy that it seems shocking when people put it into words.

This sentiment gives rise to statements like Jonah Goldberg’s classic paraphrase of Michael Ledeen before the war: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

This is why, with each new Lancet study calculating the number of Iraqi dead since the war began (who would not have otherwise died), the administration and its supporters attacked the researchers and said the numbers were too large to be taken seriously. First 100,000 was beyond the pale, then 655,000. The second Lancet study predicted with 95% confidence that 392,000 people had died—by this time 100,000 didn’t seem so outrageous anymore.

After the second study came out, the Bush administration said no, that’s too high, we think it’s more like 30,000, but they provided no evidence of this claim. I’m not aware of any comparable conflicting studies (Iraq Body Count uses a different methodology that, by their own admission, is likely to undercount deaths). So, the argument goes, the Lancet numbers couldn’t possibly be accurate, but we won’t provide any evidence for this claim because: (1) we’re worried what the real numbers will turn out to be, (2) we don’t really care what the numbers are, (3) you’re a dirty hippie, and/or (4) (insert serious argument here) . . .

Samantha Power wrote in A Problem from Hell (paperback, p. 381) that, before President Clinton sent in 200 troops to stabilize the Kigali airport so relief could be flown into Rwanda (well after the killing was finished), a U.S. officer called Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN mission there, to find out how many Rwandans had died. Dallaire asked why he wanted to know, and the officer replied, “We are doing our calculations back here, and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”

There it is in black and white; it doesn’t get any clearer than that, although the government and punditry don’t normally come right out and say it like that. The calculation presumably varies from country to country—a developed-country life would be worth more than a developing-country life, but only ever some fraction of one American life.

Now there are some decent justifications for prioritizing the security of people in your own community—on a smaller scale, if a parent doesn’t ensure the safety of her child, who will? Democratic systems of government are more effective than alternative systems largely because democratic leaders are responsive to the security demands of their constituents. But in an anarchic international state system, where you have extreme imbalances of power and wealth, these localized democratic mechanisms to ensure group protection have massive externalities which negate the underlying moral justification. You can’t kill thousands of “them” to save dozens of “us” (or none of "us" at all, as it turns out in Iraq) and claim to be acting according to any sort of morally defensible set of rules.

In the case of the US invasion of Iraq, you had a very powerful community using force ostensibly to protect itself, but with very little accountability to anyone outside of that community, and virtually no accountability to the community being invaded. So you had the secondary justification, largely post hoc, that what we were doing was “for their own good.” This was never more than window dressing, and even now, as other justifications for the war have faded away, it is still not the case that we are acting in Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqis in any meaningful way. This is because our elected leaders are in no way accountable to the Iraqis, and whatever sense of obligation the American public feels toward the Iraqi people, it is nowhere near strong enough to actually cause American leaders to act on behalf of the Iraqis. Once the argument that our actions in Iraq are improving the security of the American public is finally disposed of, we will desert the Iraqis to their fate with surprising speed. The invasion and its consequences have killed hundreds of thousands—we quibble about exactly how many, but have so little invested in finding the truth that the discussion quickly fades from memory. Much more attention is focused in the US national conversation on the number of US dead—a precise tally of which is monitored daily—which by comparison is minute. How many Iraqis have died? How many more will die? Why did they die? Was it really necessary?

We. Just. Don’t. Care.

That’s what makes this “stabbed in the back” pushback vaguely silly. Who "lost" Iraq? Who "lost" Vietnam? The fact that those questions are seriously entertained shows that the national security debate is taking place on warped and twisted ground. We’ve learned very little since the Vietnam War, and the nature of the national conversation on Iraq makes me think it’s likely we’ll face this problem again before too long.