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Thursday, April 29, 2004

Bush's approval rating at all-time low 

A CBS/NY Times poll released today shows Bush's approval rating at 46%, the lowest of his presidency. One year ago, immediately after the fall of Baghdad, Bush's approval rating was 67%. His ratings on handling Iraq (41%) and foreign policy (40%) are also all-time lows. While his 39% rating on handling the economy is dismal, it is not an all-time low.

Interestingly, the poll finds that 60% of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the threat of terrorism. Perhaps the political advertising featuring 9/11 corpses and middle eastern men in airports are working.

Finally, the poll reports that Kerry would beat Bush 46-44% in a race without Nader, although the 3% margin of error makes this result a statistical tie. With Nader in the race, Bush has the advantage over Kerry, winning 43-41% with Nader getting 5% of the vote. Although the 43-41% is still a tie, the result shows that Nader, despite his arguments, steals more supporters from Kerry than from Bush.
Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Specter beats Toomey in PA Republican Primary 

Arlen Specter, four-term Pennsylvania senator, edged out challenger Patrick Toomey in Pennsylvania's Republican primary. Specter carried 50.8% of the primary vote to Toomey's 49.2%. The primary result represents a victory for Specter's relative centrism over Toomey's far-right conservatism.

What effect will Specter's nomination have on the outcome of the Presidential election in PA? Although Toomey has called for his supporters to rally behind Specter and Bush this fall, that fact remains that hardcore social and fiscal conservatives are disappointed with Bush's performance.

Specter's stumping for Bush will certainly appeal to Pennsylvania's swing voters, but Toomey's defeat will upset the state's hard-core conservatives. What is the size of Pennsylvania's far-right voter population relative to its swing voter population? Are those far-right voters sufficiently disappointed with Bush that they will stay home in November?
Thursday, April 22, 2004

Daschle's chances 

Good news for Tom Daschle's reelection campaign. Indian activist Tim Giago, an independent candidate in the race, has withdrawn and endorsed Daschle. It seems that Daschle and Giago met over the weekend and ironed out their differences. Native Americans, who make up almost 10% of South Dakota's population, traditionally vote strongly Democratic, but Giago's candidacy threatened to undercut Daschle's support on the reservations. While it's not clear exactly what conditions Daschle agreed to, he may have softened his position on the Black Hills land dispute. The federal government illegally took possession of Sioux land in 1877, initiating a century-long conflict over the ownership of the Black Hills. In 1980, the Supreme Court awarded $105 million to the Sioux in compensation, but the tribes refused the settlement, arguing that the land was never for sale. In the past, Daschle has consistently ignored the tribes' claim to the land, angering one of his core constituencies.

Giago's withdrawal and endorsement are definitely a plus, but Daschle is still looking extremely vulnerable. His opponent, former Rep. John Thune, lost to incumbent Senator Tim Johnson in 2002 by a razor-thin margin of 524 votes. While Daschle's position as Senate Minority Leader makes him a stronger candidate than Johnson, there is one big difference between 2004 and 2002: Bush will be running at the top of the ticket. Four years ago, Bush won South Dakota by a margin of 22%. In order for Daschle to win reelection, some 22% of South Dakota voters have to break party lines, voting for Bush at the top of the ticket and Daschle on the next line. That's a huge number of split tickets. The Bush campaign will surely try to frame a vote for Daschle as inconsistent with a vote for the President. South Dakota residents will be hearing a lot of rhetoric about Daschle's "obstructionism" in the coming months. Given Daschle's anemic polling numbers, below 50% and only a few points ahead of Thune, his position is very tenuous. I wouldn't put his chances at much higher than 50%.

If Daschle loses, it would be a huge symbolic defeat for the Democratic party. On the other hand, it's time we had a leader in the Senate who doesn't have to sell out Democratic values to get reelected. Having a safe seat ought to be a requirement for a Congressional leadership position.

For the true die-hard political junkies, here's a whole blog devoted to the Daschle/Thune race.
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Draft bills in congress 

Since early last year, the Universal National Service Act of 2003 has been in subcommittees in the House and Senate. Summary of the act:

To provide for the common defense by requiring that all young persons in the United States, including women, perform a period of military service or a period of civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, and for other purposes.

It seems that the bills do not have very much support among members of Congress, which would help explain why they've been stuck in subcommittees for more than a year. My worry is that in the wake of some future catastrophic event -- say, a meltdown in Pakistan or another major terrorist attack on US soil -- these bills could be rushed through Congress in much the same way as the Patriot Act was hurried through in the panicked weeks after 9/11.

The draft is not the answer to our current woes in Iraq. For one thing, it's not at all clear that more soldiers would help  in Iraq. More soldiers would provide more targets for terrorist and guerrilla attacks, and would further complicate an already daunting supply problem. Secondly, it would take perhaps a year to restart the selective service system and perhaps another year to fully train drafted troops. Even if more troops would help in Iraq, we can't wait two years for those troops.

As to Chuck Hagel's argument that the draft would spread the burden of war equitably among all social classes, that's just not true. The rich and powerful have always found ways to avoid being drafted. During Vietnam, classism was essentially built into the draft system in the form of student exemptions. Community college or vocational students did not qualify for these exemptions as they were not considered "full-time" students. Family connections could evidently get you past the waiting list for a coveted spot in the National Guard. And it is the rich and powerful who have the means to escape the draft by leaving the country. The class gap in our military may be a problem, but the draft is not the solution.

"Conservative case for voting Democratic" 

Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute argues that the government does a better job keeping spending under control when Congress and the White House are controlled by different parties. Of all the postwar administrations, the biggest spenders were Kennedy, Johnson and Bush II, all of whom enjoyed party majorities in Congress. The lowest spenders were Eisenhower and Clinton, who had to deal with an opposition Congress. Since Congress isn't likely to go Democratic this year, the normally conservative Bandow concludes that the best way to rein in government spending is to vote for Kerry.

The Draft 

Chuck Hagel suggests that bringing back the draft will solve the troop shortage in Iraq, and also ensure that Americans from all social classes will have a stake in the war.
Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Israeli view on Iraq 

Matthew Yglasias explains why democracy in Iraq is not necessarily in Israel's interest:

Sharon doesn't "want us to win in Iraq" if "winning in Iraq" is defined as establishing a stable Iraqi democracy. Under the circumstances, a democratic Iraq would be strongly anti-Israel (as was the old, undemocratic Iraq), but it will have the sort of global credibility and legitimacy as a state sponsor of the Palestinian cause that the old Iraq utterly lacked. Sharon's best hope is that Iraq either degenerates into a failed state (no threat there) or else that the United States imposes a broadly pro-American dictatorship there as we see in Egypt.

Interesting point, although I disagree that a failed state in Iraq would constitute "no threat" to Israel. A failed state is likely to lead to some kind of civil war, destabilizing the region. I'm reminded of a post on Aspasia a while back:

The defeat of Saddam Hussein removes the last conventional threat from Israel's Eastern border, making the concept of strategic depth obsolete and making clear that the West Bank is a security liability, not a security asset to Israel.

This is true, provided nothing really ugly happens in Iraq. A civil war or radical Islamic regime could renew the threat to Israel's eastern border. It does seem that a "pro-American dictatorship," as Matt suggests, would be the best result in Iraq from Israel's point of view.

How will Sistani react to an invasion of Najaf? 

It seems that negotiations have broken down and US troops are preparing to invade Najaf in an effort to capture the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A decision to invade Najaf could have drastic consequences. Najaf is the holiest city of Shiite Islam, site of the Imam Ali Mosque, the burial place of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali. Invading Najaf could transform the current insurrection by Sadr's fringe group into a general Shiite rebellion.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the well-respected voice of moderation in the Iraqi Shiite community, has repeatedly warned the United States to stay out of Najaf. The big variable is how Sistani would react to an invasion. His threats thus far have been vague; if the United States ignores his warnings, he says he will "take a different, stronger position" on the occupation. That could mean anything from a mild rebuke of US actions to an all-out declaration of war. It seems to me that the US is taking a real gamble here. If Sistani decides he's had enough of collaborating with the occupation, Southern Iraq could easily descend into full-fledged guerrilla war.
Saturday, April 17, 2004

CNN, NBC, ... NRA? 

(via The Fulcrum) The NRA is setting up an internet radio operation, and has plans to acquire radio and television stations. Why? It seems this may be their way of getting around McCain-Feingold:

The NRA's media outlets will be financed by unlimited donations, known as "soft money".

Campaign finance laws ban the use of "soft money" for political advertising in the run-up to elections

"If you own a news operation," said [NRA executive vice-president Wayne] LaPierre, "you can say whatever you want. If you don't, you're gagged."

Experts say that the NRA might be able to sidestep campaign finance laws if it can convincingly show that it is running a media organisation.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Factions within the Kerry campaign 

Slate's Michael Crowley has a nice article outlining the many factions within the Kerry campaign, their political ambitions, friends and enemies. There's Ted Kennedy's crew facing off against the Clinton's former advisors and cabinet members. Kerry's decades-old network of Boston pols and advisors is clashing with the newer, Washington set. Then there's Kerry's family and his network of Vietnam veterans. Crowley does a good job deconstructing these various factions, identifying the major players and ambitions of each.

Bush campaign has already spent $40 million 

(via Pandagon) MSNBC says the Bush campaign has already spent half of its pre-convention advertising budget. The campaign has spent at least $40 million on advertising in the last month and a half, roughly the same amount it has budgeted for the next four and a half months. Nor has Bush gained that much in the polls as a result of this advertising blitz. It looks like the early effort to "define Kerry before Kerry defines Kerry" hasn't worked.

Somebody stop these people 

I almost never click on banner ads, but here's one I just saw:



When you click on it, it takes you straight to www.GOP.com, where you find out, in tiny print they hope nobody will read, what Kerry actually said:
"Mr. McMANUS: If that amendment does not pass, will you then vote against the $87 billion?

Sen. KERRY: I don't think any United States senator is going to abandon our troops and recklessly leave Iraq to--to whatever follows as a result of simply cutting and running. That's irresponsible.
I'm no fan of Kerry's vote against the $87 billion, and I'm no fan of his hedging answer to this question, which not only refuses to give a straight yes or no answer, but also reads an accusation into the question that just isn't there. Kerry should have said, "If the amendment does not pass, then, absolutely, I will vote against the $87 billion," and explained why. But in no sense does Kerry's answer confirm the implication the ad is trying to make, namely that Kerry publicly renounced his vote after the fact, accusing himself of "abandoning our troops" and characterizing his own decision as "reckless" and "irresponsible."

The folks at GOP.com must have sensed the inadequacy of this quote, hence their inclusion of -- hold your breath -- some context. In the rest of the quote, Kerry goes on to explain why voting against the $87 billion does not   constitute abandoning our troops. The rest of of the quote, if you actually read it, controverts the argument the ad is trying to make. But the folks at GOP.com are very clever: in that tiny font, it's awfully tough to get past the first sentence.

I wonder whether this ad qualifies as libel. A legal definition:
LIBEL - Published material meeting three conditions: The material is defamatory either on its face or indirectly; The defamatory statement is about someone who is identifiable to one or more persons; and, The material must be distributed to someone other than the offended party; i.e. published; distinguished from slander.
The second and third conditions are easily met. The first one rests on the definition of "defamatory." If saying something false about someone with the intent of harming his reputation is "defamatory," then this is libel.
Thursday, April 15, 2004

New sidebar addition: state polling map 

DC's Political Report compiles state polling results for the presidential race into the handy little map you see on the right. Dark blue/red means the candidates are separated by at least twice the margin of error (typically at least a 9-10% difference); light blue/red means the separation is between one and two margins of error (typically 4-9% difference); green means the separation is less than one margin of error, making the state a tossup.

I do have a quibble with the coloring, in that it's only based on the most recent poll. This means outlier polls make the map fluctuate a lot. A few weeks ago Minnesota was green and Wisconsin was dark blue. New York was even green at one point. It'd be better to average the three most recent polls. In any case, I find the map useful as a way to see at a glance roughly how the presidential race is going, but you can't take individual results too seriously.
Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The Marsh Arabs of Iraq 

The Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq are the modern-day descendants of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. This is how they lived in as recently as 1990:



In what has been called "the environmental crime of the century," Saddam Hussein systematically destroyed the marsh habitat. After the Shiite rebellion of 1991, Saddam must have feared that the marshes and their 200,000 Shiite inhabitants could become a center of resistance to his regime. He dumped toxic chemicals into the water and blanketed the area with napalm bombs. The final blow was Saddam's "Third River Project," which diverted the flow of the Euphrates river so that water no longer reached the marshes. As a result, the marshes were slowly drained. By 2001, as much as 90 percent of original marshland had been replaced by desert. Today's remaining Marsh Arabs live in refugee camps in Iran, or in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. The estimated cost of restoring the marshes is $1 billion, although some of the damage, such as species extinction, is irreversible.
Monday, April 12, 2004

Supply lines 

Here's the most detailed report I can find on the supply line situation:
The military has been trying to regain control of supply routes after several convoys were ambushed and at least 10 truck drivers kidnapped. Nine were released, but an American -- Thomas Hamill of Macon, Miss. -- remained a captive.

On Monday, a convoy of flatbed trucks carrying M113 armored personnel carriers was attacked and burned on a road in Latifiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad. Witnesses said three people were killed...

Securing roads has now become a top priority for the military, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said Monday.
Okay, so it looks like I was right. The southern supply lines are posing a problem for US troops. Moreover, this has the marks of a deliberate attack on supply lines. You don't kidnap ten truck drivers by accident.

I noticed something interesting after staring at this map for a while. Every major road from the Gulf to the capital runs through either Nasiriyah or Kut, two cities the US has lost control of in recent days!



Fortunately, there are reports that the US has regained control of those two cities. That should help restore the southern supply routes.

I wasn't totally right, though. I underestimated the problem. There are also  supply problems in central Iraq. It doesn't look good for the marines at Fallujah:
While the Marines have not suffered significant losses in Fallujah, the 30-mile-long road behind them has fallen into the hands of Iraqi fighters.

They have made repeated attacks on convoys and even set fire to an American tank with a rocket propelled grenade. Two US soldiers have gone missing in the area.

The US has only very limited control over al-Anbar province, a vast area with a population of 1.25 million, most of them living in towns and cities on the Euphrates river.
I still think the southern supply lines could pose a bigger problem. The US didn't count on troubles with the Shiites, and probably assumed those lines were safe. There are only a few routes to the sea, and losing control of just two cities cuts them off. Once those lines are cut, the troops in Baghdad are isolated without supplies. I'm guessing some supplies could be airlifted in that case, but it would be an ugly situation.

UPDATE: One possibility that just occurred to me, in the scenario that the southern supply lines are cut, is that the US could supply troops in central Iraq from the north, via Turkey. I'm not sure how feasible this would be. It's certainly more inconvenient, given the geography. Supplies would have to be shipped through the Mediterranean, driven through Anatolia and then down into Iraq. I also don't think the military is prepared to supply troops that way. Would Turkey be okay with tanks and the like crossing its territory? It would take a certain amount of time to restructure the operation, at the very least. One has to wonder whether the Pentagon planned for this eventuality. Shiite southern Iraq might have seemed like safe territory, but a backup plan is always wise.

Finally, this administration will negotiate 

The US has signaled its willingness to negotiate settlements to its outstanding conflicts in Iraq. Ceasefires have been called at Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala. It's about time.

Juan Cole has some tips for US negotiators. He explains from a cultural standpoint how the Iraqis are likely to approach mediation.

To be sure, the administration is only now willing to negotiate because it is in a position of profound weakness. Broken supply lines mean that even if US forces may eventually have the ability to retake the lost cities by force, they are not in a position to do so right now. It's hard to find much information right now about the supply problem, but it's not too difficult to guess what's happening. Troops in central Iraq rely on supply routes from the Persian Gulf through Southern Iraq to Baghdad. As long as the Shiite-populated south remained calm, marines fighting in Fallujah could rely on a steady stream of supplies arriving from the south: gasoline, ammunition, and so on. But the Sadrist rebellion has put these supply routes in jeopardy.

Supply problems aside, even if the US military has the ability to put down these twin rebellions by force in the end, trying to do so would surely squander what little political capital the US has left in Iraq. Juan Cole again: "A hated occupier is powerless even with all the firepower in the world." Crushing the current uprising by force is just not worth the price of becoming a "hated occupier."

Let's hope the administration recognizes its weak position and doesn't bring too much high-handed arrogance to the negotiation table. I'm cautiously optimistic about the prospects of the negotiations, especially on the Shiite side. Muqtada al-Sadr has a lot to gain by accepting a compromise. By bringing the Americans to the negotiating table he has already achieved many of his political goals. Not only has he forced Bremer and the CPA to deal with him as an equal, he has also greatly enhanced his stature in the Shiite community (though perhaps not to the level of the Ayatollah Sistani). Since Shiites are a majority in the country, Shiite leaders naturally have the most to gain from the establishment of democratic government in Iraq. Sadr is surely shrewd enough to understand that his swiftest route to power is through elections, rather than a prolonged guerrilla war.
Sunday, April 11, 2004

Iraq and the presidential race 

Bad news in Iraq should be bad news for Bush's reelection campaign, right? Maybe not. For one thing, any  news about Iraq diverts attention from Kerry's strong suits -- social issues and the economy -- to Bush's strong suit, national security. As LA Times writer Maria LaGanga points out:
The Democratic nominee for president set out every day this week to talk about a peacetime economy and ended up discussing war. He was nudged in the new direction by a week's barrage of bad news.
It's something of a catch-22. If things are going well in Iraq, Bush gets to say "see, I made the right decision, I got rid of a brutal dictator and liberated a country"; if things are going badly, he gets to act the part of the "popular wartime president" and remind us not to switch horses in midstream (thus the campaign motto, "steady leadership in times of change").

Iraq, Vietnam, escalation and quagmire: does Kerry have a plan? 

Newsweek's new cover story compares Iraq and Vietnam. I'm not going to analyze the comparison in detail, but two things struck me. First, while the Vietnam war was on a scale far larger than what is going on in Iraq -- it involved a higher level of American troop commitment and a much higher casualty rate -- Vietnam, too, started out as a small-scale conflict. We just couldn't stop it from escalating. That brings me to my second point. The recent difficulties we've had in Iraq are sure to provoke calls for more troops. Many Americans seem to accept the need for more troops, at least in the short term. The idea of sending more troops to Iraq is not unreasonable, and it should be considered. At the same time, we should be wary of allowing Iraq to escalate into the same sort of quagmire as Vietnam. Daniel Schorr reminds us of the Vietnam-era meaning of quagmire:
Maybe it's time to dust off that unhappy word from Vietnam days - quagmire. For those too young to remember, quagmire means that, whether or not you should have been there in the first place, you're stuck there now because you can't get out without making things infinitely worse.
I was surprised to read such a specific definition. Being one of those "too young to remember," I had thought of a "quagmire" as nothing more specific than "a big mess."

The amazing thing about Schorr's very specific definition of quagmire is how well it applies to Iraq. Pulling out of Iraq really would  be a disaster. The Sunni/Shiite united front against the occupation wouldn't last for two days after the United States left. It could turn into another another Bosnia, religion taking on the role of ethnicity, Kurds undertaking "ethnic cleansing" of the Turkmen, who knows. Turkey, Syria and Iran would be drawn into the power vacuum. The end result could be an Iranian-style Islamic state, another dictatorship, or a partitioned Iraq. We really can't leave. And that's what makes the Vietnam parallels so accurate. Sure, it's not a "domino effect" this time. Nobody thinks pulling out of Iraq would turn the whole world communist. But pulling out could have some pretty horrible consequences. We can't pull out, and we may not be able to control the country with current troop levels. We may need to send more troops. More troops might not solve the problem either, and we'll still be stuck there. Escalation and quagmire.

I want to see a detailed plan from Kerry. What's he going to do about Iraq? Out of the current generation of national politicians, Kerry is potentially among the best-qualified to handle the Iraq crisis. He fought in Vietnam and understood its follies. He has decades of foreign-policy experience. If anyone can stop Iraq from turning into another Vietnam, Kerry can. Yet I've been disappointed by his response so far. Calls for more international involvement are all well and good, but we've heard that point a hundred times already. International involvement is not going to magically fix the current crisis. So what's Kerry's plan? Why do I suddenly find myself afraid that he doesn't have one?

"We did not sign up to fight Iraqis" 

(via Billmon) The Iraqi Armed Forces' 2nd battalion refused to participate in US operations at Fallujah last week:
[Army Maj. Gen. Paul] Eaton said members of the battalion insisted during the ensuing discussions: "We did not sign up to fight Iraqis."

He declined to characterize the incident as a mutiny, but rather called it "a command failure."

The refusal of the battalion to perform as U.S. officials had hoped poses a significant problem for the occupation. The cornerstone of the U.S. strategy in Iraq is to draw down its military presence and turn over security functions to Iraqis.

Over the past two weeks, that approach has suffered a severe setback as Iraqi security forces have crumbled in some parts of the country. In recent days perhaps 20 percent to 25 percent of the Iraqi army, civil defense, police and other security forces have quit, changed sides, or otherwise failed to perform their duties, a senior Army officer said Saturday.
I like the part about calling it a "command failure" instead of a mutiny. Still sounds pretty bad, any way you put it. So US-trained and -equipped Iraqi security forces are falling apart or changing sides. More evidence that the Coalition Provisional Authority is losing control of the country.

Pledged 

Reviewing the book Pledged, Margaret Sullivan recounts some of the amazing hardships in the lives of sorority sisters.

Alternate history 

What if Bush had  ordered preemptive action in the summer of 2001 in response to warnings of an impending terrorist attack? TNR's Easterblogg has a fanciful alternate history of the Bush administration. While this scenario is more funny than it is realistic, it underscores the point that the administration probably couldn't have done much with the vague and disparate pieces of information it had. So far -- though everything could change if new evidence surfaces -- it just doesn't look like the administration could have plausibly prevented 9/11.

Trading tips 

The Big Picture has some interesting tips for investors.

What the memo says 

After all the hype the August 6th, 2001 presidential intelligence briefing was getting in the liberal blogosphere, its actual text, released last night, is a bit of a disappointment. The most interesting bit is near the end, on the bottom of the first page and top of the second page:
We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [blacked out] service in 1998 saying that Bin Ladin wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of "Blind Shaykh" 'Umar 'Abd al-Rahman and other US-held extremists.

Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.
(emphasis mine) I wonder what "federal buildings" were being surveyed? The World Trade Center doesn't qualify as a federal building, right? Still, that's pretty specific information: hijackings and surveillance of buildings in New York mentioned in the same sentence.

Did Bush even read the memo? It's quite possible he did not. Remember this exchange with Fox news anchor Brit Hume?
HUME: How do you get your news?

BUSH: I get briefed by Andy Card and Condi in the morning. They come in and tell me...

I glance at the headlines just to kind of a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves.
If Bush rarely bothers to read the news, why would he make an effort to read any of the gazillion memos he receives every day? Given that the memo says "for the president only," it's unlikely that any of his staff read the memo and appraised him of its contents. So it's quite possible that Bush never read the memo and was never made aware of what it said. Even if he did read it, the contents are sufficiently vague that it's not clear what he could have done about it (though I'll admit his August 7th departure for a month-long vacation at the Texas ranch was pretty bad timing).
Saturday, April 10, 2004

New sidebar addition: latest political odds 

Tradesports is a great site, but let's face it, it's a pain to navigate if all you want to do is find out the latest odds. So I've added an odds summary to the Odd Hours sidebar. The numbers I'm including are
  • Bush's reelection chances;

  • his chances of winning individual swing states;

  • chances of various pols receiving the Democratic VP nomination;

  • and a few other miscellaneous odds (e.g. the chance Bin Laden will be captured by the end of the year).

I'll be updating these numbers at least once a week.

If you're not familiar with the way Tradesports works, they run a futures market where people can buy and sell contracts on future events. If I buy one share of Bush winning the election, in November that share will be worth either 10 dollars (if Bush wins) or it will be worthless (if Kerry wins). The basic principle of the market is that if I think Bush has a 50% chance of winning, I should be willing to pay 5 dollars (50% of 10 dollars) for that share. The most recent sale price for a share of Bush was $5.83, meaning someone (the buyer) thought Bush had a greater than 58.3% chance of winning and someone else (the seller) thought Bush had a less than 58.3% chance.

In theory, the most recent sale price at a futures market takes all available information into account to arrive at an accurate estimate of the probability an event will happen. Amazingly, this really seems to work in practice. Futures markets have a better track record than polls when it comes to predicting election outcomes.

Remember Gray Davis? 

He's going into acting. I'm not kidding, read the article! Maybe he figures once he's got a successful acting career he can beat Arnold in a recall.

The Iraqi Governing Council may be falling apart 

Juan Cole draws attention to the Iraqi Governing Council's recent condemnation of the actions of US troops in Fallujah. At least one member of the council has resigned in protest over the way US troops have handled the situation in Fallujah, and more members are threatening to resign. Many members are even rumored to have left the country, fearing they could be assassinated because of their connection with the Americans. Cole concludes, "This looks to me like an incipient collapse of the US government of Iraq." Indeed. The US can't very well hand over power to the council on June 30 if all its members have resigned or fled the country!

How to deal with the Sadrists: Force or compromise? 

NY Times columnist Yitzhak Nakash argues that the US should ask the Ayatollah Sistani to broker a compromise between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the leader of the Shiite insurgency, Muqtada al-Sadr. But this WaPo editorial points out that Sadr's rebellion is about more than just opposition to the US occupation; it's also a power struggle within the Iraqi Shiite community:
Mr. Sadr, who has a base in the slums of Baghdad, is a young cleric with a considerably smaller following and reputation than other Shiite leaders, like Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf. Precisely for that reason, Mr. Sadr has sought to gain support by adopting a hard line against the occupation and the United States.
If by attacking occupying troops Sadr is making a bid to try and supplant Sistani as the leading figure of Iraqi Shiites, it seems unlikely that Sistani will be able to broker a compromise. The WaPo concludes that US troops need to eliminate the Sadrist rebellion by force. OxBlog discusses the relative merits of the two approaches.
Friday, April 09, 2004

Have US forces lost control of Baghdad? 

Buried near the bottom of a NY Times article, this quote is a real shocker:
"We absolutely must regain control of Baghdad and open the lines of communication to the south, to Kuwait and down to the sea, or the position will become untenable," said Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general and the commander of the 24th Mechanized Division in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. "We have got to get back the road through Najaf and through Al Kut, and Rick Sanchez has the combat power to do it."
Juan Cole's interpretation:
He gave away a great deal. One may conclude that a) the US has lost control of Baghdad and b) the US communications and supply lines in the South have been cut. That is, a year after the fall of Saddam, the US faces the task of reconquering the country.
One has to wonder, if US troops have lost control of Baghdad, why isn't the media reporting it? According to Cole, General McCaffrey made those remarks in a CNN interview.  In that case, why isn't this CNN's headline? "Retired general says US troops have lost control of Baghdad." CNN's front-page article makes it seem like the Iraqi capital is experiencing nothing worse than a tense atmosphere and a few isolated skirmishes:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two U.S. soldiers and an unknown number of civilian contractors are unaccounted for after a fuel convoy was attacked Friday near Baghdad International Airport, a senior Pentagon official said.

Another 13th Corps Support Command soldier and an Iraqi driver were killed in the incident, and 12 people were wounded.

The contractors' nationality was not immediately known.

The official said "unaccounted for" means that U.S. troops are looking for the soldiers and contractors. The senior Pentagon official said a search is under way.

The four-truck convoy was hit with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades and exploded into flames, the official said.
[snip -- unrelated stuff about Fallujah]
Baghdad and al-Sadr

In Baghdad's Firdos Square, the scene was a stark contrast last year, when jubilant celebrations accompanied the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein. Friday, the square was empty, and Iraqis were told that anyone with a weapon would be shot on sight.

On the platform where Saddam's statue once stood, posters of al-Sadr -- whose supporters have been blamed for inflaming the insurgency -- were visible. U.S. soldiers pulled them down.

At a Baghdad mosque, hundreds of Shiites and Sunnis prayed together and denounced the coalition.
Either General McCaffrey is off his rocker, or the media is being extremely dishonest about what's going on in Iraq.

UPDATE: US troops have pulled out of Sadr City, a Shiite district of Baghdad (not a small district, either: population 2 million). After several days of fighting with insurgents, US forces have evacuated Sadr City police stations and the town hall. No word on what's happening in the rest of the capital.

Kerry should distance himself from Bush on spending 

Kerry seems to be playing the same game as Bush when it comes to his promises on spending and the deficit. Sure, he would repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and use that money on health care and education. But other than that? He promises to "cut the deficit by half within four years" (versus Bush's five years) and restrict increases in "discretionary spending" to the rate of inflation (Bush wants to cap discretionary spending increases at 4% per year). In other words, except for the issue of the tax cuts, they're both making essentially the same promises. And since health care and education spending will eat up the revenue gained from repealing the tax cuts, neither candidate really has an argument as to why he would be better able to deliver on these promises.

What I'd really like Kerry to say is that he'll reverse some of Bush's unreasonable increases in defense spending. This administration has increased defense spending by a shocking 26 percent over the past three years, and there's another 7-percent increase in the FY 2005 budget. These figures don't even include spending in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Much of what goes on at the Department of Defense is outdated. The Cold War has been over for fifteen years. We're not going to be fighting a major conventional war anytime soon. The period of conventional war in Afghanistan and Iraq lasted weeks at most, while guerrilla war and low-intensity conflict have stretched on for more than two years in Afghanistan and over one year in Iraq. To his credit, Rumsfeld is trying to modernize and reform the military. But that shouldn't just mean endless budget increases. Outdated programs need to be cut. I wish Kerry would stand up and say that defense spending is out of control -- it's something he used to believe in, at least -- but maybe that's just too much to ask of a candidate afraid of being painted as "weak on defense."

Sunni/Shiite unity in Iraq 

I find it pretty remarkable that both Sunnis and Shiites helped carry supplies to Sunni insurgents in Fallujah yesterday:
The rare display of unity came after Shiite radicals launched an uprising in cities across central and southern Iraq, shattering a year of relative tolerance of the US-led occupation from the country's majority community.

"No Sunnis, no Shiites, yes for Islamic unity," the marchers chanted. "We are Sunni and Shiite brothers and will never sell our country."
My impression was that US forces were fighting two essentially separate insurgencies, one against Baathists and foreign fighters in the Sunni triangle, and another, more recent insurgency in the South led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But many of those who carried supplies past US roadblocks to the Sunni resistance in Fallujah actually held signs in support of Sadr. Over at Counterspin Central, commenter SXL makes an interesting point:
Sunni and Shi'ite tribes united in 1920, to throw the British out of Iraq and there have been many references to this unity from the loudspeakers of the mosques during this insurrection.
The cooperation between Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups is a bad sign for the future of the occupation. It seems we may have succeeded in uniting Iraq... against us!

Why the US military should be more like Saddam's 

This week's insurgency -- the deadliest spate of fighting in Iraq since the first weeks of the war -- was bound to unleash a flurry of prescriptions for what US forces are doing wrong in Iraq and what they should do differently. In one of the most perverse such prescriptions, James J. Na writes in the Seattle Times that the US military should try to be more like Saddam's. After all, Saddam was able to control the country; why can't we? According to Mr. Na, American troops are not respected in Iraq the way Saddam's troops were. He believes that "a healthy dose of fear" should fix the problem. I'm not kidding! Here's what Mr. Na has to say:
To be successful in Iraq, we do not need more troops. Instead, we need to instill a healthy dose of fear -- that is, respect -- for our power. This certainly does not mean murder and torture, but it does mean overwhelming military responses to insurgents even in the face of serious collateral damages, as well as collective communal punishments such as reduced electricity and water rations for harboring insurgents....

In order to achieve the clearly noble purpose of establishing a stable, democratic Iraq in a region full of totalitarian regimes, it will be more effective, and certainly more humane in the end, to exercise seemingly harsh methods in the short-term than to risk a long drawn-out guerrilla war.
I find it interesting that Mr. Na seems to think that his "harsh methods," including accepting "serious collateral damages," are the best way to prevent a guerrilla war. Let's look at the Department of Defense's definition of "guerrilla warfare:"
guerrilla warfare. Military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held or hostile territory by irregular, predominantly indigenous  forces. (Joint Pub 1-02).
(Italics mine) Moreover, it's generally accepted that a guerrilla war cannot succeed without substantial popular support. Indigenous forces and popular support are the two major factors lacking in Iraq right now. Although some of the insurgents are Iraqis, many are foreign fighters. It is also unclear to what extent the attacks are the work of extremists only, and to what extent average Iraqis support the insurgency. The quickest way to turn the situation in Iraq into a full-fledged guerrilla war, however, would be Mr. Na's proposed "harsh methods." Nothing would give the insurgency more Iraqi recruits and more popular support than "serious collateral damages" and "communal punishments."

It's not easy to fight a prolonged low-intensity conflict without alienating the population, but that's what we need to try to do. To fall for Mr. Na's "harsh methods" argument would be inviting disaster.
Sunday, April 04, 2004

Kristof again 

Nicholas Kristof has another interesting column on Africa. This one is about attempts to ban or regulate child labor. While laws against child labor mean well, they don't always have the intended effect:
In 1993, when Congress proposed the U.S. Child Labor Deterrence Act, which would have blocked imports made by children (if it had passed), garment factories in Bangladesh fired 50,000 children. Many ended up in worse jobs, like prostitution.

Then there was the hue and cry beginning in 1996 against soccer balls stitched by children in their homes (mostly after school) in Sialkot, Pakistan. As a result, the balls are now stitched by adults, often in factories under international monitoring.... Bad publicity about Pakistan led China to grab market share with machine-stitched balls: over the next two years, Pakistan's share of the U.S. soccer ball market dropped to 45 percent from 65 percent.

So poor Pakistani families who depended on earnings from... children who stitched soccer balls are now further impoverished.
Instead of just condemning child labor, Kristof argues, we should fund programs that provide free meals in schools. This would provide an economic incentive for parents to send their kids to school. These programs have been tried before, with very encouraging results.

Matthew Yglasias tries to debunk Kristof's argument, and there's a lot of good discussion in the comments. Commenter Wrye makes an interesting point:
A lot of the child-labour advocates out there don't consider the possibility that having child labor out in the workforce undermines the value of adult labour in the workforce--part of why children in some developing countries may need to work to support their family is that their parents cannot make enough money to do so because the presence of child labour depresses the value of adult workers.
In other words, banning child labor would decrease the supply of available workers, resulting in increased pay for adult workers, and thus eliminating some of the financial hardship that forces children into the labor force in the first place.
Friday, April 02, 2004

Does Google's new "Gmail" violate users' privacy? 

I've always thought the whole "free browser-based email" thing could be done better. The existing providers aren't user-friendly, have annoying ads and offer too little storage space. Now Google is beta-testing a new email service, Gmail, which would offer users 1GB of free storage space, among other benefits. But here's the thing that really caught my eye:
Gmail will be supported by text ads that appear in the margins of individual e-mails. Google software will automatically scan the messages for meaning, then try to offer relevant ads.
In other words, every message you write or receive will be scanned for content so that Google can display ads you might be interested in. Isn't this a little disturbing on privacy grounds? I think Google may be taking a good idea too far. The text ads that appear on the right side of the Google search page are wonderful. Because they're targeted to the search words you entered, the ads can afford to be minimal and unobtrusive. There's no annoying animation, no sweepstakes or porn (unless you search  for sweepstakes or porn!) Best of all, the ads are occasionally helpful.

The ads on Google's search page clearly do not violate privacy. When you search for something on the internet, you're basically telling Google, "I'm looking for information about X," so Google displays lots of information, including ads, about X. No problem. But when you write someone an email that's supposed to be private communication, that's a little different. Though I would trust Google to keep my messages from being read by other people, there's something disturbing about having them read at all, even by software. If your emails are already getting scanned for keywords for advertising purposes, it's only one small step to scan them for keywords the government may be interested in. Try to avoid words like "revolution" or "bomb" if you want to stay out of trouble. I'm not saying Google would do this, but even the possibility that they could is frightening. I'll stick with Yahoo mail for the time being. 1GB of space sure would be nice, though.
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