Monday, August 30, 2004

Four more months! 

When GOP delegates started chanting "four more years," the protesters in New York shot back with "four more months!" Someone should make that into a bumper sticker.

Close to half a million people and no violence. I'm impressed. And check out the internet campaign to shut down New York City. I just hope these people don't get too carried away. Stealing media attention from the Republican convention with a peaceful protest is perfect. Too many wild antics would be bad. Let the Republicans dig their own grave.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Deceptive debating 101 

Great diary at Kos detailing the full slate of deceptive tactics Bush will use to draw attention away from substance, issues and facts in the debates. Each tactic comes with an example of how it was used against Gore and a note on what to expect against Kerry. Anyone who thinks Dubya will get crushed in the debates needs to read this.

Bush the flip-flopper? 

Kevin Drum explains point by point how Bush is every bit as calculated in his stances as Kerry. The difference is that Kerry is inept at straddling the fence, while Bush manages to sound like "a straight talking guy who says what he means and means what he says" even as he outlines a carefully calculated stance that was tested beforehand in opinion polls. This is yet another example of how Bush thrives on being underestimated. Sometimes we're so busy calling Bush a simpleton that we blind ourselves to how carefully crafted some of his "straight talking" rhetoric really is.

One thing that puts Kerry at a real disadvantage on this front is his 19-year record in the senate. It's a piece of cake to stick the flip-flopper label to four-term senator. It's probably no coincidence that four of the last five presidents were former governors. A senator's record is just too easy to attack. All those thousands of yes/no votes on long, nuanced bills are just begging for one-line attacks like "Kerry voted to cut intelligence spending," or "Kerry voted for the Iraq war and then against reconstruction money." It's pretty ironic, but Kerry's long and distinguished political career is actually a liability.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

International observers to monitor November election 

Thanks to pressure from 13 Democrats in congress, the State Department has invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the U.S. presidential election. The OSCE has monitored 150 elections in 30 countries. This is the first time international observers will be present at a U.S. presidential election.

But nobody expects the observers to solve everything, least of all the Kerry and Bush campaigns themselves. Both campaigns are assembling armies of lawyers to watch for voting regularities in Florida and other key states.

Ah, the irony 

Could an Israeli preemptive strike stop Iran's nuclear program? 

One of the most significant preemptive attacks in recent history took place in June, 1981, when Israeli fighters bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, near Baghdad. American-made F-15's and F-16's made the 600-mile trip, surprised the Iraqi air defenses, and leveled the site in eighty seconds. Every plane returned to Israel intact. In response to the international condemnation that followed, Israel pointed out that Saddam Hussein was attempting to use the reactor to develop nuclear weapons. Although Iraq was at least two years, and perhaps as many as ten years away from a nuclear weapon, Israel argued that it needed to strike the reactor before it went online, to prevent radiological contamination of the surrounding area.

The United States joined the chorus of nations publicly condemning Israel's act. It was pointed out that Iraq was a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a document that Israel refused to sign. And Israel itself was suspected of possessing a significant nuclear arsenal. Members of congress pointed to a violation of the Arms Export Control Act, which prohibited the use of U.S. military equipment except in self-defense. Behind the scenes, however, the United States worked to defeat U.N. sanctions on Israel, and Israel got off with "a slap on the wrist."

The internal Israeli politics surrounding the raid on Osirak are no less fascinating. Ariel Sharon has said of the raid:

This was perhaps the most difficult decision which faced any (Israeli) government during all the years of the state's existence.

The Labor Party, then the party out of power, favored a diplomatic solution. Labor argued that France, which was providing Saddam Hussein with much of his nuclear technology, could be persuaded to stop exporting this technology. Likud Prime Minister Begin, however, felt that too much was at stake to leave things up to diplomacy. An intermediate approach was tried: sending terrorists to blow up components of the reactor being assembled near Marseilles before they were shipped to Iraq. While these tactics delayed the reactor's construction, they could not stop it completely. In the end, Begin, afraid his party would lose power and that Labor would not deal with the problem forcefully enough, decided to go ahead with the air raid.

Could Israel do it again, this time to Iran? There are numerous difficulties, both tactical and diplomatic. Iran is a lot farther from Israel than Iraq, and Iran has taken the lessons of Osirak to heart. Iranian nuclear facilities have been deliberately spread around the country, rather than concentrated at a single site. Moreover, many of the facilities were deliberately situated in urban areas that are hard to strike from the air. In 1981, Iraq was unable to effectively retaliate against Israel after the raid; but Iran has at least threatened to retaliate if Israel attacks its nuclear facilities. Whether these threats are credible I don't know.

Tactical difficulties aside, Israeli fighter planes on their way to Iranian nuclear sites would in all likelihood have to pass over Iraq. And for all intents and purposes, Iraqi airspace is American-controlled. An Israeli raid into Iran would almost certainly have to be coordinated in advance with the American air command in Iraq. Because of the long distances involved, Israeli aircraft might even need to base their strikes from airbases in Iraq, or use those bases for refueling. While the Americans could try to deny any advance knowledge of the strike, it would look awfully suspicious when American-made Israeli fighter jets pass over hundreds of miles American-controlled airspace on their way to Iran. The U.S. could hardly condemn the action with a straight face the way it did in 1981.

Finally, the internal political situation in Israel is not what it was in 1981. I don't know enough about Israeli politics to say what other options the government would consider, or which decisions are likely to prevail in the current political climate. But it's possible that the 1981 raid was born primarily of the very specific admixture of Begin's personal beliefs and the political conditions prevailing at the time. In the absence of those factors, Israel may find a less violent way to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem. The specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, while deeply unsettling, may not be as alarming to Israel as that once posed by a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. After all, Iran and Israel have a certain amount in common. The rest of the predominantly-Sunni Arab Middle East is a common enemy to both. It is at least plausible that a nuclear Iran could be tolerable to Israel's strategic interests.

All things considered, I'd say an Israeli raid on Iranian nuclear sites is unlikely. At the very least, it would be difficult to plan and execute such a raid. There are an awful lot of confounding factors. But it isn't completely out of the question.

Rep. Alexander switches parties 

Just five months after announcing he would remain a Democrat, conservative Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander has switched to the GOP -- on the final day candidates could register for the November ballot in Louisiana. The timing of the move prevents the Democrats from fielding a strong challenger.

In changing parties, Alexander is following in the footsteps of Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, who went over to the GOP back in January. In some ways, these defections may be good for the Democratic party in the long run. A big tent is all well and good, but Rep. Alexander is pro-life, pro-gun, voted for the Bush tax cuts, Bush prescription drug plan, and the Iraq war. He announced in February that he preferred Bush to any of the Democratic primary candidates. Does someone with these political views really belong in the Democratic party? Switching parties is understandable, but the manner in which Alexander chose to do it was pretty low. This is what he said back in March:

I have determined that I can do the best job for the 5th District by remaining where I am. I'm not going to change the way I vote, so there is no need to change my party.

Alexander lied to his own party in order to avoid having to face a challenger in November. That's pretty low.

UPDATE: Alexander's entire staff has resigned in protest, and the DCCC wants its money back from his campaign. Plus, the Louisiana Democratic Party is looking into legal challenges to Alexander's candidacy, including getting him disqualified from the ballot or recalling him if he wins.

Ayatollah Sistani has left Iraq 

Lebanese paper The Daily Star reports that Grand Ayatollah Sistani has flown to London for treatment of a heart condition. Juan Cole speculates that Sistani may have feared being "taken hostage" by Muqtada al-Sadr. The heart condition may be mere pretext. Prof. Cole also speculates on Sistani's probable "successor" as the leading moderate voice of Iraqi Shiism. I take this to mean that Cole thinks Sistani will be gone for quite some time.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

No bounce? No problem. 

Slate's William Saletan deconstructs the notion that Kerry even needs a convention bounce. Bush's approval is way below 50 percent, Kerry's support is within a hair of 50 percent and solidifying fast. Only 5 percent of those supporting Kerry say they're likely to change their minds, down from 12 percent in June. That doesn't leave George W. much room to maneuver.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Davenport banks robbed 

Wow. Between 10:45 and 11:45am this morning, while Kerry and Bush were speaking just a few blocks away from each other in Davenport, Iowa, three Davenport banks were robbed. That's pretty good timing.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Location-specific terror alerts 

Here's something that makes the location-specific alerts seem a little less sinister (see previous post). From the Homeland Security Presidential Directive, the bill that created the color-coded alert system:

There are five Threat Conditions, each identified by a description and corresponding color.... Threat Conditions may be assigned for the entire Nation, or they may be set for a particular geographic area or industrial sector.

So what they're doing now is within the bounds of the directive. Fine. All that means is that the text of the directive itself should have set off some alarm bells. Plus, you have to wonder why they haven't used these "geographic area" alerts until now, less than three months before the election. Of course, they say it's because this time they have specific intelligence on the intended targets. That could be the reason. Or, maybe this is a test run for November 2nd.

Okay, enough paranoia for today.

Playing politics with the terror alert system 

I know I keep coming back to this topic quite a bit, but the thing that set me thinking this time was the new designation of Orange Alert, not everywhere, for the whole country, but only in specific locations -- in this case Manhattan, Newark and Washington. If I'm right, this is the first time that a terror alert level has been set for a particular location. This kind of location-specific alert should be setting off alarm bells, because it would be extremely easy to abuse this tactic for political purposes on election day. If the polls show a reasonably close election, all it would take is a few well-placed Orange or Red alerts in heavily Democratic regions of key swing states.

Imagine the effect of a November 1st Orange or Red Alert, accompanied by all kinds of dire warnings, applying only to the cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Detroit, Michigan; Palm Beach, Florida; Cleveland, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; and Portland, Oregon. They wouldn't even have to close the polls. All they'd have to do is scare enough people to cause a significant dent in voter turnout. Bush could lose the popular vote by 5% and still win the election.

I'm not accusing the Bush campaign of intending to use this tactic. Probably, even they wouldn't sink so low. Probably, we can rely on their basic decency and sense of fair play. But we can't let an election as important as this one ride on something as uncertain as the fair play of the Bush campaign. We should be ready for the worst. Fortunately, the best defense against this kind of scare tactic is spreading the word. Let people know it could happen, and tell them no matter what kind of warnings they hear, red alert or not, go to the polls. Vote.

If people are prepared for the possibility of an alert in their neighborhood on election day, and they know it's probably just a scare tactic, then the tactic won't work. In fact, people are probably more likely to vote if they suspect that someone is trying to scare them into staying home!

Of course, many people don't listen to "conspiracy theories," and might reject out of hand any notion that the Bush campaign would play politics with the alert system in such an underhanded way. For this reason, it's important to get another message across: It is your patriotic duty to vote no matter what the circumstances. If there's a terror alert in your neighborhood, that means al Qaeda is trying to disrupt our democratic process, and by not voting you'd just be giving in to the terrorists. This again plays into the "reverse psychology" that goads people into voting if they think someone (be it Bush or the terrorists) is trying to stop them.

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