Monday, March 31, 2008

Iraq Bombs at the Cineplex (II)

Hollywood’s effort to aid the anti-Iraq war cause has come a cropper yet again--the sixth time.

From Us Magazine:

Despite heavy press, Ryan Phillippe couldn't save his Iraq war drama Stop-Loss: It tanked, at No. 8, with just $4.5 million. It joins a long string of Iraq-themed movies, including Charlize Theron's In the Valley of Elah, that have bombed.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bush’s War (Part II)

“Don’t get mad, get even.”
--attributed to John F. Kennedy

Why is “Frontline’s” Iraq program a one-sided chronicle of Bush administration screw-ups? The enemy, it seems, is Republican—those who ruined the good America of multiculturalism, tolerance, and government programs to help the needy, who wreaked the good America that leaves other countries alone; the good America that began with the New Deal, spawned the civil rights revolution and women’s equality, and during the Clinton presidency overcame Reagan’s backlash against progressives. In 2000, this good America was poised to provide universal health care, to fight global warming, and to protect us from rapacious capitalists (Enron, Texas Oil), when Bush, after losing the popular vote, stole the White House and ruined it all.

Liberals like “Frontline’s” writer-producer-director Michael Kirk believe Bush used 9.11 to generate a “War on Terror” to help Republicans win the 2002 midterm elections. But then Bush “stepped in it.” He stupidly invaded Iraq to take out Saddam Hussein; a comical figure the world could have lived with who at least kept his Shiites under control, a faker with not a single weapon of mass destruction, and a secularist with no connection to 9.11 religious militants. By going after Saddam, Bush embraced the mistake that would undo his presidency, thereby righting the wrong of Bush’s stolen 2000 election.

The liberals Bush pushed aside had revenge on their minds. Revenge is best served cold. As in “Frontline.”

Kirk’s story of Iraq doesn’t break new ground. Instead, “Frontline” recaps the media’s years-long effort to document everything that went wrong in Iraq, even when mistakes contradict other mistakes. For example, Kirk’s experts pounded Bush for not providing overwhelming force, as the Powell Doctrine required. Then Kirk’s narrative denounced Bush for sticking with Rumsfeld, who advocated a “light footprint” in Iraq through 2006. But when Bush fired Rumsfeld and pushed through an increase in U.S. troops, Kirk’s show jumps on Bush for throwing good soldiers and marines at a hopeless cause. In short, “Frontline’s” media people attack Rumsfeld for trying to leave too soon, and Bush for staying too long.

“Frontline” criticizes Bush for having a U.S. proconsul (Bremer) run Iraq, for taking him out too early, and for backing a democratically chosen Shiite (al Maliki) who wasn’t secular and who wouldn’t have been “selected principal by your local school board.” Are we supposed to encourage democracy or frustrate it? “Frontline’s” chronicle of mistakes doesn’t seem to care.

“Frontline” scores Bush for blocking the destruction of Fallujah in 2003, thus allowing the insurgency to take root, then later attacks Bush for having destroyed Fallujah in 2004, thus discouraging Sunni participation in the January 2005 Iraqi elections (“Frontline” fails to mention more Sunni voters stepped forward in two subsequent 2005 elections). In “Frontline’s” simple world, whatever action Bush took blew up in his face. To make its point, “Frontline” ignores Fallujah today, a city run by Sunnis who back the Bush-led U.S. military and fight al Qaeda.

Iraq is bad. Bush is bad. To “Frontline”, what happens to Iraq hardly matters. Iraq’s people hardly matter. The only thing that matters is payback for Bush’s illegitimate 2000 win.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bush’s War (Part I)

“Frontline” has just scorched Bush for Iraq yet again in the bluntly-titled two-part program “Bush’s War.” Interviewed online yesterday at Washington, the show’s writer-producer-director Michael Kirk [pictured] provides insight into where he stands. Here’s one revealing online exchange:

"Dayton Ohio: It would have been nice to see some positive feedback on the reconstruction as well as what is happining with the troop surge. It is obvious we didn't have enough troops on the ground in the beginning, but what about now?
"Michael Kirk: Sadly, if you read the newspapers in the last two days--you learn that the 'surge' and the tenuous 'peace' between Sadr's militia and the American troops seems to have broken down. Efforts to keep the lid on in Iraq seem to be in jeopardy."

Further showing his bias, Kirk talks about “the so-called war on terror,” notes “our army is in pretty desperate shape--perhaps broken by the Iraq experience,” and in his “Frontline” show, fails to provide a photograph or even a mention of Petraeus, the general who has made obsolete Kirk’s dark vision of America in Iraq (Kirk villainizes all U.S. principals by portraying them in black and white extreme close-ups that clearly reveal all their warts).

For people like Kirk, the Iraq story has become the over-heated radiator you want to cap so you can close the hood and get back on the road to Democratic victory in 2008. Iraq helped defeat Republicans in 2006, after having provided Democrats much ammunition in 2004. Now it should be one of the three pillars, along with Katrina and the economy, to put a Democrat in the White House in 2008. Kirk certainly does everything he can to make Iraq come across as a continuing disaster.

But five years on, Iraq is no longer a disaster. Inconvenient.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Tribal Warfare

the Reverend [Wright] turned Obama — in the minds of some working-class and crossover white voters — from “a Harvard law graduate into a South Side Black Panther.”

--Maureen Dowd 2.23.08

I have just learned a new word, “deracinated.” Its meanings: “1. To be pulled out by the roots; uprooted. 2. To be displaced from one's native or accustomed environment.”

We are in a remarkable election campaign. It is so hard-fought that already we are at the raw tribal warfare stage close elections don’t see until their final days. But in the current campaign, as her own people have said, Clinton long ago tossed the kitchen sink at Obama, during the run-up to March 4th’s Super Tuesday II.

Still earlier, Clinton had seemed the inevitable winner. Women are 60% of the Democratic Party, and dominate the party’s anti-war, big-spending-at-home agenda. Democrats are a coalition of special interests, with women special interest No. 1. Clinton was the right Democrat for the times.

But Obama ended up corralling the most powerful part of the Democratic constituency—its liberal elite. The elite works harder, works smarter, cares more and spends more. I have argued that among cause-driven liberals Obama has the better cause; blacks win hands down any “most victimized” face-off with women.

After throwing the kitchen sink at Obama and still trailing, Clinton has now moved her campaign beyond the elite to working-class whites, using behind-the-scenes the argument that no black person tied to someone who talks like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright will ever be elected president. Hers is the basest form of tribal warfare, implicitly asking for votes “‘cause I’m white.”

Obama has responded by refusing to be deracinated (see above) from his black constituency. He declined to throw the Rev. Wright “under the bus.” He knows support for Wright will cost him white votes. But Obama realizes he must be true to his base, the party’s liberal elite, which might throw him “under the bus” if he were to betray his black origins. Obama intends to remain authentic, and keep his cred. If he loses because he stood up for a black brother, wrong though that brother’s words were, then so be it.

Clinton also seems to be authentic. Her tribe believes that turning the world right side up, having our female majority finally rule, is an end that justifies drawing on white origins to defeat a black man. Her tactical choice, while it will cost Clinton further liberal support, should help with the larger white electorate.

People call McCain a maverick. But for Republicans, he’s the real McCoy. It’s artificial to have Democrats running on their military records, as Gore and especially Kerry did. Republicans are the party of national security, closely linked to the military and the only party truly worried about enemies abroad. “Law and order” today includes a strong military presence overseas, one unafraid to carry the fight to our enemies. McCain is the Republicans’ man.

Obama. McCain. Clinton. Each an authentic leader for America’s tribal warfare.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Iraq Victory Worth the Cost?

It’s five years since the U.S. coalition began military action to remove Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from power. “Victory” in that action meant turning Iraq over to a civilian, post-Saddam government capable of managing its own affairs. We are making progress, but have yet to win. For the American people, that’s a problem. Considering that the British defeat at Yorktown effectively settled in 1781 a Revolutionary War that officially began with our Declaration of Independence in 1776, no American war except Vietnam—a U.S. defeat—has lasted beyond 5.25 years.

There are two big reasons why the Iraq war’s length is less significant than was the case for past wars. First, we are taking relatively few casualties, and are doing so with an all-volunteer military. Second, the war represents a relatively small share of our total national product.

1. Relatively few casualties.

The total number of American dead in Iraq is comparable to those lost in our smaller wars—the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Spanish-American War [see chart]. Yet in the Revolutionary War, 1 of every 610 Americans lost his life, 1 of every 3,320 in the War of 1812, and one of every 30,650 in the Spanish-American War. In Iraq, our professionals who died represent only 1 in every 76,100 Americans.

2. Relatively small share of GDP.

Amity Shlaes, writing in Bloomberg, has the figures: “Back in 1986, the year before Ronald Reagan threw out his ‘tear down this wall' challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev, defense spending was 6.2% of the U.S. economy. In 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, it was 9.5%. In 2005, 2006, and 2007, defense spending was about 4% of GDP—as low as during the early 1990s, when the U.S. was enjoying the ‘peace dividend’ after the Soviet Union's collapse.”

If we are able to firm up a counter-insurgency victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq—after having rid the world of a dangerous, oil-rich Saddam Hussein—and if we are also able to leave in place a Shia-led Iraqi government that is independent of Iran, the U.S. and the West will indeed have secured a victory well worth its cost.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Plus 163

On the eve of Super Tuesday II, Obama had 1197 pledged delegates, and Clinton 1034. Obama led in pledged delegates by 163.

Eight days later, after contests in Vermont, Rhode Island, Ohio, Texas, Wyoming, and Mississippi, Obama has 1403 pledged delegates, Clinton 1240. Obama leads in pledged delegates by 163.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

“Please let me be a victim. Please.”

. . . those who consider it a matter of urgency to impress on you at a dinner party that they are, say, “one-sixteenth Cherokee Indian.”

--Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times

Caldwell, obviously unknowingly, captures me exactly. It’s part of his larger argument that the world's well-off—and not just whites, for remember Michelle Obama—are desperate to identify with victims. As Caldwell writes:

Love and Consequences—the memoir of a half-American Indian girl adopted into a caring but star-crossed black family in gang-infested Los Angeles—was [written by] a 33-year-old, white, middle-class suburbanite named Margaret Seltzer [pictured], the product of private Episcopal schools and various creative writing programmes. She made the whole thing up. Scandals over made-up memoirs are becoming epidemic.

• Last week, Misha Defonseca admitted that Misha, her international bestseller about fleeing the Holocaust as a young Jewish girl in Belgium, was invented. So was her Jewish identity. Her book joins a list that includes a memoir of childhood in the Majdanek and Birkenau concentration camps by “Binjamin Wilkomirski” (a story made up by the Swiss Protestant clarinettist Bruno Dössekker); Norma Khouri’s account of honour killings in Jordan that did not actually happen; and James Frey’s alcoholism “memoir” Millions of Little Pieces. What is at the root of this rash of fabrications?

• Various anti-racisms and victimologies provide the only rock-solid consensus morality that society has. But there is a problem with a moral system based on the injustices wrought by one class of people on another—not all people can participate in it with equal moral authority [emphasis added].

• Seltzer. . . needed black gangstas to make her voice heard, not the other way around. People are intensely interested in the inner lives of American inner-city gang members. Rap music. . . has a large paying following in virtually every country in the world. The same cannot be said of the cultural products of white, middle-class creative-writing students from the San Fernando Valley. {As] Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times asked: “How many talk shows would have booked Seltzer if she had forthrightly admitted she was a white writer of imaginative fiction with a social conscience that impelled her to write about gang life in South Los Angeles?”

• [Seltzer] was doing the same thing that immigrants did a century ago when they changed their names . . . bartering away a bit of her identity in order to be taken more seriously. She was concealing, as best she could, her membership in a low-prestige ethnicity in order that she might participate on a more equal footing in the national conversation.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Recession, and how to limit it.

if we are not in a recession, it is a darned good imitation of one; we are in an unprecedented real estate and credit crisis that is whipping its way through the U.S. economy.

--Kevin Giddis, managing director, fixed income trading, Morgan Keegan & Co.

Joanne Morrison of Reuters offers signs that our economy is in a bad spot:

• While a decline in U.S. home prices is needed to attract buyers back and end the housing slump, there is no bottom in sight. Policy-makers like Federal Reserve Governor Frederic Mishkin fear potential home buyers may wait on the sidelines for an extended period. Even though U.S. home prices fell last year for the first time in a generation, sales continue to slow, only adding to the glut of inventories.

• "We're not near [the bottom] yet so people are going to continue to wait on the sidelines," said JPMorgan economist Michael Feroli. "The Fed should forget about everything else now and just do whatever is necessary to bring a bottom for home prices into sight," said John Lonski, chief economist at Moody's in New York. The Fed's latest data shows that the net wealth of U.S. households in the final three months of last year fell for the first time in five years, and the percentage of equity that Americans have in their homes sank to the lowest since 1945.

Is there a way out? Martin Feldstein of Harvard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan, thinks there is. He says a voluntary loan-substitution program could reduce the number of defaults and dampen the decline in house prices—wihout violating contracts, bailing out lenders or borrowers, or increasing government spending.

Feldstein calls current housing-related risk greater than anything we have seen since the 1930s. After house prices exploded between 2000 and 2006, rising some 60% more than the level of rents, the inevitable decline since has reduced prices by 10%,with an additional 15% to 20% decline needed to correct the excessive rise. Yet these lower prices will mean widespread defaults and foreclosures, unemployment, and declining economic activity.

To limit the damage, Feldstein wants public policy to reduce the number of homeowners who will slide into default. Since house prices still have further to fall, this can only be done by reducing the value of mortgages. Here’s how Feldstein’s government program might work:

The federal government would lend each participant 20% of that individual's current mortgage, with a 15-year payback period and an adjustable interest rate based on what the government pays on two-year Treasury debt (now just 1.6%). The loan proceeds would immediately reduce the borrower's primary mortgage, cutting interest and principal payments by 20%. Participation in the program would be voluntary and the interest payments would be, like mortgage interest, tax deductible. The current mortgage servicer would collect both on the primary mortgage and on the government loan, remitting government payments to Washington. Homeowners will participate if they prefer the certainty of an immediate and permanent reduction in their interest cost to the possibility of defaulting later if the price of their home falls substantially.

Feldstein says the government must act quickly to reduce potential mortgage defaults, using something like his loan substitution program.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Surge's Success Continues

Here’s our latest monthly, highly abbreviated version of the Iraq Index, published and updated twice a week by Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution:

Americans Killed in Action, Iraq (monthly average)
2003: 32
2004: 59
2005: 56
2006: 58
2007: 63
2008: 33
February: 31

Americans Killed in Action, Vietnam (monthly average)
1965: 128*
1966: 420
1967: 767
1968: 1140
1969: 785
1970: 413
* = First U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam, 5.3.65
Vietnam table compiled by Galen Fox using Defense Department sources.

Crude Oil Production (m. bbls./day)

Prewar Peak: 2.50
Goal: 2.20 (Revised upward, 1/08)
actual: 2.38 (2/08)

Electricity (megawatts)

Prewar: 3,958
Goal: 6,000
actual: 3,910 (2/08)

Since our last monthly report, the monthly American KIA total dropped from January's 34, and remains at half the monthly rate of 2 a day sustained for most of the Iraq war. In fact, the KIA total over the past six months (181) is the lowest for any six-month period since the war began. [Please note: the number of KIA is almost always lower than the media-reported total of American deaths, which covers all causes, including non-hostile. Our Iraq and Vietnam figures are KIA only.] These low American KIA figures beginning in September 2007 are the best indication the surge is working.

In February, oil output increased from 2.24 to 2.38 million barrels a day, and reached its highest output level for any February since the war began. Revenue from oil exports continues to rise, with January's total the highest on record. As for electricity, output did decline from December--going below 4,000 megawatts for the first time in nine months. Yet February's output was the highest for any February since 2004.

Parliament in February enacted two more benchmark laws, one providing for provincial elections in October, and another--a follow-on to January's de-Baathification law--that grants amnesty to thousands of mostly Sunni people still in Iraqi custody. The only key benchmark parliament has yet to enact, a law to share oil revenue with Sunni areas, is de facto already underway.

Into History’s Dustbin?

Kathleen Parker [picture] hides her age, but she’s apparently roughly as old as Obama (46). Her age is important, because in her latest column, she says the real gap between Obama and Clinton is age, not race or gender. As Parker writes, “politicians who seek ascendancy with arguments of a boomer past will merely highlight that his or her time belongs to history.”

Parker’s target is Clinton supporter Gloria Steinem, and indirectly, Clinton herself. According to Parker, Steinem (73) in a recent speech on behalf of Clinton “tried to make the case that Hillary's faltering campaign was owing to America's greater guilt over racism than sexism. Voters feel worse about slavery and Jim Crow than they do about ‘gynocide’." Parker quotes Steinem saying, "A majority of Americans want redemption for racism, for our terrible destructive racist past and so see a vote for Obama as redemptive." Parker similarly assigns Shelby Steele to history’s “dustbin” for writing a book that indicates Obamamania is largely a white phenomenon “for the reasons Steinem mentioned.”

Unfortunately, I belong in the generational dustbin along with Steinem and Steele. I recently wrote, “Americans feel good when they think of a black man running the country. It fulfills our dreams of a post-racial America, a multi-racial nation leading the world toward its better nature. . . [I]t’s nice to have a woman in the top spot. But we never fought a civil war to separate women from their chains, and white women got the vote in 1920, not 1965.”

Making Parker’s point that my views are “history,” my daughter took exception to what I wrote, saying America’s support for Obama has little to do with race. Parker found that one-third of voters under 30 are Hispanic, black, or gay/lesbian/bisexual, and that they and the younger other two-thirds “show almost identical attitudes toward Hispanics, blacks and whites.”

Of course “boomer” whites and Hispanics, obviously not voting to make anybody’s point, defeated Obama in Ohio and Texas last night.