Saturday, April 29, 2006

Drugs and Nukes

Okay, an op-ed calling for a rational analysis of the costs and benefits of drug prohibition! Mary Anastasia O'Grady, in Friday's Wall Street Journal, notes that "Drugs Beget Thugs in the Americas." For those with a subscription, you can click here.

And it seems that Mexico is coming to its senses on the issue, too: today's New York Times reports that "Mexico Passes Law Making Possession of Some Drugs Legal."

An unnamed US embassy official, apparently toeing the reflexive US prohibition line, reacted to the news by noting that "any law that would decriminalize dangerous drugs would not be helpful."

But that's exactly the question, isn't it? How should we handle the problem? In all other fields of policy (except for oil and automobiles, but let's hold off on that for now), we instinctively know to ask, first, what is our objective; second, what is the most efficient way of achieving it. Only when it comes to drugs do we conflate ends and means; only with drugs does a policy -- in this case, prohibition -- become the objective itself.

I would think our objective with regard to drugs is to regulate them in such a way as to prevent too-high rates of addiction and other societal costs resulting from individual abuse. Prohibition is certainly one way of achieving that end. But prohibition involves costs: diversion of security, intelligence, military, judicial, border, customs, and prison resources; profits to the enemies of democracy in Latin America and Afghanistan; hostility to the US when our military assists in trying to eradicate crops abroad.

Does anyone know of a study that objectively analyzes the costs and benefits of prohibition and compares those costs and benefits to those of other possible policies? I've never heard of one, which leads me to believe that for some reason our country is in denial or otherwise irrational on the subject. Given the undeniable costs of prohibition and its dubious successes, shouldn't we at least be asking whether there's a better way?

My own unprofessional, anecdotal take on what such a study would show: if we ended prohibition today in favor of regulation, taxation, and treatment for addiction, there would be a mild uptick in drug use. Meanwhile the price of drugs, which is kept artificially high by prohibition, would fall, denying profits to the Afghan warlords who are committed to defeating our efforts there and to the narcotrafficantes who are committed to undermining democracy in Latin America. We would also be able to redeploy all the resources noted above to the war that really matters -- the one against Islamofascism.

You know how we'll know when we're really serious about the war against Islamofascism? When the government announces that we're ending the war on drugs. Because one of these wars is a war of necessity -- by definition, an existential war, a war we cannot lose -- and the other is a war of choice. And a society that fights a war of choice while simultaneously fighting a war of necessity is a society that's betting everything it holds dear on a policy that in the end is... nothing more than a policy.

Some congressional wag once quipped that of course it would be easy to smuggle a nuke into the US... all you'd need to do would be to hide it in a bale of marijuana. He meant this mostly literally, true, but there are figurative implications, too. Because if diverting so many resources from the war against Islamofascism increases the risk that we could lose an American city to a suitcase nuke, then one day we may have to add that lost city to the tally of the costs of our war of choice on drugs.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Money for Our Oil Fix

Wow, I haven't seen Congress act this quickly since Terry Schiavo! It was only a few days ago that oil hit 75$ a barrel, and now Senate Republicans -- Republicans, remember, the champions of the free market, the ones who don't want to increase pump taxes because doing so would distort market forces -- want to give taxpayers a $100 rebate to buy gasoline.

It's all doubly strange because the president noted in his State of the Union speech that Americans are addicted to oil, and reiterated the "addiction" word just yesterday. And now Congress wants to cure the addiction by... well, by giving us money to buy a fix. Okay, admittedly, at current prices the fix will only amount to about two tanks of gasoline... but still. I don't really know what to say.

Except this: the latest opinion polls show that 78% of Americans disapprove of Congress's performance and 22% approve. What I want to know is, who are these 22%?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What do we do about Iraq?

What do we do about Iraq?

Let's start with what we want to do. Then we'll ask what can we do.

What do we want to do? The war's original objectives were to find and secure Hussein's WMD. It's clear now that before the war those WMD: (i) didn't exist; (ii) were destroyed; or (ii) were transported to Syria. Regardless of the explanation for our inability to find them, the WMD rationale for war no longer exists.

Following our failure to find WMD, the rationale for war evolved to include removing a dangerous dictator and establishing democracy. Hussein has been removed, so that objective has been achieved. Among the war's stated objectives, therefore, we're left with the establishment of democracy.

Before going on to the question of what we can do, it's important to consider possible unstated objectives, as well. I believe our unstated (and true) objective was to establish an overwhelming US military presence adjacent to Syria and Iran so as to pressure those regimes and possibly to change them. The current scope of the Iraqi insurgency, however, means we have neither the military means nor the domestic political support to invade Syria or Iran. It's likely that Assad and the mullahs understand this. Therefore, our objective of pressuring these regimes through our military presence in Iraq is not achievable -- unless can first achieve the final remaining stated objective of establishing democracy in Iraq. We'll come back to that in a moment.

Another of our unspoken objectives in Iraq was to get the country pumping oil again to build slack into global supply, thereby lowering prices and ensuring access in case of political instability elsewhere (the sequence would be: remove Hussein, end sanctions, rebuild the oil infrastructure). You need look no further than the prices posted at your corner gas station to know that this objective has not been achieved. But it might still be achievable -- more on which in a moment.

Although it would be impolite to say it out loud, let's accept that, at this point, we would settle for reasonably pro-western stability in Iraq as the fruits of our efforts there, even in the absence of democracy. Thus, the whole thrust of the war now boils down to this question: can we stabilize Iraq? If so, how? And what if we can't?

I don't believe we can stabilize Iraq within its present borders. First, the country has become too fissiparous. In the absence of centrally-supplied security, ethnic groups instinctively turn to their own militias, and, as Thomas Friedman has noted regarding his experience in Lebanon, once militias assume a prominent role in society they become extremely difficult to co-opt or eradicate. Moreover, I don't believe the Kurds have ever been interested in re-integrating into Arab Iraq. Why would they be? They've had de facto independence since the end of the first Gulf War, and have enjoyed reasonable amounts of democracy, prosperity, and, most of all, stability as as result. I have yet to read any plausible explanation of why the Kurds would agree to return to the Iraqi fold. Accordingly, I believe the Kurds' game is ostensibly support Washington's goal of keeping the country unified, while simultaneously doing all they can to prepare for and foster the day their independence becomes de jure. If one of the three players we're trying to get to live together has no interest in the project, how can it possibly succeed?

So: the current internal dynamic of Iraqi society tends toward a break-up into three Iraqs: Kurd, Shiite, and Sunni. External forces, chiefly in the form of the US military presence there, act to counter this tendency. Over time, I believe Iraq's internal tendency will prove stronger than the external forces acting to counter it, and the country will split into three.

All right. If it's true that we can't stabilize Iraq within its present borders, what should we be doing instead?

As a first step, we should change our currently stated objectives to make them more open-ended. The new emphasis would be along the lines of "supporting the future that Iraqis choose for themselves." Then, following the failure of some appropriate milestone (perhaps the current efforts to form a national unity government), we could shift our diplomatic efforts toward ensuring as orderly as possible a break-up of the country into three new entities.

To put it in slightly different terms: the first step would be to use different language to describe our current objectives in Iraq (part of our current difficulties lie in the overly lofty objectives the administration articulated following the failure to find WMD). For anyone who would object that we can't change our objectives in Iraq, I would argue that of course it's possible: indeed, we already have. One more change ought to be no more difficult than any of the previous ones.

Then, using the greater linguistic flexibility we have created, we can plausibly (in fact, accurately), note that the future which Iraqis have chosen for themselves involves three Iraqs rather than one, and that we must of course respect that choice. All our diplomatic and military efforts would then be in the service of steering the country in the direction its internal forces are currently taking it, rather than fighting against the tendency of those forces. Windmills, in other words, rather than windbreaks.

(One reason we need to change our view of our own objectives is that, so long as we see a departure from Iraq as a defeat, we will be inclined to stay there much longer than necessary. For more on how a nation decides when enough is enough, click here.)

A three-Iraq solution is probably not as bad as the conventional wisdom would have us believe. In the absence of a foreign military presence to unite them, Shiite Iraq and Shiite Iran would quickly rediscover their historic differences of language, culture, and nationality (China and Vietnam were allies during America's engagement in Indochina, but were at war within four years after our departure from Saigon). The Sunni center of the country is without oil, and could probably be quarantined until its current pathologies receded. As for Kurdistan, I believe the basis exists for a grand bargain between Iraq's Kurds and Turkey: in return for Turkey's recognition and declared respect for Kurdistan's independence, Kurdistan renounces all revanchist objectives with regard to territory that is now Turkey, renounces support for the PKK, and publicly or privately assures Turkey of access to cut-rate oil from Kirkuk.

Moreover, freed of the constant sabotage wrought by a largely Sunni insurgency, the Kurds and Shiites could rebuild their oil industries. The oil they would then make available to the world market would be a huge boon to the US economy.

For anyone who finds my proposed three state solution unacceptable, I ask: compared to what realistic alternative? We have to work with the facts as we find them (indeed, as we have created them), not with what might have been or what we wish could be.

To some, my prescription might seem overly pessimistic. Many people note that there is much good news in Iraq that goes unreported. I'm sure this is true. But I'm equally sure of much bad news that we're missing, too. The country has become so unsafe that journalists no longer have even minimally acceptable access or insights into what's going on. When that's the case, my sense is that what you're missing is more bad than it is good.

As a society, we're probably not ready to accept that a three state solution is now the best outcome we can hope to retrieve in Iraq. But the good news, if you want to call it that, is that three states is where Iraq is heading whether we like it or not. We can always get behind it later. But the effort would be easier, more plausible, and probably less bloody if we did so now.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Outsourcing Foreign Policy

I came across several articles today on the Bush administration; each was interesting by itself, and together I found them fascinating.

First, the latest CNN poll shows the president's approval rating is at 32%. The article notes that the poll "was one of four conducted within the past ten days that have yielded similar results: a Pew Center poll carried out April 7-16 gave Bush a 35 percent approval rating; a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll carried out last Tuesday and Wednesday gave him a 33 percent approval rating; and an American Research Group poll carried out Tuesday through Friday gave him a 34 percent approval rating."

The second article was an op-ed, "Dissident President," by Natan Sharansky in the in the Wall Street Journal. I think you need a subscription to the journal to read it, but here's a link.

Sharansky's strong defense of Bush seems focused on the president's character, or, to put it another way, on the president's intentions: "He is a man fired by a deep belief in the universal appeal of freedom, its transformative power, and its critical connection to international peace and stability... With a dogged determination that any dissident can appreciate, Mr. Bush, faced with overwhelming opposition, stands his ideological ground, motivated in large measure by what appears to be a refusal to countenance moral failure."

Sharansky does offer some criticisms, all focusing on the external expression of Bush's character -- that is, on Bush's execution of his intentions: "I believe that too much focus has been placed on holding quick elections, while too little attention has been paid to help build free societies by protecting those freedoms -- of conscience, speech, press, religion, etc. -- that lie at democracy's core."

Sharansky's op-ed, appearing as it did on the same day as the CNN poll, made me wonder... are the 33% or so of Americans who approve of Bush focusing more on what they see as his character and intentions, while the 67% or so who disapprove are focusing more on his performance? The CNN asked respondents whether they approved of the president's performance, but I'm not sure how important the wording was. When you trust someone's intentions, you're inherently willing to give him or her some benefit of the doubt on performance.

The third article, and the most interesting of all, is a report in the New York Times that "Baker, Bush Family Fixer, Will Advise President on Iraq." Apparently, the president has asked former Secretary of State and family confidant Baker to head a congressionally funded project called the Iraq Study Group and to advise the president on what to do about Iraq.

As someone who is fascinated by the increasing tendency to outsource formerly government functions to contractors, my first thought was, "By the gods, now they're actually outsourcing foreign policy!" But my good and insightful friend, The Slugg, had a slightly different take on the matter: He says they're outsourcing the presidency.

Slugg's thesis, which is only speculation, is that Bush Sr. gave his son a good shaking that finally got through to the lad. "You've been living in a bubble," the imagined conversation went, "and Iraq is dragging your presidency down. Worse, it's dragging the Bush family name down. You need help, and I'm going to tell you who will be helping."

The article reports leaks to the effect that Secretary of State Rice opposed Baker's appointment, which is hardly surprising (the public story is that Rice welcomes Baker's involvement. My experience and take on human nature tell me the leaked version is the one to believe). And given Baker's warm relationship with Brent Scrowcroft (Bush Sr.'s best friend), who in an interview with the New Yorker said, “The real anomaly in the Administration is Cheney... I consider Cheney a good friend—I’ve known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore,” what can we infer about Cheney's continued influence on Iraq policy?

Many political commentators have been advising Bush to shake up his team more than he already has. I wonder if outsourcing policy is a compromise in that direction: Bush keeps the nominal team in place, but bypasses it by appointing outsiders to advise him. It'll be fascinating to see how this turns out.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

More on Iran

Two recent articles on Iran. The first is called "Three Reasons Not To Bomb Iran -- Yet," by Edward Luttwak in Commentary.

The other is called "Are We Really Going to Nuke Iran?" by Fred Kaplan in Slate.

Luttwak's thesis is that Iran is still at least several years away from acquiring the bomb and that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs actually want America to attack Iran, as a way of rallying the population around the mullahs (as happened with Hussein attacked Iran in 1980) and consolidating their increasingly shaky control thereby.

Kaplan argues for three possible reasons that the Bush administration could be considering using tactical nukes to prevent Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons (as reported by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker): (i) the "Madman Theory," in which Bush aims to intimidate either the mullahs or recalcitrant European allies or both, by convincing them that if they don't capitulate he will do something crazy (that is, nuke Iran); (ii) factional infighting, in which insiders who oppose using nukes on Iran hope to stop such a course through leaks; and (iii) the "Three Options" gambit, where the administration massages the terms of the debate to create the appearance of three options -- surrender, nuclear war, and a limited air strike -- the last of which will seem a relief by comparison with the other two.

I don't believe the west should accept a nuclear Iran. But whether a nuclear Iran is acceptable to the west, including if so, why; if not, why not; and if not, how and when should the US act, have been well-hashed out elsewhere, including the articles cited above. I want to focus on some related, but distinct points, by posting a few questions here.

1. If Iran really were on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons capability, which is more likely: (i) Ahmadinejad would advertise the fact through repeated public statements, while also calling for Israel's destruction, denying the Holocaust, and suggesting that Iran could cripple the west by blockading the Straits of Hormuz; (ii) Iran would keep quiet about its progress so as not to risk an American or Israeli attack that could set back Iran's nuclear quest.

2. What does Iran have to gain from an American (or Israeli) air strike?

Now, a look at the domestic political landscape:

Current polls put the president's approval ratings in the 33% range. Approval of the Republican-controlled Congress and Senate is the twenties. Bush is sufficiently concerned about Republican prospects in the November midterm election that he's released Karl Rove from various White House duties to concentrate on the election. So the next question becomes:

3. What does the Bush administration have to gain from an American (or Israeli) air strike? Would a pre-election attack on Iran help Republicans, or hurt them? Has the administration considered the political implications of an attack on Iran (okay, that one was rhetorical)? What were their conclusions?

And finally:

4. If both the mullahs and the Bush administration believe they'll gain politically from an American attack on Iran, how likely is it that the attack will happen?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Iran and Iraq

I have a good friend known in some circles as Slugg, former Special Forces of significant rank and experience, who recently posted some fascinating thoughts on the Rumsfeld: Incompetent Patriot? thread. The thoughts were so good that I asked Slugg if he would mind my reposting them here as a guest column, and he generously agreed. There's a lot to the Iran - Iraq connection, I think; let's see what comes out in the responses to Slugg's post, and I may follow up with another post on the subect soon.

Slugg, thanks again for the insightful, provocative, posts. I'm honored to have you here.


Regarding the public debate kick-started by the six generals, it appears to this observer that most everybody boils the current brouhaha down to a single question: should the SecDef retire... or not?

Intending no disrespect I assert that those who ask this question... are asking the wrong question. A more useful question would be: why would six honorable men do this at best controversial, at worst questionable thing?

Have the generals forgotten their schooling in our nation’s tradition of military subordination to civilian control? Is their true goal really to compel the resignation of the SecDef? Are they petty men working off petty grievances by thumbing their noses in public at a man they just don’t like? Are they working to get every incumbent up for election this year thrown out of office?

If your answer to any of those questions was “Yes,” then you have assumed these six generals are simple men, incapable of subtlety, whose public actions should be taken at their simple face value.
I‘m telling you this knife-fight ain’t about Iraq: it’s about Iran!

Moreover, I’m guessing this fight is specifically about the ongoing, sub rosa discussions that ought to be ongoing, but [according to Seymour Hersh] aren’t ongoing between the Pentagon and the White House concerning the sanity of using nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s fledgling nuclear capability!

Wonder this, before you dismiss my speculations: what choices does the loyal officer corps have when corporately it is ordered to execute a direct order from the commander-in-chief which, in their best corporate judgment, would inflict grievous, irreparable harm not only on the enemy, but also on our own republic?

Some background:
During the Vietnam era—as H. R. McMaster posits in his book, “Dereliction of Duty”—our senior military officers failed their civilian leadership [and the nation] when they did not honor with public action what they privately believed to be true: that prolonging the Vietnam War promised nothing for certain but that more of our young men would be killed or mutilated… and more of our national treasure would be spent without profit for anyone but the military industrialists. The strategic benefit returned to America for this sacrifice of blood and capital would add up to little more than the possibility we could preserve America’s excruciatingly minimal national interests in South East Asia. McMaster’s book became required reading for all senior military officers. The hope was that the officer corps would not flinch from its obligation to fall on its collective sword if that was the only option for true service to the nation left them by their civilian leaders.

Flash forward to today: we have six general officers, all of whom (with the exception of General Zinni) refused promotion to the next higher rank and retired from the military... because they could not continue to serve as loyal officers under the leadership of the current Secretary of Defense. The key phrase here is “continue to serve.” Meaning, the generals retired and spoke out not because of what went down in Iraq, but because they have misgivings about the competency of their current civilian leadership to make wise or prudent decisions during the next war.

Then why, I can hear some of our company demanding to know, do the generals not speak out about their genuine concerns as freely and openly as they are willing to criticize in public the past performance of the Secretary of Defense?

That question is both fair and legitimate to ask. My answer rests on an understanding of the traditional/legal/ethical constraints that inhibit generals, active duty and retired, from indulging themselves in totally free speech:

Iraq is history, and the record of our nation’s actions taken there is available for every American to know and judge for themselves...

But Iran is the future, and for the soldiers with recent or continuing access to the details of our nation’s military plans and intentions, that elite group of men and women who *know* what is going to happen in the months ahead… the future will always be classified!

Therefore I hypothesize that the generals reluctantly elected to step into the unflattering spotlight the media shines on all its subjects and offer America what they feel duty-honor-country bound to deliver... the truth as they see it... circumscribed and restrained by the lifetime oaths of secrecy and of loyalty to the nation that each has sworn... and must honor... or forfeit their honor.

I sincerely believe that not one of the generals truly gives a rat’s ass whether or not Secretary Rumsfeld resigns. I believe they acted in a manner which, although coordinated, falls far short of either disloyalty to, or mutiny against civilian control of the military... acting with intent to force the Secretary of Defense, the President, and The Congress of the United States to hear what they cannot say in public.

I believe the generals acted with the concurrence of many of their peers and subordinates, both those retired and those who continue to serve in uniform on the active-duty force, obliging all to offer their own candid, studied, professional counsel to the nation’s civilian leadership... respectfully, discreetly, and in accordance with their oaths of secrecy... plus the oath of service every soldier freely takes upon entering the military:

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).

Lastly I predict that when their goal has been achieved [with results for the better or worse], even as once upon a time General McArthur said, each of the six general might say, “ the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good-by.”

Posted by The Slugg

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mealy-mouthedness and Exaggerations

I detest euphemisms and other mealy-mouthedness. Here are a couple examples:

Former Bush administration counterterrorism analyst Chris Carney is running for Congress as a Democrat in Pennsylvania. The president, Carney claims as quoted in The New Republic, "has been telling untruths about Iraq."

Is Carney afraid of the word "lie"? That is, "The president has been telling lies about Iraq." Which itself can be improved: "The president has been lying about Iraq." Which permits one more improvement, to present tense: "The president is lying about Iraq."

If President Bush is lying about Iraq, why not just say so in plain language, as a statement that demands evidence and can be argued? Maybe Bush is lying, maybe he's not. What we know for sure is that Charney is mealy-mouthed.

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, testifying before a senate panel on February 10, said, "I certainly felt somewhat abandoned" by the Bush administration. Extra points to Brown for combining an intensifier with a hedge in the same sentence! (For more on which click here)

Cut out the fat, and you get, "I felt abandoned." Which itself contains a subtle hedge -- Mr. Brown *felt* abandoned (much like people in New Orleans post-Katrina, doubtless), but he might not in fact have *been* abandoned. This construction annoys me: who cares how Brown felt? We want to know what happened! I might be reading too much into this, but is it possible that Brown's focus remains... misplaced?

So better still linguistically would be, "The Bush Administration abandoned me." Again, a statement that demands evidence and argument. And which has the additional benefit of providing a motto for tee-shirts and coffee cups.

And here's a nice one that's not so much mealy-mouthed as exaggerated and self-important:

In response to recent revelations about steroid use in baseball, commissioner Bud Selig declared, "Nothing is more important to me than the integrity of the game of baseball."

My first thought was, "I hope this guy doesn't have a family... or, if he does, that they don't hear what he just said or think that he meant it...".

Next I started mulling over that odd phrase, "The game of baseball." The game of baseball, the game... you mean, as opposed to the sky of baseball? The floor of baseball? What? Can baseball be anything other than a game? Of course not. So why the weird genitive redundancy?

It sounds important, that's why. You can almost imagine Selig getting misty-eyed as the words passed his lips, or at least wanting his listeners to get misty-eyed. Ah yes, the institution, the edifice, the bedrock of a nation...

Look out: when the genitive is used this way, often someone is trying to bullshit you. People of color, people of faith, a home of luxury (I saw this one in a real estate ad), time of difficulty, time of war... the intended effect is always the same: to impress you with the mouth-filling importance of the subject matter.

Linguistically related, and in intent the same, is the phrase The American People. Politicians use this one constantly (instead of, for example, America or Americans). When they do, they are trying to bullshit you.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Rumsfeld: Incompetent Patriot?

Well, we've got a half dozen retired generals calling for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's resignation. You can read more here.

And here's a fascinating opinion piece on the subject.

(Lest anyone conclude that I get all my news from the leftwing media, I read the Wall Street Journal every day, too, but you need a subscription to read their online content, so it's not very useful to forward the WSJ links).

I haven't done a scientific breakdown of the criticism, but it seems mostly to have to do with war planning, relations with the uniformed services, micromanagement... that kind of thing. Some highlights that seem representative to me:

General Swannack: "Rumsfeld does not really understand the dynamic of counterinsurgency warfare... [he's] not the right person to fight that war based on his absolute failures in managing the war against Saddam in Iraq."

Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton: "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically..."

Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, the former operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "the plan was flawed... intelligence distorted to justify a rationale for war... arrogant micromanagement that at times crippled the military's effectiveness..."

Retired Army Major Gen. John Riggs: "atmosphere of arrogance..."

So it struck me as odd that General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt compelled to issue this defense of Rumsfeld: "He does his homework. He works weekends, he works nights. People can question my judgment or his judgment, but they should never question the dedication, the patriotism and the work ethic of Secretary Rumsfeld."

I admit I haven't read the transcript of every general's call for Rumsfeld's resignation, but I've read quite a few articles at this point, and haven't come across any denunciations of, or even references to, Rumsfeld's work ethic, dedication, or patriotism. It's all about Rumsfeld's competence.

So why the off-key defense? Is it intended to suggest that criticism of Rumsfeld's competence is the same as an attack on his patriotism? Pace doe seem to recognize that the two are not the same; after all, he refers to Rumsfeld's "judgment" (and his own) as being fair game. Is Pace, in trying to find something positive to say about Rumsfeld on a separate topic, implicitly or unconsciously acknowledging that Rumsfeld is in fact substantively incompetent?

(I know some authors do this when blurbing books they don't think are any good: they try to find some aspect, unimportant as part of the whole, that they can praise so as to say something nice while maintaining a veneer of honesty. I don't approve of the practice, but that's a separate blog entry...).

Am I missing something? Any other interpretations? Anyone here who's served in the Pentagon and can shed some light on the situation?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Origins of the Frivolous Da Vinci Lawsuit

I'm pleased that Da Vinci Code (DVC) author Dan Brown prevailed in the frivolous copyright infringement suit brought against him by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Baigent and Leigh, the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," claimed that Brown had stolen the "architecture" of their book in writing his blockbuster DVC -- that is, their theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child, and that their bloodline survives to this day. For a summary of how hard the court slapped B&L down, click here.

As a former copyright lawyer, I was surprised that B&L's case was even allowed to proceed beyond what in the US is called summary judgment (where, essentially, you get tossed out of court for a meritless claim), but I don't know the UK system. What I do know is that copyright protects expression, not ideas, and that B&L's invention of the word "architecture" in a copyright context was a cheap attempt to distract the court from their lack of a legal claim.

What makes B&L's behavior doubly reprehensible is that Brown went out of his way to thank them in DVC, actually mentioning their book in the text of his own. And that B&L's book, a bestseller when it was published in 1982 but subsequently largely forgotten, became a bestseller again precisely because of Brown's gracious mention in DVC.

The good news is, the court denied B&L's request for an appeal and ordered them to pay 85% of Brown's publisher's legal fees (which could come to a couple million dollars). Still, you have to wonder: how do people bring such baseless lawsuits? How can two people who Brown brought fame and fortune be so ungrateful? Here's my novelist's answer:

B&L read DVC and feel ripped off because Brown obviously took their "Jesus and Mary Magdalene" theory and turned it into a mega-blockbuster.

B&L find a lawyer and say they want to sue. The lawyer advises them that they don't have a case because copyright law doesn't protect theories or other ideas, only expression. But, but, but...

Dan Brown made $70 million last year. He's a busy guy. Maybe he'll settle to make us go away. If he doesn't, we'll probably lose. And we'll have to reimburse him for, say, $2 million in legal fees. But... how do those Mastercard ads read? "Legal fees... $2 million. Publicity for B&L's book just before the worldwide release of the DVC movie starring Tom Hanks and publication of the mass market paperback... priceless."

So there you have it. Two men who Dan Brown made rich and famous decided that they wanted to be even more rich and more famous, and that the way to achieve it was to sue their benefactor, try to smear his reputation, and waste the public's time and money, just to get their names back in the media. And the sad thing is, it probably worked. When I checked on Amazon a few days ago, their book was #16. They'll sell even more copies when the DVC movie comes out in May.

BTW, the book's third author, Henry Lincoln, didn't take part in the suit. My guess is that he has a sense of shame, and some integrity. His coauthors have neither.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mistakes Don't Matter?

Secretary of State Condi Rice got in trouble on her recent visit to Britain, where she told reporters that in Iraq "I know we've made tactical errors, thousands of them I'm sure."

The media and blogosphere immediately jumped on the "thousands of errors" comment, but I think Rice's next point is the really telling one: "But when you look back in history what will be judged on is" whether the "right strategic decision" was made. Rice tried to clarify the whole thing the next day by adding, "The point I was making... is that, of course, if you've ever made decisions, you've undoubtedly made mistakes in the decisions that you've made, but that the important thing is to get the big strategic decisions right and that I am confident that the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein and give the Iraqi people an opportunity for peace and democracy is the right decision."

The argument that execution is irrelevant and only the concept matters seems strange to me. I immediately thought of a doctor reassuring the family of a dead patient, "Yes, we operated incorrectly, we operated on the wrong part of the body, hell, we botched the whole procedure and killed the patient. But we were right in thinking the operation was called for!"

Success requires the right concept and the right execution. That Rice, like the negligent doctor in my hypothetical, feels compelled to fall back solely on the arguable correctness of the diagnosis is hard to understand. Does she really believe concept is all that matters? Does she expect the country to believe it? I don't know.

But if you found yourself concerned by Rice's comments, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was on the scene the next day to reassure you: "...the enemy's got a brain; the enemy watches what you do and then adjusts to that, so you have to constantly adjust and change your tactics, your techniques and your procedures," Rumsfeld explained. "If someone says, well, that's a tactical mistake, then I guess it's a lack of understanding, at least my understanding, of what warfare is about."

So Rice says we've made thousands of mistakes, but none of them matter because we were right in deciding that Hussein had to go. And Rumsfeld says we haven't made any mistakes at all.

There's a word for all this: denial. And denial, as Dave Grossman says, has no survival value.

If you weren't sure before how our effort in Iraq was going to turn out, Rice and Rumsfeld just told you all you need to know.

Monday, April 10, 2006

France in Denial

Well, the protesting French students have "won," and the government has withdrawn the new labor law it had signed into law only a week earlier. I was in France for book promotion last week while the students were protesting, so I've been following the story with interest. What's going on there?

France's labor laws make it difficult to fire workers. Faced with the difficulty of firing employees, employers are reluctant to hire them pursuant to long term, restrictive contracts. As a result, most French workers work from one short term contract to the next, and unemployment in France is high -- about 10% nationally, about 22% for 15-24 year-olds; about 50% for residents of some distressed banlieus, France's ex-urban housing projects.

If labor laws are so restrictive that they're hindering the creation of new jobs, the solution seems clear: liberalize the laws. After all, the causal relationship between restrictive labor laws and high unemployment is hard to deny. Otherwise, why not raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour? $30? $50? Wouldn't that be good for workers, too? Well, it would... except that establishments would start hiring far fewer people if those kinds of wages were mandated. The trick, then, is to find the right balance between protecting workers who have jobs and creating new jobs for workers who don't.

And this is what Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has proposed. He wants to introduce a new law that would allow businesses to fire under-26-year-olds for the first two years of their employment. After two years, they would get legally mandated job security.

I admit that it's hard for me to understand the attitude of anyone who demands a government-mandated contract for lifetime employment. My attitude is, if you want lifetime employment, you figure out how to offer so much value for your employer that your employer will want to employ you for life. It's your responsibility to create that value, not the government's to insist on your employment in its absence. I have a feeling that Chinese and Indian workers must be equally bemused by the French students' stance -- and, in the 21st century global marketplace, those entrepreneurial (ironically, a word of French origin) Chinese and Indian workers represent the French students' competition.

So de Villepin's solution seems obvious (albeit insufficiently far reaching)... and yet, polls show that about 2/3 of France opposed the new law. Why?

Some people say the opposition came from de Villepin's lack of consultation with student groups and unions, and with the high-handed way he forced the law through parliament. There might be something to that, but I doubt the government could have wooed material numbers of supporters with nothing more than a better bedside manner.

Others argue that the opposition reflects France's inability to understand the correlation between restrictive labor laws and high unemployment. There's probably something to this argument, as well, but the correlation is clear enough so that you'd think it would be noticed by more than the 27% of the country that polls showed supporting the law.

It's also possible that the protesters were objecting not to the idea of liberalizing labor laws, but to liberalizing them only for under-26-year-olds. But the protesters weren't asking that the new law apply more broadly. They didn't want it applied at all (and indeed now it won't be).

Many commentators think the problem is that French students are lazy and have an entitlement attitude (as one of my guides assured me in response to my question about whether last week's strike would affect my morning departure to Charles de Gaulle airport, "Don't worry. Students who don't want to work would rather sleep late and start their protests in the afternoon"). Maybe a sense of entitlement has something to do with the protests. But students know that protected jobs are increasingly rare and that it's unlikely they're going to get one. So the question becomes, entitlement to what?

The answer is: to participation in a national labor lottery.

In a lottery, there are a few big winners who depend for their winnings on everyone else's loss. The analogy applies perfectly to France's labor market, where fewer and fewer people -- including, not coincidentally, lawmakers and bureaucrats -- win the fewer and fewer available protected jobs, and everyone else is either unemployed or forced to work pursuant to short-term contracts.

What's going on is, France's labor market has been insidiously turned into a lottery by the slow accretion of restrictive laws and their pernicious effect on societal attitudes. And the problem isn't just that the French labor market functions as a lottery. The real problem is that two thirds of French citizens find such a system acceptable. They shouldn't. A labor lottery isn't just a bad idea in theory. It has led in practice to an increasingly two-tiered society, and to seething anger and eruptions of riots. Over time, the lottery will erode France's prosperity and influence in the world. Think the recent riots in the banlieus were bad? Watch what happens as the banlieus get angrier and the French state gets weaker.

Maybe a better approach would be for the government to level with the country's people and enact a new law that would eliminate legally-mandated lifetime employment not just for the first two years of under-26-year-olds' first jobs, but across the board for everyone. Of course, a law like that would require government ministers to vote to eliminate their own employment guarantees. I guess the chances for this are about the same as... oh, I don't know, as American college faculties voting to eliminate tenure (which, as we all know, professors only want because it protects students, not because it protects professor's jobs). Or about the same as Congress voting to turn districting decisions over to independent panels.

Which means that the solution to France's unemployment rates -- and many other social woes -- is as obvious as it is unlikely to be implemented. And that today's withdrawal of the new law was as predictable as it is regrettable.