State of the Union

The Senate Jumps the Shark

I complained on Monday that the Senate Judiciary Committee is not holding a hearing into whether Elena Kagan is suited to sit on the highest court of the land, but rather offering senators of both parties an opportunity to grandstand while the cameras are rolling. Senators aren’t asking tough questions, and Kagan isn’t providing penetrating answers. But who could have guessed how quickly the proceedings would devolve from mere theater into farce? After Kagan indicated she was a leading legal mind who apparently had no political views whatsoever, and not much more in the way of judicial philosophy, Senator Amy Klobuchar asked her to take a stand on the really contentious issue of our era: Team Edward or Team Jacob?

Noting the “incredibly grueling day” Ms. Kagan had on Tuesday, Ms. Klobuchar remarked, “I guess it means you missed the midnight debut of the third ‘Twilight’ movie last night.” After some laughter, she added: “We did not miss it in our household, and it culminated in three 15-year-old girls sleeping over at 3 a.m.”

Ms. Kagan said she was not able to see “Eclipse,” but Ms. Klobuchar nonetheless continued, “I keep wanting to ask you about the famous case of Edward versus Jacob or the vampire versus the werewolf.”

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Tea Party vs. “Inner Party”

Today’s spotlighted TAC article is John Derbyshire’s “Prole Models,” in which he looks at what prospects the Tea Parties may have to overcome the bipartisan elite — our home-grown American equivalent of the “Inner Party” of Oceania in Orwell’s 1984.

Present-day Oceania—or, as we say, “the West”—isn’t nearly as brutish as Orwell’s dark vision. We have open merit-ocracies in which intelligent prole youngsters, far from being liquidated, are welcomed into the upper classes. Nor are those upper classes a tightly organized Inner Party ruthlessly dedicated to self-preservation. They are only a loose—though increasingly endogamous—stratum, a sort of free-range Inner Party. They do have a common ideology, to be sure, but it is comparatively rational and humane, as state ideologies go, rooted in Enlightenment universalism and disgust at the excesses of industrial-age nationalism, colonialism, and racism.

The Republican Party of today nonetheless displays a shadowy resemblance to Orwell’s dystopia. Listening to conservative intellectual acquaintances gushing over the Tea Party movement, I hear Winston Smith’s diary entry murmured in the background: “If there is hope, it lies in the proles.”

Derbyshire is an inveterate pessimist, of course, but he sees in the recent primary victories of Sharron Angle and Rand Paul at least the ingredients of an interesting battle. Get his take here.

Also, be sure not to miss John Mearsheimer on Israel’s self-destructive drift toward apartheid and Jack Hunter on the madness of Obama’s Afghan policy.

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SyFy: You’re a Bad Network, A Very Bad Network

SyFy (formerly Sci-Fi) has opted to replace its annual Fourth of July Twilight Zone Marathon with a Greatest American Hero marathon. First, I hadn’t realized there were enough GAH episodes for which to justify a “marathon, ” (pathetically, there are). And second, WHY?! Don’t they want people to stay on the channel for long periods of time? They might as well have rolled out ALF too, make it a full-out Guantanamo Bay-style retreat.

I am crushed. For more than a decade I have settled in with family to watch the bi-annual event: Twilight Zone on New Year’s, again on the Fourth of July. Yes, a marathon of viewing, through the ham-handed and the sublime, the silly and the profound. Rod Serling, a corny but cool guide through the dimensions, signposts ahead. War, paranoia, love and fear. Superstition and weakness, bravery and resolve. This was the time to reflect, holed up in air conditioning with a thousand familiar archetypes: the key character who always loses it when a nuclear strike is imminent or he crash lands on a planet. The misfit. The hero. The shrill wife. The comely naif. The vexed soldier. The greedy fool. The old man. The insufferable snob who gets his. The cynical man who gets to go back. The astronaut who never will.

I’ll miss those magic, tragic moments of irony — the doof with the stop watch who cracks it when the world has been stopped, the incorrigible bully and the player piano that exposes him, the thieves whose greed outlive the price of gold, the poor sap who spends a lifetime trying to catch the devil — only let him escape one more time. I’ll miss James Coburn mocking, “old man! old man!” and then seen splayed out dead with the rest of the village, having defied the “old man’s” advice not to gorge on the toxic canned food. I will miss the alien “cookbook” and I will miss grandfather and his masks, which he gives to his “changeless” family as a New Year’s coup de’ grace and they emerge, twisted and perverted, wearing “all that was inside them and they’ll wear them for the rest of their lives, said lives now to be spent in shadow.”

I will miss Cliff Robertson with his 1860’s rifle and Cliff Robertson the dummy. I will miss boyish Charles Bronson mixing it up with cat-like Elizabeth Montgomery in our apocalypse. I will miss Telly Savalas falling over an evil Talky Tina to his death at the bottom of the stairs and Roddy McDowell when he first discovers he is now an exhibit at an alien zoo. I will miss a young and already balding Robert Duvall coursing with need over the doll house at the museum. The only thing better than William Shatner going bonkers on the plane is William Shatner hugging a clairvoyant devil doll in any-diner-U.S.A. I will miss Inger Stevens and her creepy hitchhiker, and when Rod Taylor and Jim Hutton realize they are part of a disappearing team of heroic astronauts and when the department store manager does a double-take on the mannequin who looks just like the customer (Anne Francis) he left resting in the front office the day before …

It is us at the breaking point — the frailty of our species. The kernel of fear and insecurity in all of us that forces us to conform during the day, but turn on our neighbors and abandon civility at night. Are we really that bad? Was Rod Serling just a pessimist? Just the same, we love to take that ride down Maple Street at dusk, and take in the hysterics at Dr. Stockton’s basement when a nuclear attack is supposedly at hand. The fun is — we never know.

After the neighbors make complete monsters out of themselves trying to get into Stockton’s shelter — and then the attack turns out to be a false alarm — emerges one of the best exchanges in the series’ history (written with the signature Serling ham):

Jerry Harlowe: We could throw a nice big block party, just like old times! Anything to get back to normal! Right, Bill?
Bill Stockton: Normal? …I don’t know what normal is. I thought I did once; I don’t anymore.
Jerry Harlowe: Oh, we’ll pay for all the damages, Bill.
Bill Stockton: Damages? I wonder…if any of us has any idea what those “damages” really are. Maybe one of them was finding out what we’re really like when we’re “normal.” The kind of people we are, just underneath the skin–and I mean all of us–a lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their own neighbors to death just for the privilege! We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder…if we weren’t destroyed even without it.

There are planes with no people, and planes stuck in the land of dinosaurs and planes that come out of the sky from World War I to change the future. There are misanthropes and masochists, meanies and malcontents. There are aliens and primitives, beauties and bozos, heroes and saints. They are all of us and none of us and we can laugh it off or we can see ourselves and maybe take more than five minutes to think about it. I mean, many of us do have the weekend off.

1960 in black and white relief — but mirrored back at us. A fun and eerie reminder that we humans are so “changeless,” despite how quickly the superficial trappings of fashion, politics and culture whiz by, leaving our Willoughbies behind. SyFy, in its infinite short-sightedness and stupidity (or maybe, plain thriftiness, I mean, have you seen those in-house “movies” they produce exclusively for the channel?) have cast me a blow, and maybe, too, the numerous, numerous others who have been resigned to this simple exercise in thrill and pop-culture anthropology for the last ten years or more.

I guess I can go check out the John Wayne marathon at AMC. But it just won’t be the same.

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The Warrior and the Drone

Some of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s defenders are lamenting the fact that a “fighting general” was cashiered by the Obama Administration (although Ambrose Burnside, Joe Hooker, and George Custer were all considered “fighting generals” too), but McChrystal’s reputation for blood-and-guts action was contradicted by the Rules of Engagement (ROE) that were a part of the counterinsurgency campaign strategy he adopted for Afghanistan, as Michael Hastings pointed out in his Rolling Stone article:

“Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military. But however strategic they may be, McChrystal’s new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

In other words, the troops want to do what they were trained to do, kill people and break things, not act as crossing guards for little Afghans going to school. But as McChrystal points out, and no doubt truthfully, killing people and breaking things fighting a war amongst a civilian population is no way to make friends and influence people, especially a people known for battling invading armies indefinitely no matter what cause or good intentions they were fighting for.

Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing,” McChrystal says, citing an oft-repeated maxim that you can’t kill your way out of Afghanistan. “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.”

Indeed, even with strict Rules of Engagement, U.S. and allied troops are still killing the very people they are trying to save:

In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.”

The Hastings article talks about the differences between McChrystal’s and the administration’s approach to the war. But what could those differences possibly be since both sides generally agree that U.S. troops need to be there and need to be out on the ground trying to nation-build Afghanistan? Perhaps this paragraph in a New York Times article from last September offers a clue:

Read More…

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War is Peace, Occupation is Withdrawal, and Nation-Building is an Exit Strategy

Ross Douthat had this to say today about why we can’t leave Afghanistan:

Why? Because of three considerations. First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.

Note that Ross calls them “considerations” in favor of staying in Afghanistan. He evidently can’t bring himself to call them “reasons,” for they are anything but. Take the “memory of 9/11.”  No doubt no president would want the Taliban to take Kabul on his watch. (The Taliban already control roughly half the country already, but Ross’s assumption that nobody will notice until they take over the few square kilometers where the media are concentrated is probably right.) According to departing General McChrystal, for example, Obama doesn’t really care about Afghanistan and probably sees the occupation as pointless. Still, he supports it because it keeps Afghanistan boring and therefore off the front page. Rather than order of withdrawal, in other words, Obama prefers to buy an option at $1 trillion [update: $70+ billion] a year that lets him pursue his domestic agenda without distraction. To put Ross’s point another way, no President would have the courage to make Afghanistan policy based on what’s actually best for America. The paramount concern is public relations.

As for Ross’s “consideration” number two — that Afghanistan is a useful “base for counterterrorism operations” — it is not even coherent. Leave aside that Afghanistan, one of the most remote places on earth, is a comically inconvenient place to run a counter-terrorism program. (As an alternative, may I suggest Washington, D.C., where the government that is supposed to protect us from terrorism is actually located?) A military base is where commands can be given and equipment and personnel stored. It exists to stage an army in order to control territory. An international terrorist organization such as al Qaeda, however, does not need to control terroritory. It can move in, move out, form and reform in any number of regions around the globe, including (indeed, perhaps especially) ones occupied by foreigners. To combat such an organization, defending a piece of territory is useless, possibly even counter-productive.

Lastly, Ross resorts to IR-theory concepts such as “balance of power” and “security vacuum” to suggest that the occupation is somehow preventing nuclear terrorism. Here he seems deeply confused. Nuclear weapons require vast sums, technical expertise and secure facilities to produce. Consequently, the only entity capable of making them so far is a state. The danger of nuclear terrorism is that one government or other will either (i) carelessly allow a weapon to be passed to a terrorist organization, or (ii) collapse with its nuclear material unaccounted for. It is unclear how the concept “balance of power,” which refers to a rivalry among multiple states, elucidates these dangers. Afghanistan in particular does not even have one state, let alone several. It has experienced civil war of one form another for decades; there is no “balance of power” there of which one can meaningfully speak. Doubtless, if the U.S. withdraws, Afghans will go on killing each other, as they have been doing for generations. Though lamentable, that does not increase the risk of nuclear terrorism. Clearly, Ross is alluding to some nightmare chain of events that U.S. withdrawal could trigger. His IR-theory jargon, however, only obscures what that chain of events might be.

In short, Ross does not come up with any intelligible rationale, other than executive branch PR, to continue nation-building in Afghanistan.  We know, of course, what Ross is trying to do: He’s playing the Sage Establishment Moderate, able to incorporate the strengths of both competing positions. Thus, in his latest column, he concedes to doves that withdrawal is a worthy goal, but argues with the hawks that, to get out, we must continue COIN. In this case, his purported wisdom is unearned, for Ross comes with no actual reason that America has to be in Afghanistan in the first place.

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High Court Drama

Elena Kagan faced the Senate Judiciary Committee as her confirmation hearing began today. The Supreme Court nominee had so little to do throughout the afternoon that some commentators were forced to stretch to find something to say about how she handled herself:

Stray note: Kagan has been holding her back perfectly erect and maintaining a look of furrowed-brow attentiveness for over an hour now. She looks like she might crack soon.

National Review’s Daniel Foster certainly wasn’t the only one. My Facebook feed had comments like these: “BREAKING: Kagan scowling, ever so slightly” and “Kagan smiles, tilts head. This is riveting.” These remarks are so amusing because they point to the ridiculousness of the proceedings. The next Supreme Court justice, the woman of whose judicial philosophy we know so little, must sit in silence while members of the committee grandstand around her. Some other notes from Foster’s live-blogging of the hearing: “Feinstein says she was ‘extremely dismayed’ by McDonald decision of this morning” and “Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wis.) goes off on Citizen’s United.” In other words, many senators took the hearing to confirm a new Supreme Court justice as an opportunity to complain about Supreme Court decisions they didn’t like. It gives lie to the notion that these senators are interested in confirming a lawyer who will be independent and impartial in applying the constitution.

Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) said, “It is not a coronation, but a confirmation.” But that’s simply not true. No one has any real doubt that Kagan will replace the retiring John Paul Stevens. The Democrats have enough votes to confirm even without any Republican support—and she has some Republican support. Foster notes that Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham could vote for Kagan, for example. And Scott Brown, who with John Kerry introduced the Bay State professor, called Kagan “brilliant” and talked of the “impressive legal resume” that includes next to no litigating. This might not be a coronation, but it involves as much theater.

Foster reports that Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) “says he hopes Kagan will ‘set a new standard for the Senate’ and ‘really answer questions.’” But that’s not how the process had worked for some time now. As the writer for the Los Angeles Times, in the story quoted above, noted:

Kagan avoided taking any specific positions Monday on the contentious social issues on which she will likely rule, if confirmed. Nominated to become the 112th justice on the Supreme Court, she took a modest stand while promising to work impartially for justice for all.

Kagan famously described the Senate confirmation process as “a vapid and hollow charade,” and she certainly proved her point. Her remarks were so generic, many of them could have been used by anyone applying for any job anywhere.

“I will listen hard, to every party before the Court and to each of my colleagues. I will work hard. And I will do my best to consider every case impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle, and in accordance with law.”

It’s no wonder then, that

As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) noted, the Elena Kagan confirmation process has been a “snooze-fest.” Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) even noted that senators Monday have not even been using the full 10 minutes allotted to them for introductory statements.

Perhaps Coburn said it best:

“It is obvious that previous hearings have not been predictive,” of performance on the court, Coburn noted. But if the nominee is not forthcoming, “Why should we do this dance?”

This drama could be a lot more interesting—and a lot more useful to the health of the republic—if committee members used George Will’s suggested questions.

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Petraeus Holds Obama Hostage

President Obama is being hailed for toughness in his firing of Gen. McChrystal and brilliance in his replacing him as Afghan field commander with Gen. David Petraeus, who managed the George W. Bush “surge” in Iraq that saved this nation from an ignominious defeat.

Herewith, a dissent.

By firing a fighting general, beloved of his troops, Obama just took upon himself full responsibility for the McChrystal Plan. The general is off the hook.

As of now, the plan is not succeeding. And given the inability of Kabul to deliver the “government in a box” to Marja, after Marines supposedly de-Talibanized the town, the McChrystal Plan is failing. The Battle of Kandahar has not yet begun, though the June D-Day has come and gone.

Should we be in this same bloody stalemate in December, Obama will be blamed for having fired his field commander who devised his battle plan, and was carrying it out, over some stupid insults from staff officers to some counterculture magazine.

More critically, Obama just made himself hostage to a savvy general who is said to dream of one day holding Obama’s office. Read More…

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Shooting the Constitution?

Today’s landmark Supreme Court decision strikes down Chicago’s handgun ban. The 5-4 majority said 2nd Amendment Rights must “apply equally to the federal government and the states.” Justice Scalia cited the 14th Amendment’s ever expanding due process clause in support of the majority.

The clause is typically applied to diminish individual liberty by increasing the power of the federal government. But today, Scalia applied it to protect liberty. Paradoxically, a justice more strictly devoted to the Constitution’s original design, before the rise of the incorporation doctrine, would have had to acquiesce to arbitrary and immoral handgun confiscations carried out by state and local governments.

So should paleoconservatives and libertarians welcome the ruling? It depends whether one prioritizes individual liberty or the Constitution. Most of the time, these principles don’t conflict. But cases like today’s remind us they’re not inextricably bound.

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Bye Bye Byrd

Robert Byrd, who died early this morning, was at core a conventional New Deal liberal. He was a quondam segregationist, probably one of some conviction — he had been a Ku Klux Klan organizer, after all, though he later claimed he had joined only to advance his career. But for Byrd as for his party, race was a secondary concern; redistributive economics came first. The New Dealer attitude toward segregation was much like Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery — whether the institution would remain or be scrapped was a question not of its inherent evil but of how it affected larger political objectives.

For all that the policies he supported were predictably terrible, Byrd was the last real Senator left, virtually the sole repository of the chamber’s institutional memory and dignity. He could be counted on during the Bush years to stand up for the legislature in the face of executive encroachment. He at least understood that the Senate is not meant to present a mere administrative formality for the president — even if, like most politicians, he was more conscious of the separation of powers when the man in the Oval Office wasn’t of his own claque.

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Panetta Right or Wrong

If CIA Director Leon Panetta is correct and al-Qaeda has been reduced to a tiny remnant why are we spending nearly a trillion dollars a year on defense, intelligence, and homeland security?  The justification for the doubling of the US government budget over the past eight years has been the need to fight terrorism.  Do the terrorists really pose a serious threat or has this all been a sophisticated con job?  I doubt if anyone in Washington really thinks that terrorism is the major or even one of the major problems confronting the United States, but the money continues to flow.  I would suggest that the way we think about terrorism and what we call terrorists is at fault, creating the type of narrative that empowers those who wish to do us harm in a way that has induced our leaders to over-react (possibly deliberately in the case of those who aspire to the imperial presidency).  In any event, the war on terror or whatever it is being called these days is an enormous federal government money pit that should be shut down immediately.

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