Bush at the Wheel

July 30, 2007

Bush and Brown in golf cart

It sounds like Gordon Brown is not such a change of pace from Tony Blair after all, as he largely took his speaking cues from Bush in their public remarks Monday. Dan Froomkin asks whether Brown will be “Bush’s new poodle.”


I’m Going Down to Bonobo’s for a Few Beers After Work

July 29, 2007

I’ve long been a big fan of the bonobo, a species of great apes that is notable for making love, not war (literally — the leaders of groups perform sex acts on each other to diffuse tensions that, in other species, would lead to violence). This is an example of the really practical knowledge I gained from going to college.

Anyway, I mention this because there’s a huge article on bonobos in this week’s New Yorker, and it’s absolutely delightful if you’re looking for some Sunday summer reading. The opening paragraph disappointed me, though, because I’ve always had this idea of opening up a bar and calling it “Bonobo’s.” It turns out that is already the name of a vegetarian restaurant in New York City.

On a Saturday evening a few months ago, a fund-raiser was held in a downtown Manhattan yoga studio to benefit the bonobo, a species of African ape that is very similar to — but, some say, far nicer than — the chimpanzee. A flyer for the event depicted a bonobo sitting in the crook of a tree, a superimposed guitar in its left hand, alongside the message “Save the Hippie Chimps!” An audience of young, shoeless people sat cross-legged on a polished wooden floor, listening to Indian-accented music and eating snacks prepared by Bonobo’s, a restaurant on Twenty-third Street that serves raw vegetarian food. According to the restaurant’s take-out menu, “Wild bonobos are happy, pleasure-loving creatures whose lifestyle is dictated by instinct and Mother Nature.”

I recommend reading the whole thing, along with Samantha Power’s excellent essay on counterterrorism policy after Bush in the NYT book review.

Is Bush Even Trying Any More?

July 10, 2007

Fred Kaplan on today’s Bush speech in Cleveland:

Unlike earlier talks of this sort, in which Bush’s speechwriters at least assembled some stray facts and passed them off as evidence of progress, this speech—which seemed entirely improvised—was founded on nothing but faith.

“We can accomplish and win this fight in Iraq,” Bush said at one point in the speech. “I strongly believe we will prevail … that democracy will trump totalitarianism every time,” he said later, as if the war in Iraq is somehow about democracy and totalitarianism.

I caught a portion of the speech on TV this afternoon, and I felt like I was in a time warp from a year or two ago. The rhetoric is all the same about Al Qaeda having no regard for human life, that’s how they differ from us, fight them there instead of over here, on down the line. Can he really keep going to the same old rhetorical well for another 18 months and pass the mess on to a successor?

I also wonder if Chertoff’s remarks were coordinated.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune that he had a “gut feeling” about a new period of increased risk.

Is there any point to issuing these vague warnings about possible terrorist strikes without any specific information at all? Other than stirring up the media and getting people scared? It’s like Groundhog Day with these people.

A Continued Embarrassment Thanks to His Amateurish Performance

April 25, 2007

That would be David Broder, who fatuously compares Alberto Gonzales and Harry Reid in his Thursday column. Gonzales, you might recall, is embroiled in a scandal over politicizing the Justice Department, gave an awful performance testifying before Congress last week, and has faced widespread calls for his resignation. Reid, on the other hand, has said some things about Iraq that Broder disagrees with. As you can see, they are so similar — not.

Broder has stiff competition for the title of worst op-ed in the Thursday Washington Post from Joe Lieberman, who submits his quarterly “do what I say about Iraq” column (here is the previous one). I especially enjoyed Lieberman’s statement that Al Qaeda’s “aim in Iraq isn’t to get a seat at the political table; it wants to blow up the table.” Blow up the table!

Lieberman’s response to recent violence in Iraq is like a Rorschach test result:

The current wave of suicide bombings in Iraq is also aimed at us here in the United States — to obscure the recent gains we have made and to convince the American public that our efforts in Iraq are futile and that we should retreat.

Rather than seeing the bombings as obscuring recent gains, I see them as evidence that we have made no gains in Iraq. I define gains as an absence of the horrific violence that Iraq continues to experience every day. Lieberman’s willful exercise of reverse psychology is astounding.

The illogical senator continues:

When politicians here declare that Iraq is “lost” in reaction to al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks and demand timetables for withdrawal, they are doing exactly what al-Qaeda hopes they will do, although I know that is not their intent.

How, pray tell, does Lieberman know this? Isn’t it plausible that Al Qaeda hopes that the US military remains stretched thin with the commitment in Iraq and unable to pursue terrorists elsewhere? Where does Lieberman get this omniscent knowledge of the enemy mindset?

The Meaning of “Ismail Ax”

April 18, 2007

These words reportedly were written on the arm of Cho Seung-Hui when he was found dead, and the blogs are full of speculation about their meaning. One popular theory links this to a story in the Koran but others caution against being so quick to leap to a terrorism connection.

Here’s the Koran bit, as written up by the Chicago Tribune.

In Islam, Ibrahim is the father of the prophets and, upset that people in his hometown still worshiped idols and not Allah, he smashed all but one statue in a local temple with an ax. Ibrahim’s son is Ismail, who also became a prophet. Ibrahim is Arabic for Abraham, who plays a significant role in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

This seems to fit in substantively with other things we know about Cho. He wrote a note found in his dorm room about how he hated rich kids and debauchery, things akin to the idolatry that Ibrahim lashed out at. The letter also discussed religion:

A law enforcement official says the letter written by 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui was a typed, eight-page rant against rich kids and religion. …

The official said Cho indicated in his letter that the end was near and that there was a deed to be done. He also expressed disappointment in his own religion, and made several references to Christianity.

Violent clashes between the young and old also figure prominently in Cho’s two plays.

The plays, though, are very poorly written and indicate this guy was pretty bonkers, rather than intelligent. Maybe the words are just the random scribbling of a madman and everyone is over-analyzing this. It’s natural to want to find out that this had some meaning and that Cho didn’t just go out and kill tons of people without a coherent idea in his head of why he was acting as he did.

Things that Apparently Aren’t Torture

April 10, 2007

Judge Marcia Cooke of the federal district court in Miami rejected on Monday the claims of Jose Padilla’s lawyers that he was unfit to stand trial because of the torture he had been subjected to while in US government detention. This will allow Padilla’s trial to go forward next week.

It’s worth looking closely at what Padilla has endured while in government custody. In December, the New York Times reported on a video that was released of Padilla’s trip to the dentist:

Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla’s bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla’s legs. Next, his hands emerged through another hole to be manacled.

Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla’s cuffed hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next: noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors, marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall to his root canal.

The videotape of that trip to the dentist, which was recently released to Mr. Padilla’s lawyers and viewed by The New York Times, offers the first concrete glimpse inside the secretive military incarceration of an American citizen whose detention without charges became a test case of President Bush’s powers in the fight against terror. Still frames from the videotape were posted in Mr. Padilla’s electronic court file late Friday.

To Mr. Padilla’s lawyers, the pictures capture the dehumanization of their client during his military detention from mid-2002 until [2006], when the government changed his status from enemy combatant to criminal defendant and transferred him to the federal detention center in Miami.

In case you don’t have Times Select, I’ll skip ahead to the most interesting bits about Padilla’s interactions with his lawyer.

Mr. do Campo said that Mr. Padilla was not incommunicative, and that he expressed curiosity about what was going on in the world, liked to talk about sports and demonstrated particularly keen interest in the Chicago Bears.

But the defense lawyers’ questions often echo the questions interrogators have asked Mr. Padilla, and when that happens, he gets jumpy and shuts down, the lawyers said.

I wonder if the lawyer was allowed to tell him the Bears lost the Super Bowl?

Padilla goggles

Anyway, the actual trial should be under way next week, barring some other delay, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about the Padilla case then. With today’s ruling, though, it sounds like the conditions of Padilla’s confinement will be set aside during the next court proceedings.

Negotiating with Terrorists

March 22, 2007

Italy had five Taliban prisoners released in order to free a kidnapped journalist in Afghanistan. US and UK officials have criticized the move, though they didn’t prevent it, obviously. The standard logic behind such criticism is that negotiating with terrorists is a bad idea. Beyond the harm of having five bad guys back out in the world to do ill, the larger concern seems to be that this sends a message to other terrorist groups that will encourage further acts of kidnapping.

I wonder if there’s any evidence to support the US/UK line on this rather than the Italian position. Do terrorist acts really increase in the wake of such negotiations? It’s not like a terrorist organization is going to spend its resources on community service but then sees that kidnapping might be fruitful and decides to do that instead. Rather, terrorists have limited resources, and if they don’t pursue kidnappings they will probably just focus their time and energy on car bombings and things like that. I don’t see why there’s much of an increase in the overall badness in the world.

It’s always seemed questionable to me not to take simple steps that would save a hostage’s life based on speculation about how others will interpret the event and act in the future. Israel took a similarly hard line last summer in refusing to engage in prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, leading to a war that caused massive destruction in Lebanon and actually heightened the political clout of Hezbollah in the Middle East. We can’t predict future consequences, so why not save hostages whenever we can and redouble our efforts to eradicate terrorist groups by standard means?