Friday, February 22, 2008


Here at FTB, we're pioneering a new weekly segment to provide you with a roundup of quasi-informative inter-trash from the week past. We've given it an appropriately overwrought title and we hope you enjoy it:

Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo. As the good people at Lawyers, Guns and Money pointed out, someone's been waiting a long time to write that headline. 

Twin gay-porn stars arrested in rooftop burglaries. Bizarrely enough, that's not the most attention-getting aspect of the story. Buried towards the end, the attentive reader finds this graph: While handcuffed in the back of the moving car, Taleon smashed out the rear window by head-butting it, police said. He then dove through the window and its steel frame, causing $1800 in  damage, Kunkel said. After landing on his face, Taleon rose to his feet and, while still handcuffed, fled on foot and into a nearby pond, police said. "He swam across like Flipper, taunting the officers saying, 'You'll never catch me.'" And they didn't. Masters of understatement, the PPD volunteered this statement: "Taleon is a bad, bad dude." 

The obsolete skills wiki is our generation's version of the slide rule lecture. Someday, I will give my children a long demonstration of how to properly load film into a camera. Of course, they'll have 50 megapixel cameras built into their eyes, so, like all good parental lectures, it'll involve a lot of blood and tears. 

WaPo continues its reign of mediocre journalism with this article which sets a pretty high bar for mainstream misogyny, surpassing even the Chris Matthews horizon. Feministing doesn't disappoint with its reaction -- Washington Post: Bitches Ain't Shit.

Xerox gets pissy about Clinton's comments during Thursday's debate. Xerox, or Xerox Corporation (as they prefer to be called), is apparently pissed that their name has become synonymous with with one of the ubiquitous tasks of modern office life. Their desire for proper nomenclature has overwhelmed their love of free advertising. Surely, the end is near.

The Burmese junta  has started bagging on Rambo's saggy he-tits. It's just shy of "you're so fat that when you surround our murderous paramilitary death squads, you surround our murderous paramilitary death squads!" 

In the "old but still good" category, we have the tear-jerking story of Canadian troops routed by 10-foot marijuana plants. Due to the superior "dankitude" of this Afghani ganja, the Canadians were unable to penetrate the forest with thermal sensors. Attempts to burn the plants produced, as might be expected, unfavorable results: a section of soldiers that was downwind from that had some ill effects, and [we] decided that was probably not the right course of action. "Ill effects" included spontaneous drum circles and harebrained metaphysical debates. 

Obama continues to gather momentum in Texas following his Thursday debate performance, locking up the much-coveted mariachi vote ahead of the primary contests on March 4, 2008. In an environment where politico-musical abominations are like this are commonplace, I don't think I can justifiably get snarky. 

The New York Times reports that more an more Americans are moving away from our most beloved non-sport, the ancient and subtle art of golfing. I, like many Americans, eagerly await the day when the only use for a putter will involve brightly-painted windmills and the potential to earn a free milkshake at the 18th hole.

Friday, February 15, 2008

This Week in Stupid

Actually, it's technically "last week in stupid," but there was so much chest-beating going around last week that we had a major scheduling crunch. 

Forever Young, by Leon Wieseltier [the New Republic]

Compared to Boot, Wieseltier is a fish of a different color. His problem isn't so much a fundamental misunderstanding of international relations, but a fundamental misunderstanding of absolutely everything from China's economic relationship with the US to the very idea of state sovereignty. On China, I urge you to disregard Wieseltier's "gold medal in tyranny" idiocy and explore the more nuanced view articulated by James Fallows: the $1.4 Trillion Question.

In my opinion, Wieseltier makes the following three mistakes:

1) He blurs the line between "strategic problems" and "strategic choices" into nonexistence.
2) He confuses a "politics of hope" with a "policy of hope."
2a) Relatedly, he conflates motivation--a belief that Americans can change the world for the better--with action, namely the idea that we will change the world for the better by handing out candy to dictators and asking them to pretty please love America.

On the first point, he argues that "George W. Bush was not singlehandedly responsible for getting us into this mess." In some sense, that's true. No one man can take a nation to war. However, to insinuate that the White House--the President being the symbolic if not physical embodiment thereof--was not the prime mover behind the Iraq war is shameless hackery of the first order. I deeply agree with the proposition that the United States had a serious and growing strategic problem in the Middle East around the turn of the millennium. However, "this mess" as Wieseltier euphemistically terms it, is entirely the product of the strategic choices made by the President and his administration. It's not as if he was flying blind, either. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, was laughed out of the Pentagon when he had the temerity to suggest that it would take several hundred thousand troops to stabilize Iraq. In contrast, we have Paul Wolfowitz's statement:

It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army.

Apparently, our ex-President of the World Bank nee Deputy Secretary of Defense had never bothered to skim chapter 3 of The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli. It's difficult to plausibly point to a prime mover responsible for this mess who isn't a Bush appointee.

Wieseltier's second goof is mistaking politics for policy. We can cut him a little slack here, mostly because that seems to be the operating rule of the past few years. For our purposes, "politics" is defined as the strategy by which one acquires power and "policy" as the definite agenda advanced by someone already in power. Wieseltier construes Obama's references to the "politics of hope" as a foreign "policy of hope" or simply a "hope for the best" attitude towards the problems facing American interests abroad. On the contrary, Obama seems to realize that America's reputation abroad has reached its lowest ebb in recent memory, and that improving our international standing is a necessary precondition for any meaningful foreign policy initiatives. Indeed, we've received some not so subtle signals from our allies that this is what they would like as well.

Let's be clear, Wieseltier is not incorrect in his observation that the world is an awful place where awful people do awful things. However, for reasons related to the decline of Europe after WWII and the fall of the USSR, we're sort of running things now. With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves if it's more useful to have a national (and international) audience that believes that America has the ability to be a positive influence on the world, or one that views foreign relations as an intractable quagmire to be avoided at all costs. On a personal level, I find Obama's talking points on foreign policy inspiring, because they evoke an America that is chastened but not defeated, a country that can withdraw without becoming withdrawn. Clearly we need a foreign policy that abandons both the tone-deaf public diplomacy of Karen Hughes and the 1) Topple Gov't 2) Hope for the Best 3) Democracy! approach of the last few years.

Make no mistake, positive change in international affairs is a rarity, but it does happen every now and again. Taking that possibility off the table, as Wieseltier does, in favor of some "hope is for sissies" tough-minded attitude is singularly unlikely to address the issues facing the US in 2008, nor should we expect it to entice bright young people to pursue a career in foreign service.

Foreign Policy Pedantry

As the narrative of Obama's run at the presidency moves from "insurgency" to "inevitability," there have been an increasing number of attacks on his foreign policy positions. Before we go any further, I'd like to state that the purpose of this series of posts is to show that the positions staked out by these critics are fundamentally idiotic, both in terms of substance and rhetoric. I don't intend this exercise as a defense of Barack Obama, but rather as an expose of the profound mental inchoerence afflicting our foreign policy pundits. Here's today's article:

Go With The Tough Guy by Max Boot, the LA Times

Fortunately, Boot's shotgun-and-rocking-chair lunacy allows me to get into some fundamental ideas in international relations and hopefully educate the non-existent readership while also debunking his ideas.

Boot's major flaw lies in his fundamental premise: the idea that fear of America--more specifically, fear of the President--determines the foreign activities of rogue regimes. His essential position is that if we elect McCain, all those awful people in the world will overlook the vast public opinion crisis surrounding the war in Iraq as well as the publicly available information about our broken army and our faltering economy. Instead, they'll prioritize vague information about McCain's character over the evidence of their intelligence services and, say, the New York Times. What's more, beyond the ridiculousness of that idea, Boot implicitly requires us to believe that the emotional state of a foreign leader directly determines the actions of other states. To draw an extremely reductive comparison, Adolf Hitler was a very scary man. You could make a good argument that he was, in fact, the scariest man. Fear of Hitler, however, did not stop the nations of Europe from fighting against him when he decided to invade them. 

Now for a little IR theory: There are two assumptions one can make about the way other nations react to an accumulation of power. The first is that they attempt to offset that power disparity by forming alliances and aggregating their power. In IR parlance, this is referred to as "balancing." Here, we'll refer to it as "the Voltron effect" because honestly that's what it should've been called. Tragically, Kenneth Waltz was 60 years old in 1984 and his work must therefore be considered terminally un-hip. In any case, the alternate explanation is that nations join up with a vastly powerful nation in order to play remora to its great white shark. Although it's technically known as "bandwagoning" we'll refer to this as the  "Doctor Doom" paradigm. 

Now, I can't speak to your level of nerdiness, but casual observers may have noticed that Doctor Doom has a problem: no matter how much power he amasses (and let's be clear, the guy achieved omnipotence at one point) or how many allies he has, people always seem to be ganging up on him and reducing him to his base state: tin pot (literally!) dictator of a make-believe country. I have it on good authority that this is the crappiest sort of dictator. Beyond my half-baked comic book analogy, the vast sweep of history also provides ample evidence that Voltron is the preferred way to solve your power asymmetry problems.

So, to return to the point, in order to take Boot seriously we not only have to accept that it's a bandwagoning world, but that John McCain's reputation alone, against all the evidence of our strategic, political and economic disarray, would be enough to cow these rogue eastern potentates. Perhaps if McCain were to have his rivals ritually sacrificed upon his ascension to the presidency and was also seen to be visibly rejuvenated by their blood, Boot might have a case to make. Alas, Jimmy Carter, treehugging liberal that he was, put a stop to all that.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

I left my "reporter hat" at home.

So, I'm generally supportive of Ben Smith's political blogging. I can get around his low-level pro-HRC bias. He's a NYC political blogger, after all. But come on, Ben, this is a little ridiculous.

The short version of the story is that some NYTimes reporter interviewed a bunch of people from Barack Obama's old time days at Occidental and so forth, and it turns out they don't recall him as a raging coke fiend. In fact, they remember him as a thoughtful, funny person with a nuanced grasp of the issues of the day, which, honestly, seems a lot like the Barack Obama I've seen on the trail. Ben then takes a rather large leap of logic and claims that this article is support for his theory that Barack Obama has inflated accounts of his drug use to seem cool, or something?

I find it hard to overlook the rather overheated title of his post: Expose of the Day. Let's be clear, Obama wrote about his drug use in passing. It constituted a page or two of his memoir. The core importance of his drug use is how that experience affected his life, not the raw tonnage of substance he put into his system. Even if you accept Ben's idea that his drug use is overblown, wagging a finger at him for not doing enough drugs to credibly draw life lessons from the experience seems condescending and manifestly counterproductive.

Most of the amplification this story has received is due to some less than subtle statements from HRC affiliates and the subsequent press frenzy those remarks triggered. To my mind, this looks a lot more like a feedback loop than a story. Obama's not Keith Richards.

Finally, lost in the furor is this important quote: "he wasn’t a drug addict or dealer. He was a kid searching for answers and a place who had made some mistakes." Ah, where are the Shaheens of yesteryear?