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Monday, October 26th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Recent events in Afghanistan seem to have given Obama pause – and with good reason.

If there is an evolving Obama doctrine underlying the administration’s foreign policy, it is a focus on the consent of the governed and civil society. (I consider this a marked step forward from the “Democracy!!” approach by the Bush White House.) On top of this, counterinsurgency doctrine holds that we must have a partner seen by the local population to be legitimate in order to succeed in containing insurgent forces.

The massive electoral fraud in the recent Afghan elections then undermined both the core principle the Obama administration has put forward in its foreign policy and any chance of military success using a counterinsurgency strategy. Restoring the legitimacy of the Afghan government thus has been one of the major goals of the Obama administration in the past month as they attempted to salvage the situation. The obvious solution was for Karzai to allow some of the many millions of votes for him that were clearly the result of fraud to be thrown out thus ensuring a runoff between the top two contenders for the presidency.

Though it would seem to be in Karzai’s own interest to be seen as legitimate as well as America’s, he apparently did not see it the same way – and believed American forces would protect him and ensure he remained in power even if he blatantly stole the election.

It thus took significant efforts by the Obama administration to push him to act in both his own and America’s interests.

According to Ahmed Rashid, prominent Afghani author and reporter, writing for the New York Review of Books blog there were two main factors that pushed Karzai to finally consent to “enduring” a runoff election:

  1. He finally became convinced that Obama was serious about not sending in more soldiers to secure the country – as he realized Obama was less concerned about “looking tough” in the eyes of the world and more interested in making sure American soldiers were fighting a winnable war for American interests and was willing to cut Karzai loose if that turned out to be in America’s interest. (Karzai apparently believed Bush would commit to supporting him no matter what, as Bush had a “chummy,” mentor-mentee type relationship with the Afghan leader. Obama deliberately kept his distance to keep the focus on America’s interest in the region.)
  2. Karzai, as a vain man, did not appreciate dealing with anyone who had ever publicly said a critical word about him; thus the administration used officials who had previously criticized him to ramp up the pressure while three of the few people in Washington who never had (John Kerry, Rahm Emanuel, and Karl Eikenberry) were tasked with cajoling him into complying.

It seems quite silly that despite American and Afghan interests coinciding on this, it took so much attention to the vanities of a corrupt leader in order to persuade him to act in his own and his main sponsor’s interests. Despite elaborate theories about how history works, to get things done, to implement a larger agenda, you need to pay attention to petty personal details.

On such petty-ness, the fate of the world apparently too often turns.

[Image by KarlMarx licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, National Security | No Comments »

Fascinating Fact of the Day

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

From the New York Times op-ed written by Billy Beane, Newt Gingrich, and John Kerry:

Starbucks pays more for health care than it does for coffee.

My first question is – who the hell actually wrote this piece and thought that these were the three guys to get together to sell it? The Kerry-Gingrich thing works. But where does Beane come in, aside from thematically? I presume all three must be on some board together.

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Posted in Domestic issues, Politics | No Comments »

How the Media Created Independents

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Many pundits and both campaigns have declared this the year of the independent voter1 – and both presidential campaigns are making serious attempts to reach out to these unaffiliated voters. It is often noted that not all of these independent voters are created equal. They can be divided into three roughly described camps:

The character independents (hereinafter, just “independents”) supported McCain over Bush in 2000; and Obama over Clinton in 2008. In this election season, independents supported Obama over Clinton and his opponents and McCain over all of his Republican opponents, and in the polls so far, the independents are breaking evenly between Obama and McCain.

How is it that this group can be so evenly split – see-sawing this way and that – when the differences between the two candidates they are viewing are so stark?

I have a suspicion as to what’s going on here – as I am in many ways a character independent myself. My central idea is this: These independents are media creations – not media creations in the way that soccer moms and security moms were – stereotypes created to give flavor to election coverage – but creations of the media environment itself. Independent voters are individuals who have internalized the media’s approach to issues.

A while ago, I wrote a piece about a fundamental flaw in the mainstream media coverage of virtually every issue, every event, and every policy. While opinion columnists and the partisan press often take a side in reporting these issues – for example, “Global warming is real;” or “Obama is not a Muslim;” or “As far as we can tell, the Swift Boaters are just making stuff up” – the mainstream media will report both sides of each issue or policy or accusation. Within their piece, they might give slightly more credence to one point of view than another – and end the piece on a high note for one side or another – but they are generally careful to avoid taking sides, even when the facts support one side overwhelmingly.

The problem is that the mainstream media has adopted an understanding of fairness that treats competing claims as equally valid, irrespective of the opinion of the reporter, or even of the facts.2

The mainstream press attempts to adapt every story into their he-said, she-said paradigm – rather than fulfilling their journalistic responsibility to attempt to write the first rough draft of history, however flawed it may be. They avoid the facts at hand and instead merely transcribe the competing allegations, careful not to let their own reporting interfere. This leads – for example – to 53% of stories in the mainstream press about global warming to question the basic premises of this theory, while within peer-reviewed scientific journals, 0% of stories call into question the basic premises. This disconnect between reality as understood by science and the reporting on the science is what has lead to a 15 year interim between the scientific consensus on global warming and the finally emerging political consensus. If the reporters covering this story had done their work properly, they could have called the global warming skeptics what they were – oil industry shills – instead of reporting on their work as independent and nearly as credible as the vast majority of scientists.

Most voters’ only contact with any presidential candidate is through the media – so it is only natural that the media substantially affects their choices.3 An independent-minded person viewing or reading media that presents every issue as he-said, she-said has to develop a method of resolving this conflict between  the he’s and she’s. While a partisan will pick a team, and strongly tend to come down on the side of that team, an independent takes pride in seeing both sides of every issue – just as the media does. But while the media can avoid taking a side, an independent must – every two years or so – vote and make a choice.4

While the media is always able to find opposing sets of competing allegations, reality is not so simple. The media shouldn’t give equal time to claims by McCain that offshore drilling will reduce oil prices significantly and by Obama that it will not. They know one side is wrong and the other right. The media shouldn’t give equal time to scientists and skeptics about global warming. One side has evidence – the other side only has money. Since the right learned to manipulate the media by directly contradicting their opponents’ positions, no matter the facts, they have won election after election.

By distorting the news to fit into their paradigm, the media has created a class of voters who see both sides of every issue – even when the facts clearly favor one side. For the past ten years, as the media has been manipulated, so have they. And obvious policy choices and elections suddenly become competitive. This same pattern is emerging this year as the media treats Obama’s policies and McCain’s policies equally – even when one is reality-based and the other defined by political expediency. And so, independents are split equally so far in a year that should favor the Democrats.

But you can see that the Republicans are getting nervous – as the media finally began to cover the McCain campaign with the same intensity it has been using to cover Obama’s because of the Palin pick. Yesterday – all night – the Republicans attacked the media. They want to raise doubts in the minds of independents in case the media finally turns on them. In the end, it’s clear how the media will cover these attacks. They will get McCain operatives to give quotes bashing their reporting, and then they will get some reporters to comment on how they’re trying to be fair. And independents will see both sides.

  1. It’s also the year of the Hillary voter, Reagan Democrats, and the libertarian voter. []
  2. This is demonstrated rather clearly in this piece in the Washington Post from 2004 that asserts that both Kerry’s account and the Swift Boaters’ accounts “contain significant flaws and factual errors” while only providing evidence to back up the flaws and errors in the Swift Boaters’ allegations. The main flaw in Kerry’s information is that he did not provide enough evidence to disprove the Swift Boaters, while the Swift Boaters also provided no evidence to prove their case. Thus, overall the piece portrays it as a wash. []
  3. This goes for those whose main sources are partisan media as well. []
  4. I don’t mean to suggest that independents don’t have strong opinions and preferences; rather, once they have resolved how to deal with the media’s framing, they often have very strong opinions. []

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Posted in Election 2008, McCain, Obama, The Media, The Opinionsphere | 51 Comments »

Killing the United Nations

Monday, April 28th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Comments like these by Charles Krauthammer on McCain’s plan to create a League of Democracies1 make you realize what is at stake in the coming election:

“What I like about it, it’s got a hidden agenda,” Krauthammer said March 27 on Fox News. “It looks as if it’s all about listening and joining with allies, all the kind of stuff you’d hear a John Kerry say, except the idea here, which McCain can’t say but I can, is to essentially kill the U.N.”

It’s clear that McCain’s primary foreign policy instincts are Manichean, and that it seems likely that he would continue the worst of Bush’s policies, rather than following in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

It is only because of the contrast between the radical, ideological “conservatism” of the Bush administration that McCain’s policy positions appear reasonable today.

This “reality-based conservatism” of McCain’s led him to question the initial push to go into Iraq for a while; to stand against torture for a while; to reject Bush’s tax cuts in a time of war at first; to champion immigration reform for quite a while. But as he saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, John McCain, who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject many of the principles he stood for.

Since his political near-death experience this summer, McCain has moderated his opposition to torture (refusing to extend its prohibition to the CIA), given up on immigration reform (focusing instead on cracking down on undocumented immigrants), stopped hinting to the press that he would withdraw from Iraq if there wasn’t sufficient progress (as was widely reported in the summer of 2007), embraced Bush’s tax cuts (after calling them irresponsible and regressive). Some have called this shifts part an indication of his conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke. But what these observers fail to understand is the radical nature of the Bush presidency.

Edmund Burke believed that we must balance accommodation to the reality of our times with our core values. He believed in gradual change and opposed sudden changes in policy – but he also stridently opposed the radicalism of the French Revolution which had a similar foreign policy to the Bush administration, seeking to export the values of liberty, fraternity, and equality through the force of arms2

The irony is that McCain’s defenders, including Jonathan Rauch, defend his accommodations to radicalism by invoking the immutable opponent of radicalism, Edmund Burke himself.


  1. An idea which I believe could make a positive impact under certain circumstances. []
  2. As pseudoconservativewatch (an excellent Google find) explained:

    Edmund Burke invented the articulate philosophy of modern conservatism on the very basis of his critique of the French Revolution (see his Reflections on the Revolution in France). And yet in twenty-first century America, many who call themselves “conservative” are advocating a foreign policy of spreading principles of liberty and freedom to foreign countries in a manner hardly distinguishable from radical French revolutionaries. []

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Posted in Election 2008, Foreign Policy, McCain, Political Philosophy, Politics, The War on Terrorism | No Comments »

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