Friday, June 30, 2006

The New York Times' Culpability

When The New York Times chose to reveal the U.S. government's secret program to track terrorist finances, they were not alone. Several other major American papers also ran the story. So why is the Times receiving the bulk of the criticism?

The Wall Street Journal has the answer in a fascinating editorial that reveals how this story came about. It's an interesting look into editorial decision making as well as the government's attempts at information management.

In short, the Times discovered the story and, despite multiple requests by many government officials not to print it, had decided to go ahead and publish the story. At that point, the Treasury Department decided to declassify details of the program and release them to other media outlets. The Treasury's concern was that the Times had only part of the story right--enough to destroy the program's secrecy but not enough to paint an accurate picture of its utility.

If the WSJ has the facts right, it does appear the Times deserves the vast share of blame (or, if you prefer, credit) for this story.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Flag Burning Amendment: Pure Foolishness

So, the flag burning amendment failed to pass the Senate. By one vote. Wow. When nearly two-thirds of the Senate thinks this is an issue of vital national importance, you know we are in the dark days of governance.

I could rant about the complete inanity of this amendment, but I did that already. Instead, I’ll be hubristic enough to propose some simple guidelines as to what should and should not qualify as a useful Constitutional amendment.

1) If it expands our freedoms or limits government power, then it’s Constitution worthy.

2) If it clarifies, fixes or amends an important government procedural issue, then it’s Constitution worthy.

That’s it. To expand liberty or change government procedures. Every existing Amendment easily fits into one of those two categories with the exception of the 18th, which created prohibition and was repealed by the 21st. And I suppose some might argue that the 16th (creation of the income tax) was a removal of our rights, but I think most of us can agree it was just a procedural issue regarding tax collection.

Giving Congress the power to ban flag burning is neither a procedural matter nor an expansion of our liberties. It’s not even addressing a real problem. Heck, it’s not even addressing an imagined problem (only four flag burnings have happened in the last year). It’s political pandering and showmanship of the most useless variety.

O.k., I’m done. But do read Shay’s take on the issue over at Booker Rising. She agrees the amendment is inane but looks into why it’s an issue that Republicans think they can make work for them.

A Petition Worth Signing

Unity '08 has posted a "Declaration of Independence" stating the demands/desires of the increasingly loud Centrist movement. I'm not a frequent signer of petitions, but this one may just have some real bite to it. So I signed it. And I encourage you to sign it as well.

You can find it right here.

Is it a War or an Occupation?

Yesterday, NPR ran a segment that discussed how, in the lead up to this year’s elections, politicians will use language to influence popular opinion on the Iraq War. Interviewed was linguist and sometimes Democratic advisor George Lakoff, the patron saint of spin doctors whose ability to manipulate language is matched only by his inability to understand the average American. So it was interesting to hear his take on the Iraq war.

Except, according the Lakoff, it’s not a war. It’s an occupation. This, he believes, is not linguistic trickery but raw fact and has been imploring Democrats to use the word as often as possible so that all of America will understand the true nature of what we’re doing in Iraq.

But even if our involvement in Iraq isn’t a war in the traditional nation-state versus nation-state definition, is occupation the right word? Or is “occupation” just Lakoff’s attempt to manipulate the American people into believing the task is complete and the stakes of retreat are low. After all, an occupation implies we have won and our continued presence is just a matter of choice, rather than a moral and strategic necessity.

I don’t buy that Iraq is an occupation. It’s still a war, albeit a new variety of war—a more complex war where surrender and victory will not happen in a general’s tent or on a warship’s deck. But it is very much a war in the sense that the enemies we fight will not stop their attempts to kill us or our allies (the Iraqi people in particular) just because our troops leave.

Japan and Germany after World War II were occupations. Iraq is something quite different. So while Lakoff claims the word will open the eyes of the American people to the truth, it really only clouds the debate more. In the same way some Republicans use “cut-and-run” to silence even reasonable criticism of our strategies, Lakoff wants Democrats to use “occupation” to silence even reasonable arguments that the conflict is no longer one of choice but one of necessity.

The conflict in Iraq and the greater radical Islamist threat will not be solved through clever words choices. No matter how much someone repeats them.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The New York Times and Partisanism in America

Can a news story be an act of treason? Could it be criminal? Some people think so and are accusing the New York Times of crossing the line between journalism and the criminal release of national secrets.

The issue centers around the Times’ recent publication of details pertaining to a secret U.S. espionage program tracking the international banking transactions of suspected terrorist groups and their operatives. The Times’, unsurprisingly, defends their decision as the great and bountiful right of a free press. Others, however, see it quite differently.

Whether or not the Times committed anything close to a criminal act, I don’t know. But I do question the paper’s motivations. Unlike the revelation that the NSA has been monitoring the calling patterns of American citizens, this new revelation is not particularly bothersome. The program seems specifically targeted at terrorists and is by no means a broad, boundless fishing expedition. Nor does it seem, at this point, to be the kind of program that can easily be abused (although I could be wrong about that).

Clearly, the Times thought the public’s need to know outweighed the program’s need for secrecy. The Times knew full well it was compromising a useful tool in the fight against terrorism, but chose to run the story anyway. My concern is that the decision was not based on an unbiased commitment to printing essential news but was based on the Time’s partisan disgust with the Bush administration.

As our nation continues to bifurcate, I worry that even our most stalwart media sources are making decisions as politically biased (or as nearly politically biased) as those made by partisan blogs. Does the political usefulness of a story now outweigh other concerns? Did the Times care more about “getting Bush” than it did about the security of the nation?

After years of suffering the harsh and vituperative attacks of rightwing pundits, is the Times, as a means of self-defense, now truly allied with the interests of the left? I’ve often claimed that liberal bias in the media is mostly a figment, but is that changing?

A lot of people are confident they know the answers to the questions I ask. I don’t claim such clarity of vision. But I do see, if not in the Times’ story than at least in the rightwing reaction to the story and the Times’ own response, a drawing of battle lines that shouldn’t be drawn. A news story should not be right or left. Concern for national security should not be right or left. Concern that our government is operating within the law should not be right or left.

But it’s all becoming right or left. All issues. And that’s a bad thing for our nation. These voices of disunity are shaping our debates. But where are the voices of unity? Where are the reasoned leaders, in the media and in our government, who can see the world through eyes not so blindly partisan? I ask that question a lot. And I think (I hope) an answer is coming soon.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Political Pandering Falls Flat

Clearly this week was a little quiet for me—my apologies for not weighing in on the hot topics of the day. I simply haven’t had the energy to form any unique or even any coherent opinions. While I’m sure this lack of motivation is somewhat due to events in my own life, I also think the recent news has been overly dictated by the crude political posturing of our leaders.

For awhile we had immigration, which is an important topic. But then the political “geniuses” decided to kick off the election year with the usual and increasingly stupid “play-to-the base” issues. First they tossed us the ever-unimportant issues of gay marriage and flag burning—pointless pandering made all the more meaningless in the face of al-Zarqawi’s death, an event that reminded everyone that there is a very real war going on with stakes much higher than any election-year wedge issue.

Of course, instead of a useful and thoughtful debate on Iraq, what we got was more pandering, this time by Senate and House Democrats. A majority of the Democratic party apparently supports establishing withdrawal plans (the sooner the better), as if the issue is whether we should stay in Iraq. Of course we should stay. Anything less would be an unforgivable abandonment. But these Democrats have no interest in debating what strategies would better help us secure the peace. They seek only to appease the irrational members of their leftwing who demand withdrawal for reasons attributable to motivations I’ve never fully understood.

All this vacant political maneuverings is what you expect in an election year. But I don’t think it’s going to work this time around. The issues I mentioned were covered robustly by the media but failed to gain traction. I’ve always said the American people are smarter than what the politicians give us credit for—and perhaps this is the year when a majority of us demand our leaders address more substantive issues.

Or perhaps the political geniuses will just develop new wedge issues with which to distract the electorate.

I don’t know. But I do know that at least here in Texas we are guaranteed an interesting election. Kinky Freidman received enough signatures and is now on the ballot as an independent candidate for governor. He’s also polling second only to incumbent Rick Perry. It should be a great race and one that breaks free of the typical Democrat/Republican vapidity.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Rumblings from the Center

If you haven't yet read David Ignatius' column in the Washington Post today, do so now. It is a quick look at the recent failures of partisan pandering and the growing strength of centrist voices.

Ignatius writes about Unity '08, a centrist-aligned group seeking to run a bi-partisan ticket in 2008. I've written about this organization before, but if you're interested in what the group is up to, check out this post and this post from The American Moderate Party blog.

Yes, the center is gaining some much needed attention. Let's hope the trend continues.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Clinton Draws Ire of Left for Being Right on Iraq

Looks like Hillary Clinton might have some trouble with the left-wing of her party. In a speech yesterday before the annual conference of the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future, Clinton was jeered and booed for suggesting that immediate withdrawal from Iraq is not the wisest course of action. She went out of her way to criticize the administration’s handling of the war but that wasn’t near enough for the crowd. They wanted more. They wanted her to pledge allegiance to their own irresponsible desire for immediate withdrawal.

I am glad that Senator Clinton recognizes that one can criticize the war’s beginnings and its execution while still supporting our nation’s efforts to do everything we can to stabilize Iraq. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to stay—but, like it or not, our security now depends on it. Many in Clinton’s party seem more than happy to pull out and let Iraq go to hell—or have deluded themselves into thinking that the nation’s turmoil will magically resolve itself once we’re gone. By refusing to buy into the propaganda of her party’s left flank, Clinton is demonstrating that maybe, just maybe she has the right sense of responsibility and right strength of will to lead our nation.

Of course, Clinton may never have the chance to win over people like me. Her own party could very well brand her a traitor and cast her into the pit with Joe Lieberman. That would be unfortunate because what the Democratic party needs right now more than anything else are leaders willing to take a realistic view of the Iraq situation and provide new strategies to achieving success over there. There IS a difference between whole-heartedly endorsing Bush’s plan and providing a reasoned alternative that may not include immediate withdrawal but does focus more directly on transferring authority to the Iraqi government and getting our troops home.

Unfortunately, many of the loudest voices in the Democratic party refuse to see Iraq as anything but a black and white issue. That’s a serious problem as such attitudes will hamper all Democratic presidential candidates. Either they will have to agree with their base and look foolish to the general electorate or they will have to disagree with their base and risk never getting the nomination. It will not be an easy line to walk, as Clinton proved yesterday.

The best thing that can happen for the Democrats is for Bush to withdrawal significant forces before 2008. If the war is, or appears to be, winding down, then maybe candidates like Clinton can escape this noose of an issue.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Crossing the Rio Grande

I spent this weekend down on the Texas/Mexico border enjoying a little getaway with my wife. This was hardly the first time I’ve been to the border but it was my first visit since immigration became this year’s biggest political issue. As such, I couldn’t help but notice a stark difference between the way the border actually works and the way some Americans seem to want it to work.

I was in Eagle Pass, Texas, a small city of about 22,000. Across the border was Piedras Negras, a much larger city of about 130,000. Upon walking across into Piedras Negras, the first thing I noticed was that the city is not a typical border town. There were no tourist shops selling Mexican goods or liquor stores selling cheap booze. Instead there were beautiful plazas, public art installations and European-styled streets with boutique stores.

Eagle Pass, on the other hand, was chock-full of cheap little shops, run-down duty-free stores and signs proclaiming “Aceptamos Pesos.” You see, on this stretch of the border, Mexicans stream into the U.S. not to find work but to shop for cheap American goods.

Previously, my border crossings had been into tourist-heavy cities like Matamoros and Nuevo Progresso. So I was actually a little surprised to see a place where the American side courts the money and the Mexican side possesses the superior wealth. It’s just not what you’d expect. And it made me realize a basic truth I already knew but never really considered in practical terms:

Borders are false divides.

The gates and guards may slow down the travel of people but commerce and culture flows across the Rio Grande with little resistance. Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras are sister cities with practically as much interchange and cooperation as happens between San Francisco and Oakland or Minneapolis and St. Paul. And that is true for all the border cities. Culture and commerce respect no political divides.

There are those in the immigration debate who worry our American culture is threatened by the influx of Mexican and other Hispanic peoples. But I don’t think anything short of completely sealing off the border will stop the cultural mingling. As long as people, any people, are free to go back-and-forth across the border, our cultural interchange and adaptation will occur. That’s the reality of borders. They can’t contain culture.

The sooner we recognize that fact the sooner we can focus on the resolvable issues in the immigration debate. It’s about jobs and economics. Not culture.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is Dead

He was killed in a U.S. air strike yesterday.

There will be many, many people commenting on this major development. And I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the coming days. But my first reaction is this: al-Zarqawi’s death is not just a positive development, it is a significant victory both in the Iraq War and the Global War on Terror. The terrorist attacks in Iraq could very well go on unabated, but the dark ideology fueling the most vicious attacks has lost its most renowned and powerful leader.

This will undoubtedly disrupt al Qaeda’s command structure and fill the terrorist group’s other leaders with dread. It turns out that the American military and spy networks in league with Iraq’s new government do indeed have the skill and ability to track down and kill even the most elusive enemies.

Certainly we should proceed with caution and not overplay the lasting importance of this victory. But make no mistake, it is a victory. A major one.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Canadian Terror Arrests Remind Us of Need for Domestic Espionage

The full details of Canada’s recent arrest of an alleged terrorist group has shocked many Canadians. Not because they didn’t think they were a target but because the accused men are Canadian citizens.

Like the British citizens who carried out last year’s London bombings, these alleged terrorists in Canada apparently have more allegiance to their perverted interpretation of Islam than they do to their own nation. I do not know how or why this dark and despicable ideology can metastasize from the Middle East and take hold in the hearts of men living in the freest of societies with the greatest opportunities in the world.

What I do know is that it does happen. And we’d be foolish to think it can’t happen here. That’s why developing a robust domestic espionage program is vital. But first we need to get our bearings. Many on the right seem to equate meaningful oversight of domestic surveillance with handing our secrets over to the terrorists. While some of the left seem completely unwilling to acknowledge that there actually are real threats that demand real action.

The best course, I believe, is to forge all new domestic espionage programs with the approval and continual oversight of congress. Clearly much of the proceedings would need to be kept secret. And clearly congress would botch a few things up. But I believe congressional approval and oversight is the only way we can create the kinds of long-term (decades long at least) security programs we need to have without unduly threatening the average person’s liberties.

Many have labeled my position as terrorist-appeasement. They say my view cares more about the terrorist’s rights than it does our security. This is b.s. in its purest form. What I care about is OUR rights and our security. I want both.

We cannot pretend there is no threat. But neither can we pretend that letting secretive agencies handle our security (and decide which of our liberties are most important) is a benign or even acceptable solution.

Strong of will AND strong of mind. That’s the kind of leadership we really need.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Marriage Amendment is a Waste of Our Nation's Time

President Bush has thrown his weight behind the proposed definition of marriage Constitutional amendment saying that it is vital for our nation to preserve the traditional family structure.

Anyone who has read me for any length of time knows how I feel on this issue. But in case you don’t, let me recap my two-point contention. 1) I have no problem with same-sex marriage and think it’s ridiculous to argue that such a thing would harm society, particularly when so many gay couples are already de-facto married, many with children—and society is doing just fine. 2) If we were to ever embrace legalized same-sex marriage, it should come only through popular consent via laws passed by elected officials and not from court decree.

All that aside, I find it enormously disappointing that the same President who refuses to embrace political demagoguery on the immigration issue can turn around and, with a serious expression, act like the future of our nation rests on keeping gay people from marrying. I understand that some people believe it is paramount that we keep marriage defined as one man, one woman, but I simply do not believe that anyone but the most out-of-touch think this is an issue that trumps the war, immigration, the deficit or any other issue of true national importance.

This is one of those moments in governance when the raw political machinations of our leaders are exposed for all to see. It’s election-year demagoguery. It’s base pandering. And it’s why our federal government continues on its long track of incompetence. When our leaders are more focused on pandering than they are in working to solve problems, the result is a dysfunctional government.

I’m not saying that this isn’t an important issue or that no national leader should take to the podium to discuss it. I’m saying that only the most critical problems should induce our leaders to propose and support a Constitutional amendment. Using the Constitution as a prop in election-year pandering may hardly be a new vice, but it’s made even more repugnant by the fact that we, at this moment in history, have far, far more pressing issues confronting us.

Fortunately, all predictions are for the amendment to fail. But that in no way excuses those who would elevate such election-year pandering to such unworthy prominence.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Babies Are Not Accessories

Warning: The following post is a rant. Content is unstable. Do not try to logically analyze.

Here’s a trend that has bothered me for quite awhile: luxury items for babies. Oh, I know a free market is a free market and it’s a dang fine thing that people can buy whatever they want.

But luxury baby goods? Strollers that cost more than my first car? Haute couture onesies? I mean, there’s conspicuous consumption and then there’s turning a little human being into a fashion accessory.

Having a baby is, for the most part, a great equalizer of the classes. Except for the ultra-ultra-rich who have fleets of nannies, most of us, whether well-off or poor, must learn to live with spit-up stains on our shoulders and the faint odor of baby poo in our homes. We dress the baby in cheap, Elmo-print t-shirts because clothes on babies stay clean for mere minutes.

But now there are well-to-do parents who are pretending as if their little one isn’t a cute-little-bag of bodily fluids but is instead a miniature fashion model ready to jaunt off to Paris for a high class social gathering. As if the baby knows or cares that it’s wearing a designer bib.

Look, I don’t have a problem with people who buy nice things. Premium brands are, with few exceptions, better made, better performing and better looking. The fact that they also imbue greater status is a nice bonus. The desire for status is, after all, a pretty basic human instinct and not an urge that’s worth railing against.

But when people start using their babies as status statements, that’s where I get irritated. The point of a baby isn’t to show off how phenomenally rich and stylish you are. I can’t help but think that parents who turn their children into accessories are fundamentally selfish. I wonder, does the parent care more about how they look than how their baby is doing? Maybe not. Maybe you can be fully fashion conscious and fully baby conscious at the same time.

But this growing trend sends an awful message: that parenting is about the parent—that you don’t have to sacrifice anything, that you can go-on being the stylish rich kid who everyone admires. That’s not how it works. When you become a parent, you must give up a lot of your own wants. That’s not to say you can’t be fashionable. But that is to say that fulfilling selfish desires can no longer be your top priority.

The baby comes first. And he or she could care less if they’re wearing Ralph Lauren or a t-shirt with monster trucks.