Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday Reading

Shut Up, John Bolton — Peter Beinart in The Atlantic on the warmonger’s reckless case for war with Iran.

According to a 2013 study by the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost the United States more than $4 trillion. Over the coming decades, that number will likely rise by trillions more. If you include America’s military operations in Pakistan, these wars have taken the lives of roughly 300,000 people. And almost 15 years later, both Iraq and Afghanistan are virtually failed states.

This does not mean The New York Times should never publish op-eds proposing new wars. Although always tragic, war can sometimes be less horrible than the alternative. And it does not mean The New York Times should never publish op-eds by people who have supported disastrous wars. Even commentators who have made huge errors in the past may still contribute useful arguments in the present. At least I hope so, given that I supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq myself.

But what The New York Times should not do is let people who have supported disastrous wars in the past propose new wars casually. If you want to advocate for a new war in the most prestigious newspaper in the United States, you should have to grapple, at least briefly, with the potential dangers. Given the costs, both financial and human, of America’s post-9/11 conflicts, that’s not too much to ask.

Which brings me to John Bolton’s Thursday New York Times op-ed, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” Bolton was both a booster, and a minor architect, of the war in Iraq. As George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state in late 2002, he told the BBC that, “We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq.” He added that, “the Iraqi people would be unique in history if they didn’t welcome the overthrow of this dictatorial regime,” and that although building a democracy would prove a “difficult task,” the people of Iraq “are fully competent to do it.” So competent, in fact, that “the American role [in post-war Iraq] actually will be fairly minimal.”

That’s what Bolton said publicly. Privately, according to a 2005 report by the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee, he distributed classified information about Joe Wilson in an attempt to smear the former ambassador, who was then questioning President Bush’s claim that Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. Bolton also played a key role in forcing out Jose Bustani, director of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, because he feared Bustani’s inspectors in Iraq would undermine the case for war. It was behavior like this that led Washington Post columnist David Ignatius to observe that Bolton “epitomizes the politicization of intelligence that helped produce the fiasco over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”

Should this disqualify Bolton from penning a New York Times op-ed urging America to bomb Iran? No. But it should have disqualified him from penning the op-ed he published on Thursday.

Replacing Andrew Jackson — Jaime Fuller in New York magazine in getting a woman on the $20 bill.

On paper, it doesn’t look like it would be difficult to change the faces that greet us on dollar bills whenever we pull out our wallets. The Treasury Secretary has unilateral authority to banish Franklin from the $100 or Lincoln from the five spot whenever he wants; Congress also has the power to change the portraits used on U.S. currency. The possibilities for new monetary muses are nearly limitless — the only requirement is that they be dead, just like the luminaries chosen for stamps. There’s also an expectation that the portraits will be familiar faces from history.

However, the process must be harder than it looks, because the Treasury hasn’t retired a portrait since 1929, when Andrew Jackson replaced Grover Cleveland — which has everyone wondering what will happen with a new campaign to get a woman on the $20.

Plenty of people have tried to change a portrait. Most of these attempts involved Ronald Reagan. In 2004, Grover Norquist tried to boot Alexander Hamilton from the $10 and replace him with the conservative icon; Senator Mitch McConnell thought the idea was a great one. “Hamilton was a nice guy and everything, but he wasn’t president,” Norquist told USA Today. At the same time, a few House Republicans were trying to get Reagan put on the $20. Six years after those efforts failed, Representative Patrick McHenry sponsored legislation to get Reagan on the $50.

“There’s an inherent conservatism when it comes to money here,” notes Matthew Wittmann, assistant curator of American coins and currency at the American Numismatic Society.

A new group has decided to try a different tack by advancing a new portrait that is not Ronald Reagan. Women on 20s has started a campaign to get a woman on money that Americans use (unlike $1 coins) — something that even President Obama has said is a “pretty good idea.” They’ve even picked the perfect guy to kick off currency — Andrew Jackson, once best known for military prowess, and now remembered for causing the Trail of Tears.

“Andrew Jackson folks would complain,” says Daniel Feller, an expert on our seventh president at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, “but there aren’t many Andrew Jackson folks left. I don’t know who in government would be against it.”

However, the problem was never going to be complaints about keeping Jackson on the $20; it was always going to be about narrowing the entire universe of eligible women to put on the bill to one in a town where agreeing is often a laughable dream, and everyone has different reasons for wanting to try something new with currency — or keep it the same.

When the Treasury thinks about redesigning money, it isn’t about the politics. The department — along with the Federal Reserve, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing — is always thinking about how to best stop people from counterfeiting it. (Everyone forgets, but the Secret Service was created to protect money, not the president.) That’s why dollar bills have slowly morphed over time, with stripes and nearly unnoticed whizbangs continually cluttering the currency, and the important men in them shifting in their invisible seats and switching up their stare. A Treasury official, who stressed the department’s aim to prevent unauthorized production of money, was unable to talk about any specific campaigns to change currency design “or about anything political.”

Making Stupid Official — Andy Borowitz on the new law in Indiana.

INDIANAPOLIS (The Borowitz Report)—In a history-making decision, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana has signed into law a bill that officially recognizes stupidity as a religion.

Pence said that he hoped the law would protect millions of state residents “who, like me, have been practicing this religion passionately for years.”

The bill would grant politicians like Pence the right to observe their faith freely, even if their practice of stupidity costs the state billions of dollars.

While Pence’s action drew the praise of stupid people across America, former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was not among them. “Even I wasn’t dumb enough to sign a bill like that,” she said.

Doonesbury — Without notice.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Short Takes

SWAT teams moved on a house in Ferguson to detain suspects for questioning in the shooting Wednesday night.

Iraqi forces captured most of Tikrit from ISIS.

South African mercenaries are in Nigeria to fight Boko Haram.

Putin is fine, according to the Kremlin, putting the kibosh on rumors of illness.

American and British aid workers infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

On The Defensive

As I said yesterday:

I’m pretty sure the Iranians fully understand our constitutional system; they used it to full advantage in the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, and they know full well that if the Stupid Party takes over in 2017, the hard-liners in their country will be rattling their sabres just as much as Senator Cotton and the rest of the Huckleberry Dumbbell brigade.  But hey, what does it matter when you can teach that uppity Ni-CLANG a lesson and score a couple of primary wins and defense contracts?

Speaking of defense contracts:

Cotton will appear at an “Off the Record and strictly Non-Attribution” event with the National Defense Industrial Association, a lobbying and professional group for defense contractors.

The NDIA is composed of executives from major military businesses such as Northrop Grumman, L-3 Communications, ManTech International, Boeing, Oshkosh Defense and Booz Allen Hamilton, among other firms.

Cotton strongly advocates higher defense spending and a more aggressive foreign policy. As The New Republic’s David Ramsey noted, “Pick a topic — Syria, Iran, Russia, ISIS, drones, NSA snooping — and Cotton can be found at the hawkish outer edge of the debate…During his senate campaign, he told a tele-townhall that ISIS and Mexican drug cartels joining forces to attack Arkansas was an ‘urgent problem.’”

On Iran, Cotton has issued specific calls for military intervention. In December he said Congress should consider supplying Israel with B-52s and so-called “bunker-buster” bombs — both items manufactured by NDIA member Boeing — to be used for a possible strike against Iran.

To paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein II, “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, grifters gotta grift until we all die… can’t help lovin’ those bombs of mine.”

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Military Force

President Obama wants the authority to take us to war against ISIS, and he’s asking Congress for it.

The proposed legislation Mr. Obama sent to Capitol Hill would impose a three-year limit on American action that has been conducted largely from the air and, while allowing Special Operations commandos and other limited missions, would rule out sustained, large-scale ground combat. It would also finally repeal the expansive 2002 congressional measure that authorized President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

But even as Mr. Obama proposed some handcuffs on his power, he left behind the key to those shackles should he or his successor decide they are too confining. While his draft resolution would rescind the 2002 authority, it would leave in place a separate measure passed by Congress in 2001 authorizing the president to conduct a global war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. With that still the law of the land, Mr. Obama and the next president would retain wide latitude to order military operations in the name of fighting terrorism.

This is where we say “well, at least it’s not an all-out declaration with boots on the ground and ‘either you’re with us or against us’ painted on the sides of the tanks,” but still, no thanks for small favors.

This is the “lessons learned” AUMF to replace the one we shouldn’t have had in the first place because it led to this one.  There’s no doubt that without the one in 2001 there wouldn’t be an ISIS today, or if there was, they would be as powerful as the Brownie troop down the block.

I appreciate Mr. Obama’s ambivalence about taking us to war; would that more presidents and yappers in Congress felt that way throughout history.  I also appreciate that fact that he has put an expiration date on it, but we all know full well that those are often seen just as suggestions.  The next president — whoever she is — will tell us they have plenty of reasons to ask for yet more war.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chicken Hawks

Not that I’m in favor of going to war, but at least you would expect the Senate to take a vote on it when asked.  Via Greg Sargent:

Today, the Senate is expected to authorize the funding and arming of the Syrian rebels, and then leave town without holding any vote on the broader American escalation — a striking abdication of Congressional responsibility.

In other words, the only war vote we’re getting is on the narrow question of funding the Syrian rebels. Yet even here, that vote will be stuffed in with a vote on funding the government — there won’t be any stand-alone vote on the war piece.

And then they ran for the exits like someone popped the top on a can of Ebola.

So all those butch Republicans like Lindsay Graham were all gung-ho for full scale Armageddon war on ISIS as long as they’re not the ones who actually have to vote on it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Long Or Short Of It

Yesterday Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before the Senate Armed Forces committee on the stark realities of fighting ISIS and that ground forces might be necessary.

“To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committees, using an alternative name for the group.

Pressed during questioning, Dempsey said he “would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces.”

Obama has maintained that American forces will not have a combat mission in Iraq.

They also made sure that the senators knew this would not be a quick war.

In their testimony, Hagel and Dempsey sought to brace the nation for a long war with an uncertain duration and outcome, repeatedly telling senators that they would make adjustments to the strategy as necessary.

That is no great comfort to anyone; certainly not to the military or their families, or to the rest of a country that has been engaged in a war that has lasted longer than both World Wars combined.  But at least neither Mr. Hagel or Gen. Dempsey sugarcoated it.  Remember this?

On March 16, 2003, days before the war started, [Vice President Dick] Cheney sat down with the late Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” for what still stands as the most revealing of the prewar interviews. Cheney was adamant that “to suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don’t think is accurate. I think that’s an overstatement.”

“We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” he famously said and proceeded to play down the very sectarian divisions that are plaguing the country now.

Or this?

There will be no World War III starting with Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared [in November 2002], and rejected concerns that a war would be a quagmire.

“The idea that it’s going to be a long, long, long battle of some kind I think is belied by the fact of what happened in 1990,” he said on an Infinity Radio call-in program.

He said the U.S. military is stronger than it was during the Persian Gulf War, while Iraq’s armed forces are weaker.

“Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he said. “It won’t be a World War III.”

So, America, would you rather hear the roses-and-rainbows line that it will be short war — troops home by Christmas — or a long hard battle joined with hesitant allies against an intractable enemy?  If I had to choose, I’d rather hear that Hagel and Dempsey are wrong.  I already know that Cheney and Rumsfeld were.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Reading

Warhawks Hawking War — Those pro-war pundits on cable TV have an agenda: their bank accounts.  Lee Fang reports in The Nation.

If you read enough news and watch enough cable television about the threat of the Islamic State, the radical Sunni Muslim militia group better known simply as ISIS, you will inevitably encounter a parade of retired generals demanding an increased US military presence in the region. They will say that our government should deploy, as retired General Anthony Zinni demanded, up to 10,000 American boots on the ground to battle ISIS. Or as in retired General Jack Keane’s case, they will make more vague demands, such as for “offensive” air strikes and the deployment of more military advisers to the region.

But what you won’t learn from media coverage of ISIS is that many of these former Pentagon officials have skin in the game as paid directors and advisers to some of the largest military contractors in the world. Ramping up America’s military presence in Iraq and directly entering the war in Syria, along with greater military spending more broadly, is a debatable solution to a complex political and sectarian conflict. But those goals do unquestionably benefit one player in this saga: America’s defense industry.

Keane is a great example of this phenomenon. His think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which he oversees along with neoconservative partisans Liz Cheney and William Kristol, has provided the data on ISIS used for multiple stories by The New York Times, the BBC and other leading outlets.

Keane has appeared on Fox News at least nine times over the last two months to promote the idea that the best way to stop ISIS is through military action—in particular, through air strikes deep into ISIS-held territory. In one of the only congressional hearings about ISIS over the summer, Keane was there to testify and call for more American military engagement. On Wednesday evening, Keane declared President Obama’s speech on defeating ISIS insufficient, arguing that a bolder strategy is necessary. “I truly believe we need to put special operation forces in there,” he told host Megyn Kelly.

Left unsaid during his media appearances (and left unmentioned on his congressional witness disclosure form) are Keane’s other gigs: as special adviser to Academi, the contractor formerly known as Blackwater; as a board member to tank and aircraft manufacturer General Dynamics; a “venture partner” to SCP Partners, an investment firm that partners with defense contractors, including XVionics, an “operations management decision support system” company used in Air Force drone training; and as president of his own consulting firm, GSI LLC.

To portray Keane as simply a think tank leader and a former military official, as the media have done, obscures a fairly lucrative career in the contracting world. For the General Dynamics role alone, Keane has been paid a six-figure salary in cash and stock options since he joined the firm in 2004; last year, General Dynamics paid him $258,006.

The Truth About Standardized Tests: They Don’t Work — Robert Hach in Salon on the bane of teaching to the test.

In recent years, I have begun each semester by asking my first-year composition students two questions, one theoretical and the other practical. First, the theoretical question: What is the purpose of testing? Then the practical question: What happens to the information they study for a test after students have taken the test. My students’ answers to both questions typically achieve virtual unanimity. The purpose of testing, they say, is to find out how much students have “learned,” which is to say, how much they “know.” After they take the test, these same students testify, they forget virtually all of the information they “learned” for the test.

In the subsequent discussion, I ask them what their answers to these questions suggest about their experience in the public school system (only a tiny minority of Miami Dade College students having attended private schools). Did the tests they took achieve the purpose of revealing how much they had learned, how much they know, about the subjects on which they were tested? If they passed those tests (as they must have in that they had been allowed to continue their education) and yet had forgotten the information about the subjects on which they were tested, can they legitimately say that they “learned” that information, and as a result, that they now “know” it? And if they didn’t learn it and, as a result, don’t know it, what was the outcome of their public education?

The answer is surely not that public school students don’t learn anything. They do, after all, learn how to take tests. As standardized testing has swallowed up public education in the U.S. in the twenty-first century, its ravenous hunger intensifying yearly since the federal mandate inaugurated by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and perpetuated by President Obama’s Race to the Top, students have largely become test-takers. As a result, their minds have been increasingly downsized to the mental equivalent of shrunken heads (trophies of the class warfare waged by the corporate interests who profit so handsomely from standardized testing).

Of course, students have always had to take tests. But tests (i.e., multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank) used to be simply one of the tools in the educational tool box. And the least effective tool when it came to assessing student learning. Tests were also the refuge of teachers who lacked the skills or the motivation, first, to engage students’ interest in their subjects, opening their understanding and inspiring their imagination, and, second, to formulate meaningful ways to measure their students’ learning. All teachers had to test their students, but for good teachers (of which there have always been many) testing was, at best, a necessary evil.

The limits of public education must be acknowledged if the most is to be made of it. One teacher per 20 (to 40 or more) students necessarily limits what teachers can accomplish in the best of systems. The educational ideal of the Socratic dialogue assumes an ongoing interaction, whatever the subject may be, between a teacher and a few students, who avail themselves of equal opportunity to question and challenge their teacher, who questions and challenges each student. And the teacher is able to continually assess the students’ understanding of the subject matter based on what those students ask and answer. The classroom setting, by contrast, is an artificial learning environment that threatens to squelch curiosity by the sterility of its structure, and the teacher-to-student ratio typically precludes the kind of interactive dynamic that makes learning natural and lively. The best public school teachers have always found ways to mitigate and compensate for the limitations of the public school setting, but those limitations, nonetheless, remain. (And, as a result, education “reformers” can always point to inadequacies and shortcomings, to whatever degree inescapable—and to whatever degree typically exaggerated by would-be reformers—when they have an innovation to push.) Testing has always seemed necessary to assess the learning of students whose numbers make it impossible for teachers to know them well enough to measure individually their knowledge of subjects.

The Last Carousel Craftsmen — The past lives on, going in circles.  Bourree Lam in The Atlantic reports.

What do you think of when you hear the word “carousel”? Is it 1920s Paris with its glittering lights, music-box tunes, beautiful vintage horses, going round and round near Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre? That’s what I used to see, largely due to the 2001 movie Amélie. But recently, I’ve been thinking of a very different place when I think about carousels. And that place is much closer to home: Ohio.

That may seem like an odd choice, but, as it turns out, there are only two dedicated full-service carousel building companies in America, and they are both located in Ohio: Carousel Works in Mansfield and Carousels And Carvings in Marion.

“We’ve got ourselves a little cottage industry going here,” said Todd Goings of Carousel and Carvings. “[Carousel Works and Carousel and Carvings] are the only ones [where] the owners of the company are the carvers working in the shop.”

While there are other carvers (both hobbyists and professionals), and shops that cast fiberglass or metal carousel replications, along with many companies that sell all kinds of amusement rides—these two companies in Ohio appear to be the only ones taking carousels from design to finish and carving them from wood the old-fashioned way.

Art Ritchie and Dan Jones of Carousel Works first came to Ohio in the late 1980s to build a carousel for the Carousel District in Mansfield. Since then, they’ve sold 58 carousels and restored dozens.

Ritchie began carving in 1973, making anything from furniture to signs. Back then, he recalls, he would carve anything that had a payday. One day, a customer came by and asked him for a quote for a carousel horse. He estimated that it would cost about $1,800. “He couldn’t get his pocketbook out fast enough,” Ritchie remembers.

He didn’t know it then, but Ritchie was then at the leading edge of a revival of interest in carousels in America. Whether it’s nostalgia for childhood or a general interest in all things from the turn of the century, carousel fever has been growing steadily since the 1980s. This wasn’t always the case, as American carousel history has really had its ups and downs.

Steam-powered carousels date back to the turn of the century, the period that carousel enthusiasts now refer to as the “golden age” of American carousel-making. The big names from that era: Charles Looff and Charles Carmel of Coney Island, Gustav Dentzel in Philadelphia, and a handful of other master carvers—immigrants from France, Russia, and Germany but whose work defined the classic American carousel style. All in all, there are nine notable workshops from that time whose carousels are today considered collectables.

Doonesbury — 30% happy.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Specifically Vague

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) slammed President Obama for not have a specific strategy for dealing with ISIS, but can’t come up with one himself.

But then, he’s not the president.  What a relief.

Hell, even George Will is able to cut the president a little slack for not being able to herd the cats that are the alleged allies we have in Europe and the Middle East.  But Mr. McCain will never pass up a chance to remind us what fools we were to pass him and what’s her name over to lead the nation and chase kids off his lawn.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Short Takes

Russia invades Ukraine.

The U.N. demands that Russia get out of Ukraine.

Secretary of State Kerry is heading back to the Middle East to build a support for dealing with ISIS.

The ebola crisis is overwhelming the government in Liberia.

President Obama sets no deadline on immigration action.

The Tigers beat the Yankees 3-2.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Paging Dr. Strangelove

Via Kevin Drum, William Kristol is at it again, this time taking his love of raining terror on people back to ISIS in Iraq:

What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.

Oh, I get it; he’s saying that just to get a rise out of us.  He doesn’t really want to kill a bunch of people just to see if they decapitate any more hostages or something.  He’s messing with us.  Right?  Right?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014