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Archive for October, 2009

Reading the Tea Leaves: All About Conference

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Given the dust-up over renewed talk about “triggering” the public option, particularly in the Senate, Ezra Klein writes:

It’s always hard to evaluate these leaks. On the one hand, this could mean that the White House supports the public option trigger. On the other, the leak could be an effort to whip up liberals and strengthen Harry Reid’s hand when he says that he needs a viable public option to bring the bill to the floor. Or maybe this is just the White House following through on a promise to Olympia Snowe. Or maybe this is the White House stepping in to play the bad guy on the public option to keep Snowe’s vote. Or maybe it’s an effort to shift the goalposts a bit to the right so a state-based opt-in plan seems like a victory to liberals.

Personally, I think there’s a really simple answer to this; Democrats really want Olympia Snowe to vote for cloture on the Senate bill. Why that is may have a few explanations, but my own guess is that they’re looking for her support because that gives them more leverage over Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson, who will have quite a difficult time explaining to the rest of the Democratic caucus, to say nothing of the larger Democratic Party, why they couldn’t support cloture on a bill that Olympia Snowe, and possibly a couple of other Republicans, voted for as well. This goes back to what I’ve felt all along concerning negotiations over healthcare reform; it’s all about the conference committee.

To wit, if the Senate passes a “trigger option,” and the House passes something else, then the final product can come back with something else, whether it’s a robust public plan or a compromise more palatable to progressives. But the key distinction here is a fine one, but one of pretty high importance, what comes out of conference will be the final bill. That’s huge. We’re not talking about a budget, or a tax bill, or even something that’s important to a key constituency like EFCA. Healthcare reform has literally been the single biggest item on the Democratic Party’s domestic agenda for over half a century now. If a bill can get out of conference and to a final bill in this Congress, with these majorities for the Democrats, there’s no way any Senator can vote against cloture and remain relevant in the Democratic caucus or in broader Democratic politics. They’ll be persona non grata for the foreseeable future, whether they stay in the Senate or not. The wild card, of course, is Lieberman, who doesn’t have much of a future anyway, but while I don’t have a high opinion of him at all, I very much doubt Lieberman wants to go down in history as the guy who killed this effort.

So at this point, I’m pretty much back to finding the Senate irrelevant, other than kicking something to conference. That’s where the important work is going to be done. For now, Reid’s job is to get us there, at pretty much any cost.

The Efficacy of States

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein both wrote posts recently that I thought were pretty good fisking of the whole concept of states as individual governing entities. I haven’t seen any wingnut response yet, but John Patashnik took what, to my mind, was a very unconvincing stab at defending states. A few quick things to deal with at the beginning, starting with the lead in:

I never thought I’d write a blog post defending the existence of states–at least no more than I thought I’d write one defending the existence of, say, brunch or toilet paper.

If you have to start your “defense” with such a sophomoric sentence as this, you probably don’t have much of a case, such as it were. Just saying.

But Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have the laboratories of democracy squarely in their crosshairs.  In Ezra’s words, “I just don’t consider states to be a particularly useful political unit.”  And this, sadly, isn’t an isolated sentiment among liberals these days.  Look no further than the popularity of the mildly offensiveTenther” label–as if states’ rights are just a wacky conspiracy theory and people who believe in them are as delusional as the  birth certificate/death panel crowd.

I don’t know what Patashnik finds “mildy offensive” about “tenther,” but that last bit is about as gross an understatement as I’ve read in quite sometime. It’s worth clarifying exactly what sort of “states’ rights” we’re talking about here. To wit, no one is arguing over the states’ authority to issue dog licenses or set speed limits or levy sales taxes within their state, we’re talking about a “movement” that, based upon an incredibly broad reading of the 10th amendment, holds that nearly everything the federal government does is un-Constitutional. What’s more, they come to this conclusion based upon an overwhelmingly narrow reading of pretty much every other provision of the Constitution save for the 10th amendment (I once had someone insist to me that the 10th amendment gives states the authority to decide what unenumerated rights are protected by the 9th amendment, even though Article III explicitly grants the power to decide questions arising under the Constitution, of which the 9th amendment is indisputably a part, to the federal judciary), and would never extend such latitude to, say, the taxation/general welfare clause in Article 1 Section 8. In other words, “tentherism” isn’t some good faith interpretation of the Constituion, it’s a convenient way of constructing an argument such that it arrives at the desired conclusion of the person making the argument, with no real backing in the text itself. But I digress. This is the meat of Patashnik’s defense:

The “what good are states?” view makes some sense if you regard the federal government as the fundamental political unit in America, and the states as nothing more than sub-national governmental units established for convenience’s sake.  But that’s simply and indisputably not the way our system was established and not the way it works. To view states in that light is un-American (in the literal sense, not the pejorative Glenn Beck sense).  As Justice O’Connor put it, “States are not mere political subdivisions of the United States. . . . [t]he Constitution instead leaves to the states a residuary and inviolable sovereignty.”  States are not a means to some administrative end; within their sphere of sovereignty, they are the end.  In joining the Union they gave up certain powers, but they retained everything else.  To question that is to propose a system radically different from one we have.


Maybe it’s just me, but the bait-and-switch Ezra apparently envisions seems pretty unconscionable.  Back in the day, states were concerned that at some point in the future the federal government would try to usurp their sovereignty, so they wrote very strong protections for themselves into the Constitution.  Now, in 2009, along comes a chorus of voices proclaiming that, from a national perspective, that arrangement doesn’t “make sense,” so we should consider changing it.  Well, of course!  That’s precisely the concern the states had back then.

Pardon my French, but this is nothing but a bunch of bullshit. It’s lazy bullshit at that, and it’s an especially pernicious brand of bullshit that really pisses me off. Is Patashnik right with his “this is exactly what the states were afraid of” formulation? Yes, of course he’s right. But so what? The idea that people living in the United States are inextricably bound by what anyone said, did, wrote, or thought 200 years ago is ridiculous. I’ve got plenty of admiration for the system the American founders created, but by no means do I think it is or was perfect. More importantly, they didn’t think it was perfect. And they imagined that subsequent generations might want to change some things, and they were ok with that. It’s one of the only reasons the Constitution has survived so remarkably long as a governing document (its completely subjective nature in parts being probably the biggest other factor as well).  Patashnik’s view is one that completely rejects the entire notion of self-determination, and dismisses the notion that free people should be able to decide how they want to arrange their government. Whether you agree with his positions on states or not, this simply isn’t, to my mind, a legitimate argument, and the fact that this is the go-to argument makes me think that Patashnik doesn’t really have much of a substantive defense of states to offer, which isn’t helped by this later retort either:

My own view is that such radical and wholesale changes are per se inadvisable.

Obviously Patashnik wouldn’t be alone in this, but again, it’s a pretty lazy conceptual view of things, to simply dismiss any “radical or wholesale changes” out of hand as “per se inadvisable” without actually, you know, weighing the merits thereof. I’d be curious to know what other “radical” changes Patashnik would have been opposed to at the time. The end of the slave trade (which the slave states explicitly put off limits to Congress for a certain amount of time in the Constitution as well, by the way)? Brown vs. Board of Education? Direct election of Senators? The Civil Rights Act? Women’s suffrage? Inquiring minds want to know. Finally:

Matt says, “a big part of the problem here is that it’s difficult to think of what kind of issues are actually well-suited to be dealt with at a state level.”  This is somewhat surprising to me.  What about the basic, bread-and-butter questions of governance that states currently deal with?  For instance, what should the punishment for murder be?  How much money should teachers make?  How should the car insurance industry be regulated?  How about marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption? 

These questions are too local in character to merit federal involvement; in a vast and diverse nation, trying to settle these debates in Washington is as hopeless as it is unnecessary.

Except, here’s what Matt actually said:

But a big part of the problem here is that it’s difficult to think of what kind of issues are actually well-suited to be dealt with at a state level. It’s easy to think of kinds of issues that Arlington County, Virginia should address on its own without input from people who live in Norfolk, VA or Montgomery County, Maryland or Boise, Idaho. These are your local government responsibilities. And it’s also easy to think of issues that should be decided in common between Arlington and Norfolk and Montgomery and Boise. These are your federal responsibilities. But it’s very hard to think of what kinds of things should involve Arlington and Norfolk, but not Montgomery County. Conversely, it’s pretty easy to think of things that should involve Arlington County and Montgomery County but not Norfolk or Boise. These would be metropolitan region issues.

In other words, of course there are issues that probably are best hashed out locally, and obviously things that make no sense to work out on the federal level. No one I’m aware of is making the argument that there shouldn’t be any local government. Quite the opposite in fact, Matt is basically arguing that the centrality of state government is bad for local governance, because by and large, the constituencies therein don’t really make any sense for the governed. Someone in Silver Spring has a lot more common issue with someone in Washington D.C., or even someone in Arlington, than they do with someone in Cumberland, and yet they don’t have any metropolitan government handling issues relevant to the entire D.C. area, but they’re lumped in with a state government with people in the Maryland mountains, Eastern Shore, Baltimore, Annapolis, etc. A system that included city government, metropolitan governments, and maybe even county or regional governments could all make plenty of sense as it relates to foreseeable issues that will need to be hashed out at a level below the federal government, but there’s no reason all of this has to be hashed out based upon largely arbitrary lines drawn on a piece of paper that lump people in New York City in with people in Syracuse while leaving out people in Secaucus. And the fact that Patashnik can’t even address the actual point being made speaks volumes about the difficulty involved with defending that arrangement.

But you know, we decided to do it this way two centuries ago, so we’re basically stuck doing it the same way for all eternity. What happens in the 18th century doesn’t stay in the 18th century.


Hell Freezes Over: Are The Feds Actually Cooperating With The NYPD In Counterterrorism?

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

A piece from Newsweek on the recent arrest of a mope planning to set off a bomb in NYC:

This, according to these same [NYPD and FBI] officials, is what the countdown looked like:

It is Wednesday, Sept. 9, two days before the anniversary of 9/11 and just five days before Obama is scheduled to make a major speech on Wall Street, only a few hundred yards from Ground Zero. A week after that, the U.N. General Assembly will be in full session, with some 150 heads of state gridlocking Manhattan. And now the FBI tells the NYPD it’s concerned about the activities of this guy, Najibullah Zazi, whom agents have been watching for months in Colorado. The Feds have good reason to believe he’s been trained in bombmaking in Pakistan. They say they know he’s been stockpiling the same kind of chemical components—hydrogen peroxide and acetone—used to concoct the explosives used in the horrific London subway bombings in 2005. Over the past few days surveillance suggests he’s not only been cooking them up, he’s allegedly been calling friends to make sure he gets the mixture just right. The New York City connection? He was brought up in Queens in a neighborhood long known to be full of Taliban supporters. And at this moment he is in a rental car headed east. The FBI is watching him. The bureau normally works with more than 100 NYPD detectives in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but on this one it wants Cohen’s Intelligence Division working the case, too.

Now this is how domestic counterterrorism is supposed to work. “Breaking down stovepipes” and all that, actually sharing intel instead of engaging in the usual law enforcement agency pissing matches over jurisdiction or credit for the collar.

A couple of years ago, that kind of cooperation didn’t exist. After Police Commissioner Ray Kelly reorganized the force in the wake of 9/11 and brought in Cohen, the Intelligence Division had an extremely rocky relationship with the FBI field office. Cohen’s detectives focus on preventing new attacks, not pulling together cases for prosecution after the fact, which is what FBI agents traditionally have been tasked to do. The NYPD intelligence unit works undercover and gathers human intelligence in New York City, in the wider United States, and even overseas. FBI agents, used to believing they have a monopoly on that kind of work, wanted to keep it, and the infighting was legendary.

Despite all that, FBI Director Robert Mueller—who has tried to shift the FBI law-enforcement culture from after-the-fact prosecution toward more aggressive measures to prevent terrorism—has developed a good working relationship with Kelly. And since Joseph Demarest took over as the head of the FBI field office in New York late last year, according to law-enforcement officials, cooperation on the ground has improved dramatically. One of those officials says that the FBI has worked closely with the NYPD intel detectives on more than two dozen important cases in the past several months.

“An extremely rocky relationship” is a very very mild way of putting it concerning the interactions of the NYPD and FBI. Even before 9/11, the rivalry and contempt between “the Feebs” and the “local yokels” was the stuff of legend. In the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was tasked with Al Qaeda investigations worldwide before 9/11, the federal agents constantly short-shrifted the NYPD detectives on cases or treated them like gofers.

After 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly were so incensed at the lack of federal cooperation (and lack of federal counterterrorism funds) in the city that is the biggest terrorist target on the planet that they literally created their own CIA and a sort of municipal hybrid of the FBI and Britain’s MI-5.

The Intelligence Division sent detectives all over the country and even the world to sniff out plots against NYC before they had a chance to become operational. The fact that the Deputy Commissioner for the Intel Division is the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service says it all. The CT Divsion was focused on preemptive action and rolling up terrorist networks in the city, using the kind of preemptive action that the FBI had a deep institutional aversion to (and with good reason, but that’s another story).

It’s Sept. 11. FBI agents and Intelligence Division detectives meeting that morning believe they have a good handle on the Zazi case. They have found this source, Afzali, who knows quite a lot about Zazi and his friends. The suspect is under surveillance, and a warrant has been obtained to search his rental car and the laptop inside. Then word comes that a phone call has been intercepted from someone telling Mohammed Zazi the cops are asking about his son. The name of the caller is not the one the cops have been using. The top Intelligence Division detective at the meeting steps out of the room to phone his office and check. Yeah, that’s Afzali, he says when he comes back in.

The next day, Saturday, Najibullah Zazi is on a plane back to Denver, and there are a lot of loose ends. How much of a network was Zazi involved with? (“You study these things and they get bigger, then smaller, then bigger—like an accordion,” as one veteran counterterrorism analyst puts it.) Where are the explosives or their components? No one seems to know.

On Wednesday the 16th, the FBI in Denver began questioning Zazi directly. His father was brought in as well, and Afzali was picked up in New York. On Saturday the 19th all three men were charged with allegedly lying to federal officers. On Sept. 24, Najibullah Zazi was indicted for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

The investigation continues. More than 120 detectives from the NYPD Intelligence Division remain assigned to the case.

With the (almost entirely true) horror stories about the dearth of actual domestic security against these kind of threats, this pitch-perfect CT investigation ending in the roll-up of most of the cell before they could achieve their explosive aims is quite heartening. In fact, one may notice that the Department of Homeland Security did not seem to be involved in this investigation in any way, which speaks volumes about their effectiveness.

Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a golden era of cooperation between the NYPD Intel detectives  and the federales . Given the traditional Bureau disdain for the CIA and spook types in general (the saying goes, “FBI catches bank robbers for a living; CIA robs banks”), I wouldn’t hold my breath. While I would love to believe that all the stuff about the two agencies playing nice is as rosy as this article portrays, both the Bureau and the NYPD have a reputation for snowballing the media for positive press coverage.

Oh yeah, one more thing. The lead sentence of the article:

“The ticking bomb” is a cliché in movies about cops and spies and terrorists, but sometimes in real life, with real terrorists, it’s the real deal.

This was not a ticking time bomb scenario. This was rolling up a network before they could become operational.

Please stop it Newsweek. There is no reason to give the Jack Bauer counterterrorism crowd more ammunition for their fallacious arguments.

I Am Not A David Brooks Fan

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

A lot of other squishes like the guy, but frankly I find David Brooks totally insufferable and depressingly thin, and this column from last week is a good example of why that is exactly. How does this idiot hold down a job with a publisher who presumably holds his work in high esteem? Hell, how eactly did he convince anyone to hire him in the first place?

Let’s look at what Brooks trades in when he isn’t simply making shit up:

Human nature, in no form of it, could ever bear prosperity,” John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, warning against the coming corruption of his country.

Yet despite its amazing wealth, the United States has generally remained immune to this cycle. American living standards surpassed European living standards as early as 1740. But in the U.S., affluence did not lead to indulgence and decline.

That’s because despite the country’s notorious materialism, there has always been a countervailing stream of sound economic values. The early settlers believed in Calvinist restraint. The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardship during their treks out west. Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed.

So let me get this straight, America’s monied class was unaffected by its affluence because poor people had to uproot their families to make a dangerous track across the continent for a chance to improve their economic status and new immigrants denied themselves by working 16 hours a day for subsistence wages in Gilded Age factories? Ok.

It doesn’t get much better:

Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.
Right. Government was super restrained back in those days. Well, if you don’t count giving away chunks of land to anyone willing to move to them or sending in armed police whenever a business owners profit margins were threatened by uppity workers thinking they could unionize themselves. Yeah, other than that, the government was pretty restrained I suppose.
When economic values did erode, the ruling establishment tried to restore balance. After the Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt (who ventured west to counteract the softness of his upbringing) led a crackdown on financial self-indulgence.
RIght, Teddy did lots of awesome stuff like…create the FDA, in part as a response to widespread fraud in medicines, which cost a lot of desperate people a lot of money looking for miracle cures. Because the government didn’t protect you from your own bad choices. Or something. Also. Too.
Some of the signs are seemingly innocuous. States around the country began sponsoring lotteries: government-approved gambling that extracts its largest toll from the poor.
Yes, we should get rid of state lotteries so that poor people can’t choose to piss away their money $2 a time on shiny scratch offs and over-makeuped 45 year old bottle blonds announcing random numbers at 7:29 PM every night. Because we don’t….I don’t think even David knows where he is at this point. Quick, dig up some trite cliche and bring it home.
If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.
So wait a second, we’re going to cut back our consumption, spend less money, and this is going to make us a “producer state?” Because lots of businesses exist to make units no one will buy or something? I mean seriously, what the fuck? It would be one thing if he were calling for a concientious choice to spend your dollars on products made within the United States, because that would, you know, make sense. But if people stop consuming, production isn’t going to rise to meet non-existant demand. This is Econ 101 level shit.

I swear to God, major Op-Ed pages are, at this point, nothing but a side wager between the publisher’s of the papers betting on which one of them can publish the dumbest shit and still have it taken seriously. There’s no other explanation for it.

Making Headway Against AQ? A Suspiciously Timely Article From The Washington Post

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

An article about efforts against Al Qaeda in AfPak that makes my spider-sense tingle, from the WaPo:

U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization’s effectiveness.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the combined advances have led to the deaths of more than a dozen senior figures in al-Qaeda and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past year, most of them in 2009. Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks.
A convenient time for an article to come out extolling the success we are having against Al Qaeda, no? Here’s my problem with just these two paragraphs: First off,  this sounds exactly like what the Bush White House said for years about their campaign against AQ, right up until the point that it was revealed that bin Laden et al. had reconstituted their organization and were back on the grind and better than ever. The last sentence is literally word for word what the Bush administration used to say: UBL and his lieutenants are isolated and cannot coordinate attacks.

Second, the “enhanced assistance from cooperative governments” is rather obviously an allusion to Pakistan, and the reason it is phrased so obliquely is that if they came out and said Pakistan was doing a better job, they would be laughed at. The Pakistani government is coming apart at the seams. They are unable to affect anything in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions where AQ Central is hanging out; even when Musharraf, who at least made a half-assed effort to try to help, sent troops in to FATA and the North-West Frontier, they were beaten by the ragtag tribal militias. And on top of it all, the new head of the military (the real power in Pakistan) is an Islamist and former chief of the ISI-D who is explicitly pro-Taliban.

Third, the body count also harkens back to the days of yore, when Bush would give speeches talking about the number of high- and medium-value AQ targets that had been killed. He stopped giving those for a reason: Al Qaeda now has a pool of trained, combat-tested veterans to move up into managerial positions when one of the top dogs are killed. The phrase “and allied groups” gives me pause too, because this could mean that they’re killing Taliban chiefs, who are significantly easier to get because they actually come into Afghanistan to get killed, and not members of the Al Qaeda shura (ruling council).

A good analogy would be the prosecution of the American Mafia. After every high-profile case that ended in convictions (Lucky Luciano, Murder Incorporated, the Pizza Connection, the Five Families RICO case), US attorneys would crow about how they had killed the mob, or reduced them to unorganized street gangs. And of course, two years after one of these big convictions, the Five Families or the Chicago Outfit had quietly moved their veteran soldiers up into the executive positions and continued on as per usual. And this went on for seventy years, before any real headway was made against Cosa Nostra.

More from the article:

The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. “Human sources have begun to produce results,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations’ al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday. Barrett is the former chief of Britain’s overseas counterterrorism operations.

Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called “our penetration of al-Qaeda.” A senior administration official said that success had come “because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities . . . to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda organization.”

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair referred obliquely in an interview with reporters earlier this month to the use of spies, saying that “the primary way” that U.S. intelligence determines which terrorist organizations pose direct threats is “to penetrate them and learn whether they’re talking about making attacks against the United States.”

Now this is the part where I fervently hope that this revelation is psychological warfare against the Taliban and AQ to paralyze them with paranoia over moles in their organizations. It is a very effective tactic, see: James  Jesus Angleton. Given the incredible difficulty of inserting an intelligence officer into AQ, or even getting one of their members to flip and become a double agent, revealing that information for political reasons would border on the criminal.

Recent claims of significant success against al-Qaeda have become part of White House deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops. Discussions began in earnest Tuesday as senior national security and military officials met with President Obama.

Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama’s principal objective — destroying al-Qaeda — can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.

And in the first paragraph we have the reason that the White House leaked this story to WaPo. McChrystal’s public demand for tens of thousands of extra troops, which really are necessary if we are going to nation-build the way the Hillary-Holbrooke axis wants to, has put Obama in an awkward position, because the Congress doesn’t particularly want to do that.  The bright side is, they do seem to be rethinking their strategy of just throwing more soldiers into the meatgrinder. Cyncial as I am, I don’t want to think that this is just a stall to twist arms on Capitol Hill.

I don’t want to give the impression that I believe McChrystal (and Clinton and Holbrooke) are right.  Nation-building will never work in a place like A-stan; I wrote an article about it a few months ago. Joe Biden has the right strategy, though he has so far lost the internecine battles: A smaller number of American troops, mostly composed of Special Operations and Special Forces operators with close air support, in a strictly counterterrorism role. So, despite the fact that this article is disingenuous, if it helps stop a counterproductive and downright disastrous troop escalation, I’m willing to take that.

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