Friday, February 14, 2003

What I am reminded of:

About a year ago I saw the Tony Kushner play Homebody/Kabul. Most of it (the last three hours) was awful, but the first hour, the Homebody’s monologue, was rapturous. You wouldn’t think the best part of a play would be an hour of a woman sitting down and speaking, but it was. (It does seem natural that since Tony Kushner knew more about being a sensitive overeducated Westerner contemplating people whose lives were much more dangerous than his, he would do better writing about a sensitive overeducated Westerner contemplating people whose lives were much more dangerous than hers than he would writing about Afghanistan. And it also seems natural that I would identify with that character.) There was point when she talked about the human tendency to believe that previous times were better and simpler then their own. The Homebody says that pessimists chalk this tendency up to self-deceiving nostalgia. But the Homebody is an optimist, she says, and she thinks that earlier times seem better because we have gained perspective. “Ah,” we say, “Now I understand! That was why we suffered so.” Because we can conceive of the past as a story with beginnings, if not always endings. The past is a part of a meaningful journey, whereas in the present we are just caught up in a roil of uncertainty. We have no sense of story, or journey, or progress in the present, so it’s necessarily darker and more painful.

One of the things that pains me about dying is not getting to see how the story turns out. Not finding out if the arc of the universe bends toward justice. Not knowing the purpose of the struggles of my own time.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

More about Iraq:

So I'm trying to work out for myself the merits of the opposing Saddam can be/can't be deterred aguments, with this
Foreign Policyarticle on the can side and Josh Marshall's Washington Monthly article on The Threatening Storm on the can't.

One point I was particularly interested in since it was brought up to me was the question of whether Saddam genuinely thought the U.S. would intervene if he invaded Kuwait.

Mearsheimer and Walt argue:

Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait was primarily an attempt to deal with Iraq’s continued vulnerability. Iraq’s economy, badly damaged by its war with Iran, continued to decline after that war ended. An important cause of Iraq’s difficulties was Kuwait’s refusal both to loan Iraq $10 billion and to write off debts Iraq had incurred during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam believed Iraq was entitled to additional aid because the country helped protect Kuwait and other Gulf states from Iranian expansionism. To make matters worse, Kuwait was overproducing the quotas set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which drove down world oil prices and reduced Iraqi oil profits. Saddam tried using diplomacy to solve the problem, but Kuwait hardly budged. As Karsh and fellow Hussein biographer Inari Rautsi note, the Kuwaitis “suspected that some concessions might be necessary, but were determined to reduce them to the barest minimum.”

Saddam reportedly decided on war sometime in July 1990, but before sending his army into Kuwait, he approached the United States to find out how it would react. In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, “[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had “no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.” The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did.

Saddam invaded Kuwait in early August 1990. This act was an obvious violation of international law, and the United States was justified in opposing the invasion and organizing a coalition against it. But Saddam’s decision to invade was hardly irrational or reckless. Deterrence did not fail in this case; it was never tried.

In contrast, Josh Marshall says:

Pollack also reveals that, according to our best intelligence, Saddam assumed that when he invaded Kuwait, America would respond militarily. He just figured he could beat us.

First off, I'd like to say that disagreements like this are one of the reasons it's incredibly frustrating being an ordinary citizen trying to come to informed conclusions about foreign policy. I don't have a copy of The Threatening Storm on me, although I did go ahead and buy Pollacks Foreign Affairs article, On to Baghdad? (not available for free on the net).

Here's what I can conclude from my little efforts at poking around and researching: Mearsheimer and Walt are right that deterrence wasn't really tried to prevent Saddam from invading Kuwait. The U.S. didn't know Saddam was going to invade Kuwait; the U.S. misjudged. (I don't quite understand what the U.S. thought Iraq was doing with the military buildup on the Kuwaiti border. Bluffing? Testing?) However, I don't think there was anything close to a clear diplomatic greenlight. I haven't found any references to what Mearsheimer and Walt say the State Department earlier told Saddam, but I don't think the April Glaspie conversation could be intelligently construed as a greenlight. Here is a link to a version of the conversation: it's a New York Times publication of an ABC translation of a transcript provided by the Iraqi government. The State Department "declined to comment" on its accuracy. (I have no idea what that means. Here are some important portions of it:

GLASPIE: I think I understand this. I have lived here for years. I admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. I know you need funds. We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.

I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late 60's. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via Klibi or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly. With regard to all of this, can I ask you to see how the issue appears to us?

My assessment after 25 years' service in this area is that your objective must have strong backing from your Arab brothers. I now speak of oil But you, Mr. President, have fought through a horrific and painful war. Frankly, we can see only that you have deployed massive troops in the south. Normally that would not be any of our business. But when this happens in the context of what you said on your national day, then when we read the details in the two letters of the Foreign Minister, then when we see the Iraqi point of view that the measures taken by the U.A.E. and Kuwait is, in the final analysis, parallel to military aggression against Iraq, then it would be reasonable for me to be concerned. And for this reason, I received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship -- not in the spirit of confrontation -- regarding your intentions.

I simply describe the position of my Government. And I do not mean that the situation is a simple situation. But our concern is a simple one.

...

HUSSEIN: On this subject, we agreed with President Mubarak that the Prime Minister of Kuwait would meet with the deputy chairman of the Revolution Command Council in Saudi Arabia, because the Saudis initiated contact with us, aided by President Mubarak's efforts. He just telephoned me a short while ago to say the Kuwaitis have agreed to that suggestion.

GLASPIE: Congratulations.

HUSSEIN: A protocol meeting will be held in Saudi Arabia. Then the meeting will be transferred to Baghdad for deeper discussion directly between Kuwait and Iraq. We hope we will reach some result. We hope that the long-term view and the real interests will overcome Kuwaiti greed.

GLASPIE: May I ask you when you expect Sheik Saad to come to Baghdad?

HUSSEIN: I suppose it would be on Saturday or Monday at the latest. I told brother Mubarak that the agreement should be in Baghdad Saturday or Sunday. You know that brother Mubarak's visits have always been a good omen.

GLASPIE: This is good news. Congratulations.

HUSSEIN: Brother President Mubarak told me they were scared. They said troops were only 20 kilometers north of the Arab League line. I said to him that regardless of what is there, whether they are police, border guards or army, and regardless of how many are there, and what they are doing, assure the Kuwaitis and give them our word that we are not going to do anything until we meet with them. When we meet and when we see that there is hope, then nothing will happen. But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death, even though wisdom is above everything else. There you have good news.

So, this is the transcript that came originally from the Iraqis. Unless it was horribly doctored by ABC and the NYT, then one should assume, if anything, that it was slanted to show the Iraqi side. I don't read this and see some kind of transparent green light. To say that the U.S. had no opinion on where the actual Iraq/Kuwait border was drawn is not the same as saying that it would be acceptable to the U.S. if Iraq decided to settle the matter by invading. (Again, I haven't found references to the earlier state department conversation with Saddam Mearsheimer and Walt refer to.) In that conversation, Glaspie stressed the U.S.'s desire that Saddam work it out with Kuwait diplomatically; that's why she repeated congratulations when he said there would be talks between Iraq and Kuwait, first in Egypt, then in Baghdad. This article by a foreign service officer strenuously makes the same points. Maybe Saddam heard it as a green light, but the whole argument of the Kenneth Pollack Saddam's-not-deterrable brigade is that while he's not crazy, he does severely miscalculate risk. So while this isn't a clear case of the failure of deterrance, it does put a check in the Saddam is irrational column. After all, he was wrong, wasn't he?

Until I get further information to the contrary, I think the hawks are right on this point (his invasion of Kuwait is a case for his irrationality). Not necessarily on any of the others, though.

Update: Here is an article by John Edward Wilz, a Mt. Holyoke academic type, who indeed argues (very thoroughly) that signals to Saddam were mixed and the Bush Administration could have prevented Gulf War I. It describes all of the relevant diplomatic communications with Iraq. This swings me more towards "the doves are right," but I think there's a distinction to be made: that Bush might have been able to prevent the first Gulf War by sending a stronger message does not mean Saddam was rational in taking the gamble, especially if its true, as Josh Marshall/Kenneth Pollack say (though I can't find other, non-Pollack references to this) that he thought he could win if the U.S. invaded. However, one unnamed State Department official says in the Wilz article that he does think Saddam made a rational choice, and if he had been in Saddam's position, he would have done the same thing.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

here's an article arguing that Saddam can be deterred. I can't link directly to the article because of the weird way the website is structured, but it's on the front page.

sigh. What the hell do I know?

More on The Good Girl.

I'm having a conversation about it with a friend who has seen it. I'd like to reproduce it. This conversation has lots of specific plot details. If you don't want to read spoilers, don't read this post.

My original post.

My friend says in response to my post:

i'm definitely in agreement with you about it not being the world's most awesome movie, but it did make me think about some things, and i disagree with your value hierarchies just enough to reply reflexively to your email.

so, iyo, a movie can have despicable characters if your made to identify with them. then its ok. i guess what i'd argue that the movie does (that, obviously, i like) is reply 1)these characters aren't despicable and 2)you don't get to identify with them.

there's a certain strangeness, most apparent in jennifer aniston's character, but also definitely present in her husband (to lesser extents in jake and the husband's friend), that even with monologues and dialogues and speak-overs, we're not really getting inside the heads of other characters. which is pretty natural - you don't ever actually get inside the heads of anyone. movies trick us a little, soothe as a bit, that subjectivity's can be thoroughly plumbed and extrapolated if we just give the characters a two-hour boundary line, if we block them in, under glass, and just sit there and stare. i liked that the good girl seemed to say -

"yo, dude, it doesn't work that way. you don't get to understand why these characters do every little thing they do; you don't get to fit them into the mold of your own head. you don't get to do them the violence of interpretation." ok, it wasn't a blatant artistic statement that way, but it fell along those lines as far as i could tell.

at the end, you know that the good girl's been struggling with being good, and you know the outward appearances of what she's decided to do, so you assume that its because she decided that was the good. but you don't really get much more than that.

i'd also like to say that i think your criteria for juding the aniston character are pretty singularly you-centric; pretty capital-R-omantic. 'dyou ever read 'Mrs. Dalloway'? sometimes one picks the boring things (roger) because the exciting things (septimus/peter) would kill us, and we can't bring ourselves to be that selfishly dramatic when there's a world of more ambiguous pleasures/pains out there that remain. of course, ms. woolf actually did kill herself, so whatthefuckever.

I reply:

See, I don't think she did struggle with being good. She struggled with maintaining the appearance of being good. There was *never* a time in that movie when she made a generous choice or a brave choice. She only hesitated in beginning the affair for as long as she thought she could have it both ways. She fucks her husband's friend because she's afraid of disruption, not because she wants to be good. That she feels guilty about being bad does not constitute a struggle to be good. But to me the moment that most solidified my contempt for her was the scene in which she went to Jake Gyllenhaal's parents and told him he had imagined an affair with her--basically, she was gaslighting him by way of his parents. Obviously he did need mental help, but she could have brought that up to them without telling a truly despicable lie. She considers killing him with blackberries. She goes so far as to attempt it. She stops in the middle, but only because *she has to look at what she's doing.* Later, she figures out how to get someone else to do it: she reports J.G.'s whereabouts to the police. She's trying to use the forces of authority to excise a part of her life that's become inconvenient without doing any of the work herself (with the side benefit that she gains a little bit of authority's approval in the process). Never mind that that person is a human being who will very likely be severely hurt. She's surprised when she finds out J.G. kills himself, but only because her own lack of imagination shielded her from the probable consequences of her own actions.

I didn't dislike the J.A. character so much because she failed to make adventurous choices, I disliked her because she not only failed to make adventurous choices, but she didn't treat the life she had with real respect. She was at once very unintelligent (except in her voice overs--perhaps I should try to think about the significance of the way she is a fantastically dull and poor communicator with other people but does much better in her head) and totally ruthless in her protection of an existence even she expresses no love for.

And I've read Mrs. Dalloway. I'm not asking J.A. to live her life in a way that kills her. I'm asking her to live her life with a little bit of the joy Clarissa herself evinces, the ability to walk around London (or the Retail Rodeo) and feel love for the miracle of creation. The ability to have a drifting plastic bag moment, to summon another movie. Or more importantly, to express at least occasional love for another person. Clarissa feels it frequently. The only indication we ever get of Jennifer Aniston's possible feelings in this vein is when she says to her husband "you're the only man alive that I love." I will admit that the care in the way she framed it--"only man alive"--does indicate that those may have been true words (and probably the only true words, using a definition of "true" that implies something more than "not false") she spoke, and that sentence conveys sincere feeling both for her husband and for J.G. But without the access to her subjectivity--the lack of which you're saying is oddly refreshing--there is never another time when we get access to a part of her that makes us understand and empathize with her. To me, that lack of empathy-producing moments makes it very hard for this movie to do what (in my opinion) movies ought: make me understand something better about the world. It's so easy to distance myself from Jennifer Aniston because I feel so little resonance with her character. Because it's so easy to feel superior to her, I can shrug the whole movie-watching experience off and not feel as if I've been taught anything about my own life. I guess what I think is that life is full of people we don't understand and whose existences seem meaningless and disconnected from our own. Life is also filled with random, unconnected events. Most philosophies of art say that its task is to order those events into stories that have meaning. I would say at the same time that art should also create characters we have some meaningful access to. Otherwise, the J.A. character is no more than the next dull-witted depressive I might meet at the Retail Rodeo, or in my case, the Food Emporium.

I still don't know what I think of the last shots--when you see J.A. lying on the bed, facing away from her husband with the same blank, depressive stare she's worn for most of the movie, and then she's summoned and she turns and picks up the baby (and smiles?--can't remember)--whether we're meant to understand that the baby has given her the ability to value something outside herself or whether she's "acting" the same way she was before, and the depressive stare is a reflection of her real inner state. You're arguing that its ambiguous, and you like that the movie doesn't let us know. But I lean toward the latter interpretation, given the rest of the movie. She only rouses herself from the bed when the husband hands the baby to her. "Time to be a mommy now" might run her internal narrative. She is still not self directed or outwardly focused.


Mark Kleiman supplies the transcript of the Osama tape, and analyzes Instapundit.

He also makes two important points:

A note to the warhawks: This sort of stuff makes it really, really hard for those of us who are trying our best to support your cause but who don't like being bullshat.

A note to the peace camp, and especially to those on the fence: An idea isn't responsible for the arguments made on its behalf. There is no valid inference from the proposition "Bush and his friends are a bunch of liars" to the proposition "Saddam Hussein's acquisition of a nuclear weapon is nothing to worry about."
TalkLeft and others report the probable demise of Total Information Awareness. I think this is bad news for Patriot II, good news for us citizens. Before we get totally freaked out about some plans we hear floated, I think we need to remember that a lot of members of Congress probably feel pretty legitimately shitty for rolling over for Patriot I and aren't going to make these mistakes again. TIPS is dead, TIA is probably dead, Patriot II will go their way.

Now we just have to work on kicking these crazy theocrats out of the White House so we have something to celebrate besides just defeating their abominable ideas...
and everyone who has said that cringing around Kim Jong-Il while anouncing the intention to carpet bomb Baghdad only encourages nuclear proliferation has a good point.
forget oil. it's the duct tape merchants who are behind this war.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The evolution of the bumper fish--from Jesus to Darwin to Lutefisk. The most interesting part of this article is the bit about the researcher who did the survey of what message people intend to convey with their Darwin fish. Some of the Darwin fish owners meant to convey that evolution could coexist with religious belief; some saw themselves as persecuted athiests fighting back against hegemonic Christianity.
I haven't even been to that many movies lately, and I'll be out of the country for the actual show, but I'm still enough of an entertainment junkie to care.

The Academy Award nominations.

It's the first Academy Award nomination ever for a fictional person: Charlie Kaufman's non-existent twin brother.
Tim Noah goes over to the dark side.

I might have said "comes," but as I said, I'm not sure of my own position. I thought it was a pretty good column, though.

Monday, February 10, 2003

wow, this test is hard. via Making Light. I got 179, which is not as good as a lot of the Making Light commenters but does put me in the 99.9th percentile. And I went back to my answers and discovered that two of the ones I got wrong weren't even difficult; my mouse must have just slipped, or I'm tired. But I'm sure I got a few others right by guessing wildly, so all's fair.
So I watched The Good Girl on video this weekend. It was pretty disappointing. I thought all of its attempts to raise questions like, “how well do we know the people in our lives?” or “is ‘goodness’ submission to duty or constructing--and then pursuing--ambitious goals?” were pretty much undercut by the fact that every single major character was so selfish, lazy, and most of all stupid that the questions facing them as characters didn’t seem to have larger relevance. At first as I was watching I was sort of perplexed as to why Jennifer Aniston didn’t just leave her husband. I thought as I kept watching I would care about her dilemma more and I would come to understand whatever internalized bonds kept her in her marriage—either that or I would realize her marriage meant more than I thought. Instead I realized that the reason Jennifer Aniston couldn’t leave her husband was that she was too stupid to imagine a life any different than the one she had, and the reason that she shouldn’t was that she was too awful to deserve any better; she was basically lucky to have achieved some material security. For this reason I guess the movie deserves some points for not falling into one of the narrative cliches of the red-state-gal-has-an-affair-but-ultimately-chooses-her-family genre. But the essential element of any movie that’s packed with repellant characters is that it has to make you identify with them—THEN it has impact. That was what Being John Malkovich did; it showed you unflinchingly how petty and grasping its characters were, how their love was just a desperate and conniving attempt to possess, and it made you feel like you were just like them. I wanted to vomit after seeing it. I couldn’t say I liked it, exactly, but I couldn’t deny that it was powerful. The Ice Storm took a different tack; it didn’t invite you to see yourself in the frigid, sensation-seeking materialism of its main characters, but it did give you a tragic sacrificial lamb in Elijah Wood, so you had some sense in the movie of what was valuable and beautiful in humanity that they were destroying, and you were moved in sympathy for that valuable and beautiful thing. But The Good Girl did neither of those things. There was no one in the movie to care about, really. Even the characters who weren’t identifiably bad didn’t offer up any aspect of themselves that was indentifiably good. But unlike the characters in Being John Malkovich, it’s very easy not to identify with any of them—you’re invited to see how stupid and pathetic and, well, Texan they are. It’s easy to deride them and their choices without deriding yourself. So then you’re left with a movie about stupid people living selfish, empty lives. It illuminates nothing about your own. So why watch?

Sunday, February 09, 2003

This Brad Delong post on the effect of import/export imbalances on the value of currencies and therefore the price of imports is, stylistically, somewhere in between Mario Vargas Llosa's postmodern epic Conversacion en la catedral--lots of scene changes and no attributions in the dialogue)--and Family Circus.
So now I'm thinking of going to the anti-war demonstration, more as a protest against censorship than against the war. I might make a sign that says something like, "The New York Sun calls it treason. We call it democracy."

Here is a petition you can sign to urge the Bloomberg administration to authorize the anti-war demonstration.
Did everyone see this already?

A Thursday New York Sun editorial:

- Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly are doing the people of New York and the people of Iraq a great service by delaying and obstructing the anti-war protest planned for February 15. The longer they delay in granting the protesters a permit, the less time the organizers have to get their turnout organized, and the smaller the crowd is likely to be. And we wouldn’t want to overstate the matter, but, at some level, the smaller the crowd, the more likely that President Bush will proceed with his plans to liberate Iraq. And the more likely, in that case, that the Iraqi people will be freed and the citizens of New York will be rescued from the threat of an Iraqi-aided terrorist attack.

...

So long as the protesters are invoking the Constitution, they might have a look at Article III. That says, “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”

There can be no question at this point that Saddam Hussein is an enemy of America. Iraq was the only Arab-Muslim country that did not condemn the September 11 attacks against the United States. A commentary of the official Iraqi station on September 11 stated that America was “…reaping the fruits of [its] crimes against humanity.” A government employee in Iraq reacted to the loss this month of the space shuttle Columbia by telling Reuters, “God is avenging us.”

And there is no reason to doubt that the “anti-war” protesters — we prefer to call them protesters against freeing Iraq — are giving, at the very least, comfort to Saddam Hussein. In a television interview aired this week, Saddam said, “First of all we admire the development of the peace movement around the world in the last few years. We pray to God to empower all those working against war and for the cause of peace and security based on just peace for all.” After the last big anti-war protest, the one in Washington last month, Saddam hailed the anti-war protests as proof that Americans back Iraq rather than President Bush. “They are supporting you because they know that evildoers target Iraq to silence and dissenting voice to their evil and destructive policies,” Saddam told senior officers, including his son Qusay, commander of the Republican Guard.

Of course, any country the United States is about to go to war with is an enemy. And by the logic of this editorial, any time an American questioned the advisability of that war, he would be giving comfort to an enemy (anyone think this editorial expands the definition of "aid and comfort" a bit too far?). In other words, any and all protests against the American government's use of force are by definition treasonous.

Of course, when you look at it that way, criticizing the President's domestic policy could diminish the show of unity we present to the world, and could diminish his standing and credibility here, making him less likely to be able to get domestic and international support for war. That must be treasonous too!

Good for Eugene Volokh for criticizing this editorial in the NRO. But it makes me wonder whether, on the same blog, Orin Kerr's not missing something (weird permalinking issues) about the plans floated by the DOJ for a sequel to the first Patriot Act with a number of very troubling provisions, among them that the government could take away U.S. citizenship based on an individual's group affiliation and inferences from their conduct. He says the press will focus on such aspects of the bill because "they're easy to understand" but that they "don't make much of a difference." I personally try not to be paranoid or to believe that the world is about to end, but when thoughtful people (I almost said "serious people," but that expression has now been ruined by its current trendiness, especially among hawkish circles) like Eugene Volokh have to take time out of their day to explain why a (yes, unsuccessful but still halfway to respectable) publication is wrong when it argues that all dissent from current foreign policy is per se treason, then there are some nut jobs in the room. And they are powerful nutjobs. These same kinds of nut jobs also have prominent positions in the federal government. To say that giving the government new powers to strip people of their citizenship based on the government's definition of implied intent to renounce that citizenship won't make much of a difference is, in my opinion, contingent upon a very sanguine estimation of the intentions of our current government, or of the ability of any government to restrain itself from abusing power. If he means it won't be that much of a step away from current federal law, that's frightening in and of itself.

My acrobat reader will not work well enough to let me read the entire Patriot II proposal, so I have to withhold some judgment. But I'm not cheery about it. I do think, however, that lots of members of Congress probably regret rolling over for Patriot I, and this one would have a lot harder time sliding through. Let's hope.


Did I mention that my ambivalence about the war in no way mitigates my profound distrust of/contempt for/disgust with this Administration? Looks like they've been letting a terrorist camp continue to operate in Iraq just so the case for war would be strengthened. At least, the Administration isn't providing any other explanation.

If you have to look the other way while the gun fires in order to get it to smoke, maybe you're too focused on punishment and not enough on prevention.

Jesus.

Also via Hesiod.
This is a pretty interesting post by Hesiod. Josh Marshall said Saddam's failure to disarm was suicidal, yet another indication of his fundamental irrationality, which is yet another example of why he'll be impossible to deter. Hesiod counterargues that since everyone knows Bush wants this war no matter what happens, giving up his weapons wouldn't be rational, since they would only diminish Iraq's ability to fight in an inevitable war. I think Hesiod makes a pretty decent point. The problem is that there are lots of other occasions when Saddam hasn't acted rationally. Saddam bet on U.S. military response in Gulf War I and thought he'd win. He tried to assassinate a sitting president, which, if it had succeeded, would have certainly gotten him killed.

In any case, I still don't know, and I'm still feeling tied up in knots about the whole thing...