Thursday, March 31, 2005

My professors get slimed
One of David Horowitz's sleazy attack poodles has written an outrageous article smearing Professors Brendan O'Leary, Clark McCauley, and Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania. Lustick has been slimed by this crew before, particularly by Dan Pipes and his band of grade-grubbing whiners at Campus Watch, but this is the first attack I've seen on O'Leary, and it's indicative of the incredibly low-level of discourse and intellectual honesty on the contemporary right.

Brendan O'Leary is a professor with a very long track record of seeking to understand and mitigate ethnic conflicts from Northern Ireland to Iraq. He spent a great deal of 2004 in Iraqi Kurdistan, courageously risking his life as a constitutional advisor to the Kurdish negotiating team during the creation of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) that now serves in effect as Iraq's interim constitution. But the author of this risible piece of yellow journalism, Jacob Laksin, has reduced O'Leary's career to one course that he teaches at Penn, as well as some out-of-context quotes from the turbulent days after September 11th. However, even after setting the bar for his attack so very low, Laskin clearly hasn't done even preliminary research to back up his allegations.

Laksin first chooses to smear O’Leary’s conduct of “National and Ethnic Conflict Regulation,” a course I took as a graduate student, and for which I now serve as a teaching assistant. Laksin writes:

However, as a closer look at U Penn’s course syllabus reveals, the “Peace Studies” program exists at the Ivy League school in everything but name.

A case in point: A U Penn course called “National and Ethnic Conflict-Regulation.” A leftwing amalgam of political science, comparative politics, international relations and public policy, U Penn’s National and Ethnic Conflict-Regulation course purports to examine the ways in which governments respond to ethnic conflict. In keeping with this aim, it surveys those corners of the earth, past and present, where national and ethnic conflicts have flared with the greatest intensity: Northern Ireland, South Africa, Nazi Germany, and, curiously, the United States. Students with an interest in the troubled Middle East, however, will be in for a disappointment, in that there appears to be only one conflict in the tumultuous region meriting serious scholarly study: Israel/Palestine.
Though course descriptions do not disclose a syllabus, UPenn’s choice of professor reveals much about the direction of the course. This spring, it will be taught by Brendan O’Leary, a political science professor at Upenn.

Notice that Laksin has not even seen the syllabus, which is available for anyone to see through the Political Science Department’s web page (I will not link without O’Leary’s permission). Any kindergartener with Internet skills could have found this document and determined whether or not O’Leary is a “terror apologist.” And anyone who has spent more than 3 minutes in one of his classes will attest that his no such thing. Unfortunately, Laksin either did not try to contact anyone, or he was unsuccessful. My guess is the former. He also seems not to have obtained for himself any of the scholarly writings for which O’Leary has become well-known in academia. Several of those articles easily contradict Laksin’s spurious conjectures about O’Leary’s attitude about al-Qaeda and related organizations.

I am continually amazed at the narrow-mindedness of these right-wing inquisitors. Laksin finds it “curious” that the United States is included in the study of ethnic conflict and is stunned that Israel-Palestine highlights the study of Middle Eastern national and ethnic conflict. Does he deny that there are conflicts over race, language, ethnicity, and culture in the United States? But even here Laksin is just dead wrong – the current incarnation of the course includes a number of readings and lectures about the various conflicts in Iraq, and I believe the content of those materials would absolutely blow his little mind. He would certainly have trouble fitting them into his childish Pro-American/Anti-American dialectic. And it’s not just Iraq that is included from the region – students have also learned about Lebanon and Turkey, and are invited to do research about ethnic conflicts in the aforementioned states, as well as Iran, the Sudan, and yes, Israel-Palestine.

But of course Laksin and Horowitz are not interested in getting their facts straight. Their patented smears are predicated almost entirely on out-of-context quotes, and second-hand information, out of which these modern day McCarthy’s spin a tall tale of anti-Americanism and betrayal. Including the actual syllabus from one of O’Leary’s or Lustick’s courses would make the claims of these character assassins transparently false. Their attacks are designed not to engage the professors in legitimate dialogue about substantive issues of politics and conflict, but rather to permanently stain their reputations and to encourage the chip-on-the-shoulder behavior of radical right-wing student revolutionaries.

And what of these out-of-context quotes? They serve as Laksin’s smoking guns in his indictment of O’Leary’s political attitudes, but a closer look reveals them to be quite mild indeed. I believe this is Laksin’s key paragraph, writing about September 11th:

Nor was a military response appropriate, according to O’Leary, who called on Americans to “think carefully before supporting large-scale retaliatory jihads.” Rather, he suggested that the United Sates reflect upon its own role in fuelling the rage of Islamists, insisting that, “it must be asked why hatred of the U.S. is so fierce in these locations.” The question presented no difficulty for O’Leary himself, who identified American foreign policy toward the Middle East and American support for Israel as the prime culprits. True, O’Leary granted, some of the terrorists’ rhetorical attacks against the United States had little basis in fact. “But,” he went on, “U.S. foreign policy before and after the Cold War has propped up authoritarian regimes. And it has, to the abiding humiliation of the Islamic world, supported Israel, right or wrong--and Israel is not always right.” On the subject of whether America’s supposedly deplorable history justified the murder of innocent civilians, O’Leary did not speculate.

Do you see the trickery here? Laksin claims that O’Leary believed military action was not appropriate, when the quote the author has resurrected says nothing of the sort. O’Leary merely recommends caution, asking leaders to “think carefully.” Does Laksin believe that we should not think carefully before undertaking military invasions of other countries?

I fail to see what is so heart-stoppingly outrageous about the rest of those comments. Does Laksin dispute that the U.S. props up authoritarian regimes in the region? Is saying that Israel is sometimes wrong somehow anti-Semitic? And notice too that O’Leary’s lack of “speculation” about whether 9/11 was justified is used against him in a slick act of rhetorical sleight-of-hand – the reader is left with the impression that O’Leary believes the attacks of 9/11 were justified, an outrageous slander on his character which is completely unsubstantiated. And finally, the fact that perceptions of U.S. foreign policy in the region and support for Israel underlie most of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is a well-established empirical fact, replicated in one opinion survey after another, that Laksin does not even try to contest.

Laksin’s attack on O’Leary (and of course Lustick and McCauley, which I do not have time to rebut) is par for the right-wing course. Juan Cole calls it a “google smear” since well-funded propaganda organizations like Frontpagemagazine are able to have their articles ranked highly in any google search. These utterly baseless smears then become common currency, mostly because Laksin’s lies and innuendo will not be fact-checked by most readers. Thus without even reading one of his syllabi, conducting an interview, or doing even a rudimentary survey of his academic research, Laksin can successfully impugn the reputation of one of academia’s leading scholars on ethnic conflict. If Horowitz, Laksin, and their fellow mudslingers are willing to do this to a man who put his neck on the line trying to salvage the mess in Iraq, just imagine what they would be willing to do less professionally secure academics and graduate students.

The answer is “anything.”

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Friday, March 25, 2005

What are Chuck Schumer and Frank Lautenberg doing on the board of an organization that unabashedly publishes Bush administration propaganda? That's what Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh are for!

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I'll have pre-emptive war on the rocks
At the Foundation for the Defense of George Bush's foreign policy U.S. hegemony completely unsustainable hypotheses Democracies, Cliff May says the history of the Iraq War is being twisted by Evil Liberals. You see, it really wasn't about Weapons of Mass Destruction at all, it was about those 23 other reasons that the U.S. Senate supplied as justification for its illegal violation of the UN Charter! It was about human rights and freedom and terra, and...and...freedom! See? He writes:

Isn't it odd that such clear and compelling justifications for the war and where it might lead have been largely forgotten in what passes for debate these days?Instead, the talking point we hear -- over and over -- is that the casus belli for the invasion was simply and exclusively Saddam's possession of stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That is usually followed by the assertion that since no such caches of WMD have been found, the war was unjustified and, it is customary to add in an outraged tone, based on a bald-faced “lie.”

Which is itself a bald-faced lie – as the quotes above establish, as does the fact, noted by historian Victor Davis Hanson, that in the run-up to the invasion, the U.S. Senate “on its own cited 23 causes of action, well beyond the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and thus established bipartisan agreement on several grounds for removing Saddam.”

But it is true that Saddam's possession of WMD stocks was something every major intelligence agency in the world believed. By contrast, many people – Democrats and Republicans alike -- disagreed with Bush when he said he intended to “defend the world from a grave danger.”

It may be true that in their desire to justify a war they had clearly decided to launch in 2001, the President and eager apologists like Cliff May advanced a number of reasons to invade Iraq, from the idea that it would solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the idea that it would help get steroids out of baseball. But the only justification that was advanced before the UN Security Council was the allegation that Saddam was hiding WMD and that the professional inspectors who were so rudely tossed out of the country when Bush decided time was up couldn't possibly have found them. Let us have a look at UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which Bush claims provided legal cover for the invasion. The Resolution resolves that

5....Iraq shall provide UNMOVIC and the IAEA immediate, unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted access to any and all, including underground, areas, facilities, buildings, equipment, records, and means of transport which they wish to inspect, as well as immediate, unimpeded, unrestricted, and private access to all officials and other persons whom UNMOVIC or the IAEA wish to interview in the mode or location of UNMOVIC’s or the IAEA’s choice pursuant to any aspect of their mandates; further decides that UNMOVIC and the IAEA may at their discretion conduct interviews inside or outside of Iraq, may facilitate the travel of those interviewed and family members outside of Iraq, and that, at the sole discretion of UNMOVIC and the IAEA, such interviews may occur without the presence of observers from the Iraqi Government; and instructs UNMOVIC and requests the IAEA to resume inspections no later than 45 days following adoption of this resolution and to update the Council 60 days thereafter;

and concludes:

13. Recalls, in that context, that the Council has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations;
14. Decides to remain seized of the matter.

On this reading of 1441, Iraq was in compliance with the demands of the Security Council. We now know, of course, that there were no WMD in Iraq at the time, that they had most likely been completely destroyed between 1991 and 1998, just as Scott Ritter said they had been. You can also see from this resolution that because Iraq complied with point 5 of the resolution, the U.S. needed (and failed) to obtain a new resolution authorizing the war. No clause of any of the relevant UN resolutions authorized member states to invade Iraq if Saddam complied with the demands of the Security Council. The inspectors on the ground, who had found absolutely nothing, could have provided this information in a matter of weeks without anyone having to go to war.

But -- and here's where I agree with Cliff May -- the war was never about WMD. This was merely the legal and political cassus belli for a much larger strategic power grab in the region. Yet while the architects of the war may never have believed the war was about WMD, the public certainly did, because that's what they were told by the president and his advisors again and again. Here's Condi Rice in September 2002:

The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.
For the president's apologists to argue now that the WMD were never an important part of the president's case is pure political sophistry. The WMD and the fake links to al-Qaeda were the only reasons anyone supported the war in the first place. Had the president told the truth about the war, he would not have had majority support for it it, and he would likely not be in office right now. So whatever the administration's actual strategic designs, and whatever Cliff May's fleeting sympathies for Iraqi human rights, in a very real sense the war was about WMD. The only revisionist history being written right now is by the victors in the White House and their fellow travelers.

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Note to the converted
For the 74% of Americans who think Congressional interference in the Schiavo matter is a political stunt, the 82% who would want to die in Schiavo's position, the 66% of Americans who disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and the 57% of Americans who disapprove of George W. Bush's performance as president, I have just one thing to ask you:

Can someone vouch for your whereabouts on November the second of 2004?

Cross-posted to Secular Crackers

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Monday, March 21, 2005

David Horowitz can't take a joke
The narcissistic right-wing pundit and self-promoter David Horowitz, who spearheads the movement to destroy academic tenure by sending brainwashed young conservatives into classrooms in order to complain their way out of bad grades, objects to this satire by Billmon. He then goes on to pedantically point out the difference between Chinese Maoists and Students For Academic Freedom, as if the satire were meant to be taken literally. Ok fine, fine, fine, you humorless hack, we understand that SAF isn't actually anywhere near as bad as the Cultural Revolution. But then, without a trace of irony, he includes an exhortation at the top right of the post to "Send this to your e-brigades!" I mean, Horowitz, baby, if you don't like the analogy, maybe you should try making it less apt.

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Surprised and disappointed
I thought that a few genuine, free-thinking conservatives would object to the actions of Congress in the Terry Schiavo case. I even thought that one or two of them might write for the National Review. Instead, it has published a series of hysterical and ludicrous articles by Andrew McCarthy, who argues that allowing Schiavo to die is "torture," and that those who take out the tube should be "in handcuffs."

What a pitiful and incoherent disgrace the contemporary GOP has become.

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More Bush overreach
I think that the GOP may regret tossing aside principle and precedent in the Schiavo case. A new poll says that an astounding 70 percent of Americans believe that federal intervention in the case is wrong, and 2/3 believe that this is a stunt conducted by the political right for electoral gain. Hack Republican legislators have seriously overestimated the constituency for interfering in the private medical decisions of ordinary Americans, choosing instead to believe that the handful of blithering, wild-eyed, obscurantist fanatics protesting in Florida represent the majority opinion in this country.

Frist and DeLay's absurd attempt to link this case to the whole "culture of life" campaign has backfired for them in the most embarrassing way. It has backfired because Americans do, contrary to the fulminations of the extreme right, value their privacy and autonomy in life-and-death decisionmaking. But most Americans also rightly recognize the authoritarian precedent being set here, as the legislative branch tramples all over the prerogatives of the judicial branch. There's a name for governments that unilaterally overturn the decisions of the judiciary based on nothing more than political calculation, and folks, that word isn't "democracy." Americans may not believe in evolution, and they may still believe that Iraq was in bed with al-Qaeda, but they do believe in the basic idea of the separation of powers.

Coming on the heels of Bush's slow-motion trouncing on the Social Security front, we can now safely say that it's been a very rocky first two months for Bush's second term. With a clear majority of voters now saying that the Iraq War was a mistake, Bush is in genuine trouble with the electorate. It's just too bad he doesn't have to face them again anytime soon. But thankfully his unprincipled, undemocratic, extremist cronies in Congress do. This idiotic bill, which has now been christened "The Corpse Reanimation and Tent Revival Faith Healing Act of 2005" should be flogged relentlessly by Democrats for the next two years as evidence of GOP contempt for the Constitution and for the principles of democracy. If we can't make political hay out of a case where we're both bloody-well right in principle and on the right side of the Constitution, then we don't deserve to win anything.

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Why don't you re-insert your feeding tube!
Dahlia Lithwick is righteously pissed about Congressional overreach in the Schiavo case. Go read it.

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Saturday, March 19, 2005

How many times can the Enlightenment die in one year?

I hope these posts offer sufficient testimony that I do not wish to ever be kept alive in a PVS (or even a Minimally Conscious State) by a feeding tube, nor do I wish for sanctimonious GOP legislators, acting out of nothing more than electoral calculation, probably without even reading the relevant medical documents and evidence, to keep me alive against the will of my spouse.

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Medical opinions on Schiavo
Respectful of Otters has what I think is the definitive smack-down of those who claim that Schiavo's videos contain evidence of purposive brain function. The key passage:

So the presence of smiles, grimaces, vocalizations, and eye movements alone is not relevant to the question of whether Schiavo has retained any degree of consciousness or may benefit from therapy. They may be in part reflexive - as when she "smiles" when her cheek is stroked - and they may be completely random.

The key to the 4 minutes and 20 seconds of video is that Schiavo seems to be responding in a meaningful way to specific stimuli. All 17 experts who reference the videos take for granted that they demonstrate meaningful emotional or communicative responses. Could they really all be wrong?Oh, yes. All you need to know to illuminate the question is that the six snippets of video were selected from 4 1/2 hours of tape. As do most people with PVS, Schiavo emits random behaviors and noises. If a person gives enough commands or makes enough interaction attempts over the course of several hours, by sheer coincidence some of Schiavo's random behaviors will appear to coincide with their commands. Both the trial court and the appeals court viewed the entire 4 1/2 hour tape, and both concluded that her responses were indeed random. As the original court decision pointed out:

Dr. Hammesfahr testified that he felt that he was able to get Terry Schiavo to reproduce repeatedly to his commands. However, by the court's count, he gave 105 commands to Terry Schiavo and, at his direction, Mrs. Schindler gave an additional 6 commands. Again, by the court's count, he asked her 61 questions and Mrs. Schindler, at his direction, asked her an additional 11 questions. The court saw few actions that could be considered responsive to either those commands or those questions. The videographer focused on her hands when Dr. Hammesfahr was asking her to squeeze. While Dr. Hammesfahr testified that she squeezed his finger on command, the video would not appear to support that and his reaction on the video likewise would not appear to support that testimony.

Hammesfahr's own report makes clear that he relied on a ludicrously low standard to conclude that Schiavo's responses were purposeful:

Interestingly, some of the commands, such as close your eyes, open your eyes, etc. she tended to do several minutes after I gave her the command to do so. She had a delay in her processing of the action. However, when praised for the action, she would then continue to do the action repetitively for up to approximately 5 minutes. As we had moved on to other areas of the exam, at times she was continuing to do the previous command, then at inappropriate times since the focus of the exam had changed.

He commanded her to emit some of her known behaviors, such as closing or opening her eyes. If she did, that was a "hit" - a sign that she had obeyed the command. If she did so several minutes later, that was still a "hit," apparently no matter what else he'd asked her to do in the interim. If she continued , long after he'd moved on, that was not a sign that she was unresponsive to his subsequent commands but, instead, a sign that she was responsive to praise. Almost any response, correct or incorrect, could apparently be interpreted to signal consciousness. Hammesfahr, like Schiavo's parents, wanted to be convinced.

Terri Schiavo's case is tragic, but not medically complicated. Nothing about it suggests any room for diversity of medical or neuropsychological opinion. The "experts" who submitted affidavits appear to know little about her case beyond what they were able to glean from cherry-picked videotape segments only a few minutes in length. They recommend sophisticated neuroimaging techniques which are not relevant to the question of the feasibility of rehabilitation when the cerebral cortex is gone.

'Nuf said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post mistakenly identified Respectful of Otters as an M.D.. The post should have read "Ph.D."

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More thoughts on the Schiavo case
Matt over at Cognitive Dissonance wonders why the Schiavo case breaks down along left-right lines and argues that liberals are being inconsistent when they argue for the removal of her feeding tube:

Others have argued with me that the doctors have declared that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state and that is good enough for them. Well, as is typical, the doctors paid for by the family say Terri isn’t in PVS and the doctors paid for by the husband say she is. I watched the videos and see the interaction between Terri, her parents and the doctors and for me that’s enough. How many times have doctors declared people will never walk again, or comatose patients will never regain consciousness only to hear reports of people making miraculous recovery?

This also begs the question, who has the right to speak or make decisions for Terri, her parents and family or the husband? It unfortunately comes down to property rights. Marriage law has evolved over the years but it starts from a position where the wife is property of the husband. To this day a married woman cannot get certain procedures done to her own body without the consent of the husband. So far many of the judgments in this case have been based on the notion that the husband and no one else has the default right to speak for and make decisions for his wife (his property). There are no written or recorded statements by Terri on her wishes of what to do if she ended up in a persistent vegetative state (again this diagnosis is itself in question). After the Scott Peterson case I tend to give more credence to the blood relatives of Terri rather than the husband.

It seems odd to me that liberals would be taking a position which backs the property rights of husbands over wives and attacks government involvement in the lives of citizens. I offer no explanation or answer to the primary question of why this issue polarizes many on the right and left.This is turning to another issue, like gun control, which separates me from most leftists and liberals and I suspect, if the husband has his way, will further distance the Democrat party from the majority of Americans.

Since Matt's post is thoughtful, I thought it deserved a thoughtful reply. The first thing to note is that this isn't about property rights, it's about guardianship. Terri would have precisely the same right to guardianship over a brain-dead Michael as he has over her. So with all due respect to Matt, I think this issue is a red herring.

It seems pretty clear to me why this tracks generally as a right-left issue, and that's because the Schiavo case slides pretty neatly into the right-to-die debate which divides the political spectrum in this country. Many liberals believe that a human being has the right to choose their time and place of exit from this world without the interference of the state. People who feel this way generally favor assisted-suicide legislation that would allow doctors to help the terminally ill die with dignity. Most left-liberals don't feel that this is a contradiction with their general philosophy, since we tend to make a sharp distinction between autonomy and freedom from interference in our personal lives and the regulation of commerce and taxation in the public sphere.

Now, of course, Terri can’t “choose” to die in this case because she is in a Permanent Vegetative State (PVS). This alone makes her case significantly more ethically complex than your average right-to-die situation. Matt links to Terri’s Fight, which has some videos purporting to show Terri reacting to various stimuli. But looks can be deceiving. First, some have charged that the videos are edited to make it appear as though she is conscious when she really isn’t. The other problem is that patients in PVS are known to display signs of consciousness that are really only manifestations of what is called “wakeful unconsciousness.” Far from being evidence of awareness, the behavior in Terri’s videos is actually considered by the American Medical Association to be evidence of a PVS:

But the cardinal features that distinguish the vegetative state from other syndromes of lesser brain damage, such as the minimally conscious state, are the absence of sustained visual pursuit (visual tracking) and visual fixation. The eyes do not follow objects or persons, nor do they fixate on these objects or persons. And, when patients do emerge from the vegetative state, almost invariably the first and most reliable sign of improvement is the ability to visually track objects or persons in a consistent, sustained, and reproducible fashion. The question is often asked, what exactly does “consistent, sustained, and reproducible fashion” mean in this context? None of the guidelines in the literature precisely defines these terms, but when the patients do develop sustained visual pursuit, it is usually readily apparent to anyone seeing the patient, families and health care professionals alike, and it is so consistent
and reproducible that it is present almost 100 percent of the time during the periods of wakefulness.

People, there’s a reason those clips are 40 seconds long -- the behavior is not consistent and reproducible. And because that’s true, and because Terri has been in this condition for 15 years, she has absolutely no chance of ever recovering meaningful cognitive function. The relevant areas of her brain are not just asleep, they are dead, and they cannot be brought back to life with “rehabilitation.”

There’s another reason that this tracks as a right-left issue – the right is and has always been skeptical of the conclusions of the medical scientific community (and their attitudes are mirrored by the Foucaltian far left). Christian fundamentalists and others inclined to keep Terri alive tend to believe a handful of dissenters in the vast scientific community, just as they are inclined to doubt the conclusions of macro-evolution based on the ruminations of a roomful of creationists and “intelligent designers.” So the hostility to the medical community’s longstanding and well-researched conclusions about PVS is not an isolated instance of skepticism about this one woman’s wretched condition, it is a symptom of a much wider and more dangerous skepticism of the enlightenment.

The courts have spoken in this case, drawing on 30 years of precedent in right-to-die cases. For the GOP to step in at this late hour, on a transparently procedural platform, is indicative, as I stated earlier, of gross political grandstanding, and demonstrates a total and willful ignorance of the relevant medical and scientific consensus. The Schiavo case thus represents the struggle against the GOP state’s uncontrollable urge to insert itself between the individual and his or her physician, and to legislate, from a position of theologically informed arrogance, the most personal of our decisions.

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Friday, March 18, 2005

Someone slap the headline writer
The AP says that "GOP Asks Brain-Damaged Woman to Testify." Well, that seems reasonable enough until you read the story. You see, there's a big difference between brain-damaged and brain-dead. Rick Santorum and Ann Coulter are brain-damaged. Terry Schiavo is brain-dead.

In a transparently procedural move, the radical clerics in Congress want to put off the date of reckoning for this poor woman, who, if her brain waves weren't flatter than a Kansas highway, certainly would not approve of having been turned into a political football and a tool of the extreme right. Schiavo is in a persistant vegetative state and has absolutely no hope of ever recovering even a modicum of normal brain function. Her husband, who has been vilified by the right-wing media, has been trying for years to have her taken off life support, to put an end to her pointless suffering, and so he can get on with his life. Both the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have declined to interfere with doctors who were planning on removing her feeding tube. Bill Frist and company think that they know the intricacies of her case from their offices in Washington, D.C. better than the men and women who have been treating her for the last decade.

But apparently no interference in the personal lives of American citizens is too great for the gang of medieval inquisitors currently the ruining running the country. It is also evidence, along with the steroids "hearings" that this Congress values political grandstanding much more than actual governance. Make sure you write a living will, people, or else you may find yourself wheeled in front of the House Committe on Government Reform so that Denny Hastert can decide whether or not you should be allowed to die in peace.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Explain why David Horowitz is a fool
Someone has finally caught the bloviating right-wing ideologue David Horowitz and his gang of student bellyachers in a massive lie. Horowitz has relentlessly flogged the story of the Colorado student who was asked on an exam to "explain why George Bush is a war criminal." The student claimed that she, instead, explained why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal, and was given an F. This was always supposed to stand for the horror faced by poor, persecuted campus conservatives. And let me say, first of all, that even before this story was thoroughly debunked, and notwithstanding the actual content of the actual exam question (which Horowitz never bothered looking for), the student deserved to fail -- even taking her story at face value -- because she didn't answer the question.

But now an administrator has released the actual question, which reads:

"The American government campaign to attack Iraq was in part based on the assumptions that the Iraqi government has 'Weapons of Mass Destruction.' This was never proven prior to the U.S. police action/war and even President Bush, after the capture of Baghdad, stated, 'we may never find such weapons.' Cohen's research on deviance discussed this process of how the media and various moral entrepreneurs and government enforcers can conspire to create a panic. How does Cohen define this process? Explain it in-depth. Where does the social meaning of deviance come from? Argue that the attack on Iraq was deviance based on negotiable statuses. Make the argument that the military action of the U.S. attacking Iraq was criminal."

Now, I'll admit that this exam question kind of sucks, because it's overlong and confusing. But it certainly is much more complex than the student described it in her complaint to Horowitz's group, Students for Academic Freedom. It's also clear that the student is being asked to take a position, based on the reading, regardless of his or her opinion on the matter. This is a pedagogical technique that's used all the time, and doesn't mean the professor even agrees with the stance he's asking the student to take.

The University of Northern Colorado's spokesperson has also reported that the student didn't even receive an F for her response, as has been reported, and that her answer was shorter than the question demanded. So, in short, this student was completely full of it the whole time, and Horowitz and his minions swallowed it without even trying to contact the professor.

But of course, Horowitz can't just admit that he was wrong about something. In his response, he argues:

The way I parse this [the actual exam question that] is, the Bush administration lied about the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and manipulated the public into a state of panic in order to attack Iraq unjustifiably. Explain why the U.S. (and obviously its President) is guilty of criminal behavior.

In other words, the exam question is pretty much how the student remembered it without the text in front of her, and how we reported it. It doesn’t matter to me whether this professor is a Republican or a vegetarian. This is a loaded question that seeks to enforce a student conclusion about an extremely controversial issue, which by the way is pretty remote from the subject matter that one would expect in a criminology course.

Until I hear from the student I have no comment on the matter of the grade but it is conceivable to me that if this were an “A” student and she received a “D” or even a “C” on this exam, in her mind it might as well be an “F”. And, finally, it is quite plausible that since there were two required and two optional questions she might have been confused as to which were which, particularly since the answer to the question about the Iraq war was in fact a required answer: viz, that the United States was guilty of criminal behavior in its efforts to liberate that country.

So while we apologize for not having fully checked and corrected this story, we conclude that our complaint about the exam was justified. What happened in Professor Dunkley’s class at the University of Northern Colorado is not education, it is indoctrination. And that violates the academic freedom of the students who were subjected to it.

Notice that Horowitz has still not bothered to obtain a copy of the course syllabus, which might clarify this question and put it in context. He still has absolutely no proof that this student was indoctrinated in any way shape or form, or even that she's anything more than a run-of-the-mill grade-grubber who decided to make her crappy exam answer into a capital case. But notice how very small the right-wing mind is -- Horowitz just can't imagine how the issue of criminality and the Iraq War might intersect, as if there isn't an entire academic field of international law. And even if the course material isn't directly pertinent to the war, a common exam technique is to ask students to apply theories and concepts learned in class to related situations.

This case calls Horowitz's entire campaign into question. It is likely that just as in this case, SAF has not bothered to get both sides of the story in any of their other cases, choosing instead to impugn professors -- many of them untenured and in serious career jeopardy anyway -- without a shred of independent evidence or context.

Horowitz is the process of training an entire generation of grade-grubbing conservatives with chips on their shoulder -- students whose entire raison d'etre in some courses is to catch the professor being "biased." This case should illustrate the dangers of this technique, and it should also remind members of the academic community just how dishonest their detractors really are.

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Saturday, March 12, 2005

Today's Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper Prize:
"The Democrats might thereby mature from the insistence of too many that nothing be done about pressing questions (such as Iraq). They might grow beyond limiting their support for "choice" to issues such as abortion. Indeed, by returning to a positive mode about fixing Social Security rather than unadulterated negativism - by rejoining the debate - they might begin contributing to a permanent solution at last." - Ross Mackenzie,

It really amuses me when far-right political pundits try to give Democrats political advice, as if, as fucking if, they have our best interests at heart. The trouble with Mackenzie's argument is that there isn't anything wrong with Social Security right now, and there won't be until at least 2042, when some minor tweaks (raising the retirement age) will make the system solvent as far as the eye can see. Republicans want -- need -- Democratic surrender on this issue because Social Security is perhaps the key institutional structure of the New Deal, and proof that government can fill in where the market fails. If the GOP succeeds in demolishing the New Deal, they will cripple the Democrats. The Democrats, for once, understand this, and they also understand that most Americans believe in Social Security and don't wish to see a bunch of trust-fund baby Republican senators screwing around with it so that a handful of securities companies can make a quick buck. Like many of my fellow Americans, I am not interested in Social Security "choice," so long as I have a guaranteed set of retirement benefits that Ken Lay and his ilk can't take away from me.
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No one understands Lebanon
One of the things you notice pretty quickly when surveying the press coverage of Lebanon is that not only do reporters and pundits not understand Lebanese politics, they don't even understand Lebanese political institutions. A case in point -- the most recent column from Trudy Rubin, the resident foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I like Rubin, and she's normally pretty sharp, but she doesn't quite seem to get how it works in Lebanon:

Yesterday's demonstrators, however, were challenging U.S. domination. If Lebanese elections are held on schedule this spring, the Islamist, anti-Israel Hezbollah - labeled a terrorist group by the United States - will no doubt be one of the major winners.

Lebanese Shiites - the largest of the country's religious and ethnic groups - aren't against democracy, nor do they necessarily want a long-termSyrian presence. But they admire Hezbollah for its charitable role and for forcing Israeli troops out of Lebanon.

The demonstrators made clear that Hezbollah will play a major role in Lebanon's politics, whether the United States likes it or not. The other Lebanese groups that have been demonstrating - for democracy - will accept this.

If promoting Mideast democracy is to be the major Bush theme, it is crucial that the administration - and the U.S. public - not harbor illusions about what lies ahead.

It may be true that elections free from Syrian interference would give Hezbollah a boost, but it isn't that simple. Seats in the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies are allocated not simply along Muslim-Christian lines, but also according to sect. The Shi'a in Lebanon have been awarded 27 seats in the 128-member parliament, according to the Taif agreement that ended the civil war. That cap is firm. So even if elections were fully Democratic, Hezbullah -- a Shi'a party -- would be unable to fully control parliament without a significant change in the system. Here is the full distribution of seats:

Maronites 34
Greek Orthodox 14
Greek Catholic 8
Armenian Orthodox 5
Armenian Catholic 1
Protestants 1
Christian Minorities 1
Total: 64 Total: 64

Shi’a 27
Sunni 27
Druze 8
Total: 64

Each district is apportioned according to sect. So, for example, in the third Beirut district there must be 2 Sunnis, 1 Shi'a, 1, 1 Druze, 1 Armenian Catholic, and two Armenian Orthodox elected. The most positive thing about this system is that in these mixed districts (they are not all mixed), candidates must appeal to members of other communities, since all voters in the district vote for all candidates, even those from communities other than their own.

It's a complicated system, one that is unique in the world. But people like Trudy Rubin should be able to get it right.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

The right appropriates hot Lebanese women
Like a bunch of fatuous, drooling dogs, neo-con armchair revolutionaries are falling all over themselves to genuflect before the doe-eyed lady demonstrators in Beirut. I knew before that sex is used to sell pretty much everything in this world, but this is something entirely new. The sex appeal of Lebanese women is being used to drum up support for the country's opposition. The Weekly Standard, which will go down in history as the most culpable journalistic cheerleader for the Iraq War, has declared the dawn of a new day in the Middle East , propelled by "people power," most notable the aforementioned hotties with Lebanese flags painted on their faces, almost all of them pictured with their mouths open (see last week's cover of The Economist), ala an Angelina Jolie movie poster. The clear implication for lonely GOP men -- street protests are cool. Women will fuck you if you protest. Pretty ones too.

The right's newfound appreciation for popular demonstrations is particularly ironic since the only way you can get a Republican to a protest is to open an abortion clinic or crack the cover of Huckleberry Finn in front of an Applebees or something. I wonder if any of them are brave enough to fly to Beirut and stand with the Lebanese themselves, or better yet, to travel somewhere they might actually be in danger -- perhaps Amman, where the regime is muzzling the protests of civil society while George Bush sits in silence.

However, the right has been conspicuously silent about the gargantuan Hezbollah demostration yesterday , expressing solidarity against U.S. and French intervetion in Lebanese politics. Most observers estimate the crowd at 500,000 to 1 million, in a country of less than 4 million people. Even if some of those people were bussed in from Syria, as some neo-cons have alleged, it's still a huge deal. However, an enormous crowd expressing sympathy with Syria and antipathy to the U.S. does not fit the neat, packaged storyline currently being fed to the media and the public of a sudden democratic tsunami sweeping across the Middle East, demolishing the rickety autocratic boardwalks in one fell swoop. The truth, even in Lebanon, is much more complicated. As I argued earlier, we may be witnessing authoritarian regimes reconstituting themselves in more democratic garb. And we all know that clothes don't make the man. So far this appears to be happening in Lebanon, where the recently-resigned PM Karami has been asked to form a new government by the parliament, in which the opposition is still a minority. And the opposition's claims to speak for all Lebanese have been conclusively shattered by yesterday's demonstration.

But then again, Hezbullah didn't feature hot chicks with lipstick and painted-on flags, so it must not be an authentic expression of democratic yearning.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Wow, wow, and wow
Friends and neighbors, you absolutely have to read this article in The New Republic about health care. Arnold Relman, a Harvard prof. and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, methodically demolishes conservative claims about the health care "market" and the solutions currently being proposed for our health care crisis. To make a long story short, he argues that health care is not truly a market like lawnmowers or washing machines, and that solutions designed to that effect -- like the Consumer Driven Health Care (CDHC) are destined to fail because they misconceive both the problem and the solution. His proposal is for a national health insurance program, supplemented by optional private insurance for non-essential medical care. It is the only way, he argues, to reconcile the exorbitant costs of medical care with both a humane vision of medicine and society, as well as with the needs of the government and employers.

TNR is available to subsribers only. If you want a copy of this article and can't pay for it, email me. TNR may have gone over the deep end on foreign policy, but every once in a while they surprise you with vision and humanity on domestic affairs.

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My blog needed a haircut
The old layout reminded me of Black Tuesday and all the Kerryblogging I did. It had to go. Hope you like the new look.

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The good guys win for a change
The University of Pennsylvania announced recently that it might bring a Taco Bell onto campus, which touched off a controversy due to the company's ongoing battle with Florida tomato pickers, most of whom make subhuman wages and work in deplorable conditions. The DP's Alex Koppelman writes:

Florida's tomato industry, which supplies Taco Bell, has been the site of some of the worst working conditions in recent American history. Wages haven't changed since the 1970s -- workers are paid 40 to 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they fill. If wages had kept pace with inflation, that rate should be 90 cents today. As it stands now, a worker must pick over a ton and a half of tomatoes in an eight-hour day just to earn the federally mandated minimum wage. Workers have no job security, no benefits and no overtime pay. In 2002, three men were convicted of actually enslaving 700 workers, beating and threatening with death those who disobeyed.

That's just the tip of the iceburg, I'm sure. In any case, Taco Bell has conceded defeat after a 4-year campaign by, among others, United Students Against Sweatshops, agreeing to charge it's suppliers a penny-a-pound surcharge on tomatoes, which must be passed directly to workers. Now, to be clear, this solves the Taco Bell problem, but not the tomato-pickers problem writ large, but it's a start, and an important, if minor, victory. But isn't it nice to see the good guys win for a change?

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While you weren't looking
Republican corporate enforcers and their Democratic fellow travelers are about to enact an aggressively regressive piece of legislation that "reforms" bankruptcy law. To make a long story short, GOP thugs don't like the fact that some people are able to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which wipes out your debts and ruins your credit. To make sure that credit card companies continue to fleece vulnerable Americans for billions of dollars a year, your representatives have deemed it necessary to apply a "means test" to Chapter 7, so that if you make more than the median income, you have to file Chapter 13, in which your future earnings are raided until you pay off a certain percentage of your debts. They also want to increase the amount of debt you repay under Chapter 13, restrict the ability of judges to use discretion in these cases, and prevent people from protecting almost any assets from be being repossessed.

Now the first thing to note is that the median income ain't diddly-squat in the larger scheme of things. Someone making $60,000 with garbage health insurance can now have their lives and the lives of their families ruined because of one freak medical emergency. Republicans have steadfastly refused to make an exception for medical debts. This is just one more plank of George W. Bush's cruel "ownership society," in which individuals in America are being abandoned to a brutal, Hobbesian competition for scarce resources with their fellow citizens. The attitude of the government and its right-wing supporters is more or less "if you can't hack it, fuck off and die quietly." There is no accountability here for credit card companies who gouge their customers, no acknowledgment that Americans are drowning in loan and medical debt, and that this bill will only drive people further and further into poverty. I'd be surprised if four years from now we aren't talking about debtor's prisons, where the impoverished can work off their credit card debt by clerking in on-site prison Wal-Marts.

The second thing to note is that there are more than a few yellow-bellied, money-grubbing, worthless Democrats supporting this Draconian bill, including Joe Biden and Tom Carper of Delaware, both of whom have made my permanent shitlist, along with Chuck Schumer and that GOP Trojan Horse of a minority leader, Harry Reid. Biden and Carper are merely sucking up to Delaware's credit card and insurance companies, since Delaware's laws are the easiest on corporations in the country. I don't know what everyone else's excuse is, but if the Dems can't band together and filibuster this one, maybe we ought to just start over, go the way of the Whigs in 1856 and get ourselves a new minority party. This piece of legislation is a gratuitous and unnecessary attack on consumers and downtrodden Americans, and further affirmation that if you have a run of bad luck in America, you're totally fucked.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Tom Friedman strikes again
Friedman takes a lot of abuse, partly because he manages to infuriate people on both sides of the political spectrum with his foreign policy commentary. But sometimes that abuse is justified, as in yesterday's NYT column. He writes:

For the life of me, I simply do not understand why President Bush is objecting to the European Union's selling arms to China, ending a 16-year embargo. I mean, what's the problem?

There is an obvious compromise that Mr. Bush could put on the table that would defuse this whole issue. Mr. Bush should simply say to France, Germany and their E.U. partners that America has absolutely no objection to Europeans' selling arms to China - on one condition: that they sell arms to themselves first. That's right, the U.S. should support the export to China of any defense system that the Europeans buy for their own armies first. Buy one, sell one.

But what the U.S. should not countenance is that at a time when the Europeans are spending peanuts on their own defense, making themselves into paper tigers and free riders on America for global policing, that they start exporting arms to a growing tiger - China.

And be home by 11, Europe, remember your curfew! First, I think it's pretty rich when an American foreign policy expert starts lecturing other countries about arms sales to despotic regimes. Friedman may wish to consult some elementary facts and figures about U.S. arms sales, a category in which we continue to lead the world. Many of our arms sales go to such bastions of freedom and democracy as Egypt, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia. But maybe I'm being unfair to Friedman. After, all, he seems not to object to the arms sales per se, but rather the E.U.'s refusal to demand democratization in return:

Indeed, what is really sad about the European arms sale proposal to China is that the E.U. doesn't seem to be demanding any political price, even the slightest change in behavior, from Beijing in return, except some vague "code of conduct." Sure. Ask the software industry about Chinese promises not to pirate technology.

I'm sure Tom's next column will be about all the reforms the U.S. has extracted from Saudi Arabia in return for arms sales. Or wait, maybe it isn't the reforms -- those sales are upsetting the regional balance of power, which is good because when power is balanced China serves as a force for stability:

I believe China is largely a force for stability in Asia, not instability. But one reason for that is that the U.S. has countered any other impulses from Beijing by maintaining a stable balance of power among China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan - a balance that has helped the entire region prosper. The sale of advanced European weapons to China can only weaken that balance.

Of course, the U.S. has sent $17 billion in weapons to Taiwan since 1980, but we are the only ones authorized to determine what level of arms sales constitutes a stable balance of power. And Chinese arms purchases couldn't have anything to do with responding to the U.S. arming of Taiwan. Right?

Friedman concludes with some boilerplate stuff about how the U.S. is the man and the E.U. is the woman, and how the E.U. can't get it up (airlifts, of course!). He must have fallen asleep the night before with that Robert Kagan book in his lap or something. The idea that the democratic people of European do not need or desire a military as enormous and overweening as America's probably did not occur to him. The Europeans, you may recall, had themselves a bit of trouble last century with huge armies and power projection capabilities. You may forgive them if they don't feel the need to engage in an arms race to counter some non-threat from Iran or the theoretical rise of China 40 years in the future.

ADDENDUM: I do think the Europeans need to develop transport capacity, if only to contribute their fair share to the world's policing operations. I just don't think they need to get hectored by U.S. commentators for not spending as much as we do.

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Today's Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper Prize:
"In the produce section of the grocery store, the lowly cucumber is about to achieve an elevated position in some Montgomery County, Md., public schools. Montgomery County has long been known as a "bedroom community" in the affluent Washington, D.C., suburbs - an appropriate moniker given what young students are about to be taught.
The school system announced last week that a new sex curriculum will be introduced this spring for three middle schools and three high schools. Students will be taught how to put a condom on a cucumber." - Cal Thomas,

What is it with wingnut prudes and cucumbers? What else should they practice with, pencils? And Cal, you better double-check those abstinence studies, because they also show that when people who have been subjected to abstinence-immersion-therapy actually get around to screwing, they're less likely to use contraception. But I forgot that in Cal Thomas's world, it's sex, not abortion, that should be safe, legal, and rare.
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Sunday, March 06, 2005

The fourth wave?
Foreign policy wonks are understandably excited about the goings-on in the Middle East. January's elections in Iraq have now been followed by Mubarak's opening of the presidential elections to other political parties and Lebanon's popular agitation against its Syrian-dominated government. Aside from really wanting to be in Beirut right now, I've been trying to gather together some coherent thoughts about things, without taking my cues from other writers and scholars. There are three questions that should be front-and-center for political observers: first, what are the odds that these tentative steps towards democracy will be followed with genuine democratic opening and consolidation. Second, what can policymakers do to help? And third, what, if anything, did the war in Iraq have to do with all this? This last question is really the least important, but it will surely be the one that consumes those who are obsessed with assessing blame and credit and in blaming the U.S. whenever anything goes wrong or conversely, praising the administration whenever anything positive happens in the world.

The first thing to note is that while these developments are remarkable, it isn't the first time we've been down this path in the region -- and the past is not a promising prologue here. The attitude of the mainstream press is captured in today's dispatch from Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times:

The entire Middle East seems to be entering uncharted political and social territory with a similar mixture of anticipation and dread. Events in Lebanon and Egypt, following a limited vote for municipal councils in Saudi Arabia and landmark elections in Iraq, as well as the Palestinian territories, combined to give the sense, however tentative, that twilight might be descending on authoritarian Arab governments.

People really have short memories if they think no one in the Middle East has ever voted or toppled an authoritarian government before. There were elections in both Iraq and Egypt during British colonial domination, which were contested and free compared to the farce that passes for an election in certain parts of the world today. More recently, the revolutionary regime of Algeria opened itself up to competitive multi-party democracy in 1989-1992, and in fact the Algerians went considerably further than Mubarak, allowing the main Islamist opposition group, the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) to exist legally and to contest municipal and national elections. When the FIS won both the municipal and then the parliamentary elections, the military stepped in and shut the whole thing down, even though the President, Chadli Benjedid, was about to cut a deal with the FIS that would probably have favorably resembled the pacted Latin American transitions of the 1980s. Algeria's boneheaded move set off a civil war that killed 100,000 people over 13 years and which is still going on at a very low level.

Jordan also had free parliamentary elections from 1989 to 1994, and Lebanon's elections were more or less free from 1947 to 1975. Even Algeria during the civil war allowed for contested, multi-party elections. This is just the tip of the iceburg. What all previous experiments in democratization in the Middle East have shared is that the regimes in question have refused, ultimately, to relinquish power. Elections have served as an alternative method of legitimization for the regime, as they receive some limited international kudos for allowing people to vote and for letting opponents lose graciously in elections for the executive. Remember that the holding of a single election does not signify much of anything unless it is followed by several more competitive and free elections, without being rigged or gerrymandered by the regime. And the only way to see whether democracy has become entrenched is to witness a peaceful transfer of power from the ruling party or coalition to the opposition. This is what has truly never occurred in the Middle East (outside of Turkey and Israel).

I have a great deal of difficulty believing that Mubarak will really allow anyone else to win the elections, or that even if they are free from his interference, that the opposition will be able to get its act together in 75 days without splintering its vote. Palestine also cannot be considered a member of the democratic club until a) it is an independent state and b) someone other than one of Arafat's old boys club wins the presidency. I fail to see how Abbas's election was any more genuinely democratic than Arafat's in 1996, and I know that many Palestinians, including several of my students, feel precisely the same way. And now that Hezbullah has come out in favor of the Syrians, it isn't clear that Lebanon is exactly on the brink of true democracy either.

For several of these states the prospects are grim for continued democratic development. Iraq remains under a state of emergency and siege -- civil liberties are suspended, and the security situation is much the same as it was in November before the Americans destroyed Fallujah. There is no agreement about institutional arrangements, and the paralysis is so deep that the victorious Shiite list can't even form a coalition with the restive Kurds. In Palestine, normal politics will be impossible to develop until the state exists within secure, recognized, and more-or-less contiguous borders. And Egypt has already pointedly declared the illegality of the longstanding Muslim Brotherhood opposition, which is troublesome even if you, like me, find the MB platform abhorrent. In fact, the parallel between contemporary Egypt and 1989 Algeria is pretty strong, including the strong possibility that both regimes have used the "opening" to alleviate the pressure on the regime from economic failure.

Nevertheless, there are democratic openings that might be exploited for further gain in the future. I don't think a serious person can withhold all credit from the Bush Administration if genuine democracy does emerge in Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. If Bush presides over a fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then he truly deserves our respect and thanks. But the causality between the Iraq War and democratization is dubious. Arabs have been talking about democracy for years, on the much-maligned Al-Jazeera, in newspapers and magazines, and elsewhere. The pressure on Mubarak to open up the system has been building up for years, in tandem with a well-organized international human rights campaign. Lebanon was chafing at Syrian interference and domination long before the presidency was a twinkle in George Bush's eyes. The only place where Bush has to be given all the blame blame is in Iraq, and like I said, things aren't looking so hot there right now.

So keep your mind open, but don't get swept up in the Bush-is-Churchill talk. Arab leaders may simply be using some moderate liberalization measures to get Bush and the international community off their backs, without actually ushering in a new democratic age. I hope to be proven wrong.

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