Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Faith and Foolishness

You know, it's antics like these that give the godless a bad name:
In a type of mock ceremony that's now been performed in at least four states, a robed "priest" used a hairdryer marked "reason" in an apparent bid to blow away the waters of baptism once and for all. Several dozen participants then fed on a "de-sacrament" (crackers with peanut butter) and received certificates assuring they had "freely renounced a previous mistake, and accepted Reason over Superstition."
This non-sense is just as comedic as those “Satanists” who so thoroughly beclown themselves by aping the rituals of the religion they ostensibly despise and reject (saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards, for Ghu’s sake?!). They do nothing more than confirm the contention that militant atheism is a faith as fervent as any theistic analogue.

I choose to live my life as a functional atheist, but if anything this only heightens my sense of responsibility to what I consider to be the only known repository of sentience: my fellow humans. Much good comes from those who find their moral anchor in a theistic metaphysics, and I would do violence to my own ethics to begrudge this…but I also recognize the crimes against reason and tolerance which can come from the interposition of ideology (theistic or otherwise) between any given human consciousness and the full empathic acknowledgment and cherishing of others’ lives and values.

Not for nothing did I replace the bumper sticker I once had which said that “My karma ran over your dogma” with one which reads that “My karma ran over my dogma.” I have a real problem with dogmatism of any color.

These people make me sleepy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Obama Crossing Lines on Health Care Takeover? (UPDATED)

Yesterday, Ed Morrisey at Hot Air broke the story (which was picked up by Fox News...and apparently no one else) about a highly irregular meeting ordered by President Obama with Doug Elmendorf, the head of the Congressional Budget Office. You may or may not recall that last month Mr. Elmendorf poked a pin in the inflated expectations of the Obama Administration's estimates of the cost savings and increased availability of benefits which its healthcare "reform" legislation would bring about (again, h/t to Ed at HotAir). Apparently, the POTUS did not appreciate being so pricked.

The thing about this meeting is that it crosses separation-of-powers boundaries to a truly unsettling degree. The whole point of the CBO is that it is a Congressional body, whose purpose is to assess proposed legislation in terms of its likely cost to taxpayers, free from political pressure from the White House. The Executive Branch has the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to do its own analyses (and the current OMB director, Peter Orszag, happens to be the former director of the CBO, so it's not like there was any significant fact-finding value to be gained from calling in the current director). There was no good reason to go off the reservation and call this meeting, except to try and finesse (or intimidate?) Elmendorf to soften his assessment of the White House's proposals for the overhaul of how health care coverage is provided in this country. I find it difficult to swallow any more charitable interpretation of this inappropriate sit-down.

For a President who has spent so much bandwidth and oxygen criticizing his predecessor for unduly expanding the power of the Executive Branch, this crafty confab looks like a real hippo of a hypocrisy.

It will be very interesting to see what kind of coverage it gets, outside of Fox Land.

UPDATE: Ed Morrissey is staying on top of this story, which is shaping up to be a really unprecedented and, as Ed quite correctly deems it, unseemly clash between branches of our government. As it is, there is little evidence that this Administration is especially clueful about the rudiments of free-market principles. Throw in a conspicuous lack of knowledge (or at least willingness to apply any knowledge which it does possess) on basic civics, and all those barbs about Sarah Palin's intelligence and competence are starting to ring hollower than the haughty heads of Hollywood.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

People of Ilium, Have A Care

Via Real Clear Politics, Monday's Investor's Business Daily carried an editorial which was among the better debunkings of the notion that the "Public Option" of the proposed Obamacare plan is anything but a Trojan Horse for a single-payer system. Light on slogans and rich with examples, this well-written editorial reveals the history of government-backed entities squashing the very competition which the Democratic spinners are portraying as the point of introducing a massive, Fannie-esque insurance provider:

Fannie, Freddie and Citizens Insurance have taught us a resounding lesson: Government-backed competition in a private market undoubtedly distorts markets, drives out competition and often leads to taxpayer assistance down the road.

Should a "public option" be inserted into the health care market and perform like other government programs, 120 million Americans would lose their current coverage, according to actuaries at the nonpartisan Lewin Group. It's not hard to foresee employers dumping their private provider in search of less expensive, government-subsidized coverage.

Make no mistake: this "Public Option" is nothing more than a thinly-veiled dagger, aimed at the heart of the private system which, for all of its undeniable flaws, has spurred the creation of the most vibrant and innovative health-care system in the world. After all, if the health care market becomes as distorted as would certainly be the case if private insurers are forced to try and compete with a taxpayer-backed entity, the result will be a savage curtailment of the prospects for incentivizing profits. As sure as the sun rises, one of the first casualties of such an environment will be the budgets for research and development. When collective cost containment becomes the dominant value, then the value of developing cutting-edge treatments and drugs (which are more likely than not to be denied coverage) will drop precipitously. Drug and medical research companies will cut to the bone (alas, all-too literally!) to preserve what is left of their profit margins. The ensuing contraction in innovation, along with the rationing which is the inevitable result of the sort of socialized system which will emerge from the growing pile of strangled private payers, will signal the enduring mediocritization of American health care.

It is a thing most fervently to be hoped that the American public looks very closely at that horse at the gates.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Pretext of Principles

[by Mr.Hengist]

There’s a piece in the WSJ, "The Case for Inhumane Intervention” which takes a mercifully brief look at how former SecState Madeleine Albright objected to the policy decisions of then-POTUS Bush and defended those of ex-POTUS Clinton. Well, sure she does, as surely does the sun rise – every morning! What’s interesting to me is that she did it on the basis of an overall principle rather than weighing and judging their respective policies based on their unique circumstances. The piece ends by saying, “Albright's position is simply incoherent.”

That’s not exactly true. Her positions are coherent but the principles invoked are in conflict. The Liberal penchant for framing an argument on the basis of principle appears to be a common approach to Democrat arguments, and what makes it particularly amusing is how the principles invoked are dependent upon the policies pursued. That is to say, policy guides principle, rather than the reverse, but they make a show of standing on principle. Federal deficit spending is outrageously bad, usually; dissent against government policy is patriotic, except when it's not; filibusters are obstructionist, or the fullest expression of open democratic dialogue, depending. Such arguments posturing on principled ground cannot be wholly reconciled one with another but for the common ground on which they all stand.

Their overarching and unspoken aim is to portray the Republicans as always wrong, whereas Democrat policy is sound and justifiable, i.e., it's wrong when Republicans do something but OK for Democrats. Democrats start from this assumption yet they must somehow circle that square and justify their positions by other means, and situational principles are their go-to tool for doing just that. Logical conflict often arises when these principles clash from one situation to the next. Let my try to illustrate this with a couple of examples:

During the height of the Iraq war a handful of retired generals, less than a half-dozen of them of the over six thousand who are retired and still amongst the living, had criticized the Bush policies of the war in one way or another, and the Right was admonished to “Listen to the Generals” – that was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi right around the time that Gen. Petraeus was unanimously confirmed as the U.S. Forces Commander in Iraq, and it was an imploration echoed by Liberals everywhere. The message was clear: The Executive Branch should take the advice of its experienced military leaders.

It’s a sound principle, but it became problematical later as the situation changed. When Lt.Gen. Sanchez made his criticisms at a gathering of Military Reporters and Editors (in Arlington, VA, Oct 2007). Sanchez spent the first half of his speech criticizing the deplorable reporting by the MSM, but this went unreported by the NYTimes and AP, and received only scant mention in the front-page article in the WaPo. Can we therefore conclude that the Left believes that Generals should be listened to except when they criticize the Liberal MSM for their shoddy reporting and partisanship, in which case nobody needs hear of it? Not at all; that would be to extrapolate a coherent principle from their varied positions, but that's not necessary for Liberals. Taking the idea of Liberal principles too seriously leads to cognitive dissonance - there isn't necessarily any coherence in their arguments when taking them at face value, for these are only useful cudgels couched in the pretext of principles. To illustrate this more fully, when General Petraeus returned stateside to report progress and improvements in Iraq, he was snubbed and insulted by Democrats.

The comments of General Sanchez were useful to the Left only insofar as they echoed what Liberals and Democrats were saying. His comments on the press were not useful or flattering to the Left and so they were ignored. In contrast, the report by General Petraeus was not helpful at all to the Left because they wanted to end the Iraq war as soon as possible, whereas General Petraeus told us that the Iraq war was very much winnable. What he said in open Congressional testimony could hardly be ignored, and therefore his character was attacked by the Left, from the children of Kos, MoveOn and Think Progress to the top clown Democrat leadership, including, amongst others, Pelosi, Reid, and Clinton. Some and only some of the comments of Gen. Sanchez were useful to the Left as a cudgel, whereas the report of Gen. Petraeus undercut their position so thoroughly that he was accused of being a tool of the Bush Administration.

This brings us to the Obama Administration; in late June of 2009, National Security Advisor Jim Jones met with commanders in Afghanistan and to say: "My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops," he told them. The WaPo describes the key part of that meeting as follows:
Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?" Nicholson and his colonels -- all or nearly all veterans of Iraq -- seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.
The message is clear and wholly inappropriate. The role of the Executive Branch is to task the military with a desired outcome, after which the military presents a set of options for achieving that outcome, each of which has an estimate of probable success, cost, and risk. The Executive Branch must not, however, both decide military tactics for their objectives and assign resources; to do so is a reflection of deep ignorance and arrogance. I’m reminded of episodes of Star Trek (The Original Series), in which Captain Kirk would bark orders at Scotty or Spock, telling them to fix a problem after he’s been told it’s impossible to do so; he would then order them to do so anyway, i.e., pull a rabbit out a hat. In reality, the role of a commander is to be advised of facts and presented with options. One of the few Hollywood productions to get this right was “Apollo 13”, in which Flight Director Gene Kranz polls the team for reports on status and advice on options, and upon the basis of the information he’s received he makes decisions on which course of action to pursue.

As of this writing there is a crisis in Honduras which very well illustrates this pretext of principles. Only last month POTUS Obama declared that he would take pains not to be perceived as “meddling” in the affairs of Iran or other nations, only expressing admonitions about how Iran should not brutalize their citizens for rioting in protest of their sham democracy. The principle of not meddling does not apply to the government of Honduras after they legally ousted their Chavista protégé President; in that crisis, the Hondurans have been punished by the withholding of OAS funds on the basis of the principle of upholding democracy.

In contrast, Iranian elections under the Mullahs have always been a sham, and thus any claim of "democracy" in that country is a hollow lie. Surely the principles of upholding democracy are more urgently in need of support for Iran than Honduras. It appears to be a contradiction that the support of democracy is cited as the reason for meddling in Honduras whereas democracy-free Iran is not held to the that standard, and it is. The key to understanding this contradiction is that for Liberals and Democrats the principles they cite are entirely situational. What we’re left with is speculation as to their real motives. With the treatment of Iran vs. Honduras, I think POTUS Obama is eager to “hit the reset button” with our enemies because he believes that the poor relations between our countries are really the fault of past, mostly the Republican Administrations, whereas he casts a gimlet eye on any allies who had good relations with same. Further elucidation on POTUS Obama's motives are better explained by Noocyte in this post, and I am in agreement with the good points he makes.

Where we disagree is that Noocyte does POTUS Obama the courtesy of taking his words at face value, and concludes that the Obama policy is flawed on the basis of these principles in conflict. On the contrary, those principles are pretext and are therefore irrelevant, except insofar as they should be thrown back in the faces of the Liberals who hoist those high-minded banners to justify their policy choices.

Dropping some COIN on Afghanistan

The Christian Science Monitor has a couple of excellent articles (Part One and Part Two) on the hopeful developments and lingering challenges in the implementation of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in the tribal regions of Afghanistan. Recommended reading, in that they lay out what appear to be the ingredients of a well-crafted COIN approach to the protection of civilian populations against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in their midst. As usual, there is substantial mistrust and the weight of centuries of less-than-inspiring history standing in the way of the locals welcoming the Coalition forces who assume the risk of moving into close proximity with those populations (versus huddling in heavily fortified bases and emerging only to wreck things and kill folks)...but not so close that they violate traditions of privacy. Very tricky business, that.

Still, our people seem to be hitting all of the important marks: they are consulting with the local Tribal elders, staying visible, asking how they can help, and showing a willingness and capability to deliver on their promises. The results are, as expected, uneven, but this is not something which happens overnight. This passage in particular made an impression on me as a fine example of how COIN operations really begin to gain traction:
The troops admit there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, some soldiers are finding their own ways to win hearts and minds.

Pfc. Joshua Lipori has decided to learn Pashto, the prevalent language here. While standing on guard duty one day at a combat outpost in Sayadabad, he practices his fledgling Pashto with some passing locals.

"Tsenga Ye?" or "How are you?" he asks. "Jore Ye?" – "Are you doing OK?"

The Afghans stare in wide-eyed astonishment at the foreign soldier speaking their tongue. They whisper to each other in Pashto.

"See," one says to the other, "there are some good Americans."

This is a modest but meaningful example of how COIN operations are really more about building relationships then they are about killing insurgents (though the latter can help with the former...which in turn can yield actionable intelligence for more effectively performing the former, etc., etc.).

Of course, the Predator drone attacks continue. They have a very special importance in the "Clear" part of "Clear-Hold-Build." These should continue, but with extra-special caution, owing to the even greater sensitivity of tribal Afghan (predominantly Pashtun) people to 'collateral damage' than that which exists in Iraq. Beginnings are such delicate times, and we have scarcely begun to crinkle the paper on the surface of this onion we must peel. But for every tribal sura we can win over, for every village which sees its people breathe easier in the absence of enemies we are seen to be pursuing and neutralizing resolutely and successfully, we move incrementally closer to the tipping point which was passed in Iraq.

And there are signs that this combination of approaches is having the desired effects on our enemies in theater:

"I haven't ever seen this kind of language from senior Al Qaeda commanders before," said Daniel Lev, who works for MEMRI. "In general, Al Qaeda speaks in a very triumphant tone," but in the new book Al-Libi speaks of the group's dire straits and serious problems, Lev added.

"Such an admission of distress on the part of a senior Al Qaeda commander makes this a very unique book in terms of the author."

The signs of fragmentation and distress which come across in the aforementioned new book by senior al Qaeda leadership attests to the degradation of that organization by the relentless attrition which we have been visiting on its organizational structure. The more demoralized and --alas!-- desperate and brutal the Taliban/al Qaeda nexus becomes, the less they will be able to rely on the silence and passivity of those locals with whose lives they have become so interwoven. Even the title of this new al Qaeda book, "Guide to the Laws Regarding Muslim Spies," points to the paranoia spreading through the minds of our enemies. This is an advantage which can be greatly expanded through the implementation of intelligent PSYOPS. The need to vet recruits, spy on the membership (and on the spies!), and periodically (and not always accurately) purge suspected double-agents greatly slows the tempo and effectiveness with which al Qaeda and the Taliban can mount and maintain their attacks. It also signals weakness to those who are standing on the sidelines, trying to decide which is the stronger horse. Like Napoleon said, "never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." True enough. But when the opportunity arises to magnify the scope of that mistake, it would be foolish to squander it. I can just imagine the havoc we could wreak with a few carefully-placed bits of disinformation...

The more we can trap al Qaeda and the Taliban in the vise between ordnance and ostracism, the greater our chances of repeating the spectacular reversals we won in Iraq. But it would be perilously unrealistic to think that we've done more than saddle up the camel on this one ("watch out, they spit").

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Breaking: Cyber Attack on US Federal, South Korean Sites (UPDATED)

Via the AP comes this sobering story about an unusually sophisticated and tenacious DDoS attack on several notable web sites:

The Treasury Department, Secret Service, Federal Trade Commission and Transportation Department Web sites were all down at varying points over the holiday weekend and into this week, according to officials inside and outside the government. Some of the sites were still experiencing problems Tuesday evening. Cyber attacks on South Korea government and private sites also may be linked, officials there said.

This is a very worrisome business, and both the timing and the targets lend themselves to some very uncomfortable speculations as to possible sources of the attack. For all the brayings out of Pyongyang about 'fireworks' for the Fourth of July, the North Koreans "only" popped off a few mid-range missiles. Is is possible that the main thrust of their attack was not chemical/kinetic at all? If so, then it was a clever if foolhardy feint on Kim's part. Clever, in that the US deployed missile tracking hardware to the region, poised to interdict anything which threatened Hawaii or any other interests of the US or its allies, and thus would have been successfully misdirected. Foolhardy in that a traceable attack on US Government computer systems would be difficult for even the Obama Administration to treat as anything but a blatant act of war.

This is only speculation at this point, and should be taken with a shaker of salt. The bar should be set very high for making any accusations, since the consequences could not fail to be dire.

UPDATE: Here is a follow-up on the investigation into these incidents. It highlights the difficulties in tracing the ultimate origins of the attacks (not to mention who gave the go-ahead and signed the checks). I'm thinking plausible deniability, here. If the provenance of the plot can be credibly held to be uncertain, then the range of responses remains rather broader than it would be if a clearly demonstrable hostile act, with Li'l Kim as its author, could be unambiguously established.

As much as I would love to see that demented homunculus on the receiving end of a JDAM, I also recognize that a hot war in the region would be Very Bad News. Almost as bad as having such a blatant act of aggression go publicly unanswered.

For those with eyes to see, though, the intentions and capabilities of the Putz from Pyongyang have become rather more clear. If (big "if") this should result in firmer ties with South Korea, and perhaps a less laissez-faire stance from Beijing, then it would be worth it to keep this on a cooler, more covert tip.

If nothing else, I hope it spurs more aggressive attention to cyber-war countermeasures!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Bajíos y Honduras

Handy thing about being bilingual: double the puns.

"Honduras" means "depths," or "deep waters." All the more ironic, given the shallows ("bajíos") in which the thinking and coverage (such as it's been) of this country have languished.

When leftist President Manuel Zelaya defied the judgment of his country's supreme court and pushed for a referendum on changing the constitution to allow for the removal of term limits, it was a gambit right out of the Hugo Chavez playbook. The law of the land had been pronounced, and the Executive of those laws was choosing to ignore it. Further, when the head of the military refused to participate in distributing that referendum's ballots, Zelaya just up and fired him. None of this boded especially well for Zelaya's respect for democratic institutions, an opinion which was shared by the Honduran legislature, which voted to have Zelaya removed from office for violating the trust which had been placed in him by the Honduran people.

If the execution of that ouster was handled in a needlessly ham-handed and arguably itself illegal fashion (military personnel rousting the villain from bed and shuffling his pajama-clad carcass onto a plane for Costa Rica in the dead of night, ferchrissakes), this does not take away from the fact that the aforementioned military immediately handed power back to the civilian leadership. Further, that leadership has even offered to consider holding elections early, rather than declare some sort of "emergency" and clutch onto its newly-wrested power.

Some "coup."

Then we get Barack "I won't meddle in the affairs of other nations" Obama coming out, promptly and strongly, for the "restoration of democracy" in Honduras, and suspending aid until the power-grabbing Chavista in question is restored to his office...the one which the other branches of Honduran government had acted within their laws and declared him unfit to occupy. Naturally, then, the near-universal media consensus coalesced around the cries of Zelaya supporters demanding their guy back, drawing sickening parallels to the brutal oppression of demonstrators in Iran after the outright theft of the election there by theocratic thugs. Shortly thereafter the Organization of American States and the UN (those bastions of democratic ideals and justice around the globe) declared that Honduras will be on their mierda list until the status quo ante is restored. The government of Honduras just as promptly told these bodies to pound fine white sand. Gutsy move, that, since Honduras can scarcely afford to lose the aid, but the only one which preserves Honduran national sovereignty from erosions external and internal. And they seem to be putting their money where their mouth is.

As wrong-headed and dangerous as I perceive many policies of the Obama Administration to be, they have generally made a certain kind of sense to me. This one had me scratching my head. Why on earth would the POTUS see our nation as having a dog in this fight? It's not as if Zelaya exactly had clean hands in his purported championing of the downtrodden. The idea that this was some sort of tactic to curry favor with Chavez, ahead of some overture to come, seemed a bit too pat and partisan for my tastes (though I haven't ruled it out altogether). The whole "masked soldiers in the dead of night" thing rightly arouses discomfort, but every other aspect of the ouster struck just the right tone of lawfulness to get out most of the stain. So what gives?

It was this post from the Huffpo which brought it together for me:

A democratically elected president has been ousted by a military strongly supported and trained by the US government as apparent punishment for his adoption of progressive ideals. Where is the outrage, or at the least, the intrigue? Where are the solidarity movements?

Well, here are all the ingredients: mistrust of anything touched by the US military, check. Reflexive sympathy for even a transparently illegitimate regime, so long as it adheres to "Progressive," statist ideals, check. Concomitant repudiation of any government which lives even close to the center (let alone the Right), checkarooney. Throw in a dose of untenable moral equivalence, and the formula is complete.

Look, I get that Obama and his supporters believe in consolidating the business of a nation in the operations of its central government, rather than in the hurly-burly of free markets and federalism. I understand that there will tend to be a measure of sympathy for governments which operate along similar sets of values, and will even grant the good intentions of those who yearn for social justice (even as I recoil from the redistributionist policies which flow from those intentions).

But this is one which the Obama Administration has gotten flat-out dead Wrong. It is an epic fail, borne of the most superficial reading of a sloppy and unappealingly handled but ultimately lawful execution of a sovereign nation's governance. It can very defensibly be said to have been none of our business. However, if one were inclined to "meddle," then it should have been in the opposite direction. After all, as Krauthammer put it: "Whenever you find yourself on the side of Chavez, Daniel Ortega, and the Castro Twins, you ought to re-examine your assumptions."