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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Predicting the Oscars

For the past few weeks, I've been entering a "Pick the Oscars winners" contest sponsored by my local newspaper. The deadline was yesterday, but I tried to vote on most days to cover various permutations. The contest allowed one vote per email address per day. I only voted once per day though I could have used several addresses.

According to TradeSports, a number of categories this year feature overwhelming favorites: Martin Scorcese for Best Director, Forest Whitaker for Best Actor, Helen Mirren for Best Actress, and Jennifer Hudson for Best Supporting Actress.

Eddie Murphy is also heavily favored in the Best Supporting Actor category, though the traders seem to think he faces the stiffest competition in any acting category. Alan Arkin would not be a longshot winner.

The great unknown is likely Best Picture: "The Departed" is favored, but both "Babel" and "Little Miss Sunshine" have a lot of support. I saw only the latter, though the "Babel" DVD is sitting next to my TV ready for viewing and I might try to see "The Departed" at the second run theater in town, which is still showing it. I did see "The Queen," but it appears to have little hope.

Given my strategic voting and the limited permutations (I marked Mirren on every ballot), I very much hope to have a winner. This is the first time the newspaper has had on-line voting, so far as I know, which means that they may have many more correct ballots than ever before.


2/26/07 update: I saw "Babel" Sunday afternoon. It was the globalization of "Crash."

Oh, and on my 9th contest entry, February 7, I had 6-for-6 in the above categories. I should be in the drawing for the prize.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Missing word of the day

Stephen Colbert is on vacation this week, so his viewers are missing the "word of the day." I'm missing two.

Let me explain.

Have you seen this short video? Here's a shorter version for comparison.

Watch those and compare them to the official transcript from last November 8:
And in terms of the election, no question Iraq had something to do with it. And it's tough in a time of war when people see carnage on their television screens.
Hmmm. There seems to be a word missing.

Check this out too -- it might explain the missing word.


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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Power of the purse?

Before everyone gets very excited about the ability of the congressional "power of the purse" to limit the Iraq war (or to prevent an Iran war), it might be worth remembering that the current Bush administration has already played fast and loose with public funds to make war unsupported by authority from the legislative branch.

On September 22, 2006, the Congressional Research Service published the latest update of its report, "The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11" by Amy Belasco. Warning: that's a pdf.

Belasco includes an interesting item about the costs of the Iraq war, on page 9:
From the initial $2.5 billion tapped from previous appropriations to prepare for the invasion, Iraq costs may rise to $100.4 billion in FY2006 to continue current military operations, foreign aid programs, embassy support, and VA benefits.9
Initial costs, you ask?

Footnote 9 helps:
9 This initial funding generated controversy in 2004 because it appears that few in Congress were aware that DOD used $2.5 billion from funding appropriated before the resolution [p. 10] authorizing the use of force was passed. A note in a DOD table listing monthly obligations for Iraq from the FY2003 and FY2004 supplementals stated that an additional $2.5 billion for Iraq was available from “prior year funds” (presumably P.L. 107-38, P.L. 107-117, or P.L. 107-206, the previous two supplementals). CRS could not obtain details on this spending.
As recent public hearings have demonstrated, it's easy to lose track of a billion dollars or two (or 20) in the midst of a big war.


Hat tip to Jonathan Schwarz, who first noted this discrepancy in late 2005.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Slowing the Pace

For some time, I've been worrying that the US was on a too-quick collision course with Iran. The IAEA and United Nations have agreed that Iran's nuclear program is worrisome and Iran is now under international sanction. Yet, it continues to insist that it will continue its nuclear program.

Iran, of course, says its nuclear program is solely for energy purposes, which would be completely legal.

Back to my worries. In the past week, members of the US military have held an off-the-record briefing that accused Iran of supplying Iraqi militants with particularly dangerous explosive devices. The bombs are armor-piercing, even capable of penetrating an Abrams M1 tank.

President Bush seems to be convinced that top authorities in Iran are responsible. Today, he said the following at his news conference.:
we know they're there, we know they're provided by the Quds force. We know the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. I don't think we know who picked up the phone and said to the Quds force, go do this, but we know it's a vital part of the Iranian government.
However, General Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, isn't yet convinced by the intelligence:
"We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran," Gen Pace said while visiting Australia.

"But I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit."
The White House is trying to make it seem as if the military and politicians are on the same page. Bush again:
What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did.
Hmmm, didn't we just learn that civilian leaders in the Pentagon promoted Iraqi threats than were not consistent with the consensus of the intelligence community?


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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

DoD Inspector General

The Defense Department Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee February 9. Gimble later briefed staff from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

His (pdf) "Report on the Review of Pre-Iraqi War Activities by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy" is posted on the OIG website. So is the "Executive Summary."

Here are some key findings from the report:
The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy [OUSD(P)] developed, produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence Iraq and al-Qaida relationship, which included assessments on the some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision makers.
Gimble is referencing Doug Feith in this sentence.

In response to questions from Senator Levin (MI), the report notes that Feith produced an alternative intelligence briefing with conclusions that differed from those of the intelligence community -- and were "not fully supported by underlying intelligence."

The Executive Summary added this:
we believe the actions were inappropriate because a policy office was producing intelligence products and was not clearly conveying to senior decision-makers the variance with the consensus of the Intelligence Community.
Question: why did it take so long to reveal these simple conclusions?

Alternative read: isn't it great that the Democratic Congress was able to demand this information in short order?

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Is great power conflict back?

Since the end of the cold war, the world has not featured much great power competition. Moreover, the 9/11 attacks and fall 2001 anthrax scare focused tremendous attention on threats from transnational terrorism and small states with "weapons of mass destruction." Virtually all the world's major powers aligned together in a "war on terrorism."

Indeed, scholars of international relations have starting debating whether or not balancing behavior is a relic of the past. The United States is so powerful relative to other states, some argue, that balancing behavior is NOT to be expected.

Recently, however, there have been some signs that great power competition may be returning.

China recently tested an ASAT, for example, which may one day pose a threat to US space dominance.

This past week, Russia made some noise too.

Consider this statement from President Vladimir Putin in his address to the annual Munich security summit. As the BBC reported February 10:
Mr Putin told senior security officials from around the world that nations were "witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations".

"One state, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way," he said, speaking through a translator.

"This is very dangerous. Nobody feels secure anymore because nobody can hide behind international law.

"This is nourishing an arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons."
As Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Ray Takeyh points out, the US and Russia have serious differences concerning Iran.

February 9, the New York Times reported that Russian defense minister Sergei B. Ivanov warned a NATO group meeting in Spain that Russia might initiate a new arms competition if the US deploys radars and defensive missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Those states are a long way from North Korea, though the US claims Iran is the potential threat.

In Munich, some Americans also had great power competition in mind. The BBC quoted Senator John McCain:
"Moscow must understand that it cannot enjoy a genuine partnership with the West so long as its actions at home and abroad conflict fundamentally with the core values of the Euro-Atlantic democracies. In today's multi-polar world there is no place for needless confrontation."
McCain's Senate colleague Joseph Lieberman declared that Putin's "provocative" address "sounded more like the Cold War."

News reports suggested that Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to deflate this rhetoric in his Munich speech, but he had his own concerns as well:
Looking eastward, China is a country at a strategic crossroads. All of us seek a constructive relationship with China, but we also wonder about the strategic choices China may make. We note with concern their recent test of an anti-satellite weapon.

Russia is a partner in endeavors. But we wonder, too, about some Russian policies that seem to work against international stability, such as its arms transfers and its temptation to use energy resources for political coercion.
I don't think a new cold war is on the immediate horizon, but the Bush administration hasn't worked very hard to build a sense of shared interests in international community.

Whether one is worried about global warming, the Geneva conventions, or a potential "preemptive" war on Iran, other great powers continue to wonder about the prospects of American unilateralism.


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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Iran: Deterrence vs. compellence

In regard to Iran, this story published in The Guardian on February 8 provides the most definitive denial of "war fever" that I've read yet from someone in the Bush administration:
president Bush has made it clear we have no intention of going to war with Iran," said Gordon Johndroe, the spokesman for the White House national security council.
Maybe Johndroe forgot what the President said when he was in Belgium two years ago.

The rest of the newspaper story is about Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's recent deterrent threats directed at the US:
"The enemies know any aggression will give way to a wide reaction from Iranian people toward them and their interests in all parts of the world," Iranian state television quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying...

"We believe that no one will make such an unwise and wrong move (to attack Iran) that would endanger their country and interests," Mr Khamenei said. "Some say that the US president is not the type who acts based on calculations or thinks about the consequences of his action. But even these people can be brought to their senses."
An Iranian naval commander apparently claimed that Iran has tested missiles that could sink big US warships in the Persian Gulf.

Would these kinds of threats be sufficient to deter the US from any kind of attack? Maybe. A nuclear weapon would work even better -- as North Korea would probably advise.

Note also that Khamenei said "enemies" because he's well aware of Israel's latest open efforts to beat the war drums. The LA Times, reported Israel's attempts to compel action on February 7:
Israeli officials have begun an unusually open campaign to muster international political and economic pressures against Iran. They warn that time is growing short and hint that they will resort to force if those pressures fail to prevent Iran's development of an atomic weapon.

Israeli leaders fear that an Iranian bomb would undermine their nation's security even if Tehran never detonated it. That Israel has its own nuclear arsenal would not counteract the psychological and strategic blow, they believe.

Israel began secretly preparing in the early 1990s for a possible air raid on Iran's then-nascent nuclear facilities and has been making oblique public statements about such planning for three years.

What is new is Israel's abandonment of quiet diplomacy to rally others to its side.
Israel has been making hostile threats against Iran fairly overtly since at least fall 2004.

As any student of Thomas Schelling would warn, it is much more difficult to compel than to deter.

Since there's some dispute about how much threat Iran is to Israel, they might want to rethink their strategy.


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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Iran: not as guilty as Bush implies?

The Bush administration has delayed release of a report that was supposed to outline Iran's dangerous role in Iraq. The stated rationale is interesting, as reported in the February 6 Christian Science Monitor:
Explaining why the rollout of facts on Iranian involvement has been delayed, Stephen Hadley, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, told reporters Friday that "the truth is, quite frankly, we thought the briefing overstated, and we sent it back to get it narrowed and focused on the facts."
Imagine what it must have claimed if the Bush administration thought it was wrong!

More specifically, what was overstated in the report? Well, for one thing, it is not at all clear that the sophisticated January 20 attack in Karbala was Iranian or Iranian-backed:
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that information he had seen from the Karbala attack was "ambiguous" as to an Iranian role, adding that it was too early in the investigation to be conclusive.

Also last week, Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of State for political affairs, said it was "not possible to say exactly who" was responsible for the Karbala attack.
More doubts are to be found in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead" Unclassified Key Judgments:
Iraq’s neighbors [Iran and Syria] influence, and are influenced by, events within Iraq, but the involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq’s internal sectarian dynamics.
The CSM story also quoted Wayne White, a former Middle East analyst with the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research:
"Yes, I believe the Iranians are doing this [contributing to violence in Iraq], but at a level that doesn't matter very much. Compared to the magnitude of the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, they are really playing a bit part in all of this.
It is difficult to make a case for going to war in this kind of information environment.

Thankfully.


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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Climate change

Friday, Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers," which is the first of several parts of the Fourth Assessment Report.

Hundreds of scientists reviewed mountains of research and reported (p. 2) a "very high confidence that the globally averaged net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming." A footnote noted that the italicized phrase meant there was a 9 out of 10 chance of being correct.

Warming itself is described as "unequivocal" (p. 4) Of the 12 warmest years on record since 1850, 11 of them have occurred since 1995.
"Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations" (p. 8).
"Anthropogenic" is a scientist's way of saying "caused by humans." Incidentally, the italicized phrase in this sentence also means greater than 90% probability by the standards used in the report.

Ah, precision!

There's a great deal of potential bad news about melting of ice caps, changed precipitation patterns, likelihood of extreme weather events, future heating of the earth, etc.

In a report filled with unpleasant news, this (p. 8) struck me as especially significant:
"The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 metres of sea level rise."
The debate about the science is over.

The question for policymakers: try to mitigate -- or adapt?



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