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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

McCain's celebrity

The more I think about it, I am increasingly convinced that the latest McCain "celebrity" ad and attack is ridiculous -- or at least hypocritical.

Last week, blogger Robert Paul Reyes at American Chronicle explained the blunt facts about John McCain, celebrity, and talk show appearances:
The typical guest on a late-night comedy show is a jaded celebrity who oozes irony or an average person who makes the news for some wacky reason.

Sen. John McCain, 71, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is from a generation that eschews irony. McCain is like a fish out of water trying to exchange quips with Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien.
One of McCain's 2000 campaign officials says his success that year was caused, in large part, by his a former prominent POW:
Ken Khachigian, Reagan's chief speech writer in 1980 and now McCain's top California strategist, said Reagan and McCain both benefited from their celebrity status, Reagan as an actor and governor, McCain as a POW and senator. ''It's an accident of history'' that the similarities exist, Khachigian said. ''But in my own mind, it's constantly there.''
In any case, do you know just how many times John McCain has appeared on "The Daily Show"? Comedy Central Insider reveals all:
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) will be a guest on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Wednesday, May 7 at 11:00 p.m. (ET/PT). This appearance will mark the Senator's 13th time on the show, more than any other guest...
After learning this, I clicked over to the Internet Movie Database to see just how often John McCain has appeared on other TV talk shows since 2000, when he became nationally famous after his failed presidential bid:
Jay Leno: 10 times
David Letterman: 8 times
The Daily Show: 12 times (or 13?)
Conan O'Brien: 3 episodes
Larry King Live: 9 times
Saturday Night Live: twice
Live with Regis and Kathie Lee (!): once
Entertainment Tonight (!!): twice
The View: twice
Tony Danza Show (!!!): once
The man had a cameo in "The Wedding Crashers"!

And in 2006, Senator McCain apparently appeared as an actor in an episode of "24."

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Who's the celebrity?

John McCain's latest TV ad tags Barack Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world" and includes images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

"Is he ready to lead?" asks the voiceover.

Then, today, Politico quotes a McCain adviser dropping in a reference to Obama's celebrity-like response to an attack.
"This is a typically superfluous response from Barack Obama. Like most celebrities, he reacts to fair criticism with a mix of fussiness and hysteria," says McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds, before trying to link the attack back to offshore drilling.
I wonder, did they think through this meme?

After all, John McCain is a constant guest on "The Daily Show" and other celebrity talk shows. We've all seen him...for years and years.

In fact, as recently as July 11, 2008, John McCain's own website included this line from an article about one of his 2007 appearances on David Letterman:
"A political celebrity, McCain is considered a top contender for the nomination."
That's from the google cache. The original article has been scrubbed.

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Crocker and Petraeus: Good news on Iraq?

This AP piece from Robert Burns and Robert Reid likely explains why the Bush administration and al-Maliki government of Iraq have essentially agreed to a timetable for US troop withdrawal:
Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the AP on Thursday that the insurgency as a whole has withered to the point where it is no longer a threat to Iraq's future.

"Very clearly, the insurgency is in no position to overthrow the government or, really, even to challenge it," Crocker said. "It's actually almost in no position to try to confront it. By and large, what's left of the insurgency is just trying to hang on."
In a July 19 interview with AP, General David Petraeus strongly implied that even al Qaeda is moving its Iraq operation elsewhere -- namely to Pakistan and Afghanistan:
"We do think that there is some assessment ongoing as to the continued viability of al-Qaida's fight in Iraq."

"They're not going to abandon Iraq. They're not going to write it off. None of that. But what they certainly may do is start to provide some of those resources that would have come to Iraq to Pakistan, possibly Afghanistan."

"There is some intelligence that has picked this up. It's not solid gold intelligence."
So, the good news is not altogether good.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Gas prices and Kentucky politics

With his first political ad of this election year, Senator Mitch McConnell has thrown a softball to his Democratic opponent -- Bruce Lunsford.
McConnell's ad, which is airing statewide and first ran in Lexington during the early morning news shows Friday, criticizes Lunsford for pushing for a provision 28 years ago that automatically raises Kentucky's gas tax each year if the wholesale price of gasoline shoots up.

”Bruce Lunsford: automatic tax increases, more expensive gas,“ the ad's announcer says to conclude the 30-second spot.
Lunsford worked for Governor John Y. Brown back in those days, so the attack is a bit of a stretch. Moreover, the automatic tax provision was first triggered in 2004. Since that date, the law has cost Kentuckians about a nickel a gallon.

Given that gas has been priced at or above $4 per gallon for some months, it seems unlikely that McConnell can blame his opponent for current high gas prices.

If he wants to, Lunsford can point out that the law was designed to assure road funds during periods of escalating prices. People drive less when prices surge. The road fund has collected an extra $340 million in taxes since 2004 thanks to the extra nickel. Lunsford can campaign on pork -- something McConnell the incumbent wants to do.

More importantly, McConnell's ad set the stage for the obvious response:
”McConnell raised $3 million from big oil while voting to give them billions in tax breaks,“ the female announcer says in Lunsford's 30-second spot that began airing Friday.
Last week, Lunsford also announced an 8 point plan to expand energy supply and reduce gas prices:
The plan Lunsford unveiled yesterday includes withdrawing 50 million barrels of oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve; stopping speculators who drive up the cost of oil; requiring oil companies to drill on land they currently lease; promoting clean coal and renewable energy technologies; and prosecuting price gougers.
Lunsford is running to the right of Barack Obama and other Democrats nationwide, so he spoke in favor of drilling in ANWR (only after other sources have been exploited) and off-shore.

Still, it is difficult to believe that this is a strong line of attack for McConnell.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

"The Year of Living Dangerously"

Somehow, before today, I'd never seen "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982). Back in those days, I didn't see that many movies. College debate was the center of my life and I didn't even own a TV.

In any event, the film stars Sigourney Weaver, who was between Alien(s) movies (this is pre-"Ghostbusters"), Mel Gibson, who had already made a second Mad Max film (and appeared in "Gallipoli"), and Linda Hunt, who was terrific (Oscar winner for Supporting Actress).

If you haven't seen the movie, it's set in 1965 in Indonesia. Gibson and Weaver figure into a love story complicated by the setting -- communists attempt a coup against President Sukarno, but are put down by General Suharto's brutal military.

Throughout the movie, I kept thinking of two other films my summer class viewed recently: "Casablanca" and "The Quiet American." I think it would have made a nice companion to those movies.

If you want to know more about Indonesia, may I suggest heading to South End Press for a book? Apparently, the progressive press is in trouble and could use your support.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

al-Maliki endorses Obama's position on Iraq

Today, the German publication SPIEGEL released the transcript of its interesting interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In that exchange, al-Maliki clearly embraced Barack Obama's withdrawal plan for Iraq.
SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?

Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans' business. But it's the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that's where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.
The full story here, full interview here (and continued here).

Needless to say, the Obama foreign policy advisors are pleased.

Hat tip: Ilan Goldenberg. See also Matt Yglesias.

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Today, at the Duck of Minerva group IR blog, I posted "Fish out of water?" about the Bush administration's latest moves towards the so-called "axis of evil" states -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

On July 9, I posted "An 'act of war'" about the U.S. reaction to Iran's recent missiles tests.

July 3, I posted "The hazards of burning oil," which includes a fairly humorous video about an oil tanker spill in Australia.

Have a good weekend.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Obama's foreign policy address

Barack Obama gave a terrific foreign policy speech today in Washington DC.

I watched most it on TV. My only concern was that he made too many good points. He specifically ticked off 5 goals and talked about each of them in a relatively sophisticated way.
I will focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
It was impressive, but I'm not sure how many people will see or read the entire address.

That likely means that news organizations and John McCain will attempt to parse the speech to their own ends. It might not be easy:
I opposed going to war in Iraq; Senator McCain was one of Washington’s biggest supporters for war. I warned that the invasion of a country posing no imminent threat would fan the flames of extremism, and distract us from the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; Senator McCain claimed that we would be greeted as liberators, and that democracy would spread across the Middle East. Those were the judgments we made on the most important strategic question since the end of the Cold War.

Now, all of us recognize that we must do more than look back – we must make a judgment about how to move forward. What is needed? What can best be done? What must be done? Senator McCain wants to talk of our tactics in Iraq; I want to focus on a new strategy for Iraq and the wider world.
This framing of Iraq was very strong:
What’s missing in our debate about Iraq – what has been missing since before the war began – is a discussion of the strategic consequences of Iraq and its dominance of our foreign policy. This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.

I am running for President of the United States to lead this country in a new direction – to seize this moment’s promise. Instead of being distracted from the most pressing threats that we face, I want to overcome them.
This may have been my favorite line: "America seeks a world with no nuclear weapons."

Tomorrow, apparently, he's going to talk about his plans to "develop new defenses to protect against the 21st century threat of biological weapons and cyber-terrorism."

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Do you want to believe?

The new X-Files movie opens in about 10 days. Reporters in Texas are apparently trying to give it a boost. This is from Saturday's Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:
Federal Aviation Administration radar appears to confirm the presence of unidentified aircraft on Jan. 8 over the Stephenville-Dublin area, with at least one appearing to head toward President Bush’s Crawford Ranch, the same night that dozens of people reported seeing UFOs, according to a report released Thursday by a national group that studies reports of unidentified flying objects....

Dozens of people around Dublin and Stephenville — about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth — have reported seeing something in the sky on or about Jan. 8 that did not move like conventional aircraft. Some witnesses said the objects were accompanied or followed by military aircraft.

Descriptions varied. Some told of objects up to a mile long and hundreds of yards high. Others reported seeing two to eight lights that flew in formation, changed color and shone with intensity greater than a welding flame.
The story also includes some analysis and quotes from a Mutual UFO Network report, but I won't trouble you with that.

Apparently, this is a link to the most credible video from the January 8 sightings.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Can we go home now?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, July 5 in the AP:
Iraq's prime minister said Saturday that the government has defeated terrorism in the country, a sign of growing confidence after recent crackdowns against Sunni extremists and Shiite militias.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched the crackdowns to extend the authority of the government over areas in Baghdad and elsewhere that have largely been under the control of armed groups since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"They were intending to besiege Baghdad and control it," al-Maliki said. "But thanks to the will of the tribes, security forces, army and all Iraqis, we defeated them."
Sudarsan Raghavan and Karen DeYoung reported on the front page of The Washington Post, July 8:
"The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the [US] forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal," Maliki said, according to a statement released by his office. "In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq."
Also on the 8th, MSNBC reported this quote from Iraqi National Security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie:
"We can't have a memorandum of understanding with foreign forces unless it has dates and clear horizons determining the departure of foreign forces. We're unambiguously talking about their departure," Rubaie said
Today's Post went even further:
Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in Baghdad on Wednesday that a U.S. pullout could be completed in several years. "It can be 2011 or 2012," he said. "We don't have a specific date in mind, but we need to agree on the principle of setting a deadline."
One final point -- Democracy Arsenal reminds everyone that Senator McCain said 4 years ago that the US should leave Iraq if its government favors withdrawal.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

CDI Namedropping

Spencer Ackerman has an article today at The Washington Independent called "Women Prominent in Defense Movement." Pictured up top are Sarah Sewall of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights and Michèle Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security. Ackerman describes Sewall, Flournoy, and several other women as
key figures in a loose but expanding circle of defense theorist-practitioners who study, advocate and implement counterinsurgency -- a method of warfare that emphasizes economy of force, intimate knowledge of host populations and politico-economic incentives to win that population's allegiance. At the risk of stating the obvious, they, and many of their colleagues, are women. While women are still underrepresented in the national-security apparatus -- and at the Pentagon specifically -- counterinsurgency, more than any other previous movement in defense circles, features women not just as equal partners, but leaders.

There's no one answer for why that is. In a series of interviews, leading woman counterinsurgents, and some of their male colleagues, discussed how the unconventional approach to military operations calls for skills in academic and military fields that have become open to women in recent decades. Others contend that counterinsurgency's impulse for collaborative leadership speaks to women's "emotional IQ," in the words of one prominent woman counterinsurgent. Another explanation has to do with coincidence: the military's post-Vietnam outreach to women has matured at the same time as counterinsurgency became an unexpected national imperative.
Sarah Sewall was an intern at the Center for Defense Information in 1983 -- something I know because she worked with a good friend of mine who was in the same position at the same time. My own internship at CDI occurred in summer 1985 -- just in time for CDI and likeminded groups to call for banning all nuclear explosions on the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima.

I mention my internship because it put me in the position to receive CDI's The Defense Monitor for many years. As a pack rat, I still have a stack of them. And on the back of each issue, CDI conveniently listed the names of interns.

Thus, I learned that Flournoy was an intern at CDI in fall 1985, just weeks after my work there ended.

Moreover, Flournoy interned that fall with Lee Feinstein -- who most recently served as Hillary Clinton's National Security Director.

I'm dropping all these names because they are clearly in line for important defense and/or foreign policy jobs in an Obama administration. Conceivably, the first female Secretary of Defense could be one of the women profiled in Ackerman's piece.

And yet, in the mid-1980s, virtually no one in Washington thought anyone at CDI would ever be in line for top government jobs.

Consider this take on CDI from the right-wing Heritage Foundation in 1979.

Given the turnaround, maybe there's hope for U.S. defense policy after all.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Reviewing the Dem primaries

Remember the hullabaloo about which Democratic candidate was "ready on day one"?

In the June Atlantic Monthly, Joshua Green quoted John Roos, a corporate attorney who has been an Obama fundraiser in Silicon Valley:
“No one in Silicon Valley sits here and thinks, ‘You need massive inside-the-Beltway experience,’” he explained, after a diplomatic pause. “Sergey and Larry were in their early 20s when they started Google. The YouTube guys were also in their 20s. So were the guys who started Facebook. And I’ll tell you, we recognize what great companies have been built on, and that’s ideas, talent, and inspirational leadership.”
This makes me feel old.

Green has one other interesting nugget in the article -- "the tech community was up for grabs in 2007." Obama saw the opportunity and reached out to a lucrative donor base. Clinton did not:
In a colossal error of judgment, the Clinton campaign never made a serious approach, assuming that Obama would fade and that lack of money and cutting-edge technology couldn’t possibly factor into what was expected to be an easy race. Some of her staff tried to arrange “prospect meetings” in Silicon Valley, but they were overruled. “There was massive frustration about not being able to go out there and recruit people,” a Clinton consultant told me last year. As a result, the wealthiest region of the wealthiest state in the nation was left to Barack Obama.
I don't really want to rehash the 2008 primary campaign in any depth, but Vanity Fair does. Go there if you want a fix of "Hillaryland at War." Author Gail Sheehy's examination of the top staff is illuminating:
It was impossible to find anyone who could lay out the hierarchy of Hillary’s campaign. Almost everybody had veto power, but no one could initiate. The group was about as effective as the U.N. Security Council....They became consumed with trading personal invective, hurling expletives, and trashing one another in print.

[Mark] Penn and [Harold] Ickes especially hated each other.
The article also provides ample evidence why Hillary Clinton probably won't be the choice for Veep:
“Bill Clinton was out of control … even the night she won in New Hampshire. Even Hillary couldn’t control him,” a Clinton fund-raiser tells me. “He began calling me directly,” says one of Hillary’s Big Five, “and you don’t talk back to the president of the United States.” Not only did Bill give “advice” directly to Penn, [Howard] Wolfson, and [Patty Solis] Doyle, he wanted to set up his own shop in campaign headquarters, but the team persuaded him he was better used out on the stump.

While Bill proved to be a magnet for rural voters, he turned off some super-delegates with his imperial assumptions.
It's a lengthy read.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008


Here's another nugget for the comedy project. From comedian-turned-Senate candidate Al Franken (MN), as quoted in the Washington Post, December 17, 2007:
"Let me tell you what a satirist does," he says. "A satirist looks at a situation and sees the inconsistencies and hypocrisies and absurdities, and cuts through the baloney and gets to the truth. And I think that's pretty good training for the U.S. Senate. Don't you?"
Long-time readers may recall my interest in the promotion of public dialogue at the global level. My coauthored book was inspired by the social theory of Jürgen Habermas, whose "discourse ethics" aspire to promote consensual truth-seeking and discursive democracy.

Can satire and humor promote truth-seeking in global politics?

I think political theorist Sammy Basu would agree with Franken about the importance of humor, as he has called for acceptance of an "ironic speech situation" (ISS) -- a "speech situation that grants illocutionary validity to humor."
In locating irony under the rubric of humor, I want to split the difference again between Habermas and Rorty. Rorty affirms detailed historical narratives at the expense of Habermasian philosophical meta-narratives. For Rorty, all commitments ought to come unglued privately even as we publicly affirm loyalty to the liberal status quo, whereas with Habermas our parochial private commitments must be abandoned publicly unless they are intersubjectively intelligible and agreeable. The joke, I submit, can fall somewhere in between as a kind of little, public, ironic "shock-narrative."(n73) Humor enables the withholding liberals insist upon, while enriching the public debate democrats affirm. Humorously, one can attempt the self-disclosure of intimate feelings while managing the potential for social disruption.

The ISS is a better regulative ideal inasmuch as it is more likely to result in a just outcome to which the parties involved will feel committed.
Earlier in the paper, Basu writes "Habermas is perhaps the apogee of interlocutory humorlessness."

Put simply, Habermas is skeptical about the discursive value of humor, but Basu and I think that humorists like Franken can make a valuable contribution to political discourse.

I've been thinking about comedy a great deal because satire and farce are integral parts of my film class -- and the next section begins on Monday.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Does Afghanistan need a surge?

US journalists frequently report that "the surge" dramatically reduced violence in Iraq. Unfortunately, even as violence has declined in Iraq, it has increased significantly in Afghanistan.

The past two months, in fact, more troops have died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. This report is from yesterday's AP story:
Militants killed more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan in June than in Iraq for the second straight month, a grim milestone capping a run of headline-grabbing insurgent attacks that analysts say underscore the Taliban's growing strength.
Militant attacks are up 40% over 2007, reportedly and are apparently becoming more sophisticated in a number of ways. The US just had its deadliest month in Iraq since the war started in 2001.
"I think possibly we've reached a turning point," said Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. "Insurgents now are more active, more organized, and the political environment, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, favors insurgent activities."
Critics charge that the coalition lacks a strategy for victory in Afghanistan:
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at NYU, said the Paris conference shows a strong international commitment to Afghanistan, but he said there is still no strategy for longterm success.

"Let's focus on the essentials: creating a secure environment for Afghanistan and Pakistan to address their problems and for the international community to eliminate al-Qaida's safe haven," Rubin said. "We haven't been getting there, and we are not getting closer, pledges or no pledges."
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have launched new attacks in their border area, so the violence in the region continues to escalate.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Film as condiment

As long-time readers know, I watch a lot of films, mostly on DVD. Summer is not a particularly good season for film, though I occasionally catch a good one that I missed in the winter. Starting next week, I'm also teaching "Global Politics Through Film" again.

Recently, I read a review that was not at all kind to summer "popcorn movies." Indeed, in the June 16 edition of The Nation, Stuart Klawans wrote disparagingly of films like "Speed Racer":
And how does it feel to be the chimp, watching this nightmare of saturated primary colors? Save your money and find out at home. Have someone squirt ketchup and mustard into your eyes for two hours.
I missed that movie, but Klawans also turns his attention to one that I did catch -- the latest Indiana Jones. In fact, Klawans asserts that director Steven Spielberg's earlier "Jaws" "first laid the hot dogs on the grill" for such "filmmaking-by-condiment."

Even more vitriol is reserved for colleague George Lucas, as Spielberg is partly redeemed by films like "Munich" and "Minority Report."

Here are two specific criticisms worth noting in Klawans's critique of the latest Indy:
1. "Crystal Skull" revives a techno-Aryan-occult fantasy of the 1970s: the notion that pointy-headed visitors from Beyond must have built the ancient civilizations of South America, since the natives there are too stupid to use toilet paper.

2. To put forth an image of flaming youth, Lucas and Spielberg have reverted to their own, making Shia LaBeouf into the leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding rebel they admired fifty years ago when they saw "The Wild One." For the aging auteurs, he's cinematic Viagra.
I didn't like the film all that much, so I'm going to grant Klawans the last word. The latest Indy, he writes, is "new movie trash" that "comes out feeling old."

My summer pick of the week: "The Savages." The voters at IMDB give it a well-earned 7.5. The new "Indy" is rated 7.1, but I suspect that will go down in the long run. Indy enthusiasts seem the most likely to vote early (and often?).

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