Thursday, November 27, 2003

Blunder on the Left

Presumably to counter-balance Frances Fitzgerald's sober and favorable review of Wes Clark's Winning Modern Wars, the Nation now publishes -- and gives over a cover to -- this unabashed anti-Clark polemic by Matt Taibbi. Taibbi sets out to plumb the (for him) enigmatic and deeply perverse appeal of Clark's candidacy to "the liberal antiwar crowd." He quickly enough finds it to be rooted in a "groveling" Caesarism on the part Clark's "dewey-eyed" supporters -- along with a robotic charisma on the part of this "Neo-Nixon" of a candidate, whom Taibbi sees as an essentially bellicose figure, willing to play along with this transitory lefty hero worship in order to get the big war toys all to himself. Aside from the now-standard rundown of what are uncritically taken to be the scary right-wing bona fides in Clark's pre-candidate past, the article's major data points come from what Taibbi portrays as the terminally unhip reactions of Clark staffers and supporters to his self-consciously Gonzo-esque attempts to "get a rise" out of them by passing himself off as a New Hampshire volunteer who just happens to be a kink cinema auteur.

Clearly, Taibbi primarily wants us to understand something about himself and his sensibilities, and only derivatively something about the candidate and his supporters. Namely that he, Taibbi, is a supercool transgressive-progressive peacenick who sees right through Clark's game, whereas they, Clark's supporters, are sphincter-hearted orthodox liberals whose authoritarian personalities have made them susceptible to the blandishments of a latter day General Jack D. Ripper passing himself off as a Man of Peace.

Memo to Taibbi: Dr. Hunter S. Thomson could get away with stuff like this (i.e., intermixing serious political analysis with wild-ass satire and over-the-top polemic) because, at his best, he was capable of combining unusually perceptive political journalism with damn fine comedic writing. He rarely rehashed a tired ideological line when a weirder, more discomfitting, and usually funnier political truth was available to him. And he could be very funny indeed when in this mode, in an ambiguously leftwing sort of way -- like Barry Goldwater's anarchist nephew on mescaline. But in your case.... well, judging from this piece, you might want to go easy on the hotel furniture.... you're unlikely ever to be able to put the damage on Jann Wenner's tab.

Fortunately, there are already several fine testimonials available online from sincere and committed leftists who've overcome their initial skepticism about Clark and become supporters. Here are two of the most thoughtful: one from Andrew Sabl, a "partisan and liberal democrat" who also happens to teach political philosophy at UCLA, and another from a self-described "progressive, radical, lesbian feminist" who goes by the wonderful Web handle "Artemisia" and has become an instant star among the bloggers over at the Clark Community Network for this narrative of how she switched from Kucinich to Clark. Enjoy.

A Truly Useful Political Blog -- No, Really

Run by first-year law student (and DailyKos fan) DavidNYC, Swing State Project is doubtlessly one of the most useful non-professional political blogs out there. He ain't Ruy Teixeira, but he ain't too shabby for an amateur. (And Ruy knows it -- I picked up the link from Donkey Rising). The only down side is that law school is keeping the posts -- especially the analyses of specific swing states -- somewhat infrequent at the moment. But this map of swing states sure is a handy quick reference for anyone who is both interested in the defeat of George Bush, and pragmatic enough to worry about where the 270 electoral votes required to get the job done are going to come from.

Notice, BTW, that when DavidNYC calculates swing state margins based on the 2000 returns, the formula he uses is Gore+Nader - Bush+Buchanan. I think this is exactly right: the Nader and Buchanan votes, or most of them at least, were almost certainly protest votes that were transferable to the nearest ideological neighbor in each case, had the first-choice candidate not been running. Whereas the (relatively few) votes pulled in by the other fringe parties (Natural Law, American Libertarian, and so on), are rightly discounted, I think, as permanent outliers -- present to some extent in every election cycle, and not likely to get translated into major-party votes.

(Although, as it turns out, even if one throws in those fringe parties on the Right, the Left still won both New Hampshire and Florida in 2000 -- either one of which would have been enough to give Gore the electoral college victory. Thanks again, Saint Ralph!)

So how does the map look for the Dems in 2004? Uncomfortably tight. But then, as DavidNYC helpfully points out, it looks just as tight from the other side's perspective -- and they know it too.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Once More Into the Fray on the General's Behalf

Herewith, Amileoj's latest sally into the Slate Fray, this time in response to this nasty bit of business from Jacob Weisberg, in which said scribe trots out the lame old Kosovo-Iraq moral-strategic equivalence assumption (without bothering to offer an actual argument for it) in order to slam Clark's first New Hampshire ad. Enjoy:

Moralistic Criticisms of Clark, Part IV

William Saletan, who has already taken more than his fair share of cheap shots at Wesley Clark, holds his fire commendably in his review of Clark's new campaign ad (which he quite fancies). But Jacob Weisberg steps up to show that he, too, can rabbit punch with the best of them.

In a move straight out of Saletan's School of Pseudo-Symmetries, Weisberg charges that the only thing keeping Clark from applying to the case of Iraq the same principle of humanitarian intervention he acted upon in Kosovo is "politics."

How warped is this pseudo-symmetry? Let me count the ways:

1. There was no ongoing human rights emergency in Iraq. The last one was in the immediate aftermath of Gulf War I, when Saddam brutally suppressed a Shiite rebellion we had encouraged. The emergency before that came during the Iran-Iraq war, when Saddam used chemical weapons in his campaign against the Kurds. In both cases we sat on our hands.

2. Isn't ongoing tyranny a sort of ongoing human rights emergency? No, it is a chronic human rights problem. Different kind of problem, requiring a different kind of solution. (cf. Soviet Union, Apartheid South Africa, etc.)

3. Wouldn't Saddam have provoked a new human rights emergency if he had the chance? Probably so, which is one reason why neither Clark nor any other serious war critic advocated giving him that chance, but instead advocated keeping the pressure on, or cranking it up.

4. Suppose there had been a human rights emergency in progress in Iraq. Would that have made supporting the war a slamdunk? Not necessarily. A disagreement over means would still have been possible, and one would still have had to take into account the likely impact on our other foreign policy goals.

5. Is it morally defensible to consider 'national interest' costs and benefits when contemplating human rights interventions? Our political leaders are morally and constitutionally obliged to do so. Clinton and Clark use the right rule of thumb -- "when you can stop something, you should." But knowing what we "can" do, in particular cases, depends on asking tough questions about likely costs and benefits.

6. Does this mean it is possible we will have to pass on stopping some human rights emergency in the future because it is just too costly to do, in terms of the national interest? Yes, that is very possible, even likely. This obliges us all the more to work through international law and institutions to prevent such emergencies as much as possible.

7. Does this mean that all the times we have taken such a pass in the past are retroactively forgiven, morally speaking? No, that does not follow at all. Both Clinton and Clark have admitted as much, for example, about Rwanda.

8. Isn't all of this just a fancy-shmancy way of excusing political opportunism on Clark's part? Well, if you still believe that, after reading points 1-7, it's possible that we have an empirical disagreement about what was going on in pre-war Iraq. It's also possible that you are refusing to engage the argument of 1-7 because it imperils a fondness for regarding your own moral position as superior to that of those who must struggle with such decisions.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The General's Counter-Offensive

It is truly heartening to see Peter Boyer's transparent hit job against Wesley Clark in The New Yorker countered so swiftly and effectively: on the journalistic plane by the increasingly indispensable Matthew Yglesias, and in this fine piece by Fred Kaplan (who is fast becoming the best reason to keep reading Slate magazine); and in the blogosphere by the ever-judicious Mark Kleiman, responding here and here to right-wing hatchet men Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan.

What is even more heartening (though hardly surprising) is to see that the General can also take care of himself. It wasn't just the admirable way he stood his ground against Tim Russert's snide "tough journalist" act on Meet the Press; or how he dressed-down this second-string Fox News flunky [Video Link], when the latter tried to mine the dregs of the Russert interview for material with which to slander Clark's patriotism. Even better--that is, even more effective at demolishing the perverse 'Clark screwed up in the Balkans' meme that Boyer was aiming to burn into the punditocracy's easily-imprinted collective imagination--is this quite astonishing interview [Video Link] held, of all places, at a USA Today editors' round table.

(BTW, is it just an optical illusion caused by the general decline in the quality of political coverage at the major dailies, or is McPaper starting to get raise its journalistic aspirations?)

Brandishing some searing photojournalism from the heyday of Balkan ethnic cleansing (Ron Haviv's Blood and Honey), Clark explains to the assembled editors in the bluntest possible terms why he pushed as hard as he did for the United States and NATO to do something to stop what was--lest we forget--but the latest in a series of crimes against humanity being perpetrated by Milosevic's brownshirts.

Clark's emotional tone in this part of the interview is as notable as the substance of what he has to say (a transcript would not do the interview justice). Even now, years later, you can see the calm, surface rationality of the professional soldier buckle as Clark struggles with feelings of outrage over what was allowed to happen before NATO was brought to act.

Now, Clark is very good--as good or better, in fact, than any of his four-star contemporaries--at dispassionately analyzing the costs and benefits of military action in a given situation. (See, for notable example, his September 2002 statements and testimony before the House and Senate committees reviewing our Iraq policy -- either of which, incidentally, ought to be sufficient utterly to demolish that other current anti-Clark meme, according to which he is supposed to have 'flip-flopped' on Iraq since becoming a candidate.) But dispassionate policy analysis is not what he is doing here, in this interview. Here his words constitute, as much as anything, an apologia on the part of one human being for his refusal to deny the humanity of others: "This is the pornography of violence... I was the guy on the ground... What was I supposed to do?... I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd allowed this to go on...."

The point of all this, vis-a-vis the Boyer piece and its sources--is crystal clear without Clark having to belabor it in the slightest: Yes, William Cohen and Hugh Shelton, and no doubt others in the Pentagon, became increasingly pissed off at Clark for backing Madeleine Albright's and Richard Holbroke's position that the U.S. needed to take action in the Balkans. Cohen, Shelton and the rest of the brass doubtlessly had their reasons (as Clark has said, the Balkans wasn't one of the two wars--Iraq and Korea--that the Pentagon wanted to fight). But whatever the validity of those reasons, their practical effect at the time was to create a preference for a Supreme Allied Commander who was prepared to sit in his Belgian Chateau while Milosevic was allowed, once again, to queue up the first reel of 20th century Europe's worst nightmare. The trouble was that Wesley Kanne Clark was simply not the man to satisfy that particular preference.

In part because Clark was not willing to be the kind of Supreme Allied Commander that Cohen and Shelton would have preferred, 1.5 million Kosovar Albanians were not added to world's already over-subscribed list of stateless peoples, and Clark himself will soon be taking the witness stand in the Hague. Once there, he (and we) will have the satisfaction of seeing, in the dock, the first head of state in world history to be brought before a court of law to stand trial for crimes against the human status. As Clark says in the interview, it's time to finish the job.