Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Saying what you mean

In a Leonard Pitts, Jr. op-ed piece in my morning paper, he asks why people who say things that damage themselves don't just confess that they meant what they said. The NFL player, Clinton Portis, defended Michael Vick's involvement in dog fighting saying that he didn't know whether Vick actually engaged in this practice but said that it is his property, his dogs, and if that's what he wants to do, that's fine with Clinton. A few hours later he issued a statement saying he wished to make it clear that he didn't condone dog fighting.

Clearly we have a contradiction here. Former President Carter after correctly saying that George W. Bush was the worst President in history insofar as our impact around the world was concerned was forced to provide a semi-retraction. He later said that his remarks were "maybe careless or misinterpreted." This amendment to what he said employs the weasel word "maybe" which makes his "correction" inoperable for it could mean not just "maybe careless or misinterpreted," but also "maybe not careless or misinterpreted." Careless speaking can arise when one is not being as precise as one could be and perhaps should be, but this is not such a case. However, journalists and talking heads who neglected to use his qualification, "as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world," preferring instead the dramatic claim that George was our worst present ever President, were clearly acting in an irresponsible manner in that it counts as a willful misunderstandings of what Carter said. I give you Aljazzera.net, which had a story titled "Carter: Bush 'worst president ever'." The first paragraph says, "Jimmy Carter, the former US president, has called George Bush's presidency "the worst in history"," which repeats the deliberate misrepresentation but then in the third paragraph finally gets around to providing the qualification. I suspect it was this sort of misrepresentation that led to Carter's semi-retraction, for it represented him as making a vastly stronger claim than he actually made.

A "Media with Conscience" web site, ironically, has "Carter: Bush 'worst president ever' ," and has as its initial sentence, "Jimmy Carter, the former US president, has called George Bush's presidency as "the worst in history while also condemning Tony Blair, the out-going British prime minister, for his close support for Bush's policies.." This particular statement appears at a number of sites " and illustrates one of the greatest failings of journalism, namely the mindless repetition of claims others have made. They offer the mysterious statement, "By Agencies," to indicate the source of their story whereas Al Jazerra indicates that it got the photo it displayed from the AP but also used "Agencies" to indicate where it got its story from. I suspect we have some cheaters here who copy AP material without directly attributing the stories to it since that would involve paying the AP a fee and they protect their butts in a minimal fashion by using a totally oblique reference to "agencies" to indicate the source.

What Carter should have said is that his remarks were being misrepresented by journalists in order to provide readers with more dramatic claims than were actually made. It should not come as a surprise to any of you that journalists do this sort of thing, even so-called "responsible journalists." We live in a world of "sound bites" -- juicy clips taken from the mouths of those journalists wish to cover which may or may not accurately represent what the speaker said. Indeed, the first rule of journalism is "Grab the attention of the reader/listener," the second is "write/talk in language that represents events as immediate in the sense provided by Webster's on line dictionary of "occurring, acting, or accomplished without loss or interval of time." Thus, TV reporters often say things like, "The top US commander in Iraq says the US effort there may become even harder before it gets easier," as KWTX (a TV web site) put it on their web page. Way down on the list of journalistic rules is something like "Tell the truth."

The use of the present tense in journalism where the past tense is normally required for accuracy is a time honored practice. In doing research for my book on the language of politics, I ran into a text book that advocated use of the present tense to give immediacy to stories. In what seems to be a Kansas University web site [clip off "-edit/heads.html" from this url], we find "Effective headlines usually involve logical sentence structure, active voice and strong present-tense verbs" on a page that is headlined, "Making an impact — accurately."

So, Clinton Portis said what he meant and then contradicted it in a retraction doubtless inspired by his agent leaving us with a certain knowledge that he meant what he said the first time. But President Carter was misrepresented. His real offense was to violate the time honored practice of former Presidents not to criticize past ones, especially ones still in office. This is a very unfortunate principle since former Presidents may be able to provide us with much more substantive criticisms than others can. I suspect they do this so that the current guy won't trash them when he is out of office.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

How do We Know When a Policy has Failed?

In my morning paper yesterday, there was a story presenting Tony Blair's reaction to the escape of 3 suspected terrorists who were under "partial arrest." The Brits were holding them to keep them from traveling overseas to carry out terrorist attacks. In short, the Brits were trying to protect others from terrorist attacks. Blair wants to toughen the British laws for dealing with such terrorists. The predictable response of Civil-liberties campaigners to Blair's call for tougher measures was
"Punishment without trial is a failed policy on both sides of the Atlantic," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human-rights group Liberty.
This raises the question as to when can we definitively say that a policy has succeeded or failed?

For anyone to make a warranted claim that a policy has failed, one must articulate what one takes the goals of that policy to be and then demonstrate how the policy has failed to satisfy those goals. Our Civil Libertarian did not do that, and for good reason. He can't. The goal of the British and American anti-terrorist laws, however distasteful they my be, is to prevent terrorist attacks. And, since the 9/11/01 attack in the US and the attacks on the London transport system on 7/7/05, there have been no substantive terrorist attacks in these two countries despite the fact that they are the two countries which, not counting Israel, are most despised by Muslim terrorists. By any concrete measure of success or failure, one would have to conclude that the domestic security policies of the two countries have been successful.

It is always possible, of course, that the absence of terrorist attacks in the US and UK since those in 01 and 05 is not at all due to the special domestic security laws of the two countries. One could make an argument that conventional police work has been sufficient to stop most terrorist attacks. Sometimes it is the incompetence of the terrorist that causes a failed attempt. I give you Richard Reid. who wanted to bring down an airliner with a shoe bomb. He was caught by persons on the airplane after an initial effort to set the bomb off failed and then tried, convicted, and sentenced in an American court of law, not some secret military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay.

It could be that the draconian Homeland Security laws have nipped specific attacks in the bud but officials aren't telling us this because they don't want to provide potential terrorists with information as to how we go about catching them. Or we have not heard about such successes because there haven't been any. This is the Catch 22 that the CIA was in during the Cold War. We heard about its failures but it didn't want to tell us about its successes. One of the reasons why they might not have wanted to tell us about their successes is that they might have been more disturbing than the failures. I have in mind the overthrowing of the Allende government in Chile.

I understand why the US government wanted its Homeland Security apparatus. Terrorists represent a special class of criminal. I presume that some criminals might be reformable but terrorists are not in that class of criminals. Bank robbers know they are criminals. Terrorists believe they are not. They do what they do for reasons that seem to them to be perfectly rational and they see their actions as fully justified. American criminal law is ill-suited to dealing with terrorists.

Suppose that we have two groups of people we believe intend to engage in criminal acts. One group plans to rob a bank. The other intends to blow up the bank and kill everyone in the building housing the bank. One cannot arrest either group without probable cause and, given the application of standard provisions of criminal law, one cannot detain either group for more than a relatively short period of time without charging them with a crime. In advance of their carrying out their plans, the best one could hope for is a conspiracy charge. Sadly, that would surely mean that they would be offered a chance to get out on bail and move forward on their plans.

On a well-scripted TV show, our two sets of criminals would be shown putting their plans in action with, perhaps, our terrorist group planting of C4 all over the bank. At the last second, our heroic cops come in and arrest the bad guys red handed. In reality, while we may be willing to let the odd bank robbery happen because we didn't have enough evidence to arrest and incarcerate the bank robbers before the act, we cannot allow the odd terrorist attack to take place because our ordinary criminal laws are insufficient to stop the attack. And that is the rub. The American system of justice is designed not to protect us from future crimes but to capture and punish those who have committed crimes. By its very nature, conventional criminal law is incapable of dealing with terrorists.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Bush and Blair: Liars or Fools?

My morning paper carried a story on a meeting between Bush and His Poodle, as some Brits like to call Blair, headlined
President, Tony Blair express no regrets
This, of course, pertained to their invasion of Iraq.

Now there are two ways in which that headline could be true. It would be true if they simply failed to express regrets as to starting that war or as to how it was conducted and would be true if they explicitly asserted that they had no regrets. I was very interested as to which situation pertained. If the former had been true, the newspaper would have implicated that they should, perhaps, have expressed regrets but chose not to. Instead, the latter interpretation was the case. Both leaders explicitly stated that they had no regrets. In a masterpiece of meaningless prose, we have
Said Bush, "I don't regret things about what may or may not have happened over the past five years."
What in hell does that mean? One problem lies in the use of "about what." Had it read
I don't regret things that may or may not have happened over the past five years.
it would have been a bit clearer. But in saying, in effect, that he doesn't regret things that may not have happened he has crossed over into sheer silliness.

In using the modal "may" Bush has entered a very weaselly world. He could have said, "I don't regret doing anything I did or failing to do things I didn't do." That would have been the manly thing to say. It would, of course, show him to be a total fool or liar or both. A reasonable President -- will we ever get one again? -- might have chosen to regret lying to or, at least, deceiving the UN when it constructed its argument for an invasion of Iraq or might have regretted having totally failed to create plans for various less than optimal outcomes of the invasion such as the people's looting of museums, Saddam's palaces, and other public buildings, or the emergence of a Sunni backlash against both the American forces and the emerging Shiite government, as well as the emergence of Shiite militias or the failure to build an effective Iraqi military and local police forces, just to mention some of the things Bush would have cited as things he regrets if he were not a liar or a fool.

Blair is leaving office a bit prematurely. He was forced out. This is what happens to poodles who poop on British public opinion. It is not unprecedented for an American President to leave prematurely but Bush will not have to do so. This proves how important it is for a democracy to adopt a Parliamentary system of government. We cannot get rid of our Presidents even though they have proved to be liars and fools and that is a sad state of affairs.

Now, to be honest, I would not expect either Bush or Blair to overtly assert that they had regrets about this or that action they took in re Iraq. Blair could do that since he is a goner but not while Bush is holding his leash. The fact is that though Robert S. Mcnamara did express regrets about the Vietnam war he managed he didn't do so until his book In Retrospect came out in 1997. It is worth taking a look at this comment by Mcnamara:
"I have no regrets about not speaking out then. I have deep regrets that we ever got involved or that I supported our involvement," McNamara said. "Most of all, I want to try and look back on what I think were our mistakes -- not all my associates agree they were mistakes -- but ... what I think were our mistakes, and try to draw lessons so we won't make the same mistakes again."
Sadly, because Bush has not learned from past mistakes, the US did repeat the mistake made in Vietnam.

To ask Bush or Blair to express regrets now would be foolish on our part. That is something a regular human might do after making a number of egregious mistakes but it is not what artificial people like Bush and Blair do. Of course, Bush will never mature to the point that he expresses regret about what he did or did not do or may or may not have done or whatever.

Bush and Blair could have had a lovely meeting in which they express their mutual admiration and their belief in the importance of the Anglo-American alliance without overtly saying that they have no regrets about what they have done or didn't do. Saying what they did is an overt insult to the intelligence of the American and British people, to say nothing of the dead and maimed Americans and Iraqis.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why the Democrats Can't Stop the Iraq War

Sen. Aikman once famously said of the war in Vietnam that we should just declare that we have won and leave. Why the hell not?

The Arab world, despite regular defeats, need desperately to be able to come up with a meaning for "victory" that allows them to have victories even if they would seem to have suffered defeats. I think the essence of this is simply that if you are an underdog and survive you have won. Thus Saddam Hussein could declare victory after the first Gulf War even though he got pushed out of Kuwait and was forced to endure no fly zones in the North and South and regular UN investigations simply because he survived and Iraq survived with the same borders it had before Saddam invaded Kuwait. Even if the US and UK were to kick all of the Insurgents out of Iraq and impose a peace settlement between Sunnis and Shiites, you can be damn sure that the Insurgents would declare victory for they could claim that they killed lots of American and British soldiers and they were still alive as a functioning body. Hezbollah did this after being pushed away from the Israeli-Lebanese border which they had previously occupied and seeing Lebanon ruined by Israeli attacks of various sorts.

The US is not accustomed to defeat. We have defeated the Spanish, the Brits, the Mexicans, the mighty Panamanians, the mighty Grenadians, who live on a tiny Island previously unknown to most Americans I would imagine, and hosts of other countries. There have been setbacks. Reagan basically cut and ran after the Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed. However, we were on a peace keeping mission, rather than engaged in war, so there was no real defeat per se. But the Lebanese experience was humiliating and that may have been why Reagan invaded Grenada. It distracted us and possibly salvaged a bit of our pride.

The Korean War is officially not over so we haven't lost it yet. Moreover, S. Korea has endured so we, or rather the UN, could claim a victory in that regard. However, we got our butts kicked in Vietnam. The lesson of Vietnam was that we shouldn't get into foreign wars in which you can not tell the enemy from the good guys and where the enemy can melt into sanctuaries in the jungle or desert sands or wherever, sanctuaries which they can use for R & R and resupply.

Seeing Iraq as a potential Vietnam took some insight. I didn't see that coming but my main man, with whom I was exchanging daily e-mails on the subject long before the war, did. The problem is that Iraq turned out to be not only just like Vietnam in that enemy and friend look alike and that the bad guys were able to melt into the cities and desert just as the Vietnamese melted into the jungles, but was even worse in that there was an unseen potential for serious sectarian violence. This has turned into an unwinnable war. Too bad Bush didn't order our troops to leave after he proclaimed "Mission Accomplished." That way the US could have had a victory.

The Democrats are trying to stop the war. The problem with that is that you can't just stop a war without verbally characterizing what you are doing and the Democrats haven't come up with a verbal characterization that works. Consider the proposal of some Democrats that we should set a firm date for total withdrawal of our troops. Some Republicans immediately called it our "surrender" date. Bush has called such a policy a "cut and run" p0licy. In short, the Republicans have names for that policy that disparage it to such a degree that the Democrats as a whole could never back it. The Democrats do have only one policy that would work for them in the sense that it can be characterized in a positive way and is furthermore acceptable to most Americans. This is the proposal that we set firm benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet on certain dates. If they are able to meet these benchmarks, the Democrats (and Bush, for that matter) could declare victory. If they don't meet these benchmarks, then the Democrats could claim that we helped the Iraqis enough that they should have been able to meet these guidelines. This would warrant the claim that the Iraqis lack the will to engage in useful nation building and thus the failure is theirs not ours. Bush cannot accept this proposal because Bush knows that the Democrats will claim forever that he and the party that supported hem got us into an unwinable war.

Note: One thing I keep forgetting to say in connection with benchmarks and it is important and this is that Bush doesn't want benchmarks with firm dates by which they must be met (or else something or other bad will happen) is that critics can claim his plan isn't working any time a date has past without the associated benchmark being met and he cannot claim that things are hunky dory. With no benchmarks Bush can say that things are going according to his (never to be revealed) plan and no one gan gainsay him.

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Pardon the Interuption

I have been distracted from blogging due to having to endure a host of medical appointments and procedures (pharmacological stress test, contrast-aided 3-D imaging of the heart, Doppler sonogram of my carotids, an angiogram of my carotids, and surgery on one carotid this coming Tuesday). Then comes an X-Ray guided injection of cortisone in my left sacroiliac joint, which, alas, took longer to set up than all of the heart and artery appointments and procedures thanks to an overworked or lazy secretary and too few doctors available for epidurals. Of course the other stuff is more life-threatening than a joint.

The main thing the pesky sacroiliac joint has done is badly compromise my ability to do some gardening. This results in a much slower "work rate," a great term I have learned from soccer broadcasts. My blogging work rate is very poor right now. I have been struggling with how to express my linguistic and political concerns with the issue of winding down the Iraq war. That comes next.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Winning vs Losing in Iraq

Harry Reid has earned the scorn of right wingers and others in claiming that the war in Iraq has been lost. So far as I know, no one is claiming that the US has won this war. But there are many other possibilities besides winning and losing simpliciter.

As you may have gathered by now, I see the analysis of concepts as little different from the analysis of the meanings of words and phrases and I want to turn now to an analysis of the concepts of winning and losing in the context of the Iraq war.

There was a time when winning and losing a war had very clear meanings. The Allies clearly won World Wars I and II in that Germany and in the case of WWII Japan were forced to surrender. In both cases, but especially World War II one could chart whether we were winning or losing by looking at the maps our newspapers carried showing where the front lines were. As the font lines advanced closer and closer to Berlin, the more confident we could be that we were winning. The same could be said for the Allied Island hopping in the Pacific. The closer we got to Japan, the more confidence we could have that we were winning.

There were other measures. In the European theater, the toll on German air force gave us a good measure of the ability of Germany to resist the Allies. The same was true in the Pacific as well. But in the Pacific, a decisive additional measure was the level of destruction meted out to Allied and Japanese Carriers and other major ships.

In the case of the Korean war, we also needed only to look at our morning newspapers to see where the front lines were. There were times when it was clear that UN forces were getting their butts kicked but then their fortunes changed. Ultimately, it became clear that neither side could win the war and a stable truce was established at the 38th parallel.

Iraq, like Vietnam, affords no simple measures of winning and losing. There are, it seems, several different wars going on. There is the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. Then there is the hostilities between US military and Shiite militias, which waxes hot and cold. Then there are the attacks by Insurgents on elements of the Iraqi government, including especially attacks on any Sunnis who cooperate with this government, as well as the general population, including especially Shiite civilians. And there there is the very hot war between the Americans and the Insurgents. In this context, it is virtually impossible to gauge success and failure in the case of the American war effort.

The Democrats, having failed to mandate a withdrawal with their first piece of legislation on funding the Iraq War (as well as that in Afghanistan, which few Americans seem to oppose) have moved to the idea of aligning funding with specific benchmarks that could be argued to represent success, if met, and failure, if not met, in the Iraq war. Interestingly, Bush and his Secretary of Defense (War) seem not to be in complete agreement as to the merits of the use of benchmarks in this way. In my morning paper, which I seem unable to access this morning, but also in the LA Times, there are indications that Gates himself wants to see some "progress" in the war in Iraq. It seems that he, like the Democrats, sees use of a timetable for the Iraqis to meet certain guidelines or benchmarks as the correct way of measuring success and failure in this Iraq.
During a recent trip to the Middle East, Gates told the Iraqi government that time was running out and praised Democratic efforts in the U.S. Congress to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying it would help prod the Iraqis. He reiterated that point during a meeting with reporters last week.
Naturally the Bush administration does not like for Gates to stray from the herd, to use a Texas cowboy metaphor and seems to have forced Gates to backtrack a bit.
A spokesman for Gates insisted there was no distance between the Defense secretary's thinking on the timetable for Iraq and views held by the White House or Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
So, the question arises as to whether Bush is himself prepared to go along with some sort of timetable for Iraqi compliance with American demands, including the Iraqi army's taking control of the war.
I believe Gates is on a completely different page than President Bush and Gen. Petraeus," said a former senior Defense official who has supported the buildup. "He wants to see some results by summer, and if he doesn't see those results, he seems willing to throw the towel in."
It seems Gates is unwilling to go along with Bush's view that if there is to be some sort of timetable for Iraqi compliance with various benchmarks, the timetable should be flexible. Of course, a flexible timetable is no timetable at all. But the fact is that in a war like this the only way to measure success and failure is to measure how well the Iraqis do in regard to meeting various benchmarks such as taking full control of the war against Insurgents and efforts to stop the sectarian violence.

In my view, Bush is afraid to admit defeat in Iraq, that is, to admit that the Iraqi government is incapable of defending itself against against Insurgents of whatever kinds as well as bringing an end to the sectarian violence. Such an admission would mark his administration as a near total failure. He would much prefer to pass this on to a future, very likely Democratic administration. All that really remains is to see how long Republicans running for Congressional seats and Republicans trying to win the the party's Presidential nomination and then the General Election will go along with Bush. What Republican wants to be the one to withdraw American forces from Iraq? Right now, few prominent Republicans are willing to admit that Bush is wearing no clothes. I suspect that will change by late Fall.

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