April 28, 2005

Column 2005-5-28 Commentary

Today, Brooks addresses himself to a topic about which I know little: the impending demographic crisis in Russia. Due to the pressures of watching the NBA playoffs -- er, working, right, working -- I lack the time to flesh out my knowledge beyond one article in the New Yorker. On the other hand, that article in the New Yorker certainly seemed to back everything that Brooks has written here (in fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Brooks read the same article and then just looked up some statistics to flesh out his column), and since there's no official Republican party line about Russian demography, there's no real incentive for Brooks to lie about this subject. Unfortunately for Brooks, he soon strays from a straight recital of the facts to foolish and obviously stupid generalizations. While it is impressive that he manages to get half of this column right, the second half is all-too-typical of Brooks's usual idiocies.

The problem is that Brooks is extremely puzzled as to how the horrible things he talks about -- the high death rates, low birth rates, low life expectancy, health care system in shambles, etc., etc. -- can be compatible with the high rate of economic growth Russia is experiencing. You can almost hear the wheels whirring as Brooks tries to figure out how it is that economic growth is not rescuing the country from its other problems. Unable, like all conservatives, to face the fact that a rising tide does not always lift all, or even most, boats, Brooks instead chooses to blame this paradox on Russia's totalitarian past. Which would be, though a nice example of a conservative blind spot, reasonable if he didn't also choose, for no apparent reason, to generalize this problem in to something he calls "Post-Totalitarian Stress Syndrome". He goes on to theorize some more about his syndrome, but there's really no point in reading it, because it's obvious that he had simply made it up and it is not applicable beyond Russia. Consider, for instance, the other states that formerly made up the Soviet bloc. They all have problems of one sort or another, but none have problems similar to Russia's. In fact, some are doing quite well: for instance, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary seem to have thrown off 40-odd years of Communist domination much more easily than Russia has. Or consider Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, all of which are doing considerably better than Russia despite a history that has been practically identical to Russia's over the past couple hundred years. The idea that all states recover from totalitarian regimes in the same way is patently ridiculous: Russia's problems are, for the most part, uniquely Russian.

Brooks then goes on to assert that we would be seeing something similar in Iraq, even if the insurgency were under control, which is possible but stupid. After all, the war in Chechnya is certainly not helping the mortality figures, and armed conflict is often a result of "profound social chaos". It is quite likely that there is no scenario in which the fall of Saddam Hussein would not have resulted in some sort of insurgency or civil war. But what Brooks really wants to do is predict the downfall of China. Not that he has anything in particular to base this prediction on: there are lots of old people, he says, and lots of young men without anything to do. But because of totalitarianism, China will pay a price! Or, perhaps not. After all, we do have the examples of Taiwan and South Korea, both East Asian nations that made transitions from dictatorships to democracy without too much internal conflict. Of course, China faces a very different situation, but then China also faces a very different situation than Russia did. For one thing, the problems Brooks cites have to do with a surplus of people: Russia suffers from a shortage. And then there's the fact that China's geopolitical position, culture, and history are all very different from Russia's. The only similarity between them is the rule of a totalitarian state with an ideology loosely based on Communism, and while this is an important similarity, it's a little much to say that it will trump all the differences.

It's really sad that Brooks can't get his passion for wild generalizations about culture under control even when writing about international affairs. Somehow, though, I have trouble summoning up any sympathy.

April 24, 2005

Column 2005-4-24 Commentary

In the interests of preserving what's left of my sanity, I'm not going to comment on today's column. I assure you that it's not simple laziness: in fact, the strain of reading this column once left me drained for hours. Brooks has made an art form of unfunnyness, and I mean that in the worst possible way. Please don't bother reading today's column: it won't even give you a nice dose of outrage. Unless, that is, you're an atheist who is wavering in your lack of faith, in which case today's offering from Brooks will certainly confirm for you that there is no God.

April 21, 2005

Column 2005-4-21 Commentary

With a column as completely devoid of any redeeming characteristics as this one, it's hard to know where to begin. (Actually, that's not true: begin with Michael Berube.) Ok, so Brooks does get one thing right: he makes the correct argument for not disposing of the filibuster. But the rest of the column ranges from arguments that are stupefying in their idiocy to outright lies. Perhaps the best place to start is with this claim: "Unless Roe v. Wade is overturned, politics will never get better." If Brooks really believes this, he is probably certifiably insane. Can he really think that the radical Christian right will just quietly die back and stop agitating if Roe v. Wade vanished from the political scene? The obvious consequence of such a move would not be to send the abortion question back to be discussed civilly, or even uncivilly, as would undoubtedly be the case, in state legislatures. Instead, the radical Christians would immediately propose a bill banning abortion in Congress. It would pass the House and face a filibuster in the Senate, and if Brooks thinks there is a lot of pressure on the Republicans to abolish the filibuster to get a handful of judges confirmed, consider the pressure if the result of the nuclear option would be the far more tangible result of a bill banning abortion. And, of course, if the bill gets passed, it would immediately go through a court challenge which would probably end with it being struck down, leaving us in essentially the same place. If the bill doesn't pass because of the filibuster, the focus would shift briefly to the states, until Massachusetts or one of the usual blue-state suspects passed a law allowing abortion, which would immediately face a court challenge. Once it makes it to the Supreme Court, this law would probably be upheld, and then, guess what, we're in exactly the same position again. Striking down Roe v. Wade would change nothing in the abortion fight.

But the real problem with this idea is that the stakes have moved beyond abortion. The Christian right will no longer be satisfied with simply overturning Roe v. Wade. Consider the April 7-8 conference on "Confronting the Judicial War on Faith", held in Washington, D.C, and attended by many prominent conservatives: "two House members; aides to two senators; representatives from the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America; conservative activists Alan Keyes and Morton C. Blackwell; the lawyer for Terri Schiavo's parents; Alabama's "Ten Commandments" judge, Roy Moore; and DeLay, who canceled to attend the pope's funeral." Phyllis Schlafly, another prominent attendee, said that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion overturning the death penalty for juveniles was grounds for impeachment. One Edwin Vieira said that his "bottom line" for dealing with judges was taken from Stalin: "[Stalin] had a slogan, and it worked very well for him, whenever he ran into difficulty: 'no man, no problem.'" The full quote, of course, is "Death solves all problems: no man, no problem." And don't think Vieira didn't know that. But this conference was about more than inflammatory rhetoric: one of its main purposes was to promote the Constitution Restoration Act, also known (or should be known) as the No Church-State Separation Act. The most ridiculous clause is the following: "Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, the Supreme Court shall not have jurisdiction to review, by appeal, writ of certiorari, or otherwise, any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an entity of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer or agent of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official or personal capacity), concerning that entity's, officer's, or agent's acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government." The rest of the Act is equally offensive, but with this it is clear that the new goal of the Christian right is a theocracy. And the fact that this Act could even be introduced into Congress shows just how close we are to the fulfillment of this goal. The end of Roe v. Wade would not halt these people: abortion is not their only grievance any more. There is a vast litany of potential hot-button issues that could replace abortion as the motivating power behind this drive towards theocracy: gay marriage, contraception (especially the morning-after pill), the display of the Ten Commandments or other Christian imagery in public places, prayer in schools, etc., etc. For Brooks to state that the reversal of Roe v. Wade is sufficient, or even necessary, to restore civility to politics is ludicrous: the Christian right will be satisfied with nothing except the legislation of their interpretation of Christian morality, and those of us who don't believe that God is the source of government, but, as this musty old document says, hold that it derives from the consent of the governed, will continue to fight them.

It is almost as stupid to point to Roe v. Wade as the source of all political acrimony today. It was certainly one source of incivility, but hardly the only one. For instance, here's an article from the Eagle Forum about how the Warren Court "fueled the Culture War into an inferno and then placed the federal judiciary squarely in the white-hot center of the conflagration." Strangely, Roe v. Wade wasn't until 1972, three years after Warren retired. And what is the Eagle Forum? It's the radical right-wing organization of prominent conservative Phyllis Schlafly. Perhaps abortion is not quite as central to the radical agenda of the Christian right as Brooks seems to think. In fact, there are a number of similarities between the attacks on Warren by the far right in the fifties and sixties and the attacks on judges by their ideological heirs today. He was denounced as a Communist by the head of the John Birch Society. At one massive rally, a speaker prefigured Edwin Vieira by declaring that impeachment was too good for Warren: he should be hanged. The fact is that the right-wing war on the courts has been going on for a long time, and for good reason: in order to establish a theocracy, the courts will have to be neutered or replaced en masse with Christian conservatives.

Sadly, Brooks's column only goes downhill from the collapse of his main thesis. Consider his claim that "[the Roe decision] took the abortion issue out of the legislatures and put it into the courts." This is obvious nonsense. The issue was put in the courts by Jane Roe, whoever she was. The Supreme Court would have to rule on it at some point, and no matter what Brooks thinks, the basis of that ruling would be the justices' interpretation of the Constitution. If the justices felt, as they did, that the law (a Texas anti-abortion statute) was unconstitutional, they had no choice but to so rule. They could not say "Well, this statute is unconstitutional, but we feel that it would be best if the issue was left to the legislature where a compromise reflecting the centrist consensus can be worked out." And if Brooks had actually read the decision, he would know that it allows states to regulate abortion after the first trimester, as long as an exception is made for the health of the mother. Presumably, this reflects the kind of centrist compromise that Brooks thinks exists (unless Brooks is even crazier than we think). And it's interesting that Brooks feels that legislative compromises would have been regarded as more legitimate than a judgement passed down by the highest court in the land. Does he really believe that the first bill passed by a state legislature allowing abortion would not have been immediately challenged in court? Remember, the Supreme Court, a body which exists purely for the purpose of determining whether legislation is consistent with the Constitution, held that legislation banning abortion is not constutitional. I'm not sure how one could exceed that in terms of legitimacy.

Brooks then states that "Blackmun and his concurring colleagues invented a right to abortion." This is a gross misrepresentation. The actual decision stated that "State criminal abortion laws, like those involved here, that except from criminality only a life-saving procedure on the mother's behalf without regard to the stage of her pregnancy and other interests involved violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy." Essentially, Blackmun asserts that abortion falls under a right to privacy which derives from the 14th amendment. This is not at all the same thing as inventing "a right to abortion" out of whole cloth. Certainly, nowhere in the Constitution does it say that a woman has the right to an abortion. But then again, neither does it say that a woman has no right to an abortion. That is, at least in part, why we have a Supreme Court: so that issues such as this one, to which the Constitution does not directly refer, can be adjudicated. Also, it's interesting to note that abortion was legal in the United States until the middle of the 19th century, so it's not as if the Founding Fathers didn't have the opportunity to express an opinion on this issue at the time the Constitution was written.

Brooks also asserts that Roe v. Wade "imposed a solution more extreme than the policies of just about any other comparable nation." Well, I guess it all depends on what nations Brooks feels are comparable. Apparently, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden are all not comparable as all have abortion policies that are more liberal than the United States's. And as the decision does allow abortion to be heavily regulated after the first trimester, and banned in the third, as long as an exception is made for the health of the mother, that would presumably bring us into line with most First World nations.

What were the consequences of this, according to Brooks? Well, apparently "religious conservatives" felt that "their democratic rights had been usurped by robed elitists." This is, frankly, stunning in its idiocy. What democratic rights had been usurped? The right not to have an abortion? The right to protest against the existence of abortions? The right to believe that abortion is a sin? No, the "right" that has been usurped is the right to impose one's religious views on other people, and I'm pretty sure that this right is not enshrined the Constitution. If a group's religious beliefs lead them to believe that black people are inferior -- and remember, the Bible was often called upon to provide a justification for slavery -- and the Supreme Court says that the Constitution disagrees, does that allow them to claim that their democratic rights have been usurped? Or, more to the point, does that require anyone in their right mind to sympathize which such a claim? Not only is this idea that democratic rights were lost stupid, it's wrong: the decision could be overturned democratically with a constitutional amendment. But Brooks's formulation of the grievance of religious conservatives, that "their democratic rights had been usurped", really shows just how hollow their case is. Abortion is an entirely private affair. It cannot be argued by any stretch of the imagination that an abortion impacts the lives of anyone outside of the family of the woman who chooses to have an abortion. Murder, for instance, is banned because it might happen to us against our will, but no one in the United States will ever be forced to have an abortion against her will. So there is no sense in which anti-abortion protesters can be said to be losing any rights from legal abortion. Their position is based entirely on the contention that abortion is morally wrong, this contention is drawn entirely from their religious beliefs, and therefore to ban abortion would be to violate the separation of church and state in an extremely clear-cut fashion by imposing the religious beliefs of some on all.

Brooks next claims that Roe v. Wade caused liberals to lose touch with the working class because "they never had to have a conversation about values with those voters; they could just rely on the courts to impose their views." This is nonsensical: the whole point of Brooks's piece is that Roe v. Wade injected a lot of acrimony, much of it about abortion, into the national consciousness. Abortion was the topic on everyone's lips. Yet somehow the Democrats managed to get away with never having to discuss their views on abortion. And despite talking about abortion so much, the working class apparently didn't actually care what politicians thought about it. There are plenty of reasons why the Democrats have lost touch with the white working class, but abortion is probably not the most important, and the fact that polls consistently find that a majority of the population supports Roe v. Wade would seem to support this.

Furthermore, Brooks says, both political parties have become "dominated by absolutist activists." Indeed? What, exactly, does an absolutist pro-choice activist look like? This view even over-simplifies the Republican side of things: the Christian right is much more than simply a bunch of anti-abortion activists. Furthermore, polls show that Americans think that the Democratic party is closer to their views on abortion than the Republican party, 45-35, and that any Supreme Court justices who are nominated should uphold Roe v. Wade, 50-34. Given these numbers, it seems that the Democratic party actually reflects the views of a majority of Americans and that it is only the Republicans who have been hijacked by extremists. But we shouldn't be too surprised: it's practically standard operating procedure for Brooks to conjure up a false equivalence between the Democratic and Republican parties. Sadly for him, no matter how hard he tries, he can't cover up the fact that the Democratic party reflects the views of most Americans on abortion, and the minority of hard-core activists on the Republican side are responsible for just about all of the lack of political civility he deplores.

Brooks also casually drops off the claim that abortion is never the subject of judicial confirmation battles: instead, some other pretext is sought. This sounds like an attempt to suggest that the judicial nominees the Republicans are currently seeking to push through are perfectly fine except for their anti-abortion views, so just to set the record straight, here's Alberto Gonzales attacking the right-wing judicial activism of Fifth Circuit nominee Priscilla Owen (this woman is too much of an activist even for the Attorney General who dismissed the Geneva Conventions as quaint); a wide-ranging report on D.C. Circuit nominee Janice Rogers Brown, who is probably certifiably insane; a brief discussion of the record of Eleventh Circuit nominee William Pryor, the man who complained when the Supreme Court ruled that "handcuffing a prisoner to a hitching post and denying him clothing, water, and even bathroom breaks" was cruel and unusual punishment (no wonder he was nominated by Bush); and a press release on D.C. Circuit nominee Thomas Griffith, who practiced law in Utah for several years without a license (I really feel that that one speaks for itself).

Brooks then comes to the filibuster, and breaks out the Big Lie (there's always one in these columns): "Up until now, minorities have generally not used the filibuster to defeat nominees that have majority support. They have allowed nominees to have an up or down vote." This is partly simply misleading: minorities, including groups of Republicans currently in the Senate and fighting to destroy the filibuster, have attempted to use it to defeat nominees before, but failed. But in a larger sense this is a lie. During the Clinton Administration, there were a number of ways to keep nominees from being approved without resorting to the filibuster. There was the blue slip system, by which senators were allowed to overrule the appointment of judges to courts in their home states. There was a rule stating that if any Judiciary Committee member objects to a nominee, at least one minority member must support the nominee. Anonymous floor holds could be placed on nominees to prevent votes. And many nominees were simply denied hearings, even nominees with bipartisan support. Clinton even consulted with Republican Senators on nominations, especially nominations for courts in their home states. As a result, Republicans did not have to resort to the filibuster to stop judges they disapproved of: such nominations simply died in committee. As a result of these tactics, in 1999-2000 19 of 32 Clinton appeals-court nominee were prevented from receiving votes (by contrast, Democrats have blocked 10 of 52 Bush appeals-court nominees in his entire first term). But when Bush assumed the presidency, all the rules that the Republicans had used to slow nominations during Clinton's terms were eliminated. Unable to fight nominations in committee, the Democrats were forced to resort to the filibuster, and the Republicans have now decided that even this is too much power over nominations.

Aside from Brooks's blithe assertion that the Republicans have the right to eliminate the filibuster, he is mostly right about why the Republicans should not eliminate the filibuster. But once past that explanation, he oversimplifies things. It is not abortion activists who want the filibuster gone: it is religious conservatives who want far, far more than the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And he does a nice job of suggesting that the Democrats would carry out their threat to shut down Senate business if the Republicans deploy the nuclear option because otherwise their pro-choice activists would eat them, which is nonsense. It is the Republicans who are being pushed to the nuclear option by the radical Christian right, and if they do kill the filibuster, the Democrats will fight back because they believe that, even though they are the minority party, they do have some rights in the Senate (as opposed to the House, where Democrats have no rights at all). Abortion is really only a secondary motivating factor now: it might well be that the Terry Schiavo controversy has (if only temporarily) surpassed abortion (and gay marriage) as the number one right-wing complaint about activist judges.

In his final paragraph, Brooks declares "The entire country is trapped." This is correct: the problem is that Brooks claims that we have been trapped by a handful of Supreme Court justices, and by extension all women who want abortions. Because that is really what it comes down to: at some point, some woman was going to sue because the law of the state she resided in prevented her from making a decision about what she could do with her own body, and the Supreme Court would hold that no state law could interfere with her right to control her body (the decision is more complicated than that, of course, as has been pointed out above, but for this argument, simplicity will suffice). This is a truly classic and disgusting blame-the-victim approach, which Brooks attempts to hide by saying that we need to have a "democratic abortion debate." But why is such a thing necessary? If such a debate should result in a majority deciding that they are more qualified to regulate women's bodies than the women themselves are, would that make them right? In fact, such a situation is exactly one where the courts should step in, according to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Papers 78: "This independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of those ill humors, which . . . the influence of particular conjunctures, sometimes disseminate among the people themselves, and which . . . have a tendency, . . . to occasion dangerous innovations in the government, and serious oppressions of the minor party in the community." So no, we are not trapped by Supreme Court judges, or by women who want the right to control their own bodies: we are trapped by extremist fundamentalist Christians who are attempting to impose their beliefs on the entire country.

And, apparently, the Times, and its readers, are trapped by Brooks. Perhaps he has compromising photographs of the Times editors? Maybe they owe him vast sums lost at the weekly editorial and op-ed pages poker game? Or does Brooks have supernatural powers that allows him to prevent the Times editors from discerning just how shitty his work is? Today's column is a mass of lies, distortions, and idiocies, and it's hardly the first to match that description, yet it is extremely unlikely that Brooks will be fired for it.

April 20, 2005

Special non-David Brooks edition

Well, it turns out I'm not as busy as I thought this week. Or, to put it another way, it was too hot to work today (M.I.T. doesn't seem to have their air conditioning going yet, though it's hard to blame them since it's only April) and everybody else left early, so I did the same. However, Brooks's latest was pretty reasonable, and I'm getting a little sick of Brooks (that is, sick of reviewing Brooks: I've been sick of Brooks since about two nanoseconds after reading his first Times column). Plus, I read this attack on Juan Cole (Professor of History at the University of Michigan and blogger), by one Ephraim Karsh, which is easily as moronic as anything David Brooks has come out with, so I thought I'd take a crack at it for a change of pace, rather than digging up some old piece of Brooksiana (notwithstanding the fact that Giblets has already covered this topic in far superior fashion).

The basic thesis of this work is that Juan Cole, a highly respected historian and president of the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America, is purveying Arabist misconceptions and, more importantly, "conspiratorial anti-Semitism" on his blog about Middle Eastern affairs. Skipping lightly over introductory material which serves largely to suggest that Professor Cole has engaged in his blogging at least in part to raise his personal profile, the first real argument of the piece is that Cole subscribes to the "Arabist orthodoxy" that "Many of the problems of contemporary Arab societies are . . . ascribed to the legacy of Western colonialism." Further, "The West is blamed for (allegedly) carving the defunct Ottoman Empire into artificial entities, in accordance with its imperial interests and with complete disregard for the yearning of the indigenous peoples for political unity." Now, I am not an expert in Middle Eastern studies, but this seems to be a quite reasonable contention to me. After all, much the same thing happened in Africa, and even in Europe (surely no one would assert that Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia were natural countries with sensible boundaries): why should the Middle East be any different? To refute these claims, Karsh asserts that local leaders often played an "active role" in reshaping their regions. This may be the case, but from a strictly common-sense point of view, it would seem that the interests of the imperial powers would be likely to override those of the locals should they come into conflict. And even if this were the case, any local leaders were unlikely to be thinking of the indigenous peoples as a whole, but rather of the prospects for their own gain. Karsh also attempts to refute Cole's claim that "the Middle East suffers from having small countries imposed by Western colonialism" by pointing out that Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Egypt are all bigger than Great Britain. Well, you don't have to have a PhD in history to see that this argument is completely ridiculous. The situations of, say, Egypt and Great Britain are in no way analagous. Also, if we examine the context of the quote, we see that Cole is, in fact, referring to countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the U.A.E., etc., which are undeniably quite small. Would it be better for the Middle East if Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf Emirates were all the same country? Would that have made more sense? Perhaps not, but simply asserting that Syria is larger than Great Britain is not an argument that the answers to those questions should be no. And, of course, at the time Britain actually was larger than any of the countries it created, given that it still controlled a vast empire, including India, a fact that seems to have slipped Karsh's mind.

Karsh then asserts that there has been "no real discussion of the veracity of this blame-the-West hypothesis since . . . the mid '30's", and that one Elie Kedourie (who he describes as an eminent historian) was shunned by the "denizens of Middle Eastern studies" for attacking the "blame-the-West hypothesis". All this means exactly nothing, of course. There has been no real discussion of the creationist hypothesis in evolutionary biology for years, and those promoting it are shunned. Does this make them right and indict evolutionary biologists as close-minded? While this is an extreme example, it seems equally extreme to absolve Britain for all responsibility for the problems suffered in a Middle East that Britain largely shaped. According to this (extremely friendly) biography, Kedourie was a big fan of empire in general and the British empire in particular and blames the problems of the Middle East on the "
resurgence of its own despotic tradition". Which is certainly one thesis, and one that my general lack of knowledge on the subject prevents me from dismissing. On the other hand, Karsh makes no real effort to defend it, or, really, to present any sort of alternative to the arguments of Cole and the Arabists (I should note at this point that I have no idea if Cole's arguments are really Arabist, but I assume that Karsh wouldn't keep calling them that if there wasn't a least a strong connection).

This trend of presenting no alternatives continues when Karsh talks of how these Arabist misconceptions prevent "a correct prognosis" of the causes of 9/11. He dismisses the Arabist claim that "September 11 as a response to an arrogant and self-serving U.S. foreign policy by a fringe extremist group whose violent interpretation of Islam has little to do with the actual spirit and teachings of this religion." What is the correct explanation? Well, Karsh doesn't really seem to want to give one, which is not actually too surprising, as judging by the phrase "Ignoring centuries of Islamic jihads against those deemed infidels and the deeply illiberal elements of Islam," Karsh thinks the reason is that Muslims are evil. That may be a slightly simplistic interpretation of what Karsh thinks caused 9/11, but only slightly. After all, we could turn Karsh's argument around and use it to discover that Eric Rudolph committed terrorist attacks because he was Christian and Christians are evil. We could point to a history of Christian holy wars, down to the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the existence of deeply illiberal elements of Christianity. And we would be completely full of shit. Hell, we could probably use the same argument on Jewish terrorists: after all, the Bible glorifies a number of holy wars (against, e.g., the Philistines), and there are decidedly illiberal Jewish elements, such as the settler movement. Actually, this argument is applicable to almost any religion. There may, of course, be more to the argument that Islam makes people terrorists (though I strongly doubt it), but Karsh fails to present it, and really, the fact that there are millions and millions of Muslims who are not and never will be terrorists would seem to be an important argument against this hypothesis.

At this point, we get to the real meat of Karsh's argument: Cole is an anti-Semite. Karsh first claims that Cole's anti-Semitism manifests itself in that Cole is wrong in claiming that anti-Semitism in the Arab world is a response to Israel and in blaming Israel for the Middle East's problems. He constructs his argument on the latter point entirely from two quotes taken from a review of Bernard Lewis's "What Went Wrong" by Cole (wrongly identified as a blog post). The first quote, "
"rather than saddling a small, poor peasant country with 500,000 immigrants hungry to make the place their own," sounds bad, especially as Karsh prefaces it with "it would have been preferable for the British to have simply accepted Jewish refugees", and leaves out Cole's actual words, "While one certainly cheers the British for giving refuge in Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler, it would have been nobler yet to admit them to the British Isles". Given that the idea of sending the Jews to Palestine -- especially the Balfour declaration, declaring British support for a Jewish homeland -- was at least in part a product of British anti-Semitism, Cole would seem to be at least partly correct here. He may underestimate the extent to which the Jews wanted to go to Palestine, but Karsh probably underestimates the extent to which the formation of Israel was an "ordinary colonialist project". After all, just because many of the settlers wanted to be there doesn't mean that it's not colonialism and the natives are not being oppressed: see, e.g., the early history of the United States. The second quote -- "the rise of Israel put pressure on Arab budgets, when a different sort of neighbour might have allowed them to invest the money in more fruitful areas than the military" -- while more damning, is also taken out of context: it is a small part of an argument that the lack of industrialization in the Arab world is not a direct consequence of Islam. Not a very convincing part of that argument, to be sure, but there is just one sentence discussing this claim. It is certainly not intended to explain Arab militarism.

By contrast, Karsh's claim that Cole is wrong that Israel is solely responsible for Arab anti-Semitism actually has a multitude of facts to back it up, though most of his specific assertions tend to be about fairly recent events and thus do not really refute Cole's claims. Is Karsh correct? Well, I don't know for sure, but Bernard Lewis doesn't think so.
And a brief Google search found no dissenting voices. I wouldn't want to declare an academic controversy finished simply because I can't find anything to support one side on Google, but Bernard Lewis is a fairly well-known voice in the field, and it seems that the case may not be as open-and-shut as Karsh thinks.

After this, Karsh throws all attempts at academic argument to the winds and simply accuses Cole of being anti-Semitic, largely by taking more quotes out of context. He claims Cole asserts that U.S. foreign policy is "
controlled by a ruthless Zionist cabal implanted at the highest echelons of the Bush administration", using, in Cole's words, "sneaky methods of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of intelligence". But in fact, when he uses those words, Cole is referring to the neocons, who are undeniably controlling American foreign policy. And immediately afterwards, Cole points out that the person most guilty of using these tactics is Dick Cheney, who is not Jewish. Karsh gives a whole paragraph to the fact that Cole despises Ariel Sharon, which is really irrelevant (as is his snark about how this loathing "comes from a historian priding himself on his dispassionate and evenhanded approach": obviously, he would be more evenhanded in an actual paper, but this is a blog, for crying out loud). Then Karsh makes a big deal out of Cole supposedly substituting the term "Likudniks" for "Neoconservatives". Yet a search of Cole's site turns up a mere nine hits for "likudniks", compared to 101 for "neocons". Karsh makes much of Cole's statement that "if Sharon and AIPAC decide that they need the US government to take military action against Iran, it is likely that the US government will do so." According to Karsh, "in Cole's fertile imagination, there are no limits to Sharon's domination of the White House." But once again he has taken Cole out of context. Later in the same paragraph of the piece that quote is taken from, Cole says "So it isn't that AIPAC can snap its fingers and make something happen in Washington. But it can put together powerful coalitions and leverage its influence through policy allies, which does tend to make things happen." And given the strong pro-Israel views among the evangelical community and the likely support from such a venture from major oil interests and neoconservatives, it's hard to disagree with this. Karsh also laughs at Cole for speculating that the attempt to capture Muqtada al-Sadr in April 2004, which sparked two months of violence, was caused by al-Sadr objecting loudly "to Sharon's murder of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the clerical leader of the Hamas Party." But in his actual post, Cole goes on to say that al-Sadr "had promised to be the right hand of Hamas in Iraq, and to open Hamas offices all around the country." So it was more than simply loud denunciations of the assassination. And that "The CPA had been tempted to go after Muqtada on more than one previous occasion, but it appears that cooler heads, like Gen. John Abizaid, had prevailed." So perhaps the idea of al-Sadr becoming closely associated with Hamas prompted the Americans to act. Note further that the killing of the four Blackwater mercenaries in Fallujah were declared to be revenge for the assassination of Yassin. Apparently, that event had more reverberations in Iraq than Karsh is willing to accept.

Karsh's most ludicrous paragraph deserves its own special treatment. Karsh asserts: " Cole provides no proof whatsoever for this conspiratorial thinking--there is none. During Saddam's 25 years in power, Iraq killed not a single Israeli. Nor has a single American soldier ever been sent to fight on Israel's behalf. It is therefore complete nonsense to suggest that the United States would go to war to defend Israel, rather than its own national security." First of all, if Saddam never killed any Israelis, it wasn't for lack of trying. And it's interesting that Karsh doesn't note that Saddam paid the families of suicide bombers, as that was the main tie between Saddam and terrorism. And while it is true that no American soldiers have ever fought on Israel's behalf, that's probably because Israel didn't really need the help. Furthermore, it is possible to help a country win a war in other ways than simply sending soldiers: a country can send money, over $80 billion in the past fifty years, and weapons, about $7 billion worth in the past decade alone. But to state that the United States would never go to war to defend Israel is ridiculous. Of course the United States would go to war to defend Israel, if it felt that it was necessary. In fact, some Israelis have suggested that one of the primary motivations of the Iraq war was to improve Israel's security.

Unsurprisingly, Karsh's argument boils down to this: Cole opposes the right-wing Israelis, their policies and their enablers in the U.S. government, and therefore is anti-Semitic. (Yes, many of those enablers are Jewish, but if we had a Democratic government with a liberal President and Israel had a Labor government, most of the people determining America's Middle East policy at the Feith-Perle-Abrams level would be left-wing Jews.) And this leads us to the real reason Karsh writes this article: to identify modern Judaism with the Likud party, and thus to establish that to criticize Likud and its policies is to be objectively anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. And this makes me angry, because I'm Jewish (well, ethnically Jewish), and I object to Likud's policies and the war in Iraq. There is no sense whatsoever in which Likud and Ariel Sharon can be said to speak for me, and yet by equating Cole's criticism of Likud and its ideological allies with anti-Semitism, Karsh is implying that, in fact, my views are exactly the same as those of Likud's, or should be. This is an insult to me, to my Jewish relatives and friends (all of whom oppose Likud and the Iraq war), and in fact to all Jews, in the United States and even in Israel, who object to Likud policies and to the war in Iraq. And given that American Jews rejected the Republicans, despite the close ties between them and Likud and the Iraq war, by large margins in the last election, I would guess that this group is easily a majority of American Jews. Perhaps Karsh will pause and consider that before he next accuses someone of anti-Semitism for suggesting that ideological allies of Likud control much of America's Middle Eastern policy. Perhaps he'll even apologize. Personally, I'm not holding my breath.

April 19, 2005

Column 2005-4-17 Commentary

Amazingly, Brooks has come out with another eminently reasonable column: this one has the thesis that 50 Cent rapping about blow jobs does not mean that the youth of America are engaged in a vast orgy. He even makes the point that this exact same thing (no, not 50 Cent rapping about blow jobs, people talking about the degeneracy and general no-goodness of the younger generation) has been happening for years and years, and yet somehow we manage to make it to the next generation without the apocalyptic collapse of American culture. While the column is not all good, I'm too busy right now to go into its minor idiocies, so I'll leave their extraction as an exercise for the reader (max five pages, please. This will count for 25% of your final grade.)

So over the past two months, Brooks has been averaging one good column a month. In other words, he's on a hot streak. I just wonder if he'll repudiate the thesis of this column in a couple of weeks, the same way he repudiated his corruption column. It's less likely, since this column is unlikely to interfere with his partisan hack duties, but if Tom DeLay proposes the Get That Smut off the Airwaves Bill (and at this point DeLay will do anything to keep attention off of his corruption scandals), all bets are off.

April 14, 2005

Column 2005-4-14 Commentary

First of all, I wish to allay any fears you may have had that Brooks's Sunday column portended a three-Brooks-column week. In fact, the Times was simply reorganizing its columnists to make room for the addition of one John Tierney. On the basis of exactly one column, I can say that Tierney, while not too bright, isn't quite the moron that Brooks is, so don't expect a companion anti-John Tierney blog to pop up any time soon, unless someone else is willing to write it. Anyway, Tierney is completely unknown outside the Times, while the sad truth is that there are people out there who think that Brooks has important and interesting insights into modern American culture.

Hopefully, this column will help these people realize the awful mistake they are making. First of all, it's obvious that Brooks wrote it in about fifteen minutes. The fact that there are no typos or grammatical howlers proves only that the Times has enough self-respect left to edit for spelling and grammar. What other conclusion can one come to, given that Brooks put almost no effort into writing this column? Supposedly, Brooks is defending Bolton, but he spends exactly two sentences on this defense, saying that "it is ridiculous to say [Bolton] doesn't believe in the United Nations." Apparently, this is a "canard spread by journalists who haven't bothered to read his stuff and by crafty politicians who aren't willing to say what the Bolton debate is really about." Well, for one thing, the Bolton debate is about more than simply whether or not he believes in the United Nations, but even if we let Brooks simplify it down to this one point, not one shred of evidence is presented to suggest that Bolton believes in the U.N. After all, mounting an effective defence of Bolton would require a lot of work, especially as it's not really possible. Instead, Brooks summons up some strawmen who are attempting to create a world government by pushing "creeping institutions like the International Criminal Court." And he then proceeds to argue against them by unleashing his latent black helicopter fantasies. Brooks generally doesn't strike you as the type of lunatic who goes out to Idaho to form a militia to defend against the coming U.N. invasion and shows you the locations of the concentration camps for U.S. citizens which he has deduced by decoding the backs of cereal boxes, but apparently all conservatives have a strain of this kind of thinking running through them, and rather than doing any actual work on this column, Brooks simply unleashes his paranoia. It's not that his arguments are usually much more coherent than this, but usually you feel that he actually put some thought into them. Maybe he just forgot that his column is now on Thursday and had to put something together at the last minute.

For instance, there's the case of Bolton. Apparently, it's nonsense to say that Bolton doesn't believe in the U.N. I wonder how Brooks explains this statement, then? “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so—because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States.” Or how about this one: "The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." Sure seems like Bolton doesn't really believe in the U.N. all that much. Or how about this: "If I were redoing the security council today, I'd have one permanent member because that's the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world." Brooks began his career with Jesse Helms, another notable U.N.-basher, so this is hardly surprising. But it is hardly the only reason why Bolton's nomination has garnered so much opposition. For instance, Bolton says that he opposes negotiations with rogue states: "I don't do carrots." In fact, he very nearly completely undermined the opening of the six-party talks with North Korea by giving an inflammatory, though true, speech that was not approved by the State Department or the State Department's chief North Korean envoy, Jack Pritchard. The North Koreans responded with a statement in which Bolton was referred to as "scum", and Pritchard was treated to a tirade by the North Korean envoys. Pritchard responded by reiterating that only the President and the Secretary of State could make U.S. policy, which salvaged the talks, but when Bolton found out that Pritchard had not defended him, he was infuriated and pressed for Pritchard to be fired. It should be mentioned that his was only part of a pattern of Bolton undermining American policy towards North Korea. Less than a month later, Pritchard stepped down, only days before the talks were set to begin. It could be a coincidence, but Bolton was undoubtedly close to the President: he worked for Bush and Cheney in the 2000 campaign, and was a big enough player to be sent to Miami-Dade County to stop the counting of ballots. And Bolton has a history of attacking people who opposed him: in 2002, when the chief bioweapons analyst for the State Departent prevented him from claiming in a speech that Cuba had a bioweapons program because the evidence was too shaky Bolton attempted to have the analyst fired. Unsurprisingly, Bolton also has a history of pushing shaky intelligence: he was one of the main forces behind the claim that Iraq was attempting to obtain uranium from Niger. Furthermore, Bolton has been described an "anti-diplomat" and as a "kiss-up, kick-down" person by former State Department officials. The one good thing that can be said for Bolton is that he's consistent: sadly, he's consistently crazy.

Of course, Brooks doesn't even bother trying to address the above body of evidence. Instead, he invents some people who, frustrated by the difficulties of imposing an immediate world government, have decided to go at piece by piece by, shockingly, trying to impose a few basic rules on the world. These crazy people believe that "
a world of separate nations, living by the law of the jungle, will inevitably be a violent world." In order to avoid this situation, they champion creeping institutions like the ICC, which is so dangerous to sovereignty that its charter was copied wholesale to provide the basis of the Iraq Special Tribunal that will try Saddam. First of all, it seems pretty obvious that a world of separate nations living by the law of the jungle will indeed be pretty violent. A cursory glance at history should confirm this. What people are actually saying is that the community of nations is much like a community of ordinary people: it needs rules to keep it in order. Brooks believes this too, he just thinks that there should be only one rule: you do what the U.S. tells you, or we overthrow your government in the name of freedom. Brooks and all the neocons who think that the U.S. needs to project its power in the name of democracy are firm believers in "global governance", they just feel that the U.S. needs to provide governance to the globe rather than having the governance be provided by some wimpy consensus. Also, it should be noted that exactly nobody treats General Assembly resolutions as an emerging body of interational law. Hardly anybody even knows what the General Assembly does, since it's entirely meaningless. If Brooks had said Security Council resolutions, he might have a point, but that's what happens when you dash off your columns in a quarter of an hour. Anyway, since all Security Council resolutions have the U.S. imprimatur, it's unclear why Brooks would oppose them.

Having established his global government-pushing straw men, Brooks proceeds to list five reasons why Americans will never accept global government. The first one is reasonable, though Brooks presents it strangely: he says that Americans will never accept global government because it is undemocratic. This suggests that global government is inherently undemocratic, an obviously ridiculous notion. What he really means is that "
there is no global democracy, no sense of common peoplehood and trust." This is completely true and is the main reason why nobody is pushing for a global government. After making this fairly reasonable statement, Brooks lets his fears of black helicopters take over and devotes the rest of the column to stupidity and outright falsehoods. His second reason why Americans will never accept a global government falls in the former category: he asserts that it invariably involves corruption because of a "lack of democratic accountability." This is exactly backwards, of course: the corruption occurs, at least in part, because the U.N., not being a government, has no accountability at all. Were the U.N. to become an actual government, democratic accountability would be introduced and corruption would be reduced, though, of course, not eliminated, as a brief inspection of Tom DeLay's record would reveal.

His third reason is an outright lie: "we love our Constitution and will never grant any other law supremacy over it." Brooks may not realize it, but there are already international institutions in place that impose international laws that take supremacy over the constitution. Those institutions are the WTO and NAFTA, and I'm sure that Brooks strongly supported U.S. entry into both of them. Instances of NAFTA or the WTO overruling U.S. laws are extremely numerous, but apparently David Brooks hasn't heard of any of them. Of course, that's one of the problems with writing your columns in 15 minutes: it cuts down on your research time, leaving you unable to establish whether or not your assertions are actually backed up by any facts. On the other hand, it may be that Brooks doesn't mind if laws establishing labor or environmental methods are overruled at the behest of business groups, even if it comes via an extra-Constitutional mechanism such as the WTO. Also, it should be noted that the authority granted to the Internation Criminal Court is hardly sloppy. And Europhobic Brooks can't resist the temptation to get in a dig at Europeans for allowing "transnational organizations to overrule [their] own laws, regulations and precedents." Perhaps Brooks simply hasn't heard of the European Parliament or the European Constitution, which are designed to include the "laws, regulations, and precedents" of the member states, standardize them, and add democratic accountability to the whole structure?

Next, Brooks makes the claim that "these mushy international organizations liberate the barbaric and handcuff the civilized." This is truly ludicrous: having spent the previous few paragraphs establishing firmly why the U.N. should not be given any actual power, he now complains that it is unable to firmly assert itself. International organizations are only "mushy" when the member states refuse to give them a backbone. If the U.N. was more like a government, with the power to tax and raise armies, it could do more than simply aim resolutions at Milosevic. Since it is not, it is completely reliant on the richer member states to carry out its foreign policy. Brooks says that "forces of decency" are "paralyzed as they wait for the 'international community,'" but it would be more accurate to say that they are using the international community as an excuse for inaction. Of course the U.N.'s resolutions against Milosevic or Sudan will be ignored if it is clear that no one is willing to actually back them up with force. If, for instance, the United States had made it clear that it was willing to take energetic steps to stop the killing in Darfur -- if Bush had come forward and said that the U.S. wanted a Security council resolution authorizing an arms embargo and possibly other sanctions as well as a large force of peacekeepers, that the U.S. would foot some sizable part of the bill for said peacekeepers, and that the U.S. would supply planes from carriers in the Persian gulf to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur and give the peacekeepers air support and help with their logistical problems -- things would have been very different. France and Britain would have backed such a resolution, and China and Russia would probably have been reluctant to oppose it if it was clear that the U.S. was really behind it. More money would have been found and the situation might well be much better. Instead, while Bush makes a few speeches denouncing the violence in general terms, he makes it fairly clear that Sudan is not nearly as close to the top of his priority list as, say, Iraq. The result is that the African Union deploys some peacekeepers, but has difficulty due to its logistical deficiencies, the Chinese are emboldened to quietly fight anti-Sudan resolutions in the Security Council due to their demand for Sudanese oil, and progress is very slow. And for Brooks to claim that the international community can "handcuff" anybody is ludicrous: after all, if such was the case, the U.S. would never have invaded Iraq. Really, what this amounts to is that Brooks wants an institution that works only if the U.S. is active in it, and then complains when it doesn't work when the U.S. is not active.

Finally, Brooks says that the American people "will never grant legitimacy to forums that are so often manipulated for partisan ends." One wonders if Brooks has been paying any attention to the proceedings of Congress over the past, oh, 200+ years. Because if he has, he would realize that Congress has been manipulated for partisan ends fairly often. What he is really referring too is the General Assembly's penchant for passing anti-U.S. and anti-Israel resolutions. However, since the General Assembly has no power and its resolutions are essentially meaningless, this is pretty irrelevant. In fact, the General Assembly's lack of power probably contributes to the passage of these resolutions: since no member state will ever worry about their content, they are free to pass anything they feel like.

Brooks finishes up by misrepresenting Bolton's position on the U.N. and engaging in what appears at first to be some more demolishing of straw men: "We will never be so seduced by vapid pieties about global cooperation that we'll join a system that is both unworkable and undemocratic." But a bit of thought reveals that this statement is just wrong, or correct only if we assume that pushing free trade does not fall under the heading of "vapid pieties" and that the WTO works. Otherwise, he already have joined a system that is decidedly undemocratic and has the authority to overrule the Constitution. Yet, strangely enough, Brooks doesn't mention it once in this column. However, given the sheer number of mistakes in this column, it's hard to muster up much outrage over this omission. If the Times isn't going to fire Brooks, couldn't they at least demand that he put more than fifteen minutes of effort into his columns?

April 10, 2005

Column 2005-4-10 Commentary

First of all, I want to say that if the Times is going to start moving Brooks's column around (or, God forbid, giving him three columns a week), they really ought to notify me first. It seems only fair that if I'm going to have to write two Brooks reviews in a weekend, I ought to have advance knowledge of this fact so I can prepare myself. Luckily, this column continues Brooks's series of auditions for a spot outside of the editorial pages. Following his rejection by the Sports section, he has now set his sights on Arts and Leisure with a column in which he attempts to review Saul Bellow's oeuvre. Given that this is Brooks we're talking about, it's probably completely idiotic, but unlike Brooks, I don't attempt to talk about subjects about which I know nothing (well, at least not as often as Brooks does), and Bellow is one of those subjects. I read Henderson the Rain King in high school, and tried Herzog recently but didn't get anywhere with it, so I am completely unqualified to comment on Brooks's analysis. However, there are a couple of things that I feel I can mention without presuming on a knowledge of Saul Bellow that I don't possess.

The screamingly glaring un-Bellow-related point is that Brooks makes the whole column an exercise in Euro-bashing. Essentially, he takes the fact that he doesn't know much about culture in Europe these days and takes that to mean that there isn't any such thing. "Quick, what book is the talk of Berlin? Who is the François Truffaut of our moment?" Brooks asks, but the fact that he, and presumably most readers, doesn't know the answers to these questions does not mean that European culture is no longer important: it just means that Brooks and his readers are typical clueless Americans. What makes this most interesting is that he says that Bellow's work came out of a revolution against European cultural elitism: i.e., Bellow was revolting against the fact that no one in Europe cared what book was the talk of Chicago, or who was the D.W. Griffith of Bellow's moment. Given this context, it is rather strange that Brooks can't see that he is now engaging in the exact same phenomenon, only in the opposite direction. At one point, the cultural centers of the world were Paris, London, and Berlin (yes, I know, I'm being Eurocentric, but I'm simply meeting Brooks on his own terms). Now they are Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. This does not mean that European (or Asian, or African, or Latin American) culture is now somehow insignificant, just as American culture was not worthless in the 19th and early 20th century when European culture was the dominant world influence. It's not particularly surprising that Brooks would use his arrogance and ignorance as the basis for a sweeping assertion about European culture, but given the thesis of his column, it's slightly disappointing.

Also, Brooks says that the Bellow defined Americanness as the idea that "we can all grow up to be noble," which "acknowledges the virtue of aristocratic greatness and reconciles it with equality." All fine and good, but in the next paragraph Brooks says that the "comic twist" Bellow put on this idea is that it often detaches his characters from reality. Brooks refers to this fairly dimissively, but this would seem to undermine his claim that Bellow has somehow elevated "the American scramble for success" to a more spiritual plane. Rather, it suggests that Bellow is trying to make a point about the impossibility of achieving this ideal and is actually making fun of American society and its emphasis on success. It's possible, of course, that the comic twist is simply that, a comic twist, but if it shows up in every one of Bellow's books, we'd have to at least consider the possibility that it's an important part of Bellow's philosophy. At least, we would if we have any intellectual honesty, but then we wouldn't be David Brooks, would we?

Finally, I don't think Brooks is going to pull of a transfer to Arts and Leisure with this column. He does his best, but he needs to stop slipping into his usual culture schtick and stick to the topic at hand. My prediction is that he tries out for the Business section next. Or perhaps he'll stick with the arts but try music or movies instead. There's a slight possibility that the Times will fire him first, but I'm not holding my breath.

April 09, 2005

Column 2005-4-09 Commentary

Today's column offers the amusing but sadly all too rare spectacle of Brooks coming into contact with reality. This time, reality informs Brooks that the American people disapproved of the Schiavo spectacle, that they don't like Social Security privatization, and that Americans are growing steadily more suspicious of the rampantly and unapologetically corrupt Tom DeLay. In his last column, Brooks laughed off Democratic claims that the Republican message machine was responsible for their success by saying that this was simply a Democratic attempt to deflect attention from their bad ideas. Without ever seeming to be conscious of the irony, he now claims that Republican failure is caused by the "conservatism of the American people." All the Republican ideas are good, it's just that the American people are unwilling to adopt new ideas. At the same time, he describes the Republicans as "the transformational party" (tacitly admitting that conservatism and the Republican party no longer have much to do with each other). So apparently, the conservative and suspicious of sudden, revolutionary change American people have elected Republicans for six years running because the Republicans are going to transform things. And, as we know from Brooks's last column, the main reason that people follow a party is because they like its philosophy, so the conservative American people are voting for the transformational Republican party because they want change. If your head hurts now, think what Brooks must be going through. No wonder he has to write something deeply trivial every few columns: being a partisan hack is more of a strain than it would seem.

The rest of the column isn't much better (or, if you're looking for comic relief, it's just as good). Apparently, the conservativism of the American people means that they want decisions like the Schiavo decision to be made at the local level. So, according to Brooks, conservatism means not interfering with personal decisions and "imposing solutions from afar, based on abstract principles rather than concrete particulars." Well, that second part would seem to eliminate the entire Republican agenda, which is inspired purely by ideology and has nothing to do with "concrete particulars" or "discernible reality". But then again, as Brooks has admitted, the Republicans are not a conservative party: they are a transformational party, and as they attempt to transform American into a quasi-theocracy dominated by big business, they aren't going to let any facts get in their way. Additionally, it must be their crazy conservativism that causes Americans to be, for whatever reason, reluctant to let the Republican party run roughshod over the separation of powers and the rule of law in order to make a political point (for more, see here). And they don't approve of Republican congressmen making threats against judges who disagree with them. For some reason, Brooks forgets to mention this, but it may just have slipped his mind.

The next place where the conservatism of the American people pops up is in their resistance to privatizing Social Security. If not wanting to have Social Security destroyed is conservatism (remember, the Republicans are transformational, not conservative), then yes, the American people are conservative. Brooks would like us to believe that Americans resist private accounts simply because of a reluctance to try something new, but in fact polls have shown over and over that the more people learn about private accounts, the less they like them. Private accounts are a truly bad idea, and the American people aren't that dumb: given the chance, they can figure this out. (I apologize for linking to myself so often, but it's easy to do, and there are links to actual good websites in those columns.) I'm not going to discuss why private accounts for Social Security are a bad idea here, mostly because I've done it before, and you can undoubtedly find many more lucid analyses by people with actual backgrounds in economics on the web. But the fact is that they are, that Americans are starting to realize that this is the case, and that Brooks is unwilling to accept either of the previous two facts.

Finally, Brooks thinks that the conservatism of the American people causes them to dislike Tom DeLay. Americans dislike "leaders who perpetually play it close to the ethical edge." They distrust "leaders who, under threat, lash out wildly at beloved institutions like the judiciary." They don't approve of "leaders whose instinct is always to go out wildly on the attack." This would seem to rule out practically all the leaders in the Republican party, but we'll stick with DeLay for now, and with what Brooks doesn't mention: Americans don't like leaders who are deeply, hopelessly corrupt. Here's a quick list of Delay scandals that have been firmly confirmed (the DNC can only afford to put the confirmed ones on their website). Brooks also seems to have forgotten about the column he wrote a couple of weeks ago about how corruption is endemic in the Republican party. He's correct about one thing, though: "If DeLay falls, it will not be because he took questionable trips or put family members on the payroll." Indeed not. If he falls, it will be because he is a cesspool of corruption. Aside from the fact that DeLay has been bought by a number of corporations, there are serious questions, which Brooks himself raised in his previous column, having to do with connections between DeLay and Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist with very close ties to DeLay, and Michael Scanlon, who used to be DeLay's spokesman, both of whom are now under federal investigation. Other Delay aides have been indicted for corruption by a grand jury in Texas. And this corruption extends beyond DeLay: for instance, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert also has close ties to Abramoff. For now, the focus is on Delay, but he is merely the center of a network of corruption in the House Republican leadership, and any serious investigation into DeLay is likely to bring down the entire leadership: after all, why else would they be stepping up to defend him? Aside from pressure from the fundies, of course, who seem to be determined that if Delay goes down, he will take the entire party with him. In fact, Brooks is probably acknowledging these issues by downgrading the wholesale corruption he previously condemned to "questionable trips" and "family members on the payroll". The attempt to throw Abramoff, Reed, and Delay over the side and pretend that all the corruption is now gone has been abandoned as impossible, leaving only a desperate defense of an increasingly untenable position.

Brooks is also correct that this is not good news for the Democrats yet: their poll numbers are also down, but his hysterical talk of death spirals is a sure sign that he recognizes the potential this has to drag the Republican party down in the long run. Furthermore, his assertion that the party is now being led by "the highly educated and secular university-town elites who follow Howard Dean", which will prevent their ever regaining power, is highly dubious. For one thing, Dean has been practically invisible over the past few months. What Brooks is really worried about is the possibility that all the white working-class voters who have been leaving the Democrats will realize that the Democrats actually represent their beliefs better than the Republicans. In fact, many voters are experiencing buyer's remorse: this transformational party is not what they thought they were getting. They didn't vote for a party that would interfere in personal decisions, take away their Social Security, and steep itself in corruption. Brooks's swipe at Dean is a desperate attempt to keep the white working-class voters who are leaving the Democrats from actually thinking about Democratic policies. It's of a piece with Republican strategy, which has been to smear the Democrats as soft on terror, anti-God, and generally out of touch with the common man. Once the common man realizes that the Republicans may not actually be in touch with him -- after all, they are trying to take away his Social Security and legislate Christian morality on him (not just the homophobic parts, all of it) -- he may start to question all Republican propaganda, including the question of whether the Democrats are actually a bunch of secular, pointy-headed academics, and once this questioning process begins, the Republicans are in real trouble. Brooks gets to the heart of the matter when he calls the Republicans a transformational party, where transformational is a euphemism for radical. The Americans didn't elect the Republicans to completely dismantle the social safety net and legislate morality, and now that they are realizing that this is actually what the Republicans have planned, they are understandably somewhat upset. Brooks's desperate bleatings about "prudence" and "public opinion . . . is always worth respecting" are calls for restraint addressed to a party that, by his own admission, has no intention of restraining itself. They can only be regarded as clumsy attempts to provide camouflage for the party as it goes about its radical agenda. After all, the party's two core constituencies, the religious right and big business, want big changes, and they will continue to push for them no matter how many swing voters it alienates. After the election, many progressives wondered how it was that voters didn't seem to see the radical agenda that the Republicans and Bush were promoting. How could they not see what they were voting for, we wondered. Well, they're starting to see now.

The most stunning part of the column, though, is Brooks's call for a new face for the Republican party. Who does he think needs to step up? Why, no other than Dennis Hastert. This is as shocking admission by Brooks that the Republican party is in serious trouble. The usual roster of big names -- Rumsfeld, Cheney, DeLay, Frist, McCain, Jeb Bush -- are apparently all tainted. Brooks even admits that Bush is now actually unpopular and that talk of a mandate is now just so much talk. Instead, Brooks calls for Hastert, who is the Speaker of the House but is almost completely unknown outside of political circles. In effect, Brooks concedes that right now, it is better if no prominent Republicans are in the public eye (even Ahnold has his troubles). This is especially interesting when one recalls that Hastert became speaker after Newt Gingrich resigned following Republican House losses in 1998. After it was revealed that Gingrich's most likely successors, Bob Livingston and Henry Hyde, had had extramarital affairs, Hastert was pushed forward as a candidate, largely because he was completely unknown and so lacked the negatives that the Clinton impeachment attached to the Republican House leadership. The fact that Brooks thinks it's necessary to do something similar now, except instead of just hiding away the House leadership, he wants to hide away the leadership of the entire party, is a sign that the party expects some serious fallout from its actions. The mere fact that Brooks thinks that Bush, inaugurated mere months ago, needs to get out of the limelight may signal that Bush's lame-duck status has arrived already. The Republican party is in full retreat, and the Democrats need to press the attack.

While Brooks's column is worthless as a piece of writing, it does signal that a certain amount of panic is developing in Republican circles. The problem with being the party that doesn't care about reality is that reality cares about you. The Republicans appear to be on the verge of finding this out the hard way. Brooks, however, appears to be at leisure to ignore reality to his heart's content. On the other hand, this column suggests one reason why the Times might keep him around: every once in a while, his unintentional comedy value is off the charts. Still, in balance I'd say it's not worth it. We can only hope that the Times comes to the same conclusion.

April 06, 2005

Column 2005-4-05 Commentary

(note: this should have been up yesterday, but blogger and my web connection took turns dying)

Brooks's latest addresses the idea, which has been steadily circulating in liberal circles, that a major component of the Republican successes of the past 20 years or so has been the perfection of their message machine. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and their cohorts work together with ruthless efficiency to blanket the American public with conservative doctrine, while Democrats struggle to get their ideas out. Anybody who says "But what about the liberal media?" at this point is instructed to go to www.dailyhowler.com and not come back until you realize that "liberal media" is simply a weapon conservatives use to prevent almost all substantive criticism of the Republican party in the media. Brooks does not use the liberal media canard to refute the idea of the conservative message machine: instead, he resorts to an argument that is, amazingly, even more ridiculous. In fact, Brooks says, conservatives argue all the time: they are "split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly." Indeed, he urges liberals to argue more amongst themselves. According to Brooks, it is the liberals who march in grim uniformity, toeing the party line, while conservatives drift along in happy, productive disunity. To anyone who knows anything about politics, such an assertion is ludicrous. One of the most surprising results of the Schiavo case was the development of small cracks in the previously impenetrable Republican front. Meanwhile, the longstanding tendency of the Democratic party to split into bitterly feuding factions is well known, and is in fact exploited by the Republicans: the centrist to center-right DLC vs. the left wing, as represented by MoveOn.org, is only the most recent fight. The main problem is that the Democratic party is the original big tent party, a melange of unions, environmentalists, feminists, blacks, gays, Jews, academic liberals, secular humanists, etc., etc. While these groups have interests that overlap sufficiently to allow them to work together most of the time, when it comes to something like foreign policy there is a tendency for this unity to fracture. Also, liberals tend to focus on ideas rather than power: not that conservatives are focused solely on power and have no ideas (well, not all of them, at any rate, I think), but they are better at realizing that sometimes it's better to band together to elect someone with whom everyone can agree on most issues than to fight over a few issues and end up with someone who agrees with you on practically nothing (for example, there was this guy named Nader who ran for president four years ago).

Considered logically, then, Brooks's assertion that the Republicans are constantly squabbling while the Democrats march in lockstep is ridiculous. But then one reads the rest of the column and realizes that Brooks has made an elementary error: he has conflated conservative Washington pundits with the Republican party as a whole. The evidence for his assertion that conservatives are constantly fighting (aside from quoting Whittaker Chambers, who died in 1961) is the following: "The major conservative magazines - The Weekly Standard, National Review, Reason, The American Conservative, The National Interest, Commentary - agree on almost nothing." The problem here is that the vast majority of Republicans don't read these magazines, and really don't care what they have to say, in the same way that the vast majority of Democrats don't read The Nation, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and all the major liberal magazines. As per usual, Brooks's elitism has caused him to make a serious error: he looks at minor philosophical squabbles among the conservative elites and sees the Republican party as a whole as engaging in healthy, informed debate. In fact, the rank-and-file of the Republican party are listening to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk on talk radio, watching Fox News and often quite conservative local television stations, such as those owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, and reading ultra-conservative newspapers like the Wall Street Journal or Washington Times, which make up, to the surprise of nobody but Brooks, the extremely effective Republican message machine. And its effectiveness is enhanced by a process of positive feedback in which its success drags the rest of the media rightwards -- a phenomenon that is most pronounced in cable news, where CNN and MSNBC are doing their best to out-Fox Fox (especially the latter, which employs both Pat Buchanan and Joe Scarborough) -- allowing the conservative message machine to move further right without seeming crazy. This is what liberals both condemn and envy; this is what they regard as one of the main reasons that the Republicans have had such success recently; and this is something that Brooks completely fails to address in his column. Clueless elitism or sneaky, underhanded dodging of the question? Like a certain "news" channel, we report, you decide.

Having ignored the point the liberals are making, Brooks goes off on several tangents. First, he claims that you can see evidence of conservative feuding by looking at changing conservative attitudes. Naturally, he postulates no mechanism by which arguments among conservative elites cause the opinions of Republicans to change, and also fails to acknowledge that the percentage of Republicans who are interventionists, the example he chooses, might be influenced by events such as 9/11 which have nothing to do with arguments within the Republican party. But his evidence for a change in Republican attitudes is actually very shaky. "Once, Republicans were isolationists," Brooks declares, as if this was received wisdom. But what about Nixon, who escalated in Vietnam, went to China, and was so unpopular he was re-elected to a second term? What about Reagan, who was so invasion-happy that he even invaded Grenada? What about Bush the First, who invaded Panama and Iraq (yes, he only got one term, but that was because of the economy)? And Vietnam intervention started on Eisenhower's watch. When Brooks says that Republicans were once isolationists, is he referring to Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover? And if so, is he willing to concede that overall changes in the U.S. might have more to do with the less isolationist nature of the party than debates within the conservative movement? And then we have his claim that according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, "most Republicans . . . believe the U.S. should try to change dictatorships into democracies when it can." I believe that Brooks is referring to this poll (pdf version with actual questions and responses broken down by party here), and the actual figure is 51% of Republicans. While most is technically accurate, the image of a firmly pro-interventionist party that it conveys is not accurate at all. But hey, what's a little intellectual dishonesty when you're evading the entire point of the argument you're supposedly refuting anyway?

Brooks next contends that, essentially, conservatives are cool because they argue about philosophy. Apparently, conservatives spent all their time arguing about philosphy (Brooks namedrops shamelessly here, incidentally: fine, you're educated, we get it already) since the modern conservative movement was formed while the Democratic party was so firmly entrenched in power there was no point in the Republicans thinking about policy, and this gave their movement intellectual credibility and helped recruit people. Apparently, it wasn't ideas like tax cuts, bombing the hell out of godless Communists or brown people (or sticking them in jail if they happen to be in the U.S. already), and saving America from the gays that appealed to the ordinary people who vote for the Republican party: instead, they were thoughtfully agreeing with reasoned arguments about how the ideas of Burke and Aquinas should be applied to the modern world. If this doesn't exactly ring true, that's because Brooks has once again taken refuge in his elitism. Conservatives in Brooks's circle may well have read all the philosophers he mentions, but the vast majority of people in this country have not, and most of those who voted Republican in the last election would probably disdain Brooks as one of those pointy-headed academic types were he to start spouting off about Hayek. After all, Bush is on the record as saying that his favorite philosopher is Jesus, and the growth of the Christian right, one of the major forces behind the ascension of the Republican party in the last thirty years, owes nothing to any of the philosophers Brooks cites or is likely to cite. Interestingly, one of the philosophers Brooks cites is Alexander Hamilton, and yet we heard nothing from Brooks when the Republican party ran roughshod over the independence of the courts, something Hamilton endorsed as absolutely necessary for the kind of government he had in mind in Federalist No. 78 (of course, Brooks could be suggesting that the Republican party has weighed the Founding Fathers and found them wanting, but it seems unlikely, or at least unlikely that he would admit it).

Brooks's elitism also shows as he laughs at liberals for being influenced by postmodernism and multiculturalism, since everybody knows that only dead white males have anything important to say about government, but it is most obvious in his tacit assumption that it is necessary to have read lots of philosophers to be able to think about government. There's nothing wrong with "being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears" but Brooks seems to have confused awareness with not only understanding of these philosophers but also with understanding the world. It is one thing to read Aquinas and think about his arguments in order to expand your mind: it is something else to read Aquinas and then attempt to apply the ideas of someone who was writing in the thirteenth century directly to the modern world. And being familiar with philosophers is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for thinking about government and society. Similarly we find that Brooks actually asked the head of a liberal think tank who his favorite philosopher was. The inanity of this question is well-nigh unsurpassable. It would be equally relevant to ask the head of the physics department at M.I.T. who his favorite physicist is, or, since there is no indication that this man was a philosopher or trained as a philosopher, asking the president of M.I.T. who her favorite physicist is. But if one realizes that Brooks has confused philosophers with philosophy, the question makes perfect sense. What Brooks doesn't understand is that the point is not to have a favorite philosopher: the point is to have a philosophy, one that may well have been informed largely by one philosopher, but which should most likely include the ideas of several as well as some of one's very own. And personally, I'd rather have the heads of liberal think tanks be experts on health care than philosophy, as the former is more likely to have a significant impact on my life than the latter.

This viewpoint does offer potential explanations for some features of the modern conservative movement, though: it certainly seems to be buried in the past, which would make sense if it spent its formative years reading and debating philosophy without ever attempting to think about how that philosophy applied to policy or the modern world. It would also explain the abysmal failures of Republican policy over the past few years: all the thinkers, or what passes for thinkers, in the party know is philosophy, so they're really winging it when it comes to policy, and have a tendency to place their policy above reality. Of course, one should not put too much credence into Brooks's contention that academic philosophy is the backbone of the modern conservative movement, but the attitude that Brooks is describing might contribute to certain aspects of the movement. One thing this attitude does not explain, however, is the success of the Republican party. And Brooks's advice to liberals that they spend the next few years sitting around and arguing about Thomas Pain, John Dewey, and Isaiah Berlin is ridiculous. While the Democrats could certainly use a more coherent philosophy behind their policy message, and reading some of these guys probably wouldn't hurt, it's not guaranteed or even that likely to help, either. Any party that is overly dependent on academic philosophers to craft its message is unlikely to get very far, so it's a good thing for Brooks that the Republican party actually had other sources for its ideas.

Brooks has plumbed a different (not new, as that wouldn't really be possible, just different) low in this colum, the whole point of which seems to be for him to casually refer to as many philosophers as possible. While this is more evidence for the theory that Brooks is ashamed of having gone to the University of Chicago and wishes he had gone to Yale instead, it doesn't provide much of a basis for a column. Of course, this hasn't stopped Brooks in the past, but at some point someone at the Times is bound to realize what is going on here, right? Right? Okay, so probably not, but a man can dream, can't he?

April 04, 2005

To The Readers

(Update: It's here! Scroll down to read our latest offering.)

Yes, all five of you. I just want to apologize for the delay in posting the usual witty, incisive, and insightful review of Brooks's latest abomination. I know that the light has been driven from your lives over the past couple of days; that you check this website, trembling in a fever of anticipation, every five minutes, only to be cast down into a deep depression when you find nothing new (update: SiteMeter informs me that such is not the case. Apparently, you guys are a bunch of lazy bums). Well, I'm sorry to have to withhold your fix for another day, but I felt that, out of respect for the Pope, I ought to hold off on my attack on Brooks for a few days. (What? April Fools Day was Friday? Whoops, my bad.) Actually, the delay has two reasons: first of all, this latest column proved to be the straw that broke Ted's back. He could no longer remain silent in the face of Brooks's continued idiocy, so the next review will be about half Ted, which is good, but since we live a few hundred miles apart, the necessary collaboration delayed things some. However, the main reason that the next review won't appear until tomorrow is the NCAA tournament, which, combined with a busy Sunday, has held me back. Incidentally, I picked UNC before the tournament started, and they better win, because they're about the only part of the tournament that I did pick right. But how will I get through the next 24 or so hours, you cry? Well, if you get the shakes, you can always go through the archive.

April 02, 2005

Column 2005-4-02 Commentary

In this column, Brooks takes an idiosyncratic -- one might even say idiotic -- look at intelligence reform. Brooks knows what's wrong with the CIA: it tries to hard to be scientific. Apparently, the American intelligence community is insufficiently touchy-feely. It needs to try harder to empathize with our enemies, to imagine how we appear to them and how they will interpret our actions. That's interesting, as I had been led to believe that people who did that were liberal softies, and that our enemies have only one motivation: they hate freedom. Regardless, Brooks argues for an "intuitive generalist" approach to intelligence, claiming that the "scientific method" used by the CIA, though seemingly authoritative, is actually counterproductive. Instead, analysts should be sent off to study "Thucydides, Tolstoy and Churchill to get a broad understanding of the full range of human behavior." Brooks doesn't mention whether or not they should also study something directly relevant to their specialty, but we'll be generous and assume that he simply forgot. And Brooks goes so far as to back up his argument with a source, so you know that he's serious (though in true Brooksian fashion, he can't even cite his source correctly: for Donald Zagoria, read Alan Whiting throughout). Strangely, though, his source is a paper by a Yale undergraduate discussing the CIA's failure to correctly predict China's willingness to negotiate with the United States in 1970. And that's really all you need to know about this column: Brooks constructs his entire argument on the basis of one 35-year-old data point. Well, nobody will ever accuse him of being overly scientific.

Brooks's first problem is that the CIA is not using the scientific method. In fact, if the CIA was performing rigorous experiments to test its hypotheses, they would probably have a considerably better record than they do. Sadly, it's difficult to concieve of an experiment that would test the hypothesis, that, for example, North Korea has eight nuclear weapons, that doesn't involve the fiery destruction of Seoul and Tokyo. Therefore, to claim that the CIA is using the scientific method to come to its conclusions is completely incorrect. What Brooks says the CIA is really using is the pseudo-scientific method, as perfected by Samuel Huntington. This method involves quantifying as many of the things you are talking about as you can so that your work looks scientific, even if the things you attempt to turn into numbers cannot really be quantified and your attempts to do so give nonsensical results. The prime example of this (or at least the one that springs readily to mind) is Huntington's claim that South Africa was a satisfied society in the early sixties under apartheid, based on a calculated "satisfaction index". (Huntington backed up his claim by stating, in flat contradiction of the facts, that there had been "no major riots, strikes, or disturbances" in South Africa.) However, it should be noted that Brooks offers no real facts to back up his claim that the CIA has fallen into the Huntington trap. There is a lot of rhetoric about "bloodless compilations of data by anonymous technicians" and "systematic, codified and bureaucratic" processes, but no actual facts. Which is too bad, because this is the strongest part of Brooks's argument: social science's attempt to be scientific are inherently doomed to failure because of the inability of social scientists to do controlled experiments. Sadly, he presents no non-anecdotal evidence to show that American intelligence analysts have gone down this blind alley.

This is not too surprising, though: after all, Brooks barely provides any evidence to back his claim that a more intuitive method is necessary. Aside from his 35-year-old story about China, he "justifies" this intuitive generalist b.s. almost exclusively with this sentence: "Individuals are good at using intuition and imagination to understand other humans." Apparently, Brooks believes that if Malcom Gladwell writes a best-selling book about something, that makes it right (and Gladwell's book, Blink, is actually about the value of first impressions; I don't think even Brooks proposes that intelligence analysis should be based entirely on the first impressions of the analysts). This sentence is so general as to be meaningless, and ignores the fact that individuals can also be abysmally bad at using intuition and imagination to understand other humans. For evidence of this, we need to go no further than our own President, who said, back in June 2001, that "I found [Putin] to be very straightforward and trustworthy. . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul." Not only did Bush's intuition fail him, his first impression was also wrong. Maybe we shouldn't base all of our intelligence analysis on this intuition stuff after all. Incidentally, Brooks's claim that his "intuitive generalists" are more "modern and rigorous" than the pseudoscientists is ludicrous, unless he's using some new definition of rigorous (or of intuition). Imagination and intuition involve going outside of the rules and making leaps that cannot be justified by strict logic: i.e., the exact opposite of rigor. But perhaps Brooks is simply trying to lead by example. There is no certainly no rigor and a whole lot of imagination in this piece of social analysis.

Brooks finishes his column by saying that he'll know that reform has happened "when there's a big sign in front of C.I.A. headquarters that reads: Individuals think better than groups." This may confuse those of you who believe that the point of this column is to agitate for a more intuitive approach to intelligence analysis. Apparently, you haven't been paying attention to the column. Remember, intuition and imagination are key: Brooks practices what he preaches and makes a "novelistic judgement" not from any logic or evidence but from his "broad understanding of the full range of human behavior" gained from reading Tolstoy and Churchill. Personally, I think that a good judgement of whether or not reform has worked would be performance-based, but I guess this kind of naive, surface-level thinking is why I don't have a column at the New York Times.

There are also very good reasons for Brooks to disdain a performance-based evaluation of the CIA. For one thing, he might have to talk about mistakes more recent than 1970, such as the intelligence community's confident assertion that Iraq had WMDs. There was, in fact, a big report published about that quite recently: Brooks even mentions it in his column (he refers to the "presidential panel on intelligence"), though he doesn't say what exactly the report was investigating. In fact, Brooks somehow manages to write a column about intelligence reform without mentioning Iraq's nonexistent WMD's or 9/11, even though most calls for reform of the CIA were based on its bogus claims about the former and failure to prevent the latter. The reason that Brooks chooses to cite a 35-year-old mistaken analysis that didn't even have serious consequences is because neither of these two modern intelligence failures fit into Brooks's argument. The question of whether or not Iraq had WMD's did not require reading Thucydides and Tolstoy, and to answer it did not require imagination or intuition. All it required was an objective analysis of the evidence. All of Brooks's intuitive generalist methods -- gaining a deep understanding of Iraqi society, for instance -- were irrelevant. In fact, it seems all too likely that the problem was not that analysists lacked imagination and intuition, but that they had too much (especially of the former). It is instructive to note that Brooks's column on the Duelfer report (laughably entitled "The Report That Nails Saddam") dismissed the finding that there had been no WMD's as a small part of the report that had been blown out of proportion by partisan Democrats. Instead, Brooks focused on parts of the report that revealed that Saddam really, really wanted WMD's and that he was gaming the oil-for-food program and the sanctions in an attempt to restart his program. All true, and exactly the kind of things that an intuitive generalist would focus on as proof positive that Saddam had a weapons program, but the fact remains that there was no weapons program, and Saddam was not an immediate threat and would not have been a threat for some years.

So, if a lack of intuition was not at fault, why was the intelligence so wrong? Why, for instance, did the U.S. ignore the work of U.N. inspectors that refuted most of the claims they made about Saddam's WMD programs prior to the war? Why did the intelligence community base its assertions about Saddam's extensive biological weapons program on a single defector, codenamed Curveball, whose reports were never verified and whose credibility was cast into doubt as long as ago as May 2000 when his very first interview by an American revealed that, contrary to the information the Department of Defense had been given, he spoke excellent English, and that he was likely an alcoholic? Why was it that the CIA did not meet Curveball until March 2004, and that the CIA did not figure out that Curveball had been out of Iraq during the time he was supposedly working on bioweapons until January 2004? It's not as if Curveball was a bit player: according to the recently released report,
"Virtually all of the Intelligence Community’s information on Iraq’s alleged mobile biological weapons facilities was supplied by a source, codenamed 'Curveball.'" But somehow the CIA neglected to make any basic checks on their source, despite doubts about his authenticity, until long after the war. What could have caused such incompetence? Might it have been administration pressure?

Similar questions arise when one considers the other intelligence failure Brooks ignores, the fact that the CIA and FBI were caught flatfooted by September 11. Intuitive generalism doesn't help here, either, since even the old-fashioned way of doing things figured out that Al Qaeda would try to attack in the U.S., or so one would gather from the title of the August 6 PDB "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.". In fact, warnings that Bin Laden was planning an attack involving one or more airplanes, quite possibly as weapons, dated back to 1998. The FAA issued several warnings of imminent hijackings in 2001, and the NSA reported a large number of communications suggesting the possibility of an attack. In fact, in July 2001 the FAA, FBI, and INS were warned that terrorist attack was coming soon, and this warning was taken seriously enough that non-essential travel by countererrorism personnel was suspended. And yet the administration took no other action. Perhaps 9/11 could not have been foreseen or prevented, but the administration could at least have made an effort, rather than largely ignoring counterterrorism.

Thus, it appears that Brooks's mystifying omission of the WMD and 9/11 questions is actually susceptible of a perfectly reasonable explanation: Brooks is, as usual, acting as an administration shill. He places all the blame for intelligence failures on "epistemological" problems in the intelligence community dating back at least 35 years, thus neatly deflecting attention from the fact that the main fault in both cases lies with an administration that manipulated or ignored intelligence to suit its purposes. The problem is not that the CIA occasionally fails to read the minds of foreign leaders correctly: mind reading is difficult, and my guess is that the CIA is just about as good at it as anybody else in the game. The problem is that the CIA's intelligence analysts were not allowed to do their job, or ignored when they did if their conclusions were not what the administration wanted to hear. Brooks is correct when he says that "the problem is not bureaucratic," but it's not epistemological either: it's political, and won't go away until the administration does too.

Since it's become traditional, I'll ask: how much longer does the Times plan on allowing Brooks to use its editorial page to lay down smokescreens for the administration? And surely I'm not the only one who feels that Brooks attacking the CIA's intelligence failures is a serious case of the pot calling the kettle black?