Other People’s Countries

We cannot really build a nation for other people. — Wesley Clark

In this week’s Sift:

  • Afghanistan Anxiety. I went trolling for wisdom and came up empty. Here’s what I got instead.
  • Reacting to Ted. Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but Ted set the pattern for a generation of Democratic presidential might-have-beens. On the other hand, I wish all famous-name-inheriting politicians followed his example.
  • Six Months With My Kindle. The new-gadget aura is gone. So how’s it working out as an appliance?
  • Short Notes. Republican hope is great and white. Tom DeLay’s embellished memory. How Blue Dogs bring home their chow. Bill Bradley’s dumb idea. Ministers who pray for Obama’s death. And the role of minotaurs in enhanced interrogations.

Afghanistan Anxiety

For a lot of commentators, the recent Afghan elections have been a time to reflect how the war is going. So for the last few weeks I’ve been collecting links and planning to pull together a condensation of the collective wisdom.

Good luck with that if you want to try it. The state of the war has been reviewed by the Washington Independent (which links you to a lot of other articles by people who ought to know something), Wes Clark, the Economist, and the New York Times — just to get you started.

If you find any wisdom there, let me know. The main thing I picked up was anxiety. “The war is going badly,” says the Economist. The NYT asks, “Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?” That gives you the general flavor. Plus, there are the raw numbers: July and August have seen 146 coalition troops die. The previous two-month record was 77. But I’m not finding convincing arguments for doing anything in particular: pull out, double down, invade Pakistan. Anything. I’m hearing a lot of “the next six months will be critical” statements, which is commentator-speak for “I don’t know what’s the heck is going on.”

Like the United States, I’m scaling down my objectives. Instead of the clear how-things-are and where-we-go-from-here article I was planning, I’m just going to explain the general anxiety.

Afghanistan, if you remember, was the war that made some kind of sense. It really did have something to do with 9-11, and the Al Qaeda infection was already there — not like in Iraq, where we spread it around like an unsanitary surgeon.

The articles talk about a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy replacing a counter-terrorism strategy. Here’s what that’s about: In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the initial Bush strategy was to go in and kill the bad guys. That’s counter-terrorism, which was a complete insert-expletive-here disaster in both countries. Basically, the bad guys let us chase them hither and yon, leaving destruction in our wake. That convinced the populace — most of whom didn’t originally give a damn about us one way or the other — that they had to get these foreigners out of their country. So they joined an insurgency. David Kilcullen described this pattern very precisely in The Accidental Guerrilla, which I discussed in March.

Counter-insurgency is the strategy that General Petraeus brought to Iraq in the famous Surge. The idea is that you stop chasing the bad guys and instead settle in with the people to defend them from the bad guys. In Kilcullen’s words, you don’t fight the enemy unless he gets in your way.

Now we get to the part that’s confusing everybody: Kill-the-bad-guys is such a god-awful stupid strategy that counter-insurgency has been an undeniable improvement. If you’re going to be in Afghanistan or Iraq at all, that’s how you want to do it. But is it a good strategy? With a COIN strategy, can we hope to accomplish something positive rather than just spend money and get people killed? And will the objectives we can accomplish justify the cost? (The cost from here on, that is. The total cost-from-day-one will never be justified, but that’s blood under the bridge now.)

Nobody really knows those answers, and that’s why everybody is so anxious. We know from Iraq that the change-over from CT to COIN raises casualties temporarily, and that’s happening in Afghanistan. In theory the numbers should start to drop again in 6-12 months. In theory.

Reacting to Ted

You don’t need me to tell you that Senator Edward Kennedy died this week. There have been tributes in a bunch of newspapers and specials on lots of networks. The coverage hasn’t reached Michael Jackson proportions — which tells you something about our country — but it’s hard to claim that Ted hasn’t gotten enough attention.

I have two personal reactions when I think about Senator Kennedy. First, he was the exception that tested one of my rules: In general, I dislike politicians who cash in on a famous name. That’s one reason I had an instant distaste for George W. Bush. If W’s name had been Smith, he’d have been the nobody his merits entitled him to be.

Whatever a person might think of Ted Kennedy’s abilities, he wouldn’t have entered the Senate at age 30 if he’d been a Smith. That said, his name was Kennedy and he did become a senator in 1962, during his brother’s administration. And to be fair, he deserves to be judged on what he did with that opportunity, rather than whether he earned it or not.

And that’s what gives my rule an exception: If you rise to power through your family connections, you should use that power to help the rest of us. That’s the difference between Ted and conservative rich kids like W or Dan Quayle. Kennedy’s family could send him to Harvard, so he wanted a good education for everybody. He got good medical care, so he wanted everybody to have it. He never had to take a debilitating job or work in a toxic environment, so he tried to protect all workers.

If some authentic rags-to-riches type wants to preach rugged individualism and you’re-on-your-own capitalism, fine. But I can’t listen to it from guys who have had everything given to them. If a famous heir wants to go into politics, he should be a Ted Kennedy.

My second reaction is that — fairly or unfairly — I connect Ted with a lost generation of Democratic leadership. Let me tell you about an editorial cartoon that has stuck in my head ever since I saw it in 1969. Nixon’s inauguration was the end of maybe the most eventful and disturbing election cycle in American history: McCarthy’s college kids chasing LBJ out of the race, the King and RFK assassinations, the “police riot” at the Democratic Convention, and so on. Humphrey came out as a damaged nominee, and his last-minute comeback fell just short. Nixon was president.

Anyway, the inauguration-day cartoon: It showed a park bench in front of the White House. Nixon was walking away from us, into the White House, his footprints in the snow trailing back to the bench. Still sitting on the bench was Ted Kennedy.

That’s how inevitable his presidency seemed in those days. He wasn’t even 40 yet, but he was the heir to two martyred brothers. History was proving him right about Vietnam. Nixon seemed like an accident, a product of 1968’s one-of-a-kind circumstances. The White House still rightfully belonged to the Democratic coalition that had elected JFK in 1960 and given LBJ a landslide in 1964. Ted would take it back for us in 1972.

That summer brought Chappaquiddick, and the whole inevitability thing was over. And so began an entire era when it seemed like the Democrats couldn’t get their first-string team onto the field. McGovern in 1972 and Carter in 1976 were second-stringers, not legitimate heirs to the Kennedy mantle. Ted tried to take the nomination away from Carter in 1980, but the combination of incumbency, residue of scandal, and a bad campaign resulted in Carter’s renomination and loss to Ronald Reagan.

In the 1980s, Democrats had a new heart-throb who was always on the sidelines when the game was being decided: Mario Cuomo. Mondale and Dukakis were second-stringers, and when Clinton ran into his own scandals in 1992, no one had the stature to take advantage. We got used to having an if-only candidate, a candidate who could claim our hearts, but (for some reason) not our nomination. Our nominee would always be damaged, always somebody circumstances had stuck us with. That lasted right up to 2004, when Dean self-destructed and Hillary stayed on the sidelines.

I think 2008 marked the end of that era. Whether the primary campaign came out the way you wanted or not, every Democrat (other than maybe Gore) who should have run did. If you couldn’t find a Democratic candidate to get excited about in 2008, you probably aren’t really a Democrat. That hadn’t been true since … well, since Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey faced off in 1968.

Ted Kennedy can’t be blamed for the era he was born into any more than he can be credited for his name. But to me he will always be the central figure in those lost four decades, when Democratic presidential politics constantly had the crushed-rose scent of doomed romance.

Flags all over the country are flying at half-mast for Senator Kennedy — except at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Wonder why.

Six Months With My Kindle

Back in March I told you about buying a Kindle book-reader. Now I’ve had it six months — long enough for the new-gadget aura to wear off. It’s time to examine how it’s working as a everyday appliance.

The short answer is that I’m reading about half of my books on the Kindle. Of the last 61 books I read, 32 are on the Kindle, 18 came from the library, and 11 are printed books I own. Some of the owned books were backlog off my shelf and some were bought new. The numbers may be slightly skewed by all the traveling I’ve done this summer, since the Kindle is way easier to take on a trip than a pile of printed books.

While I was doing that tabulation, I often had to check the Kindle’s book-list to remember whether I had read a book on it or not. In other words, what I remember about reading a book on the Kindle is the book, not how awful or wonderful it was to read it on the Kindle.

The biggest change in my book-buying habits was unexpected: I’m buying fewer books that I don’t read. In the past, I bought a lot of books not because I wanted to read them right away, but out of worry that I’d either forget them or not be able to find them later. Many of those books never got read.

That hardly ever happens any more. If a book is available on the Kindle, I can add it title to my “Save for Later” list. Whenever I decide I really want to read it — maybe at three in the morning in a town that doesn’t have a good bookstore anyway — I can download it and pay for it. With that option, there’s never a reason to pay for a Kindle book that I’m not ready to start reading immediately.

Another unanticipated consequence is that I’m reading more library books. Some books that I used to buy now go onto the save-for-later list — and before I get around to buying them I see them in the library.

I’m also reading more classics, which are either free or very cheap on the Kindle. I read Pride and Prejudice and 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas for free, and Tolstoy’s My Confession and The Death of Ivan Ilych because they came as part of a 50-works-of-Tolstoy-for-$5 package. I’ve also downloaded free copies of Oliver Twist and The Three Musketeers, which will be there the next time I’m stuck in an airport.

And then there was Amazon’s attempt to manipulate my reading habits. Shortly after I got the Kindle, Amazon offered free downloads of sample novels by several authors who have written a lot of books. It was a clear “this is addictive; the first one’s free” strategy. It worked, but not exactly as Amazon planned it. For example, I downloaded Lee Child’s Persuader for free, then munched through 12 more of his books like salted peanuts. But I only bought one — the last one, which my library didn’t have yet.

In deciding whether to buy a Kindle, I had three main questions. First, would I use it? The answer there is clearly yes. Second, would it save space? This was the main issue for me, because I’m an apartment-dweller with vast numbers of books. Again, the answer is yes, both because electronic books take up no space and because I’m (unexpectedly) getting more stuff out of the library.

Finally, would savings on books ever pay for the Kindle? In March I was pessimistic about this; now I think it depends how I figure. A new Kindle was $350 when I bought mine; now it’s down to $300. New books (typically ones that have no paperback edition yet) run about $10-15, older books $5-10, and classics either free or too cheap to worry about. (I got a Complete Works of Shakespeare for $2.) I haven’t kept track of how much the books I’ve read on the Kindle would have cost me as printed books, but a wild guess is that I’ve saved about $3 on average. For 32 books, that means I’ve gotten almost $100 of my $350 back by now.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it, because I’m reading and buying different books than before. Factoring in the books I haven’t bought at all — the good-intentions books that would have sat unread on my shelf or the ones that I have ended up getting out of the library rather than buying — I believe that my total-cost-of-books has dropped quite a bit more than $100. So for me the economics seems to be working out. But your mileage may vary.

I’ve found that the Kindle is a more private way to read in public. The guy sitting there with his Kindle might be reading anything from the Bible to Terrorism for Dummies or Compensating For Your Small Penis. So I may finally get around to reading Lolita without worrying that the other people at Starbucks will think I’m a pedophile.

It’s a mortal sin to use a bookstore as a showroom then order an e-book from Amazon. Unless the showroom is Barnes and Noble.

Slate suggests strategies for the Kindle’s competitors.

If you just hate the whole idea of a Kindle and want someone to agree with you, the New Yorker’s Nicholas Baker is your guy.

Short Notes

Forget the highbrow stuff with graphs and charts and numbers. We should show people this cartoon about national health care.

How can a guy as smart as Bill Bradley be this naive about Republicans?

The bipartisan trade-off in a viable health care bill is obvious: Combine universal coverage with malpractice tort reform in health care.

Yeah, that looks like it makes sense: Trade something the Left wants (universal health care) for something the Right says it wants (malpractice tort reform). But tell me this, Bill: How many Republican senators have told you they’ll take that deal? Zero?

Let me explain why. Malpractice reform is like death panels. It’s a bogus issue that Republicans raise purely to distract attention from real health-care reform. They want malpractice reform instead of national health care, not in addition to it.

In general, no Republican senator has proposed any set of conditions under which he or she would vote for a health-care bill. Until that changes, talking about bipartisanship is a waste of time.

The Blue Dog Coalition of right-leaning Democratic congresspeople receives more than half of its contributions from the health care industry. Coincidentally, these are the representatives most likely to drag their feet on heath-care reform. As Will Rogers once observed: “We have the best Congress money can buy.

Conservatives wonder why people think they’re racists. Maybe because of stuff like this: “Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope,” Republican Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins told a town hall meeting in Kansas this week.

The phrase great white hope goes back to the early 1900s, when Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion. The “great white hope” was whatever boxer might reclaim the title for the white race. So now Republicans need a great white hope to reclaim the White House from the first black president.

Jenkins denies that’s what she meant, but take her at her word for a second: How ignorant do you need to be not to grasp the implications? Are Republicans scraping that close to the bottom of the barrel when they pick candidates for Congress?

Panelists for the Onion News Network discuss the recently abandoned practice of putting suspected terrorists in an endless labyrinth with a minotaur. Was it torture? By eliminating the practice, has the Obama administration tied the hands and hooves of our interrogators?

In a sensible corporate system, investors would hold a CEO accountable if he outraged a significant number of the customers for no good reason. Well, some Whole Foods investors are acting sensibly.

Dancing With the Stars has put disgraced House leader Tom DeLay back in the spotlight, so of course we’re asking his opinion about everything again. Misbehaving right-wingers at town hall meetings? Hey, the other side has done worse:

When I did my town hall meetings, I’ll never forget one back in the ’80s — on health care, by the way. They brought in quadriplegics on gurneys and dumped them on the floor in front of my podium.

Funny, nobody else remembers that. Seems like it would stick in people’s minds.

In June I told you about a minister praying for Obama to die. Here’s another one. You know, I doubt there are many churches much more liberal than mine, and we said a lot of unkind things about Bush over the years. But I never heard of anybody praying for him to die. I never met a liberal who thought God would welcome such a prayer, much less answer it.

That’s the single thing that most amazes and appalls me about right-wing religion: Their God is no better than they are. They might as well be worshiping Zeus or Mars.

You’d expect the people who study visualization methods to have a really kick-ass way to visualize their subject matter. They do. Move your mouse around and watch for the pop-ups.

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  • DavidW in SF  On August 31, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    A small correction: The New Yorker author is Nicholson Baker, not Nicholas Baker.

    Baker is a fascinating “miniaturist” writer, and also a bit obsessive-compulsive. His entirety of his first novel “The Mezzanine” takes place during an office worker's escalator ride back up to his office after lunch. His second novel “Room Temperature” takes place during the roughly 15 minutes it takes the narrator to rock his new baby to sleep. (I think you'd really enjoy this one.) Needless to say, they are novels of the interior monologue.

    Baker also wrote a non-fiction paean to the library card catalog and newspaper stacks in “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper”, which documented exactly how much of our culture is lost when libraries virtualize.

  • John L  On September 6, 2009 at 4:12 am

    The best advice I've read about Afghanistan is from William Pfaff, an American who lives in Paris and writes for the Trib.

    Here's his current column. To somewhat oversimplify his position, we have no vital interests in Afghanistan, and even if we did, we couldn't “win” there any more than any other invader since Alexander the Great could.


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