Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Saw this in a comment on a Matthew Yglesias post. I reproduce it hear on the basis that something this good needs to be spread as widely as possible:

As bullets clawed the air around us and screams echoed down the rubble-strewn tarmac, I felt almost peaceful.
It was a simple mission, they had told me – get in, shake a few hands and mouth a few platitudes, get out. Simple. Yeah.
Things had started going wrong while we were still in the air and only gotten worse from there. So here we were, pinned down, choking on the acrid tang of cordite and the heady scent of human blood. The mission was even simpler now: survive. Whatever the cost, survive.
There was a grunt and a clatter of equipment as Sinbad threw himself down at my side. Sweat glistened on his bare arms, and I could see tendons contracting and relaxing as he squeezed off bursts from his M14. The motion was hypnotic, like a snake about to strike. Perhaps, when all this was over-
No. Concentrate. Focus on the mission. Survive.
A shout from my left drew my head around. Sheryl Crow, guitar still strapped to her back, had taken cover behind a haphazard pile of decaying corpses. Her hair, once lustrous, now lank and greasy, was held back from her eyes by a dirty red headband. Her slim nostrils flared in the dirt-smeared oval of her face, seeking air free of the funeral taint shrouding the airfield. Still, I saw a fierce exultation in her expression that I knew mirrored my own.
Her lithe, nimble fingers stroked the top of an M67 frag grenade, strumming a chord of impending doom. With one quick, economical movement, she plucked the pin free and sent the deadly payload sailing toward the ridge concealing our enemies. My eyes traced the arc, willing it to fly true, to rain death on-
“There!” Sinbad shouted. “The convoy!”
I wrenched my gaze in the direction he was pointing. The boom of the grenade registered only faintly, suddenly unimportant. Thirty yards dead ahead was the real target: the armored convoy, offering safety, shelter, survival. If we could reach it.
“Follow me!” Sinbad roared, levering himself to his feet. As I prepared to follow, a high-pitched whine arrowed across my eardrums and warm, sticky rain splashed my face.
I forced myself to look, already knowing what I would see. The big man lay there, crumpled, the left side of his head a nightmare maze of blood, brains and tight curls of yellowish-orange hair.
Time to mourn later. Survive.
I juked to my left, darting and weaving, somehow making it to Sheryl’s position. Her eyes were wide, shock and fear clouding their emerald depths. “Is he-”
“Gone,” I snapped. “We have to move. Now.”
For a moment I wondered if I would have to leave her behind, but then her jaw tightened and she nodded sharply. “Stay behind me,” she said with a brief squeeze of my hand, then she was up and running, moving like a deer.
I followed, matching her as best I could with the mindless insect hum of lead bees filling my ears and the cracked tarmac clutching at my heels. We ran, time stretching, flattening, the convoy impossibly distant, a cruel mirage, too far, too far . . .
And then, somehow, we were almost there. We had made it, we were going to –
A flat crack and the mournful twang of a guitar string. Sheryl fell, scarlet-splashed splinters from the shattered guitar seeming to hang in the air.
I stopped. Men were flooding out of the brush and streaming around the cars. One approached me, smirking, rifle held casually across his body, smoke still rising from the barrel.
“Every day a winding road,” he said in heavily accented English, shrugging a shoulder toward Sheryl’s body. He stepped closer, almost close enough to touch. “End of road for her today. And you.”
Still smirking, he began to raise the rifle. I lunged forward, freed the ka-bar concealed under my pantsuit, and buried it to the hilt in his chest. He grunted, stiffened, and then slid backwards, the knife making a greedy slurping sound as it pulled free.
The other rebels froze, momentarily stunned. There were a lot of them – too many, surely – but it didn’t matter. One day, I knew, I would be telling this story to rapt audiences as I made my inevitable march to the Presidency. Would this ragged group of smelly goatfuckers be the ones to stop me? Would they?
I raised the blade to my lips, licked it clean, and began to laugh.
Survive. Whatever the cost, survive.
-From The War Journals of Hillary Clinton, Vol. 1


Powder keg

I've been amazed at how lightly McCain has got off from his idiocy in Jordan at the BBC. It's not like they've been short of primary coverage, and both Clinton and Obama have had their trickier moments held under the microscope, though. The questions addressed there, though (Is his pastor a bit of a radical? Is she fabricating her "experience" record?) seem infinitely less important than the one that his al Qaeda/Shia militia raises - does this man even understand the basic contours of the problem in Iraq. Given that even he says this is the one thing he really knows about, does he understand any of the stuff you'd expect a president to have a grasp on.

In fact, the British media has generally been pretty lax about this. I found a small article in the Guardian, focusing on the "Dems jump on McCain gaffe" angle of this, rather than the more worrying "US Presidential nominee enthusiastic for wars he knows nothing about" aspect, which seems to me the important bit.

Does no-one care that the Republican nominee looks like he could start WWIII through a combination of aggression and ignorance? Happily, the ft is on the case.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Quote of the day

"...the financial system is a subsidiary of the state."

Who's spouting this dangerous socialist nonsense? None other than the FT's Martin Wolf. I see what he means, but he didn't phrase it quite like that when he was writing Why Globalization Works, did he?

Anyway, now that I've taken my cheap shot, it's worth reading the whole article. This particularly struck me:

All these crises are different. But many have shared common features. They begin with capital inflows from foreigners seduced by tales of an economic El Dorado. This generates low real interest rates and a widening current account deficit. Domestic borrowing and spending surge, particularly investment in property. Asset prices soar, borrowing increases and the capital inflow grows. Finally, the bubble bursts, capital floods out and the banking system, burdened with mountains of bad debt, implodes.

This sounds eerily like Joseph Stiglitz describing the South-East Asian financial crisis ten years ago, but we're talking about the United States right here, right now. Obviously the US isn't going to be headed cap-in-hand to the IMF asking for a bail-out (they have China and Japan for that), but it still rather brings home the way the mighty are fallen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


There's a popular image of John McCain being built up in the press that seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the man himself. To listen to most news sources, you get an idea of a principled, albeit sometimes cranky elder statesman who, while he may be a touch weak on some of the economic issues, has a load of foreign policy experience and understanding, albeit from a bit of a hawkish perspective.

That last meme, the idea that he's some sort of experienced foreign policy genius, seems to be particularly hard to kill off. Why people should think this is unclear. I'm sure as a war vet (and one who's been tortured at that) he'd have a lot of credibility talking to US troops, but when it comes to talking to anyone outside the US (which I understand to be at least a part of the president's job), would anyone really feel happy knowing that the guy who came out with this little gem was on the case? Is a "maverick" really what you want on one side of ticklish, high-level negotiations between heavily armed nation-states?

Neocon cheerleader Max Boot tried to make the case that, yes, actually this was exactly what was needed a few months back. It's the same old neocon stuff - we can make them do what we want if we just scare them enough - an idea that's been kicking round at least since Nixon's "madman theory", or possibly since Caligula declared that intimidating was the new popular.

Boot's wrong, of course. Looking scary may have been a good idea when the US knew exactly who or what it was meant to be intimidating (the USSR), but, in the current security climate, looking like you might flip out and bomb the shit out of anyone at any moment is just going to mess with an already delicate situation, and help otherwise disparate powers coalesce against the bigger security threat you represent.

Even if you did think that intimidation was the way forward in US foreign policy, you'd presumably want someone with a sound enough grasp of the facts to know who to intimidate and when. Sadly, McCain ain't your man. He's off in the Middle East seeing people trying to make friends abroad and bolster his foreign policy credentials, talking about Iraq. You know, the place with the bitter sectarian conflict that he knows all about, that prompted him to back the surge in troop numbers to maybe put a lid on that whole Sunni/Shia violence issue? Here's how he's doing:

Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back."

Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was "common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known. And it's unfortunate." A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate's ear. McCain then said: "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."

Now that'd look pretty uninformed coming from a first year international relations student. But from a guy who's running on a platform of foreign policy experience, it's terrifying. Also can't believe that the "what the hell, they're all just Muslims" attitude that it reveals is really the one you want on display in Jordan.

Monday, March 10, 2008


The Democratic primaries are my soap opera du jour.* Haven't commented much about them on this blog because there's so much material out there that there's really nothing new to say. But I just can't take it any more. If I don't have a rant about Hillary Clinto and her "We need a commander-in-chief with experience" line of attack on Obama, I'm probably going to have an aneurism.

For those who have real lives where they go around and meet people and don't bother about all this shit until there's an honest-to-God presidential election happening, the line has been that she has years of foreign policy experience, while he's just been hanging about in state legislatures and will go to pieces when he has to deal with big bad men like Putin, Ahmedinajad and Hu. This all culminated in the advert that's meant to have helped her in Texas, all about the White House phone ringing at 3.00am and "Who do you want there to answer it?"

Now the first thing to say about this is that, even on its own terms, it's silly. If Clinton's helped Obama prove one thing in the last few months, it's that, even when she really tries to apply the pressure, he's too cool for school. Also, her foreign policy negotiation experience seems to amount to having been first lady for eight years. That doesn't really seem like that great a recommendation, unless the phone at 3am thing was meant to be a veiled reference to the fact that Bill will probably be right next to her (which would seem to undercut as a potential commander-in-chief anyway).

The problem is that this line of attack is silly in a particularly destructive way. Because if you're going to run on the good-in-a-crisis ticket, you're going to need crises.

So, "What would the president do in a crisis?" is, generally speaking, a far less important question than "How likely is the president to cause crises?" I think we can make an at least credible argument that Obama - who's plan seems to occasionally talk to people rather than having big stare-downs, might score rather well on this point.

Invoking the possibility of looming crisis has become a big part of the political landscape, and it's spectacularly destructive. The Bush administration has been using the prospect of a looming crisis to get everything it wants with regards to foreign policy and home security for seven years now. Hillary seems to be doing her darnedest to continue the trend. What we in the rest of the world would like to see from the next US Presidential election, if at all possible, is a country that doesn't seem get round whatever political problems it faces by immediately trying to terrify its own people and everyone else. This is not apparently, an expectation she's much interested in meeting.

On a more tactical, it's massively empowering to John McCain, who's had far more military experience than either of them. He might be good in a crisis, but he is very clearly interested in bringing them about. Whether he faces Hillary or Barrack in November, he could take that add and use it verbatim for his campaign. I'd always thought Hillary's staff had just been overlooking that point, but no, apparently they're really happy to big up McCain so long as it gets them the nomination over Obama:

SEN. CLINTON: I think it's imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we
can cross the commander in chief threshold, and I believe that I've done that.
Certainly Senator McCain has done that. And, and you'll have to ask Senator
Obama with respect to his candidacy.

*Well that and The Wire. Which I actualy got into because everyone blogging about the Democratic primaries seems to be obsessed with it.

Udate: Happily, the Obama campaign seem to want to emphasise the parallel:

Monday, for example, he labeled a Clinton television ad "straight out of the
Republican playbook." The ad asked voters whom they wanted to answer a White
House crisis phone at 3 a.m., which implicitly questioned his credentials as
commander in chief. "That's not change," he said at a rally in Jackson, Miss.

I think that's an encouraging sign. It's nice that they don't go in for negative campaigning, but that's not the same thing as letting the Clinton campaign get away with some of the idiocy they spout.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Explanation for stupid people...

... concerning the definition of a "conspiracy theory."

Or more specifically, an explanation of the situations in which you can and can't invoke the term "conspiracy theory" to dismiss someone's argument as a priori ridiculous.

Three times in the last year I've had people do this, usually after I'd invoked the idea of the military industrial complex. There's just a certain sort of person who can hear that term, invoke the phrase "conspiracy theory" like some sort of magic totem, and retire from the argument, apparently secure in the supposition that they have shown themselves to be worldly and astute, whilst simultaneously suggesting that you're some sort of cabin-dwelling nutter.

What they've actually done is show that they've got a very shakey grasp about what one or both of those terms mean. So, for the benefit of the semantically challenged:

A conspiracy theory, in essence, has to involve an explanation more complicated than the one it seeks to replace. One important definition of "complicated" for these purposes, is the inclusion of factors for which we have no actual evidence. As the name would suggest, this is usually the action of conspirators - people who have an interest in causing an event and then concealing the fact that they've done so.

This in itself of course, doesn't make something untrue. People conceal their actions all the time, for all sorts of reasons and, if they do it well, they won't have left any evidence. It's just that, in the absence of any evidence for or against, it becomes something of a moot point. Where we get into the realms of the unlikely is with those conspiracies that require many and various people to be doing the concealing.

So under this definition, David Icke's stuff is a strong conspiracy theory. Religion, is arguably, a weak sort of conspiracy theory.

The idea of the military industrial complex, simply stated, is that people whose business is to sell weapons to the government have an incentive to make sure their customer keeps buying. If there's a lot of money involved, those incentives become really pretty big. Given that you need at least the threat of war to justify spending the sort of sums involved, this will tend to make countries with large MICs more bellicose than others. Quite a lot of evidence on record for it, including the thoughts of one former US president and military commander (who coined the phrase), but here's my recent favourite:

When the Admiral took charge of Pacific Command in 2005, he immediately set about a military-to-military outreach to the Chinese armed forces, something that had plenty of people freaking out at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The Chinese, after all, were scheduled to be our next war. What the hell was Fallon doing?
Contrary to some reports, though, Fallon says he initially had no trouble with then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld on the subject. "Early on, I talked to him. I said, Here's what I think. And I talked to the president, too."
It was only after the Pentagon and Congress started realizing that their favorite "programs of record" (i.e., weapons systems and major vehicle platforms) were threatened by such talks that the shit hit the fan. "I blew my stack," Fallon says. "I told Rumsfeld, Just look at this shit. I go up to the Hill and I get three or four guys grabbing me and jerking me out of the aisle, all because somebody came up and told them that the sky was going to cave in."

Support the Open Rights Group Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.