Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Walking the Berkshires 

My second cousin blogs, and he writes beautifully about the natural world. Check out this post about my great aunt's old house on Buzzards Bay.

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Where is freedom "worth it"? 

Australia has fought for the freedom of others all around the world, including in some places where America has not gone. Australian Andrew Bolt wonders why Iraq seems to be the one place where people claim that freedom is not worth the trouble:

Maybe this past week has taught us to pity. Because look: East Timor is being forgiven like Iraq never is.

Its capital can be looted, its soldiers can gun down its police, its gangs can murder children, its people can be made to live on charity, its politicians can squabble over the power they then abuse -- but no fool here says freedom was a mistake.

Even as our soldiers guard refugees cowering in church yards, still no commentator sneers that it all shows we were crazy to liberate East Timor in 1999.

No one is saying these 900,000 East Timorese just aren't cut out for democracy. Nor is anyone saying the toppled dictator -- Indonesia's old president Suharto in this case -- at least kept the killers under control.

No, East Timor is allowed to make mistakes without having its new freedom questioned the way it is so gleefully with Iraq.

It is forgiven as we forgive South Africa, despite everything, and even Zimbabwe. Think of how nice and understanding we've been of them.

Just consider: South Africa's economy is struggling so badly, 12 years after the end of apartheid, that private economists and the Congress of South African Trade Unions say more than 40 per cent of workers are out of a job. That's higher than the very worst estimate for Iraq.

What's more, some 20,000 South Africans are now murdered each year, according to police statistics, although Interpol has warned the true figure may be twice that -- or perhaps four times the number of Iraqis now killed each year in fighting. The incidence of rape and AIDS is more horrific than anything known in Iraq, too.

But we don't doubt South Africa is better free than enslaved, do we?

Or consider post-independence Zimbabwe: Its mad president, Robert Mugabe, has so wrecked the place that inflation is over 400 per cent and four in every five workers are unemployed.

He has now created such a famine in this rich land that millions of his people, hungrier than any Iraqis, must beg for food from foreign aid groups while their leader drives around in a new Mercedes S600L Pullman.

Yet, no one says we were wrong to help get rid of the white rulers of Harare. Or that it was stupid to free South Africa from apartheid. Or that East Timor should have stuck with Suharto, who at least kept these killers under control.

Of course not. With East Timor, South Africa and Zimbabwe -- and Russia, too -- we understand freedom isn't an overnight cure.

We know that even the British Parliament took centuries before banning slavery and giving women the vote. We know it was only a few decades ago that the United States finally gave all African-Americans their full rights.

We know democracy doesn't guarantee perfection -- just the right to sack the leaders who fall too short.

Only with Iraq, which under Saddam bled worse than South Africa did under apartheid, are we told freedom isn't worth the trouble.

Read the whole thing, and consider particularly Bolt's explanation for difference between Iraq and these other examples:
Still, the East Timorese aren't Muslims, are they? And their liberators weren't Americans. Big difference.

There is another difference, actually. For many on the left, it is not merely enough to do the right thing. One must also have pure motives. This is why many leftists supported an antiseptic air war in Kosovo and call today for Western military intervention in Darfur, the Sudan. The West in general and the United States in particular have nothing obvious to gain in either intervention other than the warm and fuzzy feeling of having killed bad people in the interests of helping innocent people. Iraq, however, has oil, and the liquidation of Saddam's government benefited not only innocent Arabs but also Israel's security. If there are two things that today's left hates more than the United States, it is the oil economy and Israel. The fact that all three might have benefited from the invasion of Iraq rendered the Coalition's motives impure and tainted, for all time, our project to bring democracy to that country.

CWCID: Lucianne.

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Why Did Paulson Take the Job? 

Speculation alert!

Tigerhawk wonders why Hank Paulson would leave Goldman and his $30mm per year CEO job for the Treasury job in a lame duck Presidency. Let me propose a few reasons:

1) He had nothing more to accomplish at Goldman Sachs. Paulson is a very big Bulls/Michael Jordan fan. With Goldman's 2005 performance, Paulson equalled Jordan's championship winning jumpshot in the 1998 NBA Finals against the Jazz. In the 6 years since Goldman's IPO, the stock has nearly tripled. He brilliantly managed the complex transition from private partnership to public company, preserving and probably enhancing Goldman's reputation through a burst bubble and a recession. Goldman's profits are simply extraordinary. He has a Goldman share position worth $700 million. When you are worth that much, you make $30 million per year owning muni bonds. He doesn't need the pay. Besides, with Sarbox and now the options investigations, being the CEO of a public company (even if you have been as incredibly successful as Hank Paulson or Bill McGuire, the CEO of United Healthcare) is unnecessarily treacherous. He's been the CEO for 7 years. He's 60 years old. He is going out on top.

2) As I previously articulated, he is philosophically in tune with the Bush Administration.

3) My impression of Paulson is that he is spontaneous. He didn't seem to have planned his rise, he didn't have a reputation for political maneuvering. And, as I said previously, he ascended at moments of challenge and peril, unafraid to seize opportunities when maybe they didn't look so good at that very moment.

The current decision seems consistent with that history. He didn't work assiduously on behalf of a candidate, in effect seeking the job. The opportunity presented itself, and Paulson understands that it may never again present itself. He probably did not intend to work for a particular candidate in the 2008 election, in the same way that Rubin worked quite publicly on behalf of Clinton. He's 60 now, would be 62 then -- so if he had any interest at all in the position, this might have seemed to him the moment, even if unplanned and imperfect. Battlefield promotion is how you might refer to the situaton, and I am sure that would resonate with Paulson as a concept.

4) I am sure 2 1/2 years in that job is more than enough. Paulson will likely grow impatient with politics. I doubt he did this to set the stage for any sort of run for office. He is not a politician, or campaigner. I can't see it. Physically, he is a bit like an offensive lineman. Sometimes, when he is sitting in the room with an irritating and less than intelligent politician, I am certain he will want to reach across the table, grab the fellow by the lapels and shake sense into him. I just don't see him as a politician.

Besides, that would get him out around the time that the next recession is likely to be looming, and I suspect he would prefer to be headed for the hills by then.

5) He obviously is a believer in public service, and if you are CEO of a financial institution, Treasury Secretary is as good as it gets in public service.

UPDATE: I thought it worthwhile to add another consideration. One of Paulson's mentors at Goldman Sachs was Steve Friedman. Friedman was co-mananging partner with Bob Rubin, and the CEO who elevated Paulson to COO in 1994, upon his departure. Friedman is (or was) the Chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors. Count on Friedman having been critical to Paulson's recruitment, and to assuring Paulson that his voice would matter.

Just a few ideas, not exhaustive.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hank Paulson bets on George W. Bush 

It is long past news that John Snow has resigned, and that President Bush has tapped Goldman, Sachs CEO Hank Paulson to be Secretary of the Treasury. See Cardinalpark's personal take below.

After reading Cardinalpark, it isn't surprising that George W. Bush wanted Hank Paulson to take the job -- he is an excellent choice even if he did go to Dartmouth -- but it is surprising that Paulson took the job. Why is he giving up $30 million per year so that he can jump on to an allegedly sinking ship? It seems to me that there are four possible answers. First, perhaps Paulson does not think that the Bush administration is as lame as the received wisdom believes it is. He thinks he can be part of the team that turns it around. Second, regardless of the prospects for the Bush administration, perhaps Paulson believes that this is his most direct route to a career in politics a la predecessor Jon Corzine. A distinguished career as Secretary of the Treasury could lead to all sorts of interesting opportunities in 2008 or 2010. Third, perhaps the senior players at Goldman pushed just a bit, each hoping to move up in power and income during the inevitable post-Paulson reshuffling of the deck. Thirty million dollars is a lot of payroll to pass around -- perhaps my co-blogger will offer his thoughts on that comment. Fourth, Paulson may just be hankering for a return to the White House. Back during the Nixon administration, he worked as assistant to John Erlichman. Just maybe, Hank Paulson did not want that to be his last job in government service.

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Bush Administration Picks New Treasury Chief 

for whom I once worked. That probably connotes a degree of closeness that overstates the matter (a lot). I am sure he also knew well another colleague of Tigerhawk's. The world is small.

Paulson was always underestimated by his rivals and colleagues. He was a forceful advocate, an excellent salesman and a physically imposing presence. People dismissed him as "not so smart," which he has proven to be remarkably false. They confused his midwestern style and his inability to make a speech as a lack of intellect. Sound familiar? He was a Chicago outsider in a New York business.

Hank Paulson was notoriously inarticulate, and happy to make light of his own public speechmaking. But what was great about him was his transparency, his candor, his willingness to be held to account and his forcefulness in holding others to account. He is a powerful guy, a powerful personality. He will be no shrinking violet. He may make the occasional public speaking gaffe. He has gotten better at all of those things as the length of his tenure as CEO of Goldman Sachs has forced him to improve on these public skills. But it's hard to believe that he won't rival Bush for the occasional malapropism.

On policy matters, he will line up very well with the President. He will almost certainly talk up the dollar, rather than talk it down. He is intimately familiar with China, as he has been a frequent traveller there for business and I bet his Treasury posting bodes well for our interactions with the Chinese. Because Bob Rubin was viewed as a Clinton Administration genius, Bush may benefit from some of the glow Rubin left on the Treasury, since Paulson and Rubin share their Goldman pedigree. But there could not be two more different people, really, that come from the same place, than Paulson and Rubin. Paulson will be a tax cutter, a dollar proponent, a free trade proponent -- all in all, I would say a very strong selection for the Treasury position. He is also a warrior. By that I mean that under adversity, he is incredibly strong. He ascended to the role of COO at Goldman at its worst moment (1994). He then became CEO at a moment of great peril and change (1999 - when the Long Term Capital Crisis and the Russian financial crisis temporarily derailed Goldman's IPO). One other thing - Paulson is a noted environmentalist. He is Chairman of the Nature Conservancy, and an avid photographer of wildlife, especially birds. His position on Arctic Wildlife Drilling will be interesting to see emerge, though only tangentially related to his day job.

One bit of bad news for the Princeton folks who read here - he is a Dartmouth graduate.

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Vasalam Ala Man Ataba’al hoda 

That is the concluding phrase of Ahmedinejad's letter to President Bush. It means “Peace only unto those who follow the true path.”

I think we can guess with reasonable certainty what Ahmedinehad's definition of "the true path" is -- and I doubt it conforms with that of even my harshest critics out there.

According to Hillel Fradkin, there is clear historical import to the language chosen by the Iranian President:

It is a phrase with historical significance in Islam, for, according to Islamic tradition, in year six of the Hejira - the late 620s - the prophet Mohammad sent letters to the Byzantine emperor and the Sassanid emperor telling them to convert to the true faith of Islam or be conquered. The letters included the same phrase that President Ahmadinejad used to conclude his letter to Mr. Bush. For Mohammad, the letters were a prelude to a Muslim offensive, a war launched for the purpose of imposing Islamic rule over infidels.

How comforting. H/T to Hugh Hewitt for the links and analysis. I would urge you to read Hewitt's post in its entirety.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

The eye of the beholder 

The New York Times is running a story this morning that exposes the gulf in perceptions that drives American politics at the moment: "Talk of Pelosi as Speaker Delights Both Parties":

Hoping to win a Congressional majority in November, some optimistic Democratic lawmakers have taken to referring to Representative Nancy Pelosi as "speaker," as in speaker of the House. So have some optimistic Republicans.

"She ought to be a big component of the fall campaign," said Ed Rogers, a Republican strategist and lobbyist. "There are some Democrats who make really good bad guys."

Ms. Pelosi, the California Democrat and House minority leader, lends herself to easy caricature by Republicans. She is an unapologetic liberal, with a voting record to match (the Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, said she was neither a "New Democrat" nor an "Old Democrat" but a "prehistoric Democrat"). She is wealthy (married to an investment banker, she has assets listed at more than $16 million). She represents San Francisco, which Republicans love to invoke as a hotbed of counterculture decadence and extremism.

This is the best part:
Asked why she makes such a popular Democratic bogyman, or bogywoman, Ms. Pelosi shrugged, smirked and, finally, smiled.

"I am an Italian-American Catholic grandmother," she said, "very traditional in terms of values."

Well, that explains why she has a 100% rating from NARAL:
Voted YES on allowing human embryonic stem cell research. (May 2005)
Voted NO on restricting interstate transport of minors to get abortions. (Apr 2005)
Voted NO on making it a crime to harm a fetus during another crime. (Feb 2004)
Voted NO on banning partial-birth abortion except to save mother’s life. (Oct 2003)
Voted NO on forbidding human cloning for reproduction & medical research. (Feb 2003)
Voted NO on funding for health providers who don't provide abortion info. (Sep 2002)
Voted NO on banning Family Planning funding in US aid abroad. (May 2001)
Voted NO on federal crime to harm fetus while committing other crimes. (Apr 2001)
Voted NO on banning partial-birth abortions. (Apr 2000)
Voted NO on barring transporting minors to get an abortion. (Jun 1999)
Rated 100% by NARAL, indicating a pro-choice voting record. (Dec 2003)
Supported funding contraception and UN family planning. (Jul 1999)

Extended voting record here.

Now, regular readers know that I believe some abortion should be lawful and am otherwise pretty liberal on social matters, so I do not even oppose all these votes. I just don't know a lot of Italian Catholic grandmothers who would have gone Pelosi's way. But then, she did say it with a smirk.

For more excitement, see this interview of Pelosi in American Prospect. She thinks that the decisive fight was the President's failed effort to reform entitlements:
So we’re looking at 50 [seats], we’re not looking at 15, we’re looking at 50 seats and it’s very exciting. The two things we had to do to put us in play -- we had to take down President Bush’s numbers, and he gave us an opportunity when he made his assault on Social Security....The newly-President-again and he was going to save Social Security. Anyway, we had to go outside of D.C. … a thousand town hall meetings across the country to persuade the people … by September, 70 percent of the seniors were against what the President … but in the meantime the message came in -- he doesn’t care about people like you.

She also confesses that the strategy has been to "take down" the President, war or no war:
It bothered us that his number on “cares about people like me” was higher than it should be in light of what happens here on the floor every day. So, took his number down there, laid the foundation on the unethical behavior here. We’ve been doing that for a while, but it finally was taking the culture of corruption, incompetence, and cronyism. Pound away on that and then of course along came Katrina as further evidence of this incompetence, cronyism, and corruption, and the war spoke for itself.

People criticize us -- “you don’t have your own plans.” You know what? We’ll take the heat, Harry and I. We’re willing to take the heat, and we just have to keep the spotlight on the President of the United States. For these and other reasons, the President’s numbers are very low.

Quite pointedly, she barely denies that Democrats don't have their "own plans." That is beside the point to the next Speaker of the House. She is running a campaign that is at one level the opposite of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, which focused on what the Republicans would do. Pelosi believes her most important new power will be to issue subpoenas:
And one of the great triumphs of our victory in November will be the power of the subpoena. This is a Congress that is not only a rubberstamp for the President, but has abdicated its responsibility, derelict in its responsibility for oversight. [inaudible] The power to investigate, the power to subpoena will show the American people how far they were willing to go for their own agenda at the expense of the lives of our kids, the limbs of our kids, a trillion-dollar war, the cost to our reputation around the world.

Read the whole thing.

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Anecdotes of the real estate bubble 

The financial press is full of news that housing prices are no longer soaring, inventories are rising, and the bubble is deflating. I dunno. People have been calling the top of the American housing market for a couple of years now. I do, however, have two anecdotes to report, recognizing that the plural of anecdotes is not data.

First, later this week we will close the purchase of a house and six acres with palpable "mountain views" in the greater Durango, Colorado area. We are paying about 6% less than the property sold for about a year ago. Of course, the seller might have paid too much, or we may have gotten a particularly good deal. I doubt it. I think the market is softening.

Second, we were in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey this afternoon (in Jersey-speak, we were "down the shore"). There were "for sale" signs all over New Jersey and Atlantic Avenues, including on a house that was owned by my family for almost 90 years (yes, I will call for the listing price, but only out of morbid curiousity -- my great aunt sold it and an adjacent lot in 1994 for something like $240,000, and I'm guessing that the house alone is listed at well over a million), the house across the street that had been owned by great friends of our family, and a big new faux Victorian that replaced some non-descript Cape Cod just up the street. Now, real estate prices on the Jersey shore have gone through the roof in the last six or seven years, to the point that the current issue of Barron's (which devotes its cover story this week to the coming decline in prices for second homes) reckons that Ocean City is one of the ten most overpriced "second home" markets in the country. There is even a blog that covers the market from Asbury to Cape May, the "The Jersey Shore Real Estate Bubble" blog. That guy makes you wish you could short real estate.

The big question, of course, is if housing prices flatten and all those teaser ARMS adjust to the point that people have to trade down to cover their nut, what's going to happen to the economy?

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Don't forget the Egyptian bloggers 

For more than three weeks, bloggers have been reminding the world that Egypt has imprisoned bloggers that took up their keyboards in defense of Egypt's putatively independent judiciary. My original post, which sort of got the ball rolling on this side of the Atlantic (if for no other reason than a link from Instapundit), is here.

There has been scant support from either the MSM or Western governments, but the Associated Press is running an inspiring story this morning, "Egypt democracy activist blogs from cell".

Even from his cell in an Egyptian prison, Alaa Abdel-Fattah is blogging — scribbling messages on slips of paper that make their way to the Internet and spread around the world.

The 24-year-old Abdel-Fattah's blog, which he does with his wife Manal Hassan, has become one of the most popular pro-democracy voices in Egypt. He has continued writing despite being arrested in early May during a street demonstration in Cairo — part of a crackdown on reform activists by Egyptian security forces.

"We covered the walls of our cell with graffiti of our names and slogans and Web site addresses," Abdel-Fattah wrote one time, referring to himself and fellow imprisoned activists. "We chanted and sang and the mood was great."

Glenn Reynolds has been a trooper in the campaign to free Alaa, and the Associated Press quotes him in his capacity as an expert on blogging as a political solvent:
Glenn Reynolds, University of Tennessee law professor and author of the popular American blog Instapundit, has written frequently about Abdel-Fattah.

"He's certainly the most famous blogger in Egypt and arguably the best known reformer there now," Reynolds told The Associated Press. "When you suppress dissent, even minor voices become incredibly powerful."

I think this is right -- millions of people the world over, the most political interested people, I might add, now know who Abdel-Fattah is. That was not true before Egypt chucked him in jail.
After Abdel-Fattah's arrest, Egyptian, American and European bloggers launched a worldwide "Free Alaa" movement — circulating a petition and encouraging readers to write to their local Egyptian embassy. Hassan said the Manalaa blog got 3,000 daily hits before Abdel-Fattah's arrest and the number has skyrocketed since, though she hasn't tabulated them.

Web banners of the couple emblazoned with the words "Let Alaa return to Manal" get 150,000 daily hits on U.S. sites alone, said Sam Adam, another Egyptian blogger who writes at http://www.sandmonkey.org.

Don't forget to keep the heat on. I can think of worse ways to spend your Memorial Day than writing an email to the Egyptian Embassy protesting the detention of Alaa and other democracy activists.

The contact information for the Egyptian embassy is below:

The Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
3521 International Ct. NW
Washington DC 20008
Phone (202) 895 5400
Fax (202) 244 5131
(202) 244 4319
Email: embassy@egyptembdc.org

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

The protests in Iran 

Gateway Pundit has a huge roundup of the protests in Iran (CWCID: Instapundit). There's a lot going on there.

We've also seen this before. The protests in the summer of 1999 were massive, and many in both Iran and the West thought -- or at least hoped -- that then-President Mohammed Khatami would declare in support of the reformist movement. From Kenneth Pollack, The Persian Puzzle, at 335:

Revolutions are peculiar things, and it is a rare moment when enough people become willing to fight the institutions of state repression that one becomes possible. The summer of 1999 held that potential in Iran, a potential that had been building since the 1997 election. When Khatami failed to lead the revolution that seemed ready to be unleashed, he doomed the reform movement to defeat.

If he had, Iran might be a different place today. But Khatami was not a great revolutionary leader, and the reformist moment passed.

This time, the streets are filling with demonstrators with no apparent hope of relief from the leading figures in the government. Is this just spring fever on the campuses, or is there something more at work? Do not fail to read this fascinating analysis of the shifting power within the Iranian regime, and wonder what role these demonstrations may play in that drama.

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Cassandra is back from her vacation... 

It was ugly.

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Saturday, May 27, 2006



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The Osirak "fallacy" 

Regular readers know that we like to challenge conventional wisdom, even when it is our conventional wisdom. So it is with Richard Betts' article on the "Osirak fallacy" in the spring issue of The National Interest. Betts argues that Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak action makes a poor model for acting against Iran, in part because it did not stop Iraq's nuclear program or even, Betts argues, slow it down:

In contrast to a ground war, air power has the allure of quick, clean, decisive action without messy entanglement. Smash today, gone tomorrow. Iraq's nuclear program demonstrates how unsuccessful air strikes can be even when undertaken on a massive scale. Recall the surprising discoveries after the Iraq War. In 1991 coalition air forces destroyed the known nuclear installations in Iraq, but when UN inspectors went into the country after the war, they unearthed a huge infrastructure for nuclear weapons development that had been completely unknown to Western intelligence before the war.

Obliterating the Osirak reactor did not put the brakes on Saddam's nuclear weapons program because the reactor that was destroyed could not have produced a bomb on its own and was not even necessary for producing a bomb. Nine years after Israel's attack on Osirak, Iraq was very close to producing a nuclear weapon. Had Saddam been smart enough in 1990 to wait a year longer, he might have been able to have a nuclear weapon in his holster when he invaded Kuwait.

There are two methods for developing fissionable material for a nuclear weapon. One is to reprocess spent fuel from a nuclear reactor like Osirak into fissionable plutonium. In order to reprocess the fuel from Osirak on a significant scale, the Iraqis would have needed to construct a separate plutonium reprocessing plant. Many laymen commonly assume the effectiveness of the Israeli strike because they mistakenly believe that a nuclear reactor alone can produce explosive material for a bomb. Iraq had made no move toward building the necessary reprocessing facility at the time the Israelis struck the reactor. Without such a separate plant, the destruction of the reactor was practically superfluous.

In fact, a reactor is not even essential for developing a weapon--it is simply one building block for one option. Destruction of Osirak did nothing to impede the separate development project that brought Iraq to the brink of weapons capability less than a decade later. Iraq went on to a fast-paced weapon-development effort by choosing the route toward the enrichment of natural uranium. This is the route that Iran now appears to be taking. Western intelligence did not detect Iraq's enrichment facilities when Saddam Hussein was actively developing a nuclear capability during the 1980s.

If anything, the destruction of the reactor probably increased Saddam's incentive to rush the program via the second route. It is unlikely that Saddam would have been able to develop nuclear weapons much faster through the Osirak reactor--given that he would have had to plan, construct and operate a reprocessing plant--than through enrichment. Israel's preventive strike was not an example of effective delay.

It was, however, extremely entertaining.

The Betts article is instructive, but largely a "straw man" argument. However inapplicable the Osirak precedent may be to the case of Iran, most public discussion of airstrikes against Iran imagine a far more extensive campaign against all known elements of Iran's program. See, e.g., "Iranian Nuclear Weapons? The Options If Diplomacy Fails" (pdf) from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the most dispassionate analysis of the non-military and military means for coercing Iran that I know of. A more extensive campaign would involve greater risk and cost and is probably beyond the capability of Israel acting alone, but neither does that mean that Osirak is precedent for its success or failure.

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The Congressional corruption scandal 

Glenn Reynolds sees lots of smoke, and I have to agree:

The Justice Department signaled to the White House this week that the nation's top three law enforcement officials would resign or face firing rather than return documents seized from a Democratic congressman's office in a bribery investigation, according to administration sources familiar with the discussions.

The possibility of resignations by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales; his deputy, Paul J. McNulty; and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III was communicated to the White House by several Justice officials in tense negotiations over the fate of the materials taken from Rep. William J. Jefferson's office.

Assuming this report (based on anonymous sources) is true, it seems likely that this means the Jefferson investigation goes well beyond the not-entirely-newsworthy phenomenon of a corrupt Louisiana Congressman. Even if the claims of Congressional immunity are bogus -- which they are -- I can't imagine these guys threatening resignation over a run-of-the-mill corruption case. That makes me think that there are a lot of other members of Congress implicated, which perhaps also explains the rather, um, vigorous reaction from Congress.

Uh, yeah.

I am a simpleton when it comes to political handicapping, but it seems to me that we may see massive turnover in the Congress this fall, at least by the standards of the computerized gerrymandering era. Whether that turnover will result in a Republican or Democratic majority I do not know, but my general feeling with regard to the Congress is that more turnover is better than less.

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Confronting Iran: The question of "direct talks," part 1 

Suddenly, the news is full of stories discussing whether the United States will, or should, engage in "direct talks" with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This issue has been building for months, but there is clearly something in the back chatter that is bringing it to the fore. The Iranians are apparently reaching out to the United States through various channels, including Greece, the New York Times is running a front-page story this morning that includes sufficient leakage that it is obviously intended to test the domestic political waters, and WaPo columnist David Ignatius has declared that "it is time" to talk to Iran directly. Of these three, the Times article is the most illuminating.

The question of whether the United States should conduct direct talks is a complicated one that I hope to explore at some length before the end of the weekend. Suffice it to say that there are good arguments on both sides, and that David Ignatius' simple view that we have nothing to lose from engagement is not sufficiently nuanced for my taste or the country's best interest. He may be right in the end, but agreeing to "direct" and, more relevantly, officially acknowledged negotiations with Iran is not without risk to the United States and its allies.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Michael Totten's Lebanon 

Michael J. Totten has posted some beautiful pictures of Lebanon. No tourism promotional campaign could be so effective as Totten's writing and photography.

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Which came first? 

The egg.

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The O'Quiz 

If you don't challenge your newshounditude with the Billoreilly.com "O'Quiz" every week, you're not staying sharp and you're missing some laughs. Sample question:

After investigating radical professor Ward Churchill, who called 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns," a panel at the University of Colorado has issued its findings. What did they conclude was among Churchill's misdeeds?

A. Slander
B. Plagiarism
C. Anti-Semitism
D. Falsifying his ethnicity
E. Impersonating an intellectual

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What Captain Ed said.

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Confront your shame, and honor the heroes 

The Wall Street Journal has a wonderful editorial this morning that asks a couple of very telling questions:

Here's a Memorial Day quiz:

1. Who is Jessica Lynch?

Correct. She's the Army private captured, and later rescued, in the early days of the war.

2. Who is Leigh Ann Hester?

Come on. The Kentucky National Guard vehicle commander was awarded a Silver Star last year for fighting off an insurgent attack on a convoy in Iraq. The first woman to receive a Silver Star since World War II, and the first woman ever to receive one for close combat.

If you don't recognize Sergeant Hester's name, that's not surprising. While Private Lynch's ordeal appears in some 12,992 newspaper and broadcast reports on the Factiva news service, Sergeant Hester and her decoration for extraordinary valor show up in only 162.

One difference: Sergeant Hester is a victor, while Private Lynch can be seen as a victim. And when it comes to media reports about the military these days, victimology is all the rage. For every story about someone who served out of conviction and resolutely went on with his civilian life, there are many more articles about a soldier's failure or a veteran's floundering.

There is no denying this tendency in the press. The question is, what is its cause? Surely some of it derives from the national obsession with victimization that pervades press coverage generally. I do not understand why any fifth tier pseudo-celebrity can attract the attention of the mainstream media by claiming that he was abused as a child, but I assume it is because a large proportion of Americans are fascinated by it. Whether this is because they, too, have been victimized -- at least in their own minds -- or the reverse -- that they feel that they are giving "penance" for their great luck to be living in this amazing country at this prosperous and exciting time -- I do not know.

There is something deeper, though. I think we resent the all-volunteer military. It is a constant rebuke to those of us who might have done more for our country, but decided not to. When the heroes are draftees, we can honor them for having risen above the misfortune of their low draft number. They lost the lottery, and still they thrived. The draftee is not different from us in the choices he made, he simply made the most of his bad fortune. We imagine we might have risen to the same challenge.

When our soldiers are volunteers, however, many of us are both mystified by the decision that they made and embarrassed that we did not make the same decision. We are ashamed by their heroism, because it reminds us of our own self-indulgence. We then compound the insult by not recognizing our own weakness and honoring the heroes in spite of it.

Have the self-awareness to honor the accomplishments of our soldiers, and the choice they made. It seems to me that we owe our soldiers at least that much.

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The spring protests in Iran are expanding 

Gateway Pundit has a huge round-up of links and news about the spring protests in Iran. The question is, will they last past final exams?

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The domestication of the CIA 

Wretchard put up a post this afternoon that reminds us that the campaign to gut the CIA's Directorate of Operations has been going on for thirty years. Referring to an article from Time magazine, February 6, 1978:

The article exposes how intelligence agencies, contrary to intent, are being run from the White House by political figures. "When last week's executive order was finally hammered out, Admiral Turner, perhaps only half in jest, threw up his arms, sighed and told Brzezinski: 'They call me the intelligence czar, but you're the boss.'"

History, or at least a particular version of it, has not reflected well on Stansfield Turner's tenure in the top job. Whether he was his own man or a tool of Jimmy Carter, Turner fought to transform the Clandestine Service into just another branch of the post office:
In keeping with the populist tone of the new administration, Turner vowed to make the CIA "more like America," by which he meant that Agency personnel should become more diverse, with women and minorities given more opportunities. This led to some hilarious results, as when a would-be agent in Communist central Europe went to meet a CIA case officer in an outdoor cafe, only to discover that the Agency had sent a very tall, very black man who attracted considerable attention. The agent-to-be promptly hightailed it out of there.

Turner continued the purge, shutting down eight hundred positions in the clandestine service, and driving more than three hundred others into early retirement. And he chose the worst possible method for an organization whose performance depends greatly on morale. Instead of asking senior officers to make the painful choices themselves, and working with the victims to ease their transition (for no other reason than the concern that some of them might be angry enough to offer their services to the enemy), Turner had the list randomly generated by computer. [Ledeen, The War Against the Terror Masters, p. 97.]

The Carter/Turner restructuring and the legislation that flowed from the Church Committee investigations of 1975 were a reaction to the intersection of the sudden transparency of Vietnam era journalism and the attendant leftist political culture. As the Cold War matured from a war into something more akin to a bureaucratic struggle, the CIA became an embarrassment to the internationalists in both parties. In the judgment of the day, the CIA had to be transformed.

Most organizations need to be restructured from time to time, and sometimes they need new regulation. It isn't the fact of the restructuring or the new regulation that determines the effectiveness of the organization going forward, but the soundness of the judgment and the quality of the respect deployed in the doing of it. Too little of either, and the behavior of the surviving personnel will be altered permanently for the worse, and the organization itself will not be flexible enough to adjust to changing conditions. Stansfield Turner's terminations by random selection required no judgment and reflected outright contempt. The new regulations that were promulgated during the 1970s were predicated on the assumption that our enemy would always be a communist bureaucracy. The result was that the CIA had neither the cultural wherewithal nor the legal authority to adapt to the post Cold War world.

The Turner restructuring indeed may have rendered the CIA safe, insofar as it no longer sallied forth to destabilize foreign governments or reverse putatively democratic elections, but those very reforms destroyed its capacity to anticipate and confront threats that were less conservative and bureaucratic than the Soviet Union. An intelligence organization that is culturally and legally cautious is not going to attract the rough men who have what it takes to recruit and run agents in the ugliest corners of the world. In Michael Ledeen's well-framed question, "[h]ow else can you explain the fact that as of September 10 [2001] we had not a single human agent in Iran, Iraq, or Syria?"

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

In Denial 

Austin Bay points to another bit of exceptional analysis by Norm Geras regarding the portion of the political left which is simply in denial regarding the reasons for the Iraq War. Says Geras:

The signs of denial are abundant in the recent public life of the western democracies: in the banners and slogans for that Saturday on February 15 2003, from which one would never have known that Saddam's Iraq was a foul tyranny; in the numbers of those on the left unwilling to allow, many indeed unable to comprehend, why others of us supported a regime-change war; in a constant stream of comment in liberal daily papers and weeklies of the left; in the excommunications issued and more recent calls for apology or recantation; and, most seriously, in the perceptible lack of interest in initiatives of solidarity with the forces in Iraq battling for a democratic transformation of their country, part of a wider lack of enthusiasm for the success of this enterprise given its origins in a war led by George Bush.

Read Geras, and the Euston Manifesto too. Think about all the other spheres about which that same denial is applicable.

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Wretchard at the Belmont Club offers an exceptional set of observations around the painful divide within the Democratic Party on issues of war and security, or what he calls the "direction of modern liberal politics." I credit Wretchard with his particularly sharp observation, quoted further below, that the West may have won the Cold War economically, but it surrendered on a large number of cultural issues that are of enormous import in today's War on Jihadism:

One unintended effect of the September 11 attacks is that it put a defining question to different modes of American political consciousness. Until then it was possible to treat many ideologies respectable since the 1960s as harmless forms of iconoclasm, posing "provocative" but fundamentally hypothetical views. But when attacks on the US homeland made it categorically necessary to answer the question: 'are you willing to fight our assailants', many sincere ideologues paused, shook their heads and said: 'No. In fact I am morally obligated to help our assailants'. When Noam Chomsky went out of his way to support Hezbollah it wasn't inexplicable, it was logical. His long articulated hypotheticals have simply become actuals.

The murky concept of sedition, with which freedom of speech must uneasily coexist, is founded on the notion of a threat. Radical Marxist thought derives protection from its status as a defeated mode of political action. The Cold War was fought against armed Marxism on every continent and clime for half a century. But when the Cold War was over, or in places where Radical Marxists did not actually take up arms they were allowed to keep their narratives and tolerated, as the Muslim Ottoman Empire once countenanced Jews and Christians for as long as they posed no threat. No physical threat. But although Marxism was defeated by the largely economic process of Globalization it flourished -- even dominated -- in the cultural institutions of the West at a time when Islamism was triumphing over secularism in the Middle East. From the Marxist perspective at least, the Cold War ended not in defeat, but in a negotiated armistice; with surrender on the economic front offset by a capitulation to it by the West on cultural matters. People might have to work in private companies, it's true, but all the accompanying baggage of traditional culture like religion, sexual mores, notions of objectivity, etc were forfeit; and that was more than compensation. That was the tacit 'deal' and the EU, UN and cultural institutions were going to carry it out. By slow degrees the Western world was going to be politically corrected, multiculturalized and transnationalized. "Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do". And as the 1990s drew to a close it didn't seem all that far away.

September 10, 2001 was the last day on which which hypothetically incompatible modes of thought could coexist in a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" environment. When the planes smashing into the Twin Towers forced everyone to nail their colors to the mast Marxists no less than the conservatives indignantly found themselves facing an unanticipated rebellion. Liberal rage over Bush -- and maybe Lieberman and McCain -- for behaving "illegitimately" and "turning back the clock" is incomprehensible until one realizes that from a certain perspective it represents a double-cross. The West was supposed to die; slowly and comfortably but ineluctably. And we were supposed to buy off the Islamists until we could finish the job ourselves. Bush declaring his intention to fight for the survival of the West was just as logical as Chomsky's pilgrimage to Hezbollah and just as infuriating to his enemies.

Until September 11 it was possible for the more "enlightened" segments of society to regard patriotism, religion and similar sentiments with the kind of amused tolerance that one might reserve for simpletons. Nothing that a little institutionalization and spare change couldn't straighten out. The problem for the Democratic Party is that the Great Polite Silence is over. People like Chomsky and President Bush have stopped being hypothetical and become all too real. Bring it on.

It is worth reading the whole thing.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The biggest media scandal of the age 

Jonah Goldberg argues forcefully that the mainstream media's coverage of hurricane Katrina, particularly in New Orleans, is the greatest media scandal of his lifetime. Fair use excerpt:

Time writes matter-of-factly that “the government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina” is a major liability for Republicans in ‘06. Howard Dean and other Democrats mention Katrina as a staple talking point. That’s certainly fair, given that the bar is set pretty low for what constitutes fair in American politics these days. But it is worth reminding people that the Katrina they think they remember wasn’t the Katrina that actually took place. In fact, it is difficult to think of a bigger media scandal in my lifetime than the fraudulently inaccurate coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Where to begin? As I’ve written before, virtually all of the gripping stories from Katrina were untrue. All of those stories about, in Paula Zahn’s words, “bands of rapists, going block to block”? Not true. The tales of snipers firing on medevac helicopters? Bogus. The yarns, peddled on Oprah by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans police chief, that “little babies” were getting raped in the Superdome and that the bodies of the murdered were piling up? Completely false. The stories about poor blacks dying in comparatively huge numbers because American society “left them behind”? Nah-ah. While most outlets limited themselves to taking Nagin’s estimate of 10,000 dead at face value, Editor and Publisher—the watchdog of the media—ran the headline, “Mortuary Director Tells Local Paper 40,000 Could Be Lost in Hurricane.”

In all of Louisiana, not just New Orleans, the total dead from Katrina was roughly 1,500. Blacks did not die disproportionately, nor did the poor. The only group truly singled out in terms of mortality was the elderly. According to a Knight-Ridder study, while only 15 percent of the population of New Orleans was over the age of 60, some 74 percent of the dead were 60 or older, and almost half were older than 75. Blacks were, if anything, slightly underrepresented among the dead given their share of the population.

This barely captures how badly the press bungled Katrina coverage. Keep in mind that the most horrifying tales of woe that captivated the press and prompted news anchors to scream—quite literally—at federal officials occurred within the safe zone around the Superdome where the press was operating. Shame on local officials for fomenting fear and passing along newly minted urban legends, but double shame on the press for recycling this stuff uncritically. Members of the press had access to the Superdome. Why not just run in and look for the bodies? Interview the rape victims? Couldn’t be bothered? The major networks had hundreds of people in New Orleans. Was there not a single intern available to fact-check? The coverage actually cost lives. Helicopters were grounded for 24 hours in response to media reports of sniper attacks. At least two patients died waiting to be evacuated.

And yet, an ubiquitous media chorus claims simultaneously that Katrina was Bush’s worst hour and the press’s best.

I was in the Adirondack woods when Katrina hit, blissfully isolated from television or broadband. My perception of the disaster came from reading a few wire service articles on my Blackberry and the first few graphs of the articles in the New York Times. When I spoke to a couple of friends about it over the phone, their reaction struck me as entirely out of proportion to the situation, even though the property loss was devestating. It was only when I returned to civilization and got a glimpse of the tail end of the television coverage did I realize how the whole thing had come across to Americans and the world. Point is, however many factual errors made it into print, I think that the television coverage was particularly hysterical and indefensible.

CWCID: Instapundit.

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Nude Foxes 

So, I'm riding from hospital to hospital in Mexico City. Darting between other weaving cars, we blow past thirty or so naked people, both men and women, all wearing Vicente Fox masks. My Mexican companions could not discern what the protest was about, but agreed with my assessment that it was "democracy in action.". Unfortunately, I was too slow with the camera to get a picture.

UPDATE: I have an explanation. Apparently the protestors are Indians (Native Mexicans?) who represent the "400 towns" and are protesting their treatment at the hands of the government. They have nothing in particular against Vicente Fox, and apparently wear masks of all sorts of famous people. Meanwhile, there is a huge phalanx of police complete with body armor and plexiglass shields in front of the American embassy, so perhaps the Indians actually plan to blame George Bush.

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It's spring in Tehran... 

...and the students are restless.

"We don't want the Islam of the Taliban," and "Death to reactionaries and dictatorship," shouted protestors according to ISNA.

Still, this is pretty courageous stuff in Iran, where there really is the crushing of dissent.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Thinking about the oral sex/intercourse tradeoff 

Glenn Reynolds, who probably drives more traffic with links that hint at sex than by any other means, put up a must-click post this afternoon:

"CATHY YOUNG isn't scared of fellatio."

Or, more accurately, she isn't afraid that there are lots of teenagers getting and giving fellatio. It is not entirely clear from her essay whether her calm derives from her belief that rumors of a teen oral sex craze1 are unsubstantiated by fact, that the pleasuring isn't as asymmetrical as claimed, or that if there is such a craze it isn't all that harmful, but calm she seems to be.

If you are a parent of children betwen 10 and 25 years old, you have heard all sorts of stories about oral sex among teenagers, often in groups in public places. My wife has passed along several such stories that have circulated among Princeton area parents in the last few years, and there are probably others I haven't heard because I failed to keep a sufficiently straight face when I heard the first ones. It is probably gender treason for me to observe that many, if not most, fathers have a hard time not chortling about this particular suburban legend.

Young does not, however, tackle the really interesting questions: If there is more oral sex among teenagers, is it substituting for intercourse? If it is, how should we feel about that?

If we stipulate that there really has been an increase in oral sex among American teenagers in the past fifteen years (the claim that Young pokes holes in), what have been the consequences? We don't know, but we do know that rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion, and childbirth have declined dramatically during essentially the same period of the alleged head epidemic. We also know that a significant portion of this decline is attributable to a somewhat smaller proportion of teenagers who have had intercourse at all, and to a lower frequency of intercourse among teenagers who are sexually experienced. The balance of the decline is attributable to more frequent use of contraceptives.

What if oral sex is substituting for intercourse, and thereby reducing the rate of teen pregnancy, abortion and childbirth? The idea isn't farfetched -- perhaps giving and receiving oral sex makes it is easier for teenagers to manage both their own impulses and the pressure from the boyfriend or girlfriend that they imagine they love. There are even data from the United Kingdom that suggest that oral sex does in fact substitute for intercourse.

Now, if teenagers are engaging in oral sex instead of going all the way, wouldn't that be a good thing? I find that if I ask that question at cocktail parties (and that is the sort of thing I would do) I am met with crashing silence, but before you leap to the comments link in outrage be prepared to answer this question: If by divine intervention we could replace every act of sexual intercourse among teenagers -- and the consequences thereof -- with an act of oral sex and the consequences thereof, would you score that as an improvement? If so, then what is wrong with partial substitution? If not, then aren't you saying that you prefer teen pregnancy, abortion and childbirth to oral gratification? That seems like a difficult position to defend.

Now leap to the comments link.
1. If I've ever seen Google-bait, that's it, right there.

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Notes on good shoe shines 

The Mexico City Sheraton offers complimentary shoe shines in its lobby at a stand next to the State of Texas office (Texas, being like a whole other country, apparently has its own trade mission). Since my shoes are almost constantly unshiny and even crud-covered, I grab shoe shines whenever it is convenient to do so, as it was this morning. It turned out to be a good move, in that it was the most diligent shine I've ever had the pleasure of receiving. I tipped the guy US$5, for which he was quite thankful. Not to get all political or anything, but we could use more shoe-shiners of his diligence in the States...

All of this reminds me of the most entrepreneurial shoe-shiners I know of. There are a couple of south Asians - I believe Pakistanis - who have a stand just inside security at the Toronto airport. Talk about a primo location - they have chairs for people to sit on while they put their shoes back on, which gives them the perfect opportunity to suggest that the poor traveller could use a shine. They do great business. Location, location, location.

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Notes from Mexico regarding the immigration debate 

I'm in Mexico on business. I have only been to Mexico once before, also on business, about ten years ago, and I do not speak or read Spanish, so I really know very little about the place. However, after about 30 hours "in country," I have three observations that bear ever so slightly on the immigration debate that is raging in the United States.

My Spanish-speaking colleague -- she's a naturalized Cuban-American -- translated an article in a local newspaper about the "stations" that the Mexican government has set up to take care of the migrants who are traveling from Central America through Mexico to get to the United States. One can interpret this as aiding and abetting illegal immigration into the United States, or an expedient means for encouraging the poor people from points south to "move along," or charity for people desperately in need. Or all three.

Tonight, we are in Mexico City at the Sheraton right next to the American embassy. My colleague needs to get some more pages for her passport, so after dinner we walked by the embassy to find out when it opened its doors for business in the morning. The guard said 6 a.m., and that she had better be there by then because the lines were incredibly long by 8 a.m. My naturalized friend was quite irritated to learn that American citizens have to wait in the same line as the locals. "I have to stand in line behind Mexicans to get into my own country's embassy?" One is forced to wonder about the Foggy Bottom reasoning behind that policy.

Finally, while in line in Guadalajara airport we noticed a young man with a colored bracelet with a legend that said, in Spanish, "Strength for Trevor," or words to that effect. Trevor, it turns out, is an eight-year old boy who attempted the border crossing through the Arizona desert. The sun and the sand injured him so badly that he was hospitalized in the United States for second-degree burns. According man at the airport, Trevor's relatives are selling these bracelets to raise money to pay the hospital bills.

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Confronting Iran: Why Iranians should oppose their own nuclear weapons program 

Michael Ledeen, author of, inter alia, The War Against the Terror Masters, has posted an entertaining but also very thought-provoking "reply" (by an anonymous author) to Iranian president Ahmadinejad's crazy letter to George W. Bush. The heart of the proposed response is an appeal to the Iranian opposition:

We also understand the real reason you want nuclear weapons. Of course, you have the dream of being the regional hegemon, and the prospect of your having nuclear weapons already terrifies your neighbors. But you also want them for the same reason as North Korea. Once you possess nuclear weapons, you believe you will be immune, as is North Korea, from external pressure for domestic political reform. You can tell the world to take a hike and to leave you in peace to oppress your own people. This is why Iranians who wish to see a return to genuine democratic, constitutional order despair at the thought of your succeeding. They know they will be finished, that no one will then dare speak up on their behalf.

So this is not really about nuclear weapons; it is about the rights of the Iranian people – your desire to take them away, and our desire to see them respected. We don’t worry about Great Britain, or France, or now India, having nuclear weapons, because they are democracies; they are founded on the “unalienable Rights” of their peoples. People who are free to exercise those rights seldom seek to take them from others.

Iranians are a nationalistic people, perhaps unusually so in light of their history. Iran, after all, has been both the seat of a powerful empire and, more recently, a pawn in the games of great powers, games in which it had no direct stake. Iranian leaders, especially since the fall of the shah, have leveraged this nationalism into domestic political capital. Ahmadinejad is doing this with the nuclear "power" program, asserting that the world, led by the United States, is picking on Iran because of its Muslim piety and opposition to Israel. This reply, which George W. Bush should type up on White House letterhead and pop in the mail, exposes the trap that Ahmadinejad is setting for all Iranians who would choose popular sovereignty over divine.

Read the whole thing, including the theological bits, and then decide whether you agree with Madeleine Albright, who has been on a book tour arguing that President Bush's use of subtly "Christian" rhetorical devices is alienating Muslims around the world. Perhaps it is, but why isn't she more worried that Iran's use of overtly Islamic rhetorical devices is alienating Christians and Jews? It is almost as though she believes that Muslim sensitivities deserve greater deference than Judeo-Christian ones.

CWCID: Instapundit.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Trade brings us closer 

The United States and Vietnam have cut a trade deal:
Vietnam and the United States are to sign a trade agreement at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Ho Chi Minh City on June 1-2, Vietnamese Trade Minister Truong Dinh Tuyen says. The two countries reached an agreement in principle during negotiations earlier in May.

The more of this, the better. In this narrow sense, I am a Clintonian.

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PR Opportunity (Oh, to do the Right Thing too) 

In the last several days, it has been reported that Iran may be in the midst of reviving a reasonably grotesque piece of legislation aimed at publically and visibly identifying Christians and Jews as non-Muslims (h/t Powerline). This, of course, revives a pre-Pahlavi reign tradition of Persian Shiite Muslim extremism and reminds those Westerners among us of Nazi behavior. Ahmadinejad apparently thinks this will make it easier for the 12th Imam to identify the good guys and the bad guys on his return.

So, in addition to making the obvious observations about the Iranian Presidency's dangerous and appalling lunacy, why don't the civilized nations of the world (hint hint) offer the whole lot of them political asylum and an airlift to start anew in a place that will offer them respect, freedom and opportunity? Iran's theocracy has no use for them, but certainly Israel would benefit from another 10,000 - 20,000 Iranian Jews entering their fold.

UPDATE, May 23rd, 2006, 8:50am: A couple of commenters aggressively retorted to my post above by claiming that the report was categorically untrue, and alleged that my post was simply war-mongering. Amir Taheri, a conservative columnist who is regularly published in the New York Post, is of Iranian descent, has excellent sources in Iran and was the original source of this bit of news. In light of the apparent controversy, Taheri posted again on the subject here.

It seems reasonably likely that the Iranian Parliament, such as it is, has had the bill under consideration since 2004 and has passed it. It is now in the Council of Guardians for them to consider implementation.

The point of my post, by the way, which was to ask the question should we offer refuge to the discriminated, marked minorities of Iran stands. It is unquestionable, I think, that non-Muslims in Iran are in fact marked people. That certain commenters felt compelled to accuse me of war mongering on the issue speaks simply to the fact that they're not reading carefully or thoroughly - a stereotypical "knee jerk" reaction certainly amongst that crowd. I did not suggest we make war with Iran over this, though I certainly do offer it as additional evidence of the disgusting nature of the Iranian theocracy. I merely suggested we offer those discriminated against refuge, a humanitarian offer.

My observation therefore to my friendly commenters: do a little remedial reading.

Update 2, May 23, 2006, 1:30pm -- my my, certain commenters have lost their manners and call me a liar. Above, I linked to Amir Taheri's response to claims that his original representation about the Iranian dhimmitude marker law was false. He stands by his original story, linked to here. Notwithstanding the claims of a retraction, the original National Post story authored by Taheri is still on their web site.

I will acknowledge that I don't have the primary evidence, or access to it, nor do I read Farsi. Having said that, Taheri is a nationally recognized columnist who follows Middle East Affairs and is regularly published in the US and around the world. He is of Iranian descent, and claims to have sourced his column from 3 members of the Iranian Maijlis. Notwithstanding the controversy aroused by his story and the surprisingly violent and defensive reaction of some folks, he has authored a subsequent piece standing by his prior column.

I view Taheri's representations as credible. I think linking to them here is not akin to a lie, or misrepresentation, as I have been accused. Furthermore, the current President of Iran has made a series of public declamations regarding Jews and Israel, rendering the Taheri claim incrementally more credible. Might it be proven inaccurate? Yes. Might the Council of Guardians elect to modify, amend of terminate the law in order to render it less offensive? I suppose they may, if I understand Taheri's representation.

Having said all of that, the notion that the Iranian government seeks to diminish the standing of non-Muslims (or elevate the status of Muslims) via their dress within Iran is a credible claim that cries out for humanitarian action. Again, my commenters have resorted to the rudest and inaccurate representations about this post -- it is expressly not advocating a war footing. Nor does this claim, with linked sources and response, constitute a "lie." The specific claim by Taheri has been questioned -- but not definitively refuted -- and he nonethless stands by the claim. The notion that an appointed Jewish representative in the Maijlis is trotted out to vindicate the Muslim theocracy seems akin to the hostage who defends their captor. It's interesting, and it may be meaningful, but then it maybe coerced. We do know, that the Iranian mullahcracy imprisoned 13 Jews, including a rabbi, for engaging in espionage for Israel. We do know that something like 80% of Iran's pre-Revolution Jewish population has elected to leave Iran, suggesting that most Jews did not view the post revolutionary regime as hospitable to Jews.

So I ask again -- should we not make a humanitarian offer to Iranian non-Muslims? And why does Iranian theocracy's tyranny, its own warmongering, and its clear discrimination against non-Muslims escape the Scrutiny of our exorcised commenters? Why indeed.

Update 3 - May 23rd, 2006, 3pm

Amir Taheri Biography for review

Update 4 - June 1st, 2006 - One commenter persists in requesting for a "retraction" of the above story and commentary. He submits that Taheri's claim is a "lie." He accuses me therefore of "lying." I do not agree, but you should feel free to decide for yourself.

Amir Taheri stands by his story. The Canadian National Post reportedly has withdrawn its story, though it is still cached on their web site. Nonetheless, let's take it at face value that the National Post has retracted. The New York Post ran a series of 3 stories May 19th to May 21st, which they have not retracted, on the same subject.

The difference of opinion seems to rest in the interpretation of the law, passed by the Iranian Parliament, over some form of cultural dress code. Taheri's claim was that insofar as a Muslim dress code was promulgated, a non muslim dress code would also result, which may "mark" Jews and Christians. Taheri acknowledged that the details of the law's implementation were not yet decided. The story is obviously controversial, but perhaps unduly so. There does not appear to be any question -- at least not so raised -- that the Iranian Parliament intends a religious dress code. The implications of a religious dress code should be clear to all -- it is repressive, repugnant, tyrannical. The commenter is incensed at the implication that the law will mark non-muslims, and refers to this claim as a lie. Quite simply, I don't agree. It may be an incorrect interpretation, but it is hardly a lie. For instance, the law may impose muslim dress on everybody, non-Muslims inclusive. I doubt most reasonable people in the US would view this as good law, religiously tolerant or supportive of liberty. Nonetheless, I think we all would agree that a religious dress code passed by our Congress would be viewed by nearly 100% of our country as appalling.

So, as with Taheri, I stand by the original story. I don't agree with the one tenacious commenter who seems committed to a perspective that suggests this law is either benign or non-existent.

You decide.

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The USS New York 

Via Power Line, the feel good story of the weekend:

In A city still emerging from the floods of Hurricane Katrina, a ship has begun to rise from the ashes of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Bringing together America’s two great calamities of the 21st century, the USS New York is being built in New Orleans with 24 tonnes of steel taken from the collapsed World Trade Centre.

There is no shortage of scrap metal in New Orleans these days, but the girders taken from Ground Zero have been treated with a reverence usually accorded to religious relics. After a brief ceremony in 2003, about seven tonnes of steel were melted down and poured into a cast to make the bow section of the ship’s hull.

Some shipworkers say the hairs stood up on the backs of their necks the first time they touched it. Others have postponed their retirement so they can be part of the project.

One worker, Tony Quaglino, said: “I was going to go in October 2004 after 40 years here, but I put it off when I found out I could be working on New York. This is sacred and it makes me very proud.”
Glen Clement, a paint superintendent, said: “Nobody passes by that bow section without knocking on it. Everybody knows what it is made from and what it’s about.”

The New York will be a huge amphibious assault ship, able to deliver 700 Marines to just about any coastline in the world, no port required. Imagine how handy that would have been at Normandy, Anzio, or Iwo Jima.

If this ship inspires the workers, just think what it will do for the Marines it delivers. Al Qaeda may learn yet again that blowback goes both ways.

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

John Edwards and the Democrats' plague of lawyers 

John Edwards did his star turn on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," reminding us that he lost an election to "the worst president in our lifetime." I suppose it is necessary for him to declare this -- announcing that Bush is the "worst president ever" or over some shorter period seems to be a litmus test among Democratic contributors. Other than that benefit, though, it is hard to see how it is in Edwards' interest to proclaim this, since it is tantamount to calling the voters who elevated Bush and Cheney over Kerry and Edwards stupid.

The truth is, Bush has rarely looked like a strong president in the abstract. You have to put a Democratic nominee next to him for people to realize that there can be worse things.

Regular readers know that I think that the Democrats suffer from the too-heavy influence of lawyers. Lawyers have many strengths, and they make excellent legislators. However, they make much worse executives because they tend to suffer from at least three professional deficiencies that they have to overcome in order to be successful. First, they are trained in analysis and argument, not leadership. Lawyers are naturally lone wolves, and often do not understand in their gut how to motivate organizations to do what they want.

Second, they are experts in procedure and therefore tend to think in procedural terms, rather than by objective. The lawyer's fetish for procedure crops up in all sorts of situations, but it positively haunted the Clinton administration's efforts to deal with the rising threat of al Qaeda. Clinton quite famously missed at least one opportunity -- some say three -- to get his hands on Osama bin Laden, but passed because he was worried that we could not get a conviction on a U.S. offense in front of a federal jury. The controversy surrounding the Bush administration's relative disregard for procedural niceties may cause some people to think that Clinton's approach was not all bad, but most Americans would rather hear that hundreds of random Saudis and Afghanis are in secret prisons than think we would let a terror master go because we can't prove up the case.

Third, lawyers tend to argue in the alternative. This is permissible in litigation and law school -- "I wasn't in Kansas City when he was murdered, and if I was it was self-defense" -- but it is alien to, er, normal people. See, for example, John Edwards strange argument in defense of his sleezy "Mary Cheney" comment during the 2004 vice presidential debate:

The former senator, pitching his "college for everyone" program in rural North Carolina, also responded to recent criticism by Mary Cheney, Vice President Cheney's lesbian daughter. In "Now It's My Turn: A Daughter's Chronicle of Political Life", Cheney, the 37-year-old second daughter of the vice president and second lady, labeled Edwards as "complete and total slime" for congratulating Cheney and his wife during their 2004 vice presidential debate for "embrac[ing]" their daughter's sexual orientation.

Edwards did not back down, telling Stephanopoulous, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent, "I think what I said then was appropriate. And I do believe that it was in a very partisan political environment. We were in the middle of a very hot campaign, very close campaign."

So, was it "appropriate" in the abstract for Edwards to leverage Mary Cheney's sexual orientation against Cheney's social conservative base, or was it merely excusable because it was expedient? It seems to me that these are two entirely different arguments that reflect quite differently on the person making them (although neither reflection is particularly appealing).

John Edwards, like many lawyers, thinks that Americans are easily fooled. He thinks that they were duped when they elected Bush and Cheney, and he thinks that they do not know the difference between his two excuses for his reprehensible behavior during the vice presidential debate. George Bush may well be the worst president in a long time -- although I refuse to concede that he is worse than Jimmy Carter -- but he is a great and fearless leader when standing next to John Edwards.

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Bears everywhere 

Have you ever wondered why the political environmentalists -- "Greens" -- are so much more popular in Europe than in the United States? One reason is that there aren't any wild places left in Europe, or even echoes of them. The sense of loss is much greater.

That is why it is such news that a bear has been seen in Germany. This would be no big woop to Americans -- just two weeks ago, police shot a bear in Livingston, New Jersey, right in the heart of the state with the highest population density in the United States. A few weeks before that, state biologists shot another bear in downtown Trenton. But this is the first bear seen within Germany since 1835. It apparently snuck across the poorly defended border with Austria, where there about thirty undoubtedly inbred bears running around without human supervision. The international bear was reported "following the discovery of seven sheep carcasses." That would get the bear the death penalty in Montana, but in Germany it mobilizes the bear trackers, who have had very little to do up until now:

The regional authorities have mobilised teams to find the bear, anaesthetise it briefly, identify it and release it, a spokesman said.

You see a lot of countryside in central Europe, but none of it is wild. There are too many people, and they have been farming a long time. It is easy to forget how dense Europe is, compared to the United States. Germany has 230 people per square kilometer, and the European Union as a whole has 114 peeps per klick squared (ppks). The United States has 30 ppks, and Canada is next to empty at 3 ppks. Of course, both the United States and Canada have huge expanses that are not exactly habitable, but even allowing for that we are obviously in an entirely different situation than Europe. Here, there are plenty of wild places to grow wild things, and sometimes they go for a walkabout. There, they haven't seen a freakin' wild bear in 180 years. No wonder they think humans have ruined the world.

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In Mexico 

I am in Guadalajara tonight and tomorrow, and then Mexico City through Wednesday. I'll be visiting local hospitals, meeting with surgeons, and learning about the Mexican healthcare system. Blogging will catch as catch can.

I have a room at the Hoteles Camino Real, where various luminaries stayed during one of the big confabs that Latin American leaders periodically attend. I had heard that Fidel Castro had stayed here, and that there was a plaque in the particular room. Naturally I asked for it. Like, what could be cooler blog fodder than sleeping in Fidel's, er, bed?

Unfortunately, they have removed the plaque and the woman behind the counter did not identify the room. Apparently, "Fidel Castro slept here" is no longer a big selling point, which I suppose is a good thing.

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Channel wars 

A French-owned travel agency conducted an online poll and got a very disturbing result:

The French have been voted the world's most unfriendly nation by a landslide in a new British poll published. They were also voted the most boring and most ungenerous.

A decisive 46 percent of the 6,000 people surveyed by travellers' website Where Are You Now (WAYN) said the French were the most unfriendly nation people on the planet, British newspapers reported.

The Germans have no to reason to celebrate the damning verdict. They came second on all three counts.

OK, I have a question. In fact, I call bullshit. How can the most unfriendly nation also be the most boring? If you look at regions of the United States, unfriendliness seems to be more correlated with excitement than with boredom. Why would it be different in Europe?

Your comments, which are bound to be less shallow than this post, are most welcome.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Women and wages 

Here's a puzzle: If the feminist complaint that women are paid less than men for performing the same work is true, how is it that men can get a job? Why wouldn't any employer with an ounce of greed hire all those cheap, highly productive women? The conventional lefty answer is that gender discrimination is rife. Indeed, it may have been back in the bad old days when American multinationals were not under constant pressure to improve their financial performance. However, those days disappeared in the 1980s with the rise of various means for disciplining public companies that were not relentless in their pursuit of superior financial performance. So what's going on?

According to Warren Farrell, writing in Forbes, women are on average making different choices than men, and when they don't they are actually making more money than their Y-chromosome impaired counterparts.

When I was on the board of directors for the National Organization for Women in New York City during the 1970s, I led protests against the pay gap. I wore a "59 Cents" pin to reflect my objection to the discrimination I felt was the cause of women earning only 59 cents to each dollar earned by men. Now, since I'm a husband and father, discrimination against women isn't just political, it's personal.

But one question haunted me through the years: If an employer has to pay a man one dollar for the same work a woman would do for 59 cents, why would anyone hire a man?...

After more than a decade of research for my book, Why Men Earn More, I discovered that men and women make 25 work-life choices that actually create a wage gap. Men make decisions that result in their making more money. On the other hand, women make decisions that earn them better lives (e.g., more family and friend time).

But what happens when women make the same lucrative decisions typically made by men? The good news--for women, at least: Women actually earn more. For example, when a male and a female civil engineer both stay with their respective companies for ten years, travel and relocate equally and take the same career risks, the woman ends up making more. And among workers who have never been married and never had children, women earn 117% of what men do. (This factors in education, hours worked and age.)

As Will Franklin wrote, "cool."

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Walking the West Bank 

For those few of you who do not know, Michael J. Totten is a blogger with no visible means of employment who makes his way through the toughest parts of the Middle East and central Asia. His report from the West Bank is the most interesting thing you are likely to read all weekend.

CWCID: Glenn Reynolds.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Harvard University and corporate governance 

Joe's Dartblog links to Harvey Mansfield's essay on Harvard's dismissal of Larry Summers. Mansfield, most recently the author of Manliness, uses his tenure for its intended purpose:

It is a debacle at Harvard: a great university getting rid of its most outstanding president since James B. Conant, the only outstanding president at a major university today, and doing this for no stated reason. His unofficial detractors brought up only his abrasive style. In no way could it be said either that he had completed his mission, and thus deserved retirement, or that he had failed in it, and so deserved to be booted. The event is demeaning to all involved, but especially to the three main parties—the Harvard Corporation, the faculty, and Mr. Summers.

These three share the blame in descending order, and speaking as an informed observer, not an insider, I will assess it as I see it now....

Since first entering office Summers had many times set forth "greatness" as his goal. He was aware, and he wanted to make the rest of Harvard aware, that there is a difference between a wealthy, famous, and prestigious university and a great one. The prestigious university, complacent and self-satisfied, will in time lose its repute; the great one will keep its luster and gain more renown effortlessly, just by being itself and aiming high. To get Harvard back on the right track, however, takes the effort in which Summers was engaged.

Summers proposed a curriculum review that would result in solid courses aimed to answer students' needs, replacing stylish courses designed to appeal to their whims. Such courses would require professors to teach in their fields but out of their specialties; no longer would they assume that the specialized course they want to teach is just the course that students need. Summers also began a move to rein in grade inflation; he dispelled some of Harvard's political correctness by inviting conservative speakers and looking for conservative professors to hire; he transformed the policy of affirmative action by reducing the pressure to hire more blacks and women as such; he opposed Harvard's hostile attitude toward the U.S. military. Besides these measures, he sought to put or keep Harvard first in science, an intent made possible by a considerable expansion of the university across the Charles River to Allston. This is the substance of Summers's ambitious presidency.

Thanks to the Harvard Corporation, all this effort is suspended—who knows for how long.

Read the whole thing.

The faculties of our prestigious universities underestimate the contribution of that prestige to their own professional success. They believe that their individual reputations sustain the prestige of the university, but they are not willing to test that proposition by tolerating colleagues who are as intellectually varied as they are demographically diverse. Why? Perhaps, deep down, they are afraid that cause and effect are reversed: if it is the prestige of the university that confers their reputation -- rather than the other way around -- then how much of their professional success is simply because they work at Harvard? How many Harvard professors have the strength of character to confront that question? And, if Summers was right that Harvard's prestige is presently a wasting asset, who will be responsible for the depletion of that asset?

[Cross-posted at Villainous Company]

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In Re: NSA "Surveillance", Airline Tickets and Baggage Checks 

As the noise increases and the signal declines, it strikes me as worth making the observation that the NSA seems to be doing something which the airline industry and DOD did awhile back, which also raised some privacy hackles, but which has amounted to nothing of any import either. The DOD asked the airlines to submit passenger records so they could perform a bunch of computer analysis, and develop correlations among traveling passengers, destinations, credit cards, etc. The privacy advocates and uber libertarians went bonkers and sued. Those lawsuits amounted to nothing because, surprise surprise, THERE'S NO DAMAGE.

In the case of the massive computerized manipulation of phone record data, it is hard to conclude that anything terribly invasive is going on other than correlation analysis. That is, once they have established that a non-US caller is an al qaeda affiliate or suspect, they follow call "hops" to try to correlate against other known information -- maybe charge cards, travel information, drivers license data -- and further correlate that against names collected in other databases, like flight school students. Pretty smart stuff really, and a shame we weren't doing it before 9/11. In fact, they probably reverse engineered the pre-9/11 activities and communications of the known hijackers and their related data to create algorithms for the current analysis. It's how we figure out to whom to pay much closer attention and perhaps serve warrants.

Another observation I'd make, is that anybody in this country who flies undergoes more invasive checking to get on the bloody plane. Before people have fits about violations of this and that, I wish they'd wait to see if there are any damages. Unless we are hermits, most people in this country willingly offer up this data every day to buy online or by catalog. The government doing con-joint analysis (which American Express does in their card business in order to develop a direct marketing offer to you) or searching for correlations is EXACTLY how privacy advocates should want to search for the needle in the haystack -- as opposed to having the FBI knock on doors and drag people in for questioning or quarantining whole groups of people (or preventing entry).

The whole thing is silly really.

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In re Sydney Blumenthal 

To coin a phrase, "ouch".

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The Dukakis moment 

Why did this picture...

Caption: U.S. President George W. Bush takes a tour in a Sandrail with U.S. Border Patrol Agent Rocky Kittle on the International Border with Mexico from the Yuma Sector Border on the United States side in San Luis, Arizona, May 18, 2006.

...remind me of this picture?

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A break in the Jimmy Hoffa case. Who cares? 

If you are of a certain age (I am not quite old enough), the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa remains one of your generation's enduring mysteries. Well, it seems there is a break in the case:

The FBI is mounting one of its biggest searches to date for the remains of former Teamsters boss James R. Hoffa, bringing in dozens of agents for what agents say will be a multi-week dig at an 85-acre property once owned by one of Hoffa's closest union associates.

Thirty years of myth and legend have placed Hoffa's remains everywhere from the Giants' stadium to a Japanese auto factory to swamps of the Florida Everglades to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

But acting on what some investigators say is the best tip in years, authorities now believe the remains of the missing Teamsters boss may yet turn up in the pastoral Hidden Dreams Farm less than 20 miles from the suburban parking lot where he last was seen July 30, 1975.

Detroit FBI chief Dan Roberts said the scope of the search -- including geologists, cadaver dogs and heavy earth-moving equipment that may be needed to excavate beneath a barn -- indicates that authorities believe they are pursuing one of their best leads yet in a mystery that has frustrated investigators for 31 years.

"This is the best lead I've seen come across on the Hoffa case," said Roberts, who has run the Detroit office for two years. He called the lead "fairly credible."

All very interesting, but it is revealing that the linked Detroit News article includes a lengthy sidebar that explains the history of the case, and why we might care. The search for Hoffa is a historical curiousity, and an opportunity for the FBI to redeem itself by closing the books on one of its most famous open cases. It is not even slightly important in the battle against organized crime.

May I suggest, therefore, that deploying "dozens of agents" for a "multi-week dig" in central Michigan to find a few of Jimmy Hoffa's old bones might just possibly be an enormous waste of money and time? The only "benefit" that will accrue from the recovery of Hoffa's right femur and a few of his metatarsals -- or whatever will remain -- will be publicity for the FBI. Oh, sure, maybe they will get to indict some 90-year old mobster and justice will be served in some higher sense, but it is only a higher sense. Old bones or no, there is still no evidence that the world without Jimmy Hoffa was any worse than the world with him.

CWCID: Miller, The Corner.

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