Saturday, February 08, 2003

All his own work

Tim Blair writes to say that his move to The Bulletin was entirely of his own doing, that he will still write occasional pieces for The Australian, and that any further speculation on this issue will be countered with a nude protest in Byron Bay. As this threat is every bit as nightmarish as the thought of Margo Kingston behaving similarly (although not quite as appalling as the person with masturbatory fantasies about Saddam Hussein), I decided to post this message in great haste.

Dear John (err, Joe)

Gianna, who is a welcome recent addition to the ranks of politically-oriented Australian bloggers, posts the following musing this morning:
"And Joe gets back next week. I haven't talked about him lately because I had sort of decided to break up with him when he returns, due to a prolonged hormonal panic about the whole concept of being in a full-on relationship (and, unfortunately, because there's a distinct possibility that I may have feelings for someone else in my life.) However I've decided to wait until we're face to face before making any final decision. I feel awful but what can you do."

I guess Gianna is assuming that Joe doesn't read blogs. If he does, their meeting next week could be very eventful. Then again, maybe she's actually decided (without quite admitting it to herself) that her feelings for "someone else" are rather more than a "distinct possibility". I hope she lets Joe down gently. I always thought I'd make a great "Dear Abby". BTW Gianna, don't just give Joe the "I'm not ready for a committed relationship" line. Even the most love-besotted fool can usually work out that what you really mean is "I want a committed relationship, but with someone else". Do readers detect a couple of very old but unhealed wounds here?

Of babies and bathwater

This story from American legal academic Jack Balkin will sound disturbingly familiar to Australians who have been following the debate about anti-terrorism legislation in Australia. It's worth reproducing in full:
"The Center for Public Integrity reports that Attorney General John Ashcroft is considering new legislation to give the federal government even greater powers over domestic intelligence gathering, while limiting judicial review of government action and restricting public access to information about what the government is doing. The Justice Department has not yet announced the new proposals, but apparently early drafts have already been completed. One of the most disturbing features of the proposed Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 is that American citizens could lose their citizenship and be expatriated if they provide "material support" to any group the Attorney General has designated as a "terrorist organization." The idea, apparently, is that one who provides "material support" to such an organization-- even if such support is otherwise lawful-- is presumed to have intended to relinquish citizenship (because his intent can be inferred from his conduct) and therefore may be expatriated.

This gives new meaning to the expression, "America-- love it or leave it.""

Without wanting to sound anti-American, I must say I find it really hard to grasp how you can defend freedom by taking it away, just as I don't understand how you teach a community that murder is wrong by killing people. The proposed US measures sound even more draconian than Australia's currently Senate-stymied ASIO Bill. Interesting that constitutionally entrenched rights to due process, equality before the law and so on apparently do little to restrain governmental excesses when the temper of the times dictates otherwise. It's one reason why Australia's Founding Fathers took a negative view of a constitutional bill of rights, despite strong advocacy by our Constitution's principal drafter Andrew Inglis Clark. During the 1890s (when Australia's Constitution was being drafted) the US Bill of Rights was being interpeted by the Supreme Court in a manner that made most of its protections illusory.


Usually when you find the word "hegemon" early in any essay, it merely signals that the author is a doctrinaire leftie about to embark on a standard anti-American diatribe. This article by William Wallace on the Social Science Research Council site, certainly contains some such elements, but it's mostly a balanced and thoughtful examination of the concept of hegemony in a contemporary context. It seems to have been written prior to the current build-up to invasion of Iraq, but after the Afghanistan operation. Nevertheless, some of the analysis is very relevant to the current situation. Here's an extract:
"The disappearance of the Soviet Union deprived the USA of its most-easily accepted rationale for global engagement, which also legitimized American leadership of the Atlantic Alliance and the broader 'free world'. Between the Gulf War of 1991 and the Afghan intervention of 2001, the visible hesitancy with which American policy-makers approached the deployment of US power, in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the preoccupation with 'exit strategies' from the point of entry on, weakened the respect of America's allies for its military and political leadership. A further paradox of American supremacy is that what is perceived within the USA as 'resentment' at its liberty and prosperity, as 'anti-Americanism' from hostile outsiders, has partly flowed from the spillover of domestic controversies onto the international stage. The 'global' NGOs which demonstrated against US domination of the global economy at the WTO meeting in Seattle were largely American-led. The narratives of anti-globalization and the corruption of free market capitalism have drawn upon American critiques as well as on diatribes from other countries, and have been disseminated across the world through English-language media.

A yet further paradox is that the collapse of state socialism, with the apparent 'victory' of market democracy as the model for political and economic order, has led not to the 'end of history' that Francis Fukuyama proclaimed but to a greater emphasis on the differences among approaches to market democracy. The Malaysian Prime Minister and others laid great stress in the immediate post-cold war period on the claimed superiorities of the 'Asian model'. The most delicate and difficult dialogue on the values which underpin market democracy has, however, been across the Atlantic: between an American model which emphasises free markets and a limited role for government in social welfare and European 'social market' models which - in differing ways - lay greater stress on the regulation of employment and on the provision of welfare. American charges that European social democracy has led to 'Eurosclerosis' have been met by European charges that American-style capitalism carries unacceptable social costs. The symbolic importance of capital punishment as an issue in transatlantic relations is that it encapsulates the differences of approach: the American belief in a more vigorous culture of success and failure, of reward and punishment, against the European concern with social harmony and community as necessary components of a liberal economy. Here again, the division of opinion is partly a reflection of differences within the United States, as well as between the USA and other democratic states. The Republican attack on 'big government', which has in many ways defined the issues of American politics during the 1990s, attracted limited support within Europe. Most European right-wing parties remained closer to the traditions of Christian Democracy and state-centred conservatism; from the mid-1990s onwards, furthermore, the majority of European governments were centre-left rather than centre-right. The international spillover of the Republican attack on Democratic 'big government and Democratic 'internationalism' was that American 'values' have come to be rhetorically presented - by leading Senators and Congressmen, as well as by the Washington intellectuals who dominate the op-ed pages - as distinctive from those of America's partners and allies, rather than as universal. ...

The dilemmas European governments face in the aftermath of Sept.11th 2001 in responding to the expectations of their American hegemon are acute. They have to recognize that Europe as a region now matters far less to the United States than over the previous half-century, as American attention has turned to the Western hemisphere and Asia. They have to weigh up the arguments for greater investment in military power, partly in response to US expectations and partly as a means of counterbalancing US power. They have to pursue opportunities to influence the direction of US policy, in circumstances in which American tolerance for multilateral channels of consultation have declined. They have to respond to American requests for support and assistance, without having had the opportunity to share in formulating the policy which has set the context within which those requests are made.

There are, however, dilemmas for the USA as well. Hegemony rests on consent as well as on coercion, as has been argued above; and consent has to be generated and maintained, through the provision of persuasive leadership and through reference to a universal set of values. Liberal hegemony requires dominant powers to present the pursuit of their enlightened self-interest as being in the common interests of civilization as a whole. Explicit references to direct and immediate national interests, a rationale for foreign policy which stresses the exceptional and exclusive interests of the United States compared to those of its partners, resistance to multilateral regimes which diffuse American leadership within frameworks of shared rules and obligations, all weaken the 'soft power' of American prestige and reputation on which the informal empire of this hegemonic world order depends.

The founding fathers recognized that 'a decent respect for the opinions of men' outside the North American continent required them to frame the rationale for independence in terms which foreign as well as domestic audiences might accept."

Friday, February 07, 2003

Fairfax schism?

The Fairfax group is a very strange corporate organism, as Professor Bunyip never ceases to point out. Indeed Bunyip has another go this morning, highlighting a lurch to the Right by Age staff journalist Pamela Bone on Iraq.

However, what fascinated me about this weekend's offerings from the Fairfax stable was the complete contrast between The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. The Age had a roughly balanced spread of op-ed articles on Iraq, with Shaun Carney and Hugh Mackay taking a predictably leftie anti-war stance, but Pamela Bone and Jeff Jacoby taking a strongly pro-military intervention position. Tony Parkinson focused on the idiocy of Labor's Mark Latham's remarks about George Bush, and the generally difficult position Simon Crean finds himself in (again).

The SMH, by contrast, devotes every single op-ed article to the Iraq issue, and every one of them adopts a leftie anti-war position: Hugh Mackay (whose column is duplicated in The Age and SMH - God knows why; once is more than enough); Alan Ramsay (who reckons Crean is gutless and not anti-war enough); Mike Carlton ("Noble America lost in space and propaganda"); Adele Horin ("Pity the poor recipients of regime change"); and Richard Glover (who takes the piss out of the Federal Government's anti-terrorist kit - albeit deservedly).

I can't help harking back to the bad old days of the Murdoch and Packer presses, before Hawkie sucked up semi-successfully to those crusty media barons. The mainstream newspapers would make a vague semblance of maintaining editorial and op-ed balance most of the time, but as soon as it got close to an election the coverage would switch to relentless anti-Labor propaganda. The Herald seems to exemplify the same tendency, albeit in an opposite ideological direction. I suspect, too, that it's unlike the Packer and Murdoch situations because the ideological slant is dictated by the journalists themselves rather than management (who seem to think that letting the hired help do whatever they like is a great way to run a newspaper). The Fairfax share price (which Bunyip also regularly links) suggests otherwise. The SMH staff orientation also seems relatively unrelated to electoral cycles. They only prostitute their journalistic ethics and flick the switch to "brainwash" when a current issue they deem of sufficient ideological importance arises. In this case it's the sacred leftie "give peace a chance" (or rather, several hundred chances) principle, and the even more fundamental "the Great Satan is always wrong and evilly motivated" principle.

Dumping on Dawkins

Gummo Trotsky blogs an interesting musing about a Richard Dawkins article advocating GM foods and labelling opponents as Luddites. Dawkins, of course, is the doyen of science (and especially evolutionary theory) popularisers, now that Stephen Jay Gould has carked it. Gummo is dubious about Dawkins' analogy with computer programming, but one of his comment box contributors is downright dismissive. Scott Martens posts a link to an even more interesting article by Barry Commoner from Harper's Magazine called Unravelling the DNA Myth - The Spurious Foundation of Genetic Engineering.

Peace Train 'a Comin'

What with Tim Blair's seemingly obsessive uncovering of the "Disrobe to Disarm" campaign, I thought the least I could do was to draw attention to a rather more private form of peace protest. I'll leave all the obvious lines to your imagination. Make sure you read the poetry page; it's truly awful. Expect warbloggers to retaliate with "Cunnilingus for Combat" any moment.

A REAL centrist on Iraq

Several bloggers and comment box lurkers have recently cruelly suggested that I'm a "faux-centrist". On the question of military intervention in Iraq, they're quite correct. I've certainly lurched decisively to the right on that issue, because I've become convinced there's just no viable alternative. However, that isn't to suggest that it's impossible to maintain a "fence-sitting" position on Iraq. Timothy Garton Ash has written a classic centrist essay in today's Guardian. I disagree with numerous of his points, but he certainly presents most of the arguments for and against in a cogent way.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Saddam DID gas the Kurds

This article in MSN Slate lays out the definitive (and overwhelming) evidence that Saddam did bomb his own Kurdish population at Halabja (and elsewhere too, it seems). So much for the impartiality of Kerry O'Brien's great "independent" Iraq expert Dr Pelletiere. As Ron Mead points out in a comment box, this episode brings back unsavoury memories of the ABC's equally egregious use of Dr Robert Springborg as its resident "expert" during the 1991 Gulf War. What makes me particularly angry is that this sort of blatant bias by 7.30 Report simply plays into the hands of all the Tories who just can't wait to abolish the ABC, flog it off to private enterprise, or cut its funding so drastically that it will only be able to afford to make children's programmes and nature docos. We actually need an independent public broadcaster, given the extraordinary concentration of private ownership of Australian media. However, the emphasis is on "independent", a word whose definition in my Macquarie Dictionary doesn't include "willing captive of the socialist left of the ALP" as an alternative meaning.

Abuse an Armadillo

I'm going to be working for the rest of the day on trying to finalise the web design for NTU Law School's new website. The reason we're putting all this time and effort into creating a large, well-designed site (and using an academic lawyer to do it) is that the Law School is offering the law degree for the first time this semester to students in Alice Springs and elsewhere in the NT. Lecturers (including yours truly) will be travelling down to Alice Springs regularly to deliver blocks of lectures. However, students will also need various forms of electronic and other support to ensure that learning outcomes aren't prejudiced. Probably early next week, I'll post the URL of the draft Law School website here at Troppo Armadillo and invite constructive criticism of my web design efforts (both from an esthetic and functionality viewpoint).

In the meantime, one of the other technologies I want to test is "voice chat" Internet chat systems. The one I'm particularly looking at is called "Paltalk". If you have a multi-media-enabled PC and a microphone (preferably a headset mike), you can use this system to talk with one or more people anywhere in the world (and for free, or as much as it costs you in ISP charges anyway). I want to test the system's suitability for conducting online tutorials and other remote interactions with distance learning students like those in Alice Springs. Paltalk has lots of publicly accessible "voice chatrooms" (although they can also be "locked" to allow only particular entrants). I've opened my own chatroom under the category "Social Issues" (there are lots of different categories including porno ones etc if that's your bag). My "room" is called (predictably enough) Troppo Armadillo. I'll leave it open for the rest of the day, in case anyone wants to join it and chat (or abuse me for my outrageously right wing views on military action in Iraq). All you need to do (if you have a mike) is go to the Paltalk website and download and install their voicechat software (it's free). Then navigate to the Troppo Armadillo room and talk away. Note that I may be absent from time to time due to other commitments (although I won't check out of the room because there has to be at least one person there for it to stay open). So if I don't answer when you arrive, try coming back later.

Update - I've closed the chatroom for the afternoon (other commitments). The Yobbo was very helpful with assisting me to test out Paltalk's capabilities. At the moment it looks like it does pretty well everything I want. However, both "Yobbo" and I have 512k ADSL connections, which is a lot faster than most people. It's a fair bet that most uni students will only have access via a 56k dialup modem. So what I'm looking for now is someone with a microphone and soundcard etc, and a 56k dialup connection, so I can test how useable the Paltalk service is in that situation. If you're prepared to give up 15 or 20 minutes of your time one day or evening chatting idly to me on the Internet, please email me and we can work out a mutually suitable time.

Statement of the Vilnius Group Countries

This article from the Bulgarian news agency (link via Patrick Hynes) is worth setting out in full:
"Statement by the Foreign Ministers of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in response to the presentation by the United States Secretary of State to the United Nations Security Council concerning Iraq:

Earlier today, the United States presented compelling evidence to the United Nations Security Council detailing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, its active efforts to deceive UN inspectors, and its links to international terrorism.

Our countries understand the dangers posed by tyranny and the special responsibility of democracies to defend our shared values. The trans-Atlantic community, of which we are a part, must stand together to face the threat posed by the nexus of terrorism and dictators with weapons of mass destruction.

We have actively supported the international efforts to achieve a peaceful disarmament of Iraq. However, it has now become clear that Iraq is in material breach of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, including U.N. Resolution 1441, passed unanimously on November 8, 2002. As our governments said on the occasion of the NATO Summit in Prague: "We support the goal of the international community for full disarmament of Iraq as stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution 1441. In the event of non-compliance with the terms of this resolution, we are prepared to contribute to an international coalition to enforce its provisions and the disarmament of Iraq."

The clear and present danger posed by the Saddam Hussein's regime requires a united response from the community of democracies. We call upon the U.N. Security Council to take the necessary and appropriate action in response to Iraq's continuing threat to international peace and security."

Hear! Hear! France and Germany are looking awfully isolated in Europe.

Volokh sums up

American legal academic Eugene Volokh summarises an excellent article by William Saletan in MSN Slate about UN Security Council members' reactions to US Secretary of State Colin Powell's address. Volokh then provides his own summing up of the apparent position of the UNSC:
"(1) Iraq has or is developing weapons of mass destruction, in violation of Security Council resolutions.

(2) Iraq is grossly failing to cooperate with the inspectors, in violation of Security Council resolutions.

(3) The inspectors are not stopping Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction, because of Iraq's failure to cooperate.

(4) But the solution to all this is to have more inspections, for the indefinite future -- inspections that will not be cooperated with, and under which Iraq will continue to try to develop weapons of mass destruction."

In the circumstances, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's explicit comparison of the UN with the pre-WW2 League of Nations is peculiarly apt:
"The United Nations' prewar predecessor, the League of Nations, had the same fine ideals as the United Nations, but the League failed because it could not create actions from its words; it could not back diplomacy with a credible threat, and where necessary, the use of force. So small evils went unchecked. Tyrants became emboldened. Then greater evils were unleashed. At each stage, good men said, "Wait, the evil is not big enough to challenge." Then, before their eyes, the evil became too big to challenge. We slipped slowly down a slope, never noticing how far we'd gone until it was too late. Mr. President, we owe it to our history, as well as to our future, not to make the same mistake again."

Of course, the implicit (but hardly subtle) threat in Straw's speech is that the US, Britain and others will simply treat the UN as moribund and irrelevant if it continues to fail to take effective action against Iraq. Lefties will seek to portray this as outrageous, high-handed flouting of an imagined impartial system of international law. Trouble is, that conception is a myth. The UN was a post-WW2 attempt to create a more successful international institution than the old League of Nations, but it was built equally upon expedient political compromises. The veto power ceded to the 5 permanent UNSC members is the most obvious example. The fact is, while the UN has a passable (though hardly outstanding) record on humanitarian works, its track record on anything relating to international security has been abysmal. Take, for example Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and now Iraq. Or, for that matter, East Timor, until Australia belatedly (but to John Howard's eternal credit) put together an emergency international coalition and got the UN to rubber-stamp it. The UN is on its last chance just as much as Saddam Hussein.

The UN experiment was essentially a Hobbesian social contract. Thomas Hobbes postulated that people, most notably (in those days) feudal nobles, cede part of their autonomy to a sovereign monarch, even though the more powerful are quite capable of defending themselves. However, it's a two-way bargain. The nobles' allegiance to the monarch is dependent on the monarch delivering on his promise to maintain peace, security, stability and rule of law, so that all may better prosper through peaceful commerce and intercourse. If the monarch fails to honour his side of the bargain, the nobles rebel. The UN has welched on the deal, and the US and others capable of defending themselves will inevitably in those circumstances re-assert their autonomy. For lefties to invoke an effectively non-existent international moral order is simply missing the point. However, they have a point themselves. The obverse side of Hobbes' hypothesis was that the alternative to a system of rule of law, where autonomy was ceded to some central authority, was the law of the jungle where life would be "nasty, brutish and short". That is especially so for countries like Australia who aren't large and powerful enough to defend themselves without kowtowing to great and powerful friends/ warlords.

In that sense, maybe John Howard has simply cut to the chase, implicitly accepted the reality that the UN is moribund, and covered Australia's bases by pre-emptively sucking up to the biggest warlord of them all. His judgment may well prove correct, but I'd like to think the UN still has one last chance to prove that it isn't the League of Nations re-incarnated. Although an all-powerful United States, without the check of the UN, would (at least initially) be a mostly benevolent despot for a country sharing its central liberal democratic capitalist values (like Australia), in the long term Lord Acton's dictum will hold true: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

John Locke also knew a thing or two about securing freedom: the essence of liberal democratic constitutionalism is checks and balances on excessive power, and that applies as much in constructing and maintaining an international order as it does to the constitutional structure of a nation state. However, those checks and balances are not ends in themselves, they're just means to the end of maintenance of peace and freedom. Where the principal institution charged with acting as that check and balance fails to fulfil its role, individual states able to do so and who feel vulnerable (as the US manifestly does in the wake of September 11) will resort to self-help.

Postscript - this essay is partly a response to a couple of Gummo Trotsky's blogs: starting here (another multiple part episode of Gummo's "just war" series) and here. Although I disagree with a fair slice of it (for reasons set out above), Gummo makes some good points. In particular, I agree that John Howard should (a) have been honest about commitments he's made to the US (although the downside of that is that we would have been deprived of watching the very funny spectacle of Alexander Downer ducking and weaving like a punch-drunk fighter in fish-net tights); and (b) have facilitated a full and open Parliamentary debate before making that commitment or deploying troops.

The Left Speaks

Here's the definitive leftie take on Colin Powell's UN address, from Neale Pollack. What a witty, intelligent, incisive chap (not).

Kerry's Komedy Kapers

Australia's "premier" political interviewer Kerry O'Brien really excelled himself on this evening's ABC TV 7.30 Report. As the program's sole intelligence expert (in fact sole expert of any kind) on Iraq in the wake of Secretary of State Colin Powell's address to the UN Security Council, which was widely seen elsewhere as presenting disturbing if not conclusive evidence of Saddam Hussein's deceit and duplicity, Kerry chose to interview one Dr Stephen Pelletiere. Pelletiere had no difficulty dismissing all Powell's evidence out of hand. "I wasn't very convinced at all," he said. "Within the community they [satellite tapes of Iraqi conversations] are not regarded very highly because they're so easy to fabricate." And so the 'interview' went on:
KERRY O'BRIEN: What about the evidence that Colin Powell quoted of an interrogation of a senior captured Al Qaeda operative?

DR STEPHEN PELLETIERE: There you're dealing with detainees. Detainees and defectors are notoriously unreliable sources.

Pelletiere even made the following extraordinary statement (which went completely unchallenged by Kerry): "You know, I want to agree with you except that there have been inspectors in that country for quite a long time and they claim that they cleaned him out once already." Strange, that's not what Richard Butler says. Where did Kerry get this man? Pelletiere was described by Kerry as a "man who spent eight years as the CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq". It didn't take US Ambassador Tom Schieffer long to demolish Kerry's credibility:
TOM SCHIEFFER, US AMBASSADOR TO AUSTRALIA: The first thing I'd say is I don't know where you found that gentleman, I never heard of him.

I don't know if he ever worked at the CIA.

I think the Secretary -

KERRY O'BRIEN: I'm sorry, we did check his credentials and read his papers.

TOM SCHIEFFER: When was the last time he worked at the CIA?


However, if Schieffer had known a little more about Pelletiere, he would have had even less trouble working out where and how Kerry found "this gentleman". Pelletiere is the bloke who's been peddling the story that it was really the Iranians who gassed the Kurds at Halabja in 1988, and not the Iraqis! His propaganda was most recently recycled in the New York Times on 31 January. No doubt that's how he occurred to Kerry's Kommunards as the ideal man to approach as their chosen "expert". A man of unimpeachable objectivity. Pelletiere's claims about the gassing of Kurds by Iran have, as I pointed out last week, been totally discredited (which may be why Kerry didn't mention them). However, that's not Dr Pelletiere's only claim to fame. Pelletiere was described by Daniel Pipes in 1992 in the following glowing terms in a review of his book The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum:
"Pelletiere's writings have won for him the little-disputed title of Saddam Husayn's chief apologist in the United States. He retains that dubious honor in The Iran-Iraq War. Saddam threw Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, his predecessor, out of the presidency in 1979, then stripped him of all titles; who other than Pelletiere would characterize Bakr as having been "anxious to step down"? Who else would deny Samir al-Khalil's contention that Saddam rules through fear? Or write about the invasion of Kuwait as though it were a lapse of judgment, "Saddam ought to have had better sense than to invade his neighbor"?

The examples go on and on. Strange logic leads Pelletiere to conclude that the rapid suppression of the southern rebellion in early 1991 means the Iranians, not Iraqi Shi'is, must have organized the uprising. His eccentric reading of Desert Storm permits him to confirm his pre-1991 assessment that the Iraqi army was "professional and of a high caliber."

Pelletiere reads the Iraq-Iran war no less oddly. In place of the conventional understanding of the war's end-that Iraq won through bloody attrition and poison gas-he sees victory resulting from a far-sighted Iraqi strategy and "superior fighting prowess." This, in short, is not the place to find out what happened in that eight-year struggle ..."

Unquestionably a perfect choice as the ABC "independent" analyst of Colin Powell's address to the UN. Good one, Kerry!

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Haloscan sucks

However, having just tried 2 other alternatives which seem to be even worse, I think I'll put up with it unless/until I can implement PHP commenting. Pity! I see John Quiggin has just posted a message saying he has received an email from Haloscan advising that they're working to repair their server, and that everyone's existing comments are safe and will be restored. I certainly hope so.

On the other hand, it's not all downside. I've tweaked the template a bit so you can see more of the most recent post without scrolling down. More importantly, I've replaced the crappy Freefind search facility with a Google search. You can search either the Web or just Troppo Armadillo, and Google is without doubt the premier search engine. Note, however, that Google only re-indexes every 4-6 weeks, so you won't necessarily find the most recent posts (although it had already indexed Troppo Armadillo, even though it's only been up for 2 weeks). Anyway, you may need to scroll down or check the most recent archived page to find a specific post, but it's worth trying a Google search first.

Powell comes up with the goods

I suppose readers won't be surprised that I found Colin Powell's presentation of evidence to the UN Security Council to be a convincing indictment of Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi regime. I have to say that I really can't understand how anyone other than an absolute pacifist could now fail to conclude than that there is no other sensible choice than military action to disarm Saddam and effect regime change.

I suppose those who are determined to find any excuse to keep opposing military intervention will simply choose to doubt the veracity or persuasiveness of US intelligence information. The problem is, Bush administration officials know that everything they produced will be carefully scrutinised by highly trained intelligence operatives from countries not necessarily inherently sympathetic to the US position: Russia and Germany, for instance. We can reasonably assume, unless one of those countries fairly quickly debunks the material, that it is kosher. In those circumstances, how could anyone possibly retain any level of belief at all in the efficacy of weapons inspections, in the face of all that evidence of ongoing Iraqi duplicity and deceit?

Tim toddles off

Tim Blair announces that he has moved across to the Packer group's Bulletin magazine. And indeed there is a column by Tim at the Bullie site. Unfortunately, it's accessible by subscription only. I won't be forking out the brass, I can tell you. I read the Bulletin when I'm at the doctor or dentist (which means they're usually 6 months old), and I certainly don't find the content sufficiently compelling to be bothered paying for it on a regular basis.

I suspect many have the same view, which means Tim's readership is about to fall dramatically. I can't help wondering whether Tim's move was voluntary or part of an even-handed culling exercise by the Oz that also included Tim's alternate bete noire (when he gets sick of Margo) Phillip Adams. Anyway, I'll miss Tim's column. Maybe the Bulletin will allow him to post his columns on a personal site a month or so in arrears, the way the AFR does with John Quiggin.

Blogging musings

As you may have noticed, Haloscan commenting has been buggered for most of the afternoon and evening. It's beginning to irk me. Thinking about it, Blogger itself has actually been reasonably reliable in the short time I've been using it again (except that the archives keep disappearing and re-appearing, but I think I can live with that). It's the commenting facility whose reliability is at unacceptable levels. Bailz and Gareth Parker tell me that there are PHP commenting scripts you can instal on your own web host server to host your own commenting function. That might be the solution. Only trouble is that I've looked at a couple of sites that offer PHP commenting scripts, and I can hardly understand a word they're saying. I think I'll be emailing the lads for help.

Meanwhile, Rob Corr thinks he's been appointed blogging commissar, presumably by Trades Hall where he's doing work experience. Rob reckons you're not allowed to use the word "blog" to describe an individual post; only to describe your entire site. Personally, I use the word for both purposes and I'm going to continue doing so. It's convenient and I prefer it. I was never very good at obedience, I'm afraid. If I'd been born in Stalinist Russia I would have been up against the wall before I left primary school.

Wisdom on crime

Criminologist Adam Graycar has an excellent article about crime, its incidence and crime prevention strategies in Online Opinion (link via Angela Bell). In fact the monthly feature in OLO is on issues relating to crime and punishment. There's lots of good reading. I found a statistical study by the "evil" Peter Saunders and Nicole Billante especially interesting. Here's the conclusion:
"The evidence reviewed here is consistent with Charles Murray's view that a weakening in the willingness to use prison as a punishment has been strongly associated with an explosion of crime rates. All the countries we have reviewed saw their crime rates rise dramatically as they eased off on imprisonment. Those countries (notably the US) that subsequently increased their use of imprisonment have seen their postwar rise in crime rates stopped, and then reversed. In Australia, where use of prison has not been increased to the same extent, the crime rate has not been curbed with the same success. While not proving Murray's thesis, these patterns are certainly consistent with it. Whether by taking offenders out of circulation, or by deterring people from committing crimes in the first place, the evidence does seem to support the view that prison works.

But this is not the whole story. The economic theory of crime suggests that the risk of getting caught is likely to be as, or more, important in deterring crime as the anticipated severity of the punishment. In Australia, it does seem that the spiralling crime rates of the 1970s and 1980s had as much to do with declining detection and conviction as with declining use of imprisonment. This suggests that penal policy is an important element in the fight against crime, but it is only part of the solution. As economists have been telling us for more than 30 years now, increasing the probability of getting caught appears no less important than increasing the severity of the punishment that follows."

Saunders does not contradict mainstream research showing there is little correlation between length of sentence and crime rates. The correlation is between the certainty of detection and then imprisonment (for whatever period) and crime rates. Of course this contradicts the "bleeding heart" school of advocacy championed by criminal lawyers and still mostly accepted by judges. I can feel some public stirring coming on.

Personally, I've always thought Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim had it all pretty well worked out in West Side Story way back in 1957 (Gee Officer Krupke). Incidentally, when I get around to listing Ten Reasons to be Pro-American, the American musical is going to be fairly high on my list.

My G-G-G-Generation

Jason Yat-sen Li is a very bright, promising young man with strong and liberal political views; a lawyer and deputy chairman of the Australian Republican Movement. He wrote an op-ed piece in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, however, which rather suggests that it might all be starting to go to his head just a tad. Jason's article asserted that Generation X (to which he belongs) will soon rouse itself from its apolitical torpor and, when John Howard retires, embrace left-of-centre causes. Jason also lists several causes that he claims Gen Xers did rouse themselves about: "Pauline Hanson, ecological disaster, reconciliation and our treatment of asylum seekers."

Of course, what Jason really means is that these were the issues he got passionate about. It must be a wonderfully comforting feeling to be able to equate the political opinions of an entire generation with your own personal viewpoint. I'm not even sure I agree with myself half the time!

Peter Kerr puts it much more succinctly, saying only "Get your hand off it Jason! ".

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Stolen Generations?

Australian film maker Phil Noyce is a popular target for the Right. He makes movies with an intensely political slant, and undeniably takes more than a little poetic licence with the factual background. Gerard Henderson sought to re-establish his tarnished right-wing credentials yesterday with a disparaging op-ed piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on Noyce's film version of Grahame Greene's Vietnam-based novel The Quiet American. Uncle at ABC Watch blogged on Henderson's article.

However, not all faux-rightists are so disparaging of Noyce. Robert Manne wrote a (somewhat belated) laudatory review of Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence in yesterday's Washington Post. Noyce's previous film, it dealt with the so-called "Stolen Generations" issue, and was an adaptation of a book about the childhood experiences of a 'half-caste' Aboriginal girl Molly Craig and her 2 sisters, written by Molly's daughter Doris Pilkington.

Herald-Sun journalist (and Quadrant clique member in good standing) Andrew Bolt has written an apparently quite devastating critique of Rabbit-Proof Fence, pointing out a large number of significant factual errors and distortions. Manne's article seeks to downplay the extent of those distortions in Noyce's film, but Manne also makes some much more telling points of his own. As with his reaction to Keith Windschuttle's exposure of errors in the work of historians Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan, Manne seems to place a fairly low premium on factual accuracy. On the other hand, you can argue that absolute veracity is less critical in a work of dramatic "faction" than when writing academic history, as long as the work gives an overall accurate sense of events. I certainly think Manne is correct in suggesting, in effect, that Bolt's criticisms of Noyce's poetic licence in many respects miss the forest for all the trees. ... Read more
(Warning - another long-ish blog)

Cordon bleu fisking

Now, I'd have to admit that Margo Kingston is hardly a surprising target for Tim Blair. In fact if Margo ever got sacked Tim's blog would have lots of large blank spaces. However, today's fisking of Margo is a vintage example of the genre. Do yourself a favour and read it (even lefties might manage a smile - though probably through gritted teeth). I wonder if Me No No will accuse me of "brown-nosing" Blair as well? Funny he never suggests I'm "brown-nosing" lefties or centrists when I agree with them (as I frequently do).

Update - Oh dear! The Professor's blog for this morning is brilliantly funny as well. My fate with Me No No is sealed. Maybe Rob Schaap is correct for once - maybe I am a "faux centrist". Then again, maybe I'm just crediting good blogging when I read it (although I'd have to admit yesterday's piece on Bunyip's slag of Anne Summers was something of a misjudgment). I blog, you decide.

Grisham bashes plaintiff lawyers

The following is a straight copy and paste from The Volokh Conspiracy:
"John Grisham is known for penning page-turning legal thrillers. I think it's also fair to say that he is also known for his hostility to corporate America. In many of his books, the heroes are noble trial lawyers while the villains are sinister corporations and the lawyers who agree to defend them. Grisham is hardly the legal writer one would expect to assault the plaintiff's bar in print -- but it seems that is what he has done in his latest book, The King of Torts. According to this review, Grisham has shifted his sights from duplicitous insurance companies, greedy corporate developers, and tobacco executives to ambulance-chasing plaintiffs lawyers. Assuming this account is accurate -- and I have no reason to suspect otherwise -- it is nice to see that Grisham can be even-handed in his depictions of villainy. There is no doubt many corporations do many blameworthy things --but much the same can be said of the plaintiffs' bar. Not every mass tort civil action is a noble endeavor. "

Here's a short extract from the Washington Post book review linked by Volokh Conspiracy:
"John Grisham's new novel is several things -- a great read, a love story, a parable of sorts -- but above all it is a scathing attack on the lawyers who have amassed great wealth by winning class-action lawsuits against the tobacco industry, pharmaceutical companies and other corporate malefactors. These mass tort boys, as Grisham calls them, are presented as shameless, greed-crazed ambulance chasers who enrich themselves off the misery of others and whose only real interest is acquiring ever-larger yachts and ever-younger women. I can't think of a bestselling novelist since Sinclair Lewis who has so relentlessly bludgeoned a particular segment of our society. ...

Grisham's view of the tort lawyers is summed up by an honest old lawyer: "Class actions are a fraud, at least the way you and your pals handle them. Mass torts are a scam, a consumer rip-off, a lottery driven by greed that will one day harm all of us." To support that thesis, Grisham stacks the deck in various ways. When he shows us the plaintiffs in a class action, they are grossly obese women from a trailer park whose health problems clearly derive from gluttony, not from the diet pills they took."

Leaving aside Grisham's pulp fiction caricatures, there is a critical distinction between class actions in the United States and their Australian counterparts. In the US (or at least some parts of it) plaintiff lawyers can enter into contingent fee arrangements with their clients to take (say) 30% (or perhaps even 50%) of the damages awarded. In a large product liability law suit, that amounts to very big money indeed. The Julia Roberts movie Erin Brockovich (based on a true story) depicts such a situation. In Australia, legislation, court rules and legal ethics all prohibit arrangements of that sort. Lawyers can enter into a "no win no fee" agreements, but they are only permitted to charge a relatively modest "uplift" component on the fees that would normally be allowable. Typically it might allow the lawyer to charge fees of (say) $750,000 in a reasonably sizeable case instead of $500,000. It makes it worthwhile for lawyers to underwrite a promising case by "punting" on the result to an extent, but you certainly wouldn't run completely hopeless cases on an outside chance of winning the big jackpot (which is what happens in some parts of the US). Australian law tries to avoid the worst excesses of ambulance-chasing by keeping the possible rewards within vaguely reasonable bounds. Strange, however that US Republicans, who mostly profess a neo-liberal commitment to "free" markets in other respects, tend to be very averse to the freewheeling activities of ambulance-chasing plaintiff lawyers. No doubt it has something to do with the fact that the plaintiff lawyers' targets are the major corporations who bankroll the GOP.

Monday, February 03, 2003

Ruddock crashes and burns in High Court

Today's decision (or rather decisions plural - there were actually 2 separate judgments) in the Baktiari case is the reverse side of the coin to a "win - win" situation. It was a "lose - lose" situation: both the Minister and Mrs Baktiari and her 5 children lost comprehensively. Only the lawyers won. Mrs Baktiari was awarded 75% of her costs, so my academic colleague Professor George Williams (who argued the case for Mrs Baktiari along with others) will get paid! It's also a joyful day for academic public lawyers like me in general, because the High Court's decision is delightfully complex, subtle and convoluted. I'll be able to torture students with it for at least the next couple of years!

The bottom line, however, isn't all that difficult to convey. The Baktiari family lost because the Court found that the Refugee Review Tribunal had made no judicially reviewable error in holding that Mrs Baktiari and her children were not entitled to a Protection Visa. Even if the Court had found an error, it would have been only a temporary respite for the Baktiaris, since it's now very clear that they are Pakistanis and not Afghans as they had claimed. However, that ultimately fatal problem played no immediate part in the High Court's decision handed down today. Mrs Baktiari's counsel had argued that the RRT (and earlier the Minister's delegate) had failed to notify Mrs Baktiari of a material fact, namely the fact that Mr. Baktiari had already been granted a Temporary Protection Visa and had applied for a permanent one. Now, leaving aside the fact that Mr Baktiari had obtained that visa by fraud, and that one suspects Mrs Baktiari probably already knew that her husband had a visa anyway (whatever she may claim), the Court found that the Minister and RRT were under no legal obligation to notify Mrs Baktiari of something they simply hadn't taken into account in making their decision. In addition, the Court held that the fact of Mr Baktiari having a Temporary Visa was not a sufficiently relevant consideration as to make the Minister's decision invalid for having failed to take it into account.

As far as Minister Ruddock was concerned, the Court found in a separate judgment that the Howard government's amendments to the Migration Act passed (with panicked ALP support) immediately after the Tampa affair, were almost completely legally ineffective.

First, the so-called "privative" (ouster) clause, which Minister Ruddock hoped would drastically restrict the available grounds for judicial review of migration decisions before the High Court and Federal Court, didn't have that effect at all. On a proper reading, the Court held, the privative clause (section 474) did not protect migration decisions from review where a "jurisdictional error" had been committed. Since the High Court has progressively redefined administrative law over the last decade or so in a way that makes almost every legal error a "jurisdictional" one, the net result is that the privative clause has almost no practical effect. In fact, ironically, the effect of today's decision is that the new privative clause has even less effect in restricting the scope of judicial review than the previous section whose replacement Mr Howard bludgeoned Kim Beazley into supporting by labelling him as "soft on asylum seekers".

Secondly, the Court held that the government's attempt to limit review by imposing a 35 day time limit for filing review applications (section 486A) was also almost completely ineffective. On its face the time limit only applied to "privative clause decisions". A decision affected by "jurisdictional error" was not a "privative clause decision". In fact it wasn't a decision at all. It was a nullity.

Despite the fact that the Minister in essence lost comprehensively (as evidenced by the fact that 75% of the costs were awarded against him), the media mostly seems to have portrayed the case as a win for Mr Ruddock and the government! See, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald's coverage. Even the ABC accepted the Government's blatant, misleading spin on the result and reported that it was a win for Ruddock. Admittedly the reasoning is very complex, but surely it shouldn't have been beyond their wit to get reasonably early expert legal analysis instead of blindly accepting the government's spin. I heard Duncan Kerr (former Labor Minister who also argued part of the case) interviewed about the result on the ABC's World Today program, and he gently tried to explain to the reporter that Ruddock had lost in a big way. Nevertheless, the message doesn't yet seem to have sunk through. The World Today story remains headlined on the ABC website as "Wins for both sides in High Court's "Tampa" decision." As I commented above, the opposite is the case. It's a safe bet that Mrs Baktiari and her kids don't give a rat's arse about the technical rulings on the meaning of amendments to the Migration Act: they're getting deported from Australia because they lost. Similarly, it's a safe bet that Mr Ruddock "despite PR spin" doesn't care one way or the other about succeeding in defending the individual decision: the Baktiaris were going to be deported in due course anyway; this decision just speeds the process up a bit.

Lastly (and immodestly) I should point out that I accurately predicted today's result on this blog back on 5 September. I didn't, however, predict the extent of the Minister's defeat. Ruddock lost 7 - nil!! Even Justice Callinan found against the Minister. So much for stacking the High Court bench with ultra-conservatives. Even conservatives have this uncomfortable habit of thinking independently, and deciding cases on their merits, once they're appointed to the High Court. On the other hand, as I also observed back in September:
"Privately, however, both he [Minister Ruddock] and John Howard will view a High Court loss as an acceptable price to pay for winning an election that might otherwise have been very close."

The forensic Bunyip

Professor Bunyip has cast his jaundiced eye over the Anne Summers article on which I blogged yesterday, and discovered that significant parts are, if not plagiarised, certainly quite close to it. You have to be careful in making such accusations (and the Professor is), because we're all dipping into the same well of ideas in the same thoroughly ploughed field (now there's a scrambled mixed metaphor for you), but at the very least Summers' failure to acknowledge sources and encase lifted passages in quotes (instead of lightly paraphrasing them) makes her deeply suspect in a wider sense.

Bunyip also advances a less tenable argument: that Summers' biographical background (e.g. the fact that she is Greenpeace International Board Chairperson and a former senior Whitlam government apparatchik) should be disclosed at the foot of articles she writes, so readers can self-assess her ideological biases. Trouble is, how do you select which biographical facts should be regarded as relevant? Obviously Bunyip regards the two affiliations he mentions as terminally typecasting Summers. However, other readers might regard other aspects of her CV as more interesting and relevant. You'd end up with a CV at the end of every op-ed article that was longer than the article itself.

Finally, an interesting sidelight on this point is that Bunyip's apparent belief that a writer's curriculum vitae is relevant and even critical in assessing his or her ideas parallels a similar argument the far more left-wing John Quiggin made not so long ago. The flint-hard right and the soft left make common cause! Quiggers' immediate target was Nazi-sympathiser philosopher Martin Heidegger, but he indicated that he intended eventually to zero in on some more contemporary right-wing targets (he never did as far as I recall, although he did make passing swipes at a couple of anti-global warming scientists who, John opined, should have discolsed their right-wing think tank affiliations at the end of their articles). Of course, the po mo crowd argue that text and meaning are independent of authorial intent once written: they should be read and judged on their own terms (and even judgment is a problematic concept). I think I'll keep a foot in both camps here (what a surprise!). I certainly think it's useful to know what political axes an op-ed writer is attempting to grind (in the ploughed field, while wetting the blade with water from the well), because it puts us on alert for "spin". What facts are being omitted, how is she selecting the ones to use, and are they being accurately presented? But equally we shouldn't simply dismiss the opinions of those whose ideological background we find suspect, especially without reading them. In some ways, a text does stand on its own feet (in the ploughed field) and mean what it means (to each of us). A text doesn't need to be written by Shakespeare to have a range of instructive connotations not intended by the author; and even if the messages were intended, sometimes our opponents actually do make good points that enrich our understanding. Even Anne Summers for Bunyip. Even Bjorn Lomborg for Quiggers.

BTW - I'll be tied up in a meeting for the rest of the morning. I'll try to finish "Ten non-political reasons to be pro-American" at lunchtime.

Update - I've concluded on closer examination (after extensive debate in the comment box) that whatever inference Bunyip may have sought to convey that Anne Summers' article contained paraphrases of a Washington Post article verging on plagiarism is wrong and unfair. In fact Summers was quite careful to acknowledge the sources of her article. Bunyip's other argument, that she has been selective by omission in the bits of the Post story she used, has more substance IMO (although, on the other hand, the complete Post article is quite long and contains other material adverse to the US that Summers also chose not to use).

Tim unmasked as secret Margolian

Margo Kingston's Web Diary has just published a list of the top 5 referrers to her site (which Tim Blair, as we know, loves to hate) for the month of January. The top 5 are:(1) Instapundit, (2) Fortean Times ( a site whose subtitle is "The Journal of Strange Phenomena", so you can see why they'd link to Margo), (3) whatreallyhappened (which seems to be a leftie pro-Iraq, peacenik, anti-Israel site from a quick glance), (4) timblairblogspot and (5) Bowling for Columbine!!!! Fancy Tim being a more effective promoter of Margo than Michael Moore!

Cancel the Zimbabwe match

Australia's High Commissioner to Zimbabwe has warned of likely Opposition demonstrations during Australia's forthcoming World Cup cricket match there, and stressed that there is a significant probability of Mugabe's security forces over-reacting and causing an incident that will endanger the players' safety.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean Opposition Leader Morgan Tsvangirai's treason trial started today in Harare. CNN reported:
Police with batons cleared the court's entrance on the first day of the trial on Monday, striking out at reporters and jostling opposition MPs and supporters. Ish Mufandikwa, a freelance journalist, and several other people were arrested on the street outside the court.

Police said the courtroom was full, but lawyers inside said the public benches were virtually empty. Opposition officials said Tsvangirai's lawyers would protest. "This is a public place and it is supposed to be a public court. Obviously the state has something to hide," said opposition lawmaker Priscilla Misihairabwi. Police with riot clubs held across their chests pushed her away.

Police in blue paramilitary uniforms yelled at German observer Jan Van Thief to "get away from here" as he showed his diplomatic identity pass, The Associated Press reported. "You are no longer a diplomat. We will get you," one policeman shouted over the chaos.

In addition to all this, the odds of military action in Iraq commencing before Australia's World Cup match in Zimbabwe is played are shortening by the day. Prime Minister John Howard said on tonight's SBS News that there was no evidence that Al Qaeda had any terrorist cells active in Zimbabwe, but you would have to think that the Aussie cricket team would be a prime target for terrorist action in those circumstances, or at least violent demonstrations. Only 1 - 1.5% of Zimbabwe's population is Muslim, but it doesn't take many sympathisers to form a terrorist cell.

Given all those factors, the ACB needs its collective head read to allow the match to go ahead. The risk level is now simply unacceptable. Are they trying to prove their masculinity by putting their players' lives at risk? Or to appease Pakistan and the West Indies, who seem to want to characterise any reluctance to play there by white cricketing nations as "racism"? Or is it fear of being sued by TV rights holders? If it's the latter, John Howard has been quoted today as saying that the Australian government would assist the ACB financially if it decided to insist on cancellation of the Zimbabwe match. There just isn't any reasonable excuse.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Rumbling Rumsfeld

I see Anne Summers has an article in this morning's SMH giving a fairly detailed rundown on US assistance to Iraq's WOMD programs during the Iran-Iraq war, including Donald Rumsfeld's role in it. It makes some good points, but ends with this bizarre paragraph:
"It is in no one's interests for Saddam Hussein to retain deadly weapons he has shown no compunction about using in the past, including on his own citizens. But by what crazy logic does the West go to war to disarm him of weapons it supplied in the first place? Instead of so-called smart bombs, how about a bit of smart diplomacy?"

As I suggested in my Pollyanna piece yesterday, why should a former expedient alliance with Saddam disqualify the US from moving decisively to disarm him now, however belatedly, when all less drastic measures have failed? Dave Ricardo made a good point in the comment box when he observed "Why doesn't Bush just say, 'We made the mess. We have an obligation to clean it up, and we're going to.'' Fair comment, but Summers' stance is simply illogical. What does she think the UN has been doing (however ineffectually) for the last 12 years? Diplomacy, surely, though maybe not very smart diplomacy. And what does she call the Arab nations' offer of safe exile for Saddam and his henchmen, supported by the US? Anne exhibits the Left's typical inability to grasp the fact (or perhaps admit to herself would be a better way to put it) that sometimes there really is no sensible alternative to military action. Unless Saddam very quickly stops playing games, this is one of those times.

Update - I should have noted earlier that Stephen Hill has blogged an excellent and very balanced piece about the prospects and risks for Iraq post-Saddam. It's based on 2 articles by Thomas Friedman in the NY Times. Recommended reading.

Update 2 - Lapsed leftie Christopher Hitchens (MSN Slate, February 1) gives a well-deserved serve to Nelson Mandela for his egregious remarks on possible US-led military action in Iraq. Hitchens also takes side-swipes at every recent UN Secretary-General along the way. His final paragraph:
"I have never in my life kept a photograph of myself with any politician or celebrity except the one I have of my meeting with Mandela. I can remember sitting and drinking several times with his successor Thabo Mbeki, in the latter's student leftist days. Nothing can take anything away from the imperishable movement that they and others led. But this latest garbage is a very timely caution against our common tendency to make supermen and stars and heroes out of fellow humans. Iraq is not Saddam any more than Zimbabwe is Mugabe, and being on the right side of history once is no guarantee that the subsequent fall will not be from a very great height."

Update 3 - Will wonders never cease !? The Guardian has an article by Julie Burchill (link from Patrick Hynes) that echoes many of the points I've been making in my last several posts on Iraq. I doubt that she's closely related to Scott, though. Lastly, and I should have pointed it out before, Margo's Web Diary last Thursday carried two excellent reader contributions by John Nicolay (who pays out brilliantly on Carmen Lawrence) and Nicholas Crouch. Unfortunately you'll have to scroll down past an especially fatuous diatribe from the seemingly ubiquitous Karen Jackson to get to them. But take heart. Both contributions are well worth the effort. Here is a short extract from Nicolay's piece:
"In my view, you simply cannot be taken seriously as an opponent of war unless you are prepared to acknowledge what sort of leader Saddam Hussein is, extrapolate what his record suggests about his intentions and ambitions, and recognise that his conduct towards weapons inspections leaves no other rational possibility other than that he has or is developing weapons of mass destruction and intends to keep them.

By no means does recognising all those facts lead inexorably to the conclusion that war is necessary, but it is only once you do take these things into account that you engage in the duty that real policy-makers have in a situation like this: of considering all possible outcomes and choosing the one with the least worst results."

Nicholas Crouch makes similar points just as eloquently:
"So Margo, if those of you who are working so hard to prevent war miraculously succeed, then by all means you will be able to say that you helped save many thousands of innocent Iraqis from being killed in a war. But you must then also accept the consequences of stopping the war - and those are the effects of the continued reign of Saddam Hussein and his successors, and the thousands of innocent Iraqis that will die because of that. It is no good starting sentences with "I don't like Saddam Hussein but..." If you don't like Saddam, and you have the capacity to, then you have to DO something about it.

People on the left of this issue are full of good intentions and your aims are noble - unlike the far right whose aims are based in bigotry and hate - but just because the far left has good intentions does not make it less dangerous. Jimmy Carter is almost universally acknowledged as the worst US President in modern history. He also probably had the best intentions, the best ideals - and still does. I like him, but he is a far better former president than he was a President."

As I've observed before, while Margo publishes an awful lot of undisciplined, unedited rubbish, she does publish reader contributions on all sides of an issue, and mostly without fear or favour. It means there are often gold nuggest hidden amongst the dross.

Reach for the stars!

The News Limited website has an article suggesting that the Columbia space shuttle disaster may have been caused (in the broad sense) by the fact that the shuttles are obsolete, 30 years old technology. An article in Time magazine by Gregg Easterbrook makes the same point, but then goes on to advocate a much smaller scale space program:
"that the shuttle be phased out, that cargo launches be carried aboard by far cheaper, unmanned, throwaway rockets and that NASA build a small "space plane" solely for people, to be used on those occasions when men and women are truly needed in space."

Personally I think this is unimaginative, defeatist thinking. Dubbya should adopt a JFK-style vision and commit America (preferably jointly with Russia and Japan) to having a man on Mars by 2020. That would mean new generation space shuttles, and either a large scale orbiting space station or a permanent, self-sustaining moonbase as a staging post for missions to Mars.

As with the Moon program in the 1960s, there would be huge commercial spinoffs and an enormous boost to both pure and applied scientific research. More importantly, I think the human race needs the challenge of new frontiers: "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." As the Australian Democrats don't seem likely to be around for very much longer, space is the obvious alternative for satisfying these fundamental human aspirations.

Update - Stewart Kelly also has a good, rather more considered piece on the future of the US space program.

Update 2 - Stephen Dawson, one of the neo-liberals over at Australian Libertarians blog, has a predictable response to the Columbia space shuttle tragedy: - privatise the space program!! This is undoubtedly an inspired suggestion. If privatising NASA proves as efficient and successful as the privatisations of water and electricity in various Australian states, railways in Britain, or Australia's asylum seeker detention centres, there'll be so many fatal shuttle crashes that they won't even make news any more. I'm still waiting for the greenies to claim the Columbia crash was caused by global warming or the hole in the ozone layer.

Ten (non-political) reasons to be anti-American*

(1) Retail personnel saying "Have a nice day".

(2) Friends, Ally McBeal and Everybody Loves Raymond.

(3) Michael Jackson.

(4) Fran Drescher.

(5) Pulp fiction by people like Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum or John Grisham.

(6) Country and western music (with rare exceptions) and line dancing (with none).

(7) "Reality" TV shows that glorify rugged individualism i.e. ruthless, self-centred bastardry e.g. Survivor. Mind you, they're less repulsive than some of the Japanese reality TV shows, but fortunately we don't get them in Australia. Actually, before someone corrects me, I should acknowledge that some of the reality shows that screen in Australia had their genesis somewhere in Europe (I can't remember exactly where - was it Holland?).

(8) US gun laws, the Second Amendment, gun lobby advocates and their academic apologists (well, that one was a little bit political, I confess).

(9) Mike Tyson, 157 different "world" boxing bodies, Don King manipulating just about all of them.

(10) Having a baseball "World Series" when almost no other nation plays the game. Then again, rugby league (possibly still the majority football code in Sydney and Brisbane but insignifiant anywhere else in the world) is about to promote a "World Sevens" series.

* This item was, of course, inspired by Karen Jackson, the streaker and failed Australian Democrats candidate who had an idiotic piece published on Margo's Web Diary last week by the same title (but political). I can't help thinking that the Dems might have done a lot better if only Natasha S-D had taken a leaf out of Karen's book, got really pissed and run across the SCG clad only in her Doc Martens.
** Feel free to post your own nominations to this list in the comment box. BTW Tomorrow I intend publishing "Ten Non-Political Reasons to be Pro-American".

A sharp rejoinder from Rob

Rob Schaap blogs a very long piece (almost as long as some of mine) aimed at refuting my Pollyanna piece on Iraq earlier today. Essentially, Rob takes issue with these 2 passages in my essay:
"Realistically, liberal democratic nations like the US have little choice but to make occasional expedient alliances with some fairly smelly regimes."

"American policy throughout the Cold War involved forging expedient alliances with anti-communist regimes, including some pretty odious ones."

Rob makes the very reasonable point that the US, in Iraq at least, not only jumped into bed with an odious regime, but actually created it in the first place. However, he could have saved himself a very long blog if he'd emailed me first (or posted a comment on the comment box), because I agree with him. America's strategy to defeat communism did indeed involve creating anti-communist regimes as well as forging expedient alliances with existing ones. I confess I should have made that point for the sake of completeness. Moreover, the artificially CIA-created regimes have far too often been amongst the most appallingly oppressive and bloodthirsty of US allies. The Pinochet regime in Chile is another example, as were successive South Vietnamese puppet regimes (although they were more utterly corrupt and incompetent than bloodthirsty).

However, this says nothing at all about the point I was making, which was:
"Although that policy had some very unfortunate and unintended consequences (not least the creation of the Taliban and the training of Bin Laden), it was ultimately successful in achieving its primary aim of the overthrow of communism."

A better argument against my hypothesis is to assert that communism would have fallen almost as quickly anyway under the weight of its own inherent contradictions (an ironic point for those familiar with Marxist theory - which could conceivably be why Rob can't quite bring himself to make it). Personally, I doubt that communism would in fact have crumbled anywhere near as quickly in the absence of the implacable pressure exerted by the West (and led by the United States), but I can't prove it. Moreover, I can't measure the comparative misery index. Did the misery inflicted by evil anti-communist regimes like those of Saddam and Pinochet outweigh that inflicted by the USSR and its Eastern European satellite states? I don't know, and nor does anyone else. That's what I meant by the statement:
"The really hard bit is maintaining a reasonably clear vision of where to draw the line to avoid undermining fundamental principles that may destroy the very values you're fighting to preserve. You can mount a plausible argument that US foreign policy has crossed that line rather more frequently than one might have liked, but it's easy to be wise in hindsight."

Declaring War

A couple of days ago I received an email from Gummo Trotsky, asking me two legal questions. I suspect they have something to do with the blog series Gummo is writing on the concept of a "just war", but the answers are interesting in their own right (at least to me):
"1. Would it have been possible for Parliament to be recalled early to debate the Blix report and the deployment of troops to the Gulf (as happened with the special sitting after the Queen Mother's death)?

2. Am I correct in thinking that it is section 68 of the Constitution that gives the Executive the power to deploy troops in this way?"

I answered Gummo's questions in the following terms .... read more (another long-ish blog)