THE MOGADISHU MOMENT

The appalling brutality in the Sunni Triangle yesterday was designed to have one simple effect: to encourage the West to abandon Iraq to the very people who perpetrated this atrocity. The methods are the same as Somalia. The response will be different. But it’s equally hard not to be worried by John Burns’ analysis in today’s NYT:

On Tuesday, before the Falluja attacks, General Kimmitt, the American military spokesman, appeared to back off at least somewhat from the emphasis on Islamic militants as the principal enemy. At a briefing, he offered an overview of the war in which he suggested that what has occurred, in effect, is a merging of the Saddamist insurgents and the Islamic terrorists into a common terrorist threat, and that, either way, “we just call them targets.”
Several Iraqis interviewed on Wednesday, including middle-class professionals, merchants and former members of Mr. Hussein’s army, suggested that that the United States might be facing a war in which the common bonds of Iraqi nationalism and Arab sensibility have transcended other differences, fostering a war of national resistance that could pose still greater challenges to the Americans in the months, and perhaps years, ahead.

All the more reason to maintain the deadline for the transition to self-rule, and to keep a close military and police alliance with the incoming government. I’m still an optimist – in the medium term. But the next two or three years could be brutal. We just got a taste of how brutal they could be.

PRE-9/11: The undelivered Condi Rice speech, leaked to the Washington Post, reaffirms what we already knew. The Bush administration – like the administration before it – did not adequately understand or guard against, let alone deal with, the threat of Islamist terrorism. Why is this such a scandal? The failure before 9/11 was a failure of intelligence but more deeply a failure to comprehend the full measure of the evil we face. Democracies tend to do that. It’s hard enough to grapple with the idea that we could soon be facing a nuclear, chemical or biological catastrophe in the next few months or years now, let alone before the 9/11 massacre. What matters is what we’re doing in the present, what our strategy is, how best to defeat the enemy. I don’t get the political controversy, I really don’t (although I appreciate the need to get to the bottom of what failed). Who believed the Bush administration was fully on the case in its first eight months? Of course they weren’t. The fundamental issue in this election is: which candidate would best protect us in the future? Fighting partisan wars over the past is at best a distraction, at worst a dangerous one.

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WHY NOT A GAS TAX? Just when you think this campaign couldn’t get more depressing, you have this moronic exchange on gas prices. They’re Bush’s fault; they’d be worse under Kerry. Etc. Now I know I just came out as a non-driver, and so full disclosure is unnecessary. But the low taxes on gas in this country surely are a bad idea. Here’s an easy way to help ease the budget deficit, increase our fuel efficiency, wean us a little off Middle East petroleum and generally help the U.S. economically and in foreign policy. Yet the very idea of raising taxes on gasoline is regarded as so completely anathema you might as well propose nominating Osama bin Laden for president. Matt Miller explains in his syndicated column

In France and Germany, a gallon of gas costs around $4; in Japan, about $3.50. Thanks in part to their policy of high-priced gas, our industrial competitors have made stunning strides in energy efficiency and independence. France now gets more than 70 percent of its electrical energy from nuclear power. In Japan, oil imports in 1980 were 5.5 percent of GDP; by decade’s end, they’d fallen to 1 percent. The industrial restructuring that enabled this drop left Japan producing two and a half times its 1975 output with, in effect, the same tank of gas.
It’s not that the United States has made no progress. Economy-wide energy efficiency is up by more than 40 percent since 1975. Average auto fuel efficiency has risen from 16 to 20.4 miles per gallon over the same period. Still, the average fuel economy of the new car fleet has fallen every year since 1986, from a high of 25.9 miles per gallon to about 23.8 today. And American drivers still consume about two times more gasoline per capita than people in other advanced countries.
At roughly a billion dollars per penny in annual revenue, a 50-cent gas tax would help fund needed programs or needed deficit reduction. It would also substitute a market-based approach to auto efficiency for today’s mixed signals, through which low prices urge consumers to buy SUVs, while mileage-minded regulators tell the big three to build compacts.

So why not? Beats me. But this irrational embrace of cheap gas is about as close to a national consensus as you’ll ever get in this polarized country. Go figure.

THE PASSION OF THE JEW

If you didn’t see South Park last night, my commiserations. Watching a cartoon Mel Gibson in his tighty-whiteys jumping onto his own sado-masochism machine was one of the more sublime sights of the year. Yes, he is clearly bonkers. And yes, Stone and Parker are geniuses.

EMAIL OF THE DAY I: “You DO know why you don’t drive! If people could see you riding your bike on the sidewalk around D.C., they’d know too. You lean over the handlebar with such a menacing look (Get out of the way — or else!) and people almost run out into the street — just so loved ones will think they were killed by a crazy motorist rather than by a crazed cyclist. I, myself, have rushed out of your path but luck has been with me. You seem to be a fine — also brilliant — fellow. I love your blog. So this thing about not driving is another of your gifts to the world. Otherwise you’d be fine and brilliant and a MASS KILLER.” Busted. More feedback on the Letters Page.

ANOTHER BAD ARGUMENT: Against civil marriage rights for gay couples. Noam Scheiber crunches the numbers on social security survivor benefits.

EMAIL OF THE DAY II: “Great response to Shelby Steele. A related historical note: in the mid 19th century, one of the leading arguments of the abolitionists was that slavery was immoral because it denied the freedom to marry. Indeed, marriage was seen as such a fundamental human right that the denial of marriage to the slaves inspired the highest moral outrage. During Reconstruction, one of the primary missions of the federal agency charged with aiding newly freed slaves was to encourage them to marry. Marriage was seen as the quintessential way to take up the rights and responsibilities of a free citizen. Nancy Cott, in her book “Public Vows,” provides some fascinating insight into the history of marriage as an American institution.”

EMAIL OF THE DAY

“Andrew, several of my friends are long-time Sullivanites (me, too!), and all of us are blown away by your statement that you “still” do not drive. We cannot recall a previous statement from you on the issue. Now, people should be free to call themselves “American” even though they support terrorism, speech codes and the metric system, but under no circumstances can such an appellation apply to someone who eschews the car culture. I’ve just endured multiple rounds of emails from friends speculating as to the reason for your state of relative immobility. Our proffered explanations and retorts include:

(1) Andrew couldn’t hande the transition to the “wrong” side of the road. Answer: No, that’s not it–Andrew is a tough-minded dude who wouldn’t let a change like that deprive him of the independence afforded by having a car.

(2) He’s an anti-modernist who never learned how to drive. Answer: Gimme a break–does a guy who pioneered the political blog strike you as a Luddite?

(3) His health prevents him from driving. Answer: What the hell does having AIDS have to do with being able to drive? Besides, I saw him in a debate with Richard Goldstein last year, and he’s a strapping buck, so I think he can handle a steering wheel and pedals.

(4) He got busted for driving under the influence or some other infraction that involves forfeiture of his license. Answer: I think we would’ve heard about that at least once from the throng of bungholes in the blogoshere who thirst for his blood.

(5) He doesn’t need a car, because all his work is done over the internet and he never has to leave the house. Answer: What about groceries, movies, or going out to dinner?

Andrew, please, you owe your readers some sort of explanation!!”

I readily concede that not being able to drive a car might, in some people’s eyes, be a deportable offense. So why do I persist? I ride my mountain-bike everywhere I need to go in DC or Provincetown, which keeps me fit. I take trains and planes if I need to go far. I have some kind of block when it comes to getting behind a steering wheel. Every boyfriend I’ve had has offered to teach me (no stick-driving jokes please). But I never seem to get around to it; and my life as currently set up doesn’t create a felt need. Biking everywhere saves money; it saves a huge amount of time looking for parking; it keeps me fit; it helps the environment; cabs exist for a reason; cars bore me; and I have enough friends to help me out in a pinch. That’s my excuse. The real reason is that I don’t know.

LONDON NEXT? Read <a href = http

//www.guardian.co.uk/terrorism/story/0,12780,1182570,00.html target = _blank>this story and get a little worried. The British authorities deserve huge levels of praise for foiling this plot. But here’s the worrying and significant part:

Those arrested were all born and brought up in Britain. Security sources played down suggestions of any direct link between the arrested men and al-Qaida. Sources referred to groups of young radicalised Muslims who were “difficult to label” but viciously anti-western. Security sources suggested that the motive of the alleged planned attacks was anti-western but not dictated by anyone in the al-Qaida hierarchy.

The small towns they lived in in southern, suburban and rural England are exactly where I grew up, which sends a shudder down my spine. Evil has come to the Shire! What this amounts to, I think, is theological, ideological terrorism that requires no state sponsor as such and no actual network like al Qaeda. And this is surely the trend. It certainly looks as if Madrid was a similarly loosely-connected operation. I’m not saying it means we should ignore state sponsors, like Iran. Au contraire. But I am saying that a policy that focuses entirely on state sponsors is going to miss an important part of the problem.

CONCEDING A POINT: Here’s where some war critics surely have a point. Fighting back aggressively can and will increase the numbers of alienated young men across the globe eager to kill in the name of anti-Western Islamism. The answer, of course, is not to give in or appease. (There were plenty of such alienated men around to do serious damage before we responded adequately.) But it is to fight back boldly with the military, create a democratic space in the Muslim Midle East, and work to foil terror quietly, subtly and powerfully behind the scenes. It’s war, democratization and law enforcement. And Joe Nye is right (stopped clocks sometimes are). Soft power and hard power need not be self-canceling. They can aid each other. The strongest argument for Kerry is that we have already gained as much as we can for the time being with hard power and war; he won’t pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he won’t be able to duck a serious response to another terror attack; but he might help ease some of the hatred of the United States that this president has – undeservedly, in my view, but still undeniably – ratcheted to unseen levels. The strongest argument against him is that he will not take the war seriously enough to allow law enforcement to play its vital but complementary part, and would prematurely pull out of Iraq. I’m waiting to hear more from him and his advisers. Yeah: don’t rush me. It’s March. Is this a rationalization for considering Kerry? Or a reason? I blog. You decide.

A “CYNICAL SENTIMENTALIST”

I found this obituary of Alistair Cooke to be the best in the British press today. Maybe it’s hard to convey to Americans just how important Cooke was to Britons who needed or wanted to understand this vast and powerful place. But it’s also worth noting that Cooke was a brave exception to the BBC rule during the war to liberate Iraq. He understood what America experienced on 9/11 and he never descended into the mire of knee-jerk anti-Americanism that consumed the BBC in the last few years. He did this as an old-fashioned FDR-style liberal. Beneath his urbanity, you see, there was steel. He was a real idol to me in many ways. He came to America, as I did, on a Commonwealth Fund fellowship, was absorbed by the theater, as I was, and fell in love with America, as I did, while traveling across the entire country a year later. Since I still cannot drive a car, I got a friend to drive me. My friend had been a chorister at Magdalen and a tour-guide at Oxford. He was a charmer, and after many tours, American tourists would give him their card and tell him to look them up if he were ever in Tulsa, or wherever. I don’t think they ever really expected him to take them up on the offer. But we did. We rented a car, and called people from pay-phones outside various cities and sometimes stayed the night. My friend would often literally sing for his supper, slipping into a little Byrd after dinner, while I sheepishly offered a few jokes. By this method – and various Motel Sixes – we drove from Miami to Los Angeles, and from there to Seattle and back through the heartland to Boston. What a way to learn about a country! It ensured, in part, that it was the people of America I fell in love with, not just the breathtaking beauty of the place. But I digress. Cooke was a master of his form; and his extraordinary consistency and reliability was a model for would-be foreign correspondents everywhere. Except he wasn’t finally a foreign correspondent. On the fifteenth floor in New York City, with a changed name and a new accent, he was finally home. I know how he felt.

AD-BLOGGING: Why not produce and send out political ads via the Internet? Or will the campaign finance gurus soon try and make that illegal soon as well? This one is full of dumb statistical inferences, crude comparisons, soft-lens uplift. But how does that make it any worse than most paid-for ads? And you don’t have to worry that some K-Street hustler is making money off it. (Hat tip: Glenn.)

WELFARE REFORM WORKED

Mickey basks in well-deserved reflected glory. I think of welfare reform and gay marriage as very similar ideas: reversing some of the leftism of the past, encouraging family and responsibility, unifying rather than balkanizing society.