It mostly has to do with stuff like this. From the Washington Post:

“When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.”

Not only did the administration torture, not only was that torture directed from the highest reaches of the government, and not only did Cheney play a central role, but it was done under false pretenses. The administration constantly trotted out the ‘ticking-time-bomb’ scenario, in which extreme measures (i.e., torture) is justified in order to prevent imminent attacks on US soil. In fact, even with high-profile detainees such as Zubaydah, there was little reason to believe that torture would yield such important information.

Cheney knows that the current administration is going to let this information out. And he knows that over time it’s going to wear down the little support he currently has. And getting out in front of it with his bullshit is the only means of defense he’s got.

This article by Mark Danner in the NY Review Of Books, on the International Committee of the Red Cross’s report describing the Bush administration practices as “torture” in no uncertain terms, is a must read.

I think that this is a really interesting point raised by Matt Yglesias:

“The economic and military might of the United States gives us enormous power to influence events in distant lands. But having a lot of ability to influence events is unlikely to achieve anything useful unless you actually understand what’s happening. And when we get involves in things like the internal politics of Pakistan, or political reform in Egypt, or wars in the Horn of Africa, and so forth we’re dealing in situations where the level of understanding is incredibly asymmetric. If you go to pretty much any country in the world, you’ll find that educated people there know more about the United States than you do about their country. Nobody at highest levels of the American government speaks Urdu. Or Arabic. Or Amharic or Somali or Pashto or Tajik.

Lots of people at high levels in the Pakistani government speak English. President Zardari can deliver a speech in English and his staff can write one for him. If they want to figure out what’s going on in the U.S., they have a vast bounty of media outlets to peruse to gather intelligence. And year-in and year-out Pakistan cares about the same smallish set of countries—Pakistani officials are always focused on issue in their region and issues with the United States. Our officials dance around—the Balkans are important this decade, Central Asia the next, Russia and the Persian Gulf flit on and off the radar, sometimes we notice what’s happening in Mexico, etc.

In other words, in a straightforward contest of power between the United States and Pakistan, we can of course win. But in a scenario where we are trying to manipulate the situation in Pakistan in such-and-such a way and Pakistani actors are trying to manipulate the situation for their own ends, the odds of us actually outwitting the Pakistanis are terrible. They’re in a much better position to manipulate us than we are them.

Note that during the FDR and Truman years, American elites were generally more familiar with Europe than European elites were with the United States. I think that’s an important element in understanding why the institution-building of that era largely worked.”

I’ve heard this argument before, although not stated in quite this way. I think it’s unchallengeable that it’s good to have expertise in the areas of the world you’re dealing with. I’m not sure that it’s essential, though, to have more knowledge of others than they have of you. In many ways, it is preferable that others know a lot about you, as one of the most critical problems in international relations is the communication of one’s own interests, preferences, commitment, and resolve.

I also think that Americans in general have a tendency to greatly overestimate the knowledge that others have of the United States because of their ability to speak English (and their often superficial knowledge of American culture). There is a big difference between fluency in English and an understanding of how American foreign policy is formulated or how our government works. This is particularly the case when dealing with foreign elites who see the United States through ideological or cultural lenses. For example, Soviet leaders frequently suffered from often profound misunderstandings about the workings of the United States government and how domestic interests in the United States influenced the formulation of state policy.

This is the first time, though, that I’ve heard the argument that the United States benefitted in this way after WWII in its interactions with Europe. The US, though, was profoundly successful with in its policies in Japan, and I find it difficult to believe that there were American elites with remotely comparable expertise in that country.

I was struck, though, when reading David Fromkin’s A Peace To End All Peace (a book I highly, HIGHLY recommend – a truly cautionary tale about Britain’s war with the Ottoman Empire in WWI and its policies in the Middle East), by the degree of ignorance among British elites of the Middle East during and immediately after WWI. Unquestionably that ignorance contributed to the creation and perpetuation of bad policies and eventually failed occupations. The same can be said about the US occupation of Iraq nearly a century later.

Michele Bachmann went on Glenn Beck’s radio show, and craziness ensued. Read this exchange:

“BACHMANN: Let me tell you, there’s something that’s happening this week in Congress that could be the eventual unravelling for our freedom, and it’s this. I had asked the Treasury Secretary and Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chair, if they would categorically denounce–

BECK: I know.

BACHMANN: –taking the United States off of the dollar and putting us on an international global currency. Because as you know, Russia, China, Brazil, India, South Africa, many national have lined up now and called for an international currency, a One World currency. And they want to get off the dollar as the reserve currency.

BECK: Most people don’t understand what that means.

BACHMANN: What that means is that all of the countries of the world would have a single currency. We would give up the dollar as our currency and we would just go with a One World currency. And now for the first time, we’re seeing major countires like China, India, Russia, countries like that, calling for a one world currency and they want this discussion to occur at the G20. So I asked both the Treasury Secretary and the Federal Reserve chair if they would categorically denounce this. The reason why is because if we give up the dollar as our standard, and co-mingle the value of the dollar with the value of coinage in Zimbabwe, that dilutes our money supply. We lose country over our economy. And economic liberty is inextricably entwined with political liberty. Once you lose your economic freedom, you lose your political freedom. And then we are no more, as an exceptional nation, as we always have been. So this is imperative.”

This is not an FBI recording of some halfwitted militia members in the middle of Oklahoma somewhere. He is one of the most listened to commentators in the media. She is a member of the United States Congress.

But he still looks good…

Felix Salmon makes a good argument here. He says the problem is not securitization itself but the practice of selling CDOs, which didn’t start until the late 1990s. He concedes, though, that the gargantuan size of the financial services sector of the economy over the past decade or so has been ridiculous (41% of total corporate profits), and he likens it to a “Ponzi scheme.” The whole thing’s worth reading, and it’s very short.

Also worth reading is Simon Johnson’s (much longer) essay in The Atlantic. Here’s the summary:

“The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.”

Johnson’s a prof at MIT’s Sloan School. His office is about 20 seconds away from mine (which means absolutely nothing at all, but it sounds cool, I guess).

Lots of interesting news on Afghanistan and Pakistan, none of it heartening. First up is the NY Times report that the secretive Pakistani intelligence service’s ‘S Wing,’ which is responsible for foreign operations, is coordinating assistance to the Taliban and other militant groups:

” The Taliban’s widening campaign in southern Afghanistan is made possible in part by direct support from operatives in Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, despite Pakistani government promises to sever ties to militant groups fighting in Afghanistan, according to American government officials.

The support consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders who are gearing up to confront the international force in Afghanistan that will soon include some 17,000 American reinforcements.

Support for the Taliban, as well as other militant groups, is coordinated by operatives inside the shadowy S Wing of Pakistan’s spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the officials said. There is even evidence that ISI operatives meet regularly with Taliban commanders to discuss whether to intensify or scale back violence before the Afghan elections.

American officials have complained for more than a year about the ISI’s support to groups like the Taliban. But the new details reveal that the spy agency is aiding a broader array of militant networks with more diverse types of support than was previously known — even months after Pakistani officials said that the days of the ISI’s playing a “double game” had ended.”

Most worrying about this is that this is all likely occurring without the approval or knowledge of the civilian government:

“Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders publicly deny any government ties to militant groups, and American officials say it is unlikely that top officials in Islamabad are directly coordinating the clandestine efforts. American officials have also said that midlevel ISI operatives occasionally cultivate relationships that are not approved by their bosses.”

The Pakistanis continue to claim that these contacts with elements of the Taliban and militant groups that operate in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is simply a way to maintain contacts and influence with an adversary and to separate out groups that might be willing to reach a reconciliation from those that are more hardline. The broad nature of the support to so many groups, though, suggests that this is something more. No doubt the ISI is concerned about a day when the US pulls out of the region, leaving anarchy on Pakistan’s border. If and when that were ever to happen, the ISI wants to make sure that they have strong influence over the outcome of any power struggles.

But this serves as further evidence that the civilian government in Islamabad is not calling the shots, even on major policy decisions, and is not even well informed about ISI and military actions.

Second thing of note is that the Obama administration has released a broad outline of its Afghanistan and Pakistan policies. In Afghanistan, the plan resembles the “surge” in Iraq, with an overall increase of 21,000 troops, including 17,000 combat troops. Tthe President will move away from the Bush policy of essentially writing checks to the Pakistanis and will set clear benchmarks to be met in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But perhaps most important is that the administration is recasting Afghanistan as a “regional” issue, involving countries like India, China, and Russia. On one level, this is simply acknowledging reality, and the fact that actors such as Pakistan look at the disposition of Afghanistan not in the narrow terms that the United States does (simply, a potential training center for terrorists) but in geopolitical terms, set in a broader regional rivalry. Central to these considerations is the tension on the Indian Subcontinent between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers. The administration, though, is taking an awful lot onto its plate here.

Finally, as a further sign that violence is increasing in both Afghanistan and in Pakistani tribal areas on the Afghan border, a suicide bomber detonated himself in a mosque outside Peshawar during Friday prayers, killing 48 and injuring well more than 100. The mosque was near a main highway between Peshawar and Kabul used by NATO to truck supplies. Pakistani elements of the Taliban are the likeliest perpetrators of the attack.

Just as a side note to all of this:

I cannot imagine anyone wanting to be President of the United States right now. Afghanistan, Iran, the economy, Iraq, al Qaeda – any one of these issues would be enough to make for a difficult presidency? BUT ALL AT ONCE? Jesus H. Christ, could the frakking Republicans get off this guy’s case for ONE LOUSY DAY? Still less than 70 days into this administration…

It’s worth reading Paul Krugman’s op-ed today in its entirety, but here’s the key part of it (which is a large chunk of the whole thing):

“Underlying the glamorous new world of finance was the process of securitization. Loans no longer stayed with the lender. Instead, they were sold on to others, who sliced, diced and puréed individual debts to synthesize new assets. Subprime mortgages, credit card debts, car loans — all went into the financial system’s juicer. Out the other end, supposedly, came sweet-tasting AAA investments. And financial wizards were lavishly rewarded for overseeing the process.

But the wizards were frauds, whether they knew it or not, and their magic turned out to be no more than a collection of cheap stage tricks. Above all, the key promise of securitization — that it would make the financial system more robust by spreading risk more widely — turned out to be a lie. Banks used securitization to increase their risk, not reduce it, and in the process they made the economy more, not less, vulnerable to financial disruption.

Sooner or later, things were bound to go wrong, and eventually they did. Bear Stearns failed; Lehman failed; but most of all, securitization failed.

Which brings us back to the Obama administration’s approach to the financial crisis.

Much discussion of the toxic-asset plan has focused on the details and the arithmetic, and rightly so. Beyond that, however, what’s striking is the vision expressed both in the content of the financial plan and in statements by administration officials. In essence, the administration seems to believe that once investors calm down, securitization — and the business of finance — can resume where it left off a year or two ago.

To be fair, officials are calling for more regulation. Indeed, on Thursday Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, laid out plans for enhanced regulation that would have been considered radical not long ago.

But the underlying vision remains that of a financial system more or less the same as it was two years ago, albeit somewhat tamed by new rules.

As you can guess, I don’t share that vision. I don’t think this is just a financial panic; I believe that it represents the failure of a whole model of banking, of an overgrown financial sector that did more harm than good. I don’t think the Obama administration can bring securitization back to life, and I don’t believe it should try.”

Again, my knowledge of economics is somewhere between jack and shit. But I’m really afraid that Krugman’s right about this. Securitization does seem to have allowed the banks to increase their risk rather than spread that risk out. If that’s the case, we’re not just in a panic; the model is fundamentally broken. And we’d need to go back to 1966, not 2006.

I’m taking this news from Michele Bachmann’s own website:

“In response to suggestions by China, Russia, and other countries around the world calling on the International Monetary Fund to explore a multi-national currency, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (MN-6) has introduced a resolution that would bar the dollar from being replaced by any foreign currency.”

Here’s what this is in reference to:

“In another indication that China is growing increasingly concerned about holding huge dollar reserves, the head of its central bank has called for the eventual creation of a new international currency reserve to replace the dollar.

In a paper released Monday, Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China, said a new currency reserve system controlled by the International Monetary Fund could prove more stable and economically viable.”

Note that China did not call for a new global currency. They are calling for a new RESERVE currency, quite a different matter entirely. Countries’ foreign exchange reserves are held largely in dollars, and to a significantly lesser extent in euros (roughly, 65% dollars and 25% euros globally, with the pound sterling and the yen accounting for the lion’s share of the remainder). The dollar’s status as the dominant reserve currency provides the United States with a number of benefits, and it is not entirely surprising to hear rising powers such as China calling for it to be replaced with an international reserve currency not linked to any particular nation.

But none of this has anything to do with what Bachmann is afraid of, which is some sort of new international currency that every country would adopt for public use, including the United States.

This is why she made Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke testify that the United States would continue to use the dollar as its currency:

“In a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, asked Geithner: ‘Would you categorically renounce the United States moving away from the dollar and going to a global currency as suggested this morning by China and also by Russia, Mr Secretary?’

Geithner replied, ‘I would, yes.’

She posed the same question to Bernanke, who said: ‘I would also.'”

And this is why she is proposing legislation stipulating that the US not adopt some make-believe global currency and stick with the dollar.

The whole thing is utterly insane, and is only further evidence of Bachmann’s dementia, but it also probably fits right in with the Republican base’s scary ghost stories about black helicopters and the UN creating a world socialist government. Am I exaggerating? Well, here’s Glenn Beck on FOX:

This is the level of our political discourse in this country, folks. In the middle of a serious crisis.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present for your viewing pleasure the very face of stupid, in all its awesome glory:

Smoking Pot In Public

March 25, 2009

More on the marijuana front in Massachusetts:

“Dozens of Massachusetts cities and towns are taking steps to impose stiff new fines for smoking marijuana in public and even to charge some violators with misdemeanors, a trend that critics say subverts the state ballot question passed overwhelmingly last fall to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In recent weeks, at least seven communities – Duxbury, Lynn, Methuen, Medway, Milford, Salem, and Springfield – have passed bylaws that target people who light up in public. And two dozen cities and towns expect to vote this spring on similar measures, which proponents liken to local open container laws that ban drinking alcohol in public.

Police officials say they want to discourage flagrant marijuana smoking, particularly in public parks, schoolyards, and on beaches where young children gather. While last year’s ballot initiative reduced possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction carrying a $100 fine, police say that some marijuana smokers mistakenly believe that the voters legalized the drug entirely.”

I think people need to calm down on both sides of this issue. First of all, I’m not a big fan of marijuana and I have a problem with the people (Bill Maher, this means you) who glorify its use. It’s dangerous, and it’s unhealthy. That having been said, however, it’s no more dangerous than a lot of other perfectly legal substances and activities, including alcohol and tobacco. For chrissakes, gambling is not only tolerated in nearly every state but in many states (including this one) is a government business. And criminal penalties for marijuana don’t work. They contribute to the creation of a criminal and violent black market. They destabilize producer countries. They do little if anything to reduce use (or abuse). They take nonviolent offenders and turn them into hardened criminals in our prison system. And the whole thing wastes tremendous sums of taxpayer money and government resources. And the hypocrisy of it all is that the majority of adults have, at some time or another, used marijuana. Again, I’m no proponent of marijuana use, but prohibition simply doesn’t work. For this reason alone I supported decriminalization.

But the state clearly has the authority and even the obligation to regulate its use. I’m sure few Massachusetts citizens want to see people smoking marijuana in front of the local elementary school or in the neighborhood playground, just as they would not want anyone drinking a six-pack there either. Instituting local penalties for this behavior seems perfectly reasonable. Do some people support these regulations because they’re just against marijuana use in general? Without a doubt. But I’m not certain the motives are all that important, provided the laws are relatively fair and in line with similar regulations for public drinking and drunkenness. I can’t say I support the introduction of misdemeanor charges except in the most serious categories (e.g., driving under the influence of marijuana), as this will likely create more problems than it solves, but stiff fines for public use, particularly in areas reserved for children, seems eminently reasonable.

And for the record, I’d support a ban on tobacco use in many of those same areas. There’s no upside to allowing people to smoke around kids at the playground.