Archive for September, 2006

Protesting Too Much

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

In the intermediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the country rallied together realizing that fighting amongst ourselves would be counterproductive. Even before any investigations to determine the history of what had happened in the lead up to the attacks, it could have easily been foreseen that in the perspective of hindsight there would have been many opportunities to have thwarted the attacks. President George W. Bush’s Administration had eight short months to anticipate an attack. The Administration of President Bill Clinton had eight years. There must have been many mistakes made by both administrations.

It is likely that given a pre-9/11 perspective, if the administrations of Clinton and Bush had been reversed in sequence, 9/11 would not have been averted. The Clinton Administration considered the threat of terrorism a criminal enforcement problem, not an international conflict. It is not clear that Bush would have thought differently before 9/11.

Up until now, in the interest of comity, neither president had dissipated national unity by focusing on a blame game. President Clinton broke this tacit arrangement this Sunday in an angry interview on Fox News Sunday. “They had eight months to try [to get Bin Laden]. They did not try. I tried, ” he boasted.

A dispassionate examination of the 9/11-Commission Report or Richard Clarke’s book cited by Clinton in the interview does not support the picture painted by Clinton of a directed president doing everything in his power to get Bin Laden.

It is unclear if Bill Clinton was posing faux anger in the interview to energize Democrats in anticipation of the mid-term election. William Kristol of the Weekly Standard lays out a possible Clinton strategy for such an outburst. Chris Wallace, who conducted the interview, reports that Clinton walked away angry and chewed out subordinates suggestive of authentic anger. Perhaps, Clinton was still smarting from the docu-drama The Path to 9/11 that painted the Clinton Administration in a negative light.

As usual Clinton played a little fast and loose with the truth, but not any more than we have come to expect from Clinton spin. There was no “comprehensive anti-terror strategy” bequeathed to the Bush Administration as he asserted. Richard Clarke, Clinton’s source of all wisdom, claimed that, “There was no plan on al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration…[a] plan, strategy — there was no, nothing new.” In fact in 2001, Clarke said, the Bush Administration “changed the [Clinton] strategy from one of rollback [of] al Qaeda over five years to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al Qaeda. That is in fact the timeline.”

Clinton may get angry from many causes, but it is true that when he is caught red-handed, a la the Monica Lewinsky affair, he has a tendency to get livid and self righteous. Perhaps it is my Conservative ear but I heard a little of the finger-wagging “I never sex with that woman” as he leaned over and harangued at Wallace, “What did I do? What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him [Osama bin Laden]…”

It is common to be most stung by criticism when it hits close to home. Perhaps Clinton feels a little guilty that not enough was done to pursue Osama Bin Laden during his administration. The case can be made that it would have been difficult for anyone to do more, though there is always room for critical self-examination. However, in his congenitally narcissistic manner Clinton believes this is a question about him and his legacy. It is more important for the country to eschew self-blame and focus moral liability on terrorists, but Clinton insists on polishing his own reputation. It is ironic that Clinton’s outburst in desperate service of his legacy will continue to cement the vision of Clinton as an unserious person.

Religious Bullies

Sunday, September 24th, 2006

It is no coincidence that Rosie O’Donnell is not afraid to conflate “radical” Christians with Islamic terrorists on television. It is no accident that that Madonna is willing to mount a crucifix to entertain us. The calculation of consequences is not difficult. Some Christians will be offended, but all they will do is complain. Other people will praise O’Donnell’s and Madonna’s faux courage, while the controversy will increase their marketability.

Pope Benedict XVI learned that the calculation changes when one even indirectly criticizes Islam. On September 12, he delivered a papal address at the University of Regensburg on the relationship between faith and reason. The essence of the talk was the observation that Christianity and the Greek tradition of logic had reached a synthesis. Faith and reason are not exclusive, but complimentary.

One consequence of this accommodation is the recognition — not always, but generally, respected by Christians — that faith can only be spread by moral witness and persuasion built on reason. Pope Benedict argued that reason and openness are the only foundation upon which there can be honest dialogue between faiths.

In passing, the Pope cited a fourteenth century Byzantine Emperor who said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find thing only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The Pope did not argue that this was the essence of Islam or that it was his view of Islam. Indeed, he cited the part of the Koran, (Surah 2) “There is no compulsion in religion.”

Even if upset about the negative portrayal of Islam by someone dead over six-hundred years, Muslims faithful to a more modern interpretation of Islam, one that had reached an understanding between faith and religion, would have understood the intellectual and exploratory nature of the Pope’s remarks. Even after the Pope expressed regret about the misinterpretation of his remarks, a large number of Muslims appeared eager to remain offended and threaten the Pope. There is more than a little irony in the observation that when Islam is indirectly criticized for unreasonably resorting to violence, some Islamist threatened the Pope, burn churches, and slay a nun.

As Charles Krauthammer argued, “the inconvenient truth is that after centuries of religious wars, Christendom long ago gave it up. It is a simple and undeniable fact that the violent purveyors of monotheistic religion today are self-proclaimed warriors for Islam who shout ‘God is great’ as they slit the throats of infidels — such as those of the flight crews on Sept. 11, 2001 — and are then celebrated as heroes and martyrs.

There is an important if not quantifiable portion of modern Islam, maybe just the loudest and most conspicuous, which is not only intolerant, but does not even have a fully developed theology or understanding of religious toleration. What remains is the theology of the religious bully. The distinction between that part of Islam that has embraced religious tolerance and that part that has not is relatively easy to recognize. The element that embraces tolerance does not react violently when criticized and refrains from suggesting that Christians are swine and Jews are apes.

Presidential Approval and Gasoline Prices

Saturday, September 16th, 2006

The ubiquity of computers and data available on-line have made it possible for statistically savvy non-politicians to engage in numerical political science. Recently, “Professor Pollkatz” has drawn well-deserved attention to the relationship between Bush’s presidential approval rating and gasoline prices. As gasoline prices rise, President Bush’s job approval rating decreases. As the prices fall, Bush’s approval rises. Of course, the mere fact that there is a correlation between the two does not prove a casual link. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to suppose that gasoline prices affect the popular perception of how the economy is fairing and consequently the approval of the president. If gasoline prices are high, people are reminded weekly at the gas pump.

This relationship takes on contemporary importance since gasoline prices are currently falling. If the relationship holds, Bush’s approval should rise and perhaps affect the prospects for Republicans in the mid-term elections about a month-and-half away. Indeed, as prices have declined there does appear to be a modest improvement in presidential approval over the last week.

To make the gas-price-presidential-approval relationship clear, Pollkatz plots a composite presidential approval index as a function of time on the same graph as the scaled reciprocal gasoline price. As the gasoline price goes up, his index goes down. This allows the presidential approval and Pollkatz’s price index to track each other on similar numerical axes. The observation that the two quantities track is quite clear, but Pollkatz does not provide (or I could not find) the actual correlation statistics at his site.

To perform my own statistical analysis, I pulled down Pollkatz’s composite approval data which he based on a combination of a number of publicly available polls. I also retrieved semi-monthly prices for regular-grade unleaded gas from the Department of Energy. Rather than plotting both presidential approval and gasoline prices as a function of time, the graph below shows a scatter plot of presidential approval as a function of gasoline price.

Gasoline vs Presidential Approval

This way of displaying the data re-enforces some intuitive notions. First, there is general relationship between gasoline prices and presidential approval. Second, there appears to be two regimes of importance. When gasoline prices are greater than about $1.75 per gallon, presidential approval is strongly correlated to gasoline prices. Once gasoline prices fall below $1.75 per gallon, gas prices become less of a concern and are less associated with presidential approval ratings.

When considering all the data for the Bush presidency, the square of the correlation coefficient relating gasoline price and presidential approval is 0.54. This implies that about 54% of the variations in presidential approval can be linearly related to the price of gasoline. However, in the next graph, we only include gasoline prices larger than $1.75 per gallon. For these higher prices, the correlation coefficient is significantly larger, about 0.76. Thus, 76% of the presidential approval can be explained by gasoline prices.

Presidential Approval v. Gasoline Prices for Prices Greater Than $1.75/gallon

What does it imply for our current situation? If we believe the linear relationship, for every 10 cent decrease in the price of gasoline, Bush’s approval percentage will increase by 1.2%. Since August 12, 2006, the price of gas has fallen nearly 50 cents. We could expect roughly a 6% improvement in presidential approval, roughly consistent Rasmussen’s daily tracking data. If gasoline prices decrease to near $2.00 per gallon, Bush’s approval could cross the 50% point, close to what it was when elected to second term.

It is unclear how much gasoline prices will drop in the near future or even if they will turn around and increase. It is also unclear whether any improvement in Bush’s approval rating will measurably improve prospects for Congressional Republicans. It is clear that from the perspective of an incumbent, falling gasoline prices are preferable to rising gasoline prices.

Speaking Truth or Error to Power

Sunday, September 10th, 2006

The phrase “speak truth to power,” has found its way into the common vocabulary of virtually any group seeking to criticize the government. Use of the phrase is somewhat self-aggrandizing since it presumes the correctness of the speaker and a heroic stance toward power.

The phrase originated in a Quaker pamphlet issued in 1955. The pamphlet offered a non-violent alternative to the Cold War. It argued that anything other than their pacifist approach would fail. As a consequence of the Cold War, they said, “American prestige abroad has declined seriously, and we have lost much of the good will that was formerly ours.”

The vantage point provided by 50 years suggests that the Quaker alternative was not quite so true, or at least not the only viable solution to Soviet expansion. Yet, we can also agree that we are collectively better off that their alternative was passionately presented. Speaking error as well as truth to power is important.

This notion is the key to understanding the value of the First Amendment. We do not want the government to decide what is “true” so we permit all voices to make their case confident that the truth with ultimately be recognized. Indeed, the formulation “speak truth to power” can unintentionally undermine the First Amendment. If we only permit truth to be spoken to power, the government could presumably use its version of truth to crowd out or suppress other voices.

The principle that all voices should be able to speak is what makes the September 7 letter from Senate Democrats to Walt Disney Company so pernicious. The issue a hand is the mini-series “The Path to 9/11” to be broadcast on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Apparently, Democrats are upset because they believe the mini-series unfairly portrays President Clinton as being so distracted by the Monica Lewinsky affair that he did not devote sufficient attention to the growing threat of Osama Bin Laden. A number of opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden were lost.

Put aside for a moment whether Senate Democrats are rightly or wrongly upset about the mini-series. Nay, let us assume for our purposes here that the mini-series is grossly inaccurate and unfair. Then, by all means, opponents should make a loud public case against the mini-series. Show where the mini-series fails to provide an accurate picture of the years before 9/11. Such a critique falls within the legitimate bounds of debate.

While the Senate letter did criticize the mini-series directly, its second paragraph tries to intimidate the Walt Disney Company (the owner of ABC) into pulling or editing the mini-series. The Senators remind the company that:

“The Communications Act of 1934 provides your network with a free broadcast license predicated on the fundamental understanding of your principle obligation to act as a trustee of the public airwaves in serving the public interest. Nowhere is this public interest obligation more apparent than in the duty of broadcasters to serve the civic needs of a democracy by promoting an open and accurate discussion of political ideas and events.”

The not so subtle implication is that if the mini-series is not made to conform with the government’s (or at least these Senators’) understanding of the truth, then perhaps ABC’s broadcast license could be in jeopardy. It is unfortunate that the instinctive reaction of some on the Left is totalitarian.

At this point, we do not know how or whether ABC will alter the mini-series whether in response to legitimate critiques or out of intimidation. In all likelihood, the protest by Senate Democrats may backfire by calling more attention to Clinton’s lack of response to bin Laden then the mini-series could have alone.

Faith in Wilson

Friday, September 8th, 2006

Conventional wisdom holds that those on the Left are not people of faith. However, recent evidence suggests that some hold a deep and abiding faith resting securely on a foundation of anti-Bush animosity and sustained by a zeal to suspend sensible skepticism.

In 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a NY Times op-ed piece accusing the President of lying about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In particular, he said that the president’s statement that, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” was false. How did Wilson know? According to Wilson, he was sent to Niger to investigate Vice-President Cheney’s concerns about Iraqi attempts to make a uranium purchase and found no such evidence.

Evidence since then unequivocally demonstrates that Wilson was prevaricating from the beginning. Independent assessments have determined that Bush was not lying but relaying his best intelligence. Moreover, Wilson was not directly sent at the behest of the Vice-President. The choice of Wilson was a pedestrian case of nepotism. Despite venomous denials by Wilson, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that he was sent on his trip to Niger based on his wife’s recommendation. Further, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that Wilson’s oral trip report actually buttressed the assumption that Iraq was seeking nuclear material.

While the White House was rebutting Wilson’s now demonstrably false claims, reporter Robert Novak wrote that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA. Wilson and the Left erupted in a joyful noise claiming that the White House was illegally leaking the name of a covert agent to punish Wilson’s wife as a way to get at Wilson. David Corn of the Left-wing Nation proclaimed the incident “A White House Smear” designed “to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?” The more mainstream Time Magazine asked if the White House rebuttals of Wilson’s claims constituted a “A War on Wilson?”

For legal purposes, Valerie Plame was not a covert agent, so the release of her name was not a crime. While the Left had argued that the release of Plame’s name were orchestrated by the Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, Newsweek reports what has been rumored from some time: Richard Armitage leaked Plame’s name. Armitage has now publicly admitted his role. Armitage was Colin Powell’s number two man at the Department of State who is not a political operative and not particularly supportive of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy. Armitage was apparently a gossip who spoke a little too cavalierly, if truthfully.

Even the Washington Post has finally realized “that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials.”

The entire episode also reflects poorly on Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counselor appointed to determine who leaked the information. He knew the identity of the leaker the near outset of the investigation. He should have summarily ended the now rather pathetic affair.

One does not expect much from the Nation so their attack on the administration can be dismissed as partisan wishful thinking. It is more shameful that the mainstream press credulously, even eagerly, swallowed the Wilson story without the encompassing skepticism they usually muster. The truth is they wanted the Bush Administration and Karl Rove, in particular, to be caught in a scandal. Scandals, especially Republican ones, are so fun. The entire Plame story played so seamlessly into the narrative that Karl Rove is an evil political genius, and Joseph Wilson is the sort of suave operator so popular at Washington parties that the charges just had to be true.

The only thing that remains is the civil suit that Wilsons’ are bringing against members of the Bush Administration. It will be amusing to hear how the Wilson’s were harmed by the release of Plame’s name. We should all be so fortunate to be forced to accept a $2.5 million book advance in lieu of a government job.

Faith and Toleration

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

In the heavily-fictionalized movie Kingdom of Heaven set in the twelfth century, as the Islamic forces of Saladin were set to overrun Jerusalem held then by Christians, the bishop of Jerusalem, the person who should be most devoted to his faith, urges everyone to “Convert to Islam and repent later.” There was a time when the ignobility of such a convenient conversion would have been considered cowardly. Nonetheless, it is in keeping with modern sensibility.

Fox News reporter Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig were recently released after being held captive my Muslim extremists in Gaza for nearly two weeks. Although the two reporters were under extreme emotion stress, they were not physically harmed. Nonetheless, as part of their captive they were they “…were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint.” As Centanni explained, “Don’t get me wrong here. I have the highest respect for Islam, and I learned a lot of good things about it, but it was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns, and we didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

Most of us could rationalize that anything we are forced to say at the point of a gun does really matter, because the inner heart has not changed. The internal person is still intact. Surely, a just and loving God would forgive such forced repudiation.

The fact that their captors saw value in such a conversion is a pre-Enlightenment view of the world held by far too large a fraction of modern Islam. There were times when Christians regularly persecuted, Muslims, Jews and other sects of Christians for not embracing their version of the appropriate faith. However, part of modernity includes the recognition that truth faith cannot be compelled. Honest proselytization can only take the form of personal witness and moral persuasion, not forced conversions. Religious toleration is a necessary condition for freedom.

These ideas were perhaps best articulated in 1689, John Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration. The core of Locke’s argument the willingness to employ cruelty to impose doctrinal conformity cannot proceed out of love and charity.

“That any man should think fit to cause another man — whose salvation he heartily desires — to expire in torments, and that even in an unconverted state, would, I confess, seem very strange to me, and I think, to any other also. But nobody, surely, will ever believe that such a carriage can proceed from charity, love, or goodwill. If anyone maintain that men ought to be compelled by fire and sword to profess certain doctrines, and conform to this or that exterior worship, without any regard had unto their morals; if anyone endeavor to convert those that are erroneous unto the faith, by forcing them to profess things that they do not believe and allowing them to practice things that the Gospel does not permit, it cannot be doubted indeed but such a one is desirous to have a numerous assembly joined in the same profession with himself; but that he principally intends by those means to compose a truly Christian Church is altogether incredible”

While we can understand the stress that compelled the two Fox employees to convert, the Western press has been too cavalier in announcing that the reporters were released unharmed. Forced conversion is a harm. As pointed out by Paul Marshall, “If Muslim prisoners in American custody were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death or as a condition of release, the press would denounce it as virtual torture, and rightly so.” Moreover, if the two now repudiate their conversion they are subject to the death penalty for apostasy.

The West has matured in that as a rule we no longer kill in the name of faith. Without criticizing Centanni and Wiig for reacting as most of us would have, perhaps we have lost something in an unwillingness to die rather to renounce our faith.

A Chicago Sun Times article by Mark Steyn “Why abduct us? We cede our values for free.” touched on the ideas presented here.