My Afghanistan Reader: ‘Taliban in Total Rout’

President G.W. Bush in Aurora, Missouri, January 14, 2002:

“…I’m proud of the efforts of many all around our country who are working endless hours to make America safe. But the best way to make America safe is to hunt the enemy down where he tries to hide and bring them to justice, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

“I gave our military a mighty task, and they have responded. I want to thank those of you who have got relatives in the military, a brother or a sister, or a son or a daughter, or a mom or a dad. They have made me proud, and I hope they made you proud, as well.

“We sent the military on a clear mission, and that is to bring the evil ones to justice. It’s a mission, however, that I expanded to include this: that if you hide a terrorist, if you feed a terrorist, if you provide aid and comfort for a terrorist, you’re just as guilty as the terrorist. That’s why the Taliban is no longer ruling Afghanistan.

“I think that one of the most joyous things for me is to see the faces of the Afghan women as they have been liberated from the oppression of the Taliban rule. Not only is our military destroying those who would harbor evil, destroying whatever military they had, destroying their defenses, but we’re liberators. We’re freeing women and children from incredible oppression.

“… The Taliban is in total rout. But we haven’t completed our mission yet. And we’re now at a very dangerous phase of the war in the first theater, and that is sending our boys and troops into the caves. You see, we’re fighting an enemy that’s willing to send others to death, suicide missions in the name of religion, and they, themselves, want to hide in caves.

“But you know something? We’re not going to tire. We’re not going to be impatient. We’re going to do whatever it takes to find them and bring them to justice. They think they can hide, but they’re not going to hide from the mighty reach of the United States and the coalition we have put together. …”

Speech delivered in the warehouse of the MFA Food Mill. Full text here.

Green Job


Just across the street from the North Berkeley BART station is a house with a high-profile home industry: birdhouses fashioned from cast-off lumber. I think I noticed the place five or six years ago, and it has become more obvious since, with half a dozen or more pickups and other vehicles parked along the block across from the station, all festooned with these whimsical and perhaps even practical hand-crafted avian domiciles (I have yet to see these elsewhere, though I figure some must have sold by now). In the last month or so, the birdhouse entrepreneur has freshened the marketing with references to the new administration, economic stimulus, etc. I snapped this walking by the other night.  

Today’s Right-Wing Ship-Jumper

Well, yesterday’s actually: It’s Christopher Hitchens. And even though he goes out of his way to tell us all the ways in which he doesn’t want to be the friend of any flower-waving liberals, he’s devastating in his indictment nonetheless:

“The most insulting thing that a politician can do is to compel you to ask yourself: ‘What does he take me for?’ Precisely this question is provoked by the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin. I wrote not long ago that it was not right to condescend to her just because of her provincial roots or her piety, let alone her slight flirtatiousness, but really her conduct since then has been a national disgrace. It turns out that none of her early claims to political courage was founded in fact, and it further turns out that some of the untested rumors about her—her vindictiveness in local quarrels, her bizarre religious and political affiliations—were very well-founded, indeed. Moreover, given the nasty and lowly task of stirring up the whack-job fringe of the party’s right wing and of recycling patent falsehoods about Obama’s position on Afghanistan, she has drawn upon the only talent that she apparently possesses.

“It therefore seems to me that the Republican Party has invited not just defeat but discredit this year, and that both its nominees for the highest offices in the land should be decisively repudiated, along with any senators, congressmen, and governors who endorse them.”

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With yet another close election in the offing, the media are starting to focus on undecided voters. After last night’s joint candidate appearance, BBC America talked to two young Yanks in London who said they remained undecided. Ditto on NPR this morning, which had a feature on some persistent undecideds in New Mexico. How it’s possible to remain undecided, I don’t know; if you’ve been paying attention even occasionally you know more about the candidates than you do about most members of your own family.

The fact is, though, that the “debates,” as we persist in calling them, aren’t about changing minds. They’re about playing things safe, sticking to scripts, and hoping that the other candidate will be struck dumb or collapse into a heap a la “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” OK, sure, there’s more to it: The hopefuls want to look good, too. The consensus among brilliant political minds is that the debates are about avoiding changing people’s minds in a negative way–about not doing anything that would turn an undecided against you. That way, you keep them in play. Then nature takes its course. You get as many of those votes on election day as you lose, and plenty of the people who can’t make up their minds never do and join the one-third of the eligible electorate that never votes at all. Who’s to argue with the work of smart and richly compensated strategists?

Leave it to the rest of us, exposed to the realities of an economy, a government, and political system that appear to be unraveling, to show some unguarded concern about it. When I say us, I mean the host of friends and relatives who are for the first time volunteering for campaigns, sending out alarmed emails about our situation, or who like my friend Pete, up in Oregon, or Ron, in Texas, or “blog friends” Marie, in Illinois, and Rob, in Louisiana, are provoking discussions about the race. Or former TV colleague Steve, who posted a link recently to perhaps the most clear-sighted rant all year on what’s wrong with the election and the electorate.

Somehow, I feel like I’m getting a more focused sense of what this campaign is about and should be about from the people I know than from the candidate I support. Somehow, I wish my candidate would drop the script for just a few minutes and let me know he gets the depth of concern–hell, despair–that so many people are feeling out here. I don’t expect him to, though, and certainly not during the next “debate.”

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Just One Thing About That

And now a word about The Campaign: John McCain has decided that our economy is so strong that he needs to leave the campaign trail to make it stronger. It would be unseemly to put Country Second and indulge in something so vulgar as politics by debating his opponent. Stop for a moment and admire McCain for trying to execute a clever political gambit by trying to haul himself above the muck of politics for a moment. Then consider the election-year crises that the country has come through while candidates carried on their campaigns:

2004: The whole Iraq endeavor coming undone.

1992: Economic recession.

1980: The Iran hostage crisis.

1968: Intensified fighting in Vietnam, assassination of leading national figures.

1964: Nation in turmoil over civil rights campaign in the South.

1952: Korean War.

1944: World War II.

1940: World War II.

1936: The Depression.

1932: The Depression.

1916: World War I.

1864: Civil War.

1860: Slavery/disunion crisis.

1856: National coming apart at seams over slavery.

1812: War with Britain.

Gee, we managed to have an uninterrupted campaign during 1864? When the nation was sufferiing through an appallingly bloody series of battles? You mean Lincoln didn’t try to put a hold on politics while trying to fulfill his duties as commander-in-chief? Neither world wars nor economic calamity put campaigns off the rails? Stunning.

The history shows what an empty gesture McCain’s move is. Obama got it right when he said that this is exactly the moment when the candidates need to be in front of the people.

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Numbers ‘n’ Stuff

The New York Times op-ed page today features a column by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. To be honest, what drew my attention was a display quote in the column that says, “The math says that [Hillary] Clinton is quitting while she’s ahead.” Like many others who have watched the Democratic race, I’ve found it perplexing that Clinton won nearly all the biggest states but not the nomination. That’s an interesting and important topic—history will eventually show that despite Clinton’s insistence Barack Obama is some sort of defenseless naïf, he and his campaign just plain outsmarted her and hers—but that’s not what Tyson is writing about.

No—he’s taking a method of analyzing political poll results developed by another astrophysicist, Princeton’s J. Richard Gott III, and torturing it to come up with the claim that “if the general election were held today, Barack Obama would lose to John McCain, while Mr. McCain would lose to Mrs. Clinton.”

That’s a bold declaration, and you’d sure like to see it backed up. But that’s not what happens in the column. Instead, Tyson cites a paper by Gott and another author “that has been accepted for publication in the journal Mathematical and Computer Modelling” (meaning: you and I can’t read it to check the accuracy of Tyson’s summary of it or, feeble-minded as we is, try it out for ourselves). Here’s how Tyson describes what Gott & Co. discovered with their as yet unpublished new tool:

“[I]n swing states, the median result of all the polls conducted in the weeks prior to an election is an especially effective predictor of which candidate will win that election — even in states where the polls consistently fall within the margin of error.”

That’s it: no definition of “swing states,” no useful definition of “the median result of all the polls,” not even a precise statement of the time frame. But those details are dispensable, because this analysis is so powerful, Tyson writes, that Gott was able to correctly predict 49 out of 50 state races in the 2004 contest between Bush II and John Kerry. So Tyson decided to put it to work looking at the 2008 race, with results as mentioned above. Tyson says, with the certainty of Ptolemy describing the sun’s orbit around the Earth, that “this analysis does not predict what will happen in November. But it describes the present better than any other known method does.”

Being generous, one can only say about Tyson’s “analysis” that it reads as if substantial sections of explanation have been edited out to make the piece fit the page. His examples don’t illuminate much about Gott’s method. Beyond that, two flaws seem transparent. Tyson acknowledges one: that public opinion shifts over time. My translation: It’s ridiculous to project the electoral landscape in November based on iffy reading of polls five to six months ahead of time. Ask Michael Dukakis if you don’t believe me.

The other major flaw in Tyson’s “work” is his attempt to use a tool applied to a two-candidate race nearing the finish line in a single election and applying it to a wildly different set of circumstances. Poll respondents asked whether they’d prefer Obama or Clinton over McCain in May were being asked a theoretical question. Yes, it was certain that either Obama or Clinton would oppose McCain. But the very nature of the campaign at that point, as unsettled and increasingly divisive as it was, might skew the result. You wonder if Gott himself would make the predictive claim for his method, as applied here, that Tyson does.

(If Tyson’s piece was heavily edited, the Times would perform a public service by publishing the full piece. It would also help to have a link to Gott’s paper so that readers can judge for themselves whether Tyson is representing it accurately.)

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Exit Polls Again …

Well, the polls are closed in Pennsylvnania and the The New York Times says that Obama and Clinton are “locked in a tight race” and that the result is “too close to call.” Others appear to be on the same page: CNN says it’s a “competitive race.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, on its home page, perhaps tellingly, doesn’t offer a take.

So what do the exit polls say? Well, you never know what you’re really dealing with here, especially given your analyst’s near perfect state of ignorance of what other information is out there.

That said, the exit numbers show a close win for Clinton. If the poll numbers displayed on CNN reflect something close to reality, about 78 percent of those voting in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary are 40 or older; Clinton is winning handily with that group. Some 38 percent of the Democratic poll respondents are 60 and older, and Clinton wins that group 59-41. Obama wins the 39 and under voters decisively, too. Based on the numbers in the age category only, Clinton comes out with something like 52 percent of the vote in the end.

For the vote by race, the CNN exit poll appears to have statistically significant results only for white voters. Among white voters, Clinton got a significantly larger share in every age group except the youngest (18-29), where she has a 50-50 split with Obama. My guess from this category and from others (education, religion, gun ownership, region) where Clinton seems to enjoy large advantages–and considering also that the exit polls show 58 percent of the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania were women–I think Clinton will wind up with something like 55 or 56 percent of the vote. Not as close, probably, as the major news outlets are saying (or hoping, perhaps).

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He Didn’t Inhale Enough

I noticed yesterday that one of the New York Times blogs, The Caucus, had an item on how a gaggle of right-wingers is promising to do a “documentary” that will expose the dark side of Barack Obama. ‘Bout time! Here’s a guy who for years has been leaving a trail of unpleasant secrets. He has even written books full of assertions that people can fact check to find out what a self-aggrandizer he is.

The Times itself begins the process of exposing the mendacity with a 1,751-word story this morning–“Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama’s Young Life“– that investigates his claims that he used drugs as a youth. That’s right: Obama says he used drugs and has suggested both in writing and on the campaign trail that his occasional pot smoking, drinking and cocaine sniffing was troubling and unwise.

But the Times is blowing the lid off those claims. The story says that “more than three dozen interviews” with “friends, classmates and mentors” from his high school and college years find that Obama is remembered as “grounded, motivated, and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.”

What could account for the discrepancy the Times seems intent on manufacturing? Ready? Here it is:

“[It] [could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.

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