Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is Self-Government Possible In America?

Pollster Scott Rasmussen recently gave an interview to Kathryn Jean Lopez at NRO regarding the release of his new (very short) book on the American electorate, In Search of Self-Governance (just 88 pages).

In the interview, Mr. Rasmussen describes an influential individual "successful on both Wall Street and in D.C." who spoke after him at a business conference. Mr. Rasmussen described the man as opening his remarks with the following sentiment, indicative of what Mr. Rasmussen calls a "typical political-class attitude":
"The problem with self-governance is that people are so bad at it. They are just too stupid to govern themselves."
In my own view, the sentiment above is not exclusive to either Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. I know that many liberal Democrats would probably disagree with the above statement, as would many conservative Republicans. Likewise, I suspect that the same cross-ideological diversity holds for those who think that the above statement expresses a profound (if unfortunate) truth about Americans.

The most recent example of this mentality, of course, comes from the left, evidenced by the condescending temper tantrums thrown by some liberal pundits in response to the American public's disapproval of the stimulus package and health care reform bill, among other things.

Earlier this year, frustration over Obama's inability to quickly enact the sweeping social and political change his most ardent followers had envisioned led a number of left-leaning pundits to theorize that perhaps America was simply "ungovernable." Writers like Michael Cohen and Jonathan Chait wrote angry screeds about the "nihilism" and "ignorance" of the Republican Party and the American people, respectively. Slate's Jacob Weisberg put the blame for America's "current predicament" not on the politicians, but rather on "the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large."

However, conservatives have also had their fair share of the-public-is-too-dumb-to-know-what's-good-for-them moments in past years when the GOP was in power.

So is it simply a case of political opportunism -- each side paying lip service to democratic values but disparaging democracy when it inconveniently clashes with their own ideological views?

Or is the unnamed "political class" VIP above correct? Are Americans too dumb to govern themselves?


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why Mossad Might Not Have Been Behind Mabhouh's Assassination

By now, nearly everyone believes that Israel's Mossad was behind the assassination of Muhammad al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas official, in Dubai last week. Israel's culpability has become near-conventional wisdom in press accounts of the still-unfolding international drama surrounding the murder, and though most journalists have dutifully continued to put the word "alleged" before "Mossad assassination" in their stories, few people have publicly argued that Mabhouh was killed by someone other than Israel.

Even before any details surrounding Mabhouh's death had been released, press accounts already suggested Israel's spy agency as a likely culprit. After all, the operation at the time seemed precise, efficient, and professional -- the hallmarks of previous Mossad hits. Israel also appeared to have motive -- Mabhouh was a senior Hamas official, suspected of organizing smuggled weapons shipments into the Gaza Strip. As details emerged, the suspicion became a near-certainty, with the revelation that several of the assassins on the hit team had forged passports of people who had dual Israeli-European citizenship -- a revelation that has sparked an international diplomatic crisis between Israel and several European countries.

It is true that nearly all of the circumstantial evidence points to Israel. But just for kicks, and because I'm operating under the fairly reasonable assumption that a country should be innocent until proven guilty when it comes to high-profile diplomatic assassinations on foreign soil, I present here a few reasons why Israel might not have been behind Mabhouh's assassination.

Too Sloppy For Mossad

One thing that bothered me as details about this assassination came to light was the fact that it seemed so...well, sloppy. Sure, the forged documents, quick entry and exit, and general efficiency of the operation appear to bear all the hallmarks of a Mossad operation, at least on the surface. But when you get past the stylistic similarities, the actual tactical execution of the operation was decidedly un-Mossad. It is telling that the loudest objections to the charge that Mossad killed Mabhouh have come actually come from former Mossad officials. According to The National, former Mossad official Rami Yigal disputed the allegations on Israeli radio, saying that while the assassins appeared to be "professionals," they were not Mossad, as Mossad would never have approved 'shortcuts' taken by the hit squad, "such as allowing members of the team to be videotaped by security cameras." Former Israeli government minister and Mossad agent Rafi Eitan, who participated in the Mossad's capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, agreed, saying that the sloppiness of the assassins meant that it was more likely that "some foreign service, an enemy of Israel, wanted to taint Israel" by framing it for Mabhouh's killing.

The obvious objection to this defense is to point to Israel's infamous botched attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal in Amman, Jordan in 1997, documented in the best-selling book Kill Khalid published last year by journalist Paul McGeough (on my to-read list). In what is widely regarded today as an ill-conceived, amateurish operation, Mossad agents attempted to kill Meshaal by squirting poison in his ear on an Amman street. The attempt went awry, the agents were caught by the Jordanians, and an outraged King Hussein demanded that Israel deliver the antidote to save Meshaal's life in exchange for the return of its assassins. Israel complied.

But to that, I offer a more recent counter-example: the killing of Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyeh in Damascus car bombing in 2008. This operation too bore all the hallmarks of a Mossad hit -- but the tactical signatures as well. First of all, there was little to no evidence left around to point to the culprit. Unlike the Mabhouh fiasco now playing out very publicly in the press and diplomatic arena, nobody raised a big uproar over Mugniyeh's death. This was probably partly due to the fact that Mugniyeh was a thug -- an undeniably despicable, depraved human being who was directly responsible for (and even physically guilty of) the cold-blooded murder of countless innocent civilians. On the other hand, Mabhouh, however shady and reprehensible his clandestine activities may have been, was not a gun-toting militant. He was a bureaucrat and a financier -- a "diplomat," even in the eyes of some.

But another reason for the relatively muted reaction to Mugniyeh's assassination was the fact that there really wasn't much hard evidence that Israel was involved, regardless of how convinced many observers may have been. It was a clean hit -- the assassins (Mossad or otherwise) were careful to leave no trace of their identity anywhere along the way. By comparison, the Dubai hit was akin to a finger painting. The passports of all the members of the hit squad were identified and released by Dubai authorities within days. The assassins allowed their faces to be captured by numerous security cameras. As Yaron Ezrahi, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, aptly put it: "The fact that so many Israeli citizens were quickly connected to the operation suggests either that the organisers demonstrated great idiocy, or that this was not a Mossad operation."

Too Easily Connected To Israel

Several commentators have marveled at the remarkable speed and efficiency with which Dubai's police services were able to "connect the dots" to unravel the details of the operation. In this Wall Street Journal article, Israeli analyst Ronen Bergman details how numerous miscalculations in the operation have led to a "diplomatic nightmare" for Israel. Bergman highlights several egregious errors in the operation, and goes on to praise the "achievement...of the Dubai police" for their "ability to integrate all the evidence at their disposable into one clear picture...with remarkable speed." Bergman alleges that "whoever sent the hit squad to Dubai was not aware that the police and security services had such advanced capabilities at the ready." Those "advanced capabilities" are described by Bergman as essentially compiling video "surveillance footage into a single timeline with the cell phone records of the individuals in the footage." I find it extremely unlikely, bordering on preposterous, that the planners of the operation were "unprepared" for the effectiveness of Dubai's police forces, especially considering the number of assassins who have been caught in recent years using similar technologies (including by other Gulf law enforcement agencies). I could be wrong, but I find it very implausible that high-ranking Mossad officers would be this egregiously ill-informed about the law enforcement and intelligence capabilities of a Gulf Arab nation.

But let's say, for a moment, that compiling all of the evidence about the assassins within days did require a great deal of hard analytical work. Bergman suggests that Dubai might have gotten some outside help in "putting all the pieces together." But the problem, at least for me, is that those pieces seem to fit together a little too well, and the speed at which they were put together was just a little bit too "remarkable," as Bergman put it. A good intelligence operation -- and especially a targeted killing -- needs to have plausible deniability at the very least. Dubai's police chief told the press last week that he was "99 percent sure" that Mossad was responsible, saying he had surveillance footage, credit card records, and "telephone communications between the suspects" to prove it. Would elite Mossad assassins have been so reckless? Doubtful.

Barely A Success

While early reports painted a picture of a crack hit squad carrying out a flawless, meticulous assassination plan, the reality that has emerged since has altered that depiction significantly. The Dubai authorities and Hamas's own officials have admitted that Mabhouh "made himself an easy target" for assassination. Hamas has admitted that Mabhouh breached security protocol by calling his family from Dubai and openly booking his flight and hotel online. According to GulfNews, even a few basic security precautions by Mabhouh would have easily foiled the assassination:

"Al Mabhouh did not take basic security precautions, and if he had at least one [guard] with him, they [the suspects] would not have been able to kill him. It was clear that he had that feeling that he was anonymous and he was not careful enough, especially that the suspects took the same elevator as him and walked behind him to his room, monitoring his movements easily," he said.

Lt Gen Dahi said it was strange that some Palestinian officials let their leaders move without protection, especially since Al Mabhouh was very important.

Which leads to the even juicier possibility that this was at least partly an inside job. Perhaps related are the reports that are now emerging about two Palestinians being held in custody by Dubai police in connection with the assassination. Not surprisingly, Hamas and Fatah are each blaming the other for being involved in the murder. Hamas alleges that the two Palestinians in Dubai custody are Fatah agents sent to help facilitate Mabhouh's murder in collaboration with the Israelis. Fatah security officials have in turn accused a senior Hamas commander of being involved in Mabhouh's death, perhaps as part of an internal rivalry within the organization (the Hamas commander has denied the allegation).

Cost-Benefit Calculation Doesn't Make Sense

While conceding that Mabhouh was a major fundraiser for Hamas in his WSJ piece quoted above, Bergman wonders about the big-picture strategic questions surrounding this operation: "[D]id Mabhouh constitute an immediate threat? Was eliminating him worth violating international law and risking the ire of so many states at a time when the international community seems to have finally gotten serious on Iran?" Regardless of what you think about the international community's "seriousness" in dealing with Iran, Bergman's point is a good one: given how easily this operation was connected to Israel, was Mabhouh's threat to Israel so grave as to warrant this kind of operation? I think the answer is such an obvious "no" that I find it impossible to believe that any Israeli leader -- even one as hawkish as Benjamin Netenyahu -- would authorize such a risky mission. The cost-benefit analysis of taking Mabhouh out just doesn't make sense. Yes, I'm sure that Israel's leaders would have liked to see Mabhouh taken out -- but there's a big difference between wishing someone was dead and actually authorizing and planning a covert mission to assassinate him in a foreign country.

There are probably hundreds of people who threaten Israel's security in one way or another -- people whose death would probably cause Israel's leaders to sleep a little easier at night. Yet high-profile assassinations are rare, because of the gigantic risk that accompanies even the slightest mistake. There is no room for error. The prize has to be worth the risk.

Critics of this argument would again point to the botched Meshaal assassination attempt in Jordan as proof that Israel's leaders have made serious judgment errors in the past when it comes to targeted killings. I'd disagree. While the Meshaal operation was poorly-concieved and woefully executed, the strategic decision to kill him (while seeming foolish in hindsight) was certainly an understandable calculation at the time. In the late 1990s, killing the charismatic political leader of Hamas (then perceived as a unvarnished terrorist organization without the veneer of political respectability it has since achieved) could have dealt a serious blow to the organization.

Imad Mugniyeh was a terrorist mastermind, a blood-soaked murderer. Khalid Meshaal was the head of Hamas. While Mabhouh was a top Hamas fundraiser and reportedly involved in weapons smuggling, he just doesn't strike me as rising the level of threat that would justify a large-scale operation like this. We are supposed to believe, apparently, that Israel risked seriously jeopardizing its diplomatic relationship with four major European nations (Britain, Ireland, Germany, and France) for this guy? I don't think so.


Taking all of the above into account, I can see only two possible explanations. The first is that Israel's political and security leadership made horrible mistakes, both in the decision to assassinate Mabhouh and the way it was carried out.

The other is that someone else did it, and have managed to do a pretty successful job of framing Israel for it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Afghan Surge -- Too little, too late?

The Pentagon announced Thursday that approval has been given for a plan to speed up the training of Afghan Security Forces (ASF), which will lead to a "substantial increase" in the number of Afghan forces by next year, when U.S. forces are set to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan under the new strategy outlined by President Obama.

Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the American officer who leads NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan, told the New York Times that the new training goals would increase the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) from its current 102,400 personnel to 171,600 by October 2011. This is in addition to a previously-planned increase to 134,000 by October 31, 2010. In addition, Afghan police forces, which now number 96,800, will be increased to 109,000 this year, and U.S. officials hope to further increase that to 134,000 by the end of 2011.

This all sounds very promising, and it is indeed long past time for the ISAF to make the rapid training of Afghan security forces a top priority. But in this case, I'm afraid it might be too little, too late.

If we take the counterinsurgency strategy outlined by General Stanley McChrystal -- or even the "compromise" strategy announced by President Obama in December -- as a guide, it quickly becomes clear that these proposed increases will not be enough to satisfy even the minimum force-to-population ratios required for successful counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

McChrystal warned in his report to Obama that the key weakness of the ISAF is that it is not aggressively defending the Afghan population. "Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us -- physically and psychologically -- from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves," he wrote. Obama acknowledged this in his speech, going on to acknowledge that one of his three main objectives was to "strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future." He explained:

"The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 - the fastest pace possible - so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans."


"Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government - and, more importantly, to the Afghan people - that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."

Unfortunately, the above strategy is unachievable -- at least according to the timetable that Obama has laid down. The recent announcements by the Pentagon on ASF training targets reveal that it will be impossible for the U.S. to "accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces" and begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan by July 2011.

Let's take, for example, Obama's reference above to Iraq as an example of a "responsible" transfer of power to local security forces. This analogy is misleading, for several reasons:

  1. McChrystal's (and Obama's) strategy reflects standard COIN doctrine -- that the protection and winning over of the local population is the key center of gravity when fighting an insurgency. Standard COIN doctrine states that in nearly every case, a successful counterinsurgency will require a ratio of counterinsurgents to population somewhere around 20:1,000 (20 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 population). As Gens. McChrystal and Petreaus have pointed out, that ratio is flexible depending on the situation. But anything significantly less than that ratio risks failure, as there will be inadequate forces to protect the population and deny the insurgents sanctuary.
  2. Iraq and Afghanistan have similar population sizes (around 30 million each, though exact numbers are sketchy in both cases). Afghanistan, however, is nearly 50% larger than Iraq -- and has far more inhospitable terrain, which is easier for insurgents to exploit and harder for the counterinsurgents to control. While controlling territory is not as important as winning the population, it is still a vital, if secondary, part of successful counterinsurgency.
  3. Taking the number of US + ISAF + ASF together, we can surmise the total number of counterinsurgents in Afghanistan. In Iraq, we can take the US + Iraqi Security Forces to get the same number for Iraq. When played out, the numbers look like this:
In Iraq, there were 460,000 counterinsurgents in January 2007, when President Bush announced the surge. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) already numbered 325,000, in addition to the 135,000 U.S./coalition forces already in Iraq. By the time all five additional U.S. brigades had been deployed to Iraq in July 2007, the number of counterinsurgents had grown to 518,000 (including the training of additional ISF). That's a coutnerinsurgent-to-population ration of about 18:1,000. By By January 2008, just a year later, the number of trained Iraqi Security Forces had grown by 110,000, producing a COIN-population ratio of about 21:1,000, above the minimum. Today, the Iraqi Security Forces are 550,000 strong, and the U.S. is in the process of withdrawing most of its troops, which currently number 112,000. (Technically producing a ratio of 22:1,000, though U.S. troops are now generally playing a supporting role only).

By contrast, in December 2009, there were approximately 285,200 counterinsurgents in Afghanistan. Adding the U.S. surge and allied troop pledges will bring that number to around 318,000 by mid- to late-2010. If we also include the training of Afghan Army and Police, the total number of counterinsurgents would be about 361,500 by the end of 2010. That's a ratio of about 12:1,000. By the end of 2011, when U.S. are supposed to start withdrawing from the country, the total number of counterinsurgents would swell to a maximum of 424,100. That's a ratio of 14:1,000 -- and that's when U.S. troops will start leaving, so that ratio will start moving in the opposite direction (at least temporarily).

The U.S. military hopes to have 400,000 total Afghan Security Forces trained by 2013 -- but that target (three years away) would still be far less than the total number of Iraqi Security Forces that had already been trained by the end of 2008. The counterinsurgent-to-population ratio -- in 2013, much less 2011 -- would not even approach that already achieved in Iraq by July 2007. And under Obama's surge-then-quickly-draw-down strategy, U.S. (and ISAF) troops will presumably continue to withdraw during 2011-2013, leaving a considerable gap between the number of counterinsurgents needed and the number we will actually have available in Afghanistan.

(click to enlarge)

Will it be enough? Gen. McChrystal and Petreaus's public support for the President's plan suggest that they're betting that it will. After all, General Petreaus has often remarked that the 20:1,000 COIN ratio is not set in stone -- just a strong recommendation gleaned from the lessons learned by counterinsurgencies throughout history, subject to adaptation when necessary. But the numbers -- and the parallels to Iraq, highlighted by Obama himself --aren't encouraging.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Top 11 Albums of 2009

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again -- my annual review of the top 11 new albums I've enjoyed most during the past year.

In past years, I've always faced a nagging problem: I'll happen to discover amazing albums that were released during the previous year, but which escaped my notice at the time, which always leaves me wishing I could re-do my top 11 albums with the great finds that I inadvertently omitted.

In an attempt to remedy that error, this year I was as diligent as possible about keeping track of when new albums were going to be released and obtaining them as soon as possible. The upside was that I don't think I missed very many albums this time. The downside is that I have to make really tough choices in order to narrow down a list of about 30 albums. Needless to say, competition this year will be the fiercest yet.

Also, I'm introducing a new feature this year...a list of the top 11 songs of 2009 (to highlight some great songs that may have appeared independently or on albums that weren't quite stellar enough to make the cut). Check it out at the bottom.

So, without further ado...

[(Annual) Disclaimer:These selections are not supposed to be "the" top albums of the year, hence the "my" in the title. In no way am I suggesting these albums are better than all other albums that were released this year. These are simply the ones that I liked best.]

1. Aim & Ignite

I'm not sure if Nate Ruess picked this band name out of a desire for a cheeky indie-sounding moniker, a lack of imagination, or pure laziness, but it also just might be the most appropriate label these guys could have chosen for themselves. Formed in 2008 by Ruess, former frontman of The Format, fun. is a huge upgrade for Ruess, in my opinion. (And yeah, I liked The Format.) The unique arrangements are experimental, free-spirited,, replete with lush horn and string sections, bright piano riffs, and tastefully accompanying gospel choirs. Lyrically, too, Aim & Ignite impresses throughout, from the opening track "Be Calm," but perhaps best exemplified by the closing track, "Take Your Time (Coming Home)." And no, the fact that this album happened to be released on my birthday did not bias my decision. Much.

2. Daisy
Brand New

The line between insanity and brilliance has always been a razor-thin one, and Brand New fortunately comes down on the latter side of this edge with Daisy. For example, it's hard to describe the bizarre opener, "Vices," which begins the album with over a minute of a scratchy old gospel recording (the second half of which closes the album) before suddenly exploding into a frenzied cacophony of sound behind Jesse Lacey's barely intelligible screaming vocals. Thankfully, the rest of the album is far less erratic, though this album, like Brand New's previous effort, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, takes a few listens before you can really get your mind around it. That said, Daisy is a dark, brooding, blistering masterpiece. Following Brand New's daring musical evolution from album to album has been a breathtaking ride, and Lacey's lyricism in Daisy is the most stunning yet, if also the most grim. An album that is best listened to while sitting in a dark room, or driving home alone at night through the backwoods of the northern Midwest.

3. The Long Fall Back To Earth
Jars of Clay

Jars shows why they continue to be one of my favorite bands of all time with their latest release, these guys prove that 16 years and 10 albums later, they've still got it. Jars has the distinction, in my mind, of being the band that consistently proves that Christian artists can make good music too. Unlike most of the other "original" contemporary Christian artists, Jars has never settled for making the same record twice, re-inventing themselves musically with each album, and succeeding on each step of their rock-pop-folk-bluegrass-electronica evolution. Dan Haseltine's songwriting has never been better ("Closer" taking the #1 spot for songs this year, see below), and the band's maturity shows -- it's pretty hard to put together 12 songs on a single album that are all genuinely awesome, but Jars pulled it off.

4. Ocean Eyes
Owl City

This album just makes me happy. In fact, I think you'd have to have a heart of cold, impenetrable stone to not enjoy this album at least a little bit. Ocean Eyes is the sophomore album that The Postal Service never made, right down to Adam Young's voice, which is eerily similar to Ben Gibbard's. While Young's lyrical abilities aren't quite at the depth of Gibbard's yet, the two do share a knack for penning clever, witty lines. The unbelievably catchy synth and keyboard riffs Young manages to put together for nearly every track aren't too bad either. And you have to admit, for a solo project reportedly begun two years ago in his parents' basement as a result of insomnia -- and with a debut album now certified Gold -- it's pretty impressive.

5. (m)orning / (a)fternoon / (e)vening EPs

While this isn't technically an "album," per se, Mae's 2009 project deserves some recognition. After losing their keyboardist and bassist in late 2007 after the release of Singularity, Mae was dropped by their record label, and most people probably assumed they'd finish out their tour and then fade into obscurity. But Mae's three remaining members weren't done yet. And so, in 2009, frontman Dave Elkins, along with guitarist Zach Gehring, and drummer Jacob Marshall embarked on an ambitious project -- "12 songs. 12 months. Make a difference." Each month, the band would release a new single on their website, which would be available for a minimum donation of $1. All proceeds would go to various charitable causes sponsored by the band. The proceeds from the songs on the first EP, (m)orning, resulted in the successful completion of a Habitat for Humanity house for a needy family in the band's hometown of Virginia Beach, VA. Freed from the restrictions of making an album, Mae has written the songs they've felt like writing, including several longer than 7 minutes, one with a two-minute guitar solo ("The Fight Song") and even a 14-minute piano instrumental ("Seasons"). While the theft of all the band's equipment and instruments from their trailer in October has delayed the release of the final two songs of the (e)vening EP, Mae's perseverance, selflessness, and dedication to their music -- and their community -- has inspired thousands of fans.

6. Mean Everything To Nothing
Manchester Orchestra

While their 2006 debut album, I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child, was pretty impressive, Manchester Orchestra has put themselves in another league with Mean Everything To Nothing. While a bit darker and heavier than their previous release, the album hits all the right notes, from the energetic opener "The Only One," to the edgy "Shake It Out," the heavy riffs of "Pride," and the big power chords of "My Friend Marcus." The real highlights, however, are the catchy, rockin' single "I've Got Friends," and the beautiful, driving ballad "I Can Feel A Hot One" (#7 song, see below).

7. 11:11
Rodrigo y Gabriela

Rodrigo y Gabriela are proof that they still do make good music these days. The Mexican acoustic guitar duo of Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero have their jaw-dropping talent on display in full force in their latest release. To really grasp what you're listening to, I recommend checking out a few videos of the two playing live (like this or this), if only to watch in amazement at how fast their hands and fingers are moving. Also, they both used to play in a thrash metal band together, a fact I find both incredible and amusing.

8. New Again
Taking Back Sunday

A lot of TBS fans were unhappy with New Again, but for the life of me I can't figure out why. No, TBS will never make Tell All Your Friends again. Get over it. But I think this is a far better album than every other TBS album besides the debut, including Louder Now. Filled with memorable choruses and crunching guitar riffs, New Again showcases TBS's harder side, particularly on tracks like "Catholic Knees," "Cut Me Up Jenny," and "Carpathia." But it's not only on the high energy cuts like the title track opener or the single "Sink Into Me" -- the band shines on the album's lone ballad, "Where My Mouth Is." The highlight though, is undoubtedly the epic closing track, and one of my now all-time favorite TBS songs, "Everything Must Go." (#9 song below)

9. Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon
Quiet Company

With many thanks to a friend for the recommendation, I must say that the discovery of Austin, Texas-based Quiet Company was one of the best finds of the year. Everyone You Love is pure, beautiful, piano-driven indie rock at its best, and with 15 tracks, you're getting your money's worth with this one. The piano of the opening track "A Nation of Two" grabs your attention, secures it with the danceable "It's Better To Spend Money," and pretty effectively keeps it for the remainder of the album, which never gets boring despite the number of tracks. The slow building rock-out at the end of "Well, The Truth Is" is worth checking out, as are the outstanding "On Husbands & Wives" and "On Modern Men."

10. Cycles

Amid a plethora of extremely disappointing releases in the pop punk field this year, Cartel's Cycles proves that the genre isn't quite dead yet. While there's nothing especially groundbreaking here lyrically, Cartel still manages to write enough interesting, catchy hooks and sing-able choruses to make this album very much worth listening to. The guitars are big (see "Deep South"), and there are power chords a-plenty, but the band puts together some impressive instrumentation behind Will Pugh's ever-impressive vocals. True, there's some filler sandwiched in the middle between the very good opening and closing few tracks, but this album will definitely get stuck in your head.

11. Say Anything
Say Anything

Let's just forget about that last album, okay guys? Say Anything returns to the catchy hooks of ...Is A Real Boy and finds success with this self-titled effort. Maybe it's because I wasn't expecting anything much from this album, but I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how good this album was both lyrically and musically. From the big guitar riffs of the single "Hate Everyone" to the oddly catchy pizzicato string instrumentation of "Do Better," Say Anything fills the album with the savvy, witty lyrics of Max Bemis -- and signals that they're back on the right track.

Honorable Mention:

The Resistance - Muse
Brand New Eyes - Paramore
Swoon - Silversun Pickups
Forget And Not Slow Down - Relient K
Stir The Blood - The Bravery
QU - Sherwood

Top 11 Songs of 2009
(with the help of my profile)

1. "Closer" - Jars Of Clay
2. "On The Wing" - Owl City
3. "Walking The Dog" - fun.
4. "Destroyer" - Project 86
5. "A Melody, The Memory" - Mae
6. "Sink" - Brand New
7. "I Can Feel A Hot One" - Manchester Orchestra
8. "Finish What You Started" - Every Avenue
9. "Everything Must Go" - Taking Back Sunday
10. "The Few That Remain" (feat. Hayley Williams) - Set Your Goals
11. "Alpha Dog" - Fall Out Boy

Thursday, December 10, 2009

282 consecutive words by Barack Obama that I completely agree with

I wasn't expecting much from President Obama's acceptance speech at the Nobel Center in Oslo today. In fact, I wasn't even sure I wanted to watch it, assuming it would be filled with the same apologizing and self-aggrandizing pomposity that I've become accustomed to. But I braced myself and turned it on. And I must say, a lot of what Obama said pleasantly surprised me.

Sure, there were still the usual obligatory lines about how America must not "insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves," and the guffaw-worthy self-congratulations for "closing Guantanamo" and "prohibiting torture." However -- and for the first time on the world stage, I believe -- Barack Obama actually took the opportunity to stand up and defend America, rather than apologize for it.

He spoke about the need to acknowledge that sometimes force is necessary to achieve and maintain peace. That it was "the blood of American citizens" and America's military might -- not just international institutions and dialogue -- that has preserved global security for the past six decades. He even unequivocally stated that "evil does exist in the world."

Coming from Obama, the words were as shocking as they were heartening.

Here's the passage I'm referring to, in full:

...I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.

Yet the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions - not just treaties and declarations - that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest - because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.

Those are 282 consecutive words by Obama that I can completely agree with. More like that, please, Mr. President.

That's not to say I loved everything in the speech. It took Obama 2,913 words to get around to mentioning the protesters in Iran (on International Human Rights day, no less) -- and even then, he limited his comments to a single sentence, followed by a disappointingly weak, equivocating platitude about "hope and history" being "on their side" (apparently he just can't bring himself to say that we are).

His defense of persistent engagement with brutal, authoritarian regimes was also less than convincing:

Let me also say this: the promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach - and condemnation without discussion - can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

That sentiment is all well and good...but what happens if those repressive regimes slam the door in your face? Repeatedly? Where and when do you draw the line? The lack of any acknowledgment of the limits of engagement (which are already becoming apparent) was disappointing, considering Obama's remarkable frankness elsewhere in the speech.

But, to end on a positive note, I'll conclude with what was undoubtedly the best line in Obama's entire speech:

I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it.

Truth. Starry-eyed liberals, take note.

UPDATE: I should also mention that I appreciated Obama's show of humility at the opening of his remarks as well:

Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize - Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela - my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women - some known, some obscure to all but those they help - to be far more deserving of this honor than I.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

2009 Election Recap

What a difference a year makes.

Lots of commentators will no doubt spend days scrutinizing the tea leaves, pontificating on the implications (or total irrelevance) of several races.

I won't get into any pointless discussions over whether or not this election was or was not a referendum on Obama, or what, if any, importance these races have for predicting 2010's midterm contests.

But there are a few things I'd like to point out:

Republican comeback in Virginia
- Republican Bob McDonnell defeated the hapless Creigh Deeds by 18 points in the biggest electoral victory for the Virginia GOP in a decade. McDonnell won Virginia with the highest percentage of the vote for a governor since 1961 -- and for any GOP gubernatorial candidate, ever.
- Republicans swept all of Virginia's statewide races.
- The GOP unseated 8 Democratic incumbents in the Virginia General Assembly.

Exit polling: Independents back GOP
- In both the Virginia and New Jersey governor's races, independent voters -- whose support enabled Barack Obama's victory in 2008 -- have switched sides, backing the Republican candidates by an astounding 2:1 margin. (65% of independents backed McDonnell, 34% voted for Deeds; 60% of independents voted for Christie, just 30% for Corzine).
- This is due to many factors -- mostly concern over the economy -- but one thing is certain: Negative. Campaigning. Doesn't. Work. It didn't work for Deeds, who ran one of the most negative campaigns in recent memory in a desperate and pathetic attempt to paint McDonnell as a far-right sexist bigot. And it didn't work for Corzine, who actually ran ads claiming that Christie was pro-cancer. Yes, really.

Jersey blues for the Dems
While most Democrats had probably resigned themselves to the fact that Creigh Deeds was a lost cause in Virginia, Corzine's loss in New Jersey must have been tough to take, whatever the spin today. Even Obama himself was campaigning on Corzine's behalf as late as Sunday.

I must admit that even I didn't think Chris Christie could pull off a win in New Jersey. Polling in the run-up to election day showed the two essentially tied, and Corzine with the momentum. Considering New Jersey's history of fraud and corruption by the Democratic Party, I figured it'd be an unlikely mountain for Christie to overcome. But he did, beating Corzine 49%-45%. Despite the hype, in the end, Daggett (the Independent candidate) didn't siphon off enough anti-Corzine votes to deny Christie his victory.

I don't know if Chistie, or anyone, can salvage the train wreck that New Jersey has become, but here's hoping.

The crazy, dramatic, twist-filled race for the vacant House seat in New York's 23rd Congressional district ended with a narrow, hard-fought victory for Democrat Bill Owens -- the one bright spot for Democrats last night. Doug Hoffman, the upstart Conservative Party candidate, took 45% of the vote to Owens' 49%.

However, the nominally Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava -- who dropped out of the race this weekend and endorsed Owens (yes, the Democrat) after collapsing in the polls, still received 5.5% of the vote, probably mostly from loyal, elderly Republican voters who don't pay much attention to the news. Needless to say, those votes could have put Hoffman over the top.

The media and Democrats have been crowing that NY-23 is the start of a disastrous "GOP civil war" and a harbinger of doom for the Republican party, which will tear itself apart over "purity tests" regarding the conservative credentials of GOP candidates. I find these hysterical predictions pretty absurd, considering the extremely unique and special circumstances surrounding this particular race, and not worth discussing here.

In Virginia, McDonnell's 18-point landslide margin of victory was not a surprise. But there were a few:

- McDonnell won Virginia voters under the age of 30 by a 10-point margin. In fact, he won every age group.
- McDonnell won Fairfax County (51-49%). Obama won the county by 21 points last year. Even after the Washington Post ran about a hundred stories on the sinister implications of McDonnell's college thesis, and Deeds blanketed NoVa with negative ads and flyers for months in an attempt to convince suburban voters that McDonnell was a scary, sexist, homophobic religious nut. Actually, McDonnell swept all of NoVa, except Arlington and Alexandria City -- counties that all went heavily for Obama and made Virginia go blue in 2008.
- And on that note...McDonnell also won the female vote (54-46%). McDonnell even won among self-described "full-time working women." Maybe due to the fact that 65% of Virginia voters said McDonnell's college thesis did not influence their vote.

I think it's pretty indisputable that Deeds's all-thesis-all-the-time negative attack strategy was a complete and utter failure.

Not only did Chris Christie receive a higher percentage of the vote than the previous two (rare) Republican NJ governors, but he won in New Jersey counties (Middlesex and Gloucester) that had voted for Obama by 10+ point margins last year.

The closest race of the night (as far as I can tell): Ron Villanueva (R) defeated Bobby Mathieson (D) for the Virginia Beach City house seat by just 16 votes out of more than 15,000 cast (49.94% to 49.84%). A good reminder that every vote matters.

Monday, October 26, 2009

John McCain sums up the Afghan strategy debate in less than 90 words

On CBS's Face the Nation yesterday, host Bob Schieffer asked John McCain what he thought about a potential "hybrid option" of the two opposing Afghanistan strategies currently being considered.

In less than 90 words, McCain pretty accurately and concisely summed up the problem with such an approach:

"It may be a matter of semantics, I don't know. But there has been this ongoing public debate between the so-called Biden counterterrorism strategy and the McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy. I don't know how you make them hybrid. There are elements of counterterrorism in counterinsurgency, but fundamentally [a successful] counterinsurgency will require the implementation of the strategy that General McChrystal has recommended. The counterterrorism strategy -- killing [insurgents] and then returning to base -- has proven to be a very disastrous strategy in Iraq and in other places."

McCain makes a important point here. Obama is known to favor "Third Way" compromises which blend two diametrically opposed political positions or policy recommendations. That's a fine instinct for a politician -- but it's simply not workable when it comes to counterinsurgency.

In counterinsurgency, it really is all or nothing. A buffet-style selection of half-measures will not only be unsuccessful -- it'll actually be counterproductive. Adopting just 50 or 75% of the strategic adjustments necessary for a successful counterinsurgency, but leaving out the difficult parts -- like, for instance, the temporary but substantial increase in U.S. troops that will be necessary for such a policy to succeed -- will end in failure.

That failure would not only leave our allies disillusioned -- and whatever remaining commitment they still have to the mission in Afghanistan would certainly evaporate under the weight of even more massive public opposition -- but more importantly, the Afghan people would become even more jaded and frustrated with the coalition and with their own government...and more sympathetic to the Taliban.

When it comes to Afghanistan, it's time we either go all in, or fold. There's no point in wasting more American (or British, or Polish, or German) lives and resources on an effort that can't be successful -- and if we're not going to give our efforts the full commitment and resources they need, it won't be.

It has been rumored that General McChrystal may well resign if Obama declines to accept his strategy. As Gen. Jack Keane, former head of the Joint Chiefs, explained on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos recently:

KEANE: I can't speak to what General McChrystal's reaction would be to a presidential decision that opposed him. I can say this: if you're a general on the ground and you believe the recommendation you've made is the winning recommendation in terms of strategy, that will accomplish the goals that you've been assigned, and then you're told you cannot execute that, and ask the troops to go out and do something else, that you don't believe will accomplish those goals, that gets very difficult in terms of a moral dilemma, asking your troops to do something you believe is going to fail.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you resign?

KEANE: That would be up to him to face that. That's something personal for every general involved--

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that would you would do in that situation?

KEANE: Probably. Yes, under those circumstances, yes.

I don't envy Obama. Making hard decisions -- especially in which thousands of lives and the future of nations hang in the balance -- is no easy task. But sometimes it's unavoidable.