2009/01/29

President's TV interview with al Arabiya

President Obama's first television interview was with the station al-Arabiya (The comedian Jon Stewart did a "startled" double-take on "learning" that Obama's first interview was primarily aimed at a foreign audience), and it contained some very refreshingly realistic views:

"[Peace between Israel & Palestine is] going to be difficult, it's going to take time. I don't want to prejudge many of these issues, and I want to make sure that expectations are not raised so that we think that this is going to be resolved in a few months. But if we start the steady progress on these issues, I'm absolutely confident that the United States -- working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region -- I'm absolutely certain that we can make significant progress.going to be difficult, it's going to take time. I don't want to prejudge many of these issues, and I want to make sure that expectations are not raised so that we think that this is going to be resolved in a few months. But if we start the steady progress on these issues, I'm absolutely confident that the United States -- working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region -- I'm absolutely certain that we can make significant progress."


Obama made it clear here "I'm not G. W. Bush, I'm not going to make wildly unrealistic promises" and also, that the US is not going to try and solve this problem all by itself. Many other actors will be called in to assist.

Some realistic talk here:


"Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."

Meaning let's not let those who are sympathetic to the Palestinians get carried away with enthusiasm. Yes, this President is more realistic than the last one was, but only in a relative sense.

Still, this is an encouraging promise:


"I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state -- I'm not going to put a time frame on it -- that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life."

Obviously, "contiguous" means only as far as the West Bank is concerned and no mention is made as to how to deal with Israeli settlements. Does "
freedom of movement" mean that the President wants to take down Israeli highways running through the West Bank and dismantle the Israeli checkpoints? It's impossible to say at this point, but this is a reasonably good and hopeful start.


Q: How concerned are you and -- because people sense that you have a different political discourse. And I think, judging by (inaudible) and Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden and all these, you know -- a chorus --

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I noticed this. They seem nervous.

Q: They seem very nervous, exactly. Now, tell me why they should be more nervous?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that when you look at the rhetoric that they've been using against me before I even took office --

Q: I know, I know.

THE PRESIDENT: -- what that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt. There's no actions that they've taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them.

In my inauguration speech, I spoke about: You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed. And what they've been doing is destroying things. And over time, I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction.

Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world that the language we use has to be a language of respect.

What Obama is doing here is that he's differentiating "hard" military power from "soft" persuasive power. Judging by their words, al Qaeda appears to recognize that he's got a point, that "soft" power poses a real threat to al Qaeda's ability to act as the savior of the Muslim world.

And again, this sort of language is extremely refreshing after the past eight years:


"But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions.
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"We're going to follow through on our commitment for me to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital. We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking to the Muslim world."

As well, this next statement is extremely refreshing after hearing propagandistic nonsense terms like "Islamo-fascism" come from our former President:


Q: President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad, "war on terror," and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people -- Islamic fascism. You've always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators. And is this one way of --

THE PRESIDENT: I think that you're making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith in the past -- that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name.

Unfortunately, I have to reduce President Obama's grade for the interview from an "A" to a "B" for the following statement on Iran:


Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past -- none of these things have been helpful.

Iranian politicians have said Israel is a terrible country and that, like the white dominance of South Africa, that the Israeli oppression/occupation of Palestine should simply cease to exist, but it's simply not accurate to say that the state of Iran has officially threatened Israel.

Iran has claimed, though not proven, that it's pursuit of nuclear power is for strictly peaceful purposes. Obama should at least acknowledge this complication and qualify his statement rather than to simply state baldly that Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. And as Juan Cole points out:


And the main thing American politicians seem to mean when they accuse Iran of supporting terrorism is that it backs the Lebanese Hizbullah Party, which hasn't done anything that qualifies as international terrorism for a decade at least. (Being a national liberation movement and working against the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory was not terrorism in international law.) At least, Obama put the 'support of terrorism' clause in the past tense (was he thinking of the 1980s and early 1990s?) and avoided the odd rhetoric of Condi Rice, who branded Iran the biggest supporter of terrorism in the world; wouldn't that be al-Qaeda?

But this was a good ending:


But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.

A positive review of the interview from Foreign Policy.

YouTubes of interview: one two

2009/01/22

Department of unsurprising news

Item number one - The warrantless wiretapping program that was the cause of about 30 top Justice Department officials (Pretty much the entire upper level of the Justice Department) very nearly resigning in protest and then first revealed to the country at large by the NY Times (An NY Times reporter was about to publish a book on the matter, so the Times had to hurry and beat him to the punch) and was then defended as a very limited program:

[President Bush] "We use FISA still. But FISA is for long-term monitoring. What is needed in order to protect the American people is the ability to move quickly to detect." Then later "There is a difference between detecting, so we can prevent, and monitoring. And it's important to note the distinction between the two."

and:

[CIA-director nominee Gen. Michael V. ] HAYDEN [video clip]: "This is not about intercepting conversations between people in the United States. This is hot pursuit of communications entering or leaving America, involving someone we believe is associated with Al Qaeda."

Well, it turns out that no such distinctions were actually being made. It was a data-mining program where massive amounts of phone calls, emails, faxes and other communications were swept up in huge dragnets and then analyzed using computer software that was looking for keywords and then broken down and analyzed further. Government officials were busy lying to, not just the American people at large, but to any Congresspeople, Senators or any other government personnel who "threatened" to discover just what was going on.

Item number two: The war on the people of Gaza did indeed kill "223 Hamas guerrillas," but also:

the World Health Organization released a report estimating that 1,300 Palestinians were killed during the fighting, including 410 children and 104 women. About 5,300 Palestinians were injured, half of them women and children, the report said.

and some 50,000 Palestinians are now homeless, 400,000 have no access to running water and 21,000 buildings were destroyed.

And what was the world reaction to this?

In addition to allegations of indiscriminate violence, critics accuse Israel of violating international law restricting the use of phosphorus weapons, which can inflict horrific burns. Phosphorus artillery shells and similar weapons are not illegal, but the law bars their use in densely populated areas such as Gaza City, one of the most crowded urban areas in the world.
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Chanting "war criminal," hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrated against [Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni's visit in Brussels.

and:

European attorneys have reportedly petitioned a Belgian court to arrest Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni upon her arrival in Brussels later Wednesday, according to the Jawalan.com Web Site.

Three were killed and eight wounded in a car bomb attack in Baghdad. There is absolutely no question that this attack constituted collateral damage from the war in Gaza.

And for what?


Uniformed Hamas security teams emerged on Gaza City's streets Monday as leaders of the Islamic militant group vowed to restore order...

No, Hamas has not suffered any sort of knock-out blow. Hamas is weakened physically, but that can be fixed quickly and easily. Hamas is now more popular and more legitimate than it was and that won't be fixed anytime soon, if ever.

Item number three: Well, actually, this wasn't obvious at all. It's just clear in retrospect that our new President Obama is an extremely smart fellow. What Obama did in his inaugural address was to copy the strategy of Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondent's Association dinner. He started off, with Bush sitting right there, sounding as though he agreed with Bush, then it slowly dawned on Bush that "Hey, I'm being dissed!" Obama made it absolutely positively clear beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt that he was on the "other side of the aisle" and made a speech that only a Democrat could possibly have made.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.
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Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

And yes, President Obama did keep his promise to start reversing some of the most repugnant Bush policies right away.

Item number four: Rush Limbaugh couldn't care less about his fellow Americans. He wants President Obama to "fail." The fact that that means he wants Americans to live in misery and poverty, hated by the world, is of no consequence to him. Thankfully though, Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not "turn up as a talking head on television."

2009/01/11

Happy, happy, joy, joy

While the economic situation continues to deteriorate and while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has made some amazingly bad decisions, we've also seen some really astonishingly good news on the political front. I kept watching President-elect Obama's pick of Leon Panetta for CIA head to end up as a typical, clumsy, Democratic cluster----, but amazingly it didn't and America has thus made a very strong statement that the torture of people in US custody is a policy that will die a well-deserved death when the Bush Administration leaves office.

The first clue that Obama would take a different approach to the whole cluster of issues that the neocons have stood for was when he chose General Eric Shinseki to be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. This was significant because Shinseki strongly disagreed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over how many troops would be needed to occupy Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell. But that personnel choice simply put a neocon opponent into a meaningful position. The pick of Panetta is even better because he's directly involved in making policy decisions concerning people in US custody and has had absolutely nothing to do with Bush's torture policies, in fact, he's spoken out against them.

When one learns that the actions of a politician are drawing opposition, well, that's not always a bad thing. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA, aka "DiFi") and Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV, departing Intelligence Committee Chair, aka "Jello Jay") were all at least initially upset by the choice. Of course, as the two Senators' main complaint was that they weren't informed of the choice before it was announced and as they were both quickly mollified over it, they're perhaps better described as "peeved" or "miffed." The really good thing is that while Obama apologized to the Senators, he didn't back down! Panetta was announced as the Director of the CIA on the 9th.

People have noticed this and are taking advantage of Obama's apparent willingness to extract a real price from Bush/Cheney and their people over the torture issue. The Obama transition website (change.gov) is open for questions and 70,000 have pushed the question:

Will you appoint a Special Prosecutor -- ideally Patrick Fitzgerald -- to independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?

Even though there doesn't appear to be a general national outcry over these two specific issues of presidential lawlessness and although it's really not clear what kind of game VP Cheney is playing by not wanting a presidential pardon, the issues don't appear to be going away anytime soon.

Senator John Kerry is running at Obama from the left on how to shape the economic stimulus bill. The bloggers Digby and dday are both convinced that he's doing a kabuki play, an elaborate playacting to open up some space to Obama's left and ultimately make it appear that Obama's a centrist who will take the "Goldilocks approach" of choosing some policy option between the two extremes. If so, this is something that the lefties of Z Magazine and The Nation have been pressuring Democrats to do for decades. Apparently, he's lowballing the size of the needed stimulus in the hopes that Democratic lawmakers will bid the size of it upwards. In other words, Obama is not going to take the approach of trying to do everything himself. He realizes the right wing is far too strongly entrenched into the nation's system for him to take it on all by himself. He's going to need the help of an active and engaged citizenry to succeed. It's also quite noteworthy that he appears to be taking the advice of economists like Paul Krugman seriously as Krugman was one of those who saw the Housing Bubble early.

No, the world is not all sweetness and light. Bush just backed out of a Gaza ceasefire resolution, condemning that unhappy part of the world to still more violence, death and destruction. Still, it's noteworthy that the political general David Petraeus is speaking about talking with Iran.

2009/01/05

A review of "Expelled," a film by and starring Ben Stein

To begin with, a word on science versus truth. Can a theory be scientific and not be true? Can a theory be true and not be scientific? Yes and yes.

There have been two scientific theories of astronomy, one by Ptolemy (or Claudius Ptolemaeus or Klaudios Ptolemaios) who lived from 87 to 170 AD, the other by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) Both theories were scientific because both were based on observations and both could be checked against the actual movements of the stars and thus could be confirmed or disproven. The Ptolemaic system did of course, ultimately count as being disproven as the Copernican system did a better job of tracking stars as they "moved" around in the sky. The Ptolemaic system was based on the idea that the Earth was surrounded by several concentric globes, one inside the other, upon which were placed the sun, the planets and the stars. Did this result in a reasonably satisfactory system of navigation? Actually, it did. Within the relatively confined spaces of the Mediterranean, the Ptolemaic system was a decent method of moving ships from port to port with a minimum of voyages ending up off-course. When ships began traveling upon the Atlantic, the Copernican system proved invaluable as it provided ships with better navigation.

In the late 1990s, I ran across a piece with a theory about how the Earth was formed. It claimed that The Lord formed the Earth, after which He let natural processes take over. "Ah," I thought, "So we can dig down through the sedimentary layers and eventually get to a spot that was clearly divinely-formed?" Nope. Turned out that He formed the Earth as though it had been formed by natural processes and then abruptly turned everything over to those natural processes, thus making it appear that the Earth was formed entirely by natural processes. According to this theory, there's no physical distinction between the divinely-formed and the naturally-formed rocks or layers of sediment.

So, in the example of the Ptolemaic versus the Copernican systems of astronomy, we have two theories, both of which were scientific, but one of which was ultimately judged to be an incorrect description of reality. In the other, we have a theory of the Earth's formation which could very easily be entirely true, but there's no way to test its validity and therefore, it's not science.

I watched 45 minutes of the film "Expelled" and concluded that so far, Stein and his co-stars (All of whom "played" themselves) had presented only one theory that appeared to be in any way even arguably scientific and that presumed to rebut the theory of evolution. I posted the following on prawnworks:

I'm currently watching the Ben Stein anti-evolution film "Expelled" (I was told by an earnest pro-science employee of Blockbuster Video that it was garbage and not to bother, but I thought it best to see it for myself and draw my own conclusions). The main argument made so far (About 45 minutes into the film) is that of "irreducible complexity," the notion that a cell requires so many different "moving parts" or proteins, that it could not possibly have ever arisen from a simpler form. Action Bio-Science's answer to that is that yes, a cell, or in the example given, a mousetrap, may indeed be irreducibly complex, but a tie clip uses some of the elements of a mousetrap, which can then be adapted for use in the more complex machine. A cell, like a mousetrap, has many components that can operate independently. Evolution puts many components together and adapts others to accomplish different purposes.

So no, the film is incorrect to say that in order to construct a cell, that 40 proteins must be assembled from scratch, all at once. Two or more proteins can come together, perform a useful function (i.e., be the equivalent of a tieclip) and then later join with another combination of proteins to make a more complex, capable combination (i.e., a mousetrap).

It was amusing to then see, at the 49 minute mark, one of the anti-evolutionists complain "Our position gets reduced to 'Life is so complex, God must have done it!' " Well...yeah, that's exactly the conclusion I drew, from watching their film!

At an hour and 16 minutes, we see the real, central agenda of the whole film get expressed where an excitable interviewee declares: "It's the policy of the National Academy of Sciences that science and religion will not be related!" Bill Ewing, a buddy of mine from FUMCOG sent me the decision from the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. NAS states its basic philosophy:

As the National Academy of Sciences (hereinafter “NAS”) was recognized by experts for both parties as the “most prestigious” scientific association in this country, we will accordingly cite to its opinion where appropriate. ... NAS is in agreement that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data – the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.”

So it sounds to me as though Stein and friends are determined to expand the definition of science until the word becomes completely meaningless. They want to change the definition I gave above, so that "truth" becomes the essential criteria, i.e., so that theories like that of God forming the Earth in such a way that it appears to have been formed by natural processes becomes accepted as a "scientific" theory. As the decision says:

It is notable that defense experts’ own mission, which mirrors that of the IDM itself, is to change the ground rules of science to allow supernatural causation of the natural world, which the Supreme Court in Edwards and the court in McLean correctly recognized as an inherently religious concept.

Stein then talks a lot about morality, giving himself and his buddies a pat on the back for being such fine moral paragons of uprightness and propriety, but Scientific American points out that Stein very selectively cuts and slices and shaves off portions of his Charles Darwin quote to make it appear that Darwin was saying something that he simply wasn't saying at all. And Stein wasn't going around the country speaking to large, enthusiastic audiences. In the film, he is seen speaking to a one-time audience consisting of real supporters, but also of many paid "extras." Very importantly, the scientists interviewed for the film appear to have been interviewed under false pretenses.

...the producers first arranged to interview them for a film that was to be called Crossroads, which was allegedly a documentary on "the intersection of science and religion." They were subsequently surprised to learn that they were appearing in Expelled, which "exposes the widespread persecution of scientists and educators who are pursuing legitimate, opposing scientific views to the reigning orthodoxy," to quote from the film's press kit.
When exactly did Crossroads become Expelled? The producers have said that the shift in the film's title and message occurred after the interviews with the scientists, as the accumulating evidence gradually persuaded them that ID believers were oppressed. Yet as blogger Wesley Elsberry discovered when he searched domain registrations, the producers registered the URL "expelledthemovie.com" on March 1, 2007—more than a month (and in some cases, several months) before the scientists were interviewed. The producers never registered the URL "crossroadsthemovie.com". Those facts raise doubt that Crossroads was still the working title for the movie when the scientists were interviewed. [all emphases in original]

In the late 1970s, I took a college course on Nazi Germany. We read the very well-regarded book "Hitler" by Joachim Fest. Yes, Darwin is mentioned in the book as an intellectual influence on the young future dictator, but "Social Darwinism" is explicitly mentioned as acting alongside that, meaning that "Der Fuhrer" wasn't making a rigorous study of Darwin and then making careful, intellectually-sound judgments, he was mining the book for useful points that could then be twisted to serve his later purposes. I too, was moved by the scenes of Stein looking over Holocaust memorials, but as Wikipedia's History of Anti-Semitism makes clear, hatred for the Jewish people as a race pre-dates Charles Darwin by many, many centuries.

Ben Stein's movie is worth watching as a study in propaganda, but there's no "truth" contained within it.

2009/01/02

Reflection on eight years from Bush's aides

In the WaPo, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley start off by vigorously attacking the straw man that somehow President Bush was not receiving daily briefings on casualties in Iraq, especially during the high-casualty years of 2005 & 2006. This is something that no one on the left ever charged Bush with. The charge that was actually laid against Bush was that Iraq policy was in complete stasis during these years, that it was frozen in amber, that no one in the Oval Office had any idea of what to do to change anything. This actual, REAL charge is one that Bolten & Hadley do absolutely nothing to rebut.

The excuse offered is:

When asked why the president took so long to shift course after conditions in Iraq had clearly deteriorated, Hadley replied that Bush had a responsibility to keep hope alive for the soldiers, their families and other coalition partners in Iraq even while considering a new strategy.

Obviously "keeping hope alive" meant running around and spouting lots of "happy talk" and expressing confidence and grinning for the cameras. What it obviously didn't mean was getting down to the map room and speaking with people who actually knew something about how to deal with guerrilla wars, but of course this also meant speaking with people who (*Horrors!*) disagreed with the President! Bolten claimed:

"Plenty of times I have said, 'Boy, I think that's a terrible idea,' " he said. "The president is, possibly contrary to public opinion, very good about hearing and wanting contrary advice."

That may be true as far as receiving advice from his fellow Republicans and loyal aides goes, but I got the very distinct impression during the Bush Presidency that the following was entirely typical of how his whole administration dealt with non-Republicans who had contrary advice to offer:

Two groups, the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch, sued in 2001 to find out the names and positions of members of the energy task force headed by the vice president that year.
They allege that as Cheney drafted energy policy, he consulted industry executives such as Enron Corp.'s Ken Lay, making them effective members of his energy task force while leaving environmentalists out in the cold.

This tendency today shows itself in the Israeli-Gaza conflict:

Substantively, there are certainly meaningful differences between the U.S. attack on Iraq and the Israeli attack on Gaza (most notably the fact that Hamas really does shoot rockets into Israel and has killed Israeli civilians and Israel really is blockading and occupying Palestinian land, whereas Iraq did not attack and could not attack the U.S. as the U.S. was sanctioning them and controlling their airspace). But the underlying logic of both wars are far more similar than different: military attacks, invasions and occupations will end rather than exacerbate terrorism; the Muslim world only understands brute force; the root causes of the disputes are irrelevant; diplomacy and the U.N. are largely worthless.

The spirit of both the Israeli attack on Gaza and of Cheney's Energy Task Force and of countless examples in between seems to me to be absolutely identical. A "we know best" attitude along with "WHY are you bothering me with pesky things like details, facts and reality?!?!"

Sorry, but I find Bolten's evaluation of Bush, "He's a good decision-maker," to be utterly laughable.