Friday, October 28, 2005


That's right, I'm a master yo. I presented and handing in my thesis last night. Presentation went great. Even Ms. Colombia went to see it because she wanted to understand more about what I'm interested in and what I do. She referred to me as a "total nerd" afterwards. Heh. I warned her...

Still, I can't be totally concluded without a bit of distaste in my mouth. My thesis did not finish with the high standard that I had set for myself. It's still good (probably good enough for the A) but I'm quite critical of my work and it just lacked the punch that I was after. There are a couple reasons for this:

1. I received absolutely zero guidance from my professor...and, I needed some. The difficulty in writing a much longer paper is that it's dense. Organizing thoughts and arguments becomes more difficult. I went to my professor in September with very specific questions and sought very specific advice. But, he was typically useless. I guess he is just miscast as a teacher and he's ultimately not a very good one.

2. Working fulltime meant I had less time to fix things properly. Without guidance, finishing the thesis, at times, was like trying to batter down a wall with my head. Through brute force tactics I was able to organize and reorganize to continually improve the paper. But, that takes time and I've been short on time of late, so I ultimately got the thesis to a level that was acceptable, but not perfect.

3. That whole fiancee/Ms. Colombia thing. Damn distracting those cute Colombian girls.

In the end, I think I just wanted to be done. For awhile I was striving for perfection but several thoughts came to me: perfection is impossible and this is an MA thesis, not a PhD dissertation. The expectations are lower, the final product is smaller, and if I go the PhD route, then I can strive for perfection along the way. Ms. Colombia summed it up best: "At this point, I don't care about your grade, I just want you to have the degree."

Anyway, we all went to the pub after the presentation. A lot of people that I've met here in London showed up and that was very nice. My professor even came and I chatted with him for a good while. It's too bad he's such a lousy teacher, because he's a really smart guy and has great insights on Middle East politics (the issue he primarily works on). Of course, going to the pub make this a relatively rough morning, but hey, you only finish an MA once (or sometimes twice).

Monday I fly to Rome, so posting is going to be fairly sparse over the next couple weeks. Five days in Rome, then I'm off to Berlin for four, London for two, Paris for two, London for four, and then we fly to the States. Ms. Colombia and I fly to Chicago on November 15th, spend a week there, then to DC, she flys back to Colombia on Dec 3. The next month is going to fly by (bad pun intended).

...Still no word on Plamegate and the Karl Rove players.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Waiting Time

Work is busy, thesis is due tomorrow, I have little time. But, I'm eagerly awaiting the issuance of up to 5 indictments by Special Prosecuter Fitzgerald sometime later today. A press conference, it is believed, is scheduled for tomorrow. Plamegate is now getting juicy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


First and foremost, I'm happy to report that my dissertation is nearing a conclusion. It's due on Thursday and I'm in the process of wrapping up the last couple bits and pieces. I think the most difficult thing might be the title. I can't decide between, "The United Nations Security Council and the Use of Force: Why it works, why it doesn't" and "Why the United Nations Security Council Can't Consistently Regulate the Use of Force." I really like the term "regulate" but I'm not sure which title I like more. Oh, the hard decisions.

With some conclusion to the Plame/CIA/Rove probe likely to come this week, details are starting to emerge. And for Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen, your Vice President claiming to not know Joe Wilson, husband of Valerie Plame, on September 14, 2003:

MR. RUSSERT: Now, Ambassador Joe Wilson, a year before that, was sent over by the CIA because you raised the question about uranium from Africa. He says he came back from Niger and said that, in fact, he could not find any documentation that, in fact, Niger had sent uranium to Iraq or engaged in that activity and reported it back to the proper channels. Were you briefed on his findings in February, March of 2002?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. I don't know Joe Wilson. I've never met Joe Wilson. A question had arisen. I'd heard a report that the Iraqis had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular. I get a daily brief on my own each day before I meet with the president to go through the intel. And I ask lots of question. One of the questions I asked at that particular time about this, I said, "What do we know about this?" They take the question. He came back within a day or two and said, "This is all we know. There's a lot we don't know," end of statement. And Joe Wilson I don't who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.

I guess the intriguing thing, Tim, on the whole thing, this question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa. In the British report, this week, the Committee of the British Parliament, which just spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated their British claim that Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa. What was in the State of the Union speech and what was in the original British White papers. So there may be difference of opinion there. I don't know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that, but I guess, like I say, I don't know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn't judge him. I have no idea who hired him and it never came...

A clear lie as reported in the NYT and elsewhere. It is now clear, two years later that not only did the VP receive a briefing from CIA Director Tenet that included info on Wilson, but there are also documents that prove without doubt that Cheney passed on this information to his aide Irving "Scooter" Libby. A wonderful individual that Cheney. He curses out the opposition, he hands out defense contracts to his former bosses like they're candy, and he has no problem lying to the public on issues of national security. Glad to see we have the best of the best running the country (or deceiving them to the point that it is considered a lie).

Last, I watched the conclusion to a BBC documentary that one of my professors was directly involved with titled Elusive Peace. It's a fairly brilliant documentary, scathing to both Israel and the Bush administration, and leaves one with little hope for progress between the two sides until this administration is over. Particularly interesting is how much glee and joy that Israeli Prime Minister took in discrediting the Palestinians, seizing land illegally, and in ordering assassinations. That guy is clearly an animal. Also fascinating was just how badly Bush twisted in the wind. On one occassion, with Israel pressing Bush to give a speech supporting the Israeli land grab in the West Bank, Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen went to Washington to get Bush's support. After listening to Mazen, Bush spoke out against the Israeli security wall and denounced it as hostile to forging peace. Two days later, after listening to Sharon, Bush gave the speech supporting the wall and Sharon's land grab. Unbelievable really. It should be on in the US on your local PBS channel. More on this in a future post.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Is the US planning on invading Syria?

The hot news is that it's now evident that Syria was involved in the assassination of Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The investigation, commissioned by the United Nations and conducted by a German lawyer, makes clear several things:

- There is a mountain of eye witness testimony validating the theory that Syria approved, planned, and executed the assassination.

- It's clear that Syria was not just "less than cooperative" with the investigation. They tried to undercut the investigation at every turn, even "providing false or inaccurate statements" in an attempt to mislead the investigation.

- Syria had extremely strong motives to assassinate Hariri. Syrian President Bashar Assad wanted to extend Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term term by three years, something that Hariri was fighting to stop. Plus, Hariri wanted greater separation from Syria, something that certainly didn't sit well in Damascus.

- Hariri was threatened by various members of the Syrian government including by Assad himself. Two weeks after receiving a warning not to "[push] things too seriously", Hariri was dead.

The US is now conducting a review of policy options based on the UN report. UN Security Council action is expected, but no one seriously believes that the famously unilateral Bush administration will be satisfied with sanctions or foul language (about the extent of UNSC enforcement powers). Not only that, there are several reasons why Bush will want to attack Syria and most likely will:

1) Bush may be from Connecticut, but he's a self-styled Texan. He's going to want to "kick ass and take names". Bush loves looking tough and attacking Syria is the perfect way for him to look tough and deflect attention from the numerous failures at home (not to mention that not-so-wise Supreme Court nomination).

2) Iraq won't go quiet unless Syria does too. In short, the border is an open floodgate for insurgency in at least three ways: recruits, equipment, and safe haven. Neither the US or Iraq has been able to close the border, leading to a flood of insurgents and firepower. That's been well documented. What I haven't seen much on (most likely due to my fanatical dedication to the Washington Post at the exclusion of all other media) is that insurgents can and do use borders as staging areas for assaults. The North Vietnamese did it in Cambodia in the 60's; the Iraqi insurgents are doing it now. In fact, the Condi Rice made this argument yesterday in testimony that was both policy and politics. Importantly, Rice refused to take invasion off the table of options being considered, leading some to suggest invasion is a matter of "when" not "if".

[Aside: Rice also asserted that Bush didn't need further Congressional authorization for war in Syria or Iran, something that the Republican Senator from Maine flatly and pointedly rejected. The Bush admin sticking with it's belief, but it's an interesting story because it looks like the GOP could be calling it's dog in, not the Dems.]

3) Removing Assad, a dictator, would bolster Bush's vision for a democratic Middle East and serve as fair warning to Iran. Let's face it, from Bush's seat, Syria's a boil, Iran's a cancer. The real message that invasion would send would be as a warning to Iran. The US is clearly capable of blowing things up, but having the political willpower to broaden the "war on terror" could be the deterrent necessary to rein in Iran's nuclear program.

That being said, there are a number of reasons why the US should not invade Syria, including:

1) The military is overstretched already. There are recruitment shortages, morale is dropping, National Guard troops (ahem, reservists) have become full time active duty, and the military has had to drain troops from various other areas around the world to compensate for the numbers involved in Iraq. We're already spread thin; more wars make it less likely we can accomplish the goal of a peaceful Middle East and increase the risk of casualties.

2) The fog of war. Bush and Cheney like to think that war is as simple as pointing your cue stick at a country on the map and getting it done, but it obviously isn't that easy. The US has already suffered close to 2,000 dead soldiers in Iraq and that number is accelerating. Adding more fronts to the war only increases the vulnerability of our troops and is little more than a death warrant for thousands of young men and women who are being put in harms way.

3) Beating insurgency isn't easy. There's a long history of insurgency beating stronger opponents. The French got beat in Algiers and Vietnam, the US got beat in Vietnam, the Soviets got beat in Afghanistan, and the US is getting beat in Iraq (and the Brits, sadly, spent the better part of 200 years getting consistently beat by uppity insurgents disatisfied by colonial occupation). "Winning" a war against insurgents is a tough task that usually results in two things: human rights violations to subdue the opposition and waning public support. Widening the war to Syria only increases the risks that this continues.

There are many more reasons that could be discussed, but that's the short version. Widening the war to Syria (or Iran) will increase US casualties, result in the deaths of thousands of innocents, further destabilize the region, and is likely to fail.

That being said, Bush still might have to do it. He's in a position now where two things are clear: the credibility of US power is on the line and only desperate measures can "fix" Iraq. Superpower domination is predicated on the idea that you can make nations behave the way you desire and if they don't, you can punish them. That's certainly been the case in Iraq.

But more than that, Bush has staked the credibility of US power and of his own legacy on the idea that the US could institute democracy in the Middle East and that the world would be safer because of it. While that might still be possible in Iraq, most analysts aren't too confident, with a great deal of people predicting civil war when or if the US pulls out. If that happens, then the US looks the fool and Bush's reputation takes a global nose dive that will not be recoverable. Bush could care less about global popularity, but he is insanely passionate about his domestic approval ratings and that of the Republican party. His family already took a grave hit in 92 and Bush doesn't want to take another one, especially one that results in 8 years of Democrat rule and throws his brother's Presidential aspirations under the bus. So, in this sense, Bush's commitment to seeing Iraq through exists on both a personal and political level.

With that context in mind (if it is accurate, which my gut says it is), it makes sense that Bush would be willing to engage in a very risky move to broaden the war to Syria. In fact, since they can't solve the border issue, I'd say that the only chance Bush has of "securing" Iraq is if he green lights the invasion of Syria. In other words, it's the bottom of the ninth, he's down by two runs, there's two on and two out. A home run in Syria* would win the day for the Middle East, the Republican Party, and the Bush family legacy. How can he not risk it?

At least now Venezualan President Chavez can relax in the knowledge that the US is not going to attack his country first.**

*By "home run" I mean that invasion actually works in shattering the insurgency and creates order in both countries quickly. Occupation with ongoing insurgency in Syria would *not* be considered a home run. That would be a strike out.

**Read: Chavez is a jackass.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sharks & Vultures

The Karl Rove/Valerie Plame inquiry that I've discussed in detail previously has taken two new twists over the last 24 hours. First, a news report came out yesterday stating that President Bush knew about the leak two years ago and was angry at Rove for his "sloppy" handling of the leak. This, if accurate, would mark Mr. Bush as a liar since the White House line has always been that he knew nothing about it and would fire anyone who played a role in the leak. The White House is denying the accuracy of that news report yet not commenting as part of their long held policy of "not commenting on ongoing investigations". This report is likely to be accurate as the reporter is a former confidant of the Bush family (co-wrote James Baker's memoirs) who was granted access that most reporters were not granted (was considered for Pentagon spokesman). Thus, the press is now going nuts about this story and the White House is squirming again.

The other big news is that, as expected, the Rove machine sees blood in the water. The public knowledge currently available about the inquest appears to indicate that the true culprit might be I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (all good scandals involve a guy with a letter as his first name). While I seriously doubt Libby was able to do something like this on his own, as this article makes clear, Rove is launching a desperate bid to save himself. As it appears likely that someone in the administration is going to take a fall for this, Rove has nicely positioned himself as innocent while pinning the blame on Libby. What's interesting, however, isn't that Rove testified to that end in front of the grand jury. No, what's really interesting is that suddenly, this is becoming public. From where I'm sitting, it appears that the political machine is churning and this time, the Dogs of War are focused on one of their own. I'll not gleefully chortle as self-emasculation gets underway because it's my hope that justice is served. If Rove is guilty, then he needs to go down, along with the rest of the secret inner core of dirty politicos.

At any rate, there's another angle to all of this that I find fascinating in a three-car-accident-on-the-highway kind of way. One thing that has been revealed by the inquiry and media attention is that there was/is a tight cabal of administration officials that essentially made the Iraq policy. A lot of discussion has gone into the influence of the neo-conservatives, but little press had been dedicated to exactly how that influence enabled the war. It seems obvious now that the Iraq WMD fable was organized, created, and propagated by the tight relationship between Vice President Cheney and SecDef Rumsfeld. Colin Powell's former chief of staff Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson blows the cover off in this report in which he argues that the Cheney-Rumsfeld alliance hijacked US foreign policy and force fed a specific agenda and viewpoint on Iraq. Wilkerson has now joined Richard Clarke, the former Terrorism Czar, and Paul O'Neill, the former Treasury Secretary, in making this argument. The falling rocks have become an avalanche.

President Bush, by all accounts, is a hands off people manager. He doesn't want to know details, he doesn't like to get dirty. He's not Bill Clinton or the first George Bush, who both notably would stay up late reading memo's and reports and had full engagement in most levels of policy. Instead, Bush employs people he feels he can "trust", they give advice, and he makes the decisions. While I disagree with this management style at many levels, one thing that seems clear is that the hands off approach enabled Bush's minions to carefully tailor their desired agenda in a way that would embolden the President to act in Iraq.

I want to make this clear: I'm not accusing the President of anything. From what I've heard and read, he seems like a genuinely nice guy. But, more to the point, unless you're in the Oval Office, you'll never know what goes on in his head and how decisions are truly made. But, I am fairly convinced at this point that the decision to go into Iraq was made by the Cheney-Rumsfeld group, that the group tailored intelligence data to support their claim, that they sold that information to the President, and that we went to war for extremely curious reasons in a situation that didn't require action.

The big picture, of course, is how the White House operates under President Bush. While this will inevitably be debated for years to come by historians and political scientists, it looks like the President's management style encourages subordinates to compete with each other to gain the ear of the decision maker. Regardless of the actual effect on policy, what that tactic really encourages is divisions in the upper levels of the administration. For example, Defense didn't talk to State because State wanted a softer line on Iraq. Thus, when a State Department office concluded (correctly) that Iraq had not reconstituted it's WMD program, that information never made it to Defense (or was blatantly ignored). The cumulative effect of this type of management is that decisions are made with a less than fair and full review of the facts resulting in catastrophe's like the Iraq invasion.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

International Politics, Cocaine, and Colombia

There's a very interesting article on the BBC today about the narcotics trade in Colombia. This is a subject I've taken particular interest over the past year and, for obvious reasons, will remain heavily interested in for the long term. There's a documentary style program on BBC2 tonight at 7pm that I would like to see about it, but sadly, I'll still be at work.

This BBC program is likely to be groundbreaking in two particular ways.

In 2000, the US launched Plan Colombia, a military assistance package aimed at providing technology and training to the Colombian military with the goal of reducing or eliminating coca production (the plant cocaine is produced from). Congress, fearing entanglement (Vietnam-style), put explicit restrictions on the aid package: US military personnel were prohibited from engaging in the field and the technology transferred was designated (restricted) to fighting narco-traffickers, not guerrillas or insurgents (FARC and ELN). The Congress was justifiably nervous about providing US military assistance to a country fighting a 40 year insurgency, especially with apparent similarities between Colombia and Vietnam.

What Plan Colombia clearly got wrong, however, is that by 2000, there was little difference between guerrilla or narco-trafficker. After the fall of Pablo Escobar (1992, I believe), the cocaine industry was like a giant with it's head cut off. There were more "players" in the cartels and a struggle for control. In the aftermath (and I'm not exactly sure when), the FARC and the paramilitaries (groups formed to fight the Marxist rebels) seized control of the cocaine trade. So, when Plan Colombia went into action, it was based on a false division between guerrilla and narco-trafficker. This is something that is obviously true, but is barely evidenced by Western media sources. Instead, they repeat the party line issued out of Washington (Plan Colombia only fights narco-traffickers) and Bogota (the guerrillas don't engage in the cocaine trade). This BBC report shovels the last bit of dirt onto the grave of that illusion.

The other clear implication from the BBC article is that if Plan Colombia is designed to reduce cocaine production, then it's a clear failure. That's not to say Plan Colombia is meritless. Indeed, it appears true that Plan Colombia has allowed the Colombian military to make great strides against the guerrillas and paramilitaries. Violence is down, kidnappings are down, and order dominates most areas. But, cocaine production is up, the price of cocaine on the streets is dropping, and all the fumigation in the world isn't making a dent. Well, it's a bit more complicated than that.

Coca production in Colombia may very well be down. It's almost impossible to measure as the response to large scale fumigation has been to break up coca plantations into smaller, harder to find fields. The narco-traffickers certainly took a hit, but they changed tactics and aren't feeling a pinch. Detection of coca fields is also complicated by almost continuous cloud cover over the most fertile areas, cover that blocks US satellite photos. In sum, the US and UN belief that coca plants are down is, at best, an educated guess.

One thing that does appear true, however, is that any crackdown on coca production in Colombia has merely pushed farmers into other nations. Peru and Bolivia are definitely seeing increased coca production and the data correlates with the installment of Plan Colombia. In other words, fighting coca production causes crop shifts, not elimination.

The reason for the shift is obvious. Plan Colombia did nothing to address the underlying cause of coca production in Colombia - poverty. Poor farmers can either grow coffee (or other legal products) for very low, subsistence level wages or they can grow coca for higher earnings. It's an easy choice. Absent some type of crop substitution program (although I'm not sold on that) or land reform in Colombia, there is little hope that all the herbicide in the world could stop coca production in Colombia.

As a future resident of Colombia, I'm overjoyed that coca production appears to be shifting to other countries. The less revenue the guerrillas and paramilitaries have, the better. I'm not so interested in getting mugged, shot, kidnapped, or otherwise endangered. And, from a cursory glance, it appears that the only way to defeat an insurgency is to cut out it's support - both financial and political. So there's a chance that falling coca profits could jeopardize the viability of the revolutionary movements in Colombia. That's a good thing.

But, at the same time, the policy hawk inside can't abide by shift. Colombia's problem should not just be pushed into Bolivia or Peru's lap. Those countries have enough problems as is. Policy needs to be tailored more aggressively to address the root causes of cocaine trafficking: high demand in the developed world and low opportunities in the developing world. And this is where Plan Colombia truly fails. One would hope that a $3 billion investment would reap dividends, but Plan Colombia tied its own hands by not addressing the root causes of the problem and only applied a military solution. This debate needs to be reopened. I generally favor Plan Colombia in the sense that it's has helped President Uribe to prosecute the war against insurgency in Colombia. But, it's just non-sensical to give a half-assed effort for such an enormous problem.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The micro-level importance of party politics

I try not to be too partisan. It's difficult at times because some of the things that GOPers say and do are flagrantly disgusting to me, but I still try. One of the things that living abroad has really impressed upon me, however, is just how small the differences are between the Democrats and Republicans. If you remove cultural issues (abortion, gays, role of religion), then you're talking about micro-debates that only the most informed 1% of 1% could actually understand. Seriously, does anyone really have any idea what the differences are between the GOP and Democrat Social Security plans aside from "private investment" versus "status quo"? I doubt it.

Maybe because the differences are so minute, American politics is often reduced to philosophy. Republicans, it is said, stand for less government, less spending, and more individual freedom (as long as you're not killing unborn babies or sodomizing people of the same sex, but stockpiling assault rifles is fine). Democrats stand for bigger government, more social services, and a more liberal, secular society, we are told.

I call poppycot. Here are the facts: The Reagan and first Bush administrations saw runaway spending, big government, economic boom and bust, and most notably, corruption. Their ideology is, in essence, tax cut and spend. The eight years of Clinton saw falling crime rates, economic growth, smaller government (tight budget cuts to address the excess of the Reagan/Bush years as well as Welfare Reform). And, notably, even with a 7 year investigation, the only corruption that could be found is that Clinton was too embarrassed to admit receiving a BJ in the Oval Office, so he lied about it. Now, we are year 5 of the Bush administration. Deficits are at an all time high, the economy is flat, and most notably, corruption is skyrocketing. If anything, this government stands for one thing: mismanagement.

I don't really care about the politics. That's probably because I don't believe there is a party that satisfies my position. The "Third Way" Democrats came close (and probably the "Blue Dog" Republicans, but I don't know where they stood on social issues), but no one's got it right now. Why we can't have a party that is fiscally conservative, yet socially (and internationally) responsible, is beyond me. But that's not really my point.

My point is, Americans need to stop thinking about politics in terms of parties, issues, and philosophies and start thinking about politics in terms of management. If you sidebar the most contentious social issues, then it seems obvious that management experience trumps politics. I know some people can't do that because they feel that those social issues are too important to sidebar. To them I'd say, do you really think that Roe v. Wade will ever be overturned? Do you really think that a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage will ever be passed? Making voting decisions based on those factors, especially when those decisions empower clearly incompetent managers as Presidents or Congresspeople, is non-sensical. But, the various political parties have managed to convince the great majority of Americans that parties still matter.

But, even if those social issues are not something that can be pidgeonholed, voters still should not employ clearly incompetent managers in political positions. Think about it. Under this administration, the President has:

- Enabled a huge national security leak because of the Vice President's fight with the CIA that not only threatens indictments of his inner circle, but also endangered intelligence assets in the field;
- Failed to heed the advice of his advisors about an immanent attack in the United States in August 2001, not to mention failed to respond to the terrorist attack on the USS Cole;
- Employed a college buddy who ran a horse racing association as FEMA director resulting in the grossest mismanagement of a national emergency in US history;
- Seen the budget deficit skyrocket to levels so large that it will take a decade or longer to fix and will result in cuts to Medicaid and that illusive Senior Citizen drug benefit;
- Handed out Federal contracts without fair and competitive bidding (a process Reagan made famous with $500 toilet seats);
- And on.

I don't care what your politics are. If you invested in a company and the CEO engaged in this behavior you would sell your shares or push for his ousting. The United States is a giant company that all Americans have a stake in. We should be smarter than this.

But hey, America, what a country. We execute criminals while we try to protect the rights of the unborn. We think that all children, regardless of religion, should be told that a "higher power" created the earth and universe, even though that violates long held constitutional doctrine. We think that while the global warming "hypothesis" is a curiosity and we refuse to join the world in reducing carbon emissions even though we pollute more than anyone else. We invade countries for dubious reasons while we reject any overtures of international law because it risks violating our "sovereignty". We criticize third world regimes for human rights violations, yet we intern people indefinitely and deny them due process in Guantanamo Bay (not to mention the abuse at Abu Ghraib - warning, graphic photos from that link). The list goes on.

I believe America is better than that. I believe that our choices for President in the last election were the least common denominators. I believe, that as Americans, we should demand more. We, and the world, deserves better.

Monday, October 17, 2005

It's Amore

Ah Venice.

Venice is an amazing place. A sure tourist trap, of course, but amazing no doubt. We arrived fairly late on Wednesday night after an uneventful flight from London. The ground transportation was smooth (a cheap and fast bus from Marco Polo airport to the island of Venice) and the water bus was pretty cool, if not a bit chilly. Still, we didn't want to miss the sights along the Grand Canal, so we sat in the front and endured a very chilly wind.

We got off the water bus at the Rialto Bridge. The Rialto Bridge is the most famous bridge in Venice (I think there are four total bridges that span the Grand Canal) and that's for good reason. It's a fairly massive structure that's been there for hundreds of years and is a tourist hot spot. We headed from there to our hotel, the Hotel Gallina. We were told it was half-way between the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark's Square...which it was, if you think "half-way" means "half-way, turn left, and walk another 10 minutes". Really, it's not that far, but when you're tired, hungry, and cold, well, it seemed longer and more out the way than it really was.

Checking in was no problem. The hotel was clean and friendly; we did well. Finding food, however, was a different story. By 11 pm on a Wednesday, your options are limited. We walked and walked but all we could find was overpriced (as in €45/each) cuisine that we weren't willing to shell out for. Finally, in a moment of stark brilliance (read: declining idiocy) we realized that heading for a touristy area was our most likely bet to find affordable food. St. Mark's Square paid dividends, even if it did cost us €40 for pizza, pasta, a beer, and a Sprite.

Thursday and Friday were glorious days. The weather was amazing, the sights were fantastic, and the company won the day. We did some shopping, rode a gondola, and saw some sights (including Doge's Palace which was sweet). But, I'm not going to turn this into a travelogue. Instead, I'm going to do what I always do. Comment on culture and life.

First and most importantly, Ms. Colombia and I made it official on Thursday, October 13th. We're engaged. We bought a ring that she really liked in a store off St. Mark's Square (more on this later). We had been (unofficially) engaged for a couple weeks now but had not announced to everyone because we didn't have a ring and we wanted to spread the word amongst family and close friends first. But now that those two issues are resolved, I'm announcing it publicly.

I have to say that I'm as happy about this as I could be about anything in this life. Since the start, Ms. Colombia has expressed what she liked/loves about me the most in a simple word: consistency. That word expresses, to her, my consistent passion for her, for life, for adventure, etc. It's a simple way for her to sum up key elements of my character without being unduly long-winded (something I'm incapable of apparently). Well, for me, the word that best sums up Ms. Colombia to me is: partner. She's a partner in everything that I do, everything I want to do, and in every dream that may not ever come to fruition (but should). I know that I have a true partner with her and I simply can't express how amazing that is.

This has all happened so rapidly, which is against both of our natures, but I don't have any doubts or second thoughts. Ms. Colombia simply has all the qualities that I'm after (and vice versa), we met at the exact right moment (for many reasons), and in life, you just can't put things on a timetable. Even if we had another 6 months or longer in this country, we probably wouldn't wait anyway.

Second, Italians are rude. At least the ones in Venice. They throw change at you, they push you when you're in a crowd, and, as one gentleman said to me, "In Italy, nothing is easy." I was shocked and appalled at the collective behavior of the people who live and work in Venice. It was not about to spoil my experience, but it was just completely unexepected. I've always had this vision that Italians were some of the nicest people around. Maybe they are, but certainly not in Venice. (We did meet a nice woman at the symphony and she was from Sicily, so it's undoubtedly regional.)

Third, while there are many benefits of dating (marrying! yikes!) a Colombiana, one stood out over the last couple days: this girl knows how to barter. Venice is rife with people hawking goods on the street - some legal and some illegal. The illegal goods are exclusively handbags. Italy, it appears, is a hovel for overpriced "fashions" that I consider mostly craptacular. It is not unusual for people to pay in excess of €1000 for a purse. However, since most mortals can't afford absurdly high prices for items with limited utility that wear out over time, they settle for cheap copies. Ms. Colombia falls in that vein, except that she doesn't even know what the top names are, nor does she care (yet another reason I love her). She just sees a bag she likes and that's that. It could be K-Mart or Burberry, don't matter.

Anyway, the street merchants carry around garbage bags full of counterfeit bags. The Italians don't want you to purchase them, but there really isn't anything that they can do. When the police come, the merchants bag up there stuff and get lost in the maze of warrens that make up Venetian streets.

Back to the point, several times, Ms. Colombia bargained. Each time, the vendors requested prices from €50 to €150. But, Ms. Colombia is no fool. She knows all the tricks and she learns the local custom quick. So, the €50 purse was had at the low price of two for €25 (one for her mother) and the €150 bag was had for, no joke, €10. She accomplished that particular sale by laughing at the initial offer and walking away. The guy followed and said, "how much you want to pay?" To which, she replied, "€10". He laughed at her. They conversed in Spanish, she gave him €10, she got the bag. Don't ask me how. She just gets it done.

Another example. Gondola rides were €80. We didn't want to pay that much. She negotiated. We got the ride for €60, which was her initial offer. Her winning line was in response to the question, "How much do you want to pay?" to which she replied, "We're students with very little money so we don't want to pay anything, but if we had to pay, we would pay €60." Clever girl.

A final example. We went ring shopping. We hadn't planned on it (I was going to wait until we got back to the States), but there were shops, so we looked. She found one she really liked. It's white gold with four (very) small diamonds placed in the band. She didn't want anything too fancy and she didn't care about the quality of the diamonds. She just wanted something that would look nice and have meaning. (More reasons I love her.) This one fit the criteria and I could tell straight away that she really liked it. But the price was €450. Not anymore. Through very effective Span-lian (like Span-glish, but different), she got it down to €225.

Now that's a keeper.

All in all, it was a great weekend. We ate loads of cheap Italian food (mostly pizzas), we did some shopping, saw some sights, went to the symphony, and enjoyed just being together. It was one of those weekends that will be forever imprinted in my heart, mind, and soul. I can't imagine a more spectacular way to get engaged.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

No Risk, No Reward

We're off to Venice this afternoon for a three day holiday. Should be fantastic. But, before I go, I thought I'd put a little post up, especially since I'm in a holding pattern at work at the moment.

I've been reading a good bit about the scandals currently rocking the White House and threatening to expand into greater imbroglios. As I've mentioned before, the GOP is having to face tough music on a variety of fronts that they have little answer too. Regardless of your politics, this is all good news because corruption in any form should be challenged and defeated. And yeah, I know that a good public whipping right now won't exactly help the GOP, but it's cyclical. The Dems took their beating in the late 80's and early 90's and suffered politically because of their corrupt ways. Now should be the time for the GOP to get their comeuppance as it would be nice if the country could return to debate about actual issues instead of a debate about cronyism, election fraud, and security breaches.

However, that being said, the Valerie Plame/Karl Rove scandal appears to be on the cusp of indictments. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal is reporting that Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald is widening his inquiry from simply the question of "who leaked what" to questions of conspiracy: Was there a conspiracy to "out" Plame conducted by the White House Iraq Group? Was there an organized coverup? These questions, and more, a likely to be answered in the near future.

What's interesting to me, however, is not the micro-debates about leaks and coverups. Sure, I'll take glee if Rove is ruined politically. The guy is the worst that politics has to offer and should have gone down years ago. But that's not what I'm really interested in. No, I'm interested in WMDs.

For a long time, the Democrats have predictably fumbled the WMD/War in Iraq issue. Kerry couldn't come up with anything better than, "I voted for the war, then I voted against it". The nuance of his approach was entirely irrelevant. Voters weren't going to discern the nuance even if they could hear it over the cacophony of propaganda offered by the GOP on that issue. No, Kerry's strategy, much like the overall Dem strategy on this issue, was like a fish flopping on the shore - desperately hopeless.

The strategy that should have been adopted is quite simple. The Dems voted for the War on the presumption that Bush was telling the truth about WMDs. He wasn't. They lied. There is tons of evidence that the administration was not forthright about the "evidence", that the facts were manipulated, and that there was a specific decision by the Bush Squad to go to war as early as June 2002. The Dems should have taken this too Bush and the GOP early and often, but not the way the Dems usually do things. They should have been aggressive.

Here's a simple way my strategy could have played out at the Presidential debates:

Question: Senator Kerry, how do you explain voting for the war, then voting against it?
Kerry: When the President requested the Senate's approval to use force in Iraq that was based on a set of intelligence information that we now know to be false. My support for the war, much like the American people's support, was based on the idea that the President was telling the truth, that Iraq had WMDs, and that the President was going to work through the United Nations process to attempt to coerce Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspections. We now know that the President was less than forthcoming about everything that he knew about Iraq. We now know that Iraq never had any WMDs. We now know that the President and his team sold the American people a pack of lies about the Iraqi threat. So, if you're asking me how could I vote for a war and then against it, perhaps you could ask the President, "Where are Iraq's WMDs?" I'm sure the families of the soldiers sent home in bodybags would like answers to that question.

That's called OFFENSE. Not wishy-washy safe politics. In your face, aggressive, hard charging politics.

Here's another example. This one for a TV ad:

[Roll The Star Spangled Banner or something like that.]

Picture starts of American soldiers at attention, marching, etc. [Music fades]

Voice over by Kerry: "As an American, I'm proud of our young men and women in the armed forces. They make sacrifices to defend the freedom of our great nation and never ask for much in return."

[Music becomes saddening. Scene changes to various elements of tragedy: coffins, explosions, crying families - what have you.]

Kerry continues: "Unfortunately, President Bush doesn't have the same respect for the men and women of the Armed Services. Mr. Bush thinks it's ok to send our troops off to fight unnecessary wars. Mr. Bush thinks it's ok to fight wars without just cause. But I don't think that's right. I understand the sacrifices that men and women make in the Armed Forces. And as President I would never send American troops into battle without cause. I promise I'll never engage in a voluntary war."

[Shift to angry parents with lost loved ones.]

Kerry: "We want to know, where are the WMDs, Mr. Bush?"


You get the idea. A whole series of ads could have been planned with people asking, "where are the WMDs Mr. Bush?" I've got dozens of ideas (and had them all last summer) but no one asked me (no surprise there).

OK - Here's the reason why they didn't do this: The Dems are paranoid of alienating the public. It's never about just this election. It's about the next and the next and the next. The people who run the party would rather win 49% this time and hope for 50.1% next time. They see small margins of victory or defeat and know they only have to win a few votes here and there to win the day. So, they get conservative.

I think a football analogy is best to defeat this reasoning, so bear with me. In the Super Bowl, in several games, and in last week's game, the New England Patriots have found themselves with the football, with about a minute left in the game, and the game tied. The conservative strategy would have been to run out the clock, go into overtime, and take your chances. Guess what? The Patriots have never done that. Instead, they charge down the field, get in range, kick the winning field goal, and march off with trophies and rings.

And here's the point: The Dems should do that too. The GOP swung for the fences in 1994 and secured a landslide victory. For the first time in a long time, they got organized and unified, got aggressive, and banished the Dems to minority status in the House for over a decade. They didn't get there by being conservative. Aggressive strategies work. More experienced people could tinker with my ideas and hit home runs. It just takes a bit of courage.

But wait, what about alienating the public? I say they're already alienated. People just aren't enthusiastic about politics. That's the way it is. When they see politicians, they see corrupt officials doing what they do - helping themselves and their friends. People loved Clinton partly because he didn't appear to be a part of that group. Instead, he wanted to get out there, meet the little guys of the world, and lend a helping hand. I think they like Bush for similar reasons. Most people, I believe, like to envision what it would be like to meet the President. They liked Reagan because they knew he would entertain, Clinton because he was good for a laugh, and Bush II because he's folksy and could talk about the weather. They didn't like Bush I because he was serious and had bad glasses. They didn't like John Kerry because not only did he look like Skeletor, but he also just didn't seem like the kind of guy you would want to hang out with. He had no discernible personality. But the Crusader would have worked. People liked the Entertainer, they liked the Womanizer, and they like Big Country. They could have latched onto the Crusader. And lets face it, people were looking for every reason to vote against Bush last November.

Anyway, philosophically, I believe you need offense and defense to win an election. The defense is a personality. The Crusader sure tops the Golem, so it would have been preferable. The offense would have been continually hammering home the message: Where are the WMDs? That's one from Karl Rove's handbook, sadly, the Democrats were either too blinded or too frightened to act. I guess there's always next time.

(As an aside, I don't believe in the "carry over" effect of Presidential elections. The public memory is short term at best. Even if Kerry had totally alienated the public, the Dems could have spinned that onto Kerry and the public would have bought it. And even if they didn't, they would have forgotten the intensity of alienation. There are dozens of other angles about this one too, but suffice it to say, paralysis because of fear of losing the next election has got to be the stupidest thing I've ever seen - including the guy who drank a beer with his glass perched on his prosthetic foot that he swiveled around to put near his face.)

Monday, October 10, 2005

Good News in New Orleans...

...Amtrak has reopened travel to the beleagured city. Now people can return to normal and continue to ignore mass transit as an effective form of transport.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Rich Stay Rich...And Other Reasons Why Living in the UK Would Be A Hard Sell

Well, I'm finally recovering from my latest bout of illness. It was the flu this time, methinks. Came on suddenly, all the classic symptoms, and I even missed a day of work. There's this theory that is murmured in the quiet hours of dreary office mornings or droll afternoons that London is a particularly hostile climate to live in because of the combination of harsh environmental conditions and the manic lifestyle. It's been said that it takes newcoming immune systems a year or two to adapt. It's especially hard on the body in the grey days of October - February where the sun is rarely seen and almost never felt.

Perhaps there is some truth to that. I'm quite sure the cause of the latest infernal bug is attributable to one of my fellow early morning commuters. There's nothing like hurling down dark tunnels in tightly packed steel and plastic containers at 60 mph while rampant germ incubation exposes the lot to all sorts of hostile and unmentionable contaminants. And, since I've been living pretty healthy the last couple weeks (no drinking, no smoking), I'd have to say that the environment got the best of me since the lifestyle was not in play. Yet another reason to flee this city before the dead of winter sets in and the sun is banished from the sky forever.

But, none of that has to do with what I wanted to talk about today. Instead, I figured a bit of melodrama about my own personal illness that has dominated the week could garner a glimse of sympathy.

No, today, the topic is one of pure insanity. See, I've always wondered about that phrase, "the rich get richer". While the liberal elements in me suggest there must be some truth to it, the cynic in me argues that phrases like that are just simple, consumable packets offered by elites to buy support from the masses because either A) they're convinced that the masses won't understand an actual argument; or, B) they're afraid there is no real argument to sell (sort of like how there is no labor movement in America anymore even though there are plenty of big buildings in downtown DC that think there is). And, if you followed that extended run on sentence, then kudos for you, because I've lost track of where I am.

Let's see. The rich staying rich. Right.

At my newish job, I have a co-worker who is in the market for "property" (a flat). We've talked about it a good bit because she's the nice sort and, all things being even, when you're doing work that a trained chimpanzee could accel at, well, you need some chit chat every now and then to ensure that you don't go completely insane. Over the course of our working relationship, she has educated me on the nature of property "ownership" in the UK and why the system is completely rigged for those who are wealthy landowners of a bygone era.

See, unlike the US, in the UK there are "Freeholders" and "leaseholder". Both can "own" and "sell" property, but only one is actually the owner. The Freeholder is the individual who actually owns the property. A good majority of Freeholders (in London at least) are legacy Freeholders. They've owned the property for centuries or longer. Many times, they received the land through some type of Royal arrangement. Other times, they bought it fair and square.

The Leaseholder, however, is the current "owner" of the property. Freeholders "sell" the property to a "Leaseholder" for a variable amount of time. It could be as low as 75 years; it could be as high as 125 years. That's the range. Thus, many (if not most) properties "for sale" in London are actually for "lease" for a period of 75 - 125 years depending on the actual contract.

This is legacy wealth. If you own a property that you inherited from your family that you sell, then you will earn money on that property. However, if you "lease" that property for 75 years, you still make the exact same amount of money, but then your kids (or grandkids) get to do the same thing and regenerate family wealth that you may have depleted through your notorious GDW fetish (Gambling, Drink, and Women).

Comparatively, Average Alistair would never be able to benefit his family as such. Instead, in order to perpetuate family wealth, he would have to contain his GDW fetish, save and invest, and, if fortunate enough, purchase a Freehold.

I'm not sure why this bothers me so much. But when my co-worker educated me about all this, my reaction was, "And you actually put up with this????" Apparently, you have no choice in this country. I'm shocked that someone hasn't attempted to litigate this away. I don't know what the legal standing would be, but this system is rooted in the archaic swill of a Royal legacy that's past its expiration date.

I suppose that understanding this quirk of English property law really angers me because I see just how difficult it is for a hard working, bright, and ambitious young woman to purchase a property that is of suitable size and in a location not likely to get you mugged, raped, or killed. It's an impossible real estate market as is and when you throw the Freeholder phenomena into the mix you create an even more difficult situation for aspiring owners. Property ownership should be about investing. It should be something people want to do, something that benefits them in the long run so that they have a real stake in their neighborhood, their residence. Long term leasing (because that's what it really is) removes those values from the ownership system and undercuts the entirety of why property rights are a good idea. Not only that, the system makes it tougher for people of the middle class persuasion to improve their standing and their lives. On it's merits, the Freehold system is a sham and should be abolished.

Thank God I don't have to deal with that in the US or elsewhere. Instead, we have a simple system where the rich stay rich the traditional way - by taxing the poor and paying their accountants thousands to wiggle through the tax code at the cheapest price, i.e. The American Way.

All of this, however, raises an entirely different question. Just as I'm so appalled by the British system, citizens here just accept it as the way things are. They don't like it, but they're not going to get irate about it or anything. Instead, they just navigate it to the best of their abilities and carry on. Which, I suppose, demonstrates that all things are relative.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


In my field, there is considerable debate about the role of corruption in developing economies. Conservative anti-foreign aid hacks (read: isolationists at heart) vehemently argue that aid donations go straight to corrupt regimes and inhibit development. Ergo, we should not give aid. Nothing like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, especially when you're wrong. A UN study recently definitively disproved the claim that high levels of corruption correlate with low economic development. In fact, the study found that their is little to no connection between corruption levels and economic growth. India, for example, rates as one of the most corrupt governments in the world, yet also enjoys double digit growth rates - also one of the highest in the world. Some countries prosper, some don't because ultimately economics is a complicated game and you can't reduce it to sole factors (except in extreme cases).

Why am I writing this? Well, simply, because there's a new leader in worldwide corruption and it's the United States of America. Reminscent of 1994 when the GOP siezed power from long term Democrat control because of corruption scandals involving various Senators and House leaders, the current Republican power base is enduring a similar situation. As this article explains, there is grave political fallout to the following scandals:

I've discussed Karl Rove in this space before and while that had quieted down a bit, we can expect something to happen soon. Special prosecuter Fitzgerald finally compelled New York Times reporter Judith Miller to testify in the investigation and this report by the Washington Post suggests that there may be criminal conspiracy charges filed against two or more of George Bush's staff.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican (obviously) is under investigation for insider trading ala Martha Stewart.

Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (a true *sshole in every sense) is under indictment for campaign finance fraud. The charges are essentially the political equivalent to money laundering and will be a thorn in his side for quite some time.

The White House's former top procurement officer, David Safavian was arrested for lying to prosecutors and obstructing a criminal investigation into the distribution of government contracts. No shocker there that this administration is being investigated for shady procurement since every other contract goes to Halliburton or other Bush pals.

Top GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has close ties to the Bush administration, is under indictment for wire fraud and conspiracy.

Add it all up and it stinks of the type of politics that has come to define America - the world's leader and "top democracy". Not that it's going to matter. The top democracy in the world has so gerrymandered its voting districts that even with grave political fallout it's unlikely that the Democrats will be able to seize control. If the Democrats made one mistake before losing power in 1994, it was that they didn't play by Republican rules and secure their power base by artificially adjusting voting territory. Sadly, with vast amounts of political corruption, elections that end in ties and are decided by the Supreme Court, and spurrious invasions in other countries, when it boils down to it, the US remains the most hollow and ineffective example of democracy to the world. The illusion that the US is a "model" for the world appears to have rubbed off. Now, the only people modelling US behavior are politicians that want to rig their own systems to their advantages.

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