April 2006

Iran’s Nukes: Who Gets to Decide Who’s too Crazy to have the Bomb?

Sunday, April 30th, 2006

“We should all long for sane enemies.”

Big Question regular Tracy wrote that good wish as part of the Iran’s Nukes: Who Gets to Decide and on what Basis? discussion last week. I put Tracy’s comment into a little roundup of good comments from the thread that was to run in the Saturday paper. When I got my Saturday paper, the roundup was in, somewhat shrunken, and no Tracy. One reason I’m likin’ the bloggin’ is that I don’t have to live with how many words will fit in a particular space on a finite page.

BQ regular yoyobang upped the ante with this: “I believe the president of Iran is “off his rocker.â€? I also believe that President Bush is too.”

My new question: Who gets to decide who’s too crazy to have the bomb?

Iran’s Nukes: Who gets to decide?

Day One at the U.N.

Friday, April 28th, 2006

If you came in this morning looking for the excellent discussion of “Iran’s Nukes: Who Gets to Decide and on what Basis?” that was promoted in today’s Strib, you’ll find it here. I’ve been thrilled at the quality of the discussion. Thanks to all commenters for maintaining civility. If you haven’t commented, new voices are needed, especially if you have new information or insights. Or jump in on the new comment thread at the bottom of this post.

On Day One of the Iran nuclear issue meets the U.N. Security Council, the IAEA didn’t soft-pedal its finding that Iran is rejecting its call to stop enriching uranium, and denying the IAEA the access it would need to determine whether Iran is taking steps in the direction of a bomb.

President Ahmadinejad of Iran is quoted in the Daily Times of Pakistan saying Iran doesn’t give a damn about any U.N. resolutions regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and that obtaining nuclear technology is a national demand.

Thank you, Mr. President, for your ongoing efforts to keep this confrontation from turning into an even scarier crisis. The Iran experts to whom I’ve been talking this week mostly feel that you have to take Ahmadinejad’s statements should be understood as efforts to play to his political base.

Carleton College historian Adeeb Khalid, who has been to Iran several times, said Ahmadinejad is “a radical right-wing hardliner, just like we have in the White House.” Iran has an “internal domestic constituency that goes for that kind of thing,” he said, meaning militant in-your-face rhetoric directed at the country’s enemies. “So do we,” said Khalid.

There are a great many Israel angles to the Iran nukes issue. (No duh.) There’s the belief in some circles that the U.S. is confronting Iran mostly to protect Israel. There’s the question of whether, if Iran got a bomb, it would launch it at Israel. There’s the speculation that Israel might be the one that will take a preemptive military action against Iran, as it did against Iraq long ago.

Outside the United States, a lot of people will suggest that Washington has no principled basis for denying Iran access to a nuclear weapon, since it tolerates Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Responding to that notion, Stephen Silberfarb of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota, posed this question: Does having a principled position on who can have nuclear weapons in the Middle East mean that you cannot try to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys, between your friends and your allies, and that you are not supposed to take into account which countries have a track record of subsidizing and arming terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas?

The History News Network, a great website for linking historical writing to the news of the day, has a link to just-breaking National Security Archive research piece about the behind-the-scenes at the Nixon White House in 1969-70 as Washington learned that Israel was about to develop a nuclear weapon.< Nixon, Henry Kissinger and other familiar names from that era seriously considered pressuring Israel not to cross the nuclear line, but in the end did not.

A couple of other weird and wild Iran-Israel facts you may not know:

Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian/Iranian Empire 2500 years ago, is an honored hero in Jewish history.
After Cyrus conquered Babylon (in modern-day Iraq) he acquired a population of Jewish slaves who had been exiled from their homeland by the previous Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Cyrus liberated the Jews and gave them leave to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, Israel had better relations with Iran than any of its neighbors. Soon after taking power in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini broke relations with Israel and there has been no official contact since.

And did you know (I didn’t, another Carleton historian, Louis Fishman told me) that the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, was born in Iran and is fluent in Farsi?

Quick expression of blogger gratitude (blogritude?), two seconds of dignified entreaty (begging) and housekeeping note

Friday, April 28th, 2006

Fellow Seekers of Wisdom and Truth,

Blogritude: Thank you for yesterday’s surge in traffic to the Big Question. We set a record.

Entreaty: If you have any friends (or foes) whom you think might enjoy Big Questioning, please send them a link and tell them to check it out.

Housekeeping: If you’ve ever posted a comment, I’ll send you an occasional e-mail alerting you to the latest (and begging you to keep coming back). If you get one and never want to get another one, send a reply to that effect and I’ll take you off the list. If you’re not the commenting type but would still like to be on the email list, send me a note to that effect at eblack@startribune.com.

Sorry, I haven’t figured out yet how to make that email address a live link. Copy and paste.

Is That a Fact?

(Your Name Here) is Ruining America

Friday, April 28th, 2006

Fellow Seekers,

Quick follow-up to yesterday: Had a little fun yesterday with three press releases from the Republican National Senatorial Committee in which RNSC spokesman (and a nice guy, by the way, judging from my one conversation with him) Brian Walton said exactly the same thing, three times over, about the evils of accepting money from Emily’s List.

Pretty much the only difference in the three press releases was the name of the Democrat (and Emily’s List beneficiary) he was criticizing.

And I asked for help in coming up with an appropriate name for this particular technique as part of “Is That a Fact’s” evolving catalogue of the many charming and highly edifying ways of spinning the political bull.

The winner, and official category for this cookie-cutter approach to political communication is:

(Your Name Here) is Ruining America. (Okay, I gave it away with the name of this post.

If you’re counting, that’s our fifth category. The others are “feined outrage.â€? “horse flogging.â€? “pounding the table.” and “the cheap shot.”

Is That a Fact?

Klobuchar, Kennedy, Health care

Friday, April 28th, 2006

Fellow Seekers,

Well, it turns out that Amy Klobuchar is really not proposing a health care plan that would cost $1.6 trillion, as Mark Kennedy has claimed.

The two campaigns are definitely snarky with each other about this matter. And neither side has been as clear or careful as they should be. But if you’re wanting Is That a Fact to issue a serious objurgation to either side, you’re going to be disappointed.

If, on the other much-to-be-desired hand, you want to know the facts, we got ‘em. And you can decide for yourself which campaign deserves more to be objurgated.

Klobuchar has said, on separate occasions mind you:

“I’d like to see everyone be allowed to buy into the federal healthcare plan.�

” I think in general, as I’ve said about opening up the health care plan, that the people of this country should get the same kind of benefits as the members of Congress get.”

“He [Bush] should immediately open the federal insurance plan to small businesses and the self-employed and other Minnesotans so we can receive the same health care coverage that members of Congress and 8 million federal employees receive.”

Kennedy took these statements and assumed Klobuchar was proposing that the feds offer all Americans the same subsidy it offers to federal employees, in which the government pays for most of their health insurance.

He took a Heritage Foundation figure for the cost of the annual health care subsidy for federal employees in 2006 ( $3,619 for a single person and $8,218 for families) and multiplied it by the 45 million uninsured Americans and concluded that Klobuchar’s idea would cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years.

Kennedy’s website is littered with references to Klobuchar’s trillion-dollar-plus health care idea, (I’ve located four) often tied to a demand that she explain how she would pay for it.

It was one of these press releases that Is That a Fact? decided to fact check. We’ve been on the case for two weeks and, because the press release included arguable claims about Klobuchar’s position on allowing portions of the Bush tax cuts to expire, and some other matters, there have been several updates. But the trillion-dollar-health-care-plan claim has been pending till now.

The Klobuchar campaign has dismissed the $1.6 trillion as a made-up number that has nothing to do with her health care proposal. I’ve been asking Klobuchar to specify what’s wrong with Kennedy’s calculation. Here it is:

When Klobuchar says everyone should be able to “buy into” the federal health care plan, she doesn’t mean they would get the same subsidy that the government offers its employers. In fact, very few of the people who would avail themselves of this buy-in opportunity would be eligible for any federal subsidy at all. They would simply be able to join the group but, unless their own employers were subsidizing, they would pay the entire premium.

So the idea wouldn’t cost anywhere near the $1.6 trillion figure. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be nearly as sweet a deal as the one the federal employees get. Still, compared to entering the health insurance market as individuals, the ability to join a large group would probably enable them to buy more coverage for less money.

There would be some administrative costs to the federal employees health care program, and Klobuchar favors offering some federal subsidies to small businesses to encourage them to offer their employees the federal employees health care plan. Klobuchar’s campaign manager Ben Goldfarb says the total costs to the feds, including those small business subsidies, would be about $5 billion a year.

In her general rhetoric on health care, Klobuchar talks often about moving toward universal health insurance. She hasn’t spelled out her full health care platform yet. The idea described above is one part of it.

So, did Kennedy or Klobuchar lie or deceive in this matter?

If you look back at those Klobuchar quotes describing the buy-in idea, it’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder whether she was implying that everyone would have access to a federal subsidy for their insurance, or whether it was clear that she meant they could get the same insurance policy, without the subsidy.

I’ve asked a few friends to look at the quotes and tell me whether they find it misleading. Funny thing. Those generally sympathetic to Klobuchar think she’s reasonably clear. Those sympathetic to Kennedy think she’s vague, bordering on deceptive. Don’t get me started on selective perception and confirmation bias.

Klobuchar should have explained her idea more clearly. But now she has done so, at least to the Big Question. If she continues to talk about this idea, she should spend a few extra words to clarify that “the same health care coverage that members of Congress and 8 million federal employees receive” does not mean the same deal they get, subsidy and all.

Kennedy made an incorrect assumption about what Klobuchar was saying and converted it into a recurring attack meant to connect with the overall portrayal of Klobuchar as a tax-and-spender. He ignored her statements that his $1.6 trillion figure was wrong. But was the assumption he made far-fetched? Depends on how misleading you think Klobuchar’s statements were. But he should stop talking about the trillion dollar health care plan, at least until he sees the rest of her plan and can come up with a responsible estimate of what it will cost.

As I said, the campaigns have been kind of snarky toward each other about this, although they have been helpful, friendly, courteous and kind to me in pursuit of this rather dry mission in truth-squadding.

If it’s snarkiness you want, or if you want even more detail on Klobuchar’s proposal or Kennedy’s reaction to it, I’ll post the text of the last round of emails on the topic.

Is That a Fact?

Is that a Klobuchar, Cantwell, McCaskill fact?

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

Three press release from the Republican National Senatorial Committee about three Democratic women Senate candidates.

Take a look, here, here and here.

The e-mails alerting me to the Klobuchar and McCaskill press releases came into my in-box one minute apart. (Didn’t get the Maria Cantwell release by e-mail. Looked it up myself. Ain’t Google grand?)

Help me name a new category in the Is That a Fact catalogue of ways of slinging the political bull.

My nominee is: “The Cookie Cutter.” But it seems a tad hackneyed. Can you come up with a better tag for this particular technique?

Bonus for word geeks: Did you know the origin of “hackneyed” is: A horse of a breed developed in England, having a gait characterized by pronounced flexion of the knee? I didn’t.

Iran’s Nukes: Who gets to decide?

And on What Basis?

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Fellow Seekers,

Sorry. I’ve been way too slow to get going on an issue I proposed a week ago, namely: Who gets to decide which countries can have nukes and on what basis?

Since the big U.N. Security Council discussion of the Iran case starts tomorrow, the time is now to start going deep on this one. In fact, I’m racing to write a piece for tomorrow’s World Section to introduce readers of the paper paper to some of the vagaries of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Just had a great interview with Matthew Bunn, a Harvard nuclear proliferation scholar (and son of retired Ambassador George Bunn, one of the NPT’s negotiators).

I’ll get what I can into a 25-inch hole in tomorrow’s paper. But I’ll put much more up here, today and after. For starters:

Yes, Iran is a signatory of the NPT, which means it would be in violation of its treaty obligations if it acquired weapons.

But there are no consequences specified in the treaty for violations.

Remarkably, so far as the world knows, no nation has ever acquired useable nukes while a member of the treaty. Iraq under Saddam, which is a signatory, is the clearest case of a nation trying to develop nukes while a member of the treaty. (This refers to the cheating done before the Kuwait war, not the cheating that the U.S. alleged during the run-up to the current war.)

The three countries that have most clearly crossed the nuclear line since the treaty took effect — Israel, India and Pakistan — were not signatories. (Israel does not confirm its nuclear capabilities, but no one in the world doubts they’ve got ‘em.)

So maybe all of that makes the treaty look fairly efficacious.

But the treaty also permits a nation to withdraw, on three months notice, if “extraordinary eventsâ€? have “jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.”

The only country ever to withdraw was — you guessed it — North Korea. Which soon afterward announced that it had nukes. The only reason I left them off the list of line-crossers above is that not everyone believes North Korea really has useable nukes. Matt Bunn didn’t seem to doubt it though.

Iranian Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has recently been threatening to take Iran out of the NPT but it’s vital to bear in mind that Ahmadinejad is not really in charge.

The United States is going to press for tough sanctions on Iran. Bunn’s reaction was to be skeptical that the world is going to get tough on Iran, which actually has something the world wants (did I mention oil?), when it has tolerated the line-crossing by North Korea, which doesn’t.

The U.S. will also press for language threatening serious consequences if Iran doesn’t back off on nukes.

Bunn’s reaction was that after the experience of 2002-03 and the Iraq war, the Security Council — especially China and Russia — are going to be extremely hinky about any language that would put Pres. Bush in a position to say down the line that he is acting, without explicit Security Council authorization, to enforce threats that the U.N. made, because it lacks the will to act.

The next time Bush repeats his familiar formulation, that the U.S. prefers to settle the matter through peaceful means but that all options remain on the table, think about what message that communicates to those countries.

Okay. Gotta get this posted before the noon rush. Then gotta focus on the story for the paper paper. But I’ll try to get back to this general topic soonest.

p.s. Under the NPT, the five countries that had nukes when the treaty took effect — U.S., Soviet Union (now Russia), Britain, France and China — were the only legal Nuclear Weapons States.

p.p.s. Under the NPT, the five legal Nuclear Weapons States also pledged to work toward disarming themselves and ridding the entire world of nuclear weapons. What would constitute a material breach of that provision? Who gets to decide and on what basis.

p.p.s. The list of the five legal Nuclear Weapons States is exactly the same as the list of the five permanent members of the Security Council. How convenient.

Is That a Fact?

Are you kidding me?

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

The most respected independent truth-squadding operation during the last election cycle was FactCheck.org, which is part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

They just published a piece taking to task Russ Feingold’s PAC, the Progressive Patriots Fund for a video that’s on their website attacking the Bush NSA warrantless wiretapping program.

Progressive Patriots says the part that FactCheck thinks is over the top was meant as a joke. Hmm. Not sure “joke” is the category they want, but hyperbole in the context of a satire. See what you think.

The video:

The FactCheck headslap.

Journalism and Truth?

Fairly Balanced

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

Good Tuesday Morning Fellow Seekers,

Part Two in an infinite series, in which we contemplate journalism’s lame, but touching claims to be a quest for truth.

For the previous Journalism and Truth posts, try this or this on journalism and accuracy. Today, fairness and balance.

Balance is fairly easy to do, but is often a stupid goal. Balance means that if you quote a Republican, you should also quote a Democrat. (Or someone who is pro-Israel, balanced by someone pro-Palestinian. Or a defender of the Iraq war policy, and a war critic.

There are stories in which the balance formula is appropriate. If, for example, the point of the story is to tell the reader what the Republican and Democratic spin of the moment is on a particular issue. But it is generally not helpful to truth seekers.


Two half-truths do not equal one whole truth.

And I fear we rely on the balance gag too much to defend ourselves against the bias critics.

Fairness is much more important, harder to achieve, and hopelessly tangled up with the eye of the beholder problem. Had lunch with an esteemed colleague yesterday and asked: what are the elements of the definition of fairness as it applies to a piece of journalism.

We were stumped. Can you help?

Here, at an operational level, is what it means to me:

If you get attacked in a news article, you should have an opportunity to offer a defense. When the story gets cut to make it fit the space allotted, your best defense should stay in.

If I quote you from an interview, you should be able to look at those paragraphs in my story and say, not only: “Yes, I said that,” but also: “The meaning a reader would get from that sentence is the meaning I intended when I said it.

Those are good rules. But they won’t get you very far down the road to something so grand as “fairness.”

I’m inclined to fall back on Justice Potter Stewart’s famous test of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Trouble is, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing universal about the line that Justice Stewart would locate between art, free speech and pornography. The same is true between a tough but fair piece of journalism and a hatchet job.

I have developed a strong feeling about critics of the left and right (but let’s face it, the big action has been on the right) who have made challenging the fairness of the MSM such a popular parlor game.

They have become a parody of themselves.

The effort to guess how a particular reporter or publication has imported his bias into an article seldom resembles anything that is occurring in the newsroom at all.

Furthermore, fairness is not the real game of these critics, just part of the propaganda. They invoke fairness, with a self-fulfilling method of locating unfairness in everything they read or hear.

It is a very one-sided faux fairness they seek, in which their side is portrayed as they wish it to be portrayed, in which the other side’s half-truths are labeled as lies and their are accepted as truth.

If Rush Limbaugh cares about fairness, why does he never complain about a liberal Democrat being treated unfairly. If your answer is: because the liberal media never treats a liberal Democrat unfairly, please cut me a small break.

But fairness is a game journalists are really trying to play, however badly we play it, however often we blow it and we probably always will.

Humans being fallible, and frighteningly likely to express their biases without meaning to or realizing they are doing it.

If the question is: what happened to those 10-year surpluses that were the official projections when Clinton left office.

The Democratic Party and liberal talk radio will say: Bush gave it away with tax cuts for the wealthy, a stupid, unnecessary war, and booty for Halliburton.

The Republican Party and conservative talk radio will say: First there was a recession, which started before Bush took office. Then we were attacked on 9/11. Then Katrina. And then the Dems wouldn’t let us fix Social Security. And they will suggest that even asking the question is evidence of liberal bias.

Every one of these claims deserves to be in the discussion and to be tested for its real value in explaining the disappearing surpluses. The likeliest place that a citizen is going to read about them all in one place is a piece of MSM journalism.

Unless someone can explain it to me another way, it looks like the choice is between having a news media seeking to put a fair and balanced presentation of the facts and issues in front of the public, and often falling short, or having no one who is evening attempting to do that.

A 6th district abiding update

Monday, April 24th, 2006

State Rep. Phil Krinkie, who, as noted below, was the only one among the four Republican candidates for the Sixth District congressional seat who had refused to sign the latest pledge to abide by the endorsement process, signed it over the weekend.

He said: “Hey, don’t you think that previous sentence was a bit run-on?”

Krinkie didn’t actually say that, but the Big Answer is: Yep.


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