Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Palin prophets, revisited


James Fallows on Sarah Palin, August 29, 2008:
Let's assume that Sarah Palin is exactly as smart and disciplined as Barack Obama. But instead of the year and a half of nonstop campaigning he has behind him, and Joe Biden's even longer toughening-up process, she comes into the most intense period of the highest stakes campaign with absolutely zero warmup or preparation. If she has ever addressed an international issue, there's no evidence of it in internet-land.

The smartest person in the world could not prepare quickly enough to know the pitfalls, and to sound confident while doing so, on all the issues she will be forced to address...
And Barack Obama, according to Todd Purdum:
At least one savvy politician—Barack Obama—believed Palin would never have time to get up to speed. He told his aides that it had taken him four months to learn how to be a national candidate, and added, “I don’t care how talented she is, this is really a leap.”
This was good sense, but not exactly brain surgery. Paging John McCain...

See also: James Fallows, Palin Prophet, Oct. 25, 2008

Monday, June 29, 2009

Wings beating against a web?

As Roger Cohen movingly pointed out this past weekend, the uprising in Iran has doubtless humanized the country in many Americans' eyes: at the moment, "Iran" is likelier to evoke "Neda" than "mullah."

It's a sad irony that this humanization may be occurring at the precisely the moment that the current regime becomes most dangerous. The popular uprising, and the old-guard reformist movement to which it responded, may represent the beating of wings against a tightening web.

As Neil MacFarquhar and Gary Sick have both detailed, the advent of Ahmadinejad in the wake of the reformist Khatami was not just a swing of the political pendulum. Ahmadinejad has rather accelerated a militarist takeover, packing the bureacracy, state-run media, educational institutions, and state-controlled major economic enterprises with allies from the Revolutionary Guard; and pursuing an ultra hard-line foreign policy that includes full-throttle pursuit of nuclear fuel processing capability.

While it's generally been assumed that Khameini controls Ahmadinejad, both Sick and MacFarquhar suggest that the reverse may be closer to the truth. Sick:
Over the 20 years that Ayatollah Khamenei has been the rahbar, or leader, he has allied himself ever more closely with the Revolutionary Guards—to such an extent that it is no longer apparent to me who is leading and who is following. The Revolutionary Guards have been granted extraordinary influence over all functions of the Islamic republic—military, political, economic, and even Islamic. Technically, they take their orders from the leader, but has he ever dared to contradict them? On the contrary, he seems always to court them by granting them ever-greater influence and responsibilities.
If it's true, as Sick suggests, that Ahmadinejad's advent in 2005 marked the beginning of a quasi-fascist transformation of the Iranian theocracy, it's interesting to note that Ahmadinejad, like Hitler, led a coterie of extremist veterans of a long, brutal, ultimately losing war effort into positions of power approximately 15 years after the war's end.

After two years' overexposure to John McCain's fulminations, Americans should be skeptical of the propensity to compare every dictatorial regime that represses its own people and poses a security threat of some kind to the Nazis. Iranians have given the world reason to hope that the hardliners' days in power are numbered -- and no one should underestimate the staying power of the children of the people who ousted the Shah. The current system may also yet evolve from within, as faction within the power structure push to respond to public pressure. But the uprising has also thrown into sharp relief just what the Iranian people are up against.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Did Rafsanjani cave?

It's been generally assumed that the "special commission" of Iran's Khameini-controlled Guardian Council charged with investigating the vote will merely rubber-stamp the official results.

Now, according to the Iranian government-controlled Press TV, the Rafsanjani-led Expediency Council is calling on Mousavi and Karroubi to "resolve disputes through legal channels" -- that is, through the special commission, which would mean presenting their cases by Sunday. For what it's worth, the Expediency Council statement also promises a genuine investigation into the vote:
The body, led by the influential cleric and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, asked the candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezaei, to fully cooperate with the Guardian Council -- tasked with supervising the elections.

The statement called on the candidates to “use this appropriate opportunity to submit their documents and evidence for a comprehensive and precise investigation”...

The Expediency Council also called on the election watchdog to precisely follow the complaints, respond to suspicions, and to use an appropriate team of experts with the aim of building the necessary confidence in the society, ISNA reported.
From the beginning of the post-election struggle, there's been widespread rumors -- often tagged as wishful thinking on dissidents' part -- that Rafsanjani has been working through the Assembly of Experts the Expediency Council, both of which he chairs, to mount some kind of challenge to the official election results. Does this report indicate that he's given in? Is this statement not his doing? Or is there still some glimmer of a possibility that he's laid the grounds for an investigation result other than ratification?

A Freudian slip for Obama?

Much as I admire the overall tenor of Obama's statements about Iran, there's one remark that perhaps gives Iranian propaganda something to chew on:
Mr. Obama did not acquiesce, saying, “I don’t take Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statements seriously about apologies, particularly given the fact that the United States has gone out of its way not to interfere with the election process in Iran.”
How do you go out of your way not to interfere? What does that suggest about the normal course of U.S. policy?

Perhaps Obama meant that he has gone out of his way to communicate that the U.S. is not interfering?

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Healthcare reform is entitlement reform," cont.

Re the Obama budget team's mantra,"healthcare reform is entitlement reform": one soundbyte strategy for getting this across is to portray the projected 75-year social security shortfall as a bite on the ass of projected Medicare deficits.

In today's Times Jackie Calmes channels one such comparison from the Obamites:
Adding to the pressure, Republicans are back to attacking Democrats as tax-and-spenders. Yet they have not proposed how to pay for their own, more modest health care proposals. Nor did they offset the cost of creating the Medicare prescription drug benefit six years ago when they controlled Congress and held the White House. Its projected deficits exceed the shortfall for all of Social Security over the next 75 years, according to the program’s 2009 trustees report.
Among the trustees issuing that report: Geithner, Sebelius, Solis.

Compare Peter Orzag in last week's FT:
Our fiscal future is so dominated by healthcare that if the US can slow the rate of cost growth by just 15 basis points a year (0.15 percentage points), the savings for Medicare and Medicaid would equal the impact from eliminating Social Security’s entire 75-year shortfall.
Imagine...a rhetorical strategy based on fact.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Is something happening on Iranian Press TV?

Perhaps it's a random ripple, but Press TV, the Iranian government vehicle, seems to be putting out conciliatory signals in a trio of stories. Could it be part of a push to get Mousavi and allies to accept some kind of face-saving sop along with the official election results -- or even sign of a more substantive compromise? (Times coverage is suggesting the opposite - that the hardliners are consolidating their hold.) For what it's worth, here's the trio:

1) A report that both Rafsanjani and Mousavi "vow support to end unrest":
Head of Iran's Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will support efforts to end the post-election tension in the country, an Iranian lawmaker says.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Head of Iran's Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy told Fars news agency that the committee's governing board has held a meeting with Rafsanjani and Mir-Hossein Mousavi...

Boroujerdi termed the parliamentary delegation's talks with Rafsanjani as "constructive".

"The lawmakers asked Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani to help solve the problems and he vowed support and we hope that we would witness practical measures to be taken to end the current situation soon," he added.

Boroujerdi also noted that the lawmakers have discussed the post-election developments with Mousavi.
"During the meeting, the governing board of the committee explained their expectations from Mr. Mousavi and he voiced his interest to help in solving the issues."

Boroujerdi stated that the talks between Mousavi and Iranian lawmakers will continue.

2) A senior cleric's call for "national conciliation":
Senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi has called for Iran's presidential election dispute to be settled through "national conciliation"....

He went on to say that the solution to the conflict must not be a superficial one. "Definitively, something must be done to ensure that there are no embers burning under the ashes, and (to ensure) that hostilities, antagonism and rivalries are transformed into amity and cooperation among all parties."

He called on rival parties to show self-restraint, to resolve the problems rationally and to bear in mind the future of the country.
3) Mousavi's most recent statement, presented in an abbreviated but straight-arrow manner:
Defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi says the Iranian government has been distorting the facts about the state of affairs in the country.

In a statement posted on his official website, Kalemeh, Mousavi took a shot at Iranian state media for portraying him as the figure responsible for the latest "violence and bloodshed" in the country.

He accused authorities of making efforts to isolate and vilify him in a bid to get him to withdraw his election challenge.

"I will not withdraw from demanding the rights of the Iranian people to protect my own interests and for fear of their threats," read the statement by Mousavi.

Re: The Appalachian conversation

As "hiking the Appalachian Trail" joins "Ugandan discussions" and "meaningful confrontation" in the sexual lexicon, I'm reminded of an earlier circumlocution involving a randy paragon of piety. Here's a moment of conception anticipated in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones:
Though Miss Bridget was a woman of the greatest delicacy of taste, yet such were the charms of the captain's conversation, that she totally overlooked the defects of his person. She imagined, and perhaps very wisely, that she should enjoy more agreeable minutes with the captain than with a much prettier fellow; and forewent the consideration of pleasing her eyes, in order to procure herself much more solid satisfaction.
"Conversation" in the 18th century had a range of connotations like "intercourse" today.
Miss Bridget not only married the Captain; we later learn that she had enjoyed earlier "conversations" with his married brother.

Back story to the uprising: Ahmadinejad's consolidated grip

The Times has a crucial story by Neil MacFarquhar detailing the extent to which Ahmadinejad, like Stalin before him, has packed the security forces and bureaucracy with his loyalists and to a degree possibly outflanked even Khamenei:

During the presidential campaign of 2005, the supreme leader endorsed Mr. Ahmadinejad because the humble son of a blacksmith appeared to be just such an obscure candidate. But he entered the presidency with a coterie of veterans and ideologues shaped by the Iran-Iraq war who were conservative, religious, largely populist and disdainful of the old guard from the 1979 revolution.

Today, these allies, many of them former midlevel Revolutionary Guard officers in their 50s, run the Interior, Intelligence and Justice Ministries. They also include the commander of the Basij popular militia, the head of the National Security Council and the head of state-run broadcasting. They are aligned with another member of their generation who has emerged as the most important figure in the Khamenei camp, the spiritual leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has also changed all 30 of the country’s governors, all the city managers and even third- and fourth-level civil servants in important ministries like the Interior Ministry. It was Interior that announced that Mr. Ahmadinejad had won the June 12 election with just 5 percent of the votes counted, analysts pointed out, and it is the Intelligence Ministry that has been rounding up scores of supporters of the reform candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, and other dissidents.

At the same time, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, runs three powerful educational institutions in the holy city of Qum, all spun off from the Haqqani seminary, which teaches that Islam and democracy are incompatible. The ayatollah favors a system that would preserve the post of supreme leader and eliminate elections. The Ahmadinejad administration has provided generous government subsidies to the seminary, and its graduates hold significant government posts nationwide.

Perhaps the most important media organization to spread the government’s message is the hard-line Kayhan newspaper. Its general director, Hossein Shariatmaderi, in recent days has resurrected a standard accusation: that foreign governments were manipulating the demonstrations on Iran’s streets.
Iranians have been feeling the strings tighten throughout Ahmadinejad's term in office. As large segments of the population -- probably a majority -- have tried to throw the yoke off in this election and its aftermath, they've found a consolidated police state confronting them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The battered children's revolt

As the world witnesses a steady ratcheting up of officially sanctioned violence in Iran, it's important to note that this escalation rises from a base of normal daily low-grade terror.

Yesterday, this snippet of an interview in The Independent with Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the Iranian filmmaker who is serving as Mousavi's unofficial spokesman, opened a window on the extent to which the Iranian people, more than half of whom are under 25, are accustomed to being bullied by the regime:
If Mousavi was to become president, he said....there would be an end to the “constant harassment of young people which means that virtually every young person in Iran has been beaten up by the security forces.”
That's largely children beating children, as the "shock troops" of enforced conformity in Iran are the often teenaged Basij.

Update 6/25: A pseudonymous Iranian journalist writing in The Nation gives a fuller account of the daily harassment of Iran's young:
The Islamic Republic is not a dictatorship in the normal sense of the word. Its practitioners believe they are doing God's work on earth. Guiding the wayward by persuasion and coercion is among their chief tasks. Nearly every young person in Iran, particularly young women, can recount dozens of stories of humiliation and discrimination at the hands of government agents and supporters. For them, each rock thrown at the police, each hand-to-hand combat with the militiamen and vigilantes, each confrontation with the heavily armed Revolutionary Guards is not just an act of political defiance but a cathartic experience of personal liberation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fertile ground for Iranian paranoia

The Times' Lede blog, noting that the Russian Government's English Language satellite news channel Russia Today creates "balance" in coverage of U.S. affairs by interviewing Americans on the extreme left and extreme right, relays this bit of fuel for Iranian (and Russian) paranoia featured on a video report released by the station:
Craig Roberts, a former member of the Reagan administration, said that the C.I.A. was behind the whole thing. Wayne Madsen, an investigative journalist, agreed with the Russia Today anchor that Mir Hussein Moussavi’s green movement had “all the hallmarks” of an American-orchestrated “color revolution.” Mr. Madsen added that, given the heavy coverage of what is happening in Iran by American news organizations, “it seems like there is a coordinated and concerted effort to try to stir things up using the Western media.”
The old Soviet-bloc counter-narrative, in which U.S. aggression foments repressive counterrevolutions worldwide, maintains a vigorous half-life. Both the Russian and the Iranian powers that be view the color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgystan as CIA-fomented coups designed to extend Western hegemony.

While blaming the West for the mass protests in Iran may this time prove to be an old trick played once too often, Khamenei and co. can find plenty of genuine fuel for paranoia -- not only in the CIA's toppling of Mossadegh in 1953 and its quarter century of propping up the Shah, but in the very real U.S covert action to destabilize the regime that was operative at least up to Obama's inauguration. It was only last August that Seymour Hersh reported:
Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.

“The Finding was focussed on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” a person familiar with its contents said, and involved “working with opposition groups and passing money.” The Finding provided for a whole new range of activities in southern Iran and in the areas, in the east, where Baluchi political opposition is strong, he said.
Coming even nearer to the Iranian government allegations were these actions, reported by ABC News in May 2007:

The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert "black" operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell the Blotter on

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, say President Bush has signed a "nonlethal presidential finding" that puts into motion a CIA plan that reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions.

Of course,such action was at least partly in response to U.S. commanders' claims of constant Iranian support for insurgent groups in Iraq that were killing U.S. soldiers and destabilizing the government. It was also authorized in the context of -- and perhaps, as time ran out for the Cheney faction in the Bush Administration, as a substitute for -- contemplated bombing of Iranian nuclear installations. The point is that most Iranians doubtless have no trouble believing that the U.S. would try to destabilize their government. Most just don't believe that U.S. influence destabilized this election. Their own government for the moment has less credibility than Obama's.

Mousavi to Iranians: Go Shopping

From Mousavi Facebook page, a creative new means of evading ban on congregation (loosely translated by commenter below):
Muhammad Irani
To make the long story short for everybody: Everybody who likes to protest will head to the Bazar (main market) of each city from 9 am everyday! This will result in the dense of crowd in the market and consequently its closure! Even if they stop people doing so it will result in the same thing. Everybody should attend this demonstration without any... Read More single symbol which indicates we are protesting, even one can bring all the family to this event everyday. There shouldn't be any sign or movement and everybody just pretend to aim for shopping. That's all.
Like George W. Bush, Mousavi tells his followers to 'go shopping'...

A naive idea for Mousavi

How about a woman-only march? A million-woman march? A Sisters of Neda vigil?

Here's why (from NAIC, via Sullivan):

9:25 pm: From a Tehran resident today:

I cannot sleep and not write this.

Today in Haft-e Tir, there were so many members of basij that they outnumbered the demonstrators 3 or 4 to 1. They were less focused on women. This must be related to the murder of poor Neda. And this was also why whenever they got hold of a man, women would surround them and shout don’t beat him, don’t beat and they would turn and anxiously say we didn’t beat him. It was astonishing. They explained; they talked....women are playing an amazing role in the streets; both in terms of numbers and effectiveness.

Of Mousavi, security and negative capability

Always balanced, always informed, always worth reading: Gideon Rachman weighs the odds of successful revolution in Iran, adapting and expanding a checklist developed by Economist reporter Andrew Miller, "who witnessed the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgystan."

The one factor missing so far: weak or divided security services.

Also worth reading: Andrew Miller's response to Rachman (unfortunately, neither links to the original Miller checklist):
The post-Soviet lesson is that the real or realised threat of serious violence is likely to prevent or at least forestall popular revolution—by inhibiting people from coming onto the streets or coming back again if they do.
And in an aside from Miller: an arresting formula for a successful leader of popular revolt:
Incidentally, a comment to my earlier post raised an interesting question about the leaders of revolutions, and whether they need to be more charismatic and galvanising than those in Iran seem to be. In fact the experience of Ukraine, at least, is that they don't. Viktor Yushchenko was positively boring throughout most of the orange revolution. His speeches in Independence Square in Kiev were keenly anticipated, but a few minutes after he began talking, after he had started rambling on about Seneca or bee-keeping or whatever, people generally began chatting among themselves. The point about Mr Yushchenko was that he was, or seemed, honest (much more so than some of his fellow revolutionaries, who subsequently joined him in government). On the basis of Ukraine the conclusion might be that a revolutionary leader needs to have what you might call "negative capability": a persona blank, clean and undivisive enough to command the trust of the diverse constituencies that it takes to bring about change; a persona onto which the various elements of the revolutionary coaltion can project their own goals and grievances.
Negative capability? Really? Aside from Yushchenko, how often does that work?

I guess Vaclav Havel had a negative capability of a different kind - the kind originally defined by Keats.

Incidentally, Miller's checklist is worth laying beside a more data-based but less empirical "extreme bounds analysis" study by ETH Switzerland and Georgetown University.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mosssdegh, the Shah, Khamenei and "outside interference" in Iran

The Iranian government's claim that the mass demonstrations of the past week are instigated by foreign enemies sounds laughable to Western ears, and perhaps at this point to most Iranians. Mousavi counters this claim with his own revolutionary credentials and professions of fealty to the 1979 Revolution.

It's worth remembering, though, that by reviving this one-hopes-by-now-exhausted old charge, the regime is tapping into the founding trauma of modern Iranian history -- the CIA-controlled coup that toppled the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and installed the Shah as sole ruler. Fury over that disastrous action, which arrested Iranian political development, was the fuel that allowed Khomeini to hijack the revolution of 1979. Stephen Kinzer, in his fair-minded and thorough account of Mossedegh's leadership and the coup, All The Shah's Men: an American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2003), recounts that fear that the U.S. would try to reinstall the Shah prompted the taking of the U.S. Embassy hostages:
Soon after the Shah was overthrown, President Jimmy Carter allowed him to enter the United States. That sent Iranian radicals into a frenzy of rage. With the blessing of their new leaders, they stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two American diplomats hostage for more than fourteen months. Westerners, and especially Americans, found this crime not only barbaric but inexplicable. That was because almost none of them had any idea of the responsibility the United States bore for imposing the royalist regime that Iranians came to hate so passionately. The hostage-takers remebered that when the Shah fled into exile in 1953, CIA agents working at the American embassy had returned him to his throne. Iranians feared that history was about to repeat itself (p. 202).
That paranoia, rage and opportunism shaped the major player on today's stage:
One of Ayatollah Khomeini's closest advisers, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who later succeed him as the country's supreme leader, justified the regime's radicalism by declaring, "We are not liberals like Allende and Mossadegh, whom the CIA can snuff out" (p. 203).
John McCain's suggestion that the U.S. President call the Iranian election "a sham" would surely resonate in Iran. As usual, though, McCain is deaf to exactly how his self-righteous simplicities resonate in the country with which he concerns himself.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mousavi + Obama

This image is on Mousavi's Facebook page, accompanying Obama's June 20 statement calling on the government of Iran to respect human life and human rights.

I am surprised that the Mousavi campaign would yoke these images together, given Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's rhetoric branding the demonstrations as the tool of U.S., Brit and "Zionist" interference.

Between the Basiji and the Green Wave

Can Mousavi win the hearts and minds of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji? Conversely, can he hold the hearts and minds of his most passionate followers? Two pieces highlighted in this morning's Daily Dish -- one by the New Yorker's Laura Secor and the other by "Simin Mesgari" (pseudonym?), a Green Waver writing in The Street, a samizdat newspaper circulating among the protesters -- pose each of these questions in turn.


I think there is still a battle being waged for the hearts and minds of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij. Successful nonviolent movements in other countries have depended on the cooptation of the rank and file in the armed forces; one remembers the moving scenes of Serbian riot police embracing demonstrators...

Iran is not Serbia. The relationship between the people and the revolutionary shock troops is far older and deeper than anything that took root during Milosevic’s relatively brief tenure. By 2000, Milosevic’s fiefdom was rotten to the core; it survived on corruption, the fear of exposure on the part of many criminals and war profiteers, and hostility toward the world. The Islamic Republic, by contrast, was born in a people’s revolution and built on faith in a religion that is deeply held by most Iranians. The state’s ideology is not the hollow construct of political elites, as communism was by the time it collapsed in much of Eastern Europe. Rather, Iranian Islamism was forged over decades, in long struggle with the despotic regime of Mohammad Reza Shah, and from the potent raw materials of Iranian nationalism and Islam. Although the country’s constituency for democracy is vast and growing, the regime has a constituency, too, and it is passionately loyal and heavily armed.

The purpose of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij is the defense of the Islamic Revolution and the Supreme Leader. Rarely have the true believers in the militias been forced to consider the possibility that these two functions might come into conflict. Such a moment may have arrived...

Mousavi knows too well how deep the wound is. He also knows that his green bandage is only a first aid cover for this wound and not a cure....

Mousavi knows that not all “this” is for him.

He knows very well, and we also know very well that had there been a “better” candidate than Mousavi with a “lesser evil past” which had chosen yellow colour for his campaign, the nation would have gone yellow and Mousavi would have demoted to Ahmadinejad’s position. …..

Velayat-e Faqih or the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists” is the red line which Mousavi has expressed he won’t cross – this red line is now being crossed by those wearing green....
It would seem that the more immediate problem -- with the longer odds -- is the one framed by Secor. But Mesgali's challenge raises the core longer term question. The 1979 revolution got past the Shah and then was hijacked by the most ruthless and autocratic among the contestants for power. Mousavi, as Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has pointed out, is no Khomeini -- he's the Gorbachev, the Kerensky, the reformist not the revolutionary. As Secor points out, though, Iran's current power structure is not "rotten to the core" in the sense of having lost all support; it still has the buy-in of at the very least a large minority. A reformer who professes passionate loyalty to the state apparatus he helped found may be the best hope for change Iranians can believe in.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mousavi's Paradise Lost: Khomeini's Republic

There is much to honor in Mousavi's statement issued today: his pledge never to hurt a countryman, his call for freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, rule of law.

And yet, he advances those principles in service of a delusion: that to uphold them is to return the revolution coopted by Ayatollah Khomeini to its pure origins, in which these principles flourished. From the start of his campaign, Mousavi has called for a restoration of the rule of law as established by the Islamic Republic. That is, for restoration of something that never was. Today, he laid out a vision of paradise lost, paradise to be regained:
30 years ago, in this country a revolution became victorious in the name of Islam, a revolution for freedom, a revolution for reviving the dignity of men, a revolution for truth and justice. In those times, especially when our enlightened Imam [Khomeini] was alive, large amount of lives and matters were invested to legitimize this foundation and many valuable achievements were attained. An unprecedented enlightenment captured our society, and our people reached a new life where they endured the hardest of hardships with a sweet taste. What this people gained was dignity and freedom and a gift of the life of the pure ones [i.e. 12 Imams of Shiites]. I am certain that those who have seen those days will not be satisfied with anything less. Had we as a people lost certain talents that we were unable to experience that early spirituality? I had come to say that that was not the case. It is not late yet, we are not far from that enlightened space yet.
The "enlightened Imam" would be the man who massacred tens of thousands of opponents and crushed all dissent, who prolonged ruinous war with Iraq for six fruitless years after turning back Iraq's initial territorial gains, and in that war sent teens and even preteens in waves of thousands to clear minefields with their bodies (the first Basiji, today's murderous militia); who imprisoned women in the hijab and generally set women's rights back fifty years: who murdered the leaders of the Baha'is and made second-class citizens of the rest; who impoverished the country with his contempt for economic management; who united the people by demonizing the United States (against whom Iranians did have ample cause for resentment) and institutionalizing the murderous Antisemitism that now, adopted in full by Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, threatens the world's stability -- who in short, made Khamenei look like a piker when it comes to crushing human rights and subverting the Republican government Mousavi professes to value.

Mousavi casts his current rivals as destroyers of "Republicanism"and hence of the Revolution:
If the large volume of cheating and vote rigging, which has set fire to the hays of people’s anger, is expressed as the evidence of fairness, the republican nature of the state will be killed and in practice, the ideology that Islam and Republicanism are incompatible will be proven. This outcome will make two groups happy: One, those who since the beginning of revolution stood against Imam and called the Islamic state a dictatorship of the elite who want to take people to heaven by force; and the other, those who in defending the human rights, consider religion and Islam against republicanism. Imam’s fantastic art was to neutralize these dichotomies. I had come to focus on Imam’s approach to neutralize the burgeoning magic of these.
He treasures the notion that Islam and Republicanism are compatible. Perhaps they are. But Khomenei united them in demonic form by modeling the Islamic Republic after Plato's Republic -- the oldest blueprint we have for totalitarianism. The Guardian Council that falsified the vote count last week was a real-world enfranchisement of Plato's ruling class of philosopher kings. Khomeini's republicanism like Plato's, is based in absolute faith in the absolute wisdom of an educated elite invested with absolute power.

His rewriting of the history of the Islamic Republic notwithstanding, Mousavi has committed himself to the human rights that Obama today cast as the universal law of humanity:
As I am looking at the scene, I see it set for advancing a new political agenda that spreads beyond the objective of installing [sic] an unwanted government. As a companion who has seen the beauties of your green wave, I will never allow any one’s life endangered because of my actions. At the same time, I remain undeterred on my demand for annulling the election and demanding people’s rights. Despite my limited abilities, I believe that your motivation and creativity can pursue your legitimate demands in new civil manners.

We advise the authorities, to calm down the streets. Based on article 27 of the constitution, not only provide space for peaceful protest, but also encourage such gatherings. The state TV should stop badmouthing and taking sides. Before voices turn into shouting, let them be heard in reasonable debates. Let the press criticize, and write the news as they happen. In one word, create a free space for people to express their agreements and disagreements. Let those who want, say “takbeer” and don’t consider it opposition. It is clear that in this case, there won’t be a need for security forces on the streets, and we won’t have to face pictures and hear news that break the heart of anyone who loves the country and the revolution.
Leaders can be transformed by the contract forged with their followers in the crucible of events. Mousavi's pledges to institute the rule of law and respect human rights constitute a religious man's strongest oath to his people, made with the world listening, in mortal political combat with those whom he charges with trampling those rights. Let's hope that if by some miracle he does come into power he will work to fulfill these pledges, whatever his delusions about the blood-soaked Khomeinist past -- and his own role in it.

The MSM 'defeats' Mousavi

One quick-drying bit of reporter-speak keeps getting my goat as the drama in Iran unfolds:

BBC 6/20: Defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi repeated calls for the election to be annulled on the grounds it was rigged.

Reuters 6/20: Defeated presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi said on Saturday he was "ready for martyrdom"

Xinhua 6/20 : Iran's former Prime Minister, defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi renewed his call on Saturday for cancellation of last week's disputed presidential election.

AHN 6/20: The planned rally was confirmed by the wife of defeated candidate Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, through her page on Facebook

Wash Post 6/18:
Many people around the world have replaced their online photos with the words "Where Is My Vote?" against a green backdrop, the color of defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's campaign.

Defeated how? By whom? In what sense? Why grant the electoral fraud that validation? Why linguistically codify a result that's still a wee bit contested?

Standoff in Iran?

PressTV, the Iranian state outlet, acknowledges that there was a "rally" today and characterizes violence as "sporadic":
Despite warnings by Iranian police, protesters have staged an illegal rally in Tehran to cry foul over what they call 'vote-rigging' in Iran's presidential election.

Police used batons and water canons to disperse the protesters who gathered near Tehran's Enqelab Square on Saturday.

Sporadic clashes were reported between security forces and the protesters.
While there appears to have been much disgusting Basij violence, it also seems that the government so far has held back from a full-scale Tiananmen crackdown. Videos seem to show that although protesters were kept from massing in major squares, they did manage to fill streets and stay out en masse.

Mousavi, meanwhile, called for a general strike in the event that he is arrested. The fact that he's had the opportunity to make that call indicates something of a standoff.

About that ballot recount offer: a fig leaf for a redo?

Iran's Guardian Council's announcement that it would recount 10% of the election ballots was universally ignored as an empty gesture. And so it surely is. Still, today's PressTV report includes a detail that makes the proposed recount at least theoretically significant: the 10% would be chosen randomly:
The Council has said it is ready to recount a random 10 percent of the ballot boxes in the last Friday's presidential election.

"Although the Guardian Council is not legally obliged ... we are ready to recount 10 percent of the (ballot) boxes randomly in the presence of representatives of the candidates," the electoral watchdog's spokesman, Abbas-Ali Kadkhodayi said on Saturday.
One must assume that the "random" selection would also be rigged. If there were away to verify that it was not, however, the results could be significant. It could even provide a fig leaf for Khamenei to walk back his endorsement of the results.

"On your head be it...."

Iran's Security Council preemptively places blame for crackdown on Mousavi. From PressTV, the Iranian state vehicle:
Iran's Security Council has warned defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi against 'the consequences' of backing street rallies.
"It is your duty not to incite and invite the public to illegal gatherings; otherwise, you will be responsible for its consequences," Iran's Security Council, a body affiliated with the Interior Ministry replied Mousavi's letter in which he had criticized the law enforcement forces for failing to prevent attacks on protestors during the street rallies.

"It is your responsibility to prevent the public from attending such rallies instead of making accusations against the law enforcement," it added.

"We believe this is an organized network which is most probably affiliated to foreign-related groups and deliberately disturbs the peace and security of the public. Of course we have already ordered the law enforcement forces to deal with the issue," read the letter.
Yup, the Great Satan and the Jews are pulling the strings, manipulating all those millions.

Thing is, it did happen once. The U.S. -- and all Iranians -- are still paying the price for the CIA-directed coup against Mossadegh in 1953.

Friday, June 19, 2009

"Mousavi is not Khomeini, and Khamenei is not the Shah"

While no one knows what the endgame will be in Iran, Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace speaks with authority about the personalities of the principals and the dynamics of their power struggle (h/t Steve Coll):

The weight of the world now rests on the shoulders of Mir Hossein Mousavi. I expect that Khamenei’s people have privately sent signals to him that they’re ready for a bloodbath, they’re prepared to use overwhelming force to crush this, and is he willing to lead the people in the streets to slaughter?

Mousavi is not Khomeini, and Khamenei is not the Shah. Meaning, Khomeini would not hesitate to lead his followers to “martyrdom”, and the Shah did not have the stomach for mass bloodshed. This time the religious zealots are the ones holding power.

The anger and the rage and sense of injustice people feel will not subside anytime soon, but if Mousavi concedes defeat he will demoralize millions of people. At the moment the demonstrations really have no other leadership. It’s become a symbiotic relationship, Mousavi feeds off people’s support, and the popular support allows Mousavi the political capital to remain defiant. So Mousavi truly has some agonizing decisions to make.

Rafsanjani’s role also remains critical. Can he co-opt disaffected revolutionary elites to undermine Khamenei? As Khamenei said, they’ve known each other for 52 years, when they were young apostles of Ayatollah Khomeini. I expect that Khamenei’s people have told Rafsanjani that if he continues to agitate against Khamenei behind the scenes, he and his family will be either imprisoned or killed, and that the people of Iran are unlikely to weep for the corrupt Rafsanjani family.

As the Shah tentatively cracked down, killing dozens of protesters here and hundreds there, those seeking his overthrow kept coming back for more. Sadjapour suggests that while Khomeini was more ruthless than the Shah, Khamenei may prove more relentless than Mousavi. Rafsanjani is a wild card, though. And the Iranian people have that Shiite reverence for martyrdom. But can any people resist a truly ruthless crackdown? Perhaps only when the soliders in the tanks refuse to roll.

Who speaks for the Islamic Republic?

The battle between Mousavi and Khameneiis playing out as a contest over which of them speaks for the rule of law as established by the revolution of 1979.

In his Friday Prayer speech earlier today, Khamenei drew all four candidates within the circle of "love" that he claims the Islamic Republic to be ("the elections of the 12 June was.... a show of their love for their regime") and casts the post-election resistance as the work of evil outsiders :

The competition for the election was very clear. Enemies and dirty Zionists tried to show the election as a contest between the regime and against it. That is not true, all four candidates support the regime." [He lists the government positions of the opposition candidates]. All of the candidates are part of this system and regime. Zionists and the bad Britishradio said it was a challenge to the regime.

"The issue is inside the system. The dispute is not against the revolution. The dispute was among candidates and there was a positive and negative effect. People were able to judge, they felt part of the system. All views were available to the people.

That "all four candidates support the regime" -- or did before the vote count -- is not only true, it also taps into the central theme of Mousavi's campaign and of his post-election protest. Back on April 3, the Iranian government vehicle Press TV reported:
[Mousavi] added that freedom of information should become a basis for both the government and economy, warning that overlooking the Iranian constitution and its contents posed a major challenge to the country.

"The issue of non-compliance with Iranian rules and regulations is the biggest problem that the country is currently faced with," he said.

Then, on June 13, Mousavi claimed authority to contest the vote in the name of the Revolution of 1979 and the law established by the revolutionary regime:
I advise all officials to halt this agenda at once before it is too late, return to the rule of law and protect the nation’s vote and know that deviation from law renders them illegitimate. They are aware better than anyone else that this country has been through a grand Islamic revolution and the least message of this revolution is that our nation is alert and will oppose anyone who aims to seize the power against the law.
And on June 14, he effectively cast those in control of the vote count as destroyers of the state:
The events that we all have witnessed in the past days were unprecedented in the Islamic Republic. The reason for the fearful concern of the people is due to the extreme sense of danger for the great achievements of the (Islamic) Revolution. Those who after massive cheatings have declared these unbelievable results for the presidential elections are now out to establish these results as undisputed facts and start a new chapter in the history of our country.
Now, Khamenei is trying to use this weapon of Mousavi's against him. He has drawn a line and declared that anyone who continues to protest the official election returns is aligned with the "Zionists" and evil western diplomats:

The guardian council has said that if people have doubts they should prove them. I will not follow false allegations. In all elections some are winners and some are losers. Correct legal procedures should be followed to ensure trust in the process. "The candidates should be careful about what they say and do" [Mousavi doesn't seem to be there]. "Some diplomats from the west are showing their real face and that they are enemies. The worst are the British.

The street is the place of living and trading. Why are you taking to the streets? We have had the election. Street demonstrations are a target for terrorist plots. Who would be responsible if something happened?

Khamenei has just washed his hands of the blood he's preparing to spill -- and in fact smeared it not only on Mousavi but on Rafsanjani:
"Rumours spread that were not true, and gave a bad image to the previous government. Calling the president a liar is that good? This is against the truth. The 30 years of the revolution was turning black." Khamenei talks about the rumours about Hashemi Rafsanjani. He praises Rafsanjani as "close" to the revolution. "The youth should know that... He was at the service of the revolution. I do have some difference with him, but people should not imagine something else between him and the president.
Again, Khamenei is at once asserting that all rivals within the current leadership circle are "part of this system and regime" and warning them not set themselves against it. Rafsanjani, however, is the only rival who might have the constitutional power to in turn cast Khamenei as the one outside the law. Rafsanjani is Chair of the Expediency Council, which according to the Economist in 2005 "was given an undefined 'supervisory authority' over all three branches of government," and head too of the Assembly of Experts, which "can also theoretically dismiss the supreme leader if he fails to meet specific criteria or becomes unable to execute his duties satisfactorily."

"Who would be responsible if something happened?" The rival histories are being written already.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iranian attitudes toward Israel: the TFT poll

The now-notorious poll of the Iranian electorate conducted in May by Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation may not have shed much light on the final presidential vote, given that less than half of those surveyed expressed a preference for any candidate, and that the poll was conducted a month before the vote in a short campaign that changed radically in the final weeks. But its basic methodology was sound. And the survey does contain a wealth of data about Iranian beliefs on a wide range of issues.

That includes some chilling -- albeit somewhat contradictory -- data on Iranians' attitudes toward Israel. The 1000 respondents were asked which statement was closest to their own opinons: "I would favor a peace treaty recognizing the State of Israel, if an independent Palestinian State is established" or "I oppose any peace treaty recognizing the State of Israel, and I favor all Muslims continuing to fight until there is no state of Israel in the Middle East." 269 (26.9%) favored the peace treaty; 615 (61.5%) opposed any treaty and favored fighting until Israel, pardon the interpolation, vanishes from the page of time. 8.9% didn't know; 2.7% refused to answer.

Respondents were also asked, however, about their attitudes toward "several proposals which some Iranian diplomats were willing to give to the United States in return for normal relations." Among them: "recognizing Israel and Palestine each as separate, independent states." Here, 35% strongly favored the two-state solution; 17.1% somewhat favored it; 9.1% somewhat opposed, 27.2% strongly opposed; 10.3% didn't know, and 1.4% refused to answer.

Almost twice as many respondents were willing to support a two-state solution in this context as in the prior one. It would appear that a good number of Iranians are willing to put their hatred of Israel on ice in exchange for normal relations with the U.S.

Iranians also consider Israel to be the country that poses the greatest threat to Iran -- with some justification, given Netanyahu's loud saber rattling. 44.1% said that Israel was the greatest threat to their country, vs. 37.9% for the United States and just 2.1% for Russia -- which, incidentally, might indicate that Mousavi's recent effort to portray Ahmadinijad as a Russian tool will not have much resonance.

I must say that I will remember Iranian policy preferences toward Israel when reading accounts of Iranians' apparent growing enthusiasm for nonviolence as a means to effect political change at home. At the same time, one might hope that success in nonviolent resistance at home might dispose Iranians more favorably toward nonviolent resolutions of conflicts abroad. Indeed, a major reason for Mousavi's strong support is Iranians' wish for a less confrontational foreign policy, a wish demonstrated by the response to the second question about Israel cited above. In fact the subtitle of the TFT report on their Iranian poll is "Iranians Continue to Back Compromise and Better Relations with US and West." But it's worth remembering that if Iranians do indeed manage to unclench their collective fist, they may yet hold a rock under the armpit for Israel.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The wrest is silence

Today's march through Tehran, captured in this short video from a height that shows its massive length and breadth, makes me feel for the first time that something unstoppable is at work here - that this outpouring of popular will can't simply be crushed, Tiananmen Square style -- though the regime may well try. Maybe it's the silence -- is that Islam's contribution to the nonviolent toolbox? Islamic velvet? Beneath it perhaps lurks the Shiite passion for martyrdom that unseated the Shah. If massacred, these people will keep coming back for more -- in 40-day intervals.

Autocracy, inflation, revolt, crackdown

A few weeks ago, social scientists Michael J. Lamia and James Raymond Vreeland published the results of an exhaustive statistical study of the factors that lead countries to transition to democracy. One ostensibly surprising conclusion was that rapid GDP growth does not correlate with such transitions:

Regarding transitions to democracy, we find that economic growth has a robust negative effect. This finding, standing in stark contrast to modernization theory, suggests that autocracies with strong economic performance are unlikely to see democracy emerge. Instead, economic contraction causes dictatorships to break down. Also in contrast to modernization theory...the level of GDP per capita does not have a robust relationship with the emergence of democracy (p.2).

We have an interesting finding for economic growth: it makes dictatorships more likely to survive and lowers the chances for democracy to emerge (p. 27).
Is this really so surprising? No one wants to change a winning game. As long as an autocracy delivers the goods, people are likely to tolerate it. However, these researchers also found that
autocracies with strong economic performance are unlikely to see democracy emerge. Instead, economic contraction causes dictatorships to break down.
What happens when rapid economic progress gives way to economic stress? Perhaps that is the danger point for many autocracies.

Such was the case in the runup to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in China in 1989. From 1984-1988, China's average yearly growth rate (not compounded) was 12.1%, according to Chinability. In 1989, growth slowed to 4.1%, shrinking to 3.8% the next year before soaring again to 9.2% in 1991 and never dipping below 7% thereafter. The major economic stress point in the months prior to the student protests, however, was runaway inflation, which led to widespread calls for increased centralized control of the economy after a period of liberalization.

The Chinese people ultimately accepted continued authoritarianism after the Tiananmen crackdown. Prior to the 1989 dip, they had experienced a dozen years of extraordinary growth, and after a two-year slowdown in 1989-90 the country resumed its torrid wealth creation. Some may lament the wealth-freedom tradeoff. But the government has credibility to the extent that it's fostered the commonwealth for a generation.

Iran's current crisis is also occurring at a moment of economic pressure following a period of growth. Since 2000, according to the Congressional Research Service, GDP growth has averaged about 6.4% per year; this year, in the midst of the world financial crisis, it's projected at 3.5%. But again, the chief stressor is inflation: the official CPI was 17.1% in 2007 and 28.0 in '08, the real rate is higher, and the costs runups hit people where they live, in housing and food prices. Unemployment is also high - 12.1% in 2007 -- and Iran suffers the world's biggest brain drain, according to the IMF, as its young population goes abroad in search of opportunity.

Unlike the Chinese in 1989, Iranians today widely consider their country to be mismanaged economically. Ahmadinejad has held interests rates artificially low, fueling inflation. The international sanctions bite, and foreign investment is low.

A Tiananmen-style crackdown could happen at any time in Iran. But the Iranians have less cause to accept their government's heavy hand than the Chinese did. There is no upside to acquiescence -- no promise of prudent economic stewardship, or of stability and increasing foreign engagment.

Gary Sick's pre-election call

As the world wonders whether the post-election unrest will delegitimize the Iranian regime that's been headed for the past twenty years by Ayatollah Khamenei, it's worth stepping to recognize that election contest prior to the vote laid the groundwork.

Back on June 10, Gary Sick noted that Ahmadinejad's debate performances must have triggered cognitive dissonance for millions of Iranians on several fronts -- most notably in his implicit indictment of his own purported puppet master:
[Ahmadinejad] broke crockery left and right by associating his opponents with what he claimed was a history of corruption and catastrophic errors dating back to the earliest days of the Islamic Republic. That, of course, is the system that he represents and that he extolls in every public appearance.

The 40 million Iranian voters who watched this astonishing spectacle, and who had never heard a serious word of criticism about the Islamic government on national TV, scarcely knew what to think. His accusations, if true, cast doubt on the very legitimacy of the revolutionary state.

Although Ahmadinejad’s barbs were aimed primarily at former president Rafsanjani, whom he suspects of orchestrating the opposition, these charges also apply even more directly to the Leader, Ayatollah Khamene`i, who has had supreme authority over the Islamic Republic since at least 1989. If Iran is this wasteland of corruption, inefficiency and strategic mistakes, what does that say about the wizard who has been guiding this process almost since its inception?

Indeed, Sick's June 10 post highlights the deep fissure within the Iranian regime that pointed toward a rigged election. Its prescience about the likely rigging -- and Khamenei's likely acquiesence -- lends authority to Sick's conclusion:
No one in Iran appears to be fully in control of events that have a potential to mark a turning point in the history of the Islamic revolution.
Of course, the unlikelihood that the status quo in Iran can be restored does not rule out the possibility that the crisis will produce a more repressive regime.

Reza Pahlavi seconds Nate Silver

Nate Silver's blog tagline, "Politics done right," amounts to an admonition: "do the math." To a verbally inclined baby boomer who felt free to blow off math in mid-eleventh grade, 538 has offered a sobering demonstration that while the truth may set you free, the math very often reveals the truth.

On Monday, Silver took a dive into Iranian pre-election polling data, which according to pollsters Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty of Terror Free Tomorrow showed that Ahmadinejad was indeed likely to win the "real" vote count. Focusing on the large number of respondents who would not reveal or had not made a choice, paired with wide margins in favor of reformist policy positions, Silver found evidence of multi-level voter intimidation. His conclusion:
The point that few commentators are realizing -- Al Giordano is an exception -- is that this story really isn't about the way that the votes were counted. It's about whether Iran is capable at this point of having an election in which the democratic will of its electorate is properly reflected. If Ahmadinejad hired a bunch of thugs to hold every Iranian at gunpoint while they were casting their ballots, it would not have been difficult for him to get 63 percent of the vote -- indeed, he'd probably have wound up with very close to 100 percent. This would be an election -- and there would be no need at all to tamper with the results. But it wouldn't be an expression of democracy. We need to separate out those two concepts. Ahmadinejad, as far as we know, did not go so far as to hold anyone at gunpoint. But the tentacles of fear in Iran run deep.
Are good math skills are proxy for experience? Exiled Reza Pahlavi, the 48-year-old son of the last Shah of Iran, needs no numbers crunching to assess the regime that deposed his father. Here's what he told the WSJ:
"We have a major paradigm change right now," he said. "It's a mockery to call any of these theatrics an election process. However, given the limits the Iranian people have, that was the only way to show the whole world they are against the established regime. Now they have gone to questioning the very legitimacy of the regime, and it's unfolding before our very eyes."
Of course, Pahlavi is hardly an unbiased observer. Nonetheless, the congruence with Silver's analysis is striking.

I should add, too, that it doesn't require advanced math skills to contrast the poll numbers for the candidates with the poll numbers for policy positions. But it's the habit of mind that counts. And often, Silver's mathematical analysis goes far deeper.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Orzag hones in on doctors' incentives

Peter Orzag has a new sound-byte (or stat-byte) to counter those who want to lump social security together with Medicare/Medicaid under the aegis of "entitlement reform."

For some time, Orzag's mantra has been "healthcare reform is entitlement reform." In today's FT, he distills why that is:
Our fiscal future is so dominated by healthcare that if the US can slow the rate of cost growth by just 15 basis points a year (0.15 percentage points), the savings for Medicare and Medicaid would equal the impact from eliminating Social Security’s entire 75-year shortfall.
Having framed the imperative to cut healthcare costs, Orzag continues in the FT piece to channel Atul Gawande, as he has at least three times on his blog. Whether or not Gawande has helped to focus Orzag's thinking, there's no question that his tale of two healthcare markets has helped Orzag focus his rhetoric on changing doctors' incentives to prescribe unnecessary care:

We must also address the forces making the healthcare system unaffordable and inefficient. The system creates incentives for doctors and hospitals to provide more care, not the best care. A lack of information on what works leads to huge variations in the quality of care and its cost. As Atul Gawande has described in the New Yorker, there are cities such as McAllen, Texas, that spend close to twice the national average on healthcare and do not get better results than lower cost, high-quality cities even in their own state or region.

The US must move towards a higher-quality, lower-cost system in which best practices are universal – rather than concentrated only in some parts of the country. The administration has therefore put forward initiatives such as health IT, research into what works, prevention and wellness, and changes in provider incentives (my emphasis).
The focus on eliminating unnecessary care is in turn helping Orzag -- and Obama -- to draw together two parts of their healthcare pitch: reduce costs, extend coverage. Two weeks ago, Jonathan Cohn noted that Obama seems to find it politically helpful to focus rhetoric on the cost-reduction side of the equation. As Orzag makes clear, however, it's runaway costs that have swelled the ranks of the insured and underinsured -- and runaway costs will make universal coverage impossible if they're not reined in.

What Gawande has handed Orzag is a demonstration that unnecessary procedures are a prime driver of healthcare inflation. That makes it possible for Orzag and Obama to suggest that costs can be effectively reduced without compromising quality of care -- thus defanging the bogey of "healthcare rationing."

As the administration trains its sights on removing financial incentives to prescribe unnecessary treatment, it's interesting that Obama has floated tort reform as a counterweight. Easing the constant threat of litigation hanging over doctors would be powerful compensation for reducing the financial incentives that bias some doctors toward prescribing operations, tests etc. that may not be necessary.

See also:
Did Obama read Atul Gawande? I, II, III.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Is Iranian resistance "about" Mousavi?

Andrew Sullivan quotes Mousavi's newest message and follows with a comment:

I have submitted my request for canceling the elections to the Guardian Council. I am certain recent reactions are not for me, but it is out of concern for the new political order that is being imposed on our country.

It is important to understand what is going on. There has been a fascist coup after the elections stripped Ahmadinejad of any legitimacy. The resistance is religious as all mass movements in Iran are. The government is fascist. And the regime has split open, leaving the worst elements desperately and brutally trying to restore their control by force.
"The resistance is religious." And there's an Animal Farm irony to Mousavi's stance: he warns that the original (presumably pure, shining) Islamic Revolution is at risk of giving way to "a new way of political hegemony which is being forced upon us" (June 14). He is now spokesman for the rule of law in the name of an Islamic Republic that from an American perspective never respected it, but that is now sweeping away its inadequate but to some extent functioning channels of response to the popular will. It's as if one of Lenin's original cadre were resisting a less murderous Stalin in the name of the revolution's original ideals.

A second irony is that while Mousavi insists "it's not about me," the resistance may yet be shaped by his strategy -- peaceful pressure to convince the mullahs to step back from the brink, then reform their Islamist regime in order to save it. Events could overwhelm his leadership from two directions -- brutal crackdown or a revolution that sweeps away the Islamic Republic. But so far he's something of a dam holding both sides back.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A running mate for Ahmadinejad?

Today, Ahmadinejad displayed his understanding of the democratic process:
When asked about protests and complaints, Ahmadinejad said that it was important to ask the opinions of "true Iranians" on the elections. "Like the people you meet at my rallies," he said.
Great minds think alike:
"We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe" -- here the audience interrupted Palin with applause and cheers -- "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.
Come to think of it, they're both pretty good at handing out petrodollars, too.

Mousavi's brinksmanship: resistance within the law

As previously noted, Mousavi is claming the authority to reject the official election resultsin the name of the Revolution of 1979 and the law established by the revolutionary regime. In the campaign, he said, " "The issue of non-compliance with Iranian rules and regulations is the biggest problem that the country is currently faced with" (my emphasis). Yesterday, he called on the authorities to "return to the rule of law."

Today, Mousavi -- a stalwart of Khomeini's revolution and prime minister through the Iran_Iaq War -- has developed this "faithful reformer" stance into a coherent strategy of resistance, almost Gandhiesque in its (misplaced?) faith that he and his followers are dealing with an adversary capable of being shamed into doing the right thing, and somewhat Obamaesque in calling for restraint from both sides of a conflict.

In a June 14 letter to compatriots, Mousavi first of all refers to the Islamic Republic in the past tense, clearly defining the election's theft as the end of the Republic and the beginning of a new dictorial regime:
Dear compatriots, I have received numerous reports of unrest and clashes from all over the country. I’m confident these (protests) are not because of my person but due to a growing concern for a new way of political hegemony which is being forced upon us. The events that we all have witnessed in the past days were unprecedented in the Islamic Republic. The reason for the fearful concern of the people is due to the extreme sense of danger for the great achievements of the (Islamic) Revolution. Those who after massive cheatings have declared these unbelievable results for the presidential elections are now out to establish these results as undisputed facts and start a new chapter in the history of our country.
Next, more remarkably, Mousavi serially warns those currently in power that the people will not accept a new dictatorship, takes for himself and his supporters the mantle of protectors of the rule of law as established by the Islamic Republic, pledges to work himself within legal channels to have the election results nullified, and calls on his supporters to find peaceful means of resistance:
We respect and abide by the constitution and the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran and regard our supreme leader as one of the important bases of our regime and (thus) will peruse our political struggle within the structure of the law. We hope that the future events prove the falsehood of our fears (of dictatorship and tyranny), but never the less, we warn that no one who cares and supports the Islamic Revolution (of 1979) will tolerate this (rigging the election), this is after all our national responsibility and patriotic duty that we owe to the thousands who sacrificed their lives for this country. Dear people, Today, I officially asked the guardian council (who oversees the elections in IR) in a letter to nullify the outcome of this election and I regard this (the nullification) as the only possible way for regaining the people’s trust and cooperation with the government. I strongly urge you again to peacefully protest and defend your legal rights civilly and without confrontation and violence all over the country. We have officially asked the authorities to give us the permission for large scale demonstrations in every major city throughout the country for tomorrow, so that people can demonstrate their protest against the way the election was conducted and its results peacefully. I believe that the authority’s compliance with this request is the best way to manage the current outbursts of anxieties.
Finally, having urged his supporters to avoid violence, Mousavi appeals directly to law enforcement not to turn on demonstrators, not to forfeit their own legitimacy:
Out of care and respect for our police (law enforcement), I urge them not to use violence against the spontaneous protests so not to let that the people lose their trust in them. These people are your brothers and sisters and have come to the streets in protest to defend theirs and your own rights. The might of our armed forces and the police has been and will always be only due to its unity* with The People. In hope of better days Mir Hossein Mousavi - 24 Khordaad 1388 (14 June 2009) Tehran
What a bold attempt to ride the tiger. Mousavi's letter includes a profession of loyalty to Supreme Leader Khamenei as a "basis of our regime" but also a veiled warning to Khamenei not to abrogate that regime; a call to followers not to accept the election results but also not use violence; and an appeal to the police not to give Iran its Tiananmen Square moment. This is leadership. Mousavi is moving with calm, confidence and courage.

The limits of Republican 'rethink'

A useful Times article about Republicans beginning to rethink the Reagan mystique points toward without quite focusing on an elemental political truth: success ought to (but rarely does) suggest its own limits. If you succeed in cutting taxes, you can't indefinitely keep cutting taxes. If you succeed in building up the military, you can't indefinitely keep building up the military. If you succeed in reducing regulation, you can't indefinitely keep reducing regulation.

Here's the Times' chief example of a Republican "rethink":
“I don’t use him publicly as a reference point,” said Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a Republican who lately has emerged as a potential national party leader. Mr. Daniels instead has urged fellow Republicans to “let go” of Mr. Reagan as a contemporary symbol....

Mr. Daniels, too, hails his former boss for “timeless” principles like suspicion of big government and appreciation of the importance of individual freedom and opportunity. As he tackles issues in Indiana — education policy lately is a hot topic — he says he asks himself whether Mr. Reagan would approve.
There's no indication that Daniels has asked himself whether Reagan's policies fit the country's needs today.

Did Obama read Atul Gawande? - part 3

UPDATE: Orzag hones in on doctors' incentives

First Peter Orzag, then Obama, and now the New York Times editorial board are making a manifesto of Atul Gawande's powerful demonstration that a major driver of healthcare inflation is doctors' financial incentive to prescribe unnecessary procedures (and often invest in the providers, such as medical imaging centers).

Adopting Gawande's tale of two healthcare markets, Orzag wrote in his blog on June 8, We need to reform the health care system so that it rewards the right kind of innovation – the Mayos, not the McAllens. Yesterday the Times picked up the thread

A glaring example of profligate physician behavior was described by Atul Gawande in the June 1 issue of The New Yorker. (His article has become must reading at the White House.) Dr. Gawande, a Harvard-affiliated surgeon and author, traveled to McAllen, Texas, to find out why Medicare spends more per beneficiary there than in any other city except Miami.

None of the usual rationalizations put forth by doctors held up. The population, though poor, is not sicker than average; the quality of care people get is not superior. Malpractice suits have practically disappeared due to a tough state malpractice law, leaving no rationale for defensive medicine. The reason for McAllen’s soaring costs, some doctors finally admitted, is over-treatment. Doctors perform extra tests, surgeries and other procedures to increase their incomes.
and drew the conclusion:
There is disturbing evidence that many do a lot more than is medically useful — and often reap financial benefits from over-treating their patients. No doubt a vast majority of doctors strive to do the best for their patients. But many are influenced by fee-for-service financial incentives and some are unabashed profiteers.
To be fair, doctors are victims as well as perpatrators of our healthcare system dysfunction. They waste insane amounts of time and resources fighting with insurance companies to get paid. And they're driven by the constant hair-trigger threat of malpractice lawsuits (and malpractice insurance profiteering) to order unnecessary tests and procedures. You might say that defensive medicine, and the "entrepreneurial spirit" that Gawande found infecting some medical communities, are the yin and yang of wasteful healthcare spending in the U.S.

Gawande may be emerging as the Jacob Riis of 21st centure healthcare. And perhaps, when we're ready, of cruel and unusual punishment as well.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Revolution from within

Mir-Houssain Mousavi, in his letter to the people of Iran calling on them not to accept the announced election results, claims authority in the name of the Revolution of 1979 and the law established by the revolutionary regime:
I advise all officials to halt this agenda at once before it is too late, return to the rule of law and protect the nation’s vote and know that deviation from law renders them illegitimate. They are aware better than anyone else that this country has been through a grand Islamic revolution and the least message of this revolution is that our nation is alert and will oppose anyone who aims to seize the power against the law.
Indeed, Mousavi's campaign has in large part been about establishing the rule of law. On April 3, a month after entering the Presidential election, he said, ""The issue of non-compliance with Iranian rules and regulations is the biggest problem that the country is currently faced with."

Human Rights Watch's true-blue conservative

Early this year, David Brooks put on his Big Think cap and counterpoised against our society's alleged individualist shibboleths a communitarian ethos put forward by political scientist Hugh Heclo in a book published last summer, On Thinking Institutionally. As relayed by Brooks:

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

While Brooks never used the word "conservatism" he was plainly holding up this "institutional" ethic as a kind of Platonic conservative ideal. Proud professionals devote their lives to "saving" the honorable essence of institutions that themselves conserve the distilled wisdom of generations.

From this standpoint, Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, is a true-blue conservative. Consider his call to trust in the accumulated wisdom of core U.S. institutions in his June 9 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution:
Seven years after Guantanamo opened, a stable set of rules for determining who should be detained and with what degree of due process has still not emerged.

Some of these problems are due to the inherent flaws of the system. But many are the inevitable result of creating any new system from scratch, especially one that deviates so much from standards with which US courts are comfortable and American lawyers are familiar. America's civilian criminal justice system, on the other hand, has been around for more than 200 years. The Uniform Code of Military Justice has been around for almost 60. We've had all that time to get the kinks out of the system, to establish stable rules, to train a cadre of lawyers and judges who know those rules, and to develop special procedures for special kinds of cases, including those involving terrorism.

If we try again to create a new system from scratch, if we rely again on trial and error to work out the rules, the result will again likely be more error than trial. Eventually, stable rules may emerge, after all the legal challenges and legislative re-dos are exhausted. But how long should we be prepared to wait to get to that point? Five years? Ten years? Can the United States afford more years of controversy over how to detain suspected terrorists?
To Obama, who has signaled that he wants to revamp rather than scrap the improvisations of the Bush administration - military commissions and preventive detention -- Malinowski points out that there's a kind of infinite regress in trying to reproduce the due process protections of the criminal justice system in a new regime that grants the Federal government powers the whole purpose of which is to short-circuit those protections:
Theoretically, one could design a system of preventive detention that affords detainees such a high level of due process and judicial review that it would not look like Guantanamo, or even Guantanamo-lite. But if you allow protections similar to those already provided by federal courts and courts martial, why go to the trouble of creating a new system at all?
Commentators as diverse as Andrew Sullivan, Martin Wolf and Jack Goldsmith have pointed to a kind of conservatism in Obama -- a propensity to retool rather than radically remake existing institutions, a reform impulse that aims to restore institutions to working order. With regard to treatment of detainees, Obama promises to work within our political institutions, in concert with Congress and the courts, to revamp military commissions and create Constitutional rules for preventive detention. But reforming and "conserving" Bush's radical, ad hoc exercise of this power may simply serve to codify core violations of Constitutional principles as previously understood. As Diane Marie Amann, a law professor at UC Davis, warned in the wake of Obama's May 20, speech on national security:

He signaled a plan by which they — and perhaps other detainees yet to be arrested? — could remain in custody forever without charge. There is no precedent in the American legal tradition for this kind of preventive detention. That is not quite right: precedents do exist, among them the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the Japanese internment of the 1940s, but they are widely seen as low points in America’s history under the Constitution.

President Obama promised that his “new legal regime” — words identical to those Bush Administration official John Yoo used in 2002 –- will provide an array of “fair procedures.” That ought to be a given, for the Constitution requires due process before liberty may be deprived. But no amount of procedures can justify deprivations that, because of their very nature violate the Constitution’s core guarantee of liberty.
Time will tell how "institutionally" Obama thinks about the U.S. Constitution.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

As if Marcus Garvey had his way

Via Goldblog, I'm reminded of a familiar thought prompted by Andre Aciman's reminder of an Exodus on the NYT op-ed page:
The president never said a word about me. Or, for that matter, about any of the other 800,000 or so Jews born in the Middle East who fled the Arab and Muslim world or who were summarily expelled for being Jewish in the 20th century. With all his references to the history of Islam and to its (questionable) "proud tradition of tolerance" of other faiths, Mr. Obama never said anything about those Jews whose ancestors had been living in Arab lands long before the advent of Islam but were its first victims once rampant nationalism swept over the Arab world.
I have often thought that the single best justification for the State of Israel is the fact that Jews were an oppressed minority throughout the Middle East who had a chance, mainly after the founding of the state of Israel by mainly Ashkenazi Jews, to build a home in a sliver of land carved out from the vast acres of their former oppressors. Yes, European antisemitism was more virulent than the Muslim variety, but Sephardic Jews were very much second-class citizens in Arab lands. It's somewhat as if African Americans got hold of a piece of the Arizona desert and built their own state there.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Did Obama read Atul Gawande? - cont.

Last week, I wondered whether Obama had read Atul Gawande's eureka-inducing article on why U.S. healthcare costs are so high, noting that Obama cited Gawande's chief example of a care center where costs are low and outcomes excellent, the Mayo Clinic, while highlighting before a Senate audience the imperative to reduce dramatic variations in costs among different communities.

Had I done my homework, I would have known that the answer was "yes" -- or more precisely, that Obama's brain on healthcare, Peter Orzag, not only read read Gawande, but went to town blogging on Gawande's conclusions and in particular on Gawande's spotlight on McAllen TX, the low income town with one of the highest per capita Medicare tabs in the country. On May 28, Orzag noted that Gawande's tale of two healthcare markets richly illustrated his own theme that some markets pay dramatically more for healthcare than counterparts, with no apparent benefits. Then, on June 4, he delved deeper into McAllen's high costs, comparing them with his own favorite poster child for low costs/good outcomes, Grand Junction, CO:
For example, at the end-of-life, nearly half of all McAllen Medicare patients see 10 or more physicians, significantly more than the national rate of 30 percent (and in Grand Junction, Colorado, it is just 11% – more than four times less than the rate in McAllen). Also, McAllen’s Medicare patients have 50 percent more cardiac surgery procedures as the national average (about 24 per 1000, versus about 16 per 1000), four times the ambulance spending during end-of-life, and eight times the home health care costs. Medicare spending per enrollee in the last two years of life also varies greatly among McAllen and other peer hospitals.
This week, Orzag was at it again, converting Gawande's core contrast into a policy mantra:
It’s certainly true that medical innovation is essential to improving treatment – and thus health outcomes – for us all. And it’s also true that we need to encourage doctors and researchers to explore and experiment in ways that lead to medical advances that save lives and improve their quality. But, today, the American health care system doesn’t always reward the best medical innovations – and one need look no further than McAllen, Texas to see that this is so.

Despite having a demographic profile similar to El Paso, Texas, and despite having had similar Medicare expenditures as El Paso as recently as 1992, McAllen’s spending grew about five times faster in the years since than in either El Paso or the United States as a whole. In return, McAllen got more medicine (more tests, more surgeries, more time in waiting rooms), but it didn’t get better health – McAllen scores lower than El Paso (and the U.S. average) in measures of health care quality. McAllen "innovated," and certain doctors and hospitals were financially rewarded, but I think we can all agree that this isn’t the kind of innovation we desire.

To get the most from innovation, we need to align incentives toward quality rather than intensity. The Mayo Clinic, synonymous the world over with cutting-edge medicine, has among the country’s lowest Medicare costs per beneficiary. Smaller medical markets, too, have managed to achieve such results: Grand Junction, Colorado is one of the lowest-cost and highest-quality places in the country to be treated. We need to reform the health care system so that it rewards the right kind of innovation – the Mayos, not the McAllens. And the Administration’s proposals aim to do precisely that through bundling of payments, incentives to reduce hospital readmission rates, and (as discussed below) a process through which MedPAC’s recommendations would enjoy fast-track protections in Congress (my emphasis).
Obama is singing from the same choir book. As in his June 2 address to senators, so in his June 2 letter to Senators Kennedy and Baucus, he highlighted the Mayo Clinic, replicating Gawande's thesis in the process:
We should ask why places like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and other institutions can offer the highest quality care at costs well below the national norm. We need to learn from their success and replicate those best practices across the country (my emphasis).
Compare Gawande:
Most Americans would be delighted to have the quality of care found in places like Rochester, Minnesota, or Seattle, Washington, or Durham, North Carolina—all of which have world-class hospitals and costs that fall below the national average. If we brought the cost curve in the expensive places down to their level, Medicare’s problems (indeed, almost all the federal government’s budget problems for the next fifty years) would be solved. The difficulty is how to go about it. Physicians in places like McAllen behave differently from others. The $2.4-trillion question is why. Unless we figure it out, health reform will fail.
Among other cost-cutting measures, Obama also called for "'accountable care organizations'" to improve the quality of care for Medicare patients - apparently a bid to create the kind of outcomes-focused peer group Gawande highlighted in the Mayo Clinic.

Not to mix up cause and effect: Orzag has seized on Gawande's field research because it so precisely illustrates his own pet theses. But still it's remarkable to see that high quality piece of research and writing working its way so swiftly into the political process.

Did Obama read Atul Gawande part 3
Orzag hones in on doctors' incentives