Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Where We Could Really Use the "Next Steve Jobs"

A lot of people focus on the smartphone market, and complain with each new Apple product that... Steve Jobs would have done something different, or better, or both. Steve Jobs brought something unusual to Apple, specifically a willingness to make huge gambles on theoretical technology, and to release products that could turn out to be failures. Apple seems to have become exceedingly cautious, but I'm not sure that is so much the result of a change in the company's philosophy as it is a change in consumer expectations. The iPhone 4 antenna issue, and the Apple Maps brouhaha, suggest that consumers want nothing less than perfect and, rather than launching risky products that might inspire a mixed reaction or turn out to be the next Newton (or Zune), caution has spread across the industry.

The real story behind the focus on portable electronics is not so much that a life-changing innovation is just around the corner. It's much more that there is profit in the upper end of the market, the mass market having already been commoditized. Smartphone advances reflect the importance of competition as, even though Apple sees the rise and fall of Nokia as a cautionary tale, history suggests that product development in a commoditized market tends to be slow. Most companies see little to no point in spending hundreds of millions of dollars to marginally improve a product that will likely sell at the same price point as before. That's the sort of context in which a short-sighted CEO of a company like Hewlett-Packard might decide that it no longer makes sense to fund research that is not directly aimed at turning a profit, or why a similarly short-sighted company's products might go from excellent to "good enough" in order to increase margins by decreasing production costs. (Am I talking about the same company?)

One might argue that televisions have seen marked advances in technology despite being a largely commoditized market, but that has been driven in no small part by the introduction of HDTV and the money poured into the development of new displays for computer users and commercial settings. Even in that context, major players like Panasonic have a very difficult time turning a profit, and the pool of companies that produce television displays and sets is not expanding.

One area that has seen a surprising lack of innovation is the desktop computer market. That's in part because it's a tough nut to crack - computers do pretty much what we want them to do, there are no obvious ways to dramatically improve the user interface, and the technologies for interacting with computers other than through a mouse and keyboard tend to focus on niche users or turn out to be largely impractical. It may be that one day we'll have displays and "no touch" gesture controls as shown in the film, "Minority Report", but that's not on the horizon. Basically, the desktop computer market seems a lot like the television market. To the extent that incremental improvements are seen, they're in no small part the result of R&D in the mobile marketplace. The biggest "innovation" we've seen in a desktop operating system was Microsoft's annoying, clumsy interference with the user experience by putting a "smart tile" display between the computer user and the desktop - that is, they tried to make the desktop experience more like mobile, never mind whether that makes sense. Apple has made similar, albeit less in-your-face changes to its desktop operating system, with its Launchpad and App store, but they're really not part of the ordinary desktop experience.

Somebody commented to me recently that Apple seemed to be "giving up" on the competition for desktop computers. I responded that they're chasing money and market share, and that right now they can find both in the mobile space while there is little incentive to try to claw out a greater market share in the desktop market. The cost of significantly expanding their desktop presence would be significant, and there's really not much money to be made in that market. Were Apple to start producing $300 - $600 portable computers it might find a market, but it would have to make the quality cuts that are readily apparent in computers in that price range, potentially costing it brand loyalty over the long run in the same manner that the low quality Apple products of the Sculley era damaged Apple's reputation and competitiveness. Why mass produce low-cost computers that have to be sold at tiny margins and that would likely have an impaired user experience, when you can continue to sell $1000+ computers that people enjoy using, and sell millions of highly profitable iPads to the sub-$1,000 market?

Really, though, the desktop industry needs to be woken from its complacency, much in the manner that Google and Apple rebooted then-stagnant browser development with Chrome and Safari. The problem being, you either need a company that sees a long-term gain in developing new technology at a significant short-term cost, the way Xerox PARC laid the foundation for the computer mouse and windows-driven displays, or because they don't want to be indentured to a competitor's product. And if you take the HP Labs / Xerox PARC approach, you also need a visionary who can see how a new idea can be improved and put into widespread use - after all it was Apple, not Xerox, that turned the mouse and menu/windows-driven interface from an impractical lab-based demo to the desktop standard.

The manner in which the world, and Apple, has changed is perhaps best illustrated by today's quiet announcement that the iMac has been updated. You can go to the Apple Store and buy one today - but the new version isn't even flagged as "new". A secondary illustration comes from the Mac Pro, the high-end computer Apple develops for the professional market, which is soon to be released in an innovative new case. But that's innovation in the same sense as the Mac Mini was an innovation - great design and packaging, but nothing you couldn't have accomplished in a traditional mini tower case. Apple did promote the redesigned Mac Pro, some months back, but when will it actually come to market? Later this year. There's no sense of urgency, as there is in the highly competitive mobile marketplace.

An argument can be made that when a technology reaches a certain point of maturity, all new developments will be incremental. Perhaps the keyboard and mouse-driven desktop computer are pretty much it - and unless the entire concept is reinvented (much as the iPhone reinvented the smartphone market) this is it. People seem disappointed when the new "state of the art" smartphone looks like the old one - as if there's a great deal you can do to differentiate the hardware of a typical smartphone in ways that are obvious or exciting. Even in that market, unless a new, disruptive technology comes along the biggest future changes will come through software. In fifteen years, today's typical smartphone and tablet apps are likely to look about as sophisticated as Pong. But still, it would be nice to have a sense that somebody out there - somebody positioned to disrupt the market - was looking at "impractical, unworkable" new ideas from a different angle, and asking, "What if...."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Not-So-Cheap, but Colorful, iPhone

With Apple releasing a "cheap" iPhone that's $100 less expensive than its flagship model, and with the price gap being even smaller in China, the Wall Street Journal opines that the new iPhone may not be cheap enough for China.
With the cheaper phone, Apple will no doubt gain sales and market share. But it will still fail to reach the majority of city dwellers, according to a projection from the Wall Street Journal based on income distribution data from research firm CEIC Data.

The projection, developed in consultation with analysts, assumes that a working, urban family would be willing to spend, at most, half of its total monthly income on a single smartphone. Working on that assumption, around 260 million Chinese urban residents could potentially be willing to buy the iPhone 5c. That means cheaper iPhone effectively doubles Apple’s addressable market from the 125 million who would be willing to shell out for the more expensive handset.
My guess? Apple will sell iPhone 5c's as fast as it can make them, rendering moot the idea that it would sell more at a lower price. You can only sell your product as fast as you can make it. The new design is visually striking, and I think that's about more than just giving people a variety of colors to choose from. I think Apple designed the 5c with the goal of letting its customers in nations like China telegraph to their peers, "I can afford an iPhone." Given how status-conscious and luxury brand-focused Chinese consumers are reported to be, that's no small consideration.
It also means that an Apple phone is still too pricey to appeal to roughly 430 million people, or 62% of the country’s urban population.
So... only 263 million prospective customers, who happen to be the more affluent members of Chinese society. Apple sold 31.2 million iPhones last quarter, worldwide.

I appreciate the article's assertion that most Chinese consumers are looking for a phone that costs less than half of the price of a new iPhone, with many wanting to pay less than a quarter. But that's not a market that Apple is presently willing to serve, nor would it make sense for Apple to abandon its traditional business model and to start producing iPhones that could be sold at that price level. Will that give Android an advantage among bargain hunters? Yes, as will the array of larger-screened Android phones. But you don't make profits by selling low-quality merchandise at razor-thin margins, which is why Apple and Samsung are the only mobile phone manufacturers who are presently earning a significant profit from phone sales.

Smartphones will eventually become commoditized, a process that is accelerating with the release of attractive Android phones from several of Samsung's competitors. Apple won't be able to sustain its margins forever, although it is positioned to be the last man standing. The trick then becomes, how to leverage your platform into continued, significant profits. Apple has a number of advantages in that respect, including the fact that it has been careful to maintain backward compatibility in its devices. With most iPhones running the latest version of iOS, and with every iPhone built to Apple's standards, third party manufacturers can develop products and services that connect with the iPhone much more easily than they can with Android devices. It can only help Apple if, while Android remains the operating system of choice for bargain hunters, it holds its position as a phone of choice for affluent consumers around the world.

Even as the WSJ article suggests that Apple needs to make cheaper phones, it acknowledges the problem with that position:
Ma Tao, who owns a shop on the second-story of the electronics mall, echoed concerns that have already been voiced by some analysts: that the new phone would lead to a short-term spike in sales, but that it would erode Apple’s reputation as a maker of luxury high-end phones in the long run.
Meanwhile, the phone vendor they interviewed suggests that Samsung sales in China will suffer as customers opt instead for a considerably cheaper, Chinese "equivalent". It may turn out that Chinese consumers opt for the flagship iPhone, in silver, graphite or tacky gold, and those products are also designed to telegraph, "This is an iPhone". I'm taking a "wait and see" position on whether keeping the price "that close" will turn out to be a mistake, but I'm suspecting that for now it's a good move to maintain luxury pricing and to appeal to brand-conscious Chinese consumers, giving them a discount but also a brightly colored excuse to argue, "I picked this one because it's my favorite color, not because I wanted to save money".

I think that the article glosses over one of Apple's significant problems in the Chinese market - the size of its displays. The concept of a phone that you can operate with one hand is great, and Apple should continue to offer the standard sized iPhone. But if you've ever squinted at a small screen, consider what it would by like to read Chinese or Thai characters on an iPhone screen, or to enter text in an Asian script. Then consider the population that wants a bigger screen because it's better for videos and games. Or because they only want one device, and are attracted to the phablet.

If I were Apple... and I admit an uncanny knack for being incorrect in my Apple-related predictions... I would be thinking about releasing a larger-format iPhone no later than a year from now, and ideally in the spring.

"My Client Did Nothing Wrong"

Oh, boy...
Monday afternoon, Shellie Zimmerman called Lake Mary authorities to her parents' home, saying her estranged husband was threatening her and her father with a gun. Days earlier, she had filed for divorce... She later changed her story. According to police, Shellie Zimmerman and her father now say they never saw a gun, and no gun was found. Although CBS affiliate WKMG reports that Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, said Zimmerman had a gun holstered to his body.

Shellie Zimmerman has said she won't press charges, but police say video of the alleged dispute on her damaged iPad could play into whether authorities file charges.... In her 911 call, Shellie Zimmerman said: "He then accosted my father then took my iPad out of my hands. He then smashed it and cut it with a pocketknife, and there is a Lake Mary city worker across the street that I believe saw all of it."....

Mark O'Mara, who served as Zimmerman's attorney in his murder trial in the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, said his client did nothing wrong in Monday's incident.
By "nothing wrong", does he mean "nothing criminal"? Let me guess... the iPad was severely depressed, and as much as Zimmerman tried to keep it in his wife's hands he was unable to stop it from taking a suicidal tumble from her hands.1 Also, if O'Mara was telling the truth and Zimmerman was carrying a gun, where did he and his wife seemingly conceal it while waiting for the police to arrive - and why?

I suspect that the defense fund" gravy train is slowly going off of its tracks....
1. Or maybe the iPad was wearing a hoodie and he reacted reflexively.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Dennis Ross: A "No" Vote on Syria Makes a Military Strike on Iran Both Less Likely and Almost Inevitable

Dennis Ross, the man who helped engineer the catastrophic failure of President Clinton's last ditch efforts to secure an Israel-Palestine peace deal, was given space in the Washington Post to bring the same special brand of help to the crisis in Syria. His central thesis is that if Congress blocks the President from bombing Syria, it becomes more likely that military action will be taken against Iran. He thus urges Congress to abandon its concerns over whether the bombing would accomplish anything constructive, whether it would suck the U.S. into a protracted conflict, or consider the extent to which U.S. interests are implicated by events in Syria, and authorize military action.

After telling Congress to ignore the slippery slope argument, in which military action in Syria "suck[s] us into a conflict that we cannot win", Ross offers a slippery slope of his own:
President Obama and Secretary Kerry have pointed out that there will be a great cost to international norms that prohibit the use of terror weapons such as chemical weapons. And surely they are right that if Bashar al-Assad can gas his own people and elicit only harsh words but no punitive action, he will use the weapons again. The price in Syria and the potential for spillover in the region are certain to be high. Additionally, other rogue actors may also draw the conclusion that chemical weapons are not only usable but that there are no circumstances, no outrages, no genocidal actions that would trigger a meaningful reaction from the so-called civilized world.
I think that's utter nonsense. First, in relation to Syria, Assad has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons, and the few nations that back him are hanging their hats on that denial. If Assad were to now announce, "Hah! Now that Congress has voted, I admit it - it was me!", it would be extremely difficult for him to avoid a Security Council resolution authorizing use of force. Putin may be a stubborn man, but after making repeated denials about Assad's involvement in the attack, it is difficult to believe he would have much interest in protecting Assad by vetoing the resolution. Second, were Assad to engage in additional attacks, any plausible deniability that remains from the prior incident would evaporate. It is difficult to believe that Congress would vote against military action, and even more difficult to believe that the President would sit and wait for approval from Congress if he believed it would not be immediately forthcoming. I don't think Ross believes what he suggests.

Second, in relation to the rest of the world, Ross is pushing the nonsensical idea that despots are eager to use chemical weapons against their own populations, but are held back by fear of military reprisal by the world's powers. With a whopping two significant uses of chemical weapons since World War II, the first (and more significant) use being the repeated use of chemical weapons by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and the second being this attack by Assad, it's difficult to see why Ross would imagine that despots are in fear of reprisal. If Syria is not attacked, that would be in keeping with the precedent seen in Iraq. Also, if despots are so eager to use chemical weapons, why weren't they emboldened by Hussein's use of those weapons? Perhaps Ross seriously believes that despots around the world would respond to a military strike by thinking, "Dang, just as I was about to add chemical weapons to my use of torture, imprisonment without trial, summary execution, military strikes, collective punishments, internment camps, starvation, and occasional genocide, the world has made clear that I can't use them. Now I have no choice but to stick with my tried and true methods of perpetuating my regime," but again I doubt that he believes a word of what he said.

After mocking those who emphasize that military strikes should be used only against "threats that are immediate and directly affect us" as regarding other concerns as "abstractions", Ross introduces his argument about Iran:
Leaving aside the argument that when the threats become immediate, we will be far more likely to have to use our military in a bigger way and under worse conditions, there is another argument to consider: should opponents block authorization and should the president then feel he cannot employ military strikes against Syria, this will almost certainly guarantee that there will be no diplomatic outcome to our conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons.
Note his use of language: "...over its nuclear weapons." Iran has no nuclear weapons.
I say this for two reasons. First, Iran’s President Rouhani, who continues to send signals that he wants to make a deal on the nuclear program, will inevitably be weakened once it becomes clear that the U.S. cannot use force against Syria. At that point, paradoxically, the hard-liners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and around the Supreme Leader will be able to claim that there is only an economic cost to pursuing nuclear weapons but no military danger. Their argument will be: Once Iran has nuclear weapons, it will build its leverage in the region; its deterrent will be enhanced; and, most importantly, the rest of the world will see that sanctions have failed, and that it is time to come to terms with Iran.
First, President Rouhani has been in office for what? A month ago? Yet we are to believe that it is his voice of reason that keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons? Does Ross want us to believe, then, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged similar restraint and that it was his calming influence that prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons during his eight years in office? That Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is going to suddenly declare, "I know I've been arguing for years that nuclear weapons are a sin, are forbidden in Islam, and should be eliminated from the planet, but I've changed my mind!"

Ross then argues, without explanation, that "Under those circumstances, the sanctions will wither". Why would he believe that? I don't think he does believe that and, once again, he feels no need to substantiate the claim. He instead insists that if the U.S. is blocked from using force in Syria, a different country involving different facts and different weapons, Iran will decide it will never be attacked and acquire nuclear weapons. He then contradicts himself,
Israel, however, is not prepared to accept such an eventuality, and that is the second reason that not authorizing strikes against Syria will likely result in the use of force against Iran. Indeed, Israel will feel that it has no reason to wait, no reason to give diplomacy a chance and no reason to believe that the United States will take care of the problem.
As should be needless to say, if a military strike becomes more likely if the U.S. votes "no" on striking Syria, the government of Iran is not going to conclude that it is not going to be attacked and forge ahead, full speed, with its nuclear weapons program.

Does Ross believe that Iran has never heard of Israel? That Iran is unaware of Israel's military power? That Iran is unaware of Israel's position on other nations developing nuclear weapons? That it somehow passed beneath Iran's notice that Israel has launched military strikes against nuclear facilities in both Iraq and Syria when it decided those nations were too close to developing nuclear weapons? Apparently so, given his expressed certitude on how Iran would react to a "no" vote in Congress on the use of force in Syria.

Ross makes a cryptic statement,
Ironically, if these opponent [sic] succeed, they may prevent a conflict that President Obama has been determined to keep limited and has the means to do so.
Is Ross speaking about Congressional opponents of a military strike - those are the only people otherwise described in Ross's editorial as "opponents"? If so, and their "no" vote prevents a conflict that the President is trying to limit, wouldn't that be a good thing? Or is it that Ross thinks the President is wrong to want to keep that conflict limited? Based upon his next statement,
After all, even after Israel acted militarily to enforce its red line and prevent Syria’s transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad, Iran and Hezbollah have been careful to avoid responding. They have little interest in provoking Israeli attacks that would weaken Syrian forces and make them vulnerable to the opposition.
Perhaps Ross means to suggest that if no strike is made against Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah will continue to show restraint rather than trying to widen the conflict? Does Ross believe that those factions would respond to a U.S. strike by engaging in acts that would invite a massive U.S. or Israeli military response? If Ross seriously believes that Hamas and Hezbollah will launch attacks in Lebanon, Israel and perhaps around the world in response to a strike on Assad, isn't that a solid argument for restraint? Ross undermines any such suggestion, admitting, "the Syrian and Iranian interest in an escalation with the United States is also limited". He continues,
Can the same be said if Israel feels that it has no choice but to attack the Iranian nuclear infrastructure? Maybe the Iranians will seek to keep that conflict limited; maybe they won’t. Maybe an Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program will not inevitably involve the United States, but maybe it will — and maybe it should.
Maybe Ross will attempt to do more than toss out mutually inconsistent alternative scenarios about what the future might hold; maybe he won't. Maybe Ross will provide a coherent, logical argument; maybe he won't - but maybe he should.

To summarize... If the U.S. doesn't strike Syria, Iran will conclude that the U.S. won't strike it's nuclear facilities, demolishing the credibility of the new Iranian president who has spent a full month advocating a diplomatic resolution of the controversy over its nuclear program, and inspiring Iran's Supreme Leader to abandon his stated views on Islamic law and seek to immediately acquire nuclear weapons. This will happen even though Israel, a nation with a decades-long history of using espionage and military strikes (and is rumored to have used assassinations) to stop other nations in the region from developing nuclear weapons, will almost certainly strike Iran's nuclear facilities if it senses that Iran has not abandoned its nuclear weapons program. This will result in a regional conflict that may or may not involve the United States, but that Ross apparently believes should involve the United States.

And this argument is supposed to... convince Members of Congress to support a strike?

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Just Add the Word "Republican"...

Daniel Larison is not impressed with Michael Gerson's argument on why Congress needs to authorize force in Syria:
Insofar as the ability of future presidents to wage wars of choice on their own authority would be limited or even slightly constrained by a no vote from Congress, that would be a welcome and very desirable outcome. Gerson is drawing attention to one of the possible benefits of the resolution’s defeat. Even so, the president would retain enormous latitude in the conduct of foreign policy, and he would he hardly have his “hands tied behind his back.” It is laughably false to claim that the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy or his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces would be seriously impaired, and it could hardly be dangerous for the powers of the presidency to be restrained after growing virtually unchecked over the last forty years.

Gerson’s argument is an attempt to blackmail members of Congress by claiming that they will inflict massive institutional damage simply by carrying out their own constitutional responsibilities and by reaching a conclusion different from the one Gerson wants. It is a fairly desperate move, and it is the sort of argument that should make more members of Congress recoil from what they are being asked to support. Gerson is horrified that Congress might actually vote down unnecessary and deeply unpopular military action, which speaks volumes about his priorities. Americans should not be afraid to let their representatives do the work they were elected to do by speaking and voting on behalf of their constituents. In this case, that obviously means voting down the resolution, and that is what I hope most members will do when it comes up for a vote later this month.
As happens all too ofter, Gerson's editorial is risible from top to bottom,
Obama is inviting members of Congress to share responsibility for a Syrian policy that has achieved little to justify their confidence. In fact, he has undermined political support for the legislative outcome he seeks. For more than five years, Obama has argued that America is overcommitted in the Middle East and should refocus on domestic priorities. Now he asks other politicians to incur risks by endorsing an approach he has clearly resisted at every stage.
Gerson would apparently have us believe that the President has spent five years resisting Republican calls for additional military intervention in the middle east, and has reached the point where he has actually convinced the Republicans in Congress that "America is overcommitted in the Middle East and should refocus on domestic priorities". Oh, their poor heads must be spinning, having spent five years giving the President a fair, deferential hearing and now, just when they had decided that there was no situation grave enough to justify additional military action in the Middle East, being told that there actually are situations in which the President believes that military intervention is appropriate.
Obama attempts to rally the nation around a reluctant exception to his ambivalence. And this exception — a calibrated punishment for the use of chemical weapons — seems more of a gesture than a strategy.
Gerson proposes instead, what... the George Mallory philosophy of military intervention?1

Gerson does not want the President to have completely unlimited discretion to attack any nation in the world without the consent of Congress:
This does not, of course, amount to blanket permission for self-destructive military actions such as attacking China or surrendering to Monaco.
But, you know, short of that.... As long as it's some other nation that is being destroyed, Gerson's "compassionate Christian" perspective seems to be, "Go for it!"
Nations such as China, Russia and Iran would see this as the triumph of a political coalition between the peace party of the left and the rising isolationists of the right. And they would be correct.
They would be correct because... they're stupid?

Larison suggests, "There is no way to know what long-term effect the defeat of the Syria resolution might have on the actions of future presidents, and it is even less certain how other governments would interpret a Congressional rejection of the resolution", and that's true to a point, but history suggests an answer: The next President will not feel bound to follow the policies or priorities of the current administration, and foreign nations understand the difference between a nation led by Ronald Reagan vs. George H.W. Bush vs. George W. Bush vs. Barack Obama.

One might anticipate that foreign leaders will look at the past five years of Congressional obstructionism, and then look at the fact that it was the Republicans who were blocking military action, and conclude, "More than a half-century after the start of the Vietnam war, hacks like Gerson still believe they can sell the Democrats as a 'party of peace'? And given that same history, that 'isolationists of the right' will have any influence the day after the next Republican President takes office? Seriously?"
And those who claim that this credibility has already reached bottom are lacking in imagination.
I suspect that most of those who read Gerson know that the President and Congress have a long way to go before reaching bottom.

Try reading Gerson this way:
[Repubican] Legislators are not arguing between preferred policy options, as they would on issues such as health care or welfare. They are deciding if they will send the [next Republican] chief executive into the world with his hands tied behind his back.
As in, the next President might feel compelled to consult Congress before acting, the Democrats might feel free to vote against military adventurism, and war opponents would be able to point to any number of comments made by Republicans in the present debate that suggest naked, partisan hypocrisy. Gerson's mistake,2 of course, is assuming that the next President is going to care.

Really, the best argument Gerson can make for a military assault on Syria is that if Congress evaluates the situation and finds an attack to be inappropriate, future Presidents might hesitate before launching wars of choice, and the world will scoff, "The United States isn't going to attack us unless they have a UN mandate, a NATO mandate, a Congressional mandate... or the President feels like it"? The horror!
1. "Why do you want to attack another country in the Middle East, Mr. President?" "Because it's there."

2. Or should I say, one of them.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Law Firms Need to Stop Hiring Spammers

Law firms, do your due diligence. Do you really want somebody sitting in New Delhi assigned to open accounts in your name, or the name of your firm, and then go around the Internet posting stuff like this:
Fort Walton Car Accident Attorney is a legal expert that handles cases describing to automobile mishaps. The lawyer focuses on various kinds of Auto Accident cases. With such cases include head on accident, severe body injury, minor crashes and strict crash. He or she also handle cases of loss that result starting auto crash.
Prospective clients are certain to be impressed.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Why Can't Applebaum Simply Admit That She Favors A Full-Scale Invasion of Syria

I have heard an argument floated in relation to Syria that I find absurd: that we need to arm rebel factions to the point that they can imminently topple the Assad regime, and once that happens all of the parties can be brought to the bargaining table where they'll hammer out a lasting peace agreement. First, it's difficult to imagine the argument being made in a context in which the speaker hoped to preserve the government that is under threat. History tells us that defenders of the government will take the opposite position - that peace talks won't be possible until the traitors and terrorists lay down their arms. Second, that's not a context in which either side is likely to want to run to the bargaining table. The government in danger of being toppled has too much to lose, and the "rebel factions" that are poised to depose the government have little incentive to lay down their arms and accept a deal that keeps the threatened regime in place. Third, in a case like Syria's, there are many armed factions. You would not only have to convince every significant faction to join and maintain a ceasefire, you would have to broker a peace deal that they all found satisfactory, and that they all trusted to the point that they don't turn their guns on each other or insist upon carving the nation into territories under the control of various warlords.

Nonetheless, I was not surprised to see Ann Applebaum implicate that argument,
Back in June, the Group of Eight called for “urgent” peace talks. But there are no negotiations to speak of, in part because the Syrian rebels continue to hang on for Western military support that always seems to be just around the corner but never quite materializes.
The rebels are too weak, and too much in danger of losing, to engage in peace talks? Then why, dare I ask, does Applebaum suppose that turning the tables on the government will make Assad's regime rush to the negotiating table?

Applebaum's piece is snarky, first at Clinton for not acting quickly enough to intervene in Bosnia, and next at President Obama for not acting more quickly in Syria. Applebaum suggests that Presidents should not engage in rhetoric about foreign leaders needing to change their ways or resign unless they're willing to promptly back up those words with military force.
Two decades ago, five years ago and today, the source of the problem is the same: The president of the United States wishes to represent things — justice, fairness, international norms — that he cannot, or will not, or doesn’t know how to defend in practice. In the future, it would be far more just, and far less cruel, for the president, and the rest of us, simply to say nothing at all.
I am not convinced by Applebaum's suggestion that the world, upon hearing the President call for a foreign leader to step down, understands that to be a threat of invasion if the leader chooses to remain in power. I think her implication that a government should not make a statement on an undesirable foreign situation unless it is either prepared to take military action or immediately qualifies its comments, but we're not going to do anything about it, is just plain wrong. We can't criticize human rights in China unless we're prepared to invade? We can't press for the release of dissidents in Burma and call for free elections unless we're prepared to invade? Come on.

Applebaum argues that the President has threatened force in Syria, then backed away from the threat, then again threatened force.
For example, in August 2011 Obama declared: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” To Syrians fighting on the ground, that may have sounded like a promise that U.S. military support, or at least substantial military aid, was imminent.
May have? It also may have sounded like the President was saying that it was time for President Assad to step aside, and it may well be that they were smart enough to figure out that there was no actual or implied threat of imminent military action.
This June, the White House authorized the CIA to begin arming some of the Syrian rebels. This sounded even more like a promise, but as of last week that aid also had yet to arrive.
Were Applebaum more honest, she would share the reasons for that delay as stated in her own source, the anything-but Obama Administration-friendly Wall Street Journal,
U.S. officials attribute the delay in providing small arms and munitions from the CIA weapons program to the difficulty of establishing secure delivery "pipelines" to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands, in particular Jihadi militants also battling the Assad regime.
By virtue of her marriage, Applebaum has very close ties to the international diplomatic community, and certainly has many people in her virtual Rolodex from whom she could easily get a reality check on the Administration's concerns. If she believes that the officials are incorrect, she could present a cogent argument to that effect. The fact that Applebaum instead chooses to misrepresent the reason for the delay suggests that she's not trying to be balanced, or even accurate.
The president famously declared a year ago that the use of chemical weapons constituted a “red line” in Syria. But now that the red line has been crossed, the president has decided that he needs congressional support before he can respond. This is perfectly legitimate — but shouldn’t it have been obtained earlier, at the time the promise was made? Certainly the Syrian regime interpreted the president’s sudden and unexpected desire for congressional support as a “historic American retreat.” Its media gloated accordingly.
Okay... so it's "perfectly legitimate" for the President to go through Congress before launching a military action, but it also is honest for Syria's state-controlled media to characterize that legitimate action as a retreat? Which does Applebaum want - for the President to follow statutory law and the text of the Constitution, or to cast those trivialities aside to prevent a propaganda sheet in Syria from misrepresenting what it means to follow democratic process?

As for the notion that the President could have sought Congressional pre-approval for military action in the event of Syria's use of chemical weapons, that's true of pretty much anything the President says on foreign policy - but you can't take everything to Congress. Why does Applebaum believe Congress would have gone along with such a request, that Boehner and the Tea Party would be ready to give the President the discretion to initiate a military action based upon something that few at the time believed was likely to happen? Does she believe that the Republicans would have been more cooperative a year ago, when the use of chemical weapons was considered unlikely, than they are today when their use has been documented? If so, I would love to hear her explanation.
If you wanted to do so, you could read something sinister into these tactics. Perhaps, some unnamed officials suggested to the Wall Street Journal this week, these delays and sudden changes are intentional: Perhaps the administration’s point is to “tilt” the fighting away from Assad but to prevent an outright rebel victory — in other words, to prolong the war.
Unnamed officials? So we're talking about what... leaks within the White House, suggesting that the President is only following what Applebaum deems to be a legitimate course of action because he hopes to perpetuate the civil war? Let's turn back to the WSJ:
Many rebel commanders say the aim of U.S. policy in Syria appears to be a prolonged stalemate that would buy the U.S. and its allies more time to empower moderates and choose whom to support.

"The game is clear to all," said Qassem Saededdine, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council. "When it comes to the interests of superpowers…the average Syrian comes last."

Some congressional officials said they were concerned the administration was edging closer to an approach privately advocated by Israel. Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened, giving moderate rebel forces a chance to play a bigger role in Syria's future.
So while Syrian rebels are depicted as being frustrated that the White House is not simply arming everybody, but appears to be considering arming only those groups whose goals are not hostile to U.S. interests, something that is consistent with the facts, these unnamed "congressional officials" are imagining a secret conspiracy between the Obama Administration and Israel. One can hardly imagine why they don't want to attach their names to the accusation....

I'm curious, also, as to what it means to be a "congressional official". I know what a Member of Congress is. Their staff members aren't officials. I can see why Applebaum chose to say only "officials", but knowing the context I don't find the omission to be particularly honest.
If so, this administration is even more ruthlessly cynical than its critics have maintained, and Syrian conspiracy theorists are right on the mark.
Except the Syrian statement wasn't a conspiracy theory. The Syrian statement was sensible and consistent with the Obama Administration's statements on the provision of military aid - it's perfectly reasonable to conclude that the Obama Administration hopes to "empower moderates and choose whom to support". It was the unnamed congressional "officials" who were pushing the conspiracy theory and Applebaum herself who is choosing to treat it as a serious possibility.
But whether that is true hardly matters because the effect is the same:...
No, I think the truth does matter. First, I think it matters that columnists like Applebaum try to present the truth, rather than misrepresenting their sources and giving air to conspiracy theories before concluding that truth is irrelevant. Second, I think it does matter if the President's delay results from his taking care to avoid potentially turning Syria over to a government not far removed from the Taliban. To somebody who favors such an outcome that may constitute putting the interests of the average Syrian last, but for those who want Syria to have a more enlightened future the truth lies in the opposite direction.
As happened in Bosnia, American pontification, prevarication and postponement in Syria have preempted the policies of others and delayed negotiations. The civil war continues; with every month the devastation increases, the refugees multiply and the levels of political extremism rise. Back in June, the Group of Eight called for “urgent” peace talks.
Such alliteration. It's always fun when a columnist gets in touch with her inner Safire. What's missing is any explanation of how the Administration's failure to... I guess, invade Syria or at least indiscriminately arm its rebel factions without concern for their goals or whether weapons end up in the hands of terrorists... has preempted the polices of "others". Who are these "others", what are their "policies", and why are they sitting somewhere, invisible, silent, and unnamed, as Applebaum takes up their cause. I understand why Applebaum's "It's a conspiracy between Obama and Israel" officials don't want to be named, but this isn't the first season of Lost - who are these others?

The Group of Eight... That wold be Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the U.K., the E.U., and the United States. Of those eight, the U.S. is proposing military action, France has indicated that it won't act unless the U.S. first authorizes military action, the U.K. and Germany have voted against military action, Russia is protesting that Assad is innocent, the Prime Minister of Canada has stated that he has "no plans" for a direct military mission, Italy insists that any military action should be preceded by a U.N. mandate, and Japan is sitting on the fence pending a final U.S. decision. Which of those nations does Applebaum believe to be more hawkish than the U.S., and to have had its plans and hopes crushed by the fact that the U.S. is exercising caution and following constitutonal process?

I was curious, given the circumstances, to see what Poland had to say about the issue. Would Poland be a pillar of Applebaum-endorsed virtue, ready to do the most it could to punish the criminal Assad regime?
Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced last week that Poland will not be taking part in any military action in Syria, though Minister Sikorski said on Monday night that he has told US secretary of state John Kerry that, “Poland does not have the capability [to take part in a military strike] but understands the situation”.

As President Obama tries to win support from Congress for a military strike, Minister Sikorski said in an interview with the TVP public broadcaster: “In my judgement a chemical attack occurred, most likely by the Assad regime. The use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians, their own citizens, is unacceptable”.

“The use of chemical weapons in the twenty-first century sets a very dangerous precedent,” Sikorski said, adding that, "President Obama's decision to give more time to convince the US Congress gives a chance for Russia and China to change their positions.”
So the official position of Poland, as articulated by Applebaum's husband, is that (a) Assad probably used chemical weapons, and that is wholly unacceptable, (b) Poland won't contribute so much as a Zloty toward any military action, and (c) the Obama Administration is correct to go through Congress and the associated delay could help the world achieve a diplomatic solution?

Perhaps the Applebaum household is among those in which the spouses simply don't discuss politics.....

Rand Paul's Grandstanding on Syria

Courtesy of Time Magazine, Rand Paul reminds us that he intends to run for President in a couple of years:
War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened. I don’t think the situation in Syria passes that test.
He should have stopped there.
Even the State Department argues that “there’s no military solution here that’s good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution.”
Paul knows that he's taking the State Department spokesperson's position out of context. The situation for which the State Department asserts that there is no military solution is the civil war itself, not the possibility of a strike in response to the use of chemical weapons.

Paul puffs,
I will not vote to send our nation’s best and brightest to fight for anything less than victory. If American interests are at stake, then our goal should not be stalemate.
Paul presents a false dichotomy - that the only possible goal of a military action against a foreign nation is to depose the existing government, and that anything short of that constitutes a stalemate. Paul might have tried to make the argument that a strike that does not weaken Assad would not advance U.S. goals, but instead he presents an argument that is

Paul asks a series of fair questions about what might happen if Assad were deposed, but none of them relate directly to the question he is supposedly addressing - a limited strike that is meant to send a strong message to Assad, and ideally to deter his future use of chemical weapons, but not change the balance of power between Assad and the various rebel groups. If Paul wanted to make a valid argument, he should have started by explaining why it is not possible to strike Syria without toppling Assad. If he does not believe that to be true, his argument is dishonest. If he does, he should explain why.

Paul closes by pounding the table about the separation of powers, suggesting that President Obama should adhere to the position he took when he was a Senator, "that no President should unilaterally go to war without congressional authority unless there is an actual or imminent threat to our nation." Perhaps Paul would stick to that principle as President. Perhaps he would insist upon strict interpretation of the Constitution in accord with his references to James Madison. Paul may be looking at the history of U.S. military adventurism and concluding, few of those actions should have occurred, and no more should occur unless there's a bona fide crisis that necessitates military action before it's possible to consult Congress or unless Congress fulfills its constitutional role and declares war.

But if that's Paul's actual position, he would be a rarity among presidents and the only modern president to take that position. I think a Senator has the right to be offended by a President who, by statement or implication, asks for Congress to approve military action while taking the position that he will proceed no matter what Congress decides. I would have a lot less sympathy for the President, though, if Congress didn't have a very long history of shirking its duties - of granting presidents broad authority to engage in full-scale war against other nation states without actually declaring war, of blithe acceptance of unilateral military action initiated by presidents in the absence of urgency, or of grandstanding when things go wrong but avoiding taking action that would cause it to share responsibility.

Leaving aside my skepticism of Paul, I don't think that there is any way to view his editorial as anything but something he hopes to tout in future political ads, particularly if things go wrong. "Look how wise I was. [Just like Obama before he changed his mind]". But while a cogent argument against military intervention in Syria can be made, this isn't it. Paul doesn't question that Assad used chemical weapons. He does not explain why it's not in the best interest of the United States to deter the use of chemical weapons, even when they're not directed at U.S. territory or citizens. He instead relies upon a false dichotomy, misrepresents the position of the State Department relative to a punitive strike, and accuses the President of hypocrisy.

I would expect more from a man of Paul's professed values, but his editorial is entirely consistent with that of a self-promoting opposition party politician who wants to have it both ways - a (supposedly) principled reason for voting against a strike just in case things go well, and an increased opportunity for finger-pointing and demagoguery if they don't.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Ending the Need for Affirmative Action vs. Arguing That It's Unconstitutional

It's impossible to read something like this without wondering what the author is thinking.
Martin Luther King’s Dream Unconstitutional?

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke these immortal words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” He would have been mystified, one imagines, by the question presented in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action: “Whether a state violates the Equal Protection Clause by amending its constitution to prohibit race- and sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public-university admissions decisions.”
But for the title of his post, I might agree - King may well have been mystified by why, fifty years after his speech, the Supreme Court would be asking that question. In the context of his time, King would certainly have seen such an effort by a state as being intended to slow integration and stymie minority enrollment in colleges. But you can't look past the title....

Is there something in the history of the civil rights movement, or in King's speeches, that would suggest that King believed that affirmative action was or should be unconstitutional? Does the author of the comment, law professor Nick Rosenkranz, believe that King would have been unaware of the history of "equality" enforced after Plessy vs. Ferguson, through the Jim Crow era? Does he believe that King couldn't recognize that the sudden alarm about affirmative action and the need for the constitution to be "color blind" came largely from the same politicians who had absolutely no problem with state-imposed, state-enforced segregation? Unless Rosenkranz sincerely believes that King's dream has been fully realized, why would Rosenkranz believe that King would support a state-based initiative that he would likely see as intended to keep its vestiges in place as well as to prevent future corrective action if race relations worsen?

Although it would be more than a bit counter-factual, if I were to assume that Rosenkranz believes that we now live in a society in which King's dream has been fully realized, I might be able to construe the question a bit more charitably. After all, it is possible that Rosenkranz sincerely believes that discrimination is a thing of the past in American society. His question might be interpreted as, "Once discrimination has been extirpated from society, is it unconstitutional for a state to prohibit remedies to discrimination that are permitted by the federal constitution". But under this interpretation Rosenkranz would be projecting onto King the naive belief that it should be up to state governments to determine whether or not discrimination still exists, while in fact King was acutely aware of how many state legislators and governors were embraced segregationist policies which they were happy to call "equality". He would also be projecting onto King the quaint notion that once discrimination is eliminated from a society it can never return in any form.

Rosenkranz's underlying argument has a circularity, similar to that of Chief Justice Roberts' simplistic statement, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race". It's reasonable to believe that King would agree with the goal of eliminating discrimination, but I am skeptical that he would hop on Roberts' bandwagon by declaring that the place to start is through eliminating corrective measures that the state can apply in response to discrimination.

I expect that if Rosenkranz were to have, in earnest, presented this argument to King, he would have received a patient lecture about how measures to correct discrimination will inevitably have an impact on people who did not directly participate in the discrimination, including some people who helped bring about its end, but that it's not possible to impose remedies for past discrimination without doing so. That the minor impact of a well-managed affirmative action program on those who are not beneficiaries of the program is outweighed by the significant need to correct the historic wrong and to integrate society. And that even if his dream were to become reality, you can never say "It will never happen again" and a government should not tie its hands - after all, once King's dream is fully realized even if an affirmative action program remains nominally in place it would be dormant. King might explain that even in the context of his realized dream, there would be cause for to be skeptical of the motives of a faction intent upon preventing the use of similar remedies in the future, and that cause for skepticism would be greater in relation to a faction that was working hard to end corrective measures prior to the realization of his dream.

Ultimately, I expect King would explain that there is a significant difference between asking, "How can we do this better," or "What alternative approaches might we take that could be even more effective, or strike a better balance between competing interests," and "How do we stop this in its tracks". Would Rosenkranz grasp the difference?