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Thursday, December 31, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Well, I managed 363 out of 365 in 2024, missing 5/23 and 11/22.

Christmas Morn 2024 Funky Cloud13Looking Back at MeNot HappyEnd of the LineAbstract Ghost

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By Steven L. Taylor

…harass travel bloggers.

Via Wired:  TSA Threatens Blogger Who Posted New Screening Directive

Two bloggers received home visits from Transportation Security Administration agents Tuesday after they published a new TSA directive that revises screening procedures and puts new restrictions on passengers in the wake of a recent bombing attempt by the so-called underwear bomber.

Special agents from the TSA’s Office of Inspection interrogated two U.S. bloggers, one of them an established travel columnist, and served them each with a civil subpoena demanding information on the anonymous source that provided the TSA document.

The document, which the two bloggers published within minutes of each other Dec. 27, was sent by TSA to airlines and airports around the world and described temporary new requirements for screening passengers through Dec. 30, including conducting “pat-downs” of legs and torsos. The document, which was not classified, was posted by numerous bloggers. Information from it was also published on some airline websites.

If the documents were not classified, had been widely disseminated to begin with, and portions of which had been published on the internet, why harass two bloggers?

If anything, once information has been sent out electronically to hundreds of sources, the ability of the TSA to control its distribution is limited (to the point of zero, in fact).

This smacks of an unpleasant combination of government “doing something” and the general abuse of authority that tends to be commensurate with attempts at domestic security.

One of the bloggers/travel writers served posted a copy of the subpoena here: click.

The AP write-up is here:  TSA subpoenas bloggers, demands names of sources.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Mike Potemra, writing at NRO makes, an odd observation:

I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era – peace, tolerance, due process, progress (as opposed to skepticism about human perfectibility).

The first thing that occurs to me is that if conservatives can only like a TV show if it thematically rejects progress, then no conservative should like Star Trek at all (in any incarnation), as Roddenberry was all about the perfectibility of humanity.

Second, is he saying that to be conservative is to oppose “peace, tolerance, due process and progress”?

And not to get too Trekkie on everybody, but even this struck me as odd:

I asked an NR colleague about it, and he speculated that the show’s appeal for conservatives lay largely in the toughness of the main character: Jean-Luc Picard was a moral hardass where the Captain Kirk of the earlier show was more of an easygoing, cheerful swashbuckler. I think there’s something to that: Patrick Stewart did indeed create, in that character, a believable and compelling portrait of ethical uprightness.

I will grant that a)  Picard was a hardass at times and b) Kirk’s libido 1 wasn’t exactly a social conservative’s ideal; however, Kirk was quite the moralists, something of a neo-con, and something of an anti-communist (at least allegorically!).

And, Good Lord Man, Picard was French!2  And he sipped wine!3

But, in truth, that whole post is just weird.

BTW:  it was just a TV show…

h/t:  John Holbo at CT.

  1. Not that Picard was celibate, let alone confining sex to marriage. []
  2. That’s a joke—although true. []
  3. Not to mention the tea, Earl Grey, hot. []
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By Steven L. Taylor

Charles Krauthammer thinks that the President should be issuing stronger statements about the situation in Iran, as he seems to believe that the words of the President can affect change in this situation (from his WaPo column,  2024: The year of living fecklessly):

[R]evolutions succeed at that singular moment, that imperceptible historical inflection, when the people, and particularly those in power, realize that the regime has lost the mandate of heaven. With this weakening dictatorship desperate for affirmation, why is the United States repeatedly offering just such affirmation?

Apart from ostracizing and delegitimizing these gangsters, we should be encouraging and reinforcing the demonstrators. This is no trivial matter. When pursued, beaten, arrested and imprisoned, dissidents can easily succumb to feelings of despair and isolation. Natan Sharansky testifies to the electric effect Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech had on lifting spirits in the gulag. The news was spread cell to cell in code tapped on the walls. They knew they weren’t alone, that America was committed to their cause.

No, that isn’t how revolutions work (and sounds more like magical thinking than sound social science). It is how we like to think that revolutionary change works, i.e., that the righteous might of the masses can toss aside the yoke of their authoritarian masters and establish a new, just regime. Revolutions are rare occurrences and they are not simply the result of street protests that overwhelm tyrants.

In the twentieth century the number of unambiguous revolutions1 is short: Russia (1917), China (1949), Cuba (1959), Nicaragua (1979), and Iran (1979).2 Part of the issue has to do with how one defines the term, of course.3

If we are using the term “revolution” in a broad sense of regime change, one could further include changes like those we saw in Eastern Europe in the wake of the waning power and then collapse of the Soviet Union (such as the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia).

It is worth noting that in the cases of China and Russia, the old regimes were severely weakened by war (World Wars I and II, respectively). In the cases of Cuba and Nicaragua (and to some degree Iran), a poorly institutionalized state that consisted mostly of personalistic power (Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, and Reza Pahlavi) maintained (at least in part) by support from the United States were undermined by a series of events that included the withdrawal of support by the US and the decision by the given dictator to flee (thus causing the state to collapse).

To Krauthammer’s Sharansky reference/the regime changes in post-Soviet Eastern Europe: I have no doubt that dissidents in the Soviet Union found inspiration in Reagan’s words. They were not, however, the reason that the Soviet Union collapsed nor why the Wall fell.4 I would note that Presidents of the United States had been deploying strident anti-Soviet rhetoric for decades prior to the fall of the Wall. Structural conditions within the Soviet Union combined with a number of international factors (but mostly internal problems within the governing institutions of the CPSU) led to the collapse of the USSR (and, by extension, its ability to impose its preferred regimes on Eastern Europe).

The current situation in Iran fits none of these patterns. If change is going to take place in Iran, as I have noted before, it will be because of intra-elite conflict. The real battle in Iran is not the street versus Ahmadenijad, rather it is the the Khamenei/Revolutionary Guard faction (for whom Ahmadenijad is a figurehead) versus the Khatami/Mousavi faction.5 Whichever faction emerges the winner will dictate the course of Iranian political development, but even if the dissident faction wins it will not mean a whole new set of elites in charge of Iran, nor will it mean the end of the “Islamic” part of the Islamic Republic (although we can hope that such an outcome would lead to a great emphasis on the “Republic” part).

Simply put, revolutions can only happen if something causes the state to collapse—and peasants with pitchforks (or guns) don’t cause states to collapse.  Instead, other factors come into play, not the least of which being whether the institutions of the state (especially the security forces) are unified and working towards maintaining the regime.  At the moment, there is no indication that the Iranian state is going to collapse or that the security apparatus is fractured. Indeed, it appears that the power of the Revolutionary Guard has become more (not less) entrenched and institutionalized of late, meaning dislodging them will be difficult. If there is going to be change, it is going to be because the out of power factions take over (a faction that has its own roots in the 1979 revolution).

Indeed, Krauthammer seems not to understand that many of the leaders of the dissident factions are not exactly pro-US, nor do they necessarily see the United States as a source of inspiration.   Again:  many of them were key participants in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

I would note that the term “revolution” is often used colloquially (and incorrectly) to describe any number of political manifestations that are not, in the end, revolutionary. See, for example, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine and the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon. Neither event resulted in actual regime change, let alone an actual revolution of the politics and society in the states in question.

  1. There is a vast literature on this subject and there is debate over exact definitions and how to classify certain cases and the successfulness of the events. []
  2. Others typically included in such a list include Mexico (1910) and Bolivia (1952). Mexico is debated in terms of exactly how complete a revolution it was and Bolivia’s revolution was largely reversed by a military coup in 1964. Different scholars will include other cases. []
  3. For further discussion see:

    DeFronzo, James. 2024. Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    Dix, Robert H. 1983. The Varieties of Revolution. Comparative Politics. 15,3 (April): 281-294.

    Dix, Robert H. 1984. Why Revolutions Succeed & Fail. Polity. 16:3 (Spring): 423-446.

    Foran, John. 2024. Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Mehran Kamrava. 1999. Revolution Revisited: The Structuralist-Voluntarist Debate. Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique, Vol. 32, No. 2. (Jun., 1999), pp. 317-345.

    Shugart, Matthew Soberg. 1989. Patterns of Revolution. Theory and Society, Vol. 18, No. 2.: 249-271. []

  4. Indeed, to my broader point, the dissidents in question didn’t case the regime to fall either. []
  5. For more, see my 6/28/09 column in the Mobile Press-Register. []
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By Steven L. Taylor

Rain is wet.

The sun is hot.

And parties in the minority seek political advantage in crises!

Via WaPo:  Republicans see political opportunity in Obama response to failed airplane bomb.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Rain is wet.

The sun is hot.

And states seek power relative to other states.

Via the BBC:  Putin: Russia must counter US missile defences.

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By Steven L. Taylor

We appear to be back to the notion that if Obama would just say and do the right things (whatever those may be) that Iran would be transformed.   Some previous recent examples are here and here.

The latest example is noted by Jim Hoft and it comes from Charles Krauthammer:

The regime is weakening. This is a hinge in history. Everything in the region with change if the regime is changed. Obama ought to be strong out there in saying it’s an illegitimate government; we stand shoulder to shoulder with the people in the street. When he talks about diplomacy he should be urging our Western allies to that have relations to cut them off. He ought to be going into the UN every forum denouncing it. This is a moment in history, and he’s missing it.

(Video at the link).

It is wholly unclear to me as to what it is that this is supposed to do.  Revolutions do not come about because leaders of other countries make declarations at international fora.

I would note that we have attempted to cut off regimes before, and there is no empirical evidence to suggest that it leads to the collapse of said regimes.

Krauthammer’s statement  speaks to notions of the out-sized self-importance that some hold concerning the United States.  It is not always about us.  And, despite our power, we are limited in what we can accomplish.  Further, the words and desires of our government are not as consequential as Krauthammer suggests.

Further, Krauthammer is making the exact same error that was made prior to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:  that “change” in those case would automatically be change in the direction that the US would prefer.  There is no reason to necessarily assume that this would be the case.

Would I like it to be the case that the utterance of magic words by the President of the United States would lead to liberal democracy in Iran?  Yes, that would be keen.  However, the world doesn’t work like that.

Indeed, I tend to remain of the opinion that attempts by the US to meddle in the situation will actually empower the regime and damage the credibility of dissidents.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Via ABC News:  Two al Qaeda Leaders Behind Northwest Flight 253 Terror Plot Were Released by U.S.

Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November, 2024, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.

No doubt many will conclude from this that it proves that everyone detained by the US should be locked up and the key promptly thrown away.1  Of course, at this point there is hardly enough information upon which to base much of a conclusion.

Indeed, James Joyner rightly notes that there are a range of possibilities regarding the relevance of the Guantanamo connection:

The most obvious alternatives are that we either let free two very dangerous men or that two formerly less-than-dangerous men were radicalized by their imprisonment.  Either way, it’s rather clear that our screening mechanisms are not very good.

My own immediate assessment is that this situation, assuming the report is accurate, simply underscores the lack of an adequate process in place to deal with these prisoners.  It is really scandalous that in the over eight years since the start of the “war on terror” that the United States Government has failed to construct an adequate process by which to determine the disposition of those in our custody.  Yes, I know rules have been been made, but it is difficult to actually examine their application and come away satisfied.  For just some examples along those lines see here, here, here, here, and here.

A word of caution on the connections cited in the ABC piece comes from an unlikely source, The Weekly Standard:  Former Gitmo Detainees “Behind” Christmas Day Terrorist Plot?

In sum, we know the following: AQAP has claimed responsibility for the attack and this is consistent with other evidence, including Abdulmutallab’s own admissions. Some of AQAP’s most senior positions are held by former Gitmo detainees, so there is a strong possibility that they played a role in this attack. But we should be cautious when speculating because nothing definitive has yet been reported.

As several bloggers have noted (for example, here, here, and here), it is worth noting that the individuals under discussion were released during the Bush administration and not as part of the Obama administration’s plans for the prison at Guantanamo.

Note:  I am not using the term “Underwear Bomber” to diminish the seriousness of the event, I just can’t think of a better shorthand.  I recognize that the term has a giggle-factor that isn’t really appropriate to the seriousness of the story.

  1. See, for example, here. []
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Monday, December 28, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Via the NYT (Explosive on Flight 253 Is Among Most Powerful) we find out the following (the bad news part):

Mr. Abdulmutallab, 23, a Nigerian citizen, was charged in a federal criminal complaint on Saturday with the willful attempt to destroy an aircraft with an explosive device.

The complaint identified the explosive as pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN.

Introduced after World War I, PETN is in the same chemical family as nitroglycerin and among the most powerful of explosives. It was the same explosive that Richard C. Reid tried to detonate in his shoes during an American Airlines flight in December 2024.

So, it is possible under the current security regime in place to sneak a powerful explosive onto an airplane.

The good news (substantially dampened by the nature of the bad news, I will allow):

one characteristic of PETN is that it does not easily detonate, and that apparently thwarted Mr. Abdulmutallab, officials said. Dropping it or setting it on fire will not typically detonate it, explosive experts said.

Usually, a shock wave from a blasting cap or an exploding wire detonator is needed to set off PETN. Mr. Abdulmutallab was reported to have used a syringe to try to inject a liquid into the explosive.

So, while it is (it would appear) relatively easy to smuggle PETN onto a plane, getting blasting caps and wire detonators isn’t.

Some other bad news is that “Jimmie C. Oxley, an explosives expert and professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island” thinks that Abdulmutallab’s plan was at least theoretically executable: 

Dr. Oxley said it was conceivable that the contents of the syringe were sufficient to set off the PETN. “I’ve been thinking about it,” she said. “I know what I would do now, but I’m not going to tell you.”

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Sunday, December 27, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Via CBS News:  Another Delta Flight Scare in Detroit

In the Sunday incident, the flight crew became concerned after the man - also Nigerian - became sick and spent about an hour locked in the bathroom, officials said.

Clearly the solution is clear:  the TSA has to ban passengers from Nigeria. 

Or flights to Detroit. 

Or bathrooms on planes.

The policy options are endless!

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