Friday, June 30, 2006

Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma--Bad Fact I

On page 38, as part of a discussion comparing the state of agriculture post-World War I to now, Mr. Pollan says that in 1920 only 257 tractors were built in the U.S. That seemed improbable, given the volume of cars so I went to my old copy of "Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957" and in table K-150-158 found there were actually 257,000 tractors in 1920. Mr. Pollan or his research assistant missed the unit of measure (thousands). See here For an accessible source providing some historical background. (Who knew we were actually producing over 2,000 steam tractors a year in 1900?)

Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma--Enjoy with Care

For some reason Mr. Pollan rubs me the wrong way, so I've troubled to try to doublecheck some of the information in his Omnivore's Dilemma. But give him his due--his reviews at are almost uniformly glowing--the only criticism is a couple of former English teachers who critique the editing. Personally, despite my problems with parts, I'd recommend the book, but I'm going to challenge some of his facts in separate posts.

Krauthammer Gets One Right

I don't usually agree with Charles Krauthammer but today's column, Amnesty for Insurgents? Yes. gets it right:
"Reconciliation-cum-amnesty gets disaffected Iraqi Sunni tribes to come over to the government's side, drying up the sea in which the jihadists swim. After all, we found Zarqawi in heavily Sunni territory by means of intelligence given to us by local Iraqis.

Protests in America over the amnesty suggestion have caused both the administration and the Maliki government to backtrack. But don't believe it. Amnesty will be an essential element in any reconciliation policy. Which, in turn, is the only route to victory -- defined today just as it was on the first day of the war: leaving behind a self-sustaining post-Hussein government, both democratic and friendly to our interests. It is attainable. The posturing over amnesty can only make it more difficult."
My agreement is reinforced by my recent viewing of the movie "In My Country", which deals with the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa. That's one thing Krauthammer misses. For liberals, Nelson Mandela is a secular saint and he could have reinforced his argument by pointing to South Africa rather than Chile. The second thing he missed is that he would refuse amnesty to foreign terrorists in Iraq. I disagree--if you want peace, you have to deal with those who fight, regardless. Israel needs to deal with those it calls terrorists, if and when there's an opening; Ian Paisley needs to deal with those he calls terrorists, now there's an opening, etc. etc. When violence is politically motivated, there should always be room for a political deal, however unjust that may be.

The bottom line is

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Floods and Rain

Reston got a lot of rain recently. Our rain gauge is in our garden plot and holds 5". We emptied it twice when it was full and again on Tuesday morning it had 2.5". So we can claim to have had 12.5", more than Dulles is reporting.

The area where I grew up, north of Binghamton, has seen flooding of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers. Binghamton set a new record for rain of 4+". But they've had more flooding than Reston, even though they've gotten much less rain. The difference, I think, is the soil. It's all glacial sand and gravel there and the water runs right through and off. Here we have good Virginia red clay which absorbs a hell of a lot more water.

Wikipedia and Self-righteousness

I've started to get into Wikipedia , the encyclopedia. Several years ago when the "wiki" concept first got a bit of press I looked at it, but didn't follow up to contribute. At that time there wasn't enough to get your teeth into. Or to put it another way, it was like visiting a construction site and seeing some building materials lying around with a few people digging for the foundation. While the idea of a free encyclopedia constructed by volunteers, of work of value coming from nothing, was interesting, I didn't see a place where I could pitch in.

Now that I'm revisiting, there's a lot of stuff and a number of places where I think I can contribute. As a know-it-all, like many bloggers, I find correcting people's errors greatly rewarding. I'm not sure I like what that says about me--that I'd rather critique than construct?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Best Use of Money--A Distressing Liberal

I'm pleased with the Buffett/Gates story. (Andrew Carnegie, whose Gospel of Wealth was mentioned in some stories, was raised a Presbyterian.) I was distressed though to read the following comment from History Net news:
"My only problem with the countering illness angle [i.e., Gates foundation focus on malaria, TB, etc.] is that it seems reactionary and addressing the problem on the periphery instead of at the core...when we address the issues that create the conditions that allow these illnesses to run rampant (denial of rights, ignoring the rule of law and international legal authority, illegal wars, insistence on sovereignty, etc), then we will be practicing adaptive management and proactive advocacy and will be able to make more of a difference."
Sounds to me like his brain's been in academia too long.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Quiz--Which Story Belongs to Which Paper?

One of these stories is on today's NYTimes front page; the other on the Washington Times front page. Which is which?

"Amid Iraqi Chaos, Schools Fill After Long Decline
Enrollment in Iraqi schools has risen every year since the U.S. invasion, reversing more than a decade of declines."

Iraq's best, brightest flee from violence
"Rasha Tamimi sits comfortably in the luxurious lobby of the Millennium Hotel in Sharjah, part of a line of skyscrapers that stretches the length of the United Arab Emirates -- a world away from the bloodshed of her old Iraqi neighborhood."

Answer: First

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Media Must Help the GWOT

Power Line is, as usual, absolutely right with respect to the latest Times article on the Bush administration tracking money transfers: "It is unfortunately past time for the Bush administration to enforce the laws of the United States against the New York Times. The Times and its likeminded media colleagues will undoubtedly continue to undermine and betray the national security of the United States until they are taught that they are subject to the same laws that govern the conduct of ordinary citizens, or until an enraged citizenry decides, like Bill Keller, to take the law into its own hands and express its disagreement some other way."

Unfortunately they don't go far enough. After all, by definition "terrorism" is a war on public opinion. That means the media are the front line troops in this war. If they would simply stop giving any publicity to terrorist successes they would undermine the whole basis of terrorist tactics. If no one knows of kidnapings, murders, IED's, suicide bombers, they can't be terrorized by them. By the same token, if the media publicized our successes, it would terrorize the terrorists. For example, everyday troops come home from Iraq alive and well. Why shouldn't the lead on the evening news and the top news spot in the papers be a report of this good news.

To clinch my argument, I only observe that Saddam Hussein never allowed the media to report any bad news--just remember his Information Minister in Baghdad. We should do the same.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Fighting the Last War

Haven't read the new Ron Suskind book but the reviews stimulate me to a defense of the Bush administration. First, we should remember that our leaders, of any party, are just poor sods heir to all human ills. They learn from experience, meaning they fight the last war. This seems to be what they did in Iraq.

Remember the first Bush administration was severely embarassed by its failure to anticipate Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Later, they discovered they didn't have a good picture of his WMD programs. And this was after 10 years worth of Republican leadership of the CIA.

So what happens when they come back into power. After 8 years of Democratic leadership of the CIA they can't trust it, even if they were inclined to. This explains Cheney's close scrutiny of CIA product, and the establishment of alternative channels for intelligence in DOD. It also explains why he worried about not knowing, and decided that even a low likelihood of danger (1 percent) justified action.

Then the Bushies fought a dandy little war in Afghanistan, which went much better than I expected and enabled them to laugh at the doubters who had started to emerge over the first 2-3 weeks of combat. (I started writing this yesterday, then saw this report this morning, which supports my argument.) Consequently they were over-confident in taking on Saddam. What Cheney and his team can justly be criticized for is not applying their logic across the board. Yes, the CIA and intelligence establishment couldn't be trusted to give a fully accurate assessment of the WMD danger. And one can argue for acting now to avert possible future danger (that's the form of the liberal position on global warming, after all). But similar logic would say that the intelligence establishment doesn't understand the dangers of a postwar Iraq, so the cautious position is not to break the pottery in the first place.

Overconfidence is a disadvantage in war, finds study

From the New Scientist - Overconfidence is a disadvantage in war, finds study:
"A further analysis showed that people with higher self-rankings ended up worse off at the end of the game. “Those who expected to do best tended to do worst,” the researchers say. “This suggests that positive illusions were not only misguided but actually may have been detrimental to performance in this scenario.”

Men tended to be more overconfident than women. But the study found nothing to back up the popular idea that high testosterone causes confidence and aggression. Saliva tests showed that, within each gender group, testosterone level did not correlate with how participants expected to perform in the game."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Getting Close to Home--Personal Info Compromised

Thanks to George Buddy, who perhaps has even more eclectic interests than I do, for alerting me to this release from USDA on the possible compromise of personal data at USDA.

Release No. 0214.06: "The personal identity information potentially accessed includes individual's names, social security numbers, and photos. Worksite information that is readily available to the public is also contained within the database. Approximately 26,000 current and former Washington, D.C. area USDA employees and contractors are potentially affected."

I've the feeling of being a target for a knive thrower--the compromise of data at VA seems to have missed me (only veterans in the 70's and later--I got out in the 60's). And the word "former" employees could include me, but I've been gone long enough to hope I've been missed again.

Of course this feeling doesn't make sense--my SSN and other personal data are floating around in many places these days so having data on a hard disk somewheres shouldn't add to my worries. The consensus seems to be that a robber getting laptops is likely after the hardware, and not the data. (But in the case of USDA, USDA computers were hacked, which is likely to indicate a taste for mischief, but possibly data.)

Maybe I'll revive my idea of doing away permanently with Social Security numbers. Or maybe not.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Rational Behavior and Tony Snow

I posted the other day citing Tony Snow as a case in which rational people didn't behave rationally in signing up for a 401K. I got an email (accidentally deleted) suggesting a wider context to his behavior, which is fair. I should have, I guess, admitted that I myself failed to sign up for the government equivalent of a 401K when it was first made available in the mid-80's. Took me about 4 years to do so.

All of which reminds me of a paper on "paternalistic libertarianism" by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, the idea being that society can structure choices in a paternalistic way. For example, in my case if the government had setup the TSP (Thrift Savings Plan = 401K) with all old civil service employees contributing 5 percent of salary as the default position, but with the option to opt out, I would have benefited.

Which leads me to something I saw this morning (via Marginal Revolution) in a discussion of the minimum wage (very against raising it) here, summarizing research in New Jersey that seemed to show that raising the wage might not cause loss of jobs: "“Turnover costs, imperfect information, search frictions, commuting costs, and inertia generate short-run, and possibly long-run, monopsony power for individual firms.” This is not exactly a simple condition, likely to apply uniformly across a huge, diverse country. " To me, "inertia" applies across all human beings I've met. Maybe someone like Bill Gates is relentlessly rational in allocating his time and efforts, but the rest of the species seems to have a little of the couch potato in them, at least metaphorically.

Bottom line--I don't think humans are all that rational, certainly not in maximizing short-term returns. (How much of a pay cut did Tony Snow take to serve his country and a President he admires?)

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Typefaces in Baghdad

For some reason, perhaps because they published the image of it, the Post didn't put up a URL to a fascinating story--a memo from the embassy in Baghdad recording the problems and concerns faced by Iraqi employees. (The most disturbing bit--most don't even tell their families who they work for.) You can see the image Outlook Image.

As a sidenote, I found it interesting that the memo is not in a proportional spaced typeface, like Times Roman. Despite the fact that a proportional spaced font is easier to read and comprehend, and thousands are available for any PC, for some reason the State Department sticks to the past. (It may be because something like Courier used to scan better than more modern typefaces and that was the way they got typed material into a database before they got halfway modern. Or it may just be inertia.)

Silly Little Errors--NYTimes

Sometimes writers make silly little errors, just because they aren't thinking. Paul Greenbury in today's NYTimes Magazine on the rise of fish farming--Green to the Gills:
"As anyone who has flown over the monocultured American heartland will attest, we have carried out a policy of biological purification with the organisms we eat — an elimination of the random in favor of the predictable. The vast majority of the world's land area has been repurposed to cultivate the several dozen creatures we like."
But the CIA World Factbook says that 13.31 percent of the world's land acrea is arable, with another 4.71 percent devoted to permanent crops. Even in the U.S., the percentage is 18.01.

What he presumably was trying to say is all the arable land is devoted to support of creatures we like, but that's sort of redundant.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Criticism of US Policy on Torture

I found this editorial from the Jewish Week a bit surprising:
"With its extraordinary and tragic experience as a target of terrorism, the Jewish state nonetheless adheres to legal rulings barring torture and the inhumane treatment of terror suspects.

The same cannot be said for the United States, which seeks to spread democracy and its core values around the world and yet refuses to rule out torture in the treatment of foreign detainees."

Thursday, June 15, 2006

You Can't Trust People To Do Right

Brad DeLong writes in - What Ownership Society?
about this rule--seems that Tony Snow failed to sign up for a 401k at Fox--which calls into question the idea of relying on people following their enlightened self-interest as the basis for all social institutions.

Undermining Dual-Nationality Fears

I blogged here about concerns that dual nationality for immigrants would lead to a lesser commitment to the U.S. because they would feel a greater commitment to their home country. But the Post today had this article:
In Mexico, Migration Issue Gets No Traction: "Expectations that huge numbers of Mexicans living in the United States would register to vote went unmet. After 1 million absentee ballots were printed, only 40,800 of an estimated 4 million eligible Mexicans living in the United States registered."

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Top Military Are Good Bureaucrats

Today's NYTimes reports on the new Army manual on interrogations that being developed. Some, like Cheney, want two sets of methods: one published in the manual, one kept secret so that our adversaries can't train to counter the methods. But Congress and the top generals are resisting:

Pentagon Rethinking Manual With Interrogation Methods - New York Times:
"In addition to the lawmakers' complaints, some senior generals also objected. At a recent meeting of the nation's top worldwide commanders, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the head of the Central Command, and Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said the new interrogation techniques had to be clear and unambiguous 'so our corporals in the field can understand them,' said a military officer briefed on the remarks."
That's the mark of a good bureaucrat. KISS for the field operatives. It's a long chain of command from HQ to the field and the simpler you can keep instructions, the better.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Beinart's Over-Simplified History

Peter Beinart oversimplifies history here--Why Clintonism worked:
"In reality, the Democratic Party didn't lose the confidence of its convictions when Clinton became president; it lost them when he was in graduate school. From Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson, Democrats stood for three basic things: enlightened anti-communism, an expanding welfare state, and racial integration. Between 1968 and 1972, under pressure from Vietnam and racial conflict, two of those three collapsed. By 1972, George McGovern was urging the virtual abandonment of anticommunism and advocating racial quotas. Then, in 1976, Democrats nominated a relative economic conservative, Jimmy Carter, who showed little interest in extending Johnson's Great Society largesse. And, poof--there went principle number three. "
During the 50's integration wasn't a big deal for most Democrats--Stevenson was not notable for his leadership here. Southern Democrats were simply too important in the party. Even when JFK came to office, it took a while for him to act on anything, even the "stroke of the pen" to sign an executive order on discrimination (in federally financed housing, if memory serves) that he had used as campaign fodder. The positions of the parties didn't fully solidify until LBJ pushed through the civil rights legislation and the Republicans followed Goldwater in going south.

Much of politics works that way--the "ins" take a position and the "outs" criticize, assuming the position has problems, regardless of what their past history and principles might seem to dictate. Just look at Keynesianism. That was the Dems position from the 1930's to 1980. A very successful one, even converting Nixon. Then Reagan used the Laffer Curve to steal their clothing and now Dems believe in responsible budgeting.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Virginia Liberal's Dilemma--Miller or Webb?

Tuesday I've got to cast my vote in the Democrat primary in VA for a candidate to oppose Sen. George Allen. As I told the phone surveyer for Webb, my priority is to beat Allen. And that's the message former Rep. Leslie Byrne is pushing in her radio ads for Webb--he's the guy to beat Allen.

Webb is a Naval Academy graduate, decorated Marine vet of Vietnam, fiction writer--an impressive resume. But he's also a former Republican and a Secretary of Navy under Reagan, he supported Allen in 2000, and famously opposed women in the Academy in the 70's. He's Scots-Irish, having written a book that interwove his family's history with that of the Scots-Irish in America (Born Fighting) that suffers from over-romanticizing them (I'm half Scots-Irish myself). His major platform and the motivation for switching parties seems to be opposition to the Iraq war.

His opponent, Harris Miller, is a lobbyist for the IT industry, but rather than being a turncoat Republican he has a long history of Democratic activism, serving as a Congressional aide and in the Carter admin.

As I analyze my choice: Webb seems to be someone who today would have a good chance to beat Allen. He can't be painted as a flaming liberal and has the background that will appeal to downstate Republicans, while the Dem establishment will push him in No. Virginia. But it's 5 months to election day. Will Iraq look as bad then as it did the end of May? If it doesn't, Webb seems a single issue candidate who'd have problems adjusting gears. On the other hand, if it gets worse or if there's new terror attacks in the U.S. Webb would do better than Miller. Will Webb wear well? He doesn't seem to have impressed the media with his campaigning abilities. Webb seems to be go-it-alone-Joe, perhaps too stubborn and self-righteous (prime S-I vices) to be good on the stump.

On the other hand, Allen is probably salivating at the idea of Miller--he can be painted as liberal, and a lobbyist, and opposed to the working man. (Miller's pushed strongly for free trade on behalf of IT, so several unions are against him.) He's also Jewish, which won't play well downstate and aggravates the image problem. He's made a little better impression on the media, which always likes wonkish types. (ex-Gov Mark Warner was an IT wonk, and he had to lose once before he came back to win.) I agree with Miller much more on issues. In terms of changing situations over the next 5 months, he probably would be less affected by good news from Iraq than Webb. (On the other hand, the public may have come to a final view of Iraq--that it was mismanaged so that lives and money were wasted, even if it works out over the next 5 years.) And if the Republican base stays dispirited, maybe a liberal can win.

But if Webb gets in, after Iraq fades will he find himself reverting to the Republicans? But if we can't defeat Allen this year, we probably can't beat him ever. He's been fairly impressive for the Republicans, enough so he's dreaming of the White House, so we can't tar him as another Roman Hruska. Darn, I don't like Allen.

Damned if I know who I'll vote for.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Robin Williams Jr., -- RIP

Professor Robin Williams Jr., ("Robin M. Williams Jr., a noted sociologist and a former president of the American Sociological Association who offered insights into racism and the behavior of men in war, died here on June 3.") was a teacher of mine back in 1962-3. He wasn't the greatest lecturer I had, but he was interesting and gave me some insights into American society I still use. The course was on American society, which was also the title of a book of his. It's no longer in print but I recommend it.

What I remember--the observation that we pass laws and act in symbolic ways to reaffirm norms, like the law against prostitution with the periodic crackdowns--the actions don't really attack prostitution, they say that we "good people" don't approve of it. That's true today, though I've learned over the years that symbols do matter perhaps more than I got from his class.

Another observation fit in with my future career--the idea that the New Deal delegated governmental power partially in an attempt to co-opt groups, as giving farm programs to an agency run in part by locally elected committees, the agency I ended up working for later. Local control became big during the War on Poverty, but it's gradually faded. Even the Republicans have abandoned it during the Bush administration

Friday, June 09, 2006

Libraries, Schools, and Electronically Generated Books

Came back from the Reston library today, passing Dogwood elementary school, which has a very high proportion of Hispanic students. I wonder whether the book/education industry is making good use of computers these days. How costly is a print-on-demand machine? How hard would it be to generate personalized books for kids with their names inserted--if advertisers and magazines can do it to generate interest, why not education? How about books with Spanish and English interleafed--one page English, the facing Spanish (or whatever language--lots of them in the Fairfax system?)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Visual Acuity and Immigrants

Just finished "Farmworker's Daughter" by Castillo Guilbault, who grew up in California during the 50's and 60's. It's well written and evocative of that time (not that I'm familiar with the area or with being Hispanic). One thread of her memoir is the distinctions her mother made among people, both race (Yaqui Indians versus not, shades of brown) and class/culture. Her mother took pride in her gentility, even though she was married to a farmworker.

I'd generalize that specialists always make distinctions that generalists don't. When people grow up in an area, they and their neighbors are specialists, making distinctions more or less well-founded. So-and-so isn't just a farmer, he owns a particular farm with particular animals and has a history on the farm. When "outsiders" come in, they can't make these distinctions because they don't have the background knowledge so their eyes can't see what the natives see. But the "insiders" also make generalizations about the outsiders--back in the 50's many in the south would see newcomers or media as "Yankees" and probably troublemakers.

So too in immigration. We now talk of "Asian Americans", lumping together as one group people from many disparate countries. And we talk of "Hispanics/Latinos", lumping together people who speak different versions of Spanish or, perhaps, no Spanish at all (i.e., Brazilians and Indians). And immigrants will make generalizations about the "natives", being more likely to see blacks and whites as Americans and less likely to make racial distinctions than natives.

A similar process takes place when we visit the past, which is a foreign place. Our eyes fail us as we blur out differences. For example, would you be surprised to learn that Illinois had many German-language newspapers between the Civil War and WWI? I was.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Anxiety in Professorial Ranks--Stanley Renshon

Just finished reading "The 50% American : immigration and national identity in an age of terror"
by Stanley Allen Renshon.
He's a professor and it's a scholarly work, lots of footnotes and citations. He points to the prevalence of nations who permit dual citizenship (most do) and argues it's a danger, leading people to fail to identify with the U.S. He sees immigrants, particularly Hispanics, as retaining allegiance to their country of origin and failing to assimilate. He's concerned about "multiculturalism", arguing that we need one national culture that is dominant. As I said, it's scholarly and makes a reasonable argument, though I'm not convinced. I'd offer these points:

  • It's a rather ahistorical picture. He's not conscious of the extent to which the U.S. has already had experience in navigating between the Scylla of individual/subcultural rights and the Charybdis of national culture and rules. The flag saluting of Jehovah's Witnesses, the peyote use of native Americans, the off-the-grid culture of the Amish (including aversion to higher ed), the hasidic Jews in NY, the question of parental rights of Christian Scientists to forego treatment, etc. etc. True we don't come close to the experience that a land like India has had with multicultures, but I'm confident we can navigate in the future.
  • While the tone is scholarly, there's a current of anxiety about American culture that pops out regularly--the culture wars, the crassness of popular culture, etc. etc. The anxiety is shared by others who'd oppose immigration as currently operative. This leads to an irony. On the one hand, Renshon says that immigrants have too strong and too cohesive of a (family) culture which poses a threat to the U.S. On the other, he points with alarm to the erosive effects of a free-market system of catering to individual tastes that supposedly dissolves our former culture. It's difficult to have it both ways.
  • But Renshon does offer some good suggestions to help immigrants acculturate, orientation sessions, English as a second language classes, etc. While I'm a bit dubious about the payoff from such efforts, there is a purpose to symbols. Perhaps an eventual compromise immigration bill would benefit by including some of these measures. They constitute a better response to the concerns of those who would restrict immigration than just dismissing their concerns.

Friday, June 02, 2006

40 Years of Social Change--Seven Days in May

Watched the movie "Seven Days in May" last night, describing an attempted coup in DC, and noticed these indicators of social change:

  • lots of smoking (the Surgeon General's report came out just after the movie was released)
  • lots of drinking--offering liquor to one's guest was common
  • lots of WASP males. There was a black security guard and a mother and child in Dulles airport who had the one speaking part ("No, I didn't see him.") One black male in the press corps. No Hispanics, no Asians. There were identifiable Catholics--nuns in black habits.
  • an "emancipated woman" (the great Ava Gardner so describes herself, sardonically, as she's the discarded mistress of the villain (Burt Lancaster).
  • an empty White House--compared to "West Wing", the President had a small staff (one main aide).
  • formality--still some hats and the press corp was dressed formally for the press conference. Travelers at Dulles were also formally dressed.
  • few fliers. Dulles, which had just opened, was practically empty.
The country has changed.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Establishment Pundit Acknowledges The Seer--All Hail Kevin Drum

David Broder today notes an article the Washington Monthly ran back in 2004 containing predictions by various experts on what the second Bush term would be like:

"The one commentator who got it exactly right was Kevin Drum, who runs the magazine's blog. 'What do we have to look forward to if George W. Bush is elected to a second term?' he asked. 'One word: scandal.'"

A Liberal's Dilemma--Kevin Drum

Kevin Drum comments on Mr. Beinart's recent book:
"So what is it that Beinart really wants from antiwar liberals? The obvious answer is found less in policy than in rhetoric: we need to engage more energetically with the war on terror and criticize illiberal regimes more harshly.

Maybe so. But this is something that's nagged at me for some time. On the one hand, I think Beinart is exactly right. For example, should I be more vocal in denouncing Iran? Sure. It's a repressive, misogynistic, theocratic, terrorist-sponsoring state that stands for everything I stand against. Of course I should speak out against them.

And yet, I know perfectly well that criticism of Iran is not just criticism of Iran. Whether I want it to or not, it also provides support for the Bush administration's determined and deliberate effort to whip up enthusiasm for a military strike. Only a naif would view criticism of Iran in a vacuum, without also seeing the way it will be used by an administration that has demonstrated time and again that it can't be trusted to act wisely.
So what to do? For the most part, I end up saying very little. And Beinart is right: there's a sense in which that betrays my own liberal ideals. But he's also wrong, because like it or not, my words — and those of other liberals — would end up being used to advance George Bush's distinctly illiberal ends. And I'm simply not willing to be a pawn in the Bush administration's latest marketing campaign.

I don't have a very good answer" [He asks for comments, most of which prove a bit disappointing to me.]
Seems to me there's several answers:
  1. Be faithful to the facts as you see them. Facts can compel one to speak out (see Martin Luther) regardless of who is helped or hurt.
  2. Realize that the emotions of debate are good and useful. For example, to my mind Kevin overstates the villainy of the Bush administration out of emotion. That motivates him to probe the situation for facts that counter the Bush policy. Even though he mostly agrees with Bush on the nature of the Iranian regime, he's likely to come up with different facts and have different blind spots than Mr. Cheney.
  3. Maximize your impact. Where 1 and 2 would argue for a liberal to speak out on Iran, this could be seen as cover for cowardice. For example, the cases of both Iran and North Korea are very difficult. So liberals can take potshots at Bush policies that appear mistaken, but there's really no obvious alternative, so why should liberals struggle to find one? It's not written in the heavens that a liberal should have a solid policy alternative to every issue. (For one thing, the lack of a policy is a policy--kick the can down the road and hope that events change the situation. Death, after all, is certain, even for our foes.)