Not so smart on foreign policy

Earlier this week I was musing that John McCain is not nearly so smart on foreign policy as he is generally given credit for.  Now, Slate's Fred Kaplan strongly makes the case for why this is so (clearly, I inspired him):

That was the big nail-biter: Would Obama, the first-term senator and
foreign-policy newbie, utter an irrevocably damaging gaffe? The
nightmare scenarios were endless. Maybe he would refer to “the Iraq-Pakistan border,” or call the Czech Republic “Czechoslovakia” (three times), or confuse Sunni with Shiite, or say that the U.S. troop surge preceded (and therefore caused) the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province.

of course, it was Obama's opponent, John McCain?the war hero and
ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee?who uttered these
eyebrow-raisers. “Czechoslovakia” was clearly a gaffe, and
understandable for anyone who was sentient during the Cold War years.
What about the others, though? Were they gaffes?slips of the tongue,
blips of momentary fatigue? Or did they reflect lazy thinking,
conceptual confusion, a mind frame clouded by clichéd abstractions?

If Obama had blurted even one of those inanities (especially the one
about the Iraq-Pakistan border), the media and the McCain campaign
would have been all over him like red ants on a wounded puppy.

Kaplan nicely points out that how this fits into the most pervasive biases of press coverage.  Journalists craft a narrative or conventional wisdom for campaigns, and then despite all potential evidence the contrary, they stick with it. 

McCain caught almost no hell for his statements?they were barely noted
in the mainstream press?most likely because they didn't fit the
campaign's “narrative.” McCain is “experienced” in national-security
matters; therefore, if he says something that's dumb or factually
wrong, it's a gaffe or he's tired. Obama is “inexperienced,” so if he
were to go off the rails, it would be a sign of his clear unsuitability
for the job of commander in chief.

It may be time to reassess this narrative's premise?or to abandon it
altogether and simply examine the evidence before us. Quite apart from
the gaffes, in formal prepared speeches, McCain has proposed certain actions and policies that raise serious questions about his
suitability for the highest office. As president, he has said, he would
boot Russia out of the G-8 on the grounds that its leaders don't share
the West's values. He would form an international “League of Democracy”
as a united front against the forces of autocracy and terror. And
though it's not exactly a stated policy, he continues to employ as his
foreign-policy adviser an outspoken, second-tier neoconservative named
Randy Scheunemann, who coined the term “rogue-state rollback” and still prescribes it as sound policy.

If you are curious as to why these particular policies are unsound, you can read the rest of the article.  I'm sold.

Who’s fault?

Slate has a really cool interactive map of the major players in all of the Bush administrations scandals and crimes.  It's really pretty fun to play with.  As the creator's write, “And if all else fails, fall back on this golden rule of wrongdoing in the White House: All roads lead to Gonzales.”

Put down your cell phone and drive

There was a really good article in Salon today that explained just why it is so much more dangerous to talk on a cell phone while driving.  What your hands are doing has little to do with it, it's what your brain is doing that's the problem.  Apparently, there's been some pretty interesting scientific research on the matter:

But can't you just ignore the voice chatting in your ear when
driving conditions get hairy? Apparently not. “Listening to someone
talk is a very automatic process and you can't will yourself not to,”
explains Just. “In another study, we told them [test subjects] to
ignore the sentences, but it made very little difference. You have to
block your ears. You can't turn off your brain processing.” You may
think that you're tuning out your husband or BFF on the other end of
the phone when road conditions get bad, but it's not that simple.

“It's insidious,” says Just. “If you're in a tough driving
situation, and someone talks to you, the processing of the language is
going to start right away, whether you like it or not.”

One thing I've always wondered about, though, is shouldn't it be just as potentially dangerous to hold an involved conversation with a passenger?  Apparently not– phone conversations and in-car conversations are actually quite different:

As long as the Model-T has been on the road, people have been
conversing with the passengers in their vehicles, if only to scream at
the pesky kids, “Shut up! I'm trying to drive!” But there's a
difference between talking to somebody in the car and on the phone.
Most passengers in the car adjust their conversation to what's
happening on the road, quieting down when traffic gets hectic or even
pointing out hazards up ahead, acting as a second set of eyes. The
person on the other end of a cellphone call might not know you're
driving, much less be aware of the road conditions. “The difficulty is
that the party on the other line has no sense of your driving situation
and just yaks, and the driver elects to do it, too,” explains Paul
Allan Green, research professor at the University of Michigan
Transportation Research Institute, where he leads the Driver Interface Group.

Inside a car, there can be natural lulls in the conversation of 20
or 30 seconds, and there is no awkwardness associated with it. Not so
on the cellphone call, where there's more social pressure on the driver
to hold up his or her end of the conversation, if only to assure the
other party that the call hasn't been dropped. “There is all sorts of
social pressure to continue the conversation and not break it off,”
says Green. When a driver does stop talking to focus on the road, his
caller is likely to ask, “Hey, can you hear me? Are you there?” The
caller tries “to reengage the driver at the wrong time,” says Strayer.

Further, researchers find that people tend to be more chatty in a
cell conversation than an in-car one. “Cellphone conversations are more
intense than in-car conversation,” says Paul Atchley,
professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. That intensity can
be measured. Researchers in England studied drivers' conversations with
both passengers and callers. They found that people used a higher
number of words per minute on cellphone conversations.

In the end, car passengers just have more skin in the game. “People
in the car have their own safety at risk,” says Atchley. “It's to their
advantage to not put the driver in the dangerous situation, so we as
passengers tend to edit ourselves pretty effectively.”

The larger point is that laws banning cell phone use unless the cell is hands-free are pretty pointless:

Researchers doubt that banning hand-held phones gets to the root of the
problem: the conversation. Sure, it's safer to have both hands on the
wheel, but no one is passing laws banning stick shifts. Atchley
believes that the new cellphone laws may be counterproductive,
instilling a false sense of security, since they may lull drivers into
thinking that gabbing on the hands-free phone is just fine.

I generally try and keep my own automotive cell phone conversations limited to situations where traffic is light and I'm quite familiar with my route, but I'm definitely going to be more cognizant of the risks.

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