Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Charismatic Sociopath

Watching Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, depicting the scheming Frank Underwood, I can't help but wonder... how is it that the lead character of a show, a man who will literally lie, cheat and steal his way into the White House, maintains popularity with the show's fans? Spacey's character is unquestionably a sociopath or, if you prefer, afflicted with antisocial personality disorder. At times he strategically all-but-admits his sociopathy to other characters as a tool to win back their trust.

I've seen studies that indicate that people are quite good at spotting sociopaths, but if the sociopath is sufficiently charming will nonetheless allow themselves to succumb to his charms and confidence. Plenty of people saw through Bernie Madoff, but plenty more chose not to. I guess if you're smooth enough, charming enough, we can find a way to turn off our better judgment.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Call for Constant Parental Supervision

Ross Douthat tells us about the night he had to walk home from baseball practice,
When I was about 9 years old, I graduated to a Little League whose diamonds were a few miles from our house, in a neighborhood that got rougher after dark. After one practice finished early, I ended up as the last kid left with the coach, waiting in the gloaming while he grumbled, looked at his watch and finally left me — to wait or walk home, I’m not sure which.

I started walking. Halfway there, along a busy road, my father picked me up. He called my coach, as furious as you would expect a protective parent to be; the coach, who probably grew up having fistfights in that neighborhood, gave as good as he got; I finished the season in a different league.

Here are two things that didn’t happen. My (lawyer) father did not call the police and have the coach arrested for reckless endangerment of a minor. And nobody who saw me picking my way home alone thought to call the police on my parents, or to charge them with neglect for letting their child slip free of perfect safety for an hour.
Douthat should include the coach among those who didn't call the police on his parents. I'm tempted to be more than a bit uncharitable in my interpretation of what Douthat means by "rougher after dark", and I suspect he's dressing up a rather mundane story, but New Haven is a big place. Douthat should consider something more: What the police would have been likely to do if they were summoned. Odds are they would have tried to help young Ross find his way home. Also, as Douthat compares his own experience to those in the news of late, it seems worth noting that he doesn't accuse his furious father of overreacting.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the argument that our nation has become overprotective of children, but that's in no small part due to the fact that changes in our culture have led to a car culture, a culture in which you can drive down a street or even go to a park and find yourself quite alone. When I was a kid, I could walk from my home to the neighborhood park, and I would see other kids (and adults) on the sidewalk on the way there, and plenty of kids (and adults) at the park when I arrived. For much of the summer, one of my cities of residence would have staff at the park, organizing activities and supervising a splash pool. I don't think that human nature has changed, that fewer adults would help a kid in distress, but instead think that the problem is that fewer adults are around to provide that type of support to somebody else's unsupervised child. The biggest difference between a person driving by in a car, then and now, is that back then drivers didn't have cell phones.

Douthat lists a series of stories in which parents were arrested or had their children removed from their care after leaving them unsupervised, often for short periods of time, or even for matters outside of their control.
Some of these cases have been reported, but some are first-person accounts, and in some the conduct of neighbors and the police and social workers may be more defensible than the anecdote suggests.

But the pattern — a “criminalization of parenthood,” in the words of The Washington Post’s Radley Balko — still looks slightly nightmarish, and there are forces at work here that we should recognize, name and resist.
Douthat identifies what he believes to be the three primary causes of this pattern, upper class helicopter parenting producing a culture in which people expect children to be supervised at all times, media-driven anxiety from stories overstating dangers to children, and an erosion of community and social trust. I suspect that there is something to the first argument, as parents who have the privilege of always supervising their children, whether directly or through caregivers, can easily lose track of how difficult it is for other parents to accomplish a similar level of supervision. No doubt, the media's horror stories inflate public fears and make people wary of letting their children go out alone. An erosion of community and social trust, though? It fits with Douthat's preconceptions, but I don't see it. Instead I see a significant change in context, with our society shifting to indoor activities and its becoming alien to see an unsupervised child at play in a park. It's not particularly realistic to expect that a person, catching a glimpse of a child who may be lost, to park their car, approach the child and investigate before deciding what their next step should be, even if we assume the child won't be calling the police on her own cell phone due to "stranger danger" lessons.

Let's also not forget the angry parent. Just as Douthat's dad tore into his coach with a criticism that must have amounted to, "How dare you leave the child (who we forgot to pick up) alone to find his way home after practice?" How many passersby want to encounter the angry parent who, upon seeing them approach a child who seemed to be unattended, approaches with a belligerent, "How dare you!" How many store owners, finding children wandering unsupervised in their aisles, want to take the risk of having the children wait in their offices while they try to track down parents? Particularly with the exaggerated but accepted "stranger danger" threat, and with the disproportionate anger that can come from some parents even when it was their own negligence that necessitated stranger involvement, it's no small wonder that some people choose to notify the police.

The problem at that point, also, is less that the police were notified, and more that prosecutors are willing to authorize charges over parental mistakes that cause no harm, where a stern lecture might suffice. And in that context, once again, we have a significant media role -- "Protective services was called about this child on three separate occasions, but did nothing...." Nobody wants to be the subject of that sort of headline, so the reflex has switched from a friendly drop-off and perhaps a warning about providing proper supervision to the initiation of legal proceedings.

Moving back to the complexity, for a moment, sometimes at the root of these cases you will find either that the reason for court intervention is more complicated than a news media sound bite might suggest, or can find another case that suggests why the police or a prosecutor don't find an act to be as harmless as the media coverage suggests. Leaving a "4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day" may not pose a danger that the child will die from exposure to heat, but cars are not safe playgrounds for children. You'll find plenty of stories about near-misses and injuries resulting from a child's shifting a parked car into neutral or releasing a hand brake and, although car cigarette lighters are now something of a rarity, of children injuring themselves with items left inside the car.

I'm also reminded of a time when one of my clients decided to bring his girlfriend's four-year-old child to court, on a date that he expected to be sentenced to jail. The judge drew the conclusion that the child was present as an insurance policy, inferring that the defendant thought he might not be sent to jail if that meant that somebody else would have to take care of the child. The judge sentenced the defendant to jail and was prepared to call protective services. I offered to try to find the child's mother and, after several hours and the leaving of countless messages, while ultimately delivering the child to his grandmother, was not particularly impressed that I had done the child any great favor by keeping protective services out of his situation. As my experience with that type of case has expanded, I would be surprised if the child had not already been the subject of a protective services investigation. I'll say this: He was a remarkably well-behaved child who handled the situation very well, and he deserved a better life than the one he has likely since experienced.

Douthat notes that work requirements for welfare recipients can result in contexts in which "a single mother [is] behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school". Douthat's childhood was apparently sufficiently sheltered that he is not aware that most single mothers are neither on welfare nor working fast food jobs, but that aside he raises a fair observation about the inherent tension within Republican views on the subject:
This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.
And the solution is.... to be continued? What an unfortunate moment for Douthat to have run out of space for his column.

If you want a culture in which children can play in public, walk to school, take urban public transportation and the like, without parental supervision and without raising any concerns or eyebrows, you need to focus less on nebulous notions of "community and social trust", and focus much more on getting a population of kids and parents back on the streets such that it's not unusual for a child (of appropriate age and maturity) to engage in public activities without supervision, and where there's a natural population of people on the streets and in the parks who will react to any danger the child might face. Scolding people for not putting their lives on hold to investigate a child's status before notifying the police is not an approach that is likely to solve anything. With the manner in which our society has evolved to one of indoor activities and empty public spaces, I'm not sure that any generation of kids in the foreseeable future is going to enjoy the sort of liberty I had as a child, to go to a park, walk to school, ride my bicycle around town, take public transportation and the like, without any thought of parental supervision.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Obamacare Works, Period

The other day, Reihan Salam was on Real Time, but didn't manage to air all of his anti-Obamacare tropes before the host switched to a different subject. One he did manage to voice is the suggestion that the 74% of Republicans who like their benefits under their PPACA health insurance policies are wrong. I'm not sure how the logic of that argument works, as they either like their benefits or they don't. Perhaps he means that they're wrong in principle, as they should instead prefer the status quo ante or some unidentified alternative program, but endorsing that position would suggest that Salam doesn't think the program represents good policy even if it provides people with what they assert to be good health insurance coverage.

Salam did suggest that the only reason Obamacare is working is because it is subsidized. In a sense that's true, as it is the subsidies that help create the volume of enrollees necessary to create the large risk pools that allow the program to work, enrolling all applicants without regard to preexisting conditions. But outside of that narrow context, Salam is wrong. As somebody who has purchased a PPACA policy without a subsidy, I can attest that I was able to choose and enjoy a policy that provides coverage superior to anything I was able to purchase as an individual consumer prior to the Act's effective date, and that the price of the policy was reasonable even without a subsidy. The manner in which the PPACA's policies are priced for dependents allowed me to obtain coverage comparable to that which I had previously received through COBRA but at a lower price.

Although the pre-PPACA policy I had purchased to cover the period between the expiration of my COBRA eligibility and January 1, 2014, cost less than my PPACA-compliant policy, it also offered far less. I also didn't have to try to remember years of detailed medical information which the insurance company could use to find pretextual reasons to increase my rates or deny care. I recognize that many Republicans, perhaps including Salam, believe that having inadequate health insurance coverage is a feature, not a bug, forcing people to pay a greater portion or all of the cost of certain basic care, mental health care, addiction treatment and the like, and that the ideal health insurance policy involves a HSA and only catastrophic insurance coverage, I would have a greater appreciation for that argument if an appreciable number of its advocates were willing to walk the walk -- legislate or contract away their own health insurance benefits for the inadequate coverage they wish to foist off on the rest of the country.

Salam suggested that there is inequity in having a multi-tiered health insurance system, with Medicare being less attractive than PPACA plans, which he asserted are less attractive than employer-sponsored plans. It's important to note that I've seen employer-sponsored plans that are far less attractive than most plans available under the PPACA, and the plan I purchased was quite comparable to the employer-sponsored plan I had been continuing through COBRA, so I don't find his argument of inequity between employer-sponsored plans and PPACA plans to be particularly compelling. As for Medicare offering less than private health insurance, I see no evidence that the Republican Party at large views that as a problem that needs to be fixed. A party whose governors have largely chosen to grandstand, harming their states and large numbers of their constituents by refusing to expand Medicaid. Inequities exist, but it's not clear that we should prioritize their elimination over other healthcare reforms, or even that the people want inequities removed as opposed to the establishment of a reasonable minimum for what health insurance plans must offer.

Typical Republican alternatives to the PPACA have involved either throwing everybody into the individual market, with low-coverage catastrophic insurance and HSAs, or a voucher system where (if you qualify) you get a voucher or tax credit with which you are to pay for your insurance and fund your uninsured care. Those proposals bring back some of the worst aspects of the former system, at best foisting those previously deemed uninsurable or who would face staggering insurance costs due to pre-existing conditions into government programs -- after all, why should we expect health insurance companies insure sick people when that cost can be borne by the taxpayer? To the extent that the Republicans attempt to bridge the gap between the Gingrich-style plans and the PPACA, including large risk pools and exchanges, but most notably preventing insurance companies from raising premiums for people with pre-existing conditions, the more necessary it becomes to impose some form of mandate -- and even if you automatically enroll people in insurance while using the voucher or subsidy they left unused, such that you can argue that "It's not a mandate", somebody has to foot the bill.

On the whole, Salam is one of the more honest and thoughtful commentators on the Republican side. I would like to see him address the issue of health care in light of his abilities. We can start with the fact that there is no actual Republican health insurance reform that is being seriously advanced within the party. We can add to that, the fact that reforms that will shake the system are likely to cause people to lose their current insurance, whether that occurs abruptly or as a new policy is phased in. In other words, unless the Republican Party wants to take an enormous political risk that implicates all of its anti-Obamacare rhetoric, we're looking at incremental reforms, not the reinvention of health insurance and the healthcare market. Within that context, what reform ideas would Salam propose that have any chance of getting passed by the Republican majority in the House, let alone becoming law? If the answer is, "None", then he's reinforcing what many, and probably most supporters of the PPACA already acknowledge -- as flawed as the law may be, it's the best law that could get through Congress.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sometimes, When Everybody Thinks Your Analysis is Bad....

...It's because your work actually is bad.

I haven't paid any particular attention to The Independent's analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but this self-serving headline caught my eye: When both Palestinians and Israelis think we are biased, we must be doing something right. While it is true that partisans will rarely be satisfied with objective coverage of an issue that is close to their hearts, being attacked from both sides sometimes truly means that your coverage is inadequate or incompetent. If you want to convince the partisans that your position is balanced, it makes little sense to predicate your argument with a claim that is untrue on its face.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Too Many Desperate Law School Grads Spoil the Broth....

I learned something interesting from an executive from a large health care organization, the other day. She receives 200-300 job applications for any available position within her organization -- not much of a surprise given the economy and the fact that it's an attractive employer. But she indicated also that, for a lot of positions, they are flooded with applications from recent law school graduates -- to the point that hitting the entry for "law school" toward the top of somebody's résumé results in a near-automatic rejection of the application. (Odds are that the initial screening is done by computer....) It's not that a law school graduate with an appropriate job history or qualifications couldn't do some of the posted jobs, or couldn't learn the position over time. It's that so many desperate law grads are applying for the jobs that hitting a reference to law school or a "J.D." suggests that there's a very low possibility that the candidate is qualified for the position as posted.

No matter what you hear from people who claim that the law degree is a flexible degree that allows you do do more than practice law, unless you have confirmed both that it's true for the industry in which you hope to work and that the industry is hiring recent law grads, don't believe it -- and if you find such an industry, consider how small it is and how few graduates they hire before choosing law school as a path to employment. If you're interested in working in an industry that does not regularly hire people with law degrees, find out what degrees they prefer and get one of those degrees instead of a J.D.

I'm not optimistic about the future of the legal profession, or the potential for law school graduates who aren't able (or aren't willing) to pursue BigLaw careers to find remunerative work in smaller legal practices. Some will manage to do so, either starting their own firms or finding their way into legal jobs that allow them to create a foundation for later promotion or lateral moves. But from what I see, despite the reduced numbers of students attending law school, the future of the profession doesn't look particularly bright -- and if you're not going to end up working in law, in my opinion for most fields your three years of law school are either going to be a neutral or a detriment.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Golf is the Game of Presidents, So Get Over It

Presidents play golf.... Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter (although after his presidency), Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama.... Dana Milbank knows this fact, but nonetheless....
On June 14, Sunni rebels threatened Baghdad after seizing much of Iraq — and President Obama fearlessly played a round at the Sunnylands Golf Course in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

The next day, the militants posted pictures of their mass execution of Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces — and Obama boldly teed off again, at Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s Rancho Mirage estate.

These split-screen scenes were reminiscent of the weekend in March when Russia was about to annex Crimea. Obama played golf both Saturday and Sunday at Key Largo, Fla.’s Ocean Reef resort with former NBA star Alonzo Mourning and former NFL player Ahmad Rashad.

It’s enough to make one wish the president would take up a different pastime — like, say, stamp collecting.

Yes, a president needs down time. And, yes, he can run the country whether he’s in a sand trap or the Situation Room. But Obama’s golf habit needlessly hands his critics a gimme.
Only if reporters like Milbank treat it as a serious accusation, rather than dismissing it as tripe.
Former vice president Dick Cheney, writing in the Wall Street Journal with his daughter Liz, complained: “Terrorists take control of more territory and resources than ever before in history, and he goes golfing.” House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers gave a TV interview asking Obama to “please come back from the golf course” and find an Iraq solution.
An appropriate response to Rogers might be, "What do you imagine that the President might do to solve Iraq's problems that he is not already doing?" That would go for the Cheneys as well, but the absurdity of the Cheney accusation triggered another memory in Milbank:
I was one of the many who had fun with George W. Bush’s classic tee shot in 2002: “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.” But as The Post’s Colby Itkowitz noted, Bush hung up his spikes after the Iraq invasion. (He busied himself with other leisure pursuits, such as clearing brush.)
Bush earned himself the jokes not by playing golf, but by foolishly adding the "Now watch this drive" line to what should have been a serious response to a serious issue. Had Bush stopped before that final sentence, it would have been just another day on the golf course. Don't take it from me -- take it from Milbank:
Don't watch this drive. In his first three years in office, Bush played golf 16 times. But, according to the White House's unofficial statistician, CBS News's Mark Knoller, Bush has not teed off since Oct. 13, 2003. Some muse that Bush was cowed by filmmaker Michael Moore's mocking of Bush's golf habit in "Fahrenheit 9/11" which featured footage of Bush mixing remarks on Middle East violence with a command to "watch this drive." But Bush's golf ban far predates the Moore film and seems to coincide with Bush's discovery of mountain biking -- a better sport for appealing to the common man.
For goodness sake, even Dwight Eisenhower played golf. Woodrow Wilson played golf. Harry Truman didn't play golf at all, so there's no inference to be drawn from his abstention. And really -- the staged brush clearing photo ops on the ranch G.W. sold immediately upon retiring from the White House? Milbank believed that stuff?
As former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, who dubbed the Crawford digs a "ranchette," said in 2004, "Bush is always inviting the media out to take pictures of him clearing brush. In my experience real ranchers spend virtually no time clearing brush. They're usually tending cattle....the cattle you see as part of the photo op aren't even his. They're somebody else's that he rents the land to."
Milbank complains,
The image problem isn’t from leisure activity per se but the type of leisure activity. A majority of Americans now believes that Obama doesn’t understand their problems, and images of him playing golf — perceived, fairly or not, as a rich man’s game — confirms this out-of-touch reputation.
Yet Reagan was a man of the people, and G.W. was a guy you would want to drink a beer with.... Go figure. Maybe Milbank would have the President take up a real "man of the people" hobby, like watercolor portraiture?
This is similar to the problem that dogged Mitt Romney, and now Hillary Clinton. The Post’s Philip Rucker this week noted that influential Democrats are concerned that her “rarefied, cloistered lifestyle could jeopardize the Democratic Party’s historic edge with the middle class.”
Wait... this happened because Hillary Clinton plays too much golf? Because if not, perhaps opportunistic demagogues like Rogers and Cheney aren't sincere in their mention of golf, but are using it as a basis for a criticism that they would be making no matter what the President were doing in his leisure time. Ya think? And as for Mitt Romney, he doesn't play golf, either... so it's actually possible to be perceived as elitist and out-of-touch without playing golf? Who would have thought....

Perhaps this is the real problem....
The game has driven another wedge between the president and White House reporters who, during their turns on pool duty, chronicle with envy his weekly outings with friends and aides.

“Beautiful day for hitting the links,” the Washington Examiner’s Susan Crabtree wrote from Fort Belvoir. “Unfortunately pool is headed to the base rec center for the duration.”

“Looked like a nice place to play golf,” wrote the Houston Chronicle’s Kevin Diaz from the “exclusive” Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, “at least from the maintenance shed where pool spent the day.”
How... moving. It must be tough to have to watch the President from a distance, rather than getting an up-close view as you're handed packaged talking points and photo ops.

Heck, if Iraq is so much more serious than golf, why are reporters following the President to a golf course where they know they won't get a story? Why is Milbank writing a story about those poor, unfortunate reporters? Think of all the shoe leather and column inches they could be devoting to stories on Iraq! I have to ask, though, did Milbank offer similar sympathy to White House reporters when they watched G.W. race off on his mountain bike?

I know that he has columns to write and deadlines to meet, but when his game is on Milbank can do so much better than this.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fantasy of Arming Secular Syrian Dissidents

A consistent argument made by critics of the Obama Administration is that the Administration should have somehow identified, trained and armed secular, western-friendly factions in Syria, and that this would have changed the balance of power in that nation's civil war. The concepts for what the outcome might be seem to vary with the person making the argument, and perhaps also with the time of day. The pure fantasists seem to believe that the western-backed factions could have defeated Assad's government, crushed Islamist factions, and instituted a secular, pro-western government in Syria. A more moderate argument is that these secular factions would have fared so well in battle that they would have forced both the Assad government and the radical factions to the negotiating table where they would hash out an agreement for a new, more inclusive Syrian government, also more friendly to the west. There's also the nebulous argument that boils down to, "I have no idea what would have happened, but we should have done it anyway", or perhaps, "Whatever choice the Obama Administration makes, I'm going to argue that it should have done something else."

Do you recall how last year, John McCain went to Syria and met with various groups that he ostensibly would have had the U.S. arm and back in an effort to defeat the Assad regime? How well did that go, again? Yes, McCain had lots of excuses and regrets over meeting terrorists and kidnappers -- but ISIS appears to view McCain's visit as a propaganda coup. I guess his position is that the U.S. would have done a much better job of identifying western-friendly factions than he did, and would have avoided arming the very factions with which he posed for photos, so as to by now have defeated those factions? Could any part of McCain's Syria policy survive outside of the realm of fantasy?

One thing I don't hear much about is who these secular, pro-western Syrian fighters are, how many there are, how we know that they are truly committed to a more balanced view of the west, why we believe that arming and training them will actually shift the balance in the Syrian civil war, and how they will unite a post-war Syria. Which is to say, the argument for arming these factions is made without addressing any of the relevant concerns. One of the huge concerns held by western nations and Israel is that arms given to factions believed to be friendly to the U.S. could end up in the hands of factions that are hostile to U.S. interests -- just as happened when ISIS fighters went into Iraq and confronted that nation's army. Whatever we make of the incompetence of Iraq's Maliki administration, if the best trained army in the region turns tail and runs from a few thousand ISIS fighters, why are we to believe that the unidentified and as-of-yet untrained Syrian dissident factions would have stood, fought, and defeated ISIS?

The essence of the fantasy is that we could have identified so many pro-western factions, and trained and armed them so effectively, that they would have crushed groups like ISIS. That argument defies logic. ISIS was active in Iraq, under its former name, before essentially withdrawing to Syria following the last outbreak of civil war. Why should we believe that they would remain in Syria and fight to the last man, rather than figuring out that they had much more friendly and more fertile ground for their activities back in Iraq? The position that they would have stayed in Syrian until they were wiped out defies not only basic logic, but the experience of what terrorist organizations do when they face too much pressure in one location. It's reasonable to infer that under that particular fantasy scenario, at best ISIS would have withdrawn to a third country, and at worst they would have gone into Iraq albeit possibly on a different schedule.

Other than as a tool to criticize the Obama Administration, where is the evidence that arming dissident groups. beyond those efforts actually made over the past three years, could have made a difference in Syria or Iraq?

The Fantasy of a Residual Force in Iraq

One of the comments I frequently hear is that the Obama Administration should somehow have convinced the Maliki government to enter into a new status of forced agreement that would have kept a residual U.S. force in place in Iraq for years, perhaps forever, with the express or implied argument that such a residual force would have somehow overcome sectarian tensions within the country and prevented a renewed civil war. Many of those making the argument fail to mention the fact that the withdrawal date that was followed by President Obama was negotiated by President Bush. I appreciate Tom Ricks' position on a residual force, specifically that although he had thought it would have been a good idea at the time, if possible, in retrospect it would have been a costly mistake -- with the present sectarian warfare, U.S. forces would have required significant reinforcement, or would have had to withdraw from combat, with either of those outcomes being worse for the U.S. than leaving the conflict to the incompetent hands of the Iraqi army.

At the time the Obama Administration was attempting to negotiate a new status of forces agreement, the American public didn't want to keep combat troops in Iraq, the Iraqi public didn't want our forces there, and the Maliki government also wanted the U.S. out. The argument that President Obama could have used his powers of persuasion to maintain a significant presence of U.S. troops, despite the opposition of everybody affected by the decision, is an interesting one, but to me it exists only in the realm of fantasy. There's nothing surprising about ethnic tensions in Iraq, nor that the actions of the Maliki government have worsened ethnic tensions.

It's reasonable to infer that if Maliki foresaw this type of breakdown and renewed civil war, to the extent that a U.S. military presence would have prevented the problem he would have wanted U.S. forces to remain. Given his administration's secular favoritism, cronyism, and incompetence in its management of the Iraqi army, it's reasonable to infer that one looming factor in his wanting U.S. combat forces out was that they might delay or prevent the implementation of his plans -- plans to reward his cronies and advance a sectarian form of government. Nothing about Maliki should have been a big surprise by the time U.S. combat forces left Iraq, so where's the evidence that Maliki would have changed his mind, upsetting the Iraqi people and alienating his friends in Iran, had Obama said "pretty please", perhaps "with sugar on top"?

Contrary to the apparent beliefs of the fantasists, I don't believe that the U.S. presence would have delayed civil war forever, or even for more than a couple of years (if that). Why not? Because Iraq experienced a civil war during active U.S. military occupation, with essentially the same parties fighting it out. The war, occupation and "surge" put a band-aid on the civil conflict, covering a festering wound. It would have taken true commitment to the cause for a central government to even partially heal that wound and, if we're honest, the Bush Administration knew from the earliest days of Maliki's governance that the Maliki was not the man for that job.

For some of the advocates of a residual force, such as John McCain, the position seems rooted in traditional wars between nation states. The U.S. is involved in a war and, when the war ends, it leaves a significant military presence in the nation where operations occurred in order to secure that nation from a potentially or overtly hostile neighbor. McCain apparently sees no distinction between wars between nation states and civil wars, despite his own experiences in Vietnam both during and after the war. Suffice to say, there's an enormous difference between maintaining a military force that is supposed to keep a lid on civil unrest and ethnic tensions, and one that sits near a border to intimidate a neighboring nation out of trying to cross that line.

Other than dragging the U.S. back into an Iraqi civil war, something few other than perhaps John McCain would actually favor, what would have been the benefit of a residual force? The best case scenario seems to be that the U.S. presence would have delayed the inevitable, but the worst case scenarios that Ricks describes seem far more likely.