Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Avatar Review

Wow! That movie had amazing special effects! I saw it in 3D, and there were times when this movie took my breath away. There were stunning vistas. Incredible action. Awesome battle scenes. There were times when I actually forgot I was watching movie (like when the forest is on fire, and there's ash everywhere, and I started brushing my pants off. Then again, I'm a smoker, so I'm particularly susceptible to fear of burning ash.). I wonder what this movie will be like in 2D when it comes out on DVD. Anyway, too bad all this amazing technology was used to tell the crappiest science fiction story of 2009.

The plot was hackneyed and tired. Some people compare it to Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner should find everyone one of these people and sue them. Because Dances with Wolves at least kept me in suspense. I knew what was going to happen at every point in this movie. The script had to hit every beat, and it did so as efficiently as possible. Typically by pulling the simplest, most over-used plot point out of its ass.

Did anyone think that Sam Worthington's character, Sully, would not successfully ride the giant, red dragon-thing? Did you at any point expect the corporate stooge to listen to reason? Did you worry, for a moment, that the Na'vi wouldn't win the last battle? That's because there is no dramatic tension in this movie. The actors are basically moving scenery, a hook upon which James Cameron hangs his special effects. The plot decisions Cameron makes are so simplistic, which is sad because if he'd spent a minute on the plot this would have been a great movie.

Press reports have it that Cameron's been working on this script for almost ten years, while he waited for the techology to catch up to his vision. Maybe he should have given the plot another editing pass. Either that, or everyone around him was too scared to tell him his plot sucked. Examples abound.

The Floating Rock: Tell me, what does this rock do? Besides float, I mean. Why is it so important to Earth? It would have made the plot more understandable, and given us a reason to care, if we knew what we were fighting for. The story tells us that there's no green anywhere on Earth, and that we're a dying species; does the rock protect us from global warming? Does it power giant atmosphere processors, thus allowing us to breathe? (After all, if there's no green on the planet, we're not breathing). See, if you tell us why the rock is so valuable, then we understand the human's actions, and we might even find ourselves rooting for them at first (since they're saving our planet). After all, this is supposed to be an eco-movie; if the rock saves our planet at the Na'vi's expense, this makes us face the question "which ecology is more important?" The plot automatically becomes deeper. Cameron could have spent five seconds on this, and sacrificed a scene of glowing plants.

The Corporation: Ah, that hoary old science fiction chestnut, the evil corporation. Why is the corporation evil? Because they're a corporation. They have share-holders. They make money. They must be evil. This is tissue-paper thin movitation. Why spend any time developing a real motivation when all you have to do is make the villain a corporation? Remember when Coke wanted more market share in China and invaded with their private army? And how about the Great IBM War of 1985 in India? See, this shit doesn't happen anymore. (Some know-it-all asshole is going to bring up the East India Company. Once again, this shit doesn't happen anymore.)

Let's put it this way, if the Evil Corporation exterminates the Na'vi, I think the UN might have something to say about it. The 2154 versions of Hugo Chavez and Mummar Khadaffi would go apeshit, railing against Imperialism. Someone would be prosecuted. Because corporations are subject to laws. When they want to strip mine in Brazil, they get a contract from the government or buy the land outright; they may bribe lawmakers to change laws, but that's because board members understand they can be prosecuted. Moreover, Giovanni Ribisi's character acts unilaterally; he's so far away from home it takes six years to get to Pandora; it's his ass going to the Hague charged with genocide. You'd think his character would take that into consideration, but more on that later.

(Also, note to James Cameron: FOX is a corporation concerned with profits. You better hope this movie makes it's 500 mill back, or they'll have you whacked, if we're going to follow your corporate-bashing thesis). Unless the governments of the world all suddenly collapse, plunging the world into anarchy, corporations aren't going to do half the shit they're accused of in sci-fi movies. I think it's time we put the evil corporation plot device to rest.

The End: Sam Worthington's character spends much of the movie trying to learn about the Na'vi. He wants to help negotiate some kind of treaty or settlement. The Na'vi kick ass and take names, and what do they do? They banish the humans. What?! Sam, you wanted to negotiate on behalf of the humans. Now you're in a position to negotiate from a position of strength. You're human, too. So you can do the same thing you wanted to do the entire movie, but this time from the Na'vi perspective. Instead, you just exile everyone. Wouldn't it have been a more nuanced ending for Worthington to say "okay, you guys can stay, but you have to agree to stop fucking with us"? That would have been a nice message of tolerance. And would have set up a good sequel, as the Evil Corporation tries to break the deal. (Also, the humans already fucked up the giant treehouse to get at the floaty rock; so the Na'vi could have said "keep it, assholes" and used it to buy concessions, like leaving the rest of the planet alone).

Moreover, have you ever heard the word "hostages", Sam? See, the Evil Corporation is going to come back. And if they're smart, they'll stay in their spaceships and throw rocks at Pandora from orbit. It might be smart to be holding a few hostages. In the meantime, maybe humans and Na'vi could learn to work together in the six years its going to take reinforcements to arrive.

It's like at every point in the movie, if Cameron had a choice between the slipshod, hackneyed plot and something more nuanced, he chose the former. James, next time you write a script, write the exact opposite of what you're thinking.

Plot comes from drama. Drama comes from character. And it's on this level that the script really disappoints. As much as Cameron goes for the easy with his plot, he also goes for the single-dimension character.

Let's take the bad guy. Evil Marine wants to kick Na'vi ass from the minute you see him. You know that no matter what Worthington does to negotiate a settlement, Evil Marine is gonna break that treaty. In fact, this would have at least made for a more interesting plot. Can someone tell me why this guy is so unhinged? Because something scratched his head? At least give us some backstory on this guy. Maybe a Na'vi warrior gave him those scars, and Evil Marine wants a little payback. That at least makes this guy two-dimensional. See, James, without a clear motivation, the villain is just a cartoon. I knew what this guy was going to do at every step. That means there's no tension.

Giovanni Ribisi's character, the Corporate Douche, is similarly one-dimensional. (I didn't even bother learning these character's names; they were all stereotypes). There was a moment where you got the sense that this guy was conflicted about what he was doing. Let's see how we can make this guy interesting.... He doesn't want to exterminate the Na'vi for the shareholders back home, because he knows it's his ass going to the gallows when the folks at home learn about it; he makes an impassioned speech via video screen, but his corporate masters tell him to do it anyway. Now, at least you get a sense that he has some feelings. Maybe you even see him as a flawed corporate stooge. Cameron should have just given him a handlebar moustache to twirl...

The Gorillas in the Mist character was also your stock scientist from central casting. She resents Worthington because he's a jarhead. Okay. That's enough characterisation for you, audience. We gotta get back to showing you great CGI. It would have been much more interesting if they went the Gorillas in the Mist route, with her and the others finding a way to make peace, only to be thwarted by unhinged Evil Marine. There was that other scientist dude who seemed really pissed that Worthington is taken in by the Na'vi; I thought he was going to sabotage Worthington's efforts out of jealousy. There was even a scene with nasty, resentful looks being flung around. THAT would have been an interesting plot! The scientists don't want Worthington to steal their thunder, and they actively try to undercut him; it's not the enemy outside, but the enemy within! Oh wait, no. Everyone's on board now, helping Sully out. Time for more 3D...

For all the time Cameron lavished on the digital crap, he could have taken a half hour from it to spend on characterisation.

To summarize: Rather than give us interesting characters, with, you know, real motivations and shit, we got cartoons. And instead of giving us a plot with depth and nuance (and an occasional surprise), we got a hackneyed script right out of Sci-Fi writing 101. But man! Were those special effects neat! Now, if someone can tell me why I give a shit about CGI giant blue aliens and their magical floating rock, I'd appreciate it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Christmas Special

I was watching Lord of the Rings again a few days ago, and I came up with what I think is a great, holiday-themed short movie. I wish I had the resources to film it, but here it is, in a nutshell.

Jolly old Saint Nick sits in his study. He smokes a pipe while consulting lists of naughty and nice kids. There's a knock at the door.

SANTA: Come in.

ELF: Santa, we're having a problem with the replacements.

Note, this elf is like Hermie, short, pointy ears, wearing red-and-white striped stockings. The classic image of Santa's elves.

SANTA: Replacements?

HERMIE: Yes, sir. You remember, we had to replace our usual work force. Everyone came down with Swine flu a few weeks ago -- prime toy-making season -- and we were falling behind. And you insisted on elves....


HERMIE (apologetic): Well, they're not our sort of... elf, sir. If you take my meaning. They're a bit, well, dodgy.

SANTA (annoyed): What do you mean? They're not working well? They came highly recommended....

HERMIE: Perhaps you should take a look....

SANTA and HERMIE exit the office and walk down a long, ginger-bread-like hallway. Past pillars of giant candy canes festooned with holly garlands, and portraits framed by wreaths. It's all very Christmasy. ELF opens a door to what sounds like a busy workshop.


We can see long work benches, with workers toiling away. Just under the sounds of hammering and sawing, we can hear etherial music.

SANTA: What's the problem? All I see are elves, working.

HERMIE: Just a moment, sir. I'll show you. You there... What's your name? Elbereth, isn't it? Come over here and show Santa what you're making.

A tall, willowy elf stands from his bench. He's dressed in gauzy, shimmering robes. His long, flowing blonde hair cascades past his shoulders. We walks, slowly, purposefully, towards Saint Nick.

HERMIE: Well, get on with it, show Santa what you're making for....

ELBERETH: Timmy Johnson.

HERMIE: Timmy Johnson.

ELBERETH produces a ring of incredible delicacy and beauty. He presents it to Santa.

SANTA (Looking at HERMIE): What is it?

ELBERETH: I call it the Ring of Dreadful Retribution, Alambion in the Old Tongue.

SANTA (Looking confused): What's it do?

ELBERETH: It shoots balls of fire.

SANTA (really confused): Balls... of... fire...

HERMIE: Go back to work Elbereth.

ELBERETH leaves.

HERMIE: You there, what's your name?

ELF: I am known as Gloriandra.

GLORIANDRA is also an elf of towering beauty, dressed in Middle Earth's finest.

HERMIE: So, what are you making?

Gloriandra whips up a sword wrapped in the folds of his robe and presents it with both hands to Santa.

GLORIANDRA: It is a sword that can never dull, never break. It shall remain whole until the unmaking of the world. It shall sever the hand of the Sorcerer King of Tol Amun, thus freeing the peoples from his evil, as forespoken by Galadriel. It also glows blue when orcs are about.

SANTA (dubious): Right. And who's this for?

GLORIANDRA: Betsy Williams. She's been an especially good girl, I'm told. Also, she's going to slay a dragon with this sword, according to the scrying pool....

HERMIE: See? These elves don't seem.... Well, sir, they don't seem to have the "Christmas" spirit at heart....

SANTA: Hermie? Where are the Chrismas songs? I don't hear any Deck the Halls or Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer. (And you know how much he loves that song...)

HERMIE: I was coming to that.

SANTA: What is that they're singing?!

GLORIANDRA: It is a lament for the death of Obereth at the hands of Melkath the Unwise during the Final Battle of Four Realms.

HERMIE: See what I mean?

SANTA is dumb founded.

HERMIE: At last count, these elves...

GLORIANDRA: We prefer to call ourselves Silvenni.

HERMIE: ...Silvenni have made 142 magic rings, 347 enchanted cloaks, 233 ensorcelled daggers, 712 magic swords, 14 charmed mirrors, 3,488 cursed belts...

GLORIANDRA: We felt those would be more effective than coal.

HERMIE: ...482 magic hats, 1,015 suits of enchanted armor, and an assortment of what these "elves" call Artifacts of Power.

GLORIANDRA: Ah, those will be the "must have" presents of the season. We are particularly proud of the Starstone...

SANTA: Enough (shaking his head).

SANTA sits down heavily in a nearby chair.

SANTA: Let me get this straight. You want me to hand out, to the children of the world, a bunch of magic swords, knives, cloaks, armor, and assorted enchanted what-have-you. To children.

GLORIANDRA: We believe the blood of Numinor is all but spent. We hope that by gifting the children of Earth with our magic, they'll be prepared for the coming battle with Ultimate Evil, and...

SANTA: Enough!

Everyone in the workshop stops working. The singing ends.

SANTA: Look. Do you think you guys could make some toys? You know: dolls, rocking horses, train sets, sleds, baseball bats and gloves... Toys.

GLORIANDRA: Can the toys be magical? The glove idea sounds particularly interesting, though we do not know what "baseball" is...

SANTA: No. No magic. Ordinary, every day, non-magical TOYS!

The elves in the room look at each other, back and forth, confused. They begin to murmer to each other.

SANTA: Perhaps it's time we get us some Chinese, Hermie....


Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Obama Administration R.I.P.

The stimulus package. Health care reform. The climate agreement. Heck, the Olympics. At this point, I'm ready to call the Obama adminstration officially over. Not in a technical, legal sense -- we've got three more years -- but in the sense of relevance. After sweeping in on a tide of hope and good feeling, President Obama's performance has been underwhelming. I didn't think it possible to combine the sweeping oratory of Kennedy with the achievements of Ford (at least we haven't reach Carter levels. Yet). By that I mean, he's a man with so much promise, who just can't seem to get anything done.

My first, and most troubling, proof is the most recent climate meeting in Copenhagen. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao snubbed Obama in the morning. He simply decided he'd rather go shopping, or sleep in, than meet with the leader of the free world. Then, while the Chinese were meeting with Brazil and India, Obama had to push his way into the room, petulantly yelling "are you ready to see me?". There wasn't even a chair for Mr. Obama to sit in.

Internalize this for a moment. I'll wait. Ready? The Chinese see us as irrelevant. They are ignoring us, as if we were Uruguay. We are allegedly the most powerful, productive nation in the world. And at least one world leader see our leader as... superfluous. What happens when every other leader in the world sees it China's way? The world has learned they can roll us. (Also, let's not forget China holds a trillion dollar's worth of our debt. It's not a good thing when your creditors have no respect for you).

I don't care that Obama came away empty handed with an agreement on climate change. Much as he did when he went to Copenhagen for the Olympics. But when you put the power and prestige of the office on the line, by attending what is supposed to be high level meetings to finalize a world-wide agreement, you'd better make sure 1) you have an agreement and 2) it's going to be signed.

Second, let's look at the health care debacle. Yes, I know. You want to blame Big Pharma and the insurance companies and Joe Lieberman. And you'd be partially right. Ultimately, however, this is a failure of leadership. When the White House puts its full weight behind legislation, it normally has had a hand in drafting the legislation itself. If you want a crime bill, if that's your issue, you draft the bill yourself and send it to Congress. All Obama has done is create a laundry list of desires, and told the Congress to draft the legislation. He did the same thing with the stimulus package.

What's the old joke? What is an elephant? A mouse designed by committee. When Bill Clinton wanted health care reform, he had it drafted in the White House and sent to the Hill. (I'm also tired of the meme that we haven't had a serious attempt at health care reform in 50 years. What the hell was 1994? Not serious? Tell that to Hillary.) What did Obama expect? What he got was thousands of pages of competing bills that no one's read. He got the death of a thousand cuts. He's got a bill that no one on the Right or the Left wants or likes, for their own partisan reasons.

You can't just make high-minded speeches. You have to craft legislation. It's almost as if Obama is scared to write a bill, which is something the President can do. Didn't he watch Scholastic Rock when he was a kid? Even I can send a bill to the Congress. Maybe he just doesn't have the experience with crafting legislation? Or maybe he wasn't in the Senate long enough to understand how it works. He should have had someone in the White House write up a bill that included exactly what Obama wanted, then make the House and Senate vote for it up or down. Or at least use it as a starting point for horse trading. But you don't let Congress actually craft your legislation for a mouse, because you're gonna get an elephant.

The stimulus package was supposed to be targeted and timely. It was supposed to go to "shovel ready" infrastructure upgrades. It went instead to turtle tunnels and theater companies. It has stimulated nothing. Again, because Congress basically wrote a giant list of earmarks, called it "stimulus" and went home. Obama is completely ineffective at getting legislation passed.

Therefore, because of his combination of ineffectiveness on the Hill and irrelevance on the world stage, I'm ready to say the Obama administration is effectively done.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Love Facebook (Sarcasm Edition)

I love Facebook. Many of you, my long-time, loyal readers (all four of you, apparently), already know this. From my obsessive commenting on my friends most trivial status updates to my posting cute pictures of kitties, I'm pretty much on Facebook all the time. See, I work in a restaurant whose business plan was apparently concocted by a Fred Flintstone, and we never have any business. (For example, we don't have business cards, even though every customer who comes in asks for one, so they could presumably remember the place or recommend it to their friends. But the owner doesn't want to spend the money on them. Ditto take out menus, which cost a penny a piece). So I stand behind the bar, with this convenient outlet and free internet connection, and nothing to do.

Now, even though I love Facebook, I find some of the things it does to be really annoying. Fingernails on a chalkboard kind of annoying. For example, Facebook has this section of "suggestions." Now, if these were really helpful suggestions, it would be telling me how to pick up hot women in bars, or recommending stock picks. Instead, it does things like this:

* "Lucille Willard has only 9 friends. Suggest friends for her." Well, FB, I would. But she's my mother. She only has 9 friends because she's 65-years old, and we're lucky she's even on the internet. For years she avoided computers because she wasn't sure where to insert the crank to power it up. If there were no eBay, I'm sure she wouldn't even bother with computers. So the number of people with whom she could be friends (i.e., proto-senior citizens not scared of computers) is already quite small. And besides, I don't think she'd like to be friends with any of my friends, unless she wants to be bombarded with hip cultural references to zombies, Halo 3, and Taylor Momsen, none of which she'd understand. (Nor do I think my friends want to be bombarded by her motherly nagging, which is apparently (based on her messages to me) the only thing she's capable of.)

* "Green Ronin Publishing. Say hello; write on their wall." Yeah, FB, I would love to. Unfortunately, GRP is a business. A company. It's not a persona. First, I don't think GRP gives a flying 20-sided die whether or not they hear from me. Second, I don't think anyone over there is sitting around, pining over the fact they haven't heard from me in awhile (which would mean, actually, never). Apparently, the programmers over at FB (motto: will program for curry) never took into account that not only people sign up to their service, but also businesses, who use it to communicate with their fans. Were I to write something on GRP's wall, it would be something along the lines of "can I have work?" and "can I have free games?"

* "[insert name]. Reconnect. Say hello." Hello person I friended after casually meeting them in a bar (typically female, always hot). Howdy friend from high school I haven't seen in 20 years, and only friended out of curiosity. Hola acquaintance who turns out to me a major douchebag who peppers me with ads for his business, a service I neither want nor need. Bonjour friend who pissed me off by borrowing money and never paying it back, meanwhile buying a new cell phone and TV. See, FB, there are people on my friend list that are not, in the strictest sense of the word, my friend. Maybe I'm too lazy to de-friend them; maybe I fear the karmic backlash that would no doubt result from hurting their feelings (I hear this is why Gandhi was shot). Perhaps the individual in question stopped logging into Facebook (I know, this is hard to believe), and hasn't responded in awhile, so I stopped trying. If I haven't interacted with a "friend" in awhile, FB, there may be a reason. It might be better if you just dropped it.

* "[insert name]. XX mutual friends. Add as a friend." I don't care that 36 of my friends are also friends with this person. I may be the only one in the group who always thought so-and-so was a douche. Maybe he slept with my girlfriend at a frat party. Maybe I still owe him money. Let's just say, if we're not friends already, we're not going to be. Tell you what: I'll search for the people with whom I want to be friends, and you can spend more time and energy recommending MILF-dating or chubbie-dating websites (you seem good at that already, and I say stick to your strengths).

*Facebook Chat. Sometimes, on especially boring nights, I like to chat with my friends. I find this a convenient way to interact with friends who may be far from me, geographically speaking. Or who have stopped taking my calls, for various reasons. And by "various reasons" I mean "drunk calling." So it would be handy, some might even say useful, if your chat service were a bit more reliable than opening the window and shouting. I've had fewer problems with two tin cans and string.

* Notifications. Hey Facebook! It's very nice that you inform me whenever someone comments on something I've posted to the site, or comments to a thread I'm following. Thank you for telling me I have new Zoosk matches, can get $10 off a spa day, or that I can now find out what Christmas song I am (that last one is really crucial, FB. FYI, it would be the Hannukah Song, by Adam Sandler). But it would be extra special nice with a cherry on top if you could keep it straight. For the last few days, I've had 42 notifications. The same damn 42 notifications, no matter what I do. I have notifications from last week appearing as though they were sent two minutes ago. It's irritating to click on a notification, thinking it's to something current, only to find out it was from last month. It's called "clearing the cache", which I'm not sure you've heard of FB. You may want to check it out.

That's really about it. I know most of these gripes are petty. I realize I'm criticizing a website for which I do not pay. Moreover, I understand that many of these issues result from lowest common denominator programming issues. Facebook doesn't know about the douchebag from Idaho, or my laziness to delete him and his obnoxious comments. It doesn't know Green Ronin or Zombie Planet aren't people. But then again, if I didn't bitch about it, I'd have nothing to write.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hating on Avatar (Pre-release Edition)

We are a week away from the release of James Cameron's Avatar. The trailers for this movie pretty much play my psyche like a xylophone, so I can't wait to see it. Cameron's given us The Abyss, Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic (which to my mind would have been much better if aliens and terminators were in it), so I think expectations are pretty high. After all, the dude hasn't made a movie in ten years.

The marketing for this movie is as unescapable as coverage of Tiger Wood's harem. We pretty much keep ESPN on the TV all day long where I work, and I see a commercial for this movie once every half hour. Because sports fans are the target demographic for a sci-fi movie. I see ads for Avatar on almost every website I visit, too. Though admittedly, I visit a lot of nerd-oriented websites, so I shouldn't be surprised. It's the ones on the porn websites that I find a little disturbing.

The problem with this is the way the film's being marketed. So far, we've learned that it's James Cameron's first movie since Titanic, that it's got incredible CGI, and it's got Sigorney Weaver in it. But about the plot, I'm a bit fuzzy. As near as I can tell, it's about giant stompy robots beating up on blue Indians (sorry, Native Americans) and taking their land, which floats. Oh, and there's dragons in it. And Sigorney Weaver. There may or may not be a buffalo hunt; I'm unclear on the point. I'm hoping someone has a sick sense of humor, and cast Kevin Costner in a cameo role.

Since we've perfected our giant, stompy robot CGI technology, can we please remake Starship Troopers the way it was supposed to be made? That would be more giant, stompy robots, less rumination on the nature of violence. Honestly, it's like the director read the novel, completely missed the point, and made the movie anyway. How else to explain a movie about guys in battle-suits with exactly zero battle-suits? (Oh, and apparently, in the future, the space marines completely forget how to do things militarily, like set up a perimeter or establish a fire base). And now I'm harshing on the wrong movie....

I really wish Cameron had come up with a different name for his movie. Whenever I hear it, I think of the Japanese anime Avatar, the Last Airbender. Now I haven't seen this particular anime yet, mostly because I don't know what "airbending" is, and it doesn't appear to have quite the level of alien tentacle rape I usually demand. I don't know what "airbending" has to do with huge, blue cat aliens, either.

On the subject of the cat aliens, I'm a little creeped out by this, too. Unbeknownst to a large number of you out there, cat aliens appeal to a tiny, very disturbed segment of science fiction fandom. Unfortunately, I became acquainted with this through my involvement with Star Trek. The animated series featured a female cat alien. Almost once every few months, I'd get a disturbing e-mail asking me when we would provide more information on these aliens. And by "disturbing," I mean the letter would eventually turn to sex with the cat aliens. I was actually attending a Star Trek convention (purely for work purposes) when some guy brought the Q&A to a screeching halt with a question about how a human and one of these (again, animated) cat aliens might mate. As near as I can tell, cat aliens combine the worst of the fuzzie community with the worst of the sci-fi world. I hope Cameron likes being stalked by creepy fat guys in Avatar t-shirts and tape on their glasses, all hoping he's got a blue cat alien locked in his basement....

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Surge Edition

I've had time to digest the President's speech at West Point yesterday. All in all, it was the kind of eloquent speech we've come to expect from Mr. Obama. And I don't mean that as a knock against him. It's nice to have a President who can not only form a sentence, but create a mood. Pundits are already staking out claims; I've come not to bury Mr. Obama, but to evaluate what he said strategically. Some thoughts:

The Bush Playbook: I'm disturbed and elated by what appears to me to be a page out of the Bush playbook. I'm elated, because Obama clearly looked at what worked, and tried to copy it for Afganistan. I'm disturbed because he doesn't apparently understand how or why the Iraq Surge worked.

A) The Bush Surge similarly targeted the cities and most troubled districts of Iraq. Military forces occupied buildings in dangerous areas and stayed (rather than the usual shoot-and-scoot), which signaled to the residents that we were there to stay. But this was accompanied by an overwhelming popular disgust with al-Qaida in Iraq, and a massive defection by the Sunnis (amazing what cutting off people's fingers just for smoking will do). This is not the case in Afghanistan; sending troops to secure population centers will only result in a bunker mentality and the appearance of protecting the Karzai government.

B) The Bush Surge also included a contingent of trainers meant to "stand up" the Iraqi army. Yet by the time of the Iraq surge, the Iraqi army already had a firm core of units who could be relied upon to show up to battle; they also had a strong military tradition, which became more pronounced as we relaxed "anti-Ba'ath" restrictions. Afganistan's forces, even after eight years, are pitifully small and unreliable; the country has lacked a credible central government for so long I doubt anyone even remembers a central army. Eighteen months more of training isn't going to change this.

C) The Bush Surge included a date certain for withdrawal. This was also meant to sharpen the Maliki government's attention on settling internal political differences. However, the Status of Forces agreement was with the Iraqi government; it was negotiated with the Iraqi Parliament. They basically asked us to leave by that date, because they felt they would be ready to stand on their own two feet by then. They were doing what Cortez did when he got to the New World. The situation is much different in Afganistan. We are, basically, telling them we're leaving, end of discussion.

Thus, on the face of it, Obama's plan for Afganistan mirrors Bush's plan for Iraq (eerie, isn't it?); it contains all the hallmarks of the previous surge (fortify the cities, train the army, get out by date certain), with none of the understanding for why the previous effort worked.

Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma'am: Others have already noted that it was, at best, confusing and, at worst, moronic for President Obama to announce a departure date of July 2011 for our troops. Republican pundits have already spilled gallons of ink on the latter position. By laying out a date certain for withdrawal, critics claim, Obama has only emboldened the Taliban to wait us out. I'm not sure that's Obama's position.

What he said in the speech is that U.S. forces will begin to withdraw in 2011, depending on conditions on the ground. It's a neat parsing. What he's done is signal Afganistan's elites that they do not have a blank check, that there must be progress in their governance. This, however, may not be the cudgel the President hopes. If they successfully combat corruption and field a real army, the U.S. military leaves; if Karzai et. al. fail to get their house in order, the U.S. stays, presumably continuing to prop up and protect them (allowing them to steal more). And if Obama decides that enough is enough and cuts them loose no matter what, they've had an additional 18 months to pillage and embezzle, and shop for real estate in the French Rivera. Rather than getting the Afganis to "stand up" Obama may have just infantilzed the Karzai government.

I'm troubled, also, by the date. 2011 is campaign time. It's all too tempting to declare victory and withdraw (in which case, the "conditions on the ground" may mean the ground in New Hampshire and Iowa). Even if Obama is being sincere in his desire to prosecute the war effectively, the pressure from his far-left, ACORN/ACT UP wing may be too much for him to resist.

The Wrong 'Stan: In the speech, Obama clearly makes a link between Afganistan and Pakistan. My gut tells me this is going to end being the cassus belli for widening the war. That's not a bad thing. First, Pakistan's security forces (the Inter-services Intelligence or ISI) created the Taliban, and have been reluctant to turn them over. They "prune the hedge" so to speak, by killing or capturing (or allowing us to kill or capture) some Taliban, to keep the aid checks coming in. In certain measures, our financial aid to Pakistan has been as much a bribe to keep the Taliban leashed as it is a reward for their continued assistance. Hillary Clinton got it right: Someone in the Pakistan government knows exactly where Osama is hiding. But why turn him over, and slay the goose that lays the golden foreign aid check?

(And I suspect the big scandal coming out in the next few years is a review that shows some of our money went directly to the Taliban through the ISI. You thought "Oil-for-Food" was bad...)

Second, if the Pakistanis were half as interested in battling the Taliban (who also pose a threat to their own government. See: Swat Valley) as they were in India, they'd move more forces out of the disputed Kashmir region and into disputed Pakistan. Let me state that again: The Pakistanis are more interested in their conflict with India -- a peaceful, stable, representative democracy -- than in fighting the militant fundamentalists running around their backyard. Let's recall the Mumbai massacre was carried out by Lashkar-e-Tayyba, who were created by al-Qaida and nurtured by the ISI; this was nothing more than a direct attack on India through proxy forces. Have we mentioned the nuclear weapons in Pakistan's arsenal, just a stone's throw, literally, from people who want to turn back the clock to the fourteeth century?

If our scampering across the Af-Pak border to chase terrorists becomes a wedge for taking on the two-faced cleptocrats in Pakistan, I'm all for it.

Our Ace in the Hole: All this leads to our ace in the hole, India. Ignoring for the time being the spectacle of the Salahis crashing the party, it wasn't a coincidence that the Indian Prime Minister came for Obama's first state dinner right before the President's key address on the conflict in Afganistan. India is an important lever in this conflict, one we're resistant to use. First, India is a stable democracy with its own Islamic terrorist problem. Second, they possess a counter-weight to Pakistan's nuclear bomb with one of their own. Third, they have historically been heavily involved with the Northern Alliance in Afganistan, and provide a significant amount of reconstruction aid. Fourth, they have an extensive covert presence in the region (spying on the aforementioned terrorists), as well as experience in the lay of the land. The only reason the Indians haven't been more involved in the War on Terror is we've asked them to stay out, for fear of angering the Pakistanis. But if we're going to move against the Pakis anyway...

It would not be difficult for us to leave the region, with the Indians providing both a watchful eye and a military presence. Let them fill the vacuum when we leave. (Even better if we can leverage this with the Pakistanis, by threatening to throw all our support behind India, and making them de facto hegemons in the region, unless the Pakis clean up their act).