Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Tale as Old as Time

One of the great fallacies of this campaign season has been the widely-held notion that we are witnessing something entirely new, that both candidates are aberrations within their own parties and thus practice a "different kind of politics." But once all the self-congratulatory, pre-fabricated cliches fade away we are left with the same script that has been used since the time of Jefferson.

Putting the policies aside for a moment, at least those that have even been put forward, these two supposedly unconventional candidates have conducted a campaign that is as conventional as it is mundane. Obama may bring a flashy grip of his native tongue into the fold, and McCain may be buoyed by the illusion of his independent-minded past, but in the execution there is nothing to separate 2008 from 2004, 2000, or even 1800 for that matter.

The script is well-known by now. Americans are made to reject intellectualism as effete and feminine, out of touch with real Americans, and arrogant, a picture that has been applied to every Democratic candidate for decades and continues to find traction. What Americans want -- real, masculine Americans that is -- is a President like Grandpa John or Uncle George. A real man. A man who thinks with his gut, not with his head. A man who has no need for nuance, real understanding of world affairs, or that flashy education. No, when a real man looks at the world, he sees the clear lines separating the good from the bad, the light from the dark. Intellect simply renders those that possess it ineffectual. Americans want a man of action, a man of toil and sweat, not a sheltered college boy.

It is in this framework that a man such a George Bush, truly a man born into luxury and good fortune if ever there was one, can be presented as anti-elite. It is how Bush, though he embodies the very definition of 'elite' if the word is to have any meaning, can be transformed by the performing simple tasks on his quaint little ranch, dressing in simple clothes, and using simple language. Only then can a man with opportunities well beyond the dreams of most Americans be portrayed as a cowboy and a real American.

If rational thought ever makes its return to our shores, the scheme will be seen instantly as a farce, but for now the window is still wide enough for John McCain to climb through. Although I am no fan of Obama's foreign policy, it is painfully clear that he offers an understanding of world mechanisms that McCain has never even approached. McCain is in the vein of Bush, in that he sees what he needs to see -- good and evil -- and nothing more.

Words like 'victory,' 'freedom,' and 'democracy' provide him with all the understanding he needs. Any attempt to define those terms will be met with resistance, as it is much more beneficial to him to have the listener paint his own image of the word than for McCain to be boxed in with a constrictive definition. If 'victory' was defined, McCain wouldn't be able to declare it when he felt the time called for it. If we had clear aims, people might start asking questions about how they could be achieved.

Where contemporary liberals fail in their analysis of this pervasive motif, though, is in presuming that it began with their favorite straw man, Karl Rove. While Greenwald is correct in his assertion that the McCain campaign has been forced to diverge from discussion of the issues by a public that widely rejects his stances, he is wrong in assuming that this is an entirely new phenomenon. Karl Rove presents a bugaboo to Democrats looking for a scapegoat, but he merely represents the man most able to tap into prevailing themes in American politics that have been around since the early stages of the Republic. Rove didn't create the notion of ineffectual, effete intellectuals, he merely used it to greater advantage than anyone else.

William Loughton Smith wrote a pamphlet attacking Thomas Jefferson in 1796, the tone of which should be immediately familiar:

The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician, are, timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain abstract theories formed in the recess of his cabinet, and not on the existing state of things and circumstances; an inertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.

Smith compares Jefferson disfavorably with Washington, who "was, thank God, no philosopher; had he been one, we should never have seen his great military exploits; we should never have prospered under his wise administration." Smith illustrates that even in the late 18th Century, military virtue was a good test of political leadership, a virtue that Jefferson, although one of the most important figures in American history, did not possess and was therefore unfit to lead. The parallel to the 2008 campaign is at once obvious.

In 1800, as the attacks against Jefferson continued, another typical American stalking horse appeared, animosity toward Europeans. Joseph Dennie writes:

At the seat of government his abstract, inapplicable, metaphysicopolitics are either nugatory or noxious. Besides, his principles relish so strongly of Paris and are seasoned with such a profusion of French garlic, that he offends the whole nation. Better for Americans that on their extended plains "thistles should grow, instead of wheat, and cockle, instead of barley," than that a philosopher should influence the councils of the country, and that his admiration of the works of Voltaire and Helvetius should induce him to wish a closer connexion with Frenchmen.

The language is of a different era, but the themes are familiar. Karl Rove, far from creating his attacks, merely represents the most recent bearer of arms that were developed centuries ago and have served politicians ever since.


Chasing Straw Men, July 29

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Chasing Straw Men

Since their victory in 2006, the only thing Congressional Democrats have demonstrated aptitude for is pageantry. The past two years have been full of hearings, hand-wringings, and witch hunts, all of which have succeeded in only one thing: preserving the status quo. The Congressional hearing is as stale a tradition as exists in American politics, an event which serves the dual purpose of allowing the side holding it to pretend it's doing something in response to public opinion while allowing the side under question to dodge questions all the while maintaining the ability to continue its scurrilous actions.

What, exactly, do Democrats and their supporters expect to gain from the testimony of Karl Rove? Surely no groundbreaking news that the current administration has been, gasp, a politicized affair. That point, I think, is beyond debate if available evidence is any guide, and certainly wouldn't be accentuated by testimony sure to resemble the award-winning performances of administration members who've gone before Rove in the sideshow on the Hill.

Americans are notorious for their lack of historical literacy, but are the Clinton years so far in the past as to be rendered unrecognizable? One would think that a period which included the impeachment of a sitting President wouldn't be so easily forgotten. Ann Coulter, even as she defends Bush to the last, just 10 or so years ago devoted an entire book to misdeeds by Clinton aides and friends, and even suggested the power couple was responsible for murder. Yet all of those on the left scandalized by such tripe are now on the other side performing that precise function.

And what is that function? To provide the populace with distractions and straw men to avert their eyes and minds from the realities of American democracy. To distort the true level of import that the average voter holds on Capitol Hill, which is next to nil.

In a totalitarian regime, manufacturing consent for the system is simple and straightforward. A democratic system however, must derive the consent from the people without force, something very easily accomplished by allowing the populace to censor themselves. It's done by feeding the public red herrings and other details to chase after, argue about, or vilify while the corridors of power remain unscathed. In China, the regime is supported through threats and force. In America, we dig our own graves.

In January, assuming the Democrats find a way not to screw up a sure thing, everyone will resume the roles they held in the Nineties, and business will continue as usual. Karl Rove will be gone from the scene, the last 8 years will go unmentioned and unprosecuted, and in their place will step new villains and new distractions. And power will still reside in the same place it does now: K Street.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

More on the Surge and the Political Realities of Iraq

This week has been an unmitigated disaster for McCain in the foreign policy arena, supposedly the source of his greatest advantage. Apart from the Maliki government asserting its opinion that US troops should begin preparations for withdrawal, McCain exhibited quite ably his inability to grasp anything in international relations beyond that of 'gut feeling,' a reality that became more clear each time McCain tried to walk back his previous statements.

After expressing anachronistic support for the efficacy of the Surge, McCain was forced to create a new history, explaining that the Surge was actually just a term employed to describe a general counterinsurgency strategy that began well before anybody thought to mention it. A nice try, but an argument that simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny, like most of McCain's policy statements. The term 'Surge' has been used from the start to describe the increase in US troops beginning in February 2007, to go back and retroactively apply the term to a overarching strategy post mortem flies in the face of 17 months of use.

But even if we allow for a midstream change of definition, McCain's claim that "the Surge has succeeded" doesn't hold up under his own definition of the term.

By controlling the violence, we can pave the way for a political settlement. Once the government wields greater authority, however, Iraqi leaders must take significant steps on their own. These include a commitment to go after the militias, a reconciliation process for insurgents and Baathists, a more equitable distribution of government resources, provincial elections that would bring Sunnis and the government, and a large increase in employment-generating economic projects.

In other words, the true aim of the Surge was exactly what Barack Obama and everyone else has been saying it was, political reconciliation, and on that front the Iraqis have failed miserably. They've pushed back provincial elections into next year, the country is still a broken arrangement of fiefdoms, and there is still no plan for dispersement of oil money to name just a few shortcomings.

The Maliki government has indeed gone after militias, most notably in Basra, but even that operation failed to achieve a pure strategic victory, as the most recent issue of Newsweek examines in a profile of the governor of Basra, Mohammed Waeli. Waeli exemplifies the ambiguities of enemies and allies that both Bush and McCain declare they ignore in favor of a 'gut' approach to foreign policy. On paper, Waeli, as a government official, is a friend of the US and Maliki and a ally in the fight against insurgents and Iran. In reality, he is an opportunist who has made millions off of oil smuggling and overseen the transformation of Basra from relatively liberal (for the Middle East) into a Shiite fundamentalist city indicative of Iranian influence throughout eastern and southern Iraq.

Even as Maliki and the US forces must concern themselves with insurgents from the street, they must also battle officials like Waeli who have carved out a profitable niche and will be reluctant to give it up in favor of political reconciliation. Waeli is an indication of the realities facing the country as a whole, a vast, diverse collection of power centers resistant to becoming part of a united whole. The number of US troops in Iraq has little bearing on solving that core issue.

If the past week has been an illustration of anything, it's that McCain is trying to make up for lost time by showing that he has the ability to grasp the intricacies of real-world conflicts and put away his past reliance on blanket statements and assessments of good versus evil. Unfortunately for him, every time he rolls out a new theory, facts and history shoot it down rather hastily.


McCain's Foreign Policy Illiteracy, July 22
Iraq Withdrawal: Clutching at Straws, July 22

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George Bush, Caped Crusader

Many thoughts passed through my mind as I watched The Dark Knight, but certainly not among those was the idea that real-world person Batman most resembles is President Bush.

A cry for help goes out from a city beleaguered by violence and fear: A beam of light flashed into the night sky, the dark symbol of a bat projected onto the surface of the racing clouds . . .

Oh, wait a minute. That's not a bat, actually. In fact, when you trace the outline with your finger, it looks kind of like . . . a "W."


Andrew Klaven offers up this gem which leads me to believe he wasn't watching the same movie: "Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course, even on their own terms."

If there was one prevailing theme to the movie, it was precisely the opposite of Klaven's suggestion. Indeed, the film is a 150-minute lesson in the ambiguities of morality, that it is in no way simplistic. Even if Klaven drifted off for half of the film he could have caught enough to form a cogent opinion, but alas the readers of the Wall Street Journal were not so lucky.

To adopt Klaven's surface scratching, yes Batman roughs up the Joker and builds a high-tech spy apparatus -- apparently in a day or so, no less -- which would make ACLU members hemorrhage out of their ears, but Klaven ignores another significant character in the movie, the Joker.

For his part, the violet avenger portrays a character much closer to our dear leader, specifically in his ploy to prove the lowest can be brought out in everyone. It is the Joker who employs the Bush tactic of divide-and-conquer by pitting a ferry full of 'innocents' against one full of convicts in an attempt to elicit an LCD reaction.

Here Batman plays the role of Klaven's villains, 'leftists,' by showing to the Joker that even two groups who should be natural enemies can resist the lure of evil, not by engaging in it themselves, but by refusing to be brought down to the level of their puppet master. Picture a boat full of Midwesterners and another full of Iranians.

Further crushing Klaven's thesis is the Joker's continual taunting of Batman, saying that he will fail because he "lacks the courage to do what is necessary." That is, unlike Bush, Batman has rules which he won't break, rules the Joker is not bound by. For Klaven to be proven right, Batman and his scruples would have to fail. Needless to say, that does not happen.

Furthermore, at the start of the climactic scene, instead of Batman rushing in to save hostages, the SWAT teams would have started firing and killed the hostages, thus promoting Klaven's favored route of "invade first, ask questions later."

The only thing even approaching support of Klaven's thesis is the few boundaries Batman pushes in his pursuit of the Joker. The Joker, however, most closely resembles President Bush's desire to pit people against each other, making mortal enemies out of purely unrelated groups to serve his interests and further his own pleasure. The Joker's cause is furthered by fear throughout, and that is a parallel that can be drawn without half the effort Klaven employs in trying to drag a promotion of Bush policies out of a Summer blockbuster.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tangible Evidence of McCain's Foreign Policy Illiteracy

Pointing out every gaffe and misstep along the campaign trail doesn't particularly interest me, but as the one contained in John McCain's interview with Katie Couric today speaks volumes about his lack of basic understanding in Iraq I'll break my own (unwritten) rule.

As I've said before, pointing to the "success" of the Surge is a tactic employed purely out of a desire to wipe discussion of the initial decision to invade Iraq from polite discourse, for obvious reasons. As Obama and others, including myself, understand, there were numerous factors to the drop in violence in Iraq, and the drop itself preceded the Surge by several months.

One of these factors was the Sunni Awakening, a resistance to AQI activities in Anbar province aided by both American funds and a legitimate frustration with militant actions. John McCain tried to tie this together today, at long last.

Couric: Senator McCain, Sen. Obama says, while the increased number of U.S. troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also credits the Sunni awakening and the Shiite government going after militias. And says that there might have been improved security even without the surge. What's your response to that?

McCain: I don't know how you respond to something that is such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel McFarlane (phonetic) was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening. I mean, that's just a matter of history.

McCain apparently thinks the last clause seals all debate, but alas, history is indeed set on the timeline here: The Anbar Awakening was declared in progress in September of 2006, two months before the subject of escalation was even broached and fore before the President's State of the Union in which it was announced. The Sunni Awakening is indeed a matter of history, Mr. McCain, just not your version. As Juan Cole explains, few Surge troops ever made it to Anbar:

The casualty figures dropped in al-Anbar, where few extra US troops were ever sent. They dropped in Basra, from which the British withdrew. Something happened. Putting it all on 30,000 extra troops seems a stretch. And what about all the ethnic cleansing and displacing of persons that took place under the nose of the "surge?"

Before the Surge, the US still had more than 100,000 soldiers (not counting private mercenaries) in Iraq, to say that 30,000 more were solely responsible for pacifying the entire country flies in the face of credulity. It's simply not plausible that other factors -- the Awakening, the Mahdi Army cease fire to name a couple -- did not play a role.

Here again McCain illustrates rather clearly that his reputation regarding foreign policy bears little resemblance to his actual grasp of the subject. Mistaking which country borders which (Iraq-Pakistan) or mentioning the name of a country that no longer exists (Czechoslovakia) are generic missteps that don't add up in the long run. Exhibiting a continual failure to grasp even the most obvious realities and enduring lack of historical literacy, however, paint a much broader picture. Namely, that John McCain's entire foreign policy rests on his ability to talk tough and pray that nobody asks him to explain anything.

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Iraq Withdrawal: Clutching at Straws

Every so often politics and entertainment collide to provide us with a brief moment of brevity in a sea of morose inanity, and Nouri al Maliki's recent comments regarding the withdrawal of American troops have provided us with just such a moment. Given the mileage John McCain has tried to get out of his unwavering support for an unending occupation of Iraq, it was not surprising that he instantly played offense, predictably suggesting that al Maliki's comments were mistranslated.

But, as facts so often do, they made him look more ludicrous than before. Just as McCain forgets that there's a record of his statements regarding the countless issues he's taken a 180 on, he also fell victim to the suspicion that there would be no tape of the interview in question. Of course there was, and it said precisely what Der Spiegel reported it did. Making matters worse, the translator used was Maliki's own, further plunging McCain down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

The tactic is familiar. Something comes out that presents a slap in the face to the entire Bush/McCain worldview and the wheels take motion, sowing the seeds of doubt in the form of ludicrous accusations of mistranslation or even leading poll questions. How else would greater than 80 percent of the Iraqi population want US forces out if not for the work of a mischievous (or worse, liberal!) pollster?

Other supporters of interminable war don't have to use even as little tact as McCain must employ for appearance's sake, John Derbyshire, for instance.

We should tell Maliki, loudly and in public, that he owes his job to us, and that further prosecution of our military operations in his country will be conducted with regard only to U.S. interests, as determined in consensus by our established domestic political processes. And if he doesn't like that, he can go to hell.

God bless democracy.

Derbyshire's argument, insofar as it exists at all, seems to be that al Maliki mistakenly believes himself to be the sovereign, elected leader of Iraq, when in fact he is Bush's appointed administrator for the American Protectorate of Iraqsburg. It's refreshing, though, that the intellectual stalwarts who've supported the disaster from the beginning have given up on all pretense, saving everyone the trouble of ignoring it.

Brevity aside, the last week spells certain disaster for McCain on nearly every front. His entire campaign is premised on the fact that he is 'right' on Iraq, although it has been exhaustively shown that even that concept is a farce, and precisely antithetical to reality. Maliki calling for withdrawal within a short time leaves McCain with absolutely nothing to stand on. After attempts to downplay Maliki's comments failed, they were shown to be accurate and several more Iraqi officials repeated much the same. McCain finds himself on an island concerning the central theme to his campaign, and given that, everything else falls away.

McCain can try as hard as he wants to paint Maliki's demands as "conditions based" like his own, but that only solidifies the reality that even that call means absolutely nothing, as he has yet to define what any of these conditions are or what the victory they may accompany. What is becoming increasingly clear is that although McCain is long on years and supposed to be the foreign policy expert, when it comes to actually offering anything of tangible value in the international arena he falls short. In addition to a myopic focus on Iraq, McCain has exhibited no signs of having even the slightest understanding of the variables that affect world politics, and the Maliki debacle is only the most recent in a long line of events showcasing those failures.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Afghanistan: Right War or No, It's Still War

In comparison to the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan represents the lesser of two evils in the minds of many. Faced with pulling out of the unpopular Iraq, American leaders and the public are left with a search for a place to send American forces that doesn't include home, and have settled on Afghanistan, painting it as the "right war." On the surface, the phrase seems direct enough. The perpetrators of the WTC attacks reside along its borders, not in oil-rich Iraq. That reality, though, has succeeded in wiping from the national discourse the fact that "right" or not, Americans and Afghanis are still dying in ever-increasing numbers while NATO and American forces achieve absolutely nothing strategically.

Terrorism, like Communism before it, presents the ruling class with an easy target, a blanket phraseology which can easily be transferred from one enemy to the next in order to stoke the militaristic fires that burn just below the surface of any true American patriot. What American leaders then and now have failed to do, however, is to provide any tangible method to deal with the root causes of either. Whether it's mistaking any liberal, nationalist movement in Latin America as the manifestation of a Moscow-directed assault on America or interpreting every attempt to secure profits from natural resources for their home countries as terrorism in the Middle East, the US is quick to paint each as a form of extremism that must be met with force.

Never is it considered that peasants in Guatemala should be more than slaves for American merchants or that Iraqi oil money should help rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure destroyed by the US invasion. To do so would be to broach the unmentionable. Yet even those who oppose the scenario of a dictatorial US presence on the world stage on the face of it have no problem supporting interventions abroad, so long as they're the "right" wars.

It is this framing that has allowed supporters of Obama's foreign policy to look past the reality of what he is calling for in Afghanistan: the maintenance of the status quo ante, consisting of mounting death tolls for Afghani civilians and NATO forces alike, as well as supporting the militaristic goals of the Pakistani government vis-a-vis India, all the while accomplishing nothing of tangible scale.

As I've said before, the issue of Pakistan is not a minor one. What Obama is implicitly suggesting with his pledge for more troops is not that he's sending more troops to Afghanistan, but that he will cease to observe the territorial claims of Pakistan. The only way for NATO and the US to fight the Taliban/al Qaeda stronghold in the region is to launch cross-border attacks into Pakistan, which, far from calming the situation, will only bring more variables into the equation and stoke more nationalist opposition among the Pakistani public, 64 percent of which already view the US as Pakistan's biggest threat.

As Secretary of Defense Gates stated last week, "we cannot kill or capture our way to victory." For all his shiny rhetoric, Obama still embodies the century-old American tradition of carrying a "big stick." If a century of coups and regime change have taught us anything, its that resentment doesn't die with titular heads of state or leaders of individual factions. If there is one thing that Americans excel at on the world stage, it's slow learning.

Obama gets a pass for his opposition to the unpopular Iraq occupation, but also because Americans are still conditioned to think that world is dying for a leader in the US. Afghanis or Pakistanis don't want the US to be a leader any more than Americans want Canadians dictating the facets of a good healthcare system to them. Despite his opposition to the Iraq debacle, Obama still embodies this fallacy, still clings to the cookie-cutter vision Americans hold of the rest of the word, one in which a homogeneous set of principles and traits can simply be superimposed over any population with a good degree of accuracy.

It is precisely the American practice of failing to understand even the basic principles of what populations in lands US citizens can't find on a map desire or need. For most, it's the desire for the US to stop trying to help them. Iraqis are less than enthused about the Americans showing the oil ministry how to funnel oil money westward, Pakistanis seem just fine with the residents of the FATA if polls are any indication, and Afghans would love to be able to attend a wedding without NATO ordinance raining down on them.

The logical conclusion of Obama's Afghanistan policy is centered on Islamabad more than Kabul, which means that it's even more far-reaching than the Bush policy. Even if he hasn't expressed it explicitly, Obama is calling for an end to deferring to Pakistani sovereignty in the FATA region. He is declaring in clear, even if unstated, terms to the Musharraf government that if it doesn't pursue the Taliban, the US has no qualms about stepping in. What he is proposing is more of the same, more "you're either with us or against us." Far from a return to a state of US foreign policy that hasn't existed since the late 19th Century, Obama has declared that US interventionism is alive and well, with a slight toning down in Iraq. (He plans to keep plenty of troops there, which might be an issue if any American journalist cared to inquire.)

Where Obama differs from McCain is in his ability to tie different foreign policy arenas together. Where McCain exhibits a sometimes bumbling failure to grasp the interconnectedness of US policy abroad (the issues page of his website doesn't even have a foreign policy section, just Iraq), Obama is adept at dressing the status quo up in a shinier package. The American voter has thus far been codified, but the rest of the world has always held a more accurate assessment of US foreign policy than Americans themselves.


Surge II: Afghanistan, July 15
Obama Would Keep Lawless Contractors in Iraq, March 3
Foreign Policy Redux, June 25

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Maliki's Comments Bring Out McCain's True Thoughts on Iraqi Sovereignty

If the Bush/McCain position on the American presence in Iraq showed signs of weakening earlier this week with the announcement of the made-up concept of a 'time horizon,' then Maliki's comments to Der Spiegel yesterday indicating that he'd like American forces out sooner rather than later signals that supporters of an indefinite US presence may be in their "last throes," to borrow a phrase. While most of the focus has been on the fact that Maliki endorsed Obama's position, even if he was unwilling to inject himself in the American elections (though the favor is unlikely to be returned), the most important aspect of the exchange to me is the absolute disdain McCain shows in his responses for Iraqi sovereignty.

McCain's response to all previous efforts of Maliki to assert his independence, whether regarding opposition to the Iraq SOFA or US troop withdrawals has been a mixture of indignation and an offensive against Iraqi sovereignty. At nearly every turn, McCain has said something along the lines of "Maliki's just a politician, so his comments can be dismissed." Of course, McCain is also a politician, but with the added bonus of currently seeking the highest elected office in his country. Still no word from McCain on dismissing his own statements as mere electioneering.

McCain sealed his opposition to Iraqi sovereignty with his response to the most recent revelations, saying "[Maliki’s] domestic politics require him to be for us getting out. The military says 'conditions based' and Maliki said 'conditions based' yesterday in the joint statement with Bush. Regardless, voters care about [the] military, not about Iraqi leaders." [This was a campaign official, not McCain himself.]

American voters may not care about Iraqi leaders, but American officials are under obligation to do so. The entire Iraq enterprise was premised on the fact that "we were doing the Iraqis a favor." To stand now in direct opposition to the wishes of the Iraqi government is to declare conclusively that the invasion was indeed an American economic and political operation from the start. Not that there was ever any real doubt, but the facade gets harder to maintain with each passing day.

The whole episode is proof positive of where America's commitment to democracy begins and ends. When Iraqi democracy serves as a pipeline to funnel oil money back to the West and a vehicle for supplying a playground for private contractors drunk with tax payer funds, it is a welcome addition to the world scene. When Iraqi democracy begins to serve as a vehicle for serving the will of the Iraqi people to the detriment of the public positions of American elected officials, it becomes disposable.

Much of the focus has been over the differences between the positions of Obama and McCain, but that sniping misses the real point. The only position that matters is that of the Iraqis. The US engaged in Iraq to bring them democracy, or so our leaders told us, now it's time for us to live up to our promises.


When a Guest Becomes a Squatter
, June 15
The Iraq 'Time Horizon,' July 18

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Democrats Call Republicans' Bluff on Drilling

The past month has seen President Bush throw his pet project of removing the ban on drilling for oil on the OCS into every speech, no matter the topic. The implication is always the same: that gas prices are high because those mean Democrats in Congress won't remove the ban on drilling, and have nothing at all to do with Phil Gramm's work to leave the energy futures market completely devoid of even the barest of regulations. As I have written several times, oil companies already own leases on 68 million acres on which to drill, but they have thus far declined to do so. And why wouldn't they? They're pulling in obscene profits and have no incentive to supply more oil to the market.

Faced with the constant drumbeat and accusations, House Democrats on Thursday called the Republicans' bluff, attempting to introduce a bill which would force the oil companies to drill on the land they already have. The implication is clear: the President's call for drilling has nothing to do with lowering oil prices and everything to do to twisting a perceived crisis into a shiv to cut away all obstacles to his master plan.

Republicans, immune to rational thought as they are, promptly defeated the proposal, attempting to convince anyone who would listen that all 68 million of the acres in question were "dry holes."

I'm no lover of Democrats, but in this instance they clearly illustrated where the real agenda of the Republicans lies. And it's not with poor grandma struggling to fill the tank on her Suburban.


Pure Speculation, June 12
More Erroneous Responses to High Oil Prices, June 21

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Bushian Rhetoric in Action: Iraq Pullout

Remember kids: A 'timetable' for withdrawal of American troops, bad. A 'time horizon' for the same, good. It may seem a semantic argument to most of us, but in the bi-polar reality of American politics the difference becomes amplified by virtue of from whence it emanates. That is, whether the speaker is branded with an 'R' or a 'D.'

President Bush agreed to “a general time horizon” for withdrawing American troops in Iraq, the White House announced Friday, in a concession that reflected both progress in stabilizing Iraq and the depth of political opposition to an open-ended military presence in Iraq and at home.

Combined with the admission of the true state of Afghanistan, the administration is slowly vindicating the opinions of those it has shouted down and stonewalled for the last five years, even if it is hesitant to admit it.

The suggestion of troop withdrawal presents itself as the administration's admission of the flailing status of negotiations over the long-term presence it was attempting to foist onto Iraq, which was more prepared for the onslaught than Bush had hoped. I have documented the details of that agreement in some depth. As per usual, the administration would never frame it as such, but the truth can easily be inferred, a practice which everyone should be well acquainted with by now.

The article cited presents its own frustrations, namely the nasty habit of our stenographer press to instantly parrot whatever meaningless term the administration bestows upon something to blur its true meaning. In a country with an ostensibly free press, one would assume that journalists would be capable of replacing the term 'time horizon' with 'timetable' so as not to play the administration's hand for them. It's obvious why the administration would avoid the latter term, as they have consistently called anyone in support of it cowards or worse. The press, however, is under no obligation to adhere to the administration's semantic gamesmanship.

This tactic has been seen in the past, both in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and after, most recently when every journalist began using the term 'special groups,' on precisely the same day the administration gave them their cue so as to blur the lines between the Iranian-backed Shiite militias we oppose and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias we support. Americans have been granted a free press by the Constitution. The next step is to find journalists who care to exercise that right. The government can do its own dissembling, it doesn't need a complicit press for aid.


Iraq SOFA: Out on the Curb?
, July 14
When a Guest Becomes a Squatter, June 15
Testimonial Vindication, April 8

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Electrical Risks Worse Than Previously Admitted

Back in May, I wrote about the electrical risks posed to American soldiers by the shoddy (sub)contracting work done by Vice-Presidential-Favorite-Son KBR, former subsidiary of Halliburton, noting that the company had been warned of the risk of death as far back as 2004. In spite of the warnings, KBR did nothing to improve conditions and thus cost the lives of several American soldiers.

As was standard practice with most contracts subsidized by the tax payers in Iraq, the work was contracted out to imported, low-wage laborers from the Philippines and elsewhere. The practice, in addition to depriving several soldiers of their lives, avoided employing Iraqis and thus fueled economic unrest and by extension added to the insurgency. That KBR was directly responsible for the deaths of Americans, was warned of the danger for several years, and has not faced any repercussions other than still more contracts is infuriating enough, but now comes word that the extent of the danger was grossly understated.

Shoddy electrical work by private contractors on United States military bases in Iraq is widespread and dangerous, causing more deaths and injuries from fires and shocks than the Pentagon has acknowledged, according to internal Army documents.

During just one six-month period — August 2006 through January 2007 — at least 283 electrical fires destroyed or damaged American military facilities in Iraq, including the military’s largest dining hall in the country, documents obtained by The New York Times show. Two soldiers died in an electrical fire at their base near Tikrit in 2006, the records note, while another was injured while jumping from a burning guard tower in May 2007.

And while the Pentagon has previously reported that 13 Americans have been electrocuted in Iraq, many more have been injured, some seriously, by shocks, according to the documents. A log compiled earlier this year at one building complex in Baghdad disclosed that soldiers complained of receiving electrical shocks in their living quarters on an almost daily basis.

The shoddy work was "the most urgent noncombat safety hazard for soldiers in Iraq, according to an Army survey issued in February 2007." Despite posing the greatest noncombat risk to soldiers, KBR remains at large, so to speak, free to continue not only below-mediocre work but to continue bilking tax payers and harboring its money and personnel in offshore tax havens.

The situation is not one that can be dismissed in "everyone makes mistakes" fashion. Rather, the failure to supply adequate wiring is a systematic problem for KBR, one which stems directly from its habit of hiring poorly-trained, cheap laborers and endemic refusal to respond to warnings about the threats posed by its work. If the US is searching out all those with American blood on their hands, it might start with KBR.


KBR Was Warned About Electrical Danger in 2004, May 6

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Torture: Truth and Consequences

Stuart Taylor has a piece in the upcoming issue of Newsweek suggesting that President Bush pardon everyone in his administration who might be held liable for war crimes sometime in the future. (Well, he puts quote marks around war crimes because, you know, that's all it takes to cast doubt on their occurrence.) Actually, despite the scare quotes, Taylor quickly admits that war crimes have occurred, saying "dark deeds have been conducted in the name of the United States government in recent years: the gruesome, late-night circus at Abu Ghraib, the beating to death of captives in Afghanistan, and the officially sanctioned waterboarding and brutalization of high-value Qaeda prisoners."

Given that admission, one might imagine he would support the imposition of consequences for those in the government who violated nearly every statute on the books, both domestic and international, in regards to treatment of detainees. One would be wrong.

It's a bad idea. In fact, President George W. Bush ought to pardon any official from cabinet secretary on down who might plausibly face prosecution for interrogation methods approved by administration lawyers. (It would be unseemly for Bush to pardon Vice President Dick Cheney or himself, but the next president wouldn't allow them to be prosecuted anyway—galling as that may be to critics.)

Yes, a President pardoning himself would be a tad "unseemly." Stronger adjectives could certainly be used as well. Why would Taylor, who readily admits crimes have been committed, warn against prosecution, you ask?

The reason for pardons is simple: what this country needs most is a full and true accounting of what took place. The incoming president should convene a truth commission, with subpoena power, to explore every possible misdeed and derive lessons from it. But this should not be a criminal investigation, which would only force officials to hire lawyers and batten down the hatches.

Pardons would further a truth commission's most important goals: to uncover all important facts, identify innocent victims to be compensated, foster a serious conversation about what U.S. interrogation rules should be, recommend legal reforms, pave the way for appropriate apologies and restore America's good name. The goals should not include wrecking the lives of men and women who made grievous mistakes while doing dirty work—work they had been advised by administration lawyers was legal, and which they believed was necessary to prevent terrorist mass murder.

No telling how we would respond if we thought the administration was being less than forthcoming. Taylor's argument here is absurd on its face. For one thing, nearly all of the things he contends would come out of an obfuscation commission have already made their appearance. There has already been plenty of discussion of the administrations policies, the interrogation rules were already in place whether they were ignored or not, and apologies doesn't bring back lives and reputation. If it's America's good name he's after, it is highly doubtful that the families of the men who died as a result of US custody will be quick to forgive, nor will denizens of the Mideast who see the War on Terror as a 21st-Century Crusade (a term which Bush himself has applied to it, remarkably.) If Taylor is dying for apologies, his argument breaks down by considering prosecution and apologies - whatever they're worth - mutually exclusive.

Following Taylor's logic, if a man broke into his house, robbed him and harmed his family he would seek only an apology as retribution. Any attempt to prosecute the culprit would simply cause him to "batten down the hatches" and the whole truth might not come out.

If the last seven years have taught Taylor anything, it's that the way to find the truth is not through the administration. Repeatedly, the government has denied every accusation only to modify its stance once the truth became apparent. Why, then, would a truth commission prove any different? The facts regarding torture are readily available, and the question of their legality has been answered many times over.

So-called "truth commissions" are of course common practice of American governance, and undertaken precisely because they arrive completely devoid of consequences, allowing the perpetrators to return a couple administrations later to do it all over again. Many of those in the Bush administration are veterans of the Nixon administration, and despite the Church Commission's findings, have revitalized the lawless Presidency. No matter how many times support for dictatorial coups or funneling illegal arms through Enemies of the State are exposed, "truth commissions" ensure that those actions will continue. A slap on the hand would be deemed too harsh an outcome.

If it's America's reputation that Taylor is after, he would be wise to support the imposition of consequences. It is precisely this tactic of never admitting or altering wrongdoing that is responsible for that reputation in the first place. If he wants to improve America's standing, he could start by pushing for America to show the rest of the world that we don't think we're above the law. We toss bellicose rhetoric around the globe with reckless abandon at those who violate any rule or agreement, yet we expect the world to stand aside as we violate every statute on the books banning mistreatment of detainees. Or we demand that the private mercenaries we subsidize face no prosecution for the outright murder of unarmed Iraqis.

Asking the US to subject itself to the same rules it imposes on everyone else isn't anti-American. It's a rational expectation of fair practice. Setting up a committee to enumerate to the world all that we've done wrong and ensuring that nothing will be punished or change will only erode America's reputation further.


Tortured Logic, April 14
Down Is the New Up, April 25
Trickle-Down Responsibility, May 9

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John McCain: Bluster More Important Than Results

As evidenced by the firestorm over General Clark's comments suggesting that military service alone doesn't classify one to be President - seemingly a self-evident truth, but you wouldn't know it from the response - the presumption that McCain's time in the Hanoi Hilton somehow mitigates the fact that he has demonstrated a distinct lack of basic comprehension in the foreign policy arena persists. Like George Bush, McCain substitutes a qualitative, fundamental understanding of the real world for a fantasy world full of bluster and posturing, all the while given a pass by the media and the public.

In a country which sought an actual examination of proposals and results on the campaign trail, this errant nature would be seen for what it is and discarded hastily. But in the world of the low-information voter, Americans are blinded by the uniformed past and ignore the disastrous results of McCain's ideas when acted upon.

McCain constantly demonstrates his dearth of knowledge by conflating al Qaeda with every source of resistance and continually suggesting that Iran's influence is entirely unwanted and consigned only to America's enemies. The reality is well-documented and provides a stark contrast to McCain's rhetoric.

As I said while examining Obama's proposals for Afghanistan, the Surge has become a red herring in the discussion of Iraq, used as a way of directing attention away from the first four years of the war and focusing it on a short period where violence began to return to a point still obscene and still of US origin. By pointing to the Surge, McCain and his allies have effectively eliminated any and all discussion of the initial tragedy of the decision to invade Iraq. Now McCain and the White House are trying to parlay that tactical and PR success into a winning argument concerning Afghanistan.

Only when given the free pass on foreign policy that McCain is because of his previous service could he avoid the obvious question that should follow his recent proposal to send more troops to Afghanistan: Where have you been? While everyone else has been screaming from the mountaintops that the situation is swiftly deteriorating, McCain has remained silent, merely repeating his call to stay in Iraq until victory arrived. And because he never defined what that meant, he was able to declare just that on Thursday.

I repeat my statement that we have succeeded in Iraq. Not we are succeeding. We have succeeded in Iraq.

This of course allows him to justify paying a little bit of attention to Afghanistan, as everyone has been pleading for months while he fiddled. But McCain's hands are far from clean on the narco state. When it was suggested in 2003 that Iraq might present a distraction - which it clearly has - McCain simply said that the US could "muddle through Afghanistan." Well, the returns are in on that "muddling," and they aren't pretty. Again, in a reality-based world, this blatant lack of foresight, in tandem with his marginalization of those who were actually correct in their assessment, would be met with real consequences. But McCain bears the scarlet 'R,' so that possibility is out.

McCain is allowed to keep perpetrating his shtick, saying he "knows how to win wars," despite all evidence proving precisely the opposite.

Although he chastises Obama for not "having a strategy," McCain offers up a strategy that points yet again to his complete failure to properly assess even the most apparent realities of the foreign policy arena. His strategy calls for an increase in the size of the Afghan military funded by other countries. This plan ignores entirely the fact that other countries have abandoned the Afghanistan effort precisely because of the Iraq War, a war that McCain has championed since the Nineties. He has also called for more NATO troops, again disregarding Robert Gates' trip earlier this year in search of just that which came up empty.

McCain also promised to capture Osama bin Laden, which is odd given his statement in 2002 on Face the Nation that bin Laden's capture wasn't "that important."

To suggest that McCain's foreign policy proposals should be examined on their merits rather than his past sporting of a uniform is not a denigration of service in general. It is a rational approach to campaign procedure which implies that the results of one's ideas should have at least some bearing on one's reputation. If that were the case, McCain's reputation in the foreign arena would be irreparably damaged, as he has shown with tremendous clarity at every juncture of the Bush years to be completely void of even a fundamental understanding of the real world. In a world governed by results rather than bluster, the fact that those who disagreed with McCain have be proven right at nearly every turn would begin to wear on the man's political stature.

But as it stands, facts have taken a back seat to conventional wisdom. It doesn't matter how many times McCain's policies prove to be an utter failure, he'll still have an 'R' next to his name, and in America that means never having to admit errors, even as they continuously knock you between the eyes.


Surge II: Afghanistan, July 15
Calling Their Shots, March 20
Changing the Rules of the Game, April 1
Fences Make Good Neighbors, April 11

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Robert Gates: A Beacon of Reason in a Sea of Madness

**Update Appended 7/17 @ 1900**

Though statements like the ones Secretary of Defense Gates made recently warning of "creeping militarism" in American foreign policy would have set off a Cat-5 storm and resulted in collective gnashing of teeth if Barack Obama had uttered them, they are worth noting simply for their imposition of a rare, even if fleeting, incursion of reason on the body politic. Gates, in the process, has just earned himself a new nickname from his boss: Fredo.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned yesterday against the risk of a "creeping militarization" of U.S. foreign policy, saying the State Department should lead U.S. engagement with other countries, with the military playing a supporting role.

"We cannot kill or capture our way to victory" in the long-term campaign against terrorism, Gates said, arguing that military action should be subordinate to political and economic efforts to undermine extremism.

This of course is obvious to plenty of people with a resume less impressive than Gates, but still remains almost entirely absent from the foreign policy discussion. What Gates understands is that in fighting 'terrorism,' the US is not fighting a definite enemy. Terrorism is a tactic, not a foe. It's easy to pin terms like 'Islamofascism' on it, but those do nothing to address the core cause of terrorism itself. No matter how many 'enemy combatants' the US detains and/or tortures, the root causes of militancy remain. Truly, "we cannot kill or capture our way to victory."

The root causes are not difficult to ascertain, with that ever-present 'militarism' of American foreign policy having a share in it, as well as the economic devastation in many regions of the world. Though the US may capture thousands of 'enemy combatants,' the economic and nationalistic reasons for terrorism remain, and until our leaders begin to address that core, terrorism will survive.

"America's civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long -- relative to what we traditionally spend on the military, and more importantly, relative to the responsibilities and challenges our nation has around the world," Gates said at a dinner organized by the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, according to prepared remarks of his speech.

Over the next 20 years, Gates predicted, "the most persistent and potentially dangerous threats will come less from emerging ambitious states, than from failing ones that cannot meet the basic needs -- much less the aspirations -- of their people."

In my estimation, a significant effort on the part of the Western World to lift up the economies of the Middle East and elsewhere would go much further toward achieving the goals of the War on Terror than a thousand bunker busters or cluster bombs ever will. Given an outlet other than poverty, the reasons for militancy will begin to fade away.

History is full of examples of economic devastation leading to militancy, as it is far from a new phenomenon. When populations face economic devastation, natural instinct causes them to seek out a scapegoat, and nationalism grows exponentially. The rise of Hitler in the 30s cannot be divorced from the obscene levels of inflation in Weimar Germany.

When I speak of economic aid, it's important to stress that it must differ from the aid we've offered in the past. Typically, loans to foreign countries come with stipulations that they privatize their entire system, gut their government, and allow multinational companies to take nearly all of the profits back home. In other words, the aid never gets to, and often worsens the prospects of, the people it's meant to help. The West must provide the populations at large in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan an opportunity for economic success, on their own terms and with the proceeds benefiting the target country.

Obviously this only begins to scratch the surface, but until more leaders like Gates are willing to accept that terrorism is a tactic that has root causes and stems from a discernible set of circumstances, there is no possibility of stemming the tide.


My mistake, Obama has said something similar. Commence the gnashing of teeth.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What Iraqi Democracy Looks Like

*Update Appended, 7/16 @ 1100*

As I've said before, the only (publicly stated) rationale for the invasion of Iraq still on the table is the drive to establish a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, if only because its the only one not definitively disprovable by facts. (Wherever tangible reality meets the Bush worldview, the latter is brutally swept aside.) That said, there has been scant discussion of the probable outcome of the exercise in Iraqi democracy.

John McCain has made a living out of saying the US must stay in Iraq until 'victory' occurs, though a definition of victory seems perpetually elusive for him. Now Obama, in his desire to slink his way ever closer to McCain in the foreign policy arena has declared that victory is imminent. Yet, like McCain, Obama's vision of victory is founded on a set of circumstances clearly contradicted by facts on the ground (forgive the cliche).

For Mr. Obama, that status quo is close to what he is now calling "victory." In his speech yesterday, he said, "True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future — a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the Al Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge. That is an achievable goal if we pursue a comprehensive plan to press the Iraqis to stand up."

Suggesting that a democratic exercise in Iraq would "prevent sectarian conflict" is not a goal to be taken lightly, as the power struggles surrounding elections exacerbate sectarian tensions as much as they quell them. Whereas McCain offers the promise of victory without definition, Obama counters with a vision of success fatally wedded to circumstances not likely to appear.

I've alluded to the tenuous state of the upcoming provincial elections in previous posts, indicating that much of Maliki's recent pushes in Basra, Sadr City and elsewhere have been thinly-veiled power plays meant to affect the results of those elections. Marc Lynch examines other aspects in more detail here:

It appears that the long-anticipated Iraqi Parliament vote on a law governing the provincial elections scheduled for the beginning of October has been postponed until Thursday and probably longer. Parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani postponed discussions after the Kurds walked out in protest over the treatment of Kirkuk; leaders from the Shia UIA were reportedly huddling with their Kurdish partners in the governing coalition, trying to reach an agreement on how to proceed.

This isn't a great shock: the government had submitted a multiple-choice draft for the Parliament to debate, leaving the most contentious issues unresolved. It didn't seem likely that the divided and contentious Parliament would quickly arrive at a consensus which eluded Maliki's relatively tight ruling Shia-Kurd coalition....

The issues raised by the provincial election law cut to the heart of competing visions of Iraq's political future. Kurds are fuming over the plans for voting in Kirkuk, which they feel might prejudice the future of the contested area (the three official Kurdish provinces will almost certainly not take part at all in the provincial elections). The question of open vs closed lists may seem technocratic, but will have major implications for voting: many people think that (for better or worse) closed lists strengthen the role of parties at the expense of individual candidates and could heighten the salience of sectarian appeals.

Clearly, more than a few issues, with many of the contentious issues promising to stoke sectarian strife rather than soften the blow, as Obama hopes. As it stands, Iraq is not a centralized government, but a collection of different concentrations of power, a situation not likely to change as a result of the elections. Part of that relationship is the status of Kirkuk, a city which the Kurds feel should be part of their semi-autonomous region, making the prospect of holding elections there a "thorny subject."

Likewise, the use of closed lists, where voters are only given a choice of parties rather than individual candidates, will almost by definition promote sectarian divides. The Sadrists are also barred from participating as a party, leaving them out completely should closed lists be used, and one can imagine that would have some effect on the Mahdi Army cease fire, which has no small bearing on the so-called "success" of the Surge.

Also receiving little attention is the status of the 5 million displaced Iraqis, victims of the years of ethnic cleansing. Unless the election law allows them to vote in their previous areas of residence, the elections would be a de facto codification of that cleansing. Eric Martin, remarking on Lynch's piece, expresses his pessimistic outlook:

The reason for time's inadequacy as a facilitator of resolution stems from the stubbornness of the convoluted and cross-cutting matrix of conflicts that continue to plague Iraq: various groups of Iraqis are battling to determine the political future of their country (unitary state vs. fragmented state, Islamist vs. secular, etc.), to dictate their roles in it (various ethnic/sectarian groups vying for safety, survival, economic and political power) to determine the level of foreign occupation/involvement (American, Iranian, etc.) and to redress crimes and injustices both recent (5 million internal/external refugees, hundreds of thousands dead, etc.) and historical (Shiite/Kurdish suffering at the hands of Saddam). How does more time to discuss the various positions/demands undo that? The answer is, generally, it doesn't.

If that wasn't problem enough, Saddam's VP made an appearance today, taunting not only Bush, but Muqtada al Sadr and al Qaeda, throwing yet another obstacle in the way of the administration's attempts to paint Iraqi resistance as a homogeneous bloc. The taunts also further exemplify the probability that the provincial elections portend of a powder keg of sectarian tensions.

That, essentially, is what Obama is trying to gloss over in saying success is close at hand, and it's surely an aspect of the Iraqi reality that needs more attention paid to it. Obama sees a future with a less-than-perfect democracy, but he ties that to the supposition that any democracy will temper internal conflict. All available evidence, however, points to precisely the opposite conclusion, a reality that should force Obama to explain just how he plans to avoid it.

Empty platitudes pervade American political discourse, sure, but on issues as significant as the Iraqi elections, the public deserves much more. The last 5 years has been an exercise in trading actual understanding of reality for a strong gale of hollow rhetoric, and if the overwhelming success of that tactic doesn't call for a change of course, nothing will. While Obama's definition of 'success' may be short on specifics, at least he deigns to make an attempt. Thus far, McCain has yet to offer even a token milestone for his goal of 'victory.'


The fighting has begun to materialize, with Kurdish lawmakers protesting on Tuesday. There is virtually no chance of the election happening before the Presidential elections in November, but how much that affects the American enterprise I'm not sure.


The Myth of the Surge, March 27
Changing the Rules of the Game, April 1

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mental Recession or Just Mental?

While Phil Gramm may think Americans are engaged in some macabre game of hide the mortgage check, his friends at the White House seem to think simply wishing the economy in the right direction is a plausible alternative. Bush's speech today was rife with the typical folksy dribble and sincerest regret for misplacing the ever-elusive magic wand. Black magic or no, economic remains a numbers game, and concrete realities have never been Bush's strong suit.

President Bush began Tuesday trying to calm consumers troubled by an increasingly shaky economy, but his words had little effect.

By the end of the day, the Dow had closed at its lowest level in two years, the government reported that prices had jumped at their sharpest pace in 27 years, and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board warned that "significant challenges" lie ahead.

Even the administration's plan to support the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — hurriedly announced over the weekend — didn't stem the tide. Both enterprises saw their stocks drop more than 25 percent.

Truth be told, though, one can understand the indifference of Bush, Gramm and the rest of the free-market crusaders, as they're probably doing just fine. A core principle of Friedmanism is that economic success hits the top rung first, and downturns take out the bottom just the same. Gramm and those like him are free to play chicken with the market, assured that when they get in over their heads the Fed will bail them out. Most Americans don't have that benefit.

Despite Bush's valiant effort to paint a rosy picture, the numbers remain unchanged, and aren't nearly as pretty.

_ Wholesale prices were up 1.8 percent last month, the Labor Department reported. Producer price inflation has grown 9.2 percent in the last year, the fastest since 1981.

_ General Motors Corp., battered by the decline in auto sales, suspended its dividend and announced plans to lay off salaried employees and borrow up to $3 billion.

_ Oil prices fell by $6.64 to about $138 a barrel, as investors became concerned that the slow economy will dampen demand. But the price was still well above year-ago levels.

_ Retail sales were up a scant 0.1 percent in June, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday. Gas prices accounted for all the increase, Vitner said. "You take out gasoline prices and sales were down," he added.

Bush and McCain would also like to apply the principle of willing the country to a good economy to oil production, assuring us that simply opening the OCS will invoke OPEC to lower the price of oil and save us all. The faulty logic inherent in that argument has been pointed out ad nauseum, yet it persists.

To recount just a few things I've enumerated before:

  • Between 1999 and 2007, the number of drilling permits issued for development of public lands increased by more than 361%, yet gasoline prices have also risen dramatically contradicting the argument that more drilling means lower gasoline prices. There is simply no correlation between the two.

  • Oil and gas companies have shown that they cannot keep pace with the rate of drilling permits that the federal government is handing out. In the last four years, the Bureau of Land Management has issued 28,776 permits to drill on public land; yet, in that same time, 18,954 wells were actually drilled. That means that companies have stockpiled nearly 10,000 extra permits to drill that they are not using to increase domestic production.

  • Oil companies are only drilling on 27% of the federal lands leased to them and 24% of the offshore acres, leaving the companies with 68 million acres of leased acreage on which they are not producing oil or gas.

At some point, one would think that our leaders would be called to point to some tangible evidence that their rhetoric has even a brush with reality, but that has yet to happen. Consider that the argument at its core is "if we simply allow the oil companies to drill, oil prices will go down."

Now contrast that with reality: We've allowed the oil companies to drill on 68 million acres and oil prices have gone up exponentially.

The market for the empty rhetoric of Bush and McCain should dry up once it becomes so detached from reality as to be absurd, yet the cavalcade of buffoonery marches on.


Pure Speculation, June 12
McCain, No Stranger to Irony, April 25

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Surge II: Afghanistan

The Surge in Iraq was successful in two respects. First, it did coincide, coincidental or causal I'm not sure, with a drop in violence in Iraq. Second, it injected new life into proponents of the war, who by now have very little to stand on in the way of rational thought. By throwing out the red herring of the Surge, the administration was able to point to its moderate successes as a way of directing attention away from the vast array of failures of its Iraq adventure, failures which persist regardless of the attention paid to them.

Where the Surge failed, however, was in accomplishing its stated goal. The tempering of violence was meant as a vehicle for achieving its true aim, which was stabilization of the government. From the American perspective, this meant allowing Maliki the time to push the undesirable political factions out so that democratic principles could not be applied to them in the upcoming (maybe) provincial elections. While the Surge did witness the return of Sunni politicians to Parliament, Iraq is no closer to ceasing to be a "collection of different fiefdoms controlled by warlords," thus signaling the Surge failed in achieving its central goal.

Luckily for the Bush administration, no one is paying attention to the political front, including the Messiah himself, who this weekend wiped his website clear of criticism of the Surge. Apparently, after 100s of thousands of Iraqis have met their demise, a slower pace over several months and all will be forgiven. Downturn in violence or not, those Iraqis remain deceased and the country's infrastructure remains ashambles, well after the taxpayers granted engineering firms billions to fix it. Pointing to the minor success of the Surge is to disregard all the miserable failures that came before, and to grant the term 'success' to simply a slower pace of devastation seems a misuse of the term.

Both Presidential candidates are so enamored with the blinding PR victory that they're calling for a reprise in Afghanistan, which for anyone paying attention has regressed to the point it was circa October 2001. To Obama's credit, he has continuously pointed to Afghanistan as "the real front in the War on Terror," so his call for 10,000 more troops comes as a natural offshoot of his campaign.

McCain, however, made today his first acceptance of that point, his first attempt to perhaps admit that Iraq never was about terrorism and was always an economic endeavor. This change of direction of course comes only after the administration signaled it was okay by insinuating it may do the same last week.

But spoiling the self-congratulatory party are some pesky facts, differences between the two situations. If the most abject failure of American foreign policy is to apply cookie-cutter policies to the world as if its inhabitants were a homogeneous sample and transposable over any region, both McCain and Obama exhibit similar failures in attempting to apply the same tactics used in Iraq to Afghanistan.

The most glaring difficulty is that the Taliban stronghold they seek to root out is not in Afghanistan, but Pakistan. Thus, regardless of the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan, whether increased by 10 or 50 thousand, the same issue of Pakistani sovereignty exists. The Pakistani government has shown no willingness to allow NATO forces to conduct cross-border raids, so any suggestion that the Surge forces would do so would come as an affront to the wishes of our 'ally.'

Musharraf's hold on power grows weaker by the day, which has led to the Pakistanis remaining lax on raids in the FATA and NWP in order to avoid stoking a fire which might drive him from the seat of government. Allowing NATO to conduct itself in Pakistan with autonomy would surely be unpopular among the populace and put Musharraf in greater peril.

The other wrench thrown into the rhetorical cog is the ISI, Pakistan's Intelligence force. Karzai's government is convinced that the ISI is interfering in his country, and responsible for the attempts on his life as well as several bombings, including the recent bombing of the Indian embassy. In other words, Pakistan is engaging in everything Iran is chastised for in Iraq. These are no small obstacles for McCain or Obama.

Unless the two are willing to address the tangible differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, any suggestions involving a Surge in Afghanistan should be regarded as mere rhetorical flair. Neither has illustrated any effort to address Pakistan's role in the deteriorating situation, and until such time as they do, the Surge is a promise without hope for fulfillment.


Pakistan Stops Fighting Militants
, May 18
Nir Rosen: Iraq a Collection of Fiefdoms, April 5
GAO: US Lacks a Plan in Afghanistan, April 20

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Satire, It's Not for Everyone

I typically recuse myself from the day-to-day inanity of the electoral season, but the vortex spinning around the cover of The New Yorker featuring the Obamas in the Oval Office as caricatures of right-wing fear-mongering campaigns speaks to a larger issue: the regression of intellect in American politics. And despite his claim to represent a abrupt departure from politics-as-usual, the Obama campaign has shown itself willing to lower the bar alongside all the rest.

Beginning with fighting back against the 'elitist' claim emanating from San Francisco, and passing through denunciation of Reverend Wright and the wearing of flag pins, Obama has steadily engaged in regression to the mean, playing into the contrived opposition to an 'elitist' President. Whereas his initial answer to the Reverend Wright controversy, as well as his aversion to hollow symbols of patriotism exhibited a willingness to apply basic intellectual principles to his politics, all actions taken since have played directly into the hands of those who profit from keeping campaigning as low-brow and absent of content as possible.

Republicans have long played off the idea that Americans want a President who's one of us, and strangely enough Americans don't feel the slightest bit patronized by that position, willfully lapping up a President who clears brush on a ranch he bought as a campaign prop and looking with scorn on those effete, intellectual snobs on the left. An outside observer of American politics might very well assume that things should be the other way around.

Enter the most recent issue of The New Yorker, which features a caricature of the various smear campaigns used against the Obamas to paint them as radicals or, worse, some sort of Manchurian candidate sent to sabotage our very system. There's no point in addressing those campaigns on their merits, as anyone swayed by them is not particularly susceptible to rational thought. However, it should have been evident from the outset that the cover was meant as satire, especially given the fact that it graced the cover of a magazine surely no big fan of McCain.

The Obama campaign's response seals its fate as standard political fare:

"The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said.

And with that, Obama stated conclusively that whatever indications he gave in the early campaign season that he was willing to supply the political arena with even the barest of intellectually-robust arguments have fallen aside in favor of the usual hand-wringing and faux outrage.

This is what passes for a campaign season these days. We just bounce back and forth between which surrogate said which stupid thing today, until finally everyone illustrates they're completely incapable of grasping even the most blatant forms of satire. All the while, Iraq, Afghanistan and the American economy still burn.


He Who Speaks for the People, April 17
Newsbusters Loses Its Mind, June 30

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Iraqi SOFA: Out on the Curb?

Even given the enormous and egregious breeches of Iraqi sovereignty that the SOFA the US was trying to force on the Maliki government contained, I must say that I'm surprised--and impressed--that the Iraqis have held up as well as it seems they have, with the Washington Post reporting that a long-term deal may be all but dead.

Really, the only hope Bush and Crocker had of pushing the deal through was without the involvement of either legislature and sans journalistic scrutiny. Once the details of the proposal got out, it was game over. While Bush serves a country with a complacent populace and complicit Congress, Maliki is more beholden to both in his own country. When religious leaders such as al Sistani began coming out in full force against the SOFA, there was no chance he would be able to avoid submission to the legislature, and no chance doing so would result in its adoption.

To recount briefly, the SOFA was essentially a deal wherein the Iraqis would sign up willingly for colonial rule. I say colonial not as a loaded phrase meant to incite, but because under the tenets of the agreement, Iraq would have met every criteria. The US forces would operate completely independent of the Iraqi government, have complete immunity from Iraqi laws, be able to launch attacks from Iraq without notification or permission, and control completely Iraqi airspace. In essence, the exact model of the old British Empire where the Middle East was nominally controlled by locals but was in reality part of British Imperial rule. The British simply found it cheaper to have a third-party do the dirty work.

The SOFA, then, was a signal of how much times have changed. Whereas in Imperial times, the oil was siphoned out without the countries' consent, today the Iraqis are expected to sign their consent for the exact same circumstances. Picture a hangman offering a letter of consent to the condemned while in the noose.

The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord -- blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept U.S. terms and the complexity of the task -- deals a blow to the Bush administration's plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.

The article matter-of-factly blames the failure of the proposal on "the Iraqi refusal to accept US terms," leaving aside any details of those US demands, and for obvious reasons. Those details which are left out, are not simply minor nuances to a larger agreement, but a signing over of Iraqi sovereignty to the US for the indefinite future, not something the Iraqi government, bound by democratic principles, could have signed. The only possibility of success from Bush's perspective, would have been if the Iraqis showed as much disdain for democracy as he does in his own country.

Negotiators expect [the deal] to include a "time horizon," with specific goals for U.S. troop withdrawal from Baghdad and other cities and installations such as the former Saddam Hussein palace that now houses the U.S. Embassy.

The fixed dates will likely include caveats referring to the ability of Iraqi security forces to take over from U.S. units, but without them, U.S. negotiators concluded that Iraqi acquiescence was doubtful. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his political allies have come under intense domestic pressure to reject any perceived infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. Maliki, who last week publicly insisted on a withdrawal timeline, wants to frame the agreement as outlining the terms for "Americans leaving Iraq" rather than the conditions under which they will stay, said the U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because U.S.-Iraqi negotiations are ongoing.

Indeed, Maliki's submission to "domestic pressure" has thrown Bush and McCain for a loop, as they are not sure what a democracy in which the government performs the will of the people looks like.

In effect, Maliki is calling their bluff, as both Bush and McCain have said previously that "when the Iraqis ask us to leave, we'll leave." Now that the time is rapidly approaching, both are scrambling to dissemble, saying that Maliki is "just a politician" and surely wouldn't demand withdrawal before his security forces are ready. That is, before the US has ensured the economic end of the bargain.

The US would also like some more time to influence the October provincial elections, as Maliki still has plenty of work to do before Sadr's faction becomes politically inviable, the unstated goal of his recent pushes in Sadr City and Amara.

The negotiations surrounding the SOFA illustrate quite clearly what the US means by democracy. The tangible disdain that both Bush and McCain have shown for Maliki's willingness to submit his rule to the will of the Iraqi populace indicates that both would prefer a system more like that of the US, where politicians put on a happy face every four years, then spend the inter-nicene period trouncing on the public will. As Dick Cheney infamously quipped, the American public has one chance to voice their opinion, the general election. In between, the country belongs to the victors.

McCain surely knows a thing or two about pandering, but in calling for withdrawal, Maliki is doing no such thing. He is attempting to enforce the will of well over 80 percent of his population. Bush and McCain may call that pandering, but those of us still romantically tied to the events of 1776 call it democracy.


The Iraq SOFA: Not So Comfortable
, June 5
US Holds Iraqi Funds Hostage Over SOFA, June 7
When a Guest Becomes a Squatter, June 15

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Missile Defense: Rehabbing the Cold War

Apparently not content with starting a new Cold War with Iran and Islamist countries in general, the Bush administration is pushing hard for a reprise of the old Cold War through installation of a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. The inclusion of the term 'defense' of course is meant to obfuscate the reality that the sites will include missiles, and thus be fully capable of playing offense just as well.

The posturing began long ago, in Bush's first term, when Congress first established that it would do absolutely nothing to fulfill its Constitutional duties and allow the separation on powers to simply fade into the abyss. In December of 2001, in a move which telegraphed quite transparently the current maneuvers, Bush decided on his own to pull out of the US's 30-year commitment to the ABM treaty with Russia.

"Today I am giving formal notice to Russia that the United States of America is withdrawing from this almost 30-year-old treaty," Bush said in the White House Rose Garden. "I have concluded the ABM treaty hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks."

Under US Code, "treaties to which the United States is a party are equivalent in status to Federal legislation, forming part of what the Constitution calls ‘the supreme Law of the Land.’" So, in withdrawal from the ABM without congressional consultation, Bush was essentially unilaterally striking a law from the books, using his newfound (invented) status as President-at-war powers, which of course would eventually be used to justify everything from war without Congressional declaration to torture. Congress, though, was still in a conciliatory mood only months after the WTC collapse and not about to assert itself on a seemingly minor infraction.

Yet, as we have seen, the administration has out-maneuvered Congress at nearly every turn since, and the last week has begun to bear the fruit of the ABM withdrawal, leaving Russia is none too pleased.

"If the real deployment of an American strategic missile defense shield begins close to our borders, then we will be forced to react not with diplomatic methods, but with military-technical methods," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

In a world governed by principles of universality, US leaders would understand that their response should the roles be reversed would be similar. But, as we know, to suggest that the same rules that the US applies to other countries be applied in turn is sacrilege and anti-American. Not pro-logic or rational, but anti-American. It doesn't put too much of a strain on the imagination to consider what would happen if Russia, say, tried to install missiles on Cuba.

The stoking of the old Cold War flames returns us to the prevailing theory in American politics, namely, that all other countries should have a foreign policy that aims to support US interests rather than protecting their own. Thus, while Bush claims the Czech (and maybe Polish) shield is necessary to protect his own citizens, he declares it unfair for the Russians to see said shields as a threat to the security of their own people.

In the long run, the US is essentially in the process of doing whatever it can to provoke Iran into doing something stupid and provide the US-Israel alliance a justification for attack. All rhetoric aside, these actions still hide the fact that any uranium enrichment being undertaken in Iran is supervised by the IAEA, is legal under the terms of the NPT, and at a level 20 times too low for weaponization.

But, of course, this is all according to plan. By continuously stoking the embers of international animosity, the government is able to provide the populace with an outward enemy. An enemy which requires their quiet ceding of civil rights and provides an imperative of electing yet another administration which will continue down the same path. By directing attention outward, the government ensures that there are enough voters willing to vote against their own self-interests in November and accept quietly the assault on their freedom and pocketbooks.


US Steps Up Covert Action Against Iran, June 29
US Foreign Policy Principles, June 25

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