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March, 2007

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Three Strikes, You're Out

From "Iraq’s Militias: The True Threat to Coalition Success in Iraq", in Parameters, the Army War College's quarterly journal:

But while religious extremism may typify the average insurgent, the biggest threat to American policy is not posed by the jihadist, who in most cases, lacks the ability to organize, effectively train and recruit forces (other than suicide bombers), and has no long-term strategy for generating resources, garnering public support, or achieving realistic strategic goals. The real hazard to American objectives in Southwest Asia comes from armed and active militias who, unlike most insurgents, have served as career soldiers, seized the support of their populace, and, in many cases, infiltrated national government institutions.

Though a form of resistance, militiamen are far different in nature than insurgents or terrorists. In the long-term, militias are most damaging because they weaken government influence by providing unofficial (and effective) security in localized areas using illegal methods. Due to the support they receive from their constituents and the resultant political power they wield, militias can only be neutralized through state-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) initiatives.

Unfortunately, the DDR initiative outlined in the article depends on three components that seem to be lacking in Iraq: the political will to disband the militias, the economic conditions necessary to reintegrate militia members into civilian employment, and the re-establishment of security to obviate the perceived need for "private", non-state security agents.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Adel Hamad

When people call for closing Gitmo, what they're talking about isn't the physical location of the detention facility. They're referring to the "legal" underpinning of the entire terrorist detention system established by the Bush administration. Namely, that by keeping detainees out of American jurisdiction, we can a) submit them to interrogation practices and detention conditions that would be actionable otherwise, and b) deny them the recourse to independent judicial oversight that is the cornerstone of the American legal tradition.

No one's suggesting we shouldn't be detaining dangerous terrorists, or freeing the ones we've already captured. But without legitimate habeas corpus rights for all detainees, those who have been wrongfully detained have no legal safety mechanism to get their stories heard, and become dependent for reprieve on the very institution that detained them in the first place.

The problem isn't the prison. It's the process. Watch this video and you'll understand why.

Via Slate.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The American Pastime

The LA Times has got an op-ed piece on a book coming out tomorrow called Baseball Haiku. Which seems so obvious, once you think about it. I mean, most guys calling a ballgame actually speak in haikus. ("Two out, one man on,/Ninth inning, one-run ballgame./The stretch, the pitch, it's...") It's an artform that's tailor made for the sport, kind of like rap and basketball.

Anyway, they give a bunch of excerpts, including the first baseball haiku ever written, by the inventor of modern Japanese haiku (and "mad-for-the-game left-handed prep school catcher"), Masaoka Shiki, back in 1890. (That's eighteen-ninety.):

spring breeze
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch

Here's one I came up with on the fly:

lazy beads of sweat
the autumn sun hanging low
time for one more cut

Any amateur poets and baseball fans who want to take a stab at one, leave it in the comments. I'll send a copy of the book to the best one. (Wackipedia definition of a haiku here.)

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Who's Zooming Who?

Michael Crowley of TNR took issue with Charles Krauthammer's "Iraq or Afghanistan" WaPo op-ed as well, specifically Krauthammer's dismissal of Afghanistan as "geographically marginal". Trouble is, he's a little wide of the mark:

I see the Pakistani bomb as a greater near-term threat to my own life than anything that might happen in Iraq in the next few years. Given the proximity of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and the way Islamic radicals play the two countries off one another, it seems to me that creating stability and a climate inhospitable to anti-American terrorists there is no "marginal" thing at all.

First of all, it's important to remember that the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence agency, was responsible for creating stability and a climate hospitable to anti-American terrorists in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Far from being a threat to Pakistan, our enemies in Afghanistan functioned as useful pawns for Pakistani interests.

I'd also disagree with Crowley's characterization of who's triangulating whom. The ISI's been tossing the Coalition crumbs since the invasion, while continuing to supply covert aid to the Taliban and their terrorist fellow travellers. If anyone's playing both sides, it's Pakistan.

As annoying as Krauthammer generally is, he's correct when he says that, as of today, Iraq is strategically more important than Afghanistan. Whatever threat Afghanistan posed to our national security was eliminated when the terrorist training infrastructure that it harbored was dismantled and Al Qaeda's command & control capacity was disrupted. And we can keep both from reconstituting that threat with targeted special forces operations and aerial firepower.

Regardless of the fact that Iraq didn't pose a credible threat to America in 2003 (which I think is indisputable at this point), the consequences of a failed state there now would pose a much greater threat to our strategic interests than the consequences of failing to stabilize Afghanistan, which, it's important to remember, has essentially been a failed state for the past 20 years.

That doesn't mean that a stable, de-Talibanized Afghanistan isn't in our interests. It is. More importantly, it's actually an attainable result, assuming we throw the necessary resources at the problem. Unlike a stable, de-Iranianized Iraq, which at this point is an impossibility.

Which is why the Democrats are correct in calling for shifting our priorities and our resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. Even if they, and Crowley, are using the wrong arguments to do so.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"They told us this was one of the world's worst terrorists, and he got the sentence of a drunken driver."

--Ben Wizner, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, on David Hicks' Gitmo plea bargain deal.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Freedom Of The Press

More from the Iraq Weekly Status Report, this time from the section titled "Strengthen Public Understanding of Coalition Efforts and Public Isolation of the Insurgents":

The Independent Radio and Television Station, formerly operated under Saddam Hussein and then under the Iraqi Media Network, reopened in Diyala province March 25. Funding for the station comes from advertising revenue bought by the U.S. 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division in Diyala to send out Coalition messages. (Emphasis added.)

Who's vetting this stuff, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Cherry Picking

From the "International Support for Iraq" section of the latest Iraq Weekly Status Report put out by the State Dept:

In a statement addressing leaders at a two-day Arab League summit that opened March 28 in Riyadh, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani appealed to Arab leaders to “shoulder their legitimate, ethical and national responsibilities toward Iraq and to never abandon its people.”

Oddly enough, no mention was made of this quote from Saudi King Abdullah from the same Arab League summit:

In the beloved Iraq, the bloodshed is continuing under an illegal foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Half-Right vs. Mostly-Wrong

I hesitated before clicking through on Charles Krauthammer's op-ed in today's WaPo. The tagline, since changed, was typical Krauthammer nonsense, the gist of it being that Congressional Dems are wrong about shifting the focus of the War on Terror from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Now I've hated Krauthammer ever since he used to write for the NY Post back when it didn't even have the excuse of being owned by Murdoch for its mindless editorial line. But in all fairness, on this one he happens to get two things right: First, for all the bitterness about how it was started four years ago, as things stand today the War in Iraq is by far more vital to American strategic interests than the War in Afghanistan. And second, the War in Afghanistan is not the central front in the War on Terror, Pakistani Waziristan notwithstanding.

Of course, Krauthammer being Krauthammer, that doesn't stop him from getting three things wrong:

  1. The War in Iraq isn't the central front in the War on Terror either.
  2. The War in Iraq is no longer winnable, and therefore doesn't justify the disproportionate resources it is being allocated.
  3. The War in Afghanistan is, and would benefit from a resource infusion, particularly in the form of reconstruction and development projects.

In other words, the Democrats are using the wrong arguments to advocate for the right policy. Which is still better than Krauthammer, who uses the wrong arguments to advocate for the wrong policy.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Highest Considerations

How to say, "Sit on this and twist" in Diplomatese.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Odds & Ends   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

10 Million Enemy Combatants

The latest transcript from the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings was just released today, and it's a bombshell. Here's the opening to the prepared statement that Abd Al Rahim Hussein Mohammed Al Nashiri presented to the tribunal:

The Detainee states that he was tortured into confession and once he made a confession his captors were happy and they stopped torturing him. Also, the Detainee states that he made up stories during the torture in order to get it to stop. The Detainee confessed under torture to the following events:

  1. The French Merchant Vessel Limburg incident.
  2. The USS Cole Bombing.
  3. The rockets in Saudi Arabia.
  4. The plan to bomb American ships in the Gulf.
  5. Relationship with people committing bombings in Saudi Arabia.
  6. Usama Bin Laden having a nclear bomb.
  7. A plan to hijack a plane and crash it into a ship.

He goes on to describe specific acts of torture under questioning, all of which were redacted out. Also under questioning, he specified that his torturers were American, and that the torture began at the time of his capture in 2002 and continued until his transfer last year to Gitmo.

But while the torture allegation will certainly get most of the attention, Al Nashiri said a couple other things under questioning that are worth a mention. Talking about his reasons for leaving Yemen in August 2000, he offered the following insight:

In Saudi Arabia and Yemen are not really a whole lot different from Saddam Hussein. If they catch you, they put into a prison you never leave again or they kill you... So best thing is for somebody to leave. (sic)

Then there was this:

Member: Just one more question. Do you consider yourself an enemy comatant against the United States or our coalition partners?

Translator: (Translation of above).

Detainee (through translator): ... I don't know. The term enemy combatant is wide... If you think that anybody who wants the Americans to get out of the Gulf as your enemy, then you will catch about 10 million peoples in Saudi Arabia, that have same opinion (sic). That will mean, that I am one of those people... We need to get rid of people who are like Saddam in the Gulf. And let the people live their lives. Your policy is wrong. You come and support these governments. So the people are very angry at you. I have no idea how you classify us as enemy combatants. I don't understand that. I do not think of myself as an enemy to anybody.

It's not really the kind of statement you'd expect from a jihadist sworn to the destruction of not only America, but the values of freedom and democracy. Which is why our treatment of detainees, combined with the rhetoric used by the Bush administration, is so counter-productive.

Here's a guy who by his own admission travelled to Chechnya, Pakistan and other places "...to go to the battle fields. And witness how the fights were taking place." A guy who bought the boat used to blow up the USS Cole with money he personally borrowed from Osama Bin Laden. (He claims it was for a fishing venture and that he severed ties with Bin Laden when the latter suggested using the boat for an attack.) A guy who, despite denying any involvement in terrorist activities, had close contacts with just about everyone who's blown up a bomb in the vicinity of an American target in the past 10 years.

Seems like the kind of solid case that's a pretty safe bet in a legitimate legal proceeding. Indeed, it's the kind of solid case that has already landed convictions for other terrorists, including one who's cited in the charges against Al Nashiri.

But put him in a closed-door military tribunal, without a lawyer or any non-military personnel present, after five years of coercive interrogation that most everyone in the world besides the Bush administration considers torture, and he comes off sounding pretty reasonable, even a little sympathetic.

It's all downside, with no upside. And what's worse, any future attempts to re-route these cases through the legal system will now be permanently tainted by the allegations of torture and the lack of due process.

That's the real legacy behind the tough-talking rhetoric of the Bush administration: An ill-conceived, counter-productive, inflammatory approach to terrorism that's done as much for the enemy as the combatants it's supposed to confront.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Watch Your Back

William S. Lind might be something of a wingnut when it comes to cultural issues, but as a military theorist, he's a pretty creative thinker. And in this article, he points out that America's lines of supply in Iraq depend on safe passage through, 1) the Shiite south, and 2) the Persian Gulf. Neither of which is a safe bet in the event of hostilities with Iran. Something to think about.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bloomberg's Experiment

A while back, I started trying to formulate a description of what I called wonk-free politics. The idea was that government should become less prescriptive and more adaptive. As long as data assessment remained centralized, the actual policy approaches could be experimented on at a local level, taking into account the fact that what works in one setting may not work in another.

New York City's new experimental anti-poverty program is exactly what I had in mind. It offers poor families financial incentives (up to $5,000 a year) for meeting various behavioral goals such as school attendance, academic performance, and steady employment. The program has been privately funded, including a contribution from Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and will be assessed by comparing a randomly selected participant group to a randomly selected control group. If it produces measurable results, it will become a city-funded program next year.

Will it work? Who knows. But it's a streamlined policy proposal that can be experimentally tested. And I'll take that over a telephone book-sized white paper any day.

Posted by Judah in:  Domestic Policy   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Al Qaeda's Company Man

Another transcript of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings was released today, this time for Mustafa Ahmed Al Hawsawi. The charges against him, listed separately here, really demonstrate what I was talking about in this post when I said that the most valuable information for a counterterrorism operation is network data that brings the structure of the enemy organisation and the identities of the people who comprise it into focus.

If the charges against him are true, Al Hawsawi was basically a financial hub for the terrorist network, routing money to and from operatives in the field, as well as keeping records of expense accounts and expenditures. Not quite the image of the menacing terrorist we're used to seeing in "24". In mob terms, he was a bean counter, not a capo. But as such, far more valuable to the effort to crack the Al Qaeda organigram.

Another point with regards to the "ticking bomb" scenario. A good deal of the incriminating evidence against him consists of wire transfers he received from the 9/11 terrorists in the days preceding the attack (presumably they were repatriating excess expense account funds). But as this exchange demonstrates, although the 9/11 cell was among those he was responsible for, operational details were highly compartmentalized (in the transcripts, "Member" refers to a member of the military tribunal):

Member: You found out on the 10th of Septmeber there would be an operation.

Translator: (Translation of above).

Member: On the 11th of September you flew back and heard of the attacks in New York City and Pentagon (sic).

Translator: (Translation of above).

Member: What was your reaction when you realized that you were part of that operation?

Translator: (Translation of above).

Detainee (through translator): In the beginning I was surprised by the size of the operation. It was mostly a surprise to me. 

Member: No more questions sir (sic). 

In other words, the bad guys have heard about the "ticking bomb" scenario, too. And they've taken measures to lessen their vulnerability to it.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Big Lie, Pt. 1213

In today's White House press briefing, Helen Thomas asked about the President's reaction to Saudi King Abdullah's comments at the Arab League summit that the American presence in Iraq is illegal. Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino correctly responded that under international law, we are no longer an occupying power, since we are now in Iraq at the invitation of a diplomatically recognized Iraqi government. But here's the tail end of their back and forth:

Q Did we invade that country?

MS. PERINO: We were there under the U.N. Security Council resolution...

Q Did we have a right to go in?

MS. PERINO: We were there under a U.N. mandate, yes.

Contrast that with this article from the BBC back in September 2004, titled "Iraq war illegal, says Annan":

He said he believed there should have been a second UN resolution following Iraq's failure to comply over weapons inspections.

And it should have been up to the Security Council to approve or determine the consequences, he added.

When pressed on whether he viewed the invasion of Iraq as illegal, he said: "Yes, if you wish. I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal."

It's this kind of blatant disregard for what's commonly known as reality that results in the President's die-hard base living in an alternate universe of convenient, reassuring, faith-based falsehoods. That this sort of stuff passes among the readership of World Net Daily is one thing. But that not a single person in a roomful of White House correspondents called Perino on it is shocking.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Out Of The Frying Pan, Into The Fire

Meanwhile, as this BBC article shows, sometimes releasing detainees from Gitmo is not the humane thing to do:

Seven Russians detained at Guantanamo Bay suffered torture or other abuse after they were repatriated by the US, human rights campaigners say...

The seven were repatriated with a guarantee that they would be treated humanely, the group said...

According to the report, all seven men had repeatedly asked the US authorities not to return them to Russia because they expected to be treated worse there...

"The Russian experience shows why 'diplomatic assurances' simply don't work," said the report's author, Carroll Bogert...

Human Rights Watch says it wants Guantanamo detainees to have the opportunity to challenge their transfer before an impartial body.

As much as it offends the American conscience, compared to many parts of the world Gitmo is a model prison. That doesn't by any means justify the abuses that go on there. But amidst our outrage, we should remember to be proud of just how high our standards in this country are.

Update: Here's another article on the Human Rights Watch report, from The Independent, which kind of knocks the wind out of that sense of pride I was talking about:

The Kremlin and the United States have been accused of flouting international law in a report which tells the little-known story of seven Russian men freed from Guantanamo Bay...

The New York-based rights organisation said Washington knew that the men would face torture at the hands of the Russian authorities but accepted the flimsy diplomatic assurances offered by Moscow.

"The US government knew that these men would likely be tortured, and sent them back to Russia anyway," the report said.

There's also this from the BBC, about a British resident/Iraqi national soon to be released from Gitmo. He's been there five years, and in isolation for the past year. None of which prevented British MP Edward Davey from stating categorically that,

...Everything he had learned from Mr al-Rawi's family, lawyers and government officials showed he was not and never had been a "threat to national or international security".

Oh, well. One out of three... ain't so good.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"A year ago my approval rating was in the 30s, my nominee for the Supreme Court had just withdrawn, and my vice-president had shot someone... Ah, those were the good ol' days."

-- George W. Bush at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner.

From the BBC

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Making Torture Hurt... The Torturers

A US District Judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit brought by nine former prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan to hold Donald Rumsfeld and several military officers accountable for torture, abuse, and illegal interrogation practices they suffered while in American custody. According to this WaPo article, the judge maintained that "...Rumsfeld cannot be held personally responsible for actions taken in connection with his government job":

No matter how appealing it might seem to use the courts to correct allegations of severe abuses of power, Hogan wrote, government officials are immune from such lawsuits.

Now I understand the logic of not holding a government official accountable for actions taken by his staff that he was unaware of. After all, that would certainly have a chilling effect on people's willingness to serve in government. But this particular lawsuit makes the claim that, a) Rumsfeld was aware of the abuse, and ignored the warnings, and b) that he authorized illegal interrogation practices that violated the prisoners constitutional & human rights. I'm not a lawyer, but that strikes me as just the sort of thing that government officials are in fact held accountable for.

The lawsuit brings a factual claim that seems to my layperson's eye to meet the standard for government malfeasance. If Rumsfeld can rebut it, by all means, let him. But the lawsuit should proceed.

In a bitter irony, on the same day the suit was dismissed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak presented his annual report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva:

Mr Nowak said torture victims required long and costly treatment, and usually rich nations footed the bill rather than the offending states...

"Countries where torture is widespread or even systematic should be held accountable to pay," the UN rapporteur said.

Mr Nowak suggested that such states could then even pass the bill on to the individual torturers.

"If individual torturers would have to pay all the long-term costs, this would have a much stronger deterrent effect on torture than some kind of disciplinary or lenient criminal punishment..."

He also called for the application of a provision for universal jurisdiction within the UN convention against torture, which obliges countries to arrest alleged torturers who arrive on their territory.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Wrong Wall

Melissa Rogers has this to say about the bi-partisan Congressional group that held a press conference yesterday at the Capitol to "call America back to prayer":

Frankly, members of Congress have no business issuing an "official call" for Americans to turn "back to prayer." Members of Congress certainly may pray, and they may play active roles within their respective religious communities. They also may form unofficial groups that meet for worship, prayer, and Bible study on government property just as other unofficial groups do. But their stations as government officials do not entitle them to attempt to lead us in spiritual pursuits.

I'd only add that they were doing more than leading a spiritual pursuit. They were advocating religious practice, even if they made a point to use ecumenical language. And not only are they not entitled, in their capacity as government officials, to do that. They are expressly forbidden by the constitution.

Randy Forbes, the Congressman who organized the event, claimed that it took place during their lunch hour, so no tax money was spent on religion. But the question isn't about money. It's about keeping political institutions free of religious affiliation. Mr. Forbes has every right to build a "spiritual prayer wall" around the country if he so desires. He just can't tear down the wall of separation between church and state to do so.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   Politics   

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Eyeball To Eyeball

Events in the Persian Gulf are either heading for a bang or a whimper. Either way, it's going to be mettle-testing time for the next week or so:

  1. In remarks today about the 15 Bristish sailors detained by Iran, Tony Blair stated, "They have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase."
  2. Meanwhile, the 5th Fleet began a training exercise involving two carrier groups, 100 aircraft, and 10,000 personnel just off the coast of Iran. The money quote? "Kevin Aandahl, a US navy commander, declined to say when plans for the exercises had been drawn up."
  3. In a (French language) article last week, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti cited Russian military experts to the effect that the US will unleash a massive aerial bombardment of Iran in the first week of April.

Of course, Iran could still release the sailors, everyone could calm down a notch, and the uranium enrichment negotiations could get jump-started. But we're getting to that point where if someone doesn't blink soon, it'll be too late to walk this one back from the brink.

Update: Meanwhile, in support of the whimper option, from an interview with Financial Times:

Nicholas Burns, the man at the heart of the US administration's policy on Iran for the past two years, insists that Iran's leadership is divided, its nuclear programme is less advanced than many think and that the world is stepping up the pressure on Tehran.

As a result, he concludes, there is still time to reach a negotiated solution on a dispute others fear could end in military conflict.

Update, Take Two: And in support of the bang option, another article from RIA Novosti:

Russian military intelligence services are reporting a flurry of activity by U.S. Armed Forces near Iran's borders, a high-ranking security source said Tuesday.

"The latest military intelligence data point to heightened U.S. military preparations for both an air and ground operation against Iran," the official said, adding that the Pentagon has probably not yet made a final decision as to when an attack will be launched.

Update, Take Three: The Economist weighs in on why Iran acted up now:

Iran’s seizure of the British personnel thus may be a sign that Iran is feeling squeezed. But squeezed is not the same as weak. Iran hawks believe that the Islamic Republic has “sleeper cells” in Europe, America and elsewhere standing by ready to commit terrorist acts. The kidnapping is one way of reminding negotiating partners that Iran can be a great deal of trouble when it wants to be.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

There's A First Time For Everything

The most curious aspect of the Iranian capture and detention of 15 British sailors has to be the President's deafening silence on the matter. From today's White House press briefing:

Q About the British sailors... Is there a deliberate effort to keep a backseat on this, for the White House to not mess up some sort of diplomatic efforts?

MS. PERINO: Well, you can be assured that we are in close contact with our British allies. We strongly support the message that Tony Blair sent yesterday, the strong message of the hostage taking being wrong and unjustified. But as far as further comment, I don't have anything for you.

Q Is the President not outraged by this?

MS. PERINO: We share the same concern and the outrage that Prime Minister Blair has.

Q Will we be hearing from the President on it?

MS. PERINO: I'll keep you updated.

Obviously, they want to avoid any unnecessary bellicosity to keep from aggravating the situation...

Wait a minute. Did I just say that? About the Bush administration? Like I said, the most curious aspect of the Iranian capture and detention of 15 British sailors has to be the President's deafening silence on the matter.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

That Was Then, This Is Now

From reader RGM, a NY Times story about how O.J. Mayo, a high school basketball star, wound up committing to USC, a school known more for football than hoops:

A stranger walked into the University of Southern California basketball office one day last summer and asked to speak to the head coach. The stranger did not make an appointment. He did not call ahead. Tim Floyd, the U.S.C. head coach, cannot explain why he agreed to see him...

“Have you heard of O. J. Mayo?” the man asked.

Of course Floyd had heard of him. Everyone in basketball had heard of him. Mayo was first mentioned in Sports Illustrated when he was in the seventh grade. He was considered a future lottery pick by the time he entered high school. He once talked trash to Michael Jordan during a pickup game at Jordan’s camp...

“O. J. wanted me to come here today,” the man told Floyd. “He wanted me to figure out who you are.”

...“Why aren’t you at Arizona or Connecticut?” Floyd recalled asking.

The man explained that Mayo wanted to market himself before going to the N.B.A., and that Los Angeles would give him the best possible platform.

“Then why aren’t you at U.C.L.A.?” Floyd asked.

The man shook his head. U.C.L.A. had already won 11 national championships. It had already produced many N.B.A. stars. Mayo wanted to be a pioneer for a new era.

“Let me call him,” Floyd said.

The man shook his head again. “O. J. doesn’t give out his cell,” he said. “He’ll call you.”

As RGM put it, "The new era of high school has arrived." Indeed. Compare this with Robert Lipsyte's article in the Nation about the underbelly of college hoops:

My first exposure to college basketball took place on May 4, 1965, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr., barely eighteen years old and slightly taller than seven feet, held his first press conference in the gym of his Catholic high school, Power Memorial, in Manhattan. Several hundred journalists were there to hear him announce his choice of college: U.C.L.A. (#2 West).

We didn't know much about Lew. His high-school coach had never allowed him to be interviewed. He was just a black guy expected to dominate in college the way he had in high school...

As it turned out, he seemed like a sweet, thoughtful young man. I cringed when a colleague asked, "Are there any liabilities in being tall in basketball?"--and kindly, without irony, Lew replied, "None that I can think of." And I was delighted--after a few of us stayed on to talk with him--to learn that he was sports editor of a neighborhood newspaper and was considering a career in journalism. We urged him to take as many courses in television as he could. He thanked us politely and excused himself to go to his Russian history class.

Damn, sh*t done changed.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Not All Politics Are The Same

I've been reluctant to do much posting on the US Attorneys scandal, mainly because there's already so much quality coverage elsewhere (TPM and McClatchy in particular stand out.) But in her New Yorker article about the firings, Dorothy Wickendon offers a simple, one-sentence summary of just what the big deal is:

Assembling a compatible legal team is one thing; expecting its members to tailor individual investigations to partisan demands is another.

Republicans are trying to confuse the issue by blurring the various meanings of "politics". It is normal for Presidential appointees, including US Attorneys, to toe a political line when "political" refers to policy (ie. prosecutorial priorities). That's why this was the DoJ's first line of defense for the firings.

This isn't what happened, GOP claims to the contrary. Most of the eight US Attorneys were fired for not bowing to pressure that was political in the partisan sense of the word, intended to influence elections: by smearing local Democrats in certain cases, and to deflect negative publicity from the GOP in others. That's the distinction that needs to be made.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Essence Of Empire

Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of Army aviation, from an article in the Hill:

“While the military may be on a war footing, our nation’s industry is not on a war footing,” Mundt told a group of reporters at the Pentagon. He urged industry to get to a point where it is producing equipment faster.

Mundt was referring specifically to the difficulties the Army has had replacing the 130 helicopters lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. It takes two years from the time Congress ok's the funds before the helicopters are delivered.

I mentioned this before with regards to an eventual attack on Iran, but it bears repeating. The sine qua non of the neocon agenda is an America placed on permanent wartime footing. That is the essence of Empire: continuous partial engagement. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are first steps towards that goal, but they are still reversible.  Should we attack Iran, on the other hand, there will be no turning back for the foreseeable future.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sacrificing Certainty

When the Military Commisions Act was passed last October, it mandated a Presidential Executive Order to provide the legal framework for acceptable interrogation practices by the CIA in their network of black hole detention centers for terrorist detainees. According to the Times, that framework has still not yet been elaborated. One of the reasons for the delay are the new players at Defense, the CIA, and in the White House Counsel's office. But while there's reason to hope that the outcome will be more restrictive guidelines, there's also a good deal of skepticism that they will ultimately prohibit torture.

Reading through the detainee transcripts coming out of Gitmo these past few weeks has already triggered a lot of reflection about torture for me. This audio slide show from Slate about Gitmo, along with the Times article cited above, makes me want to share some of them, even if they're by no means fully developed. The fairly mechanical arguments stem from the fact that there are obviously persuasive limits to moral outrage, otherwise there would be no need to have this debate.

People who try to justify the use of torture generally focus on the "ticking bomb" scenario. But in reality this type of situation is so rare as to be meaningless as an argument. The most valuable data for a counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operation, and the goal of all interrogations, whether coercive or not, is network data: information that gives a clearer picture of the structure of the enemy organisation, and the identities of the people who comprise it. Confessions are only useful insomuch as they reveal operational mechanisms that were previously unknown.

But the "ticking bomb" argument does reveal at least one assumption in all apologias for torture: the idea that somehow we can be certain beyond any doubt that the detainee is guilty. No one, so far as I've read, advocates the use of torture to go fishing for information. Unfortunately, we already know of at least one case where an individual was unlawfully kidnapped, secreted off to a black hole detention center, tortured, and then released when it became obvious he was the victim of mistaken identity: Khaled el Masri.

The problem is that when you start with an absolute certainty that someone is guilty, as indeed you must in order to justify the use of torture, it makes it all but impossible to admit the possibility that they are telling the truth when they claim they're innocent. Now let's imagine that Khaled el Masri had not been able to maintain his innocence throughout his interrogation. When he finally cracked, offering up whatever name he could think of to simply bring his suffering to an end, what do you think would have happened next? Another detainee would have been kidnapped and secreted to a black hole detention center, guilty beyond any doubt and therefore eligible for torture. Except that like el Masri, they would just happen to be innocent.

It's not true that torture never produces actionable intelligence. There are circumstances under which a certain technique, used at a certain time, on a certain suspect, will cause a guilty detainee to divulge a piece of useful information. And there are others when an innocent detainee will resist until the error is recognized. But torture never produces reliable intelligence, because it's impossible to know when those circumstances arise. Guilty detainees might resist. And innocent detainees might not.

It's been pointed out that apart from the young men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families, the American people have been asked to sacrifice nothing for these wars. I propose that we start by sacrificing certainty: the certainty of guilt that permits torture to even be considered. And the certainty of security in whose name we've abandoned our most lofty principles. The statement we would make by fearlessly embracing our principles even though it might make us more vulnerable to attack would be more valuable in the fight against terror than anything we might learn from the use of torture against our enemies.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Money Talks

This graphic is taken from the State Dept's Iraq Weekly Status Report for March 21. The blue line shows the volume of US Dollars sold in the Iraqi currency auction. As you can see, there's a dramatic drop, from a daily average of roughly $80 million to $8 million, in the first week in November 2006. After a slight bump, the action finally picks back up on... January 21. The two dates correspond to the mid-term Congressional elections and President Bush's State of the Union address.

What does it mean? One possible explanation is that given the possibility of an end to the US occupation, represented by the Democratic takeover of Congress, Iraqis overwhelmingly decided to hold on to their greenbacks. Once the President announced the troop surge in the SOTU address, on the other hand, folks felt secure enough to put their dollars back on the market.

Evidence of at least two ways in which Iraqi public opinion is more dialed in than George Bush's. First, it recognized that the American mid-term election was a rejection of the war. And second, it recognized that Iraq as a stable society does not exist absent an American military presence.

The entire war debate now revolves around the question of whether it's still possible to change that, and if so, at what cost.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Failed States & The War On Terror

In his Enemy Combatant Status review hearing, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who is accused of being a member of the terrorist cell that carried out the Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, admitted to having spent three months at an al-Qaeda training camp. When asked why he had gone to the camp, which he described as having an open-door policy, here's what he said:

Because I am from Africa, and ah- my country it was our neighbors countries, most of them have problems. And those who get most problems, who don't have military training. So I wanted this for self-defense. Because in Tanzania, we didn't have any problem but our neighbors, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and other countries. They have problems.

The causal relationship between poverty and terrorism is overblown. But the one between failed states and terrorism isn't. Unfortunately, we're too busy creating more failed states to seriously address the ones that already exist as a critical component of a global anti-terrorism strategy.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Power Of The Purse

With a group of veterans and the families of fallen soldiers gathered behind him at the White House, President Bush accused House Democrats yesterday of engaging in political theater by passing a war funding bill requiring staged withdrawal from Iraq (video here, text here):

Democrats want to make clear that they oppose the war in Iraq. They have made their point. For some, that is not enough.

Imagine that. The elected House of Representatives might actually believe they have the right to govern. The audacity of it.

He ended by saying, "The Democrats have sent their message, now it's time to send their money." This is obviously a guy who's not used to having his allowance cut off.

Update: Good catch. The New York Nerd points out that a woman standing behind the President during his address was in uniform, which is a violation of Dept. of Defense regulations for both active duty soldiers and veterans.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Political Brinksmanship

It's still too early in the process to tell whether Congress' gambit to link war funding to a withdrawal timetable will be successful. To begin with, the Senate could still kill the deal. But assuming the bill eventually does wind up on President Bush's desk, he's already promised a veto, one that Pelosi doesn't have the votes to overturn.

At that point, scrapping the withdrawal timetable reinforces the false image of Democrats as being weak and quick to cave in. But sending the same bill back to the Oval Office for another veto turns war funding into a political game of chicken. And that's where the President has the advantage, because he's only got one person to convince to get the veto issued, whereas Pelosi's got to twist 218 arms to get the bill passed. She got the votes this time, but only just barely.

Where the rubber hits the road on this tactic is once the clock starts winding down on getting the money where it's needed to protect the American soldiers' lives that are at stake.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Time For A New Cover Story

This would appear to be the final nail in the coffin. The AP is reporting that according to documents released today, Alberto Gonzales approved the plan to fire eight US Attorneys in a meeting with his Chief of Staff and other Dept. of Justice officials, and signed off on the procedure for carrying out the dismissals. Gonzales had previously told reporters that he had not been involved in the process.

Hard to imagine, even under the present administration, how the country's top law enforcement official could brazenly lie to the press, the public and Congress, and still hold onto his job. I wager he doesn't last the weekend.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

48 Hours

When the British announced they'd be drawing down their troop levels in the south of Iraq, the Bush administration insisted it was a sign not of failure, but of success. So it's instructive to note that exactly two days after British troops pulled out of downtown Basra, turning the city over to the Iraqi Army, street battles broke out between the armed militias of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Fadhila Party which governs the province.

According to the CSM article, it's not clear whether the battles represent a political or clan-related dispute. And it's still too early to tell whether the Iraqi forces will be capable of restoring order. But it seems obvious that given the choice between applying surge-like pressure in Basra and pulling out, the British chose the latter. Probably, I suspect, because they believed that the battles that broke out today might be postponed, but not prevented.

Something to keep in mind as the administration vaunts the initial successes of the Baghdad Surge.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Talks Are Cheap?

Remember the agreement we reached with the N. Koreans to re-seal their plutonium reactor? Well it's on ice for the time being, because the Treasury Dept. dragged its feet in freeing up $25 million in frozen N. Korean accounts.

The US has claimed that the accounts represented a money laundering scheme, since half of the balance was the result of smuggling and other illegal activities. But as part of the agreement over N. Korea's nuclear program, we agreed to unfreeze the loot. After a lot of back and forth over somewhat confusing finance regulations, the money has been unfrozen but the N. Koreans still don't have access to it yet. So they walked out of the latest round of Six-Party Talks in Beijing today.

Now it could be, as some have argued, that the N. Koreans are just using this as an excuse to stall the negotiation process. But for a measly $12 mil, why give them the chance?

Update: As this McClatchy article points out, part of the problem with clearing the N. Korean funds from the Macau Delta Bank where they've been frozen is that no other bank is willing to accept them, even for immediate disbursement to the N. Koreans. Why? They're worried about getting caught up in the bureaucratic red tape and hot water of Patriot Act banking regulations:

A little-noticed provision of the 2001 Patriot Act has given foreign banks reason to be wary of U.S. regulators. It allows the U.S. Treasury, without producing any evidence, to isolate foreign banks that cross the Bush administration on a range of issues that aren't always related to terrorism. (Emphasis added.)

I suppose it's not surprising that the administration that introduced Faith-Based Initiatives should be so hostile to evidence. What's curious is why the American people, usually so pragmatic and skeptical, would go along for the ride.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Power Of The Purse

Another quick thought on the House bill tying supplemental appropriations for the Iraq War to a withdrawal schedule. If ever there was a case study for why the line item veto is a bad idea, this is it. There's an enormous difference, politically speaking, between Congress de-funding the war and attaching conditions on its funding. A difference that would be moot if the President had the power to take the funding and veto the conditions.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Iraq   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Money Talks

In response to Congress linking supplemental appropriations for the Iraq war to a withdrawal timetable, President Bush promised a veto. So my question is, Does that mean he doesn't support the troops?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mapquest, With The Body Counts

Thanks to reader and commenter RGM for catching this "nice, interactive map of hell" from the same BBC story on the Ban press conference in Baghdad. Take a look.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Price Of Unity

I admit I'd always been a little bit baffled every time I read that Moqtada al-Sadr's militia had infiltrated the Iraqi Health Ministry. I could understand infiltrating the Defense Ministry, or the Justice Ministry. But what the heck can you do with the Health Ministry?

Then this article in the BBC about the exodus of Iraq's doctors and the resulting lack of decent medical care triggered a little light bulb moment. It describes how patients and even staff have been routinely killed by militias who raid the hospitals with impunity. Militias that are based in the Health Ministry.

A quick google search returned this USA Today article from last November. This is pretty chilling stuff, worth a lengthy quote:

Iraq's Health Ministry is a case study in how al-Sadr used his government role to consolidate his political and military support.

Ministry-run hospitals have been used as a weapon against rival Sunnis, according to critics, such as Sunni lawmaker Mithal al-Alusi. "It's a jungle," al-Alusi says. "What (al-Sadr) has done with that ministry is criminal."

Last month, a Sunni man was taken to Kindi Hospital in central Baghdad for a gunshot wound, says Omar al-Jubouri, human rights director at the Iraqi Islamic Party.

He was shot and killed in his hospital bed, al-Jubouri says. His brother went to retrieve the body. He brought 17 male relatives along for protection, but they were quickly outgunned by an even larger group of armed men, believed to be the Mahdi Army, al-Jubouri says. The group was kidnapped and killed, he adds.

Two days later, the family picked up the 19 bodies, escorted by an Iraqi army convoy, from the Baghdad morgue. Al-Jubouri says some of the bodies showed signs of torture, including drill holes to the skull and electrocution burns.

So many Sunnis have been followed and killed after picking up relatives at the ministry-controlled Baghdad morgue that al-Jubouri's party regularly coordinates Iraqi army convoys to escort the families, he says. "We'll wait until we have 17 or 18 bodies waiting," he says. "Then we'll send for the convoy."

There's alot more about ministry offices being used for holding cells, complete with gruesome evidence of torture, as well as the steady degradation of the quality of the nation's health care services. This is what al-Sadr got in return for giving up armed resistance to the occupation and opting into the political process.

It's worth recalling that until very recently, the Bush administration trumpeted the Iraqi unity government as a major benchmark of progress. But it was never anything but a sham. A bloody and murderous sham. And Bush only agreed to drop the pretense because the Iraq Study Group blew his cover.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Explosion? What Explosion?

Check out this video clip of a mortar blast interrupting UN chief Ban Ki-Moon's and Iraqi Prime Minister Mouri Maliki's press conference today in Baghdad. The expression on Ban's face as he looks around the room and realizes that no one else seems to have even noticed the loud explosion is priceless.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Purge-ica

I understand that "-gate" when used as a suffix has come to mean an Executive branch scandal involving illegal activity, lies and a cover up regarding same, and stonewalling Congress when they attempt to investigate. But I'm really tired of seeing it hauled out and tacked on to whichever word it fits best any time the White House press corps smells Presidential blood in the water. It's time to put the Sixties (and Watergate was the Sixties, even if the date in the history books says different) behind us. Besides, Purgegate sounds like some sort of pre-party group ritual for bulimics.

As you can tell from the title of this post, I propose "-ica" as a replacement. Despite its obvious shortcomings, it has the advantage of working with just about any word imaginable. But if anyone has got any better ideas, drop them in the comments.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Next Whiskey Bar

Christopher Hitchens has a piece in Vanity Fair vaunting the successful reconstruction under way in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he spent his Christmas vacation with his son. Short version? This is what Hitchens had in mind for the rest of Iraq when he vociferously argued in favor of the war, so now when he considers how things have turned out, he feels betrayed. Shorter version? In Kurdistan, "Liquor stores and bars are easy to find, sometimes operated by members of the large and unmolested Christian community." Something tells me Hitchens has finally found a use for religion that he can approve of.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Flawless

Politicians at the local level can be entertainingly mistake-prone. Whether it was bad grammar or bad temper, bad judgment or bad attitude, we've all known (and loved) mayors, governors and even Congresspeople who managed to get elected in spite of, and in some cases because of, the idiosyncrasies that made them human like the rest of us. Which is to say flawed.

Once someone takes the leap and decides to run for the Senate, the stakes go up a notch. The suits are crisper, the ties more tightly knotted, and the makeup a little more thickly applied. Still, although there's less room for error, a few memorable cranks and crackpots manage to slip in. (Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and Rick Santorum all spring to mind.)

But something happens to politicians once they make the cut and become serious Presidential candidates. The closest analogy I can think of is that of a sixty year-old Hollywood actress who, in order to land one of the few roles scripted for a woman her age, must actually resemble, not a woman her age or even a woman thirty years younger, but a woman who doesn't exist. That is, a woman who didn't exist until Hollywood's imagination brought her into being.

This new being is not an older woman who has somehow been magically perfected. In fact, there's something mildly disturbing about her appearance, especially upon closer scrutiny. Because in going to such great lengths to hide the flaws that come with age, she inevitably calls more attention to them.

And so it is too with Presidential candidates, at least the ones with the misfortune of having a shot at winning. Somewhere it was decided that the best way for someone running for the Oval Office to appeal to actual people was to cease to be one him or herself. Any ideosyncrasies are carefully vetted and either tossed out for good or else replaced with the carefully scripted version. What we're left with are candidates bearing so little resemblance to actual people that when they do actually slip up, we greet their misfortune with fascination, if not relish.

A lot of it has to do with the political consultants that manage campaigns for the major candidates. A lot of it has to do with the lack of courage or imagination on the part of the candidates themselves. But a lot of it has to do with us, as well. We've come to expect that a sixty year-old actress be without any wrinkles, after all. Even if we know what she's done to get rid of them.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

When Comedy Gets Serious

Jon Stewart's 2004 appearance on Crossfire, where he wryly observed that "...the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity", is by now legendary. But take a look at this clip of former UN Ambassador John Bolton's recent appearance on The Daily Show, and you'll see that it wouldn't be such a bad thing if they did.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Politics   

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Never Complain, Never Explain

Amid all the accusations of ethically questionable and politically backhanded motives for the firing of the eight US Attorneys, here's President Bush's assessment of the basic underlying issue (video here):

The announcement of this decision and the subsequent explanation of these changes has been confusing and, in some cases, incomplete. Neither the Attorney General, nor I approve of how these explanations were handled. We're determined to correct the problem.

My hunch is that, if the President disapproves of anything, it's the fact that an explanation was even offered in the first place. Why else would he hold a press conference about why the US Attorneys got fired and not bother to... explain why the US Attorneys got fired?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Playdate For Cheney

Looks like Dick Cheney's got someone to play with in the padded rec room after all. In a WSJ Opinion piece, Edward Jay Epstein claims that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's confession raises new questions about the link between... You guessed it: Saddam and al-Qaeda. Here's Epstein playing Columbo:

In his confession, however, KSM says that he was responsible for the [1993] WTC bombing. If so, both it and 9/11 are the work of the same mastermind--and the planning, financing and support network that KSM used in the 1993 attack may be relevant to the 9/11 attack. Of especial interest are the escape routes used by Abdul Rahman Yasin and Ramzi Yousef, both of whom helped prepare the bomb and then fled America.

Yasin... came to the U.S. from Iraq in 1992, at about the same time as Yousef, and then returned to Iraq via Jordan. Despite being indicted for the World Trade Center bombing, and put on the FBI's list of the most-wanted terrorist fugitives with a $5 million price on his head (increased to $25 million after 9/11), Iraqi authorities allowed Yasin to remain in Baghdad for 10 years. (In 2003, after the U.S. invasion, he disappeared.)

Epstein goes on to describe how the other bomb-maker for the 1993 attack, Ramzi Yousef, fled to Pakistan, where he was later caught after taking part in yet another bombing plot. Obviously, no mention is made of Pakistan's possible link to al-Qaeda.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Global War On Terror   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Afghan Spring

This passage from The Wind Blows Away Our Words, Doris Lessing's account of her travels among the Afghan mujahideen, gave me pause. The speaker is an Afghan guerilla commander briefing Western visitors on the status of the war against the Russians:

The main point, the key point, is that the war is going on at full strength whatever you may have heard. It is not going badly, as your newspapers sometimes claim. We will not stop fighting, we will fight until we win and the Russians leave, or until they kill us all. This is the basic and important fact. None of you in the West seem to have any idea of the extent of the Resistance; every house, every village is involved. If an area is quiet for a time, that does not mean it is subdued, only waiting, perhaps because of the weather. (p. 54, Pan Books 1987)

Sometimes I think we lose sight of the fact that there are places in the world where there's only one breaking story, and the news cycle lasts until you're either dead or victorious.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Good Point

Anne Applebaum, from a WaPo op-ed about the damage done to American credibility by its treatment of GWOT detainees:

This is concrete proof, as if more were needed, that it is not merely immoral to operate outside the rule of law; it is also ineffective and in fact profoundly counterproductive: There is no proof that it produces better information but plenty of evidence that it has discredited the United States. Indeed, there could be no more eloquent condemnation of the Bush administration's torture and detention policies than the deafening silence that followed [Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed's confession: Who could have imagined, in September of 2001, that one of the deadliest terrorists in history would admit to the destruction of the World Trade Center -- and that the world would shrug its shoulders?

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Words Of Wisdom

Direct quote from a conversation I had today with an Englishman of uncertain but advanced age:

"Everything is alright until you die. Then they start asking questions."

Posted by Judah in:  Chess, Jazz & Ethics   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

There's Room On This Planet For The Two Of Us

Call it age, or maybe it's the consequences of fatherhood. But despite my fascination with and natural inclination towards apocalyptic and worst-case scenarios, I'm willing to acknowledge that this is a very good sign. The Russians have apparently decided to use the yet-to-be-delivered fuel for the nuclear reactor they've built for Tehran as a bargaining chip in the uranium enrichment dispute.

My guess is that this is the payoff for the Bush administration's recent decision to take Russia's concerns over the planned Eastern European missile defense system seriously. Which is to say, it's striking what a little bit of good old-fashioned diplomacy can accomplish.

Update: The Russian National Security Council has apparently denied the link between the fuel delivery and the uranium enrichment program, saying,

"The allegations made in The New York Times that Russia delivered an ultimatum during Russian-Iranian consultations March 12 in Moscow have no relation to reality."

I still think a deal went down, based on this article from a few weeks ago, and that a gag rule was part of the agreement.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

So What's The Problem?

After a very mild winter and several weeks of early summer-like weather, yesterday afternoon the sky suddenly blackened and it began to snow. Now it's freezing out, and as I went outside to get something to cook for dinner it occurred to me: Global warming = Less cold + Less people. In other words a much more satisfying beach experience. So be advised that I am hereby officially in the pro-Global warming camp.

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Say Your Prayers, Gonzo

Here's a guilty pleasure I can't resist. The Presidential Prayer Team has just come out with a handy deck of cards to help folks remember America's leaders in their prayers:

The National Leaders Prayer Deck contains 52 cards featuring the most influential men and women in our national government. Included are President Bush, the First Lady, the President’s Cabinet, the majority and minorty leaders of the House and Senate, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, all the Military Joint Chiefs, Congressional Chaplains and more. Use this resource to pray for one powerful American leader each week of the year. (Emphasis in original.)

Better get your order in quick though, because judging from the sample cards it's going to be a collector's item any day now:

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Say What?   

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Iran Hysteria Antidote

How's this for a refreshingly reasonable take on Iran? From an interview in Foreign Policy with Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: 

FOREIGN POLICY: As a Holocaust survivor, how do you feel about the comments of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Do you think he believes what he says?

Tom Lantos: ...Obviously, I am as appalled as any civilized human being has to be at both his monstrous denial of the Holocaust and his sickening boast of wiping Israel off the map. I haven’t got a clue as to whether he believes this, whether this is ignorance, or whether this is just a desire to whip up anti-Israel sentiment.

But I think it’s very important for us to look beyond Ahmadinejad. The Iranians are an extraordinary, talented, and important group of people. It’s a great civilization, and there is growing disdain and rejection for Ahmadinejad in Iran. So I do not think we should tailor our policies vis-à-vis Iran on the basis of his inflammatory statements, whether these are genuinely believed by him or not.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Off Their Meds

There's been something of an online firestorm lately regarding whether it's possible to support the State of Israel without supporting the position of the American pro-Israel lobby, which is, in case you've just tuned in, a shade more hawkish than Dr. Strangelove. Nevertheless, the risks of not toeing the line are significant, since running afoul of these guys seems to be the kiss of death for American politicians.

That's why Barack Obama is taking such great pains to convince them that despite appearances to the contrary, he's a friend of Israel:

Obama’s substantively hard line on Israel has cost him friends among Chicago’s Palestinian activists. But his rhetoric has given the pro-Israel side pause...

Some among Obama’s supporters suggest he simply isn’t totally familiar with the code-like vocabulary that has grown up around the Israel-Palestine debate. Phrases like “cycle of violence” and – worse still – pledges to be “even-handed” are freighted with meaning in that context, and a second-hand report in January from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in January that Obama had once pledged to be “even-handed” suggested to some Jewish critics that he was taking the Palestinian side.

The Iraq war also hovers on the fringes of the debate over candidates’ positions on Israel... Obama’s pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq... raised concern that the U.S. would be less able to confront Iran. (Obama argues that the Iraq invasion made Israel’s plight worse.)

“If you’re serious of confronting the regime of Iran and Ahmadinejad and his plans for mass murder then you have to look at the map and say how do we do this – what is the only way that we do this, what is the most practical way to do this,” Chouake said.  “That is something [Obama] needs to rethink.” (Emphasis added.)

These guys are lunatics, but they're influential lunatics. Which makes them dangerous, for Israel and the US.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Say What?   

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Monday, March 19, 2007

The More Things Change...

From "Cards On The Table", Time Magazine, May 5, 1967:

"I stand in the shadow of military men who have been here before me," Westmoreland began, "but none of them could have had more pride than is mine in representing the gallant men fighting in Viet Nam today." Congress broke in to applaud him — and did so 19 times during his 28-minute speech. He drew an ovation when he touched, ever so lightly, on the delicate topic of antiwar protests. "In evaluating the enemy strategy, it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve," said Westmoreland. "Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, March 19, 2007

The More They Stay The Same

From "What Withdrawal Would Really Mean", Time Magazine, October 24, 1969:

The argument for immediate withdrawal comes in many forms...

In its more reasoned and restrained Version, however, the argument is persuasive. It goes something like this: The U.S. is pledged to leave anyway. It would indeed be useful if, before departing, the U.S. were to ensure a more or less independent South, but that is a hopeless task—the Saigon regime will not be able to stand on its own for many years to come, if ever. Certainly it will not do so while it can rely on the American presence to prop it up. "Vietnamization" is a sham, or at least so poor a bet that it does not justify the continued war effort.

True, it might be useful for the U.S. to delay its departure, or make it gradual, even if at the end of two or three years the Saigon government were to fall, because the delay would cushion the blow to U.S. prestige and would give the U.S. time to shore up its positions elsewhere. But that advantage is not worth the cost—in lives, in money, and in domestic discord. Bitterness at home is likely to grow so severe, if the war is continued even at a relatively low level, that the U.S. system itself is likely to be seriously impaired. Besides, the longer the war lasts, the stronger will be the sentiment for "No More Viet Nams"—a new isolationism that will cripple future U.S. policy in the world...

***** 

All things considered, an immediate, unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops that would leave South Viet Nam to its fate is an inadequate, emotional solution to a complex and tragic problem. What, then, are the alternatives? The harsh truth is that there are few available to President Nixon... [T]he only other plausible course is gradual, orderly withdrawal, accompanied by "Vietnamizing" of the war. The pace of the troop withdrawals so far set by the President should be speeded up. But they would probably have to be spread over two years, with some U.S. logistical support perhaps continuing longer, during which time 1) the Saigon government could be given a chance, however slim, of standing alone, and 2) the U.S. could shore up positions elsewhere in Asia, mostly through economic and diplomatic efforts. This would in fact mean that the U.S. would pull out by a certain time, regardless of the chances of the Saigon regime to survive—although the U.S. would not say so officially.

10,647 American soldiers were killed in action in Viet Nam after this article appeared.

46,880 American soldiers were wounded in action in Viet Nam after this article appeared.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Semi-Transparent

Somehow I missed this, but US Senators Carl Levin and Lindsay Graham watched Khalid Sheikh Muhhamad's Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing last weekend on closed-circuit television in an adjoining room. It doesn't quite raise the hearings to the level of a legal proceeding (the accused was not allowed a lawyer, and the press was not permitted). But the fact that that there were witnesses who were neither uniformed military officers nor members of the Bush administration is the most reassuring thing I've read about them to date.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

That Was Quick

After Khalid Sheikh Muhhamad confessed last weekend to being responsible for a long list of crimes, ranging from the 9/11 attacks to the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl, some people speculated that he might be adding ballast to his own already sinking ship in order to cover for other guilty parties. Today the AP reported that the lawyer for Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British-born extremist convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 by Pakistan for Pearl's murder, will be seeking an appeal based on Muhhamad's confession.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Well Done

I go away for the weekend, and what happens? Regular reader and commenter Gerald Scorse goes and gets an article published in the Baltimore Chronicle & Sentinel. Give it a read, it's good stuff.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Loves Me, Loves Me Not

WaPo:

After four years of hostility, Sadr and the Americans are cooperating uneasily as the United States and Iraq attempt to tame Baghdad's sectarian violence. American officials, who in recent months described Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability, now praise the Shiite cleric.

LATimes:

Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr today denounced the presence of U.S. troops in his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, and thousands of his followers waved banners and marched through the neighborhood to back his call for a withdrawal of foreign forces.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Something's Got To Give

The NY Times ran an article on the problematic legal implications of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's wide-ranging confession in particular, and the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings in general. Here's John Yoo, formerly the Bush administration's legal guru on torture and the Geneva Conventions, defending them both:

“K.S.M.’s statements show that he in fact was and is a treasure trove of intelligence information on Al Qaeda,” Professor Yoo said, referring to Mr. Mohammed by his initials. “He knew not just of past plots to attack the United States, but threats that were in motion at the time of his capture, threats that had to be stopped.

"The criminal justice system cannot handle the demand both for an open trial with the right to remain silent and the need to collect that intelligence and act on it swiftly and secretly."

In other words, we can't realistically hold a fair trial and deprive the suspects of their right to remain silent. So obviously, it's the fair trial that goes. Which in turn raises the question of just how you deprive someone of their right to remain silent without resorting to torture.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, March 16, 2007

De-Redacted Transcripts

I read through the redacted transcript of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing pretty closely when it was released two days ago, to write up this post, as well as this one. So I was surprised to read on ABC's The Blotter yesterday that he had confessed to beheading reporter Daniel Pearl:

"I decapitated with blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan," Mohammed said in a written declaration submitted to a military tribunal at Guantanamo last weekend.

Because in the version I'd read, while he'd mentioned Pearl in his rambling closing remarks, he had by no means taken responsibility for his murder. For a moment I wondered whether my memory was serving correctly, or if I could have possibly read past a quote like that. Until I found this in the NY Times article on his hearing:

Though Mr. Mohammed referred to Mr. Pearl in passing in the transcript, he did not confess to the killing.

The mystery was cleared up when I went to double check the transcript and found this notation next to the link: New - Transcript of CSRT (KSM) Hearing (Revised as of 3/15/2007). And sure enough, when I clicked through, the written statement Muhammad filed with the tribunal now read as quoted in The Blotter above.

Noah Shachtman's got a lengthy rundown of some of the debate surrounding the credibility of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's confession over on his Danger Room blog. After all, it's to be expected that an international terrorist might engage in misinformation, both to cover the tracks of the guilty parties, but also to inflate the impact of his image.

But when a heavily redacted transcript of a quasi-legal proceeding is later revised, it raises the question of potential abuse of the proceedings for purposes of misinformation by the US government. Which is the very reason that most critics of the tribunals have argued for more transparent proceedings based on the legal principles of the American judicial tradition.

I emphasize that I am not advancing a moral equivalency argument. There's no comparison between Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and the US government. It's apples and oranges.

But this is Public Relations 101. To try these guys in a Court of Star Chamber only provides propaganda fodder for our enemies by creating martyred heroes, and emboldens them as much if not more than domestic opposition to the Iraq War might. That we're repeating the same mistake mere months after the Saddam Hussein execution debacle is inexcusable.

Update: According to the NY Times, the military blamed the original redaction of the Pearl confession on the need to notify the family. I'm skeptical, if only for the fact that the hearing took place on Saturday, March 10th while the the original transcript wasn't released until Wednesday, March 14th.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Friday, March 16, 2007

If You Can't Walk The Walk

As you might have gathered, I've discovered an entertaining new hobby: Scouring government reports for egregious examples of idiocy and/or hypocrisy. Happily, there's no shortage of either.

To be fair, though, there are also plenty of examples of sound reasoning and insightful analysis. Take the most recent (although obviously dated) National Security Strategy issued by the Bush administration in February 2006. There's a pretty solid rundown of some of the myths and realities surrounding the causes of terrorism:

To wage this battle of ideas effectively, we must be clear-eyed about what does and does not give rise to terrorism:

  • Terrorism is not the inevitable by-product of poverty...
  • Terrorism is not simply a result of hostility to U.S. policy in Iraq...
  • Terrorism is not simply a result of Israeli-Palestinian issues...
  • Terrorism is not simply a response to our efforts to prevent terror attacks... Indeed, the terrorists are emboldened more by perceptions of weakness than by demonstrations of resolve...

The terrorism we confront today springs from:

  • Political alienation...
  • Grievances that can be blamed on others. The failures the terrorists feel and see are blamed on others, and on perceived injustices from the recent or sometimes distant past...
  • Sub-cultures of conspiracy and misinformation. Terrorists recruit more effectively from populations whose information about the world is contaminated by falsehoods and corrupted by conspiracy theories...
  • An ideology that justifies murder. Terrorism ultimately depends upon the appeal of an ideology that excuses or even glorifies the deliberate killing of innocents...

I'd quibble a bit with bit about terrorists being "...emboldened more by perceptions of weakness than by demonstrations of resolve...": The Israeli response to Palestinian terrorism over the past forty years proves conclusively that the target's posture has little to no bearing on the terrorist's boldness. But I can live with the rest. The problem arises in the paragraph that follows:

Defeating terrorism in the long run requires that each of these factors be addressed. The genius of democracy is that it provides a counter to each.

  • In place of alienation, democracy offers an ownership stake in society, a chance to shape one’s own future.
  • In place of festering grievances, democracy offers the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the habits of advancing interests through compromise.
  • In place of a culture of conspiracy and misinformation, democracy offers freedom of speech, independent media, and the marketplace of ideas, which can expose and discredit falsehoods, prejudices, and dishonest propaganda.
  • In place of an ideology that justifies murder, democracy offers a respect for human dignity that abhors the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians. (Emphasis added.)

Don't get me wrong, I am not advancing a moral equivalency argument, or claiming that America is anywhere near becoming a police state. But the hypocrisy needle obviously hits the red when you've got the Bush administration vaunting the benefits of:

  1. The rule of law;
  2. The peaceful resolution of disputes;
  3. Compromise;
  4. And information transparency to counter conspiracy and misinformation.

I understand that these kinds of documents function largely as propaganda devices. But propaganda is very rarely persuasive in the face of evidence to the contrary. Especially when directed at popular opinion that is overtly skeptical, if not hostile, to the propaganists, both of which are now the case among the Islamic world, both Arab and Asian. If the War on Terrorism is really a war of ideas, as the Bush administration (rightly) claims, then consistency matters.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dept. Of Unintended Irony

How's this for back-to-back duelling paragraphs? From the State Department's most recent Weekly Status Report for Iraq:

Ministry of Interior Cleans House:

  • The Ministry of Interior has fired or reassigned more than 10,000 employees,including high-ranking officers, who were found to have tortured prisoners, accepted bribes or had ties to militias. A ministry spokesman said that reports that an internal inquiry included details of numerous human rights abuse at the ministry.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki Condemns “Illegal” UK Raid:

  • Prime Minister Maliki has criticized a raid by British forces on the Iraqi interior ministry's intelligence office in Basrah. A British military spokesman said that the raid on the National Iraqi Intelligence Agency office, where 37 people were held prisoner, had uncovered evidence of torture. However, Maliki has ordered an investigation into the raid, demanding that “those behind this illegal and irresponsible act be punished.”

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Say What?   

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Building Consensus

Reading through the Defense Department's just released report to Congress on security and reconstruction developments in Iraq, a couple things struck me as worth mentioning. First, the "four war" approach to analysing the conflict first articulated by Robert Gates in January is now the party line. So:

  • The conflict in the north is characterized by sectarian tensions, insurgents and extremist attacks, and competition among ethnic groups (Kurd, Arab, Turkomen) for political and economic dominance, including control of the oilfields centered around Kirkuk...
  • Violence in Anbar is characterized by Sunni insurgents and AQI attacks against Coalition forces. AQI and affiliated Sunni extremists are attempting to intimidate the local population into supporting the creation of an Islamic state...
  • Violence in Baghdad, Diyala, and Balad is characterized by sectarian competition for power and influence between AQI and JAM, principally through murders, executions, and high-profile bombings...
  • The conflict in the southern provinces is characterized by tribal rivalry; factional violence among the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)/Badr Organization, the Office of the Martyr Sadr/JAM, and smaller militias for political power; and attacks on Coalition forces...

As Philip Carter made clear in Slate last month, while this analysis helps explain a wide range of otherwise stubborn anomalies (such as how it is that "...we [are] making tangible progress in developing Iraq's security forces, government, and economy, yet the overall security situation [is] worsening..."), it is not an encouraging sign for our chances of success over there.

But what really caught my eye was this handy little table (AQI = Al Qaeda Iraq, JAM = Jaysh al Mahdi):

Goals of Key Destabilizing Elements in Iraq

Group

Goals

Sunni Insurgents

  • Expel U.S. and Coalition forces from Iraq
  • Topple the “unity” government
  • Re-establish Sunni governance in Anbar and Diyala

AQI

  • Force Coalition forces withdrawal
  • Gain territory to export conflict
  • Provoke clash between Islam and others
  • Establish caliphate with Shari’a governance

JAM

  • Force Coalition forces withdrawal
  • Consolidate control over Baghdad and the GOI
  • Exert control over security institutions
  • Implement Shari’a governance

All emphasis is my own. But while it should come as no surprise that our armed adversaries in Iraq would be happy to see us leave, it's worth recalling that this correlates pretty strongly with the last public opinion polling in Iraq, from September 2006, which found that 71% of the population wanted American forces to leave within a year.

But wait, there's more. Because it turns out that this also happens to be the preference of roughly 60% of Americans. So the real question right now is, Given that all the interested parties want American forces to withdraw, how is it that what's instead taking place is a prolonged escalation of our military presence?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

So, Is That A Yes?

A little gem from today's White House press briefing, regarding the rapidly spreading US Attorney scandal:

Q: On the attorneys, you mentioned that these firings were not done as political retaliation or retribution. If we're going to talk about, kind of, the President's powers, though, if any of the firings were for political retribution, is that within his purview, as well?

MR. SNOW: Let me put it this way: Again, the President has the authority to remove people who serve at his pleasure. And these are folks who had four-year terms, all of which had expired. 

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

What's In A Name

George M. Cohan (1878-1942):

I don't care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.

Whodini, Big Mouth (1984):

Well you can say whatcha want but spell my name right.

Sheikh Khalid Muhammad, Gitmo CSRT transcript (2007):

Lastly, my name is misspelled in the Summary of Evidence. It should be S-h-a-i-k-h or S-h-e-i-k-h, but not S-h-a-y-k-h, as it is in the subject line.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Language Of War

The Pentagon just released the redacted, unclassified transcript of Khalid Sheik Muhammad's Enemy Combatant Status Review. It makes for some pretty fascinating reading, if only for how banal the whole thing comes across on paper. All the emotion of 9/11 and its aftermath, including two wars and the resulting national upheaval, reduced to the dry back and forth of a legal proceeding. (With the exception being that in most court transcripts, the names of the judge and officers aren't redacted.)

I could talk about the summary way in which the presiding JAG denied Muhammad's witnesses. Or the Kafka-esque effect of seeing the following in an American legal proceeding:

Authentification

I certify the material contained in this transcript is a true and accurate verbatim rendering of the testimony and English language translation of Detainee's words given during the open session of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal of ISN 10024.

[REDACTED]
CAPT JAGC USN
Tribunal President

But the upshot is that Muhammad confessed to being responsible for planning and organizing the 9/11 attacks, as well as a long list of other terrorist attacks and assassination attempts (Bill Clinton, Pakistani President Musharraf & Pope John Paul II). He called death "the language of war", and regretted killing innocents, but claimed it was no different from America targetting the homes of terrorist leaders while their families were present. He also claimed, in a written statement that was filed but only briefly mentioned, that he'd been tortured.

Muhammad was responsible for both military planning and media operations, and it's striking how capable he was in both regards. One of the targets he admitted to planning for was the Panama Canal, which is about as well-chosen a target as I can think of in terms of its combination of low profile and high impact.

And in his defense he pointed out that were George Washington to have been captured by the British, they would have labelled him an enemy combatant. Which doesn't stop us from calling him a hero.

We sometimes fall prey, I think, to picturing our enemies as a bunch of backwards guys in caves reciting verses from the Koran. But if we can learn anything from Khalid Sheik Muhammad, it's that these guys are pretty competent at what they do. More so, from the looks of things, than some of the guys who've been running gonzo operations out of the Pentagon and OVP for the past six years.

And like it or not, there are a lot of people throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and Southeast Asia who think of them as heros. We'd do well to start integrating that into our conception of how to defeat them, so that two hundred years from now no one's calling Khalid Sheik Muhammad a Muslim George Washington.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bandwidth Desertification

I've often thought that at some point in the not so distant future we'll find ourselves looking back on our current internet usage with a sense of wonder at all the bandwidth at our disposal. "Remember when," I can almost hear us saying, "we didn't think twice about downloading some random YouTube video and sending it around, just because it was kind of funny?" That day might be sooner than we realize.

We're still operating under the assumptions of the bandwidth glut of the overbuilt dotcom bubble. Which is one of the reasons that the business models for sites like YouTube and Flickr, to say nothing about file sharing sites, make sense. What they'll look like once bandwidth limits are the norm, though, I'm not so sure.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hiccup In The N. Korea Deal

Better get those corks back in the champagne bottles, and the confetti back in the packages. Because according to this WaPo article, the N. Koreans have refused to shut down their main nuclear reactor, as agreed, until we lift a freeze on their accounts in a Macao bank, also as agreed. We had thirty days to do so. Day thirty was today, and it's not yet clear whether the steps the US Treasury Dept. has taken will be sufficient to un-freeze the accounts. To be continued...

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Iran And The Israel Lobby

Scott McConnell's got an interesting article in The American Conservative on how the Iran question is driving a wedge between mainstream American Jewish opinion and the American Jewish "Israel lobby" (AIPAC, ADL, AJC), with the latter significantly more hawkish, and outspokenly so, regarding a potential American military intervention in Iran than the former. He then describes the dangers involved in, a) criticizing the lobby groups, and b) disagreeing with them, both for journalists and politicians. But he concludes by suggesting that bloggers, and Jewish bloggers in particular, have recently managed to puncture the lobby groups aura of invincibility, citing Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and yours truly (I'm quoted as a "regrettably anonymous" commenter on Ezra Klein's blog) as examples.

I think there's no disputing the fact that American Jews wield a disproportionate influence over America's Israel policy, in the same way that American Cubans wield a disproportionate influence over America's Cuba policy. And both have a sort of veto power over who gets elected based on their respective single issue litmus tests.

The difference lies in how generalized the veto power is. Someone running for Congress in Miami doesn't stand much chance of getting elected on a pro-Castro platform. I'm not sure it poses a problem for someone running in South Dakota, on the other hand.

Not so with the Israel lobby. Apparently, no one makes it to Washington, or the NY Times editorial board, unless they toe the AIPAC line. So goes a certain line of thought, anyway. One that, while often condemned (by the Israel lobby) for echoing the anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish "cabal", is not necessarily untrue.

Besides the paragraph quoted from my comment, though, I find this to be the most intriguing passage in McConnell's article:

It may be beyond the American people’s power to stop George W. Bush from launching another preventive war. But even though the president and his top advisers can isolate themselves from currents of public opinion, that is less the case for top military officers. And it is far more likely that they will find ways to raise meaningful speedbumps and roadblocks on the route to an expanded war if there is a large enough public outcry against it. Right now there is not.

I've often seen civilian command of the Armed Forces cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the military. This is the first time I've seen the military cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the civilian command.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Media Coverage   Politics   

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"Anytime a guy with a ponytail is telling me what to do, I get bummed out."

--Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park, on the Venice, California community board meetings he's been forced to attend to get the height of his front-yard fence approved.

From Rolling Stone.

Posted by Judah in:  Quote Of The Day   

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Lil Jon Has Not Left The Building

I'm not sure if there's anything new here. A rapper enjoys some success, and quickly branches out into endorsements and product placement to maximize "auxiliary income". The massive deflation of what qualifies as famous, coupled with the expansion of blanket marketing in general, makes for ubiquitous semi-celebrities hawking everything from perfume to video games to ring tones (a $5 billion market).

Still, it seems like a leap to claim, as does Lil Jon the King of Crunk (wtf?), that, "Once you get popular, you have a brand... You have to market that brand." Not that there wouldn't be something ironic about contemporary rap artists actually becoming brands, given how much the music's early iconography owed to brand consciousness. I'm just not so sure how much that's actually happening.

Certainly in rap as in basketball, the balance of power has shifted between the star and the product manufacturer. Whereas before Adidas or Nike or Converse had a lineup of NBA stars who got a shoe designed and named after them, now certain players or rappers have a lineup of products that represent different facets of their salable image.

But the difference between a brand and a fad, or even a brand and a businessman, is kind of like the famous Potter Stewart definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. Shaq is a brand. 'Melo? Please. Sean Coombs? Arguable, but I'll give it to you. Jay-Z? Sorry.

But it still begs the question, What's new here? Long before there was MTV Cribs, people were lining up to tour Graceland. Twenty years after his death, Elvis the King of Rock 'n Roll is still a brand. Lil Jon the King of Crunk? Nah, I don't think so.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Arts & Letters   

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Bush's False Market Rally

Here's an interesting point from a comment thread on Barry Ritholz's business and market blog, The Big Picture. The post in question shows a graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average divided by the price of gold. While the two track pretty closely for more than a decade, they diverge sharply beginning in 2003, when the ratio begins to fall dramatically and steadily (ie. a unit of DJIA buys less and less gold). Barry wondered whether anyone had a reasonable explanation for the divergence, and one commenter proposed the following:

It means that the value of the Dow has gone up when priced in dollars, but down when priced in gold. It's a currency question, implying that the market rally is just US dollar inflation. What the divergence is saying is that the price of gold is going up and the price of dollars is going down. We get lazy and forget that whenever you look at a "regular" chart of the Dow, it compares two variables: Dow and U.S. dollars.

Chart the Dow in dollars and we have a multi-year rally.
Chart the Dow in euros and we're pretty much flat.
Chart the Dow in gold and we've been falling for a while now.

The chart implies then that the US stock market rally is an illusion, we just *think* the markets are going up, but really it's just the currency going down.

I'm not enough of a financial wiz to offer any analysis, but it struck me as something to consider. 

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Catch-23?

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the Pentagon has begun planning a fallback option in the event that the current Baghdad troop Surge "...fails or is derailed by Congress." Although only in its initial planning phase and already the subject of fierce internal opposition, it would in its broadest terms amount to a redux of the "El Salvador model": re-deploying the bulk of American forces "out of harm's way," and committing the remainder to training and advisory roles. Or in other words, a return to the failed Iraq strategy that preceded the Surge.

I came up with the following graphic, in an olive drab color scheme, to help simplify the military logic:

War planning. From the folks who brought you the $700 toilet seat.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

That's A Dis

Last Thursday, the State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights, detailing the human rights practices of 196 countries around the world. In response, the Chinese Information Office of the State Council published its own report, titled The Human Rights Record of the US in 2006, which focuses on the human rights practices of, predictably enough, the United States.

Crime, poverty, racial discrimination, political corruption, judicial misconduct and malfeasance, prison conditions, and police brutality all figure prominently. But the coup de grace is undoubtedly the section that focuses on the human rights abuses involved with the Global War on Terror. The Chinese report concludes:

The United States has lorded it over other countries by condemning other countries' human rights practices while ignoring its own problems, which exposes its double standard and hegemonism on the human rights issue. We urge the U.S. government to acknowledge its own human rights problems and stop interfering in other countries' internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.

Remember when it was easy to write a reply like that off as wooden propaganda?

Posted by Judah in:  China   Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Could You Take Cheney With You?

Call it a marketing-driven strategy to realign their corporate structure with their brand identity. Or call it a logistics-driven admission that even in this age of rapid communication, nothing makes up for geographical proximity to their board of directors. Or else call it a case of truth at long last revealed. Call it what you will, but Halliburton just announced that they'll be moving their corporate headquarters to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Odds & Ends   Say What?   

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Snow Blindness

It's amazing the disconnect that results from even a short time away from the information interface that my computer has become. With the exception of two brief e-mail & homepage checks, I was basically internet-free for the past four days. Not much time away from the news cycles, you might think. But enough for a few of the blogs I cover to clear out their homepages several times over. To say nothing of the news dailies, which I haven't yet had the courage to check in with. And enough, it now seems as I slowly start to get back into the swing of things, to feel totally out of the loop. Jet-lagged. Disconnected.

Yes, the internet has speeded up the transfer of information around the planet. But it's also created quite a bit of overload, a white noise that can settle over the information landscape like a blanket of snow. Especially if given enough time to settle. And apparently four days is enough, because I feel snowed in.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Friday, March 9, 2007

Open Thread

Posts will be light for the next few days. Me & the Lil' Feller are in a rustic little beach town on the other side of the peninsula (in every sense of the word) from St. Tropez. It's off-season, we've got the beach and the hotel to ourselves, and we'll be catching up on a little father & son stuff: sand castles, pizza & ice cream, boat rides and such. Feel free to drop any interesting links in the comments.

Posted by Judah in:  Open Thread   

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Kobe's Got Issues

I think he needs an Anger Management Program.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Before The Shooting Starts

The Freakanomics Statistical Analysis of the Month Award goes to Richard Gelles, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice, for his explanation of the graphic you see below.

You'll notice that back in 1976, the number of women killed by their intimate partners was 18% greater than that of men. Fast forward 30 years, and while both numbers have decreased significantly, there are now three times as many women getting killed by their intimate partners as there are men.

Counterintuitively (as the best Freakanomics analyses always are), this is actually, according to Gelles, a good sign:

The disproportion in fatalities, while seemingly adverse to women, reflects a major gain... Abusive men are killed less often now because women can get free of them more easily.

"We've eliminated a good deal of defensive homicide by giving women easier access to shelters and ERs and by measures such as mandatory arrest laws" that restrain or punish abusive spouses, Gelles said.

I follow the logic, and agree that it makes sense. But this is why I would make a lousy social scientist. Hand me that statistic and I'm wondering what the hell is going wrong.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number

There's something chillingly Kafka-esque about this from McClatchy:

The Defense Department said Tuesday that hearings for 14 "high-value detainees," including the alleged mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, will start Friday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but that reporters would be barred from the procedures.

The 14 were held in secret CIA prisons for up to four years, and none is known to have appeared before a hearing of any sort before the group was transferred to Guantanamo in September. Questions have repeatedly been raised about whether the 14 were tortured while in CIA detention.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said at a news briefing that the hearings will be closed "based on national security concerns." He promised to release censored transcripts "as expeditiously as we can," but said officials had decided not to provide the names of the suspects, even after the transcripts have been released...

The hearings, which also exclude attorneys, are likely to be the prelude to a decision by President Bush to try the 14 men before military commissions that Congress established last year.

No reporters. No lawyers. No names. And, of course, no doubt as to the outcome. Really, if this is what it's finally come to, what's the point? Other than to intimidate and, yes, to terrorize, I mean. What purpose does this entire excercise serve anymore?

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

All The King's Daughters

From Fox News:

A 19-year-old Saudi woman who was kidnapped, beaten and gang raped by seven men who then took photos of their victim and threatened to kill her, was sentenced under the country's Islamic-based law to 90 lashes for the "crime" of being alone with a man not related to her.

The woman is appealing to Saudi King Abdullah to intervene in the controversial case.

"I ask the king to consider me as one of his own daughters and have mercy on me and set me free from the 90 lashes," the woman said in an emotional interview published Monday in the Saudi Gazette.

The day before International Women's Day, in the year 2007.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Robin Hood? Or Scarface?

From The Army Times comes the story of Spc. Luke Sommer, an Army Ranger who used his $20,000 re-enlistment bonus to finance a bank heist that he and four buddies, two of them fellow Rangers, pulled off with "military-style precision." That is, unless you ignore the part about a witness jotting down the getaway car's license plate number, allowing the FBI to track down the car the following morning parked inside the gated compound of Fort Lewis, WA. They quickly bagged evidence of the crime and four of the five suspects.

Sommer, a dual American-Canadian citizen who's fighting extradiction from Canada, claims the robbery was intended as a publicity stunt to call attention to war crimes he witnessed while on tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Asst. US Attorney handling the case claims that e-mails and IMs found on Sommers seized computer reveal a plan to use the proceeds from the robbery to finance a criminal organization in Canada.

The case is interesting for more than just the intrigue of Somers' claims, which in all likelihood won't keep him from doing time. It raises the question of what impact the Iraq War will have on the generation that's fighting it.

For a while I've thought that the practical (as opposed to the ethical and moral) problem with torture once it's practiced by American agents abroad is that, sooner or later, the torturers come home. Same goes for occupying a foreign country. Eventually the occupiers come home, too. And at least some of them will return with the sense of omnipotence that being young, armed and all-powerful can instill.

That's why traditionally democracies make lousy occupying powers (the obvious exceptions being the post-War occupation of Germany and Japan), and why occupations so often corrupt democracies.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Global War On Terror   Iraq   Say What?   

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Which General Are You?

Military.com has got a fun little personality test: Four quick questions about a hypothetical battle situation, to determine which historical general you most resemble. Fun, fast and intriguing. Post your results in the comments.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard, philosopher and sociologist, pillar of the deconstructionist movement, has died at the age of 77. From Le Monde:

A product of the events of May 1968, this internationally renowned thinker elaborated, over the course of forty years, a radical critique of the media, bathed in humour and irony.

His philosophy, based on a critique of traditional scientific thought, rested on the concept of the visible world as virtual construct. (Translated from the French.)

I suppose what makes death so real is that it's not visible.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

US Attorney Hearings

Anyone following the US Attorneys story should definitely head over to TPM and TPMmuckraker for some great team coverage of today's hearings, including video highlights and updates. In case this story's flown under your radar, it's basically a methodology of how the GOP, through the Bush Department of Justice, fired eight US Attorneys for either not filing corruption indictments of local Democrats in advance of last November's election, or for pursuing corruption cases against Republicans.

Gitmo, Jose Padilla, the torture memos, the Iraq War, warrantless surveillance, the Libby conviction, the US Attorneys. The common thread that connects them all is an assault on the rule of law. Not surprising for an administration that was essentially installed by a rigged Supreme Court decision.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Media Coverage   Politics   

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Monday, March 5, 2007

Putin's Dead Critics

Not too long ago, reader RGM linked to this New Yorker article in the comments. It discusses the increasing frequency with which Russian journalists who are critical of Vladimir Putin or his policies wind up dead. Thirteen since 2000, to be exact, with the circumstances ranging from suspicious to contract-style.

Add another one to the suspicious category.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Russia   

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Monday, March 5, 2007

The Fear Factor

Harper's just posted an Edward Luttwak article from the February print issue on its website. Titled "Dead End: Counterinsurgency warfare as military malpractice", it makes the case that the Army's new counterinsurgency manual authored by Gen. Dave Petraeus, of Baghdad Surge fame, is basically a crock.

Luttwak agrees that counterinsurgency is a political struggle. But he takes issue with Petraeus' reliance on the received wisdom that better governance can drive a wedge between an insurgency and the general population that sometimes actively, but more often passively, harbors it:

The hidden assumption here is that there is only one kind of politics in this world, a politics in which popular support is important or even decisive, and that such support can be won by providing better government. Yet the extraordinary persistence of dictatorships as diverse in style as the regimes of Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Syria shows that in fact government needs no popular support as long as it can secure obedience.

Luttwak argues that historically, insurgencies have been most effectively denied safe harbor through the adoption of the very tactics used by the insurgents to intimidate the local population into silence or cooperation. Specifically, collective punishment, random retaliation, and the occasional massacre. Tactics used by the ancient Romans, the Ottoman Empire, the Nazi Germans, to mention only a few:

Occupiers can thus be successful without need of any specialized counterinsurgency methods or tactics if they are willing to out-terrorize the insurgents, so that the fear of reprisals outweighs the desire to help the insurgents or their threats.

(It is also, not coincidentally, the method used by Saddam Hussein in the Shiite town of Dujail, for which he was sentenced to death, although Luttwak makes no mention of this.)

For Luttwak, the conclusion is self-evident:

It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or of any other democratic country cannot possibly use them.

He holds out some hope for the use of mandatory administrative functions (licenses, permits, travel documents, etc.) as a means of coercing the general population into cooperation, but concludes by condemning,

...a United States government that is willing to fight wars, that is willing to start wars because of future threats, that is willing to conquer territory or even entire countries, and yet is unwilling to govern what it conquers, even for a few years.

All in all, a pretty scathing indictment of the philosophical underpinnings of what amounts to our last chance in Iraq.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, March 5, 2007

The Squeaky Wheel

Looks like Vladimir Putin's harsh words in Munich last month got some results. Which means that in the past week, the Bush administration has:

  1. Decided to negotiate with the N. Koreans;
  2. Agreed to join Iran and Syria in a regional conference about Iraq;
  3. Begun to actually treat Russia like the global power it is.

You'd almost get the feeling they're toying with the idea of re-joining the reality-based community. Seriously, though, what goes through your head when the collective delusion wears off and you realize that you very nearly brought the whole house of cards down?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Russia   

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Sir Charles Goes Up Strong

Charles Barkley on Scottie Pippen's comeback pipedream:

Barkley: Scottie... I don't know what he's thinking. That's not a good idea. Not a good idea at all.

Interviewer: Why not?

Barkley: Cuz he cain't play. He retired cuz he couldn't play. He hasn't gotten better in the last couple years... You retire cuz you can't play anymore. So, you don't get better sitting at home. You might feel better. But you don't get better.

In other words, get off the cri-zack, Scottie. Check out the video interview here.

Via Matthom.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Another Success For Market Deregulation

It's become something of a common wisdom that the housing market is being threatened with collapse by the proliferation of subprime mortgages. What's less commonly understood is how these mortgages have come to make up 20-25% of all mortgages currently approved. Here's the key graf from a Christian Science Monitor piece on the problem:

Deregulation has allowed the mortgage industry to create products like the no-down-payment mortgage and the even riskier "no documentation" loan where all borrowers have to do is state their income without providing proof of their ability to repay the loan. (Emphasis added.)

In the face of rising foreclosures and stormclouds on the horizon, Congress is already vetting proposals for more active regulation, and Fannie Mae is busy putting together "rescue" products to help bail strapped homeowners out before they default.

Trouble is, the Federal Trade Commission was aware of abuses in the subprime lending market as far back as 1998, as this report appropriately titled "Home Equity Lending Abuses in the Subprime Mortgage Industry" shows. The only difference being that back then, the major abuses were targeted towards minorities and the elderly, whereas now they're generalized.

Funny how conservatives are so keen to regulate who gets married, but couldn't care less about who gets screwed.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

China's Military Shopping Spree

When he was in Australia last week, Dick Cheney wondered how China's rising military expenditures square with their stated aim of a peaceful rise to global superpower status. Now comes a WaPo article reporting that the 2007 Chinese military budget has indeed increased by 18%. Care to wager a guess in the comments as to what that brings their entire military budget to, before clicking through for the answer? (Remember, don't spoil it for everyone else once you've gotten the answer.)

Posted by Judah in:  China   

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Ann Coulter's Comic Genius

The fascinating thing about Ann Coulter is that when you take her out of the context of political debate and put her into the context of political satire where she belongs, she's actually kind of funny. In the same way, albeit with less intelligence, that Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are funny. (Or Dennis Miller, if he actually were funny.) Which is to say, crudely, offensively and often childishly.

What makes her uniquely brilliant, though, is that unlike Maher, Stewart, and Colbert, her schtick actually does as much damage to the right as it does to the left. How? Because she develops her caricature of "liberals" (by which she means anyone to the left of Chuck Hagel) as weak, gay, traitors. But she does it by adopting a persona that is itself a caricature of the rightwing nutjobs that make up the bulk of her cheering section. Which is why she's at the same time so effective and so radioactive.

Think about it. Ann Coulter is the only controversial or provocative figure in the three ring circus that passes for contemporary American politics who could conceivably switch sides of the aisle on a moment's notice without changing one word of her act. (Okay, Joe Lieberman probably could, too, but that's another story.) All it would take would be a subtle gesture (and it could remain very subtle) to tip off the audience, and the joke would suddenly be on the other guys. She'd remain just as crude, offensive and childish. But the humor would be just as effective.

Just like with Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat character, the salient aspect of Ann Coulter's routine isn't any given remark she herself makes. It's the response that she's able to elicit, both from her conservative supporters and her liberal targets, that matters. That's why Democrats calling for apologies and denunciations play right into her game and let the GOP off the hook. Hold them to their immediate reaction, there in the room, which revealed them for the caricatures they've become. And give Ann Coulter's comic genius its due.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Politics   

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Saturday, March 3, 2007

Now That's A Quote

Say what you want about Shaq's game, his heart, his work ethic. Just don't question his mouth. Cuz the Big Aristotle is still the most quote-worthy big man in the history of the game:

“I take it personal when people don’t double me,” O’Neal said. “It’s against my religion not to double me.”

Shaq: The religion. Classic.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Saturday, March 3, 2007

Radioactive Supply & Demand

One of the consequences of skyrocketing gas & oil prices, political and geological uncertainties surrounding existing supplies, and growing concerns about greenhouse gas-producing emissions has been a dramatic increase in the number of uranium-powered nuclear reactors either under construction or already brought online in the past decade. Reactors that were fed by existing stockpiles of uranium leftover from nuclear power's 1970's glory days. But now that those supplies have dwindled, there's been a global run on uranium. So much so that the price has jumped from roughly $10/pound ten years ago to $85/pound today. And with yearly demand far outpacing production, the pressure on price doesn't look like it will let up anytime soon.

Uranium. It's the new oil.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   The Natural World   

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Saturday, March 3, 2007

Sorry? More Like, Thanks Guys

How's this for a scenario? Ann Coulter calls John Edwards a "faggot" at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference). The audience gasps, then breaks into a round of applause. The following day, DNC boss Howard Dean drops a press release stating:

"The conservative base of the GOP has once again revealed their devotion to gay-baiting, hateful rhetoric, to go along with their gay-baiting, hateful policies. We're very grateful, because it puts into stark contrast the real difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties. On the one hand, a tradition of social progressivism that's resulted in all of the significant Civil Rights gains and social welfare advances of the past century. And on the other, a tradition of racism, homophobia, and social regression. We'd like to thank Ms. Coulter, and all of the GOP candidates who shared the stage with her, for making this choice crystal clear for the American people. You just saved us tons of dough in campaign advertising."

Unfortunately, we live in the real world, and Howard Dean instead called on the GOP candidates to denounce her remarks. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, March 3, 2007

Tomorrow's Al-Qaeda Today

For a clearer look at how the new American regional strategy for the Middle East described in the Seymour Hersh piece will play out, check out this report from Iraq Slogger. The Mujahiden e-Khalq is an armed Iranian opposition group that operated out of Iraq with the full support of Saddam Hussein. Designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US, they were disarmed and their bases dismantled after the 2003 invasion as a gesture of evenhandedness towards Iran, to say nothing of consistency with our own stated terrorism policies. But all that seems to have changed now:

The Sadrist Nahrain Net website reports increased contacts between Jordanian and Saudi authorities and the Iranian Mujahiden e-Khalq (MEK) opposition group in the Jordanian capital, according to sources in the Iraqi Accord Front. Immigration officials at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman received instructions from the Jordanian Interior Minister last month to facilitate the entry and movement of MEK members carrying Iraqi and foreign passports, the website said, adding that the MEK has opened an official branch in Amman following a recommendation from the CIA to Jordanian authorities. The website also quotes unnamed Arab diplomats in Amman, who said that Saudi Arabia has also made a decision to embrace and fund Iranian opposition groups, such as the MEK, the Balochistani Jund Allah Movement and Ahwazi Arab groups, in an attempt to face the rising Iranian influence in the region. Encouraged by U.S. officials, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan had met with an MEK delegation and promised them full support, the diplomats said.

Remember, the US is currently isolating Syria for, among other things, harboring headquarters of Hamas and Hezbollah, which can both arguably claim to have political wings in addition to their armed terrorist sections. Now we're involved in the same tactics. Shortsighted at best. Shameful at worst.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Let's You And Him Fight?

I'm not sure where this fits in, but it does seem to resonate with the Seymour Hersh story I mentioned the other day. Apparently Israeli and Western intelligence agencies are worried about a growing concentration of Sunni global jihadists in the southern Lebanon city of Tyre. The main concern, obviously, is the potential for attacks against Israel, Jordan, and the UN peacekeeping forces stationed in southern Lebanon.

But the article goes on to mention some tensions between the groups and Hezbollah, resulting from their sectarian (Sunni-Shiite) differences, and also from Hezbollah's insistance on veto-power over all locally-staged operations. Hersh suggested that the new American strategy in the region was to encourage the latter (internecine turf wars), and trust the Saudis to contain the former (any collateral damage to ourselves and our allies).

Looks like we'll see how that little gamble turns out soon enough.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Global War On Terror   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

The Swiss Navy

Here's one that's good for a laugh, until you transpose it onto another part of the world. Apparently, a company of Swiss infantry accidentally "invaded" Liechtenstein when they wandered across an unmarked border in a nighttime training excercise. They got about a mile into the small principality before realizing their mistake and heading back. Liechtenstein's response was basically, No harm, no foul. As well you might expect from a country that has no standing army.

Now imagine for a second an American infantry company on maneuvers in Iraq, that accidentally wanders a mile into Iran. Think they'd get that far without being noticed? Think Iran's response would be, No harm, no foul?

I don't subscribe to the idea that dialogue with Iran is some magic bullet that will instantly resolve all the differences between us. But it could help to keep hypothetical misunderstandings from turning into real conflagrations. And that's good for something.

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   International Relations   Iran   Odds & Ends   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Buck O'Neil Interview

This one isn't a headline, but it's definitely worth a read for all the baseball lovers who check in with the site. In honor of spring training, here's Buck O'Neil on his life in baseball.

Posted by Judah in:  Hoops, Hardball & Fisticuffs   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

We Don't Need Another Hero

I understand Democrats' desire for a champion who's not only got the cojones to stand up to Republican bully tactics, but who also seems capable of giving them a fat lip, bloody nose and a black eye while they're at it. After all, Al Gore's civility in the face of the Supreme Court's electoral intervention in December 2000, as well as Democrats' solemn solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq War, suddenly became sources of shame when it became clear that Bush & Co. had been playing them for suckers from the very start.

So don't get me wrong. I recognize the need he fills with his tough-talking, moral indictments of the Bush administration. But still, I can't help but consider Keith Olbermann a sanctimonious windbag who's difficult to take very seriously. And all the comparisons to Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch only reinforce that feeling. Am I missing something?

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Odds & Ends   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Now That Wasn't So Hard, Was It?

A "Senior Administration Official" flies out to Pakistan to warn Gen. Musharraf that unless he gets serious about cracking down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda camps on the Afghan frontier, he can expect some serious consequences from the newly-Democratic Congress. Three days later, Pakistan announces the capture of the highest-level Taliban to date, the former Defense Minister and a senior leader in the Afghan insurgency, Mullah Obaidullah.

Good thing the GOP is the party of national security.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Global War On Terror   International Relations   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

Foxy Brown Lockdown Watch

I try to stay away from the Cult of Celebrity coverage. But this one is just too good to be true. Rapper Foxy Brown just pled guilty to her second probation violation, technically for leaving NY State without prior permission from authorities. I'll let UPI take it from there:

Brown, 27, was sentenced in October to three years' probation, anger management classes and random drug tests after pleading guilty to assaulting two manicurists at a New York nail salon.

Her first strike came in January when she was let go from the anger management program for allegedly threatening an employee.

Her second strike came Feb. 15, when, after leaving town without permission, she was arrested in Florida for allegedly fighting with a beauty supply shop owner and a police officer. She was charged with battery and obstruction of justice. (Emphasis added.)

Despite prosecutors' requests for jail time, the judge apparently felt it wiser to defer to the rules of baseball rather than those of common sense. Meaning it will take a Third Strike, most likely in the form of another major league beatdown doled out to yet another beauty shop worker, before Ms. Brown gets locked up.

Which ought to be any day now, given how well the anger management classes seem to be working.

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Add This To The Mix

There is one area of Iraq where Iran is not only not denying their intentions to intervene, they're actually announcing them. By way of Le Monde, Iran has threatened military action against an armed Iranian Kurdish group based in Iraqi Kurdistan if the Iraqi government doesn't take action against them. The group, PJAK, is the Iranian wing of the Kurdish PKK party. Operating from bases established in the Qandil mountains that lie on the border of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, PJAK has mounted raids into Iranian and Turkish territory for the past two years. According to the Iranians, violent battles have accounted for 40 PJAK deaths, with 7 Iranians killed, in the past week alone.

If the Iraqi government doesn't act, warned Yahya Rahim Safavi, a Revolutionary Guard commander, cited by the Iranian news agency Mehr, "...we reserve the right to pursue them beyond the (Iranian) border." (Translated from the French.)

The Iranians claim the group is armed and financed by the Americans and British. According to an article on the Kurdish nationalist site Kurdishinfo.com:

Turkey and Iran are amassing troops along the Iraqi Kurdish border in a planned joint operation against the Partiye Krekarani Kurdistane (PKK), which is lodged in the Qandil mountains and launching attacks against Turkish and Iranian security targets. Although the Kurdish elite emphasize that their autonomous region is not a staging ground for terrorist activities, Massoud Barzani threatened that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would retaliate if the region was militarily attacked by Turkey and Iran.

People have a tendency to think of Iraqi Kurdistan as the one trouble-free part of the country. But there are all sorts of potential troublespots that have to do with the Kurds' fierce desire for independence, and the Turks' and Iranians' fierce desire to maintain the status quo. And while the Kirkuk referendum being reportedly postponed for two years gives everyone some breathing room, stories like today's show how easily things could still go haywire.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   International Relations   

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Office That Wasn't

I was a little busy last week to really get to Seymour Hersh's New York Magazine article on the shift allegedly taking place in American Middle East policy. But it's worth taking a second look at, and for more than just the sensational excerpts that have made the rounds. In case you haven't read it, it makes the following claims:

  • That elements of the Bush administration have identified the containment of Iran, whose influence has grown significantly as a result of the Iraq War, as America's highest regional priority.
  • That according to these elements, the most effective way to do this is to enlist Sunni proxies throughout the broader region, and in particular in Lebanon and Syria, to combat Iranian proxies and their interests.
  • That many of these Sunni proxies are cut from the same radical, extremist mold as al-Qaeda.
  • That the Saudis are largely underwriting the initiative, both from a financial and diplomatic standpoint, with assurances that they'll be able to keep the radical Sunni groups under control.
  • That a great deal of the American side of the initiative is being run covertly, in the manner of the Iran-Contras scheme, with no Congressional oversight.

Here's the operative paragraph from Hersh's article for the last claim:

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal... One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”... (Emphasis added.)

Why the Office of the VP? Well, as Tom Engelhardt points out in the Nation, because it's become something of a bureaucratic black hole in Washington. David Kurtz made the same observation over at TPM. And later followed it up with this pseudo-explanation offered by the OVP to justify their refusal to even provide a list of the personnel assigned to its staff to a Federal registry:

The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).

Notice that it is neither a part of the executive nor the legislative branch, rather than a part of both. The implication being that as a result of this Constitutional ambiguity, the Vice President is free to operate as a free electron within the Federal government, subject to absolutely no oversight.

These guys have taken what's historically been considered the most impotent office in the Federal government and transformed it into the most powerful, beyond even the limits of the separation of powers. It's time to do something about that.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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