Thursday, March 31, 2005

At Last, Something We Can All Agree On....

There has to be a joke somewhere that starts, "A Rabbi, a priest, and a mufti go into to a bar..." but the news conference in Jerusalem attended by "Israel's two chief rabbis, the patriarchs of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, and three senior Muslim prayer leaders" was no laughing matter. Does this group signify the nascent emergence of a new interfaith coalition seeking to bring peace to the divided holy land? Not exactly. These religious leaders joined together for a rare display of unity in order to spread a message of love and tolerance hate and bigotry. Specifically, these representatives of the region's religions convened to form a common front against the prospect of a WorldPride festival planned for Jerusalem by an international gay rights organization seeking to raise awareness of gay issues and foster tolerance and acceptance.

The festival is planned for Aug. 18-28 and is expected to draw thousands of visitors from dozens of countries. The theme is "Love Without Borders," and a centerpiece will be a parade on Aug. 25 through Jerusalem, a city that remains deeply conservative, though other parts of Israel have become increasingly accepting of gays in recent years. Other events include a film festival, art exhibits and a conference for clerics.
Although the leaders in question are from Israel, conservative American evangelicals have managed to play a role in countering the event.

Interfaith agreement is unusual in Israel. The leaders' joint opposition was initially generated by the Rev. Leo Giovinetti, an evangelical pastor from San Diego who is both a veteran of the American culture war over homosexuality and a frequent visitor to Israel, where he has formed relationships with rabbis and politicians.
Thanks reverend for seeking to export the more virulent strains of our culture wars. A look at some of the hate-filled rhetoric is enough to make you wax secular. So much for "Love Without Borders," or "hate the sin, love the sinner":

Mr. Giovinetti circulated a petition against the festival, titled "Homosexuals to Desecrate Jerusalem," which he said had been signed by every member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party in the Israeli Parliament....

"They are creating a deep and terrible sorrow that is unbearable," Shlomo Amar, Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi...."It hurts all of the religions. We are all against it"...

Abdel Aziz Bukhari, a Sufi sheik, added: "We can't permit anybody to come and make the Holy City dirty. This is very ugly and very nasty to have these people come to Jerusalem"....

Rabbi Yehuda Levin, of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, which says it represents more than 1,000 American Orthodox rabbis...called the festival "the spiritual rape of the Holy City." He said, "This is not the homo land, this is the Holy Land."
On the plus side, there are religious leaders and organizations that encourage the mission of WorldPride and other groups that seek to foster common bonds and a truer sense of love, tolerance, and compassion - central messages of all the religions in question as a matter of fact.

Organizers of the gay pride event, Jerusalem WorldPride 2005, said that 75 non-Orthodox rabbis had signed a statement of support for the event, and that Christian and Muslim leaders as well as Israeli politicians were expected to announce their support soon. They said they were dismayed to see that what united their opponents was their objection to homosexuality.

"That is something new I've never witnessed before, such an attempt to globalize bigotry," said Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of Jerusalem Open House, a gay and lesbian group that is the host for the festival. "It's quite sad and ironic that these religious figures are coming together around such a negative message"....

"I reject that they have the right to define religion in such a narrow way," Rabbi Kleinbaum said of religious leaders who denounce homosexuality. "Gay and lesbian people are saying we are equal partners in religious communities, and we believe in a religious world in which all are created in God's image."
To that last paragraph I say, Amen.

A Year Late And A Dollar Short

Tim Dunlop from The Road To Surfdom, points to this article about Australian weapons inspector Rod Barton who was a part of the team looking for WMDs in post invasion Iraq. Barton even filled in as the de facto leader of the team in the interim period between David Kay's resignation and Charles Duelfer's arrival - but his time logged in Iraq, impressive credentials, and experience in the field of study leave little doubt as to why he was such an integral member of the weapons inspection unit.

Barton's story is of interest, as Dunlop points out, because of the historical gaps it fills in, and for the fact that Barton reveals the tendency to delay the release of negative reports and maintain the facade that the inspectors would discover WMDs long after the truth was apparent to those on the ground.

Although he did not know it at the time, Barton arrived at Camp Slayer in early December 2003 at a moment of crisis for the organisation. The American in charge of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, David Kay, had been an enemy of Blix and, before the invasion, a WMD super-hawk. After five months of fruitless searching he had rather suddenly come to accept the unhappy fact that there were no weapons. It was as if, Barton says, he had discovered there was no God. A British army officer who was at Slayer in November told Barton that Kay now walked with "shoulders sagged". Before Barton arrived, Kay had left for good. Barton was, accordingly, a special adviser with no one to advise....

Barton says he arrived in Iraq with "an open mind" on weapons of mass destruction. Within a week - after reading the critical reports and discussing the matter with trusted colleagues - he had reached the same conclusion as Kay. "By this stage we'd been to enough sites. We had talked to a lot of scientists and political people. I was experienced enough to know there'd be some indication," Barton recalls. Not one solid piece of evidence for the presence of banned pre-1991 weapons or post-1991 programs had been found.
Kay's replacement, Charles Duelfer, went along with the charade as well, long past its freshness date, and scuttled the work Barton had compiled up to the point of Duelfer's arrival:

Duelfer now told Barton he was unhappy with the idea that so shortly after his arrival he should take to Congress a detailed report. Barton's work would have to be scrapped. He would provide instead a very brief report with no conclusions.

"What this meant was that it would have no assessment," Barton says. He was dismayed.

Barton remained with the survey group as adviser to Duelfer during the preparation of the interim report. He suggested it should be sent out for comment. He was astonished when a reply came back from the head of MI6, John Scarlett, who suggested to Duelfer that he, in Barton's words, "sex the report up". Duelfer refused.

Even so, by the time Duelfer's misleading report reached Congress, Barton had resigned in protest. Two other senior members of the survey group, from Australia and Britain, had already resigned for similar reasons.

In August, when Duelfer was again working independently, Barton agreed to return to Baghdad to help him draft the final survey group report, which he regards as generally very good. Except for one important chapter, however, he believes an almost identical report could have been written in March. [emphasis added]
To Duelfer's credit, at least according to Barton, he refused to comply with MI6's request to embellish the report. That seems consistent with the somewhat underwhelming conclusions in the final Duelfer Report, which were still seized upon by Bush supporters to show that Saddam was potentially dangerous at some point in the future, and that he wanted to acquire weapons, perhaps, maybe, contingently, and so on. I also agree with Dunlop that Barton's account of the gung-ho George Tenet is comical to say the least (kind of reminiscent of the "slam dunk" exuberance):

In mid-February 2004 Kay's replacement, Charles Duelfer, arrived at Camp Slayer. His arrival coincided with a visit by George Tenet, the CIA director, who introduced Duelfer to the welcoming party: "This guy's as weird as shit, but he knows a hell of a lot."

Tenet addressed the assembly like a football coach: "Are we 85 per cent done?"

"No!" roared back the team.

"Then let's go out and find the stuff! It's out there!"

Barton was standing beside a British officer. "We could not believe what we were seeing and hearing."
In total, an ineteresting and balanced insider's account.

(cross-posted at
Liberals Against Terrorism)

Not Without A Fight - Again

I have recently joined the Coalition For Darfur, which is a bi-partisan coalition of bloggers dedicated to raising awareness about the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, as well as raise money for charities like Save The Children. As that site's mission statement says:

An estimated 300,000 people have died from violence, disease and starvation in Western Sudan. We ask you to join us in raising awareness of this continuing genocide and raising money for Save the Children, which, despite the insecurity and deaths of several of its aid workers, continues to provide food, water, shelter, and protection to over 200,000 children and families each month.
In pursuit of this worthwhile cause, I will be linking to stories appearing on the Coalition for Darfur homepage and directing the reader's attention to other Darfur-related issues (though I think a regular visit to the Coalition site is probably the best resource for anyone interested). Here is the first piece, which begins:

In her 2001 article "Bystanders to Genocide," Pulitzer Prize winning author Samantha Power recounts how President Clinton was shocked and outraged by an article written by Philip Gourevitch recounting the horrors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, prompting him to send the article to his national security advisor Sandy Berger with a note scrawled in the margin reading "Is what he's saying true? How did this happen?"

After taking office, President Bush
reportedly read Power's article on the Clinton administration's failure to intervene during the genocide. He too scrawled a message in the margin - "NOT ON MY WATCH."

Yet we are now faced with another African genocide, this time in Darfur, and the United States and the rest of the world are responding exactly as they did during Rwanda - with paralyzed inaction.
With frightening parallels, the Bush administration is repeating the most grievous errors of the Clinton administration. Also, this video is a disturbing yet useful appraisal of the situation.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Rendition, Torture And The Law

Today's New York Times has three stories of interest regarding the ongoing battle between the Bush administration and the judiciary to define the scope of the executive branch's powers to handle detentions and imprisonments of a wide range of suspects and combatants apprehended under the rubric of the war on terror. The first story involves the 35-year old Canadian citizen Maher Arar who was apprehended by American officials at JFK Airport in New York City, en route back to his home in Canada upon the conclusion of a family vacation to Tunisia. Arar was flown by American agents to Jordan and then driven to Syria where he was imprisoned and tortured for over a year after which he was released upon the conclusion, by Syrian authorities, that he had no connection to Al Qaeda. As chronicled in this two part series posted on Liberals Against Terrorism and Legal Fiction, Arar is something of the poster child for the practice known as "extraordinary rendition."

The Times story tells of new evidence in the Arar legal proceedings (he is suing the US government for its complicity in his torture and abduction):

Now federal aviation records examined by The New York Times appear to corroborate Mr. Arar's account of his flight, during which, he says, he sat chained on the leather seats of a luxury executive jet as his American guards watched movies and ignored his protests....

The discovery of the aircraft, in a database compiled from Federal Aviation Agency records, appears to corroborate part of the story Mr. Arar has told many times since his release in 2003. The records show that a Gulfstream III jet, tail number N829MG, followed a flight path matching the route he described. The flight, hopscotching from New Jersey to an airport near Washington to Maine to Rome and beyond, took place on Oct. 8, 2002, the day after Mr. Arar's deportation order was signed.
The US government issued its own party line defense:

In papers filed in a New York court replying to Mr. Arar's lawsuit, Justice Department lawyers say the case was not one of rendition but of deportation. They say Mr. Arar was deported to Syria based on secret information that he was a member of Al Qaeda, an accusation he denies.
Two things stand out to me in that denial. First of all, although I am no expert on the legal issues involved, I question the legal basis the US would have for "deporting" a Canadian citizen who is merely passing through US territory (to change planes in fact) while en route to Canada. I think this type of procedure goes above and beyond deportation in the traditional sense.

Second, if the US is admitting that it sent Arar to Syria, how can that square with Bush's claim that "torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture." Syria is notorious for its cruel methods of torture, and is a regular on the State Department's list of countries that practice such tactics. In fact, the Bush administration is quick to hammer Syria on its many egregious human rights abuses, but then, oddly, is claiming that they received assurances from the Syrians that they would play nice with Mr. Arar. Not very convincing.

The next story covered by the Times shows the administration's ambidextrous capacity in the field of renditions and "deportations."

The case of Abdul Salam Ali al-Hila is an example of what human rights groups call "reverse renditions"....

While much attention has been paid lately to the practice of the United States sending many prisoners detained as possible terrorists to other countries, the Hila case is new evidence of the practice in reverse: foreign authorities picking up suspects in noncombat and nonbattlefield situations, perhaps at the behest of American authorities, and handing them over to United States custody. [emphasis added]
For the record, I don't think these practices are necessarily immoral or wrong in any substantive sense. After all, if the US is to effectively disrupt terrorist cells, we will rely on cooperative foreign governments to apprehend suspects and deliver them to our justice system - which I trust a heck of a lot more than Syria's or Egypt's. Thus, reverse rendition is better than regular rendition which involves us apprehending suspects and sending them to be tortured in foreign locales. Still, the acceptability of this practice requires that they actually enter our justice system. Nabbing foreign nationals and keeping them imprisoned indefinitely, excommunicado, and with no recourse to courts or access to an attorney is not in accord with American principles of justice, and for reasons outlined in my two part series linked to above, interferes with several judicial actions against known terrorists. For example, detainees apprehended and kept in such a way cannot testify in other legitimate proceedings, nor can they themselves be prosecuted in regular courts at some future point in time after their rights have been violated in such ways for any significant length of time.

In addition, it certainly raises questions about the supposed "illegal combatant" loophole to the Geneva Conventions' protections of POW's. Can this loophole be asserted in any context and venue when the candidates range from Taliban fighters picked up on battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraqi insurgents in Iraq, Canadian engineers in NYC, American citizens apprehended stateside, and Yemeni intelligence agents in Yemen. I recommend this Armchair Generalist post, and comments, for a discussion of some of the salient issues. This issue is part of the legal wranglings over Hila's detention.

Legal battles on several fronts have challenged whether the orders signed by President Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, provided the authority to detain people arrested and taken from any battleground. Lawyers for two of the Algerians have argued in federal court that the president's order does not provide any authority over them as they were not involved in any armed conflict against the United States. The Bush administration has argued that the nature of the campaign against terrorism is that it is fought throughout the world.
The third Times story deals with the intersection of rendition and the legal limbo of detainees at Guantanamo. The Times reports that a Federal District Court ruled in favor of 13 Yemeni detainees whose lawyers claimed that they were entitled to a 30-day notice from government officials prior to the deportation of the detainees. The government's position is that they could remove them to any location at any time without notice to any party involved. Interestingly, the judge in the case seems to have been influenced by the specter of torture through renditions.

In his ruling, Judge Kennedy suggested that the 30-day notice was justified because the Yemenis had grounds for fears voiced by their lawyers that the government might send them to other countries where they might be subjected to extreme interrogation methods and indefinitely detained.

David H. Remes, a lawyer here for the 13, said the ruling placed new limits on the government.

"On a practical level, this decision places a restraint on the government's rendition policy," he said, referring to the practice of transferring terror suspects from country to country without formal legal proceedings. "On a more political level, it's another rejection of the government's position that it is accountable to no one but itself and that the courts have no meaningful role to play here."
At a certain point, the Bush administration's fast and loose treatment of US laws and civil rights conventions might result in less than desirable outcomes from a strategic point of view, especially since the judiciary seems intent on maintaining the integrity of the Constitution. If the Bush administration does not attempt to implement some level of due process for suspects taken in the GWOT, we might be forced to release individuals who would be better kept behind bars. I fear that we are nearing the point of diminishing returns because of the over-application of unsavory methods that would be best reserved for extreme cases and exceptional circumstances.

(cross-posted at Liberals Against Terrorism)

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Scarecrow And Mr. D

I seem to have inserted myself into the middle of the Yglesias/Djerejian sparring session with my post yesterday citing columnist Robert Novak - who claims that the Bush administration is gearing up for a 2005 exit from Iraq with little regard for the facts on the ground as they are and will be.

Now, despite the fact that I was careful throughout the piece to use qualifying language when discussing Novak's claims, like "if," "may," and that his article only "raised the prospect" of an imminent pullout, and further that my final paragraph begins with the prominent caveat that, "I'll be the first to say that Bob Novak could be very wrong on this...,"
Greg suggests that I linked to Novak's piece and triumphantly declared, "game over" with regard to his position.

Heh. Has anyone ever linked to one of my pieces and proceeded to so egregiously stuff my shirt so full of straw that I could scare off marauding crows and, voila, tried to declare game over? Come on Greg. You're an attorney and so am I. We're both trained to pore over language with a meticulous eye. Can you really be claiming that I suggested that Novak's piece was dispositive of anything, let alone the final word and refutation of your piece?

The point of linking to the Novak column was to throw Novak into the ring since he was addressing the same subject as both Greg and Matt, and in order to show the differences of opinion in even the mainstream media and punditocracy. Further, to call Greg to notice that his faith in the Bush administration's position may be ill-founded, at least if there was a whiff of truth to Novak's assertions. Greg conceded this point (if), which is no great point scoring on my part, but then I didn't view this as a title fight to begin with. Now I understand the blogging concept of "if you link it you own it," but not if the blogger states clearly that the linked piece could be "very wrong" as well as other conditional language along the way.

So, with me puffed with straw and raised on a pole in the corn field, Greg tried to elicit a wager on the veracity of Novak's story. Lord, I was born a gambling man, but I'm not foolish enough to throw good money after bad. And Bob Novak is as bad as they come. Allow me to clarify my position though, since I think I was improperly tarred with Novak's rant. I do not believe that we should pull out our troops this year ala the plan Novak alluded to. I don't think one year is a realistic timetable, and have maintained this position over the entire lifespan of this site, nor do I think reductions in troop levels should be made regardless of the evolving security situation. But I do think Matt Yglesias has some
interesting ideas, and would note that there are certain frictions to having a large and visible troop presence in Iraq. Not that this should mean pull them out now, but it is one item that should be considered in whatever calculus is used to determine a measured draw down, and perhaps a definitive statement of our long term interest in Iraq (read: permanent bases). As such, the last thing I would want is to root for the Novak option in order to win a bet for which I don't particularly like the odds to begin with.

Next Greg accuses me of dodging the assertion that Clinton was a frequent shirker of responsibility in terms of foreign policy. Again, for the record, I think that Clinton waited too long to act in the Balkans, and Rwanda was an even more grievous lapse of judgment. If you hear Clinton speak today, he would concur at least on Rwanda. In that sense, Greg's critique is valid. My problem is the selectivity it implies. First of all, the Right was not clamoring for action in Rwanda, nor in
Kosovo or Bosnia. In fact, Clinton had to twist arms to get the Republicans to go along with his plans in each region. While Greg derides Clinton's cruise missile strikes against Afghan Al Qaeda camps, it should be noted that every time Clinton authorized one of those "pin pricks" the Republican leadership jumped up and down shouting "wag the dog" about these actions being a ruse to distract the nation from the much more urgent Monica Lewinsky affair. Priorities I guess. Nevertheless, Clinton should have fought through the Republican obstructionism and acted sooner and more decisively in all regards.

Otherwise, it should be noted that the Bush administration has their own bouts with the "abdication of responsibility" too. For instance, there has been some half-hearted saber rattling about the mass slaughter (not "genocide" as the Bush administration was careful to maintain) in Darfur, but what exactly has been done? And then there's the nasty little habit of praising, promoting, and elevating anyone and everyone who has shown poor judgment regarding, or was even tangentially related to, providing the legal green light on torture - be it Bybee, Gonzales, Rumsfeld, etc. Other examples of evading responsibility abound.

So Greg, I think you misread my post and my intention. It was not an attack on you, or your post, nor was it anything remotely resembling an attempt to declare checkmate. Simply a relevant citation to a new viewpoint in an ongoing discussion. Take it out on Novak. We'll just have to wait to put a bottle of
Lagavulin into the pot. I'm sure we'll think of something we can agree to disagree on. Who do you like in the final four?

Monday, March 28, 2005

Paging Greg Djerejian

There was a spirited back and forth between Matt Yglesias and Greg Djerejian last week when Greg responded with muted ferocity to a post by Yglesias in which the latter suggested that the time was right to begin drawing down troops in Iraq. Djerejian seized on Yglesias's words to take shots at everyone from Matt himself to John Kerry and the Clinton administration - or what he termed "the abdication of responsibility laden Clinton years." One wonders whether the pass the buck-find no fault-no mistakes ever era of the Bush administration has blunted Greg's sense of irony. No matter.

Even though Matt sent an email to Djerejian trying to explain that his position was not calling for an immediate removal of all troops from the region, Djerejian would have none of it.

How misguided of Yglesias to call for a major troop reduction at this juncture! I won't bore you with the reasons why a paring down of our forces to, say, fewer than 100,000 would be a gross error at this juncture. But very briefly, suffice it to say Matt is wrong....

Matt is a smart and intellectually honest guy--which is why I take the time to respond to him. But this isn't one of those where we can simply split the difference, be happy to meet half-way, and vibe with the fellow-feeling. Matt wants to draw-down troops in Iraq, er, like now. And I don't for a while yet. It's up to the readers to decide who is on the right side of this one. Reader persuasion aside, however, I'm heartened that the person who matters most, George Bush, is in accord with B.D.'s take. And Kerry isn't and wasn't. Declaring victory and going home is so much easier, isn't it? Also morally defunct and an abdication of American responsibility on the global stage. Clintonian, in a word. But not Yglesiasian, one hopes?
A recent column by conservative pundit Robert Novak (via Laura Rozen) has raised the prospect that the current occupant of the White House may not exactly be "in accord with B.D.'s take." According to Novak, Bush is looking a lot like Greg's version of Kerry, and Matt Y for that matter.

Determination high in the Bush administration to begin irreversible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq this year is reinforced by the presence at the State Department of the most dominant secretary since Henry Kissinger three decades ago. Condoleezza Rice is expected to support administration officials who want to leave even if what is left behind does not constitute perfection.

Amid the presidential campaign's furious debate over Iraq, I reported last Sept. 20 ("Getting Out of Iraq") about strong feeling in the policymaking apparatus to get out of Iraq in 2005 even if democracy and peace had not been achieved there. My column evoked widespread expressions of disbelief, but changes over the last six months have only strengthened the view of my Bush administration sources that the escape from Iraq should begin once a permanent government is in place in Baghdad. [emphasis added]
If Novak's sources are to be trusted, the timetable for withdrawal is, at least in relation to certain goals like democracy and stability, superseding the importance of other measures of progress . Novak sees Condi Rice behind this mini-paradigm shift.

"She is not controlled by the neo-cons insisting on achieving a perfect democracy before we go," a colleague told me. That reflects not only the national consensus but also the preponderance of Republican opinion. Without debating the wisdom of military intervention in Iraq two years ago, President Bush's supporters believe it now is time to go and leave the task of subduing the insurgents to Iraqis.
In fact, Novak even goes as far as to offer us a glimpse at some of the spin we can expect in the aftermath of the pullout:

But how does the president rationalize an escape from Iraq with his Inaugural Address's embrace of a Wilsonian or neo-conservative dogma to spread democracy worldwide? Bush officials who want to reduce the military profile in the region argue that the grassroots democratic sentiment boiling up in Lebanon is to get rid of Syrian troops, not to welcome American troops.

Escape from Iraq for George W. Bush, however, does abandon the neo-con dream of micromanaging creation of a democratic state in Iraq.
I'll be the first to say that Bob Novak could be very wrong on this, but one has to wonder what the response would be over at Belgravia Dispatch if such a path were taken. It would be hard to believe that Djerejian could countenance the pursuit of such a "morally defunct...abdication of responsibility" without venting his ire on President Bush with the same fervor he normally reserves for Clinton and Kerry (with an occasional heart felt swipe at Rumsfeld). He might just end up alienating more of his right-leaning readership. No worries Greg, you still have the Liberals Against Terrorism crowd.

Finding Neverland

Watching the budget wrangling, or should I say mangling, occurring in the nation's capitol is like catching a glimpse of perpetual childhood. This is the Peter Pan-era of fiscal discipline ushered in by the Lost Boys of the GOP, a time when balanced budgets are a fantasy based on inverted logic and contradictory premises. How else could you explain the fact that the President's own plan to reduce the deficit in half over the next half decade includes the proviso that his own tax cuts, that he will launch a spirited fight to make permanent, be allowed to expire?

But just as some have criticized the recent
Hollywood biopic of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie for concealing the moral failings of the author, so too does the GOP's perpetual fiscal adolescence have a dark side that conceals dubious ethical behavior. Bob Herbert wrote a scathing critique of the nuts and bolts of the new era of budgetary piracy that would make Captain Hook blush in its ruthless devotion to the laws of the jungle - or high seas.

While the press and the public are distracted by one sensational news story after another - Terri Schiavo, Michael Jackson, steroids in baseball, etc. - the president and his party have continued their extraordinary campaign to undermine the programs that were designed to fend off destitution and provide a reasonable foundation of economic security for those not blessed with great wealth....

President Bush believes in an "ownership" society, which means that except for the wealthy, you're on your own. The president's budget would cut funding for Medicaid, food stamps, education, transportation, health care for veterans, law enforcement, medical research and safety inspections for food and drugs. And, of course, it contains big new tax cuts for the wealthy.
Is that what it looks like when family values are ascendant in Washington? But look on the bright side, same sex marriages will be made more difficult to attain. Aaah, all is right in the world.

These are the new American priorities. Republicans will tell you they were ratified in the last presidential election. We may be locked in a long and costly war, and federal deficits may be spiraling toward the moon, but the era of shared sacrifices is over. This is the era of entrenched exploitation. All sacrifices will be made by working people and the poor, and the vast bulk of the benefits will accrue to the rich.

President Bush has proposed more than $200 billion worth of cuts in domestic discretionary programs over the next five years, and cuts of $26 billion in entitlement programs. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyzed the president's proposal, said:

"Figures in the budget show that child-care assistance would be ended for 300,000 low-income children by 2009. The food stamp cut would terminate food stamp aid for approximately 300,000 low-income people, most of whom are low-income working families with children. Reduced Medicaid funding most certainly would cause many states to cut their Medicaid programs, increasing the ranks of the uninsured."

Education funding would be cut beginning next year, and the cuts would grow larger in succeeding years. Food assistance for pregnant women, infants and children would be cut. Funding for H.I.V. and AIDS treatment would be cut by more than half a billion dollars over five years. Support for environmental protection programs would be sharply curtailed. And so on.
But wait, it gets better. As you might have guessed, these mammoth cuts in programs that help the infirmed, the young, the destitute, and the hard working are being sold as the necessary "tough choices" demanded by the mounting debt. But just as tax cuts for the wealthy are responsible for creating that debt, more tax cuts for the wealthy are exacerbating the situation and revealing a deep and bitter hypocrisy.

Conservatives insist the cuts are necessary to get the roaring federal budget deficit under control. But they have trouble keeping a straight face when they tell that story. Laden with tax cuts, the president's proposal will result in an increase, not a decrease, in the deficit. Shared sacrifice is anathema to the big-money crowd.

The House has passed a budget that is similar to the president's, except it contains even deeper cuts in programs that affect the poor. In the Senate, a handful of Republicans balked at the cuts proposed for Medicaid. Casting their votes with the Democrats, they were able to eliminate the cuts from the Senate budget proposal. The Senate also added $5.4 billion in education funding for 2006.

All the budgets contain more than $100 billion in tax cuts over the next five years, which makes a mockery of the G.O.P.'s budget-balancing rhetoric. When Congress returns from its Easter recess, the Republican leadership will try to reconcile the differences in the various proposals. Whatever happens will be bad news for ordinary Americans. Big cuts are coming. [emphasis added]
It leaves me flabbergasted. The budget designed to reduce the deficit actually increases the deficit because the cuts in programs were offset, and then exceeded, by more and bigger tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. But hey, what's health care for impoverished children compared to the health of a millionaire's stock portfolio? If you put your faith in Jesus the way our President has, you will see that the millionaire's tax cuts are what Jesus would endorse. Honest. It's all there in the good book, you know that bit about it being harder for the meek and down trodden to get into heaven than a camel through the eye of the needle, and that other part about compiling as many Earthly possessions as possible so you can better follow Christ and broadcast your ministry. I think that's how it went.

Herbert closes on a low note:

The advances in areas like education, antipoverty programs, health services, environmental protection and food safety were achieved after struggles that, in some cases, took many decades. To slide backward now (hurting millions of people in the process) because of a desire to siphon funds from those programs and hand them over as tax cuts to the wealthiest members of our society, is obscene.

This is not a huge national story. It's just the way things are. It was Herbert Hoover who said: "You know, the only trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They're too damn greedy." [emphasis added]
Unfortunately, the truth is, Santa Claus doesn't exist and neither does the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy. There, now I went and made little Tommy Delay cry. But seriously, our current geopolitical strategy requires a healthy flow of revenue to Treasury, but unabashed greed actually undermines these vital missions by drying up sources of capital. Wars require money, peacekeeping the same, and the President has unveiled a "bold" foireign policy that is requiring enormous sums to implement. Homeland security needs funding, and fighting terrorism at home and abroad isn't cheap. On top of that, gutting social services will weaken our dynamic middle class which fuels our economy through robust consumer spending. And letting the dollar plunge without any means of applying the brakes should things accelerate beyond what wisdom would dictate is passing the keys of monetary policy to a drunk driver with a lead foot. But the nation can't afford a car wreck.

Just juxtapose this budgetary chicanery with
another article in the Times which tells how some of the Pentagon's high-tech plans to usher in a new era of military equipment and strategy may be bumping against a funding ceiling. I'll leave it to people like the Generalistimo to parse the wisdom of such programs, but isn't it telling that the "tough on defense" crowd is creating a situation in which vital national security issues are taking a back seat to a tax cutting fetish? Isn't our military edge what sets us apart from the rest of the world, or so the unipolarists would have us believe?

The good news is, some Republican governors who had previously been amongst the loudest and proudest tax-cut devotees have recently had to reverse course when faced with that nagging little killjoy called reality. They've "grown up" so to speak and discovered that effective government requires some fiscal flexibility, and actual revenues. Somewhat surprisingly, big business is one of the loudest voices calling for higher taxes and more spending on programs like education and transportation infrastructure and other areas that they rely on to recruit workers and streamline commerce. The question is, when will the pixie dust lose its luster for those gravity defying children in charge of the nation's purse strings? Because if you listen, in the distance you can hear a ticking clock.

[Update:Matthew Yglesias has an interesting post up about the disparities of wealth in America, even amongst the wealthiest Americans.

Tyler Cowen quotes Jeffrey Sachs noting that the 400 richest taxpayers in the United States had a combined income of $69 billion in 2000. This comes up in the course of a discussion of global inequality, comparing that $69 billion to "the $57 billion in combined income of Botswana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda." That's a lot of inequality. I think, though, that the inequalities this embodies are worth putting even into the American context.
Matt goes on to discuss how this upper echelon of the upper bracket can dwarf the wealth of people that would otherwise be considered wealthy and how this skews perceptions and distorts priorities.

This is an important and, I think, problematic social phenomenon. Not especially because we need to cry for the sad case of the average member of the top 20 percent, or even the average member of the 60-80 percent bracket, but because it distorts a lot of people's thinking. This extreme inequality at the top does a lot to explain, I think, why you see a lot of people who make more than 85-90 percent of the population refusing to think of themselves as rich. Once you enter into the Rich Zone, you start coming into contact with people who are way, way, way, way richer than you are. If you run into somebody who has twice -- to say nothing of 10 or 100 -- times your earnings, it's hard to think of yourself as rich. After all, you're closer to making $0 and being out on the streets than you are to making what he makes. Then the flipside is that it becomes hard for people outside the Rich Zone to see what's really happening with tax policy. Everybody in the top 20 percent got some money from Bush's tax cut, but almost a quarter of it went to the very, very narrow segment of people in the top one percent of households. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but if you could look at how big a share went to the top 0.1% or the top 0.01% it would get even more shocking. That's not the prosperous guy who lives on the nice house at the end of the tree-lined street on the other side of town we're talking about, that's a guy who makes ten or even a hundred times as much as the prosperous guy on the other side of town. [emphasis added]
But, you know, by all means continue to tell me why cutting taxes for these people is the moral thing to do, and how programs that tend to the vital needs of hard working Americans, children, and the infirmed are too much of a burden on our poor poor billionaires. Remind me again of the justifications used by the party of "values" - the politicians that claim to have a direct hotline to God and his representative Jesus Christ - to continue to divert the government's revenues to the bank accounts of the elitists' elite. Finally, if you could, just refresh my memory about this horrible class warfare being waged by labor unions and the Democrats that is supposedly so unfair to the people on top of the top's top.]

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Somali Reaction to Recent Ethiopian Invasion and Life Under the ICU

Somalis in their own words about the Ethiopian invasion and life under the ICU:
Life is harsh here because of recent events; and it's been made worse by Ethiopian interference. Prices are rocketing, unemployment is rising and chaos prevails.

We feel afraid because there is a rampant lack of security. We see more assassinations and we hear more bombings; shops especially are being targeted.

The government has stepped up its campaign to restrict our freedom of expression. I think they want to prevent the outside world knowing what has happened in Somalia.

Of course there were big disagreements before [under the rule of the Union of Islamic Courts], but at least that came within the context of freedom of expression.

It is really terrifying here.

Everyone believes Ethiopia is only after its own interests in Somalia. I don't see any popular support for the new government. With the worsening security and economic situation, khat [a mild stimulant] is once again openly on sale in the markets.

I think the Ethiopian forces should withdraw and new negotiations should be launched between the disputing parties.

If not, the government and the Ethiopian forces will suffer heavily, as the resistance is growing day by day. Members of the government are afraid for their lives. They are aware that they are not popular.

They should pack up and leave. It is in everyone's best interests.

I hope Ethiopia's interference will help solve our problems - even though no-one here wants or accepts Ethiopia's involvement.

The Ethiopian forces should focus on helping the transitional government build infrastructure, achieve peace and generally create a state.

The Islamic Courts radically changed things in Somalia. There was safety, peace and commerce. In other words, they brought Mogadishu back to life.

However, the Islamic Courts did not really create a state or its institutions. They created a tribal regime instead. The Ethiopian presence is a reality we just have to accept. What really matters is that we get peace and security.

The Islamic Courts should be allowed to return only as part of the institutions of a new government, and not on the basis of the tribal regime they adopted before they collapsed.

I think life will go on, and the Somalis will manage. We have survived more than 15 years of worse conditions than this.

It is a very precarious situation there in Mogadishu. Humanitarian conditions are getting worse, as Somalis suffer from Ethiopian interference and American bombings.

Violence breaks out and we don't know when it will finish.

I think the dispute between the Somali government and the Islamic Courts is ideological, not based on power-sharing ambitions.

Foreign interference is not new in Somalia. It's been there for a while. The road to peace in Somalia should start by ending Ethiopian, US and Kenyan interference in Somali affairs. Somalis should take power.

The Arab League and European Union should be the ones who help the reconciliation effort.

When the Islamic Courts were in charge, we had peace. I could go and visit people easily, and move around without being afraid. It's true they banned cinemas, but people didn't complain about that. There are no such restrictions on cinemas now.

However, we need to wait and see what the new interim government and Ethiopian forces will do. I don't mind foreign intervention if it improves the situation here. Otherwise, the intervention should stop.

Life is difficult, but not as bad as it was before. We do have a problem with freedom of movement. I hope this improves.

More at the bottom of this article:
My name is Osman and I have lived in Mogadishu throughout the Somali civil war for the past 16 years. We had relative peace when the Islamic Courts ruled Mogadishu but we all knew it was not going to last because the Courts were not build to make peace but to destroy and disturb the Transitional Government. Now that the fake Courts are out the door, Somalia is at critical cross roads. Some people in Mogadishu are so impatient that they want the government to pacify Mogadishu less than two weeks. I think we need to give more time to the Transition government and have patience.
-Osman Osman ALi, Mogadishu, Somalia

Warlords are rejoining and there is no peace whatever in Somalia. The only peace that we had was when the Islamists were in control. The Ethiopian soldiers are in Somalia but get attacked every few minutes.
-Omar, Mogdishu

I am really disappointed. I don't know what to do. People of my age in Somalia have no future. They did not go to school because of warlords.
-Mohamud Bashir, Nairobi, Kenya

I'm an 18-year old high school student I took most of my time in anarchy except six months of reliable security and free from worry. Now we are in the hands Ethiopia. My mother suggested to me to stop going to school until the security comes. That is great problem because I'll miss some of my last class lessons. I request the international community to look the new colonial period which is damaging my future.
-Tahliil Olaad Hassan, Mogadishu

I am a Somali boy called Hassan Ahmed Mohamed Kabirow who was born in Mogadishu in 1980 and I grew up there. I am really, really very sorry for what is going on in my homeland especially in Mogadishu. I grew up with continuous civil war. I had no education except English language. I left in my country in 27/12/2001 because of civil war. And now I am in Cairo. There no homeland if there is no peace and security. Please bring security...
-Hassan Ahmed Kabirow, Cairo, Egypt

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Usual Suspects

In the month's leading up to the Iraq election, many analysts were justifiably concerned with the potential for a large scale Sunni boycott on election day. It was noted that if the Sunnis were not adequately represented in the Iraqi legislature, and more importantly on the committees drafting the permanent constitution, that they would be less likely to become partners in the new Iraq and opt instead for a revanchist posture as a disgruntled outsider.

"You do the math," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former adviser to the American occupation in Baghdad. "Iraq's population is about 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni and 20 percent Kurds. But if Sunnis don't vote, they could become only 5 percent of the electorate"....

If Sunnis are marginalized in that fashion, Mr. Diamond said, it could lead to further alienation, an increased insurgency and possibly a civil war, especially if the Kurdish and Shiite victors try to write a constitution that favors their interests over the Sunnis'.
Some of Bush's supporters, such as Greg Djerejian tried to downplay these concerns by assuring the "pessimists" that the Sunnis would realize the folly of being excluded from the political process and turn out in numbers as high as "30%" and above on election day, and thus the problems would correct themselves to some degree. The truth of the matter is that Sunni participation in the election hovered in the low single digits, and their voice in the legislature is more or less non-existent. The problems remain.

In anticipation of what eventually turned out to be widespread Sunni abstention,
I tried to examine and recommend a pair of options that were being considered in serious foreign policy circles, including the State Department, which could remedy, or at least mitigate, the damage done by the lack of adequate Sunni representation gained through the ballot box.

The first corrective suggested was to grant a one-time set aside of seats in the 275 seat parliament to the Sunnis based on their proportion of the population despite expected low turnout on election day. The second was to instead, or possibly in conjunction with the first, insure adequate proportional representation for Sunnis on the constitution drafting committee - as well as to inject some minority protecting hurdles for gaining consensus in that body.

There was a third option, though it was the least favorable of the three and I did not endorse it. This was to apportion a number of ministries and cabinet positions to the Sunnis in a higher proportion than their elected numbers, or coalition building leverage, would dictate. This is the route that has been taken, at least up till now. These minor concessions will not be adequate on their own though, and as can be seen by the spirited horse trading going on between the Shiites and the Kurds, the cabinet posts and ministries given to the Sunnis will be the least sought after and advantageous. If an ethnic bloc that was the ruling class for decades is left with scraps from the table of negotiations, it is hard to imagine a peaceful outcome. This
article, via Juan Cole, sheds light on the process:

Iraq's Shiites will take 16 to 17 ministries in the next government, the Kurds will hold seven to eight ministries and the country's Sunni minority will be awarded four to six ministries, a Shiite negotiator said Tuesday....

The Shiites will take the interior and finance ministries, along with the cabinet post of national security advisor, said Maryam Rayes, a negotiator with the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which won 146 seats in the new 275-member parliament.

The Kurds, with 77 seats, the second largest bloc in parliament, will receive seven to eight ministries, including the foreign ministry and probably oil, Rayes said.
The divvying up of prime political real estate only confirms the fears of those that warned that if the Sunnis are excluded from the process, their interests will not be tended to. The interior, finance, petroleum and foreign ministries will hold the effective power and patronage capacity in the new Iraq, yet the Sunnis will not control any of those. In addition, they could receive as few as 4 ministries to the Kurds' 8 which does not even adequately reflect the relative size of the two groups' populations (in numbers, they are roughly equivalent).

In terms of cabinet posts the Sunnis are being offered the Vice Presidency and the relatively symbolic post of Speaker of the House - a position of new real power. Once again, the Shiites and the Kurds will split the prize posts between the two leaving the Sunnis to make due with the left overs. On top of that, the actual Sunni candidates being considered for these lesser posts are not widely popular or considered to have a mandate from the Sunni population at large - some names floating about are actually Sunni members of the Sistani blessed UIA slate of predominately religious Shiite candidates which holds the majority in parliament.

Al-Mutumar, the newspaper of secular Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi, said outgoing Sunni president Ghazi al-Yawar would be the parliament's new speaker and fellow Sunni politician Hajem al-Hassani would serve as vice president.
These choices would be problematic, at least in the case of Yawar, as this Christian Science Monitor article shows.

Some Sunnis have previously tried to assert themselves as representatives of the diverse minority. Returned exile Adnan Pachachi, current vice president Ghazi Yawar, and some members of the Islamic Party formed a coalition a few weeks ago.

But their group has little, if any, credibility because it does not share the strong anti-occupation sentiments of most Sunnis or hold sway over the insurgency.
That same article does contain a grain of hope, however, as it tells of a recent meeting of Sunni groups convening with the intention of forming a unified political front to assert their demands through the political process. Although some, such as Cole, are skeptical of the credibility this group enjoys with the broad Sunni population in Iraq, the attendee list does cut a wide swathe of Sunni constituencies.

The significance of the conference was underscored by its attendees. Participants included members of the Muslim Scholars Association, a group of Sunni religious leaders, among them some of the most extreme figures who have influence with the insurgency.

Also present were leaders from cities in the "Sunni Triangle," including Mosul, Haditha, and Salam Pak, which is bubbling with insurgent activity. Representatives of Waqaf Sunna, the powerful administrating body of Sunni religious affairs, attended as well.
Contributing to the new found sense of hope, there are signs that the Shiites will embrace this new Sunni leadership that seeks to fill the post-Baath vacuum.

Shiites are taking note of the shift in Sunni willingness to participate and are taking the emerging group seriously as the first real representatives of the Sunnis.

"The most important thing is that they create a [leadership] for Sunnis," says Humam Hamoudi, a candidate from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a group of Shiite religious leaders that won the majority of national assembly seats.

The UIA has struggled to find Sunnis willing to negotiate who also have clout in the Sunni community. But Mr. Hamoudi says those efforts were renewed after the top Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, instructed them to do so.

"He appealed to us to take more care of Sunnis' rights. He said, 'Sunnis are not only our brothers but they are yourselves,' so treat them accordingly," Hamoudi says.
While this rhetoric is encouraging, real progress will be stymied if the Sunnis are not given a larger share of the power in some meaningful combination of the legislature, constitutional committee, cabinet, and ministries. This would require a certain degree of selflessness on the part of the Kurds and Shiites which might be difficult to actualize in the midst of the self interested bartering for better and more power in the new government. In addition, it is not clear to what extent the platform of this new Sunni group will lend itself to integration in the new Iraqi state.

The list produced by the meeting includes demands that Sunni interests are provided for in Iraq's permanent constitution, which the national assembly is charged with writing this year.

But it also includes thornier demands such as recognition that Iraqis have a right to oppose US occupation, a schedule be developed for US forces to leave Iraq, reversal of US de-Baathification policy in the military, and the release of all detainees for whom there is no solid evidence they committed a crime. They also want a Sunni in a top job in the country's security apparatus, particularly the Ministry of Interior.
All signals indicate that Sistani realizes the importance of Sunni inclusion if Iraq is to make real progress toward the implementation of stability, peace, and law and order. Now is the time to seize this opening by the Sunnis and show generosity in action not just words. Although we should refrain from too closely interfering with the process, we should apply what pressure we can in the direction of Sunni inclusion, even if this would require accomodating some level of political beliefs that run counter to our interests. As Nadezhda pointed out, "the guiding principle for US policy should be what's effective for Iraq's "success." That is the most important outcome for both America's domestic tranquility and its geostrategic position, as well as for the world's general well-being."

Sunni involvement in Iraq's government, despite some of the unsavory elements that might give shelter to, would be one step toward success for Iraqis if we define success as a peaceful, stable Iraq.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

What Do The People Want?

(cross posted at Liberals Against Terrorism)

David Fromkin has an Op-Ed piece in
today's Times that is worth a look. In it, he cautions against overheated optimism at the prospects for widespread democratic change in the Middle East in the near future, using the changes in Europe circa 1989 as a gauge for what factors are and aren't present.

He points out that the key difference between then and now is very much centered around the players. And they're sort of important. Key grafs:

A distinctive feature of the events of 1989 in Germany that is not found in the Middle East in 2005 is that those who manned the Berlin Wall were no longer willing to defend it. The Communist regimes had lost faith in communism and in themselves; they offered no resistance when the crowds pulled down the barricades.

That is not true of our adversaries, or even many of our friends, today in the Middle East. The jihadists believe in their cause with a fanatic ardor. Taliban raiders continue to harass the democratically elected regime in Afghanistan. It is not clear whether armed groups will respect the Palestinian truce. And even if Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, the dictatorial regime in Damascus is not dissolving itself, as Moscow's did after 1989; on the contrary, any withdrawal would be part of a larger plan to consolidate its hold on domestic power.

Nor are the forces on our side necessarily fighting for democracy, as they were in Berlin. The demonstrators in the streets in Beirut were not demanding democracy, but asking for independence - which is rather a different thing.

In turn, what the men in the presidential palaces offer is closer to a hesitant gesture than to a radical break with the past. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who has held power essentially unopposed since 1981, now proposes to amend his country's Constitution to allow opposition candidates in presidential elections. But the best guess is that anyone who runs will be a mere token candidate. And in Saudi Arabia, where voting was decreed and did occur in February - for the first time in its history - the election in question was merely for municipal councils, and the voter turnout was low. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are close allies of the United States, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that their reforms are merely cosmetic, instituted to satisfy Americans and to appease foreign critics.
He also discusses the peculiar cross cutting skepticism at play. Whereas some in the Middle East are concerned that our motives are not pure in terms of spreading democracy, suspecting us of pursuing a neo-imperialist agenda, some in America fear our motives are too pure and that we may undercut our interests by naively unleashing democratic forces that are more hostile to our interests than the present day autocrats.

Thus paradoxically, a skeptical Arab might suspect that the United States pursues its own selfish goals in the Middle East, while at the same time a puzzled American might worry that it does not.
Go read the rest.

How Can You Keep Them Down On The Farm Once They've Seen....Beijing?

An article in today's New York Times discusses a rather interesting phenomenon that is occurring in the border region between China and North Korea. Over the past decade or so, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have braved death by drowning or shootings by North Korean and Chinese border guards in order to slip across the border into the relatively prosperous Chinese mainland.

Once safely in Chinese territory, many North Koreans (some 200,000 according to some estimates) find work and when they have built up a store of money and goods, return to the North to sell their wares. Neither country is particularly pleased with this ongoing emigration.

Some of the refugees want to migrate to other countries, particularly South Korea, which they perceive as being hugely wealthy and hospitable. Others want to disappear amid the two million ethnic Korean Chinese in this border region. But increasingly, the refugees plan to shuttle secretly back and forth between the countries, coming to China to supply their petty commerce back home, to take care of health problems or to see relatives before returning to the hardships of their homeland....

The refugees pose challenges for China and for North Korea. Chinese officials fear that a flood of North Koreans across their borders would not only pose a huge economic strain on the region, but could eventually stoke a territorial dispute because of historic Korean claims in the region. For North Korea, the refugees' flight to China offers a pressure valve, allowing the poor to earn desperately needed money. But it also allows them a glimpse of the richness of the outside world, and that could be destabilizing. [emphasis added]
That last sentence is what struck me as particularly noteworthy. In some ways, China may play the role that the US and Western Europe did for citizens of Eastern European nations and the USSR who became disillusioned with the Communist regimes that were unable to deliver the same standard of living as their capitalist neighbors. Despite Kim Jong Il's vice-like grip over travel and the flow of information, rumblings of a better life in China and South Korea are starting to permeate North Korean society. These sojourns to Chinese territory are only hastening that process, and the once sacrosanct cult of personality built up around Kim Jong Il is starting to fray around the edges. Puncturing this myth is a requisite first step for long term change on the Korean peninsula.

In interview after interview, they spoke of the huge shift in perspective they experienced upon entering China. "When I lived in Korea, I never thought my leaders were bad," said one woman in her 50's, a farmer who had brought her grown daughter to Yanji recently from her home not far from the other side of the border for treatment of an intestinal ailment. "When I got here, I learned that Chinese can travel wherever they want in the world as long as they have the money. I learned that South Korea is far richer, even than China."

"If we are so poor," she continued, "it must be because of Kim Jong Il's mistakes," she said referring to North Korea's leader....

North Korea's oppressive control of its citizens through policing and propaganda could be felt through the words of another woman. "Until the end of the 1980's, we were convinced we were the greatest country on earth, and in fact, many people still believe this," the woman said. "We've always been taught that other countries are poorer than we are. They say that South Korea is full of beggars and that people can't afford even to send their children to school."

"If we are so poor," she continued, "it must be because of Kim Jong Il's mistakes," she said referring to North Korea's leader. The woman said her daughter had decided to stay in China, but that she would soon return home, after illegally earning money doing piecework for a factory here.
Of all the accounts reprinted in this article, one stood out to me for a seemingly casual observation that might come as a surprise to most Americans. A 42 year old North Korean woman told of her travails in China as an illegal immigrant and noted: "But I have no ID card, no residence permit. I am in a free country, but I am not free" [emphasis added]. By North Korean standards, China is a free country. I guess it's all relative.

(cross-posted at Liberals Against Terrorism)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Blog Tower Part The Third

Mick Arran has, on his own time and dime, just compiled the third edition of Blog Tower, an e-zine for bloggers which seeks to showcase some of the writing going on in the 'sphere. Mick has generously used my two-part series on extraordinary rendition for this issue (originally posted at Legal Fiction).

I think this is a very worthwhile project, and a great service to bloggers like me that tend to view blogs as a vehicle for longer writings, essays, and compositions (
Nadezhda too, though she took her share of criticism from the Matt Y crowd for her verbosity). But Blog Tower is not all one way: there are long and small pieces, humorous and serious, covering a broad range of topics. I encourage all to check it out, and if you like what you see, drop a little tip in the paypal jar. It ain't free what he's doing, and he deserves the recognition. Thanks again Mick.

Hypocrites - A Eulogy

In honor of our recently retired friend publius, I thought I would do something that he did not do nearly enough of: replay one of his greatest hits from the archives.

With the political theater on display in the nation's capital over the Terri Schiavo case, I thought it would be a good time to revisit his post on the disingenuous embrace of "states' rights" by the right-wing in America. As publius takes pains to elucidate, the states' rights doctrine as put forth by the Right is far from a consistent philosophical or political guiding principle, but instead, in practice, ends up being a slogan of convenience to trot out whenever there is some federal action that runs counter to the underlying goal, and for which a state decision would yield a better result.

Granted there are some truly consistent doctrinaire states' rights proponents, such as Charles Fried, the solicitor general of the United States under President Ronald Reagan, who penned an Op-Ed piece in today's
New York Times, they are vastly outnumbered by the opportunistic and cynical. Because if you are true to your beliefs, the Schiavo case leaves little wiggle room. It is quite simply an attempt by the GOP leaders in Congress and the White House to usurp valid state action by imposing some unprecedented, and unjustified, federal rule. Fried from today:

In their intervention in the Terri Schiavo matter, Republicans in Congress and President Bush have, in a few brief legislative clauses, embraced the kind of free-floating judicial activism, disregard for orderly procedure and contempt for the integrity of state processes that they quite rightly have denounced and sought to discipline for decades.
And citing past attempts to conduct end-runs around states' rights by the Left in the context of capital punishment:

It is no good for politicians to try to justify this absurd departure from principles of federalism and respect for sound and orderly judicial administration by saying that, in this case, the life at stake is unquestionably innocent. For in many of the death penalty cases, the claim has also been that the prisoner had at least unfairly, and perhaps even incorrectly, been condemned to death.
Watching this shameless hypocrisy in action reminds me that it is best to apply a proper dose of skepticism when listening to a right-wing ideologue or pundit extolling the virtues of states' rights qua states' rights. As publius said:

..."states' rights" is a meaningless concept. There is nothing inherently conservative about supporting states’ rights. There is nothing inherently liberal about it either. And the reason is because "states' rights" has no conceptual meaning. It is always and necessarily a pretext for some underlying argument. So, every single argument that you will ever hear involving federalism is actually an argument about something else. As a matter of logic, states' rights adds nothing to the argument - it's merely window dressing.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Say It Isn't So....

Wow. I'm gonna miss this guy. One of my daily reads, and one of the more thoughtful voices out there bar none. A sad day in blogdom....

Ain't No Half Steppin'

Is there anything more revolting than a limp wristed handshake? Is it me, or does it creep you out when someone shakes your hand with flaccid fingers that don't even bother to close around your outstretched hand? So much is conveyed in that gesture of condescension and contempt - as if you aren't even worth the effort of the muscle contractions required for a modest grip. But underneath this, it is also an inauthentic and dishonest act. Instead of just refusing to shake your hand, the offender instead opts to maintain the thinnest veneer of the facade of civility - so as to avoid the confrontational nature of an outright show of disrespect (although the message is usually not lost on the recipient of such treatment).

That is the reaction I had when reading Eugene Volokh's attempt to back himself out of the firestorm kicked up around his recent
ode to brutality. For the sake of this discussion, let's revisit Volokh's comments, made in reaction to a story about the imposition of capital punishment Iranian style which included a pre-execution flogging with electrical cables and a hanging designed to prolong the pain and suffering.

I particularly like the involvement of the victims' relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he'd killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing - and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act - was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness.
Volokh went on to proclaim his desire that the American people vote to amend the Bill of Rights to allow for more cruelty and "savagery" by gutting certain portions of the Eighth Amendment's prohibitions on "cruel and unusual punishment." After making these statements, he received an avalanche of criticism, and only a trickle of defenders.

How has he reacted in the face of such critiques? He has offered us all a half-hearted handshake of a mea culpa. Volokh claims that one critique in particular,
Mark Kleiman's, led to his change of heart, sort of. In that post, Kleiman lays out several arguments covering a wide range of objections to Volokh's proposed reactionary move. Some of these arguments concerned the practical difficulties such a system would create such as finding jurors willing to impose such extreme sanctions, as well as the deterrent impact on decisions by people to pursue related legal and political careers if such a process were in place. Volokh seized on these arguments to say he had reconsidered his stance and took, what is to me, the easy way out. A cloak of reason which preserves a facade of respectability despite his underlying beliefs.

What I found most persuasive about Mark's argument was his points about institutions: about how hard it would be for a jury system to operate when this punishment was available, and how its availability would affect gubernatorial elections, legislative elections, and who knows what else. Even if enough people vote to authorize these punishments constitutionally and legislatively (which I've conceded all along is highly unlikely), there would be such broad, deep, and fervent opposition to them -- much broader, deeper, and more fervent than the opposition to the death penalty -- that attempts to impose the punishments would logjam the criminal justice system and the political system.

And this would be true even when the punishments are sought only for the most heinous of murderers. It's not just that you couldn't find 12 people to convict; it's that the process of trying to find these people, and then execute the judgment they render, will impose huge costs on the legal system (for a few examples, see Mark's post). Whatever one's abstract judgments about the proper severity of punishments, this is a punishment that will not fit with our legal and political culture.
My problem with Volokh's half-step is that it doesn't address any of the moral concerns or the discussion regarding the importance of humane treatment and laws. It's as if he endorsed the mandatory interment of all Muslim men in America, and then changed his mind citing the logistical problems of implementing such a program, as well as the spirited political challenges that would likely ensue. But, you know, nothing is wrong with such a move in theory. In that sense, he is saying that it is only wrong because society wouldn't react well to it, but that the general concept is still sound from a normative perspective. What kind of moral clarity is that? Isn't the Right supposed to be the political persuasion of values? Color me unimpressed. I'd rather him not shake my hand than offer that wilted response.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Weekend Reading

I offer you a little something to nibble on in between basketball games.

First and foremost, Hilzoy from Obsidian Wings has written something of rare beauty and strength regarding the Eugene Volokh controversy. If you haven't been following, Volokh recently waxed envious about Iran's system of capital punishment that includes flogging and beatings before a prolonged strangulation designed to maximize the pain and suffering of the prisoner. In the course of his rhapsodizing, Volokh (a law professor mind you) suggested that we should amend our Bill of Rights to allow for the injection of more cruelty and full bodied vengeance into our penal system. Take my word for it, read Hilzoy. Hers is by far the most eloquent and insightful treatment of this matter that I have seen (hat tip to praktike who has much better taste in bloggers than college hoops teams).

Next, I have a relatively short post up at Liberals Against Terrorism if you care to follow Mssr. Martin to his second home (my only other home I should say now that publius has tired of my ramblings and evicted me from my Thursday spot - repeat after me kill my landlord, kill my landlord...). In keeping with recent tradition, there is a musical reference in the post title, so 50 TIA points to whoever calls it out first.

More links to follow, but chew on these for now...

TKO In The Third Round

There are many issues one could raise in regard to the serial tax cuts enacted under the Bush administration, but to me the most valid criticism is that they show no relation to economic realities, or the changes and trends in our nation's economic condition over the past five years. Allow me to illustrate my point.

Round One: Upon entering office, President Bush began selling his tax cut, primarily aimed at the wealthiest Americans, based on a surging economy and the rare occurrence of budget surpluses. Although Bush defenders are quick to argue that an incipient recession had already began in the months preceding his swearing in, you would not have known that if you had listened to the sanguine economic appraisals issued forth from the White House while proposing these changes. Instead, we were told that surpluses were the new norm and gone were the days of deficits and financing costs. In fact, the hacktacular Alan Greenspan even suggested that cutting taxes was necessary to prevent the government from paying the debt down too quickly. Well, that fear has certainly been abated.

So, Bush went about selling his top-heavy tax cuts using the rosiest economic outlook that told of non-stop growth as far as the eye could see, and overflowing coffers in Treasury. Under this assessment, the argument for an upper bracket tax cut is probably the soundest. Since the economy of the 1990s was overheating, tax cuts targeting the top would not spur more consumer spending (which makes up two-thirds of our GDP) and thus would not pour fuel on to the fire so to speak. Of course, I could think of about a billion other things to do with the surpluses, but for the sake of argument I am willing to concede that if, ideologically, you believe in such cuts, this was the time to implement them.

Round Two: Here's where the story gets a little tricky for anyone trying to portray the Bush tax cut policy as consistent and responsive to economic factors. After the economy slowed down to a post-bubble grinding halt, surpluses reversed course and became deficits, consumer spending dwindled to a trickle, and rampant job losses plagued the nation, Bush proposed a solution: tax cuts aimed at the wealthiest Americans. The same folks that argued that a top heavy tax cut was appropriate in an era of surging growth and budget surpluses because it would slow down debt payment and consumption, were now arguing that the same style of tax cut would have a different effect: it would spur consumer spending, recharge the listing economy, create jobs, and actually increase revenues at Treasury and magically bring down the deficits. I recall Bush selling this additional round of tax cuts thusly: "If tax cuts create jobs, more tax cuts create more jobs." Apparently, tax cuts that accrue to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans can solve every problem our economy has. Makes me wonder how many jobs we would create if we just eliminated taxes altogether.

Round Three: The results of the first two tax cuts are familiar to us all, record surpluses have become record deficits, and the job promoting and consumer spending boons as promised have not materialized in any significant way. Yes, the economy is turning upward, but such is the cyclical nature of the system. This is where supply-siders employ some deft rhetorical jujitsu. When taxes are cut and the economy turns up, they point to this as empirical evidence of a causal relationship between the two events. But, if taxes are cut and the economy continues to lumber along, they fall back on the argument that if taxes weren't cut, the economy would be doing even worse. Their stranglehold on empirical evidence is impressive if not persuasive.

Which takes us to the present. As a nation, we are facing some very serious structural flaws in our economic model. Namely, our current account deficit is so high that it is becoming a liability along many fronts. The dollar is losing value, interest rates will need to be raised in order to encourage the financing of our debt, such a rate hike could spike bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures (serendipitous timing for the passage of a backwards bankruptcy bill?), we are ceding power to foreign banks residing in tenuous allies like China that hold our debt, Social Security and other government programs are being starved of the needed funds, and in general a potential currency crisis looms on the horizon.

The solution? This might sound familiar: Make the prior two rounds of tax cuts primarily aimed at the wealthy permanent, and add on some additional tax cuts that, once again, primarily benefit the wealthiest taxpayers. In fact, as the
New York Times reported today, some Senate Republicans are going above and beyond the Bush credo.

In a surprise move, the Senate also voted to approve a total of $134 billion in tax cuts, $34 billion more than President Bush requested and $64 billion more than the Senate Republican leadership had initially proposed.

In addition to extending the cuts on capital gains taxes and dividend income, the move was intended to repeal an unpopular tax, enacted in 1993, on Social Security benefits for the wealthy.

"It provided a huge amount of tax cuts," said Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico and one of five Republicans to vote against the provision. "We didn't know what we were doing."
It just doesn't add up that such a tax cutting scheme could be appropriate in all settings. This lack of consistency (or is it hyper-consistency?), betrays the fact that there is no coherence to the policy. Eventually, the justifications come into conflict, and the empirical evidence lines up in opposition. Our deficits are real. Middle Class Americans are really struggling. There are priorities that are being underfunded or abandoned. And in the midst of all this, the GOP says keep cutting taxes on the wealthy. More in fact.

It really just boils down to a rigid belief in shifting the taxpaying burden from wealth to labor. The next incarnation will be the dubiously titled "Tax Reform" program which has all the usual suspects in terms of preferences and champions.
This article lays out the case better than I, and the three part series appearing in the Los Angeles Times (via Kevin Drum) provides a glimpse at what this Brave New America might have in store for its working citizens.

As always, if you want to get an unvarnished look at Republicanism in action, cast your gaze south to the state of Texas. As
Kevin Drum points out, Texas just passed a bill that actually raised taxes on lower and middle income earners at the same time that it lowered taxes on the upper brackets - and this from a state that already has one of the least progressive tax codes in the nation. I guess Texans can look forward to increased growth if they need it, slowed growth if that is in order, reduced deficits if they are a problem, job creation that will be the envy of the nation, candy cane trees, lollipop forests, purple moons, green clovers, and a host of other benefits and goodies. You see, Texas lawmakers share Bush's vision that tax cuts for the wealthy can be all things to all people, a panacea for a nation's woes. Now that's what I call bold thinking.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

St. Ides Of March

What? It's the first day of the NCAA tournament and St. Patrick's day to boot and you expect me to find inspiration in the world of politics. Priorities ladies and gentlemen, priorities (but if you must scratch your itch, the praktike-Djerejian back and forth is kind of fun to watch - just follow the links back from that post).

So, in the spirit of mass March psychosis, allow me to shout out: GO CATS!!! (as in the University of Vermont Catamounts). It's not like this David stands much of a chance against the Goliath of Syracuse, but seeing as my alma maters (Fordham and NYU) don't get involved much in college athletics, I'll have to adopt my brother and sister's alma from up north. If I was more cunning in these things, I would hop on the
publius Kentucky bandwagon, but I've never been the clever sort. I'm curious to know which school a Yale grad gets behind this time of year, but my guess is the University of Pittsburgh - call it a product of my insider knowledge, but I could be wrong.

As for St. Patrick's day, I caught a glimpse of the parade from my office today and it was enough to inspire me to head out for the evening and brave the annual puddles of vomit that punctuate the sidewalk like land mines, the ungrateful souvenir left behind by overzealous bridge and tunnel youths who think that getting as drunk as possible in as short a period of time is supposed to pay homage to an Irish saint (ah, the folly of youth). But in the spirit of the holiday, I am offering a TIA special with a distinctly Irish tie-in. If you happen to catch me at Puck Fair later tonight (Lafayette between Houston and Prince) partaking in a Guiness (it's still the winter to me Avedis), then I'll offer you a free one for your effort. Find the bartender named Jeremy and ask him to point me out, and the first beer's on me.

Happy St. Patrick's Day all, and may your brackets remain pristine through the weekend. I know mine won't.

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