Friday, March 30, 2007

Rhymes with Black Hawk Down

As the old saying goes, history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes. If that's true, the situation in Somalia is playing out in iambic pentameter. In a prior post, I took note of Somalis dragging killed Ethiopian soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu. Rueters brings more homophonic news from that war-torn nation:

Rebels shot down a helicopter gunship in Mogadishu on Friday in a second day of battles as Ethiopian and Somali forces sought to crush an insurgency by Islamists and clan militia. [...]

The bloody scenes recalled the shooting down by militiamen of two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in 1993 during a failed U.S. mission to hunt down Mogadishu warlords.

Echoing Jonathan Edelstein's warning that Somalia may succumb to a level of violence far worse than that seen during the decade and a half of warlord inspired violence (bad enough, that), those on the ground are sounding the alarm:

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the people of Mogadishu are caught up in the worst fighting in more than 15 years.

The dead and wounded are literally piling up in the streets:

Mogadishu resident Abdi Hussein Aboke said he saw 10 bodies in the street Friday, all apparently civilians.

"Some were lying in alleys between houses while others were lying on the streets," he said. [...]

More than 100 people have been wounded since Thursday, and the toll of dead and injured looked sure to rise.

"There are a lot of wounded, but there is no way to take them to the hospitals due to the fighting," Jamah added.

Many, many more are heading for the exits:

Local media said panic-stricken civilians continued to flee the city on Friday, many of them piling their possessions on donkey-carts. The United Nations refugee agency said 12,000 had left Mogadishu in the last week alone. [...]

The U.N.'s refugee agency said 57,000 people have fled violence in the Somali capital since the beginning of February....

Despite these reports, Somali Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi offers a familiar corrective:

"This is what the mass media is spreading, but the reality is different," he told the BBC from Riyadh.

Yeah, sure. All he needs now is a Somali Arthur Chrenkoff to share all the good news about Somalia that the treasonous, terror-coddling MSM is failing to report. For example, how many schools were painted by the invading Ethiopian military? Why don't we ever hear about that?

Speaking of which, let's take a look at how our goodwill ambassadors are aiding the cause of combating terrorism and extremist, anti-American ideology in the region.

While Christian-led Ethiopia clearly hopes this week's offensive will crush the rebels once and for all, it may have the opposite effect of further alienating the city's population or attracting foreign Muslim jihadists, the experts said. [...]

...On Thursday, a White House report said that despite recent setbacks to Islamic radicals in Somalia, foreign terrorists are still able to find a haven there because of the country's lack of governance, which contributes to a growing security threat throughout East Africa. [emph. added throughout]

Well then, at least we cleared that up.

(note: the quotes were taken from two separate articles linked to in this post, but due to the common themes discussed in each, and stylistic reasons, some of the quotes were placed together)

(Photo courtesy of Shabelle Media/Reuters)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?

Appropos of nothing in particular other than a science-fiction fan's wonderment, Noah Shachtman has an interesting article in Wired Magazine about cutting edge research into ways to push beyond the bounds of human capacity. Not surprisingly, the current research is being pursued for military purposes. Don't it always seem to at least start out that way?

As an aside, and speaking of Shachtman, he recently launched a blog under Wired's masthead called the Danger Room (Prof X representin'). Danger Room features a solid cast of contributors including Jeffrey Lewis (ArmsControlWonk), Kris Alexander (Alexander the Average) and AmFoot's very own Armchair Generalist - whose fast becoming the hardest working blogger in the 'sphere. Worth a look.

But I digress. Here's a sample of what Schactman has uncovered, but do go read the rest:

The lab is climate-controlled to 104 degrees Fahrenheit and 66 percent humidity. Sitting inside the cramped room, even for a few minutes, is an unpleasantly moist experience. I’ve spent the last 40 minutes on a treadmill angled at a 9 percent grade. My face is chili-red, my shirt soaked with sweat. My breath is coming in short, unsatisfactory gasps. The sushi and sake I had last night are in full revolt. The tiny speakers on the shelf blasting “Living on a Prayer” are definitely not helping.

Then Dennis Grahn, a lumpy Stanford University biologist and former minor-league hockey player, walks into the room. He nods in my direction and smiles at a technician. “Looks like he’s ready,” Grahn says.

Grahn takes my hand and slips it into a clear, coffeepot-looking contraption he calls the Glove. Inside is a hemisphere of metal, cool to the touch. He tightens a seal around my wrist; a vacuum begins pulling blood to the surface of my hand, and the cold metal chills my blood before it travels through my veins back to my core. After five minutes, I feel rejuvenated. Never mind the hangover. Never mind Bon Jovi. I keep going for another half hour.

The test isn’t about my endurance; it’s about the future of the American armed forces. Grahn and his colleagues developed the Glove for the military — specifically, for the Pentagon’s way-out science division, Darpa: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For nearly 50 years, Darpa has engineered technological breakthroughs from the Internet to stealth jets. But in the early 1990s, as military strategists started worrying about how to defend against germ weapons, the agency began to get interested in biology. “The future was a scary place, the more we looked at it,” says Michael Goldblatt, former head of Darpa’s Defense Sciences Office. “We wanted to learn the capabilities of nature before others taught them to us.”

By 2001, military strategists had determined that the best way to deal with emerging transnational threats was with small groups of fast-moving soldiers, not hulking pieces of military hardware. But small groups rarely travel with medics — they have to be hardy enough to survive on their own. So what goes on in Grahn’s dank little lab at Stanford is part of a much larger push to radically improve the performance, mental capacity, and resilience of American troops — to let them run harder and longer, operate without sleep, overcome deadly injury, and tap the potential of their unconscious minds.

I gotta get me one of those gloves (incidentally, it works just as well in cold environments as Schactman later demonstrates, personally). Despite the fantastic qualities of many of these innovations (check out the use of EEG to anticipate and act on thoughts in a subject before he/she actually becomes cognizant of them!), I wonder about the status of the more mundane scientific breakthroughs that have yet to come to pass.

Take for example, if I may indulge in a moment of unapologetic vanity, the elusive cure for baldness. What the hell is taking so long? Now as a youngster - in the heady days of Atari and those clunky PET computers when we imagined that nothing was far beyond the reach of technology's rapid advance - I figured that such a cure was just around the corner. No worries, thought I. By the time baldness would even become an issue in my life, medicine would have it all sorted out. It was with a kind of condescending sympathy that I looked on my poor father's barren dome.

Now in my early thirties, that cocksure swagger has been replaced by nightmares of comb-overs and razor-shaved consolation prizes. Truth be told, my deepest fear is not just that I might soon succumb to the relentless pull of baldness. It's that that my generation will be the Last of The Propecians. That a cure is actually imminent, but it just won't come in time to rescue me.

I imagine the cold comfort offered by the ability at age 80 to reinvigorate my then wispy tufts of gray. All the while forced to watch the arrogant youngsters parade around in their bulletproof bouffons. Those unappreciative sorts who would never in their lives know hair-loss anxiety.

Sadly, ensuring that our soldiers have the ability to maintain a robust head of hair is not likely on top of the "to do" list over at DARPA. Priorities I guess. But the clock is running out.

Faster! Please!

Oh, Won't You Lay My Bags Upon the Funeral Fire and Sing it Again

Jim Henley points the way with match and kindling:
Change of party control of the White House and Congress is a necessary but not sufficient corrective to the last six years. Somehow there needs to be an explicit and formal repudiation of Practical Bushism: “preemptive” war, the “unitary executive” and the counterterror torture-state. This is a very big job for two reasons.

First, because all that power is alluring, especially if it looks like your side might finally get to enjoy it...We’re hoping a critical mass of the political class - people who have made pursuing and wielding power the center of their lives - will reduce the legitimate scope of the power they can hope to attain.

Second, because it means keeping the Republican Party out of power for a good long time. British Tories claim that Margaret Thatcher told associates in the 1980s that the Conservatives couldn’t hold power forever but needed to hang onto it until “Labor stopped being insane” -until Labor jettisoned what we might call “Scargillism.”

Similarly, the US Republican Party has become a deeply corrupt institution top to bottom. It’s not just George Bush and his retinue. It’s not just the human shields of the Congressional GOP. It goes beyond the think-tank eunuchs and “conservative” media cheerleaders to the most pathetic marchers in what’s left of the right-wing blogosphere, down to the poorest spellers in their comment sections: the Republican Party has spent a half-dozen years distilling itself down to an apparatus for justifying massive executive power wielded by and for a self-designated elect of “real Americans,” and declaring everyone outside the elect to be fair game. We can disagree on how the Republican Party reduced itself to nothing but cheerleaders for the prerogatives of its own leaders against the rest of us - I have my theories like anyone else - but the rot goes all the way down.

It will take a whole new cadre of Republicans to turn the party into something that deserves to be trusted with a meaningful share of American power. Those people don’t really exist yet. Put it this way:to the extent that they exist now, the “real Republicans” vituperate them and drive them off. You can see the dynamic whenever a formerly “reliable” blogger like John Cole or Der Commissar sets the Kool-Aid cup down and begins describing the jungle compound as it actually looks. You see it in the loathing for Chuck Hagel, who was all talk and no kissing until just this week. Behind George Bush is Alberto Gonzales. Behind Alberto Gonzales is John Yoo. Behind John Yoo are a dozen functionaries who think like him but whose names we don’t even know. In front of them all is a clown show of jesters and justifiers.

It’s a rotten bunch, and it’s a rotten bunch that has found every soft spot in the structure of American Constitutionalism and poked it out. It is pleased to have done so and, as the Stiftung explains, does not to this day question its rightness. What has to happen is thoroughly repudiating them and their works. A notoriously fickle electorate has to keep them at bay. An obviously venal opposition has to rebuild the cage of laws around itself rather than running joyously rampant. I don’t like our chances, honestly. If you want to maximize them, it means turning to Eve Tushnet’s maxim: “Politicians mostly do what they think they have to do.” We have to make them think they have to shore up what passed for delimited power if they want to keep their phony-baloney jobs.

While some may interpret Henley's post as a partisan screed - essentially calling for the end of Republican rule - this largely misses the point. It is not an end to Republican Party power per se that is needed. This, because far too many, if not most, Democratic politicians would happily don the vestments of, say, the "unitary executive" should that wardrobe become available.

Rather, what is needed is a fundamental and formal recasting of the limits of political power, a rethinking of the ethos and purpose of government, a broad demand for responsiveness and responsibility, as well as a re-assertion of Constitutional protections and liberties. The larger framework needs to be adopted by both Parties, not just the one. Yet it would be myopia in pursuit of faux "balance" to deny that the Republican leadership has run farther afield on such matters - they have been busier blazing trails, setting dangerous precedents and defending thus ill-claimed territory. These transgressions must be halted first and foremost before anything more ambitious can be attempted.

For this to occur, though, the Republican Party must purge its ranks (figuratively, not literally), search its soul and rediscover certain core principles that it has cast aside with a frivolity that belies the profoundness of the matters decided. This process should involve both a reconnection to previously established, though severed, philosophical moorings (small government anyone? fiscal responsibility?) as well as the establishment of a forward looking and new approach (some of the sins described above arise from certain features in the genetic code that should be reexamined).

Sadly, the only way to force such a catharsis and re-birth is through the pain inflicted at the ballot box. Politicians and political movements mostly yield to the prerogatives of one solitary, overarching incentive: elections and votes. Speak to them in their language. As Henley says, the offending political approach must be repudiated in stark electoral terms for all to see. Wherever the poison has spread, whatever the Party, make it costly.

The above discussion is not undertaken in pursuit of destroying the Republican Party. It is not death of the patient that is desired, but rather a return to good health. And through that good health, a better balance in the political realm - not domination by one faction or the other. Within such moments of intra-national hegemony lies the temptation of tyranny, and the means to satiate the urge. One Party rule is dangerous, and rigid conformity within one Party rule, even more so. The lack of a vigorous, fluid and active dialectic leads to unfettered power grabs, ideological and policy excesses, gaping analytical blindspots, rampant corruption and widespread dysfunction.

If anything, the Bush presidency should have taught us that. Let's just hope the voting public is ready to tutor those of our leaders that haven't yet caught up to speed.

Call it: No Politician Left Behind.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dearth of a Salesman

It would be a truly remarkable - near miraculous - thing if The Surge was able to somehow bring the roiling conflagration in Iraq under control. I very much want to believe that the infusion of troops, though vastly below what General Petraeus has previously argued was necessary, could tip the momentum in favor of those looking to tamp the violence and reestablish normalcy in Iraq.

Maybe, as an adjunct, certain Iraqi factions would decide that efforts at reconciliation should take on a sense of urgency due to an increasingly impatient US population, coupled with an ascendant and assertive Democratic Party.

So it is with the arched eyebrow of curiosity (not to be confused with the furrowed brow of concern) that I have been processing the early reports of progress and enhanced security in and around mid-Surge Baghdad. While there is evidence that the increased emphasis on Baghdad's security was merely causing a reprise of the familiar game of Whack-a-Mole as large numbers of insurgents have re-located to non-Surged regions, that alone is not enough to dismiss outright the potential for some form of ink-spot type consolidation in Baghdad from which to spread the secure zone outward.

Despite this attempt to preserve a shred of sanguinity with respect to events in Iraq, though, the salesmen of the Surge are doing their best to convince me that the most recent spate of "good news" is worth about as much as Arthur Chrenkoff's entire archives.

The Straight Walk Express

Exhibit A is John McCain's detached-from-reality depiction of life in Baghdad. Witness how man-on-the scene Michael Ware easily demolishes McCain's fanciful rendering (big tip of the hat to Digby):

BLITZER: Senator John McCain suggests that crackdown is already working. I asked him about that in the last hour.


BLITZER: Here's what you told Bill Bennett on his radio show on Monday.


BLITZER: "There are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods today."


BLITZER: "The U.S. is beginning to succeed in Iraq." You know, everything we hear, that if you leave the so-called green zone, the international zone, and you go outside of that secure area, relatively speaking, you're in trouble if you're an American.

MCCAIN: You know, that's why you ought to catch up on things, Wolf. General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed Humvee. You want to -- I think you ought to catch up. You see, you are giving the old line of three months ago. I understand it. We certainly don't get it through the filter of some of the media.

But I know for a fact of much of the success we're experiencing, including the ability of Americans in many parts -- not all. We've got a long, long way to go...


BLITZER: ...Let's go live to Baghdad right now.

CNN's Michael Ware is standing by -- Michael, you've been there, what, for four years. You're walking around Baghdad on a daily basis. Has there been this improvement that Senator McCain is speaking about?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'd certainly like to bring Senator McCain up to speed, if he ever gives me the opportunity. And if I have any difficulty hearing you right now, Wolf, that's because of the helicopter circling overhead and the gun battle that is blazing just a few blocks down the road.

Is Baghdad any safer?

Sectarian violence -- one particular type of violence -- is down. But none of the American generals here on the ground have anything like Senator McCain's confidence.

I mean, Senator McCain's credibility now on Iraq, which has been so solid to this point, has now been left out hanging to dry.

To suggest that there's any neighborhood in this city where an American can walk freely is beyond ludicrous. I'd love Senator McCain to tell me where that neighborhood is and he and I can go for a stroll.

And to think that General David Petraeus travels this city in an unarmed Humvee. I mean in the hour since Senator McCain has said this, I've spoken to some military sources and there was laughter down the line. I mean, certainly, the general travels in a Humvee. There's multiple Humvees around it, heavily armed. There's attack helicopters, predator drones, sniper teams, all sorts of layers of protection.

So, no, Senator McCain is way off base on this one -- Wolf. [...]

Michael, when Senator McCain says that there are at least some areas of Baghdad where people can walk around and -- whether it's General Petraeus, the U.S. military commander, or others, are there at least some areas where you could emerge outside of the Green Zone, the international zone, where people can go out, go to a coffee shop, go to a restaurant, and simply take a stroll?

WARE: I can answer this very quickly, Wolf. No. No way on earth can a westerner, particularly an American, stroll any street of this capital of more than five million people.

I mean, if al Qaeda doesn't get wind of you, or if one of the Sunni insurgent groups don't descend upon you, or if someone doesn't tip off a Shia militia, then the nearest criminal gang is just going to see dollar signs and scoop you up. Honestly, Wolf, you'd barely last 20 minutes out there.

I don't know what part of Neverland Senator McCain is talking about when he says we can go strolling in Baghdad.

When the sell job is on that hard, the buyer should always be wary of the product. It's also worth noting (as Ware did) that McCain has sacrificed so much of his remaining credibility on all matters Iraq by spouting this obvious misinformation. Reminds me of the last time Michael Ware had to bring a US Senator back to reality. Speaking of which...

The Boy Who Cried Lieberman*

You knew Joe Lieberman wasn't going to let John McCain hog the spotlight focused on Iraq Delusion Syndrome in the Senate. Sure enough, Lieberman asks that you, the reader, decide whether he is lying now, or all those other times. Greg Sargent has the details, but here's the gist:

On the Senate floor, Lieberman implored his fellow Senators to vote Yes on the amendment to nix withdrawal timetables. He argued that "[It is clear that for the first time in a long time, there is reason for cautious optimism about Iraq]" -- even though he's been steadily arguing for months and months in the recent past that there was cause for such optimism

So when was Lieberman spinning falsehoods? The judgment is yours.

(*stolen, without remorse, from Scott Lemieux)

Good From Afar, but Far From Good

Over at Missing Links, Badger flags another incident that is, sadly, indicative of the different ways that stories of "progress" or "promising developments" get spun in the Iraqi press, and in the US media.

The government-run newspaper Al-Sabah ran a tiny three-sentence note about a proposed draft to amend the law on DeBaathification, stressing that the announcement from the President and the Prime Minister contained no details whatsoever. Al-Mada, which is a pro-Talabani paper, said nothing about the proposal. Azzman, in its domestic Iraq edition, said nothing about it either, but ran a story in its international editio ...Al-Sabah al-Jadida ran a small item that described the proposal in terms of technical adjustments to already-existing DeBaathification provisions.

In other words, although the Sunni-oriented Azzaman was slightly more interested in this than the government-oriented papers (but not in its domestic edition), the broad consensus in the Iraqi press was that this is not history-making. By contrast, the NYT, WaPo and AP all took this up as if it represents a definitive change in policy-direction for the Maliki administration, and the culmination of months of hard work by the departing US ambassador Khalilzad. Good work, Ambassador! One problem seems to have been that the Iraqi journalists, untrained in Western journalistic standards, would have asked questions of the Embassy about this, like: If this is a major reconciliation measure, why is there only minimal Iraqi coverage of it; why are there no expressions of support for this from the Sunni parties; is the Chalabi De-Baathification organization in fact going to be disbanded; why is this being announced on the day of Khalilzad's farewell press-conference; and so on. [emphasis added throughout]

Do you mean that on top of failing to implement an effective rollback of de-Baathification the Iraqis haven't forged a pact to share oil revenues, formed a unity government coopting elements of the insurgencies, voted overwhelmingly for Allawi and/or Chalabi, disbanded the militias, etc.? But the liberal media said...

With salesmen like these, who needs snarky bloggers to kick the tires?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fighting Fire with Gasoline

The Somalis bestow the local version of flowers and candies on their putative liberators - a display of gratitude reminiscent of our own experience in that country some 15 years ago:

Fifteen people have been killed in heavy fighting in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, where angry crowds dragged soldiers' bodies through the streets.

Crowds kicked the dead bodies and set them alight.[...]

Shabelle reports that one was a Somalia government soldier, the other an Ethiopian fighter.

Correspondents say the scenes evoke memories of events in 1993 when the bodies of US soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by militiamen. [...]

Somalia enjoyed a six-month lull in the insecurity that had dogged the country for the past 16 years when the [Union of Islamic Courts] UIC took power last year.

But insecurity has returned to the city and the UN estimates some 40,000 people have fled from Mogadishu since February.

Despite the notably brutal, if familiar, treatment of foreign troops (and collaborators) in Somalia, the latter part of this BBC News report refers to the more essential narrative: the situation in that country has proven to be bloodier, less stable and less tolerable for its citizens since the ruling Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was toppled by an invading Ethiopian army as buttressed by US air power and on-the-ground military assistance.

With the debacle in Iraq further cementing its position among the worst - if not the worst - foreign policy blunders in US history, many erstwhile supporters and even some longtime opponents are beginning to bristle at the frequency and repetitive nature of the myriad post-mortems. Yet if our experience in Somalia is any indication, more, not less, repetition is needed - at least until we begin to internalize the key lessons to be taken away from our experiences in Iraq.

One such lesson concerns the limited efficacy of military solutions to intractable, region-wide problems. It's not that use of the military is never warranted (far from it), but we must recognize what this tool can and cannot accomplish. Toppling a regime is quite possible. Sticking around and ensuring that something stable, peaceful and reasonably friendly emerges and consolidates power in the aftermath...not so much.

So we should assess, on a case-by-case basis with careful attention paid to the variables, whether or not we can accept the probable post-invasion vacuum of power that will result, and whether we will be able to maintain any leverage over the situation sufficient to affect the trajectory of the aftermath.

If we can't keep a lid on the chaos or control the next phase, then chances are we shouldn't get involved (with some limited exceptions). Because the costs are significant (not just in terms of economic assets and human lives). The sizable amount of negative blowback and loss of goodwill attendant to military action must be factored into the equation as strategic costs each time. People tend not to react well to invasion and occupation or even the less involved aerial bombardment - each with inevitable collateral damage. This indigenous hostility builds up even if the assault was undertaken "in the best interest" of the locals. As Bush might say, some people just don't know how to show appreciation.

Similarly, our involvement in Iraq should serve as a reminder that, despite the moral failings and brutality of a given regime, our attempts to improve on the situation are not a given and we can often make matters worse or only provide for improvements at the margins (all at tremendous cost in human lives, global standing, diplomatic capital and economic resources as mentioned above).

To argue that Saddam was an odious and murderous leader, while not controversial, should not be enough to establish a casus belli - or better yet, persuade us that an invasion would be in our interests. The case only becomes marginally more compelling when his hostility to the US is factored in. Not only did our military involvement fail to guarantee that a more enlightened regime would take the reins of power post invasion, but there is also no assurance that the resulting regime will be substantially friendlier to our interests.

In the end (or rather beginning), the pragmatist's questions must be asked and answered in terms of the possibility of achieving goals at acceptable costs. Simply spotlighting an area of concern or shining light on a repressive regime should not lead, reflexively, to the preparation and execution of military plans. On the contrary, the overarching guidance should be: use the military very selectively - with caution and circumspection - be sure to factor in the chaos that will likely occur in the aftermath and be certain that there is a close correlation between objectives and underlying capacity.

Sadly, little if any of that analysis was applied to our engagement in Somalia. The ICU is a regime that one would be hard pressed to praise with any zeal or frequency. The ICU espoused a brutal form of religious rule that showed little respect for basic human rights, human life and basic freedoms. Still, pointing this out does not satisfy the requirements for military engagement - nor does it, alone, justify our active, direct support for Ethiopia's military incursion (a nation with its own interests vis-a-vis Somalia that conflict, in many key areas, with our own).

The ICU was a terrible regime compared to, say, Sweden's, but life under the ICU was better for Somalis than the current state of affairs (and that which immediately preceded it). Further, the US wasn't generating mass resentment for its prior non-involvement, nor held to blame for the evils of the ICU. The US will, however, be viewed as a causal factor of the chaos that has reigned in the aftermath of Ethiopia's invasion, and be closely associated with the actions of that nation's military forces (a curious choice for a regional representative to say the least).

As the BBC article points out, there was relative stability for the 6 months of ICU rule in Somalia generally, and Mogadishu in particular, compared to the previous 16 years of warlordism that plagued that nation. The ICU was far from ideal, but given Somalia's relentlessly chaotic and bloody recent past, it at least exhibited the virtue of bringing a relative calm to the nation. Somalis themselves have communicated this fact both in print and with their feet as evidenced by the massive flow of refugees out of Mogadishu over the past couple of months.

For a sample of Somali reactions to the recent fighting and the comparison to life under the ICU, you can check out this archived post I created as a compilation from some BBC sources. While most commenters decry the resurgence of warlord violence and widespread lawlessness, Jonathan Edelstein (who is one of the more erudite bloggers in the sphere, if not yet managing partner) warns about an even greater danger:

The peacekeepers' task will be especially difficult given that Somalia is retreating, not to the state of warlord-ruled semi-anarchy that preceded the Islamic judiciary's takeover last June, but to something considerably worse. The warlord era wasn't peaceful by any means, and ordinary citizens lived at the mercy of arbitrary extortion, but full-scale warfare of the type that occurred during the civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s was rare. The factional fighting that has arisen in Somalia since the Ethiopian invasion is at a much higher level, with the resurgent warlords and clans overshadowed by the rising insurgency, Ethiopian and American security interests and a developing regional proxy conflict. The last time Somalia was a battlefield in a cold war, the result was the Siad Barre regime and a near-genocidal civil war, and if there's a reprise of that now, eight thousand peacekeepers won't be able to do much to stop it. [emphasis added]

For a nation such as Somalia that is confronting a history of prolonged conflict, the potential for creating positive momentum is enhanced by the imposition of stability - even if the guarantor of calm is less than an ideal regime. Within the space created by a lull in the violence, attempts at instituting broader, more responsive, state institutions - and administering aid and other amelioratives - can be better executed. The resumption of active economic life and the larger sense of normalcy's return can go a long way toward rolling back a culture of violence if given enough time, and space, to take root.

Legitimately problematic issues that Somalia's neighbors (as well as the US) may have with the ICU could then be addressed through diplomatic and economic levers after the stage is set, rather than interrupted through the use of the crude instrument of military force. As Edelstein points out, the recent violence isn't merely a case of "back to square one" in terms of warlordism and clan-based fighting. It's worse. Somalia may be regressing to levels of violence not seen in decades. Which, considering Somalia's recent track record, is saying a lot. Anyone want to guess what that will do for our interests in the region?

Again, I ask: What is it good for?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sociopaths Say the Darndest Things

For John Bolton, a curious source of pride:

A former top American diplomat says the US deliberately resisted calls for a immediate ceasefire during the conflict in Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

Former ambassador to the UN John Bolton told the BBC that before any ceasefire Washington wanted Israel to eliminate Hezbollah's military capability.

Mr Bolton said an early ceasefire would have been "dangerous and misguided".

Mr Bolton now describes it as "perfectly legitimate...and good politics" for the Israelis to seek to defeat their enemy militarily, especially as Hezbollah had attacked Israel first and it was acting "in its own self-defence".

Mr Bolton, a controversial and blunt-speaking figure, said he was "damned proud of what we did" to prevent an early ceasefire. [...]

More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and an unknown number of Hezbollah fighters were killed in the conflict.

Israel lost 116 soldiers in the fighting, while 43 of its civilians were killed in Hezbollah rocket attacks. [emphasis added]

Yeah, what's not to be proud of. As I've been saying all along, there are influential members of the Bush administration, and its coterie of like-minded ideologues, that have an unhealthy belief in the efficacy of military solutions to complex, deep rooted conflicts.

To such an extent that negotiated settlements (even exploratory negotiations!) are viewed as born out of weakness, equivalent to appeasement and as inevitably leading to unnecessarily costly compromises at bargaining tables shared with adversaries that would be better dealt with on the battlefield.

At the very least, there is an overriding desire to use military force to hammer opponents until an eventual "negotiated" settlement accepted under extreme duress is sufficiently slanted and one-sided so as to be made more palatable.

All the dead bodies that pile up in the meantime? Well, some people derive a sense of pride from the results of their handiwork.

(hat tip to Scott Lemieux's Pen.. d at LGM - who has some photographs that Bolton might want to frame on his mantle)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Genesis of Genocide

In a post today, Hilzoy highlights two of the more recently revealed examples of the GOP's deliberate obfuscation of scientific findings undertaken in the pursuit of maintaining a shroud of doubt around the crisis of global warming. These are stories of oil industry lobbyists-cum-administration officials-cum lobbyists again editing climate reports to soften the science-based conclusions about global warming.

There are also recollections of Congressional patronage games - with coveted science-focused committee chairs being offered to lawmakers with scientific qualifications, but only if they agree to betray their principles in the name of global warming denialism.

These revelations, while disturbing, aren't particularly new or unique with respect to an administration and Party that have been performing this muzzle and dodge dance for some time. It should be understood that these tactics are part of a deliberate and coordinated strategy executed with relentless cynicism by the Bush administration, its Congressional allies, the Republican Party and their respective ideological fellow travelers.

The call to arms was sounded over a decade ago, and the steady progression of the science led many Republican strategists to reiterate the stakes early on in the Bush years. As recounted by the New York Times in March 2003 (cited here):

Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that "the scientific debate is closing against us." His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.
"Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled," he writes, "their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."

Regardless of truth and consequences, execute the strategy. Empiricism be damned.

An article by Stephen Faris in the most recent issue of The Atlantic provides a chilling look at just how severe those consequences may end up being for many of the Earth's inhabitants. It's not just the effect that extreme weather phenomena like floods, landslides, droughts and hurricanes will have on the populations immediately impacted by such events. While the death and destruction from those events can be enormous, the specter of more catastrophic outcomes looms on the horizon.

The repercussions from dramatic shifts in temperature, rainfall and overall patterns will likely exacerbate, if not directly instigate, bloody conflict on a massive scale. The upending of societal orders that are, at least in part, dependent on a continuation of the existing pattern of sustainable interaction with the local environment will lead to new-found competition over suddenly scarce resources such as arable land, viable real estate and water.

To put it in less colorful language: previously peaceful neighbors will start fighting in desperation over what little is left after the Earth literally moves from beneath their feet. Faris offers a glimpse:

To truly understand the crisis in Darfur—and it has been profoundly misunderstood—you need to look back to the mid-1980s, before the violence between African and Arab began to simmer. Alex de Waal...was there at that time, as a doctoral candidate doing anthropological fieldwork. Earlier this year, he told me a story that, he says, keeps coming back to him.

De Waal was traveling through the dry scrub of Darfur, studying indigenous reactions to the drought that gripped the region. In a herders’ camp near the desert’s border, he met with a bedridden and nearly blind Arab sheikh named Hilal Abdalla, who said he was noticing things he had never seen before: Sand blew into fertile land, and the rare rain washed away alluvial soil. Farmers who had once hosted his tribe and his camels were now blocking their migration; the land could no longer support both herder and farmer. Many tribesmen had lost their stock and scratched at millet farming on marginal plots.

The God-given order was broken, the sheikh said, and he feared the future. “The way the world was set up since time immemorial was being disturbed,” recalled de Waal. “And it was bewildering, depressing. And the consequences were terrible.”

In 2003, another scourge, now infamous, swept across Darfur. Janjaweed fighters in military uniforms, mounted on camels and horses, laid waste to the region. In a campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting Darfur’s blacks, the armed militiamen raped women, burned houses, and tortured and killed men of fighting age. Through whole swaths of the region, they left only smoke curling into the sky.

At their head was a 6-foot-4 Arab with an athletic build and a commanding presence. In a conflict the United States would later call genocide, he topped the State Department’s list of suspected war criminals. De Waal recognized him: His name was Musa Hilal, and he was the sheikh’s son.

The fighting in Darfur is usually described as racially motivated, pitting mounted Arabs against black rebels and civilians. But the fault lines have their origins in another distinction, between settled farmers and nomadic herders fighting over failing lands. The aggression of the warlord Musa Hilal can be traced to the fears of his father, and to how climate change shattered a way of life.

...A few tribes drifted elsewhere or took up farming, but the Arab herders stuck to their fraying livelihoods—nomadic herding was central to their cultural identity. (The distinction between “Arab” and “African in Darfur is defined more by lifestyle than any physical difference: Arabs are generally herders, Africans typically farmers. The two groups are not racially distinct.) [emphasis added]

This should not be seen as a reduction of the conflict to purely environmental causes. There are other, insidious forces at work including the rapaciousness of the regime in Khartoum whose leaders view a "cleansed" Darfur as easier to exploit, as well as the inclination on the part of Sudan's neighbors to interfere by proxy.

In addition, droughts and other severe weather patterns would exist with or without, and previous to, the advent of global warming. It's just that the global warming we are beginning to witness today is a vastly accelerated version of the Earth's normal fluctuations, and with it, there will be a cluster of once rare and gradual climactic events occurring over a shorter time frame.

The results will not be to the benefit of humanity - where pre-existing societal fault lines were present, and where no such tensions existed.

Environmental degradation “creates very dry tinder,” says de Waal. “So if anyone wants to put a match to it, they can light it up.” Combustion might be particularly likely in areas where the political or social geography is already fragile.

As such, Darfur will not likely be the last bloody manifestation of global warming's eventual legacy of upheaval. Sadly, the Bush administration and the Republican Party seem more determined to fight the science of global warming than the crisis itself. But you can't spin or bamboozle mother nature. She's immune to the stuff. And in the end, she's The Decider.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Work-Related Outages

Apologies for the extended silence around these parts, but work is having its way with me. And it ain't pretty. Hopefully, I'll be able to come up for air soon and resume our ongoing conversation.

See you soon. I hope.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hammer Timed?

When Newt Gingrich went public last week with an admission that he was carrying on an extramarital affair while leading a moral crusade against President Clinton over the Lewinsky imbroglio, most observers assumed this was a tactical decision on Gingrich's part. He preemptively struck - attempting to defuse a potential election season time bomb that could explode in his face down the campaign trail.

While that general assessment is most likely correct, there was also something looming on the near horizon that was speeding up the countdown to critical mass of Gingrich's scarlet A-bomb. Advanced copies of Tom Delay's book, No Retreat, No Surrender: One American's Fight had already been sent out, and the book itself would be hitting stores next week. Some of Delay's reminisces likely provided a little impetus for Newt assume the penitent pose. As recounted by Robert Novak:

DeLay also declares "our leadership was in no moral shape to press" impeachment against President Bill Clinton. Writing well before Gingrich's admission for the first time last week, DeLay asserts: "It is now public knowledge that Newt Gingrich was having an affair with a staffer during the entire impeachment crisis. Clearly, men with such secrets are not likely to sound a high moral tone at a moment of national crisis."
I guess that depends on what the meaning of "now" is. While there was widespread speculation about Gingrich's peccadilloes in general, and this affair in particular, it certainly wasn't public knowledge - at least at the time Delay was memorializing his fond recollections.

In addition to Delay gently nudging Newt along the path of contrition, the former Speaker has some other constructive criticisms for his erstwhile House colleague - expressed with Delay's notoriously subtle touch:

NEWT Gingrich's attempted phoenix-like rise from his own political ashes to a presidential candidacy next week will run into a harsh assessment by his former House GOP colleague, Tom DeLay. The ex-majority leader's memoir assails Gingrich as an "ineffective" House speaker with a flawed moral compass. [...]

DeLay admits that the team of Speaker Gingrich, Majority Leader Armey and Majority Whip DeLay, empowered by the 1994 elections, "were not a cohesive team, and this hindered our ability to change the nation." He puts most blame "at Newt Gingrich's door."

In describing Gingrich as an "ineffective speaker," DeLay writes: "He knew nothing about running meetings and nothing about driving an agenda." He adds: "Nearly every other day he had a new agenda, a new direction he wanted us to take. It was impossible to follow him."
According to Novak, Dick Armey gets pummeled even harder. That I'd like to see, but I'll have to rely on Novak or some other reviewer with the intestinal fortitude to actually wade through Delay's tome. But there would be some sort of payoff. I mean, even President Bush gets a lashing:

The memoir ends DeLay's reticence in criticizing President Bush. Deriding Bush's self-identification as "a compassionate conservative," DeLay asserts "he has expanded government to suit his purpose, especially in the area of education. He may be compassionate, but he is certainly no conservative in the classic sense." He also charges that Bush has failed to stress the role of the U.S. troops fighting in Iraq, adding, " one at the White House was listening" to his advice.
Not exactly John Henry, but hey, the Hammer's just warming up. Guess that's what happens when you nurture the political version of Frankenstein.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Boy You've Been a Naughty Girl

It's not often that I disagree with Publius (formerly of Legal Fiction, now of Obsidian Wings fame). But it happens on occasion. This instance of discord centers around a topic for which I occupy an increasingly narrow sliver of real estate in the left-leaning blogosphere: Hillary Clinton. There is an overarching hostility toward Clinton's candidacy in the left-blogosphere, as indicated by her paltry showing in this MyDD straw poll, that I do not seem to share.

The primary criticisms of Hillary seem to focus on two primary aspects: First, she is prone to cleave to a centrist line and, similarly, is overly hawkish on foreign policy (Iraq war being a big part of this); Second, she is unduly cynical and calculating in her political posturing with the primary goal being electoral victory.

For some, these two narratives intertwine, with the "centrism" described in the first critique being a product of her political aspirations as described in the second.

The second criticism has been unfairly attributed to Clinton quite consistently throughout her political career - at least when compared to other politicians. It's not that Clinton doesn't possess these strategic imperatives, it's thatt he groupthink has settled in such that Hillary has come to represent the conniving electoral gamesmanship of politicians in general. Let me divulge a secret though: ALL politicians have political aspirations, and the vast majority are looking to the next election, or next "promotion" available. Does anyone doubt that perennial candidate John McCain has wanted to be President for a very long time? That he has taken cynical, calculated steps to facilitate these goals. Yet, his career is not marked with the same level of suspicion as Hillary's. How about George "clearing some brush on my ranch" Bush? Come on people.

But I'll go further: since political power comes through winning elections, I actually admire Hillary's desire and ability to play the electoral game. Good on her. Whereas the cold, calculating maneuvering of other politicians is greeted with praise and admiration at the skill and mastery at how they can game the system, with Hillary, for some reason, it's viewed as unseemly and improper. It would be myopic to discount the influence of sexism on this rather obvious double standard.

Would that other long time, calculating political aspirants like Al Gore and John Kerry have had a whiff of her political instincts. What might have been. Sigh. But back to my friend Publius who looks at a future Clinton Presidency through the lens of her position on Iraq:

I’ve tried hard to come up with a Slate-like contrarian post about why my Clinton Blahs have nothing to do with Iraq. But I can’t – it’s Iraq. It’s not merely though that she supported the war, it’s that the specific way she supported it speaks volumes (bad volumes) about what a future Clinton administration would look like.

First things first – I could care less about whether Clinton “apologizes” for supporting the war. I actually hope she doesn’t at this point. But I won’t be supporting her in the primary regardless of what she does.

I also don’t really care about her 2002 vote. A lot of smart people supported the war in good conscience. No, what bothers me is not her initial support, but her ongoing support in the face of obvious and ongoing failures. [...]

...[W]ith respect to Clinton, the post-war bothers me more than the pre-war. She could and should have spoken out earlier against what she clearly recognized were disastrous policies. But she didn’t. She stayed silent and let others do that, while she floated above the fray with an eye to keeping her centrist hawkish street cred intact for 2008. While others risked political capital to criticize, she waited until criticism no longer carried political risks.

Personal bitterness aside, there’s actually a more substantive concern. After all, I think it’s important to de-personalize presidential elections. Personality matters only to the extent it materially affects the shape of the candidate’s future administration and executive branch. People may feel personally betrayed by Clinton, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t assemble an outstanding and effective executive branch. [...]

And here’s the heart of it – the Iraq issue matters because it shows, at heart, what most motivates Clinton is the fear of being perceived as too liberal....For example, in light of 1994, I suspect Clinton is the least likely of all the Democratic candidates to put up a real fight for serious health care reform if elected. I can also easily see her getting bullied into military action. And so on.
Here is the response I left for Publius at Obsidian Wings, cleaned up, augmented and reconfigured for this space:

Hillary - for a few bad reasons - was already battling a pretty heavy presumption of extreme "liberalness" in the most pejorative sense of the word (as crafted by the Right throughout the 80's).

Being a woman didn't help - let alone a "lesbian, black panther defending, 60's radical, feminazi, Wiccan, etc." [the spin, not the reality]

She more than most needed to, and still needs to, disabuse the electorate of that notion. Getting attacked from the left-flank doesn't hurt her, it helps her if she can get out of the primaries intact. I think that explains her reluctance to vote against the resolution, or jump out too quickly on the anti-war wagon.

Would it have helped end the Iraq war effort if she had? Uh, no - and I don't really think that her support at the time would have done a tremendous amount for the people that have been fighting the anti-war fight since before the invasion (which I myself was doing). Bush was going to invade either way, and Hillary (like Kerry and so many others) made a decision to go along with the resolution as worded.

And it has worked for her to some extent. She is seen as more moderate, hawkish and responsible by more of the American electorate as a result (not necessarily the blogosphere, but the rest of the voting public). In the post-9/11 world with national security and conflict likely to take center state again in 2008, that's a nice reputation to be toting around.

That may all sound like cold, political calculation, but I'd say that is how the game is played. Bill and Hill just know how to play it better than most. It's not inspiring, or morally satisfying, but, well, ain't that America.

They might have played it too clever by half this time, though, and it could end up biting her in the ass if she's left dangling too far out toward the middle, but we'll see.

Now how will this translate into governance style and a future penchant for risk taking? That depends on the mood of the electorate, but I don't think she'll have to do as much posturing as the President than as a first-time presidential candidate.

What she has had to do is define - or re-brand - her personal narrative for the election. After that, she will have a freer hand to govern and I don't think she'll be any more inclined to do something stupid for political reasons than any other candidate.

Any future Democratic President will be tempted and cajoled by the same forces, but I actually think she has a certain toughness that could break the other way. There certainly won't be the inexperience factor to worry about, and she has a strong political base with which to act from.

Make no mistake: Hillary's failure to oppose a carefully worded resolution, with the vote timed on the election calendar, that was framed as only providing Bush with the ability to use the threat of force to compel Saddam's cooperation with inspectors - in a highly charged post-9/11 environment of demonization - is not the same as a future President Hillary Clinton choosing to launch a war of choice on her own. I'd rather that all of my candidates cleave to the "right" side of all such votes, but if a little gamesmanship can ensure that a more sensible administration takes the White House, I'm not going to stand in the way.

The last time well-informed and well-intentioned Democratic voters let the hawkish-centrism (and electoral cynicism) of a candidate lull them into either apathy, or outright withdrawal and diversion of electoral support, was the year 2000. The candidate was Al "Coke v. Pepsi" Gore.

The result?

Nuff said.

Monday, March 12, 2007

One-Eyed Kings

Matt Yglesias ladles out an adequate portion of faint praise for Robert Kagan:

At any rate, you're not supposed to mention Robert Kagan in polite professional punditry circles without observing that he's much smarter and a much more honest writer than your average neocon. This pearl of wisdom even has the virtue of being true. Sadly, as Glenn Greenwald exhaustively demonstrates, this really isn't saying very much. For a neocon, he has a great analytic track record on Iraq, which means his track record is horrible rather than, say, horrifyingly horrible.

Since Matt, and New York City's suddenly spring-like weather, have me feeling charitable today, I'd like to offer my own praise for Kagan. With respect to urging military confrontation with Iran, Kagan has displayed a rare tendency to speak frankly of the likely size, scope and efficacy of the various military options. Rare, that is, in neoconservative circles.

Witness Kagan's relatively clear-eyed assessment in this Washington Post column from last year:

If an air and missile strike could destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program, it might seem the best of many bad options. But the likely costs outweigh the benefits. [...]

The Pentagon can hit facilities it can see with relative confidence. But much of Iran's program is underground, and some of it we don't know about. Even if a strike set back Iran's plans, we would not know by how much. For all the price we would pay, we wouldn't even know what we'd achieved. [...]

Then there is the prospect of Iranian retaliation: terrorist attacks, military activity in Iraq, attempts to close off the Persian Gulf shipping lanes and disrupt oil supplies. Unless we were prepared to escalate, ultimately to the point of taking down the regime, we could end up in worse shape than when we began. [...]

But we shouldn't delude ourselves. Efforts to foment political change won't necessarily bear fruit in time to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb. That may be the risk we have to take. But if this or the next administration decides it is too dangerous to wait for political change, then the answer will have to be an invasion, not merely an air and missile strike, to put an end to Iran's nuclear program as well as to its regime. If Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon is truly intolerable, that is the only military answer. [emphasis added]

While some neocons, like Michael Ledeen, have a difficult time keeping their stories straight on Iran (and Iraq!) - shamelessly weaving in and out of advocacy for military confrontation and indignant claims that he has urged no such thing - most now claim that their military aims vis-a-vis Iran are limited. These new-fangled incrementalists, forced to reckon with dwindling political will, as well as the logistical constraints imposed by commitments and vulnerabilities in Iraq (whither glorious World War IV?), are pushing the theory that air strikes targeting Iran can and would be a tidy, effective, short-lived and limited military affair.

No ground forces needed, no measurable geographic expansion of the conflict, no occupation, no nation building required - just a healthy dose of "shock and awe" bombardment which, according to William Kristol and his compatriots, will lead to an uprising of pro-American reformers that would topple the Mullahs and thank us for our ballistic largess.

This is either extreme naivete or duplicity on a grand scale. Neither option should inspire any confidence in the judgment of the pundits in question.

Kagan explains the reasons why such a view is misguided, which should be obvious to even amateurish analysts: the defenses to air strikes built up by Iran, and the limited intelligence on our part in support of these air strikes, will hamper their efficacy. More importantly, though, Iran has the means to respond forcefully and in many theaters.

This retaliation will be enormously costly to us economically, politically and in terms of our ability to maintain an effective military deterrent globally. If Iran's response goes unanswered, these costs will escalate across the board. In the process, we could very well lose Iraq, as just one example. To quote Kagan, "Unless we were prepared to escalate, ultimately to the point of taking down the regime, we could end up in worse shape than when we began." Easily.

Most observers recognize this though. Even the ones that spin their magical thinking into outlandish scenarios whereby we attack Iran with massive aerial bombardment, and Iran either begrudgingly accepts our aggression without rejoinder or - in an even more far-fetched rendition - initiates an internal revolt that results in a US-friendly regime.

Those that advocate for air strikes - like Kagan - know that the conflict will escalate into a large scale confrontation. It's just that such a high ticket product doesn't have the same consumer demand as it used to. So now they're selling Invasion Lite, at a discount, to the masses.

That, as they say, is a classic bait and switch.

Friday, March 09, 2007

If You Don’t Believe Me Take a Look at The One You’re With

One of Andrew Sullivan's posts on International Woman's Day:

The Saudis celebrate:

The 19-year-old Saudi woman was abducted by a gang of men wielding kitchen knives who took her to a farm where she was raped 14 times by her captors. Five men were arrested for the rape and given jail terms ranging from 10 months to five years by a panel of judges in the eastern Saudi city of Qatif, near the teenager's hometown.

But the judges also decided to sentence the young woman, identified only as "G," to 90 lashes. "G" was told by one of the judges that she was lucky not to have been given jail time. She said yesterday that she would appeal against her sentence.

The woman told the Saudi Gazette that she tried to commit suicide because of her ordeal and was beaten by her younger brother because the rape had brought shame on their family.

Is it Islamophobic to call this barbarism?

No it is not. That is barbarism pure and simple.

However, it would be Islamophobic to pretend that the Islamic religion, or the Muslim world, has a monopoly on brutality toward women. And it would be hypocritical to criticize this behavior from an ahistorical vantage point that fails to acknowledge the legacy of similar behavior in our own Judeo-Christian society. Rape is an epidemic in the Judeo-Christian world (to attempt an analogue) and has been for millennia. Further, physical violence against women continues at, for lack of better word, a barbaric pace. The sad fact is, we could comb through news reports in anywhere in North, Central and South America (Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.) and come up with equally chilling tales.

So why even frame the issue in religious terms?

In fairness to Sullivan, I'd say his critique probably centers around the institutional/cultural response to the crime in general, and the victim in particular. The men in this instance (and all too frequently) got relatively minor sentences, while the victim herself was punished with lashings as well as beatings from her close family members.

According to these criteria, the Judeo-Christian world has made progress beyond what is seen in places like Saudi Arabia. But much of this progress has been relatively recent, and we could hardly claim to have rid ourselves of the vestiges of this ugliness.

The Judeo-Christian world has a long and shameful history of treating rape and violence against women as less than criminal. We, too, have partaken (and continue to partake) in victim blaming as a means of coercion/punishment. The credible fear of societal stigmatization and backlash leads to the continued under-reporting of rape and other sexual assaults.

One doesn't even need to go back as far as witch burnings and the like to take note of institutional misogyny in the Western world. Consider that under American law from just thirty years ago, the rape of one's spouse was not even considered a crime (and for decades after in some jurisdictions, it was considered a lesser crime). Then again, under American law women used to literally be considered their husband's property (chattel), so a little thing like spousal immunity for rape would not be an aberration.

Which is not to capitulate to the status quo in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else where women are under siege in such a way. Nor should we go mute in the face of this brutality simply because it is being carried out under the auspices of other cultural or religious norms. There is no excuse. The behavior needs to be criticized for what it is, without equivocation.

Yet I question the value of emphasizing the religious component. In focusing on the religious aspect as a primary means of explaining this phenomenon, it becomes too easy to slip into ungrounded, exceptionalist thinking that only feeds the clash of civilizations furnace. Justifiable outrage becomes a vehicle for the demonization of an entire religion or people when the sad truth of the matter is that these crimes and institutional attitudes toward women span every religion, culture, temporal and geographical barrier. John Lennon wrote an all too accurate song about this phenomenon.

Progress is possible, and some regions and cultures have without a doubt made advancements in certain areas at a faster rate. Such is the nature of liberalization, and the underlying economic and political forces that drive it. This should not be ignored, but rather highlighted from the perspective of educating and providing positive examples. It becomes harder to achieve a fruitful dialogue, however, when the problems are approached from an overly sanctimonious, or bigoted, position that can be easily undermined with a brief look back at our own recent past.

This might all sound like too fine a point to be making, but it is important to remember the motive behind critiquing such behavior. Better to make it about protecting women than breeding a backlash of bigoted intolerance under the banner of something noble.

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them Part II: The 0.3% Doctrine

Like I said before: it's all about priorities.

To the Bush administration, providing our wounded veterans with adequate health care and benefits is not as high a priority as ensuring that the very wealthiest Americans get repeated tax breaks to the tune of trillions of dollars. From the Bush administration's vantage point, I guess, compared to wounded vets, life is unduly difficult for those debutantes, rich kids and other assorted jet setters. As Grover Norquist would lament, even Paris Hilton sings the blues.

The evidence of these perverted loyalties is damning.

While our returning soldiers languish neglected and confounded by a labyrinth of broken promises and red tape, the Bush administration continues to fight tooth and nail for things like...the permanent repeal of the estate tax. For those not familiar with that little tax law nicety, let me give you a brief history in quasi-layman's terms.

As the law now stands, the estate tax only applies to estates that have a value in excess of $2 million (this threshold goes up to $3.5 million in 2009). What this means is that there is no estate tax at all for an estate valued at $2 million or less. If you die and don't have over $2 million in assets (after deductions), then your estate owes nothing. Zip. Nada.

As you can see, this type of tax, by definition, only applies to the most fortunate among us. You have to have millions to be so unlucky. Myself: I aspire to, someday, leave my children with the hardship of taxes being assessed on my multi-million dollar estate. Poor them. As it stands, I'm more student loan debt battler than tycoon. But back to the estate tax chicanery.

As mentioned, if the decedent was able to amass an estate with a value greater than $2 million, and that person wasn't siphoning enough of those assets into tax shelters or just giving the money away tax free during their lifetime, then their heirs and heiresses would have the hard luck of taxes being taken out of the estate.

But, and this is an important but, taxes would only be assessed on the amounts that exceed the $2 million threshold. So an estate valued at $3 million would have taxes assessed on only $1 million of that total, with the first $2 million still enjoying tax free status. Not so bad really.

Now rewind to 2001. When faced with the harsh reality that the estate tax threshold was set at a meager $675,000 in 2001 - with a gradual rise to $1 million in 2006 built in to then existing law - the Bush administration snapped into action. This injustice could not stand.

So, in 2001, the Bush administration passed legislation that jacked the threshold up to $1 million in 2002, with stepped increases up to $2 million in 2006, $3.5 million in 2009 and, then, the climax: a full repeal of all estate tax in 2010 (the Bush legislation also reduced the top marginal rates to further soften the effects of the taxes themselves).

One catch, though: there is a sunset provision built into the law so the estate tax resurrects in 2011 at the $1 million dollar threshold amount. Concerned with the specter of the eventual return of the estate tax, the Republican Party dedicates time and resources to an annual legislative push to make the estate tax repeal permanent.

Why the sense of urgency for a piece of tax cutting legislation that only benefits the wealthiest Americans you ask? Good question. The GOP even rejected compromise legislation that would keep the threshold at $3.5 million after the sunset. Kevin Drum spells out what life would be like under the compromise legislation:

- 99.7% of all estates would pay no tax at all.

- Only 50 (that's "fifty," not "fifty thousand") farms and small business would owe any estate tax.

- Conversely, repealing the estate tax entirely would cost nearly $1 trillion over ten years. That's "trillion," not "billion."

One trillion dollars. Hmmm. What could we do with $1 trillion dollars other than divert it to those poor souls inheriting money from the wealthiest 0.3% of all estates?

Fred Kaplan has some suggestions:

Consider the following facts from the fiscal year 2008 budget proposal, which the White House submitted to Congress just last month.

The Pentagon's Defense Health Program—which includes the Tricare health-insurance plan, used by 9.1 million veterans and involving 65 inpatient clinics, 414 medical and dental clinics, and 257 veterans centers—has actually had its budget cut the past two years. In fiscal year 2006, the program's budget for medical care went up from $15.9 billion to $21.2 billion. But since then, it's gone down slightly—to $20.8 billion in FY 2007 and a proposed $20.7 billion in FY 2008.

These numbers understate the magnitude of the cuts. To keep up with inflation in the cost of goods and payroll, the Defense Department actually had to cut medical-care programs by $1.6 and $1.4 billion in FY07 and FY08, respectively.

Money is similarly tight at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA's budget for medical care has risen in the past few years—from $28.8 billion in FY 2006 to $29.3 billion in FY 2007 to a request for $34.2 billion in FY 2008—but this hasn't been enough. In each of the past four years, according to a March 1 report by the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, the VA has systematically underestimated the number of veterans applying for benefits in the coming fiscal year. The result is a shortfall of $2.8 billion in the FY08 budget, just to cover the current level of medical services.

The administration is trying to make up for some of this by raising deductibles on prescription drugs (from $8 to $15) and by imposing an annual enrollment fee (ranging from $250 to $750)—in short, by shifting costs to the veterans themselves. (Even so, these charges would make up only $450 million, or about one-sixth of the shortfall.)

Another instance of ignoring the wars: Despite a vast increase in the number of returning soldiers coming to the VA's veterans centers, the budget for these centers has remained flat. Similarly, despite a vast increase in the number of soldiers filing disability claims, the VA budget includes no money for additional claims processors. To justify the lack of money for trained processors, the VA's budgeteers assume that the number of new claims—and the backload of past claims—will drop in 2008. This is patently ridiculous: Elsewhere in the budget (see page 1-2), they state, "[W]e project that VA's patient caseload will peak in 2010" (emphasis added). In other words, they predict a rising caseload for another three years—but cut the money for the caseload this coming year.

An even grander sleight of hand comes in the section of the budget dealing with the "out-years"—FY 2009-12. The VA's budgeteers are projecting no increases in spending for medical care during that entire four-year period. They can't possibly believe this. (Again, they note elsewhere that the caseload won't peak until the middle of this period.) They are engaging in the political game of making the future appear less grim—and the president's budget more balanced, the need for tax hikes or cuts elsewhere less compelling—than is really the case.

This is a familiar game in peacetime. But it's a damaging, deceptive game in wartime—for the soldiers who fight the war and for the citizens who are called upon to support and fund it. [emphasis added]

Think about that the next time you hear a Republican politician explaining how we must make the estate tax repeal permanent. Though they'll likely call it a "death tax" for maximum emotional impact.

Maybe we should call it the "veteran's health care defunding act" instead. Because from where I'm sitting, that $1 trillion dollars is spoken for. At least it should be.

Now tell me, honestly: who supports the troops?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

In-A-Gadda Subpoena Baby

This could get interesting:

Former CIA officer Valerie Plame, who was exposed after her husband, former diplomat Joe Wilson, criticized President Bush's prewar intelligence, will testify next week before a House committee probing how the White House dealt with her identity.

But it is unclear whether Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who was invited by Chairman Henry Waxman to appear before his committee, will accept the invitation.

Randall Samborn, a spokesman for Fitzgerald, told NBC, "We received the letter today and are reviewing it but decline any further comment before responding to Chairman Waxman directly."

Should be worth a look and listen whether or not Fitz decides to drop by. My money is on him being a no-show.

Elsewhere, some good old fashioned Iraq blogging over at AmFoot for those who don't make the cross-country trip on a regular basis. Because not everything is cross-posted.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Scar Tissue That I Wish You Saw

Jonathan Gitlin (via Rob Farley) discusses the results from a medical study designed to measure the psychological impact of various interrogation techniques - including ones that we readily recognize as torture, as well as others that have been shrouded in sanitizing euphemism such as "aggressive interrogation techniques."

[Interrogation] aim to break down subjects through psychological means that leave no visible scars, and as a result they are far more palatable with the general public. Sleep deprivation, stress positions, sensory deprivation and the like are dismissed by pundits and defense lawyers as nothing like torture.

But the aftereffects of such treatment are at least as damaging to those on the receiving end, such as having teeth pulled out, being burned, or being electrocuted. Those are the findings of a new report in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The study, carried out by Dr. Metin Basoglu and colleagues from King's College London and Clinical Hospital Zvezdara, Belgrade, Serbia, involved interviewing 279 torture survivors from the former Yugoslavia. Their experiences were cataloged, and they rated each event on a scale of zero to four for distress and for loss of control, and whether or not they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The researchers identified seven categories of torture: "sexual torture; physical torture; psychological manipulations, such as threats of rape or witnessing the torture of others; humiliating treatment, including mockery and verbal abuse; exposure to forced stress positions, such as bondage with rope or other restrictions of movement; loud music, cold showers and other sensory discomforts; and deprivation of food, water or other basic needs." Physical torture rated between 3.2 and 3.8, and this figure was matched by 16 other practices, such as sham executions, rape, threat of rape, isolation and fondling of genitals. There was no lesser incidence of PTSD in those who had not been physically tortured. Dr Basoglu concludes that the psychological practices which are in vogue right now " do not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the extent of mental suffering they cause, the underlying mechanisms of traumatic stress, and their long-term traumatic effects."

Which says nothing about the absolutely debilitating psychological effects of prolonged and extreme solitary confinement, the results of which were discussed here. Keep in mind, this type of cruelty is being inflicted on other people in our name to this day.

Adding to my sense of exasperation at the shameful ways that the Bush administration has tarnished this nation's reputation is the fact that the intelligence gleaned from these abusive interrogation methods isn't even reliable. Nor is it qualitatively better than what can be gained through attempts at simply building a rapport with detainees. The information gathered under the torture and abuse regime does come at a heavy cost, though, whereas the "quaint" approach does not. That is the biggest difference.

I'm sympathetic to arguments about American greatness because, well, as an American it's a comforting theory. I want to believe it - and in many respects I do. At the very least, I take pride in the fact that, at times, this nation was able to stand as an example of liberty, justice and freedom - if never an exact paragon of those virtues. Despite the flawed beginnings, we have come a long way, and there is much to marvel at.

In recent history, the Cold War may have softened the rough edges of our image to some extent, and led many onlookers to apply an overarching benefit of the doubt as they were forced to our side by the crushing bleakness of the Soviet machine. That helped us enormously in our 'long war' against the forces of Communism by glossing over our moral shortcomings. But our nation was also blessed with enlightened souls who took it upon themselves to strive for something better throughout it all.

That process is everything. American greatness - or better yet, America as a positive role model and influence in the world - to the extent we achieve this status, is not a birthright or a given. It doesn't come from geography, language or the colors of our flag. It is something that we have shown the ability to "do." As such, America will not be an exemplar if we assume that this ability exists whether our actions are right or wrong - or that otherwise morally reprehensible actions become purified when we engage in them.

Our ability to inspire, impress and endear is, and will always be, dependent on our living up to those values that others find...inspiring and endearing. When we adopt the tactics and moral compass of our enemies, we miss an enormous opportunity to seize the high ground - and push it higher. In the present context, these moral lapses are exacerbated by the absence of the Cold War paradigm and the slack that provided us.

State sponsored torture and abuse as implemented by the Bush administration is not a path to the moral high ground. Even the kind of torture and abuse that doesn't leave scars. The audience we're trying to impress will be able to tell the difference - and so will we. Yet while we are engaged in a battle against malignant and extremist ideologies - competing for hearts and minds - we cannot afford to alienate the citizens of the world by taking on the haughty air of entitlement, and the arrogant posture of a nation that believes that its moral superiority is some quality that exists regardless of its actions.

This chapter in our nation's history will leave a scar. It's time for our elected leaders to staunch the bleeding.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Your Lips Move, but I Can't Hear What You're Saying

Kevin Drum recently linked to a William Arkin post that asks the question, "Is the War on Terror a Global Counterinsurgency?" The answer is: Yes. As I've argued on numerous occasions, counterinsurgency doctrine can provide a useful framework for responding to the threats posed by al-Qaeda and its like-minded agents. So it was encouraging to see top military officials tasked with combating al-Qaeda preaching this gospel. A sample of the good news:

The core task, [Mark Kimmit] says, is to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens.

"It's clear that [Osama] bin Laden and his associates take advantage of failed states, nations in strife, nations that aren't able to...get the rule of law transmitted," Kimmitt told the assembled attendees. "In our area of operation in the Middle East, we've got to reduce the number of safe havens and sanctuaries."
Amen. More officials saying all the right things - even he of "my God is a real God, and [the Muslim God] is an idol" fame:

...Lt. Gen. William G. ("Jerry") Boykin said the United States should approach the war on terrorism as it would an insurgency.

The controversial Boykin...says approaching terrorism from the perspective of an insurgency allows the United States to apply what he calls the seven "elements of national power": diplomacy, military, economy, finance, law enforcement, information and intelligence.

Coordinating and synergizing these elements, particularly "information" in the global battle of hearts and minds, Boykin adds, will produce better results.[...]

[Vice Adm. Eric T.] Olson split the effort into a "direct approach," what he called a "kinetic" and violent approach to directly find and "engage" terrorists; and an "indirect approach" of building up foreign capabilities, reducing local support for safe havens, and eroding the underlying conditions that contribute to terrorism.
The good news is, they're saying all the right things. The bad news is, the actions undertaken pursuant to this newfangled "counterinsurgency" doctrine - including those linked to Boykin himself - do not match up to the underlying principles enunciated above. While the war in Iraq is the most glaring example of this disconnect, since the futility and counterproductiveness of that endeavor have already been parsed in great detail, let's instead look at how our "counterinsurgency" operations in the Horn of Africa are playing out.

This article in Foreign Affairs by John Prendergrast and Colin Thomas-Jensen offers a sound critique of the Bush administration's approach (actually, the mistakes began under Clinton), and evidence of how our tactics with respect to the Horn of Africa in general, and Somalia in particular, have violated most basic tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine.

The first thing to appreciate is how terribly complex and entangled the situation in the Horn is. There is literally a spider web of conflict, with an astounding array of regimes (close to 10 in total) supporting overlapping and cross-cutting insurgent/rebel movements in their respective neighbors' territory. It requires charts and graphs just to keep track of which countries are fighting which, and through what proxy forces. I have to think that even the combatants themselves get confused on occasion. Here is just a tease, but the article goes into much greater detail for those interested.

The Greater Horn of Africa -- a region half the size of the United States that includes Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda -- is the hottest conflict zone in the world. Some of the most violent wars of the last half century have ripped the region apart. Today, two clusters of conflicts continue to destabilize it. The first centers on interlocking rebellions in Sudan, including those in Darfur and southern Sudan, and engulfs northern Uganda, eastern Chad, and northeastern Central African Republic. The main culprit is the Sudanese government, which is supporting rebels in these three neighboring countries -- and those states, which are supporting Sudanese groups opposing Khartoum. The second cluster links the festering dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea with the power struggle in Somalia, which involves the fledgling secular government, antigovernment clan militias, Islamist militants, and anti-Islamist warlords. Ethiopia's flash intervention in Somalia in December temporarily secured the ineffectual transitional government's position, but that intervention, which Washington backed and supplemented with its own air strikes, has sown the seeds for an Islamist and clan-based insurgency in the future.
Unfortunately, we have approached this swirling maelstrom from an overly simplistic - and solipsistic - vantage point informed by the "with us" or "against us" principle. Rather than attempting to "disaggregate" the conflicts - even from an analytical perspective in order to gain a "granular" understanding of the legitimate interests of each party - we have instead opted for an over-reliance on military force while backing a couple horses (Ethiopia and Sudan) to the near-exclusion of the rest of the field. We've picked the "with us" group, and all others have been relegated to the "against us" pile.

More than anything, however, the United States' counterterrorism policy in the Greater Horn of Africa now hinges on three strategies: almost unconditional support for the Ethiopian government, extremely close cooperation on counterterrorism with Khartoum, and occasional but spectacular forays into Somalia in the hope of killing or capturing al Qaeda suspects.
The problem with this approach is that it ignores the larger conflicts in favor of pursuing short term goals that are facilitated by our regional champions. Yet picking favorites only serves to exacerbate the divisions between the warring parties - leading us to ignore legitimate grievances on the part of the least favored nations, while allowing our allies to overreach. However, these conflicts will continue to fester until a comprehensive, regional modus vivendi can be reached that will satisfy each party - not just those we've singled out as expedients. Unfortunately, a continuation of the underlying conflicts will render any short term gains made in counter-terrorism ephemeral.

While the supposed counterinsurgency practitioners quoted above paid lip service to the poisonous effects that "failed states" and conflict can have on the appeal and spread of terrorism, and the value of winning over local populations, our policies in the Horn betray a lack of prioritization. The recent invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, backed by American air power and troops, provides a stark example. Consider all that was staked on the prospect of netting a few al-Qaeda operatives, and try to reconcile that tradeoff with sound counterinsurgency doctrine.

Although Ethiopia's intervention this winter dislodged the potentially hostile Islamic courts -- which can be considered a short-term counterterrorism success -- it is too early for Washington to roll out the "Mission Accomplished" banners. Ethiopia's invasion has only displaced the most visible part of the Islamist movement; other elements have survived, including a network of mosques, madrasahs, and businesses, as well as a militant wing, known as the Shabaab, that has threatened to wage guerrilla war. Meanwhile, the courts' collapse has left a huge vacuum that the transitional government cannot fill. The courts had brought peace and stability, and their defeat has returned Mogadishu to the warlords who have preyed on Somalia for much of the past two decades. Two related insurgencies are likely to break out in the future, one led by the remnants of the courts, the other by disaffected clans.

This leaves the United States' interests in Somalia at risk. Having pursued the narrow objective of capturing or killing a few terrorist suspects, Washington has now become embroiled in Ethiopia's policies in Somalia, which may diverge significantly from its own in the long run. Focusing on hunting down suspects without also investing in state building is a strategy that could not have worked, and the decision to support Ethiopia's military invasion without devising a broader political strategy was a stunning mistake, especially considering the U.S. experience in Iraq. Predictably, resentment over foreign intervention has been building among Somalis. And U.S. air strikes against Islamist holdouts in the far south of the country have turned Somalia into a much more interesting target for al Qaeda than it once was; they could boost recruiting for the Islamists for a long time.
The flaws in our approach have revealed themselves in less spectacular ways as well. Our outright support for Ethiopia, and coddling of Sudan, have led us to turn a blind eye to brutal internal repression in those countries, as well as each nation's backing of proxy wars in neighboring states. Ethiopia and Sudan give with one hand in terms of cooperating with anti-terror initiatives, but take away with the other by continuing to sow violence, instability and conflict that provide fertile soil for terrorism and extremism to flourish. Not to mention the fact that with us openly backing certain factions in this multi-faceted conflict, we now garner an undue amount of blame for the concomitant destruction. We've volunteered to be the regional lightning rod for very little in return.

Recent U.S. policy has only made matters worse....[S]temming the spread of terrorism and extremist ideologies has become such an overwhelming strategic objective for Washington that it has overshadowed U.S. efforts to resolve conflicts and promote good governance; in everything but rhetoric, counterterrorism now consumes U.S. policy in the Greater Horn as totally as anticommunism did a generation ago. To support this critical but narrow aim, the Bush administration has too often nurtured relationships with autocratic leaders and favored covert and military action over diplomacy...

The results have been disastrous. Sudan's autocrats are reverting to the extremism of their roots. In Somalia, the core of the Islamist militant movement remains intact after Ethiopia's invasion, its members' passions inflamed by the intervention. The leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda have used the specter of war and the imperative of counterterrorism as excuses to crack down on political opponents and restive populations at home. The humanitarian situation throughout the region, fragile even in times of peace, is now catastrophic: nearly nine million people have been displaced, and chronic insecurity severely constrains access to humanitarian aid for the more than 16 million people who need it.

The fundamental flaw in Washington's approach is its lack of a regional diplomatic strategy to tackle the underlying causes of the two clusters of conflicts. These crises can no longer be addressed in isolation, with discrete and uncoordinated ad hoc peace initiatives. Washington must work to stabilize the Greater Horn through effective partnerships with Africa's multilateral institutions, the European Union, and the new UN secretary-general. Until it does, long-term U.S. counterterrorism objectives will suffer -- and the region will continue to burn.
It's nice to hear our top generals and military officials talking the counterinsurgency talk. But unless they start walking the walk, it will continue to be one step forward, two steps back. It's a shame real men don't do diplomacy. At least that's what Ann Coulter and the Republican Party faithful think. Sigh.

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