Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Iraqi reconstruction funds squandered

Millions of U.S. dollars targeted for Iraqi reconstruction has been wasted, lost or stolen. In the meantime, many of the basic needs of Iraqi citizens are not being met while unemployment is rampant. According to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction the breakdown of reconstruction funds have been for the following: Security and justice 34%, Electricity 23%, Water 12%, Economic, societal development 12%, Oil and gas 9%, Transport, communications 4%, and Health care 4%.

This is just another example of the mishandling of the war effort by the Bush administration feeding the chaos in Iraq and making it vulnerable to sectarian tensions that ultimately lead to violence.

This from the BBC:
Millions of dollars in US rebuilding funds have been wasted in Iraq, US auditors say in a report which warns corruption in the country is rife.

A never-used camp in Baghdad for police trainers with an Olympic-size swimming pool is one of the examples highlighted in the quarterly audit.

Billions of budgeted dollars meanwhile remain unspent by Iraq's government.

The report comes as President Bush is urging Congress to approve $1.2bn (£600m) in further reconstruction aid.

The audit by Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (Sigir), is the latest in a regular series of updates to Congress.

"The security situation continue to deteriorate, hindering progress in all reconstruction sectors and threatening the overall reconstruction effort," says his 579-page report, which is due to be released later on Wednesday.

Among the wide-ranging findings, the audit says that corruption continues to plague Iraq and infrastructure security remains vulnerable.

Auditors express "significant concern" about the Iraqi government's record in managing and spending budgets.

Billions of dollars budgeted for capital projects remained unspent at the end of 2006, the report says.

As well as not spending funds, the audit also highlights ways in which money has been used either improperly or wastefully.

One case involved a payment by the US State Department of $43.8m to a contractor, DynCorp International, for a residential camp for police trainers outside the Adnan Palace grounds in Baghdad. The camp has never been used.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry ordered $4.2m of work there, never authorised by the State Department, that included 20 trailers for important visitors and an Olympic-size swimming pool. The State Department has said that it is working to improve controls.

Another example cited in the report is $36.4m spent by US officials on armoured vehicles, body armour and communications equipment that cannot be accounted for because invoices were vague and there was no back-up documentation.

Contracts have been awarded for virtually all of the $21bn earmarked by the US government for Iraqi reconstruction, and some 80% has been spent.

Democrats, who now control the US Congress, have expressed concern at the prospect of devoting more funds to rebuilding efforts in Iraq.

Rep Henry Waxman is planning in-depth hearings next week into charges of waste and fraud in Iraq.

Since 2003, the way reconstruction aid is used has changed, with money originally destined for infrastructure programmes cut and more spent on areas like security and democracy projects.

Electricity output remains below pre-war levels, while funds initially earmarked for water and sewerage have been cut by 50%, the audit says.

The report also points to continuing high unemployment, put at 18% but widely believed to be under-reported, as a contributing factor in the insurgency.

It concludes that the Iraqi government's "most significant challenge" continues to be strengthening the judiciary, prisons and the police.

"The United States has spent billions of dollars in this area, with limited success to date." Mr Bowen's audit office began operations in March 2004 and is currently conducting 78 investigations, of which 23 have been referred to the US Department of Justice.

There have so far been four convictions.

His office, which was nearly closed down last year by
Republicans, is now due to carry on its oversight work through 2008.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Do Bush and Ahmadinejad need each other?

The president is increasingly viewed as incompetent and his administration corrupt. His election was dependent upon appeal to religious conservatives. He is surrounded by ideologues and believes he is carrying out some sort of god-given mission but the electorate is disenchanted with his ability to lead and address the country’s needs. He stokes foreign crisis to rally support at home.

Bush? No, Ahmadinejad. (Well, Bush too.)

Mahmound Ahmadinejad was elected to the Iranian presidency in 2005 and was the only candidate in that election to oppose future relations with the United States. Less than two years after his election he has lost public support as he fails to successfully deal with Iran’s economic problems. The distraction is the nuclear program he is insisting on pursuing and the international community is opposing. The Bush administration, facing similar credibility problems at home and looking for new enemies to confront, has been expressing more and more concern about threats from Iran – both with its nuclear program and its influence in the chaos in Iraq. This hostile relationship is pretty self-serving to the leaders of both countries.

Ali Ansari has this assessment in today’s Guardian:
The honeymoon is over. Iran's controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has finally come unstuck. His popularity with the Iranian electorate - the subject of much incredulous analysis in 2005 - seems to be falling back at last, and the country's latest exercise in populism seems to be reaping the rewards of unfulfilled promises bestowed with little attention to economic realities.

Those realities have sharpened with the onset of UN sanctions. Ahmadinejad's casual dismissal of the sanctions has apparently earned him an unprecedented rebuke from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei - reflecting growing concerns among the political elite, including many conservatives, who are increasingly anxious at Iran's worsening international situation. As if to emphasise this point, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad's defeated foe in the 2005 presidential election, echoed the condemnation of the president's public complacency, stressing that the threats against Iran were very real. Indeed, as a second US carrier group heads for the Gulf, there is belated questioning of the president's competence. His critics argue that not only does he appear to have courted the anger of the US, but his economic mismanagement and political nepotism have weakened the internal integrity of the Islamic republic - and proved to be a gift to Iran's enemies.

Ahmadinejad was elected on a platform of anti-corruption and financial transparency, and few appreciated how rapidly he was intoxicated with the prerogatives of his office. He very soon forgot the real help he had received in ensuring his election, basking in the belief that God and the people had put him in power. Ahmadinejad soon had a view for all seasons: uranium enrichment. Of course Iran would pursue this, and what's more, sell it on the open market at knockdown rates. As for interest rates, they were far too high for the ordinary borrower, so cut them immediately. And then there was the Holocaust.

None of this might matter so much, if the president had based his rhetorical flourishes on solid policies. But much to everyone's surprise nothing dramatic materialised. Ahmadinejad appeared to follow the dictum of his mentor, Ayatollah Khomeini - "Economics is for donkeys". Indeed, his policies could be defined as "anything but Khatami" (his predecessor). So the oil reserve fund was spent on cash handouts to the grateful poor, and the central bank, normally a bastion of prudence, was instructed to cut interest rates for small businesses.

These had the effect, as Ahmadinejad was warned, of pushing up inflation. The rationale for high interest rates was to encourage the middle classes to keep their money in Iran. Now they decided to spend it. Richer Iranians, worried about rising international tension, decided it would be prudent to ship their money abroad. This further weakened the rial, and added to inflationary pressure. In the past few months the prices of most basic goods have risen, hurting the poor he was elected to help. Moreover, far from investing Iran's oil wealth in infrastructure to create jobs, he announced recently that Iran's economy could support a substantially larger population, as if current unemployment was not a big enough problem.

Views such as these, along with his well publicised unorthodox religious convictions, have earned him the ridicule of political foes. What is more striking perhaps is the growing concern of those who should be considered his allies, especially in the parliament. These are people who supported him and expected results. They expected their populist protege to overturn the heresy of reform.

Much to their irritation, not only has Ahmadinejad singularly failed to consolidate and extend his political base, the recent municipal elections saw his faction defeated throughout the country. Traditional conservatives and reformists reorganised and hit back, ingeniously using technology to work round the various obstacles placed in front of them. Now, over the past weeks, with biting weather, shortages of heating fuel are further raising the political temperature, while his political opponents point to the burgeoning international crisis for which the globetrotting president seems to have no constructive answer. Talk has turned to impeachment.

Ironically, it is this very international crisis that may serve to save Ahmadinejad's presidency, a reality that the president undoubtedly understood all too well. As domestic difficulties mount, the emerging international crisis could at best serve as a rallying point, or at worst persuade Iran's elite that a change of guard would convey weakness to the outside world.

There can be little doubt that US hawks will interpret recent events as proof that pressure works, and that any more pressure will encourage the hawks further. Yet the reality is that while Ahmadinejad has been his own worst enemy, the US hawks are his best friends. Ahmadinejad's demise, if it comes, will have less to do with the international environment and more with his own political incompetence. There is little doubt that it will take more than a cosmetic change to get Washington to listen to Iran. But the real question mark, as the Baker-Hamilton commission found to its cost, is whether Washington is inclined to listen at all.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Blackwater USA as the Bush Praetorian Guard

Blackwater USA is a contractor providing security services in Iraq. Of course, security services in a war zone are ordinarily provided by the army. What we have is a mercenary organization operating without public oversight.

David Bromwich discusses Jeremy Scahill’s new book on Blackwater USA
… Euphemistically called a "security force" by the journalists who mention it at all, this mercenary army has come into the news of Iraq irrepressibly on a few occasions. The first was the lynching of the four "civilian contractors" in April 2004 in Fallujah--the grisly incident that triggered the siege and the street-to-street devastation of that city by the American forces. The most recent was the death of five people on January 23 in the crash of a Blackwater helicopter in Baghdad.

Blackwater grew out of an exploration launched by Dick Cheney when he was still secretary of defense. Cheney commissioned from Halliburton a study of "how to privatize the military bureaucracy." Soon after, Cheney himself became the CEO of Halliburton; and when he returned to government, the Iraq war gave him the chance to reduce to a practice the lessons of that study. Scahill leaves the reader to infer how many of the necessary phone calls Cheney today is thus in a position to make, to relevant officers in the defense department and in the two corporations at the heart of the war effort. He himself laid down the conditions for creating one of the corporations, led the second for many years, and has had a hand in rebuilding the government department twice over.

Some facts and figures. Blackwater was founded by ex-Navy Seals and other former fighters in the special forces, and it is located near the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. It is headed by Erik Prince, a far-right Christian activist and ex-Navy Seal who made large contributions to Republican causes in the 1990s and is a significant donor to President Bush. Blackwater has 2,300 men actively deployed in various countries. It has 20,000 soldiers prepared to fight when paid for, and "the world's largest private military base" from which to launch them. In the war in Iraq, most of Blackwater's actions are unreported, and its casualties are not counted among the military dead. Among its present employees are Cofer Black, the planner of the extraordinary rendition program, and Joseph Schmitz, the former Pentagon inspector general. Fred Fielding was its lawyer until he was summoned by the White House to replace Harriet Miers as the personal lawyer for President Bush. Its current lawyer of record is Kenneth Starr. Not without reason does Scahill refer to Blackwater as "the Praetorian Guard" for this administration's present and future wars. For a president who has taxed beyond precedent the usual prerogatives of the commander-in-chief of a standing army, it must give uncommon assurance to have at his absolute command, as well, a private army whose reach is enormous and whose operations are secret.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Commander in Chief

Garry Wills has a very good piece in today’s New York Times about the glorification of Presidents in wartime and the powers implicit in that glorification. Wills points out these days that we constantly hear from “our commander in chief” but the point is the President is not commander in chief of the nation. We are civilians in a democracy and we have no commander. As citizens we need to be on our guard about expanding executive power.

When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken “for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.

But we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and “the duration” has become the norm. World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than ever — more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now the cold war has modulated into the war on terrorism.

There has never been an executive branch more fetishistic about secrecy than the Bush-Cheney one. The secrecy has been used to throw a veil over detentions, “renditions,” suspension of the Geneva Conventions and of habeas corpus, torture and warrantless wiretaps. We hear again the refrain so common in the other wars — If you knew what we know, you would see how justified all our actions are.

But we can never know what they know. We do not have sufficient clearance.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prescient last book, “Secrecy,” traced the ever-faster-growing secrecy of our government and said that it strikes at the very essence of democracy — accountability of representatives to the people. How can the people hold their representatives to account if they are denied knowledge of what they are doing? Wartime and war analogies are embraced because these justify the secrecy. The representative is accountable to citizens. Soldiers are accountable to their officer. The dynamics are different, and to blend them is to undermine the basic principles of our Constitution.
The increasing use of the term implies an authority over us that we never bargained for. It becomes an excuse for secrecy and abuse of power. David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo has examples here.

You can (and should) read Wills’ piece in its entirety here.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Blogging from Cuba

Fidel Castro has ruled Cuba since 1959 when he was instrumental in overthrowing the U.S. backed Batista government. Castro is an old man in ill health – his days are numbered but even with the passing of the dictator there is no guarantee of a happy future for the Cuban people. This blog has argued here and here that the insane U.S. embargo of Cuban must end. This embargo only contributes to misery of the Cuban people and does nothing to prepare the country for stability after Castro.

That said, it is important to remember the tyranny the Cuban people have lived under with the Castro regime. Harry’s Place calls our attention to a piece by the BBC about a Cuban blogger, El Cubano de la Isla. It is an interesting snapshot of contemporary Cuban live.

This from the BBC:
…As for what will happen in Cuba if Castro dies, this provokes mixed feelings. Most people agree that Cuba needs to change and reform.

People are sure that when Fidel dies a process of change will begin in Cuba, and while many Cubans long for this change, they are very afraid of it at the same time.

Twenty years ago, expressing opinions contrary to those of the government in the street could result in a beating from passers-by.

Today, things are very different. You can say whatever you like in the street without anything happening to you. People have lost that political fanaticism.

But that is only in the street, among the ordinary people. Questioning any official policy or leader in front of an official or policeman is classified as subversion. There is no middle ground - you are either with the government or against it.

Similarly, the internet is completely under state control. The state monopolises 100% of the information that a normal Cuban receives - the internet is seen as a threat to the system.

Most people who have access to the internet only do so from a state-run workplace, like a university or a hospital. Even in those places, there are many restrictions on internet access.

There is also an internet "black market" - people who can afford it can try to get internet services in their homes, but they are a minority.

I would go so far as to say that less than 1% of the Cuban population have internet access in their homes. More internet cafes are opening, but the prices are very high for the average Cuban.

The first cybercafes to open here were only for foreigners - Cubans were not allowed to enter.

As a result of these severe restrictions, there are very few bloggers in Cuba.
Most Cuban bloggers, and the people they exchange opinions and comments with, are members of the exile communities outside Cuba.

By having a blog, you are talking openly about certain themes and it can be quite risky.

That is why I use a pseudonym - because it is important for me to be able to say what I believe.

Hunger in Zimbabwe

Hunger in Zimbabwe likely to spread. Erratic rainfall hampering the planting season on top of an economy destroyed by the tyranny of Robert Mugabe has made the people of the country very vulnerable to possible starvation.

This from the BBC:
Zimbabwe is facing a food deficit of hundreds of thousands of tonnes - a third of its requirements - an international monitoring agency warns.

The Famine Early Warning System says the cereal balance sheet projects a shortfall in maize - the staple food - of some 850,000 tonnes.

By December only 152,600 tonnes had been delivered, meaning widespread hunger looks set to continue.

The monitors say Zimbabwe's lack of foreign currency is a key problem.

The Zimbabwean government has refused to allow outside agencies to carry out crop assessments but the Famine Early Warning System used satellite images.

The government plans to import 565,000 tonnes of cereal - 60% of the projected deficit.

"It remains doubtful that Zimbabwe will be able to meet their import goals," the Famine Early Warning System said.

The monitors said a slight increase in national maize production, higher prices for South African maize and Zimbabwe's shortage of foreign currency due to its economic crisis were the leading causes of the lower levels of imports.

Zimbabwe has been gripped by an economic crisis for more than six years and has one of the world's lowest rates of life expectancy and the highest inflation rate.

Donors blame government mismanagement and the seizure of white-owned farms for Zimbabwe's economic problems.

President Robert Mugabe instead blames an international plot to remove him from power.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The moral dilemma we face in Iraq

Iraq is just an incredible mess due to the Bush administration. White House management of the actions of our armed forces has unleashed the forces of civil war – a conflict of neighbor-against-neighbor. We have become Dr. Frankenstein and Iraq has become our monster. The options left to us are a variety of bad choices.

President Bush says the United States cannot afford failure as if failure has not already taken place. The so-called surge of an additional 21,000 troops is not enough to reverse the downward spiral in Iraq. At best it may temporarily play a role in decreasing the violence. At worse, it will not only escalate the violence and put us on one side of that conflict – the Shiite – as an unintentional accessory to the ethnic cleansing taking place in and around Baghdad.

One alternative is to simply withdraw sooner rather that later. The problem with that is however awful things are now they can, and most likely will, get worse. Widespread slaughter is not unimaginable and we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent that largely because we bear some responsibility for this situation. That’s easy enough to say but what is to be done?

Andrew Sullivan calls our attention to a piece by David Brooks in today’s New York Times. As Sullivan puts it, “…the moral costs of withdrawal are enormous. We would be enabling genocide, a genocide whose conditions we in part created. David, caught as we all are, between failure and horror, is now favoring what he calls ‘soft partition.’”

Brooks writes:
The Democratic approach, as articulated by Senator Jim Webb — simply get out of Iraq “in short order” — is a howl of pain that takes no note of the long-term political and humanitarian consequences. Does the party that still talks piously about ending bloodshed in Darfur really want to walk away from a genocide the U.S. is partly responsible for? Are U.S. troops going to be pulled back to secure bases to watch passively while rivers of Iraqi blood lap at their gates? How many decades will Americans be fighting to quell the cycle of regional violence set loose by a transnational Sunni-Shiite explosion?

I for one have become disillusioned with dreams of transforming Iraqi society from the top down. But it’s not too late to steer the situation in a less bad direction. Increased American forces can do good — they are still, as David Ignatius says, the biggest militia on the block — provided they are directed toward realistic goals.

There is one option that does approach Iraqi reality from the bottom up. That option recognizes that Iraq is broken and that its people are fleeing their homes to survive. It calls for a “soft partition” of Iraq in order to bring political institutions into accord with the social facts — a central government to handle oil revenues and manage the currency, etc., but a country divided into separate sectarian areas to reduce contact and conflict. When the various groups in Bosnia finally separated, it became possible to negotiate a cold (if miserable) peace.
Partition proposals by Senator Joseph Biden and Les Gelb (here) as well as Ambassador Peter Galbraith (here and here) were discussed on this blog last summer. There are some very real problems with partition – make no mistake, it is definitely not a simple or clean solution – but given the reality on the ground that the country is breaking up anyway this may be a way to minimize the bloodshed. If it can that then it certainly is worth consideration.

American mercenaries in Iraq

The use of a contracted private American army in Iraq – out of sight for the most part and unaccountable to the public – has certainly been under-reported. American mercenaries account for almost half of the estimated 100,000 private contractors in Iraq. They perform military duties, are financed by American tax dollars, earn vastly more than U.S. soldiers and operate with little or no oversight. Blackwater USA is one of the largest contractors in the world with 20,000 soldiers on the payroll and is a key player in Iraq.

Privatizing the machinery of war is something that needs serious thought and discussion regarding its impact on our democracy. Unfortunately, all of this has been taking place out of public view.

Jeremy Scahill has this assessment in today’s L.A. Times:
AS PRESIDENT BUSH took the podium to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday, there were five American families receiving news that has become all too common: Their loved ones had been killed in Iraq. But in this case, the slain were neither "civilians," as the news reports proclaimed, nor were they U.S. soldiers. They were highly trained mercenaries deployed to Iraq by a secretive private military company based in North Carolina — Blackwater USA.

The company made headlines in early 2004 when four of its troops were ambushed and burned in the Sunni hotbed of Fallouja — two charred, lifeless bodies left to dangle for hours from a bridge. That incident marked a turning point in the war, sparked multiple U.S. sieges of Fallouja and helped fuel the Iraqi resistance that haunts the occupation to this day.

Now, Blackwater is back in the news, providing a reminder of just how privatized the war has become. On Tuesday, one of the company's helicopters was brought down in one of Baghdad's most violent areas. The men who were killed were providing diplomatic security under Blackwater's $300-million State Department contract, which dates to 2003 and the company's initial no-bid contract to guard administrator L. Paul Bremer III in Iraq. Current U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who is also protected by Blackwater, said he had gone to the morgue to view the men's bodies, asserting the circumstances of their deaths were unclear because of "the fog of war."

Bush made no mention of the downing of the helicopter during his State of the Union speech. But he did address the very issue that has made the war's privatization a linchpin of his Iraq policy — the need for more troops. The president called on Congress to authorize an increase of about 92,000 active-duty troops over the next five years. He then slipped in a mention of a major initiative that would represent a significant development in the U.S. disaster response/reconstruction/war machine: a Civilian Reserve Corps.

"Such a corps would function much like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them," Bush declared. This is precisely what the administration has already done, largely behind the backs of the American people and with little congressional input, with its revolution in military affairs. Bush and his political allies are using taxpayer dollars to run an outsourcing laboratory. Iraq is its Frankenstein monster.

Already, private contractors constitute the second-largest "force" in Iraq. At last count, there were about 100,000 contractors in Iraq, of which 48,000 work as private soldiers, according to a Government Accountability Office report. These soldiers have operated with almost no oversight or effective legal constraints and are an undeclared expansion of the scope of the occupation. Many of these contractors make up to $1,000 a day, far more than active-duty soldiers. What's more, these forces are politically expedient, as contractor deaths go uncounted in the official toll.

The president's proposed Civilian Reserve Corps was not his idea alone. A privatized version of it was floated two years ago by Erik Prince, the secretive, mega-millionaire, conservative owner of Blackwater USA and a man who for years has served as the Pied Piper of a campaign to repackage mercenaries as legitimate forces. In early 2005, Prince — a major bankroller of the president and his allies — pitched the idea at a military conference of a "contractor brigade" to supplement the official military. "There's consternation in the [Pentagon] about increasing the permanent size of the Army," Prince declared. Officials "want to add 30,000 people, and they talked about costs of anywhere from $3.6 billion to $4 billion to do that. Well, by my math, that comes out to about $135,000 per soldier." He added: "We could do it certainly cheaper."

And Prince is not just a man with an idea; he is a man with his own army. Blackwater began in 1996 with a private military training camp "to fulfill the anticipated demand for government outsourcing." Today, its contacts run from deep inside the military and intelligence agencies to the upper echelons of the White House. It has secured a status as the elite Praetorian Guard for the global war on terror, with the largest private military base in the world, a fleet of 20 aircraft and 20,000 soldiers at the ready.

From Iraq and Afghanistan to the hurricane-ravaged streets of New Orleans to meetings with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger about responding to disasters in California, Blackwater now envisions itself as the FedEx of defense and homeland security operations. Such power in the hands of one company, run by a neo-crusader bankroller of the president, embodies the "military-industrial complex" President Eisenhower warned against in 1961.

Further privatizing the country's war machine — or inventing new back doors for military expansion with fancy names like the Civilian Reserve Corps — will represent a devastating blow to the future of American democracy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The questions about Iraq President Bush failed to answer during the State of the Union

The support for President Bush and his policies have collapsed both at home and abroad for two simple reasons: first, he cannot be trusted to make wise decisions and, second, he cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

Last night’s State of the Union speech as it pertains to the position he is now advocating in Iraq is a good example. Has he thought this through and weighed all the options? Does he even believe what he is saying?

Fred Kaplan dissects the speech in Slate:
… the president did nothing to clarify the "surge"—the deployment of 20,000 more U.S. combat troops over the next few months. It's unclear whether even this administration believes in the plan or knows how it will work. The new defense secretary, Robert Gates, has said in recent days that the surge might be needed only through the summer, after which withdrawals might begin. However, at hearings this morning before the Senate armed services committee, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, stressed the need for patience. The new troops will need time to get to Iraq; more time to understand the neighborhoods they'll be securing; more time to conduct operations and secure the area; and still more time to build on the security. These tasks, he said, will be "neither quick nor easy."

So which is it: a brief blip, as Secretary Gates assures us—or a very long haul, as Lt. Gen. Petraeus sternly warns?

"I ask you to give it a chance to work," the president (uncharacteristically) pleaded tonight. In service of this support, he proposed to set up a "special advisory council on the war on terrorism, made up of leaders in Congress from both political parties," to "share ideas for how to position America" to meet today's challenges and to "show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of security."

The thing is, there already are advisory councils. They're called the congressional committees on foreign relations, armed services, and intelligence. President Bush had his chance with the ideas of a bipartisan council, the Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. He dismissed them out of hand. Now he has to deal with the normal constitutional arrangements. That's democracy.

What is most head-shaking of all is that, after four years of this war, the president once more fell short of making its case. As in the past, he said that it's very important—"a decisive ideological struggle," he called it, adding, "nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed." And yet he also said that America's commitment to the war is "not open-ended." How can both claims be true? If nothing is more important, it must be open-ended. If it's not open-ended, it can't be all that important.

One reason he can't argue for it is that it's not clear he understands it. "The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat," he said. "Whatever slogans they chant ... they have the same wicked purpose. They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East." He still seems to view the ever-mounting violence as reflecting a struggle between good and evil, freedom and tyranny. He fails to grasp the sectarian nature of the fight. (Does he really believe that the Shiites and Sunnis are the same—or that, besides the small minority of al-Qaida, they're "totalitarian" in nature?)

He then said, "Americans can have confidence in the outcome of this struggle because we are not in this struggle alone. We have a diplomatic strategy that is rallying the world to join in the fight against extremism."

This is mind-boggling. The largest "coalition" partner, Great Britain, plans to pull out by the end of the year. Most of the others have long since vanished. There is, clearly, no "diplomatic strategy," no "rallying" to recruit others to the fight. A diplomatic strategy and energetic leadership are precisely what everyone is waiting for. They are what President Bush once more failed to offer tonight.

Iraqi parliament at a standstill due to a lack of attendance

If full-scale civil war is to be avoided the different sides in the conflict have to be able to sit down and work out their differences. That is the reason some sort of representative government – a democracy – can serve as a stabilizing institution for societies.

In Iraq, people died to make elections possible for the choosing of a parliament – exactly the type of institution needed for different segments of the society to come together, compromise differences and make decisions. Yet, according to the a New York Times article today, Iraq’s 275 member parliament is accomplishing little or nothing because it cannot make a quorum. Safety is, of course, a bit concern but apparently a significant number of representatives believe the elected body is irrelevant.

Without a functioning government, people will have little choice but to join militant groups to provide jobs and security for them and their families. With the growth of these militant groups society becomes more polarized and more inclined toward civil conflict. It becomes a downward spiral that 21,000 additional American troops will be challenged to reverse.

This from the New York Times:
… Parliament in recent months has been at a standstill. Nearly every session since November has been adjourned because as few as 65 members made it to work, even as they and the absentees earned salaries and benefits worth about $120,000.

Part of the problem is security, but Iraqi officials also said they feared that members were losing confidence in the institution and in the country’s fragile democracy. As chaos has deepened, Parliament’s relevance has gradually receded.

Deals on important legislation, most recently the oil law, now take place largely out of public view, with Parliament — when it meets — rubber-stamping the final decisions. As a result, officials said, vital legislation involving the budget, provincial elections and amendments to the Constitution remain trapped in a legislative process that processes nearly nothing. American officials long hoped that Parliament could help foster dialogue between Iraq’s increasingly fractured ethnic and religious groups, but that has not happened, either.

Some of Iraq’s more seasoned leaders say attendance has been undermined by a widening sense of disillusionment about Parliament’s ability to improve Iraqis’ daily life. The country’s dominant issue, security, is almost exclusively the policy realm of
the American military and the office of the prime minister.

Every bombing like the one on Monday, which killed 88 people at a downtown market, suggests to some that Parliament’s laws are irrelevant in the face of sprawling chaos and the government’s inability to stop it.

Each representative earns about $10,000 a month in salary and benefits, including money for guards. …

Representatives who travel from afar stay at the Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone, across a road, two checkpoints and several pat-downs from the 1970s-era convention center. It is not luxurious. It is barely safe. The food is mediocre.

In short, many said, the job is not what members thought they had signed up for.

“Most of them were here for the game, for prestige, for the money,” said Muhammad al-Ahmedawi, a Shiite member of the Fadhila Party. “It’s upsetting and disappointing. We want the members to come, to pursue the interests of their constituents, especially in this sensitive time.”Mr. Ahmedawi said politicians who had larger shares of power before the elections seemed to view Parliament as a demotion best ignored. …

Mr. Pachachi, who is in his mid-80s, said he left Iraq a few months ago because his wife needed open-heart surgery and he did not trust that she would be well cared for in one of Baghdad’s decrepit hospitals. He said he hoped to return in a few weeks, admitting that “one has to be there — you can’t be a member of the Parliament and live abroad.”

But he said the dangers involved with being a public figure in Iraq had made it much more difficult to participate in government. He has 40 guards to protect him when he comes to Iraq, he said, and the salary from Parliament pays for only 20.

“I have protection, and unfortunately the protection is not sufficient for anyone anymore,” he said. “The level of violence has become unmanageable.”

President Bush: Lame duck or limp rag?

Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address last night was as uninspired as expected. With Vice President Cheney scowling over his right shoulder, the President had little new to offer on Iraq or his “new way forward” by sending an additional 21,000 American troops into that country to take on a variety of different militias fighting one another in order to prop up a government that seems inclined to turn a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing that is occurring in and around Baghdad. He said that Americans did not vote for defeat. (Of course, they did not vote for a reckless, incompetent and corrupt foreign policy either but that’s what they got with this administration.) He said the U.S. must not fail.

The speech included the usual laundry list of items Presidents always throw into these speeches. Most, of course, are going nowhere but they do leave one wondering why none of these things have been accomplished in the past six years when the President’s party controlled Congress.

And the multiple references to Iran, given this administration’s inclinations, were not comforting.

Virginia Senator James Webb – a Democrat who became a Republican and worked in the Reagan administration only to eventually return to the Democratic fold, gave the Democratic response. His presentation was as strong as Bush’s was weak. (There are already suggestions on the web this morning that Webb may be a serious candidate for the Vice Presidency on the 2008 Democratic ticket.) Here is the Washington Post’s assessment of Senator Webb’s response:
Webb accused the president of taking the country into Iraq "recklessly" and forcing it to endure "a mismanaged war for nearly four years."

"Many, including myself, warned even before the war began that it was unnecessary; that it would take our energy and attention away from the larger war against terrorism; and that invading and occupying Iraq would leave us strategically vulnerable," Webb said.

Webb held up a picture of his father as a young Air Force captain. As a small boy, he said, he took the picture to bed with him to remind him of his father's sacrifice. Now, Webb's son is serving in Iraq as a Marine infantryman.

"We need a new direction," said Webb, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. "Not one step back from the war against international terrorism, not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos, but an immediate shift toward strong, regionally based diplomacy."

Webb concluded his speech with references to former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt and a warning for Bush:

"These presidents took the right kind of action for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight, we are calling on this president to take similar action in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

View of U.S. role in world deteriorates

A new international poll reflects a significant deterioration of America’s role as a world leader. The poll of 26,381 people from twenty-five different nations, including the United States, shows a decline in how the U.S. is viewed around the world. Forty-nine percent of the respondents felt American actions played a negative role in the world as opposed to twenty-nine percent who felt U.S. actions has a mostly positive influence. The latter figure is down from forty percent just two years ago.

This from the BBC:
The view of the US's role in the world has deteriorated both internationally and domestically, a BBC poll suggests.

The World Service survey, conducted in 25 nations including the US, found that three in four respondents disapproved of how Washington had dealt with Iraq.

The majority of the 26,381 respondents also disapproved of the way five other foreign policy areas had been handled.

The poll, released ahead of President Bush's State of the Union speech, was conducted between November and January.

The number of those who said the US was a positive influence in the world fell in 18 nations polled in previous years.

In those countries, 29% of people said the US had a positive influence, down from 36% last year and 40% two years ago.

Across the 25 countries polled, 49% of respondents said the US played a mainly negative role in the world.

In Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines and the US most of those polled said they thought America had a positive role.

But among Americans, the number of those who viewed their country's role positively fell to 57% - six percentage points down from last year and 14 percentage points down from two years ago.

Respondents were also asked about the Bush administration's handling of six areas of foreign policy:

*The war in Iraq: an average of 73% of respondents disapproved (57% in the US). Disapproval was strongest in Argentina and France, while people in Nigeria, Kenya and the Philippines were more likely to approve.

*Detainees in Guantanamo: 67% disapproved (50% in the US). Backing for America on this issue was highest in Nigeria, where 49% approved.

*Israeli-Hezbollah war: Washington's role met with approval from respondents in Nigeria and Philippines, but on average 65% disapproved across the 25 countries (50% in the US).

*Iran's nuclear programme: again, support for US actions appeared strongest in Kenya (62%), Nigeria (53%) and the Philippines (52%). But, overall 60% of respondents disapproved (50% in the US).

*Global warming: more than 80% of respondents in Argentina, France and Germany disapproved compared to 56% overall (54% in the US). But the White House had 50% or more support among those polled in Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines and South Korea.

*North Korea's nuclear programme: opposition to US policy was strongest among respondents in Argentina and Brazil. On average across the 25 countries 54% disapproved (43% in the US).

When asked about US military presence in the Middle East, an average of 68% of respondents across the 25 countries answered that it "provokes more conflict than it prevents".

In Nigeria, 49% of respondents said it was a "stabilising force", as did 41% in the Philippines, 40% in Kenya and 33% in the US.

The poll was conducted for the BBC World Service by GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (Pipa) at the University of Maryland. It has a margin of error ranging from +/-2.5% to +/-4%.

The questions were put to people in: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the United States.

Bush’s State of the Union: nothing new to say

The presidential State of the Union address to Congress was started by George Washington but discontinued by Thomas Jefferson. (He considered it too monarchical – comparable to the speech given to Parliament by the Queen.) It was revived by Woodrow Wilson and continued ever since unusally by a personal appearance and delievery by the President but occasionally submitted in writing.

Tonight President Bush stands before congress and other national leaders to offer his assessment of the state of our union and his proposals for the coming years. However, he does so as the public has completely lost confidence in his ability to lead wisely or to tell the truth.

According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, only 22% of Americans want this president setting policy for the country while 57% prefer congress take over that role. Only one-third of Americans consider this president “honest and straightforward.” Sixty percent of Americans disapprove of this president’s performance and two-thirds of Americans do not believe his performance will improve over the next two years.

So how significant will this speech be tonight? Not very, according to David Corn in today’s Guardian:
… Bush's SOTU (as the abbreviators call the State of the Union) is likely to be one of most irrelevant annual speeches in years. He has already addressed the most pressing matter of his presidency. Two weeks ago, he presented a speech on his Iraq policy, announcing an escalation that would entail the dispatching of more than 20,000 additional troops, mostly to Baghdad. (After the speech Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted this was no "escalation," just an "augmentation.") For months - ever since Bush dumped Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld following his party's loss of Congress - the public, the politicians, and the media had been waiting for Bush's "new" plan for Iraq. Bush unveiled that plan, to much political and popular opposition. Having had his say on Iraq, there is now not much else that anyone wants to hear him talk about.

Still, Bush is committed to standing at the lectern and unveiling policy proposals about problems other than Iraq. Yet with Congress in the hands of Democrats, his initiatives - whatever they are - will generally face dismal odds. In the past, he used the State of the Union to call for a grand mission to send humans to Mars and for more energy independence. But such programs, even when Republicans controlled Congress, did not get far off the ground. His proposal for the partial privatization of Social Security - once featured in a SOTU - exploded in his face. Even Republicans now deride his Mars idea as a legendary SOTU misstep.

This year, there is pre-speech talk that Bush will again refer to alternative energy and maybe global warming (how about driving to Capitol Hill in a Prius hybrid?) and that he'll propose taxing people who receive expensive health care insurance at work to raise money to pay for health care plans for some currently uninsured. But Democrats have plenty ideas of their own about energy independence and climate change, and it's rather unlikely the health care mavens of the Democratic Party - who are enthusiastic about designing their own health care legislation - are going to take any leads from Bush.

After the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, much of America has decided it has heard enough from this president. His recent Iraq speech only served to further distance himself from the public and most of its elected representatives in Washington. There is not much he can mention at this point that will resonate. (Perhaps if he calls for nationalizing the oil companies, that might catch people's attention.) He has defined his presidency with his war in Iraq. The state of Iraq is the state of the union. And he has nothing new to say about that.

Monday, January 22, 2007

What’s Left?

Nick Cohen is a British leftist on a mission to confront fellow leftists who have strayed from the path. His primary concern is for those who have ended up either embracing or making excuses for reactionaries and opponents of liberal democracy in Third World countries simply because they are anti-American or anti-Bush – i.e., the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

His book, What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, has just been published in the U.K. and will available in the United States in a few weeks. Here is an excerpt from the book in the Observer:
Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam which stands for everything the liberal left is against come from the liberal left? Why will students hear a leftish postmodern theorist defend the exploitation of women in traditional cultures but not a crusty conservative don? After the merican and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps? As important, why did a European Union that daily announces its commitment to the liberal principles of human rights and international law do nothing as crimes against humanity took place just over its borders? Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal left, but not China, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Congo or North Korea? Why, even in the case of Palestine, can't those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a superior literary journal as in a neo-Nazi hate sheet? And why after the 7/7 attacks on London did leftish rather than right-wing newspapers run pieces excusing suicide bombers who were inspired by a psychopathic theology from the ultra-right?

In short, why is the world upside down? In the past conservatives made excuses for fascism because they mistakenly saw it as a continuation of their democratic rightwing ideas. Now, overwhelmingly and every where, liberals and leftists are far more likely than conservatives to excuse fascistic governments and movements, with the exception of their native far-right parties. As long as local racists are white, they have no difficulty in opposing them in a manner that would have been recognisable to the traditional left. But give them a foreign far-right movement that is anti-Western and they treat it as at best a distraction and at worst an ally.
All of this is worth keeping in mind for those attending the anti-Iraq War demonstration in Washington this weekend. It is one thing (actually, the right thing) to oppose the idiocy of the Bush administration’s policy in the Middle East but it is another to applaud apologists for extremist Islamic actions.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Richard Cheney and the imperial Vice Presidency

I am not aware of any U.S. Vice President wielding the power that Richard Cheney does. A big part of this is the fact that George W. Bush is a very weak and not very bright President. The Office of the Vice Presidency (OVP) is acting almost like a parallel executive branch with Cheney is filling a vacuum. The appearance is he has a puppet master-to-puppet working relationship with Bush.

David Bromwich has these observations at Open University:
Walter Mondale, interviewed today by Wolf Blitzer, said that in his judgment Vice President Cheney had "crossed a line" the Carter presidency took care to preserve: the line that stops the vice president from becoming an autonomous actor in the framing and the pursuit of policies. He added that Dick Cheney appears to have constructed "a parallel National Security Council" to control national intelligence. Cheney has thus been able to make the statements he wants and to draw the conclusions he prefers from the captive intelligence estimates.

This is a cue the Democratic congress ought to take up soon; and Patrick Leahy, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, may have the courage to do it. …reporters are routinely denied answers to questions as simple as: who are the people who work at the OVP, and what are their titles? Secrecy carried to that extent bears the marks of an imperium in imperio, an unchecked power within the power of government. In 2006, the OVP was strong enough to brush back John McCain's attempt to abolish torture; the counter-campaign by the vice president in this rare instance was conducted in public view. The OVP also had a hand alongside the departments of defense and justice in the Military Commissions Act, which now excludes enemy combatants at Guantanamo and elsewhere from the constitutional right of habeas corpus. David Addington, the top lawyer at the OVP, has spent almost his entire career in the service of Dick Cheney, as Alberto Gonzales has almost his entire career in the service of G.W. Bush. Like the idea of an unchecked "interior cabinet," the paths of patronage in this administration are evocative of the early reign of George III…

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Iraq and Iran: What is the significance of that relationship that should impact U.S. policy?

In plotting a policy course in Iraq, how much consideration needs to be given to Iran? It is very important to take into consideration but in doing so it is important to understand the significance of the relationship between the two countries in order to not draw the wrong conclusions.

Peter Beinart has some thoughts on the matter in Time magazine:
… In his speech last week announcing plans to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, President Bush warned that if the U.S. left, "Iran would be emboldened." Hours later, U.S. troops raided an Iranian office in Iraq's north. The thrust of Bush's strategy now appears less to build democracy in Iraq than to prevent it from becoming a client state of Tehran.

The Administration should relax. Iraq poses big problems, but becoming Iran's flunky probably isn't one of them. There are three main reasons: Iraq's Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds.

Sunni Iraqis have feared Persian domination since before there was an Iraq. That fear reached fever pitch after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Sunni politicians regularly call their Shi'ite rivals tools of Tehran. If Iraq's Shi'ite leaders want the Sunnis to end their insurgency, they'll have to seriously distance themselves from the mullahs next door. If they don't, the Baghdad government will lack influence over large chunks of the country, since even with Iran's help, Iraq's Shi'ite militias won't easily defeat a Sunni insurgency stocked with Saddam's former officers and bankrolled by oil money from the gulf.

In fact, Tehran probably fears an Iraqi civil war more than it relishes calling the shots in Baghdad. One big reason is the Kurds. The more Iraq unravels, the closer Iraq's Kurds will edge toward outright secession. And the closer they get, the more likely it is that their Kurdish brethren across the border--who make up 7% of Iran's population--will try to join them. As non-Persians (and Sunnis to boot), Iran's Kurds get nothing but abuse from their Shi'ite masters in Tehran. In July 2005, Iranian police killed a Kurdish opposition figure, strapped his body to a jeep and dragged it through the streets of a Kurdish town, sparking riots that lasted six weeks. Many Iranian Kurds would love a country of their own, and events next door could provide the inspiration they need. Instead of Iran's subverting Iraq's stability, it could turn out to be the other way around.

Were Iraqi Shi'ites really an Iranian fifth column, all this might be cold comfort. But the truth is more complicated. Though many Sunnis won't admit it, Iraqi nationalism runs deep among their long-repressed countrymen. As historian Reidar Visser has observed, Iraq's Shi'ites have never launched a broad-based movement to secede. When Baghdad and Tehran went to war in the 1980s, Iraq's Shi'ite soldiers fought fiercely, especially after Iranian forces crossed onto Iraqi soil. It's true that one major Shi'ite party, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa, took refuge in Iran during Saddam's rule. Another, SCIRI, was actually born there. But since entering government, leaders of both parties have carefully displayed their independence from Tehran.

There's another reason that Iraq is likely to resist Iran's influence: Muqtada al-Sadr. Ironically, the Shi'ite leader America fears most is also the one feared most in Tehran. Al-Sadr is a thug, but he's a nationalist. He wants a strong central government in Baghdad, not a Shi'ite mini-state in Iraq's south. As Ray Takeyh notes in his book, Hidden Iran, Tehran's mullahs fund al-Sadr to cover their bets, but distrust and dislike him.

The thing driving al-Sadr and Iran together is us. From the beginning, al-Sadr has made common cause with anyone fighting the occupation. (In 2004, when U.S. troops were battling Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, al-Sadr sent them aid.) Americans worried during the Vietnam War that if we left, Hanoi would become a puppet of its wartime patron, Beijing. Instead, four years after the U.S. evacuated Saigon, Vietnam and China were at war. When American troops are on your doorstep, it's easy to make common cause. But when they leave, deep-seated rivalries often re-emerge. Our occupation of Iraq helps Iran pose as the patron of Iraqi nationalism. But once we leave, Iran will become less of a patron and more of a target. That's in Iraq's interest, and ours.

The political problem in Iraq more troops won’t address

The political problem in Iraq more troops won’t address

Watch Iraqi MP Mish’an Al-Jabouri and Iraqi journalist Sadeq Al-Musawi debating on Al-Jazeera on January 2nd over the execution of Saddam Hussein. (I came across this via James Fallows). One is Sunni and the other Shiite – both prominent in their respective communities.

Listen to them and then consider the Bush administration’s proposal for a surge in troops. Isn’t this an attempt to impose a military solution on a political problem? If this political problem is not addressed quickly then there is no limit to the number of American troops needed to quell the violence.

Friday, January 19, 2007

“Impeach Bush” is for sale

FYI: The domain name, “” is up for sale on eBay. As of this writing, there have been 51 bids and the high bid is at $25,200.00. There are a little over twenty hours left to place your bid so don't delay.

Hugo Chavez soon to gain power to rule by decree

Hugo Chavez is about to acquire more power through legislation under consideration by the Venezuela National Assembly. The bill would give him the power to rule by decree bypassing the congress. Chavez, was a career military officer who attempted a coup in 1992 against the Venezuelan government and was elected president of that country in 1998. President Chavez is well known for his tirades against the United States in general and, in particular, against George W. Bush.

This from the BBC:
Venezuela's National Assembly has given initial approval to a bill granting the president the power to bypass congress and rule by decree for 18 months.

President Hugo Chavez says he wants "revolutionary laws" to enact sweeping political, economic and social changes.

He has said he wants to nationalise key sectors of the economy and scrap limits on the terms a president can serve.

Mr Chavez began his third term in office last week after a landslide election victory in December.

The bill allowing him to enact laws by decree is expected to win final approval easily in the assembly on its second reading on Tuesday.

Venezuela's political opposition has no representation in the National Assembly since it boycotted elections in 2005.

Mr Chavez approved 49 laws by decree during the first year of his previous term, after the assembly passed a similar "Enabling Law" in November 2000.

Now the president says an Enabling Law is a key step in what he calls an accelerating march toward socialism.

He has said he wants to see major Venezuelan power and telecoms companies come under state control.

Mr Chavez also called for an end to foreign ownership of lucrative crude oil refineries in the Orinoco region.

Critics of the president accuse him of trying to build an authoritarian regime with all institutional powers consolidated into
his own hands.

But, National Assembly President Cilia Flores said "there will always be opponents, and especially when they know that these laws will deepen the revolution".
It is interesting to not only consider the parallel drives for excutive power by the administrations of Chavez in Venezuela and Bush in the United States but also their styles of governance. Slaves of Academe summed it up best:
Hugo Chavez is considered in the West a leftist (except, ironically, by the Venezuelan left, which considers Chavez as having displaced a true left in the country), and rhetorically he fits the bill, but in practice he and George W. Bush have quite a lot in common, in terms of methodology. Both have moved aggressively to control the state and harness it to their personal politics. Both have assumed mythic proportions (in their own minds, at the very least) as saviours of the nation, have politicised and compromised civil society, both preside over deeply split electorates, and are controversial and divisive leaders who relish conflict and the grand gesture.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why conservatives can’t win wars

There was never any guarantee of success in Iraq but the manner in which the war plus reconstruction was executed by the Bush administration doomed it to failure. Many are blaming this on the incompetence of President Bush. However, while President Bush has made unique contributions to incompetent governance there is more to it than this President. It has to do with conservative ideology. (This is a theme this blog has touched upon here, here and here.)

According to Alan Wolfe, “Conservatives fail because those who hate government cannot run it very well…” And if you cannot govern, you cannot lead a nation into war and hope to win even when you have convinced yourself of the contrary. Conservatism is a roadblock to success.

Robert Farley explores this theme in The American Prospect:
War presidents profess bipartisanship for two reasons. First, a bipartisan approach allows an administration to draw on the ideological and human capital embedded in the foreign policy apparatus of both parties. Second, bringing the other party in provides an administration with some political cover in case of disaster. The Bush administration rejected both of these rationales. While nothing that the administration has done has absolved the hawks of their support for the war, the Democrats can honestly argue that they had no role in its disastrous execution. The administration wanted all the credit, and it's receiving all the blame. The exclusion of Democrats also meant that Republicans needed to make no compromises in their plan to rebuild Iraq. Both the ideology guiding the reconstruction of Iraq and the people who carried out the reconstruction belong to the Republican Party.

The result has been doubly disastrous: A group of people lacking the skills and expertise necessary to build a government in Iraq has been motivated by an ideology that fundamentally rejects the possibility of good government. …what the execution of the Iraq occupation has served to discredit first and foremost is the Republican concept of government.

Before the war and near the beginning of the occupation, it was commonly argued that the reconstruction of Iraq could follow the pattern set by the rehabilitation of Germany and Japan after World War II. The United States had created good government institutions in the former Axis powers, so building such institutions in Iraq should be no problem. This story ignored two facts about the New Deal-era civil servants who helped rebuild Germany and Japan: they had experience with the construction and maintenance of the institutions of one of the most activist governments that the United States has ever known; and they were motivated by an ideology that believed that good government could make a positive difference in people's lives -- could be a solution as well as a problem. Since the Reagan administration, the Republican Party has been dedicated to attacking both of these pillars. The idea of an apolitical civil service possessed of the expertise necessary to run government is anathema to conservatives, who view the civil service as both bloated and incompetent. More importantly, Republican ideology of the last twenty-five years is simply not well-equipped to understanding government as a solution and not a problem.

As Rajiv Chadrasekaran details in his new book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, the Republican position on governance and civil service expertise served to undermine the reconstruction of Iraq. Cronyism, the preference for political hacks over experts, and the exclusion of anyone not loyal to the Republican Party helped turn the reconstruction into a complete disaster. The construction of a democratic, stable Iraq may have been impossible anyway, but the Republican Party pursued the project in the manner least likely to produce success. The story of Bernie Kerik's tenure in Iraq is particularly telling. Because of his personal connections with Rudy Giuliani and by extension the president, Kerik became chief of Iraq's Interior Ministry. Although he lacked any managerial capacity, he could boast of loyalty, charisma, media savvy, and the will to ignore expert advice in favor of his gut. Predictably, his tenure was short and disastrous, as he spent more time engaging in flashy night raids than in running the ministry.

Kerik's experience was not exceptional. In one of the most notable anecdotes in Chadrasekaran's account, the hiring of CPA employees involved more careful examination of political attitudes than of experience or competence, to the degree that applicants were queried about their position on Roe vs. Wade and other domestic political questions.

Crucially, almost none of the failures of the CPA were accidental. The Republican disdain for civil service expertise led to the rejection of qualified professionals in favor of ideologically sympathetic hacks. Fundamental misunderstanding of (and resistance to) the regulatory foundation of a modern economy led to hopelessly botched efforts to reform Iraq's state owned industries. Most importantly, the belief that government is always a problem and never a solution produced an attitude of complaisance. With Saddam out of the way and the oppressive machinery of the Iraqi state in ruins, a free people and free market would blossom. Government obstructs commerce and restricts freedom; the idea that it can enable either was alien to the members of the CPA.

That the reconstruction of Iraq would likely have failed in any case doesn't absolve the ineptitude of those who tried to rebuild it. The flaws of the occupation were the flaws of movement conservatism, and the decision of the president to run the CPA as the international arm of the Republican Party doomed Iraq to the last four years of disaster. In short, the president assembled a group of inept people committed to an ideology that could not possibly have produced a good outcome. We'll be living with the consequences for years.

The price tag for the “War on Terror”

The costs of the “War on Terror” – mostly funding the military operations in Iraq – will soon surpass the cost of the Vietnam War according to one calculation. Another calculation taking into account indirect costs is five times higher. According to Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, "When you say for what we're spending in a month in Iraq, you could fully fund and double the science budgets of the United States and come up with a viable alternative to oil, it puts it in perspective."

This from Der Speigel:
The Vietnam War lasted ten years and cost the equivalent of $662 billion -- the War on Terror is set to surpass that price tag in 2007. In fact, according to some economists, it already has -- five times over.

Whether US President George W. Bush's "War on Terror" has achieved its aims is debatable. One thing is for sure, though: It hasn't been cheap. The price tag on Bush's initiatives to defeat Islamist terrorism is set to exceed that of the Vietnam War -- and that's a conservative estimate.

According to the US government's Congressional Research Service, the Vietnam War cost the US the equivalent of $662 billion (€512 billion), in today's dollars, between 1965 and 1975. The Los Angeles Times has compared this figure with the costs for the War on Terror, which began in 2001, and come up with the conclusion that this year the costs will be surpassed.

Steven Kosiak, director of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, has calculated that between Sept. 11, 2001 and the end of the 2006 fiscal year the US spent around $400 billion under the heading of "fighting terrorism." This covers the expenditure on the Afghanistan war and the operations in Iraq since March 2003, but also includes spending on Bush's other "wider global war against terrorism," Kosiak told the Los Angeles Times.

In the 2007 fiscal year there will be the additional $70 billion that has already been approved by Congress, not to mention the additional $100 billion that Bush is expected to ask Congress for. When all the numbers are added up, the US will have spent at least $670 billion by the end of the year -- more than on the whole of the Vietnam War.

The figures illustrate just how expensive the war in Iraq has been. During World War II -- the biggest armed conflict in the history of mankind -- the US only hit the $600 billion mark (in today's dollars) in mid-1943. By that stage, the Germans had already been pushed out of North Africa, a large part of the Japanese fleet had been destroyed and the big offensive on European territory, which would eventually lead to the end of the war in Europe, had begun.

The Iraq War is by these standards hardly comparable -- but it is already so expensive that its price tag is beginning to reach "historic proportions," writes the Los Angeles Times.

The paper quotes politicians from Washington who have up to now held back in criticizing the costs of war, so as not to unsettle the home front -- but even they are now voicing criticism. "When you say for what we're spending in a month in Iraq, you could fully fund and double the science budgets of the United States and come up with a viable alternative to oil, it puts it in perspective," Democrat Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren told the paper.

The usually-loyal Bush supporter Judd Gregg complained about the lack of caution on the part of the government, saying it was spending money "without any discipline." A lot of the criticism goes back to the fact that Bush asked Congress to approve emergency-spending bills for a large part of the costs of the Iraq War -- thus circumventing the usual approval process.

The official price tag is, however, disputed. According to calculations by the economist Linda Bilmes, the war in Iraq -- not taking into account Afghanistan and the wider anti-terror campaign -- has already cost a lot more than Vietnam. German business daily Handelsblatt reports that at the 2007 annual conference of the American Economic Association (AEA), Bilmes named a figure of $3 trillion dollars -- almost five times Kosiak's estimate.

The difference between the figures lies in the fact that Bilmes, an economics professor at Harvard University, takes into account the indirect costs of the war -- in particular the cost of taking care of wounded soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of Iraq veterans will require disability pensions for the rest of their lives. The ratio of dead to survivors is the big difference between "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and previous wars. During World War II the ratio was 1.5 wounded for every dead soldier, while in Vietnam it was 2.8 -- in Iraq it's 16. Far more soldiers are being wounded in Iraq than killed, which pushes up costs.

At the AEA conference last year, Bilmes, along with Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, said that the costs had by that stage hit between $1,026 billion and $2,239 billion. Stiglitz then listed which war injuries were the most frequent: 20 percent of the injuries were to the brain, a further 20 percent were "critical injuries," while 6 percent led to amputations.

Admittedly, the figures calculated by Stiglitz and Blimes have not gone undisputed. They include costs related to the increase in the price of oil, which they assume is due to the conflict.

What is certain is that they have been better at their calculations than, say, Bush himself. Before the war began, he predicted it would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion.

Another lost opportunity with Iran

According to a report from the BBC, Iran offered the United States a package of concessions in 2003 in return for ending U.S. hostility. However, despite the inclination of the State Department to seize this opportunity, Vice President Cheney who opposes any communication with Iran blocked the overture to the U.S.

This from the BBC:
Tehran proposed ending support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups and helping to stabilise Iraq following the US-led invasion.

Offers, including making its nuclear programme more transparent, were conditional on the US ending hostility.

But Vice-President Dick Cheney's office rejected the plan, the official said.

The offers came in a letter, seen by Newsnight, which was unsigned but which the US state department apparently believed to have been approved by the highest authorities.

In return for its concessions, Tehran asked Washington to end its hostility, to end sanctions, and to disband the Iranian rebel group the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and repatriate its members.

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had allowed the rebel group to base itself in Iraq, putting it under US power after the invasion.

One of the then Secretary of State Colin Powell's top aides told the BBC the state department was keen on the plan - but was over-ruled.

"We thought it was a very propitious moment to do that," Lawrence Wilkerson told Newsnight.

"But as soon as it got to the White House, and as soon as it got to the Vice-President's office, the old mantra of 'We don't talk to evil'... reasserted itself."

Observers say the Iranian offer as outlined nearly four years ago corresponds pretty closely to what Washington is demanding from Tehran now.

Since that time, Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah inflicted significant military losses on the major US ally in the region, Israel, in the 2006 conflict and is now claiming increased political power in Lebanon.

Palestinian militant group Hamas won power in parliamentary elections a year ago, opening a new chapter of conflict in Gaza and the West Bank.

The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran following its refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment programme.

Iran denies US accusations that its nuclear programme is designed to produce weapons.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What is the United States doing in Somalia?

The actions of the United States in Somalia during the past few weeks have seemed to catch most Americans off guard. Ethiopia invaded Somalia, which posed no threat to it, and toppled the government. Most Americans were not aware our government was giving full support to Ethiopia, the aggressor in this conflict, until reports came out regarding the involvement of U.S. military personnel in an attack against an Al Qaeda operative that resulted in the deaths of a large number of civilians.

Have the actions of the United States in Somalia made it a rogue state? John Judis addresses that question in the online edition of The New Republic:
What exactly are we doing in the Horn of Africa, where we have encouraged the Christian government of Ethiopia to invade Somalia and replace its Islamic government? As far as I can tell, we have violated international law, committed war crimes, helped Al Qaeda recruit new members, and involved ourselves in a guerrilla war that could last decades. It's Iraq writ small. And it can't be blamed on Donald Rumsfeld.

There's an old principle of international law, going back to the seventeenth century, against one nation violating the sovereignty of another. It was often breached, but, after two world wars, it was enshrined in the United Nations charter. We criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and justified the first Gulf war on these grounds. The purpose of this principle has been to prevent wars that could arise if more powerful countries simply took it into their hands to dominate smaller, less powerful ones.

Of course, when one nation attacks another, the other can respond. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, was justified on those grounds. The Taliban weren't simply sheltering Al Qaeda; they were in league with them and had become dependent upon them. To justify its invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration invented an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein's regime. It was pure artifice--remember the drones bearing nuclear weapons headed for our shores--but the very fact that the Bush administration felt it had to resort to deception meant that it understood that a certain principle of international relations was at stake.

But, last month, the Bush administration actively supported Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia. It provided money, advisers, and, finally, U.S. warplanes. And there was no justification for Ethiopia's invasion. It was a clear violation of the U.N. charter. The neighboring people have been feuding for centuries, but Ethiopia's Christian government could not cite a significant provocation for its attack on the Muslim country and its Islamic government. If anything, Ethiopia's invasion closely resembled Iraq's invasion in August 1990 of Kuwait. But, instead of criticizing the Ethiopians, the United States applauded and aided them.

The administration claimed that, in supporting Ethiopia, it was fighting the ubiquitous "war on terrorism." According to The New York Times, administration officials even held out the Ethiopia invasion as a model of how it would prosecute the war on terrorism by proxy. By this account, Somalia was Afghanistan, and its Islamic Courts Union government was the Taliban. But the analogy does not hold up. The United States claimed that the Islamic Courts government, which took power last summer, was harboring three Al Qaeda fugitives. But the Al Qaeda members had been in Somalia well before the Islamic Courts took power. They were not part of the government. And Al Qaeda itself did not have training camps in Somalia. Somalia was less like Afghanistan than Pakistan, which, according to outgoing National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, is also home to Al Qaeda members.

With the ouster of the Islamic Courts, the warlords are likely to return to power. Somalia will probably be plunged into another guerrilla war, as the Islamists try to retake power. And the United States will once again ally with these warlords and with a weak, corrupt regime. … And who will benefit from American intervention? Al Qaeda, which will be able to draw up another recruiting poster from the American-sponsored invasion of a Muslim country. Al Qaeda will be able to point, in particular, to U.S. airstrikes that claimed to target Al Qaeda but instead killed scores of innocent civilians.

That's what happened on January 7 and 8 in Somali border towns; the United States claimed its bombs were intended to kill an Al Qaeda operative supposedly connected to the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But he was not among the victims; nor were other Al Qaeda members. Then reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from the AC-130 gunships that the United States supposedly sent to hunt down the single terrorist. According to Oxfam, the dead included 70 nomads who were searching for water sources. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated that 100 were wounded in an attack on Ras Kamboni, a fishing village near the Kenyan border. … It's a war crime to kill civilians indiscriminately.

In the 1990s, foreign policy experts, eager to identify a new enemy, hit upon the concept of a "rogue state." A rogue state operated outside the bounds of international norms and had to be restrained. The obvious candidates at the time were Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. But the Bush administration has turned the United States itself into a rogue state. Tough-minded conservatives, flexing their "muscular" inclinations from comfortable sinecures in Washington, may dismiss concerns about international law and war crimes as inventions of silly panty-waist liberals. But these inventions, which, in the modern era, were championed by Theodore Roosevelt, were meant to protect Americans as well as other peoples from the wars and the inhumanity that prevailed for thousands of years. We ignore them at their peril, whether in Haditha or Ras Kamboni.