2009 - %3, September

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday September 23

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 7:28 AM EDT

News on Blue Marble-ish subjects from our other blogs and around the Web you might have missed.

Baucus Bill Changed: Baucus says he'll change the bill to favor middle-income Americans.

Green Girl: Model Gisele Bundchen becomes a goodwill UN ambassador for climate. [Environmental News Service]

Save Me, Will Ferrell!: New video by Ferrell worries about fate of healthcare company execs.

Hot Seat: In speech, Obama says US is making strides in fighting climate change.

Junk Science: New bill would sponsor study of junk food marketing in schools. [Consumerist]

Adios, Cloves: Clove cigarettes, beloved by drama geeks everywhere, shut down by the FDA.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 23, 2009

Wed Sep. 23, 2009 6:02 AM EDT

An Afghan National Army soldier stands ready with his patrol vehicle’s crew-served weapon outside of Camp Shimshod, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Many ANA soldiers are provide forward or rear security while on patrol with International Security Assistance Forces personnel. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Michael Curvin.)

Need To Read: September 23, 2009

Wed Sep. 23, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Today's must-reads are still glad we #hiredkatesheppard:

  • Obama Considering Strategy Shift in Afghanistan (NYT)
  • ACORN Worker in "Pimp" Video Told Police (AP)
  • Health Care Progress May Not Be Possible for Two Weeks (TPM)
  • PG&E Quits Chamber of Commerce Over Climate Change (MoJo)
  • Pentagon office overseeing contracts has 14 people working in it. That must make Blackwater very happy (MoJo)
  • Clinton on Gore: "I Thought He Was In Neverland" (MoJo)
  • Arpaio Targeting ACORN (MoJo)
  • Congress Defunding Blackwater? (MoJo)
  • Q&A With Historian Rick Perlstein on the ACORN Flap (Columbia Journalism Review)
  • Kennedy Seat To Be Filled By Appointment (MoJo)
  • What Obama Told the UN (MoJo)
  • "I'm pretty sure I have never—before today—yelled at NPR's Robert Siegel in my car." (Obsidian Wings)

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Will Ahmadinejad Free the Hikers?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 3:01 AM EDT

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad always goes on a bit of a PR offensive during his trip to New York for the UN General Assembly, doing interviews and meeting with prominent Americans. This year's visit, which comes after the brutal suppression of election protests in Iran as well as on the heels of a fresh round of Holocaust denial, should be a bit more challenging than usual, with massive protests planned outside the UN. On one front, though, the Iranian president seems to be offering an olive branch: In an interview with the AP, he signals that he'll ask Iranian courts to treat three US hikers detained in Iran, including MoJo contributor Shane Bauer, with "maximum leniency." (The hikers' mothers last week issued an open letter (pdf) asking Ahmadinejad to bring their children with him to New York.) 

For another American held in Iraq, Ahmadinejad offered less hope, reports the AP: 

"[He] also was asked about the case of an Iranian-Canadian journalist, Maziar Bahari, who was working for Newsweek magazine and imprisoned while covering the social unrest in Iran after the disputed June presidential election. Ahmadinejad did not reply about Bahari, limiting his remarks to the case of the hikers."

 Stay tuned for more signals during Ahmadinejad's speech today.

State Secrets

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 1:40 AM EDT

The Department of Justice is planning to roll out new standards that would make it tougher for the government to unilaterally throw out lawsuits by asserting the state secrets privilege:

The new policy requires agencies, including the intelligence community and the military, to convince the attorney general and a team of Justice Department lawyers that the release of sensitive information would present significant harm to "national defense or foreign relations." In the past, the claim that state secrets were at risk could be invoked with the approval of one official and by meeting a lower standard of proof that disclosure would be harmful.

...."What we're trying to do is . . . improve public confidence that this privilege is invoked very rarely and only when it's well supported," said a senior department official involved in the review, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy had not yet been unveiled. "By holding ourselves to this higher standard, we're in some way sending a message to the courts. We're not following a 'just trust us' approach."

....The Justice Department officials said Tuesday that their agency would give regular reports on their use of the state secrets privilege to oversight committees on Capitol Hill and that the attorney general would pass along "credible" allegations of wrongdoing by government agencies or officials to watchdogs at the appropriate agencies, even if the administration had decided to invoke the legal privilege in sensitive cases.

I'm all for this, but unless it's backed by the force of law we're still just trusting the government to do the right thing.  Maybe they will, maybe they won't.  Maybe this administration will and the next one won't.  Who knows?  So I hope Pat Leahy keeps beavering away on legislation to codify this stuff.  DOJ can't have any objection to Congress making sure they do what they say they're going to do anyway, can they?

Quote of the Day

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 12:06 AM EDT

From the reliably hawkish Michael O'Hanlon, suggesting that his fellow hawks ought to cut Barack Obama some slack on Afghanistan:

Here we are less than six months after [the] first strategy review was completed and military commanders are now saying that the exact same strategy they proposed back in March, they need [...] well above and beyond what they thought they needed.  And so Mr. Obama is entitled to think twice about that. He is entitled to wonder just how precise is this military arithmetic? Just how promising is this counter-insurgency strategy anyway?

Let's get clear about something.  Gen. McChrystal, in his leaked assessment, drew a spectacularly grim picture of events on the ground in Afghanistan and made it very plain that more troops alone won't have much effect on that.  Fred Kaplan interprets:

McChrystal's point is that it's not simply "resources," not just U.S. and NATO troops, that will settle the war. It's also whether the Afghan government earns the trust of its people — whether the Afghan president and his entourage of ministers, governors, and warlords are willing — or are willing to be lured — to clean up their act, end their corrupt practices, and truly serve their people.

When Obama says he needs to review the strategy before he decides on troop levels, he almost certainly means that he needs to assess whether a counterinsurgency strategy makes sense if the Afghan government — the entity that our troops would be propping up and aligning themselves with — is viewed by a wide swath of its own people as illegitimate.

So how do we change that?  This is the place where comparisons to Vietnam become hard to avoid.  Diem was never a legitimate leader of South Vietnam, and after his assassination none of his successors were either.  That made the war impossible to win.

Now we're in a different country but the same situation, and there's little reason to believe that we're any better at installing credible puppet governments today than we were 50 years ago.  More troops won't change that, as McChrystal concedes, but it's not at all clear that a change in strategy will either.  Certainly not the relatively modest changes McChrystal favors and certainly not in the timeframe he suggests.  We've screwed up monumentally in Afghanistan, and rearranging the deck chairs just isn't enough to turn things around.

The problem, of course, is that withdrawing from Afghanistan (a) would be a PR victory for the bad guys and (b) might lead to some genuinely dangerous fallout.  Nobody wants to take the blame for that.  It's always a lot safer and a lot easier to keep on fighting, never quite winning but never quite losing either.  The real danger, then, isn't that Obama might spend too much time asking tough questions of the Pentagon (an aspect of being commander-in-chief that Mitt Romney jejunely refers to as playing "Hamlet in the White House"), but that he might succumb to political pressure to "support the generals" too quickly.  Peter Baker and Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times today suggest that he gets this:

President Obama is exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan, including a plan advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan, officials said Tuesday.

....Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.

....A shift from a counterinsurgency strategy to a focus on counterterrorism would turn the administration’s current theory on its head....But the Afghan presidential election, widely marred by allegations of fraud, undermined the administration’s confidence that it had a reliable partner in President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden already had raised doubts about Mr. Karzai, which were only exacerbated by the fear that even if he emerges from a runoff election, he will have little credibility with his own people.

After eight years, the burden of proof is no longer on the skeptics.  It's now on those who think we can turn things around in Afghanistan.  If McChrystal's team can come up with a genuinely credible plan to make counterinsurgency work, that's fine.  But please: no more wishful thinking and no more demands from knee-jerk hawks that we fight forever no matter what.  It's time for a reality check and some tough decisions.

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Climate Summit: China Commits, Obama Not So Much

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 11:35 PM EDT

Minutes after the close of the United Nations summit on climate change on Tuesday, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared the event a success. "The momentum has shifted," he told reporters.

"For the last few months I have been very concerned by the slow pace of the global negotiations," said Ban. "But I listened carefully to the discussions today and I sensed that something that has been missing for the past few months has returned. It is a sense of optimism, urgency, and hope that governments are determined to seal a deal in Copenhagen."

But, if anything, the public-facing side of the summit didn't offer much hope. Barack Obama's speech offered nothing in the way of specific policy directives and did little to put pressure on Congress to deliver him a bill that he can take to Copenhagen. And there were no major breakthroughs on agreements between leaders.

For those determined to find signs of progress, one might have been the speech by Chinese President Hu Jintao. His promise that the country would reduce greenhouse emissions by a "notable margin" below 2005 levels within a decade was hailed as a breakthrough – though he didn't clarify whether that would be a binding goal. Chinese leaders said they are still discussing what the actual target will be.

Hu also pledged that China would work to raise the amount of energy drawn from nuclear and other non-fossil fuels to 15 percent by 2020, and employ other strategies to protect and expand forests and develop a more sustainable economy. Yet he maintained his desire that developing countries – even rapidly modernizing ones like China – not be held to the standards of developed countries. "Developing countries need to strike a balance between economic growth, social development and environmental protection," said Hu.

There were other significant pledges on Tuesday: the European Union reaffirmed its commitment to cuts of 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 30 percent if other developed nations follow suit. And Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, touted his promise to cut Japan's emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, so long as others consent.

Now, whether these signs of progress are as major as Ban makes them out to be remains to be seen. Other world and UN leaders have recently been downplaying hopes that a final deal will be sealed in Copenhagen, especially in light of delays in the US Senate.

But Ban insisted on a sunnier assessment. "Finally we are seeing a thaw in some of the frozen conditions that have prevented governments from progressing toward a deal in Copenhagen," he said.

The Cost of Cultural Imperialism

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 7:31 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias wants to know why Diet Coke Coca-Cola Light is so expensive in Europe.  Beats me.  But I can say that this has been the case for a very long time.  Back in 1980, after my junior year in college, I spent a few months traveling in Europe with friends and it seemed as if Coke got more expensive with every new country we visited.  As I recall, we finally just stopped drinking the stuff after paying five francs for a can in Paris once and having it finally occur to us just how much that was.  Adjusting for the then-current exchange rate and 30 years of inflation, that can cost me a little over $3.

But expensive though it might still be, fizzy sugar water won't set you back $3 a can these days.  So that's the good news: Coke may still be overpriced in Europe, but not by as much as it used to be.  Progress!

The Murdoch-ization of the Wall Street Journal

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 6:46 PM EDT

Felix Salmon takes a look at the fire-breathing headlines on the front page of last Friday's Wall Street Journal:

The WSJ is now being edited by a man who cut his teeth in the fiercely competitive Australian and UK markets, where front-page stories drive newsstand sales and newsstand sales drive profits. Sweeping curbs on pay and roiled allies make for great headlines, and mean that readers are that much more likely to shell out $2 for the paper. Unfortunately, they also increase readers' mistrust in the paper — Americans aren't used to the feeling, common in the UK, that the headline massively oversells the story.

The WSJ doesn't need to do this, but Murdoch does: it's in his blood. A Murdoch paper without punchy headlines which grab you by the throat is pretty much a contradiction in terms. Readers of the WSJ will have to get used to trusting the stories more than the headlines, or the implicit news judgment which governs where they're placed. The WSJ's journalism seems to be much less scathed than the headlines have been.

This assessment sounds a bit....how to put this....rosy to me.  Sure, maybe Murdoch will be content to jazz up the Journal's headlines and leave the rest of the journalism alone.  But what are the odds?  It's not as if he's ever been happy with half measures like this before.  Surely it's far more likely that this is merely the first step toward remaking the paper along the lines of his other properties, isn't it?  I figure it's only a matter of time until the WSJ is just a printed word version of Fox News.

Beck Watch: Mindless, Incoherent, Pathetic

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 6:28 PM EDT

I thought Glenn Beck was finally starting to make sense when he told Katie Couric today that John McCain "would have been worse for the country than Barack Obama." Needless to say, some on the right weren't as pleased as I was. Conservative radio host Mark Levin said the claim was "mindless" and "incoherent." He added, "It may be entertaining, but from my perspective, it's not. It's pathetic."

MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough joined the right-wing anger. “You cannot preach hatred. You cannot say the president is racist," he said. Are conservatives finally getting sick of Glenn Beck?

Here's a list of who's still advertising on the Glenn Beck Program:

Rosland Capital

Jos. A. Bank Clothiers

News Corp. (The Wall Street Journal)

Superior Gold Group

Loan Modification help line 800-917-8549

Lear Capital

Liberty Medical

Citrix (GoToMeeting)

Goldline International, Inc.

ExtenZe

IRSTaxAgreements.com

Clarity Media Group (The Weekly Standard)

American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc.

Carbonite

Roche Diagnostics (Accu-Chek Aviva)