2010 - %3, January

Fiore Cartoon: The SOTU That Could've Been

Thu Jan. 28, 2010 12:06 PM PST

In last night's State of the Union address, Obama practiced politics as usual, with talk of national security, bipartisanship, and why America should be #1. But what if instead, he had called Republicans out on their lack of a conscience, and Dems out on their spinelessness? Or if he had proposed a reality TV show exposing political corruption, and live broadcasts of health care negotiations?

Watch satirist Mark Fiore explore what could've (and should've?) been below:

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The Taliban Trust Fund

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 11:59 AM PST

At a major conference in London today, Afghan president Hamid Karzai rolled out his much anticipated Taliban "reintegration" or buyout plan, an initiative for which Afghanistan's allies have pledged $500 million to pay mid- or lower level fighters to stop fighting and reintegrate into Afghan society. The money could include resettling former Taliban fighters and landing them jobs, but excludes fighters with ties to al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks for inclusion in what's being called the "Taliban trust fund." And in discussing the future of the Af-Pak war, Karzai also reaffirmed that his country would need international help maintaining security in Afghanistan for anywhere from 10 to 15 more years; the training of Afghan's own forces, he added, will require another five to 10 years.

For one, the Taliban trust fund idea, backed by US envoy Richard Holbrooke, will strike even casual observers of American war as little more than a repackaging of the Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq. Indeed, Karzai's announcement comes a few months after the Los Angeles Times reported that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal personally dragged out of retirement the key architect behind the Iraqi program, which paid Sunni Muslims to leave the insurgency and even defend against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Never mind the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan are wildly different countries, from their populations and political structures to the food they eat and their geographies. Sure, you could argue that the Sunni Awakening, although mired with fraud and graft, resulted in modest amounts of success, but to apply the same lessons from Iraq to Afghanistan, as the Taliban trust fund idea seems to do, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (Plus, as Aram Roston's recent investigation in The Nation showed, so much US funding is already finding its way into Taliban hands that spending another $500 million will only amplify that epic fraud.)

Indeed, the $500 million Taliban buyout plan reminds me a lot of historian Andrew Bacevich's recent critique of Obama's Af-Pak policy—namely, that it altogether lacks any kind of imagination or rethinking of the task at hand; that US foreign policy all-too-frequently recycles the same officials toting the same tired ideas, i.e., the surge in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, and now the Awakening in Iraq and the Taliban trust fund. Obama's national security brain trust, Bacevich adriotly argued, is "unable to conceive of a basis for national security policy that does not involve the increased commitment of American military resources."

Which certainly dovetails with Karzai's belief that foreign forces will be needed in Afghanistan for another 10 to 15 years. With each day, the president's 2011 deadline for beginning withdrawal from Afghanistan resembles nothing more than smoke and mirrors; in reality, the US will be in Afghanistan training the Air Force or funding contractors or flying our drones for decades to come. In this context, Karzai's 15-year estimate looks rather modest, and today's conference in London is further confirmation (if you needed any) that the long haul of the Af-Pak war is just beginning.

ESPN Scribe to Haiti: Drop Dead

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 11:44 AM PST

Until this week, Paul Shirley had built a nice career for himself as the globetrotting basketball player with a gift for writing. He'd published a well received first book about his benchwarming endeavors and parlayed his candid, down-to-earth style into a semiregular column at ESPN.com. That all changed on Tuesday, when Shirley, writing on his group blog, published a—let's just say contrarian—take on the situation in Haiti. "I do not know if what I’m about to write makes me a monster," he began. And then he very deliberately eliminated whatever doubts we might have had. Here's a taste:

Dear Haitians –
First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded.

As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while? 

The response was swift: Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis called Shirley a "dumbass," which is a little uncouth but we can't really argue with it. And yesterday, ESPN released a statement announcing it had severed its ties with Shirley.
 

Don't Ask, Just Fight

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 11:23 AM PST

Barack Obama last night:

This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.

This was short, but it was also one of the most unequivocal things Obama said last night. And the Secretary of Defense applauded when he said it. But it's still going to be a fight to get Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed. Here's John McCain right out of the gate:

This successful policy has been in effect for over 15 years, and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels. We have the best trained, best equipped, and most professional force in the history of our country, and the men and women in uniform are performing heroically in two wars. At a time when our armed forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy.

Shameful. But make no mistake: even after 15 years to get used to the idea, even with public opinion strongly in favor, even with the military itself slowly getting accustomed to the inevitable, this is going to be a pitched battle. And as with healthcare reform, although Obama's support will be important, it won't be decisive. What's really going to matter is whether 218 representatives and 51 senators are willing to support it. (That's assuming it gets tacked onto the defense appropriation bill, which is passed under reconciliation rules.)

Right now this seems like a very winnable fight, but that's because the pushback hasn't really started yet. But once Fox gets going, and op-eds get written, and the locker room tittering takes off, and FreedomWorks starts running TV ads, and Focus on the Family blankets their mailing list with dire fundraising letters, and disgruntled military brass start leaking — well, that's a whole different ballgame. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think it's going to be easy. Congressional Democrats are going to need some spine to stick to their guns on this, and that's always a thin reed to count on.

Trade Talk

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 10:50 AM PST

Dan Drezner was pretty unimpressed with the tiny part of last night's State of the Union speech devoted to foreign economic policy. He deconstructs it here:

1)  "We will double our exports over the next five years..."  Well, the President said this would happen, so it must be so!!  I would humbly request that the president also decree that the pull of gravity be cut in half.  The government has an equal chance of making that happen. 

2)  "we will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets..."  The key word there is "shape."  I have every confidence the administration will do this, because they make this pledge in every communique they ever issue.  It's a tradition now, like playing "Hail to the Chief."  Play the music, pledge to work on Doha, and then go about your business.  

3)  "we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia."  You mean, by ratifying the three trade agreements that have already been signed and negotiated?  Oh, you don't mean that?  Well, never mind, then.

Even though last night's SOTU was obviously going to be heavily focused on domestic issues, I too was surprised by the almost perfunctory attention paid to foreign policy. But I can't say that I was surprised by the perfunctory attention paid to foreign economic policy. Dan says, "I would have liked to have seen a more robust effort to link foreign policy priorities to domestic priorities — because the two are more linked than is commonly acknowledged" — and I suppose that's true. But honestly, there's only so far the professor-in-chief can go. Obama was doing a lot of explaining already last night, and trying to explain to a weary audience why they should care about exchange rates and current account deficits just wasn't in the cards.

But I'll go further: Dan should have been pretty happy with the speech. Obama might not have done much to advance that cause of trade liberalization, but in the middle of a deep recession and following an election whose message was "Americans are hurting," there was no chance of any non-suicidal president doing that. In fact, a bit of populist protectionism would have been the obvious crowd pleaser. The fact that Obama supported trade agreements even briefly, even just rhetorically, was actually a pretty big win for free traders like Dan.

On the other hand, I too was....fascinated....by Obama's out-of-the-blue pledge to double U.S. exports over the next five years. Where did that come from? And how does he plan to do it? According to Obama, the answer is a "National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security." That line about reforming export controls received perhaps the most tepid round of applause ever in a State of the Union address, I think, as a few people tentatively started to clap and then almost instantly stopped — probably because they realized they had no idea what that meant. Me neither. Streamlining export controls is certainly a good idea, but as far as I know there's nobody who thinks this is something that's seriously dampening U.S. sales abroad.

Of course, there is a time-tested way to double U.S. exports: adopt an assertive policy of weakening the dollar. That might do it, as long as the rest of the world decided not to retaliate. But it's also vanishingly unlikely, so I really don't know what Obama has in mind. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

An Afghan Awakening?

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 10:17 AM PST

Dexter Filkins reports the beginnings of an effort to replicate the success of the Iraq's Sunni Awakening in Afghanistan:

The leaders of one of the largest Pashtun tribes in a Taliban stronghold said Wednesday that they had agreed to support the American-backed government, battle insurgents and burn down the home of any Afghan who harbored Taliban guerrillas.

....In exchange for their support, American commanders agreed to channel $1 million in development projects directly to the tribal leaders and bypass the local Afghan government, which is widely seen as corrupt....The pact appears to be the first in which an entire Pashtun tribe has declared war on Taliban insurgents.

But Filkins also warns that things could fall apart pretty easily:

But the agreement, though promising, is fragile at best. Afghan loyalties are historically fluid, and in the past the government has been unable to prevent Taliban retaliation. The agreement may also be hard to replicate, since it arose from a specific local dispute and economic tensions with the Taliban.

While the Shinwaris are now united against the Taliban, if payments from the Americans falter or animosities flare with the Afghan government, the tribe could switch back just as quickly.

Moreover, it is not clear that the elders, whatever their intentions, will be able to command the loyalties of their own members. After 30 years of incessant warfare, many of the traditional societal networks in this country have been weakened or destroyed.

The main reason the Sunni Awakening succeeded was because al-Qaeda in Iraq had become so oppressive that Sunni tribal leaders were finally willing to accept any means of fighting back against them, even if that involved American help. The Taliban hasn't yet gotten to that point throughout Afghanistan, only in a few specific areas, which makes a broader Afghan version of this strategy pretty difficult to implement. But at least this is a start.

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Is Russ Feingold in Trouble?

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 9:19 AM PST

As if the Democrats' hopes for hanging on to the Senate in 2010 weren't bad enough, a new Rassmussen poll in Wisconsin suggests that liberal icon Sen. Russell Feingold could lose his seat in the fall. Feingold is most famous for serving co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that tried to limit the influence of money in politics (a law that has now been nearly shredded by the Supreme Court.) His good-government creds have made him a popular figure, at least outside of Wisconsin. But in his home state, he may have some work to do if he wants a fourth term.

Rassmussen's poll was based on a hypothetical race between Feingold and Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and Health and Human Services secretary during the last Bush administration. Republicans are urging Thompson to challenge Feingold, but he hasn't decided yet. If he does, his odds right now look pretty good. Poll numbers suggest that Thompson would rout Feingold, with 47 percent of the vote, compared with Feingold's 43 percent. The news is particularly bad for dems because until now, Feingold has never been on anyone's watch list. His seat was supposed to be a safe one.

Is Your Co-Worker an Alien?

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 6:01 AM PST

Prepare to have your mind blown.

A new Scientific American article by Paul Davies suggests that life as we know it on earth did not necessarily come from a single source. In fact, proof of extraterrestrial life could be "right under our noses—or even in our noses," but it cannot be scientifically proven because "we've just scratched the surface of the microbial world." As Davies tells the Associated Press:

Unusual organisms abound — including chemical-eating bacteria which dwell deep in the ocean and organisms that thrive in boiling-hot springs—but that doesn't mean they're different life forms entirely.
"How weird do they have to be to suggest a second genesis as opposed to just an obscure branch of the family tree?" he said. Davies suggested that the only way to prove an organism wasn't "life as we know it" was if it were built using exotic elements which no other form of life had.

Thankfully, this concept has already been breached by the immortal genius that is Battlestar Galactica. As the survivors of the 12 colonies learned the hard way, our ancestors (in some form) could have collided with alien life forms long before recorded history. Now, I'm not suggesting that you should start suspecting that your friends or co-workers are aliens, or even worse, robotic cylon aliens. But if you're about to embark on a journey to discover extraterrestrial life, at least consider the possibility that it's you.

(h/t David Knowles)

News From TreeHugger: EPA Slaps Coal Plant With Big Fine, Brazil's Lula Tells Rich World to Clean Up, Texas Gets a New Load of Mercury Waste

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 6:00 AM PST

Editor's Note: A weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

Kansas Utility Agrees to 500 Million Dollar Penalty for Coal-Fired Power Plant Emission Violations

The corporate owner of a Kansas coal-fired electricity generation plant has agreed to a half-billion dollar settlement for Clean Air Act non-compliance. Per the EPA news release: Westar Energy to Spend Approximately $500 Million to Settle Clean Air Act Violations. Emissions to be cut by more than 75,000 tons annually. That's roughly 6.7 million dollars per ton of excess pollutants emitted since they first modified their coal-fired plant without proper permit approvals. With the Cheney protectorate gone, they, and many other coal-fireds, have to do what the law long required.

US Official Tells Wind-Powered World Bank to Stop Funding Coal Power Plants

There's all sorts of pot and kettle talk going on in this one. The Times of India reports that US Executive Director at the World Bank Group Whitney Debevoise has written a letter saying the World Bank and other multilateral development banks should stop funding building coal power plants in developing nations; they instead should "remove barriers to and build demand for no or low carbon resources."

World Solar Forum: "Rich Nations, Clean Up Your Mess!"

Although the venues of the World Social Forum were scattered throughout the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil and the issues ranged from economic injustice to looming environmental catastrophes, the antagonist at each was shared: Capitalism. The highlight of the second day of the Forum was a visit from Brazil's President Lula, who delivered a rousing speech articulating much of what was discussed earlier in the day, vowing that Brazil is prepared to take the lead on Green reform—and that other nations, particularly the world's biggest polluters, need to make up for the harm they've caused.

States Step Up to Defend Endangerment Finding

Last year, the EPA issued a long awaited set of guidelines on regulating large, stationary sources of CO2. The rules, known as the "Endangerment Finding," used the authority granted to the agency through a Supreme Court ruling that found CO2 to be a pollutant that the EPA could regulate. While environmentalists, especially those skeptical of Congress' ability to regulate CO2, rejoiced, some industry groups protested, filing a lawsuit. Today, 16 states and New York City joined the lawsuit on behalf of the government.

Tons of Unwanted Mercury Will Make 40-Year Visit to Texas

The USDOE prepared a full Environmental Impact Statement as the basis for selecting a site to store tons of mercury which no longer can be legally exported. Now we know what happens to all those old mercury thermometers - off to Texas, where they will be interred at a new facility managed by Waste Control Specialists, LLC, near Andrews.

Need to Read: January 28, 2010

Thu Jan. 28, 2010 5:21 AM PST

 The must-read news from around the web and in today's papers: