2010 - %3, August

This Week in National Insecurity

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 10:59 AM PDT

Whichever side of the fence you land on, chances are you agree that America's not a very secure nation these days: economically, electorally, and of course, physically. So we grabbed our lensatic compass, rucksack, and canteen, then mounted out across the global media landscape for a quick recon. Whether you're scared because our military isn't good enough—or you're scared because it's too good—here's all the ammunition you need, in a handy debrief.

In this installment: Mike Hastings, martyr; dealing with Iran; what mosques and married gays have to do with homeland security, allegedly; old Iraqi enemies; new Al Qaeda enemies; soldiers on hippie drugs; WikiLeaks groveling; and Taliban gangbangers. Word.

The sitrep:

The United States government's national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow. You're welcome.

  • After military overseers in Afghanistan yanked his embed reporting assignment this week, Rolling Stone's Michael "I write everything down" Hastings went on TV. The gist of his argument: He wasn't denied access because he got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired, but because the war sucks, the war's media guys know it, and the last thing they need is more bad press. All true, but depressing. Mikey needs a Bud Light Lime. (MoJo/Yahoo News)
  • WHAT! Sanctions work on Iran? Holy ayatollah! Unless..."sanctions" is a euphemism for really big frickin' US and Israeli bombs, right? (Time)
  • Remember Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's old foreign minister? (You'll recognize when you see him.) The now-imprisoned Ba'athist gave an interview cursing the US for invading Iraq in 2003...and cursing the US for wanting to leave Iraq in 2010. But apparently he's always been a little confused: The Nation's Iraq war expert, Jeremy Scahill, tweeted today: "when i met tariq aziz in baghdad in 1998, he went on and on about how he loved james baker and donald rumsfeld." Um, so...in this mutual admiration society, was there a goat sacrifice involved? (The Guardian)
  • Al Qaeda's North African outfit has decided its mortal enemy is not the Great Kenyan-American Satan, but rather Europe's refuge for cheese-eating surrender monkeys, the kingdom of Sarkozia. Apparently Al Qaeda is stunned that French commandos killed some members of the terrorist group in a vain attempt to rescue a Gallic aid worker. Not stunned that the French killed their colleagues, just stunned that they have commandos, 'cause hey. France. (Al Jazeera English)
  • How do you keep corn-fed, all-American flatlands soldier boys from passing out while they do their thing in Afghanistan's high-altitude areas? Drugs. Lots of 'em. Who says Pentagon research isn't totally hip? (Danger Room)

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How is Obama's Record on Trade?

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 9:41 AM PDT

Dan Drezner tallies up Barack Obama's record on foreign policy, and as usual he's pretty underwhelmed on the subject of trade:

3) Trade: Blech. Let me repeat that — blech. I understand that the administration is on barren political terrain when dealing with this issue. Still, the phrase "Obama administration's trade agenda" is pretty much a contradiction in terms at this point. The Doha round is dead, and the only trade issue that has the support of policy principals is the National Export Initiative — and you know what I think about that. Unlike the other three issues, the administration hasn't even bothered to put much effort onto this one — though the recent pledge to get the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ratified is promising. GRADE: F

I don't expect to make much headway with Dan on this subject, but I think he's all wet here for two reasons. The first is that "barren political terrain" he acknowledges. No president can reasonably be expected to put a ton of political muscle behind a lost cause, and major progress on, say, the Doha round, was pretty clearly a lost cause from the day Obama entered office. In the face of a catastrophic global recession, there was never even the slightest chance of gaining support either at home or abroad for any major trade initiatives, and it's simply not reasonable to expect Obama to put any energy behind it. Not only would it have gone nowhere, it might even have been counterproductive. Better to wait until the global climate provides at least a bit of a tailwind.

Second, this isn't a classroom, where you get an F for not showing up. In politics, you get an F for actively damaging things. Obama hasn't done that. He's simply ignored trade as an issue. But he hasn't done any harm, and under the circumstances that's quite possibly about as much as a trade enthusiast could have hoped for.

I think Dan will be on firmer ground in a few years. When the economy picks up and trade issues get pushed back into the foreground, what will Obama do? We won't know until it happens, and in the meantime his (lack of) performance should earn him an Incomplete, not an F.

Robbing Renewables to Pay Teachers?

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 9:35 AM PDT

The Senate is expected to give final approval today to a $26 billion package that will save states from having to lay off thousands of teachers and fund Medicaid, and the House is expected to come back in session next week to do the same. But is the bill robbing Peter to pay Paul? The package will be paid for in part by a $1.5 billion cut to renewable energy loan guarantees.

Part of the funds will be drawn from a $6 billion Department of Energy fund, the same fund the Senate borrowed from last year to give $2 billion to the Cash for Clunkers program. As you'd expect, the renewable energy sector is livid. The Solar Energy Industries Association sent a letter to senators urging them to vote against the cut. "It would be a terrible mistake to gut the DOE loan guarantee program right when it is on the verge of making dozens of clean energy projects a reality," wrote SEIA vice president of government affairs, Daniel Adamson.

Plundering the fund, SEIA said, would be "devastating to the solar industry's efforts to develop clean electric generation and would result in the loss of thousands of jobs" and would "jeopardize $15 to $20 billion of private investment in pollution-free energy generation and domestic manufacturing."

Majority Leader Harry Reid's office has insisted they are still committed to funding renewables. Reid spokesman Jim Manley writes to Politico's Morning Energy:

Sen. Reid has worked aggressively to secure tax breaks and funding for clean energy projects in Nevada and around the country, and he will continue to do so. He is working with the Administration to ensure funding that has been set aside for renewable projects is put to use as soon as possible to put Nevadans back to work and diversify the state's economy. While this is a priority for Sen. Reid, so is protecting the jobs of teachers and first responders, and that is what this bill is all about. The decision to enact these rescissions was a way to make sure we could protect hundreds of thousands of jobs, and do it in a way that does not add to the deficit.

I understand that there's an immediate need to fund these crucial programs, but the renewable energy loan program (which is quite small, I might add) shouldn't be the go-to source. There are, oh, billions more in subsidies and loopholes for the fossil fuel industry that Congress could use to fund this program. Or perhaps the Senate could dip into the $18.5 billion Congress has already committed to loans for nuclear power, a much more mature industry, rather than stealing from renewables.

Help Coming for Homeowners?

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 9:19 AM PDT

The Obama administration's program to address home foreclosures, HAMP, has been a pretty dismal failure. Only a small fraction of the money allocated to help homeowners has been spent and only a few hundred thousand loans have been modified. So what's next? James Pethokoukis passes along the latest dirt:

Main Street may be about to get its own gigantic bailout. Rumors are running wild from Washington to Wall Street that the Obama administration is about to order government-controlled lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to forgive a portion of the mortgage debt of millions of Americans who owe more than what their homes are worth. An estimated 15 million U.S. mortgages — one in five — are underwater with negative equity of some $800 billion. Recall that on Christmas Eve 2009, the Treasury Department waived a $400 billion limit on financial assistance to Fannie and Freddie, pledging unlimited help. The actual vehicle for the bailout could be the Bush-era Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, a sister program to Obama’s loan modification effort. HARP was just extended through June 30, 2011.

....Keep in mind the political and economic context. The nascent recovery is already running out of steam....The president’s approval ratings are continuing to erode, as are Democratic election polls. Democrats are in real danger of losing the House and almost losing the Senate. The mortgage Hail Mary would be a last-gasp effort to prevent this from happening and to save the Obama agenda. The political calculation is that the number of grateful Americans would be greater than those offended that they — and their children and their grandchildren — would be paying for someone else’s mortgage woes.

Maybe this happens, maybe it doesn't. But it would sure be an improvement over spending the money on "foreclosure mills," as Fannie and Freddie do now:

The business model is simple: to tear through cases as quickly as possible. (Stern's company handled 70,382 foreclosures in 2009 alone.) This breakneck pace stems from how the mills get paid. Rather than billing hourly, they receive a predetermined flat fee for the foreclosure — typically around $1,000 — plus add-ons for each of the related services. The more they foreclose, the more they make. As a result, consumer attorneys and legal experts say, even families who have been foreclosed upon illegally—and who can afford to make good on their mortgages—end up getting steamrolled. "It's 'How fast can I turn this file?'" says Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates in Washington, DC. "For these guys, the law is irrelevant, the process is irrelevant, the substance is irrelevant."

That's from Andy Kroll. Read the whole thing.

New Orleans' Weirdest Katrina Kitsch

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 9:14 AM PDT

New Orleans, Louisiana—When I meet Dave Fountain, he's sprawled across the couch of his house on Bartholomew Street, decked out in a dirty white tank top and black trousers, barefoot. I've stumbled into his home to ask him about what's outside of it: Snare drums and trombones dangle from the front gate, casting shadows on a lawn display built from old Halloween decorations. On the front walk, two mannequins, equipped with a rowboat and life preservers, are navigating imaginary flood waters, beckoning for help. There's a coffin stuck halfway through one door. A headless zombie (that's a side of Katrina you never saw on CNN, I guess) is sitting on his front porch, next to a stuffed Siberian tiger, and directly beneath a painting of the Voodoo queen of New Orleans. I'd asked a neighbor whether it'd be a wise choice to knock, and got the all-systems-go: "Tell him Smokey sent ya."

Katrina didn’t hit the Bywater, where Dave lives, as bad as it hit the Lower Ninth Ward across the canal, but it didn't exactly spare it, either. When the flood waters rose to 5 feet and 5 inches (the measurement comes from the still-visible watermark on his window), Dave camped out on his roof. Spending three days and three nights on an island, baking in the sun and blacked-out at night, does real wonders for your peace of mind; the museum he's putting together is his way of rebuilding, in every sense of the word:

"I ain't got nothing else to do," Dave explains. "The way I see it, people come from all over the world to see nothin'—so I give 'em something to look at."

Prop 8 and the Courts

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 8:32 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias on yesterday's court ruling that tossed out California's ban on gay marriage:

Whenever a favorable-to-progressives judicial ruling come down, the concern trolls come out of the woodwork to fret about the backlash. So in the wake of a win for the left on Proposition 8 in California, I wanted to go on record alongside Ryan as thinking such concerns are, when genuine, wildly overblown.

The American political system has a lot of features that differentiate it from most modern liberal democracies. These features include an unusually large number of veto points and also a greatly empowered federal judiciary. I’m not a huge fan of either feature, but the system is what it is and the interplay between the two means that responsible political advocates will always want to use all the levers at their disposal — including litigation — in order to get their way. Once laws are on the books, overturning them is generally an extremely cumbersome process. Merely persuading most people that you’re right doesn’t do the trick. And the system doesn’t really function in a “majoritarian” way at any level so the non-majoritarian aspects of seeking policy objectives through the courts don’t differentiate them from anything else.

I agree. There's no doubt that judicial decisions create backlashes, but the evidence is pretty thin that they create backlashes that are any worse than legislative or executive decisions. For better or worse, everyone involved in the American politics is now well aware that courts are an important part of the political process and they're fair game to be exploited as effectively as possible. That's just the way things are, and both sides play the game equally hard.

In this case, however, there's a different concern: using the judicial system might be perfectly kosher, but was it wise? The answer is: only if you win. And there are pretty substantial doubts that yesterday's victory will hold up all the way to the Supreme Court. Judge Walker's mountainous finding of facts aside, do we really think the Supreme Court is ready to rule that every state in the union is required to allow same-sex marriage? Maybe! But the odds seem long, and if we lose the case it's likely to be a decade or two before the court is willing to reconsider.

In the end, that might not be so bad. There's still a chance of winning, and a loss only means that we go back to state-by-state battles, which is exactly where we are now. But it's still a key question.

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Ben Nelson's Economic Hypocrisy

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 8:11 AM PDT

Should we extend the Bush tax cuts? Let them expire for all Americans? Or lapse just for the very wealthy? These are the questions being asked in the latest economic battle that's playing out here in Washington. If the Bush tax cuts, implemented in 2001 and 2003, were allowed to expire for everyone, the average American household's tax payment could increase by about $1,500, according to the LA Times. So far, the fate of the Bush tax cuts is dividing lawmakers along the typical partisan lines, with Democrats and the Obama administration demanding an end to them and Republicans arguing for their extension.

And then there's centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). He says he opposes increasing taxes, and thus supports extending the tax cuts. Nelson supported his un-Democratic position with this statement: "I think we're at a point in our economic recovery that anything that would adversely affect it, we ought to avoid."

Hmm. That sounds awfully hypocritical. After all, the veteran senator voted against or failed to show up to vote on an issue that's arguably the best tonic for our ailing economy: unemployment benefits. Nelson opposed or ignored jobless benefits five separate times over the last two years. Nelson cited concerns that adding to the deficit "could jeopardize the recovery."

Too bad that's utterly inaccurate. As countless economists (pdf) and studies have shown, unemployment insurance is an effective form of stimulus and a way to bolster the economic recovery. Weekly unemployment insurance checks mean money in the pockets of out of work Americans, who in turn will spend that money on groceries, health care, or searching for a new job, which, if they find, puts them back in the tax-paying workforce. As White House budget guru Peter Orszag put it, "Research has shown that the unemployment insurance system is among the most effective dollar-for-dollar economic stabilizers that we have in terms of counterbalancing periods of economic weakness."

So Ben Nelson says he's against anything that hurts the economic recovery, yet repeatedly blocked jobless benefits even though they're one of the best tools out there for boosting the economic recovery—a position that makes no sense at all.

"It Could Be as Toxic as All Get-out"

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 7:53 AM PDT

On Monday, the EPA announced the results of a second round of tests on dispersant, results that they believe justify the use of the chemicals on the Gulf spill. The oil-dispersant mixture was no more toxic than the oil alone, the agency said, and BP's product of choice, Corexit, was just about as toxic as alternatives. But that doesn't mean the debate about the chemicals is over, or that the impact of dumping more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersant on the Gulf will be clear any time soon. Senators, the EPA point person, and outside experts sparred on the subject at an Environment and Public Works committee hearing on Wednesday.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) grilled Paul Anastas, the assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Research and Development, about how products end up on the list of approved chemicals for spills. The exchange forced Anastas to admit that the EPA only "lists" chemical dispersants based on their efficacy at dispersing oil. The products are only required to effectively disperse 45 percent of the oil. Other tests, like the toxicity of the product, have no bearing on whether they are listed. "It could be as toxic as all get-out, and it still goes on the list as long as it meets the 45 percent effectiveness threshold," Whitehouse said.

Anastas confirmed that companies are supposed to submit toxicity data "as part of the filing," but the EPA does not actually look at toxicity when "listing" these chemicals.

In a later exchange with David Westerholm, director of the office of response and restoration at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Whitehouse pointed out that the there's a perception that the dispersants are actually "approved" rather than just listed:

What a layperson would consider to be an approval that this particular chemical is safe for use in these circumstances, never anywhere in this process that I can see actually gets done … But what a regular human would think of as something having been approved never actually happened. Nobody actually ever looked at that and said, 'You know what? That is too toxic to use in these circumstance or is more or less toxic than the other.' And that's why after the fact you had to do the relative toxicity testing after they'd all been preapproved, correct?

"I think that that's a great point," Westerholm replied.

"I can't think of another circumstance in which a regulatory agency approved something for use without actually coming to a formal decision that it is safe to be used and without any process other than that the manufacturer provides some information, then it's posted and then—there didn't appear to be an evaluating moment," Whitehouse continued.

Meanwhile, outside experts painted a much less rosy picture of the dispersant issue than the EPA offered earlier this week. "My colleagues and I that have been studying this situation believe that a massive eco-toxicological experiment is under way," Ronald Kendall, director of Texas Tech University's Institute of Environmental and Human Health told the panel. "We have very limited information on the environmental fate and transport of the mixture of the dispersant and oil, particularly in the deep ocean."

Other experts noted that dispersed oil isn't necessarily any less of an environmental threat—despite what yeterday's government report may have implied. At least half of the oil is still in the Gulf, even if it's not visible.

"Moving oil below the sea surface presents significant challenges to the organisms residing in this habitat," David Smith, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told the Senate panel. "Impacts will be less noticeable, but could be as devastating as oil washing ashore."

So, despite yesterday's sunny picture from the government, there's still a lot we don't know about the impacts of the dispersant and the dispersed oil—and a lot that EPA and NOAA don't know, either.

Karzai's Anti-Corruption Obstruction

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 5:02 AM PDT

Here we go again. Remember when Hamid Karzai amped up Afghan-US tensions in February when he moved to bring an independent election watchdog under his control? It was this maneuver that led the Obama administration to rescind an initial White House invite. Now, the Wall Street Journal reports, Karzai has staged a similar power play. Following the arrest of one of Karzai's top security aides on corruption charges, the Afghan president has clamped down on the two NATO-backed anti-corruption units that led the investigation.

Last week, Afghanistan's Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF) and a lesser-known division targeting high-level graft, the Sensitive Investigative Unit, jointly raided the home of Mohammed Zia Saleh, a top official who headed administration for Afghanistan's National Security Council. The Journal explains the allegations against Saleh:

According to several Western officials, U.S.-backed investigators taped a conversation in which Mr. Saleh was negotiating a bribe—in the form of a car—in return for squashing an inquiry into the New Ansari Exchange, a large and influential money-transfer outfit. New Ansari has deep connections with prominent members of the Afghan government and the Karzai family, and, according to investigators, it is also suspected of links to Taliban insurgents and narcotics smugglers. The car, valued at about $10,000, was allegedly a small part of a larger proposed payoff, the officials said.

Saleh's arrest by the anti-corruption units, which are run with the help of American and British adivisors, reportedly enraged Karzai, who viewed it as an assault of Afghan sovereignty. (Karzai apparently wasn't made aware of the operation, which raises its own set of questions.) As in February, when he felt the international community encroaching on the elections watchdog, Karzai swooped in. In this case, he's putting in place a commission that will monitor "all of the activities" of both task forces, while also reviewing past and present investigations. "The president has ordered the commission to look into the overall practices of the MCTF because it seems that there are some aspects of where they went beyond the Afghan legislation and the constitution of Afghanistan," Karzai's top spokesman, Waheed Omar, said earlier this week.

Since the Obama administration ramped up pressure on Karzai to crack down on corruption, the Afghan leader has taken a schizophrenic approach to the issue, making contradictory statements that cast doubt on his commitment. He calls fighting graft a top priority, but later describes Afghanistan's corruption problem is vastly overblown. He convenes an anti-corruption conference, then suggests in his speech that a recent anti-corruption coup (the prosecution of the mayor of Kabul) was a miscarriage of justice. He pledges that "individuals who are involved in corruption will have no place in the government," but chafes when investigators stray too close to his inner circle.

Karzai's latest move seems destined to neuter these two high-level law enforcement organizations—and it has already succeeded in reviving tensions between the Afghan and US governments. It surely sends another mixed message about Karzai's anti-corruption commitment. The Major Crimes Task Force, in particular, has often been cited as one of Afghanistan's anti-corruption success stories by US and Afghan officials alike. Now it's just further evidence that the Obama administration's strategy—of which anti-corruption initiatives are a key pillar—is faring poorly indeed.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 5, 2010

Thu Aug. 5, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

US Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark Davis (left) and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mike Croslin discuss their last mission after landing an AH-64 Apache helicopter from Company B, 1st Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, Attack Reconnaissance Battalion in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on July 24, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter M. Wayman.