2012 - %3, April

Why War is Different Than It Used To Be

| Thu Apr. 12, 2012 12:11 PM EDT

In my review of Drift yesterday, I mentioned Rachel Maddow's contention that going to war used to be hard, but over the past 30 years it's become much easier. Over at TalkLeft, Armando comments:

That is not historically accurate in my view. The times getting into war was not easy was after wars that had been very costly and not particularly successful from the US point of view. Think World War I and Vietnam. Otherwise, going to war has been one of the great American pasttimes. I'm all for making going to war hard, but the history does not demonstrate that, except for isolated periods, that was ever really the case in the United States.

Jonathan Bernstein says something similar: "US-sponsored interventions of one form or another are hardly unusual, even before Maddow's apparent jumping off point in the Reagan Administration. Perhaps the idea is that there was a golden age of sorts after Vietnam, but if so it lasted less than a decade. I'm not really sure it's become easier to deploy troops for controversial missions or to begin interventions in other nations. Maybe, but I'm not sure."

I think these are good points, and if there's a weakness in Drift, it's not addressing this as completely as it should — both the longstanding fact of periodic war and the longstanding fact of congressional acquiescence. Because it's true that the United States has prosecuted lots and lots of small-scale foreign wars over the past century, and has generally done so without congressional approval. Conversely, it's also true that big wars, even recent ones, have gotten congressional approval. George H.W. Bush may have hated the idea of getting Congress's blessing for the Gulf War, but in the end he did. And like it or not, George W. Bush also got congressional approval for Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, extremely strong congressional approval.

So what's different? I'd say this: it's one thing to periodically wage brief, smallish military actions. The Dominican Republic occupation of 1965 falls into that category. So do Grenada and Panama. Without getting into the merits of any of these actions, you can at least say that they were limited and isolated.

But the last couple of decades seem quite different. The Gulf War, followed by Somalia, followed by Haiti, followed by Kosovo, followed by Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, followed by Libya and Yemen, and all against a background of drone warfare that now seems all but perpetual, feels very different. It feels like we're simply in a constant state of military action. In the last 20 years, there have only been three or four in which the U.S. military wasn't at war. (And I'm not even sure about the three or four.)

So I think that's a real difference, and the policy drift that Maddow talks about in her book bears a big part of the blame for this.

One thing that she doesn't talk about at any length, though, is the War Powers Act. That's too bad, because its toothlessness is a key reason for our current state of affairs. The problem with the Act isn't just that presidents have historically never accepted it. It's that it fundamentally doesn't work. It allows presidents to deploy troops for 60 days, after which they're required to get congressional approval. But even in theory that's just not tenable. Without some kind of acute provocation — Vietnam is the only example in recent memory — no Congress will ever withdraw troops once they're in the field. They'll hem and haw and mug for the cameras, but they won't pull troops out of a hot battlezone. It's just never going to happen.

Is there a better way? One possibility, if it could be codified properly, is to simply make de jure the current de facto distinction between big and small wars. In reality, presidents have always had the power to unilaterally launch small wars. So maybe it would be best to go ahead and let them continue doing it. But in return, big wars don't get launched at all unless Congress approves. That way there's no question of pulling troops out of a fight. They don't even get into one unless Congress OKs it.

In practice, I don't know how you'd do this. How do you define a "big" war? By number of troops? Cost? Some other metric? And how do you define the exceptions? I'm not sure it's possible. But it would be interesting to hear some smart people toss this around to see if they could come up with something. Even if nothing gets changed, it's a topic that's at least worth talking about again. The nature of war has changed a lot since the War Powers Act was passed in 1973, after all.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The NRA's Never-Ending Campaign to Lose My Support

| Thu Apr. 12, 2012 10:35 AM EDT

The New York Times writes today about the NRA's efforts to pass laws, like Florida's Stand Your Ground legislation, that give gun owners ever-expanding rights:

The laws, which expand beyond the home the places where a person does not have a duty to retreat when threatened and increases protection from criminal prosecution and civil liability, vary in their specifics and in their scope. But all contain elements of the 2005 Florida statute that made it difficult to immediately arrest Mr. Zimmerman, who has claimed he shot Mr. Martin, who was unarmed, in self-defense.

Critics see the laws as part of a national campaign by the National Rifle Association, which began gathering on Thursday for its annual meeting in St. Louis, to push back against limits on gun ownership and use....The success of the campaign is reflected in the rapid spread of expanded self-defense laws as well as laws that legalize the carrying of concealed weapons — only one state, Illinois, and the District of Columbia now ban that practice, compared with 19 states in 1981. Bills pending in several states that would allow concealed weapons to be carried on college campuses, in churches, in bars or other at sites would further weaken restrictions, as would either of two federal bills, now in the Senate, that would require that a concealed carry permit granted by any state be honored in all other states.

Guns are not one of my hot buttons. I'm neither especially pro-gun nor anti-gun. On the one hand, I believe that (like it or not) the Second Amendment does provide a personal right to gun ownership. I've also long thought it would be interesting to learn how to handle and shoot a handgun. Maybe someday I will. On the other hand, I'm 53 and I haven't done it yet, which suggests a pretty low level of interest.

That said, the NRA sure seems bound and determined to make me more anti-gun with every passing day. After the Supreme Court decisions in Heller and McDonald, which upheld a personal, constitutional right to bear arms, I thought maybe the gun wars would settle down a bit. They wouldn't go away, since plenty of people still opposed Heller and lots of local municipalities were still determined to regulate handgun use tightly. But I figured this is where the fight would turn: to court cases between city councils and the NRA over how to implement Heller at a local level. The old hysteria about the government coming to take away your guns would go away because the Supreme Court had very firmly said that they couldn't.

Needless to say, that's not what happened. Over the past decade, and accelerating after the Heller decision was handed down, the NRA has gotten almost insanely aggressive. The government is still coming to take away your guns. (Aided by the UN, natch.) And gun owners, not satisfied that the Supreme Court has upheld their basic Second Amendment rights, have gone on a tear, fighting even modest registration and safety requirements and insisting on the expansion of shall-issue laws, concealed carry laws, unconcealed carry laws, stand your ground laws, and a bevy of laws that would all but remove the right of private property owners to ban guns on their own premises. I mean, guns in bars! WTF? Can you even imagine a worse place for guns than a bar?

So....I feel like I'm slowly but surely becoming more anti-gun over time. I still don't want to take away anybody's guns. I hope you handle them safely, but that's about the extent of my concern.

But do I really want squadlets of NRA zealots with chips on their shoulder pretending that we live in the Old West and parading around the mall with guns in shoulder holsters just to prove that they can? Not really. And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. We don't live in the Old West. Keep your guns at home or at the range. Shoot only as a last resort, and don't feel like the law should protect you if you gun someone down just because he took a swing at you on your front lawn. Enough's enough, folks. It's time to declare victory and go home.

Iran Having a Hard Time Finding Buyers for its Oil

| Thu Apr. 12, 2012 1:21 AM EDT

The Financial Times reports that Iran is pricing its oil to move:

Iran is trying to skirt US and European sanctions by luring nations to buy its oil on highly advantageous credit terms, say officials in the industry.

Tehran has been offering a handful of potential customers in Asia, including India, 180 days of free credit, according to the officials....Iran’s offer of longer payment periods amounts to a discount of about 7.5 per cent per $118 barrel. Saudi Arabia and other leading Middle East oil producers extend 30 days of credit, and Tehran in the past has allowed importers such as China to pay in 60 to 90 days.

So Iran is now reduced to about the same level as a used car dealer. Drive it off the lot, no payments for six months! Apparently the Apologizer-in-Chief's sanctions are starting to bite.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Mitt Romney's Charts

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 6:20 PM EDT

"Apparently," sighs Matt Yglesias, "the ridiculous political attack line we're supposed to talk about today is Mitt Romney's claim that 92.3 percent of jobs lost since Barack Obama took office belonged to women." You betcha! Mainly, though, this is interesting as an object lesson in how to mislead with statistics. As a political attack, it's too lame to last more than a day or two.

So do you want to know how Team Romney came up with this number? The chart below, which shows job losses among men and women, tells the tale. If you look at jobs lost since the beginning of the recession, here's what you get:

  • Men: 3,321
  • Women 1,840
  • Total: 5,161
  • Percent women: 36%

But that's too boring! As you can see, there was a steep job loss among men right at the beginning of the recession and a slower job loss among women. So what happens if you just lop off that bit of the recession and count only the strength of the recovery since January 1, 2009? Well, men have recovered steeply and women have recovered more slowly. So now we have:

  • Men: 57
  • Women: 683
  • Total: 740
  • Percent women: 92%

Pretty snazzy, eh? Men have made up ground faster than women since January 2009, so technically that means that women have sustained the bulk of the job losses since then. Very clever indeed. Politifact has more here.

ALSO WORTH NOTING: It's important for Romney to start on January 1, even though Obama wasn't inaugurated until January 20. Why? Because if you started on February 1, you'd end up with women accounting for something like 300% of all job losses, and that's ridiculous enough that it would give the whole game away. Even the rubes wouldn't buy that.

FDA's New Rules on Factory Farm Antibiotics Are Flawed—and Voluntary

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 5:04 PM EDT
These not-so-little piggies get a daily dose of antibiotics. Will the FDA's new initiative change that?

Without much warning and indeed just in time to catch me on a deadline for another story, the FDA finally got around to announcing its plan to address something it has seen as a public-health menace for 35 years: overuse of antibiotics on factory-scale animal farms.

Unfortunately, the plan contains a bull-size loophole—and is purely voluntary, to boot.

Before I get into the weak parts of the announcement, let me point to the positive. In its press release, the agency states bluntly why a change in policy is necessary:

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria or other microbes develop the ability to resist the effects of a drug. Once this occurs, a drug may no longer be as effective in treating various illnesses or infections. Because it is well established that all uses of antimicrobial drugs, in both humans and animals, contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance, it is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary. [Emphasis added.]

Now, given that the FDA recently revealed that livestock operations consume 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States (excluding industrial uses), that's a strong statement. The meat industry denies that its drug habit contributes to antibiotic resistance in diseases that affect people. The FDA is now on record contradicting that.

Now to the plan itself. Here it is (also from the FDA's press release):

Under this new voluntary initiative, certain antibiotics would not be used for so-called "production" purposes, such as to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency in an animal. These antibiotics would still be available to prevent, control or treat illnesses in food-producing animals under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Okay, let's unpack some things here. Currently, antibiotics have three uses on factory livestock farms. The first is growth promotion. For reasons that are little understood, when animals get small daily doses of the the stuff, they grow faster. The second is disease prevention. When you stuff animals together in filthy conditions, they tend to get sick and pass diseases among themselves rapidly. So the industry likes to dose them regularly to keep them from getting sick. The third use is disease treatment—an animal comes down with a bug and gets treated with antibiotics.

So the FDA is stating its intention to phase out the first use and leave the other two intact. But preserving the second use, prevention, leaves a gaping loophole. First of all, how can anyone distinguish giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease from giving them small daily doses to promote growth? The industry can simply claim it's using antibiotics preventively and go on about its business—continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to menace public health by breeding resistance.

Cuba's Mysterious Ultra-Deep-Water Oil Rig Surfaces

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 4:41 PM EDT

 Possible location of the Scarabeo-9 ultra-deep-water oil rig off Cuba: Satellite background NASA.

Possible location identified by SkyTruth of the Scarabeo-9 ultra-deep-water oil rig off Cuba: Satellite background courtesy NASA.

In February Spanish oil giant Repsol YPF began drilling its first well in Cuba's offshore oilfields in the Florida Straits. Swift currents run through this deep body of water connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Atlantic Ocean.

The US Geological Survey has estimated the site of this well, the North Cuba Basin, contains 5.5 billion barrels of petroleum liquids and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, almost all in the deep water. From Reuters

The newly built, high-tech rig is operating in 5,600 feet of water, or what the oil industry calls "ultra-deep water," in the Straits of Florida, which separate Cuba from its longtime ideological foe, the United States. Sources close to the project said such wells generally take about 60 days to complete. Repsol, which is operating the rig in a consortium with Norway's Statoil and ONGC Videsh, a unit of India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp, has said it will take several months to determine the results of the exploration.The well is the first of at least three that will be drilled in Cuban waters with the Scarabeo 9, which was built in China and is owned by Saipem, a unit of Italian oil company Eni. 

 

Detail idenitified by SkyTruth from the Envisat AASAR satellite radar image of Florida Straits, 30 March 2012. "We infer the large bright spot is the Scarabeo-9 semisubmersible drill rig.": Image courtesy European Space Agency.Detail identified by SkyTruth from a satellite radar image of the Florida Straits. "We infer the large bright spot is the Scarabeo-9 semisubmersible drill rig:" Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Now SkyTruth believes they've located the site of the well and the Scarabeo-9 drilling rig in this European satellite image (above):

This Envisat ASAR image, shot at 11:43 pm local time on March 30, shows a trio of very bright spots about 17 miles north-northwest of Havana.  We think the largest of these spots, with an interesting cross-shaped "ringing" pattern often seen on radar images of big, boxy metal objects, is the Scarabeo-9 rig.  The other two spots may be crew vessels or work boats. The location marked in orange is a report we just got through the SkyTruth Alerts that a small possible oil slick was sighted nearby during a US Coast Guard overflight yesterday morning. We don't think this is anything alarming; it's probably just some of the typical oily crud you'll get from an active drilling operation at sea.

 

Dolphins jumping through oily water from BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout, Gulf of Mexico, July 2010.: NOAA.Dolphins jumping through oily water from BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout, Gulf of Mexico, July 2010: NOAA.

It's unnerving to think of the downsides of drilling so deep there's no hope of managing a spill without disastrous side-effects. It's unnerving to think of the long-term effects of such spills.

I recently wrote of the fate of the Gulf of Mexico's dolphins—particularly the slow and painful demise of the Barataria Bay, Louisiana, population—in the aftermath of BP's epic fustercluck.

Now NRDC highlights what we know so far about the ongoing unusual mortality event underway with dolphins in the Gulf:

  • The die-off has persisted for 25 months.  
  • The longest die-off prior to this lasted 17 months and was directly linked to a red tide.
  • More than 600 bottlenose dolphins have been stranded in the BP spill region since the disaster.
  • Roughly 95 percent of those have been found dead.
  • Animals whose bodies are recovered in a die-off are the tip of an iceberg, since only 1-in-50 to 1-in-250 marine mammals that die at sea are recovered on Gulf shores. 

So 600 dead bottlenose dolphins could scale up to between 30,000 and 250,000 dead marine mammals since BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Tennessee Passes Law Protecting Science Deniers

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 2:57 PM EDT
Tennessee Republicans: Cut that science stuff out.

The state that once put John Scopes on trial for teaching about evolution is at it again: Yesterday, Tennessee legislators approved a bill that would allow public school teachers to challenge scientific consensus on issues like evolution and climate change under the guise of "academic freedom." The bill directs administrators to create an environment that encourages students to "explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific subjects." While it doesn't require that teachers critique consensus views of evolution, climate change, and "the chemical origins of life," it does allow teachers to introduce "alternative" theories, however baseless, without reproach, and makes state education standards fuzzier at the classroom level.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Bo Watson, insists that the bill is just misunderstood, saying that it would allow students to bring up ideas they'd heard at home for discussion and charging that its opponents have "mischaracterized" it. But the Tennessee Science Teachers Association and American Civil Liberties Union say that's just an excuse for a law that allows teachers to undermine scientific evidence for political and religious reasons. Said Hedy Weinberg of the Tennessee chapter of the ACLU in a statement released prior to the bill's passage, such measures "seek to subvert scientific principle to religious ideology by granting legal cover to teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs regarding evolution and the origin of life as pseudo-science and inject them into their science class curricula." While Republican Governor Bill Haslam allowed the bill to become law, he did not sign it, saying that it would make science education standards less clear.

The Tennessee law is the latest sign that conservatives are seeking to link evolution and climate change in debates about science education, and attempting to make both into contested issues in the public sphere despite consensus among scientists. Louisiana is the only other state with a law that allows the teaching of "alternative" approaches to accepted scientific knowledge on evolution and climate change, but a number of states have introduced "Academic Freedom" laws, many of which are modeled on a template put forth by intelligent design boosters at the Discovery Institute. Back in February, leaked documents from the conservative-libertarian Heartland Institute described principals and teachers as global warming alarmists and suggested ways to get K-12 schools to adopt educational material critical of global warming.

There are signs of a backlash: In Louisiana, state Senator Karen Carter Peterson introduced a bill to repeal the state's Science Education Act, which promotes "open and objective discussion" of scientific issues, specifically naming evolution, global warming, and human cloning. States like Iowa and New Hampshire have rejected "Academic Freedom" laws. Pro-science parents are trying to teach their kids about climate change at home. And scientists themselves are fighting back, demanding that scientific knowledge be accurately represented in classrooms.

The Maddow Doctrine: We Need to Make War Hard Again

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 2:14 PM EDT

I finished reading Rachel Maddow's Drift a couple of days ago, and right off the bat I want to say that I'm glad she wrote it. Too many books from TV talking heads are just tired rehashes of whatever the issue of the moment happens to be, barely worth cracking open unless you've spent the past year vacationing on Mars. But Drift is different: It's about a topic that isn't especially sexy right now, and definitely doesn't get enough attention. With Iraq winding down, the economy still sluggish, and domestic politics dominating the headline, Maddow decided to write a book about America and the way we use our military. Specifically: Why is it so damn easy to go to war these days?

It's a good question, and it's unfortunate that it's regularly trivialized by mountains of snark. This is Maddow's stock in trade, of course, and I guess you have to expect a certain amount of it. But this is a more thoughtful book than it sometimes lets on, and the snark too often obscures that. It also, I suspect, makes the book off-putting for anyone who's not already a fan.

If you can get past that, though, there's a deadly serious argument here that deserves way more attention than it gets. The book is, basically, a series of potted histories that explain how we drifted away from our post-Vietnam promise to make sure we never again went to war without the full backing and buy-in of the American public. Maddow's premise is that, just as the founders intended, our aim was to make war hard. Presidents would need Congress on their side. The Abrams Doctrine ensured that reserves would have to be called up. Wars would no longer unfold almost accidentally, as Vietnam did.

And for a while that was the case. Sure, there was Grenada, but that was a small thing. And the contras in Central America and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. But the real breakdown, Maddow says, started almost accidentally at the end of the Reagan administration, when Attorney General Ed Meese, desperate to defend Reagan's conduct in the Iran-Contra scandal, insisted that the president had the right to ignore congressional restrictions on his war-making capability. His commander-in-chief powers gave him all the authority he needed to do anything he wanted.

George H.W. Bush bought into this heart and soul, resisting until the last minute the suggestion that he needed Congress' approval for the Gulf War. That was 500,000 troops! But even so, Bush was apoplectic over the idea that he needed anyone's permission to deploy them. The Meese Doctrine was gaining ground. But there was more. The next decade brought the rise of contracting, and once that ball got rolling, it meant that wars no longer always needed a call-up of the reserves. Logistics could be farmed out instead:

By the time Bill Clinton left office in 2001, an Operation Other Than War, as Pentagon forces called them, could go on indefinitely, sort of on autopilot—without real political costs or consequences, or much civilian notice. We'd gotten used to it.

By 2001, the ability of a president to start and wage military operations without (or even in spite of) Congress was established precedent.

…By 2001, the spirit of the Abrams Doctrine—that the disruption of civilian life is the price of admission for war—was pretty much kaput.

By 2001, we'd freed ourselves of all those hassles, all those restraints tying us down.

And it only got worse after that. The CIA and JSOC have become largely unaccountable branches of the military. Drone warfare has lowered the cost of war even further. And the reserves are no longer really reserves. They're practically full-time soldiers.

And the worst part is that all of this is virtually invisible to most of us. The vast bulk of the civilian population, especially among the college-educated elites who run the country, doesn't serve in the military and never has. In a lot of cases, we barely even know people who have. When we go to war, there's no WWII-style rationing to worry about, there's no draft, and there aren't even any taxes to pay. It's all free! Is it any wonder that we fight so many wars?

Maddow's argument is that we need to start rolling back these changes of the past two decades. When we go to war, we should raise taxes to pay for it. We should get rid of the secret military. The reserves should go back to being reserves. We should cut way back on the contractors and let troops peel their own potatoes. And above all, Congress should start throwing its weight around again. It's fine to criticize presidents for accreting ever more power to themselves, but what do you expect when Congress just sits back and allows it to happen? Our real problem is congressional cowardice: They don't want the responsibility of declaring war, but they also don't want the responsibility of stopping it. So they punt, and war becomes ever more a purely executive function.

It's a powerful argument, and one that deserves a whole lot more attention than it gets. Snark and all, Drift is recommended reading.

VIDEO: Teen Is Tied Down, Shocked by Teachers at "School" for Autistic Kids

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 12:51 PM EDT

In 2007, we ran a devastating exposé of the Judge Rotenberg Center, a "school" that took mentally and psychologically troubled kids from across the country and treated them by hooking them up to electrodes and shocking them whenever they misbehaved or displayed symptoms of their disorders, like autism. Reports from former students and staff were horrific, and Jennifer Gonnerman's extensive reporting helped launch or fortify state and local investigations into the school and its founder, Matthew Israel. Yet despite the investigations and ongoing lawsuits, the school managed to stay open.

Last month the school was targeted by Anonymous, which released a video condemning the "torture" of its students. But the video that may truly take down Rotenberg for good is below. Just yesterday this footage of a Rotenberg student being restrained and shocked for hours was played in a Massachusetts courtroom:

The disturbing video, which Boston's Fox 25 received permission to air despite the objections of Rotenberg's lawyers, shows a 2002 incident in which 18-year-old Andre McCollins was restrained, face-down, on the floor of a classroom, and then given 31 shocks—all because he had refused to take off his coat.

McCollins is currently suing Rotenberg. His mother, Cheryl, testified yesterday: "I never signed up for him to be tortured, terrorized, and abused. I had no idea—no idea—that they tortured the children in the school." More footage is expected to be shown in court today.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 11, 2012

Wed Apr. 11, 2012 12:16 PM EDT

Sgt. Michael Trevino, personal security detail, non-comissioned officer, 172nd Infantry Brigade, utilizes a foot bridge to cross a swollen river outside of the village of Marzak while locals wash clothing on the far bank. Marzak has historically been a stronghold for the insurgency over the past decade until the Afghan and US forces took advantage of the winter months to establish a local police force at the request of the elders and secure the village from foreign fighters who transit the area during the fighting season. Photo by the US Army.