2005 - %3, March

New at Mother Jones

| Mon Mar. 28, 2005 3:16 PM EST

The Politics of Drilling: Why on earth did Mel Martinez, Florida's junior senator, vote for drilling in ANWR? By Erik Kancler.

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How screwed is Tom DeLay?

| Mon Mar. 28, 2005 3:06 PM EST

This editorial in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal, won't help.

... Mr. DeLay, who rode to power in 1994 on a wave of revulsion at the everyday ways of big government, has become the living exemplar of some of its worst habits. Mr. DeLay's ties to Mr. Abramoff might be innocent, in a strictly legal sense, but it strains credulity to believe that Mr. DeLay found nothing strange with being included in Mr. Abramoff's lavish junkets.

Nor does it seem very plausible that Mr. DeLay never considered the possibility that the mega-lucrative careers his former staffers Michael Scanlon and Mr. Buckham achieved after leaving his office had something to do with their perceived proximity to him. These people became rich as influence-peddlers in a government in which legislators like Mr. DeLay could make or break fortunes by tinkering with obscure rules and dispensing scads of money to this or that constituency. Rather than buck this system as he promised to do while in the minority, Mr. DeLay has become its undisputed and unapologetic master as Majority Leader.

Whether Mr. DeLay violated the small print of House Ethics or campaign-finance rules is thus largely beside the point. His real fault lies in betraying the broader set of principles that brought him into office, and which, if he continues as before, sooner or later will sweep him out.

Shades of Newt ...

Choking North Korea

| Mon Mar. 28, 2005 2:48 PM EST

Jeffrey Lewis, the Arms Control Wonk, has an informative piece on North Korea today, noting that the Bush administration has been throwing stick after stick at Pyongyang with nary a carrot in sight. The effort includes "new strategies to choke off [North Korea's] few remaining sources of income." As Lewis says:

The problem... is not too few sticks, but the utter absence of carrots. Sticks and carrots are not fungible; states cannot compensate for a lack of diplomatic incentives by adding potential punishments. Moreover, targeting Pyongyang's illicit activities might become a bureaucratic exercise in denial—delaying the inevitable choice between regime change and an approach similar to one envisioned by the Clinton Administration.

It's possible, though, the White House has already made that "inevitable choice". From the looks of things, the White House has for quite some time actively tried to pursue regime change by strangling North Korea to death financially. Leading conservative hawks like the AEI's Nicholas Eberstadt have long argued that the only thing propping Kim Jong Il's regime up was foreign aid, and that by rights the government should have imploded long ago.

The problem with this approach is that neither China nor South Korea seem to want to play along, in part because they're worried about North Korea suddenly collapsing and sending scores of refugees their way, and also in part because they want to see if they can induce North Korea to reform itself economically. As Howard French reports today, many international businessmen think North Korea could open up its markets the way China did in the 1980s. That view might be wrong-headed, but it hasn't stopped neighboring countries from investing in places like the Kaesong Industrial Zone (with North Korea's approval). Bush administration officials, none too pleased with these developments, have long tried to press both South Korea and China to cut off economic cooperation, but so long as U.S. policy is nothing more than "bankrupt Kim Jong Il to death," it seems unlikely that anyone else will hop aboard.

The threat from Tehran

| Mon Mar. 28, 2005 2:06 PM EST

Over the weekend, Richard Clarke wrote an op-ed about Iran that's perhaps a bit more subtle than was given credit for:

The president recently said that reports of the United States preparing to attack Iran were ''simply ridiculous.'' He then quickly added, ''All options are on the table.'' … Some planners say such strikes would cause the people to overthrow the mullahs. Actually, if we struck Iran, I think we would unite it, trigger a spasm of terrorist attacks against America and Israel and start another war for which we have no exit strategy. Thus, we need an honest national dialogue now on how much we feel threatened by Iran and what the least-bad approaches to mitigating that threat are.

As Dan Drezner says, the "honest national dialogue" line is usually a cop-out, but in this case there's really not much honest discussion about, as Clarke says, "how much we feel threatened by Iran." After all, there's good reason to think, even if the United States and Europe scrapped together a united front and slapped sanctions on Iran, that Tehran could survive an economic shoot-out with the West. China, for instance, has begun investing heavily in Iran's oil fields, and there's every reason to think that a strong sanctions regime from the U.S. and EU could be circumvented thanks to our budding rival to the East.

If sanctions fail, the only "stick" left is invasion, or military strikes against Iran's reactors. In this week's New Republic, Lawrence Kaplan reports that there's a bit of inter-White House feuding over how best to tackle Tehran. The realists think Iran can be persuaded to give up its nuclear program by a "grand bargain"; though at the moment, the Bush administration hasn't offered Iran anything more than modest economic incentives in exchange for giving up a fuel cycle that Tehran is legally allowed to pursue. The hawk camp, led by Dick Cheney, thinks all negotiations are futile and want to pursue an unspecified "hardline" approach. Meanwhile, a third compromise camp wants to try out negotiations, with the expectation that they'll fail, so as to buy time while figuring out the best way to deal with Iran. As can be expected, this will probably create a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby negotiations are pursued half-heartedly and actually do fail because everyone involved wants them to fail.

No one, however, seems to be asking the two questions Clarke hints at: First, what if none of these approaches work to disarm Iran, and second, how intolerable a threat is a nuclear Iran? An Iran with the bomb could, after all, feel emboldened to continue sponsoring terrorism, and pursue more aggressive state action around the Middle East, as Pakistan initially did after it went nuclear, sparking the Kargil crisis in 2000. That would be a nightmare scenario. Alternatively, though, a nuclear Iran could end up being contained and deterred, as the USSR was, and perhaps end up becoming a more responsible geostrategic player, as India and Pakistan have of late. There's also reason to think that a nuclear Iran would be less likely to harbor all those al-Qaeda fighters, since Tehran's mullahs wouldn't need them for deterrent value and it's already a semi-risky bet harboring Salafist jihadis in a Shiite regime.

Those are two possibilities, but it's worth figuring out which is the more likely. If the threat of a nuclear Iran is high enough to risk destabilizing the region with strikes and attempted coups, then maybe the White House should take that risk, should negotiations fail. If not, perhaps—perhaps—the White House should consider the inevitability of Iran going nuclear and figuring out how best to go from there.

Reality TV, Iraqi style

| Fri Mar. 25, 2005 6:06 PM EST

What to make of this report in today's Financial Times?

Say the word mujahid -- or holy warrior -- these days and many inhabitants of Baghdad are likely to [snicker].

An appellation once worn as a badge of pride by anti-American insurgents has now become street slang for homosexuals, after men claiming to be captured Islamist guerrillas confessed that they were holding gay orgies in the popular Iraqi TV program Terror in the Hands of Justice.

The revelation, says the FT in a bit of ridiculous hyperbole, has "broken the mystique" of the largely Sunni insurgency. (Note that to discredit these guys it's not enough to point out that they routinely blow innocent civilians to bits; you have to throw in that they're into gay sex -- that should do it!) But it's also ticked off quite a few Sunnis, who don't like the implication that they, as Sunnis, are into that sort of thing. (Orgies are said to have taken place -- "usually" -- in mosques.)

Turns out the program has been "immensely effective" in getting Iraqis to come forward with information about "guerrillas."

As far as anyone can tell, these guys are real detainees. But come on! Orgies in mosques! Might it be that the men were "pushed," as the FT delicately puts it, to make their confessions?

[Sabah Khadim, spokesman for Iraq's interior minister] denies that the confessions were extracted by torture but has his doubts as to whether those confessing are being truthful or simply saying whatever they think their captors want to hear. He also has reservations over whether the display of prisoners on television violates the Geneva Convention. ...

"If this were not an emergency situation, we would not have run this," he says. "But it is an emergency situation, and this produces results."

Ah, so that's how it is.

"Culture of life" revisited

| Fri Mar. 25, 2005 2:25 PM EST

Sometimes a good rule of thumb is just to kick the soapbox over to E.J. Dionne. Here's his column today on the Terry Schiavo affair, and what it really means to support a "culture of life":

People who lack access to health care because they can't afford insurance often die earlier than they have to -- with absolutely no national publicity and with no members of Congress rising up at midnight to pass bills on their behalf. What is the point of standing up for life in an individual case but not confronting the cost of choosing life for all who are threatened within the health care system or by their lack of access to it?

What does it mean to be pro-life? As far as I can tell, most of those who would keep Schiavo alive favor the death penalty. Most favored allowing the assault weapons ban to expire and oppose other forms of gun control. The president makes an excellent point when he says we "ought to err on the side of life." It's a shame how rarely that principle is put into practice.

Sadly, it's a bit futile to keep harping on this—it's not as if Tom DeLay can ever be shamed for anything he does—but that's exactly right. It would be nice if Republicans could "err on the side of life" even when it doesn't involve a big media extravaganza. Anyone can "care" about people in front of a TV crew; all that matters is what happens once the camera goes off.

UPDATE: Ah, you can get the master list of progressive talking points here. Very good indeed.

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Weasel words from Westminster

| Fri Mar. 25, 2005 1:41 PM EST

Via AP: Is Britain getting intel extracted through torture in third countries, as the US apparently is? The Blair government has repeatedly ducked the question, to the immense irritation of a parliamentary committee charged with looking into the matter.

We find it surprising and unsettling that the government has twice failed to answer our specific question on whether or not the U.K. receives or acts upon information extracted under torture by a third country.

We recommend that the government give a clear answer to the question. The government should ensure that it is understood by other governments that the mistreatment of British nationals is unacceptable and will be met with appropriate action.

This, apparently, is the British government's idea of a clear answer:

[The government] condemns the use of torture and has worked with international partners to eradicate the practice. ... The government never uses torture or instigates others to use torture.

Pretty clear where the truth lies, no?

Rolling back women's rights

| Fri Mar. 25, 2005 1:38 PM EST

Amanda Marcotte has a must-read roundup of the growing assault on women's rights around the country. There's more than enough evidence here to make for a disturbing trend. In Ohio, anti-gay marriage laws have been interpreted to leave unmarried women vulnerable to domestic violence. The Education Department is easing up on sex discrimination in athletics. Pharmacists are flatly refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. And so on.

Amanda's links on abortion are particularly noteworthy. There's a lot of hand-wringing in certain Democratic circles right now about how best to compromise on abortion rhetoric so as to appeal to the largest number of voters on the issue. In theory, there's nothing wrong with that, and the proposed solutions—like using sex education and better birth control to reduce the total number of abortions—are perfectly laudable. At the same time, it's worth paying attention to the concerted attack on abortion rights over the past decade, as Jodi Enda's cover story in this month's American Prospect describes:

As a result of restrictive laws, violence, and the stigma that has become attached to abortion, fewer doctors and other health-care professionals are providing them. The number of abortion providers declined from a high of 2,908 in 1982 to 1,819 in 2000, a 37-percent drop, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Almost no nonmetropolitan area had an abortion provider in 2000, the institute reported, which might explain why the abortion rate among women in small towns and rural areas is half that of women in metropolitan areas.

State restrictions almost certainly have caused some women, perhaps thousands a year, to forgo abortions. Research suggests that Wisconsin's two-day waiting period might have contributed to a 21-percent decline in abortions there. Shawn Towey, spokeswoman for the National Network of Abortion Funds, a group comprising 102 organizations that provides money and support for low-income women seeking abortions, estimates that 60,000 women a year find the restrictions so onerous that they carry their babies to term. The Guttmacher Institute stated in a 2001 report that between 18 percent and 35 percent of Medicaid-eligible women who want to have abortions continue their pregnancies if public funding isn't available.

Indeed, it doesn't seem to get enough attention these days, but in a number of crucial respects the anti-choice movement in this country has been winning of late; many women—especially many low-income women—don't have a choice on abortion. Bill Clinton's oft-cited middle ground on abortion—"safe, legal, and rare"—seems like a good compromise, but too often the emphasis seems to be on the "rare" aspect. It's important, though, not to lose sight of the "safe" and "legal" parts, or the part about making reproductive choice available to all women, regardless of income or status.

Middle-school diplomacy

| Thu Mar. 24, 2005 5:22 PM EST

In the midst of a report on yesterday's big meeting between President Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, and Mexican President Vicente Fox, The Washington Post caught a nice bit of maturity from our leadership:

Martin recently rejected Canadian participation in the U.S. missile defense system, and when he tried to explain, Bush did not return the call for more than a week.

Ah, because what we really need are more world leaders acting like petulant teenagers. Anyway, this whole flap over missile defense has never made much sense to me. After Bush's re-election, the president asked Martin if he would give carte blanche support for the missile defense system now underway.

But Martin balked. No doubt it didn't take the prime minister long to imagine the state of affairs ten years from now, when the missile defense shield isn't just to thwart a few minor threats from Iran and North Korea, but rather as a continent-wide defense against China. Martin knows full well that the complete Pentagon vision involves linking up missile-defense to air and sea systems, as well as possible space and satellite systems, possibly with the aim of making China's nuclear deterrent functionally useless. A carte blanche endorsement from Canada now would endorse this entire vision, and endorse the day when Canada can no longer conduct its own international affairs and high-tech weaponry is floating around throughout space.

So Martin's position is understandable. But here's the thing: Bush didn't even need to ask for a blanket endorsement of the missile defense system. The thing is still in its infancy, it still hasn't passed a single test, and even the Republican-controlled Congress hasn't endorsed any further steps for the Pentagon's broader defense vision. This would be like asking Martin to endorse a future army of super-intelligent cyborg warriors: there's just no need right now. In the meantime, Bush could be discussing more important things with Canada, like border security or trade disputes or reconstruction in Afghanistan (Canada is playing a key role in the NATO force there).

New at Mother Jones: Tom Engelhardt on our shrinking public debate

| Thu Mar. 24, 2005 4:06 PM EST

One-Way Planet, by Tom Engelhardt
A series of thought experiments, bouncing off recent news reports, meant to indicate how the range of what's debatable, what's "normal," what simply comes to mind, has narrowed in recent years.