A sunny proposition

Congress showed its softer, conservationist side yesterday—as if there had ever been any doubt—when it proposed to extend daylight savings time another two months as a means of saving on energy costs. From yesterday's Boston Herald:

"We all just feel sunnier after we set the clocks back,'' said [Congressman Edward] Markey (D-Mass). "In addition to the benefits of energy savings, less crime, fewer traffic fatalities, more recreation time and increased economic activity, daylight just brings a smile to everybody's faces.''

Ah, conservation feels good, doesn't it? By extending daylight savings, the U.S. could conserve an estimated 10,000 barrels of oil a day—considerable progress if you just ignore the fact that the country burns through 20 million barrels a day.

Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, has written yet another piece warning about the impending breakup in Iraq. It's hard to think that he's completely off-base about all this. The Kurdish leaders in Baghdad, including Kurdish president Jalal Talabani, may talk about unity and cooperating with the Iraqi government, but back up north their constituents are demanding a far more strident stance. Last December, 1.7 million Kurds signed a petition for independence that was then handed over to the UN.

Down in southern Iraq, meanwhile, conservative Shiite local governments have indicated that they would seek much greater autonomy if Baghdad couldn't deliver on making Islamic law, not to mention Islamic family law, the strict law of the land. And the interim constitution allows any three provinces to band together and veto the final constitution, if and when it gets written, making regional demands for autonomy much more credible. That doesn't mean a break-up is engraved in stone, but it's a possibility to watch out for.

In another sign that the energy industry is preparing for the inevitable crackdown on emissions, the CEO of Duke Energy, Paul Anderson, announced today that the time has come for the US to adopt a mandatory nationwide carbon dioxide tax—a move which has some shareholders a bit perplexed. To quote Anderson:

You can imagine the reaction I get when I say 'carbon tax' in the hall's of Duke Energy. One employee wrote me that as a shareholder, he couldn't fathom why I would advocate a position that would discourage use of our product by potentially increasing its price.

Even so, there have been other signs that energy companies feel compelled to act, as many in the financial community feel that the time has come to hedge their bets against impending CO2-reduction standards in the future. With the passage of the Kyoto Protocol earlier this year, many shareholders of energy corporations are already demanding to know how their companies are preparing to meet requirements and protect their investments against lawsuits and fines.

According to Anderson, although a national tax would mean bigger utility bills and higher gas prices, unless the industry takes the lead, the long-term outcome could be even more disastrous:

"If we (the energy industry) ignore the issue, we would be the easy target," he said, referring to lawsuits against the industry. "The worst scenario would be if all 50 states took separate actions and we have to comply with 50 different laws."

As we've seen recently with mercury emissions reduction passages, inadequate federal rules—or the lack of them—can spur states into taking action of their own. Already, nine states have sued the EPA over its mercury plan, and are looking ahead to creating stricter plans of their own. Anderson acknowledged that the U.S. is not likely to see a carbon tax until we see a new president, but that the time has come to be proactive and help shape policy at the federal level.

Guantanamo: The Play

Last night, I went to see Guantanamo: Honor-Bound to Defend Freedom, a new play based on testimony by Gitmo detainees, along with their lawyers and families. Despite the fact that there was hardly any physical movement in the whole play, and very little dialogue, the audience appeared thoroughly engrossed—I have never heard so few coughs and seat-shifts in an auditorium. Even though the media has been covering Guantanamo and the policies surrounding it for some time, there's still no substitute for first-person accounts. Based on a few conversations I overheard after the play, it seemed many people learned things they haven't seen in the daily news.

One of the key points made in the play was that Guantanamo is actually something of a distraction. Indeed, as policies of "extraordinary rendition" have come to light, it has become clear that those in Guantanamo are, in contrast, being treated quite well. Anyone whom the administration wants to torture for information is most likely not being held at Guantanamo. In that sense, it has drawn our attention away from other, lesser known and often more egregious detainment policies.

So who is in Guantanamo, and why are they there? It may be a possibility that, as Michael Ratner's new book discusses, Pentagon officials aren't revealing the names of detainees in the hopes that they can turn them into undercover agents when they go back to their home countries. Apparently this is what happened with many IRA prisoners in Britain. As well, Ratner theorized that the widespread tactic of humiliating photos taken of detainees could be part of a blackmail to goad prisoners into working for U.S. intelligence. Though, as the play reveals, the number of detainees with actual intelligence value is meager at best. Additionally, widespread mental illness as a result of the conditions in the camp make it doubtful that they could ever become competent spies.

The play therefore drove home the message that Guantanamo is largely of symbolic value. But it's not just the American public that might make the assumption that Guantanamo must be full of "bad guys." Testimony from one British detainee, Jamal al Harith, revealed that he was brought in for interrogation and told that his record was clean, that military intelligence couldn't even find a parking ticket on his record. But instead of accepting that he may, in fact, be innocent (as seems likely, since he has been released without charge after two years detainment), interrogators interpreted this clean record as further evidence that al Harith was somehow even more sneaky and sinister than previously imagined.

The scenery on the stage rarely changes, prisoners in the background, in their cages do little aside from sleep, wash, pray, and read the Koran. The only reading material allowed to the Guantanamo prisoners is the Koran. Given that the broad U.S. assumption that they are all radical, fundamentalist Muslims, it seems strange to have prisoners, with nothing to do all day, left in a cell to read the religious text over and over again. You'd think the administration would have the military throw a copy of Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy to its captive audience.

Apparently it's not enough to send the wild-eyed John Bolton in to undermine the UN. No, our Republican Congress also plans to crack down on the organization's funding:

The Senate voted yesterday to reduce the U.S. share of the cost of U.N. peacekeeping missions, reflecting congressional criticism of the United Nations after allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the oil-for-food program for Iraq, sexual abuses by peacekeepers and other scandals.

U.S. dues are capped at 27.1 percent of the peacekeeping budget. Under a 1994 law, that cap is to be reduced to 25 percent. The Bush administration -- with the support of Democrats -- asked that the cap be maintained at 27.1 percent. A Democratic proposal to keep the higher cap was defeated 57 to 40, mostly along party lines.

The United States is expected to spend about $1 billion on U.N. peacekeeping operations this year, with much of the money for activities in Sudan and Haiti. The administration is seeking about the same amount for next year. Reducing the cap could result in a cut of roughly $75 million.

Now here's the thing. It's true that UN peacekeeping missions have been the cause of some truly horrific incidents of late—the sex rings in the Congo being the most inexcusable. Nevertheless, many of these incidents stem from the fact that UN peacekeeping missions tend to be underfunded and undermanned, and end up recruiting soldiers from various developing countries who prove to be, shall we say, less than reliable. Sometimes disastrously so. Even the conservative Washington Times recognized that this was a major problem. Clearly the answer here is more support, not less. There are ways to push for accountability without weakening the organization at issue.

In a related vein, I had a chance to read through a new RAND study on peacekeeping operations a while back (er, yes, this is what I do in my spare time, why do you ask?), and the upshot is that UN missions actually have a better track record over the last few decades than do U.S. missions, at least for all but the largest and most demanding tasks. The catch, though, is that UN missions work best when they have full support from the United States, can integrate our troops and capabilities into their operations, and enjoy steady political backing. It shouldn't be all that hard to draw the right conclusions from these findings, though apparently in the GOP-controlled Senate it is.

Well, I was slightly off yesterday when I surmised that the newly selected Presidency Council in Iraq could potentially delay its decision on appointing a Prime Minister. Today they decided on Ibrahim Jaaferi, an Islamist Shiite who has long worried many secular Iraqis over his stances on implementing Islamic law in Iraq. Nevertheless, the New York Times coverage of the decisions leading up to government-formation is somewhat murky. For example:

The main Shiite and Kurdish political parties that now dominate the national assembly were engaged in heated talks to form the coalition government, with both groups holding fast to their own interests on key issues, such as who would take important government posts and control oil fields; the feuding and delays slowly eroded the confidence of Iraqi citizens in the process.

The Kurds and Shiites also had to negotiate with the Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the elections, over which jobs they would fill. Incorporating the Sunni community was essential for the new government to be viewed as legitimate.

Well, yes, they did need to negotiate with the Sunnis. Everyone knows that's the key to stability in Iraq. But did anything actually come out of those negotiations? As best I can tell, the Sunnis—by which I mean the non-urbane, non-secular Sunnis who boycotted the election—got nothing. The new Sunni speaker, Hajim al-Hassani, is essentially an unpopular exile who backed the invasion of Fallujah and broke with his somewhat-credible Iraqi Islamic Party last fall.

Meanwhile, the new Sunni Vice-President, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawer, is a Sunni, but doesn't have much influence among the tribal sheikhs in al-Anbar province or the fundamentalist Sunnis who are fueling the insurgency. Nor does he have the sort of Baathist ties that could be useful in negotiating with many of the disgruntled ex-Baathists who are killing Americans and Iraqis alike. This is no secret; al-Yawer himself balked at the speaker job because he knew he would only be a figurehead.

So what, exactly, did the Sunnis get? If anything, it looks like they're going to get screwed; the Wall Street Journal reports on the Shiite groundswell to purge the Iraqi government of former Baath officials. The new prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaaferi, has long indicated that he's in favor of this move. So where's the outreach fit in?

Can't imagine there are many readers here who don't also read Josh Marshall, but nonetheless, read this post again, even if you've already seen it. The president claims that the Social Security Trust Fund, paid for by payroll taxes on ordinary workers, is nothing but a bunch of "mere IOU's." But on the president's watch, the government has happily allowed workers to fork over payroll taxes that Bush himself claims will never be paid back. How much? $700 billion since 2001. That's $700 billion worth of Social Security taxes that the president will take from everyone and then claim he never has to pay back, ever. So much for "personal responsibility," no?

There hasn't been much coverage around these parts of the nomination of John Bolton to the UN, mainly because Steve Clemons has been doing the one-man force-of-nature thing on this topic. Much of the focus has been on the fact that Bolton categorically opposes international institutions, the UN being but one example, and thus is ideologically the wrong person for the job. That's a good argument, certainly, but hardly the pithiest one can summon up. A more urgent argument is that Bolton has actually been a liability on the security front, as Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association, explains in the American Prospect today. For instance:

Although most U.S. programs to help Russia eliminate or secure its excess weaponry and materials are run by the Departments of Defense and Energy, Bolton was entrusted with resolving a liability dispute with Moscow holding up a program to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-usable material. His failure to accomplish this task drew the rare fire of a fellow Republican. "If [Bolton] doesn't think it's important enough to solve … then I submit that you ought to get somebody that can," declared Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) last June.

Of course, we already know that the Bush administration doesn't think nuclear proliferation is an important priority, but this is appalling. Oh, and as Steve Clemons notes today, Bolton was instrumental in sidelining the Iraq WMD analysts who were actually correct on aspects of prewar intelligence. On a happy note, this little incident is going to factor prominently into Bolton's confirmation hearings, so perhaps his nomination will be derailed after all. Much will depend on Sen. Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose Rhode Island constituency is strongly opposed to Bolton, but who also seems to be on the business end of some arm-twisting by the White House.

Uh, oh. Sounds like the nativists are getting restless

Almost three months into President Bush's second term, a raft of economic and social issues -- Social Security, immigration, gay marriage and the recent national debate over Terri Schiavo -- is splintering the Republican base.

After winning re-election on the strength of support from nine in 10 Republican voters, the president is seeing significant chunks of that base balk at major initiatives, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows. One-third of Republicans say Democrats in Congress should prevent Mr. Bush and party leaders from "going too far in pushing their agenda," and 41% oppose eliminating filibusters against Mr. Bush's judicial nominees -- the "nuclear option" that Senate Republican leaders are considering.

Do note, too, that the country hasn't even begun to talk about the biggest hot-button issue of them all: immigration. Fortunately—insofar as one say "fortunately" here—the Minutemen loons patrolling the Southern border should bring this topic to the fore real soon.

That said, there's a danger for Democrats here too. The popular consensus seems to be that the Democrats' main function at this point is to check the considerable excesses of the Republican majority. That bodes well for obstructionism. It also bodes well for those who want to defeat the "nuclear option" and preserve the filibuster. (Although we've noted the case here that in the long run, stripping away the filibuster would benefit the progressive movement.) It does not, however, bode well for the minority party's long-term electoral prospects. What are they going to say in 2006, "Please, please vote for us, we need a strengthened minority or we'll never be able to stop the Republicans from going too far"? No, they would sound pathetic, and they would get slaughtered. Americans may love gridlock and divided government, but that's not a compelling campaign message, and no one ever won an election by calling attention to his or her finger stuck in the dike.

Can Congress handle the truth?

The battles over what war-time powers the Bush administration can and cannot assert have been slogged out mostly in the courts. But they should be happening in Congress. The New York Times reports today that the Bush administration has been withholding information about the CIA's detainment operations, even from members of Congress. "Since the detention program was established in 2002, officials said, the C.I.A. detention effort has been classified as a 'special access program,' a category that puts it off limits even to most of those with top secret security clearances." That has effectively limited the number of members of Congress who are in-the-know to about eight people.

You might be tempted to throw up your hands and say, "That's the Bush administration for you, keeping everyone in the dark." But in fact, it looks like Congress itself could be doing a whole lot more to oversee the White House. As Phillip Carter points out, Congress doesn't seem to want to gain access to these administration secrets. "Bottom line: the President has the information and the authority here; Congress has the money. Whether Congress leverages its appropriations authority to exercise meaningful oversight over executive operations in the war on terrorism remains an open question." Similarly, GWU's Center for National Security Strategy's Kate Martin notes that Congress "shares with the President the constitutional prerogative to declassify information."

So there are a few possibilities: 1) the Republicans leadership is actively preventing anyone from finding out what the Bush administration is concealing; 2) Congress is just too busy doing other things; 3) Congress just doesn't really want to know what's going on in the CIA's detention centers. I'd wager it's a combination of all three.