2005 - %3, April

Unity in Iraq?

| Wed Apr. 6, 2005 4:02 PM EDT

The good headline news out of Iraq today, of course, is that Shiites and Kurds in the National Assembly finally agreed to elect a Presidency Council—with Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as president, Shiite technocrat Adel Abdel Mahdi as vice-president, and Sunni Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar as the other vice-president. Of course, as Spencer Ackerman points out, the key thing to watch for here is what the Shiites and Kurds actually needed to agree on before selecting the Council:

We still don't know exactly how the deadlock was broken, but reportedly, the next several days will clarify what assurances the Shia and Kurdish parties gave to one another. It seems so far that the deal came as part of an agreement to dispense ministries according to a still-unclear (and perhaps mutable) sectarian formula and to accept the Transitional Administrative Law as the roadmap for reserving the more intractable issues--federalism, Kirkuk, oil--for the constitution. (I have a suspicion that's what the Kurds were after all along.)

Eli Lake of the New York Sun reports that the Kurds will get to keep the pesh merga as an intact force funded by Baghdad but outside any chain of command answerable to the Ministry of Defense--that is, a parallel security structure nominally serving under the Iraqi flag. And not surprisingly, the UIA decided that what's good for the Kurds is good for them: While still awaiting details, it appears from Lake's piece that the UIA-affiliated SCIRI and Da'wa parties that control southern provincial governorates will have their own institutionalized militias outside formal state control. So much for Baghdad holding a monopoly on violence.

The compromise on militias is not the most auspicious news around, especially since the Kurds still want to keep the option of seceding from Iraq should, ahem, anything go astray. Meanwhile, there have been signs in the past that the radical Shiites down South have been thinking about secession. And Knight Ridder's Hannah Allam reported a while back that Shiite militias in the south have been embarking on their own vigilante missions, hunting down and assassinating ex-Baathists. Her colleague Tom Lasseter follows up on those reports today. None of this bodes well for Iraq's future stability. This doesn't mean civil war is in the cards—unless either the Kurds or the southern provinces do decide to secede and there's a dispute over who gets what oil revenue—but it does mean that Iraq may start to look more and more like warlord-wracked Afghanistan.

Oh, and we still know very little about what the Shiites and Kurds agreed to as far as implementing Islamic law and Islamic family law in Iraq. Details surrounding this little facet of the new government should start to emerge in the coming days. (I've written a brief little backgrounder on the subject here; it's a bit arcane, but obviously important to a large number of Iraqis, including the vast majority of women who would be relegated to second-class citizenship under strict Islamic family law.)

In other news, Swopa, who's track record on predictions has been nothing short of remarkable over the months, notes that the new Iraqi government may not yet be safe and sound. The Presidency Council has two weeks to select a prime minister to replace Ayad Allawi, and in that time the Kurds or Sunnis could make some last-minute demands by denying support to Ibrahim Jaaferi, the Islamist candidate favored by the Shiite majority party, the United Iraqi Alliance. Now, before I get too wild splashing cold water all around, make no mistake: the agreement today is pretty undeniably a positive development. And Talabani, the new and mostly symbolic president, is making all the right noises on reconciling Iraq's sectarian differences. But the more ominous signs lurking beneath the surface deserve attention too.

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Health care for Wal-Mart

| Wed Apr. 6, 2005 3:04 PM EDT

Big government strikes again! It seems the Maryland legislature is set to pass legislation—and, it seems, veto-proof legislation—that "would effectively require Wal-Mart to boost spending on health care." On the surface, this seems wholly unobjectionable. The amount of money being discussed here, some $8 million, is relative peanuts for a company with $288.2 billion in sales last year. In fact, Wal-Mart just shelled out $11 million as a fine last month for employing undocumented workers. So set aside those claims that the days of "Always Low Prices" are now over.

On a related note, though, I may as well link to a BusinessWeek story I read a few months back. Critics have long charged that Wal-Mart places a burden on state budgets because so many of its employees lack health insurance and end up on Medicaid. This always seemed like a weak attack to me—Medicaid coverage is often cheaper for states, less erratic, and less regressive than some forms of subsidized employer-based health care—but hey, what can you do. At any rate, to placate its rather angry foes, Wal-Mart released an internal study claiming that 86 percent of its employees have medical insurance. Of course, the type of insurance matters a great deal here, which was part of my point about Medicaid. As a recent study on the topic pointed out, many workers hit hard or bankrupt by medical emergencies already had insurance when disaster struck. Their policies, however, were inadequate to cover costs—a reminder that simply forcing companies to increase their coverage isn't always a solution to the larger health care problem facing the United States.

Message unity

| Wed Apr. 6, 2005 2:32 PM EDT

The Hill is running an interesting insider-ish report on how the Democrat leadership in both the Senate and the House still haven't quite coordinated their message. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid wants to focus on attacking the GOP "nuclear option," that is, the procedural move to strip away the filibuster in the upper chamber. Meanwhile, House Democrats, led by San Francisco's own Nancy Pelosi, want to create a larger narrative about Republican overreach, focusing on Tom DeLay's still-unraveling scandal problems, and think a focus on the "nuclear option" is too narrow. Seems like there should be some way to split the difference—both Tom DeLay and the "nuclear option," after all, are of a piece with a dangerously overreaching Republican majority that believes the rules need not apply.

Left-handed compliments

| Wed Apr. 6, 2005 1:16 PM EDT

Kudos to the Washington Post for finally calling attention to the bit of democratic backsliding down in Mexico, with an editorial denouncing the faux-impeachment of leftist candidate Lopez Obrador. Well, sort of. This sentence is exactly right: "[T]he way to stop this popular politician is not to force him off the ballot through a legal trick." Right on. But then, sadly, the Post has to get all obtuse on us, railing against Obrador's left-leanings:

Mexico's political establishment and its business community are deeply worried about Mr. Lopez Obrador, who promises to apply the leftist populism now gaining strength in Latin America in a country that has aggressively -- and mostly successfully -- pursued free-market capitalism for the past 15 years. Mr. Lopez Obrador has said he would "restructure" Mexico's foreign debt and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, even though NAFTA has produced an explosion of Mexican exports and, according to an exhaustive World Bank study, made Mexicans richer.

Mr. Lopez Obrador might drive foreign investment from Mexico and destabilize the economy with massive government spending; at worst, he might imitate Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has wrecked his country's private sector and made most of its people poorer.

Those who wish to see Mexico continue to modernize and grow prosperous can hope that Mr. Lopez Obrador does not become its next president.

Spare me! Look, I think neo-liberalism's great and all. Free trade, hooray! Markets, whoo! Really. But it takes a special sort of willful blindness to pretend that Mexico's great experiment with free marketeering hasn't caused the country a great deal of misery. After Mexico's 1994 currency crises and subsequent bailouts, please remember, the country barely grew in the following couple of years, saw real wages stagnate and inequality increase, experienced a near-explosion in poverty rates, lost millions of workers who fled to the United States, and watched as much of its banking and industrial sector were bought up by American businessmen. Oh, and lest we forget, that was the second debt crisis in roughly a decade. Understandably, Mexicans tend not to be thrilled with the state of affairs.

Meanwhile, there's no good reason to think that Obrador would wreck the country. You can argue for or against "massive government spending," as well as when and how to do it, but there's certainly nothing intrinsic about more spending that causes it to "destabilize the economy". The most dangerous thing, at this point, is for political and opinion leaders in the United States to start railing blindly against left-leaning politicians in the South. That sort of thing does, understandably, tend to produce leaders who start openly defying the U.S. and going to war against the private sector. Not that my opinion matters. I see in today's New York Times that this sort of thing is already starting to happen in Nicaragua, as U.S. officials are denouncing the long-shot Sandinista candidate a full year and a half before the elections. Why? For the heck of it! Nicely done.

Mexico's fragile democracy

Tue Apr. 5, 2005 6:47 PM EDT

For all the Bush administration's high-minded talk of democracy, there's been a conspicuous silence over the backsliding going on down in Mexico. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist mayor of Mexico City and popular frontrunner in the upcoming presidential race, is facing possible impeachment. Mexico's House of Deputies will rule this Thursday on whether or not to strip Obrador of immunity from prosecution. The crime? Obrador has been accused of taking too long to obey "a judicial order to halt construction of an access road to a hospital." It's a small legal technicality that, according to some polls, 80 percent of Mexicans are in favor of dismissing.

The popular perception is that the two main political parties in Mexico—President Vicente Fox's center-right National Action Party (PAN) and former centrist ruling party Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—are teaming up to get rid of Obrador whose party, the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), is considered a threat in the coming election. And what better way to get rid of the opposition than to take away his legitimacy to run?

But Mexicans throughout the country have rallied around Obrador. Thousands have gathered in Mexico City to protest Congress' decision to send the impeachment matter to the Chamber of Deputies. This Thursday, even more protesters are expected to turn out for the Chamber's decision. In fact, activists for the Obrador's PRD have planned demonstrations in every state capital in the country. Ironically, by trying to disenfranchise Obrador, the two ruling parties have succeeded in doing exactly the opposite: support for Obrador has skyrocketed. As one economist writes:

If [the Fox government] fails to bar Lopez Obrador from running by employing a frivolous technicality over a trivial offense, it will have generated more publicity for the mayor than he could have dreamed possible—not to mention a sympathy vote. If it succeeds, the likely result will be more political instability, uncertainty, and disillusionment among voters than would occur in any of the scenarios advanced by the mayor's detractors. It will infuriate voters if legal maneuvering disqualifies the man they want to support.

The American media has paid scant attention to the growing political upheaval in Mexico. In fact, the few articles that are available online have been written up by financial publications. Investors are biting their nails over both the potential for political instability (some analysts have compared the situation to recent uprisings in Lebanon, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan) and Obrador's leftist stances.

Culture of life (death penalty edition)

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 5:27 PM EDT

From Amnesty International, a handy fact sheet on the death penalty.

Here's a snippet:

[A]t least 3,400 people were executed in China during [2004], although the true figures were believed to be much higher. In March 2004 a delegate at the National People's Congress said that "nearly 10,000" people are executed per year in China.

Iran executed at least 159 people, and Viet Nam at least 64. There were 59 executions in the USA, down from 65 in 2003. ...

[In the US] more than 3,400 prisoners were under sentence of death as of 1 January 2005.

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The gangster-ization of the GOP

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 2:32 PM EDT

First we had Tom DeLay on the activist judges in the Schiavo case:

"The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

Now we have Sen. John Cornyn noting that certain segments of the conservative base are, um, energized:

"I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country. And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have."

What next, a severed horse head in Harry Reid's bed?

Another conservative split ...

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 2:05 PM EDT

... between the politically smart ones ...:

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said several national surveys found that 60 to 80 percent of Americans opposed Congress's March 20 intervention in the Schiavo case. Federal courts promptly rejected the lawmakers' directive to review a series of Florida court decisions allowing Schiavo's feeding tube to be removed. One appellate judge chastised Congress and Bush for their actions.

Fabrizio said voters "are probably wondering why we can't get deficit reduction or tax reform or Social Security reform as quickly as we got the Schiavo bill" from the Republican-controlled Congress. Because conservative Christian activists were seen as pushing the legislation, he said, "that's a symbol of what your [party's] priorities are, and you'd better show them another symbol."

Also during the recess, former GOP senator John C. Danforth of Missouri, an ordained Episcopal minister, wrote a New York Times op-ed article criticizing his party's emphasis on opposing stem cell research, same-sex marriage and Schiavo's husband. "Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians," he wrote. ...

... and the other kind:

To some, the darkest cloud above Congress is the Senate's looming clash over judicial nominees. Democrats have used the filibuster -- which can be stopped only by 60 votes in the 100-member chamber -- to thwart several of Bush's most conservative appellate court appointees. Republican leaders have threatened to change Senate rules to bar such filibusters, which would require 51 votes. Democrats say they would respond by bringing the Senate to a standstill, hence the scenario's moniker, "the nuclear option."

Yesterday, dozens of conservative groups released a letter urging Frist to end the filibusters "at the earliest possible moment." Some of the signers predicted Frist has the votes he needs, but others said the vote count is uncertain and may remain so for weeks.

If anything, the Schiavo case has heightened tensions over the judicial stalemate. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the woman's death "should awaken Americans to the problems of the courts." More conservative judges are needed, he said, even though others noted that several of the judges involved in the Schiavo case are Republican appointees.

Here's hoping the dumb guys win out.

Stop hiding behind the African Union

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 1:51 PM EDT

Ah, so there are still diplomats who believe that the African Union cab "handle" the genocide in Darfur, are there?

An internal African Union (AU) report has called on the 53-member bloc to double the size of its military force in Sudan's troubled western region of Darfur over the next four months, diplomatic sources said Tuesday.

Some quick background: The AU force in Darfur is currently about 2,200 soldiers in Sudan, a woefully inadequate number. Furthermore the troops have only a mandate to monitor the basically-unobserved "ceasefire" between the Darfur rebels and the Khartoum government, and no mandate to protect civilians. Even doubling the size of the force—which seems unlikely, given the AU's current recalcitrance on the matter—won't stop the genocide, which has claimed some 300,000 lives by now, and certainly won't be enough to disarm the janjawid horseback militias running through the country, butchering civilians.

The idea that the AU can "resolve" the problem is a fiction that very desperately needs to end. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Condoleeza Rice hid shamefully behind this facade: "The [African Union] ceiling is 3,400 and the AU has said they'd like to go to five or six thousand. I think we ought to try to fully realize that." But even "five or six thousand" troops is not enough, not so long as the AU isn't tasked with protecting civilians, and not so long as Khartoum maintains its air assistance for the janjawid militias. Jan Egeland, the UN Humanitarian Affairs Secretary, estimates that at least 10,000 troops are needed to protect the 3-4 million refugees displaced by all the violence. That won't come from the African Union.

Indeed, watching the Nigerian leadership steer the AU over the last few months, it's become clear that the African bloc is much-too reluctant to stop the violence in Darfur; the AU still maintains the dangerous delusion that the National Islamic Front in Khartoum is a "responsible government". It's not, and it's long past time for the UN or, failing that, NATO to intervene.

He's proposing what now?

| Tue Apr. 5, 2005 12:59 PM EDT

"New Nuclear Warhead Proposed to Congress," says the Washington Post this morning. Wha—? When did they decide to do that? But yes, that's exactly what Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, is proposing.

The money, it seems, would coming out of a program Congress approved last year called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which was supposed to "improve the reliability, longevity, and certifiability of existing weapons and their components." Note the word "existing". But now Brooks is proposing "replacements for existing stockpile weapons." That's a very different thing, and apparently it's now going to be necessary to keep an eye on the slippery slope from updating our current stockpiles to developing brand new nuclear weapons. Fantastic; this should fit right in with the administration's new non-proliferation strategy.