Why Unions

Jordan Barab offers a perfect example of why we need unions.

There's an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times today about soon-to-be-ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's secret plan to save Iraq. Khalilzad did a tremendous job in Afghanistan, so there's some reason for optimism here, but it's very much worth noting that one of the reasons he was so effective in Afghanistan was that Hamid Karzai—who is, apparently, exceedingly indecisive—needed someone to run his life for him, and found Khalilzad. Indeed, judging from Jon Lee Anderson's latest and not-online New Yorker article on Karzai, it seems the Afghanistan president couldn't do very much without Khalilzad holding his hand, which may have been one of the reasons why the latter needed to be moved out of the country. (According to Anderson, it got to the point where Khalilzad was the practically the guy removing regional governors from their posts.)

Meanwhile, the current Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim Jaaferi, also appears fairly indecisive, but it's pretty unlikely that he's going to fling himself into Khalilzad's arms at the first sign of trouble. The main task, it seems, will be for the new ambassador to smooth over any tension between the U.S. military and Jaaferi's government, which understandably tends to get upset that it doesn't get to act like a sovereign nation. (Although, as Spencer Ackerman writes, the Jaaferi government is probably going to have to pretend to hate the occupation in order to give itself political cover for keeping the United States in the country.) Nevertheless, that's a relatively minor point. On more substantial issues—bringing the Sunni minority into the political process, for instance—it's not clear that Khalilzad will have the same sway in Iraq as he did in Afghanistan. At this point there's not a whole lot we can force the Shiite government to do.

Remember the Downing Street Memo? That recent-leaked note from early 2002 which showed that, at the time, the head of British intelligence thought that the intelligence for war against Iraq was "being fixed around policy"? "The case was thin," the memo said. Right, that one. Well, the major newspapers are starting to ask questions about it—as opposed to merely writing stories about how befuddled they are that the memo, somehow, isn't garnering more attention—and yesterday reporters confronted both Bush and Tony Blair on the subject. Freiheit und Wissen has a roundup of reports. See also ThinkProgress.

The main question here: why is this all important? Also known as: Do we really need to wade into this debate again? Well, yes. It's true that the memo likely won't change anyone's mind about the war in Iraq—in some ways the validity or invalidity of the war is independent of the sinister motives behind it, and that's doubly true today, now that Bush has convinced us that the war was fought all along to spread democracy rather than to disarm Saddam Hussein—but nevertheless, this is still very much the sort of thing worth investigating. I'm not holding my breath for Bush to be impeached, but ideally in the future I'd prefer if presidents refrained from going to war on false pretenses and skewed intelligence. And an exploration of exactly how and why it happened this time around is crucial towards preventing it from happening again.

You know, it would be nice if this sort of thing was shocking rather than routine:

A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents.

My oh my. Whoever could've done such a thing?

Mr. Cooney is chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues.

Before going to the White House in 2001, he was the "climate team leader" and a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group representing the interests of the oil industry. A lawyer with a bachelor's degree in economics, he has no scientific training.

Yep. Shocked, just shocked. Actually, though, this brings up an important point related to Elizabeth Drew's latest piece on Congressional corruption. One major "revolving door" problem in Congress is that representatives and senators often leave their positions as elected officials and find lobbying spots or other lucrative positions around Washington. Sometimes this leads to rather blatant conflicts of interest, as when former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) left his spot as chairman of the House pharmaceutical oversight committee to go... become the president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. How this might've affected the drafting of the 2003 Medicare bill that Tauzin co-sponsored—a bill replete with pharmaceutical giveaways—well, I'll leave that to the imagination. But the revolving door revolves both ways; as with Mr. Cooney, industry lobbyists coming into government can pose just as great a problem. Surprisingly, the Office of Government Ethics' rules and guidelines on conflicts of interest don't cover this situation. Here's the OGE's summary of the relevant statute:

Specifically, this law says that you may not work on an assignment that you know will affect your own financial interests or the financial interests of your spouse or your minor child. The prohibition also applies if you know the assignment will affect the financial interests of your general partner, or of an organization that you serve as an officer, director, employee, general partner, or trustee. And it even applies when you know the matter will affect the financial interests of someone with whom you have an arrangement for employment, or with whom you are negotiating for employment.

In other words, former lobbyists can waltz into government and oversee the industries they used to represent. They just can't have any direct financial stakes in the matter. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Looks like a loophole in need of a bit of attention, no?

In the Lebanon Daily Star today, Michael Rubin warns the United States against embracing Islamist reformers in its quest to spread democracy all about the Middle East. Indeed, he sees troubling signs to the contrary from the Bush administration:

The White House has also flip-flopped on Hamas. While Hamas candidates came in second to those of Fatah in Palestinian elections, it nonetheless won the largest municipalities in Gaza. White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Hamas' successful candidates "business professionals." But election participation does not make candidates democratic. Hamas ran on a platform rejecting the compromises necessary for Palestinian statehood. Its charter embraced imposition of Islamic rule, with the Koran as its constitution, and it has eschewed the rule of law. Well-known for its attacks on Israelis, it has also targeted liberal Palestinians.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, another recipient of recent State Department outreach, also has a long legacy of violence. Its armed wing has murdered thousands. Engaging any group that has been involved in terror only legitimizes the violence that propelled that group to prominence. Better that Washington support bold but peaceful politicians like Ayman Nour.

Well, the White House has flopped again, mistakenly, on Hamas, but I get Rubin's point. The problem with this argument, though, is that liberal "peaceful politicians" like Ayman Nour in Egypt simply don't have large, well-organized constituencies. That's the legacy of Arab authoritarianism in the Middle East: in the absence of robust political parties or other civic centers, the only groups with any sort of strong organization are Islamists. This was painfully obvious in Iraq. Rubin doesn't like the Shiite militiamen and thugs now running the country—fine—but it was clear from the January 30th election that Iyad Allawi's semi-liberal slate was no match in the popular imagination for the religious authority of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. So it goes elsewhere; like it or not, Hamas and Hezbollah and, yes, the Muslim Brotherhood are genuinely popular. Moreover, it's unrealistic to expect some of these groups to disarm before entering politics. Ideally the White House can get Islamist groups to agree to abide by certain principles—the rule of law, independent judiciaries, universal suffrage, etc.—but if we're demanding perfect behavior we'll be waiting a long, long time. That makes engagement both tricky and unpredictable, but that's the whole point of democracy—it's impossible for anyone but the voters themselves to control the outcome.

Rubin's main fear seems to be that by engaging Islamist groups that have used violence in the past, the United States will only lend legitimacy to that violence. That's noble, but the more important question is whether it's practical. It seems not. Again, look to Iraq. It was only a year ago that Muqtada al-Sadr was leading his fighters against Marines in Najaf and Sadr City. Now he's taking part in government, and by all accounts, he's moderated his hostility towards the establishment clergy and kept the peace in his home neighborhood. Is Muqtada trustworthy? No. Is he the sort of person I would want running my country? Of course not. But he's not threatening mass uprisings anymore, either. The mundane business of governing sometimes has a way of moderating radicals, whether you want to call it "appeasement" or something else, sometimes it works.

In the New York Review of Books this week, Elizabeth Drew has perhaps the best overview yet written on the sordid ties between K Street and the Republican-controlled Congress in Washington. There's far too much in here to do justice by way of excerpt, but these paragraphs on how companies raise money for candidates were particularly depressing—especially the last bit:

The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill in 2002 didn't stop powerful companies and members of Congress from buying and selling influence. Representative Barney Frank, a major backer of the reform bill, says, "It works about the same as it did before." But, he adds, because the new law banned large soft money contributions by individuals, corporations, and labor unions to campaigns for federal office, and maintained overall limits on how much a person can contribute to federal elections—doubling them from $2,000 to $4,000 per election cycle—everyone has to work harder to raise the money. Still, congressmen are seldom heard to complain that they can't raise enough money and in fact, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, both the political par-ties and individual candidates are raising more money than ever. Lobbyists still manage to deliver large amounts to legislators by "bundling" smaller contributions.

They contribute most of the money they raise to incumbents who can be depended on to do favors—a major reason (in addition to gerrymandering) why there is serious competition in only 10 percent of House races, and only about five seats change hands in each congressional election. Members of Congress expect to receive contributions from local industries (and their workers)—say, the coal industry in West Virginia—and they back legislation to help them out as a matter of doing constituent work. It's illegal for a firm to compensate employees for their political contributions, but, a Republican lobbyist says, a job applicant is often told that he or she is expected to make contributions, and salaries are adjusted accordingly.

Definitely read the whole piece. Abramoff and DeLay are just a tiny, tiny tip of a gruesomely large iceberg here.

There are days when I wish I had some special insight into goings-on in Iraq—what might be done, whether or not it's all going to turn out okay—but most days it's difficult to read the news and do anything other than echo Juan Cole's line: "Sometimes you are just screwed." Meanwhile, in more good news, Eric Umansky notices that the new Iraqi government is laying off workers—always a good way to add a few disgruntled unemployed Iraqis to the ranks of the insurgency—and is, ah, a tad behind in paying its special forces units. Also a bit of a problem.

Now I know that Iraq is supposed to be a sort-of kind-of sovereign country, and make decisions on its own, but aren't there supposed to be American advisors around trying to warn against this sort of thing? No, apparently not; there hasn't been an ambassador in Baghdad for six months. Of course, let's not accuse the Bush administration of being slow on the draw. On matters of real urgency—like appointing an Ayn Rand acolyte to the SEC—the White House has no problem racing through the nomination process.

Powerline tries to catch liberals in a "trap", it seems:

[The] latest discussion of inequality is a sure sign that the economy is doing well. No longer able to talk about a recession or a jobless recovery, the left now resorts, as it did during the prosperous Reagan years, to income inequality.

Um, but the whole point of talking about income inequality is that the economy is not "prosperous," because it's not prosperous for all. At any rate, people often seem to talk about two different things with regards to income inequality. One, it could be the case that all income groups are doing well, but the rich just happen to be doing astronomically well. Now I happen to think that that sort of inequality may well pose real problems and inflict real costs on society, but this debate admittedly gets pretty complex, and defenders can say at least the rising tide is lifting all boats. On the other hand, it could be the case that only the wealthy are doing well, and everyone else is worse off—the rising tide swamping all boats. In a lot of ways, that's the sort of inequality we have today: real wages for workers have been falling during the "Bush recovery," as they did during the Reagan years, and that's a massive, massive problem, irrespective of how well the top tax brackets are doing.

It's not Just Eskimos in Bikinis
By Chip Ward
Close-to-home global warming effects that we hear little about.

The Parent Trap
By James K. Galbraith
Social Security "reform" is being touted as fiscal liberation for the young. What will young families do when it condemns them to care for their elders.

The news that North Korea may be prepared to return to talks with the United States is certainly welcome. But the pressure that U.S. negotiators are receiving from Bush administration officials—those who want a hardline against Kim Jong Il—is more than a little unsettling:

Mr. Hill, a seasoned negotiator who played a major role in the Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, is looking for leeway to give North Korea incentives to return to the talks but is meeting resistance from officials who want to stand pat with Mr. Bush's vaguely worded offer last June to improve relations once North Korea begins dismantling its nuclear facilities and allows full inspections.

Yes, yes, the point here is that Bush doesn't want to "bribe" the North Koreans into acting good. Stand tough and all that. But really, what's wrong with a little bribery? Take, for instance, Pakistan. The United States recently sold a bunch of F-16 fighters to the Pakistani government. What doesn't get much press is the fact that we had originally held up the transfer of these fighters in 1990, after Pakistan violated its commitments to the United States, especially on developing its nuclear program. But now here we are, rewarding them for their bad behavior. It's cowardly, it's unprincipled, but it's also reasonably smart. By bringing Pakistani President Perez Musharraf closer to us, we have, in theory, far more ability to influence Pakistan's behavior than we did previously.

Now that's not to say that the White House should approach North Korea just like it approached Pakistan—there are important differences here—but it's worth noting that negotiating with hostile dictators, however loathsome it might be, isn't always a dumb idea. Of course, as several former administration officials note in the story, a little appeasement isn't all that's missing here—the Bush administration hasn't put much in the way of pressure on North Korea. But I wonder how much pressure is available here—South Korea and China, after all, are resisting any sanctions regime against North Korea, fearful of a catastrophic collapse of the government—and at some point the White House may have to realize that it's in a much weaker position than it would prefer to be.