2005 - %3, July

Fiddling with Iraq's Elections

| Mon Jul. 18, 2005 4:54 PM EDT

Seymour Hersh's New Yorker story on how the United States may have manipulated the Iraqi elections is now online, and it's an important one, though there's still one unanswered question here: Is manipulating elections ever a good idea? In the case of Iraq, if it was the case that some underhanded tweaking by the United States did, in fact, boost Allawi's moderate Shiite group in the polls, at the expensive of the Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance, then that might have turned out better than the alternative scenario. After all, the current Shiite majority, which turned out to be smaller than expected, has actually had to compromise with the Kurds on a variety of issues, and the Shiites in charge have taken a far more conciliatory stance towards the Sunnis—although it's still not all that conciliatory—than they might otherwise have done. You know things aren't going well when tampering with elections is the least bad option around, but occasionally it really might be the least bad option.

On the other hand, this little insight into the mind of the Bush administration is, if true, disturbing:

The focus on Allawi, Campbell said, blinded the White House to some of the realities on the ground. "The Administration was backing the wrong parties in Iraq," he said. "We told them, 'The parties you like are going to get creamed.' They didn't believe it."

Um, an administration obsessed with Iran as a major threat to world peace simply couldn't see that a bunch of Iranian-backed parties were about to win handily in the Iraqi elections? Now as it happens, this "Iranian-backed" stuff tends to get a bit overblown. Yes, as Hersh points out, Iraq has moved closer to Iran over the past few months, signing treaties and arranging for Iran to train Iraqi security forces. But so what? That's the way countries that border each other should be acting. Better connectivity and all. Yes, true, perhaps deep in the bowels of Tehran some mullahs are plotting to take over Baghdad, covertly and sinisterly, but I don't see how an anti-Iranian government in Baghdad—which former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was certainly heading up—would have helped matters any. But back to the passage above, that sort of sheer blindness to the realities on the ground described by Hersh are, perhaps, even more of a worry than excessive "hawkishness" towards Iran.

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Bomb Mecca?

| Mon Jul. 18, 2005 2:58 PM EDT

It's more than a little tiresome when conservative pundits go off, find some fringe college professor or anonymous poster at Democratic Underground or George Galloway (in Britain!) making some irresponsible or stupid remark, and then hold the statement up as "proof" that American liberals—and Democrats in particular—are all a bunch of raving lunatics. Especially when we can find sitting members of the United States Congress saying stuff like this:

U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo's [R-CO] office on Sunday tried to clarify remarks the congressman made on a radio show that the U.S. could threaten to "take out" Islamic holy sites if Muslim fundamentalists were to attack the country with nuclear weapons.

Tancredo's rumored to be running for president in 2008, by the way. Anyway, here's the clarification: "I do not advocate this. Much more thought would need to be given to the potential ramifications of such a horrific response." Yeah, just a bit more. Anyway, back to hearing about how the BBC edited out the "terrorist." Those decadent leftists…

Flypaper Once More

| Mon Jul. 18, 2005 1:11 PM EDT

I used to annoy one of my former colleagues at story meetings by asking where the proof was that Iraq had turned people who weren't terrorists into terrorists. Not because I didn't believe it, mind you—I certainly did—but just because I had never seen anyone point to an actual person and say, "Look! This Jordanian or Egyptian or Saudi would never have become a terrorist had we not invaded." (Obviously there's the homegrown Iraqi insurgency, but that's different.) But over the weekend, the Boston Globe came up with the smoking gun I've been looking for:

New investigations by the Saudi Arabian government and an Israeli think tank — both of which painstakingly analyzed the backgrounds and motivations of hundreds of foreigners entering Iraq to fight the United States — have found that the vast majority of them are not former terrorists and became radicalized by the war…

[I]nterrogations of nearly 300 Saudis captured trying to sneak into Iraq and case studies of more than three dozen others who blew themselves up in suicide attacks show that most were heeding calls to drive infidels out of Arab land, according to a study by Saudi investigator Nawaf Obaid.

So the "flypaper" thesis—that idea that we could use our soldiers to lure all terrorists from around the world to Iraq and then kill them there—is in fact the dangerous delusion we all knew it to be. And Peter Bergen was absolutely right when he wrote a year ago in Mother Jones that Iraq had ignited a global jihad. This isn't flypaper; it's more like flinging dog crap all over the place: the flies will come, enjoy themselves, breed, we'll kill a few, and the rest will fly off, ready to strike at some other time. But it looks like we're creating more terrorists than killing at the moment. Plus, there's something more than a wee bit immoral about using another country, along with its constantly-bombed civilians, along with our own soldiers, as "bait."

Minor Misconduct

Fri Jul. 15, 2005 5:05 PM EDT

While its certainly not as sexy of a story as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's conflict of interest surrounding nutritional supplements, The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently announced that they had been told by the director of the National Institute of Health that investigators recently found 44 scientists who violated the agency's conflict of interest rules. Nine of the cases have been deemed serious enough to be investigated for criminal wrongdoing.

In June, the prestigious British scientific journal Nature published a study suggesting that close to one-third of American scientists have engaged in "questionable practices." The most widely engaged in misconduct was the relatively minor offense of inadequate record-keeping. But unsettlingly large numbers of scientists admitted to more serious matters like changing a study because of pressure from a funding source (15.5 percent) or overlooking other studies with weak methodology or data (12.5 percent).

It's hard to say how serious the NIH violations are, but its good news that the NIH mostly seems concerned with the bookkeeping aspect of it, which doesn't imply serious breaches on matters of scientific integrity. And the history here should be noted: the 44 cases stemmed from an original 81 that the committee found questionable and asked the NIH to look into. So of the original 81, only 9 warrant external investigation.

Understandably, the committee seems to be wary of giving any ammunition to foes of the NIH—the same press release that announced the findings calls for full congressional reauthorization of the Institute's budget. It seems that the Committee members just want to be seen as vigilant watchdogs, not as hatchet men.

"Reaganomics" Still Wrong

| Fri Jul. 15, 2005 1:58 PM EDT

Jon Chait's Los Angeles Times column lands a few more kicks and punches on the theory that "supply-side magic" via tax cuts was responsible for higher-than-expected tax revenue of late. Here's a bit we didn't mention yesterday:

First, the rise in revenues mainly reflects temporary factors. Economic growth is nothing special at this point in a business cycle, and revenue from individual income tax withholdings — that is, regular wages — are actually growing very slowly. As Mark Zandi of economy.com has noted, the primary factor is the red-hot housing market, which is causing capital gains, as well as bonuses for brokers and underwriters, to skyrocket. A second factor is the hot stock market from 2004, which is already cooling. On top of that, a provision in a 2004 tax bill encouraged corporations to bring home overseas profits right away, causing them to pay more in taxes in 2005 but less in subsequent years.

The upshot of all this is that a bunch of short-term factors have come together to cause revenues to shoot up this year. It has nothing to do with President Bush's "pro-growth" tax cuts, unless you think the tax cuts have somehow caused the housing run-up.

Quite so. One other note: It's true, as Matthew Yglesias argues over at TAPPED, that the "dangers of relying overmuch on the deficit as a political issue" do exist. As I noted yesterday, these aren't the biggest problems in the world right now. We were told by balanced-budget hawks that there would be all sorts of short-term problems with running crippling deficits, but as it happens, inflation has been spectacularly low during Bush's first term, long-term interest rates are still down—no one seems to know why, but they are—and government deficits haven't "crowded out" private investment, as was often predicted.

At the same time, persistent budget shortfalls, whether they're a hundred billion dollars more than expected or a hundred billion dollars less than expected, pose a very severe problem for the not-so-far-away future, because eventually borrowing costs will catch up with us. Max Sawicky of EPI has written in more detail on the subject, and if you look at his Table 1, it's clear that thanks to the deficits we're currently running, net interest costs will become far more expensive than Medicare in about 60 years. Social Security, meanwhile, is a pretty small part of this long-term problem.

Now I can't vouch for the political wisdom of the lesson here, but higher income taxes are inevitable—they probably need to be raised to about 20 percent of GDP, if we want to fund various discretionary programs like education and roads decently. More if universal health care becomes a reality. That's still much, much less than virtually all European countries, none of whom are throttled by their tax burdens, and even 20 percent remains slightly lower than the tax burden in the later Clinton years when, I noticed, the economy seemed to hum along nicely. The math is pretty clear on the necessity here, though unfortunately, the Bush administration very wrongly insists on singling out Social Security—the best-financed program in all of government—as the problem.

Culture of Life (Toxic Womb Edition!)

| Fri Jul. 15, 2005 1:40 PM EDT

Check out this eye-popping study from the Environmental Working Group -- if you dare -- showing that newborn American babies, as well as being cute and pudgy, may also be gurgling cocktails of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides.

Time was, scientists thought the placenta shielded umbilical cord blood from most chemical pollutants in the environment, notes EWG, a public interest watchdog. Now we know that something like the opposite is true -- chemical exposures in the womb or during infancy can be dramatically more harmful than exposures later in life.

This from the executive summary:

Researchers at two major laboratories found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in umbilical cord blood from 10 babies born in August and September of 2004 in U.S. hospitals. Tests revealed a total of 287 chemicals in the group. The umbilical cord blood of these 10 children, collected by Red Cross after the cord was cut, harbored pesticides, consumer product ingredients, and wastes from burning coal, gasoline, and garbage.

Garbage!? Among the compounds discovered are eight perfluorochemicals used as stain and oil repellants in fast food packaging, clothes and textiles, dozens of widely used brominated flame retardants and their toxic by-products, and numerous pesticides. Now, admittedly 10 babies doesn't sound like a very scientific sample, though they were picked at random; still, the results are suggestive, to say the least, and indicate that somebody should be, you know, looking into this.

Again, from the exec. summary:

Had we tested for a broader array of chemicals, we would almost certainly have detected far more than 287. But testing umbilical cord blood for industrial chemicals is technically challenging. Chemical manufacturers are not required to divulge to the public or government health officials methods to detect their chemicals in humans.

This is too bad, because "U.S. industries manufacture and import approximately 75,000 chemicals, 3,000 of them at over a million pounds per year. Health officials do not know how many of these chemicals pollute fetal blood and what the health consequences of in utero exposures may be."

There ought to be a law against it! But, alarmingly ...

The Toxic Substances Control Act, the 1976 federal law meant to ensure the safety of commercial chemicals, essentially deemed 63,000 existing chemicals "safe as used" the day the law was passed, through mandated, en masse approval for use with no safety scrutiny. It forces the government to approve new chemicals within 90 days of a company's application at an average pace of seven per day. It has not been improved for nearly 30 years — longer than any other major environmental or public health statute — and does nothing to reduce or ensure the safety of exposure to pollution in the womb.

Looks like we might want to give the law a bit of a rethink, for, as EWG notes (and I think we can all agree):

As a society we have a responsibility to ensure that babies do not enter this world pre-polluted, with 200 industrial chemicals in their blood.

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Leaks and Bombs

| Fri Jul. 15, 2005 1:30 PM EDT

Both Atrios and John Aravosis are looking at the connection between the London bombings and Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, an al-Qaeda agent who was arrested secretly by Pakistani intelligence last year. Khan, as it turned out, had plans on his laptop for a coordinated bombing attack on London's subways. Now at that point, both Pakistani intelligence and MI5 in Britain wanted to keep Khan's name secret so that they could use the information they had gleaned to make arrests.

But that didn't go quite according to plan.

What actually happened next remains a bit murky, but after a suspiciously-timed Tom Ridge terror alert during the week of the Democratic Convention, it seems that either someone in the Bush administration or someone in Pakistan leaked Khan's name to the press, thus alerting the world to what the Pakistanis and British knew, and compromising various ongoing investigations. See Juan Cole's old post for background on this. As a result, MI5 had to move in quickly on a cell of 13 suspected al-Qaeda members in Britain, but ended up letting five of them go for lack of evidence—in part because they were forced to move in quickly, thanks to the leak. It looked like a serious screw-up, but until that point, nothing fatal. But now ABC News is reporting that at least two of the men behind the London attacks last week may have been part of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan's circle. Did MI5 fail to completely disrupt the London plot because of the leak? And how did Khan's name get out in the first place?

Poor Minnesota

Thu Jul. 14, 2005 7:07 PM EDT

The news that Sen. Norm Coleman might be tapped to be a leading congressional defender of Karl Rove ought to have his home state retching. No matter what party you're in, it's hard to understand how anyone could muster a scintilla of trust or respect for someone who could chair Minnesota for Clinton in '96, and only four years later fill the same position for Bush.

He's just slimy, too desperate to be liked, and slick. Although perhaps not as slick as the Iraqi oil that he accused George Galloway of stealing, or his headline-grabbing campaign to take down Kofi Annan.

By agreeing to stand up for Karl "shameless ethics-abuser" Rove, you've just given all of us another reason to miss Wellstone.

Supply Side Economics... Vindicated?

| Thu Jul. 14, 2005 3:27 PM EDT

Some tedious budget stuff. Recently, the Congressional Budget Office released a report noting that, thanks to an unexpected revenue surge, the deficit wouldn't be nearly as bad this year as last expected, or as bad as last year. Not surprisingly, Stephen Moore jumped all over this in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the CBO's numbers proved the Bush tax cuts "worked" and are boosting economic growth. Supply-side magic!

Fine theory, it's just not true. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities breaks down the increase in revenues. First, they are not due to higher-than-expected economic growth—which would have at least suggested that the Bush tax cuts are "boosting" the economy—since growth has not been unusually rapid or stronger than projected. Second, many of the factors that did cause the increase are temporary. About $50 billion of the increase came because of the expiration of a business tax cut—in other words, more revenues were raised because of a tax hike. Surprise, surprise. Most importantly, the recent revenue boost hasn't come close to making up for the massive loss of revenue caused by all of the tax cuts since 2000, which is what needs to happen for "Reaganomics" to work. For more on this, see Angry Bear here and here.

Tax cuts do not pay for themselves. The deficit is much, much larger than it would be without the Bush tax cuts. In some ways, who cares? As James K. Galbraith argues in Mother Jones this month, deficits don't seem to matter all that much. The last four years have certainly skewered the argument that deficits "crowd out" investment and kick up interest rates. More to the point, if Congress repealed all of the Bush tax cuts and spent the money on health, education, and public infrastructure instead, that would be perfectly fine by me. Borrowing money to invest in the future is how good corporations operate, and it's a sound way for the country to operate. But we're not doing that. And that's a problem, because persistently high deficits mean that eventually borrowing costs will mushroom faster than the economy can grow, and fiscal Armageddon will descend upon us. It will come down to taxes versus letting retirees pick through garbage on the street, and seniors, I'm told, don't much like garbage. The numbers are inexorable, and supply-side hand-waving doesn't change the basic problems at hand.

More on Guantanamo

| Thu Jul. 14, 2005 2:57 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan's post on the new Guantanamo report is much recommended, especially this point:

One great merit of the Schmidt report - which is otherwise riddled with worrying euphemisms, dismissal of troubling facts, exoneration of almost all commanders - is that we now know that almost every one of the Abu Ghraib techniques was practised and innovated at Guantanamo. These were not improvised out of nowhere. They were what the report calls "the creative application of authorized interrogation techniques," and the interrogators "believed they were acting within existing guidance."

Very true. The "aggressive" interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo may not have amounted to torture, if you really want to parse the word carefully. (Although they were neither "humane" nor legal.) But they certainly set the stage for abuses in Abu Ghraib that did amount to torture. Pretending that the government can set "aggressive" policy and then exonerate itself when that policy horribly spins out of control is, to say the least, disingenuous. Sullivan also offers evidence of whitewash in the report. It's hard to make a call on this one way or the other—what happened in those interrogation rooms will likely always remain a mystery—which is precisely why transparent democratic processes are so valued for being, well, transparent. Just to add to Sullivan's list, though, let's not forget this old story:

The U.S. military staged the interrogations of terrorism suspects for members of Congress and other officials visiting the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to make it appear the government was obtaining valuable intelligence, a former Army translator who worked there claims in a new book scheduled for release Monday.

Meanwhile, Marty Lederman has more on the report, highlighting some of the "flagrant disregard for the rule of law" problems discussed below.