2005 - %3, August

Hack Beats Hackett

Wed Aug. 3, 2005 2:09 PM EDT

Yesterday, Democrat Paul Hackett came within about 4,000 votes of being the first Iraq War vet to be elected to Congress, and the race was far closer than most predicted. Today's post-election run down from the Cincinnati Enquirer doesn't contain much of interest, except for the revelation that Bush had the Republican candidate, Jean Schmidt, hand-deliver a condolence letter to a family in the district whose son was killed in Iraq.

I could understand that sort of action if the candidate were the district's sitting representative, or if the president had sent Ohio's Republican governor, or someone like that. But Schmidt was just an ex-state legislator who led Cincinnati's Right to Life group. Her only qualification to deliver a presidential letter was that it might help her party get another seat in Congress. That might be smart politics, but it's a pretty craven way to manipulate the war dead for political gain. Welcome to Congress, Representative Schmidt. You'll fit right in.

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Global Wha...?

| Wed Aug. 3, 2005 2:00 PM EDT

Well, we all thought that the Global War on Terror was being renamed the Global Struggle Against Extremism. Maybe not. Larry Johnson reports:

The counter terrorism community is abuzz over the President's comments yesterday at a principals meeting of the Homeland Security Council. Bush reportedly said he was not in favor of the new term, Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSAVE). In fact, he said, "no one checked with me". That comment brought an uncomfortable silence to the assembled group of pooh bahs. The President insisted it was still a war as far as he is concerned.

So war on terror it is. In any case this doesn't seem like it matters very much to me. Everyone knows what people are talking about when they talk about the "war on terror": it's an inept campaign to bust up the al-Qaeda network that took a wrong turn when the United States decided to invade Iraq and then let various states with terrorist tie develop or come close to developing or maybe even start proliferating nuclear weapons. From all appearances, the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism" would simply have come to denote much the same thing. As Ivo Daalder argues, the Pentagon may be rethinking its national security strategy, though that seems unlikely, but the president and vice-president definitely don't seem to be catching on. In that case, they may as well keep the old name.

Scorpions

| Wed Aug. 3, 2005 1:33 PM EDT

This morning the Washington Post reports that prior to the invasion of Iraq, the CIA had funded, trained, and armed an Iraqi paramilitary group, the "Scorpions," to "foment rebellion, conduct sabotage, and help CIA paramilitaries who entered Baghdad and other cities target buildings and individuals." Then we learn that the Scorpions helped the military interrogate and torture officers captured in Iraq. Not al-Qaeda detainees, not Taliban detainees, not people who were planning to blow up anything in the United States. By the way, given that we invaded Iraq, the Geneva Conventions should very clearly apply there—none of this murky business that the president thinks should apply to al-Qaeda. But guess not. Laws are for pansies. Go read Marty Lederman's analysis here and here. As Lederman says of an Iraqi general who was beaten to death by Army officers:

From all that appears, this was a concerted, planned, systematic and extended series of brutal interrogations, carried out by numerous persons and entities, within the military and the CIA, in a manner that they all considered to be authorized. No rotten apples. No nightshift. Official U.S. policy and practice.

Meanwhile, this is going on, as well as this.

Why the Pull-Out?

| Tue Aug. 2, 2005 8:32 PM EDT

Arms and Influence tries to make sense of the recent surprise announcement that the Bush administration is planning to draw down troops from Iraq in 2006. What are they thinking? Do they really think Iraq is getting better rather than worse? Surely their assessment of what's going on in Iraq can't be that different from everyone else's assessment, namely, that Iraq's going to hell and is all set to implode. Bush may live in a cocoon, hearing only the news he wants to hear, but surely it can't be that bad, right? Alternatively, maybe the administration just plans to pull out regardless and risk letting a civil war erupt in Iraq, thus disregarding everything they've said in the past about "staying the course" and democracy and whatnot. That's possible. Who knows? Here's another interpretation:

My guess—and at this point, it's just a guess—is that we're seeing a combination of different forces at play. There are clear signs that the top levels of the Bush Administration genuinely do see the Iraq war in a more positive light than the general population. There are also reasons to believe that the DoD's manpower crisis has reached a critical level.

Recent polls show that Republican legislators do face a lot of antipathy about Iraq—even if the Democrats continue to look as though they can't lead us to victory, either. All of these pressures may be pushing through different channels of government to the very top, where senior decision-makers may be pre-disposed to seeing progress that isn't really there. Any one of these officials may be of two minds about Iraq: (1) the insurgent groups are defying our best efforts; (2) on the other hand, we could turn the corner tomorrow.

That seems about right. But if that's right, it also means that we're very likely to see a draw-down in 2006 no matter what the situation looks like; too many other outside factors are at work here for the "facts on the ground" to matter all that much.

Is Big Government Dangerous?

| Tue Aug. 2, 2005 6:37 PM EDT

Arnold Kling isn't happy with those who argue "that the market power of corporations is something to be feared, while the coercive power of government is not." I don't know many people who argue both points—the true Stalinists are in pretty short supply these days—but perhaps he means liberals who often prefer a regulated economy to an unregulated one. Well, then. His big argument, it seems, is this:

The best statement of the philosophical case against antitrust is in philosopher Harry Binswanger's essay, "Antitrust: 'Free Competition' at Gunpoint." Binswanger draws a fundamental distinction between economic power and political power. Economic power, he notes, is simply the power to produce and trade, whereas political power is the power of the government and necessarily rests on the use of force or threat of force.
That isn't really the best statement of the philosophical case, is it? Are there still people who believe that economic power is "simply the power to produce and trade"? That it has nothing to do with, say, the power to enter into contracts enforced and upheld by the government, which necessarily rests on the use of force or the threat of force? Where, pray tell, does he think property rights come from? Or the limited liability corporation? Or bankruptcy law? Am I missing something?

The flip-side of this, meanwhile, is that much political power just isn't particularly threatening in any meaningful way. Somewhere in the world, a trust fund exists for highway projects. If I choose to drive, I have to drop a few bucks into it. I can choose not to, though. Then the highway agency build roads and other stuff. It's all big government, and sometimes it generates waste, fraud, and abuse, but the idea that whatever government agency builds highways has "power" over me in a way that, say, Verizon doesn't just seems a bit odd. The same goes for Social Security, which often gets blasted as some monstrous state apparatus. Really, though, it's just an agency that collects money in and sends checks out. On the other hand, when the president of the United States decides he can override the law and hold without trial anyone he deems an "enemy combatant," well, sure, that's the sort of political power one should fear, but that sort of thing doesn't seem so incompatible with the rise of corporate power, now does it?

Costs of War

| Tue Aug. 2, 2005 3:06 PM EDT

Tyler Cowen has a post on the consequences of war in Iraq that makes, among other things, this point:

Today we see many signals that things are going badly. But most of those signals also imply that things would have gone very badly under the alternative scenario for Saddam's fall. A civil war, for instance, may well have happened anyway, albeit later.

The point here is that yes, the United States may well end up causing a full-blown civil war in Iraq. But if so, such a civil war might have happened eventually anyway, with or without a U.S. invasion, so this bad outcome shouldn't mean that the invasion of Iraq was therefore wrong. Well, it's true that civil war in Iraq might have happened no matter what. The United States made some particularly galling mistakes in the early days of the invasion and occupation—not providing security, disbanding the Baathist army, utter incompetence and fraud in the reconstruction process—that made the current mess more likely. But civil war might have happened no matter what the U.S. did. And it might have happened if the United States hadn't invaded.

But the overlooked factor here is what else the United States could have done had we not invaded Iraq. The opportunity costs seem just as important. We could have spent the energy and resources to securing loose nuclear material around the world, or promoting a peaceful democratic transition in a place like Egypt, or stopping genocide in Sudan. We've spent over $200 billion in Iraq; surely we could have found some humanitarian and freedom-enhancing use for that money elsewhere. In our alternate world, Iraq might still have descended into civil war anyway, after, say, Saddam Hussein died—we'll never know of course—but a bunch of other positive things would have happened too.

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Sunday Morning Whiteout

Tue Aug. 2, 2005 2:51 PM EDT

The National Urban League Policy Institute just released a study showing that over a recent 18-month period blacks made up only 8 percent of appearances on the major Sunday morning political talk shows. And 69 percent of those appearances can be accounted for by just three people: Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powel, and regular FOX contributor Juan Williams.

Studies like this one pop up fairly frequently, and I always wonder to what degree the under-representation is a function of a very real corresponding under-representation of blacks in the power elite that the shows draw from, and how much is just boneheaded booking. But the study wisely points out several incidents - like when the shows were doing their Reagan funeral era hagiographies - when more commentary from the black community would clearly have been quite appropriate. Either way, it's pretty pathetic.

Question:

Tue Aug. 2, 2005 2:26 PM EDT

What's the difference between encouraging activists to hinder an opponent's get-out-the-vote efforts by tying up their phones on election day, and using a paid phone bank to do the same?

Answer: About three years, and some slippery standards.

Truth and Consequences

Tue Aug. 2, 2005 1:10 PM EDT

Don't worry, Orioles fans. If lying to Congress didn't disqualify John Bolton from being Ambassador to the United Nations, what are the odds that it will disqualify Rafael Palmeiro from the Hall of Fame? He may even get an "up or down" vote!

UPDATE: Bush really knows how to stand by his man, evidence be damned.

Why So Poor Reporting?

| Mon Aug. 1, 2005 4:45 PM EDT

This is getting ridiculous. From Media Matters:

In a July 29 article, New York Times reporter Carl Hulse reported that supporters of the energy bill recently approved by the House of Representatives describe the bill as "a step toward reducing American dependence on foreign oil," but Hulse omitted the contrary view, held by energy analysts and even some conservative Republicans, that the bill won't reduce U.S. oil imports.

Crikey. Not only should the Times have quoted those "energy analysts" who know what they're talking about, but Carl Hulse shouldn't have even included the line about reducing dependence, regardless of whether Republicans believe it or not. This isn't a "he said, she said" affair. The recently-passed energy bill simply won't reduce American dependence on foreign oil. It just won't. ANWR has a relatively tiny amount of oil, and tapping its reserves might slow the increase in consumption of foreign oil, but won't come close to reducing total consumption. The Republican party line on this issue isn't "one side of the story," it's not a "point of view," it's not anything but an inability to grasp how the world works. Or it's a flat lie. No matter what, it doesn't belong in any newspaper.

But let's not pick on Carl Hulse; this sort of thing happens a lot: government press releases that are plainly false sneak their way into newspaper coverage all the time. But why? One theory might be that political reporters, at the Times and elsewhere, view the passage of legislation such as the energy bill as a political event, rather than a concrete law that will actually have an effect on millions of people and alter the economic landscape for years to come. Treating a bill's passage as a political event, of course, entails getting quotes from the supporters of the bill who want to release it to great fanfare and make pretty speeches whose meaning matters less than the tone of triumphalism ("This bill is a step towards..."). It also ensures that media coverage will treat the energy bill as an occasion for partisan debate and political spin, rather than as an entity that actually does something. Now by any sensible measure, what a law does matters far more than how it came about or who's bickering over it, but so long as political reporters don't see things that way, they'll very likely continue to omit key points like the fact that the recently-passed energy bill doesn't reduce American dependence on foreign oil. Perhaps that's the problem. Perhaps there's some other explanation. Either way, it's pretty clearly unacceptable.