2005 - %3, August

Deadline Extensions

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 5:48 PM EDT

Ah, so it looks like the deadline for the Iraqi constitution will be pushed back an extra seven days. No idea why disagreements that were intractable today will somehow become tractable a week from now, but one can always hope—it's what everyone's been doing for the past two years, after all. On the plus side, this debt story in the Financial Times seems like positive news.

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A Tax Battle Brewing?

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 5:08 PM EDT

Paul Krugman has it right: Now that the Social Security privatization debate has all but died down—though admittedly a few dead-enders are still fighting—the Bush administration will likely focus on tax reform when Congress powers back up this fall. Expect similar tactics: lies, fudged numbers, and more scare stories about how the rich aren't working hard enough because they have too little money, and the poor aren't working hard enough because they have too much.

One possible talking point to watch out for: Bush will probably talk about how a "flat tax" will make the tax code simpler and more efficient. Michael Kinsley had a grand little column a few weeks ago on how the "flat tax" doesn't, by itself, make the tax code any simpler. The tax code isn't complex because some people have to multiply their income by 35 percent and others by 28 percent. It's complex because calculating income is complex, and calculating deductions are complex, and corporate loopholes are complex, and a flat tax rate won't solve any of that; all it offers is a tax cut for the top brackets and a tax hike for the bottom—which, granted, solves the "problem" mentioned above.

Abandon What?

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 4:42 PM EDT

Robert Dreyfuss' piece on how to get out of Iraq, linked to by Clint below, is good and worthy of discussion, so let's discuss. This part of his plan, in particular, seems to me as outrageous as any delusion dreamed up by the Bush administration:

Talks in Amman, or Geneva, or at the United Nations, could serve as a vehicle for dissolving the current Iraqi interim government and holding elections that could produce a far more legitimate and broad-based regime in Baghdad. [I]t is perfectly clear what the United States has to do: It must abandon its deformed offspring in Baghdad, the hapless regime of Shia fanatics and Kurdish warlords, and pray that it can establish direct talks with the people it is fighting.

And, pray tell, why should the "Shiite fanatics" or "Kurdish warlords" go along with this idea? Right now, as thorny as the talks over the new constitution are getting, they all have a pretty good deal: not only do they hold disproportionate power in the National Assembly, they're also in position to siphon off a good deal of oil wealth from their respective regions. Meanwhile, Shiite militias control southern Iraq, and have shown they have no trouble toppling, say, rival mayors in Baghdad when the mood suits them. The Kurdish warlords, for their part, remain extremely popular in Kurdistan (if anything, Barzani and Talabani are criticized for not pushing hard enough for Kurdish independence), and still control an army of some 100,000 peshmerga fighters. Dislodging these two groups from positions of influence and power would be a pretty neat trick.

And yes, it's true, many Shiites are secular or moderate, and strongly dislike the fundamentalist governments holding near-tyrannical sway in southern provinces like Basra. At the same time, the US already experimented with putting a secular Shiite in charge, and Ayad Allawi proved none too popular, as I recall. Now a U.S. offer of withdrawal in exchange for Sunni participation in the government has some appeal, granted—as Spencer Ackerman explained a while back—but the idea that somehow a negotiated settlement with both insurgents and "the people" could take place over the heads of the current National Assembly—and, let's be honest, over the head of Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani—borders on fantasy. At any rate, as far as one can tell, the current Iraqi government already has offered many of the things Dreyfuss thinks the US should offer—including amnesty for insurgents—although the reports here are conflicted: according to some, Ahmed Chalabi has been the one scotching these sorts of deals; according to others, the countervailing pressure comes from the United States. Nevertheless, even if elements of the current Iraqi government really are the ones burning all the olive branches, that still leaves the question—can the US really just dislodge the current government from power? Not likely.

How to Get Out

Mon Aug. 15, 2005 4:25 PM EDT

Vermont Senator George Aiken once offered LBJ a succinct Vietnam exit strategy along the lines of "declare victory and get out." And of course, it's been quoted by a ton of folks. But failing that unilateral approach, Robert Dreyfuss has a piece on what international Iraq peace talks might look like. He argues that talking our way out might be the best way to avoid a civil war-like disintegration of Iraq. The most important question: what resistance forces actually get invited? (Apparently the Russians have some thoughts about that guest list.)

But first, says Dreyfuss, the U.S. would first have to publicly concede that it won't win the war militarily, issue widespread amnesty for Baathist-era crimes, and draw back to bases in Iraq only to venture out for protective purposes. I won't disagree that that would be what it would take to get any sort of negotiations going—and those steps seem to mostly be an honest reckoning about the facts on the ground. Of course I don't have much faith in the administration facing up like that. But Dreyfuss has the broad outlines of a plan that occupation opponents can work with; and it's far more sensible than the stay the course/ blame Bush/and hope for the best non-thinking that Senator Biden flacked this weekend on Meet The Press, or the cut-n-run strawman.

Women in Afghanistan

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 1:54 PM EDT

Via Vanessa of Feministing, some stark facts about Afghanistan from UNICEF: 20 percent of all children die before their 5th birthday; girls' enrollment in secondary schools is less than 10 percent; and maternal death rates are as high as 6,000 per 100,000 women. Yes, yes, I realize that the US didn't invade Afghanistan for humanitarian purposes, and it's impossible to transform a deeply sexist society overnight, but this still deserves attention.

Like It or Not, Your New Constitution!

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 1:31 PM EDT

Sadly, it's hard to call this story anything but predictable: The New York Times is reporting that the Iraqi National Assembly may soon approve its draft constitution over the objections of Sunni leaders, who, apparently disapprove mightily. Technically, the Shiites and Kurds could ram the constitution through parliament—although it could still be vetoed by three Sunni provinces during the referendum. Nevertheless, for all the usual reasons that approving a constitution over the objections of a large and pissed-off majority with lots of firepower is a bad idea, well, this is a pretty bad idea.

At any rate, there seems to be a lot of brinksmanship going on here among the various factions haggling over a constitution—Shiite leader Abdulaziz al-Hakim, for instance, has recently made surprise calls for autonomy in the Southern provinces—and one wonders whether a US threat to pull out from Iraq sooner rather than later, regardless of what shape the constitution is in, might actually scare the Shiites into softening their position and negotiating an agreement more amenable to all sides. After all, it's hard to see hardliners such as al-Hakim running roughshod over the Sunnis if the United States isn't planning to stick around to protect him from the aftermath. That, at least, is one rationale behind the "set a timetable for withdrawal" camp here in the US. The logic here is pretty compelling, and I'm surprised more Democrats and war-opponents aren't making it. On the other hand, many of these intra-Iraqi disputes seem so intractable—especially federalism, as well as the distribution of oil wealth—that any agreement forged under pressure would probably turn out to be extremely fragile and lead to further problems down the road.

Then there's the third option: All camps could agree to dissolve the current National Assembly, hold new elections, and start this process all over again. In the medium and long run, this might actually be the best option for the future of Iraq, but it would also very likely extend the occupation, which would mean more dead Americans. (Juan Cole also offers up reasons to think that the Iraqi population wouldn't have the stomach for yet another delay.) Whatever the merits of a further delay, it seems very likely that the US will do enough arm-twisting to push a constitution through sooner rather than later, so that the Bush administration can declare victory and then get the hell out of Iraq. Bush has made a lot of noise about 'staying the course' and showing resolve and all that, but the August 15 constitutional deadline was largely made with the 2006 midterm elections in mind, and none of that seems likely to change, though I guess we'll find out for sure in a day or two—maybe even later today. Hey, perhaps something magical will happen and all sides will find reason to agree, though that looks pretty unlikely at this point.

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How's that 'reality creation' going?

Mon Aug. 15, 2005 1:30 PM EDT

Not so well, according to quote in a Sunday Washington Post piece saying that the Bush administration is "significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq":

"What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground," said a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion. "We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning."

It's sickly wonderful how that confirms and deflates this legendary quote from Ron Suskind's seminal "Without a Doubt", published in October 2004 in the The New York Times Magazine.

The [senior adviser to Bush] said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Emphases mine. Recognition that empiricism may indeed trump empire? This once, theirs.

Wearing Down Marine One

Fri Aug. 12, 2005 1:29 PM EDT

The Toronto Globe and Mail reports that so far Bush has been able to avoid driving past the protesting Cindy Sheehan - and her media coterie – by helicoptering in and out of his Crawford, Texas ranch. But today he plans to attend a $2 million RNC fundraiser at a ranch right next door. Using the chopper seems a bit excessive for that short of a trip. Maybe he'll just take the dirt bike.

Four Amendments and a Funeral

| Fri Aug. 12, 2005 12:37 PM EDT

If you haven't read Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone story on how Congress works—no, make that "doesn't work"—well, be sure to do so. Taibbi followed Rep. Bernie Sanders around for a month, watching the last true populist try to navigate the halls and corridors of the capital, flummoxed by byzantine rules and Kafkaesque committees, thwarted at every turn by corporate interests, and just generally noticing that "Congress isn't the steady assembly line of consensus policy ideas it's sold as, but a kind of permanent emergency in which a majority of members work day and night to burgle the national treasure and burn the Constitution." For instance:

The afternoon Senate vote is the next act in a genuinely thrilling drama that Sanders himself started in the House a few weeks before. On June 28th, Sanders scored a stunning victory when the House voted 313-114 to approve his amendment to block a $5 billion loan by the Ex-Im Bank to Westinghouse to build four nuclear power plants in China.

The Ex-Im loan was a policy so dumb and violently opposed to American interests that lawmakers who voted for it had serious trouble coming up with a plausible excuse for approving it. In essence, the U.S. was giving $5 billion to a state-subsidized British utility … to build up the infrastructure of our biggest trade competitor, along the way sharing advanced nuclear technology with a Chinese conglomerate that had, in the past, shared nuclear know-how with Iran and Pakistan…

In the case of Westinghouse, the bill's real interest for the Senate had little to do with gas prices and a lot to do with protecting a party member in trouble. Many of the 5,000 jobs the loan was supposed to create were in Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum, the GOP incumbent, was struggling to hold off a challenger. "Five billion for 5,000 jobs," Sanders says, shaking his head in disbelief. "That's $1 million per job. And they say I'm crazy."

Sad to say, it gets worse.

A New Immigration Consensus?

| Fri Aug. 12, 2005 11:35 AM EDT

It's a bit unexpected to find a totally sane column on immigration anywhere, but that's just what Tamar Jacoby has written: "Given our economy's deep and increasing dependence on foreign workers, we will never get a grip if we continue to pretend they aren't coming. Our only hope is to own up to our labor needs and—instead of casting a blind eye while people enter the country illegally—provide an orderly program that allows them to live and work on the right side of the law." And what's more, she reports that Congress, with the exception of a broad swath of stubborn Republicans, is mostly approaching this consensus as well.

The main bone of contention seems to be that some, like John McCain and Ted Kennedy, want to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the country by offering them a path towards citizenship, albeit after they pay all taxes and a $2,000 fee and learn English. John Cornyn and Jon Kyl, meanwhile, want the immigrants to go home and then apply for guest-worker status. Obviously the latter will never happen, and like it or not, "amnesty" is the only logistical reality here, but other than that, most of the major political players agree. We can't realistically deport millions of people, we can't stop people from entering, the only way forward is a guest-worker program that offers everyone a path towards citizenship.