2006 - %3, May

The Case for Intervention

| Wed May. 31, 2006 2:26 PM PDT

For awhile now, all sorts of liberals, conservatives, and other concerned parties have been calling for the United States and Europe to "do something" about the ongoing genocide in Darfur. It's an understandable plea. But I'm somewhat sympathetic to the counterargument that intervening in Darfur would be extremely difficult.

For one, it's doubtful that the United States has the troops to intervene, what with our quagmire in Iraq and this recent news about sending more reserves into Anbar Province to fight a never-ending war against a bottomless supply of Sunni insurgents.

For two, it's possible that a Western intervention could make things worse. How many troops would need to be sent in? Would NATO—or whoever—simply end up siding with the Darfur rebel groups in a war against the central government? Would it get bogged down in yet another drawn-out and bloody war that killed more people than it saved? Would yet another invasion of a predominantly Muslim country cause problems around the world? Aren't there practical considerations here?

Anyway, Eric Reeves, who knows more about Darfur than most observers, has an essay today taking on these objections in detail. His reading of Sudan politics suggests that the Khartoum government would stop the genocide in the face of a robust Western intervention rather than engage in a war, and that an intervention, while difficult, has a better chance of stopping the genocide than creating another Iraq-like situation, although better intelligence and analysis—on the part of the West—is obviously a necessary precursor to any sort of military action.

I obviously can't judge if he's right—although historically, most interventions tend to prove much bloodier and more problematic than their most sanguine proponents predict—but the long essay is certainly worth reading in full. I'd also like to hear a reply to the argument that there are a variety of measures short of military intervention that could potentially pressure the Khartoum government into stopping the genocide.

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Is Rice Extending an Olive Branch?

| Wed May. 31, 2006 11:25 AM PDT

It sure seems like Condoleezza Rice is finally ready to do the right thing about Iran:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today that the United States would be willing to change course and join multinational talks with Iran over its nuclear program if it suspends all nuclear activities.

Ms. Rice said that the move was meant to "give new energy" to a European effort to develop a package of incentives or potential punishments to convince Iran to rein in its nuclear program, and to give Iran a "clear choice."Sounds like what we've been calling for all along, right? Direct negotiations? Well, maybe. But before getting too effusive, this is the Bush administration we're dealing with—a pack of lying war-mongers and all—so maybe a bit of skepticism is in order. It's not clear that Iran should be required to "suspend all nuclear activities" before talks can even begin. Isn't that something that the talks should work toward? Isn't that the whole point? Isn't Rice setting the bar too high?

So yes, it certainly seems like the Bush administration has decided to make unreasonable demands on Iran—only if you give us everything we demand will we sit down to talk—in order to sabotage negotiations before they even begin. Via Laura Rozen, Chris Nelson says that the Bush administration's main goal is to ensure that, if talks falter, Iran is seen as the "stumbling block," rather than the U.S. Rice's offer might be more for appearances sake than for any meaningful attempt to avoid war.

On the other hand, who knows, maybe good sense really has broken out unexpectedly in the White House and the administration wants to resolve this peacefully. We'll see. I should note that if the U.S. reached a détente with Iran before November, gas prices would probably go down and the Republican Party's midterm electoral prospects would probably brighten a bit. So maybe Karl Rove and friends should think about it...

Poison Ivy Epidemic on the Way

| Wed May. 31, 2006 11:04 AM PDT

I can't honestly say this is the most important reason to worry about global warming, but hey, if it convinces people to pay attention:

Rising levels of carbon dioxide—a so-called greenhouse gas that traps heat within Earth's atmosphere—can fuel booming poison ivy growth, a new study reports.

Even worse, the rash-inducing vines may become more potent.Poison ivy is no fun. Here are some great pictures of poison ivy rashes. Here's Mother Jones' (slightly less painful) cover package on global warming from last year. Hot office gossip has it that Al Gore gushed about this article on Fresh Air the other day. Do listen to Al.

Bush knew nothing of Haditha deaths until Time asked questions

| Tue May. 30, 2006 7:07 PM PDT

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow says that George W. Bush heard reports that U.S. Marines had killed two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians "When a Time reporter first made the call." In March, Time reported the investigation of a dozen marines for possible war crimes in a November incident in which unarmed citizens, including women and children, were shot. The killings occurred after a bomb hit a military convoy and killed a Marine.

Time is now reporting that the Marines' superiors may have been part of a cover-up.

More Iranian Overtures?

| Tue May. 30, 2006 1:49 PM PDT

This theme is starting to get repetitive, but okay. A while ago, after Iran announced that it had successfully enriched uranium on an industrial scale, one Iranian analyst had this to say:

Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst in Tehran, said he expects Tuesday's political fanfare will soon be followed by another announcement suspending all enrichment activities, as requested by the IAEA. Such a move, Laylaz said, would be a savvy way for all sides to save face and avoid escalating the crisis.

"They wanted this big ceremony to show that nuclear technology is not a goal - it's an achievement. This is enough, and now we can go back to negotiations," he said. That prediction seemed sort of outlandish, but now the New York Times reports this:

After boasting last month that it had joined the "nuclear club" by successfully enriching uranium on an industrial scale — and portraying its action as irreversible — Iran appears to have slowed its drive to produce nuclear fuel, according to European diplomats who have reviewed reports from inspectors inside the country.

The diplomats say the slowdown may be part of a deliberate Iranian strategy to lower the temperature of its standoff with the West over its nuclear program, and perhaps to create an opening for Washington to join the negotiations directly — something President Bush has so far refused to do.
An opening? Maybe there was something to Saeed Laylaz's prediction after all. Why not find out? Last week the Times reported that at least some members of the Bush administration were thinking about doing the right thing and at least trying to talk to Iran. That would make sense, seeing as how President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made some (admittedly rather circumlocutory) overtures in that direction, and seeing as how back in 2003, as Gareth Porter has recently reported, Iran was very interested in putting its nuclear program on the back-burner and agreeing to other U.S. demands in exchange for various security guarantees.

But hard-liners in the administration—Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in particular—said "no" back then, and they seem to be saying "no" now (they now insist that the slowdown in enrichment is merely a "tactical ploy," whatever that means). At this point, we can say that if there's a war with Iran it will be because Iran hawks choose to go to war, not because it's necessary. At the risk of sounding like a seriously busted record, there are no excuses not to at least try and avert what would be a horrible idea.

Court Rules Against Whistle-Blowers

| Tue May. 30, 2006 11:59 AM PDT

I can't say I quite understand the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision today to limit whistleblower protections. Basically, you have a Los Angeles deputy prosecutor, Richard Ceballos, who complained to his bosses that the county sheriff's deputy had lied in a search warrant affidavit (a trial court later threw out the challenge). After complaining, Ceballos claimed he was reassigned and then denied a promotion—acts that certainly seem like retaliation for whistleblowing.

Now the Supreme Court has long afforded whistleblowers some amount of protection from retaliation, but, in the decision today, refused to extend that protection to Ceballos, on the grounds that he was speaking out in his capacity as a public employee, rather than as a private citizen. This appears to mean that if he had simply called up a newspaper and told them about the problems with the search warrant, he'd be protected from retaliation. But because he wrote up an official memo to his bosses, he wasn't. Huh? Here's what John Paul Stevens had to say in his dissent:

[I]t is senseless to let constitutional protection for exactly the same words hinge on whether they fall within a job description. Moreover, it seems perverse to fashion a new rule that provides employees with an incentive to voice their concerns publicly before talking frankly to their superiors.
One would think so. Jack Balkin says this is a "very significant" development—employees acting in their official capacity may be disciplined for speaking out "without any First Amendment scrutiny":
So, it appears that if one's duties are to expose wrongdoing in the workplace, such exposure is entitled to no constitutional protection, but that if an employee whose duties do not involve such whistleblowing makes the exact same complaint, then Pickering/Connick analysis [i.e., protecting whistleblowers] still applies. A somewhat odd result, at least on first glance.
Samuel Alito, perhaps needless to say, voted with the majority and broke the tie. Seems to be an early sign of those pro-government tendencies many of his critics were worried about.

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A Competent Bush Nominee?

| Tue May. 30, 2006 10:58 AM PDT

Ezra Klein notes that Bush's nomination for Treasury Secretary, Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson, is a "serious, competent guy" who—shockingly—supported the Kyoto Protocol. (More to the point, he has stated that unless the United States puts emissions limits in place, "U.S. companies will lose ground to their competitors.")

That sounds nice (insofar as a pro-Wall Street Treasury Secretary can sound "nice"), but it also sounds a lot like a description of Bush's first Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, who, despite helping Ron Suskind produce a very nice book exposing the sheer mendacity and close-mindedness of the current administration, didn't really affect much in the way of policy.

Court of Appeals upholds unconstitutionality of Patriot Act's National Security Letter provision

| Fri May. 26, 2006 5:48 PM PDT

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday on two challenges to the National Security Letter provision of the USA Patriot Act filed by the American Civil Liberties Uniion. Two different lower courts found the provision to be unconstitutional, and the ACLU argued that recent amendments to the law have made it even less democratic.

Using the NSL provision of the USA Patriot Act, the FBI can demand a range of personal records--email messages, visited websites, library records--without seeking court approval. In addition, the law puts an automatic gag on anyone whose records are gathered by the FBI.

One of the cases brought to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is from New York, and concerns an anonymous Internet Service Provider who challenged the NSL provision after the FBI demanded records. The other case was from Connecticut, where librarians challenged the provision for not permitting them to disclose their identities.

In 2004, Judge Victor Marrero struck down the NSL statute, and the Court of Appeals upheld his decision. Wrote Judge Richard Cardamone:

A ban on speech and a shroud of secrecy in perpetuity are antithetical to democratic concepts and do not fit comfortably with the fundamental rights guaranteed American citizens.... Unending secrecy of actions taken by government officials may also serve as a cover for possible official misconduct and/or incompetence.
Judge Cardamone added that national security concerns "should be leavened with common sense so as not forever to trump the rights of the citizenry under the Constitution."

The court also lifted the gag that was put on the Connecticut librarians.

Explaining Inaction on Global Warming

| Fri May. 26, 2006 4:25 PM PDT

Here's a thought as to why Congress does—and will continue to do—nothing about trying to avert catastrophic global warming:

Cass Sunstein, a law professor and political scientist at the University of Chicago, raises the provocative question of why America has responded in such diametrically different fashion to terrorism (panic) and global warming (postponement).

In a paper released this month by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, Sunstein notes that presidents and legislators are willing to squander money to avoid being blamed for something.

"Every politician has a strong incentive to take steps to prevent terrorist attacks," Sunstein writes. "If such an attack occurs 'on his watch,' the likelihood of political reprisal is high ... By contrast, it is far less likely that there will be a climate change 'incident' on the watch of, or easily attributable to, any current politician." Except… except… politicians in other countries, particularly in Europe, face the same dilemma and they all take global warming fairly seriously. Why is that? Perhaps it's true that the structure of our political system is a reason why Congress does absolutely nothing about climate change, but the more immediate problem is the particular politicians in charge right now—namely, conservative ideologues bought and paid for by business groups that are allergic to any and all environmental regulations. Not that Democrats are much better, mind you. It's just silly to overlook the foremost obstacle to any sort of sensible climate change policy.

At any rate, Paul Krugman had an interesting column today noting that the amount of sacrifice involved in averting global warming wouldn't be huge, according to the "broad consensus" among economists. At worst, reducing carbon emissions to sustainable levels would reduce GDP growth by two-tenths of a percentage point over the next twenty years. That's a lot of money, but hardly crippling, and there would still be a lot of economic growth to spare. And my hunch is that the actual "pain" involved would be much less severe. Anti-regulatory types have always predicted that this or that environmental law would destroy industries and lead to mass unemployment and make everyone poorer and unhappier. They've usually, if not always, been wrong.

Why Not Metric?

| Fri May. 26, 2006 2:29 PM PDT

Via Rob Farley, "Dean Dad" wonders why the United States never adopted the metric system (although you see weird exceptions crop up all the time, like with 2-liter Coke bottles). Indeed, it's a real problem. I doubt it has a large economic impact on the country—a calculator will convert back and forth between the two systems, so I doubt manufacturers and engineers care very much—but it's certainly absurd to force everyone to remember that there are 1,760 yards in a mile and so forth. But apparently inches and yards are "manly" units of measurement, and that's why we have them:

Looking back, I sorta remember the backlash against metric occurring as part of the backlash against an inchoate sense that America was in decline. In the late 70's, there was a weird, curdled-populist anger that manifested itself in CB radios and Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan…. Anyway, the metric system at that time came off as a sort of effete, Euro-Modernist import, shoved down the throats of Real Americans by the same smug coastal elites who got all self-righteous about banning smoking and conserving energy.
Two of Ronald Reagan's early acts as president, as it turned out, were to overturn a law encouraging schools to teach kids the metric system, and to disband and defund the U.S. Metric Board. But then in 1988, apparently, there was a change of heart and Congress decided to require all federal agencies to go metric. The military, meanwhile, has long relied solely on the metric system, because when lives are on the line no one wants to be racking their brains wondering how many quarts to a gallon. But no one wants to force the rest of the country to follow suit. We'd have to throw out all our measuring cups, after all.

Those facts, by the way, all come from this handy metric timeline. I also was going to point out that when I lived in Ireland, all the speed limits were oddly designated in miles, but apparently that's no longer true as of 2005. Right now the only other countries that haven't officially adopted the system are Burma and Liberia, so the United States is in good company I guess.