2006 - %3, July

The Tax Cuts Are Working? Hardly.

Tue Jul. 11, 2006 6:04 PM EDT

As expected, the Bush administration announced today that this year's budget deficit is not nearly as bad as officials had predicted it would be a few months ago. On the off- chance that this strikes you as cause for celebration, you can reuse the same party hat you wore last year. According to the Los Angeles Times, "This will be the third year in a row that the administration put forth relatively gloomy deficit forecasts early on, only to announce months later that things had turned out better than expected. To some skeptics, it's beginning to look like an economic version of the old 'expectations' game."

To President Bush, on the other hand, the news looked like proof that he had it right all along. "The tax cuts we passed work," he declared this morning. Economists at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, meanwhile, dispute this claim, using data gleaned from a Treasury Department analysis presented at the very same Mid-Session Review at which President Bush made his announcement. Guess they shouldn't have commissioned that study…

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Big Dig Now Killing People

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 6:01 PM EDT

A slab of concrete fell from one of the Big Dig tunnels in Boston and killed a woman yesterday, according to news reports. This Times story discusses what an out-and-out boondoggle the entire project was. They neglected to note, though, that prior to 2001, the chief executive of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was Andrew Natsios, under whose tenure "the biggest rise in costs, from $10.8 billion to $14.7 billion, took place." Anyway, Natsios then went on to join the Bush administration and become… head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which was, among other things, responsible for rebuilding infrastructure in Iraq. Make of that what you will, although recurring themes like this one aren't very amusing after awhile.

Newsweek "Covers" Mexico

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 5:29 PM EDT

Newsweek pulls off a neat rhetorical trick in its coverage of the Mexico election:

The ex-mayor [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] vowed to challenge the result before a federal election tribunal; his infuriated supporters threatened to take to the streets. Their resistance could muddle the political picture for months, confusing not just Mexicans but outside observers who had looked to the ballot for a clear indication of which way Latin America was tilting—toward the leftist populism of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, or the pro-market, pro-U.S. stance of Colombia's Alvaro Uribe.
Obrador, of course, isn't like Chávez at all, apart from the fact that they're both, broadly speaking, "leftists." But Felipe Calderón's supporters have been putting up images linking Chávez and Obrador for weeks, as a campaign tactic to drive down the ex-mayor's ratings. And Newsweek dutifully laps it up. Nicely done.

On a related note, do read Mark Weisbrot's column today on whether rule by the left would be better for Mexico. Ultimately, the much-feared leftists running countries in South America—Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and yes, even Chávez—have been doing pretty well, while Calderón is promising to pursue the same policies that have left Mexico with a stagnant growth rate for two decades. Figuring out why some countries are doing well and others aren't is never an easy task, but the idea that a leftist president in Mexico would spell doom for the country is nonsensical.

Why Iraq and Afghanistan Have No Police

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 3:03 PM EDT

I noted yesterday that the U.S. has failed to build a police force in Iraq that can keep some semblance of order and doesn't engage in torture and abuse on a widespread basis. But apparently there hasn't been much success building up police forces in Afghanistan either. Why is that? Vance Serchuk has a long reported piece in the Weekly Standard trying to figure it out:

[B]uilding foreign police, it turns out, is something that the American government is expressly designed not to be able to do--the legacy of a 1974 congressional ban that abolished USAID's Office of Public Safety, previously charged with these missions. Although exceptions to the act have since crept onto the statute books, their cumulative effect has been to make police assistance into a second-tier, ad hoc responsibility of several different agencies and actors scattered throughout the executive branch.
Just to be clear, then: one of the most important tasks for trying to piece a failed state back together again is an "ad hoc responsibility of several different agencies." Serchuk notes that in Afghanistan, the Pentagon and the State Department are currently battling over who will control the police, and the result is constant skirmishing "over issues like which contractors to hire, what tactics the Afghan police can be taught, and whether key individuals should work out of the U.S. embassy or the military compound." One can imagine the situation isn't much better in Iraq. And short of a massive bureaucratic reorganization, this doesn't seem like a problem that will be fixed anytime soon.

Breaking News: Magic Mushrooms Produce "Mind-Altering Experiences"!

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 2:13 PM EDT

Scientists have found powerful evidence for something a lot of folks, um, learned in college.

Scientists said a substance in certain mushrooms induced powerful, mind-altering experiences among a group of well-educated, middle-age men and women.

Participants cited feelings of intense joy, "distance from ordinary reality," and feelings of peace and harmony after taking the drug. Two-thirds described the effects of the drug, called psilocybin, as among the five most meaningful experiences of their lives.

But in 30% of the cases, the drug provoked harrowing experiences dominated by fear and paranoia. Two participants likened the episodes to being in a war. While these episodes were managed by trained monitors at the sessions where the drugs were taken, researchers cautioned that in less-controlled settings, such responses could trigger panic or other reactions that might put people in danger.

The study is apparently "among the first to systematically assess the effects of hallucinogenic substances in 40 years" (outside of dorm rooms, that is). (W$J)

Geneva Rights? Really?

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 2:03 PM EDT

I don't know if the administration's "new" stance on Geneva rights for detainees is really all it's cracked up to be. Here's how the New York Times described the policy:

Pentagon officials released a memo that was issued last Friday ordering that all detainees be treated in compliance with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which requires humane treatment and a minimum standard of judicial protections.
Okay, that's the Pentagon. What about the CIA? Aren't they holding—and possibly torturing—suspects in secret prisons all around the world? Will their detainees fall under the Geneva Conventions? If not, doesn't that render this "new" policy pretty much useless? Extending protection only to prisoners in military custody won't do much for people such as Khaled el-Masri, the man who was mistakenly detained by the CIA and allegedly tortured for several months in a small cell in Afghanistan.

One should also note, as Marty Lederman has in the past, that there's a bit of a loophole here: what the Pentagon considers "humane" differs greatly from the Geneva definition of "humane." A number of coercive interrogation techniques—such as stress positions and scenarios designed to make detainees believe that death is imminent for their family members—could very well carry on. That would be completely illegal of course—such things are expressly prohibited by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions—but when has that ever stopped these people before?

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Detainees To Get Geneva Rights

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 1:30 PM EDT

About time. Tony Snow seems to think this is "not really a reversal of policy," as the detainees were already being treated humanely! (And will the switch apply to prisoners being held in secret, in black sites? And how will we ever know?) Bush, meanwhile, is in for "a long, hot summer" if he expects Congress to retain the military tribunals. Congress excercising its check and balance function: How about that? On Bush's desire to keep the tribunals in some slightly altered form, Sen. Joe Biden said, "I find it difficult for us to buy in to the notion that let's just trust the president's judgment. God love him, his judgment has been terrible."

"Incestuous, undemocratic, and potentially corrupting"

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 2:56 AM EDT

... is what "critics are calling" the arrangement whereby a former top Congressional staffer goes to K Street, makes millions lobbying his former committee, then goes back to the committee and gets an $2 million handshake from his lobbying firm on the way out. ("Lobbyists," on the other hand, "say it's just the way things work in the complicated world of Washington." Yep. Real complicated.) Need we mention that the committee is Appropriations, aka Pork Central? Along the way, this excellent piece by the Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum notes that this is just one more glimpse into the GOP majority machine:

The Republican Revolution of 1994 ushered in a new congressional majority that professed to be distrustful of government but also worked overtime to maintain its control by directing federal aid into popular programs that would help reelect GOP members. Lawmakers were encouraged to earmark billions of dollars for thousands of home-state projects every year as a way to court their constituents.
And the lobbyists who make sure all that pork goes to the right people then hold Congressional fundraisers, which helps re-elect the incumbents, who turn around and hand out more earmarks, which keeps constituents happy and lobbyists cashy... ad infinitum. Nice work if you can get it.

Paul Hackett Backs Sherrod Brown's Senate Run

| Mon Jul. 10, 2006 8:24 PM EDT

As conversion experiences go, it's a bit on the homely side, but Paul Hackett says he's had a change of heart. Reports AP:

Hackett, an Iraq war veteran, said his fight with Rep. Sherrod Brown is over, and the two rallied in Cincinnati on Monday to show their unity. Hackett blamed himself for fomenting discord within the party, saying he suddenly realized last Thursday that he was unnecessarily hurting them both by sulking over the way his primary challenge ended.

"I was cutting my grass and said to myself ... it's totally unproductive for me to be largely responsible for this antagonistic relationship between me and Sherrod," Hackett told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Hackett's about-face in supporting Brown was significant. A month ago, he told the AP that Brown was "puking out the same old garbage" and not inspiring swing voters.

Last October, Brown entered the Senate race a few days after Hackett and immediately had the support of key Senate Democrats such as Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the chairman of the party's Senate campaign committee.

See these links for more on Hackett's political rise and (Democrat-engineered) fall.


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Perhaps Zidane should go cut his grass...

Iraqi Police... Still Corrupt

| Mon Jul. 10, 2006 8:18 PM EDT
After the discovery in November of a secret Interior Ministry detention facility in Baghdad operated by police intelligence officials affiliated with a Shiite Muslim militia, U.S. officials declared 2006 "the year of the police." They vowed a renewed effort to expand and professionalize Iraq's civilian officer corps.
That's from this Los Angeles Times story that ran on Sunday. And how did those efforts to "expand and professionalize" the Iraqi police force turn out?
Brutality and corruption are rampant in Iraq's police force, with abuses including the rape of female prisoners, the release of terrorism suspects in exchange for bribes, assassinations of police officers and participation in insurgent bombings, according to confidential Iraqi government documents detailing more than 400 police corruption investigations.
Bush administration officials have said time and time again that training a competent and professional police force is the key to stabilizing Iraq so that U.S. troops can start leaving the country. As far as anyone can tell, that effort has failed. It's failed over and over again. It failed when it was tried in 2003. It failed when it was tried in 2004. It failed when it was tried last year. But supposedly it will succeed this year. Except… as we learn from a Guardian report today, police units in Baghdad simply stood by and watched yesterday as Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army killed at least 61 Sunnis in Iraq's ongoing civil war.

So now the U.S. military is going to try to fix this problem by… opening up a new front in the war and "conducting operations against the powerful Mahdi Army militia." Is there any strategy here besides attacking with overwhelming force whatever entity happens to be the number one problem of the day and hoping, futilely, that the security forces will magically improve? As Dahr Jamail says, it's hard to point to any bit of evidence that suggests that the United States can stop Iraq from disintegrating further by staying in the country indefinitely.

UPDATE: It's worth reading all the way to the bottom of the LA Times piece. Here's the administration's bold strategy for fixing the police force:

Another senior military official said U.S. policy in regard to the ministry [i.e., the Ministry of Interior, which runs the police force and is infiltrated by Shiite death squads and the like] was confused and disengaged. The official, who asked not to be identified because his comments impugned his superiors, said the Pentagon and State Department had failed to coordinate their efforts and were disengaged from the Iraqi police leaders.

"They sit up there on the 11th floor of the ministry building and don't talk to the Iraqis," the official said of U.S. police trainers assigned to the Interior Ministry headquarters tower. "They say they do policy and [that] it's up to the Iraqis — well, they're just doing nothing. The MOI is the most broken ministry in Iraq."Clap louder.