2006 - %3, July

Collective Punishment in Gaza

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 7:20 PM EDT

Over at the Progressive, editor Matthew Rothschild denounces Israel's decision to collectively punish the Palestinians in Gaza--Israeli forces have targeted bridges and the area's sole power plant--in retaliation for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, and he criticizes the Bush administration for averting its gaze. Predictably, the piece has elicited some strongly worded reader feedback. Agree or disagree with his analysis--though at a minimum it's hard to see how the Israeli response is remotely "proportionate"—but do take a look.

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Iraq Will Cost $1.27 Trillion and the Army Can't Afford to Pay Its Electric Bills

| Thu Jul. 6, 2006 6:02 PM EDT

Here's one to file under "If we're the most powerful nation in the history of the world, then how come...?" AP reports that "a diversion of dollars to help fight the war in Iraq has helped create a $530 million shortfall for Army posts at home and abroad, leaving some unable to pay utility bills or even cut the grass."

From which follows a sorry litany of deprivations, including these:

  • In San Antonio, Fort Sam Houston hasn't been able to pay its $1.4 million monthly utility bill since March, prompting workers in many of the post's administrative buildings to get automated disconnection notices.
  • Fort Bragg in North Carolina can't afford to buy pens, paper or other office supplies until the new fiscal year starts in October.
  • And in Kentucky, Fort Knox had to close one of its eight dining halls for a month and lay off 133 contract workers.
  • Iraq sucking up disproportionate funds is not the whole problem, though. Also at work is good old-fashioned incompetence. "It makes me worry if the Pentagon can't do its accounting well enough to find money for its electric bills," [Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution] said. "It just boggles my mind a little bit."

    (Oh, and per this piece in the The American Prospect, the Iraq war looks like it'll end up costing $1.27 trillion.)

    Is Congress Doing Enough to Clean Itself Up? Can You Guess?

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 5:29 PM EDT

    Six months ago, Jack Abramoff pled guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, upon which members of Congress, evincing much faux outrage, lamented the corrupting influence of lobbyist-paid travel, meals, and gifts, and the immorality of earmarking, and issued loud calls for wholesale ethics reform.

    It's now July, and, as the Washington Post recently reported, the "call for lobbying changes is a fading cry." (Which is another way of saying lawmakers were never interested in reform and have all along assumed the public would lose interest in the subject, allowing them to resume business as usual.)

    [Lobbying reform] legislation has slowed to a crawl. Along the way, proposals such as [Speaker Dennis] Hastert's that would sharply limit commonplace behavior on Capitol Hill have been cast aside. Committee chairmen once predicted the bill would be finished in March, but the Senate did not pass its ethics bill until March 29 and the House passed its version May 3. The House has yet to name negotiators to draft the final package.

    Legislators and public-interest group advocates say the most likely result this year is a minimalist package that would allow members to say they have responded to the Abramoff situation and other scandals but would do little to crimp their ability to accept lobbyist favors.

    The change, these people say, reflects a calculation that the political storm has mostly passed and that the need for more intrusive efforts to alter the congressional culture and the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship is less urgent.

    Of course, how urgent the efforts are is a direct function of how much heat representatives get from the folks back home. In an admirable attempt to gauge the public mood and send a message to Capitol Hill, the Sunlight Foundation has just posted an online poll asking Americans if they think Congress is doing enough to address ethics and lobbying reform. You can do your bit by taking the poll here.

    Cheney Profiting Off Bad News?

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 4:20 PM EDT

    Where's Dick Cheney investing his money these days? See here. Apparently he's betting that the Bush administration's large deficits will drive down the dollar, drive up interest rates, and cause inflation. Who knew?

    Censoring the Military Embeds

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 3:40 PM EDT

    One could devote a lifetime—or at least the better part of a year—to chronicling all the propaganda-like tricks the Bush administration and the military have pursued over the past few years. Here's a new one, courtesy of Rod Norland, Newsweek's former bureau chief:

    The military has started censoring many [embedded reporting] arrangements. Before a journalist is allowed to go on an embed now, [the military] check[s] the work you have done previously. They want to know your slant on a story — they use the word slant — what you intend to write, and what you have written from embed trips before. If they don't like what you have done before, they refuse to take you. There are cases where individual reporters have been blacklisted because the military wasn't happy with the work they had done on embed.
    What's fun here is that the two sides in the ongoing debate over the Iraq war can see this development with radically different eyes. The pro-war camp—that is, the camp that believes that the war's basically going well despite some setbacks, and that we can pacify Iraq and "win" if only the American public would just backbone up for the long haul, and that only the media can "lose" this war by reporting too much bad news and causing people to doubt the wisdom of the occupation—well, they'll likely applaud this decision and say that the military has no obligation to take on reporters working at cross-purposes with the war effort.

    The anti-war camp, of course, will say that accurate reporting is necessary so that the public can see that this war is an utter failure and our continuing presence only making things worse and getting people killed, and that having the military censor the media will only obfuscate that reality and prolong our futile presence in Iraq. I'm certainly of that camp, and think the accuracy of those "cheerleading" journalists who would no doubt be approved by military censors tends to leave much to be desired… Needless to say, this isn't a good development at all.

    A Picture of Iraqi School Life

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 2:59 PM EDT

    Today's Washington Post features a riveting article on a subject little-broached in the American media—namely, the everyday lives of Iraqis, in this case Iraqi university students. The picture is not a pretty one:

    The letter was slipped under the dean's office door, in an envelope slightly bulging from the AK-47 bullet tucked inside.

    "You have to understand our circumstances. We cannot perform well on the exam because of the problems in Baghdad. And you have to help," the letter began, said its recipient, A.M. Taleb, dean of the College of Sciences at Baghdad University. "If you do not, you and your family will be killed."

    It's finals time in Iraq. Black-clad gunmen have stormed a dormitory to snatch students from their rooms. Professors fear failing and angering their pupils. Administrators curtailed graduation ceremonies to avoid convening large groups of people into an obvious bombing target. Perhaps nowhere else does the prospect of two months' summer vacation -- for those who can afford it, a chance to flee the country -- bring such unbridled relief.

    The article reports that female students at the university have been targets of intimidation, forced to dress and act more conservatively lest they come under attack by the religious extremists increasingly prevalent on the campus. It's not news that Iraqi women have suffered disproportionately from the violence engulfing their country. A report published by Human Rights Watch last October declared, "The violence and lack of security has had a major impact on Iraqi women, who once enjoyed a public role in the country's social and political life." Meanwhile, allegations of the abuse of Iraqi women by American soldiers had surfaced long before the recent investigation into an alleged rape and murder in Mahmudiya.

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    Global warming tied to forest fires

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 2:56 PM EDT

    A government-supported study hits the internets today connecting global warming to the increase, in recent years, in the number of large western wildfires.

    AP reports:

    Beginning about 1987, there was a change from infrequent fires averaging about one week in duration to more frequent ones that often burned five weeks or more, [researchers] reported. The length of the wildfire season was extended by 78 days.

    The researchers said the changes appear to be linked to annual spring and summer temperatures, with many more wildfires burning in hotter years than in cooler years.

    They also found a connection between early arrivals of the spring snowmelt in the mountainous regions and the incidence of large forest fires. An earlier snowmelt, they said, can lead to an earlier and longer dry season, which provides greater opportunities for large fires.

    Says one researcher, "The increase in large wildfires appears to be another part of a chain of reactions to climate warming," while another calls the findings "one of the first big indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States."

    As the AP story notes, researchers say part of the increase is likely a function of natural fluctuations, but evidence also links it to the effects of human-induced climate warming. The report appears today in the journal Science.

    While we're on the subject, check out Mother Jones' recent special issue on global warming.

    Good news for whales (for a change)

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 2:14 PM EDT

    We've been pretty short on good oceans-related news of late, but here's an exception! On Monday a district judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the use of high-intensity sonar by the U.S. Navy during its war games now taking place off Hawaii. She gave the Navy and the Natural Resources Defense Council until July 12 to meet and discuss a possible settlement ahead of a July 18 hearing. (NRDC and other organizations filed suit asking for the restraining order last week.)

    98_01_200x281.jpg

    As we've reported in the past, Navy sonar has been directly implicated in mass strandings and deaths of whales, dolphins, and other marine species.

    whale_muffs.jpg
    (Note: Before anyone asks, these here marine mammals are not really wearing ear muffs; the image has been photoshopped.)

    The decision comes three days after the Pentagon saw fit to declare the Navy exempt from the Marine Mammals Protection Act, which requires that steps be taken to avoid harm to marine mammals.

    In her ruling, District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper wrote that environmentalists had submitted "considerable convincing scientific evidence that the Navy's use of...sonar can kill, injure and disturb many species, including marine mammals."

    A bad day for gay marriage

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 1:57 PM EDT

    Yesterday was a big (bad) day for the cause of gay marriage rights. Georgia's top court reinstated the state's constitutional ban on same. New York's highest court decided that same-sex marriage is not permitted under state law. And a conservative group, American Family Association of Michigan, sued to stop Michigan State University from offering health insurance to the partners of gay and lesbian workers. The group hopes to establish a precedent blocking domestic partner benefits at other state universities.

    What do they do, sell the stuff on Ebay?

    | Thu Jul. 6, 2006 3:06 AM EDT

    It's always fun, the annual roundup of gift-giving to U.S. officials from foreign dignitaries; under current ethics rules, presents worth more than $305 are considered property of the U.S. government while those less than that are the recipient's to keep, though exactly what you'd do with "a 16-inch bronze statuette of an Arab man helping a woman from a bath, mounted on a black-slate base, valued at $300" is not entirely clear (you'd have to ask former CIA head George Tenet, who got the artwork from an unnamed foreign official). Hillary Clinton turned a Versace wallet she was given in India over to the State Department, whose rummage sales must be something to see. Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, didn't get to keep the $380 aromatherapy gift set he got from the Jordanian royals around Christmas '04. Pity that.