2007 - %3, February

The Iraq Debate Begins

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 12:08 PM PST

The Senate debate that begins this afternoon is not quite what it seems to be. The resolution is non-binding, and the president's surge already is in full swing. If the Senate votes against Bush, the president can always turn around and say, "Big Deal. I am the commander-in-chief. Go screw yourselves!" And if the surge succeeds, which seems hard to believe, then the president is off the hook.

But if the Senate comes down against the president and the Bush surge flops, then the president will walk the plank. He will be without any credibility as will those Republicans who supported him. So the full import of this vote may be several months off, maybe even 6 months away, dragging Iraq into the middle of the presidential campaign.

The debate takes place against the backdrop of the presidential election and, much less discussed but crucially important for Democratic control of congress, the re-election of 33 members of the Senate. Of that total Republicans are defending 21, the Dems a dozen. A CQ Weekly analysis finds the GOP in danger of losing 6 seats, with the Dems in danger in two states -- Louisiana and South Dakota.

The Dem margin of control is so thin, the two danger spots must be taken seriously. One involveas Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, which she has held with narrow margins. People have left New Orleans which could effect the vote in unknown ways. In South Dakota, Tim Johnson won election in 2002 by 524 votes. He has not fully recovered from his recent brain hemmorrage, and his future seems problematic.

On the other hand, there are any number of Republican senators teetering on the brink: Such moderate Republicans as Maine's Susan Collins and New Hampshire's John Sununu could go down in a Democratic blitz. Wayne Allard is retiring in Colorado and CQ thinks the Dems there could pick up that seat. Dems eye Libby Dole in North Carolina and Gordon Smith in Oregon. And then there is always Al Franken's bid in Minnesota.

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John Edwards Releases Health Care Plan

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 11:35 AM PST

Presidential candidate John Edwards has released his health care proposal, and I'll try to hit the main points here, with the disclaimer up front that I will echo a lot of what Ezra Klein has said on the American Prospect blog.

First of all, health care is still tied to the employer, but not really.  edwards130.jpg Employers have an obligation to purchase health care for every employee either through their current practices or through a "health market," which is a non-profit purchasing pool that offers both private plans and a public one modeled after Medicare. The benefits of these "health markets" are obvious: every employed person has access to public health care if he or she so desires, "health markets" can use economies of scale to get lower premiums, and the competition between public and private plans within a "health market" will drive down prices. There is even the possibility of a single-payer future. As the Edwards plan puts it, "This American solution will reward the sector that offers the best care at the best price. Over time, the system may evolve toward a single-payer approach if individuals and businesses prefer the public plan."

It's a fairly neat mix of the public sector and the private sector, and it relies on the market to drive down costs instead of government protections, so it might have some appeal to Republicans. But what about Americans who don't have jobs? They will be given tax credits so they will be able to purchase their own plan through the same "health markets" the business use. Also, Medicaid will be expanded to insure low-income Americans are taken care of.

You can read the whole thing in PDF format here. There's a whole bunch of stuff in there about how Edwards plans on helping doctors do their jobs better and more inexpensively, but because that part matters less to the vast majority of Americans, it will probably get little coverage. It will be interesting to see how the insurance lobby reacts to all this.

Can Brainiacs Save the War in Iraq?

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 7:55 AM PST

That's the question asked in a Washington Post article that says new Iraq commander David Petraeus has put war planning in the hands of a team of "warrior-intellectuals" who have been leading critics of the way the Army has operated for the last three years.

In effect, the war has been turned over to a special group of dissidents -- "military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq" -- who are being told, "Here, you try." The new counter-insurgency chief is "an outspoken officer in the Australian Army" who "holds a PhD in anthropology, for which he studied Islamic extremism in Indonesia." Petraeus' executive officer "received a PhD at Ohio State for a dissertation on how U.S. Army infantry divisions were developed during World War II." One of Petraeus' advisors is based at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and wrote a book "about the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War."

This infusion of talent is undoubtedly a good thing, but one wonders (1) why it took so long to get the Army's most qualified people on the scene, and (2) if even the military's best brain trust can save a bad situation. The Post article quotes two professors as saying Petraeus' new plan is inevitably destined for failure because the conditions on Iraq are past the point of redemption.

Leigh was thinking the same way last week when she wrote that Petraeus is being set up to fail.

If we fail in Iraq it will no longer be the fault of the Bush administration's years of incompetence before, during and after the war (all of which is thoroughly documented in the Mother Jones timeline). This is the same criticism that has been made about Bush's escalation of troops, that the administration can claim, "we sent 20,000 troops, what more can we do?" Now, they have an even better scapegoat -- the most revered General in the United States Army. That seems fair. "Look, if Petraeus couldn't do it, there was nothing more that possibly could have been done," they'll say, as they wipe their hands clean. What is even more infuriating is that maybe it can be done, maybe Petraeus' insurgency doctrine has all the answers or he has several other tricks up his sleeve. But if the administration's past actions have been any indication of how well they support their military leaders in Iraq, it doesn't matter what the doctrine looks like, Petraeus won't be given the resources or the freedom to show us how talented he really is.

Electronic Museum

| Sun Feb. 4, 2007 1:18 PM PST

I don't much like to buy shoes online. The color can be different in person, and the shoes may not fit right. But more and more art buyers are buying works valued in seven figures via email, the New York Times reports. Buyers make their decisions based on JPEG images, or compressed digital photographs. Many are motivated by a sense of urgency, partly generated by other buyers' virtual purchasing habits, which eliminates time spent on transcontinental flights.

Many buyers use JPEGs at some point in the buy-sell dance. But some by-pass the dance altogether. As the Times piece delves deeper, it suggests that the latter are brand name-seekers. As a result hot new artists, like Claire Sherman, who graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago 2 years ago, are particularly likely to sell their works sight-unseen.

In another interesting twist, the prestigious Gagosian Gallery recently posted JPEG images of an exhibit on a password-protected section of its website, and emailed the password only to posh buyers. No newcomers allowed.

The funny thing about JPEGs is that they reveal no texture, and the color of the works can be altered significantly depending on the computer monitor. Can you imagine buying, say, a De Kooning—well, at all, but especially without seeing the brushstrokes? Will the advent of the JPEG lead artists to forego texture an a non-value adding proposition? Maybe buyers should purchase the JPEG itself—plus, of course, a JPEG of the artist's signature.

It's Just Starting Now, Baby Blue

| Sun Feb. 4, 2007 11:47 AM PST

Joni Mitchell has always been a bit earnest for my taste, but I can only hope to rock at 63 like the singer-songwriter is now. As an anti-war mixed media show closes in L.A., a ballet partially choreographed by Ms. Mitchell is set to open in Calgary and a new album is nearing release. The New York Times has a long profile of the folk heroine, written after an all-night interview.

Support Our Troops (Except for the Gay Ones)

| Sat Feb. 3, 2007 11:46 PM PST

A new Harris Poll shows that just over half of Americans, 55%, think gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Which means that nearly half think they shouldn't.

Nineteen percent said that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve "only if they keep their sexual orientation a secret," and nearly one in five, 18%, said gays and lesbians should "not be allowed to serve in the military at all."

So, sexual politics trumps national security then? Do we want a secure border, a stable Afghanistan, a contained Iraq? Not if it means homosexuals are given guns. Is that rational? Sexual prejudice aside, the military needs all the bodies it can get, and if someone is willing to volunteer for what are surely dire deployments, shouldn't those of us armchairing it applaud each and every one of them? How does sexuality hamper military performance? I mean, I may not agree with polygamy but I wouldn't propose we prevent practicing Mormons from entering the fray.

The poll also asked Americans about the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prohibits the military from asking personnel about their sexual orientation, but allows homosexuality to be a cause for discharge. Forty-six percent of respondents said they oppose the policy, no more and no less than the 46% who opposed it when asked in 2000. More than a third, 36%, said they favor the policy, up from 34% seven years ago.

What, I wonder, are we so afraid of? Yes, I'm asking. Do tell.

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California Sues Automakers Over Global Warming

| Sat Feb. 3, 2007 11:50 AM PST

California's newly elected attorney general, Jerry Brown, will continue a suit filed by former AG Bill Lockyer against U.S. and Japanese automakers for contributing to global warming.

The United States as a whole is the largest single producer of greenhouse gases. California alone ranks 12th, with automobiles producing most of the emissions.

Automakers cannot claim they didn't know, nor can they claim that technology won't allow them to make more fuel efficient vehicles. As alarm about global warming has increased over the last 10 years, gas mileage in U.S.-made cars has decreased.

The suit is seeking monetary compensation for the millions of dollars the state will have to shell out to offset the effects of global warming, which, among other things, may include an endangered water supply.

The Planet is Dying, Exxon is Unabashed

| Sat Feb. 3, 2007 11:21 AM PST

Polar bears stranded on ice drifts, looking like dogs abandoned by their owners. Your favorite beach underwater before you can take your grandchildren there. Species die-offs. Scorching summers. Deadly droughts.

Sounds melodramatic, perhaps, but it's fact. Inexorable fact. Our only hope is that it won't be worse. I don't think it's overstating to call this the greatest moral imperative of our lifetime since, well, our lifetimes depend on it.

But Exxon is unabashed. The Guardian reports that the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank funded and led by Exxon, has offered scientists $10,000 apiece to uncover weaknesses in the UN report on climate change released yesterday. The report states with 90 percent certainty that humans are at fault for climate change, and that changes already in motion will continue for centuries.

(Do I need to repeat that Mother Jones broke the news that Exxon funded climate change denial, and has been following the story closely ever since?)

Iran Becomes Campaign Issue, Edwards First to State Position

| Sat Feb. 3, 2007 10:00 AM PST

The Prospect's Ezra Klein cornered John Edwards yesterday and got him to clarify some of the tough speechifying he has been doing in front of pro-Israel groups like AIPAC. The concern Klein had was that Edwards' extremely strong support of Israel could be interpreted as more saber-rattling at Iran, and this would indicate that Edwards didn't properly learn the lesson of Iraq -- namely, "toppling Middle Eastern governments, occupying their societies, and trying to impose pluralistic democracy is an almost impossible endeavor, one with far more potential for catastrophe than completion" -- and that it wasn't that Iraq was a mistake, but that invading or attacking anyone in that region, most importantly Iran, invites disaster.

In forcing Edwards to state where he stands on Iran, Klein has made Iran a campaign issue: every serious candidate will have to state his or her plan for dealing with the country. Here's Edwards:

...you have a radical leader, Ahmadinejad, who is politically unstable in his own country. The political elite have begun to leave him, the religious leaders have begun to leave him, the people aren't happy with him, for at least two reasons: one, they don't like his sort of bellicose rhetoric, and second, he was elected on a platform of economic reform and helping the poor and the middle class, and he hasn't done anything. In fact, while he was traveling, the leaders of the legislature sent him a letter saying, 'when are you gonna pay attention to the economic problems of our country.' So, I think we have an opportunity here that we need to be taking advantage of.
First, America should be negotiating directly with Iran, which Bush won't do. Second, we need to get our European friends, not just the banking system, but the governments themselves, to help us do two things -- put a group, a system of carrots and sticks on the table. The carrots are, we'll make nuclear fuel available to you, we'll control the cycle, but you can use it for any civilian purpose. Second, an economic package, which I don't think has been seriously proposed up until now. Because there economy is already struggling, and it would be very attractive to them. And then on the flip side, the stick side, to say if you don't do that, there are going to be more serious economic sanctions than you've seen up until now. Now of course we need the Europeans for this, cause they're the ones with the economic relationship with Iran, but the whole purpose of this is number one to get an agreement. Number two, to isolate this radical leader so that the moderates and those within the country who want to see Iran succeed economically, can take advantage of it.
Now that's on the one hand, the flip side of this is what happens if America were to militarily strike Iran? Well you take this unstable, radical leader, and you make him a hero -- that's the first thing that'll happen. The Iranian people will rally around him. The second thing that will happen is they will retaliate. And they have certainly some potential for retaliating here in the United States through some of these terrorist organizations they're close to, but we've got over a hundred thousand people right next door. And most people believe that they have an infrastructure for retaliation inside Iraq. So, that's the second thing that'll happen. And the third thing is there are a lot of analysts who believe that an air strike or a missile strike is not enough to be successful. To be successful we'd actually have to have troops on the ground, and where in the world would they come from? So, to me, this is the path...

The emphasis is mine, of course. The blogosphere will deconstruct this in the coming days, I'm sure, but Edwards' main points are now clear: negotiate with Iran, use a combination of incentives and threats, and don't make the mistake of attacking militarily.

The Death Penalty: Still "Freakish" After all These Years

| Fri Feb. 2, 2007 6:56 PM PST

In a 1972 opinion, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that the death penalty should not "be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed." Thirty five years later his words still resonate.

Take lethal injection.

Nothing more clearly demonstrates how haphazardly the deadly cocktail is administered than yesterday's revelation in Tennessee. Turns out that the state, which has 102 prisoners on death row, doesn't have written guidelines listing the appropriate dosage amounts of the three chemicals used during executions. Instead, such details have been passed from prison guard to prison guard, through "oral tradition." Oral tradition? Are we suddenly talking about handing down the secret family recipe for apple pie? This is insane.

Tennessee's governor, Phil Bresdesen (a Dem) says he remains a steadfast "supporter of the death penalty", but admits that this is a "huge failing." And with four men scheduled to die within the next 90 days he has issued a moratorium on capital punishment, at least until May.

Tennessee's moratorium comes after similar developments in Arkansas, Florida, Delaware, California, Missouri, Maryland, Ohio, South Dakota and North Carolina.

Which state will be next?

-- Celia Perry