2008 - %3, November

Georgia and Ukraine

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 10:07 PM EST

GEORGIA AND UKRAINE....This is just weird:

The United States has started an unexpected diplomatic initiative in Europe, urging NATO allies to offer Georgia and Ukraine membership in the alliance without going through a lengthy process and fulfilling a long list of requirements, NATO diplomats said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has had long telephone conversations with French, German and other senior European envoys, asking them to agree to bypass the formal application process, the diplomats said.

Just a few months ago the U.S. couldn't even persuade NATO to offer Georgia and Ukraine a roadmap for membership, let alone membership itself. Now, after a war in Georgia and a government collapse in Ukraine, and with the Bush administration on its last legs, Rice thinks she can somehow talk the rest of the alliance into offering them expedited entry? Am I missing something here?

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The Mystery Man

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 9:29 PM EST

THE MYSTERY MAN....So who was the anonymous Republican senator who told Politico's Roger Simon that McCain ran a lousy campaign, Bush has been a lousy president, the GOP needs to pay more attention to Hispanics and less to Sarah Palin, and the era of small government is over? The betting line here is Mel Martinez. Anybody have a better guess?

Via Eric Alterman.

Holbrooke to Islamabad?

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 9:11 PM EST

HOLBROOKE TO ISLAMABAD?....Spencer Ackerman thinks Barack Obama ought to ask Richard Holbrooke to be his ambassador to Iraq:

Is there any U.S. diplomat more qualified than Holbrooke — a former U.N. ambassador, among other things — to preside over and cajole the creation of a national sectarian political compact in Iraq? Unlike anyone else in the U.S. foreign policy community, Holbrooke actually did this before, in the middle of a Balkan shooting war, and he's given a lot of thought to the ways in which his Balkan experience is relevant to Iraq. If we're to take seriously the idea that the U.S. needs energetic diplomatic action to broker a political settlement in Iraq to accompany withdrawal, there isn't really anyone else for the job.

Sure, but here's another thought. If he's willing to stay on, why not keep Ryan Crocker in the job and ask Holbrooke to go to Pakistan? Crocker gets pretty good marks from everyone and he already knows the lay of the land in Baghdad, while Pakistan is really ground zero these days for a hard ass diplomat who can figure out a way to get people who hate each other's guts to somehow work together. For my money, it's the most important diplomatic post in the world right now.

Joan Baez: Two 20-Somethings on a 60s Icon

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 4:20 PM EST

joan-baez-250x200.jpgIn 1959 Joan Baez was a pint-sized college dropout with a hell of a lot of hair playing her folk tunes in pretty much any Boston club that would have her. Once the sixties came—well, we know the rest—Baez met Bob Dylan, and she quickly became the darling of the nascent protest folk-rock scene. Her soprano reworkings of classic spirituals and folk songs became the soundtrack by which a generation remembers their youth.

Today, the 67 year-old Baez refuses to become a relic. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of her recording career, Baez has released The Day After Tomorrow, a new album of covers drawn from sources such as Elvis Costello and Thea Gilmore. (In true Baez style, the title track is a cover of Tom Waits' classic wartime ode to a disheartened soldier.)

Two of us MoJo staffers caught Baez during the last leg of her recent national tour. Later, we discussed via gchat how the rebel-rousing folksinger translates from legend to the stage. Full disclosure: Neither of us was even in utero during the sixties.

How Bad Is It?

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 1:57 PM EST

HOW BAD IS IT?....Andy McCarthy asks:

The Worst Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression?

That's the Obamanomics mantra. Should be we really be letting that slide by without a response? Going to high school in the Carter Seventies, I remember sitting in the gas lines. Toward the end of Carter's tenure, interest rates were around 20%, inflation was at close to 14%, and unemployment was just over 7% (it soared over 10% before the Reagan recovery kicked in).

I don't mean to minimize the straits we're in, and I appreciate that things are likely to get worse — maybe a lot worse — before they get better. But aren't Democrats skipping over a pretty awful bit of history when they say this is as bad as it's been in 75 years?

Well, look: interest rates hit 20% because Paul Volcker put them there in order to fight inflation. But it's not inflation that that's the measure of a recession, it's output growth and employment. And at least at the moment, the projections for output and employment over the next year are about as bad as they were in 1980-82 — and that's even without an oil shock to kick things off. Add to that the fact that the financial system is collapsing worldwide, entire countries are going bankrupt, a couple of dozen really big banks have gone bust, and credit markets are still frozen despite trillions of dollar in various interventions from national governments, and yeah, I'd say this is the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Does anybody really want to take the other side of that debate?

Atlas Hedged

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 1:31 PM EST

ATLAS HEDGED....Via Alex Tabarrok, McSweeney's presents "Atlas Shrugged Updated for the Current Financial Crisis":

"Damn it, Dagny! I need the government to get out of the way and let me do my job!"

She sat across the desk from him. She appeared casual but confident, a slim body with rounded shoulders like an exquisitely engineered truss. How he hated his debased need for her, he who loathed self-sacrifice but would give up everything he valued to get in her pants ... Did she know?

"I heard the thugs in Washington were trying to take your Rearden metal at the point of a gun," she said. "Don't let them, Hank. With your advanced alloy and my high-tech railroad, we'll revitalize our country's failing infrastructure and make big, virtuous profits."

"Oh, no, I got out of that suckers' game. I now run my own hedge-fund firm, Rearden Capital Management."

Your mileage may vary, especially if you haven't read Atlas Shrugged. I thought it was pretty funny.

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SOFA Update

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 12:28 PM EST

SOFA UPDATE....The Iraqi parliament has postponed its vote on a security agreement with the United States. The holdup comes, unsurprisingly, from the Sunni bloc:

Rashid Azzawi, a parliament member with the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the Tawafiq parties, said members of the bloc would boycott today's session if they did not receive promises that their demands would be met.

"The most important demand is the political process reform. We have demanded the Iraqi government not allow any side to monopolize decision-making," he said, reflecting Sunni fear of being marginalized in the parliament by the majority Shiites and the Kurds.

Azzawi also said Sunni lawmakers wanted amnesty for detainees in U.S. custody, who number about 16,000 and are overwhelmingly Sunni. In addition, he said, Tawafiq wanted a national referendum on the pact, even if the parliament passed it. If the public voted against the pact, he said, the Iraqi government would be obliged to cancel it.

I have a hard time seeing Maliki accede to a referendum on the agreement, but the amnesty and political reform demands can probably be fudged enough to get the Sunnis on board. Alternately, Maliki could just decide to go ahead without their votes and pass the agreement solely with votes from the Kurdish bloc and his own Shiite bloc. Juan Cole has more.

Iraqi Parliament to Vote Today on "Status of Forces Agreement"

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 11:40 AM EST

The Iraqi Parliament is expected to vote today on the "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA), a document that, if passed, will establish guidelines for US forces in Iraq and, more importantly, set a timetable for their withdrawal. Washington and Baghdad signed on to a draft of the agreement earlier this month. If it is accepted today by at least 138 of the 275 members of Iraq's parliament, the document will then go to the Iraqi presidential council for final approval. SOFA, which the Iraqis are already informally calling "the withdrawal agreement," mandates that US forces pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and leave the country entirely by December 31, 2011, effectively ending the US occupation of Iraq.

According to Peter Galbraith, a senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, who has written extensively on the American occupation for the New York Review of Books, the agreement represents "a stunning and humiliating reversal of course by the Bush administration, which had vehemently opposed any timetable for withdrawal from Iraq." But things change, and especially with Barack Obama's impending inauguration, SOFA is perhaps more acceptable to the current administration than leaving the timetable for withdrawal entirely in the hands of its successor. "The signing of this agreement, along with the election of a new president who ran on a platform to end the war in Iraq, suggests that anti-Iraq efforts have not been in vain," says John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World. "The agreement reflects the views held by the majority of Iraqis and Americans that it is time for US combat forces to start getting out of Iraq."

Still, not all Iraqis are eager to see US forces leave. A Sunni bloc within the Iraqi Parliament, joined by a few renegade Kurds, are said to be holding out on ratification of SOFA. Their primary concern is "how they'll be treated by the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki" once US forces depart, according to today's Wall Street Journal. Iraqi Sunnis formed the bulk of the insurgency in past years, but have more recently become partners in the American occupation, primarily to counter the ascendance of Shiite parties. US and Iraqi officials have been negotiating for Sunni support in the final hours leading up to today's vote.

Galbraith shares in the Sunnis' concern. "For the last two years, President Bush has pretended that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a democrat and an American ally," he says. "In fact, Maliki is a sectarian Shiite politician who heads a government dominated by pro-Iranian religious parties. The US presence is now no longer serves the interests of Iraq's ruling Shiite religious parties or their Iranian allies, so we are now being asked to leave."

UPDATE: The Iraqi parliament has decided to put off the vote until tomorrow morning, allowing more time for SOFA's backers to persuade opponents of the agreement.

When His Lips Move

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 2:58 AM EST

WHEN HIS LIPS MOVE....Fred Kaplan warns us not to trust a single word that Donald Rumsfeld writes:

During his six years as defense secretary, Rumsfeld famously wrote hundreds, maybe thousands, of memos to subordinates — they fell so rapidly from on high that his aides called them "snowflakes." According to several officials, many of these snowflakes contradicted one another; he seemed to be staking out several positions on key issues so that he could later claim that he'd taken the right side. In his forthcoming memoirs, he will no doubt quote chapter and verse from just the right snowflakes. Readers, be forewarned — he's blotting out the full storm.

Read the whole thing. He's already got a couple of examples and Rumsfeld's book hasn't even been written yet.

The Cost of the Bailout

| Wed Nov. 26, 2008 2:52 AM EST

THE COST OF THE BAILOUT....Here's a sentence from the Guardian today:

The glut of government initiatives, which included a $326bn bail-out of Citigroup on Monday....

Can we please stop this? Calling this a "$326 billion" bailout is crazy. It's a $20 billion capital injection plus a bunch of asset guarantees with a maximum cost of $250 billion and a probable cost in the low billions. (Possibly zero, in fact.) The capital will probably be repaid eventually, but even if it isn't it's highly unlikely that Uncle Sam is on the hook for more than $30-40 billion.

This stuff has gotten completely out of hand, with "estimates" of the bailout these days ranging from $3 trillion to $7 trillion even though the vast bulk of this sum comes in the form of loan guarantees, lending facilities, and capital injections. The government will almost certainly end up spending a lot of money rescuing the financial system (I wouldn't be surprised if the final tab comes to $1 trillion over five years, maybe $2 trillion at the outside), but it's not $7 trillion or anything close to it. People really need to stop throwing around these numbers as if the bailout is comparable to World War II or something. That's not reality based, folks.