2009 - %3, January

Reversing Itself, GM Will Source Volt Engines Abroad

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 10:37 AM PST

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So much for GM's Green Revolution. Reuters reports that General Motors has suspended work on its $370 million Chevy Volt engine plant in Flint, Michigan and will source the engines from abroad until it figures out how to cut costs and restructure. Given that the Volt's batteries will come from Korea, it's unclear at this point what part of GM's electric car is actually going to be American. Before the automaker was pledged $13.4 billion in government loans, we heard a lot about how it would reinvent itself through clean tech. Could that just be more hot carbon dioxide?

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Withdrawing From Iraq

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 9:46 AM PST

WITHDRAWING FROM IRAQ....General Ray Odierno, the top field commander in Iraq, thinks we can reduce forces there by no more than two brigades over the next six months. Then we need to wait until 2010 before making any further decisions: "I believe that if we can get through the next year peacefully, with incidents about what they are today or better, I think we're getting close to enduring stability, which enables us to really reduce," he said. Marc Lynch isn't impressed:

The politics of this aside, I think that Odierno's intention of keeping troops in Iraq through the national elections is dangerously wrong. The CFR/Brookings/Odierno "go slow" approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer — which may well fail if there is no sign of departing American troops.

....This strategy is also a recipe for endless delay....Senior Iraqi officials have suggested that the national elections, which Odierno suggests as the point when drawdowns might begin, may well not be held until March 2010. I don't think that 16 months is a sacred number. But what Odierno is proposing is no significant drawdowns for 14 months, followed by another period of wrangling. This could ironically make the "rush for the exits" that everyone wants to avoid more rather than less likely — whether or not it leads to the failure of the SOFA referendum.

There's always something a year down the road that we should wait for before pulling troops out. Provincial elections. Stability. SOFA. National elections. You name it. But at some point we need to demonstrate to the Iraqis that we're really pulling out and they need to take the transition seriously. It's well past time for that.

Obama also has a lot of credibility at stake over this. He said during the campaign that he wanted to withdraw within 16 months, and while there's a lot of room to fudge there, he still needs to show that he's serious about that. It may end up being 24 months instead of 16, and the residual force he leaves behind may end up comprising tens of thousands of troops, but he still needs to start. He needs to show the world that his word is good.

Will Obama Release The Remaining "Torture Memos"?

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 9:22 AM PST

After 9/11, the Justice Department became a "War on Terror" memo factory, churning out legal justifications for torture, illegal wiretapping, detention of prisoners, and on and on. Some of the memos have been declassified, thanks largely to lawsuits brought by the ACLU. But many have not. ProPublica has assembled a comprehensive list, sorted by author, date, and subject, showing those that have been made public and those that remain state secrets. The question now is whether President Obama, in his efforts to break with past government counterterrorism-related excesses, will choose to declassify the remaining memos. It would surely make compelling reading...

Blackwater To Lose Iraq Operating License

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 9:19 AM PST

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The Iraqi government, taking advantage of the autonomy granted by the Status of Forces Agreement that went into effect January 1, has informed US officials that it will not be renewing Blackwater's operating license, according to this morning's Washington Post. This does not come as a shock—the firm has been in Baghdad's sights since at least September 2007, when its contractors opened fire in a traffic circle, killing 17 and wounding 24 others. The Iraqi government's first attempt to boot Blackwater from the country came just days after the shootings when it revoked the company's license, but US officials (enjoying a bit more authority at the time) simply ignored the order and went on to reaffirm Blackwater's presence the following April, much to the Iraqis' displeasure.

Blackwater has a short grace period as Baghdad finishes a draft of new guidelines that will govern the operations of private contractors. As Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Adbul-Karim Khalaf told the Post, "When the work of this committee ends, [private firms] will be under the authority of the Iraqi government, and those companies that don't have licenses, such as Blackwater, should leave immediately."

Don't expect Blackwater to cry in its milk. The firm foresaw the eventuality of leaving Iraq and is in the throes of planning new lines of business, particularly in the area of military training. Guarding VIPs in war zones, as it turned out, was a politically dodgy business, despite the fact that Blackwater has never lost a client. As a pair of Blackwater execs told me a few months ago, the firm will be only too happy to move on to less controversial work.


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from abej2004.

So Every House Republican Voted Against Stimulus. What Do We Learn?

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 7:52 AM PST

barack-obama-sad-250x200.jpg Right now, the new era of bipartisanship in Washington is unilateral.

The massive stimulus package passed the House yesterday with zero Republican votes. Obama, who had hoped for a widely supported bill, got stonewalled despite doing three things: (1) fashioning roughly 1/3 of the package out of tax cuts, which the GOP loves; (2) going to the House Republican caucus and asking for their input; and (3) pulling provisions from the bill that Republicans didn't like (see previous post). House Republicans acknowledged all of this, thanked the President, talked smack about the House Democrats, and voted against the bill anyway.

So what does Obama do now?

About that Much-Maligned Birth Control Provision In the Stimulus...

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 7:17 AM PST

You know, the one that the White House had removed from the bill after everyone on the Right mocked it for funding condoms instead of economic recovery. (Democrats should have just left it in; taking it out enticed exactly zero House Republicans to vote for the bill.) Turns out, it would have saved the states $200 million that they could budget for other things. Here's the New York Times:

The White House encouraged other gestures as well. As the House version of the legislation came to the floor on Tuesday, Democrats stripped from it a provision that Republicans had ridiculed as having nothing to do with economic stimulus, one expanding federal Medicaid coverage of family planning services. (The Congressional Budget Office had estimated that the provision would actually save the government $200 million over five years by reducing pregnancy and postnatal-care expenses.)

But hey, Drudge put up a big headline making fun of it and the Republicans are really, really good at choosing one provision of a massive bill and using it to play PR games. So don't try to defend it. Just back down. Much less trouble that way.

Update: All sarcasm aside, Katha Pollitt has some very wise things to say on this subject.

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Diplomatic Pouch

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 11:38 PM PST

DIPLOMATIC POUCH....The Guardian reports that the Obama administration plans to send a letter to the Iranian leadership:

The US state department has been working on drafts of the letter since Obama was elected on 4 November last year. It is in reply to a lengthy letter of congratulations sent by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on 6 November.

Diplomats said Obama's letter would be a symbolic gesture to mark a change in tone from the hostile one adopted by the Bush administration, which portrayed Iran as part of an "axis of evil".

....State department officials have composed at least three drafts of the letter, which gives assurances that Washington does not want to overthrow the Islamic regime, but merely seeks a change in its behaviour. The letter would be addressed to the Iranian people and sent directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or released as an open letter.

An accompanying story suggests that the letter "represents a determined break from past US policy," but then strikes a less hopeful tone: "There is one thing everyone agrees on — it is impossible to do any kind of business with the current Iranian president. Ahmadinejad's speech in Kermanshah yesterday, demanding complete US withdrawal from all overseas deployments, clearly illustrated that." Stay tuned.

Nyet!

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 7:04 PM PST

NYET!....The Obama administration wants to extend the February 17 deadline for TV stations to switch from analog to digital transmissions. I don't have a strong opinion about the merits of this delay, but check out the results of the roll call vote in Congress:

[Joe] Barton led the push to scuttle the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously on Monday night after lawmakers in that chamber struck a bipartisan compromise....But those concessions did not placate most Republicans in the House. Only 22 Republicans voted for the bill, while 155 voted against it.

So here we have a relatively nonideological issue. It went through a modest amount of give-and-take and a compromise was struck. And the result? 100% of Senate Republicans voted in favor but 90% of House Republicans voted against. Shazam!

Apparently the House GOP caucus really has decided to blindly stonewall everything Obama wants, no matter what. This is even more of a wakeup call than the vote on the stimulus bill.

The Sweet Song of Bipartisanship

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 4:57 PM PST

THE SWEET SONG OF BIPARTISANSHIP....Welcome to Washington, President Obama:

[Today] the House approved an $819 billion stimulus plan that will serve as the cornerstone of President Obama's efforts to resuscitate the economy, an early victory for the new president but still a disappointment because of the lack of Republican votes.

The measure passed 244 to 188, with 11 Democrats and 177 Republicans voting against it.

There are 178 Republicans in the House and 177 of them voted today. Every single one of them voted against the bill. In case there were still any doubters, I think it's now safe to say that the GOP caucus has decided to pick up where it left off last year, in full-on obstruction mode.

Atheists

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 4:44 PM PST

ATHEISTS....One of Andrew Sullivan's readers is annoyed with us atheists:

Telling me what you don't believe tells me very little....But you can no more avoid making a positive choice about the source of meaning in your life and the universe than you can avoid living in some country. You can talk about which country is best to live in, but the atheist pretends you can live in no country at all.

You gotta live somewhere, and you gotta believe in something, because your beliefs are being expressed every day in how you live your life. Atheists should be forced to articulate their positive position (say, secular humanism) as price of admission to the conversation.

This is a very odd complaint. I suppose the answer varies with the atheist (some people with a vague belief in "spirituality," for example, might describe themselves as atheists), but surely the bulk of us simply believe in a physical universe governed by physical laws. If you asked me, my rough answer would be, I believe in quantum mechanics, with the right to revise and extend if evidence for something better comes along.

Or, sure, secular humanism. Whatever. But although it's probably true that most conversations of this sort revolve around conventional religions and whether or not we believe in them, surely the flip side of that is fairly obvious even if it's not always directly articulated. Isn't it?