2010 - %3, February

DADT Update

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 1:01 PM EST

We have good news and bad news today on the gays-in-the-military front. First the good news:

The nation’s top two Defense officials called for an end on Tuesday to the 16-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, a major step toward allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the United States military for the first time in its history.

“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said it was his personal and professional belief that “allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

Needless to say, Bill Clinton didn't have this level of support from within the Pentagon when he tried to end the military ban on gays in 1993. And experience tells us that it's necessary in order to get anything done. So two cheers for Gates and Mullen. Unfortunately, there's also this:

But both Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the committee they needed more time to review how to carry out the change in policy, which requires an act of Congress, and predicted some disruption to the armed forces.

....To lead a review of the policy, Mr. Gates appointed a civilian and a military officer: Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon’s top legal counsel, and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the United States Army in Europe. Pentagon officials said the review could take up to a year.

Italics mine. Here's the hopeful interpretation: we're still on track to firmly end DADT in an amendment to the Pentagon budget this year, but implementation will be left up to Gates and he'll be given until, say, January 2011 to publish new regs. The less hopeful interpretation is that Congress won't do anything until the Pentagon review is done, which would mean delaying repeal until 2011 and implementation until 2012.

For now, I'll assume the hopeful interpretation since it seems more likely. But I'm a little more nervous about it than I was last week.

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The Gitmo Rebellion

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:56 PM EST

It's not unusual to see Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.) complaining about President Barack Obama's conduct of the war on terror. 

But when they're openly joined by two Democratic senators—with more potentially hovering in the wings—that spells trouble for the administration's agenda. On Tuesday morning, Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) teamed up with Graham for a press conference to announce a bill that would block funding for Obama's proposal to try 9/11 co-conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, in civilian courts.

By expressing full support for Graham's measure, Webb and Lincoln are essentially moving into open revolt against the White House's detainee policy. Lincoln, who faces a tough reelection fight in Arkansas this year, said she would be foolish if she didn't listen to her constituents and oppose the 9/11 trials. Webb insisted he was not opposing the trials because they could be held in his home state of Virginia if New York does not prove to be a feasible venue. "I wrote a column on 9/12" calling the conspirators war criminals, he reminded reporters, implying that he has always prefered the detainees to be tried in a military setting.

After the press conference, Graham didn't refute a suggestion from reporters that he also has the votes of Arkansas' Mark Pryor and Washington's Maria Cantwell. Pryor, Cantwell, and all 40 Republicans joined Webb and Lincoln in supporting a similar measure pushed by Graham in early November. The Senate rejected that measure, 55-45. But Graham said he was sure his bill would pass "overwhelmingly" this time around if it ever came up for a vote.

If Graham's gambit succeeds, it would upend the White House's promise to close down Guantanamo Bay. His legislation would require the 9/11 conspirators to be tried in military tribunals at Gitmo. That would make it close to impossible for Obama to close down the prison until after the trials were completed—a process that could take years.  

Oscar Docs: The Cove, Food, Inc., and Burma VJ

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:35 PM EST

Academy award nominations are out, and three films reviewed in Mother Jones last year are up for awards in the Best Documentary category:

  • The Cove, about the hidden dolphin slaughter in a Japanese town. (Read my interview with the filmmakers here.)
  • Food, Inc., about the horrors of factory farms, slaughterhouses, and meat plants.
  • Burma VJ, about citizen journalists who risk their lives to document government brutality in Burma.

More Mother Jones film coverage here.

 

The Real News Behind That Pro-Life Super Bowl Ad

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:18 PM EST

By now you’ve read about the upcoming Super Bowl’s least-funny commercial: The Colorado-based para-church Focus on the Family’s 30-second anti-abortion spot, starring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, and his mother, Pamela. (If you missed the dust-up, here’s a quick wrap from our Liz Gettelman). As Evan noted yesterday, CBS' decision to run the ad has made it a magnet for controversy, given the network's longstanding policy against airing political ads during the big game (well, unless you count this), and the fact that it rejected an ad for a gay dating site this year. But while Tebow and CBS get most of the attention, there's a much more significant force at play that's gone largely overlooked: The ongoing rift at one of America's most prominent Evangelical organizations.

 

Neither side is saying much, but the basic facts are this: In October, after a years-long transition process, FOF founder James Dobson announced that he would leave the organization this month. Then, in December, Dobson revealed his new set of plans: He was starting a new venture called "James Dobson on the Family" (James Dobson, in addition to having a bizarre aversion to Spongebob, is also, apparently, a verb). This isn't the kind of thing one normally does. As one observer told the New York Times, "I can't think of another example where the leader of a major ministry organization founded it, built it up, then moved on and did something so visibly competitive." Think Michael Flatley leaving "Riverdance," and multiply it by a lot.

The Vision Thing

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 12:14 PM EST

You might have missed it, but there were actually two huge, boring federal documents released yesterday. The second one was the Quadrennial Defense Review, which is — well, self-explanatory, really. It's a review of our defense strategies that's published every four years. And P.W. Singer (aka the other Peter Singer) doesn't think much of the 2010 edition:

The closest to a summary I can come to is this: We plan to do what we do now, but we'll try to do it a little bit better. That's probably not what was intended.

....For such an important effort, the report disappoints in two key areas. The first is that of vision....President Obama has made a forward-looking, positive vision of America's role in the world a centerpiece of his policy goals, and the Pentagon could have used the review to expand on that vision as it pertains to national security.

Instead, the 2010 review offers more a series of agenda items than a comprehensive vision. Even more, most of these items are belated ones that should have been worked out since the 2006 version. There is no thread that links it all together, no broader framework that lays out the journey we are on, the challenges we face and, most important, what we must do to end up at our target destination.

I understand the issue here, as well as Singer's second disappointment, the overall lack of clear goals and hard metrics. But honestly, I wonder if that's really as big a problem as he suggests. It's natural to think of these kinds of documents as a chance to change direction and create new visions, but let's be honest: do we really need a whole new vision of America's national security every four years? In 1997 the QDR's vision included the ability to fight two medium-sized wars at once, and now, 12 years later, that vision is gone. But during that time, did it really drive the Pentagon in any directions it wouldn't have gone anyway? And will its loss really make any concrete difference?

I have my doubts. Sometimes, your plan really is to keep doing pretty much the same thing, but to do it smarter and better. Maybe a QDR that avoids grand pronouncements and hard metrics that no one really takes seriously isn't such a bad thing. Sometimes honesty is a better policy.

Peanuts

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 11:53 AM EST

The LA Times provides a brief overview today of the programs President Obama wants to cut in order to freeze the overall level of domestic discretionary spending:

The familiar programs on the list this year include the C-17 cargo jet, a program to restore polluted industrial sites, a program for reclaimed coal mines and various scholarship programs.

....The cuts in mine grants never went anywhere last year. "We will do everything in our power to stop this attempted robbery again," Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) said Monday.

Others on the termination list also have ready-made support. A website for Boeing's C-17 cargo plane notes that the program employs more than 30,000 people, with concentrations in Southern California, where the plane is made, and Missouri. A defense spending bill in December included $2.5 billion to buy 10 C-17s that the Pentagon did not request.

This is a familiar point, but always worth making one more time. The domestic discretionary budget is peanuts, and to make it even worse, elephants and donkeys1 both love peanuts. They won't give them up just because the president wants them to. So we'll likely end up with a peanut budget just as big as it was before — maybe bigger! — as cuts get added back into the budget while increases are happily accepted. Obama's spending freeze might be good PR, but it's lousy politics and lousy policy.

1OK, I don't really know whether donkeys like peanuts. Can someone find out for me? In the meantime, just roll with the image.

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The Social Contract

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 11:18 AM EST

David Brooks says today that old people are being selfish because they take a lot more out of the political system than they put in. Ezra Klein demurs:

It's worth making the mechanism explicit: When commentators complain that seniors are "taking money," here's what they mean: They are going to the doctor, the doctor is prescribing treatments, and Medicare is paying for those treatments.

....Brooks calls their behavior selfish. He writes that "the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children."....[But] it's hard to say that what seniors are doing is selfish: They're going to the same doctors as everyone else, doing the same things that everyone else does when they get there. Our health-care system is unaffordable across the board. We need to fix that, but there's no special key held by seniors (save maybe their disproportionate tendency to vote in midterm elections), and nor do they deserve special condemnation.

I agree that they don't deserve special condemnation. The social deal we made several decades ago is that those of us of working age pay taxes for programs that will be consumed by senior citizens. That deal makes perfect sense — but it also points to a way in which seniors could embrace what Brooks calls a "cause of nonselfishness." Instead of standing foursquare with the anti-tax jihadists, as they largely do, they could be working to make sure that this deal continues. That means changes in the way we deliver healthcare services and it means changes in the tax base of the federal government. By opposing both of those things in large numbers, today's seniors (and soon-to-be seniors) are helping to ensure that they're the only generation that will truly benefit from this deal.

This is obviously not what Brooks meant. But the future health of the country and the future continuation of the social deal we've made depends on raising taxes, lowering long-term deficits, and making changes to the way healthcare is delivered. Some of these changes will affect today's seniors and some will affect tomorrow's. But if they want their children to enjoy the same kind of retirement they're allowed to enjoy, these are the things they should support. In general they don't, and that deserves condemnation. Not special condemnation, since lots of other people feel the same way, but condemnation nonetheless since they know, better than most, just what those taxes are for.

Exploding Boobs: The Next Terrorist Threat?

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 10:49 AM EST

If you aren't reading WorldNetDaily, you're really missing out. Today, for instance, the paranoid conservative website ran a big scoop entitled, "MI5 hunting breast implants of death." WND, which is obsessed with the "Muslim mafia," claims that Britain's intelligence service is concerned that British teaching hospitals have churned out Muslim doctors who are now returning to their home countries to outfit female suicide bombers with breast implants that blow up--and not just to a DD cup. WND cites British medical experts who reported back to MI5 that:

"Properly inserted the implant would be virtually impossible to detect by the usual airport scanning machines. You would need to subject a suspect to a sophisticated X-ray. Given that the explosive would be inserted in a sealed plastic sachet, and would be a small amount, would make it all the more impossible to spot it with the usual body scanner."

If WND is right, the breast implants of death are just one more reason the naked full-body scanners the US is scrambling to install in every airport won't make us any safer. Michael Mukasey, please take note.

Oil Industry: We Like Our Handouts!

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 10:05 AM EST

As I noted yesterday, one of the more aggressive elements of Obama's 2011 budget is the proposal to eliminate 12 tax breaks for oil, gas and coal companies, which the administration estimates will raise up to $39 billion in the next 10 years.

"All you have to do is look at the record profits of the oil and gas world in the last several years," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters on Monday in announcing the budget proposal. "In my view, you're going to continue to see a great interest in oil and gas because it's a essential part of our economy today. It's expected that it will be, and I know it will be in the years ahead. And so I think the oil and gas industry will do just fine."

Unsurprisingly, the industry is balking at the possible revocation of government handouts. The Independent Petroleum Association of America said in a statement that the budget request would "strip billions of investment dollars from US natural gas and oil production" and "could cripple the American producers that are pivotal in developing US natural gas and oil."

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard also criticized the elimination of tax breaks, arguing that a "robust U.S. oil and gas industry is essential to the recovery of the nation’s economy." "With America still recovering from recession and one in ten Americans out of work, now is not the time to impose new taxes on the nation’s oil and natural gas industry. New taxes would mean fewer American jobs and less revenue at a time when we desperately need both," said Gerard in a statement.

They might have a point. The outcry about revoking Big Oil's tax breaks came on the same day as ExxonMobil reported the lowest earnings in 7 years -- just $19.4 billion dollars.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday February 2

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 7:07 AM EST

A Man, A Plan: A Congressman's plan to save money through Medicare is just talk for now.

Fate of Fuel: Ethanol's production speed makes it the only biofuel sensitive to oil prices.

Forecast: Cloudy: Even Kevin Drum isn't sure when/if they'll 'pass the damn bill'.

Foregone Conclusion: Dems had a deal on healthcare. Then Brown got elected.

Simply Put: A solution to healthcare can sound simple, but the reality is complex.

Cell Dangers: Why cell phone conversations are more dangerous than in-person talks.

Aiming Low: This year, Obama isn't putting a dollar value on cap-and-trade.

Great Expectations: Men are now getting affirmative action in higher education.

False Sails: US agrees to Copenhagen carbon caps, but only if Congress agrees. Oy.

Gallows Humor: Climate-related funnies in the State of the Union speech.

Bin Laden Goes Green: Bin Laden expresses concern about US's climate stance.