Need To Read: November 12, 2009

Today's must reads:

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Karl Eikenberry, our man in Afghanistan, has apparently decided to drop a last-minute bombshell on the White House:

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two classified cables to Washington in the past week expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until President Hamid Karzai's government demonstrates that it is willing to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that has fueled the Taliban's rise, senior U.S. officials said.

....Eikenberry's last-minute interventions have highlighted the nagging undercurrent of the policy discussion: the U.S. dependence on a partnership with a Karzai government whose incompetence and corruption is a universal concern within the administration. After months of political upheaval, in the wake of widespread fraud during the August presidential election, Karzai was installed last week for a second five-year term.

In addition to placing the Karzai problem prominently on the table, the cables from Eikenberry, a retired four-star general who in 2006-2007 commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan, have rankled his former colleagues in the Pentagon — as well as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, defense officials said. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has stated that without the deployment of an additional tens of thousands of troops within the next year, the mission there "will likely result in failure."

According to an unnamed official, after reading Eikenberry's cable Obama "wants to know where the off-ramps are." So would a lot of the rest of us.

Common Sense

Here is National Review's Rich Lowry on the constant chatter in the media about post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the Ft. Hood massacre:

The obsession with PTSD serves two purposes. First, it fits the media’s favorite narrative of soldiers as victims. Here was poor Hasan, brought low like so many others by the unbearable burden of Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind that PTSD usually results in sleeplessness, flashbacks, and — in the extreme — suicide. Hasan is the first victim of PTSD known to jump on a table and allegedly yell “Allahu Akbar” while slaughtering his fellow troops.

Actually, I sort of share Lowry's annoyance on the PTSD front.  It's belaboring the obvious to say that of course PTSD is a serious problem, one that the military should (and, I think, does) take seriously.  But intentionally or not, hauling it out after every meltdown by a service member serves largely to tar them all in the public mind as unstable misfits who could blow up at any second.  That's both unfair and lazy.

But Lowry then goes on to insist that we should obsess over the fact that Nidal Malik Hasan was a Muslim who was apparently motivated by religious fervor.  His colleague Andy McCarthy puts it even more bluntly, claiming that the same beliefs that animated Hasan are widely accepted by Muslims in the United States:

The rote government response is to point out, mulishly, that there are many Muslims honorably serving in the U.S. armed forces. This is absolutely true but utterly beside the point....The honorable service of many Muslims does not alter the reality that there is enormous pressure on Muslim soldiers, from their religious authorities, to sabotage American military operations. Hasan's massacre of his fellow soldiers is the worst incident we've seen, but it's hardly an isolated incident.

I wonder if they even see the contradiction here?  When it comes to PTSD, every soldier is an individual and it's insulting to see it lying in wait everywhere.  But when it comes to extremist beliefs, well, Muslims are all under extreme pressure and we'd be fools not to see it lying in wait everywhere.

I prefer door #1: soldiers aren't all time bombs waiting to go off, and Muslims aren't all Manchurian candidates waiting to turn on their fellow Americans.  Just because they're different problems doesn't mean we can't address them both with equal doses of common sense.

Freako-frakkin-nomics notwithstanding, climate change is a thing of violent swiftness. New research indicates it took only months for Europe to freeze solid 12,800 years ago.

The most precise analysis yet of the onset of the "Big Freeze" reveals that Europe froze not in a decade—as previously thought from analysis of Greenland ice cores—but in less than 12 months.

The Big Freeze was triggered by the slowdown of the Gulf Stream. It terminated the Clovis culture, the dominant culture in North America at the time. Once triggered, the cold persisted for 1,300 years.

New Scientist reports on the research of William Patterson of the U of Saskatchewan whose group studied a mud core from ancient Lough Monreagh in Ireland, slicing layers 0.5 to 1 millimeter thick to study three-month intervals. No prior measurements from this period have approached such fine detail.

Turns out, at the start of the Big Freeze temperatures plummeted and lake productivity ceased within months or a year at most. Patterson presented the findings at the BOREAS conference in Finland. According to him (via New Scientist):

"It would be like taking Ireland today and moving it up to Svalbard."

We know the Big Freeze was triggered when a glacial lake covering most of northwest Canada burst its banks and poured into the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, diluting oceanic salinity (I wrote of fears of this in MoJo's The Fate of the Ocean) and rerouting the oceanic currents that deliver climate to the Northern Hemisphere:

Two studies published in 2006 show that the same thing happened again 8,200 years ago, when the Northern hemisphere went through another cold spell. Some climate scientists have suggested that the Greenland ice sheet could have the same effect if it suddenly melts through climate change, but the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded this was unlikely to happen this century.

Well, that's out of date. We already know Greenland is turning to slush frighteningly fast.

Patterson's team have now set their sights on even more precise records of historical climate. They have built a robot able to shave 0.05 micrometer slivers along the growth lines of fossilized clam shells, giving a resolution of less than a day. "We can get you mid-July temperatures from 400 million years ago," he says.

Hey, Barack Obama, you know, The Day After Tomorrow could happen after all. On your watch. One season all balmy in the Northern Hemisphere. The next a frozen hell. Sure you don't want to go to Copenhagen before the glaciers block your route?
 

Today's big media news:

Lou Dobbs, the longtime CNN anchor whose anti-immigration views have made him a TV lightning rod, said Wednesday that he is leaving the cable news channel effective immediately.

“Some leaders in the media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond my role here at CNN and engage in constructive problem-solving,” Mr. Dobbs said just after 7 p.m., suggesting that he would remain involved in the civic discourse, but perhaps not on television.

Hey, maybe he's going to run for office!  Wouldn't that be fun?  Maybe mayor of some border city to start.  I'm thinking El Paso.  Then, after Sarah Palin wins the presidency in 2012, she could appoint him to head up Homeland Security. From there, the sky's the limit.

For more on Dobbs, here is Sridhar Pappu's profile from our January 2007 issue.  Enjoy!

Quote of the Day

From Charles Johnson, founder of Little Green Footballs and onetime leader of the post-9/11 warbloggers, on why he's given up on his fellow travelers:

The main reason I can’t march along with the right wing blogosphere any more, not to put too fine a point on it, is that most of them have succumbed to Obama Derangement Syndrome. One “nontroversy” after another, followed by the outrage of the day, followed by conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, all delivered in breathless, angry prose that’s just wearying and depressing to read.

It’s not just the economic issues either. I’ve never been on board with the anti-science, anti-Enlightenment radical religious right. Once I began making my opinions known on issues like creationism and abortion, I realized that there just wasn’t very much in common with many of the bloggers on the right. And then, when most of them decided to fall in and support a blogger like Robert Stacy McCain, who has neo-Nazi friends, has written articles for the openly white supremacist website American Renaissance, and has made numerous openly racist statements on the record ... well, I was extremely disappointed to see it, but unfortunately not surprised.

There's was never any reason for surprise, of course.  2009 = 1993 all over again.

From the web site of Physicians for a National Health Plan comes this summary of a new study on American veterans' limited access to health care. These figures as an estimate, extrapolated from an earlier study--but if they are right, they dwarf the number of deaths from combat, and rival the suicide figures I wrote about earlier today.

A research team at Harvard Medical School estimates 2,266 U.S. military veterans under the age of 65 died last year because they lacked health insurance and thus had reduced access to care. That figure is more than 14 times the number of deaths (155) suffered by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2008, and more than twice as many as have died (911 as of Oct. 31) since the war began in 2001.

The researchers, who released their analysis today [Tuesday], pointedly say the health reform legislation pending in the House and Senate will not significantly affect this grim picture.

The Harvard group analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2009 Current Population Survey, which surveyed Americans about their insurance coverage and veteran status, and found that 1,461,615 veterans between the ages of 18 and 64 were uninsured in 2008. Veterans were only classified as uninsured if they neither had health insurance nor received ongoing care at Veterans Health Administration (VA) hospitals or clinics.

Using their recently published findings in the American Journal of Public Health that show being uninsured raises an individual’s odds of dying by 40 percent (causing 44,798 deaths in the United States annually among those aged 17 to 64), they arrived at their estimate of 2,266 preventable deaths of non-elderly veterans in 2008.

 

On this Veterans Day, tributes continue for the 13 soldiers who died last week at Ford Hood, gunned down by one of their own. It was a shocking and terrible event, which warranted the outpouring of sorrow it inspired. Yet every single day, on average, more current and past members of the U.S. armed services die by their own hands than were killed on November 5 at Fort Hood.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ own calculations (which it tried to conceal from a CBS News probe, Congress, and the public), there are “about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans.” That's well over 6,000 a year. In addition, the VA admits that “suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities.” Rates are highest among young men in their twenties, veterans of our current wars. And these numbers do not include suicides by active duty members of the military. In 2008 alone, these numbered nearly 250 (Army 128, Navy 41, Marines 41, Air Force 38)--an average of five every week.

There are no public outpourings of grief for these servicemen and women, whose deaths must often have followed prolonged suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression, or plain old despair. There are no memorial services with eulogies by the president, no tributes at Veterans’ Day parades, no week-long stretches of nonstop media coverage.

Instead, there are sporadic news reports, and the occassional Congressional hearing. And while increasing lip service has been paid to improving mental health care for veterans, in reality, the VA has set up multiple obstacles to such care. 

This, from Andrew Ross Sorkin's New York Times Q&A, will probably make you angry:

Q. This may sound Pollyannish, but while you have been interviewing the Wall Street chief executives for your book, did you ever get the sense that they felt responsible or remorseful for the damage they had done? Or for that matter, did they feel any gratitude toward the average taxpayer for saving them?

Much of the anger in the country could be abated with a simple "I'm sorry" and "Thank you for coming to our rescue."

— Craig Wensberg, Millburn, N.J.
 

A. I must say that one of the frustrating parts of researching my book came when I finally got to ask the question of Wall Street chief executives and board members that you just raised: Do you have any remorse? Are you sorry? The answer, almost unequivocally, was no. (Or they just didn't answer.) They see themselves as just one part of a larger problem, with many constituencies to blame.

Many of the most senior members of management on Wall Street now consider themselves "survivors," as if they were cancer survivors or something. That’s the word they use. While many of them are self-aware enough to politely nod at the notion that they received help and were part of the problem, they seem reluctant to acknowledge they were "rescued" or "saved." There are probably a few exceptions, so I shouldn’t paint them all with the same brush, but on the whole, that was the takeaway.

I recognize that that answer will only increase public outrage. But it is true.

David Corn asked a bunch of Wall Street CEOs this same question back in March, and got basically the same answer. David came away with the impression that "high finance means never having to say you're sorry." If we haven't seen any remorse yet, we're probably not going to see any going forward—the stock market has rebounded and risk-taking and bonuses are getting back to their pre-crash highs. I'd rather have real reform than an apology, anyway. I don't think we'll get either—But if we don't get real reform, maybe the next crisis will be so bad that even trillions of government dollars won't be able to stop the bleeding and CEOs will have to face the music. If that happens, I look forward to telling Ken Lewis and his ilk to go tell it to Timbaland.

Reforming the Senate

Back in July, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put a hold on Thomas Shannon, President Obama's nominee for ambassador to Brazil. Why? Not because he was unqualified or anything like that.  It was because Shannon once questioned the value of import tariffs on sugar-based ethanol (mostly from Brazil).  This is heresy in the corn state of Iowa.

In the end, the White House groveled and Grassley relented. But now there's yet another hold.  Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), who has had six months to cogitate over Shannon's qualifications, says he's placed a hold on his nomination so LeMieux can “discuss my concerns” and “fully vet” him.  Uh huh.

LeMieux can do this because the Senate rules let him.  Just like the Senate rules allow 40 members to block any legislation they want. Earlier today, Matt Yglesias wrote about whether anything can be done about this aside from whining about it in blog posts:

The answer is that yes there is. Key elements of Senate procedure have been altered repeatedly throughout history and there have been failed efforts to do it that might have worked had folks been a bit more determined.

What’s missing right now is any sign from anyone politically important of any interest in turning up the heat. As Chris Bowers explains here it seems to be possible in practice for 50 Senators backed by the Vice President to force basically whatever procedural move they want. Traditionally, that’s not the way things have worked. Instead, having key people talk seriously about going this route has produced a political crisis and encouraged people to cut a deal. That’s how the filibuster got pared back from 67 votes to 60 votes. And it’s also how, as recently as 2005, Senate Democrats were persuaded to relent on several judicial filibusters.

But I’ve seen no sign of a serious public campaign of pressure from Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, or other leading figures to delegitimize this minoritarian obstruction.

Ah, but here's the thing: not only does it take pressure from the Democratic leadership, it also takes 50 Democratic votes.  That's the hard part.  This is just a wild guess, but I'd say that if Team Obama tried to push hard on eliminating the filibuster, they'd get no more than 30 or 35 votes on their side.  Maybe 40.  Even among the majority party, there just isn't very much support for doing away with a procedure that everyone knows they might want to use themselves in the foreseeable future.  Most senators, I think, are far more interested in being assured they can block legislation they dislike than they are in being assured they can pass legislation they favor.

But what about holds?  I'd say there's good news and bad news here.  The bad news is that, if anything, the hold process is nearer and dearer to senators' hearts than the filibuster.  It gives them lots of individual power, lots of authority over home state appointments, and lots of bargaining clout.  It's a personal prerogative that very few of them are willing to give up.

But — I wonder if there isn't some kind of deal that might be made here?  The Shannon case is a good example of abuse gone wild, as is the fate of many of Obama's judicial appointments this year.  Senators aren't likely to give up their power to place holds entirely, but it's possible that a concerted effort might gin up support for a bit of reform.  Maybe stronger limits on the number of holds (so that Grassley and LeMieux couldn't both put a hold on the same guy, for example) or stronger limits on how long holds can last.  The appointment process has become a swamp over the past couple of decades, wasting both the Senate's time as well as preventing the executive branch from operating in a reasonable way, and there just might be enough senators who recognize that to want to do something about it.

In any case, the abuse with holds is more obvious (one guy vs. 40) and the slowdown more routine than it is with filibusters, so it seems like that would be the place to try to put together some kind of reform effort first.  I'm not holding my breath or anything, but I could see this becoming a big enough deal that eventually there's an opportunity to make some change.  Even some Republicans might buy in.