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Remember Afghanistan?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 7:05 PM EST

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Afghanistan. In the 1980s, we sent in the CIA, gave weapons to the mujahideen, and defeated the Soviets. In the 1990s, we got out, allowed our erstwhile allies to kill each other, and sat by as the country was taken over by religious fanatics and terrorists. After 9/11, we realized our mistake, went back in, chased Al Qaeda and the Taliban out of their caves, and declared victory. Afterward, we invaded Iraq and once again forgot all about the place. But the pendulum still swings, and now, as before, our willful ignorance of that troubled country (if indeed it meets that definition) is coming back to bite us.

Or so conclude three separate reports released yesterday by the National Defense University, the Atlantic Council, and the Afghanistan Study Group (ASG). "Make no mistake," says the Atlantic Council report, "NATO is not winning in Afghanistan... Urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state." The problem (and don't say you didn't see this coming) is that the war in Iraq drained political will, money, and military resources away from Afghanistan, allowing it to drift back into the very same chaos that first attracted Bin Laden to the sanctuary of its caves. According to the ASG report:

Afghanistan stands today at a crossroads. The progress achieved after six years of international engagement is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, mounting regional challenges and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about the future direction of their country. The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid, and without a clear and consistent comprehensive strategy to fill the power vacuum outside Kabul and to counter the combined challenges of reconstituted Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a runaway opium economy, and the stark poverty faced by most Afghans.

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Obama: #1 Most Liberal Senator?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 4:27 PM EST

obama-smiling.jpg According to the National Journal's nonpartisan ratings, released today, Barack Obama was the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007. This raises a number of issues for the senator from Illinois.

First of all, we should point out that the numbers are ridiculous. According to the NJ press release, "Obama voted the liberal position on 65 of the 66 votes in which he participated, while Clinton voted the liberal position on 77 of 82 votes." So he took the liberal position less frequently than Clinton did, and less frequently than a number of senators. But because he was out campaigning, he only returned for big, divisive votes where the Democratic Party needed him. He only cast one vote against the liberal position, meaning he was usually content to skip votes where he would be voting against his party. As B.B. points out, "a senator who takes the 'liberal' position 95 times out of 100 is somehow less liberal than his colleague who takes the liberal position 48 times out of 50." In years past, when Obama voted as many times as a normal senator, he was the 10th and 16th most liberal senator. That is likely a truer representation of his politics. Does anyone really think Obama and Joe Biden are more liberal than Russ Feingold or Bernie Sanders (a socialist)?

And let's not forget that John Kerry was identified by the National Journal as the most liberal senator of 2003 just as Kerry was wrapping up the Democratic nomination. (Probably because he missed votes due of campaigning, as Obama is doing now.) Not a bad system for publicity, huh?

But regardless of how legitimate the numbers are, Obama has now been tagged. Will Hillary Clinton use it against him? That would be awfully low—first, she's just as liberal as he is, and second, a Democrat should never try to sink another Democrat by using right-wing talking points about the "L word." But John McCain or Mitt Romney will use this against Obama, assuming Obama is the nominee. How does he respond?

Martin Luther King Responds to Hillary Clinton on Social Change

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 2:31 PM EST

Earlier this month, this statement of Hillary Clinton's got lots of attention:

I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality. The power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said, "We are going to do it," and actually got it accomplished.

What's gotten less attention is what Martin Luther King himself thought on this subject. Chris Rabb points out that King wrote this in an article published in January, 1969 after his death:

Hope for Obama on February 5

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 2:30 PM EST

primary_polls.bmp Over at the Economist's Democracy in America blog (no, not these guys), they point out that Obama tends to outperform polling pretty substantially. Check out their chart at right. In four of five states where the Democrats have held primaries—including Florida, where Obama didn't campaign—Obama's actual results have beaten the polls by 6, 12, 13 and 10 percentage points.

That means he could seriously surprise people in the February 5 states where polling shows him within striking distance: Alabama (-10), Kansas (-5), and New Mexico (-7). That said, the polling in the February 5 states has been very spotty. The most recent Rasmussen poll out of California has Obama trailing Clinton by just three, while the most recent CNN poll has him getting walloped by 17. That's a phenomenon you see in Connecticut, Arizona, Colorado, and a number of other places. But here's one thing you can take to the bank: when polls are averaged, which they are at pollster.com, Clinton has huge leads just about everywhere.

Eat Burger, Waive Right to Sue

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 1:07 PM EST

whataburger-photo-shop.jpgMandatory arbitration agreements forcing people to give up their rights to sue are now standard fare in everything from cell phone contracts to Hooters' employment agreements. But the owner of an East Texas Whataburger has apparently taken arbitration mania to a new level. Every public entrance to the burger franchise displays a sign informing people that simply setting foot on the premises means that they are giving up their right to sue the company for any reason, even if, for instance, they get a little e coli along with their fries. Instead, customers will be forced to arbitrate their claims before the American Mediation Association, an organization that seems to consist of three lawyers in Dallas hired by the Whataburger (part of a 58-year-old fast food chain deemed a "Texas treasure" by the state legislature).

Attorney Dan Sorey spotted the sign in early January while in Kilgore investigating the scene of a motorcycle crash for a case. The Whataburger offered an ideal vantage point to study the intersection where the crash happened. Sorey says when he went in, he told a befuddled cashier that he didn't think that the arbitration notice was enforceable, that anyway he wasn't agreeing to it, and, "I need a taquito and a coffee." He says he sat down, watched some traffic, and ate his taquito. "I didn't choke, I didn't burn myself, and I didn't sue 'em," he reports. Sadly, while we suspect there is a good story behind the signs, the Whataburger franchise owner did not respond to requests for an interview. We'll just have to assume that the signs are the product of one too many late-night talk-show jokes about McDonalds' coffee lawsuits.

REALLY Bad News Day for Hillary Clinton

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 11:55 AM EST

clinton.jpg Check out this collection of stories from around the web.

First, there's a crushing ABC News story about Hillary Clinton's inaction during her tenure with Wal-Mart.

In six years as a member of the Wal-Mart board of directors, between 1986 and 1992, Hillary Clinton remained silent as the world's largest retailer waged a major campaign against labor unions seeking to represent store workers....
"I'm always proud of Wal-Mart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else," she said at a June 1990 stockholders meeting.

The story reports that video of Wal-Mart's many private board meetings never shows Clinton reacting to the other board member's vicious anti-union statements. The story also reports that Clinton's main effort on the board, improving conditions for female workers, accomplished little. Further, the story says that Clinton will keep $20,000 in donations from Wal-Mart executives, and that former President Bill Clinton has regular private meetings with Wal-Mart's current CEO.

Then there is David Broder who writes in the Washington Post that Barack Obama is the Democratic frontrunner, despite Hillary Clinton's polling leads in many February 5 states. Broder points to establishment Democratic opinion trending toward BHO.

The advantage has shifted back to Barack Obama — thanks to a growing but largely unremarked-upon tendency among Democratic leaders to reject Hillary Clinton and her husband, the former president.
The New York senator could still emerge from the "Tsunami Tuesday" voting with the overall lead in delegates, but she is unlikely to come close to clinching the nomination...

That establishment that is heading Obama's way? That's the one the Clintons have owned for nearly two decades. Think we're done? Oh, no. More after the jump.

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Can We Win the War on Terrorism Without Destroying Our Military?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 11:53 AM EST

However you think the war is going, or whether we should even be fighting it, one can help but for fear the military itself.

Washington Post:

Suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2007 reached their highest level since the Army began keeping such records in 1980, according to a draft internal study obtained by the Washington Post. Last year, 121 soldiers took their own lives, nearly 20 percent more than in 2006.
At the same time, the number of attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries in the Army has jumped sixfold since the Iraq war began. Last year, about 2,100 soldiers injured themselves or attempted suicide, compared with about 350 in 2002, according to the U.S. Army Medical Command Suicide Prevention Action Plan.

Fred Kaplan looks at the dumbing-down of new recruitment standards so the military can maintain itself:

The Literature of Presidential Endorsements: Angelou v. Morrison

| Thu Jan. 31, 2008 11:41 AM EST

The always excellent Laura Miller, Salon book critic (who has edited me in the past), offers a refreshingly brief and lovely review of Maya Angelou's endorsement of Clinton and Toni Morrison's of Obama.
Miller (on Angelou on Clinton):

...a string of campaign-trail clichés: "She is in this race for the long haul. She intends to make a difference in our country. Hillary Clinton intends to help our country to be what it can become." Possibly Angelou means this pablum as a crypto-postmodern witticism, in which Clinton's implied promise to deliver a known quantity to the White House is mirrored by slogans so standardized they seem to have been extruded from the machines that make the plastic toys for McDonald's Happy Meals. But what do you think are the odds against that?

Miller (on Morrison on Obama):

Morrison lauds Obama for his "creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom," then goes on to observe that "it is too bad if we associate it only with gray hair and old age. Or if we call searing vision naiveté. Or if we believe cunning is insight. Or if we settle for finessing cures tailored for each ravaged tree in the forest while ignoring the poisonous landscape that feeds and surrounds it." This is a classic Morrisonian metaphorical progression. It sounds great -- sonorous and rich with lofty concepts and moral authority. Each sentence technically makes sense. Yet somehow, by the time you get to the end, things have gotten out of focus. What exactly is she talking about?

Ah, book nerds. Where would you be without us?

At GOP Debate, McCain and Romney Bicker Over Whom Reagan Would Love More

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 11:19 PM EST

At the end of the final Republican presidential primary before Super-Duper Tuesday, CNN's Anderson Cooper, the lead moderator, noted it had been "a remarkable evening of politics." Not so.

The debate, held at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California, on Wednesday night, was all-too predictably a contest in Reagan-hugging, with John McCain, the apparent frontrunner, and Mitt Romney, the apparent No. 2, trying to out-Reagan the other. Neither said much new. After all, they agree on keeping in place George W. Bush's war in Iraq and his tax cuts. But the two men needed something to argue about, so they tussled over McCain's charge that Romney last spring supported setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. This was the exchange that would be sliced and diced by the pundits and the analysts. In a way, both McCain and Romney were wrong.

This dust-up began last week when McCain said "Romney wanted to set a date for withdrawal similar to what the Democrats are seeking." McCain pointed to an ABC News interview, during which Romney was asked, "Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?" His reply:

Well, there's no question--but that the President and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're gonna be gone. You wanna have a series of things you wanna see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police and the leadership of the, of the Iraqi government.

Was Romney talking about a timetable for a withdrawal or a timetable for other steps? He wasn't clear. So the interviewer pressed him: "You wouldn't do it publicly because - the President has said flat out that he will veto anything the Congress passes about a timetable for - troop withdrawals. As president, would you do the same?" And Romney said,

FEMA Creates Its Own Disaster

| Wed Jan. 30, 2008 8:18 PM EST

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Remember FEMAvilles? They were those thousands of trailers sitting in a cow pasture while victims of Katrina and other storms remained homeless. In 2006, the empty trailers were just one more insult to the already-battered citizens of the Gulf Coast. Yet amazingly, it gets worse. Not only did FEMA put off distributing the trailers, it also put off testing those trailers for toxic chemicals. Now, new documents reveal that once public outcry finally forced the agency to conduct the tests, it squelched the results of its own report—that the chemicals in question may cause cancer.

Salon reports that in 2006, following reports of a rash of medical problems experienced by trailer residents, the agency asked scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to prepare a "health consultation" regarding toxins in the trailers. When chief of toxicology Christopher De Rosa insisted that the report address the long-term cancer risks associated with formaldehyde (a chemical used for embalming which, in addition to its other health effects, may trigger spontaneous abortions), FEMA went around him and had two of his associates prepare the report instead. When De Rosa discovered the deceit and complained to both his boss and FEMA's attorney, he was removed from his job.

Though the report, initially released at the beginning of 2007, was finally revised to include the cancer risk last October, the damage has likely already been done. Salon reminds us that the people the agency actually did manage to place in trailers "almost immediately...called FEMA to complain of illnesses, from breathing difficulties, bloody noses and rashes to more serious problems, and even deaths, possibly connected to high levels of formaldehyde gas permeating the trailers." And as the victims of Katrina continue to move out of the region, their long-term heath problems will go with them. What's most shocking, though, is the amount of effort the agency continues to devote to obscuring its own mistakes. When the next Katrina strikes, will FEMA have done anything to learn from them?

—Casey Miner