Keeping Power in Iraq

KEEPING POWER IN IRAQ....Matt Yglesias comments on the news that "elite" forces working for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki have arrested several dozen officials in the Ministry of the Interior:

Maybe I'm just cynical, but this "elite counterterrorism force" sounds to me like a security organization whose primary purpose has more to do with bolstering Maliki vis-à-vis internal enemies than with counterterrorism as such. Not that I blame him, all kinds of other factions have their own armed wings and no loyalty to Maliki or the Iraqi state, so to stay in office he'll need friends with guns of his own.

That's a coincidence, isn't it? That's pretty much what it sounded like to me too. And who knows? Maybe these Interior officials really were trying to reconstitute the Baath Party. Seems pretty stupid to me, but stranger things have happened. The big question is, does "Baath Party" in this context really mean "Baath Party," or does it just mean "Sunni guys I don't like much"? Juan Cole is wondering too:

This cover story makes no sense, and it seems more likely that al-Maliki is continuing to clean house and is purging Interior of people placed there by previous governments or by the US CIA and Department of Defense. The Interior Ministry was set up by Naqib al-Falah, an ex-Baathist Sunni whose father had been a Baathist general who defected in the 1970s.

....When the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance won the 2005 elections, PM Ibrahim Jaafari gave interior to Bayan Jabr, a Turkmen member of the pro-Iran Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Jabr reconfigured the special police commandos as a hard line Shiite unit. But neither Jaafari nor al-Maliki has had complete control of the bureaucracy, and many of Falah's ex-Baathists, whether Sunni or Shiite, managed to hold on to their jobs. Until now. Anyway, that is my guess.

Otherwise, it is not plausible at this late date that 28 people in Interior could make a neo-Baath coup.

Agreed. If this was a coup attempt, it was a pretty half-assed effort.

The man giving the invocation at Obama's inauguration doesn't like gays, his pick for Secretary of Agriculture is a supporter of corn-based ethanol with only incipient reformist tendencies, his choice for Interior seems to have big fans in the oil and mining community, and his next Transportation Secretary is a Republican lacking any serious record on transit issues. In short, the trepidation that Obama's early cabinet picks triggered in parts of the left continues as he fills in the few remaining spots.

So should those of us on the left get all hot and bothered? There are three ways to think about Obama's frequently uninspiring and occasionally troubling appointments.

(1) These appointees are bad symbolism in the service of good policy. Because Obama is picking people who occupy the center, center-left, and center-right, he can count on the support of huge swaths of the people from all ideological backgrounds when he tries to push genuinely progressive policy initiatives.

Unfortunately, we simply cannot accept this as true. Not yet, anyway. We don't know that Obama wants to push genuinely progressive policy initiatives. There are reasons to suggest that he does, of course. But Democrats who take it as a matter of faith that Obama is tapping people like Warren to co-opt the right and get them behind him for when he passes wonderfully liberal policy are projecting their hopes onto Obama's future policy agenda. We don't know the policy yet. All we know is the symbolism.

Besides, Rahm Emmanuel puts the lie to this idea somewhat. Rahm isn't just willing to use bad symbolism in service of good policy. His career in the House leadership involved several episodes where he used bad policy in service of keeping Democrats in power.

Clinton Foundation Releases Donors

The William J. Clinton Foundation, which funds or funded the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Clinton Climate Initiative, the Clinton Economic Opportunity Initiative, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and, importantly, the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, has released all of its donors dating back to 1997. This move was necessitated by Hillary Clinton's move to the State Department, and as the Clinton Foundation explains in its press release, is meant "to ensure that not even the appearance of a conflict of interest existed between the Clinton Foundation's operations and Senator Clinton's anticipated service as Secretary of State."

We plan on digging in, to see if any shady characters have funded the Clintons' (very noble) post-presidency activities as part of some kind of quid pro quo, but at the moment it seems like the rush of journalists with the same intentions has knocked the site on its rear end. You can check in on the contributor list after it gets back up here.

Desperation Time in Sacramento

DESPERATION TIME IN SACRAMENTO....California is $40 billion in the hole, give or take a billion or ten, and the only way out is to raise taxes and cut spending. But it takes a two-thirds vote to pass a budget or raise taxes in California, and California Republicans flatly refuse to raise taxes in any way, shape, or form. Result: deadlock.

Today, though, Democrats in Sacramento came up with a plan. It turns out that revenue-neutral tax changes only require a majority vote. And user fees only require a majority vote too. So Dems have proposed a two-step tap dance. First, raise a bunch of taxes and eliminate a bunch of fees in a revenue neutral way. Pass it with a majority vote. Then put all the fees back in place under a different name and kick them up a notch. Pass that with a majority vote too. Voila! A tax increase with only a majority vote. Toss in $7 billion in spending cuts (schools, healthcare, etc. — the usual) and we're halfway down the road to fiscal solvency!

It's clever, I'll give them that. And there's nothing to keep them from doing it over and over again, thus raising taxes whenever they want to with only a majority vote. Because of that, and regardless of whatever supporting opinion they managed to wrench from the Legislative Counsel's office, this is so plainly contrary to the spirit of the state constitution that I have a hard time seeing how it will pass judicial muster. But I guess it's worth a try. Any port in a storm.

Equal Protection

EQUAL PROTECTION....Is Norm Coleman really trying to prevent ballots in the Minnesota senate race from being counted by using Bush v. Gore as precedent for an Equal Protection Clause claim? The same Bush v. Gore decision that was so contrary to previous conservative opinion that the court specifically (and to considerable mockery) stated that "Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances"?

Why yes. Yes he is. The mind reels.

Carbon Storage Models Get Realer

Carbon_sequestration.jpg Two new modeling studies are tackling simulations of long-term CO2 storage. The first examines leakage of stored CO2 from abandoned oil wells. The second attempts to simulate the big picture, starting with capture and leading to injection and storage, evaluating costs and risks of potential sites.

Both papers are published online at Environmental Science & Technology. Both simulate projects that aim to capture CO2 from power plants and store it underground in aquifers or sedimentary deposits. Pilot carbon capture and storage projects are currently underway in Germany, Norway, Canada, Algeria, and the U.S.

The first paper from the U of Bergen, Norway, and Princeton finds that abandoned wells have created a Swiss-cheese pattern of holes across North America. CO2 can escape from these wells. Undersea storage would avoid the Swiss cheese problem, the authors note. But an ocean solution is more expensive.

The Art of Being George

THE ART OF BEING GEORGE....In a package called "Art and Culture In the Bush Era," Newsweek asked its cultural critics to pick the "one work in their field that they believe exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush." Let's argue over some of their choices, OK?

First off, there are the two TV critics, who practically bent over backward to avoid naming 24. I'm not saying that Battlestar Galactica and American Idol are bad choices, mind you, and I know that maybe it seems a little too obvious for guys who are paid to think nonobvious thoughts about this stuff, but come on: 24 is George Bush's America. Case closed.

Art critic Peter Plagens chose Jeff Koons's "Hanging Heart," but he's wrong. The only possible choice is everything ever manufactured by Damien Hirst, who has made a career out of convincing people to give him fantastic sums of money for stuff that everyone knows is obvious crap — and then lying about it on the occasions when people don't. Read this, for example, and tell me if it doesn't scream "George Bush":

There was the summer of 2007 when thousands of people lined up outside White Cube waiting to glimpse a human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 diamonds that he claimed to have sold at its $100 million asking price. When he was pressed, however, it turned out that the buyer was actually a consortium of investors that included the artist himself; Jay Jopling, owner of White Cube; and Frank Dunphy, Hirst's business manager.

Music critic Lorraine Ali chooses Green Day's "American Idiot." Wrong again. The correct answer is a tie between the insane protest over Dixie Chick Natalie Maines saying "we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas" and Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue." Yes, yes, I realize that Natalie Maines's comment is not technically an actual work of art, but we shouldn't let that stand in the way of a higher truth.

The book critics chose The Corrections and Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. Wrong and wrong. In the fiction category, the iconic book of the Bush era is clearly The Pet Goat. Right? The nonfiction category is a little tougher, but I think Jane Mayer's The Dark Side deserves the nod for the book that best represents what Bush and Cheney were really all about. A close second, perhaps, goes to Glassman and Hassett's Dow 36,000, which represents Bush and Cheney's own personal fantasy of what they were all about. Yes, it was written in 1999, but remember that we're going for higher truths here.

The movie critics chose Blackhawk Down and Borat. I guess those choices are OK. But instead, how about the second Star Wars trilogy, another painful reminder that sequels are usually a disappointment?

UPDATE: In comments, PureGuesswork makes a strong case in the music category for Britney Spears: "She spent the last eight years coming up with new ways to fuck up, and now she is worried about her legacy."

UPDATE 2: In the movie category, lots of votes for Idiocracy. Hard to argue with that.

Did Bernie Madoff Bilk Mother Jones? (From the Editors)

Okay, here's the good news: Unlike other nonprofits, Mother Jones did not invest its portfolio with ponzi master Bernie Madoff. But here's the bad news: In recent weeks, we've heard from major donors saying that they've taken such a beating in the market, they have no choice but to pull funding they already promised to us—funding that was paying for our kick-ass reporters in Washington. This is not General Motors-size money we're talking about—about $125,000 so far has evaporated—but for an organization our size, it is a big chunk, especially at a time when we're already slashing the budget to deal with the broader financial crisis and the severe downturn in print advertising. Managers are taking pay cuts, we'll be running somewhat smaller issues, we're subletting office space, but at this point the only way to reduce expenses even further is to lay off reporters and cut back on investigating the powers that be. That's the last thing we want to do: With Washington in transition and billions flying out the door, someone has to dig into where the bailout money is going.

This is where you come in. We're not asking you to pay for private jets or chauffeured Town Cars; every penny of your donation goes to the overworked, underpaid investigative reporters whose work you see here every day. Anything helps, and it's super easy—just follow this link. Think about it: Right now the Wall Street bailout has each and every one of us on the hook for $11,600 and counting. We'll keep track of your money for a lot less than that.

Rick Warren??

rick_warren.jpg This one puzzles.

Rick Warren is the pastor of the California-based megachurch known as Saddleback and the author of super-bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. He wins plaudits from mainstream media types and Very Serious People because he is trying to expand the evangelical community's priorities beyond the standard social issues. He wants to see more attention paid to poverty, climate change, AIDS, and human rights. That's all well and good, but Warren still has many views that match the hardline right. He strongly supported Proposition 8. He considers stem cells "non-negotiable." He compares abortion to the Holocaust. He has admitted the difference between between him and James Dobson is primarily "a matter of tone." In a move that would make George Orwell proud, he just gave George W. Bush an "International Medal of P.E.A.C.E."

And this is the guy Barack Obama has chosen to give the invocation at his inauguration? A man whose views stand in stark contrast to the ones held by the tens of millions of Americans who elected Obama?

I'm not the only one who is shocked. There is already a petition at whitehouse2.org that urges the President-elect to give this incredible privilege to one of the nation's thousands and thousands of men and women of the cloth whose views match Obama's, and those of the people who will have flown in from around the country to see the inauguration in person. Take a look.

As you may have read, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) has been tapped as President Obama's Secretary of the Interior. And as we've reported previously, the Interior secretary post is a major one in terms of the nation's environmental health. The Interior (and by default, its secretary) governs the management of public lands, national parks, oil and gas resources, and even the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

Environmentalists were pushing for Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a staunch conservationist. So what's their consensus on Salazar? You can read their various statements, below. Overall, they seem cautiously optimistic. But then, it would be hard not to be buoyed by Salazar when you're comparing him to predecessors like mining advocate and former chemical company lobbyist Gale Norton.

Center for Biological Diversity: "He is a right-of-center Democrat who often favors industry and big agriculture... He is very unlikely to bring significant change to the scandal-plagued Department of Interior. It's a very disappointing choice..." --Kieran Suckling, executive director, via New York Times.

Sierra Club: "He has been a very vocal critic of the Bush administration's reckless approach to rampant land development in the West." --Josh Dorner, a spokesman, via the UK Guardian.

Wilderness Society: "He's going to be an honest broker... He is trying to manage conflicts in a way that reaches resolution. I'm not sure he's articulated a grand vision for the public lands." --Bill Meadows, president, via Washington Post.

"On a personal level, our experience has been that there is a genuine openness to [Salazar] considering different ideas.." --David Albersworth, senior policy analyst, via Rocky Mountain News.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: Salazar is a "sympathetic soul" who will be a refreshing change because "the past eight years with the Bush administration have felt like a battle, then it became total despair." --Karen Schambach, California coordinator, via the Los Angeles Times.

"Salazar has a disturbingly weak conservation record, particularly on energy development, global warming, endangered wildlife and protecting scientific integrity," --Daniel R. Patterson, southwest regional director, via New York Times.

Environmental Working Group: "We're encouraged by it... he recognizes the importance of the food programs, and he's very good on conservation." --Ken Cook, president, via the Washington Post.

Environment Colorado: "We hope he continues to play a role in insuring that, as we develop our mineral rights in these incredibly sensitive areas, we require industry to put in place safeguards that protect our health, environment, water and air quality," --Pam Kiely, program director, via New York Times.