Mojo - April 2005

Where Have All the Statistics Gone?

Fri Apr. 22, 2005 8:08 PM EDT

First it was reported that the State Department decided to stop publishing an annual report on global terrorism, "Patterns of Global Terrorism." Then it came out that the State Department will release its annual terrorism report by April 30, but responsibility for statistics on terrorism incidents will be shifted to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which was created back in 2004.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) along with former Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA analyst and State Department terrorism expert, seem to think that the holdup on the statistics is a political punt. Johnson reports that he has it from a good source that, "State Department's seventh floor made a direct intervention with the NCTC to 'encourage' them to use a different methodology that would produce a lower number of terrorist." Perhaps one that makes the statistics in their annual report of terrorist attacks fall in line with the line that we are winning the war on terror. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher disputes this, arguing:

This is a straightforward attempt to make sure that those who have the best analysis of the countries and the organizations -- that's us -- can put out that analysis, and those who have the best handle on the numbers can put out the numbers.

But according to Johnson:

This is sheer, utter nonsense. For the last 16 years the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA has been doing exactly what NCTC will now do, with one big exception -- State Department is ignoring the statistics.

So it seems that either the CIA has shoddy statistics, or perhaps the handoff simply has to do with avoiding the question of whether we might be seeing an increase in terrorism. It's probably a bit of both. But implicit in what Boucher is saying is that the CIA and State Department apparently cannot handle the compilation and dissemination of terrorism statistics as well as the NCTC, an organization formed just one year ago. This reveals a disturbing incompetence on the part of the government's counterterrorism strategy, either in the State Department's cowardice to reveal the statistics they do have, or the inability to effectively compile statistics and coordinate with appropriate agencies.

Outside reviews of last year's report revealed highly flawed data. When then Secretary of State Colin Powell had the report redone, it turned up that twice as many civilians had been killed or injured in terrorist attacks than the original report. Another year later, nothing seems to have been ironed out. It's disturbing that we're still quibbling over who should be in charge of collecting and publishing terrorism statistics. The State Department report, minus statistics, is due to be out by April 30th. A fine time to suddenly start conversations over "methodology" of the statistics that were supposed to be published.

Political punt or no, it's important to ask the question of how such an important component of this annual terrorism report can be mired in such ineffectuality and lack of appropriate oversight. The Counterterrorism Blog points out that the sketchy handoff and statistical ineptitude may have something to do with the fact that the Office of the Coordinator for Counter Terrorism has been vacant since 2004. But that still doesn't explain it.

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Behind Schedule

Fri Apr. 22, 2005 7:07 PM EDT

In 1990, Congress enacted the Global Change Research Act, based on the premise that climate change was enough of a threat to be taken seriously, even if its consequences were not entirely agreed on. The law required that every four years the administration provide Congress with an assessment of the scientific consensus on climate change and its potential to affect a wide range of national interests.

Unfortunately, White Houses haven't followed along: The Clinton administration didn't put together a comprehensive and detailed report until 2000, and many significant findings weren't included until three years later. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) doesn't seem to be doing much better. According to the Government Accountability Office, the report was supposed to be completed by 2004, but the first of its 21 reports won't arrive until January 2006, and the last scheduled for late 2008.

The GAO did concede that four years is probably an unrealistically short amount of time to put a useful assessment together, pointing out that the Inter Governmental Panel On Climate Change, the world's utmost scientific authority on the matter, only reports every seven years. Chances are that if the administration appealed to Congress for more time, as the GAO has suggested, it might be granted.

Of course, timeliness isn't the only problem. The Bush administration's CCSP strategic plan, first laid out in 2003, made no mention of whether or not it would even address the implications of climate change. As reported by a National Academy of Sciences panel in 2004:

"The purpose of the plan's proposed [reports] must also be clarified, because it is unclear whether they … will … meet the 1990 Global Change Research Act requirement for impact assessments…." The council noted that "…some areas specified in the Act, such as analyzing the effects on energy production and use, human health and welfare and human social systems, are only peripherally addressed by the portfolio of products. Not a single [report] explicitly addresses the nation's water supply."

Also worrisome is the fact that unlike the Clinton administration's report, which included a 154 page summary for general audiences, the Bush administration's CCSP has given no indication it will do the same. Because the reports will be completed separately over the course of two or three years, Congress will face considerable uncertainty as to when they might receive the findings, as well as serious doubt regarding their overall usefulness on matters of policy.

The $300 Billion Question

| Fri Apr. 22, 2005 4:10 PM EDT

From the Guardian, I see that the cost for the war in Iraq is now approaching some $300 billion. My first thought was, "Well, it's a heart-gulping amount of money, but hey, at least it's doing some good and making the lives of ordinary Iraqis much better." And then I realized, oh wait, that's right, we're talking about a country that's suffering from a lack of clean drinking water, primarily because the military needs more funds for security, all due to some botch-ups and lack of planning in the early stages of the occupation that allowed the insurgency to spiral out of control. Great.

Bringing up the price tag also bring up the question of the opportunity costs of the war in Iraq, and I think the latter is a good question to ask. Let's go through some of the, um, more valid rationales for the invasion. First, you could argue, even in retrospect, that in the long term the sanctions regime against Iraq was untenable and eventually Saddam Hussein would have re-armed, possibly fired up his pre-nascent WMD program again, and then possibly—possibly—colluded with nasty terrorists and threatened the United States. I think that scenario's mostly far-fetched, but not impossible, and certainly an argument worth considering. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that instead of invading Iraq we could have spent a fraction of that $300 billion to secure loose nuclear material around the world and strengthen controls on nuclear proliferation, two things that the White House has done exceedingly poorly over the last four years, and two things that would make America far, far safer than a disarmed Iraq ever would.

Okay. Second, you could say that the war in Iraq has helped spread democracy throughout the Middle East, and that's a good thing. Again, somewhat shaky argument—it's not entirely clear that the January 30 elections in Iraq caused Palestinian reforms (which were largely due to the death of Arafat), or the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon (which was due mostly to endogenous factors), or piecemeal reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it's not clear that the proto-democracy movement now sweeping the Middle East will even go anywhere, or come to full fruition. Backsliding by Arab despots is a very real possibility. Nevertheless, assume the war in Iraq has led to some good democracy-related things. Well, even then, it's hard to imagine that we couldn't have spent that $300 billion pushing elsewhere for reform around the Middle East, in ways that could've likely had an even greater impact. Egypt, after all, is the largest and perhaps most influential Arab state, and yes, it's entirely realistic to think that with far less than $300 billion, a bit of time, and intense pressure, the Bush administration could've set that country on the path to democracy, a shift that would've caused far, far bigger ripples throughout the region.

Third, you could say that so long as Saddam Hussein was in power, Iraq was a threat to stable oil prices throughout the region. I don't think that was the only rationale for invading, but realistically, it was probably a consideration—Dick Cheney tipped his hand on this way back in late 2002, when he warned against Saddam Hussein being "seated atop ten percent of the world's oil reserves." (He stopped using this line after an ensuing outcry.) Of course, the insurgency in Iraq has caused an even greater uncertainty in oil prices than Saddam Hussein had been doing, so this reason for invading seems sort of futile in retrospect. But again, assume it was a decent rationale for war. Well, even then, instead of invading we could've spent part of that $300 billion on pursuing real energy independence, something that would've cushioned the U.S. economy from fluctuations in oil prices far more efficiently than a stable, democratic Iraq could've done.

Oh yes, and then fourth, there's the humanitarian argument. Even if we could've achieved security, democratization, and energy stability by not invading Iraq, surely no compassionate liberal would prefer to leave Saddam Hussein in power, right? Well, all else equal, of course I'd prefer to see Saddam ousted. But all else isn't equal. Again, for a fraction of that $300 billion we could've done far more humanitarian good elsewhere. The U.S. could have stopped the ongoing genocide in Darfur, for instance, something that apparently we "can't" do now, because our troops are all tied up in Iraq. Or hell, we could've cranked up our relatively meager foreign aid and set ourselves to alleviating world poverty. If you're just concerned about improving people's lives for the sake of improving people's lives, there's so much else the U.S. could've done that would have, in a strict utilitarian calculus, been a better course of action.

This is all somewhat retrospective, of course, and there's a whiff of Monday morning quarterbacking about it. But not entirely, and it would be foolish to discount the opportunity costs here. Obviously, if Iraq does pull through and, in ten years, becomes a relatively stable and free democracy—and I think there's a chance of this happening—history will of course "vindicate" George W. Bush and laud him for liberating Iraq. The history books won't touch on what else might've been accomplished for so much blood and treasure, but that obviously ought to be a crucial consideration when assessing any foreign policy venture. And meanwhile, there are all the clear net negatives that have come with war: the countless Iraqi civilians who have either died or suffered thus far, the creation of a whole new generation of Islamic jihadists, the blow to America's international prestige and moral standing. Count me as one who fervently hopes Iraq improves, avoids civil war, and becomes a full-fledged democracy, but none of those things will "vindicate" the invasion when all is said and done.

Sweet, sweet regressivity

| Fri Apr. 22, 2005 2:14 PM EDT

Josh Marshall flags an interesting tax story—no, really—in the Christian Science Monitor. It turns out that America's "progressive" tax structure really isn't all that progressive. When you add up federal, state, and local taxes, it turns out that the tax code becomes pretty darn flat. The top 1 percent of the population, with average income $978,000, pays 32.8 percent of its income in taxes. Meanwhile, the middle 20 percent of taxpayers, with average income $34,500, pays 29.8 percent of its income in taxes. This is mostly due to the regressive nature of state and local taxes, along with the payroll tax, but there you go.

Notice what follows. If the country were to move, as many Republicans would like to do, to a flat federal tax on earned income, top 1 percent of earners would end up with a smaller effective tax rate than those in the middle class, after you add up all taxes. In other words, a flat tax wouldn't just move the system a bit more towards regressivity, it would just make it regressive, period. I'm not aware of any notion of "fairness" that would justify this sort of thing, but perhaps some very clever GOP pollster is out there crafting one right as we speak.

Independence, or... privatization?

| Thu Apr. 21, 2005 8:37 PM EDT

Best idea I've heard all day, from the Washington Post:

Some say the president should set aside, or scrap, his Social Security plan and dedicate his second term instead to dramatically restructuring the way Americans power their businesses, homes and cars. They cite the confluence of three events as reason to act immediately: the steep rise in oil and gas prices, increased U.S. dependency on the oil-rich Middle East and skyrocketing demand for oil in China and India.

Note that the "some say" in the first sentence include several key Republican luminaries, including "Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a Reagan administration defense official, R. James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence, and Gary L. Bauer, president of American Values, a Christian group." None of these folks are laboring under the delusion that the energy bill now circulating through Congress, mostly just stuffed to the gills with handouts for GOP donors, is at all a serious step forward.

The sad part is, George W. Bush is the one person who could really lead the charge on promoting energy independence. With has vast array of business connections, he more than anyone else could pull a "Nixon goes to China": pressure automakers into supporting higher fuel efficiency standards, crack down on CO2 emissions, invest in R&D for alternative energy sources, perhaps even levy a gas tax that would make those fuel-inefficient behemoths on the road a little less palatable to the average car-buyer. The U.S. could hop out in front on developing the leading energy technology of the 21st century. Bush could make this happen in a way that no Democratic president ever could—if only because of the oh-so-predictable antipathy from Big Oil and Big Auto and Big whatever else. Yes, Bush could do all this, and leave a lasting and positive mark on this country, permanently improving our economic and national security.

But no, instead he's spending all his time shuffling around the country, lying through his teeth about Social Security, and sleazily touting a program that would slash benefits, force the U.S. to borrow trillions from China, and expose ordinary Americans to risk, hassle, and uncertainty.

Lame.

US blocks WHO

Thu Apr. 21, 2005 3:51 PM EDT

Apparently, the Bush administration is trying to throw a wrench in the World Health Organization's (WHO) plan to put two abortion pills on an essential medicines list. According to the Guardian, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been lobbying the Director General's office at the WHO to prevent the go-ahead. The pills are aimed at preventing a portion of the 18.5 million unsafe abortions that are carried out every year in developing countries, especially those where abortion is legal but doctors currently must resort to invasive surgery.

The WHO committee unanimously recommended that the pills go on the "essentials" list, but nevertheless, there has been a long, uncustomary delay in approval from the Director General, which seems to be stalling. A memo at the end of March was sent back to the WHO committee, "asking if they had considered a warning that mifepristone [i.e., one of the abortion pills] can, in rare cases, carry a risk of serious bacterial infections, sepsis, and bleeding." To which the committee, embarrassingly enough, had to remind the director general's office that they, since its their job, had indeed considered the side effects, but that the risks of infection and bleeding from the abortion-related surgery currently being carried out in poor countries are far higher than those of the pill. Which is why they approved it in the first place.

It's not the first time the Bush administration has tried to foist its stance on abortion onto the rest of the world. Back in early March, the U.S. was the only thing standing in the way of ratifying the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) simply because the administration feared that the language affording women reproductive rights could be interpreted as a right to abortion. If the administration wants to take on the issue of abortion at home, that's one thing. But opposing an approach to health care that has been shown to prevent saving lives in other countries on "values" grounds is quite another.

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Would overturning Roe save democracy?

| Thu Apr. 21, 2005 1:46 PM EDT

There's a lot to pick through in David Brooks column today on Roe vs. Wade. (Shorter: "If we had just handed women's bodies over to the whims of majority rule, this country wouldn't have had all these problems over the years.") But let's just settle in on the key phrase:

If [the abortion issue] had remained in the legislatures, we would have seen a series of state-by-state compromises reflecting the views of the centrist majority that's always existed on this issue.

Now in some senses this is right, and liberals have suffered somewhat for relying on the courts; they've grown fat and lazy, which has made it easier for the pro-life movement to chip away at abortion rights in the legislature. But that's very different from arguing that Roe has torn this country apart, which seems plainly wrong. As Barbara O'Brien writes, well before Roe vs. Wade the hardliners on both sides "were engaging in the same shouting-past-each-other arguments they engaged in after Roe v. Wade." Indeed, I'm not sure what country Brooks thinks he's living in if he thinks that state legislatures always produce "compromise" laws that everyone views as legitimate. (Would clinic-bombers go quiet down if "fetus murder" was enshrined by legislatures instead of the courts? Of course not.)

Even more interesting, though, is his contention that there's a "centrist majority" view on the issue. What exactly, I've always wondered, is that view? Polling usually shows that around one-fourth of Americans favor "abortion on demand," a small percentage think it should be banned outright, and a majority of Americans think it should be legal with certain restrictions. No doubt that middle position is what Brooks had in mind.

But as Christopher Caldwell argued a few years back, that middle two-thirds or so probably isn't going to favor the compromise solution Brooks thinks they will. The crowd that supposedly wants abortion to be "sometimes legal" is likely just saying that to feel good about themselves, and when push comes to shove, won't actually favor that sort of thing. For example, Americans claim to back abortion only for "serious" reasons: i.e. not "lifestyle" abortions. But only about 14,000 women per year get abortions for rape, incest, or life-saving reasons. That means the vast, vast majority of the roughly 43 percent of women who have had abortions—a figured put out by the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute and not seriously contested—have had them for these so-called "lifestyle" reasons. It seems pretty obvious that people try to take a stern stance towards the issue when polled about it—a little harmless finger-wagging is good for the conscience—but when it's their own body involved, most women want to make their own decisions. Caldwell made another argument along these lines elsewhere that's too good not to quote:

Americans say they are against late-term abortions [about 73 percent], but they favor, by wide margins [about 70 percent], allowing abortion for the "health of the mother." A significant number of those who call themselves pro-life would even grant exceptions for the mental health of the mother, which is a third-trimester loophole you can drive a truck through.

So Brooks can't hide behind a "silent majority" here. Indeed, the odds are overwhelming that if Roe v. Wade was repealed, most legislatures across the country would eventually pass law after law re-legalizing abortion. And yet the far-right would still be protesting and bombing abortion clinics and the like. The political climate would still be poisoned. In other words, life would go on… exactly as it does now. The main difference is that certain women in certain particularly conservative states would not have the right to choose. Of course, that too isn't significantly different from now, where abortion is so costly or remote or impractical for a shamefully large number of low-income women that it's all but illegal. So no, even setting aside all other arguments, I just can't see the country transforming into some grand democratic utopia all because Roe vs. Wade gets overturned.

MORE: Michael Berube's response to Brooks is marvelous.

New at Mother Jones

| Wed Apr. 20, 2005 8:07 PM EDT

"There will not be peace until they withdraw from our land": Down in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah still reigns supreme, and it's using its newfound political influence to attack both Israel and the United States. By David Enders.

The Reverse Revolution: House Republicans: reversing tomorrow's America today! Cartoon by Mark Fiore.

We'll Always Have Paris: Defenders of the estate tax need to wise up: good yarns and moralizing will always trump the facts. By Bradford Plumer.

The Normalization of War: At the end of the Cold War, Americans said yes to military power, consequences be damned. By Andrew Bacevich.

Justice and/or peace

Wed Apr. 20, 2005 5:17 PM EDT

This past week, Luis Moreno Ocampo, prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, said that he would suspend the planned prosecutions of members of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. Ocampo came to the decision after meeting with Ugandan leaders who have become concerned that the threat of prosecutions may be preventing the unfolding of peace efforts currently underway. Press coverage over the current schism so far seems to steer clear of the complexity of obtaining justice in the midst of a conflict and focus more on making a simplistic story of the conflict between the ICC's intent to prosecute, and the Ugandan government's focus on peace.

The New York Times recently published a piece with the headline, "Atrocity Victims in Uganda Choose to Forgive." The bent of the article seems to be that a battle of cultures is going on in which the ICC is pushing a foreign concept of "Western justice," while Africa is more preoccupied with "forgiveness."

Remarkably, a number of those who have been hacked by rebels, who have seen their children carried off by them or who have endured years of suffering in their midst say traditional justice must be the linchpin in ending the war.

It's true that Uganda has its own ritual for forgiveness, and has used amnesty as an important component of getting rebels to lay down their weapons. But might this focus on "forgiveness" and "amnesty" have more to do with the fact that rebel leaders have said that issuing warrants against them will result in more violence and an end to any steps towards peace? While there is certainly room for a dialogue regarding cultural nuances of the concept of "justice," it hardly seems like it should be the focal point of the discussion. Similar to Rwanda and South Africa, it seems likely that any post-conflict rehabilitation will involve both elements of forgiveness and prosecution.

Rather than making the main issue that of cultural difference, it seems more important to focus on what role the ICC should have in working with governments that are currently negotiating the end to conflicts. It is important to note that the concept of "Western justice" wasn't so foreign as to keep the Ugandan government from asking the ICC, back in 2003, to investigate LRA abuses.

The problem is not that Ugandans have such a radically different understanding of justice. Rather, it is the same conundrum that the ICC faces in Sudan—the people with the guns get to call the shots—and guess what—they don't want to be prosecuted. And when the warfare tactic of choice is to kill, rape, and recruit innocent civilians, it becomes necessary for either a peace agreement (involving amnesty) or massive military force. Considering that no country with a substantial military force seems to care much about Africa, governments find that they usually must resort to amnesties in order to end the violence.

So instead of arguing over the different definitions of justice and whether or not the ICC is a good thing, perhaps we should simply get more realistic about what it can and cannot achieve. The problem seems to be that we don't have any other effective international deterrent. Prosecution usually comes after the apprehension of those who committed crimes. If the specter of ICC prosecution is the only thing that strikes fear in the hearts of members of the LRA and janjaweed militias, it would seem that the international community is missing a crucial force that the ICC is not in a position to provide.

How Jeffords saved the GOP

| Wed Apr. 20, 2005 3:38 PM EDT

James Joyner, in the course of noting Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) coming retirement from the Senate, says: "I have nothing but contempt for the slimeball Jeffords." This seems to be the typical Republican view of the guy, who abandoned the GOP in 2001 to give Democrats control of the Senate. Fair enough—and plenty of Democrats have cast scorn on Zell Miller for similar turncoat-ism—but it's also worth noting that Jeffords essentially saved the floundering Bush presidency back in 2001.

Really? Really! Jeffords, recall, first told the president about his planned defection in late May 2001, right as the initial tax cut bill was wending its way through the Senate. Had Jeffords defected immediately, Democrats would have taken control of the chamber before the tax cut passed, and control of the legislative agenda would've passed to new Majority Leader Tom Daschle. On the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus (D-MT) would've replaced Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as chairman, and the White House would have been unable to pass a tax cut of its own design and choosing. The president's first major initiative would've faltered, and the then-unpopular president would have become an instant lame duck.

But Jeffords promised the president to defect only after the tax cut was passed—he even voted for the bill—and the White House came out victorious. So sure, call him a "slimeball" if you must, but if Jeffords had really wanted to stick his knife in the president's back, he could've done far, far worse.