Mojo - June 2005

The Brits Go to War

| Tue Jun. 21, 2005 11:23 AM PDT

Kevin Drum asks: "If Britain believed that Saddam Hussein's regime had no significant ties to al-Qaeda, why did Tony Blair support war against Iraq?" He claims the answer is that Britain truly believed Iraq had WMDs. I don't think that's quite right, although eventually they leaned on that rationale. Listed in the "Options Paper" is the main reason why, I think, the British government preferred regime change over containment and deterrence:

Within our objectives of preserving peace and stability in the Gulf and ensuring energy security, our current objectives toward Iraq are: the reintegration of a law-abiding Iraq which does not possess WMD or threaten its neighbors, into the international community. Implicitly, this cannot occur with Saddam in power.

Now it's hard to say exactly why the British government placed such an emphasis on "the reintegration of a law-abiding Iraq… into the international community," but that seemed to be an overriding concern here, and WMDs were only one part of it. Now the interesting twist is that the British government also didn't think "regime change" was a viable military objective. Here's a memo written by Peter Rickets to the Prime Minister:

Military operations need clear and compelling military objectives. For Kosovo it was: Serbs out, Kosovars back, peace-keepers in. For Afghanistan, destroying the Taleban and al Qaida military capability. For Iraq "regime change" does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam. Much better, as you have suggested, to make the objective ending the threat to the international community from Iraqi WMD before Saddam uses it or gives it to terrorists. This is at once easier to justify in terms of international law but also more demanding. … As with the fight against UBL, Bush would do well to de-personalize the objective, focus on elimination of WMD, and show that he is serious about UN Inspectors as the first choice means of achieving that…

So basically, the British government thought the main rationale for war was to preserve peace and stability in the Gulf—and preserve "energy security"—by reintegrating Iraq into the international community, something that couldn't be done with Saddam Hussein or even, necessarily, another Sunni General in power. But the British also seemed to realize that the only way to achieve this, "nation-building," was too vague an end state to make for a viable military objective. And thus they hoped to straddle this contradiction by focusing almost entirely on the WMD rationale and hoping that Saddam Hussein would refuse to let inspectors into Iraq (a prediction that was discussed in the "Options Paper"). But as it turned out, Saddam did let inspectors in, which screwed up that rationale. But by that point both the United States and Britain decided to blunder into war anyway. What emerges through all of this is just how muddled the planning was; not only was the rationales for war cocked up, but none of the people in charge seemed to be sure, exactly, what they even hoped to achieve from war.

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What We Knew About the Shiites

| Tue Jun. 21, 2005 10:35 AM PDT

One of the more neglected points about the Downing Street Memos is not that they prove that the Bush administration lied and cooked up a shoddy legal justification to go to war with Iraq. They certainly suggest that, but even more damningly, they show that the Bush administration had no idea what it was getting into. Did they know anything about the internal workings of Iraq? One of the memos, the Options Paper has this little tidbit: "Most Shia would like to have a greater say in government but not necessarily control." Oh, whoops. Maybe that explains why the CPA was so befuddled when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani demanded that the Americans drop their plan to install their allies and hold direct elections.

Meanwhile, might I add, for anyone considering—oh, I don't know—an invasion of Syria, that at least in Iraq we had the benefit of Iraqi exile groups giving us some information about the internal dynamics of the country. In Syria we know even less.

Downing Street Memos Update

| Tue Jun. 21, 2005 10:18 AM PDT

Shakespeare's Sister has one of the best overviews of the Downing Street Memos out there. The worst quote, to my mind, comes from the Ricketts Memo: "[The United States has not] satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured, and how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be better." The White House really had no clue what it was getting itself into, did it?

Meanwhile, there has been a bit of talk floating around that, like the CBS memos on Bush's TANG record, the Downing Street Memos might well be forged. The evidence? British reporter Michael Smith photocopied the original documents, and then destroyed the photocopies when he was done with them. Well, it sounds suspicious, but as Eugene Volokh points out, this seems precisely the sort of thing a reporter would have done if dealing with government documents. At any rate, if these documents exist, plenty of British officials have seen them, and not one has yet disputed their claims. At this point, it's safe to say they're real.

Better than Stalin!

| Mon Jun. 20, 2005 3:00 PM PDT

Andrew Sullivan says the obvious about Dick Durbin. Kudos. Really, all the carping here reeks of disingenuousness. One can only assume that when Hugh Hewitt, Bill Kristol, and others whine and moan about Durbin's "treasonous statements," it means that they read this description by an FBI agent—

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold... On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor."

—and immediately thought that hey, this was the work of Americans! Not only that, but that this was as it should be, that this was the American way, rather than something that you might find in a gulag or elsewhere. Well that's charming, kids.

Meanwhile, right-wingers around the internet, in a lockstep fit of indignation, have all taken to look for one single Democrat who will denounce Durbin. Well, fine. I certainly have no brief for a senator from Illinois. I'd happily denounce him and say he shouldn't have used Nazi references if—oh yes, there's an "if" here—if conservatives will agree to start speaking out against torture. But so long as they refuse that, so long as they insist on being more "outraged by the outrage" rather than, you know, outraged by the up to 28 "confirmed or suspected homicides of detainees" that have occurred under American watch, there's no reason to take any of them seriously.

UPDATE: And oh yes, the insurgents in Iraq are far worse than we are. Yes, that should be pointed out. But it's still no excuse. (It's also worth noting that, as far as torture is concerned, the Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters don't seem all that much different from our ostensible allies in Baghdad.)

Misinformation on Canada

| Mon Jun. 20, 2005 1:59 PM PDT

Matthew Holt has a great post on "the misinformation campaign about Canadian health care." It's true, every time the health care debate emerges, and people start clamoring for national health care, right-wingers flock to the scene with faux-horror stories about the Canadian system, most of it false. In fact, Canadians get equal or better health care outcomes for far less money than we do. Now I'm not convinced that there are big savings on spending to be had for the United States by switching to single-payer, but it's certainly not going to be a catastrophe. Far from it—the 61 million Americans who currently have no or inadequate insurance will finally get coverage. That alone is worth the price of admission.

The other point we tend to forget is that America has an advantage that comes with being stuck in the Paleolithic age of health care: namely, that if and when we decide to overhaul the whole system and move to single-payer, technocrats in Washington can look at what other countries have done, observe what works and what doesn't, and design our system with an eye towards improving on those experiments abroad. We don't have to do everything exactly like Canada. If we think some people should be allowed to have private insurance to pay for new and experimental treatments, fine, we can model that feature on France's system, which allows private insurance. If we think that Britain spends too little on certain types of treatment, fine, we can spend more. And so on. If Canada's system has problems, why not look to see how they can be improved or fixed, rather than simply shuttering the whole project?

Iran's Sham Elections

| Mon Jun. 20, 2005 1:30 PM PDT

Okay, call me an apologist, but I don't think you can fairly blame George Bush for the recent election results in Iran. I'll be the first to say that our Iran policy—what policy?—is completely screwed up, but let's not lose sight of the main problem hovering around the elections: the fix was in. Even if Hooman Madj is right and "large-scale fraud is unlikely to have occurred"—despite reports of baseej and militiamen intimidating voters—there's still the fact that all of the candidates had to be pre-approved by an unelected council of clerics. There's still the fact that the presidency is largely a useless role, without real power in the country, and that it didn't really matter whether a reformer like Mustafa Moin won; the status quo would've still plopped down, plump and happy, right where it was. I don't know if Bush was wise to denounce Iran's sham democracy right before a bunch of sham elections, but on the merits, what he said was accurate; it does no-one any good to pretend otherwise.

Anyway, it seems like the reformists are going to back Hashemi Rafsanjani in the runoff election, if only because his hard-liner opponent, former Tehran mayor Majmood Ahmadinejad, would allow the radical clerics in Iran to strengthen their grip on the country. But Rafsanjani certainly has no intention of liberalizing the country, or ushering in a new era of freedom and happiness. (Indeed, the danger is that if Rafsanjani wins with reformist support, the conservatives can claim newfound "legitimacy" and argue against those who would claim, quite rightly, that Iran is undemocratic.) On the bright side, analyst Sanam Vakil has argued that Rafsanjani will at least buck the conservative line and try for a rapprochement with the United States. That's better than nothing, provided, of course, that the United States would actually be willing to talk. The other interesting question is whether student groups and other reformists will take to the streets if Ahmadinejad wins. Not to mention: What will the United States do if Ahmadinejad wins? Break off all negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and hurtle down the path towards regime change?

UPDATE: Hossein Derakhshan has a report on the dire mood in Iran among reformers, especially over the prospect of an Ahmadinejad victory. Also: "One good thing about an Ahmadinejad term could be that it would end the apathy among the youth born after the Iran-Iraq war."

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Why so Lame?

| Mon Jun. 20, 2005 12:59 PM PDT

Ah, the question of the year: Why is President Bush such a lame, unpopular duck these days? Why can't he get anything substantial done? Why does the public hate him? Why won't even Congressional Republicans listen to him anymore? Sifting through this New York Times article on the subject offers a few explanations. One, Republicans have ruled Congress with such a partisan iron fist over the past four years, that suddenly, when they need Democratic help, they're not getting it. Two, "maverick" Republicans are finally lashing out and expressing their discontent at Bush; although it should be noted that, apart from a few hard-hitting quotes, moderates like Chuck Hagel and John McCain aren't actually doing anything to help fix the problems they claim Bush is creating. Three, Bush is trying to gut Social Security, which isn't called the "third rail" of politics for nothing.

Other possible reasons for lame-duckitude: Bush is being yanked by social conservatives into wildly unpopular territory, from his opposition to stem-cell research to the whole Terry Schiavo affair. Also, the lack of a clear presidential successor means that prominent Republicans—from Bill Frist to, well, Chuck Hagel—are all more concerned with preening and positioning themselves for the 2008 presidential nomination than they are about lining up behind Bush and supporting him.

A final reason why Bush has become such a wildly unpopular and ineffective president, as explained by Ryan Lizza, is that voters are seeing a massive disconnect between the campaign Bush—who won the election by convincing everyone that he could kill terrorists with lasers blasting out of his eyes—and the second-term Bush, who seems to care only about progressive indexing and slashing benefits for the elderly. The former was stately, even heroic, for many voters; the latter just petty and stingy. Expectations for Bush are wildly out of line with what he actually wants to accomplish. Here's Lizza:

In his influential book The Personal President: Power Invested, Promise Unfilled, released just as Ronald Reagan was settling in for his second term, political scientist Theodore Lowi argued that the final years of any modern presidency are doomed to failure. His argument, written in the wake of the disappointing presidencies of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, was that the rise of the president as the central figure in U.S. political life had created expectations of what the president could accomplish that are wildly out of sync with the actual powers of the job. The result is a continually frustrated public. He argued that every failure only created more frantic p.r. attempts by the president to be seen as successful, often creating incentives for "adventurism abroad." "As visibility goes up," Lowi once told The Atlantic, "so do expectations and vulnerability. There's more of a chance to make really big mistakes. It's a treadmill to oblivion. It's why modern history is filled with so many failed presidencies."

Now maybe if the president puts the focus back on national security—Iraq, say, or a more menacing stance towards Iran—he'll regain his footing. Maybe some sort of national security crisis will break out. But barring that, it seems the only way for Bush to salvage his second term is to become genuinely bipartisan and start reaching out to Democrats and other moderates. That's what Ronald Reagan did when facing lame-duckhood—both with his bipartisan tax reform package and holding summit talks with Gorbachev—and it's what Clinton did too, with balanced budgets and intervention in Kosovo. Sadly for Bush, compromise and outreach isn't really in his DNA, so he's going to spend the next four years looking mighty useless. Oh well.

Hear the one about CAFTA and labor standards?

| Mon Jun. 20, 2005 10:54 AM PDT

Nathan Newman, citing BNA Daily Labor Report makes a good point:

The joke of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is that its labor rights standards only require governments to enforce their labor laws as they exist, however pathetic those standards may be.

But to add insult to this ridiculous standard, the Bush administration proposed this year to slash $80.8 million from the $93.2 million currently spent by the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs to investigate labor law enforcement by foreign governments.

So a toothless set of labor standards will have equally toothless enforcement. And the House Appropriations Committee approved this cut in the Labor Department on June 16th. "It's a strange way to search for votes for CAFTA," Ranking Democratic David Obey noted.

Well, it is a strange way to search for votes, but it's also perfectly consistent with the Bush administration's labor policy in general.

War for Pork

| Fri Jun. 17, 2005 3:14 PM PDT

If the United States ever withdraws from Iraq and the central government collapses, or, god forbid, the country plunges into civil war, who's going to get blamed? Why, the liberal media, of course, along with various antiwar types who, as Tom Friedman declared, "don't want the Bush team to succeed." Because naturally, every morning, Zarqawi and his band of jihadists wake up, depressed and unsure if they can get through the day, moping about until they take their first sip of coffee and see the New York Times front page cheering them on. Then they get "emboldened" and spring to action. That's why Iraq has so many problems, you know. Surely this sort of stuff isn't to blame:

Congress, taking advantage of wartime support of national defense spending, is using the military's budget to steer billions to pet projects that apparently have little to do with Iraq or the ongoing war on terrorism, according to congressional documents, government budget officials, and watchdog groups.

The projects range from an unneeded warship and a seriously flawed cargo plane the Pentagon tried to cancel to millions each for a Mississippi wastewater treatment plant, a Nevada fire training station, and a Texas research hospital, the documents show.

The liberal media made them do it?

DeLay and Exxon

| Fri Jun. 17, 2005 10:22 AM PDT

Somehow, for some reason, it always comes back to Exxon, doesn't it? Here's Newsday:

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay owns stock worth more than $50,000 in ExxonMobil, according to financial disclosure reports, while at the same time he is one of the driving forces behind legislation that would shield that company and other manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from lawsuits that could cost them millions.

Already under fire for alleged ethical lapses, DeLay, a Texas Republican, has hired the Houston law firm Bracewell and Giuliani to defend against those charges. But the firm, in which former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is a partner, also represents a host of MTBE manufacturers in court and in Congress.

My colleague Erik has written about the MTBE liability legislation here. This latest story certainly adds an ugly twist. Granted, as far as scandals go, it's not the most amount of money ever, but as the Carpetbagger Report comments, it certainly "feeds the perception that DeLay thinks he can get away with anything."