Mojo - August 2005

Call for a Do-Over?

| Tue Aug. 30, 2005 12:49 PM EDT

Noah Feldman's New York Times op-ed on the Iraqi constitution lays out all the well-tilled reasons why the document may just lead to further bloodshed down the road, but this part near the end brought on a bit of head-scratching:

Although things look bad today, the game is not yet quite over. Should the constitution be rejected on Oct. 15, everyone can head back to the negotiation table and try again.

In an ideal world, everyone would get behind this option. Do the whole thing over, this time with the Sunnis fully included. On the other hand, I have serious, serious doubts that re-electing the Iraqi National Assembly all over again would fundamentally change the outcome. The Sunni provinces are still as violent as ever, and turnout, while perhaps better than last January, would still be quite low. Meanwhile, Shiite militias like Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and SCIRI's "Badr Organization" pretty much run southern Iraq at the barrel of a gun, and the potential for ballot tampering, or intimidation, is high. The odds seem pretty good that re-doing everything would only bring back to power the same cast of characters, with the same set of demands, only this time, the U.S. military would be even closer to the breaking point, and the Iraqi people would be even more impatient with a constitutional process that doesn't seem to be going anywhere. "Head[ing] back to the negotiation table and try[ing] again" may end up being one of the few options that can avert a civil war and seek out that much-discussed "political solution" for the Sunnis, but is it even practical?

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Hooray for Hypocrites!

| Tue Aug. 30, 2005 12:30 PM EDT

So the census numbers are in: The official poverty rate rose to 12.7 percent last year. And as per our discussion below, those numbers might even understate matters. Interestingly, the number of uninsured Americans stayed the same only because Medicaid and S-CHIP, two liberal workhorses in the healthcare department, managed to pick up the slack. I'd just put that alongside an earlier Washington Post story, noting that, when they return to Congress next month to work on the budget, Republicans are going to have to look deep inside their souls for the courage to hack away at health insurance for children. So the picture is actually about to get much, much worse.

Which brings up a semi-important point: During the run-up to the election, liberals loved to mock Bush and the Republican Party for spending like—wait for it—a drunken sailor, despite the fact that the GOP is supposed to be the party of fiscal restraint. It was all good fun to watch self-proclaimed conservatives like the National Review throw confetti at Bush's feet, and then squirm uncomfortably when the topic of spending was broached, but if anything, I'd sort of like to see those taunts die down. Cuts to Medicaid and other state programs would be really, really bad, and while it's frustrating from a liberal point of view to see Bush, DeLay, Frist and other hypocritical Republicans get away with spending so lavishly while preaching restraint, really, the deficit isn't that bad, and it would be much better if the GOP just failed to curb spending.

Rolling Back AIDS Progress

Tue Aug. 30, 2005 10:58 AM EDT

Shakespeare's Sister points to the disappointing (but not that surprising) news that Bush is cutting funding to Africa for condoms. The UN, naturally, is outraged.

A senior United Nations official has accused President George Bush of "doing damage to Africa" by cutting funding for condoms, a move which may jeopardise the successful fight against HIV/Aids in Uganda.

Stephen Lewis, the UN secretary general's special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa, said US cuts in funding for condoms and an emphasis on promoting abstinence had contributed to a shortage of condoms in Uganda, one of the few African countries which has succeeded in reducing its infection rate.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the condom crisis in Uganda is being driven by [US policies]," Mr Lewis said yesterday. "To impose a dogma-driven policy that is fundamentally flawed is doing damage to Africa."

Numbers Matter

| Mon Aug. 29, 2005 10:57 PM EDT

The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman critiques the poverty and health insurance statistics that will be released tomorrow, noting that the methodology is inevitably flawed and the numbers "overstate some problems and understate others." For instance:

[S]ince poverty levels are not adjusted for regional costs of living, the working poor in expensive urban centers like Washington are routinely excluded from federal programs because their income lifts them above the official poverty line. The rural poor in low-cost states like Arkansas often can afford considerably higher standards of living than their urban compatriots. Yet they may be eligible for food stamps, housing aid, free school lunches and other programs that exclude the urbanites.

That's all true, although I wouldn't say the rural poor have it good, especially in persistently depressed regions such as the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, or the lower Rio Grande Valley. Nor do the rural poor necessarily have a "cost of living" advantage. For one, job opportunities are much scarcer than in the cities, the physical infrastructure tends to be especially rotten, and the social-support services are considerably more limited than in urban areas. (Not that they're wonderful in urban areas.) Plus, transportation costs can be somewhat higher. On the other hand, concentrated poverty in urban areas comes with its own set of problems, including violence and crime. None of this contradicts Weisman, of course, who notes that poverty rates in any case are probably understated:

Officially, the poverty rate has drifted upward since 2000, from 11.3 percent to 12.5 percent in 2003. But a more sophisticated measurement that the Census also publishes, which accounts for variable costs of living, rising medical expenditures and more accurate price inflation, shows the official rate has consistently understated poverty. By that alternative measure, the percentage of Americans below the poverty line has risen from 12.8 percent in 2000 to 14.2 percent in 2003. Using such measurements, last year the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee found poverty rates nearing 16 percent in the late 1980s.

At the same time, household incomes may be understated because they do not include non-cash income like food stamps. The earned income tax credit was created during the Reagan administration specifically to raise the working poor out of poverty. But by government counting, the program has not lifted a single person above the poverty threshold, Michael said. Since poverty rates are based on pre-tax income, refunds like the earned income credit do not count.

All of that makes sense—poverty statistics should take into account variable costs of living, etc.; non-cash benefits should count toward income—although this is also hardly the only way to count poverty. Some researchers prefer to look at consumption patterns rather than income—after all, if a family is spending little, that could indicate deprivation, although it could also indicate thriftiness—or even various self-reliance programs (at what point can families fend for themselves without government assistance). At any rate, there are a million different ways to slice these numbers up, and obviously the main story is that millions of Americans really are poor, and many more millions really don't have health insurance. Still, without an accurate grasp on the problem here, many who need assistance will be passed over, silently.

Covering property with swastikas may not be hate crime in city north of Atlanta

| Mon Aug. 29, 2005 4:02 PM EDT

Law enforcement officials in Lawrenceville, Georgia say they are not sure whether to classify the burning of a swastika into the lawn of a Jewish family as a hate crime.

Two swastikas were spray-painted onto the road in front of the house, a swastika was burned onto the lawn--along with some obscenities--the trees were wrapped with toilet paper, and someone had urinated and defecated on the porch.

Ginger Ragans, who lives in the vandalized house, says she thinks some adolescents were retaliating against her because of her position as a liason to a community watch program.

If the teens were indeed retaliating out of anger because Ragans had caught them violating their curfew, it doesn't make the painting and burning of swastikas any less an expression of bigotry than if the vandals had created the swastikas strictly out of hatred for Jews. To exempt the behavior from a hate crime category because there was a motive for retaliation would be like saying there is nothing racist about a cut-off driver yelling "That black son-of-a-bitch almost hit my car." Any time race, gender, or ethnicity is brought into play, it is bigotry, plain and simple.

A couple was recently driven from their Long Island community because of a barrage of anti-Jewish and anti-African American messages sent to them. A former dean at Southeastern Louisiana University has filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging--among many other things--that she was treated with scorn because she is Jewish. Last year, a synagogue in Denver was defaced by anti-Semitic vandals. Recently, there have been numerous reports of vandalized mosques.

Though hate crimes continue to be perpetrated against Jewish and Muslim citizens, it is the Christian majority that complains about persecution. However, the only churches harmed have been black churches, and they were not bombed, burned down, and vandalized because their members were Christian. The "persecution" felt by conservative Christians has been in the form of government enforcement of the Constitution. No paint has been sprayed, no windows broken, no fires put out, no rubble swept away, no lives lost.

New at Mother Jones

| Mon Aug. 29, 2005 3:50 PM EDT

The Fall of a True Believer
The casino millions. The congressional golf junkets. The Senate investigation. How Jack Abramoff gained the whole world and lost just about everything.
By Barry Yeoman

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Better Than Saddam, Again

| Mon Aug. 29, 2005 3:13 PM EDT

I didn't even get through the first page of this Weekly Standard article, so let me know if there's anything I missed, but Christopher Hitchens takes to the ramparts defending the Iraq war, and the conduct of those who tortured prisoners, by noting… that at least things aren't as bad as under Saddam Hussein! Yes, that old thing. By this standard, our soldiers could stick half as many people in human shredders as Saddam once did and still declare the mission a moral victory. By this standard, Saddam himself turned into a saint for murdering fewer people in 2003 than he did in, say, the mid-1990s. By this standard…

I could go on, but I won't, because this is stupid. Human progress always relies on holding up some ideal—Americans don't torture people; bombing cities into the ground is wrong—rather than saying "At least we're better than our ancestors who brained each other with rocks and clubs." Why anyone still takes Christopher Hitchens seriously is beyond me. At any rate, he's probably wrong on the "better off" bit too: no, Iraq is not better off than it was four years ago, on account of all the dead people and torture squads, and it certainly won't be better off if it descends into full-blown civil war. And yes, I've seen the news stories about all the painted schools.

UPDATE: Okay, so I read the whole thing. It gets worse: "As [the war opponents] cannot and do not deny, there was going to be another round with Saddam Hussein no matter what." What? Incidentally, it's not even clear that the United States needed to go a first round with Iraq back in 1991. Saddam wasn't justified in invading Kuwait, but it wasn't at all clear that the U.S. would actually intervene—even many within the administration, including Colin Powell, were shocked that Bush I went to war. It's hard to rewrite history, but better deterrence might have prevented the whole thing. Whether that would have been positive or negative depends on other factors—what would have happened if Iraq went nuclear?—but wars are hardly as inevitable as Hitchens supposes.

The Withdrawal Guessing Game

| Mon Aug. 29, 2005 1:25 PM EDT

There's been a lot of back and forth over whether the Bush administration will really start to draw down troops from Iraq in 2006. Maj. Gen. Doug Lute, director of operations at CENTCOM, says there's a plan for doing just that. The president says no, no, we'll stay until "we win the war on terror," whatever that means. Garance Franke-Ruta of Tapped thinks that the president will follow his usual pattern, which means pretending to stand like a strong, tall oak in the wind of public opinion, and then bending at the last minute, which would mean drawing down troops next year while painting the (few) Democrats who are demanding just such a thing as craven appeasers and limp-kneed defeatists. All interesting theories. But Anthony Cordesman of CSIS takes a hard look and says no—it's very unlikely that the U.S. will start to pull-out in 2006:

The talk of US withdrawals by US military and Bush Administration officials is based on a reasonable degree of political success and inclusiveness, Iraqi military and security forces coming on line in large numbers, and the assumption that the police will become more effective, hold together, and be supported by and Iraqi government presence in the field. None of these conditions as yet exist….

There are all kinds of reports about US withdrawal plans and well-defined exit strategies. I don't believe them. None of my sources can give a clear target month for getting US forces down below 100,000 men and women.

Well, I'll take Cordesman's word for it: his BS detector has been pretty stellar these past few years. Plus, his take jibes with everything we know about the "enduring bases" being set up in Iraq—why we need those nobody knows; to guard the oil? to attack Iran? Not to mention the fact that timing the withdrawal right before the midterms, with Iraq going to hell, could well be disastrous for the Republican Party's electoral chances if it goes badly. Can't have that.

Haiti and the Media

Mon Aug. 29, 2005 12:09 PM EDT

For the past month a group of friends and I have been attempting to raise awareness of the crisis in Haiti. Like Iraq, Haiti is a country in which the U.S. has been meddling for years, and like Iraq, the U.S. helped orchestrate the removal of Haiti's leader. Although it remains disputed the extent to which the U.S. was involved, ousted President Aristide maintains that he was taken hostage and forced to leave the country against his will. And while there is good evidence to support Aristide's claims as well as to suggest that the U.S. backed the armed rebellion that swept into Port-au-Prince in 2004, the U.S. media to this day almost fully refuses to acknowledge what took place. You would think that the press would care a bit more about Haiti given the one major difference with Iraq: Aristide, unlike Saddam, was a democratically elected President so committed to peace that he abolished Haiti's army.

Besides myself, The Heretik has been staying on top of the unfolding crisis, and today he points to some of the NYT's rare and always atrocious coverage on Haiti. Today's article amounts to little more than apologetics for the U.N.'s so-called "peace-keeping" activities.

Consider what happened: On July 6, U.N. troops surrounded one of Haiti's worst shanty-towns, – Cité Soleil – with tanks and helicopters under the pretense of going after a gang leader and his thugs. In the weeks after the attack, the U.N. maintained that only the gang leader and a few armed gang members were killed, despite the countless reports emerging that dozens of innocent people were killed, many women and children. Independent observers who traveled to Haiti speak of the horror of bodies lying in the street being eaten by dogs. All of the victims were supporters of Aristide.

As The Heretik notes, the NYT's coverage of this event leaves something to be desired. Today's piece essentially blames the impoverished residents of Cité Soleil for the violence the peace-keeping troops inflicted upon them. The story also justifies the violent actions as necessary for democracy!

For United Nations peacekeeping forces, bringing some semblance of order to Cité Soleil and giving its residents a chance to vote in the elections are seen as important steps in establishing a new, credible government in Haiti.
With elections coming up in Haiti in the next few months, we are likely to see more violence against Aristide's supporters and even more denials and rationalizations by the likes of the NYT.

On the Consequences of War

Mon Aug. 29, 2005 11:20 AM EDT

My good friend and the always sharp Bionic Octopus draws attention to an important British document published in yesterday's Guardian – a letter sent in May 2004 by the Foreign Office permanent under-secretary Michael Jay to the cabinet secretary basically arguing that the war in Iraq was stimulating Muslim extremism in Britain. The letter states:

Colleagues have flagged up some of the potential underlying causes of extremism that can affect the Muslim community, such as discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion... But another recurring theme is the issue of British foreign policy, especially in the context of the Middle East peace process and Iraq...Experience of both ministers and officials ... suggests that ... British foreign policy and the perception of its negative effect on Muslims globally plays a significant role in creating a feeling of anger and impotence among especially the younger generation of British Muslims..."
And Bionic makes the connection how odd it is that such a sentiment could have come from within the British government a year before the London bombings and yet the official government position remains that there is no link between the bombings and the Iraq war.

But of course, even now, the Bush administration continues to sound the same song, second verse – "The war in Iraq has made the U.S. safer" and "We have taken the war to our enemies to fight them on their own soil," etc. etc. Maintaining a plausible façade of justification for a war of aggression like Iraq depends upon convincing the public that national security is a stake. And it seems that in the case of Tony Blair, maintaining that façade even requires contradicting the best assessments of his own government.