Mojo - August 2005

Clinton and al-Qaeda, Once More

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 2:53 PM EDT

The New York Times reports on newly declassified documents noting that, back in 1996, the State Department's intelligence shop warned the Clinton administration about Osama bin Laden's move from the Sudan to Afghanistan:

In what would prove a prescient warning, the State Department intelligence analysts said in a top-secret assessment on Mr. bin Laden that summer that "his prolonged stay in Afghanistan - where hundreds of 'Arab mujahedeen' receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate - could prove more dangerous to U.S. interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum," in Sudan.

Doesn't look good, does it. On the other hand, whether or not the Clinton administration took this warning seriously, it's impossible to imagine that the U.S. could've gone to war against Afghanistan prior to 9/11. Clinton's suggestion in New York magazine this week, that he would have "launched an attack on Afghanistan early" if only he had known that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the U.S.S Cole, is pretty laughable. Clinton's trying to make himself look good—please, pray tell, why would that particular attack be a cause for war, but not the 1998 embassy bombings?—but even if he was serious, a war against Afghanistan in 2000 would've been opposed by the Republican Congress, which was then against any adventures abroad, as well as the media, which would've had a field day calling any such attack a "wag the dog" maneuver. Sad but true.

More to the point, Clinton's reluctance to attack wasn't his biggest mistake. If we really want to criticize with hindsight, then in fact, Clinton's failed missile attacks on Afghanistan in August 1998 probably did more to help al-Qaeda than anything else. Not because they "emboldened" the enemy, as many conservatives have suggested. Rather, as Jason Burke reports in his book, Al-Qaeda, up until that point Mullah Omar and the Taliban were getting sick of their Arab "allies" running rampant around the country, and were ready to extradite bin Laden. But after the attack, the Taliban felt that they couldn't look weak and give up bin Laden in response to Western aggression, and at that point, the ties between Mullah Omar and bin Laden firmed up considerably. Meanwhile, bin Laden's cachet increased immeasurably around the Arab world—up until that point he had just been seen as a two-bit financier; now, he was an international mastermind, and an inspiration to other young jihadists. The rest of the story is pretty well known, but the missile attacks were an oft-overlooked turning point.

At any rate, it's pretty obvious that Clinton dropped the ball on al-Qaeda in many respects (as did George W. Bush, as did countless others). Hindsight is brutal, and always unforgiving. A bitch, one might say. Moving forward, however, Kevin Drum asks the right question: why is the State Department's intelligence unit, INR, so much better than all the others? And, by the way, where is Osama bin Laden these days?

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Time for a Wall?

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 2:32 PM EDT

Immigration's becoming a hot topic around these internet regions. John Derbyshire argues we could completely seal off the border for less than $18 billion, by building an Israeli-style barrier. Well, even assuming illegal immigration is a problem that requires a brick-and-mortar response, would this actually stop people from trying to get in? Wouldn't new smuggling markets simply arise: packing migrants in crates, say, and shipping them from Mexico to the United States? So long as the benefits outweigh the costs—and the benefits of immigrating are very high—I have a hard time thinking you can put more than a finger or two in this particular dike. Maybe, though.

Meanwhile, David Card's study—"Is the New Immigration Really All That Bad?"—answers, "Not really." He does find that the influx of low-skilled immigrants since 1965 have increased the supply of "high-school dropout" labor in various cities. (It's not obvious that this should always be the case: Say a bunch of low-skilled immigrants move to a city, but more and more natives graduate from high school; then the supply of low-skill labor could stay constant or even decline.) On the other hand, he does find that wages for native low-skill workers doesn't really correlate with the supply of workers. So even in those cities where immigrants are flooding the low-skill market, the natives aren't always worse off, for whatever reasons. (One theory: firms in cities with an influx of low-skill immigrants "innovate" to take advantage of the new supply of labor, even in the absence of wage changes.) This pattern has held for awhile now—the gap between dropouts and high-school graduates is roughly the same as it was in 1980.

So that's good news, although I'm not sure whether Card factored the effects of illegal immigration into his calculations (it's difficult to figure out), which may or may not matter. Oh, wait; that's the good news, here's the better news: Immigrants seem to assimilate just fine. Most of the studies on this have tried to measure whether immigrants can come here and then close the wage gap with natives. Card says, no, they don't and usually can't, but that's the wrong question to ask. Look at second-generation sons and daughters of immigrants to measure assimilation—and those kids have, on average, higher education levels and wages than children of natives. Even children of the least-educated origin groups manage to narrow the gap considerably. Granted, it's all well and good for a college graduate living in San Francisco—and working in a field with considerable "protectionist" barriers, no less—to shrug his shoulders at immigration, but Card's study makes things seem less dire than thought, even if this is hardly the last word on the matter (he doesn't touch on, for instance, the cost of public services).

New at Mother Jones

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 2:03 PM EDT

Saving the U.S. Army Can Help Save Iraq
Even if we wanted to keep ground troops in Iraq at current levels, we can't do so without breaking the Army.
By Lawrence Korb

Cindy Sheehan's War
Cindy, Don, and George: On Being in a ditch at the side of the road.
By Tom Engelhardt

Plame in the Courtroom
Is the Intelligence Identities Protection Act really impossible to prove?
By Elizabeth de la Vega

Has Time Run Out?
On the monster at the door—the coming flu pandemic
By Mike Davis

Iraq Q&A: Andrew Arato

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 11:13 PM EDT

Yesterday, the headlines were all abuzz over the Iraqi parliament's decision to give itself another week to haggle over the draft constitution, which will, if finished, go before the Iraqi voters for a referendum sometime this fall. (It can be defeated by either a majority "no" vote or a "no" vote from two-thirds of voters in any three provinces.) To get a bit more context on what's going on with the ongoing negotiations, and what they portend for the future of Iraq, I recently spoke with Andrew Arato of the New School University, who has written extensively on the subject. The interview's transcribed here:

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Mother Jones: What are some of the dangers in the United States the Iraqis to finish the constitution so quickly? Rumsfeld originally told them to stick to the August 15th deadline, and now they've been given an extra week.

Andrew Arato: There are some advantages, to be fair. If the principals can all strike a deal on a constitution, it's important to get it through quickly, because so many actors can bring a deal down. Just over the past few weeks, it just took [Ayatollah Abdul-Aziz] Hakim, [who has recently made demands for an autonomous Shiite "super-province" in the south, along with control of the oil resources there], which was probably motivated by Iran, and suddenly the constitution was in danger. So there are advantages to pushing for a quick deadline.

The big disadvantage, though, is that the principals in this constitutional committee all met only a very short time ago, August 6th, and so now they're rushing, and might not even reach an agreement. Even if they do, another danger is that parliament might just have to rubber-stamp whatever document comes out of committee, because they won't have time to debate it. Ideally, there should be a full parliamentary discussion about this constitution, with debate and amendments; ideally it would be shown on TV for the public to watch. That's really crucial. But with this rush to finish a draft in committee, parliament might have to discuss the final draft in as little as a day, next week. That's no good: then you get a situation similar to what happened with the EU referendum in France and Netherlands, where the public debate is foreshorten, and the constitution is essentially seen as an elite-driven process, which could spur a democratic "no" by the public.

Then of course, this rush makes it look like America's behind all of this. Because there's no Iraqi reason to rush the constitution, after all; instead, it looks like this process is being driven by poll numbers, being rushed for political reasons in America, just like the interim constitution was rushed for political reasons. So [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] Zalmay Khalilzad now looks like he's imposing on the whole process—and even if it's not true, it seems so.

Watch the Polls

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 8:40 PM EDT

This weeks "Off to the Races" column by Charlie Cook has an interesting theory on voters and Iraq:

For a month or two, there has been a theory circulating among those that watch polls that the American public can be broken down into four distinct groups: those that have always been against the war; those who were for it but now believe we've blown it and should pull out; those who supported the war, believe the invasion was successful but think that the aftermath has been completely blown, yet would hate to see us withdraw immediately and lose all we've invested; and those that have always been for the war.

Pollsters say that the first group -- always against -- makes up about 30 percent of the electorate, while the second group -- those that started off in favor of the war but now see it as a lost cause -- includes about 20 percent. … The third group -- those that are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed and casualties increasing, yet still hate to see us 'cut and run' -- makes up another 25 percent. The last 25 percent remains supportive.

Looking at things from a political standpoint—and with this administration, you can't go too awry looking at things that way—these numbers put the GOP in a bit of a bind come the 2006 midterms, don't they? As far as the war is concerned, those first two groups may never look kindly on Bush and his party for getting us into this Iraq debacle. (That doesn't mean they'll look kindly on Democrats who got us into this war either, but save that for later.) At this point, even a serious draw-down of troops early next year, as Gen. George Casey has suggested, even that might not bring Cooks' group two—"those who were for it but now believe we've blown it"—back into the Republican fold. Although a draw-down might defuse enough anger and anxiety over the war that perhaps some voters from that group two could be persuaded to vote Republican over "moral values," or whatever it is the kids are voting on these days. So who knows? Maybe the administration's looked at the polls and is plotting a hasty withdrawal come 2006.

On the other hand, Bush has recently been suggesting that there will be absolutely no cutting and running on his bold and resolute watch. Now that means either three things: 1) he's lying, and the administration's already planning a hasty retreat come mid-2006, right in time for the elections; 2) Bush doesn't care about the polls and really wants Iraq to succeed, and thinks he's doing the right thing; or 3) deep in his secret lair, Karl Rove's been running the numbers, and he truly believes that the only way to eke out a Republican victory in 2006 is to win over that third group of voters on Cook's list—those that "are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed… yet still hate to see us 'cut and run'"—by getting the president to stand firm. None of these options would surprise me, quite frankly, but I don't think 3) is so outlandish that it's not worth thinking about. To pretend that polls and popular opinion won't effect what goes on in Iraq over the coming months seems, I think, a bit naive.

Meanwhile, as Billmon points out, all of those hawkish, pro-war Democrats you see on TV—Sen. Joseph Biden comes to mind—may be inadvertently undercutting this strategy by suggesting that the president isn't really doing everything in his power to win the war in Iraq. So Biden's call for more troops in Iraq may be wholly impractical, but if it puts Cook's "group three" at ill-ease, then it's not unwise politically. Of course, some of us have suggested that Bush wasn't serious about this war from day one, but then, we're not really the swing voters here, are we? At any rate, then there's the question of how the Democrats are going to handle the 2006 elections; at the moment, they seem to be opting for neocon-lite, and as Billmon says, given the choice between neocon and neocon, voters will probably just pick the genuine article. And meanwhile, once we put the polls away and start thinking about more serious matters, no one seems to have any idea what to do on a policy level to stop Iraq from imploding. (Here is the most serious and considered suggestion I've heard, but it's suitably bleak, so fair warning.) All in all, quite the disaster.

Medicaid, Roberts, etc.

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 7:36 PM EDT

My what a lovely lede this story has: "In a series of rulings, federal judges are limiting the ability of poor people to turn to the courts to fight for Medicaid benefits to which they believe they are entitled."

How can federal judges do such a thing? It seems that some patients—yes, mostly the poor—believe that their eligibility for Medicaid entitles them to the same access to health care services as "the general population." But of late, the Supreme Court has admonished lower courts that "they should be reluctant to infer individually enforceable rights where Congress did not explicitly create such rights." And, of course, if equal access to health care isn't a "right" under Medicaid, then it becomes much harder for patients to sue for such protection. Meanwhile, what do we find buried down in the piece but this: "John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, was an early advocate for [the Supreme Court's] point of view, long before the recent trend emerged."

In related news, the Democrats aren't going to fight Roberts' nomination, and many of them even plan on voting for him—despite the fact that Roe v. Wade could be all but nullified if Roberts gets confirmed—and, as Sam Rosenfeld chronicles over at TAPPED, Medicaid is coming under further attack from the states and the federal government. Happy times.

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Doctor, Recuse Thyself

Tue Aug. 16, 2005 3:01 PM EDT

Today's New York Times has a piece looking into a June Journal of the American Medical Association article about doctors who serve as paid consultants to investment companies. These companies are looking for an investing edge in medical fields, such as biotech and drug development, and since doctors are ultimately the ones who implement or prescribe many treatments, their judgments are valuable. Providing that sort of information isn't illegal, barring investment conflict-of-interests. But doctors are occasionally privy to results and information about clinical trials or feasibility studies before regulators or the general public. Today's Times article comes on the heels of a Seattle Times investigation that found at least 26 cases of doctors leaking confidential information in paid conversations. In some cases, this had clearly observable effects on stock prices as investors reacted. Overall, the flavor of the New York Times article is that doctors should avoid these relationships, which for the most part don't result in illegal information sharing, to avoid the appearance of impropriety. In the few cases where information is leaked, most seem willing to assume that the doctors are just making small, unintended disclosure mistakes.

But the trading firms certainly know better than to use what they are told. The paper trail seems clear: The Seattle Times was able to obtain investment research reports showing that the financial companies were making recommendations to their clients on inside information obtained from the doctors. The SEC has started investigating, but convictions might be hard to come by, as prosecutors will have to prove that doctors gave specifically prohibited kinds of information, and that those pieces of information formed the conclusions that were passed on to investors, rather than the legal general impressions that may have also been collected. In any case the new light on the problem, and now federal involvement, ought to put some cold water on the future of similar payment schemes.

Rebutting the IDers

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 1:50 PM EDT

Once when I was about twelve, I visited China, where, during lunch, my family and I watched, gape-mouthed as the police chased a man scrambling through a restaurant, bowling over chairs left and right. Finally they tackled him to the ground and dragged him outside by the scruff of his neck. Through the window we could see four policemen take turns punching the guy in the head again and again. Pow! Pow! And when he tried to resist? Pow! Pow! It was all very horrifying, but somewhat perversely, that was the image that came to mind while reading Jerry Coyne takedown of "intelligent design" in this week's New Republic. Brutal and unrelenting. If you're looking for the definitive rebuttal of ID, this is pretty much it.

Kick the Can

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 1:28 PM EDT

This… definitely falls into the category of arcane-yet-important budget stuff, but Health Affairs has a new study out on the ways in which various states dealt with their fiscal crises during Bush's first term. The short answer: not very well. Most state legislatures, not surprisingly, were reluctant to treat the shortfalls as long-term crises, so they refrained from raising taxes or taking other difficult and politically unpopular measures to shore up their deficits. Rather, they just kicked the can down the road, either by borrowing money from other funds—New York's legislature drew out money from its welfare fund; California from the transportation kitty—or by making "one-time" cuts in state health programs, such as Medicaid and S-CHiP, by, for instance, making it more difficult for residents to qualify, or by raising co-payments.

The problem with all this is that these moves weren't just "one-time" cuts necessary to weather the fiscal crises: Since 2004, tax revenues have finally been increasing again, but most states still haven't solved their long-term budget problems, and can't use the additional funds to expand Medicaid again. As the study puts it: "the damage that the recent recession did to Medicaid may take years to repair." That means less health care for everyone, despite the fact that we're in the middle of an economic boom, supposedly. The lesson here, it seems, is that the Bush administration's first-term reluctance to send federal relief down to the states during the recession—a measure many economists had advocated, and the federal government didn't get around to doing until 2003—has created problems that persist to this day. Even more crucially, though, someone needs to point out that state legislatures can't get away with pretending to take "one-time emergency actions" to deal with budget crunches.

Condoleeza Rice: Francophile

| Mon Aug. 15, 2005 6:51 PM EDT

Fred Kaplan is trying to figure out what to make of Condoleeza Rice's first term thus far. After rattling off a bunch of her accomplishments—including the resumption of nuclear talks with North Korea (a feat that probably had more to do with South Korea's offer of electricity than American diplomacy) and crafting a "war crimes" resolution against Sudan—he calls her accomplishments "considerable." I'd disagree—in fact, measures like the UN resolution against Sudan, which was then followed by absolutely no international action, may have done more harm than good—but Kaplan's right on when he says: " Yet these feats are only stirring because of who she's working for. They are the sorts of things—conducting diplomacy, entering negotiations, dealing with international organizations—that secretaries of state in most administrations do routinely."

Right on, but more to the point, most of these steps were things that John Kerry was practically pleading with George W. Bush to take all during the 2004 campaign. Now fair enough, the election's over, and it's hard to get upset over the fact that the Bush administration has essentially adopted Kerry's foreign policy, after spending a year telling the electorate how weak-kneed it was, and how unsafe it would make America. I just wish the press would actually make note of this fact, so that, you know, they could call foul the next time a presidential candidate gets depicted as a flower-strewing wimp for pointing out that, hey, maybe doing nothing while Kim Jong Il develops nuclear weapons isn't the best idea after all. But that's probably hoping for too much.