Mojo - September 2005

Wishful Thinking

| Thu Sep. 8, 2005 4:14 PM EDT

Garance Franke-Ruta thinks the White House's public relations campaign in the wake of Katrina has proved a total flop. Indeed, it really has. What between rounding up firemen to use as photo props, to disrupting the relief effort with presidential visits, this hasn't been the perfectly stage-managed presidency we've come to know over the years. The president has always been a disaster, but never this obvious of a disaster.

On the other hand, I'm not sure any of these blunders will necessarily hurt Bush politically—or his minions for that matter—in the long run. In the early days of 9/11, remember, Bush reacted embarrassingly: from sitting around poking through "The Pet Goat" to hiding up on Air Force One the first day, and all but disappearing for a brief while after that. But he came back with his bullhorn speech and people soon forgot about the early gaffes. As Mark Schmitt argued yesterday, a lot of people needed to believe that the president knew what he was doing, needed to believe that he was the very picture of boldness and resolution, and so they did.

The same thing will likely happen with Katrina. That early photo of Bush strumming Nero-like while New Orleans sunk will soon fade from memory, and the president will have a whole year, or more, to direct "relief efforts" and make sure the GOP gets full credit for rebuilding New Orleans, regardless of what problems ensue. Conservatives angry at the president today will soon find an excuse to fall back in line behind their guy. The press, meanwhile, will remember once again how to kowtow. And so on. The expectation that the White House has completely bungled the post-hurricane P.R. game and will now somehow collapse under its own weight seems, I think, like an overly-complacent assumption.

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Lessons from Oil for Food

| Thu Sep. 8, 2005 2:48 PM EDT

The final independent audit report on the UN's Oil for Food program was released yesterday—Abu Aardvark has a summary. The report found that Benon Sevan, the administrator in charge, was incompetent and likely corrupt. Secretary General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, gets some heat for his poor oversight, but the inquiry doesn't find enough evidence to definitively tie him to his son Kojo's shady dealings.

Saddam Hussein's regime did skim off a fair bit of money by manipulating Oil for Food—but only about one-seventh as much as it did through outright smuggling, most of which was done through American allies, especially Turkey and Jordan. (And the United States prevented the UN subcommittee responsible for monitoring abuses from dealing with this matter.) And in the case of Oil for Food contract abuses, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. At the insistence of the United States, Iraq was allowed to designate the contractors with which it wanted to do business. If the companies chosen were willing to be corrupt, well, that's their fault too

Right-wing commentators have relished using the Oil for Food investigation as an anti-U.N. battering ram. But the program, troubled as it was, undoubtedly saved many, many lives. Those concerned about alleviating suffering under sanctions regimes shouldn't immediately discard Oil for Food as model for future attempts. If, as a consequence of the Iraq mess, the US becomes more averse to intervening militarrily, sanctions will again become a major foreign policy tool. Finding ways to lessen their impact on the citizens of targeted nations is too important a goal to give up on.

The Genocide That Keeps Giving

| Thu Sep. 8, 2005 1:55 PM EDT

In other disaster news, longtime Sudan observer Eric Reeves notes that African Union forces to Darfur haven't been able to do much to stop the ongoing genocide and instability there. As predicted by, you know, just about everyone. At this point, only a "dramatic intervention," as Reeves put it, would put a halt to the killing. The International Crisis Group has recommended a NATO "bridging force" in Sudan, to help the AU disarm the janjaweed militias and create humanitarian corridors, but not a single international leader has even made so much as a nod in their direction. (Even the ICG's proposal, the boldest thus far, vastly underestimates the number of troops needed to stop the genocide, but as with most international reports, they tried to craft something as politically palatable as humanly possible.)

Unfortunately, the United States has probably done more than any other country to put pressure on the Khartoum government—and the U.S., mind you, has forged cooperative ties with the NIF for counterterrorism purposes, which tells you all you need to know about the extra-tepid response from Europe, Africa, and other Arab countries. But with Katrina putting a brand new hole in the U.S. budget, with Sudanese oil being more important than ever—so much for the possibility of sanctions on Sudan, right?—and with Iraq souring the American public's taste for any more foreign adventures, the Darfur genocide will very likely rage on unaddressed until there's no one left to kill. Meanwhile, it looks like Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has drawn all the proper lessons from the West's silence on Darfur and decided that he too can probably get away with an organized mass murder project of his own. Future genocidaires of the world take note.

UPDATE: Speaking of Darfur, Eugene Oregon's post on media silence deserves a look. Between last August and this August there's been an eight-fold decrease in the number of newspaper stories devoted to the genocide in Sudan, despite the fact that the situation isn't really improving at all (except insofar as there are somewhat fewer people to kill these days). And forget about TV: Peter Jennings and ABC devoted 18 minutes to Darfur in all of 2004, and they were ahead of the other two networks by a vast, vast margin.

Cover-Up Time

| Thu Sep. 8, 2005 1:03 PM EDT

Oh good. Congress is planning to engineer a bipartisan cover-up of the failures surrounding Katrina. Really, this should be thrilling. (Technically, Harry Reid's right: "An investigation of the Republican administration by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes." Good metaphor. Does this mean they won't send a pliant Democrat up to co-chair the thing—maybe Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV) can reprise his role as Senate stooge?) One can pretty safely assume that FEMA head Michael Brown will take the fall, and George W. Bush will get off scotch-free--he's just the president after all, not like he's responsible for anything. One can also assume, though, that the frenzied porkmasters sitting in the House and Senate won't bother taking a hard look at their own rather significant role in the New Orleans debacle, as reported today by Michael Grunwald in the Washington Post:

In Katrina's wake, Louisiana politicians and other critics have complained about paltry funding for the Army Corps in general and Louisiana projects in particular. But over the five years of President Bush's administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than seven times as large.

Much of that Louisiana money was spent to try to keep low-lying New Orleans dry. But hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated water projects demanded by the state's congressional delegation and approved by the Corps, often after economic analyses that turned out to be inaccurate. Despite a series of independent investigations criticizing Army Corps construction projects as wasteful pork-barrel spending, Louisiana's representatives have kept bringing home the bacon.

For example, after a $194 million deepening project for the Port of Iberia flunked a Corps cost-benefit analysis, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) tucked language into an emergency Iraq spending bill ordering the agency to redo its calculations. The Corps also spends tens of millions of dollars a year dredging little-used waterways such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Atchafalaya River and the Red River -- now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway, in honor of the project's congressional godfather -- for barge traffic that is less than forecast.

Louisiana has had some mighty politicians in its day, including Democratic "deal-maker" John Breaux, and all of them have steered an impressive amount of money towards Corps projects in their state. But much of that money went towards the sort of largely useless projects, like building a new lock to accommodate barge traffic that wasn't actually increasing, that have a lot of flash and garner voters, rather than to tedious projects shoring up New Orleans' hurricane defense and flood control systems. Given that Louisiana's politicians have, historically, tended to be mostly Democrats, it seems likely that the bipartisan cover-up will point a righteous finger or two their way. But that won't solve the systemic issues here—namely, that the Army Corps of Engineers is being funded in a largely frivolous manner—with a civil works budget controlled by congressional "earmarks"—that certainly helps politicians get re-elected, but leaves people, quite obviously, in danger.

Every Crisis an Opportunity

| Wed Sep. 7, 2005 7:08 PM EDT

There's an old myth, popular in business circles, that the Chinese character for "crisis" combines the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." It doesn't. But the Bush administration is certainly thinking that way, judging from this little tidbit in CongressDaily today: "[White House spokesman Trent] Duffy asserted that the vast spending that would be required to address the hurricane's impact adds to the need to change Social Security, which threatens to strain the budget in coming years." Ah yes, despite the fact that Social Security "reform" would add trillions to the deficit in the short term, at a time when Katrina will already cost the federal government $100 billion or more, the time for privatization is now, obviously, in the wake of disaster. Um, no.

Forget the Bases

| Wed Sep. 7, 2005 6:50 PM EDT

Over at Tapped, Matt Yglesias argues that we don't need permanent military bases in the Middle East, and we ought to go back to the days of "offshore balancing," as Stephen Walt or Robert Pape have suggested, and let that be that. I pretty much agree, but it's worth exploring this a little more, starting with Matt's recap of the Gulf War:

For a long time, up until the Persian Gulf War, the United States avoided basing troops on the Arabian peninsula, preferring to count on relationships with regional allies and our ability to move forces into the area if necessary to safeguard our interests. That worked very well, and the Gulf War showed that we were perfectly capable of moving a lot of troops to the Gulf when we had a good reason to do so.

I don't think that's quite right. Many military experts seem to think that, had Saddam Hussein wanted to, he could have stormed into Saudi Arabia immediately after invading Kuwait and seized the prized Hama superfields long before the United States started pouring troops into the peninsula at King Fahd's request. (All those dollars spent arming Saudi Arabia turned out to be entirely useless.) Without bases, we were caught a bit flat-footed. Of course, even if the Iraqis had invaded, the U.S. might have just driven them out of Saudi Arabia as they did from Kuwait, but what if Saddam's army, say, set those fields on fire? Bad news. Meanwhile, in retrospect sure, the United States slapped the Iraqi Army up and down the Tigris, causing death and destruction for them and very little for itself, but people forget that the coalition could have fared far, far worse. The Iraqis, for instance, might have decided to wage urban warfare in Kuwait, rather than foolishly going up against American tanks in the wide open desert, and American casualties would almost surely have been a good deal higher than they otherwise were.

So the lesson the first Bush administration drew from the Gulf War, it seems, was that they got lucky, dodged a serious bullet, and the United States needed permanent bases to defend the Saudi oil fields. It may have proved untenable, especially once it started angering bin Laden and his crew, but the move at least had a rationale behind it. Whether the U.S. actually did need those bases, however, seems up for debate. Some historians believe that the Bush administration could have instead just deterred Iraq from invading Kuwait in the first place, and that mixed signals from the White House led Saddam to believe that his little power grab would go unchallenged. (James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans drives this point home—even Colin Powell, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, didn't believe the U.S. would actually get itself involved in a Middle East conflict. Saddam probably obviously gambled on something similar.) That seems plausible to me. Deterrence probably works, even from afar.

Looking at Iraq today, I have a hard time figuring out what we need the bases for. Certainly they make it much easier for the U.S. to mount a response to some threat—say, from Iran—on Middle Eastern oil fields. Employing the Navy alone just isn't quite the same (again, see the first Gulf War), the bases in Turkey and Afghanistan could be too far away, while a base in, say, Bahrain doesn't have good land access. It's difficult to move thousands of troops and material large distances, and the closer the bases physically are to 25 percent of the world's oil supply, the better the U.S. can maintain control over the region. (Look at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia—fantastic for projecting power and whatnot.)

But even taking all of those arguments seriously, trying to dominate the entire region still seems counterproductive on balance, and the potential for backlash overwhelming. Robert Pape's now-famous theory of suicide bombing—that it's motivated entirely by occupation—doesn't seem all that applicable to modern Islamic terrorism, and way too-heavily skewed by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, but his sense that enduring bases in the Middle East would cause a great deal of resentment seems quite obviously right. When it comes down to it, the "rewards" of seizing control of the oil fields in the Middle East (rewards which haven't really made themselves apparent of late) really aren't worth the risks. The oil supply is more likely to be disrupted, I think, by jihadists angered by the U.S. presence than it is by another state-led invasion. So maybe we should just face the fact that it's time to play nice with Iran rather than prepare for the inevitable Gulf War III.

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Delivery of three tons of food postponed by Bush's visit

| Wed Sep. 7, 2005 4:57 PM EDT

On Friday, September 3, three tons of food ready for helicopter delivery to stranded residents of St. Bernard Parish and Algiers Point sat in trucks on the Crescent City Connection because all air traffic--including emergency rescue traffic--was halted so that Bush could enter New Orleans and announce that "the results are not enough."

Thanks to Just Ain't Right for alerting me to this story. Amtrak trains, U.S. Forest Serivce carriers, and Red Cross supplies were all prevented from reaching people because FEMA thought--well, who knows what they thought?--and then food was kept from hurricane victims because of a visit from Bush. Sandbags were ready to patch the levee, but the Blackhawk helicopter that was to block them never arrived, causing waters to rise at a deadly rate. Then people were forced to leave their companion animals to starve, drown, or die of starvation.

There is no way to spin this into anything acceptable, no matter how many late-night phone calls Karen Hughes makes or how many memos Karl Rove scribbles. I have talked with Louisianians of every poliitcal persuasion, and they all say the same thing: What happened was disgusting, and there can be no reasonable explanation for it.

"No to the last pharaoh"

| Wed Sep. 7, 2005 3:35 PM EDT

Egypt voted today in what some have hailed to be a breakthrough for democracy in the Middle East. It is the first time during Hosni Mubarak's 24-year authoritarian rule that candidates from opposition parties were allowed.

But of course, the elections today hardly single the opening for democracy in Egypt. The so-called "free and fair" elections were anything but as the government banned protests hours before voting began.

Then there was the fact that the government tried to keep international monitors and human rights groups from the polling stations – a decision that was backed yesterday by Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court. The Court in fact went so far as to rule that the voting process was free from any judicial review.

Then there is the actual constitutional amendment that set the elections into place – Article 76 – an anti-democratic reform designed to preserve the status quo. Besides allowing for multi-party elections, Article 76 also outlawed the largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and made it virtually impossible for independent candidates to run at all.

And what of Kefaya – the group whose name in Arabic means "enough"? The affiliation of leftist intellectuals, Islamists, and progressive secular activists who have organized protests and demonstrations in opposition to the Mubarak regime have been thwarted with government violence and intimidation at every turn. Over the past weeks riot police have beaten and arrested protesters, just as they did back in May. While some demonstrators held posters that read "No to the last pharaoh" and chanting "Poverty – kefaya! Torture – kefaya!" any effective opposition has been all but prohibited.

While this election is anything but legitimate, Bush and his crew will attempt to sanction it with the blessing of the United States, because the White House so desperately needs a positive democratic election in the Middle East in order to promote its foreign policy as a success. Unfortunately, if Bush praises this election, he will be sending the absolute wrong message. In effect, Bush will be telling those who long for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere abroad that it doesn't matter of elections come with government suppression and violence and intimidation and it doesn't matter of elections are decided by legislation in advance of the vote as long the charade of freedom is maintained.

Why Oversight Matters

| Wed Sep. 7, 2005 2:19 PM EDT

While everyone else is parceling out blame for the inept response to Hurricane Katrina, and even Michelle Malkin—Michelle Malkin!—is calling for FEMA director Michael Brown to be fired, I think it's worth pointing the finger in a different, somewhat unexpected direction: the Senate Democrats who approved Brown's nomination on a voice vote in 2002. Obviously this pales beside the issue of having a president tap one of his cronies' former roommates—whose previous experience included being fired from the Arabian Horse Association—for a top disaster relief spot. But it does put the lie to the idea that Congress should just defer to the president when he makes his picks for various federal agencies. A little more scrutiny would have been appreciated.

New at Mother Jones

| Wed Sep. 7, 2005 12:59 PM EDT

Sucker's Bets for the New Century
By Bill McKibben
The U.S. After Katrina

The Wrong Side of History
By Patrick Mulvaney
William Rehnquist lived to see much of his pro-death penalty work undermined.

Paul Allen's Other Yacht
By Paul Rogat Loeb
You can tell a nation's soul from the state of its budgets. So are we really going to abolish the estate tax?