Mojo - October 2005

The Plot Against Syria?

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 4:51 PM EDT

To follow up on Melanie's post below, Josh Landis notes that senior Bush administration officials already seem to be preparing for various degrees of regime change in Syria. Among other things, Stephen Hadley has reportedly discussed possible successors to President Assad with Italian sources. By all accounts, this is a bit crazy. As Mark Levine noted at HNN, the Assad clique has been running Syria—and by extension, Lebanon—like the Mafia for years, and no one would cry to see them go. On the other hand, après lui, le deluge and all that; Syrian's liberal democrats are an underdeveloped force, to say the least, and a clumsy ouster of Assad's regime, provided he's not quickly replaced by a somewhat more Western-friendly thug, could throw the country into factional infighting and chaos. The question here isn't whether the world would be better off without Assad's family in charge of Syria—of course it would—but whether getting rid of him would actually be a smart idea, and more importantly, how the Syria hawks actually plan on doing it.

It's also worth noting, though, that with the release of the Mehlis report, there's much, much more to this story than U.S.-Syria relations—the pressure against Syria isn't just a plot hatched by lunatic neoconservatives, and the Bush administration may choose Libya-style multilateral pressure on Syria rather than violent regime change. Indeed, the administration, John Bolton especially, has been surprisingly careful to let the UN take the lead in this whole Lebanon investigation. Now the UN is presumably going to demand a trial over the Hariri killing—as noted below, even France has stuck to its guns here—and presumably Assad isn't about to fork over his brother and brother-in-law, the latter of whom is perhaps the second-most powerful Syrian in the government, to the Hague. It's hard to see the Security Council putting up with that sort of slap in the face. Much of the important pressure, then, will likely come from the international community rather than the White House alone.

In the Washington Post on Saturday, Anthony Shadid outlined one likely Syrian strategy: "[O]ffering enough gestures to fend off international pressure but making no concessions that might imperil a government that already feels besieged." Or, as Shadid reported the following day, Syria "has promised to cooperate, within limits." Indeed, Syria's taken this route to good effect before, but it's not clear that it will work this time, even if Europe is wary of destabilizing Syria. And the latter might well come to pass sooner rather than later. David Ignatius last week suggested one possible outcome to all this: "If Assad's grip weakens and he can't or won't clean house in Damascus, the season of coup and counter-coup will begin for real."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

US Jumps at Syria Implication

Mon Oct. 24, 2005 4:34 PM EDT

Today is United Nations Day, marking the organization's 60th anniversary. As New York and UN offices around the world celebrate and commemorate with parades and fairs, a potential storm is brewing amid US interests in the Middle East.

The stir is caused by the release of the Mehlis Report, a 54-page document that provides the findings of the UN investigation into the car bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in February. The latest controversy concerns Mehlis' implication of high-ranking Syrian officials with involvement in the assassination plot, along with a subsequent call by the U.S. for international sanctions against Syria.

Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies any involvement in the bomb and the UN investigation has thus far not produced any proof that he had knowledge of a conspiracy, the report does name Assad's brother-in-law, General Rustum Ghazali, the former Syrian intelligence chief in Beirut, as a co-conspirator.

In recent months, the Bush Administration has had particular trouble with what it sees as Assad's refusal to assist counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq by stemming the flow of foreign fighters into the country. Der Spiegel describes the American contention "that Syria has assumed a role similar to that of Cambodia in the Vietnam War: It has become the staging ground for a shadow and proxy war" as incentive for the US to gain control of the Syrian front of the Iraq war.

The UN Summit in September resolved to consider the Secretary-General's proposal for a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the coming year. But while the General Assembly pushes for consensus on a definition of terrorism, the UN Security Council is again being called to take immediate action with its stronger-armed tools. The State Department hopes the UN will hold a ministerial-level meeting on October 31st to decide what Security Council measures will be taken against Syria. Notably, France is also interested in getting tough on Syria. Tomorrow, the Security Council will discuss the Mehlis report tomorrow in New York.

Endless Cycle

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 2:25 PM EDT

Over at the New Republic's now-defunct &c. blog, Spencer Ackerman observes that the U.S. is now even further away from training the new security force in Iraq than it used to be. The problem is that, while the training itself is going decently, the semi-independent Iraqi government now needs even more troops—325,000 rather than its previous estimate of 275,000—to counter an insurgency that continues to grow. (And in all likelihood there's still room for the insurgency to expand even further; see John Robb's figures.)

Although there's got to be an upper limit here, it's not too implausible to expect an endless spiral of this sort over the next few years: the U.S. can't get the new Iraqi army fully trained because the requirements keep moving upwards, which means that American troops stay for longer, helping to swell the insurgency even further, and meanwhile the predominantly Shiite-and-Kurdish army have just enough presence to antagonize Sunni Iraqis but not enough presence to maintain law and order and defeat the insurgency, so the requirements for the new Iraqi security forces go up yet again. One would hope this doesn't actually happen but it certainly seems to be the trend so far.

Body Counts

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 2:12 PM EDT

The Washington Post reports today that an old Vietnam-era practice is making a comeback in Iraq:

Eager to demonstrate success in Iraq, the U.S. military has abandoned its previous refusal to publicize enemy body counts and now cites such numbers periodically to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations.

The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon's leadership. Now we've known that the military has been using body counts as a metric of success in Iraq since Newsweek's Christopher Dickey reported it back in May of this year. But all trends seem to suggest that this is now the formal answer to Donald Rumsfeld's concern, in a memo he wrote in October 2003:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?
Just count the corpses, maybe. William Arkin recently reported that the Pentagon is planning to unveil new "metrics software" that will try to break these questions down into raw numbers and "calculate" success. Better than having no metrics at all, one would imagine, but Arkin sees shades of Vietnam: "Commanders and analysts will be pushed to produce the right numbers to show 'progress.' Units will be mandated to 'report' measurable data lest progress is not being properly shown." Or, as Conrad Crane, director of the military history institute at the U.S. Army War College, put it somewhat more pithily, "[T]he numbers got so wrapped up with career aspirations that they were sometimes falsified."

But that's sort of the least of the concerns here. The evidence is also good that worshipping at the altar of body counts actually increased the number of civilian atrocities in Vietnam, as suggested in the Toledo Blade's 2003 investigation of the elite "Tiger Force" platoon, which ended up going insane and killing everything that moved:

After arriving, the battalion - including Tiger Force - moved to the Song Ve Valley, a remote, fertile basin in the center of the province. The goal of the military was to stop the 5,000 inhabitants from growing rice - food that could feed the enemy. But with deep ties to the land, many villagers refused to leave. That's when Tiger Force members joined other battalion soldiers in what became a grisly routine: Shooting villagers who stayed in their hamlets.

Mr. Stout said commanders were counting the executed civilians as enemy soldiers to help boost "body count." In Vietnam, the measure of success was the number of enemy soldiers killed - not the taking of land, say military historians. Mr. Stout said in July he spotted a sign posted in a command center in the valley with a tally of the dead enemy soldiers: 600. But the numbers of weapons seized totaled only 11. "Most of the dead people were civilians."
There's no reason to think that soldiers in Iraq are currently shooting up civilians to foster the illusion of success, but frankly, this isn't the sort of possibility you really want to flirt with. The Pentagon from all appearances still doesn't keep track of Iraqi civilian casualties in the country, and it isn't exactly meticulous in sorting out who was actually killed in this or that latest bombing raid.

Bush campaign paid large fees to Harriet Miers' law firm

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 11:37 PM EDT

George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaigns paid $163,000 to the Texas law firm of Locke, Purnell, Rain and Harrell during 1998 and 1999. At the time, U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Harriet Miers worked for Locke, Purnell, which later merged with another firm to create Locke, Liddell & Sapp. The White House, citing attorney-client privilege, refuses to release details about the legal work done for Bush.

In 1998, two payments of $70,000 each were made within a month of each other. Legal fees for Bush's 2000 presidential campaign amounted to $365,000, and the total for his 2004 campaign was $191,000. A White House spokeswoman called the 1998 Locke, Purnell work "routine campaign work," but did not provide any details.

The $163,000 legal fee is considered extremely high for a gubertorial election campaign, and there is concern that some of Miers' work was directly related to the disposition of Bush's military records.

Conquering the CIA

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 2:03 PM EDT

David Ignatius reports on the state of intelligence reform over the past year. His verdict: It's going "only partly right." Bureaucracy is multiplying everywhere you look, the new CIA director, Porter Goss, has brought in his political allies and driven out highly-skilled career top officers, and the new Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, despite showing good management skills, seems inclined at times to politicize the intelligence process. Not a good sign.

I guess the alternative, more Bush-friendly way to spin this would be that Goss is finally cleaning up a dysfunctional agency that has constantly been at war with the president. The problem with that view, is that, at least over the last four years, as wrong as the CIA has been, they've always been much less wrong than the White House and its hawkish allies in the Pentagon (on Iraq in particular), and those skirmishes were at least partly warranted. Since the days of Team B conservatives have always loathed the agency for producing what they saw as too-watery threat analyses—never mind if they were correct in the end—and the early signs seem to be that Goss is continuing that trend.That's not quite the same thing as "cleaning up" a dysfunctional agency.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Anti-Torture Amendment Wavering

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 1:37 PM EDT

A new human rights report will be released soon, revealing a whole barrel full of bad apples: "More than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody since 2002, Human Rights First research in a soon to be released report indicates, including 27 cases the Army has to date identified as suspected or confirmed homicides, and at least seven cases in which detainees were tortured to death. The findings come as chairmen and ranking members of a House/Senate Conference Committee are scheduled to meet next week to determine whether to include in a defense appropriations bill an amendment setting clear rules for U.S. interrogation policy to prohibit abusive treatment."

Meanwhile, with regards to the above-mentioned McCain amendment, which sets guidelines for interrogations, Marty Lederman recently pointed out that politicians opposed to any and all restrictions on torture—including Dick Cheney and his congressional allies—will soon try to water down the bill by exempting the CIA from its provisions. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) has already tried to steer the bill in this direction, and we can expect more along those lines. As it stands now, the McCain amendment is couched in fairly general language, and wouldn't prevent all detainee abuse—the Pentagon could always reword its Army manual to get around many of the restrictions—but the changes and exemptions Stevens wants would essentially give an explicit green light to the CIA's interrogation tactics, and would for the first time put the congressional seal of approval on the administration's views on torture.

One More Time...

| Thu Oct. 20, 2005 8:10 PM EDT

Unbelievable:

In the midst of the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official in New Orleans sent a dire e-mail to Director Michael Brown saying victims had no food and were dying. No response came from Brown.

Instead, less than three hours later, an aide to Brown sent an e-mail saying her boss wanted to go on a television program that night — after needing at least an hour to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge, La., restaurant.

The e-mails were made public Thursday at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing featuring Marty Bahamonde, the first agency official to arrive in New Orleans in advance of the Aug. 29 storm. The hurricane killed more than 1,200 people and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate.Oy. Judging from the emails, Michael Brown was much, much worse than anyone thought. (And we thought it was pretty bad.) Meanwhile, a piece by Richard Clarke in the Atlantic Monthly gets at the point regarding the dismal response to Katrina:

Imagine if, in advance of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of trucks had been waiting with water and ice and medicine and other supplies. Imagine if 4,000 National Guardsmen and an equal number of emergency aid workers from around the country had been moved into place, and five million meals had been ready to serve. Imagine if scores of mobile satellite-communications stations had been prepared to move in instantly, ensuring that rescuers could talk to one another. Imagine if all this had been managed by a federal-and-state task force that not only directed the government response but also helped coordinate the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other outside groups.

Actually, this requires no imagination: it is exactly what the Bush administration did a year ago when Florida braced for Hurricane Frances. Of course the circumstances then were very special: it was two months before the presidential election, and Florida's twenty-seven electoral votes were hanging in the balance. It is hardly surprising that Washington ensured the success of "the largest response to a natural disaster we've ever had in this country." The president himself passed out water bottles to Floridians driven from their homes.

Environmental groups sue U.S. Navy over sonar training

| Thu Oct. 20, 2005 7:53 PM EDT

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Cetacean Society International, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the League for Coastal Protection, and Ocean Futures Society and its founder and president Jean Michel-Cousteau filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy toay because of the Navy's continual use of mid-frequency sonar in training exercises. The suit claims that the sonar frequencies injure and kill whales, dolphins, and other marine animals, and that the Navy refuses to implement common sense precautions that would eliminate the damage.

In 2003, a similar suit was settled that blocked the global deployment of the Navy's low-frequency active sonar system and restricted its use to a a limited area of the northwestern Pacific Ocean.

The U.S. Navy isn't the only culprit. NATO ocean exercises have also been responsible for the injuries and deaths of whales and dolphins. Nine dead Cuvier's beaked whales were found washed up on the Canary Islands three years ago. Six beached whales were sent back to the ocean, and two were spotted dead in the water. During that period, ten NATO countries were an exercised called Neo Tapon 2002. Autopsies on the deal whales found brain damage consistent with impact from military sonar systems, and the whales were shown to have been in good health prior to the sonar testing.

In June of this year, thirty conservation and animal welfare groups petitioned John Reid, British Secretary of State for Defence to investigate the increase of mass stranding of whales. A study done at the Zoological Society of London indicated that the whales suffered from some type of decompression sickness when sonar interfered with their navigation patterns. Following sonar tests, whales and dolphins are often found bleeding from the eyes and ears, with severe lesions in their organ tissue.

The evidence is clear. Eighty dolphins, thirty of whom died, were found beached off of the Florida keys following a sonar exercise. Thirty-nine died after tests were done off the coast of North Carolina. Seventeen whales died in the Bass Strait, fifty were stranded 300 miles away, and 150 whales and dolphins were found dying, all after sonar tests near Australia. Many whales and dolphins were found stranded within twenty-hours of U.S. Navy sonar tests near the Bahamas, twelve beaked whales died after testing off the coast of Greece, and six died after testing near Japan.

What Clause? Where?

| Thu Oct. 20, 2005 6:50 PM EDT

Huh, maybe I'll end up supporting Harriet Miers after all, if she keeps saying things like this:

[S]everal constitutional law scholars said they were surprised and puzzled by Miers's response to the committee's request for information on cases she has handled dealing with constitutional issues. In describing one matter on the Dallas City Council, Miers referred to "the proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause" as it relates to the Voting Rights Act.

"There is no proportional representation requirement in the Equal Protection Clause," said Cass R. Sunstein, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. He and several other scholars said it appeared that Miers was confusing proportional representation — which typically deals with ethnic groups having members on elected bodies — with the one-man, one-vote Supreme Court ruling that requires, for example, legislative districts to have equal populations.Okay, in reality it's a little appalling that we're about to get a Supreme Court Justice who doesn't have even a passing familiarity with this country's founding document. Still, it would be pretty interesting if there was a "proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause."