Interesting. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposes direct talks with the Bush administration about "international problems"—presumably meaning Iran's nuclear program and the like. Maybe he's serious; maybe not. It would be nice if the White House could at least try to sit down for talks and find out.

Except that, as Kevin Drum has noted, officials in the Bush administration showed no interest in taking up similar overtures from Iran three years ago, and there's no reason to think they'd start now. Especially if Republicans could really use an international crisis to help themselves out in the midterms later this year. Maybe that's cynical. This bunch has certainly earned it.

Also, Chuck Hagel, one of those much-feted "moderate" Republicans, has an absurdly reasonable op-ed in the Financial Times arguing that Iran's nuclear program isn't an immediate crisis, that under no circumstances should we ever go to war with Iran (well, he doesn't quite say that, but he makes the case), and that the U.S. should try diplomacy. That's all quite right, but Hagel has been saying a lot of quite right things about foreign policy for the past two years, and no one at the top ever seems to listen.

According to the Los Angeles Times, more Iraqis were killed in the first three months of 2006 than at any time since the fall of Saddam Husein's regime. At least 3,800 have died, and many of them were killed execution-style; they were shot, strangled, electrocuted, stabbed, garroted, and hanged. Many, of course, died in bombings. The killings now appear to be more systematic, and there are obvious signs of tortune on the bodies. The majority of those killed have been Sunnis; Shiite death squads have been targeting Sunni citizens.

A series of car bomb blasts killed 30 people and wounded 70 today. Also, a minister in Iraq's interior department, along with 17 others, has been arrested under suspicion of his ivolvement in kidnappings and death squads. Meanwhile, a group in the 16th brigade has been apprehended on for carrying out the murders of citizens. Iraqi citizens have begun forming vigilante squads to counter-attack the death squads.

The New Republic is devoting its current issue to Darfur, and many of the essays seem to suggest that the United States ought to grab its military and intervene to keep the peace there. (Or rather, many of the articles seem intent on tweaking unnamed liberals whose "anti-imperialist" pose supposedly makes them complicit in genocide… or something.)

Anyway, leaving aside the fact that the Khartoum government recently signed a peace agreement with the main Darfur rebel groups—which may or may not translate into actual peace—and a large-scale military intervention might be unnecessary, there are real practical problems with an invasion of Sudan, if that's what's being recommended, that this TNR editorial passes over much too glibly. I reported on a bunch of difficulties over a year ago, and Samantha Power notes that the obstacles are no less dire now:

Thanks to the war in Iraq, sending a sizable U.S. force to Darfur is not an option. Units in Iraq are already on their third tours, and the crumbling Afghan peace demands ever-more resources. Moreover, sending Americans into another Islamic country is unadvisable, given the ease with which jihadis could pour across Sudan's porous and expansive borders. Making Darfur a magnet for foreign fighters or yet another front in the global proxy war between the United States and Al Qaeda would just compound the refugees' woes.
So what could be done short of invasion if, as some fear, the peace talks break down? Mark Leon Goldberg of the American Prospect recently wrote a piece noting that the Bush administration could deploy much more diplomatic pressure than it has in the past, and that there are plenty of steps short of invading that could go very far to halting the violence.

Unfortunately, as Marisa Katz reports in the TNR issue, the administration's policy towards Khartoum over the past three years has generally been unabashed appeasement—partly because Sudan's genocidaires such as Salah Abdallah Gosh have offered cooperation on terrorism issues (although one official tells Katz that this cooperation hasn't been all that valuable). Now the administration's stance appears to be changing of late, and for whatever reason, Robert Zoellick seems to have been able to pressure most of the parties involved to agree to a tentative peace deal, although this is one of those things on which we'll really have to wait and see.

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—Eric Reeves, who has done better and more extensive work on Darfur than any journalist over the past three years, surveys the vast humanitarian wreckage in Darfur and points out that even if the fighting stops (again, a big 'if'), the area is still going to be an utter disaster. Millions are displaced. Agriculture has been ruined. The next generation of Darfuris will grow up without having learned the necessary farming skills to sustain themselves. There are refugee camps that are bordering on permanence. Massive foreign aid and assistance will be needed. Massive, but doable. Yet Western countries have rarely, if ever, been good about helping refugees in post-conflict environments, or devoting the requisite resources to alleviating poverty and the like. That will need to change, and it would be unimaginably catastrophic to ignore Darfur just because the fighting has stopped.

Today, the U.S. Senate passed a $109 billion bill to pay for both the war in Iraq and hurricane relief in the United States, and George W. Bush has made it clear that he will veto it if it becomes law as is. "The House will not take up an emergency supplemental spending bill for Katrina and the war in Iraq that spends one dollar more than what the president asks for," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Period."

The Congressional Research Service says that the bill would bring total Iraq war spending to about $430 billion. In addition to $28.9 billion for other hurricane relief,, the bill includes $4 billion for levees and flood control projects in Louisiana. It includes $65.7 billion for war operations. Bush says that the bill is supposed to cover emergency spending, and that the Senate has filled it with "unecessary spending."

Speaking today on WWL Radio, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said that if she has to, she will use the courts to obtain the funding that Louisiana needs to rebuild. It is now an indisputable fact that the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally failed to provide appropriate protection for New Orleans when it constructed levees and floodwalls. No whistleblower came forward to tell the public what was going on, and as a result, we have the devastation that was caused during Hurricane Katrina. To make matters worse, the Orleans Parish Levee Board did a terrible job of inspecting the levees.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, as in the rest of the nation, today was a National Day of Prayer, which da po' blog thinks may not be enough for the people of Louisiana.

And now for some good news: Word came today from Washington that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is being deauthorized ASAP. There will be no more dredging, nad MRGO will probably be closed in the near future.

What the Media Finds Funny

Stephen Colbert's recent skewering of the president and the press at the White House Correspondent's Dinner prompted a number of journalists to declare that Colbert "just wasn't that funny." (Lloyd Grove suggested that the lampoon had "bombed badly.") But while mainstream outlets have all but ignored or belittled the event, web writers have rushed to Colbert's defense. Yesterday Salon wrote a cover story on the media's efforts to sweep Colbert under the rug—and got more traffic for this than for any story since breaking the Abu Ghraib torture photos—while the liberal blogosphere has been talking about him nonstop.

The disdain for Colbert's remarks, most of which touched on issues that were all perfectly valid and matters of public record (NSA spying, the energy crisis, global warming, FEMA and Joseph Wilson), raises the question: what does the media find funny? Apparently, it's when President Bush makes fun of those missing WMDs. According to Alternet:

It occurred on March 24, 2004. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Washington Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1,500. The main speaker: President George W. Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead. That night, in the middle of his stand-up routine before the (perhaps tipsy) journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."
Since Bush's parody—which received none of the media backlash that Colbert's did—1,900 more Americans have died in Iraq. Yet two years later Colbert points out indisputable failures of the administration and it's widely considered "unfunny."

Apparently all those irresponsible rumors about the soft-drink industry being totally omnipotent were overstated, as the three major soda companies have recently and voluntarily agreed to remove "sweetened drinks like Coke, Pepsi, and iced teas" from school cafeterias, in response to the growing number of lawsuits and pending state legislation that would ban soda from schools for health reasons. And here we thought that the soda lobby could prevail against these legislators forever. Guess not.

On the other hand, maybe it's too early to count Big Cola out. The Times story notes that "the beverage industry said its school sales would not be affected because it expected to replace sugary drinks with other ones." Graham Amazon, med student and intrepid blogger, thinks that the juice these companies will now peddle heavily in schools will pose a new problem, partly because everyone thinks juice is healthy—even when it's not juice, but sugar that tastes like juice. This would all seem sort of silly if it wasn't making everyone unhealthy and driving up our medical bills.

So Republicans in the House passed a "lobbying reform" bill today. What kind of lobbying reform? Here's how the Times describes it:

The new bill would require lobbyists to disclose more of their activities, increase financial penalties for violations and require lawmakers and their aides to attend ethics training.

It also aims to discourage earmarks by requiring House members who write spending bills to disclose them, a move lauded by fiscal conservatives who complain that earmarks waste taxpayer money and drive up the cost of legislation.That second paragraph can be dispatched rather quickly; "earmarks" amount to a very, very tiny fraction of government spending (about 0.1 percent in 2006). That "reform" won't amount to anything major. So the first paragraph there seems to be the nut of it: Congress will crack down on lobbyists. But Democrats, who "denounced the measure as a sham," have long argued that lobbyists are only half the problem. And they're totally right. The actual members of Congress, after all, first had to open the door for Jack Abramoff and his ilk before any corruption could take place.

Most importantly, the bill does absolutely nothing about the procedural abuses that Republicans have devised in Congress to stifle debate and create a "spoils" system for their corporate funders. (Susan Milligan's three-part series on this subject is invaluable.) As the Democratic analysis of the bill notes, "A legislative process that does not allow open debate and provide opportunity for amendment on legislation, and instead allows small groups of House leaders and private interests to write the bills, is a process vulnerable to corruption and improper influence from lobbyists." That's really the main issue, and on this point the reform bill is utterly silent.

Instead, the bill focused on minor rules governing gifts and the like. But as a number of experts who testified before the House and Senate noted, Congress already has a number of rules governing gifts and lobbying law and ethics violations. Unfortunately, they've been inadequately enforced, especially since Denny Hastert helped push through a rule in 2005 making it easier for Republicans to block ethics investigations. And so long as effective oversight is nowhere to be found, minor new rule changes won't make all that much of a difference.

The Raw Story reports that the United States and its coaltion allies do not classify the organization as a terrorist group. According to State Department documents, the Taliban has not been classified as terrorist for the past six years. The Taliban provided safe haven for Osame bin Laden and al Qaeda, and is currently in southern Afghanistan, intimidating villagers and ambushing vehicles.

No reason is given for the omission of the Taliban as a terrorist organization. State department officials describe the group as "an insurgent organization that will periodically use terrorism to carry out its operations." Using George W. Bush's definition, this would make the Taliban terrorists.

Though it may not be relevant, it is worth nothing that since the mid-90's, the United States has negotiated on and off with the Taliban for various oil pipeline deals; one such negotiation was taking place as late as 2001.

A new report by the Center for American Progress looks at economic mobility in the United States, and finds that children's potential for success in this country is very closely tied to the financial status of their parents. In particular, children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution in their lifetime, while children of the rich have a 22 percent chance of doing so.

Other key findings:

Here's a fascinating piece in the Chicago Sun-Times about how gangs such as Chicago's Latin Kings and Vice Lords are sending members into the U.S. military—some of them making it as far as Iraq. Only a very small fraction of soldiers are gang members, and few commit crimes while on base, but some observers seem to be worried that many will eventually leave and then use their training and access to military equipment to become "deadly urban warriors" when they return home.

[Scott] Barfield[, a Defense Department gang detective] said gangs are encouraging their members to join the military to learn urban warfare techniques they can teach when they go back to their neighborhoods.

"Gang members are telling us in the interviews that their gang is putting them in," he said…

Barfield said he has documented gang-affiliated soldiers' involvement in drug dealing, gunrunning and other criminal activity off base. More than a year ago, a soldier tied to a white supremacy group was caught trying to ship an assault rifle from Iraq to the United States in pieces, he said.Part of the reason the military has been letting in so many gang members is that it's had to lower its standards; recruits are increasingly getting waivers for criminal backgrounds, and recruiters are told that it's now okay to accept people with gang tattoos, so long as there are fewer than five. And, of course, part of the reason that standards have dropped so low is that the military's bogged down in a pointless and deadly war that no one wants to fight. But at least we'll have some great urban violence to show for it.