Mojo - September 2007

Looking Past Petraeus

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 4:15 PM EDT

This morning, in the ornate (and over air-conditioned) Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building, members of the combined House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees convened a hearing called, "Beyond the September Report: What's Next for Iraq?" Testifying was former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry, retired Army Major General John Batiste, and retired Army Chief of Staff Jack Keane.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are scheduled to appear before both committees early next week, but today's event was apparently meant as a preemptive strike against any good news they might deliver. As House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos said in his opening statement:

It would be refreshing if these two capable and dedicated men would outline a new plan that would redeploy our troops and bring them home from Iraq. But I expect instead that the September report—written not by one of our great military leaders and one of our most capable diplomats, but by Administration political operatives—will be a regurgitation of the same failed Iraq strategy. I expect this report will be replete with the same litany of requests—more troops, more money, more patience—and all in the unlikely belief that our intervention in a bloody, religiously-based civil war will bear fruit.

Lantos' statement was challenged by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, who objected to the very premise of the hearing. "We should consider next steps only after we have reviewed all reports and presentations," she argued, in reference to the forthcoming Petraeus/Crocker report. Duncan Hunter, her Republican counterpart on the Armed Services Committee, agreed. "I hope the purpose of this hearing is not to discredit General Petraeus before he takes the stand," he said.

Such disagreement was no less apparent among the committees' three witnesses. Perry and Batiste, the first to testify, delivered warnings that the U.S. military is stretched beyond the breaking point and must withdraw from Iraq to save itself from catastrophic damage. Perry cautioned that it took years to rebuild the U.S. Army after Vietnam and said that, without a change in course, it might well collapse again. Batiste said the Bush Administration "has ignored the lessons of history" and suggested that the 'surge' in Baghdad "has had little effect on country-wide violence." "This is a no-win situation," he continued. "When the surge culminates, and culminate it will, the civil war will intensify."

Keane, just back from two weeks in Baghdad (seriously, who isn't these days?), took exception to these grim accountings. As one of the architects of the 'surge' strategy (see this January 2007 report he wrote with AEI's Fred Kagan), he defended the "remarkable progress" being made in Anbar province and in Baghdad. "We're on the offensive, and we have momentum," he said. "I don't know how throwing in the towel and losing the war would help us strategically in the world." He worked his way through a checklist of successes he claimed to have seen in Baghdad: schools, hospitals, markets, and cafes are open; Al Qaeda is "on the run;" and the Sunni insurgency "is rapidly fading away." Sounds familiar, right? Some of this success he attributed to the cumulative effect of Iraq's intense violence. "One of the ways you defeat an insurgency is people get exhausted," he said. "They get exhausted from the violence. This is what is happening in Iraq."

Click here and here to read my earlier posts about this week's Iraq debate in Congress.

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Huckabee vs. Paul: Video from Yesterday's Republican Debate

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 3:07 PM EDT

This is my favorite video clip from yesterday's debate.

With World Not Tense Enough, Israel and Russia Decide to Provoke Their Neighbors

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 2:09 PM EDT

The Israeli and Russian air forces, apparently bored with the amount of violence in the world, picked today to provoke their neighbors. Eight Russian planes were "warned off" from the NATO air defense zone by British fighter jets, the BBC reported, while the New York Times reported a Syrian claim that Israeli jets had violated Syrian airspace.

Some important differences between the two incidents should be noted. The Russians never violated British airspace, and the British defense ministry said that "the re-emergence of long-range flights from Russia is something the Russians are entitled to do." The Israelis, for their part, would not comment on the Syrian allegations.

If true, however, both of these events represent unnecessary provocations in already-tense situations. Israel and Syria have been trying for months to convince each other that neither wants war, and this incident will strain already frayed nerves. And while Russia certainly has the right to fly its planes in international airspace as much as it wants, its much-hyped resumption of long-range bomber patrols should be recognized for what it is: a demonstration that, as the Economist wrote recently, "the Russian bear is back—wearing a snarl with its designer sunglasses." The world is dangerous enough. Russia and Israel should be careful to avoid making it more so.

—Nick Baumann

Fred Thompson Flubs the Facts on Tonight Show

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 1:16 AM EDT

In response to a question from Jay Leno about why America is so disliked worldwide, new presidential candidate Fred Thompson had this to say (transcript here):

Well, part of that comes with being the strongest, most powerful, most prosperous country in the history of the world. I think that goes with the territory. We're more unpopular than we need to be. That's for sure, but our people have shed more blood for the liberty and freedom of other peoples in this country than all the other countries put together. (Applause.) And I don't feel any need to apologize for the United States of America.

First, this is silly. As the "strongest, most powerful, most prosperous country in the history of the world," we can be the most popular or least popular country around, depending on our actions. There's nothing inherent about being on top that makes people hate you.

Second, this is false. The Soviet Union lost over 20 million people in World War II, an astonishing 10-13 percent of the country's total population. The U.S. lost 418,500 in WWII, 117,465 in WWI, and roughly 60,000 in Vietnam. More on those numbers here; point is, it's not even close.

Look, I don't mean to denigrate the sacrifice of American servicemen and women through the ages. But let's not be badly, badly factually incorrect in the name of national pride.

Update: See my thoughts on why Thompson would be the GOP's worst nominee.

African Pentecostal Christians Destroying Ancient African Culture In Nigeria

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 11:25 PM EDT

Most of us have read or heard about European colonists and Christian missionaries looting the treasures of Africa. That destruction and theft occurred a long time ago, but now, a new version of it is taking place. Pentecostal Christian Nigerians are destroying ancient artifacts in order to "break the covenant" with what they call "ancestral idols." Costumes, bronzes and carvings have all been targeted.

Pentecostal Christianity has increased along with poverty in Nigeria during the last couple of decades. "Redemption camps" have sprung up in the country, attracting such famous pastors as Benny Hinn. The Rev. Dr. Uma Ukpai, a leader of the Pentecostal Church in Nigeria, is said to have told his followers that the ancient African religious artifacts represent "curses and covenants" linked to various gods.

Of course, there are forces in Nigeria that are fighting this trend. Some pieces have been sold to museums, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments is conducting a campaign to explain to Christians that "they can't detach themselves from their past, that there is a beginning to their history." The commission is also asking for stricter enforcement of a law that prohibits the export of artifacts.

Congressional Battle Over GAO's Iraq Report Continues

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 6:47 PM EDT

Building on yesterday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, today the House of Representatives grilled U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker about the contents of a new GAO report, which concludes that the Iraqi government has achieved only 3 of 18 political, economic, and security benchmarks. Walker fought off attacks from Congressional Republicans in a morning hearing with the House Armed Services Committee and again in an afternoon appearance before the House Foreign Relations Committee.

At yesterday's event, senators from both parties grimly accepted Walker's determination that the Iraqi government is "dysfunctional." But today, Republicans seem to have gotten their talking points and came out swinging. Numerous GOP congressmen assailed the GAO's methodology, accusing Walker of downplaying recent "progress" in Iraq and complaining that his metrics for assessing the benchmarks (met, partially met, and did not meet) were insufficiently flexible to reflect accurately the difficult and fluid situation on the ground. Walker responded that his task, unlike that of similar Bush administration assessments, was to examine whether the benchmarks had been achieved, not whether progress had been made. He suggested that the Congress take both approaches into account, but warned that the forthcoming Petraeus/Crocker report would probably paint a rosier picture, as both men ultimately report to President Bush. "The GAO represents the only independent and professional assessment that the Congress will receive based on these 18 benchmarks," he said. This caused something of a stir until Walker acknowledged that both Petraeus and Crocker are "professionals." He stuck to his opinion, however, that their conclusions, whatever they may be, would not be completely independent.

The primary argument at both of today's hearings centered on Benchmark 13: "Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security." All parties are in agreement, Walker said, that militias remain the primary arbiters of local security. But, as reported in today's Washington Post, serious disagreement exists with regard to the number of recent sectarian attacks. The figures are classified, but the Pentagon insists sectarian attacks are down as a result of the 'surge,' and reportedly requested in advance of the GAO report's release that this be recognized. Walker, however, insisted that he was "not comfortable" with the military's methodology in differentiating between sectarian attacks and random violence. Jim Saxton, the ranking Republican in the House Armed Services Committee, referred to the Post article and suggested that the feeling of discomfort was mutual. Walker's response was blunt. "It's not uncommon for those being held accountable to be uncomfortable," he said, adding later, "There is still significant sectarian violence."

During the afternoon hearing, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, encouraged Walker to discuss matters outside of the GAO's mandate, such as the unequal sacrifice for the Iraq War being asked of a small portion of the population and the war's effect on the U.S. military. Walker accused the Bush Administration of passing the buck. "We're not paying for this war; we're debt-financing this war," he said. "Our children will pay it off with compound interest." He went on to describe the U.S. Army as "stressed and strained," stating that the current approach is "unsustainable." This invited the ire of Republican ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who asked, "What in the world qualifies you to say that?" She went on to thank Walker for his efforts, but expressed frustration with his conclusions. The GAO report "seems to be having a lot of credibility with the American people that I think is unwarranted," she said.

The battle will continue tomorrow with the delivery of Marine General James Jones' report on the training and capabilities of Iraq's security forces. Click here for a complete schedule of upcoming events.

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Saddest Picture of the Day Alert

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 6:23 PM EDT

It takes a special kind of person to get this kind of reception at a campaign event and keep on plugging. It's hard out there for a pimp crazed right-winger who refers to stem-cell research as "research on the youngest of humans."

Since Nothing Else Important Going on in World, Congress Takes on Hip-Hop

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 3:50 PM EDT

We've covered Al Sharpton's protests against sexism and violence in hip-hop, as well as the movement against homophobia and violence in reggae lyrics. Some of us may have also posted a hip-hop video here whose cheeky references to pregnancy some found offensive.

Well, the government is here to straighten this mess out. Representative Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) announced today that Congress will hold a hearing later this month regarding media "stereotypes and degradation" of women, focusing on hip-hop lyrics and videos.

Continue reading on the Mother Jones arts/culture blog, The Riff.

Chevron Releases Video Game

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 3:20 PM EDT

Energyville is like Sim City where the laws are written by Chevron. You must power your city with a mix of energy sources, and, of course, you can't win without oil. The game is part of Chevron's "Will you join us?" campaign, a dubious effort to spark dialogue about energy and the environment. I can't imagine who Chevron sees as its target audience—kids will find the game all too 1997; any adult who buys the pitch might also be interested in a REQUEST FOR URGENT BUSINESS ASSISTANCE from Nigeria. Still, the game is getting lots of press.

Driven by novelty and interactivity--never underestimate the interest of bored office workers--advergames are becoming hot marketing tools in the political realm. The outfit Persuasive Games will whip one up for $40,000, complete with Sim City street grids or flash-animated conveyor belts. My favorite is Airport Security, a game in which you're a TSA baggage screener. (Courtesy announcement: "Please be advised: Security personnel are authorized to use groping.") For other examples, see page 86 of the Sept/Oct issue of Mother Jones.

In Defense of Gumshoes

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 2:33 PM EDT

McClatchy reports that authorities stopped two major terror plots in Germany and Denmark. Turns out the governments didn't have to torture anyone to stop either of the bombings—it was just good old-fashioned police work. "Both groups had been under surveillance for months," according to the McClatchy story. But instead of immediately arresting suspects and bringing them in, authorities watched them, found out who they were connected to, and built a legal case against them. As Bruce Grady reminded John O'Hagen, "It's called routine police work." The Financial Times reported that police had been watching the German group since spotting one of its members spying on a U.S. military base in Hanau in December 2006. Would someone who was noticed spying on a military base in the U.S. be followed and watched for eight months instead of simply shipped off to Guantanamo and water-boarded?

— Nick Baumann