Mojo - April 2008

Iraq War a "Major Debacle," Says Pentagon Institute

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 9:56 AM PDT

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Just last week, following the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on Capitol Hill, President Bush held a White House press conference at which he remained as optimistic as ever about U.S. prospects in Iraq. From the official White House transcript:

The immediate goal of the surge was to bring down the sectarian violence that threatened to overwhelm the government in Baghdad, restore basic security to Iraqi communities, and drive the terrorists out of their safe havens. As General Petraeus told Congress, American and Iraqi forces have made significant progress in all these areas. While there is more to be done, sectarian violence is down dramatically. Civilian deaths and military deaths are also down. Many neighborhoods once controlled by al Qaeda have been liberated. And cooperation from Iraqis is stronger than ever—more tips from residents, more Iraqis joining their security forces, and a growing movement against al Qaeda called the "Sons of Iraq."
Improvements in security have helped clear the way for political and economic developments described by Ambassador Crocker. These gains receive less media coverage, but they are vital to Iraq's future. At the local level, businesses are re-opening and provincial councils are meeting. At the national level, there's much work ahead, but the Iraqi government has passed a budget and three major "benchmark" laws. The national government is sharing oil revenues with the provinces. And many economic indicators in Iraq—from oil production to inflation—are now pointed in the right direction.

This is the sort of presidential spin to which we've grown accustomed. And, yes, Iraq's security situation has improved of late, notwithstanding the recent battles in Baghdad and Basra and a renewed series of Al Qaeda bombings. But as rosy a picture as President Bush would like to paint, a growing number of strategic thinkers in the Pentagon are reaching far different conclusions. Among them is Joseph J. Collins, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations, currently a professor of national security strategy at the National War College. Collins is the author of a study (.pdf) released yesterday by the National Institute for Strategic Studies (and first reported by McClatchy), which, in direct contradiction of the President's recent remarks, calls the Iraq War as a "major debacle" and describes its outcome as "in doubt."

More after the jump...

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Rising Food Costs Roiling Developing Nations Worldwide

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 9:38 AM PDT

If you haven't already, please read this NYT article about how spiking food prices is leading to hunger and civil unrest across the globe. Here's a snippet.

Saint Louis Meriska's children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece as their only meal recently and then went without any food the following day. His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly, "They look at me and say, 'Papa, I'm hungry,' and I have to look away. It's humiliating and it makes you angry."
That anger is palpable across the globe. The food crisis is not only being felt among the poor but is also eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments.
In Cairo, the military is being put to work baking bread as rising food prices threaten to become the spark that ignites wider anger at a repressive government. In Burkina Faso and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, food riots are breaking out as never before. In reasonably prosperous Malaysia, the ruling coalition was nearly ousted by voters who cited food and fuel price increases as their main concerns.

And here are a couple takes on what is fueling the problem.

Second Mistrial for Alleged Terrorist Group

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 7:50 AM PDT

Jurors from the first trial of the Miami-area men accused of plotting to blow up the Sears tower probably weren't surprised to hear that the evidence has now produced a second hung jury. A juror from the first trial, librarian Delorise Thompkins, said, "When you see the evidence, there's not a lot there—no plans, no papers, no pictures, no nothing connecting them to Osama bin Laden."

As we've written before, the defendants had no explosives and no concrete plans. What they did have was a well-paid government informant posing who coaxed them into doing surveillance on federal buildings...and gave them the equipment to do it. The men were then arrested for providing "material support" to a terrorist group, even though they had never made contact with a real terrorist and the idea of blowing up buildings originated from the informant himself.

The tenuous connection between the men and al Qaeda led to one of the defendants being acquitted in the first trial.

McCain Strategist Vouched For "Convicted Felon, Disbarred Lawyer, And Failed Brothel Owner"

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 12:53 PM PDT

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John McCain, a longtime crusader against the corrupting influence of lobbyists in American politics, certainly has not shunned their help when it comes to his run for the presidency. The deeper into the campaign season we get, the more we seem to be learning about his not insignificant connections to the very influence peddlers he's so often railed against. Today, we get another piece of the puzzle, thanks to Sam Stein at the Huffington Post, who reports that Charlie Black, one of McCain's chief political strategists and himself a longtime Washington lobbyist, is the author of a pair of letters to federal officials in defense of Wayne Drizin, "a convicted felon, disbarred lawyer, and failed brothel owner with long business connections to the controversial Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi."

According to Stein:

The letters, obtained by The Huffington Post, were sent to a U.S. district court judge and the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general's office. They are scrupulously detailed and, at times, personal notes, praising Drizin and alleging that a conspiracy of zealous federal investigators was to blame for his legal woes.

GAO: U.S. Lacks Coherent Strategy in Pakistan's Tribal Areas

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 11:12 AM PDT

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The GAO has released a new report (.pdf) that takes federal agencies to task for not coordinating their counter-terrorism efforts in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA)—the mountainous, fiercely independent border region where Osama Bin Laden is believed to be hiding and where Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents have begun to rebuild their operational strength. The report, titled "Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas," is the first in a series that the GAO plans to release in the coming months, documenting American missteps in the region and suggesting fixes that might jump start a more focused strategy.

An excerpt from today's release:

The United States has not met its national security goals to destroy terrorist threats and close the safe haven in Pakistan's FATA. Since 2002, the United States relied principally on the Pakistan military to address U.S. national security goals. Of the approximately $5.8 billion the United States provided for efforts in the FATA and border region from 2002 through 2007, about 96 percent reimbursed Pakistan for military operations there. According to the Department of State, Pakistan deployed 120,000 military and paramilitary forces in the FATA and helped kill and capture hundreds of suspected al Qaeda operatives; these efforts cost the lives of approximately 1,400 members of Pakistan's security forces. However, GAO found broad agreement, as documented in the National Intelligence Estimate, State, and embassy documents, as well as Defense officials in Pakistan, that al Qaeda had regenerated its ability to attack the United States and has succeeded in establishing a safe haven in Pakistan's FATA.

Clinton Bashes Obama's Weathermen Connection, But What About Her Own?

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 9:25 AM PDT

"I wish you could conduct a campaign on policy and policy differentiation," Howard Wolfson, Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign communications director, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday morning. He added that Clinton "would like nothing more."

This was moments after Wolfson and Phil Singer, another top Clinton aide, had hammered Barack Obama for having held a fundraiser during his first state senate campaign in Illinois at the home of William Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois and a former aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was a member of the radical Weather Underground Organization, which was responsible for several bombings in the early 1970s. Ayers was never arrested for his activities. But in 2001, he did say, "I don't regret setting bombs." The issue had come up during the previous night's debate. Responding to a question about Ayers, Obama had said, "the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense." Wolfson, this morning after, insisted that Obama had "to be more forthcoming about that issue" and state clearly whether it had been "appropriate" to attend a fundraiser at Ayers' home.

When it came time for questions for Wolfson, I asked an obvious one: Did Hillary Clinton believe that it had been appropriate in 2001 for President Bill Clinton to have pardoned two members of the Weather Underground as he left office? The two recipients of Clinton's munificence were Linda Evans, who was sentenced to five years in prison for her participation in a string of 1980s bombings, and Susan Rosenberg, who was charged with participating in a bank robbery that left one guard and two police officers dead. And, I continued, has Senator Clinton ever criticized this decision? Has she ever said anything publicly about it? Rosenberg, I noted, had been apprehended with 740 pounds of explosives in her possession.

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Even The Pope Can't Shame Court on Death Penalty

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 8:41 AM PDT

pope.jpgThe pope came to town yesterday to speak to the nation's Catholic faithful, including some 9,000 people on the White House lawn in a crowd that included the president and 146 Catholic members of Congress. Conspicuously missing were the very prominent Catholic Supreme Court justices, who were too busy at the courthouse paving the way for states to kill a few more prison inmates, in a decision that won't be washed away by a lifetime of Hail Marys.

Today's Supreme Court not only has a conservative majority, but a Catholic one. Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy and Roberts are all relatively devout Catholics, yet while the pope was exhorting Americans to be nicer to people, every last one of them voted to continue lethal injection, regardless of how painful it might be or how much their church opposes it. These are the very same guys who we are chomping at the bit to overturn Roe v. Wade.

No word on whether the justices will meet later with the Pontiff, but we can only hope that His Excellence might remind the brethren of how little tolerance he has for "cafeteria Catholics." After all, if they're going to let faith guide their decisions, they should at least be consistent about it. The rest of American Catholics seem to be figuring that out. According to the latest polls, nearly half of all American Catholics now oppose the death penalty, up from only 20 percent in 1994. In fact, this year, U.S. bishops used Holy Week to kick off the American bishops' latest campaign to end the death penalty. Perhaps when the justices do see the Pope, it ought to be for confession.

The Smallness of Our Politics on Display at the ABC Debate

| Wed Apr. 16, 2008 10:00 PM PDT

clinton-obama-philly-debate.jpg The Reverend Wright controversy, the flag pin controversy, and the William Ayers controversy were all dying or dead. Now, they're back in the headlines.

In lieu of questions on education, the environment, trade, health care, or almost any other serious issue, the moderators of Wednesday's Democratic presidential primary debate on ABC chose to reinvigorate what Barack Obama called "manufactured" issues.

"Manufactured" issues are ones the media and the blogosphere believe should be a big deal, and treat as such, even if there is little evidence that voters really care about them. They are less frequently about a controversial position on a serious topic, since no mainstream presidential candidate ever dares to take one of those, than they are guilt-by-association situations that say little or nothing about the candidate him or herself.

William Ayers is a perfect example of this. Ayers was part of a domestic terror group from the '60s and '70s called the Weather Underground or the Weathermen. Obama knows Ayers and his wife, also a member of the Weather Underground, because they ran in the same Chicago political circles in the 1990s. Ayers hosted the event in which Obama was unveiled as a state senate candidate, and gave money to Obama's state senate reelection campaign in 2001. The men are not friends, though they have been described in the past as friendly. Ayers, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, declines to disavow his past, leaving Obama open to headlines like "Obama worked with terrorist."

Italy's CIA Rendition Trial Back On -- For Now

| Wed Apr. 16, 2008 6:38 PM PDT

What timing. In the same week that Italy elected the flamboyant Silvio Berlusconi to serve as its prime minister again, so too comes the news that the long-delayed trial of those officials accused of being involved in the CIA's 2003 extraordinary rendition of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar from Milan to Egypt is back on. Armando Spataro is the Milan prosecutor pursuing the case, which has faced multiple obstacles getting to the courtroom, and staying there. Among the hitches faced, charges that the case threatened state secrecy, the geopolitical complications of the fact the US refuses to turn over for trial the almost two dozen CIA officials named by prosecutors as having carried out the botched and highly troubling rendition, and the fact that among those Spataro contends had knowledge of the CIA snatch were top official in the Italian military intelligence service, Sismi.

Tonight, Spataro emails reporters following the case that the prosecution is celebrating a rare moment of victory (I tweaked the English a bit):

A Very Serious, Very Thoughtful Debate Live Blog

| Wed Apr. 16, 2008 4:05 PM PDT

We've decided to try to hold off on the snark for this, the 1052nd Democratic presidential debate. Instead, we'll deliver a debate live blog of the kind that has never been written with such detail or such care. Joining me in the Mother Jones debate coverage center (read: my living room) is Mr. G, a proud member of the vast left-wing conspiracy.

The main topic of campaign discussion for the past week has been the "bitter" controversy, which I wrote about earlier this week. Everyone's hoping the moderators steer away from the "bitter" stuff (and Hillary's alleged screw the Reagan Democrats comment), but that doesn't seem likely. George Stephanopoulos told Sean Hannity that "electability" issues like the "elitism" controversy and the Jeremiah Wright situation will be a prime focus of the debate. If Stephanopoulos keeps his word, Mr. G (a diehard Yankees fan) and I (a proud member of Red Sox nation) will be itching to switch to ESPN2 (You want to see bitter, watch a Sox-Yankees game with a divided crowd).

8:05: Both candidates spent their fairly uninspiring boilerplate opening statements talking about issues—health care, the economy, government responsiveness. It will be interesting to see how much time the moderators choose to spend asking them about those issues.

8:07: Gibson asks the "dream ticket" question: "Will you take the losing candidate as your vice president?". It's pretty disappointing that ABC led with such a totally unoriginal question that neither candidate is likely to answer in full. But Clinton's answer was very gracious and hit all the right notes.

8:11: Here's the "bitter" question. Let's see how Obama responds.

8:16: Clinton articulated her criticism of the "bitter" controversy very well. Obama seemed a little uncertain.

8:18: Clinton and Obama both say that the other can win.

8:20: Obama's second try at responding to the "bitter" stuff is brilliant. He's attacking the politics of soundbites. This is the clip that will be played all day tomorrow. "This is what passes for our politics."

8:22: Jeremiah Wright. We still haven't heard about issues. Clinton's playing really rough here. But Obama's response to Stephanopoulos' follow-up: "If it's not this, it would be something else," was very clever.