Mojo - January 2009

Gaza War Bush's Parting Gift to Middle East

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 4:29 PM EST

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At one point or another, most American presidents concern themselves with bringing peace to the Middle East. Ultimately, all other foreign policy achievements pale in comparison. It's the brass ring of presidential greatness, the elusive key to ensuring kind treatment in the eyes of history. Such thinking must become particularly acute as presidents reach the twilight of their terms and begin in earnest the inevitable consideration of how they will be remembered. Bill Clinton made a last-ditch effort late in his second term to become the great peacemaker. He failed, as had all others before him. But at least he tried. For his part, our current outgoing commander in chief, just weeks away from relinquishing his office, has steadfastly refused to get involved even as Gaza disintegrates into violence.

Not that this should come as a surprise. Bush's lack of engagement this late in the game, says the National Security Network, is nothing if not consistent with the rest of his term. As the group describes in press release issued today:

[Bush's] episodic involvement has been muddled and without coherent vision: supporting Palestinian elections in 2006, despite the very clear possibility that Hamas would win, then refusing to honor the results; asserting that the 'road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad;' belatedly engaging through the Annapolis peace conference, which has proved to be too little too late. Experts and regional actors with differing views on the road ahead share the belief that the US absence from the scene is counterproductive and harmful to the interests of all concerned. The outbreak of war in Gaza confirms that after eight years in office the Bush administration will leave behind a region that is further from achieving a lasting peace than when it came to office.

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Even Heather Mac Donald Is Right Twice a Year

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 3:38 PM EST

I have to give this one to my girl Heather Mac Donald over at City Journal. Well, partly give it to her. She's right on the problem, but wrong-ish on the solution.

There's been lots of talk lately, however muted since black dysfunction is the issue, of rising intrablack homicide and violence rates. Overall, crime is down, except for blacks. What gives?

The GOP 's Grand Problems

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 2:57 PM EST

I've been thinking about this analysis by Huff Po blogger Paul Jenkins of the quandary the GOP is in, having successfully turned itself into a whites-only party:

...it is utterly unrepresentative of America in the 21st century. Its Congressional representation is nearly uniformly white, and overwhelmingly male. So much so, in fact, that there is not one single African-American GOP member of Congress (out of 219 or 220); nor, for that matter, are there any black GOP Governors (out of 22). There are just four Republican Latinos in Congress, all Florida Cuban-Americans; one of them, Senator Mel Martinez, has announced his retirement. He is the only non-white or Hispanic GOP Senator.

...Even non-white members of George W. Bush's cabinet appear to have turned on the party: people like Colin Powell, who heartily endorsed Obama, or Condoleezza Rice, who seemed at her very happiest the day after Obama's victory. The last African-American GOP member of Congress, J.C. Watts, who retired in 2002, is equally as disillusioned, not to say anything of potential candidates such as Charles Barkley, a one-time Republican with aspirations to Alabama's governorship, who says the Republicans "lost their mind." And so the GOP trots out the same sad losers, Michael Steele of Maryland, and Ken Blackwell of Ohio, who have achieved little more than secondary elected office in their respective states, both losing in landslides when they sought a bigger job.

Finally being exposed for their corrupt, cronying, and most of all, hopelessly incompetent businessmen and policy makers hasn't helped Republicans either. The GOP is in tatters. About damn time.

Happy New Year, Obama Baby!

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 2:17 PM EST

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When we started developing Mother Jones' January/February 2009 cover, we were looking for a way to depict President-elect Barack Obama in a lighthearted way, while acknowledging the mammoth task he has ahead of him the minute he assumes office. After rejecting numerous ideas, including one of Hercules shoveling dung out of the Augean stables (you're welcome!), we were intrigued by the image of Obama as an innocent New Year's baby (the thinking being that "innocence" can mean "not guilty" of said mess, but can also imply "inexperienced.")

I arrived at Norman Rockwell's predecessor at the Saturday Evening Post, illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, who blogger Charley Parker claims to be the source of the New Year's baby metaphor. Aside from having developed the "Arrow shirt man" (reportedly a likeness of Leyendecker's partner of 48 years, Charles Beach), and Saturday Evening Post covers throughout the first half of the 20th century, it seems that Leyendecker created the New Year's baby image for a 1908 Post cover and continued to explore variations on that theme until his very last cover, on their January 2, 1943, issue.

The Federal Gov't Decides to Let Old Folks Keep Their Own Money - What's Left of It

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 12:56 PM EST

As one of its final acts in the worst economic year since the Great Depression, the federal government passed legislation suspending for 2009 the rule requiring old people to withdraw a minimum amount of money from their 401Ks, IRAs, or other individual retirement accounts. The current rule imposes a 50 percent tax penalty on anyone over age 70 1/2 who fails to take their so-called mandatory distributions by the end of the year.

That's right, fellow oldsters--as a parting gift to all of us, the 110th Congress and George W. Bush, who failed to prevent or contain the financial meltdown that has cost some of us a third or more of our life savings, is now giving us permission not to spend some of what's left.

The idea behind the legislation is that seniors shouldn't be forced to sell off their investments at a loss. Unfortunately, however, it applies to 2009, not 2008--which is, of course, when our retirement accounts got gutted. According to the New York Times, some members of Congress urged Henry Paulson's Treasury Department to apply the same change to 2008, but it declined to do so.

In a letter to members of Congress, the Treasury Department said any steps it could take to address the issue would be "substantially more limited than the relief enacted by Congress and could not be made uniformly to all individuals subject to required minimum distributions." It also said carrying out the changes would be "complicated and confusing for individuals and plan sponsors."

Well, by all means, let's not confuse the old farts; we're having a tough enough time figuring out how how it is that we did everything we were supposed to do--worked, planned, saved, invested--and still got so royally screwed. And let's not complicate things for the financial institutions, who are already overburdened figuring out how to spend their $700 billion handout.

Oversight Committee: 13,847 Recommendations That Bush Ignored

| Tue Jan. 6, 2009 10:38 AM EST

burning-money.jpgThe House Oversight Committee released a report this morning identifying nearly 14,000 recommendations made by agency Inspectors General since 2001 that have yet to be acted upon by the Bush administration. In addition to simply improving health, safety, and security conditions, the committee claims that implementing some of these fixes could save taxpayers an estimated $25.9 billion. It's a big number, but more interesting to me were some of the IG recommendations that have languished. Along with examples of run-of-the-mill government waste—e.g., "FEMA could recover $16 million in excessive billings and questionable costs resulting from poor management of a contract"—there are a few doozies.

Like:

In May 2003, the IG for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a report concluding that the Commission's limited oversight does not provide adequate assurance that all licensees properly control and account for special nuclear material, such as plutonium and uranium.16 In a December 2008 memorandum to NRC management, the IG raised concerns about "continued delays" in promulgating rules to address these security concerns. NRC estimates it may not complete the rulemaking until July 2011, eight years after the report's release.

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Obama Picks Anti-Torture Advocate for CIA Chief

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 4:31 PM EST

News outfits are reporting that Leon Panetta has been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to take over the Central Intelligence Agency.

It's an unusual choice, for Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who became President Bill Clinton's budget chief and then his White House chief of staff, has no direct intelligence experience, and the CIA in previous decades has been rather unwelcoming to outsiders. (Obama's first pick for the spy chief slot, John Brennan, a career CIA officer, withdrew his name, after bloggers and others raised questions about his involvement in the agency's post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs.) Panetta, if confirmed, will work closely with retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama's choice to be director of national intelligence.

Panetta is an even-tempered and highly regarded Washington player--kind of a Mr. Fixit in a nice suit. He is also a zero-tolerance critic of the use of torture, and he considers waterboarding--a tactic used by the CIA--to be torture. A year ago, he wrote in The Washington Monthly:

9/11 Mastermind Goes on Trial in France

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 3:27 PM EST

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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged "kingpin" of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan in March 2003. He then disappeared in the global network of "black sites" operated by the CIA before resurfacing in Guantanamo in September 2006. The US military plans to try him for the deaths of over 3,000 Americans by means of a military commission. Human rights groups argue that such a trial would lack legal safeguards necessary to guarantee a fair trial, and are therefore urging that the US government try Mohammed either in civilian court or by a standard military court martial.

The battle over Mohammed's legal fate continues, but we may see him tried (and presumably convicted) well before any US action takes place. The BBC reports that a trial opened today in France, accusing Mohammed and several co-conspirators of planning the April 2002 truck bombing of a Tunisian synagogue, which killed 21 people. Two of the victims were French nationals, a fact that has enabled French prosecutors to try the case.

From the BBC:

According to court documents, suicide bomber Nizar Nouar called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Ganczarski, a convert to Islam who specialised in communications, just before he drove the gas-laden truck into the synagogue.
The calls were allegedly made on a telephone brought into Tunisia by the bomber's brother, the third defendant Walid Nouar.
All three men have been charged with "complicity in attempted murder in relation to a terrorist enterprise". They face 20 years in prison if convicted.
Relatives of the victims were in court on Monday.
"We are hoping for a life sentence... and we think there is sufficient evidence," said Judith-Adam Caumeil, a lawyer for German families.
Christian Ganczarski, a Polish-born German, identified himself to the court in German and insisted on his innocence.
"I had nothing to do with the attack," he said.
The bomber's uncle, Belgacem Nouar, was jailed in 2006 for his role in the attacks.
The trial is due to last until 6 February.

Obama Nominates Dawn Johnsen, the Anti-Yoo, as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:47 PM EST

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John Yoo, who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Bush administration's Justice Department, became famous for his memos in defense of torture and his theory that the Constitution grants the president almost unlimited power during times of war. (The OLC is the part of the Justice Department responsible for providing legal advice to the executive.) Dawn Johnsen, the woman whom Barack Obama selected on Monday to run Yoo's old office*, published an article in 2007 entitled "Faithfully Executing the Laws: Internal Legal Constraints on Executive Power." That's quite the contrast. In a 2008 paper, "What's a President to Do? Interpreting the Constitution in the Wake of the Bush Administration's Abuses," (PDF) she writes that the Bush administration's disregard for the law should be the exception, not the rule, going forward:

The lesson we should draw from the Bush administration is not that we should dramatically alter our understanding of longstanding presidential authorities. Rather, it is the urgent need for more effective safeguards and checks from both within and without the executive branch to preclude any future recurrence of the Bush administration's appalling abuses.

Gaza Crisis: Israelis Echoing Bush on Regime Change?

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:41 PM EST

The Israelis appear to have learned from the Bush-Cheney administration.

On Monday morning, NPR ran an interview with Michael Oren, an American-Israeli best-selling military historian and Israeli reservist who is a spokesperson for the Israeli military. (He has also been a contributing editor for The New Republic.) Asked if the goal of the current Israeli operation in Gaza is regime change--that is, the expulsion of Hamas from power--he replied that Israelis "do not want to see continuation of Hamas rule in Gaza," but added, "It is not Israel's explicit goal to topple the Hamas government....That is not the stated goal of this operation. If it happens...there will be many people happy about it...The stated goal is to restore security to the southern part of Israel."

This line echoes the rhetoric used by Bush-Cheney officials in 2002 and 2003. They repeatedly noted that the United States officially favored regime change in Iraq but that the invasion to come was about WMDs and security. If it took regime change to neutralize that supposed dire WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein, so be it.