Mojo - January 2010

Fiore Cartoon: The SOTU That Could've Been

Thu Jan. 28, 2010 3:06 PM EST

In last night's State of the Union address, Obama practiced politics as usual, with talk of national security, bipartisanship, and why America should be #1. But what if instead, he had called Republicans out on their lack of a conscience, and Dems out on their spinelessness? Or if he had proposed a reality TV show exposing political corruption, and live broadcasts of health care negotiations?

Watch satirist Mark Fiore explore what could've (and should've?) been below:

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The Taliban Trust Fund

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 2:59 PM EST

At a major conference in London today, Afghan president Hamid Karzai rolled out his much anticipated Taliban "reintegration" or buyout plan, an initiative for which Afghanistan's allies have pledged $500 million to pay mid- or lower level fighters to stop fighting and reintegrate into Afghan society. The money could include resettling former Taliban fighters and landing them jobs, but excludes fighters with ties to al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks for inclusion in what's being called the "Taliban trust fund." And in discussing the future of the Af-Pak war, Karzai also reaffirmed that his country would need international help maintaining security in Afghanistan for anywhere from 10 to 15 more years; the training of Afghan's own forces, he added, will require another five to 10 years.

For one, the Taliban trust fund idea, backed by US envoy Richard Holbrooke, will strike even casual observers of American war as little more than a repackaging of the Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq. Indeed, Karzai's announcement comes a few months after the Los Angeles Times reported that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal personally dragged out of retirement the key architect behind the Iraqi program, which paid Sunni Muslims to leave the insurgency and even defend against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Never mind the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan are wildly different countries, from their populations and political structures to the food they eat and their geographies. Sure, you could argue that the Sunni Awakening, although mired with fraud and graft, resulted in modest amounts of success, but to apply the same lessons from Iraq to Afghanistan, as the Taliban trust fund idea seems to do, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (Plus, as Aram Roston's recent investigation in The Nation showed, so much US funding is already finding its way into Taliban hands that spending another $500 million will only amplify that epic fraud.)

Indeed, the $500 million Taliban buyout plan reminds me a lot of historian Andrew Bacevich's recent critique of Obama's Af-Pak policy—namely, that it altogether lacks any kind of imagination or rethinking of the task at hand; that US foreign policy all-too-frequently recycles the same officials toting the same tired ideas, i.e., the surge in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, and now the Awakening in Iraq and the Taliban trust fund. Obama's national security brain trust, Bacevich adriotly argued, is "unable to conceive of a basis for national security policy that does not involve the increased commitment of American military resources."

Which certainly dovetails with Karzai's belief that foreign forces will be needed in Afghanistan for another 10 to 15 years. With each day, the president's 2011 deadline for beginning withdrawal from Afghanistan resembles nothing more than smoke and mirrors; in reality, the US will be in Afghanistan training the Air Force or funding contractors or flying our drones for decades to come. In this context, Karzai's 15-year estimate looks rather modest, and today's conference in London is further confirmation (if you needed any) that the long haul of the Af-Pak war is just beginning.

Is Russ Feingold in Trouble?

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 12:19 PM EST

As if the Democrats' hopes for hanging on to the Senate in 2010 weren't bad enough, a new Rassmussen poll in Wisconsin suggests that liberal icon Sen. Russell Feingold could lose his seat in the fall. Feingold is most famous for serving co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that tried to limit the influence of money in politics (a law that has now been nearly shredded by the Supreme Court.) His good-government creds have made him a popular figure, at least outside of Wisconsin. But in his home state, he may have some work to do if he wants a fourth term.

Rassmussen's poll was based on a hypothetical race between Feingold and Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and Health and Human Services secretary during the last Bush administration. Republicans are urging Thompson to challenge Feingold, but he hasn't decided yet. If he does, his odds right now look pretty good. Poll numbers suggest that Thompson would rout Feingold, with 47 percent of the vote, compared with Feingold's 43 percent. The news is particularly bad for dems because until now, Feingold has never been on anyone's watch list. His seat was supposed to be a safe one.

Need to Read: January 28, 2010

Thu Jan. 28, 2010 8:21 AM EST

 The must-read news from around the web and in today's papers:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 28, 2010

Thu Jan. 28, 2010 8:00 AM EST

helicopter photo for mj 012810

Hovering 75 feet above the ground, 1st Lt. Dennis Edwards, from Baton Rouge, La., the forward support medevac team leader in Company C, 2nd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, uses his feet to push away from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as he is lowered Jan. 21. Photo from the U.S. Army by Sgt. Travis Zielinski. 

Can This Patient Be Saved?

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 8:12 PM EST

Can health care reform be resuscitated? For weeks, it appeared that a stalemate over abortion politics could prevent the Democrats’ historic health care overhaul from becoming law. But according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while there are potential hurdles that could yet sink the effort, abortion’s not the big deal breaker that ought to worry supporters of reform.

The Democrats’ strategy, Pelosi told several columnists on Wednesday afternoon, hinges on getting the House to approve the Senate’s health care bill—while the Senate modifies its version through a procedure called reconciliation in order to address House Democrats' objections to certain provisions of the Senate bill. Pelosi said there is "very little support in the House" for passing the Senate’s measure untouched. But if the Senate makes changes via a a separate reconciliation measure—which would require only a majority and can’t be defeated by a filibuster—then, Pelosi said, she is confident "we can come up with something."

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Howard Zinn, R.I.P.

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 8:04 PM EST

Historian Howard Zinn has died at age 87. Zinn was best known for A People's History of the United States, which turned the glossy, textbook version of American history on its head by pointing out that far from being an unbroken chain of political and economic progress, our history was one of conflict along class, racial, and gender lines. Though Zinn's radical, bottom-up approach cast aside the America-first tone of mainstream texts, it was still guided by a deep sense of commitment to what he saw as often-neglected American ideals. As he wrote in 2004, "History, looked at under the surface, in the streets and on the farms, in GI barracks and trailer camps, in factories and offices, tells a different story. Whenever injustices have been remedied, wars halted, women and blacks and Native Americans given their due, it has been because 'unimportant' people spoke up, organized, protested, and brought democracy alive." Still in print after 30 years, A People's History has removed the scales from many an undergrad's eyes, and has won its fair share of famous admirers, from Viggo Mortensen to Matt Damon (who name-dropped it in Good Will Hunting and just opened a stage adapation of it.) For more of Zinn's recent writing and thinking, see this 2005 interview or his commencement address at Spelman College, where he was fired in 1963 for—amazingly—his civil rights activism.

Will Sen. Dorgan Disclose His Potential New Employers?

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 4:58 PM EST

When Byron Dorgan announced earlier this month that he is retiring from the Senate to pursue, among other things, work on energy policy in the private sector, I wondered whether the North Dakota Democrat would land a job in the coal industry. Now others are asking questions about Dorgan's post-Senate plans.

PolluterWatch, a project of Greenpeace, sent a letter to Dorgan's office on Wednesday asking for information on whether the senator has been actively seeking work in a particular sector. Dorgan will likely have to vote on some sort of climate and/or energy legislation before he retires, so it's fair to inquire about what, if any, future employers he has been courting.

PolluterWatch also requested a list of energy lobbyists and their respective clients that Dorgan has had contact with about potential employment, as well as details of phone calls, emails, or meetings. And they ask him to pledge to "wait until after an energy bill is passed this year to engage in any further discussions about future employment with interests that lobby you."

"I am sure that you would not allow future career prospects to influence your legislative judgment," the group wrote."However, by releasing your records and pledging to refrain from any employment discussions, you can avoid creating any perception to the contrary."

Senate offices aren't required by law to disclose this sort of information, so it's unlikely that PolluterWatch will get a response any time soon. "We're not accusing him of any malfeasance at this point," PolluterWatch director Kert Davies told Mother Jones. "We're just asking the question and asking for transparency."

CIA Agent Walks Back Waterboarding Claim

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 4:17 PM EST

A prominent backer of waterboarding has quietly recanted his endorsement of the torture technique. In December 2007, recently retired CIA operative John Kiriakou told ABC News that 30 to 35 seconds of simulated drowning was all it took to make senior al Qaeda commander Abu Zubaydah sing like a bird. "From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

Kiriakou's stunning account—made in an exclusive interview with ABC's Brian Ross—was seized upon by torture proponents as proof that they'd been right all along. But the New York Times discovered last April that Kiriakou "was not actually in the secret prison in Thailand where Mr. Zubaydah had been interrogated but in the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia." Now, Jeff Stein of Foreign Policy magazine has discovered Kiriakou himself retracting the waterboarding claims in his recently released memoir, The Reluctant Spy:

"What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts," he writes. "I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence."

But never mind, he says now.

"I wasn't there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I'd heard and read inside the agency at the time."

In a word, it was hearsay, water-cooler talk.

"Now we know," Kiriakou goes on, "that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied."

Indeed. But after his one-paragraph confession, Kiriakou adds that he didn't have any first hand knowledge of anything relating to CIA torture routines, and still doesn't. And he claims that the disinformation he helped spread was a CIA dirty trick: "In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own."

Two years after Kiriakou went public with his ill-considered support for waterboarding, public opinion has turned in favor of the formerly controversial tactic. In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing, Rassmussen polling found "58% of US voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information" from the underwear bomber—who spoke readily to authorities without the threat of torture.

Stein goes on to get a priceless response from the CIA and lays into ABC's shoddy investigative reporting. (In the transcript of the interview, Ross fails to ask Kiriakou if he actually witnessed the questioning of Zubaydah.) The whole piece is worth a read.

Reid Spokesman: Abortion Compromise a No-Go

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 2:50 PM EST

The fate of health care reform depends on getting the House to pass the Senate's health care bill. But anti-abortion House Democrats have demanded changes to the abortion language in the Senate legislation in order to secure their votes. And altering those provisions could be impossible, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman said Tuesday.

That's because Democrats are considering modifying the Senate bill via reconciliation—a procedural maneuver that only needs a simple majority and thus can't be killed by a filibuster. But reconciliation rules forbid the inclusion of any provisions that have no effect on the budget. When the abortion language in the Senate bill was added as a last-minute compromise, the Congressional Budget Office actually certified that it had no budgetary effect. (Otherwise, the whole bill would have to be rescored.) That will make it very hard, if not impossible, to argue that the abortion provisions can be changed using the reconciliation process.

When I asked Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, whether the Majority Leader's office understood the rules as preventing the Senate from altering the bill's abortion language, he emailed back immediately. "I believe that is correct," he wrote.

If Reid's office stands by that stance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in a real bind. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who pushed for the House bill's strict limits on abortion coverage, has warned that he has 10 to 12 Democrats (including himself) who voted for the House bill but are committed to opposing the Senate bill's abortion language. And without Stupak's 10 to 12 lawmakers, getting the votes to pass the Senate bill in the House—even if other fixes are made using reconciliation—will be very, very hard. The original House bill only passed 220-215. Of the yes votes, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) has since retired, and Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), will probably vote against the final bill. Some progressives, like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), voted against the House bill but might be convinced to support a final compromise. And some Blue Dogs who opposed the House bill might have a change of heart. But are there 10 to 12 Democrats who will switch their votes? Unless Stupak is bluffing about the number of votes he has in his corner, health care reform is in serious trouble.