Political MoJo

Ahmad Chalabi Breaks My Spirit

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 2:51 PM EST

Like a monster that will not die, Ahmad Chalabi is back in the headlines. Apparently everyone's favorite Iraqi troublemaker has gotten himself a job leading the implementation of the surge from the Iraqi end. Story from the subscription-only Wall Street Journal site here, excerpts here.

I won't even bother with this, because I trust all of you know Chalabi's sordid history and because I've spent more brain-hours thinking about Chalabi in the last year than I care to count. But if you want to know why working with this character is bad, bad, bad idea for the American government, see all of the Chalabi entries in the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline.

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Few Weeks of Anonymity Doom Presidential Campaign, Vilsack Goes Back to Lifetime of Anonymity

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 2:14 PM EST

We've all been a bit harsh on presidential candidate and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (Wonkette refers to him as "Tim Pete Tom Vilsack") because of his lack of name recognition, charisma, any chance at all of winning the nomination, etc.

Well, apparently we got to him. Vilsack decided that being the top presidential candidate from Iowa (but not the top candidate -- or even second -- in Iowa polls), was fun while it lasted but he's packing it in. Sadly, with the first candidate to exit the race also goes the most ambitious climate-change plan.

Newsweek: "Petraeus is Engaged in a Giant 'Do-Over.'"

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:37 PM EST

Scary, essential new reporting from Michael Hirsh of Newsweek:

Gen. David Petraeus's new "surge" plan is committing U.S. troops, day by day, to a much deeper and longer-term role in policing Iraq than since the earliest days of the U.S. occupation. How long must we stay under the Petraeus plan? Perhaps 10 years. At least five. In any case, long after George W. Bush has returned to Crawford, Texas, for good.

The previous general in Iraq, George Casey, was focusing on training Iraqi forces before he left his post, in a move designed to prep the country for an American departure. Under Casey's plan, reports Hirsh, "By 2008, the remaining 60,000 or so U.S. troops were supposed to be hunkering down in four giant 'superbases,' where they would be relatively safe." But under Petraeus's plan, the Army is setting up hundreds of "mini-forts" all over the country, right in the middle of some of the worst fighting. The idea that the Iraqis can take responsibility for their own security -- always a fallacy -- has been discarded. American servicemen and women are walking beats. The most dangerous beats in the world. "We're putting down roots," one former Army captain tells Hirsh.

This is the last thing Democrats -- who are trying to decide which way, not if, they are going end the war, both in Congress and if they were to take the White House in 2008 -- want to hear. Could the disconnect between what candidates are saying on the trail and what is happening on the ground in Iraq be any greater?

But ignore that for a second. It's like the 2006 elections never happened. In their rhetoric, members of the Administration acknowledge that politically, they can't get away with another long-term go at achieving stability in Iraq: the people have spoken, and they won't have it. For example, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked at a congressional hearing how long the surge was expected to last, he said, "I think for most of us, in our minds, we're thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years."

But the fact of the matter is that Petraeus has gone ahead and implemented a long-term strategy that is useless if we cut it off in one year or even two. It doesn't pay dividends that quickly. Don't get me wrong: I see the value in what Petraeus is doing. It's the proper way to fight an insurgency. But really, it's the proper way to prevent an insurgency, and the well-intentioned Petraeus and his genius-club of advisors are at least two years late to the scene. (An aside: "Civil Affairs" teams are a little-known part of the military. They are commissioned to do what Petraeus has the whole Army doing, and if they had been used from the beginning of this war, we could have avoided this whole mess. For more, consider "Waging Peace" by veteran reporter Rob Schultheis. It's an excellent read and is totally relevant to discussions how wars like this one should be fought.)

In the end, I suspect this will prove the Powell Doctrine right yet again -- Bush's war in Iraq is one long, painful lesson on how right Powell was when he said that foreign wars should only be fought if we have a clearly defined objective and exit strategy, the support of the international community, and broad support amongst the American people. Before, we didn't have clearly defined objectives or an exit strategy. Now that we do, there is no support amongst the American people for what Petraeus is doing, and with Congress looking to redraw the 2002 war authorization in order to more narrowly define what American troops can be used for in Iraq... it looks like even this worthy new plan from a worthy new general is just another path that ends in failure.

Wilberforce Be With You: The Christian Right Claims Amazing Grace

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 1:28 PM EST

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery. But since Hollywood doesn't release new titles on Thursday, it's waiting until today to launch Amazing Grace, a new movie about 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. The flick, directed by Michael Apted (creator of the mesmerizing 7-Up documentary series) and produced by the studio that did The Chronicles of Narnia, is getting enthusiastic advance reviews. But nowhere is the film more highly anticipated than among conservative Christians, who see parallels between Wilberforce's moral battle and their faith-based campaign against sex trafficking. But Wilberforce's unlikely victory is also viewed as a metaphor for the Christian right's struggle to remake the culture. Presidential hopeful Sam Brownback was dubbed a "Wilberforce Republican" by the Economist, and has eagerly accepted the title. And check out this email appeal I recently received from Ted Baehr, who runs MovieGuide, an evangelical movie review site:

One man, William Wilberforce, was used by God to abolish the slave trade in England and bring about a reformation of manners.

Imagine what you and I can do together to redeem the media and save our culture! [...]

Because of Wilberforce's willingness to serve the Lord, a Victorian society where women and children were safe and where the Church was addressing social evils in creative ways saved a nation that was quickly falling into rampant paganism.

[...] you can help us bring about a moral reform in our nation that will set the captives free from the bondage and slavery of corrupt media.

This is the chance for the Church in our era to address social evils in creative ways!

Wilberforce has officially been recruited as a culture warrior. (BTW, MovieGuide gives Amazing Grace four stars, though it warns viewers that it contains "female cleavage.")

Of course, Wilberforce's story doesn't just resonate with religious conservatives. His against-the-odds struggle for social justice plucks liberal heartstrings as well—ours included. For a progressive interpretation of British abolitionism, see Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochshild's most recent book, Bury the Chains, which argues that the anti-slavery movement was "the first great human-rights campaign." As Hochschild explained when I interviewed him:

In a time that feels politically grim, especially for anyone in the U.S. who cares about social justice, I hope people will take heart from a story of folks who started a campaign at a time when it looked even grimmer. The idea of ending slavery seemed totally utopian, crackpot, wildly too idealistic. But they succeeded. And they succeeded in 50 years, in the lifespan of some people [...] They went through some very grim times, one of them being the long wartime period like the one we're seeing now. Wartime is bad news for progressives, and it was the same thing [during the Napoleonic wars]. So I guess to the extent that it's possible for a book like this to have any effect, I would just like to see it have the effect of making people working for justice today feel heartened and to know that any big struggle will always be a long one with many setbacks.

I don't see anyone calling themselves "Wilberforce Democrats" any time soon, but that's no reason to let the right lay exlcusive claim to the legacy of abolitionism, or even Amazing Grace. So take a break from your usual pagan film fare and see if it lives up to the hype. (And for you history buffs/Afropop fans, it's your chance to see Youssou N'Dour's silver screen debut as Olaudah Equiano.)

What Do Jet Blue and Gavin Newsom Have in Common?

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 3:00 AM EST

They are both really, really good at apologies. (Jet Blue's here. Gavin's latest, in which CBS asks him about "the man code" here.)

I never had any doubts that Jet Blue could recover from its PR nightmare, for the simple fact that I fly cross country a fair bit on Jet Blue, and I haul my butt over to Oakland because their fares are lower, the flights are always, in my experience, on time, and I can indulge in 6 hours of HGTV if I care to do so. (Sadly, I do.) Gavin, I wasn't so sure (and by recovery here I mean: bid for Sacramento or Washington). But then I saw his "exclusive" interview (and most recent apology) with the local CBS affliate.

Damn, the man is good (though was it the lighting, or does he have a bald spot? Check the video).

He was frank, he managed to be funny, he hit a lot of demos (including dyslexics, like me!) without appearing to pander, he got away with saying "I am who I am" without sounding like Popeye...

Now granted, the interview had the fingerprints of Peter Ragone and Chris Lehane all over it, but Peter's sock puppet incident aside (Dude! didn't you learn the lesson of Lee Siegel? Though Ragone's lesson was a promotion. His boss' scandal hit just in time.), there's a reason why these guys, all three of them, are considered killers.

Gavin killed.

UPDATE: Check out the Wiki war on Gavin, specifically if dating a Scientologist reflects badly upon him. (On that subject, don't even get me started.) And let's hope Ragone's not indulging in any Wiki reverts.

Billionaires Toast to Merrill Lynch Underwriting Coal-Fired Power Plants

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 10:06 PM EST

The Billionaires for Coal had a grand old time cavorting outside Merill Lynch in downtown San Francisco yesterday. Toasting with champagne glasses, tossing out one-liners, they sneered at a group of earnest, banner-waving protesters nearby. Just a few pairs of hipster sneakers and some scruffy facial hair poked out from under the Billionaires' suits, top hats, and cocktail dresses.

"Why travel to the tropics when we can bring the tropics to us?" asked Jodie van Horn. In real life she's an activist with Rainforest Action Network, but as a Billionaire she goes by Alata Monie. "We'll convert our winter properties to summer properties, and our summer properties to scuba properties."

Read the rest of this blog and more on The Blue Marble.

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Cal. to Consider Bolstering Mental Health Care in Prisons

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 7:53 PM EST

prison.jpgCalifornia ushered in the dark trend of turning the mentally ill out to the streets to fend for themselves (leading to an explosion in homelessness). Perhaps the state can also pioneer a saner way of dealing with mental illness.

About a quarter of the state's immense prison population suffers from a major mental illness, but there is little mental health care available in prison. Mentally ill men are 10 times more likely to commit violent crimes. Ergo, the golden state is graced with the highest recidivism rates in the country.

A bill to be introduced tomorrow in Sacramento will call for a complete overhaul of prison mental health care. It might cost money, but it will also almost certainly save the state money in the end since a precursor program cut incarceration rates by 72 percent.

Rape, Murder, War Crimes and a Plea

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 7:02 PM EST

While we're on the subject of rape in Iraq, remember, back last March when five U.S. soldiers gang raped the Iraqi teenager and killed her and her family? Well, a second American soldier, Sergeant Paul Cortez, has pleaded guilty to the gang rape of a 14 year old in Mahmudiyah.

According to Cortez's plea,

"While we were playing cards Barker and Green started talking about having sex with an Iraqi female. Barker and Green had already known..." Cortez said before breaking down. He bowed his head and remained silent, sniffling occasionally, for a full minute before continuing. "Barker and Green had already known what, um, house they wanted to go to. They had been there before and knew only one male was in the house, and knew it would be an easy target," Cortez said.
Cortez went on to describe how the group changed their clothes so they would not be recognized as American soldiers on the way to the house. When he began crying again, his lawyer asked the court for a recess, which was granted.
When the court-martial opened Tuesday, a military judge read a guilty plea in which Cortez described how, in addition to raping the girl, he held her down and acted as a lookout so other soldiers could take their turns raping her before she was shot to death. In the plea agreement, Cortez said he held the girl's hands while Barker raped her, then he raped her himself...
Meanwhile, the suspected ringleader, Steven Green, shot dead the girl's father, mother, and 6-year-old sister. He then raped the girl while Cortez acted as a lookout and Green finally shot the girl dead.

What an atrocity. And is it any wonder that we are now seeing Iraqi forces accused of rape? Look who trained them.

But at least this case was uncovered. How many barbaric acts such as these go unreported or undiscovered? Several media outlets are reporting that this case "was considered among the worst in a series of alleged atrocities by U.S. military personnel in Iraq" but there may very well be many more cases of violations and war crimes that we never hear of. We should also remember that war crimes are more prevalent and systematic than we think.

— Neha Inamdar

Obama's Smear Staff

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 4:52 PM EST

It's hard to say (and not worth the effort) who was in the wrong in yesterday's bitchfight between Barack and Hillary (for everything you need to know about it, see the Top Story box of MoJo's News and Politics page). Sure, former Clinton-backer David Geffen's comments about Hillary and Bill were pretty personal—and IMHO, Maureen Dowd was off the mark to publish them. But Hillary's campaign exaggerated Geffen's position on Barack's staff. So call it a tie. But it turns out that Barack (I'm going to call him by his first name since everyone calls Hillary by hers) executed his response based on the advice of Robert Gibbs, whom DailyKos calls "a well-known smear-meister best known for his work trashing other Democrats"—this from a guy who talks about keeping it positive. End result: Bleh for them both.

Whole Foods Smells Weakness, Buys Wild Oats

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 3:56 PM EST

Whole Foods, the Wal-Mart of organic and health food, announced yesterday it will acquire rival chain Wild Oats for $565 million.

Whole Foods made the decision to pursue Wild Oats after the chain suffered a debilitating sequence of mishaps in late 2006. In November, Wild Oats' CEO resigned over contract disputes, and the company closed 8 underperforming stores. The cost of the closings was more than $25 million, and Wild Oats' CFO resigned in December.

"I thought, gosh, maybe this would be a good time to approach Wild Oats," said Whole Foods' CEO/Founder, John Mackey. Mackey said the acquisition deal with Wild Oats' interim CEO, Gregory Mays, came together in a matter of weeks.

Currently, Wild Oats has 72 stores in 22 states. Whole Foods has 193 stores in 32 states, the U.K., and Canada. Despite Whole Foods' commitment to the environment, organic goods, and animal rights (they recently stopped selling live lobster except in Maine), the company has been vocally criticized for their flat denial to provide a worker's union. CEO Mackey memorably compared unionization to herpes, saying: "It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover." Whole Food also imports much of its organic produce.

Whole Foods most recently opened stores in London, Brooklyn, and Portland, Maine, and a huge new store in New York City's historic--but rapidly gentrifying--Lower East Side, on a spot formerly occupied by one of the city's largest Jewish theaters.

--Jennifer Phillips