Political MoJo

While the Administration Struggles with Spin, USIP Forecasts Iraq's Potential "Descent into Hell"

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 2:55 PM EDT

Folks in the Bush administration just can't seem to get their stories straight. Bush says "we are winning" but has recently abandoned his tagline "stay the course" although he does say his administration will "complete the mission." Rumsfeld, on the other hand, claims the administration is "not backing away from staying the course." And, almost simultaneously, White House press secretary, Tony Snow, jumped on the "abandon the phrase 'stay the course' bandwagon" claiming Bush has only uttered the words 8 times.

But while Bush and company struggle with how to talk about the war in Iraq, the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan think tank, has been doing research on how to actually handle it. Their new report documents the research they have been doing over the past six months which forecasts outcomes for the insurgency in Iraq. And, it doesn't look good. (See this excerpt from the recommendations and conclusions section.)

The administration's ambitious goals ("an Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure, where Iraqis have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country"), if possible at all, are attainable only in the very long term. Instead, avoidance of disaster and maintenance of some modicum of political stability in Iraq are more realistic goals—but even these will be hard to achieve without new strategies and actions and the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors.

Yikes. In fact, US News and World Report calls the USIP report "unremittingly grim." It does, I am afraid, appear to live up to this description. There is even a section called "Descent into Hell." Read the full report here.

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Nicaragua to Ban Abortions - With Sandinistas' Support

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 2:30 PM EDT

Here's news to squash whatever vestigial remnants of good feeling ageing lefties (like me) might still harbor for Nicaragua's once-revolutionary Sandinistas: they're now supporting legislation to ban all abortions, even in cases where a woman's life is in danger. The law, expected to win parliamentary approval today, imposes prison sentences of up to 30 years for women who have abortions and for the doctors who perform them.

Not that current Nicaraguan law makes it easy to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Ipas, a US-based reproductive rights group, reports that only 24 women and girls have been allowed legal abortions in Nicaragua in the last three years - including a nine-year-old rape victim - leaving some 32,000 woman to abort their pregnancies illegally.

Sure, the Sandinistas have long since shed many of the egalitarian ideals that won them so much support at home and abroad when they overthrew the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979. But this is an especially depressing rowback from a party that used to trumpet the advancement of women's rights as one of their great victories.

RNC Plays Up Prejudice in Ads Against Harold Ford Jr.

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 2:26 PM EDT

In a desperate and vulgar attempt to thwart an increasingly intense senate race in Tennessee, the Republican National Committee released a racially provocative ad last week against Democratic challenger Harold Ford, Jr.

The television ad features several people in mock interviews meant to show Ford as a liberal out of step with average Tennesseans. One of the people "interviewed" is a young blonde white woman with bare shoulders (it is unclear if she is actually wearing anything since the camera only shows her from the collarbone up) who claims she met Ford at a Playboy party. At the end of the ad she says "Harold, call me" while winking at the camera.

Ford, who is 36, single and African American, admitted he attended a Playboy party at last year's Super Bowl but critics have pointed to the ad's obvious racist overtones.

Ford is attempting to become the first African American senator from the south since Reconstruction. His opponent Bob Corker, who has already spent more than $2 million of his own money on the race claims to have nothing to do with the television spot (though he did approve a spot this week that plays tom-tom drums every time Ford's name is mentioned).

John Greer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University says the Playboy ad "is playing to a lot of fears" and "frankly makes the Willie Horton ad look like child's play."

--Amaya Rivera

Cheney Calls Waterboarding a "No-Brainer"

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 12:50 PM EDT

In a radio interview on Tuesday Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged that the U.S. has been using waterboarding techniques in interrogations of suspected terrorists.

According to the interview transcript, released by the White House yesterday Scott Hennen of WDAY Radio in Fargo, N.D. told Cheney that listeners had asked him to "let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives."

"Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?" Hennen asked. "I do agree," replied Cheney. "And I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high-value detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that's been a very important tool that we've had to be able to secure the nation."

Hennen then asked Cheney, "Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" The Vice President's response:

"It's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president 'for torture.' We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in. We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we're party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that."

Waterboarding simulates drowning by repeated dunking or running water over cloth or cellophane placed over the nose and mouth. It has been recognized by national and international law as "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" and just last month the DoD released revised guidelines on interrogation techniques (see page 97) that explicitly prohibit the use of waterboarding by U.S. military personnel.

So if Cheney sees the technique as part of a robust interrogation program then who exactly does he see doing it? A spokeswoman denied that Cheney endorsed the practice by U.S. interrogators which basically spells out that yes, it's happening, and we're paying non-military personnel (read: contractors and the like) to do it.

Governor Blanco Stands Up To Feds--Round 1 Goes To Louisiana

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 12:46 PM EDT

In July, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco filed a lawsuit against the federal government, in an attempt to stop a scheduled offshore lease sale. The suit alleged that the federal government's environmental assessment of the sale failed to include damage done by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Blanco had already threatened to stop any lease sales until the federal government began paying royalties to Louisiana, something it has never done.

On Tuesday, Blanco announced that the suit had been settled, thereby avoiding a November trial. A federal judge dropped a big hint that Louisiana was going to win the lawsuit, so the federal government conceded and is going to do an up-to-date assessment of the environmental impact of the sale.

That assessment will include:

...mitigation measures that should be taken to limit damage from offshore oil and gas exploration. In turn, that should lead to more money for the state to help offset the damage. Such measures could include, for example, more money for a key highway, Louisiana 1, to offset increased offshore-related traffic on the two-lane road to Port Fourchon.

"It means that we actually now know that we can halt (drilling) activity if necessary to demand mitigation," Blanco said.

Unfortunately, Congress--busy approving rape and torture in detainee facilities--did not have time to come to an agreement about paying Louisiana its long-awaited oil and gas royalties. Both the House and the Senate have versions of a bill that would do just that, and the next step is for a compromise to be reached. That could be difficult, however, because the conflicting versions are significantly different from one another.

U.S. Seeks To Restrict Attorney-Client Communication At Guantanamo Bay

| Wed Oct. 25, 2006 10:25 PM EDT

Inmates at Guantanamo Bay will have significantly less communication with their attorneys if the U.S. government has its way. Government officials claim that attorneys are providing prisoners with "inflammatory information," e.a., reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

Approval is being sought for new rules that would restrict attorneys to only four visits to their Guantanamo Bay clients, and would restrict the topics under discussion and the information that can be shared. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. is currently reviewing a Guantanamo Bay case, and the court's ruling on that case will affect all detainees.

According to an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, none of the attorney actions objected to breaks prison rules or violates prison security.

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George Washington Refuses to Divest, Grants Scholarship Instead

| Wed Oct. 25, 2006 6:10 PM EDT

Earlier this month, George Washington University created a scholarship that will grant a $200,000 4-year scholarship for a student from Sudan, reports Inside Higher Ed. On first glance, it appears merely a generous act though in reality it is a concession to its campus group Students Taking Action Now: Darfur which had asked the university (as they have done at their nearly 150 chapters on campuses nationwide) to divest completely from companies that invest in Sudan.

Now I don't want to take away from the good that will come from the scholarship but aren't we talking about apples and oranges here? Investing in one student per year (and the scholarship is not new, it has traditionally been reserved for D.C. students) is quite different than divestment. Students at GW and across the nation have their suspicions as well. Chad Hazlett, the leader for divestment in Sudan at Harvard, had this to say:

"This scholarship is situated as if it's a tradeoff, and alternative, to divestment." "It isn't. I think the scholarship is a great idea. But it doesn't substitute for putting pressure on the government of Sudan, nor does it satisfy the moral obligation of those who made the decision to be doing all they can to end genocide."

School divestment is not a pipe dream for students involved with STAND. Over the past year, 3 schools have divested completely and more than 20 schools have begun "pulling the plug on deals that sent aid and comfort to Khartoum," as we reported in Mother Jones in September. And history shows us just how effective wide-scale divestment can be. Divestment from South Africa by 180 universities played a key role in devastating the South African economy in the late 1980s, which ultimately brought apartheid to an end.

Kean, Menendez, and the Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

| Wed Oct. 25, 2006 5:42 PM EDT

Today's New Jersey Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage may well be a factor in galvanizing conservative voters to turn out for Tom Kean Jr., the GOP's candidate for Senate. Interestingly, both Kean and his opponent, Senator Bob Menendez, have basically the same stance on the issue. Both are against gay marriage but in favor of domestic partnerships.

Kean is in a tight race against Menendez, with polls showing the democrat slightly ahead. The Dems ought to take New Jersey, but Kean, a well known name in the state (his father was governor and most recently head of the 9/11 Commission), is running uncomfortably close. As in many tight races this year, this campaign has turned nasty, with both candidates running attack ads. And Menendez may have been somewhat tarnished by the recent disclosure of a secret tape recording, made 7 years ago, that shows a former close political advisor urging a Hudson County contractor to hire a certain individual as a favor to Menendez.

Kean has voted against the minimum wage, offered tepid criticism of Bush on Iraq, wants to get rid of the inheritance tax, and has supported some sort of privatization of Social Security. He is for stem cell research but voted against using tobacco tax monies to support such research.

Menendez wants a phased withdrawal from Iraq.

It's 11 a.m. Do You Know Where Your Dinner Is?

| Wed Oct. 25, 2006 2:15 PM EDT

Americans are increasingly second-guessing the costs and benefits of industrial agriculture. But, as Michael Pollan wrote in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, excerpted in Mother Jones this summer, not all solutions to the problem are equal. Pollan profiled Joel Salatin, a trendsetter in the local food movement who makes hash of Whole Foods, comparing its business model to Wal-Mart's. (Whole Foods CEO John Mackey fired off a sardonic letter to the editor, asking whether Pollan's book was sold only in Berkeley.)

Now, as today's New York Times reports, Whole Foods is introducing an "animal compassionate" label to identify meat from animals that were raised humanely (if industrial agriculture, among other human mores, hasn't rendered the word meaningless). The good news is Whole Foods will be flexing its substantial muscle to ensure that its suppliers comply with the standards it has established, which demand, for instance, that animals be raised outdoors. The bad news is, consumers will now have to choose among an even larger array of labels that sound good, but are hard to decipher and are not enforced by the USDA, thanks to the agency's belief that organic and animal-friendly agriculture amounts to no more than a "marketing program".

Fatter Americans, Hotter World

| Wed Oct. 25, 2006 2:01 PM EDT

American's ever-expanding waistlines aren't just bad for our national health - they're bad for the atmosphere too. A new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that the extra drag on car engines caused by their drivers' increasing weight means that Americans are using at least 938 million more gallons of gas annually today than they were four decades ago, when they weighed an average of 24 pounds less.