Political MoJo

Toxic Toys

| Thu Dec. 7, 2006 6:02 PM EST

To hear that lead paint is still the leading cause of poisoning among children is somewhat surprising. But to hear that some companies are still using lead in manufacturing children's jewelry, despite increased awareness about its dangers, is downright baffling. The perils of this were brought home in March when four-year old Jarnell Brown died after swallowing a charm from a promotional bracelet from Reebok. It was 99 percent lead.

Due to pressure from the Sierra Club, the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission is finally taking action, calling for a ban on toy jewelry containing 0.06 pecent lead by weight, the Washington Post reports today.

According to the Post, the risk of lead poisoning has resulted in the recall of more than 160 million items since 2004.

But while one agency is taking steps to impose stricter regulations to reduce lead exposure, another agency is contemplating relaxing its existing standards. According to the Post, this week the EPA suggested "it might consider revoking national lead air quality standards."

Update: More on the EPA's baffling contention that we've taken enough lead out of the air already, and that it's time to start moving backwards, here.

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Bush Prepares to Talk to MORE Axis of Evil States; I Feel Like I'm Taking Crazy Pills

| Thu Dec. 7, 2006 4:48 PM EST

Did I miss a memo? Are the terrorists winning? Continuing a trend mentioned earlier today, President Bush is giving indications that he may open up discussions with Iran and Syria as part of regional talks on how to stabalize Iraq. There are rules, however. For Iran to come to the table, it has to "verifiably suspend" its nuclear program. For Syria, it has to "stop destabilizing" Lebanon's government.

Now, this gives Bush a ton of wiggle room. Iran and Syria can say in upcoming weeks and months that they are hemming to Bush's rules, and Bush can always respond by saying, "Our evidence indicates the opposite." So, in essence, Bush can decide to allow Iran and Syria to join regional talks whenever he's good and ready.

So, in the end, the Bush Administration continues to present the image of progress, while hedging on any genuine change. I wonder if this is part of Bush's grand plan to make bloggers question why they bother going through the trouble...

Iraq's Refugee Crisis More Dire than Darfur?

| Thu Dec. 7, 2006 4:04 PM EST

The Guardian reports today that Iraq could be become the biggest refugee crisis the world has witnessed, overtaking even that of Darfur. The warnings about this impending situation come from a report released on Tuesday by Refugees International documenting that as of November 2006, 1.8 million Iraqis have fled the country and an additional 500,000 have been displaced throughout Iraq. A spokesperson for the group said, "We're not saying it's the largest [refugee crisis], but it's quickly becoming the largest."

The report highlights the fact that Jordan, one of two countries in the Middle East that opened its doors after the U.S. invasion in 2003, have since closed them (Jordan closed its border after the hotel bombings in Amman in November of last year), leaving Syria the sole destination for Iraqi refugees. The UN estimates that 2,000 enter Syria each day. A report released last month by the Human Rights Watch provides a detailed look at the situation in Jordan: "The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan" looks indepth at the issues facing Iraqi refugees in the country as well as the difficult decisions that lie ahead for the government.

Jordan, historically sympathetic to refugees (Palestinians mostly), has had their patience tested with the current situation in Iraq. Now, Iraqis and Palestinians (entering through Iraq) are being turned away at its border and Iraqis who do sneak in lose their legal status immediately and begin accruing fines of up to $2 USD per day. If the Jordanian police apprehend them, they are sent back to Iraq. Human Rights Watch is claiming that the Jordanian government is violating a principle of international customary law, called refoulement, "the forced return of refugees."

Human Rights Watch has been careful to express that the purpose of their report is not to chastise Jordan but on the contrary to bring to light a humanitarian crisis that can't be ignored and requires international coordination. The group calls on Jordan to admit the refugee crisis exists and to call for assistance from the international community. Refugees International is also calling for international support, but they call on the west to lead the initiative. "The United States and its allies sparked the current chaos in Iraq, but they are doing little to ease the humanitarian crisis caused by the current exodus," said the organization's president.

I think it's safe to say something needs to be done (and fast) if experts are calling this the next Darfur.

Newsflash: U.S. Negotiates With the Axis of Evil

| Thu Dec. 7, 2006 3:27 PM EST

North Korea, specifically. I'll let Josh do the honors, since he puts it well.

Remember how the whole premise of Bush administration North Korea policy was that we shouldn't be offering 'pay-offs' to the North Koreans in exchange for them giving up their nuclear program?
From today's Times ...
"The United States has offered a detailed package of economic and energy assistance in exchange for North Korea's giving up nuclear weapons and technology, American officials said Tuesday."
So after six long years of incompetence, arrogance, dithering and disaster, in which the president allowed the NKs to waltz into the nuclear club unimpeded, they're now back to the same policy they insisted on ditching in the first place. Only now with a hand infinitely weaker than it was in 2000 since back then the NKs didn't have the bomb.

For Mother Jones' coverage of life North Korea, see the bizarre, the serious, and the pretty dang funny.

Iraq Study Group Exposes New Way Bushies Mislead the Public

| Thu Dec. 7, 2006 3:08 PM EST

A really good catch by Jonathan Landay, writing for McClatchy. He noticed a tidbit from the ISG Report that others missed, namely that the Bush Administration has set up an absurd method of counting attacks in Iraq in order to minimize the appearance of chaos and violence. He writes:

The Bush administration routinely has underreported the level of violence in Iraq in order to disguise its policy failings, the Iraq Study Group report said Wednesday.
On page 94 of its report, the Iraq Study Group found that there had been "significant under-reporting of the violence in Iraq." The reason, the group said, was because the tracking system was designed in a way that minimized the deaths of Iraqis.
"The standard for recording attacks acts a filter to keep events out of reports and databases," the report said. "A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn't hurt U.S. personnel doesn't count."

And this was a bit stunning, even to a set of jaded eyes thoroughly accustomed to bad news out of Iraq.

The ISG report said that U.S. officials reported 93 attacks or significant acts of violence on one day in July. "Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light more than 1,100 acts of violence," it said.

And here's the Iraq Study Group's way of saying the Bush Administration is misleading to the public and hurting the country: "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."


Update: For Mother Jones' coverage of Iraqi civilian deaths (and how they are undercounted), see here and here.

The Feds Want In To Your In-Box

| Thu Dec. 7, 2006 3:00 PM EST

In what the Los Angeles Times terms "the latest illustration of the Bush administration's disregard for your privacy", the Justice Department is trying to win court permission to read millions of people's e-mail without obtaining a warrant. Currently, your e-mail is protected -- unless it's been sitting on a server for more than 180 days. That's bad enough, in a time when so many people leave copies of their e-mails sitting in their Hotmail accounts indefinitely. But now the feds want to extend their snooping rights to be able to read any e-mail that the recipient has already opened.

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India's "Untouchables" Stand Up

| Thu Dec. 7, 2006 2:46 PM EST

As many as one million low-caste Hindus, known as Dalits or, less politely, "untouchables", rallied in Mumbai to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of their leader, BR Ambedkar. Tensions were high after three Dalits were killed in rioting last week sparked by the vandalizing of a statue of Ambedkar, but the mass rally went off peacefully. It was the latest show of assertiveness by the long-marginalized group, whose efforts to gain international recognition Mother Jones covered a little while back.

CNET's James Kim Found Dead

| Wed Dec. 6, 2006 5:30 PM EST

Sad to say. Our condolences to his family, friends, and co-workers here in San Francisco and around the country. There's not much detail out yet, but I think it's fair to assume he died of exposure. CNET is the best place to look for updates and I'm sure they will tell folks how to show their support to James' loved ones.

A Child Born of Vice

| Wed Dec. 6, 2006 4:42 PM EST


Mary Cheney, the vice president's 37-year-old lesbian daughter, is pregnant. In Virginia. Last month, Virginia passed an absurdly stringent amendment [PDF] barring domestic partnership benefits—ostensibly for same-sex couples, but the amendment was worded so vigorously that many expect it will affect straight couples as well.

Virginia Republicans strongly supported the measure. Although the younger Cheney called it "a gross affront to gays and lesbians everywhere," in the past she has campaigned for her father, Darth Vader of the Republican Storm Trooper army.

So where does the amendment leave Heather Poe, Mary's partner of 15 years? Nowhere, it seems. Virginia's notoriously conservative courts are leading the charge to deny same-sex partners any rights to the children they help raise. Jennifer Chrisler of Family Pride, the largest gay-lesbian family advocacy group in the country, said that unless the couple moves to a "less restrictive" state, "Heather will never be able to have a legal relationship with her child."

If the couple were to split up, Heather would be especially screwed because her credentials can't compete with Mary's. Cheney has a high-powered corporate job at AOL. Heather is a "former park ranger," who is now renovating the couple's Great Falls, Virginia, home. If history is any guide, the V.P. wouldn't hesitate to use his friendships with judges to get what he wants. Cheney appears to be supportive of Mary and Heather's relationship, but he has, according to Chrisler, "been complicit in the largest full-scale attack on the LGBT community in modern history." It seems safe to say he'd want Mary to have full custody.

For now, the Washington Post reports that the vice president is "looking forward with eager anticipation" to Mary's baby's birth. But can you imagine Dick "Dick" Cheney smiling?

Iraq Study Group: Some of it is Nonsense, or How is This Going to Work, Exactly?

| Wed Dec. 6, 2006 4:36 PM EST

Reading through the executive summary [pdf] of the Iraq Study Group report, I was struck by how many of the recommendations in the "External Approach" asked foreign governments to do things clearly not in their interest, and by how many of the recommendations in the "Internal Approach" asked the U.S. and the Iraqis to do things they are already doing. Observe:

Iran should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and use its influence over Iraqi Shia groups to encourage national reconciliation.

Now, why would a government poised to gain (1) vastly increased control over its oil-rich neighbor and long-time enemy, and (2) greater influence in the region, decide to turn it down and say, "You know what? We'll help the Americans out of a jam instead." Especially considering Iran is happily sending arms to Iraq, training Shia militias, and backing/funding/influencing various Iraqi political parties, and shows no signs of stopping?

In particular because the ISG report goes on to say this:

The issue of Iran's nuclear programs should continue to be dealt with by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

So let's maintain the status quo on Iran's number one foreign policy priority, where they are repeatedly getting shut down by the U.S. and the U.N., but expect them to sacrifice the increased power that comes with a wrecked or Shiite-controlled Iraq? I'm not buying it.

More from the ISG:

Syria should control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq.

First of all, if we can't control the border to the stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq, I don't know why we expect the Syrian government, which often can't control whole portions of its own country, to be able to. Second, Syria -- or parts of Syria, if not the Syrian government directly -- sent funding and insurgents into Lebanon during the Israel vs. Hezbollah fight earlier this year. Are we giving them any incentives to turn down the same opportunity for influence this time around?

As for "Internal Approach," here's one example of several recommendations that seem to be either already underway or so commonsensical as to be useless:

The Iraqi government should accelerate assuming responsibility for Iraqi security by increasing the number and quality of Iraqi Army brigades.

As if no one in the American military or diplomatic apparatus has suggested this before? The slow pace in building up Iraqi forces and the inability of Iraqis to take responsibility for security is a failure of capability, not will. Does anyone think Maliki has the ability to set training in motion for four more battalions of Iraqi Army units, but chooses instead to sit and twiddle his thumbs?

Also, the ISG report contains a fair amount of highly patronizing Iraqi-blaming. Things like "encourage the Iraqi people to take control of their own destiny." What, exactly, does that mean? Tell them to stop killing each other? Well, the portions of the population killing each other see a Shiite-dominated state or a Sunni-dominated state as their destiny. And the everyday Iraqis who simply want life to return to normal can't do anything to stop the militias and pervading violence. Any who "take control of their own destiny," by speaking out against the militias, or writing for a newspaper, or even wearing shorts in the street as a protest of creeping Islamofacism are likely to be shot. So are we referring to the politicians? Because they have their own agendas that they are working for, sometimes on behalf of the folks trying to kill each other, and probably won't be convinced to change course when we say, "Hey, guys, c'mon. Try harder." I'd like to believe this is more than empty rhetoric from the Baker Commission, but someone is going to have to prove it to me.

(And, for the record, let's not forget who chose this "destiny" for the Iraqi people. They don't bear the brunt of the responsibility for fixing this mess; we do. To some extent, the international bodies tasked with helping failed states do. So don't blame them for being so shellshocked they can't create a civil society out of the ashes of a totalitarian regime.)

While the rest of the report may make good points about the Iraqi criminal justice system, the oil sector, reassignment of troops with a new emphasis on special ops, budgeting, and so forth, the fuzziness on the main points leads me to believe that Baker, Hamilton, and everyone else involved with creating this report know the cynical side of why they were asked to do it in the first place: putting the current zeitgeist (essentially, recognizing the obvious) into a formal form so it can be lauded and cherrypicked from by the Bush Administration, which can gain PR points for trying to solve this mess.

But, then, if Bush rejects or ignores all of these recommendations, it's all moot in the end.