Political MoJo

Can Iran Be Negotiated With?

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 3:32 PM EDT

Great (long) post by Kevin Drum starting from observation that hawkish types, such as Andrew Sullivan, who supported the Iraq war but now question the wisdom of a military-first approach to foreign policy, are nevertheless sounding mighty belligerent on the topic of Iran.

And now it's Iran, yet another country that can't be negotiated with. Why? Religious fanaticism is the excuse this time. But while the Iranians may seem scarier simply because they're today's enemy, that doesn't mean they can't be dealt with just like any other nation state can be dealt with.

Not every problem can be solved by diplomacy. Sometimes, as in the currently fashionable right-wing obsession with 1938, negotiation really is useless. But far more often than not, our enemies can be negotiated with, despite all the convincing reasons the hawks adduce for confrontation and war as the only possible solution. So ask yourself: With a track record this bad, why should we pay attention to the same old hysterical siren song this time? Shouldn't we send the hawks packing and instead figure out more sensible ways to react to our global problems? Shouldn't we have learned our lesson by now?

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Is Tony Blair On His Way Out?

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 2:59 PM EDT

Troubles for Tony Blair, hit today by a wave of resignations by junior members of his government. They're ticked off at his refusal, so far, to say when he'll step down. (The Sun newspaper has reported that he'll go on 31 May, something the PM's office won't confirm.)

Is this a plot by allies of Gordon Brown, Blair's antsy heir apparent? If so, says this BBC analysis, "they have to decide if they are going to follow it through. Will this become not just this group of relatively junior folk - but senior cabinet ministers, as they did with Thatcher in 1990, saying to the PM, 'you need to go and you need to go soon'?"

Problem is (for Brown), Blair's pals in the party can't stand him.

Can they bring themselves to work with Gordon Brown to make a reality of this awkward phrase "stable and orderly transition"? They haven't so far for one good reason - they don't want Gordon Brown to become PM. They wanted their man to stay in office so someone else could emerge. If they can bring themselves to work with Brown, perhaps he'll call the dogs off. Perhaps.

(Here's a BBC rundown of the other possible contenders for Blair's job, which includes this description of Brown: "Has been circling Tony Blair for years, like a dog watching the family cat squatting in its basket.")

If Brown doesn't call the dogs off (...the cats?), Blair could be gone in weeks. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, riding higher than they have in years, are pronouncing the government "in meltdown."

Accutane Users Pledge Abstinence, or Commit to Test After Test

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 2:36 PM EDT

Six months ago the FDA launched iPLEDGE, a mandatory registry for users of Isotretinoin (commonly prescribed as Accutane), designed to keep its users pregnancy free. Given that the powerful acne medication that's prescribed to 5 million Americans has been linked to serious birth defects and mental health problems, precautionary steps are understandable.

The FDA, caught in a tussle between patients wanting this extremely effective acne drug and those wanting it off the market, accepted iPLEDGE as a compromise to essentially improve behavior while taking a dangerous drug. But the requirements of the "computer-based risk management program" are so daunting it turns out people might be avoiding the drug altogether.

Women on the medication take mandatory pregnancy tests each month (two, one in a clinic), and have to take two forms of birth control at the same time. Or, they can pledge to "abstain from intercourse for one month prior to treatment, during treatment and for one month after treatment has ended." Every month patients must repledge the two forms of birth control they are using. Those who get pregnant anyway must "agree to be queried by an agent of iPLEDGE."

Male users have to sign on as well, and all users have to sign a document acknowledging that Accutane can increase risk for birth defects, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Doctors and patients alike are complaining about the complicated $80 million system that requires everyone, patients plus all the people involved in the distribution of the drug to register: doctors, pharmacists and drug wholesalers included.

Each month prescribers must enter a female patient's pregnancy test results into the system and the two forms of contraception she is using. The system then authorizes the doctor to prescribe, and the pharmacist to dispense, the drug. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the 15,000-member American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) released a survey finding:

-90% of 378 physicians are having problems with the program.

-Nearly 52% said patients' treatments had been delayed because they were unable to pick up a prescription within seven days.
-39% said their patients encountered technical problems using the website.

The website itself is a curious sight. The tagline, "Committed to Pregnancy Prevention" has an icon that is a red stop sign with a big hand in the middle. The website features a big red arrow with the words "The Only Way" running across each page. Of the women on Accutane, 80% are under 30, "females of childbearing potential" and given the hoops women have to go through abstinence may be the best policy when taking the drug, or finding another drug. One outgrowth of the system is that, if it survives, it will creates a national database tracking birth control use and behavior, as well as pregnancies and abortions, of Isotretinoin users. Somewhat far afield of treating acne. We'll stay tuned to see how it plays out.

Sunni-Shiite Bloodletting: What's in a Name?

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 2:23 PM EDT

From today's New York Times:

The country's Sunni-Shiite bloodletting is driving many Iraqis to bury the very essence of their identity: their names.

To have to hide one's name is considered deeply shameful. But with sectarian violence surging, Iraqis fear that the name on an identification card, passport or other document could become an instant death sentence if seen by the wrong people.

That is because some first names and tribal names indicate whether a person is Sunni or Shiite. A first name of Omar is popular among Sunnis, for example, as is Ali among Shiites.

We heard the same thing from some Iraqi bloggers we interviewed recently. And one, a 14-year-old girl from Mosul going by the nom de blog "Sunshine," added this:

Personally, I didn't know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis until three years ago. My best friend is Shiite; we have been friends since we were 6 years old. Neither of us supports what is happening now. My grandparent's neighbors are Shiite; the mother has been my grandma's friend for over 35 years. We like their family very much, and we both feel very angry about this ridiculous segregation. You see Shiites and Sunnis married and living in the same house—many relatives of mine are married to Shiite men or women, and they won't get divorced because of this silly segregation. They are Muslims before they are Shiites or Sunni, and in the end we are all Iraqis, no matter what our religion or denomination.

Read the full interview here.

Romney to ("Terrorist") Khatami: Drop Dead

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 1:57 PM EDT

It's true that Mohammed Khatami, as President of Iran, failed to live up to his early promise as a reformer. (And let's face it, that was always going to be a tough gig.) But to call him a "terrorist," as Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney is noisily doing, seems a touch histrionic.

Governor Mitt Romney declared yesterday he would not allow any state resources to be used to protect a former Iranian president during his visit to the Boston area this weekend, and he sharply criticized Harvard University for inviting Mohammed Khatami to speak on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"There are people in this state who have suffered from terrorism, and taking even a dollar of their money to support a terrorist is unacceptable," Romney, a potential candidate for the Republican Party's 2008 presidential nomination, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Khatami will give a lecture titled "Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence," which, yes, is ironic given his country's unimpressive record on the former and prolific contributions to the latter. But of course Romney wants to be president, so we should get used this kind of winking demagoguery, and not only from him. (Sigh.) Meanwhile, how the anti-terrorist cause will be served by Khatami's getting popped in Harvard Yard remains unclear.

Bush Says EPA Immune From Protections for Federal Whisteblowers

| Tue Sep. 5, 2006 11:17 PM EDT

Citing an unpublished opinion from the Attorney General's Office of Legal Counsel, the Bush administration has declared that federal employees may no longer pursue whistleblower claims and protections under the Clean Water Act. As of now, EPA employees will have almost no protection from retaliation if they come forward with information about water pollution enforcement breakdowns, cleanup failures, or the deceptive presentation of scientific findings. Approximately 170,000 employees are affected by this ruling.

The EPA is no help at all. The agency is taking the position that its employees have no protections of any kind regarding any environmental statute.

This turnabout occurred because an EPA employee reported problems with contracts for toxic cleanups. She was rewarded $225,000 in punitive damages after she filed a retaliation suit, but the Department of Labor overturned the court's decision.

The White House is claiming sovereign immunity for the EPA.

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Katherine Harris's Campaign Makes FEMA Look Well Organized

| Tue Sep. 5, 2006 8:01 PM EDT

More hilarity from the the slo-mo tragicomedy that is Katherine Harris's Florida Senate bid. She's expected to win her primary today, visiting fresh torment on Republicans who'd rather she disappear like so many uncounted ballots. This from AP today.

"This campaign will go down in history as one of the most disastrous ever run in the United States," said Jim Dornan, who helped launch Harris' bid as her campaign manager. He left three months later.

"I don't think anybody can envision any campaign being conducted in as poor a fashion as this one's been conducted," said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political-science professor.

Her campaign shrugs off such criticism. "Our entire campaign team is looking forward, not backward," said spokeswoman Jennifer Marks. "We're energized and we're excited."...

"She doesn't interview, she flirts. And it's offensive to professional women and it's embarrassing," [Dornan] said. ...

She recently called separation of church and state "a lie" and angered Jews and others by saying, "If you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin."

Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush said Harris couldn't win. Ditto state Republican Party Chairman Carol Jean Jordan.

But spokeswoman Marks says Harris is being greeted by "a tremendous wave of support" as she travels the state, focusing on issues instead of the controversies.

Can you say karma? Justice comes slowly, granted, but it looks like there may be order in the heavens after all.

Engelhardt: Is there an Iraq?

| Tue Sep. 5, 2006 5:53 PM EDT

Oh happy day! Tom Engelhardt, legendary book editor -- and author in his own right -- and the force of nature behind Tomdispatch.com, has taken to blogging. His first post is up at The Notion, the blog of The Nation magazine. It's a characteristically sharp-eyed reading of US Iraq coverage. He writes:

Sometimes, if you want to get reality straight, it pays to read pieces in our press with care and to the end. Take a recent New York Times piece by Richard A. Oppel Jr., headlined: Iraqi Official Reports Capture of Top Insurgent Leader Linked to Shrine Bombing." It's pretty typical of reporting on this story. Forget for a second that the capture of second-in-commands and "top lieutenants" of al-Qaeda in Iraq have been staples of Bush administration announcements for the last year or more -- or that you could practically fill Abu Ghraib (recently turned over to the Iraqis empty) with these "top" figures. Though this was billed as a joint U.S./Iraqi operation, it's been heavily flogged as an Iraqi success story. Hence the Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, proudly made the announcement that "the second-ranking leader" of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Hamid Juma Faris Jouri al-Saeedi, was in custody.

Read a little farther into the piece though and you get this telling bit of journalistic anonymity: "However, a United States military official was more cautious in describing Mr. Saeedi's place in the organization's pecking order? ?I'm not sure we are ready to put a number on him,' said the American official, who agreed to speak only without being named because Iraqi officials had been designated to announce the capture. ?It's a very decentralized operation.'"

Is this the equivalent of designated driver, Iraqi-style? You all go to the bar and boisterously down a few -- except for that little guy in the corner, drinking coffee, who's there to drive you home. Is this what they call "sovereignty" in Iraq?

There's more, and it includes the urgent question--Is there an Iraq? Read it here.

"Faithful" Democrats Tackle Their God Problem

| Tue Sep. 5, 2006 4:20 PM EDT

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The latest liberal/progressive effort to counter the broad impression that Democrats are devil-worshippers--or whatever it is that pious Middle America thinks they are--is this nifty website, Faithful Democrats. Launched by one David Wilhelm, an Ohio investment banker and churchgoing Methodist -- and not officially affiliated with the Democratic Party (nudge, wink) -- the site bills itself as an online Christian community and boasts a pretty impressive roster of bloggers and writers, all at pains to convey that Democrats can too be religious.

USA Today has a piece today about the site in which Jim Wallis of Sojourners (inevitably) pops up to say, "Some Democrats or some interest groups in the party act as what I call secular fundamentalists and have a disdain for people of faith or talk of spiritual values. Democrats are foolish to go down that road. They have done that to some extent, and they've paid for it." This view has become almost a cliche in Democratic circles, of course, but judging by the polls there's something to it. A recent Pew survey has 47 percent of folks viewing the Republican Party as friendly to religion, but only 26 percent seeing Democrats that way.

And proving that miracles do happen, even DNC chair Howard Dean, who once famously located the Book of Job in the New Testament, has got with the program: the DNC will shortly announce its own "faith advisory team" of religious leaders to, as a spokesperson puts it, "provide counsel, direction and a sounding board as we reach out to people of faith."

Government Secrecy Under Bush Unprecedented

| Tue Sep. 5, 2006 2:39 PM EDT

Surprising no sentient being (but offering lots of good evidence), a new report from openthegovernment.org shows "a continued expansion of government secrecy across a broad array of agencies and actions." Reminding that information created by or for the federal government belongs to the American public, the exec summary notes, "The current administration has exercised an unprecedented level of restriction of access to information about, and suppression of discussion of, the federal government's policies and decisions."

Among the report's highlights:

  • For every dollar spent declassifying old secrets, federal agencies spent $134 in 2005 creating and storing new secrets. The serious imbalance between taxpayer dollars devoted to generating secrets versus those spent to release records that are no longer sensitive continues.

  • With 2,072 secret surveillance orders approved in 2005, federal surveillance activity under the jurisdiction of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court more than doubled in five years.

  • Over 60 percent of federal advisory committee meetings in 2005 were completely closed to the public. More were partially closed.

  • Since 2001, the "state secrets" privilege has been used a reported 22 times—an average in 5.5 years (4) that is close to twice as high as the previous 24 years (2.46). In the 211 years of our Republic to 2000, fewer than 600 signing statements that took issue with the bills were issued. [See this recent Mother Jones piece by Cameron Scott on what exactly a "state secret" is, and who gets to decide.] In five years, President Bush has issued at least 132, challenging 810 provisions of laws.

Full report (PDF) here.