Political MoJo

Why It's Not Working in Afghanistan

| Mon Aug. 28, 2006 3:23 PM EDT

TomDispatch has a valuable piece by Ann Jones, whose new book, Kabul in Winter, Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, begins thusly: "I went to Afghanistan after the bombing stopped. Somehow I felt obliged to help pick up the pieces. I was a New Yorker who had always lived downtown, and for a long time after the towers fell I experienced moments when I couldn't get my bearings... Four thousand collateral civilian deaths in Kabul brought no consolation for the death of thousands from around the world in the fallen towers of the city that had so long been my home. I thought America had lost its bearing too. So I left."

Today's piece wonders why Afghanistan, post-Taliban, has devolved into a state of chaos.

She writes:

The story of success in Afghanistan was always more fairy tale than fact -- one scam used to sell another. Now, as the Bush administration hands off "peacekeeping" to NATO forces, Afghanistan is the scene of the largest military operation in the history of that organization. Today's personal email brings word from an American surgeon in Kabul that her emergency medical team can't handle half the wounded civilians brought in from embattled provinces to the south and east. American, British, and Canadian troops find themselves at war with Taliban fighters -- which is to say "Afghans" -- while stunned NATO commanders, who hadn't bargained for significant combat, are already asking what went wrong.

The answer is a threefold failure: no peace, no democracy, and no reconstruction.

Read the rest here.

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Blackwater: Soldiers Or Contractors?

| Mon Aug. 28, 2006 5:35 AM EDT

In connection with the news that Blackwater, the huge private security company, has lost its bid to keep a lawsuit in connection with its Iraq operations out of federal court, take a look at Barry Yeoman's early coverage of the company in Mother Jones. This story, reported before the invasion of Iraq, notes that Blackwater's business has been growing by leaps and bounds because the military increasingly prefers to have contractors do the work of soldiers.

When the companies do screw up, however, their status as private entities often shields them -- and the government -- from public scrutiny. [...] "Under a shroud of secrecy, the United States is carrying out military missions with people who don't have the same level of accountability," says Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a leading congressional critic of privatized war. "We have individuals who are not obligated to follow orders or follow the Military Code of Conduct. Their main obligation is to their employer, not to their country."

Ironically, Blackwater is now citing a program designed to protect the military--the Defense Base Act, which provides benefits to the families of soldiers killed on the battlefield--to argue that it can't be held liable by the families of four of its contractors who were killed in Fallujah in 2003 (after, the families say, being sent into a warzone unprepared and unequipped).

Thanks for Keeping Our Profits Up. Sorry, Can't Afford a Raise.

| Mon Aug. 28, 2006 5:22 AM EDT

"The most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor's share of national income." That's the wisdom from the smart guys at Goldman Sachs, per the New York Times' drab, but crucial story on how workers are still making American business more productive--but take a smaller share of the national pie than they did at any time since the government began keeping track just after WWII.

"For most of the last century, wages and productivity — the key measure of the economy's efficiency — have risen together, increasing rapidly through the 1950's and 60's and far more slowly in the 1970's and 80's.

But in recent years, the productivity gains have continued while the pay increases have not kept up. Worker productivity rose 16.6 percent from 2000 to 2005, while total compensation for the median worker rose 7.2 percent, according to Labor Department statistics analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group. Benefits accounted for most of the increase.

"If I had to sum it up," said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the institute, "it comes down to bargaining power and the lack of ability of many in the work force to claim their fair share of growth."

And next time you hear the president talk about rising family incomes, take note: All of that "rising" involves the families at the very top of the income scale. The rest of you are just working harder to finance someone else's profit.

When is a Soldier a Murderer?

| Mon Aug. 28, 2006 4:16 AM EDT

Not very often in Iraq, according to the military justice system: "Though experts estimate that thousands of Iraqi civilians have died at the hands of U.S. forces," reports the Washington Post in an excellent piece, only 20 of those killings have resulted in formal charges, and only 12 service members served prison time in connection with those cases. To make up your mind (or not) about what this means, you really have to go read the story, which makes it clear that many Iraq veterans are convinced that crimes do happen, and that they go unpunished in part because prosecution is entirely at local commanders' discretion. Most of all, though, what you come away with is a deepened sense of dread and regret for both the troops we're sending over there and the Iraqis unlucky enough to run into them at the wrong place or the wrong time:

The cases highlight the sometimes fine line between a criminal allegation and the bloodshed that is a part of war. Spec. Nathan Lynn, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman, shot and killed a man in the darkness of a Ramadi neighborhood in February. Lynn said he considered the man a threat and believes he did nothing wrong.

The man was not armed, and Lynn was charged with voluntary manslaughter. But a military investigator agreed that Lynn acted properly in a difficult situation, and the charges were dropped.

"I was extremely surprised when I was charged because it was clear the shooting fell within the guidelines of my rules of engagement," Lynn said. "This is a war. It's not a police action."

Dirty Dancing in Iraq a Morale Boost, For Some

| Sun Aug. 27, 2006 8:22 PM EDT

Today the New York Times ran a piece on the Purrfect Angelz' third tour in Iraq, part of an ongoing effort to "keep up morale in a war that is more dangerous than ever." The scantily-clad dance group was invited back despite objections voiced by female troops when they toured last year.

"The show only appeals to men, and in my mind has the potential to increase sexual advances toward female soldiers afterward," said one female Air Force officer. "To me, if the military really cared about sexual harassment, they would not sponsor such a show."

Last week, Ann and I blogged about some bad news in this department, sexual harassment by military recruiters and a Citadel survey finding that 20 percent of female cadets report having been assaulted.

Fully one in six of the country's active duty military, Reserve and National Guard troops is a woman and more than 100,000 women have served in combat since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yes, the war is more dangerous than ever, so women shouldn't have to feel in danger amongst their peers. Having five erotic dancers perform for an evening certainly can't help an already volatile situation.

Plame Case: The Plot Thickens

| Sun Aug. 27, 2006 2:20 PM EDT

There's long been speculation about Richard Armitage's role in the ongoing Valerie Plame saga, which has already forced the resignation of Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, and, to an extent, ensnared the Veep himself. In the past two weeks, though, the former deputy secretary of state has emerged not just as a bit player in the leak case but as a central figure. Last week the AP reported that an entry in Armitage's State Department calendar reflects a one-hour appointment with Bob Woodward (who has acknowledged having an informal discussion about Plame with an administration official) on June 13, 2003, not long before Plame's status as a covert CIA operative was blown in a column by Robert Novak. Today Newsweek, plugging a new book by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, is reporting that Armitage was Novak's primary source, the "senior administration official" Novak has previously referred to as "not a partisan gunslinger." According to the story:

Armitage, a well-known gossip who loves to dish and receive juicy tidbits about Washington characters, apparently hadn't thought through the possible implications of telling Novak about Plame's identity. "I'm afraid I may be the guy that caused this whole thing," he later told Carl Ford Jr., State's intelligence chief. Ford says Armitage admitted to him that he had "slipped up" and told Novak more than he should have. "He was basically beside himself that he was the guy that f---ed up. My sense from Rich is that it was just chitchat," Ford recalls….

While Armitage's disclosure of Plame's identity may have come about during a bull session with Novak and perhaps Woodward too, there is certainly evidence to suggest that in the hands of White House officials this information was not dispensed accidentally, but rather used in an effort to discredit Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, for his criticism of the Bush administration's use of pre-war intel on Iraq. Expect many more interesting revelations about the Plame affair with the publication of Isikoff and Corn's book, "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War," which will be out in October.

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If Talking About Dams is Suspicious, Let's Investigate Bush

| Sun Aug. 27, 2006 4:39 AM EDT

So Jim Bensman, who's a fixture of just about any environmental debate in the Midwest, goes to a public meeting to discuss a dam in St. Louis and, surprise, says he'd just as soon see the dam gone. The local paper dutifully reports that Benson "said he would like to see the dam blown up and resents paying taxes to fix dam problems when it is barge companies that profit from the dam." Next thing you know the Corps of Engineers--which you'd think had other things to worry about--calls the FBI to investigate Bensman as a possible security threat. And the FBI actually bothers to follow through. All this at a time when the White House is, for the first time ever, endorsing blowing up dams.

NYC, Civil Rights Groups Blast TV's Survivor

| Sat Aug. 26, 2006 1:22 PM EDT

Rina wrote a few days ago about how the next round of Survivor will feature teams divided by race. There has been a firestorm of response to the announcement, from bloggers predictably, but also from civil rights groups and government officials. Yesterday, New York's city council held a press conference to denounce the show. City councilmember John Liu:

"This idea is so ill conceived that it would be funny--but for the fact that racism does still sometimes rear its ugly head. This show has the potential to set back our nation's race relations by 50 years. Nowhere else do we tolerate racial segregation, and we certainly won't stand for it in this battle-of-the-races scheme to prop up sagging television ratings."

Another councilmember said that the producers didn't realize the damaging impact of their decision. In fact, the coverage of this twist all seems to say as much, that Mark Burnett, the king of reality television and a slave to controversy, "didn't really think it would have such an uproar."

Yeah, right. This is precisely the outcome he was hoping for. I mean come on, he got Rush Limbaugh to wax on about it on his show this week. And he really couldn't have been more offensive, stirring the controversy pot for the show and Mr. Burnett:

Hispanics, he said, "have shown a remarkable ability to cross borders" and "will do things other people won't do." Asians are "the best at espionage, keeping secrets." Blacks "lack buoyancy" and are "more likely to drown," while the white man's burden will weigh down the last team with "guilt over the fact that they run things."

CBS is defending the show, saying it will answer the critics "on the screen." The thing that people may not want to admit is that reality is a lot closer to this situation than we're comfortable admitting. Neighborhoods and schools are becoming more, not less, segregated and some seem to be fine with that. And if we're not then the fight is better fought in our communities, rather than aimed at Hollywood. This Survivor scenario seems to tug at the unease that manifests when true survival is at stake: Watts, Rodney King, O.J., Katrina, all times when we have had to look critically at how we deal with race in this country. We may not want to see people of different races competing for food, shelter, luxuries and their very existence on television. We don't have to, we can just take a hard look at our country to see the same. Most people won't, but you'd better believe they'll tune in September 14th.

State Farm Accused of Cheating Katrina Customers

| Fri Aug. 25, 2006 10:57 PM EDT

Kerri Rigsby and Cori Rigsby, two independent insurance adjusters who worked exclusively for State Farm for eight years, say they have turned over to the FBI and Mississippi investigators thousands of documents proving that the insurance company systematically cheated victims of Hurricane Katrina. In an interview with ABC News, Rigsby and Rigsby describe what they call "widespread fraud" in State Farm offices in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi.

The adjusters say that the insurance company brought in a shredding truck to destroy documents; however, State Farm maintains that shredding documents is standard procedure to protect customers' privacy. However, Rigsby and Rigsby also said that outside engineers were pressured to prepare reports stating that structural damage was caused by water (not covered in State Farm policies), not wind. Furthermore, they reported that when wind was listed as the cause of damage, the reports were hidden and new reports were ordered.

Hundreds of homeowners in the areas damaged by Katrina have complained that they cannot get paid by their insurance companies, and State Farm is often mentioned as an especially difficult company to get money from. One of the most frequent reasons cited for refusing to pay is that house damage was caused by water, not wind. However, it is not unusual to hear homeowners say that they were told this even if their house did not flood.

Bush Flip Flops on New Stem Cell Procedure

| Fri Aug. 25, 2006 8:11 PM EDT

This week the genetic engineering of nonembryos has been all the buzz. That this procedure is a red herring is one issue. But more than that it seems President Bush is wearing the venerable flip flops on this one.

The procedure was actually born out of his own Presidential Council on Bioethics and when Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter co-sponsored a bill that would have allocated NIH funding to this type of research, he was all for it. In a press conference, on July 19 (the same day Bush vetoed the more significant stem cell bill), he had this to say after the Santorum-Specter bill didn’t pass through the House:

"I'm disappointed that Congress failed to pass another bill that would have promoted good research...It would have authorized additional federal funding for promising new research that could produce cells with the abilities of embryonic cells, but without the destruction of human embryos. This is an important piece of legislation...I'm disappointed that the House failed to authorize funding for this vital and ethical research."

But this week a White House spokeswoman told the New York Times that

"The new procedure would not satisfy the objections of Mr. Bush…Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions. This technique does not resolve those concerns."

So once the science shows progress beyond mice, Bush backs off and shows how much he really supports "promising new research."