Political MoJo

Nuclear Double Standards

| Mon Mar. 6, 2006 5:29 PM EST

Fred Kaplan has a good column today on why people should worry about a nuclear-armed Iran. "We may end up having to live with a nuclear Iran, but it won't be easy to manage; it shouldn't be shrugged at." That seems right. Iran probably would never give a bomb to terrorists, as some fear, but among other things, Kaplan worries that a nuclear Iran could think itself invincible and start provoking conflicts without fear of retaliation. Or, if the chain-of-command and safeguards are shoddy, Iran could accidentally carry out a nuclear attack, as Pakistan nearly did in 2001.

Can't say he's wrong. But those concerns don't just apply to Iran; they're exactly why it's a bad thing when anyone gets nuclear weapons; you never know who might have a hand on the red button. Here in the United States, the inmates in charge have at various times considered revising the nuclear doctrine to include the use of "low-yield" nuclear weapons. Is that really so much less scary than the prospect that Iran may develop its own little atomic bomb some day?

But that's just an argument in favor of figuring out how to create a "nuclear-free" Middle East—not to mention strengthening arms-control treaties around the world—in order to limit everyone's access to nuclear weapons, rather than merely the "bad" countries we happen to think are dangerous. Unfortunately—and Fred Kaplan himself had another good column on this a few days before—the White House now distinguishes between "good" and "bad" nuclear powers, as evinced by its latest nuclear deal with India (which completely violates the actually-quite-successful Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). It's the sort of double-standard that could make nonproliferation even more difficult, and doesn't necessarily reduce the risk that people could still do dangerous things with nuclear weapons.

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Why Not a Line-Item Veto?

| Mon Mar. 6, 2006 4:01 PM EST

So President Bush wants to bring back the line-item veto as a way of reining in spending. The veto would allow him to strip away any earmark that he doesn't like from a bill without vetoing the entire bill—a power that would, theoretically, be good for cutting out "wasteful" congressional pork. President Clinton was granted similar authority by Congress in 1996, though the Supreme Court eventually struck the veto down, saying it violated the separation of powers and gave "the president the unilateral power to change the text of duly enacted statues." Presumably the Bush administration thinks their version can pass constitutional muster this time around (or that the Roberts Court will look more kindly on executive power grabs).

This isn't the biggest deal in the world, but it's a decent indication of how unserious the administration is about reining in spending. Frankly, the line-item veto isn't all that effective as a cost-cutting measure: In the eight months that Clinton wielded it he managed to shave off a scant $500 million off the budget. That's a pittance. Pork isn't a big part of the federal budget, and never will be. And anyway, most of the time, Congress had no problem overriding Clinton's cuts. The evidence from the states is no more persuasive: In the 43 states that allow the veto, governors rarely use it, and state legislatures usually just end up vote-trading to divert spending from one wasteful project to another.

No, the only real appeal of the veto lies in its political potential. Clinton occasionally used his power to punish uncooperative Republicans by denying them local projects, as when he struck down tax breaks for Idaho Potato Farmers, just to stick it to one of his more vocal opponents, Sen. Larry Craig. This president could do the same—he could, for instance, influence congressional races by denying Democrats the ability to win votes back home through earmarks, while allowing Republicans to pork out to their hearts content. What would stop him? The opportunities for abuses of power are limitless, and it's silly to think that this president wouldn't take advantage of them. (Brian Doherty's concerns along these lines seem pretty cogent -- and that's from a libertarian.)

National Guard veteran's widow hopes to get pentacle engraved on husband's memorial

| Fri Mar. 3, 2006 6:04 PM EST

The Goddess brings us news that National Guard Sgt. Patrick Stewart's Northern Nevada Veterans' Memorial Cemetery memorial is blank. Stewart died in Afghanistan in September when his Chinook helicopter was shot down. He was a member of the Wiccan religion, which is not recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs for use in veterans' cemeteries. Consequently, his widow's request that a pentacle, the symbol of Wicca, be placed on his memorial, was denied.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its National Cemetery Administration prohibit graphics on government-furnished headstones that have not been approved as "emblems of belief."

It is obvious from the lengthy list of already-approved emblems that the NCA has been willing to recognize a wide variety of religions, and so it is no surprise that Lt. Col. Robert Harrington, battalion commander of the Nevada National Guard, believes that Stewart will get his pentacle. Roberta Stewart says that she has received a lot of support from the military community to have the emblem included, and Congressman Jim Gibbons has stated he would like to see the Department of Veterans Affairs act quickly on the application.

Avoiding the Torture Ban

| Fri Mar. 3, 2006 5:15 PM EST

Good to see that the Justice Department is taking Congress' ban on torture seriously:

In federal court yesterday and in legal filings, Justice Department lawyers contended that a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, cannot use legislation drafted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to challenge treatment that the detainee's lawyers described as "systematic torture."

...."Unfortunately, I think the government's right; it's a correct reading of the law," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "The law says you can't torture detainees at Guantanamo, but it also says you can't enforce that law in the courts."Oh, it's one of those unenforceable torture bans. Well why didn't anyone say so? If anyone knows any Kafka references that aren't stale and overused yet, let us know, we could use a fresh supply. Meanwhile, Kevin Drum's probably right to blame John McCain here (although the Bush administration is obviously the main problem here). Whether McCain intended all of this to happen or not, it's pretty clear that when he agreed to the Graham amendment in the same anti-torture bill, which stripped Guantanamo detainees of their right to challenge their detention in federal court, he pretty much did exactly what the White House wanted him to do. As Kevin says: "[McCain]'s certainly mastered the art of sounding reasonable, but it's only an inch deep. Underneath, he's just a standard issue right wing politician."

It might be worse than "standard issue." Digby notes that McCain is currently wildly popular around the country, among both Republicans and Democrats. That's going to be something to watch in the coming years, especially if he runs for president in 2008. All things considered, McCain is even more radical than Bush, especially on foreign policy—among other things, he's talked about ramping up the number of troops in Iraq and going after Iran with military force. And apart from a somewhat sensible approach to the environment—which will no doubt get scuttled once those "bundled" industry donations start pouring in, come 2007—he's not "liberal" in any sense of the word.

Census Survey Program to Be Cut

| Fri Mar. 3, 2006 4:58 PM EST

Dean Baker reports that the Bush administration is proposing to cut the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Why? Presumably it's not just because of the money—the extremely valuable data-gathering program only costs about $40 million a year, or about six hours worth of the Iraq war. Or perhaps it's, as Baker suggests, because the White House wants "to reduce the flow of bad economic news."

Either way, it's a bad idea. Back in the early 1990s, conservatives used to talk about how they would subject every liberal social program out there to a rigorous evaluation, to see if actually worked or not. But it's kind of hard to do that if there isn't any actual data. On the other hand, it's also a lot harder to judge the Bush administration if there isn't any actual data to use. Which seems to fit in the general trend here.

How Effective is Foreign Aid?

| Fri Mar. 3, 2006 4:21 PM EST

Every now and again, William Easterly, a former World Bank official and development expert, will appear on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and tell everyone that foreign aid doesn't really work all that well in places like Africa, taking a jab at Jeffrey Sachs and all those other good-intentioned "foreign aid" liberals out there in the process. And no doubt, it's good to remember that more than a few grandiose aid projects have ended in disaster, but it's another thing to say that foreign aid is hopeless, now and forever.

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Police chief accused of denying CPR to gay man

| Thu Mar. 2, 2006 10:49 PM EST

From Poverty Barn comes the news that in Welch, West Virginia, Police Chief Bobby Bowman has been has been accused in a federal lawsuit of impeding a rescuer from saving the life of 43-year-old Claude Green, who died of a heart attack in June. According to Green's friend, Billy Snead, who performed chest compressions on Green, Bowman ordered him to get away and said that Green was HIV positive.

"He was a police officer so I got out the way. I assumed he would help. I didn't want to be a hindrance," Snead said. "He also told the ambulance drivers that he was HIV positive and to be careful."

Bowman denies that he he refused Green CPR and calls the accusation a "boldface lie" (obviously, he meant a "bald-faced lie"). Rose Saxe, an attorney with the ACLU AIDS Project said that Bowman's alleged actions not only contributed to Green's death (he died half an hour after arriving at the hospital), but also violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Says Saxe: "It's hard to say what was more shameful: that Chief Bowman assumed Claude Green was HIV positive solely because he was gay, or that Bowman was so ignorant about HIV that he felt you couldn't safely perform CPR on an HIV positive person."

Media Offices Stormed in Kenya

Thu Mar. 2, 2006 3:21 PM EST

Last night close to a hundred hooded men armed with AK-47s stormed the Standard Newspaper's central office in Nairobi, Kenya, destroying papers and temporarily halting production. The raid, which was carried out simultaneously with one on the Kenya Television Network, involved the destruction of printing presses, the burning of thousands of newspapers and the beating of staff members. The Kenyan government, considered democratic, has previously accused the Standard of inventing stories on several occasions.

Corruption has raged through the Kenyan government as of late, and the media has fostered political tension by calling into question a series of secret meetings between Kenya President Mwai Kibaki and his main opponent, former Environment Minister Kalonzo Musyoka. The article on that secret rendezvous, published Saturday, led to the detention of three Standard reporters yesterday. After divulging all they knew, and asked to reveal their sources, the journalists were instructed to wait for further instructions "from above."

Information Minister Mutahi Kagwe says he knows nothing about the raids, yet earlier in the week he had threatened government intervention if publications continue their "misreporting and misrepresentation." As he put it: "If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it." The police now admit to the raid, calling it a "sweep" to gather evidence important to national security.

Why Hate Heating Assistance?

| Thu Mar. 2, 2006 2:09 PM EST

Fred Clark makes a very good point here. You'd think that pro-corporate Republicans like Joe Barton, Dick Cheney, and George Bush would be all in favor of low-income heating assistance programs, like LIHEAP, that allow poor families to buy oil to heat their homes—because ultimately that money just ends up in the pockets of Exxon and Shell executives. It's corporate welfare, only it actually does some good on the side. Republicans should be all over that, right? Guess not—Congress still refuses to fund the program at the necessary levels, despite record high heating costs this winter, forcing families to rely on Venezuela for heating oil aid. The joy of seeing people freeze to death, apparently, outweighs the joy of helping everyone's favorite oil companies out.

Also, if the GOP really wanted to lower costs for programs like LIHEAP—which, when it comes down to it, only amounts to a percent of a percentage point of the federal budget anyway—the party could support federal proposals to "weatherize" old homes, by plugging up leaks and making old homes more heat-efficient. Everyone's utility bills will be lower in the long run, and Congress could spend less on aid. Again, this too would achieve a core Republican goal—reducing spending—and do good things. But no. Too sensible, apparently.

Bush, Chertoff Warned Before Katrina

Wed Mar. 1, 2006 8:11 PM EST

New video footage shows that Bush was briefed on the probable disaster that could result from Hurricane Katrina, including busted levees, before the storm struck. The video also shows Bush not asking a single question during his final briefing before the hurricane hit. The footage, obtained by the Associated Press, shows

in excruciating detail that while federal officials anticipated the tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, they were fatally slow to realize they had not mustered enough resources to deal with the unprecedented disaster…

.A top hurricane expert voiced "grave concerns" about the levees and then-Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown told the president and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that he feared there weren't enough disaster teams to help evacuees at the Superdome. "I'm concerned about their ability to respond to a catastrophe within a catastrophe."Just five days later the levees had burst, and Bush stated that he didn't think anyone had any idea that that could happen.