Political MoJo

Women's Rights in Basra Still Dismal

| Thu Jun. 8, 2006 6:23 PM EDT

I take it today's the day when everyone's supposed to be upbeat about Iraq, seeing as how Zarqawi was killed, and Iraqis across the country are, rightfully, ecstatic about the fact. Nevertheless, Terri Judd's report in the Independent on the state of women's rights deserves a reading:

Across Iraq, a bloody and relentless oppression of women has taken hold. Many women had their heads shaved for refusing to wear a scarf or have been stoned in the street for wearing make-up. Others have been kidnapped and murdered for crimes that are being labelled simply as "inappropriate behaviour". The insurrection against the fragile and barely functioning state has left the country prey to extremists whose notion of freedom does not extend to women.

In the British-occupied south, where Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army retains a stranglehold, women insist the situation is at its worst. Here they are forced to live behind closed doors only to emerge, concealed behind scarves, hidden behind husbands and fathers. Even wearing a pair of trousers is considered an act of defiance, punishable by death.Perhaps it's too obvious to need pointing out, but as a reminder, this is what's going on in Basra, the peaceful part of Iraq, where Shiites have—for the most part—set up a stable Islamic government in the provinces and insurgent violence, while not eradicated, is at a minimum. In other words, this is what "victory" in Iraq would look like. According to Judd's interviews, people in Basra say that laws setting aside 25 percent of the legislative seats for women have been a "smokescreen," and it's been impossible for those in power to do much to improve women's rights in the region.

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Congress Approves Eye-Eating Fungus

| Thu Jun. 8, 2006 5:52 PM EDT

Awesome. According to Jeremy Bigwood of In These Times, the House recently an amendment authorizing the use of an "eye-eating fungus" to spray on crops in Colombia as part of the U.S. government's "war on drugs." The Colombian government is against the measure, seeing as how the fungus can attack humans and "cause redness and pain that can lead to blindness—requiring a corneal replacement," and could well mutate into something worse in the future.

In related news, Plan Colombia is still a billion-dollar failure that hasn't reduced drug use but has gotten a lot of people killed.

Turning Against the War

Thu Jun. 8, 2006 4:48 PM EDT

The chorus of voices denouncing the war in Iraq is pretty loud these days, but the addition of critiques by its early proponents continues to be striking. And in his op-ed today, Michael Young, opinion editor for the Lebanese Daily Star, does just that. Young doesn't regret his earlier support for the war, and there is no lost love between him and the Iraqi leaders—or would-be Arab reformers—critical of the occupation. But the noted Lebanese political pundit is also far enough removed to call the war a huge disaster, and to do so with more thoroughness than most Americans care to, even now. Like the My Lai massacre back in 1968, Young writes, Haditha "makes the notion of winning hearts and minds laughable."

Even for those of us who supported the war, it's plain that this is a March 1968 moment, though Johnson had a much easier choice to make than Bush. South Vietnam was never as crucial a place as Iraq is, and for the US there is, quite simply, no way out. Democracy is a long-lost hope; Arab liberals who congratulate themselves for having discredited the war from the outset can lustily applaud the humiliation of the last administration that will plead their case in many years. If there is no way out for Bush, freedom in the Arab world has also hit a brick wall.

Lest this sound too cynical, Young does make a few recommendations, the first of which is that Rumsfeld get the boot, and quickly.

GOP Agenda Sputtering

| Thu Jun. 8, 2006 2:44 PM EDT

It's great news by any measure that the Senate failed to repeal the estate tax today, although I'm shocked that it was so tough, seeing as how there are more Republican senators than there were in 2004, or 2002. Same thing with the vile gay marriage amendment; more Republicans in the Senate, but it failed by an even larger margin than it did the in 2004. Don't know what it means, but it's a good sign. One can only hope this ridiculous flag-burning amendment will get shot down as well.

U.S. Military Kills Zarqawi

| Thu Jun. 8, 2006 1:24 PM EDT

I was just reading Mary-Anne Weaver's long profile of Abu Musab Zarqawi in the Atlantic Monthly and suddenly, the man gets himself killed in an airstrike. So, he's dead. Good riddance, and this does seem like genuinely good news for Iraq, although I guess the smart thing to say is that his death won't make a difference to the overall level of violence there. That's what Weaver's piece suggests. "If Zarqawi is captured or killed tomorrow, the Iraqi insurgency will go on," according to a "high-level" Jordanian intelligence official.

That's almost certainly right. The Sunni insurgency has mostly been run by Iraqis opposed to both the U.S. occupation and the prospect of Shiite rule of Iraq. Zarqawi played at best a supporting role. At one point, it seemed like Zarqawi's willingness to engage in big, bloody attacks against Shiites was genuinely exacerbating what was then a nascent sectarian war in Iraq. Maybe he was making a real difference then. But nowadays that sectarian war isn't so nascent anymore, and Sunnis and Shiites are capable of killing each other by the dozens each day without Zarqawi's help. One can hope that getting rid of Zarqawi will change things, but it seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, over at TNR's blog, Michael Crowley notes that some caller on the "Diane Rehm Show" wants to know how many civilians were killed in the raid. Seems like a fair question to me. There have been lots of airstrikes on "safe houses" thought to be harboring Zarqawi. Here's a failed strike on an al-Qaeda safe house that left 40 dead last November. Here's another one two years ago, on a wedding party, that left "40 dead, including children." Another missed attempt at an al-Qaeda leader, possibly Zarqawi. And that's just after a quick google search.

These all add up. Sure, it's easy to say that there's a moral difference between accidentally killing civilians while trying to track down mass murderers and the actual mass murderers themselves, but at some point the fact that we're doing counterterrorism by dropping "precision-guided munitions" on lots and lots of houses across the country should make people realize that there's not really a moral way to conduct this war. I guess that counts as insufficient cheerleading...

UPDATE: Steven Benen provides a bit of historical context, noting that the Bush administration had the opportunity to take out Zarqawi before the war, but needed him alive to preserve the fiction that Saddam Hussein was harboring terrorists. On the other hand, perhaps Zarqawi's death will give the White House the excuse it needs to declare "victory" and start pulling troops out of Iraq.

MORE: Fred Kaplan's piece on Zarqawi's death is (as usual) quite good.

John Bolton upset over U.N. official's criticism of U.S.

| Wed Jun. 7, 2006 5:42 PM EDT

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said today that a U.N. Deputy Secretary-General's remarks about the United States "can only do grave harm to the United Nations." Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said yesterday in a speech that the U.S. relies on the U.N as a diplomatic tool, but then does not defend the body before critics at home. Brown went on to say that news of the U.N.'s good work that reaches much of the U.S. has been "largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such a Rush Limbaugh and Fox News."

Bolton called Brown's remarks a "very, very grave mistake" that could undermine Secretary-General Kofi Annan's efforts to effect a reform agenda for the U.N. Bolton told Annan that his deputy's remarks displayed a "condescending, patronizing tone about the American people."

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Are We "Tolerating" Syria?

Wed Jun. 7, 2006 2:32 PM EDT

This week's issue of The Weekly Standard features a classic bit of neoconservative logic. David Schenker, a former Defense Department advisor and resident scholar at the Near East Policy Institute in Washington, argues that the Bush administration is "in effect tolerating the Baathist dictatorship" in Syria. Now it's been just over three months since the US imposed its harshest-ever sanctions on the country; two years since the passage of the Syrian Accountability Act; and a mere three years since the Syrian government was deemed a "top target" for regime change at the hands of the US military. Yet in Schenker's view, all this shows is the administration's faintheartedness.

One thing Mr. Schenker seems to be short on is alternatives. What should the Bush administration be doing? While many experts agree that this administration's Syria policy has been uninspired, even ambivalent, the more frequent conclusion among scholars is that "diplomatic engagement," or at least constructive dialogue, is the best way to handle Syria. Chiding the Bush administration for "tolerating" Bashar Assad implies that we ought to do to Syria what we did to Iraq. Unfortunately for Mr. Schenker, that would be a tall order for the US military at present. So somewhere amidst all that lambasting of Damascus, it would be helpful if he could provide us with some other, more productive ideas.

After gays and flag-burning, what's next for GOP?

| Wed Jun. 7, 2006 2:18 AM EDT

With the President and his panicky Republican allies seeking to rally the base with constitutional amendments against gay marriage and flag-burning, what else can they do to win support? They're betting that the rural, Midwest and Southern voters who fell for their pandering before will respond again, even if they lose on those red-meat issues in Congress. But to shore up their support, here are some other measures under consideration by the Bush Administration:

1. Mandating that all grade-schoolers learn to read directly from the Bible -- with chapbooks just like in colonial days.

2. Administration supporters are working with the Fox News Network to launch MolestTV, a 24/7 cable network highlighting coverage of trials, arrests and in-depth profiles of accused and convicted child molesters, mostly focusing on gays (even though critics of the new network note that a majority of pedophile cases involve heterosexuals.) Bill O'Reilly will anchor an hour show on the network, "Fighting for Our Kids," focusing on politicians, liberal journalists and judges who are "soft on crime" while featuring regular appearances by representatives of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA)

3. Executing a few scary-looking accused terrorists with "funny-sounding" Arabic names who have been held at Guantamano Bay.

4. Cracking down on all that cursing on HBO, once and for all.

5. Having Attorney General Gonzales order the arrest of mostly Jewish reporters for publishing leaked classified information about our secret intelligence-gathering and interrogation (i.e., domestic spying and torture) operations.

Kristof Defends Sweatshops

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 8:48 PM EDT

Normally I wouldn't link to a Times Select column, partly because I have no intention of paying for it and partly because most of the Times' columnists are rather dull. But I picked up the paper today and found Nick Kristof writing what must be his fiftieth or sixtieth column praising Third World sweatshops. Paul Krugman likes this argument too. It's "cute". It's also wrong. Here's an excerpt:

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program....

The problem is that it's still costly to manufacture in Africa. The headaches across much of the continent include red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and an inexperienced labor force that leads to low productivity and quality. The anti-sweatshop movement isn't a prime obstacle, but it's one more reason not to manufacture in Africa.That last sentence is insane. Campaigns against sweatshops may be a lot of things, but one thing they're not is omniscient. For every Gap and Nike they expose and vilify, there are ten other manufacturers who escape bad publicity altogether. If companies thought it was profitable to set up sweatshops in Africa, student campaigns couldn't deter them all. Clearly there are other reasons.

Kristof then talks about a garment factory in Namibia which was forced to close because it was cheaper to import clothes from China. But that's an argument for trying to raise labor standards in China, where working conditions are famously dismal, rather than for trying to force Namibia down to China's level. Writers such as Kristof—and Krugman—seem to be under the impression that critics of neoliberalism are all idiots and don't realize that if you raise labor standards in, say, Namibia, manufacturers might flee to some more brutal country where working conditions are even worse. But of course we realize this. That's what the criticism is all about.

At any rate, it's not clear that manufacturers always and everywhere move to where wages are the lowest. Wages in Mexico are four times what they are in Indonesia, yet Nike has factories in both countries. There are specific reasons for that, of course, but it goes to show that countries don't necessarily need the lowest wages and worst working conditions on the planet to attract investment. Here's a good study by David Kucera finding a weak relationship between labor standards and foreign investment. And it's not at all obvious that specializing in low-wage garments is the only way for Namibia to develop (it might be one of the worst, in fact).

There's also the argument that industrialized countries had to go through their own sweatshop phase to get to where they are. Well, sure, some places did, but those places also saw serious fights for better working conditions at the same time. New York's garment workers battled against sweatshops for most of the 20th century—remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?—and consistently made gains until they were undermined by the Mafia and corrupt union bosses in the postwar period. Now sweatshops are flourishing in the city, which only goes to show that labor standards tend to worsen unless someone, somewhere, is fighting for them.

Conservatives Against the Gay Marriage Amendment

Tue Jun. 6, 2006 5:56 PM EDT

The Center for American Progress is not the only group laying into the President for his support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, up for discussion in Congress this week. A new report by Dale Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute—tellingly titled, "The Federal Marriage Amendment: Unnecessary, Anti-Federalist, and Anti-Democratic"—also takes a scathing, 20-page swipe at the amendment.