Political MoJo

Can Maliki Disarm the Militias?

| Thu Apr. 27, 2006 2:26 PM EDT

American officials are stumped as to how Iraq's new prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, is going to carry out his pledge to disarm the Shiite and Kurdish militias that are carrying out a de facto civil war in the country:

Administration officials said that in his meeting with Ms. Rice, Mr. Maliki spoke of "re-establishing trust" among Iraqis by acting quickly to restore electrical power and root out the influence of militias in Iraq's police forces, which number about 135,000 nationwide.

With an estimated thousands of these forces in Baghdad alone infiltrated by the Badr brigade, a Shiite militia whose members have been accused of kidnapping and killing Sunnis, American officials said they did not know what sort of muscle or conciliation Mr. Maliki would use to carry out this pledge. "It's clearly one of the high priorities for the government," Ms. Rice said. "How they go about that I think is something they will have to work through." Mr. Rumsfeld, asked how American armed forces could do the job, said: "The first thing I'd say is, we don't. The Iraqis do." The new Iraqi government "undoubtedly and unquestionably will be addressing the question," he added. "Other countries have dealt with these issues. It's possible that these things can be done."

A lot of hand-waving, in other words. But does anyone think it's realistic for the Shiite parties to disarm their militias? Back when the CPA was running things, their approach to the militias involved creating a "virtuous circle," as Spencer Ackerman reported last year: "If security increased around the country and Iraqis reconciled their deep religious and ethnic divisions, the parties would no longer require paramilitary 'insurance policies.'" Getting rid of those paramilitaries would, in turn, improve security further. It was a pretty good idea in theory.

Except that the CPA tried this approach for two years, and it didn't work. Security never improved, stuff never got built, political developments got worse, not better, and the main Shiite parties are all — somewhat understandably — built up their militias for protection against a growing Sunni insurgency. And that, in turn, is making the security situation even worse. It's a cycle that seems structurally impossible to reverse, even if Ayatollah al-Sistani is now ordering the militias to disarm. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that Rice and Rumsfeld are shrugging and saying, "Well, figure it out somehow." No one has any idea how to fix things.

One also can't help but suspect that Rice and Rumsfeld's overt backing for Maliki will only make the latter's job harder, not easier. Iraqis, as we've learned, aren't terribly keen on taking their marching orders from Washington: Only a year ago, Rumsfeld warned the Shiites not to purge the security forces of ex-Baathists, and yet they did just that. (UPDATE: See this story; some Shiites are already angry at the visit.)

Meanwhile, Spencer had a new piece up the other day noting that Iraq's new prime minister might not be the best person to reconcile the country after all — Maliki has been involved in nearly every move that's pissed off the Sunnis over the last few years. And in very related and very scary news, Shiite militiamen are moving into the oil-rich and Kurdish-dominated city of Kirkuk, ready to take the city back from the Kurds. One has to wonder whether even Rice and Rumsfeld believe that things are heading in a positive direction...

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Demagoguing on Gas Prices

| Thu Apr. 27, 2006 1:57 PM EDT

Over at Tapped, Matt Yglesias argues that the Democrats are doing the smart thing politically by proposing some ludicrous bill to lower gas prices this summer that Republicans will be forced to vote against. Maybe he's right. At the same time, there's a rather big dilemma here.

Oil prices are in all likelihood going to continue rising from now until whenever the oil runs out. And what's more, higher oil prices are, all things considered, a good thing—they'll spur people to use less gas and give everyone incentives to find alternatives to our oil-based economy that's literally burning up the earth. From that perspective, oil prices should actually be higher than they are now. Much higher. Ideally, Congress would levy gas taxes on everyone to hasten this process along, especially since we don't have a whole heap of time left before the carbon concentration levels in the atmosphere become irreversible.

But no one's proposing any such thing—because it's political suicide. And it's political suicide because the main narrative in Congress is that gas prices are somehow "too high," that they "should" be lower, and that it's somehow within Congress' power to make them lower (it's not). And that's the main narrative because it's always the "smart thing" politically to demagogue on this issue. Is this cycle somehow going to end if and when Democrats ever retake Congress? Probably not. Back in 1993 Democrats passed a 4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and... promptly lost power. Meanwhile...

Wounded soldiers return home to another fight--bill collectors

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 8:08 PM EDT

The Government Accountability Office is releasing a report tomrorrow that hundreds of American soldiers wounded in Iraq have had their debts turned over to collection agencies.

ABC News tells the story of Army specialist Tyson Johnson, who had just been promoted when a a mortar round exploded outside his tent, wounding him in the left kidney and the head. The injuries forced him out of the Army, which then demanded he repay an enlistment bonus of $2,700 because he had served only two-thirds of his tour. Johnson was unable to return the money, his account was turned over to a collection agency, and he ended up living in his car because of his bad credit record.

ABC also tells the story of Staff Sgt. Ryan Kelly, who lost his leg in a roadside bomb attack. The Army continued to pay him his $2,000 combat bonus pay while he was hospitalized, and then demanded that he give it back. Kelly says he was threatened with the propect of dealing with a collection agency and having a bad credit report.

Apparently, wounded soldiers are taken off of the battlefield quickly, and the payroll system is not designed to keep up with their change of status. The Army has decided to forgive the debts of soldiers such as Johnson and Kelly. This decision came after ABC aired a program about the issue in the fall of 2004, but according to Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, there may be many more soldiers who have to deal with debt collection because of the faulty system.

KBR in Iraq

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 7:01 PM EDT

If you haven't already seen it, I'd highly recommend James Glanz' piece in the New York Times on how KBR—of Halliburton subsidiary fame—botched a pipeline project in Iraq. It definitely gives a vivid sense of just how and why reconstruction has been such a travesty. Meanwhile, Daniel Gross reports in Slate that KBR really hasn't been profiting much off its Iraq contracts thus far, although given that the Bush administration is going to leave a fine legacy of global instability in its wake, the company will probably have ample opportunity to redeem itself and smart investors should buy stock. Or something.

Democrats Cozy Up to Wall Street

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 3:26 PM EDT

Here's a headline worth noting: "Democrats beat Republicans in 2005 Fund-Raising on Wall Street." My suspicion has always been that the Democratic Party has snuggled ever closer to the financial industry over the past decade partly because it's one of the few corporate sectors that doesn't conflict in an obvious way with any other major liberal interest group.

Democrats have to get corporate donations from somewhere, the thinking goes, and the financial sector doesn't usually clash overtly with labor unions. It's not part of the military-industrial complex. It doesn't pillage the environment. It screws over ordinary voters in opaque and non-obvious ways. What's not to like? Indeed, it's a pretty natural ally for a "liberal" party in dire need of campaign cash.

The downside is that a party that jumps in bed with the financial sector is going to end up backing the sorts of anti-progressive measures—from the recent bankruptcy bill, to financial deregulation, to inflation targeting by the Fed—that all strike me as just as malignant, if not more so, than, say, an energy company donating to Tom DeLay in exchange for the right to pollute or pour MTBE into our drinking water or whatever. And increasingly, the Democrats are doing just that. In some ways, it would almost be preferable if, say, Hillary Clinton was getting her money from ExxonMobil and Halliburton, rather than Citigroup and MetLife. (Okay, probably not, but you get my point…)

Ranks of Uninsured Growing

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 2:03 PM EDT

In case anyone was under the illusion that the health insurance situation is improving in this country, a recently-released Commonwealth Fund report sets things straight. 37 percent of low-income workers are currently uninsured, up from 33 percent in 2001. And the number of low-income workers who have gone without insurance at some point in the past year is 53 percent. This despite the fact that Medicaid is ostensibly supposed to help cover this group (it doesn't, of course, and has way too many gaps to be fully effective, but that's another story).

"Moderate income" workers, making between $20,000 and $40,000 a year, aren't doing too well either—the number of uninsured has risen from 17 percent five years ago to 28 percent today. And this all matters: more than half of all uninsured adults have debt or medical bill problems. 59 percent of uninsured adults with a chronic illness had to skip a treatment or a prescription. Those adults are much more likely to go to an emergency room than those with insurance. It's a crisis.

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The CIA's 1000 Undeclared Flights in Europe

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 1:55 PM EDT

One thing I've noticed while reading the coverage of the Mary McCarthy firing—who may or may not have been fired for leaking evidence that the CIA was running secret and illegal detention centers in Europe—is that most of the coverage has concentrated mostly on the leak itself, rather than the main issue at hand: the fact that the CIA is running a clandestine torture operation that many officers within the agency want no part of. At any rate, this AP story brings things back into focus:

European lawmakers said Wednesday they had discovered a "widespread regular practice" of human rights violations by the CIA in Europe….

They said they had also found that the CIA has conducted more than 1,000 undeclared flights over European territory since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — some carrying suspected terrorists to countries where they could face torture….

As of late December, some 100 to 150 people have been seized in "renditions" involving taking terror suspects off the street of one country and flying them to their home country or another where they are wanted for a crime or questioning. Government officials have said the action is reserved for those considered by the CIA to be the most serious terror suspects. Mistakes, however, have been made, and are being investigated by the CIA's inspector general.Mistakes have been made? That's a rather understated way of putting it.

Chernobyl, 20 years later

| Wed Apr. 26, 2006 1:48 PM EDT

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Photojournalist Lionel Delevingne is in Kiev, Ukraine for MotherJones.com, covering the commemorations. At the weekend he took a bus trip, laid on by the Ukrainian Ministry of Catastrophes, with a group of journalists and NGO activists, to the site of the disaster. A selection of photos below.

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Entering the 30km "Exclusion Zone" surrounding the disaster site. Entry and exit are strictly controlled by checkpoints like this one. Chernobyl is about 70 miles north of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

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A sign at the same checkpoint warns of the danger of entering the exclusion zone, which is highly contaminated by radioactive material.

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An aerial photo of the Chernobyl site at the Ukrainian Ministry of Catastrophes.

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The bus, carrying journalists and NGO activists supervised by Ukrainian government representatives, heads toward the disaster site in the center of the Exclusion Zone.

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Reactor number 4, where the explosion occurred on April 26, 1986. It has been encased in a concrete "sarcophagus" to contain radioactive material. Unfortunately, the structure was hastily built and is in danger of collapsing.

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Abandoned buildings in the "model town" of Pripyat, designed to house nuclear workers and their families.

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Although hundreds of thousands of people were permanently evacuated from their homes in the region surrounding the plant, some, like these, have insisted on returning, effectively becoming squatters in their former homes. About 38 people are thought to live in the highly contaminated Exclusion Zone.

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Boyar Erdokia and husband of the village of Illincy, in the Exclusion Zone. They insisted on returning to their former home.

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A woman who lives in the Exclusion Zone.

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Feodor Ivanovich, 78, of Illincy Village.

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A Soviet-era helicopter and buses used to evacuate residents at the time of the disaster sit in one of several "graveyards" in the Exclusion Zone. They are highly contaminated.

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A journalist contemplates the disaster site from the bus.

Can the Democrats Bust the Bolten Bubble?

| Tue Apr. 25, 2006 8:09 PM EDT

This week's Time magazine has a curious article that brings us into the still-clueless world of the White House. It seems that new advisor Josh Bolten has a bold five-point "recovery plan" for victory that includes such pointers as "Brag More." Yes, in the wake of a growing civil war in Iraq, the looming nuclear threat of Iran, chaos in the Medicare prescription drug plan and the criminal negligence of the Katrina response, what the President needs is some more of that good ol' Texas swagger. Along with pandering to his nativist anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant base and cutting more taxes to please Wall Street, the President could, even with his plunging job approval ratings, make things right again for his party and his tattered "legacy," Bolten believes. Call it the "Bolten bubble." Here are four of the big ideas on pandering they've cooked up, as reported by Time:

"The White House has no visions of expanding the G.O.P.'s position in the midterms; the mission is just to hold on to control of Congress by playing to the base. Here is the Bolten plan:

"1 DEPLOY GUNS AND BADGES. This is an unabashed play to members of the conservative base who are worried about illegal immigration. Under the banner of homeland security, the White House plans to seek more funding for an extremely visible enforcement crackdown at the Mexican border, including a beefed-up force of agents patrolling on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). "It'll be more guys with guns and badges," said a proponent of the plan. "Think of the visuals. The President can go down and meet with the new recruits. He can go down to the border and meet with a bunch of guys and go ride around on an ATV." Bush has long insisted he wants a guest-worker program paired with stricter border enforcement, but House Republicans have balked at temporary legalization for immigrants, so the President's ambition of using the issue to make the party more welcoming to Hispanics may have to wait.

French Unemployment Revisited

| Tue Apr. 25, 2006 4:24 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, I threw together some numbers and statistics suggesting that the French protesters might not be so misguided, and France-style labor protections might not cause high unemployment after all. Now David Howell and John Schmitt of EPI have a new paper getting into this in more depth.

The super-novel point here is that France's youth unemployment-to-population ratio (8.6) is actually nearly identical to that in the United States (8.3). France's "official" youth unemployment rate is higher primarily because very few French students enrolled in school actually work, while a lot of our college kids get jobs, so the ratio of unemployed youths to working youths is higher in France than it is here. Different numbers measure different things.

Now why do so few French high school and college students work? Maybe it's because they can't find jobs. Or maybe it's because they don't need to—their public universities are more heavily subsidized, after all. Interestingly, though, the percentage of 20 to 24-year-olds who aren't in school and are unemployed is actually a bit lower (14.1) than it is in the United States (14.4). That seems like the main number to worry about, and France seems to be doing okay on that front.

It's also worth noting that the share of young French adults still enrolled in education is much higher than it is in the United States (51.1 versus 35.0 percent). Again, whether that's because French kids like school or because they have no other options is up in the air. But even if it's because they have no other options, perhaps being "forced" to stay in school isn't so bad: According to OECD data, French workers are, on average, 6 to 16 percent more productive than American workers. Work less; study more—maybe that's the way to go.