Political MoJo

Counting the dead in Iraq

| Tue Dec. 13, 2005 10:41 AM EST

For the first time, George W. Bush has announced to the American people the approximate number of Iraqi civilians killed since the beginning of the war. 30,000, more or less, is the number he used, and that number is certainly enough to provide reason to grieve for the families of the victims, and for the nation at large. But is 30,000 an accurate number? Many do not think so.

The Lancet Study, conducted by the medical journal and led by a staff member of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, extrapolated a total of approximately 100,000 dead from its research. Last fall, when the Lancet Study was published, another group, Iraq Body Count, put the estimate at around 15,000, and today, its website indicates a maximum number of 30,892. Iraq Body Count is composed of activists and academicians, and is a respected group.

The Lancet study has been criticized for including all "excess deaths," from illness and accident. A larger criticism was that the researchers drew heavily on the population of war-ravaged Falluja, thereby spiking the projected numbers beyond reason. On the other hand, the Iraq Body Count study, which requires a death to be overtly connected to war violence, uses a death count only if it has been confirmed by two independent news organizations. The Iraq Body Count group acknowledges that many, if not most, of the deaths go unreported by the media, and therefore the actual number of Iraqi dead is likely to be much higher than what it is reporting.

Though we do not know--and will most likely never know--the number of Iraqi civilians who have died in the war, it seems clear that the current number of 30,000 is inaccurate, and perhaps very inaccurate. General Tommy Franks' now famous statement, "We don't do body counts," has turned out to be true in more ways than one. Not only do we not have an accurate count, but--more significant, perhaps--the American news media does not even talk about the deaths of Iraqi civilians. Anti-war rhetoric also often excludes Iraqi civilian deaths, and concentrates only on the deaths of American soldiers. To complicate matters even more, there is the additional task of figuring which of the Iraqi casualities are the result of action by U.S. forces, and which are the result of the activities of insurgents.

It will be interesting to see what kind of public discussion Bush's statement on 30,000 deaths produces.

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Daddy, what did you do in the War on Christmas?

| Mon Dec. 12, 2005 7:05 PM EST

I have written before that certain Christians have taken Christ out of Xmas and then blamed the rest of us for taking Christ out of Christmas, and I have also written about the insanity of certain Christians focusing on what Wal-Mart clerks say during the holiday season, rather than on the decidedly non-Christian way that Wal-Mart conducts business.

Now we are told that liberals are waging a War on Christmas, but none of the liberals I know has enlisted or taken up arms. I am all for inclusion, and believe that Muslims and Jews should have their holidays respected, that Kwaanza should be acknowledged, and that Buddhist, Hindu, athiest, agnostic, Unitarian, and other festivus-for-the-rest-of-us citizens do not need for others to assume that they are Christian.

The argument that these particular Christians make is that since 76% of Americans claim to be Christian, the other 24% need to go along with "Merry Christmas," manger scenes in public places, and public school Christmas pageants. It is an interesting issue because most secular people (for lack of a better term) observe Christmas. They decorate Christmas trees, exchange Christmas gifts, and send Christmas cards. Like it or not, Christmas has become a holiday for Christians and non-Christians alike.

There is a difference, however, between decorating a tree and doing a play about a Bible story. Though I personally wish to fight no war against Christmas, I will fight one to preserve the separation of church and state. Christmas pageants are for Christian churches, as are manger scenes. I figure the rest of us have a right to celebrate a more secular Christmas. After all, historians are sure that Jesus was not born on December 25. And people from all parts of the world were celebrating right after the winter solstice--complete with yule log, evergreen tree, holly, and mistletoe--for centuries before Jesus was born. The early Christians simply took a holiday that already existed and tacked Christmas onto it. One would be justified, in fact, in saying that Christians have appropriated a traditional holiday, made it their own, and forced it on everyone else.

Bill O'Reilly, a general in the fight against the War on Christmas, tells us that a lot is at stake--that the War on Christmas is part of a "secular aggressive agenda" that includes "legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage." All that from "Happy Holidays." Fox news anchor John Gibson has even written a book called The War On Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought. O'Reilly has listed on his website a variety of retail outlets and how they are using, or not using, the word "Christmas," so that his disciples will know where to shop. Jerry Falwell has threatened to file suit against any organization that spreads false information about how schools and public organizations can say about Christmas.

This is, of course, the new way of fighting in America. Declare war on some entity and then swear that that entity has delared war on you. The idea that American Christians--who own the White House, Congress, the FCC, and the so-called War on Terror--are a persecuted group is enough to make me wade into a tub of eggnog.

Reform or Deform in Connecticut

Mon Dec. 12, 2005 6:13 PM EST

Last week Connecticut's governor signed a major campaign finance reform bill into law. Most good government groups rejoiced at the step.

But others are upset that the Connecticut bill favors major party candidates. Any Democratic or Republican candidate for the State House or Senate (or the governorship) qualifies for significant public financing once he or she demonstrates his or her viability by raising a small amount of seed money. But candidates running on other ballot lines will have to jump through an additional hurdle, and collect signatures equal to 20 perecnt of the total votes cast in the last race for the office they seek. For the governor's race, that would mean more than 200,000 signatures—a pretty substantial hurdle.

The bill's authors argue that the additional requirement is necessary to prevent vanity candidates and candidates without a realistic shot at office from garnering state funds. But it smacks of discrimination and insider back-slapping to Lowell Weicker, an ex-Republican Senator who turned Independent before ascending to the governorship. He bitterly complained that the bill was written in a way that favored republican and democratic candidates, and is at work on a constitutional challenge to those provisions of the law. Former Congressman John Anderson, who ran for president as an independent in 1980, had a letter to the editor in Friday's New York Times making similar points about the Nutmeg State's new law:

But lawmakers should be ashamed of the prospective law's appalling and likely unconstitutional provisions to prevent independent candidates from securing public financing. …[L]egislators seem too fearful of independents and third parties to provide them with an equal opportunity to secure financing.

A strong two-party system cannot rest upon denying the ability of independents to hold the major parties accountable.

Minnesota's modest public financing laws go a long way towards explaining how then Reform party candidate Jesse Ventura was able to take that state's governorship without well heeled supporters. Say what you will about his governing record or political beliefs, but it would be impossible to deny that his election was one of the most exciting—and little-d democratic moments—in American politics of the last decade. Arizona and Maine are the two states with the most fully developed state-level public financing mechanisms, with Vermont not that far behind. All three give equal access to the funds regardless of the candidate's party. While its not saying much, it's probably not a coincidence that the latter two have the most fully developed progressive third parties anywhere in the nation.

Arms Control and Iran

| Mon Dec. 12, 2005 5:58 PM EST

Oh good, the eternal question: What to do about Iran's nuclear program? Kevin Drum picks up reports that Israel is considering air strikes against Iran's facilities to stop the program, and thinks it's unlikely. That's probably true: A while back Kenneth Pollack pointed out to me that it's not even clear that Israel can conduct days or weeks worth of bombing raids from 1000 miles away, unless its pilots are allowed to refuel their jets over Iraq with our permission—in which case the U.S. might as well bomb Iran itself. My guess is that the Israeli government keeps leaking these stories to spur the EU and United States into keeping pressure on Tehran, and isn't actually serious, but who knows?

At any rate, going to war with Tehran sounds like a terrible idea, but so long as analysts are convinced that a nuclear-armed Iran would start setting off bombs all over the region and annihilate Israel at the first opportunity, then of course people will think that the benefits outweigh the costs here. But honestly, why would Iran do that? If for some reason Khamene'i, Rafsanjani, and the rest of the Tehran leadership really were bored with living and really did want their country incinerated by retaliatory nuclear fire, there are plenty of ways they could make that happen right now. But odds are they want no such thing.

For the record, I think it would be a bad thing if Iran got nuclear weapons. It's a bad thing when anyone gets nuclear weapons. It's a bad thing that the United States has nuclear weapons—or France, or Russia, or Israel. They're horrific weapons, and even the slightest risk that someone might detonate one again is unacceptable. But that goes for everyone. Ideally the U.S. would recognize this and get serous about global arms control. Bennett Ramberg, a State Department official in Bush's first term, has laid out a proposal for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, which would include disarming Israel and Iran. There might be practical problems with Ramberg's plan, but for once it would be nice to see world leaders take this sort of approach to disarmament.

The Bush administration, by contrast, has few grown-ups on this subject. As one defense expert close to the administration told William Potter, the current White House has reversed the Clinton administration's "undifferentiated concern about proliferation" with one that "is not afraid to distinguish between friends and foes." In other words, there are "good" proliferators, like India and Israel, and "bad" ones, like Iran. The former can build away, but the latter need to be stopped at all costs. To put it lightly, that's insane. Among other things, it ignores the fact that today's friends are often tomorrow's foe. The goal has to be a universal reduction in nuclear weapons, by multilateral means—as has been done with the NPT for the past 30 years.

Arms control treaties may have their flaws—although the NPT has worked much better than people think—but in the end, something like it is the only practical "solution" for Iran in the long run. If the U.S. fears the possibility that Iran might develop nuclear weapons, then eventually it will need IAEA inspectors in the country under an NPT regime to make sure that doesn't happen. There's no getting around this. Even after an air-strikes against Iran, inspectors would still be needed to make sure the program doesn't reappear (after all, Saddam Hussein quickly ramped up his nuclear program after the Osirak raid). Unless the U.S. plans on bombing Iran every few years, the arms-control treaty route is the way to go. But getting there requires so many steps—a détente between Washington and Tehran, and probably the U.S. releasing its grip on the Middle East—that it seems unlikely.

MORE: Here's yet another "pacifist" proposal for dealing with Iran: Jack Boureston and Charles Ferguson argue that the United States should offer to help Tehran with its current, perfectly-legal, nuclear program, in order to improve the safeguards and monitoring. Seems worth a look.

Where Are the FOIA Requests?

Mon Dec. 12, 2005 5:53 PM EST

David Corn's recentprofile of the National Security Archive (the George Washington University-affiliated project that more so than any other entity, has used the Freedom of Information Act to bring hidden documents to light) reminded me of a small piece in Editor & Publisher last month. The article ran down the list of the media organizations who targeted themost FOIA requests at the Pentagon over the last 5 years:

The AP filed 73 such requests, followed by the Los Angeles Times with 42 and Washington Post with 34. Trailing far behind among major newspapers was the New York Times with 21, USA Today with nine and the Wall Street Journal with six. …

On the TV side, CBS News led with 32 queries; Fox News followed with 22; and NBC with 21. CNN made just 11 inquiries.

Even if totaled up, that's very skimpy compared to the National Security Archive's record of 895 requests during the same period. Why is this? Of course, the mission of the Archive is devoted almost exclusively to filing FOIA requests. But in an era when so government actions (prisoner renditions, terrorist task forces—hell, even regulations requiring you to present ID at the airport) are conducted in secrecy, you'd think journalists would be making better use of this tool.

Off the top of my head, I think of a couple of big FOIA media moments over the last few years that only came to be because of the actions of non-media organizations—like the ACLU's ongoing torture FOIA battles or Russ Kick's photos from the Dover mortuary. Eric Umansky went a long way towards explaining the gaps in this Slate piece. As not so surprisingly turns out to be the case, media organizations are reluctant to use FOIA because, well, it's really, really hard. Requests can take years to fill, or spawn long, drawn out lawsuits. And of course, that takes money and time—two related things that are getting rarer and rarer in journalism. It seems we have another thread here in the story of the decline of investigative reporting.

Tasers and the Future of War

| Fri Dec. 9, 2005 8:42 PM EST

Shakespeare's Sister points to a vaguely humorous story about a police officer who Taser'ed his partner in the leg during a dispute over whether or not to stop for soft drinks. This isn't exactly Aesop's fables, but there is a moral here regarding supposedly "non-lethal" forms of weaponry. In theory, they're supposed to prevent situations from escalating the point where deadly force is required -- giving law enforcement intermediate options. But in practice "non-lethal" forms of weaponry often end up substituting for talking or other non-coercive methods of interacting with people.

The numbers tell the story: In Phoenix in 2003, the introduction of Tasers reduced the number of people killed by police from 13 to 9. But there was a 22 percent increase in the number of incidents where policed used force (160 more incidents). A similar thing happened in Cincinnati—more force, but fewer deaths—and a monitor found that police often used Tasers as an option of "first resort." In 2004, Amnesty International reported that Tasers are often used against people who pose no serious threat (unruly schoolchildren, for instance).

That's all well-known. It gets more important to think about this in a military and foreign policy context. The Pentagon is in the midst of developing a whole array of new "non-lethal" weapons to control crowds: tasers, stun devices, heat rays, decibel blasters. On one level, this all seems reasonable: so long as the U.S. is going to continue its vast empire around the world, as seems inevitable, and do a lot of peacekeeping and nation-building, then it's better that soldiers have "non-lethal" weapons to manage crowds than firing assault rifles every which way. But that's only one consideration. The other is that "non-lethal"—stun guns and the like—could start being substituted for old-fashioned diplomacy, and become options of "first resort". Here's an illustrative anecdote by Carl Canetta:

In April 2003, a company of the 101st Airborne Division used innovative tactics to defuse a potential confrontation with a hostile crowd outside a Shiite holy site in Najaf. The crowd mistakenly thought the soldiers were about to storm the Tomb of Ali. As tensions escalated, the unit commander, Colonel Chris Hughes, had his troops go down on one knee before the crowd, point their weapons at the ground, and smile. After five minutes, he had the troops walk slowly back to their base, instructing them to point their guns at no one, but to smile at everyone. Reportedly, the Iraqis then intermingled with the troops, patting them on the back and giving them thumbs-up signs. In the early days of the war, British troops used similar tactics to defuse potential confrontations in Basra.

More than tactically clever, this approach is consistent with a campaign strategy that puts a premium on building popular consensus and cooperation, which is pivotal to the success of peace, stability, and humanitarian operations. Of course, use of a "pain ray" to disperse the crowd would have been quicker and less risky for the troops. But it probably would have had a distinctly detrimental effect at the strategic level, undermining relations between the US mission and the Shia majority in Iraq. Right, exactly. The same scrutiny should be applied to any military technology that promises "non-lethal"—or even more dubiously, "slightly less lethal" techniques. Will future weapons of war be able to reduce casualties as promised? Hopefully. But perhaps not always. The Pentagon has been developing "precision targeting" for years, in order to minimize civilian casualties when it starts bombing other countries. Fair enough. But the catch is that while each individual bomb may produce less collateral damage nowadays, the military has also begun targeting a greater number of sites, including targets it might have considered out of reach before, like "dual-use" sites. These two trends can easily cancel each other out.

I forget the citation, but an arms control expert once pointed out that the number of casualties, including civilians, in the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003—some 11,000 to 15,000 dead—was very comparable to that from other modern wars with similar numbers of combatants and timeframes. That includes the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, the 1965 and 1971 Indian-Pakistan wars, and the conventional phase of the 1978 Vietnamese-Cambodian war.

That puts things into stark relief, I'd say. War isn't more "humane" today then it was 40 years ago, and supposed improvements like "precision targeting" won't necessarily improve things from a humanitarian point of view. What advances in weaponry will do is help to reduce American casualties, which is good, but depending on how you think about it, could have the side-effect of making the American public more likely to support war. So there's every reason to be skeptical of new military technology that promises "non-lethal" or "less lethal" forms of war.

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The World's Toxic Waste Dump

| Fri Dec. 9, 2005 3:56 PM EST

The German weekly Der Spiegel has a fantastic article on the environmental train wreck that is China. Some alarming statistics: at least 350 Chinese die each day from industrial accidents (the true figure is probably much higher); more than 360 million Chinese have no access to clean drinking water; and 400,000 people die prematurely each year because of pollution. Meanwhile, over at Robert Scheer's new site, Orville Schell has a smart piece debating whether environmental problems will really end up derailing China's rapid growth.

The "Small Business" Obsession

| Fri Dec. 9, 2005 2:19 PM EST

Stacy Mitchell's piece on Wal-Mart makes plenty of decent points—certainly it would be nice if local zoning boards didn't kowtow to corporations at every turn, for instance—but her paean to small businesses in this paragraph looks like a sacred cow ripe for the gutting:

We've lost tens of thousands of independent businesses over the last decade and, with them, an important part of the fabric of American life. Small businesses contribute significantly to the vitality of local economies. They nurture social capital, disperse wealth and vest decision-making in local communities rather than corporate headquarters. They are the means by which generations of families have pulled themselves into the middle class.
It seems like the only thing you can ever get anti-globalization activists and the Chamber of Commerce to agree on is the unimpeachable virtue of small business. Now they may well "nurture social capital, disperse wealth, and vest-decision making in local communities." That's possible. But small businesses also tend to pay their workers less, offer fewer benefits, are much, much harder for unions to organize, and are often more dangerous places to work. They're rarely more innovative, and they aren't the really the "motor" behind job growth in America—at least in manufacturing, a Federal Reserve Board study done in 1997 found that "net job creation… displays no systematic relationship to employer size," and big firms tend to create more durable jobs, partly because they engage in more "planning," that old socialist bugbear.

The point isn't to pile on small businesses—they're great and many obviously have advantages over monstrous corporations, especially for their owners. Would that everyone could be his or her own boss. But some of the enthusiasm here ought to be tempered, I think. Especially since the pagan god of small business gets invoked every single time a progressive policy idea comes gurgling out of the faucet. "No, we can't raise taxes, it will hurt small businesses." "No, we can't have national health care, it will hurt small businesses."

Bolton now whining about criticism of war on terror

| Thu Dec. 8, 2005 9:40 PM EST

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said yesterday that the U.S.-led war on terror has undermined the global ban on torture. Her statement did not go over well with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who called Arbour's statement "inappropriate and illegitimate." U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's spokesman said that Annan wants to take the matter up with Bolton as soon as possible.

In the meantime, Media Matters for America reports that the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post all reported Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's assertion that the U.S. does not permit or condone torture without placing her statement in the context of our nation's extremely narrow definition of "torture." In fact, the United States' definition of torture is at odds with international standards, and violates the U.N.'s Convention Against Torture.

The Heretik asks "why the Bush administration continues to review its treaty obligations as optional," and also provides us with a good roundup of what is being said by people who are not fooled by Bolton's and Rice's fingers-crossed rhetoric.

Lawsuit Over Extraordinary Rendition

Thu Dec. 8, 2005 8:25 PM EST

Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, has filed a lawsuit against former CIA Director, George Tenet, over his "extraordinary rendition" between December 31, 2003 and May 28, 2004. El-Masrim alleges that he was kidnapped in Macedonia and brought to Afghanistan, where for five months he was held incommunicado without being formally charged in an American detention facility, where officials beat, drugged, and sexually abused him.

He writes, in his statement to the American Civil Liberties Union, that after a hunger strike of 27 days:

I pleaded with them to either release me or bring me to court, but the American prison director replied that he could not release me without permission from Washington, but said that I should not be detained in the prison.
The lawsuit charges that the CIA had realized it had abducted the wrong man under extreme conditions of illegal "extraordinary rendition" practices and that Tenet was informed of the mistake, but despite this the CIA continued holding El-Masrim for two more months.

Though he was released without charges—as he describes, dropped off on a Macedonian hillside with a warning to keep the involvement of his American captors a secret—he was still unable to enter the US this week. Visiting for the public announcement of his lawsuit, he arrived at the Atlanta airport last Saturday only to be refused admittance and sent back to Germany.

The Department of Justice is reviewing the allegations, filed as El-Masri v. Tenet.

While the Justice Department is at it, it might as well review the autopsies of 44 detainees who died in US custody, compiled by the ACLU—comprising a gruesome list of physical evidence of abuse, and suggest consistent tactics at various detention facilities, including in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Baghdad. Although, in its infamous August 2002 memo, the Justice Department indicated that it would not consider as torture interrogation methods just short of "organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death," the marks from the autopsies indicate the government has crossed even that "loose" definition of torture.