Political MoJo

Constitutional Cheating in Iraq

| Tue Oct. 4, 2005 1:08 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that Shiite and Kurdish leaders in Iraq are now trying to make sure that the draft constitution—opposed by the Sunnis—can't possibly fail in its referendum this month:

Under the new rules, the constitution will fail only if two-thirds of all registered voters - rather than two-thirds of all those actually casting ballots - reject it in at least three of the 18 provinces.

The change, adopted during an unannounced vote in Parliament on Sunday afternoon, effectively raises the bar for those who oppose the constitution. Given that fewer than 60 percent of registered Iraqis voted in the January elections, the chances that two-thirds will both show up at the polls and vote against the document in three provinces would appear to be close to nil.

Now they just need to import a few Diebold machines and they'll be all set. No, but seriously, this entire constitutional process has become near hopeless. Ostensibly, it was supposed to reconcile Shiite and Sunni communities and avoid deepening the ongoing sectarian war between the two, and that's still what many American officials are aiming to do. In practice, however, the Shiites and Kurds have treated the constitution merely as a means of pressing the advantages they won in parliament after the January elections, and the United States has too often treated it as a means of de-legitimizing the insurgent movement (although Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has recently pushed to make the constitution more Sunni-friendly). Under the circumstances, then, it's no surprise that something like this would happen and the whole reconciling communities thing would just get lost by the wayside.

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Post Office Battles

Mon Oct. 3, 2005 9:09 PM EDT

Last week, House Republicans protested a proposal to name a post office in Berkeley after a former councilwoman and peace activist, Maudelle Shirek. Although most such proposals pass without comment, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) opposed the resolution, demanded an unusual roll-call vote, and rallied Republicans to shoot it down, denouncing the 94-year old Shirek as "un-American." Chip Johnson, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, noted that it was the first such rejection in history:

Shirek's supporters could make a pretty strong argument that she has done as much for Berkeley as Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Jay Hanna "Dizzy" Dean did for his hometown of Wiggins, Miss., or Chick Hearn did for the Los Angeles community of Encino, which honored the longtime voice of the Los Angeles Lakers with a post office in his name.

Defending his opposition to Shirek based on her "affiliation" with a Marxist library, King told the Chronicle, "I think that if Barbara Lee [a defender of Shirek's] would read the history of Joe McCarthy she would realize that he was a hero for America." Lee, who proposed the resolution, vowed to continue fighting for the dedication.

Tea Leaves on Miers

| Mon Oct. 3, 2005 4:21 PM EDT

To add to Ryan Lizza's dossier, which suggests that Miers supports the International Criminal Court, gay adoption, and hiking property taxes in her spare time, here are some random Nexis bits about the nominee, in a mostly-futile attempt to try to glean her opinions about various matters. The short answer: There's really not much to discover. Hearsay has it that she's reliably conservative, but she hasn't made much noise in that direction, at least publicly. First, a quote from her 2000, working for Locke Liddel and Sapp in Dallas, discussing the need for women-friendly workplaces:

Harriet Miers, co-managing partner of Locke Liddell and Sapp in Dallas, says firms need to adopt policies that are friendly to families to aid women who are pulled in many different directions. Those policies could include part-time employment, flex time, on-site child care or dependent-care assistance.

Way back in 1994, after she stepped down as president of the Texas Bar, she led the push to get the American Bar Association to adopt a neutrality stance on abortion. Texas Lawyer reported:

At the August 1993 meeting in New York, the neutrality advocates, led this time by Locke Purnell Rain Harrell partner Harriet Miers of Dallas, failed to set aside the abortion rights policy. They then shifted strategy and asked the ABA to poll all its members -- not just those in the House of Delegates -- on the abortion question.

She was pushing for this, as far as I can tell, in her capacity as a private citizen. This doesn't necessarily mean she's rabidly pro-life, but it's an inkling in that direction. Meanwhile, in 1993, here's Miers talking about the need for better court-appointed lawyers to defend death-penalty cases:

But Bar President Harriet Miers, a member of the ABA Journal's board of editors, said the state's reliance on volunteer lawyers in life and death matters is "unacceptable."

That's a liberal policy position, although I'm not sure if it was one you'd expect a Bar President to take up anyway. That year she was also supportive of rules to restrict lawyer advertising in the "public interest":

Harriet Miers of Dallas, 1992-93 Bar president, said she supports Morrison's proposed changes to the Bar's rules. "This is a very timely plan," she said. "Public concern about lawyer advertising is at an all- time high. I applaud Lonny Morrison for addressing the issue head-on and I'm confident that, with his leadership in the coming Bar year, we will succeed in getting a positive response from Texas attorneys to effect a change."

Not sure what that means, but there you go. As it happens, she was also supportive of rules regulating ambulance-chasing by lawyers; so either she's not averse to regulation or she's not averse to regulation of lawyers. By the way, a Houston Chronicle article from 1992 on lawyer jokes notes that Miers doesn't seem to mind them. So, uh, there. For the record, I think she's a terrible pick, but I can also see why conservatives are a bit uneasy right now.

MORE: Garance Franke-Ruta has other clips, including Miers' thoughts in 1992 on whether a president should ask a judicial nominee her thoughts on Roe vs. Wade: "Nominees are clearly prohibited from making such a commitment and presidents are prohibited from asking for it," and that people who want such commitments display "a misunderstanding of the separation of powers by proposing that judicial nominees should mirror a president's views." Interesting.

The War on Eco-Terror

| Mon Oct. 3, 2005 3:47 PM EDT

Kelly Hearn, a former UPI reporter, notes in an article on Alternet that the FBI is cracking down on eco-terrorism, which is fair enough, but that the federal government and various conservative groups are also pushing to expand the fight to include mainstream environmental groups and regular protestors. I don't really hold any brief for people who torch SUVs or firebomb McDonalds, but some of this seems ludicrous:

As the FBI works to shut down elusive and decentralized eco-terrorist networks, civil rights groups say agents are going so far as illegally spying on activists. In June, a federal disclosure lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union forced the FBI to admit having collected 2,400 pages of files on Greenpeace, the most vocal critic of the Bush administration's environmental record, in addition to other groups….

At a June hearing, [Larry Frankel, legislative director of the ACLU] told a Senate committee that under such a law "people who protest outside of an animal research facility and block the entrance to that facility may be considered eco-terrorists. On the other hand, people who protest outside of a weapons-manufacturing plant and block the entrance to that facility will not be subject to enhanced penalties even though they are engaged in essentially similar activities."

The main problem here seems to be that the Patriot Act's definition of terrorism—any dangerous activity that "appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion"—blurs the line between firebombing and standard protesting. Not to mention the fact that this is all a very transparent attempt to attack environmental groups; one hardly need condone eco-terrorism to point out that this is all extremely slimy.

UPDATE: Dave Roberts of Grist has more on this.

Loyalty Has Its Costs

Mon Oct. 3, 2005 3:09 PM EDT

My friend Agi. T. Prop writes today:

Harriet Miers will forever be known as the Michael Brown of the federal judiciary. If Michael Brown epitomized Bush-era cronyism in the executive branch, Miers--who has no judicial experience whatsoever--will be the holy beacon of cronyism in the judiciary. By nominating his own personal lawyer to the highest court in the land, Bush has proved that he still has some cojones.

Balls indeed.

While some are speculating that Miers is almost surely to be struck down and thus is merely a sacrificial lamb, others have pointed out that Bush simply has no respect for the intellectual standards of the Court.

Either way, the Miers nomination is a blow to ideological conservatives and George Bush's base, and that, we can only hope, will leave the Republican party demoralized as the 2006 elections approach.

Public Diplomacy

| Mon Oct. 3, 2005 2:52 PM EDT

In Slate, Fred Kaplan blasted Karen Hughes' "outreach" efforts in the Middle East, and yearned for the good old days of effective public diplomacy during the Cold War:

Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency ran a vast, independent public-diplomacy program in embassies all over the world—libraries, speakers' bureaus, concert tours by famous jazz musicians, and broadcasts of news and music on the Voice of America. Together, they conveyed an appealing image of a free, even boisterous, America in the face of an implacable, totalitarian Communist foe.

I'm not sure this is the best analogy. The main difference here is that during the Cold War, those on the other side of the Iron Curtain were largely closed off from Western culture, and the U.S. Information Agency merely had the task of bringing that culture to a largely receptive, albeit shuttered, audience. Radio broadcasts wafting into Eastern Europe acted, as Russian novelist Vassily Aksyonov put it, as "America's secret weapon number one."

Today, by contrast, the Islamic world can already, and very easily, receive its dose of Western culture—they can see it on TV, or on the internet, or read about it in magazines—and the problem is that many simply don't like what they see. To some extent Islamic anger towards the West comes as a result of opposition to the libertine, over-sexed Western programming they see on the air, rather than as a result of not seeing enough of it. As Egyptian journalist Abdel Wahab E. Elmessiri, recently quoted in the Wilson Quarterly, put it, "To know which direction we are heading, one should simply watch MTV." He didn't mean it in a good way. Ultimately, it's hard to think that the United States' current efforts at public and cultural diplomacy can make much headway here. Hughes' most important task, one would think, might well be to actually listen to—and not lecture—people in the Middle East and figure out what their grievances against the West actually are, rather than try to rehash the Cold War "hearts and minds" campaign.

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Why Miers?

| Mon Oct. 3, 2005 12:43 PM EDT

So Harriet Miers is the new Supreme Court nominee. Conservatives seem wholly unhappy with this pick. So what was the rationale? Given that she's currently White House counsel, I'm guessing Bush wanted someone who agrees with his own dictatorial view of presidential powers in wartime. I suggested a few weeks ago that Bush would never pick Gonzales for this spot, because then both he and Roberts would have to recuse themselves in an upcoming and fairly crucial case on detainee matters, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which would leave the fate of Bush's "war on terror" powers in the hands of a pseudo-liberal majority. Nuh-uh. Hence Miers. This seems like an awfully bizarre reason to choose Miers—who is otherwise fairly unqualified—but I can't really see any other. Unless Bush just likes Texans.

Meanwhile, David Frum makes a pretty persuasive point here:

But here is what we do know: the pressures on a Supreme Court justice to shift leftward are intense. There is the negative pressure of the vicious, hostile press that legal conservatives must endure. And there are the sweet little inducements - the flattery, the invitations to conferences in Austria and Italy, the lectureships at Yale and Harvard - that come to judges who soften and crumble. Harriet Miers is a taut, nervous, anxious personality. It is impossible to me to imagine that she can endure the anger and abuse - or resist the blandishments - that transformed, say, Anthony Kennedy into the judge he is today.

Well I don't think that's conspiratorial at all; read Jeffrey Toobin's old profile of Anthony Kennedy in the New Yorker and you get a sense that something like that really does go on. But hey, if the last few bastions of pseudo-liberalism—the press, the universities, the foreigners—can't influence American public opinion, at least they can influence the judges. Still, whatever leftward shifts may come, it does seem that Miers could do lasting damage to the Constitution in her first few years by giving the president the ability to declare whoever he feels like an "enemy combatant," and hold 'em without trial. Also, the elite "pressures on a Supreme Court justice to shift leftward" usually don't include pressure to shift leftward on economic and worker issues: the so-called "liberals" on the court, like Stephen Breyer, are still remarkably business-friendly. That's not to say anyone should be happy with Miers, least of all liberals, but it does seem like Bush isn't pushing this court as far to the right as he, in theory, could have.

And I wonder, wonder who...who wrote The Book of Virtues

| Fri Sep. 30, 2005 4:16 PM EDT

Bill Bennett, America's former "morality czar" and author of The Book of Virtues, spoke frankly today in a remark he made on his radio program, "Bill Bennett's Morning in America." In response to a caller who wanted to talk about an assertion made in the book, Freakonomics, that the crime rate is down partly because abortion rates have increased:

But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.

Both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and the NAACP rushed to demand an apology from Bennett, and Bennett quickly responded by saying that he was using the scenario of aborting black babies to explain that opposing abortion for economic reasons was as wrong as opposing it for reasons related to racism. That is indeed exactly what Bennett was doing--I'll give him that--context is everything.

But though I accept Bennett's explanation of context, I have to ask: Of all the things he could have said by way of example, why did he choose to say something so totally inflammatory? He could just as well have said "You could abort every fetus (it didn't go by me that he said "baby") in high-crime cities, and your crime rate would go down...." But he didn't. He said "black baby." There is no way to get around his selection of a particular race in constructing his example. The metaphor excuse goes only so far.

Bennett, a peculiar kind of morals maven, is a compulsive gambler. It is very unusual for someone with a compulsive gambling habit to escape doing harm to his family, but Bennett insists that he didn't. At any rate, the revelation about his gambling doesn't seem to have hurt him in conservative circles, just as the revelation of Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction didn't hurt him. And I doubt that Bennett's suddenly finding that the only rhetorical example available to him was "black baby" will cause him to lose his status as the conservative steward of our morals.

Exit Strategies

| Fri Sep. 30, 2005 3:21 PM EDT

The latest "secret" military plan for Iraq, apparently just approved by Gen. George W. Casey, is suitable cryptic, but the following seem to be the main points, judging from an Inside the Pentagon interview with officials who reviewed the plan:

  • The military is planning for a wide range of changes the number of military personnel in Iraq between now and spring of 2006, from slightly increasing the Army to, in the most wildly optimistic scenario, bringing home 70,000 troops.
  • It will, however, be almost impossible to sustain the current force through 2006.
  • There's no set timetable for withdrawal. The conditions for reduction will include "the state of the insurgency, the capability of Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi government's ability to support military operations," to be determined by a "multinational advisory panel."
  • "[S]ome defense analysts" think that "phasing troop reductions over the long term" is the best way to avoid instability.
  • How long term? "Some estimates" think the Pentagon will retain at least 20,000 military personnel in Iraq for perhaps a decade or more.
  • Seeing as how training the Iraqi Army doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, this likely means staying for a long, long time. The alternative, it seems, is the Center for American Progress' recently-released "progressive" proposal to withdraw 80,000 troops by the end of 2006—no matter what—and then… deploy them elsewhere around the world. Because, really, the most sensible way to withdraw from Iraq is to get entangled in yet another quagmire. No, but seriously, is there any reason to think that putting 1,000 more troops in the Philippines, as CAP proposes, is a good idea? Is the plan to invade Mindano province and wipe out Abu Sayyaf? Maybe we can broaden the war to the MNLF and other Islamic separatist groups too? Should be fun, I'll make popcorn.

    Lost in Translation

    | Fri Sep. 30, 2005 2:28 PM EDT

    This is a few days late, but in the Washington Post last week, Tong Kim had a fascinating article on the ways in which mistranslations and misinterpretations of language led to confusion between the United States and North Korea, during their haggling over the latter's nuclear program:

    For example, the statement issued in Beijing defined the goal of the six-party talks as "the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," which could allow the Pyongyang regime to link inspections in the North to demands that South Korea, as part of the "Korean peninsula," also be subject to verification -- which I'm certain is not what Seoul had in mind. North Korea made a commitment to "abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" -- but its translation used the Korean verb pogi hada, which could be interpreted to mean leaving the weapons in place rather than dismantling them. And what exactly did the United States mean when it agreed to help North Korea obtain a nuclear energy reactor at an "appropriate time"? Somewhere between yesterday and never, no doubt…

    The words are hard enough to decipher. They come with traditions, hang-ups and history. Often the North Koreans deliberately choose ambiguous expressions. Until they revealed their alleged possession of nuclear weapons last February, their term for "nuclear deterrent" connoted a "nuclear capability" but didn't spell that out. It could mean nuclear weapons, or technology, or fissile material or processing facilities -- or all of these. To make matters worse, the North's interpreter repeatedly and incorrectly translated the Korean word for deterrent, okjeryok, as restraint. When pressed about the uranium enrichment program, a North Korean official said that Pyongyang was "bound to produce more powerful weapons than that." The North Korean interpreter translated the Korean phrase mandlgiro deo itta as "entitled to." If you're entitled to do something, you have a right that you may or may not exercise. But the Korean phrase really means that you're going to do it -- not just that you have the option.

    In the same edition, the Post's Glenn Kessler went through the recent agreement line-by-line, hashing out the various ambiguities in the text. Short version: It turns out there's a lot more wiggle room—for both North Korea and the United States—then early reports suggested, which doesn't exactly make one optimistic that this deal will hold.