Political MoJo

Endless Cycle

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 2:25 PM EDT

Over at the New Republic's now-defunct &c. blog, Spencer Ackerman observes that the U.S. is now even further away from training the new security force in Iraq than it used to be. The problem is that, while the training itself is going decently, the semi-independent Iraqi government now needs even more troops—325,000 rather than its previous estimate of 275,000—to counter an insurgency that continues to grow. (And in all likelihood there's still room for the insurgency to expand even further; see John Robb's figures.)

Although there's got to be an upper limit here, it's not too implausible to expect an endless spiral of this sort over the next few years: the U.S. can't get the new Iraqi army fully trained because the requirements keep moving upwards, which means that American troops stay for longer, helping to swell the insurgency even further, and meanwhile the predominantly Shiite-and-Kurdish army have just enough presence to antagonize Sunni Iraqis but not enough presence to maintain law and order and defeat the insurgency, so the requirements for the new Iraqi security forces go up yet again. One would hope this doesn't actually happen but it certainly seems to be the trend so far.

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Body Counts

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 2:12 PM EDT

The Washington Post reports today that an old Vietnam-era practice is making a comeback in Iraq:

Eager to demonstrate success in Iraq, the U.S. military has abandoned its previous refusal to publicize enemy body counts and now cites such numbers periodically to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations.

The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon's leadership. Now we've known that the military has been using body counts as a metric of success in Iraq since Newsweek's Christopher Dickey reported it back in May of this year. But all trends seem to suggest that this is now the formal answer to Donald Rumsfeld's concern, in a memo he wrote in October 2003:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?
Just count the corpses, maybe. William Arkin recently reported that the Pentagon is planning to unveil new "metrics software" that will try to break these questions down into raw numbers and "calculate" success. Better than having no metrics at all, one would imagine, but Arkin sees shades of Vietnam: "Commanders and analysts will be pushed to produce the right numbers to show 'progress.' Units will be mandated to 'report' measurable data lest progress is not being properly shown." Or, as Conrad Crane, director of the military history institute at the U.S. Army War College, put it somewhat more pithily, "[T]he numbers got so wrapped up with career aspirations that they were sometimes falsified."

But that's sort of the least of the concerns here. The evidence is also good that worshipping at the altar of body counts actually increased the number of civilian atrocities in Vietnam, as suggested in the Toledo Blade's 2003 investigation of the elite "Tiger Force" platoon, which ended up going insane and killing everything that moved:

After arriving, the battalion - including Tiger Force - moved to the Song Ve Valley, a remote, fertile basin in the center of the province. The goal of the military was to stop the 5,000 inhabitants from growing rice - food that could feed the enemy. But with deep ties to the land, many villagers refused to leave. That's when Tiger Force members joined other battalion soldiers in what became a grisly routine: Shooting villagers who stayed in their hamlets.

Mr. Stout said commanders were counting the executed civilians as enemy soldiers to help boost "body count." In Vietnam, the measure of success was the number of enemy soldiers killed - not the taking of land, say military historians. Mr. Stout said in July he spotted a sign posted in a command center in the valley with a tally of the dead enemy soldiers: 600. But the numbers of weapons seized totaled only 11. "Most of the dead people were civilians."
There's no reason to think that soldiers in Iraq are currently shooting up civilians to foster the illusion of success, but frankly, this isn't the sort of possibility you really want to flirt with. The Pentagon from all appearances still doesn't keep track of Iraqi civilian casualties in the country, and it isn't exactly meticulous in sorting out who was actually killed in this or that latest bombing raid.

Bush campaign paid large fees to Harriet Miers' law firm

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 11:37 PM EDT

George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaigns paid $163,000 to the Texas law firm of Locke, Purnell, Rain and Harrell during 1998 and 1999. At the time, U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Harriet Miers worked for Locke, Purnell, which later merged with another firm to create Locke, Liddell & Sapp. The White House, citing attorney-client privilege, refuses to release details about the legal work done for Bush.

In 1998, two payments of $70,000 each were made within a month of each other. Legal fees for Bush's 2000 presidential campaign amounted to $365,000, and the total for his 2004 campaign was $191,000. A White House spokeswoman called the 1998 Locke, Purnell work "routine campaign work," but did not provide any details.

The $163,000 legal fee is considered extremely high for a gubertorial election campaign, and there is concern that some of Miers' work was directly related to the disposition of Bush's military records.

Conquering the CIA

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 2:03 PM EDT

David Ignatius reports on the state of intelligence reform over the past year. His verdict: It's going "only partly right." Bureaucracy is multiplying everywhere you look, the new CIA director, Porter Goss, has brought in his political allies and driven out highly-skilled career top officers, and the new Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, despite showing good management skills, seems inclined at times to politicize the intelligence process. Not a good sign.

I guess the alternative, more Bush-friendly way to spin this would be that Goss is finally cleaning up a dysfunctional agency that has constantly been at war with the president. The problem with that view, is that, at least over the last four years, as wrong as the CIA has been, they've always been much less wrong than the White House and its hawkish allies in the Pentagon (on Iraq in particular), and those skirmishes were at least partly warranted. Since the days of Team B conservatives have always loathed the agency for producing what they saw as too-watery threat analyses—never mind if they were correct in the end—and the early signs seem to be that Goss is continuing that trend.That's not quite the same thing as "cleaning up" a dysfunctional agency.

Anti-Torture Amendment Wavering

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 1:37 PM EDT

A new human rights report will be released soon, revealing a whole barrel full of bad apples: "More than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody since 2002, Human Rights First research in a soon to be released report indicates, including 27 cases the Army has to date identified as suspected or confirmed homicides, and at least seven cases in which detainees were tortured to death. The findings come as chairmen and ranking members of a House/Senate Conference Committee are scheduled to meet next week to determine whether to include in a defense appropriations bill an amendment setting clear rules for U.S. interrogation policy to prohibit abusive treatment."

Meanwhile, with regards to the above-mentioned McCain amendment, which sets guidelines for interrogations, Marty Lederman recently pointed out that politicians opposed to any and all restrictions on torture—including Dick Cheney and his congressional allies—will soon try to water down the bill by exempting the CIA from its provisions. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) has already tried to steer the bill in this direction, and we can expect more along those lines. As it stands now, the McCain amendment is couched in fairly general language, and wouldn't prevent all detainee abuse—the Pentagon could always reword its Army manual to get around many of the restrictions—but the changes and exemptions Stevens wants would essentially give an explicit green light to the CIA's interrogation tactics, and would for the first time put the congressional seal of approval on the administration's views on torture.

One More Time...

| Thu Oct. 20, 2005 8:10 PM EDT

Unbelievable:

In the midst of the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official in New Orleans sent a dire e-mail to Director Michael Brown saying victims had no food and were dying. No response came from Brown.

Instead, less than three hours later, an aide to Brown sent an e-mail saying her boss wanted to go on a television program that night — after needing at least an hour to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge, La., restaurant.

The e-mails were made public Thursday at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing featuring Marty Bahamonde, the first agency official to arrive in New Orleans in advance of the Aug. 29 storm. The hurricane killed more than 1,200 people and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate.Oy. Judging from the emails, Michael Brown was much, much worse than anyone thought. (And we thought it was pretty bad.) Meanwhile, a piece by Richard Clarke in the Atlantic Monthly gets at the point regarding the dismal response to Katrina:

Imagine if, in advance of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of trucks had been waiting with water and ice and medicine and other supplies. Imagine if 4,000 National Guardsmen and an equal number of emergency aid workers from around the country had been moved into place, and five million meals had been ready to serve. Imagine if scores of mobile satellite-communications stations had been prepared to move in instantly, ensuring that rescuers could talk to one another. Imagine if all this had been managed by a federal-and-state task force that not only directed the government response but also helped coordinate the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other outside groups.

Actually, this requires no imagination: it is exactly what the Bush administration did a year ago when Florida braced for Hurricane Frances. Of course the circumstances then were very special: it was two months before the presidential election, and Florida's twenty-seven electoral votes were hanging in the balance. It is hardly surprising that Washington ensured the success of "the largest response to a natural disaster we've ever had in this country." The president himself passed out water bottles to Floridians driven from their homes.

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Environmental groups sue U.S. Navy over sonar training

| Thu Oct. 20, 2005 7:53 PM EDT

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Cetacean Society International, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the League for Coastal Protection, and Ocean Futures Society and its founder and president Jean Michel-Cousteau filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy toay because of the Navy's continual use of mid-frequency sonar in training exercises. The suit claims that the sonar frequencies injure and kill whales, dolphins, and other marine animals, and that the Navy refuses to implement common sense precautions that would eliminate the damage.

In 2003, a similar suit was settled that blocked the global deployment of the Navy's low-frequency active sonar system and restricted its use to a a limited area of the northwestern Pacific Ocean.

The U.S. Navy isn't the only culprit. NATO ocean exercises have also been responsible for the injuries and deaths of whales and dolphins. Nine dead Cuvier's beaked whales were found washed up on the Canary Islands three years ago. Six beached whales were sent back to the ocean, and two were spotted dead in the water. During that period, ten NATO countries were an exercised called Neo Tapon 2002. Autopsies on the deal whales found brain damage consistent with impact from military sonar systems, and the whales were shown to have been in good health prior to the sonar testing.

In June of this year, thirty conservation and animal welfare groups petitioned John Reid, British Secretary of State for Defence to investigate the increase of mass stranding of whales. A study done at the Zoological Society of London indicated that the whales suffered from some type of decompression sickness when sonar interfered with their navigation patterns. Following sonar tests, whales and dolphins are often found bleeding from the eyes and ears, with severe lesions in their organ tissue.

The evidence is clear. Eighty dolphins, thirty of whom died, were found beached off of the Florida keys following a sonar exercise. Thirty-nine died after tests were done off the coast of North Carolina. Seventeen whales died in the Bass Strait, fifty were stranded 300 miles away, and 150 whales and dolphins were found dying, all after sonar tests near Australia. Many whales and dolphins were found stranded within twenty-hours of U.S. Navy sonar tests near the Bahamas, twelve beaked whales died after testing off the coast of Greece, and six died after testing near Japan.

What Clause? Where?

| Thu Oct. 20, 2005 6:50 PM EDT

Huh, maybe I'll end up supporting Harriet Miers after all, if she keeps saying things like this:

[S]everal constitutional law scholars said they were surprised and puzzled by Miers's response to the committee's request for information on cases she has handled dealing with constitutional issues. In describing one matter on the Dallas City Council, Miers referred to "the proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause" as it relates to the Voting Rights Act.

"There is no proportional representation requirement in the Equal Protection Clause," said Cass R. Sunstein, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. He and several other scholars said it appeared that Miers was confusing proportional representation — which typically deals with ethnic groups having members on elected bodies — with the one-man, one-vote Supreme Court ruling that requires, for example, legislative districts to have equal populations.Okay, in reality it's a little appalling that we're about to get a Supreme Court Justice who doesn't have even a passing familiarity with this country's founding document. Still, it would be pretty interesting if there was a "proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause."

Tax Reform Time

| Thu Oct. 20, 2005 4:24 PM EDT

Dan Shaviro, a tax law professor at NYU, has a useful analysis of the new tax reform proposals coming out of Bush's Tax Reform Commission. (See Kevin Drum for another summary.) I figured originally it was enough just to sneer at the proposal on account of it: a) being revenue-neutral, thus locking in the present budget deficits, and b) shifting the tax burden from wealth to work. Shaviro suggests it's not quite as bad as all that, and there are some decent ideas in there, but that these reforms are extremely unlikely to happen—especially the caps on deductions for employer-backed health insurance and interest on mortgages—and the Bush administration will probably just "bury this plan under the heaviest rock they can find." Fair enough.

Is Intervention Impossible?

| Thu Oct. 20, 2005 3:08 PM EDT

Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias have a new TAP article arguing that the war in Iraq—or at least the "liberal hawk" idea that Iraq could be made a democracy at the barrel of a gun—was always doomed to fail, and it wasn't just that Bush utterly botched it. This debate seems somewhat odd, since this fact was plainly true from the start. The Iraq war was sold primarily as a means to stabilize the oil supply and avert a mushroom cloud in New York, not as a democracy-building project. Only a fool would have pretended that a goal very few people cared about could be neatly achieved. Sadly, there were a lot of fools in March 2003. But Rosenfeld/Yglesias' argument is that even if the war had been sold and fought exactly as the liberal hawks wanted—as a way to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy—it still would have failed.

Well, I agree. The United States has never shown much interest in democracy-building, it's never been much good at it, and as I noted earlier in the week, the "civilizing" adventures of empire have usually succeeded or failed based on the internal factors in the occupied country, rather than external planning. That was as true for the American South in 1865 as it was for Kosovo in 1999. And the mere existence of a profit-seeking military-industrial complex made the looting of the Iraqi treasury a foregone conclusion. There's no reason to think George Packer or Peter Beinart could have "remade" Iraq better than Bush. But I think this part of the TAP piece sells liberal interventionism somewhat short:

Intervening requires us to take sides and to live with the empowerment of the side we took. Tensions between Kosovar and Serb, Muslim and Croat, Sunni and Shiite are not immutable hatreds, and it's hardly the case that such conflicts can never be resolved. But they cannot be resolved by us. Outside parties can succeed in smoothing the path for agreement, halting an ongoing genocide, or preventing an imminent one by securing autonomy for a given area. But only the actual parties to a conflict can bring it to an end. No simple application of more outside force can make conflicting parties agree in any meaningful way or conjure up social forces of liberalism, compromise, and tolerance where they don't exist or are too weak to prevail.
That's obviously true of the United States military, which has classically been good primarily at smashing things, although our twenty-year-old soldiers have adapted to "mission creep" unbelievably well in Iraq. But Donald Rumsfeld now wants to make the military even better at smashing things, as opposed to people like Thomas Barnett who want to see a more fully developed "SysAdmin" side—and regardless of what you want to call it, the "Jacksonian tradition" in American foreign policy has never had much interest in anything more than overwhelming bloodletting in the defense of the national interest. We're a nation ruled by plutocrats and powered by rough-hewn nationalists; idealistic projects abroad just aren't in the cards, except in rare circumstances.

But the United Nations complicates the tale somewhat, since their peacekeeping forces actually have succeeded in reconciling a large number of post-conflict nations. Post-WWII UN operations in Congo, and post-Cold War peacekeeping forces in Namibia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor should all count as successes—the UN disarmed the parties, demobilized militias, held relatively free and fair elections, and put the countries on a path towards sustained civil peace. So in one sense, outside forces can "make conflicting parties agree in [a] meaningful way," and if they didn't conjure up, as TAP puts it, "social forces of liberalism, compromise, and tolerance," they at least pointed the way down that path. Those countries, save for the Congo, are all peaceful democracies today. We know it can work because it's been done.

On the other hand, even the UN can't seem to stop a country from disintegrating, but it's hard to tell how much of this failure comes from the inherent difficulty of the task and how much from the implementation. The original UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia obviously flopped, but it was also severely undermanned. Same with the initial UN force in Bosnia. (Could a more robust operation—say, 20,000 more troops and American commanders—have averted many of the Balkan crises later in the 1990s? Maybe.) So I don't think I'm quite as ready to take the same "it's impossible" stand, although a good deal of modesty and skepticism is absolutely crucial here. I think the United States is inherently unable to do nation-building right now, yes. But that says as much about the United States as it does about the inherent impossibility in peacekeeping and nation-building, and it's worth, I think, trying to disentangle the two.