Political MoJo

Roundup: War in the Middle East

| Mon Jul. 31, 2006 3:33 PM EDT

Human Rights Watch is accusing both Israel and Hezbollah of war crimes. "The Israeli attack early Sunday 'is the latest product of an indiscriminate bombing campaign that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have waged in Lebanon over the past 18 days, leaving an estimated 750 people dead, the vast majority of them civilians,'" the New York-based HRW said in a statement datelined "Beirut Sunday," as reported by AFP.

"Today's strike on Qana, killing at least 60 civilians, more than half of them children, suggests that the Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone," said Kenneth Roth, HRW executive director.

"The appalling loss of civilian life in Qana underscores the need for the U.N. secretary general to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law in the context of the current conflict,'' Roth said. Israel's consistent record of not distinguishing between combatants and civilians amounts to a war crime, he said.

HRW cited an Israeli military statement issued Sunday that said responsibility for the Qana attack "rests with the Hezbollah" because it has used the area to launch "hundreds of missiles" into Israel, and asserted it had warned residents of Qana several days in advance to leave the village.

"Just because the Israeli military warned the civilians of Qana to leave does not give it carte blanche to blindly attack," Roth said. "It still must make every possible effort to target only genuine combatants."

HRW said that even if Israeli military claims of Hezbollah rocket fire from the Qana area were correct, Israel remained under a strict obligation to direct attacks only at military objectives, and to take all feasible precautions to avoid the incidental loss of civilian life.

The watchdog organization said its researchers have been in Lebanon since the onset of the current hostilities on July 12 and have documented dozens of cases in which Israeli forces have carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians.

In his Saturday radio address, President Bush spoke of his hopes for peace in the Middle East and that while the fighting is "painful and tragic," it also presents an opportunity for change.

"This approach will demonstrate the international community's determination to support the government of Lebanon, and defeat the threat from Hezbollah and its foreign sponsors,'' Bush said.

"This moment of conflict in the Middle East is painful and tragic, yet it is also a moment of opportunity for broader change in the region,'' said Bush.

"Transforming countries that have suffered decades of tyranny and violence is difficult, and it will take time to achieve. But the consequences will be profound - for our country and the world.''

On Sunday, before the White House T-ball game got underway, Bush again remembered the children. "You know, as we listen to our national anthem, it reminds us how blessed we are to live in a land where our boys and girls can grow up in a peaceful world. And on today, our hopes for peace for boys and girls everywhere extends across the world, especially in the Middle East. Today's actions in the Middle East remind us that the United States and friends and allies must work for a sustainable peace, particularly for the sake of children.

Maurie McNarn, an Australian general who led that country's forces in Iraq, told the Australian he vetoed mass bombing in Iraq during the 2003 invasion because it would unnecessarily killed civilians. On one occasion he nixed a US plan to drop huge non-precision bombs on Baghdad, causing one angry US Air Force general to call the Australian a "pencil dick."

McNarn says that George W. Bush himself vetoed involving the United Nations in Iraq in summer of 2003: '"The UN can't manage a damn thing,' Bush told Aussie Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, recalling his visit to Kosovo, where the President found the UN personnel to be 'a bunch of drunks.'"

"There's a Hezbollah training camp in Paraguay, there is a group in North Carolina, we caught a cell crossing the border."
---Newt Gingrich, erstwhile GOP presidential candidate, currently running #3 in the polls, in a discussion of World War III conservative bloggers last week.

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Applying for Asylum? It's a Crap Shoot

| Mon Jul. 31, 2006 1:55 PM EDT

A new report out from the Transactional Records Clearinghouse, Syracuse University, finds that asylum applications are handled extremely uneventy by immigration judges.

TRAC's Immigration Judges report, released July 31, 2006, shows vast differences in the rate at which the nation's 200-plus immigration judges decline hundreds of thousands of applications for asylum in the United States. In one recent period, for example, while ten percent of the judges denied asylum in 86% or more of the their decisions, another ten percent denied asylum in only 34% of theirs. The Immigration Court, a branch of the Justice Department, asserts in a mission statement that it is committed to the "uniform application of the immigration law in all cases." Yet at one end of the scale was a Miami judge who turned down 96.7% of the asylum requests. At the other end was a New York judge who rejected only 9.8%.

Sexual Abuse in Prisons: The Shame of the American Criminal Justice System

| Mon Jul. 31, 2006 1:35 PM EDT


According to a new study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds, three prisoners in a thousand report they were sexually abused or harassed. But the experts--and the study's authors, for that matter--author's aren't buying it, saying inmates are reluctant to come forward because they fear reprisal, adhere to a code of silence, do not trust the staff, or are ashamed or embarrassed. Which figures.

"It's a real and serious problem," said Malcolm Feeley, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. "It may be the
single largest shame of the American criminal justice system, and that's saying a lot."

Other studies have found much higher rates of abuse. One researcher has found that 10 percent of male Midwestern state penitentiary inmates have been raped, and she says this is one more reason for not mixing juveniles in with the general adult prison population. "When you put kids under 18 in prison with adults, the incidence of rape and abuse is five times higher." And lest we brush this off as purely a prison problem:
"We get reports that people who are raped and abused in prison will rape and abuse others when they leave prison." (Via AP)

FDA Weighs Over-the-Counter Plan B Sales

| Mon Jul. 31, 2006 1:09 PM EDT

Since the FDA agreed to review Plan B for over-the-counter (OTC) sale in June 2003, the agency--hostage to the conservative-religious political agenda--has gone out of its way to avoid issuing a decision. But today AP reports:

The government is considering allowing over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill to women 18 and older. The surprise move Monday that revives efforts to widen access to the emergency contraceptive almost a year after it was thought doomed.

See our detailed timeline tracing the brouhaha over Plan B (complete with politicized science and unwanted pregnancies!) here.

Partisan Gap on Iraq War Widens (Not a Good Thing)

| Sun Jul. 30, 2006 3:20 AM EDT

A new New York Times/CBS poll shows that the partisan divide over the war is growing, and is already far greater than it was over the height of America's conflict over the Vietnam War. According to the Times:

Three-fourths of the Republicans, for example, said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, while just 24 percent of the Democrats did. Independents split down the middle.
It is tempting to take self-righteous satisfaction in such trends, and each party/side is formulating a way to exploit what a pollster quoted by the Times cites as a "growing chasm" to their own advantage. But if one can step back a moment from 2006/2008 tactics, this is not good news.

For one thing, ignorance of the facts still abounds. As Brad blogged earlier this week, a Harris poll finds:

Half of Americans [STILL!!] now say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded the country in 2003 — up from 36 percent last year....In addition, 64 percent say Saddam had "strong links" with al Qaeda...Fifty-five percent said that "history will give the U.S. credit for bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq."....American confidence in the Iraqis has improved: 37 percent said Iraq would succeed in creating a stable democracy, up five points since November.
Meanwhile, as the Times reports,
An analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the difference in the way Democrats and Republicans viewed the Vietnam War — specifically, whether sending American troops was a mistake — never exceeded 18 percentage points between 1966 and 1973. In the most recent Times/CBS poll on Iraq, the partisan gap on a similar question was 50 percentage points.
Thankfully, as of yet, this divide has not resulted in the vilification of the kids sent off to fight this war. But my worry is that on this issue, as on so many others confronting us these days, the country, and the families that compose this country, will be unable to do anything other than malign each other. That may fit into the strategies of politicians on either side of the Iraq War debate, but will it help us figure out a solution?

More Iraq War Lies: Auditors Reveal Huge Reconstruction Cost Overruns Concealed from Congress

| Sat Jul. 29, 2006 3:02 PM EDT

In a classic "take out the trash" maneuver, a federal audit released late Friday reveals, as Jamie Glanz of the New York Times reports,

"The State Department agency in charge of $1.4 billion in reconstruction money in Iraq used an accounting shell game to hide ballooning cost overruns on its projects there and knowingly withheld information on schedule delays from Congress.

(For those not familiar with the term, "taking out the trash," means quietly dumping truly embarrassing news on Friday evening, because, to quote the "West Wing" episode that discusses the phenomena, on Saturday, "no one reads the paper.")

Indeed, to say these findings were released at all is an overstatement, as they were buried in an audit of the Basra hospital project touted by Laura Bush and Condi Rice. The audit—which was conducted by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent office that reports to Congress and the Pentagon—found that the cost of hospital project, which was contracted out to San Francisco-based multinational Bechtel for $50 million, could, as the Times reports, "rise as high as $169.5 million, even after accounting for at least $30 million pledged for medical equipment by a charitable organization." The United States Agency for International Development, or AID, intentionally hid these cost overruns (as well as those for other projects) from Congress, by reclassifying them as overhead, or "indirect costs." An AID contracting officer cited in the audit notes that the agency "did not report these costs so it could stay within the $50 million authorization."

Bechtel is almost as notorious as Halliburton for its ties to the administration, its ability, (as we've reported), to game no-bid Iraq reconstruction projects, its move to (again, as we've reported) privatize water systems across the world, oh, and the Big Dig.

But leaving aside all that, the really ominous part of the auditors' findings were spelled out by the Washington Post:

· There is no overall plan for transferring U.S.-initiated reconstruction projects to Iraqi government control and no schedule for when they will be completed.

· A planned first-responder network -- intended to allow Iraqis to call for help in the event of emergency -- is ineffective because of communications problems that prevent most dispatch centers from receiving calls from civilians. By the end of the year, more than $218 million will have been spent on the program.

· The United States has devoted little time or money to a program aimed at rooting out corruption in the Iraqi government.But of course. Rooting out corruption would set a dangerous precedent.

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Peacekeepers in Lebanon

| Fri Jul. 28, 2006 6:28 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Times has a good piece on the wholly ineffective 2,000-strong UN peacekeeping force that has been in southern Lebanon for a long while. Most notable, the peacekeepers currently have to worry about Hezbollah fighters who sidle up beside UN bases and fire off rockets towards Haifa and Nahariya in the hopes that Israel will retaliate and blow up some peacekeepers, as happened on Tuesday. But this part, explaining why the existing UN force never reined in Hezbollah in the first place, seems important:

The U.N. observers sat by while an unchecked Hezbollah consolidated political control over the south, built up its arsenal and girded itself to do battle once again with the nemesis across the border.

They had no choice, they say: Hezbollah could be tamed only with the use of force, which is not part of their mandate.

"You have to be able to impose international will," Pellegrini said. "You need heavy weapons and strong rules of engagement."

But this is the bind that will face any military that tries to tangle with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon: The organization will fight fiercely to keep its guns, and its widespread grass-roots popularity makes the militia capable of mounting a fierce insurgency.

The peacekeepers couldn't be here, U.N. officials acknowledge, if Hezbollah didn't tolerate them. And if they were cracking heads, they would no longer be tolerated.That seems believable. These days, everyone seems to be calling for a more effective international force to come in and stabilize southern Lebanon. But a "more effective" force that tried to tame Hezbollah could well mean war against the group's militia—and if the United States can't defeat an insurgency in Iraq, what makes anyone think that, say, European troops can pacify Hezbollah in southern Lebanon? Some sort of negotiated peace will likely be the only way forward, but that possibility seems quite distant at the moment.

Military Purging Its Arabic Linguists

| Fri Jul. 28, 2006 4:49 PM EDT

This makes a lot of sense: "A decorated sergeant and Arabic language specialist was dismissed from the U.S. Army under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, though he says he never told his superiors he was gay and his accuser was never identified." Right, because the Army has way too many Arabic language specialists just sitting around. Oh, wait.

This isn't the first time either; a report in 2005 found that the Army has discharged 26 Arabic and Farsi linguists for being gay. Whether any of them actually had the privilege of facing their accusers is unclear.

GOP Plays Games with Minimum Wage Bill

| Fri Jul. 28, 2006 4:31 PM EDT

Ezra Klein notes that Senate Republicans are now trying to put Democrats in a corner by putting forward a bill that would both raise the minimum wage and repeal the estate tax on multimillion dollar estates. That way, the thinking goes, Republicans can inoculate themselves against charges that they're opposed to raising the wage floor for low-income workers.

At any rate, it's a cheap gambit, and hopefully the Democrats will oppose it (repealing the estate tax would be, as we've pointed out before, disastrous for the poor, by putting programs such as Medicaid and Social Security under risk). But I also want to point out the paucity of the minimum-wage increase under discussion here. The current proposal would hike the minimum from $5.15 an hour, the level set in 1997, to $7.25 an hour by 2007.

That sounds like a big hike, but it's really not. As Dean Baker notes, due to inflation, $7.25 an hour in 2007 is equivalent to about $5.30 back in 1997. So this "hike" will really just ensure that the minimum wage goes back up to its inflation-adjusted 1997 level. It's not much of an increase, in real dollar terms, at all.

Media Dropping the Ball on Lebanon, Afghanistan

| Fri Jul. 28, 2006 3:59 PM EDT

From the annals of media criticism. Greg Mitchell says that the U.S. media has been shamefully silent on the United States' deep involvement in the Israel-Lebanon war, its role as arms merchant to Israel, or the possible consequences of this alliance. "Fox News, for example, seems to be more concerned about Hezbollah agents sneaking over the Mexican or Canadian borders into the U.S."

Meanwhile, Sherry Ricchiardi of the American Journalism Review notes that Afghanistan has now become "The Forgotten War" in the U.S. press, despite the fact that the Taliban is dangerously resurgent there and conditions are becoming worse and worse in the country. Few news organizations maintain a constant presence there anymore, with the exception of the New York Times and some of the wire services. One can only imagine that the same thing may inevitably happen to Iraq, as the media turns its short-attention span to the next war-of-the-hour and ignores everything else.

On a related note—and this isn't necessarily criticism of the press, although it could be—Paul McLeary has an interesting post on how Hezbollah has been cultivating relationships with reporters as part of its broader media strategy. See also this piece about Israel's "cyber-soldiers," who are flooding chat rooms and online forums to counter anti-Israeli sentiment on the internet.