Political MoJo

Shut It Down, Already

| Mon Aug. 22, 2005 6:33 PM EDT

Spencer Ackerman recently took a trip down to Guantanamo Bay, and returned with a long piece for the New Republic on why the detention facility ought to be shut down: "Guantanamo is more than just an image problem: it is a moral, legal, and strategic one as well." We've dealt with the moral and legal arguments pretty much ad nauseum here at MoJo, so I'll highlight some of his arguments for the strategic problem with Guantanamo. First, the US probably isn't receiving much in the way of solid intelligence from the facility:

Despite the mantra that Guantánamo houses "the worst of the worst," Qatani, the thwarted hijacker, is the highest-ranking Al Qaeda detainee acknowledged to be at Camp Delta. Senior Al Qaeda captives--such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11, or terrorist-recruiting chief Abu Zubaydah--are held at undisclosed locations across the U.S. detention apparatus. What's left are largely what one former White House counterterrorism official dubs "the ash-and-trash jihadi picked up in Afghanistan," as opposed to the "honest-to-God, cardcarrying members of Al Qaeda--operatives who are worth a shit." Many detainees picked up in Afghanistan in the first year after September 11, 2001, and taken to Guantánamo were initially captured by Northern Alliance fighters looking to settle scores and collect rewards….

What those 130 or so inmates have to offer, however, is still questionable. Most of Guantánamo's population has been in the camp for its entire three-and-a-half-year existence, and, according to Kaniut, only about ten detainees have arrived in the past year. "Obviously," says a recently retired senior intelligence official with counterterrorism experience, "the longer he's there, the less he has to tell you in terms of fresh actionable stuff. After a certain time, it becomes historic research data." That's not to say that information can't be useful. As the former White House official explains, the detainees might still be able to reveal "how do people interact, how do they communicate, what ethnic group will work with another ethnic group, where are the fault lines within the organization ... pieces of the jihadi and Sunni extremism jigsaw puzzle."

But, as the former official cautions, even those pieces lose their worth after awhile. And that's because the jigsaw puzzle is changing. Simply put, Al Qaeda in 2005--as both a terrorist network and a broader jihadist movement--looks very little like Al Qaeda in 2002. Most Guantánamo detainees were captured on the Afghan battlefield. Yet Al Qaeda's center of gravity is increasingly moving out of Afghanistan and Central Asia: In a series of classified reports this year, the CIA has warned that the next wave of the global jihadist movement lies with new recruits who travel to Iraq to gain on-the-job training killing U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians before returning to their homes in the Middle East, North Africa, and, increasingly, Europe--to say nothing of those who, as is likely with some of the culprits of last month's thwarted London attacks, taught themselves terrorism in the relative isolation of the British midlands. And Pentagon officials have testified to Congress that jihadists captured in Iraq can't be sent to Guantánamo Bay, because Iraqis must be treated in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Guantánamo's population, in other words, can tell us next to nothing about this "Class of '05" problem--the future of Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the "evidence" produced in Guantanamo remains inadmissible in European courts, which in turn undermines Europe's ability to do any sort of effective law enforcement:

In January, for example, British officials arrested Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga, and Richard Belmar--British nationals who had been recently released after being detained for three years at Guantánamo--immediately after they stepped off a plane at Heathrow Airport. As London's then-police chief, Sir John Stevens, explained, information American officials had shared with their British counterparts indicated that the men were truly dangerous. "There was no other course of action--we would not have been doing our duty--if we had not arrested them and questioned them," Stevens said. There was only one problem: No information from Guantánamo Bay was admissible in British court, because it had been obtained under dubious legal circumstances. Despite the palpable worries British authorities had about them, all four walked out of a police station the next day, free men.

The issue is not one of European weakness in fighting terrorism, as conservatives often suggest: Investigating judges like Spain's Baltasar Garzón and France's Jean-Louis Bruguière have been relentless in hunting down Al Qaeda affiliates in their countries. Rather, European counterterrorist officials, politicians, and publics simply will not accept the Bush administration's legal contentions about abusive interrogation and indefinite detention, and they won't change their judicial systems to accommodate Washington. And, since Al Qaeda's evolution means that it is European officials who will increasingly have to combat the jihadists, this transatlantic disconnect runs the risk of allowing probable terrorists like the London four to go free.

The thing of it is, Guantanamo isn't necessary for anything. Congress could just as easily pass a law allowing for, say, a set period of time during which detainees go through interrogation, and then have charges brought against them. As Spencer notes, both Great Britain and Israel have very similar laws, and those countries have been dealing with terrorism for quite some time. That's the approach any democracy should take towards national security: If the laws on the books don't do enough to stop whatever threat needs stopping, then make some new laws and take a vote. Instead, however, the White House seems fixated on maintaining its executive authority at all costs, even if it leads to very real moral, legal, and strategic failures.

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Gas Optional?

Mon Aug. 22, 2005 6:03 PM EDT

The city of Austin, in conjunction with its electric utility, Austin Energy, unveiled a new program Monday, entitled Plug-In Austin", that aims to create a market for plug-in hybrid vehicles. The goal is to support the mass production of plug-ins by committing to a bulk purchase of vans for its municipal fleet, as well as to encourage other major cities to make similar efforts.

One neat component of Austin's plan is that much of the city's energy comes from wind farms in West Texas. Austin Energy currently gets 6.5 percent of its power from renewable sources, most of that from wind. The utility is aiming for 20 percent by 2020. To date, their efforts have resulted in bigger sales of renewable energy than any other utility in the country, and numerous awards. Meanwhile, the Sprinter runs a diesel engine, meaning that it could harness bio-diesel and other renewable fuel sources as those start to come on-line. Although such fuels are used only in very small numbers at present, several studies, including this one by the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests that there is enough biofuel potential to meet half our production requirements by 2050, creating futuristic visions of a largely renewable transportation system.

Considering that four out of five Americans live with 20 miles of their jobs, and that Austin officials estimate the electricity load at night is only half that during peak hours during the day, many consumers could drive their daily commute with using a drop of gas, fill up at night, and do it again the next day without stressing the grid. Of course, if they ran out of juice, their plug-in would run like a conventional hybrid.

Northwesterly Spin

Mon Aug. 22, 2005 2:03 PM EDT

Northwest Airline's mechanics went on strike on Saturday to protest coming job cuts and other concessions that the airline says are necessary for continued operations. Since Saturday, a number of articles have trumpeted the airline's ability to keep airborne, due to some unions' willingness to cross pickets, Northwest's innovative usage of pre-trained "replacement" workers, and supervisors filling some shifts. Here are takes from the New York Times and USA Today. Apparently NWA stock is going up because operations are going so "smoothly" despite the strike.

But according to one business travel columnist, Northwest's own online flight tracker suggests that's anything but the case. He's run the numbers, finding that the airline is only having about 50 percent of arrivals come in on time. That's a substantial decrease from NWA's June number of 72.5 percent on time arrivals - the most recent numbers available from the Department of Transportation. The blog-like full report is reserved for paid subscribers, but one of the mechanics' locals is apparently reposting it. He also notes that cancellations are starting to crop up, and will continue to as flight crews' federal "duty time" limits are eaten away by mechanical related delays. It seems that judgments about the genius of Northwest's plan could be premature.

I'll sacrifice my whole family

| Mon Aug. 22, 2005 12:52 PM EDT

"If I have to sacrifice my whole family for the sake of our whole country and world, other countries that want freedom, I'll do that."

These are the dramatic words of former Marine Gary Qualls, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Louis Wayne Qualls, died in Iraq last fall at the age of 20. Qualls is a friend of Crawford gift shop owner Bill Johnson, who established the pro-Bush/pro-war camp that is now opposing Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas.

Qualls, you'll recall, is the man who removed the cross with his son's name from the group crosses set up along the road that leads to Bush's ranch. Speaking on Air America last week, Cindy Sheehan said that Qualls had been quite friendly with her, had drunk a beer with her, and told her he didn't share her views, but wanted to make sure his son's cross was there with the others. The next day, he took it down.

Aside from any feelings we might have about people who support the war in Iraq, there are other issues in this story that bear noting. One is Qualls' uber-patriarchal presumption that he somehow has the power to "sacrifice" every member of his family. He has a 16-year-old son who wants to enlist, and Qualls is solidly behind his son's desire. One imagines that if the adolescent were eligible, his father would pack his bags for him.

The other item of interest is that the author of this AP article about Qualls, Angela K. Brown, begins by referring to the pro-Bush camp as "patriotic." Reporters and anchorpeople have done this over and over for the last couple of years, and no one stops them.

Qualls is in agreement with Brown. He recently said of the protesters at Camp Casey: "They're not really very patriotic. They're trying to bring people down. They're trying to demoralize the factors of being an American."

I have no idea how you "demoralize a factor," but I do get the part about trying to drag people down. It's as though the alleged president of the United States were a cheerleader and Sheehan was confronting the empty content of his cheers. The reality is that Bush is a cheerleader--it appears to be the only skill in which he has ever had any training--and it is indeed a real drag to remind the flag-waving patriots that American soldiers are dying for Halliburton and PNAC. Because most of them don't know what PNAC is. And none of them wants to believe that their children and spouses and brothers and sisters and friends were killed for greed, oil, and a misguided political agenda. Or that the war has made the world, including America, less safe.

The Public School Gap

Mon Aug. 22, 2005 12:40 PM EDT

Fact-esque points the way to an excellent post by Riggsveda on the U.S. education system, the "No Child Left Behind Act," and the second-hand treatment given to inner city schools:

...despite Bush's much ballyhooed "Texas miracle", the situation seems to have been exacerbated by the kind of apartheid not seen in this country since 1965.

Anyone who lives or works in a big city made up of a diverse racial population can see it. The city schools have become darker and darker, while the suburbs and private schools fill up with white children.
In spite of the lip service given to the advance of civil rights issues over the last decades, the demographics of our schools give the lie to our insistence that equal opportunity is a done deal. As a nation we have ignored how schools and neighborhoods have slipped back into the Jim Crow look of the early 20th century, and we pretend that the inequalities between them have no basis in race.

As I live and work on Chicago's South Side, the second-hand status of urban schools is painfully clear. And many Chicagoans will tell you that the real guts of the NCLB is not the emphasis on testing, but the push towards privatization of the public school system. NCLB encourages districts to turn over underperforming schools to private management firms. And in 2004, Chicago's Mayor Daley announced plans to do just that - to close 60 local schools and open 100 new smaller ones (two-thirds of which will be non-union teachers).

At the end of the day, NCLB is actually encouraging the dismantling of the public education system and the first out the door it seems are the students that politicians don't really want to think about.

Good Ol' Housekeeping...

| Sun Aug. 21, 2005 11:11 PM EDT

Two quick housekeeping notes. First, the good news. Starting Monday you'll see a couple of new faces 'round these parts: I've asked three of my favorite bloggers -- Diane Dees of D.E.D. Space, Charles Norman Todd of Freiheit und Wissen, and Julie Saltman -- to join us here at MoJo Blog for the next few weeks. I'll let them introduce themselves, but suffice to say, they're all fantastic writers and we're excited to have them here at Mother Jones.

The second item is a bit more depressing, at least as far as the content goes. If you haven't seen Kurt Pitzer's story on Iraqi nuclear scientists, now up on our homepage, be sure to give it a read; it's important stuff and a stellar piece of reporting. Way back in 2003, of course, Iraq had only the tiniest scraps of a nuclear program -- certainly nothing worth going to war over. What the country did have, however, was a whole slew of very capable nuclear scientists who, under the right conditions, really could start up a program. Surely in the aftermath of the invasion, then, the Bush administration, being so concerned about Iraq's latent nuclear research program, would have scooped those scientists up and made sure they didn't fall into the wrong hands, right? Er, right? Apparently not, Pitzer found out: "Nobody knows how many Iraqi scientists may have been lured over the borders into Iran, Syria, or beyond. Nobody knows because no one is keeping tabs." Oy. So which adjective in the daily rotation should we use for this occasion: Appalling? Unbelievable? Disastrous? Go with something new, perhaps? I can't decide, but give the article a look.

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No Adaption

| Fri Aug. 19, 2005 4:20 PM EDT

In the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Jason Vest has an important story on how the U.S. sent its army into Iraq without so much as a counterinsurgency doctrine. "U.S. ground forces are only now beginning to readjust their approach toward counterinsurgency warfare. But to many knowledgeable observers, it's looking like too little, too late--thanks largely to the Pentagon's myopic leadership. It isn't just that the Pentagon's civilian ideologues and acquiescent brass failed to entertain even the possibility of an insurgency. … It's also because, despite a plethora of writing from soldier-scholars and the informal attempts at innovation by a handful of junior officers, no formal organizational strategy exists that allows the army to rapidly and effectively adapt."

VAWA up for Renewal

| Fri Aug. 19, 2005 4:17 PM EDT

Pseudo-Adrienne has a long post on Congress' efforts—or, at points, lack thereof—to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Worth reading. Since the trend among mainstream Democrats of late is to shy away from women's issues—on the ironclad logic that, somehow, alienating half the population is the key to sweet electoral victory—the prospects don't look good. But read her post, and read these two cover stories on domestic violence in the last issue of Mother Jones. And then this post by Jeanne of Body and Soul. All good pieces.

The Case Against Withdrawal

| Fri Aug. 19, 2005 3:31 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias makes the case for a more-or-less timetable-based withdrawal from Iraq. Now before getting too deep into this discussion, let me say, I do think the U.S. should make it clear that eventually, we plan to leave if and when the Iraqi government wants us to leave, and we won't maintain permanent bases in Iraq. Whether Bush is serious about this or not is a good question. As naive as this sounds, I think he could be convinced, although that's a massive leap of faith. Anyway, here's what we know: Since the spring of 2004, the administration has waged a somewhat more "competent" war in Iraq; but, of course, the fallout from mistakes previous has multiplied nearly beyond control. The question now is, stay or go?, and here's the best case I can make against withdrawal. Says Yglesias:

Part of the reason I think it would be good to announce a timetable approximately now is precisely that it could be pegged not to arbitrary dates, but to scheduled elements of the political process, namely a constitution and the election of a permanent government.

This part seems wrong on the merits. True, it's almost a cliché by now, but defeating the Iraqi insurgency requires a political, not a military, solution. Everyone knows that. But let's not delude ourselves: some sort of military solution is also needed. As Anthony Cordesman has outlined in pretty painstaking detail, the insurgency has two components, but they aren't the two components people tend to think—i.e., a bunch of foreign extremists and a homegrown and mostly nationalistic insurgency. No, the homegrown wing has both nationalist and extremist parts, and the extremists continue to multiply, and almost certainly won't stop fighting until they are largely defeated. See Kris Alexander for what "defeated" would mean. This can only be done, I think, by bringing the native Iraqi military and police online, and doing it right, which will take time and patience. (Will Saletan's suggestion that the Iraqi security forces will get motivated real quick if the U.S. starts withdrawing and shoves them into action is, sadly, nonsense, and doesn't merit further discussion.)

In the past—again, up until about the spring of 2004—the training process simply wasn't working, and the Iraqi security forces often ran away from conflicts. All in all, a disaster. But since then, under Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. actually seems to have restructured its training efforts pretty successfully. Iraqi police have now pacified Haifa Street, and have at least maintained a presence in Mosul—no small feat, either of them. American troops can withdraw, or at least become less visible, as this process continues, but not before then. Rushing the training component, or doing it poorly—for instance, by stocking the Army only with Shiite militiamen and Kurdish peshmerga fighters—would be a serious mistake. Without competent security, at this point in time Sunni extremists could very easily a) stage a coup in the parts of the military and police force that they have infilitrated, b) assassinate Iraq's leaders, including Ayatollah Sistani, and c) foment civil war by bombing Shiite shrines and the like. Easy. That's not the only way civil war could come about, granted, but I think it's the most likely, and a U.S. presence is necessary to avert this most-likely scenario until Iraqis can handle it themselves. If that point comes next year, fantastic. If not, then not.

As for the political process, Yglesias makes an important point: If Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds want to fight amongst themselves once the U.S. leaves, nothing in the world can stop them. The U.S. should prepare for this very real possibility. On the other hand, it's not like all sides are so impossibly recalcitrant right now, putting the lie to Yglesias' statement that "[a] s long as we provide them with that safety net, they have no reason to compromise." Some elements of the Shiite coalition, at least, have been willing to make limited concessions to the Sunnis on their own accord. President Jalai Talabani has floated a wide-ranging amnesty for ex-Baathists, and the U.S. should overrule people like anti-amnesty folks like Ahmed Chalabi and encourage Talabani to do so.

As for the constitution: Granted, SCIRI-based Shiites like Abdul-aziz al-Hakim want to break up Iraq and form a Shiite super-province in the south, but in conversation, Andrew Arato has made the case that both Sunni groups and many nationalist and secular Shiites—including, it seems, Ayatollah Sistani—want a unified Iraq. The Kurds, meanwhile, want independence, and it's going to be hard to pressure them to accept anything short of autonomy. All in all, it doesn't look good—some near-intractable problems are at stake here. But unlike Yglesias, I don't entirely see how U.S. troops are "counterproductive to producing a political compromise," which is to say, I don't see all sides somehow becoming more willing to compromise if the U.S. starts drawing down. Again, setting a timetable is different from announcing, repeatedly and forcefully, that we will maintain no long-term presence there—the latter may convince more Sunnis to join the political process. Hopefully. I just don't see how the former will convince Shiites and Kurds to compromise more readily. Deep conflicts don't get resolved simply because the parties involved fear that they might have to go to war. History says otherwise.

More to the point, let's not kid ourselves. If Iraq erupted in full-blown civil war, the U.S. would have to intervene. Our oil addiction demands it. Pretending that we can just leave and wash our hands of the whole mess smacks of naivety. Iraq isn't some insignificant little foothold in the Balkans. I understand that civil war may happen whether the U.S. stays or not. On the other hand, the U.S. will have to micromanage the regional situation whether we start drawing down in 2006 or not. It's a real mess, but it's still real. We don't have much choice. Leaving now, only to be forced to re-invade three or four years down, would be the height of near-sightedness.

So what would I suggest? I'm very much open to persuasion, and much of this involves putting trust in a thoroughly incompetent administration, but my instinct is to go with Cordesman's bevy of small-bore recommendations, including: "Keep reiterating that the US will set no deadlines for withdrawal—or fixed limits on its military effort—and will support Iraq until it is ready to take over the mission and the insurgents are largely defeated." Keep pressure on the government to develop both the proper police forces and governing institutions, which won't likely develop on their own accord. Fix the aid and reconstruction process, which is a nightmare and the one prong of our strategy that continues to founder very badly. Sealing the borders may help, though al-Qaeda seems to be planning to take the fight to Syria next, so sealing the borders up could just accelerate that process. I don't know. Oh, and no more troops will be forthcoming, of course. The U.S. can still "surge" troops for specific needs, by fiddling with the rotation rates or reserves, but a major long-term increase in troops won't happen.

That seems like the rough outline of a realistic "plan," although I obviously can't guarantee it will work, and with this administration, it might be a go-ahead for "more of the same." But, I think, it's more likely to produce stability than pulling out prematurely. Feel free to convince me I'm wrong, because I'd like to be. Though I should also note that, in the event Cordesman's proposal simply can't work, then a withdrawal plus "hoping for the best" actually wouldn't be my second choice; rather, Daniel Byman's bloody-minded "Afghanization" plan for a draw-down seems, horrifically, like the most realistic and "stable" option. Meanwhile, the most important task here at home is to make sure that the crooks and liars who got us into this mess are removed from power as forcefully and quickly as possible. Iraq has been a colossal mistake, of the sort the United States must never make again. That part, at least, needs no debate.

No Hospital For You

| Thu Aug. 18, 2005 3:41 PM EDT

Here's a statistic that may or may not be surprising: The number of hospitals in the United States has been declining over the past six years. (No one quite knows why; presumably because hospitals are consolidating.) But a new study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation points out something even more disconcerting: the decline of public hospitals has been most rapid in major cities—some 16 percent between 1996 and 2002—especially in areas with both the highest poverty levels and highest rates of the uninsured. Meanwhile, once you start stepping away from the cities, "high-poverty suburbs appear to be relatively underserved by hospitals, compared to low-poverty suburbs, which appear to have an abundance of hospital resources." Not good at all. Everyone harps on getting the uninsured covered; that's an important goal to be sure, but improving access to health care should get just as much attention when thinking about health policy here in the United States.