Political MoJo

Bolivia vs. the Corporations

| Tue May 9, 2006 5:55 PM EDT

I've started reading Daniel Cohen's new book, Globalization and its Enemies, which argues that poor countries are poor not because they've been exploited by rich countries and multinational corporations and the IMF and the like, but because they've been unable to enter the global economy, even when they want to.

That may sound like familiar territory, but Cohen actually makes a number of surprising and novel points, and while I'd say that he understates the amount of exploitation going on, there's surely something to his argument that many developing countries suffer not from too much globalization but too little. (I'll try to write more on the book once I'm done; Cohen does put forward a more nuanced account than the usual Economist line that poor countries just need more free trade and everything will be "fine.") So that brings us to Bolivia.

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Contraception and Infant Mortality

| Tue May 9, 2006 4:11 PM EDT

Putting the first and last paragraphs of this New York Times story next to each other is rather illuminating:

More than four million newborns worldwide die each year in their first month of life, comparable to the number of babies born in the United States annually, Save the Children reported Monday. …

Another way to reduce deaths is to give women access to modern contraceptives, the group said. Birth control, it said, allows enough time between births to preserve the mother's health and reduce the likelihood that their babies are born with low birth weights.Yet another reason to oppose the right's ongoing war on contraceptives (as if people needed another). The article also notes that many of those 4 million infants die because of a lack of inexpensive medical items—sterile blades, or antibiotics and knit caps to treat pneumonia. Now lots of critics are fond of saying that foreign aid "doesn't work," but it's fairly obvious here that there are extraordinarily simple things that can save a lot of lives very cheaply. Knit caps. Sterile blades. Of course it would work.

But wealthy countries remain stingy. The Bush administration cut USAID's maternal and health programs from $356 million last year to $323 million this year. That's 0.0001 of all federal spending, and it still gets cut. On the other hand, the White House has somehow found hundreds of millions of dollars for abstinence-only programs overseas, which don't work, and, as the quote above shows, are exactly the wrong way to alleviate infant mortality.

The Coming Water Wars

| Tue May 9, 2006 3:04 PM EDT

Jon Margolis has a very interesting piece in the American Prospect today on Canada's water wars. The country has 20 percent of the world's freshwater and only 0.5 percent of the population. Water's becoming scarce in many places around the world. Why shouldn't Canada ship its surplus out? Well, for one, NAFTA would make it difficult for Canada to pass new environmental laws for its lakes once companies start engaging in the water trade:

According to an August 2004, report by the International Joint Commission, one of the bi-national bodies established to govern and protect the Great Lakes, most climate change models predict lower lake levels as the earth warms. And the same report appears to acknowledge that once a body of water has become "a commercial good or saleable commodity," any effort to protect it could fall afoul of NAFTA. The message seems to be that if you want to protect any of the lakes, or perhaps any bays or inlets thereof, pass the law before some company starts selling the water.
Although I'm sure he's aware of it, Margolis doesn't detail the various—and often serious—environmental problems with bringing in the tankers to haul water out of Canada: fluctuations in water level can accelerate erosion and destroy the surrounding soil, and any transport of water risks introducing new species to new environments, with all the disasters that can bring. And once Canada starts selling its water, NAFTA sharply limits what the government can do to address these problems.

Now in the context of this particular article, the case for conservation seems strong. A bunch of American developers want the Southwest to continue its totally unsustainable population explosion, so they're trying to pillage Canadian water supplies. One could suggest that Americans start choosing to live where there are natural water supplies—although that, as Margolis points out, would probably mean depopulating California. Or, as an interim measure, we simply could learn to conserve water; the United States is terrible in that regard, especially our practice of "irrigating fields that produce crops already in surplus."

But neither suggestion really addresses the underlying issue. About 1.5 billion people around the globe lack freshwater. In about 20 years demand for freshwater will exceed supply by 56 percent. As Margolis notes, "in 1997 the United Nations concluded that the best—perhaps the only—way to get water to them was through a system of international markets and trade." I don't know how true that is, exactly; most countries could stand to manage their own resources more carefully before thinking about water from elsewhere, but it sure looks like we'll have to start talking about a global water trade eventually, which, I think, will get rather dicey.

Border Enforcement Is Still Failing...

| Mon May 8, 2006 7:27 PM EDT

Sunday's New York Times reported that arresting lots of would-be immigrants on the Mexican border still doesn't deter people from trying to sneak in. So Congress, naturally, thinks the answer is more enforcement:

What is certain is the United States keeps building up its border defenses, with more planned this year, including adding 1,500 agents and spending some $35 million in Arizona alone on surveillance equipment.
The U.S. plans to up the number of agents by 10,000 over the next five years, which will make Border Patrol the largest enforcement agency in the country—bigger than the FBI and four times as big as the DEA. This report from the TRAC Immigration Project has some useful numbers on whether more immigration enforcement is effective or not. It doesn't seem so. Between 1995 and 2005 the U.S. doubled its Border Patrol, yet apprehensions went down by 10 percent. But people continue to think that if we just add a few more agents, then this time we'll finally start to crack down on immigration...

Iranian Women Banned from World Cup

Mon May 8, 2006 6:39 PM EDT

Just a month before the World Cup is slated to begin, Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei has overruled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's previous decision to allow women at men's soccer games—provided they were seated in a separate section. Despite the fact Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared in April that allowing women would "improve soccer-watching manners and promote a healthy atmosphere," the president withdrew his request

Conservative Shiite Muslim clerics, who showed strong support for the president's election last year and who have maintained a strong control over Iranian society for the last several decades, lobbied heavily for a reversal of the decision, arguing that it was a clear violation of Islamic law. According to the BBC, one cleric said that had the decision to welcome women remained, "there would have been suicide bombers protesting on the streets of Teheran."

Ahmadinejad Writes a Letter

| Mon May 8, 2006 1:49 PM EDT

Interesting. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposes direct talks with the Bush administration about "international problems"—presumably meaning Iran's nuclear program and the like. Maybe he's serious; maybe not. It would be nice if the White House could at least try to sit down for talks and find out.

Except that, as Kevin Drum has noted, officials in the Bush administration showed no interest in taking up similar overtures from Iran three years ago, and there's no reason to think they'd start now. Especially if Republicans could really use an international crisis to help themselves out in the midterms later this year. Maybe that's cynical. This bunch has certainly earned it.

Also, Chuck Hagel, one of those much-feted "moderate" Republicans, has an absurdly reasonable op-ed in the Financial Times arguing that Iran's nuclear program isn't an immediate crisis, that under no circumstances should we ever go to war with Iran (well, he doesn't quite say that, but he makes the case), and that the U.S. should try diplomacy. That's all quite right, but Hagel has been saying a lot of quite right things about foreign policy for the past two years, and no one at the top ever seems to listen.

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Iraqi citizen deaths mounting

| Sun May 7, 2006 8:20 PM EDT

According to the Los Angeles Times, more Iraqis were killed in the first three months of 2006 than at any time since the fall of Saddam Husein's regime. At least 3,800 have died, and many of them were killed execution-style; they were shot, strangled, electrocuted, stabbed, garroted, and hanged. Many, of course, died in bombings. The killings now appear to be more systematic, and there are obvious signs of tortune on the bodies. The majority of those killed have been Sunnis; Shiite death squads have been targeting Sunni citizens.

A series of car bomb blasts killed 30 people and wounded 70 today. Also, a minister in Iraq's interior department, along with 17 others, has been arrested under suspicion of his ivolvement in kidnappings and death squads. Meanwhile, a group in the 16th brigade has been apprehended on for carrying out the murders of citizens. Iraqi citizens have begun forming vigilante squads to counter-attack the death squads.

What Next for Darfur?

| Fri May 5, 2006 2:25 PM EDT

The New Republic is devoting its current issue to Darfur, and many of the essays seem to suggest that the United States ought to grab its military and intervene to keep the peace there. (Or rather, many of the articles seem intent on tweaking unnamed liberals whose "anti-imperialist" pose supposedly makes them complicit in genocide… or something.)

Anyway, leaving aside the fact that the Khartoum government recently signed a peace agreement with the main Darfur rebel groups—which may or may not translate into actual peace—and a large-scale military intervention might be unnecessary, there are real practical problems with an invasion of Sudan, if that's what's being recommended, that this TNR editorial passes over much too glibly. I reported on a bunch of difficulties over a year ago, and Samantha Power notes that the obstacles are no less dire now:

Thanks to the war in Iraq, sending a sizable U.S. force to Darfur is not an option. Units in Iraq are already on their third tours, and the crumbling Afghan peace demands ever-more resources. Moreover, sending Americans into another Islamic country is unadvisable, given the ease with which jihadis could pour across Sudan's porous and expansive borders. Making Darfur a magnet for foreign fighters or yet another front in the global proxy war between the United States and Al Qaeda would just compound the refugees' woes.
So what could be done short of invasion if, as some fear, the peace talks break down? Mark Leon Goldberg of the American Prospect recently wrote a piece noting that the Bush administration could deploy much more diplomatic pressure than it has in the past, and that there are plenty of steps short of invading that could go very far to halting the violence.

Unfortunately, as Marisa Katz reports in the TNR issue, the administration's policy towards Khartoum over the past three years has generally been unabashed appeasement—partly because Sudan's genocidaires such as Salah Abdallah Gosh have offered cooperation on terrorism issues (although one official tells Katz that this cooperation hasn't been all that valuable). Now the administration's stance appears to be changing of late, and for whatever reason, Robert Zoellick seems to have been able to pressure most of the parties involved to agree to a tentative peace deal, although this is one of those things on which we'll really have to wait and see.

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—Eric Reeves, who has done better and more extensive work on Darfur than any journalist over the past three years, surveys the vast humanitarian wreckage in Darfur and points out that even if the fighting stops (again, a big 'if'), the area is still going to be an utter disaster. Millions are displaced. Agriculture has been ruined. The next generation of Darfuris will grow up without having learned the necessary farming skills to sustain themselves. There are refugee camps that are bordering on permanence. Massive foreign aid and assistance will be needed. Massive, but doable. Yet Western countries have rarely, if ever, been good about helping refugees in post-conflict environments, or devoting the requisite resources to alleviating poverty and the like. That will need to change, and it would be unimaginably catastrophic to ignore Darfur just because the fighting has stopped.

After all these years, Bush has found something to veto

| Thu May 4, 2006 7:49 PM EDT

Today, the U.S. Senate passed a $109 billion bill to pay for both the war in Iraq and hurricane relief in the United States, and George W. Bush has made it clear that he will veto it if it becomes law as is. "The House will not take up an emergency supplemental spending bill for Katrina and the war in Iraq that spends one dollar more than what the president asks for," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Period."

The Congressional Research Service says that the bill would bring total Iraq war spending to about $430 billion. In addition to $28.9 billion for other hurricane relief,, the bill includes $4 billion for levees and flood control projects in Louisiana. It includes $65.7 billion for war operations. Bush says that the bill is supposed to cover emergency spending, and that the Senate has filled it with "unecessary spending."

Speaking today on WWL Radio, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said that if she has to, she will use the courts to obtain the funding that Louisiana needs to rebuild. It is now an indisputable fact that the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally failed to provide appropriate protection for New Orleans when it constructed levees and floodwalls. No whistleblower came forward to tell the public what was going on, and as a result, we have the devastation that was caused during Hurricane Katrina. To make matters worse, the Orleans Parish Levee Board did a terrible job of inspecting the levees.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, as in the rest of the nation, today was a National Day of Prayer, which da po' blog thinks may not be enough for the people of Louisiana.

And now for some good news: Word came today from Washington that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is being deauthorized ASAP. There will be no more dredging, nad MRGO will probably be closed in the near future.

What the Media Finds Funny

Thu May 4, 2006 3:21 PM EDT

Stephen Colbert's recent skewering of the president and the press at the White House Correspondent's Dinner prompted a number of journalists to declare that Colbert "just wasn't that funny." (Lloyd Grove suggested that the lampoon had "bombed badly.") But while mainstream outlets have all but ignored or belittled the event, web writers have rushed to Colbert's defense. Yesterday Salon wrote a cover story on the media's efforts to sweep Colbert under the rug—and got more traffic for this than for any story since breaking the Abu Ghraib torture photos—while the liberal blogosphere has been talking about him nonstop.

The disdain for Colbert's remarks, most of which touched on issues that were all perfectly valid and matters of public record (NSA spying, the energy crisis, global warming, FEMA and Joseph Wilson), raises the question: what does the media find funny? Apparently, it's when President Bush makes fun of those missing WMDs. According to Alternet:

It occurred on March 24, 2004. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Washington Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1,500. The main speaker: President George W. Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead. That night, in the middle of his stand-up routine before the (perhaps tipsy) journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."
Since Bush's parody—which received none of the media backlash that Colbert's did—1,900 more Americans have died in Iraq. Yet two years later Colbert points out indisputable failures of the administration and it's widely considered "unfunny."