Newsweek's Michael Hirsh is trying to figure out what the Bush administration is planning to do about Iraq. Best of luck to him. I gave up this game long ago, mainly because the administration doesn't even seem to have a plan, apart from muddling through and perpetually hoping that in six months time, things will get magically better. And that still seems to be the case:

So the very best that can be hoped for in Iraq, probably for many years to come, will be a non-bloodbath, a low-level civil war that doesn't get worse than the current cycle of insurgent killings and Shiite death-squad reprisals. This is bad, but it could be much worse. Containment, says one Army officer involved in training in Iraq, is at least "doable." He adds: "The only real question is: How do we keep Iraq from becoming a permissive environment for terrorists."
People will keep killing each other, sure, but at least it won't be some unspecified really large number of people killing each other. That's the plan. Although there still seem to be some technical problems:
The U.S. military is already gearing up for this outcome, but not for "victory" any longer. It is consolidating to several "superbases" in hopes that its continued presence will prevent Iraq from succumbing to full-flown civil war and turning into a failed state. Pentagon strategists admit they have not figured out how to move to superbases, as a way of reducing the pressure—and casualties—inflicted on the U.S. Army, while at the same time remaining embedded with Iraqi police and military units. It is a circle no one has squared.
Er, perhaps that's because it can't be done? It seems awfully hard for the military to stay out of the way and avoiding getting its soldiers killed and continue trying to influence events on the ground in Iraq. Pentagon strategists seem to agree. Really, no one seems to know what to do anymore. On the bright side, Ralph Peters says that this year more Americans will die in highway accidents than get killed in Iraq so I guess we can all clap our hands now...

Last Mother's Day, Save the Children released some statistics noting that infant mortality rates in the United States were ridiculously high compared to other "developed" countries, especially if you just look at infant mortality rates among African-Americans or Native Americans.

Now for a long time, many critics of these numbers have suggested that it's all a mirage, a trick of accounting, supposedly caused by the fact that other countries don't try to save as many babies as we do and hence count all those extra deaths as stillbirths. But over at Alas, a Blog, Ampersand looks at this claim and finds that it's quite wrong; the United States really does have a much higher infant mortality rate than other industrialized countries. Whether that's because of our inequitable health care system or environmental factors or pervasive poverty is up in the air, but there's no question that the problem exists.

I've never known anyone who was objectively pro-litter. Litter's awful. It's disgusting. We're all agreed. But it seems that the nationwide anti-litter campaign, which began in the 1950s, was a bit less pure in its origins. According to Heather Rogers' Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, the entire anti-litter movement was initiated by a consortium of industry groups who wanted to divert the nation's attention away from even more radical legislation to control the amount of waste these companies were putting out. It's a good story worth retelling.

Since the opening of the Grantanamo prison, 38 of the 759 prisoners have been deemed "no longer enemy combatants." Right now there are four men at Guantanamo who have been cleared of all charges, but who have no idea when they will be released.

Many of the men who have been cleared of charges were rounded up by profiteers on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and sold to U.S. or Northern Alliance forces, according to The Washington Post. The going prices were rumored to be $25,000 for each Arab, and $15,000 for each Afghan. Some were Arabs who "stood out," and some were arrested by the Pakistani police.

Every now and again when I (or some other lily-livered appeaser) suggest that the Bush administration sit down and try to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program, someone points out that the United States already is talking to Iran, and already has offered lots of good things in exchange for disarmament. But that's not quite right. As the AP reported yesterday, Condoleezza Rice has categorically ruled out offering "a guarantee against attacking or undermining Iran's hard-line government in exchange for having Tehran curtail its nuclear program."

It's obvious that this is the one thing of value we can really offer Iran. The United States has already shown a propensity for abandoning all common sense and invading countries in the Middle East for no good reason. Absent guarantees that we won't do that again, it's not totally irrational that Iran wants a nuclear deterrent. Now granted, there's now nearly enough trust on either side at the moment for security guarantees to be very plausible. And maybe they wouldn't work. Nevertheless, so long as neither side is making any sort of move towards this eventual goal, all the various offers and counter-offers being floated in the press are simply charades.

This is several weeks old, but Peter Beinart's column on immigration and national security made a very good point. Every single politician in Washington, pro-immigration or no, claims that we need to secure our border with Mexico so that "terrorists" don't sneak in. That's one of the stated rationales that restrictionists offer for wanting to build a wall and militarize our border, but even people like Ted Kennedy argue that our porous Mexican border "directly threatens national security."

Yet as Beinart notes, potential terrorists are really, really unlikely to make the dangerous trek across the hot desert to enter the United States through the Mexican border, especially when they can just do what they've always done and walk in through the even-more-porous Canadian border. Or they can do what the 9/11 hijackers did and simply enter the country on student visas. Whatever the solution might be—Beinart suggests national ID cards—it's not a Berlin-style wall along the southern border.

Meanwhile, if someone wanted to sneak, say, some sort of nuclear device into this country, why go through Mexico? They could always just ship it in a cargo container, seeing as how our ports are totally unsecured and the ruling party in Washington has time and time again scotched proposals to pay for more security. Normally when this topic comes up I encourage everyone to read John Mueller's essay on how the threat of terrorism is fairly overblown (at least unless we do something crazy in response—like militarize our southern border), but even those who want to obsess about it should at least note that the Mexican border ranks relatively low on the list of our security concerns.

Since we're always looking for an excuse to hock our oceans package, I figured I'd link to this New York Times story about how rising ocean temperatures are threatening coral reefs in Florida. During outbreaks of coral bleaching, "which are directly tied to rising ocean temperatures and reach their height in the warmest months, vast fields of coral shed their gaudy colors, turn bone-white and die." It's becoming an increasingly common phenomenon of late; about 16 percent of the world's reefs were damaged by bleaching due to El Nino in 1998.

Sadly, the story doesn't really explain why anyone, apart from snorkelers, should care about coral reefs. But apart from being pretty and making for cool photos, they're quite valuable: helping shelter regions such as Florida from hurricanes and the like and sustaining fisheries and other crucial ecosystems. They're kind of a big deal. I notice that the Times also seemed to tiptoe around probably links between coral bleaching and global warming, which is rather odd seeing as how the lead sentence promised to take up just that very topic.

A law passed in Florida last year that fines nonpartisan voter registration activities under certain circumstances, is being challenged in U.S. District Court by the League of Women Voters and several other nonpartisan organizations. The law has forced the League and similar groups to discontinue all voter registration drives, while permitting partisan groups to hold such drives.

In 2004, over half a million Floridians were assisted in voter registration by nonpartisan citizens groups. The 2005 law is described as a reform: A $5,000 fine is imposed for each voter registration application that a nonpartisan group fails to submit. There are less severe fines for missing registration deadlines, which are enforced even in the event of something as catastophic as a hurricane.

The plaintiffs, however, say that the severity of the law has forced them to shut down their voter registration efforts. The suit is being filed on the grounds that the law "violates U.S. free speech rights and disproportionately discriminates against low-income, minority, disabled, and other marginalized citizens in Florida who rely on plaintiffs and similar groups to help them overcome barriers to registering to vote."

Urban sprawl isn't so bad, it's just misunderstood. That's what Robert Bruegmann's arguing in a cover story for the American Enterprise Magazine. Needless to say, I totally disagree. The essay spends a lot of time fending off complaints that sprawl is ugly—"Class-based aesthetic objections to sprawl have always been the most important force motivating critics"—but then glosses over the really crucial objection here: namely, that sprawled-out cities use up a lot of energy. Bad news when we're burning up the planet.

Yesterday Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate that maybe the United States won't withdraw large numbers of troops from Iraq this year after all. Um, okay… but are there actually enough soldiers to keep around in Iraq indefinitely? Last June, retired General Barry McCaffrey said we can expect a "meltdown of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve in the coming 36 months" unless the military draws down from Iraq. At some point one would think we're not going to have enough soldiers to conduct an endless occupation. But it's okay: Rumsfeld says Iraq has entered a "hopeful new phase." Once again.