Political MoJo

Fighting AIDS with Morals

Wed May 4, 2005 4:12 PM EDT

This past March, the Bush administration was pressuring the UN to stop promoting needle-exchange programs in the campaign to decrease HIV/AIDS worldwide. Now the administration is continuing on with its abstinence-only bent.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has, in the past few years, been offering grants to help other countries fight HIV and AIDS, but only on the condition that they condemn prostitution and keep funds from the treatment of sex workers. The BBC reports: "Much of the spending is being channeled to programs that advocate abstinence, rather than condom use, and cannot be used…to treat prostitutes." Brazil recently turned down some $40 million in USAID funds because of concerns that this clause would neuter their treatment policies which have been widely successful in keeping infection rates down. Indeed, the Brazilian AIDS program is seen as a model for other countries to follow. And one of the key components of their success has been treating infected sex workers and their clients.

While Brazil will be losing out on crucial funds from USAID, other countries, including Germany, are helping to fund Brazil's programs, without demanding that the country compromise their most successful strategies. But other countries may not be in a position to turn down U.S. funding. USAID's faith-based initiatives are favoring certain groups, mostly those whose abstinence-only policies are not as successful as targeted campaigns focusing on high-risk populations (sex workers, intravenous drug users) and condom education. Check out a 2002 list of countries that received USAID money—and more importantly, who is receiving the money. It's not likely that the Diocese of Kigali in Rwanda will find any problem with passing up educating and treating Rwandan sex workers for abstinence-only education. Pressuring countries into overlooking crucial strategies (or selectively giving the money to people who will) that have proven effective in the name of "morals" is not simply irresponsible. Rather, it effectively confers a huge share of responsibility for the lives that could have been saved squarely on this administration's shoulders.

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A Stem Cell Canard Returns!

| Wed May 4, 2005 2:59 PM EDT

In the National Review Kathryn Jean Lopez is touting, once again, adult-stem-cell research as the wave of the future, arguing that "embryonic-stem-cell is not the only hope for mankind," and hence, there's no need to pursue it. After all, adult stem cells are already being used for a variety of cures, whereas no one has ever been healed by embryonic stem cells. Well, okay, but nothing here logically rules out the future utility or even necessity of embryonic cells. Obviously the best thing to do from a scientific standpoint would be to pursue both—which, as it happens, is exactly what the International Society for Stem Cell Research has recommended.

Lopez then cites the pro-adult-stem-cell work of Michael Fumento, whose work on stem cell research was reviewed in Nature Biotech thusly:

The imprint of Fumento's worldview is also evident in his chapter on stem cell research. It is clear that he finds embryonic stem cell research morally problematic. Yet, according to Fumento, the ethical dilemma over funding for embryo research could be rendered obsolete if focus were placed instead on adult stem cell research. Starting with the answer that adult stem cell research is good and embryonic stem cell research is bad, Fumento devotes his chapter on the topic to arguing that only adult stem cell research offers the potential for treatments and cures within the next few years, whereas much doubt clouds the possibility for success with embryonic research.

He also attempts to debunk the claim that adult stem cells are more limited in their plasticity than their embryonic counterparts, and argues that adult stem cells "may be superior in all ways." Fumento insists that the embryonic stem cell research movement has been spearheaded by scientists with strong economic ties to the research, and that both journalists and politicians have been hoodwinked by the appeals of these scientists and their "disinformation" campaign.

Okay, so Fumento seems less a dispassionate scientist and more of an ideologue, but that doesn't mean he's wrong about everything. But it's also a bit silly to ignore the strong scientific case for embryonic stem cell research: namely, that they are far more plastic than adult stem cells, can be used to generate any tissue in the body, and hence may one day be far more useful for curing degenerative diseases. Adult stem cells are almost certainly not "superior in all ways," although a slew of right-wing researchers keep trumpeting shoddy results to try to prove otherwise. At any rate, the point here is that Lopez morally disapproves of embryonic-stem-cell research. Well, fine, but that's no excuse for pretending to have scientific "evidence" to back up those vague moral feelings.

The Airport Security Name Game

Tue May 3, 2005 3:48 PM EDT

Following 9/11, airports were on security lockdown. An era of arriving many hours before takeoff, in order to go through secondary and tertiary inspections, each with their own mind-boggling line, making the gate where your flight departed seem a veritable promised land. Since 9/11, I've noticed an evolution in airport security. Initially, the criteria for a secondary inspection ("stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, and your arms outstretched, please") seemed to be based largely on individual security officers' discretion. Hence my recollection of being asked to head to the line for a third security inspection after being told by the security officer that she "couldn't handle my name." (Still better than my brother's experience of being pulled over by a police officer and asked, before anything else, if he was Arab.) When I asked what the criteria was for selecting passengers for further inspection, she told me there were "a lot of reasons," and made it clear that if I kept up with this line of questioning, I may not get on my flight.

More impartial methods have since evolved. Now, your boarding ticket may be printed with an "s" indicating you have been selected for a random, more in-depth, security search. But it could be the case that airplane security has jumped from the absurdly subjective to the absurdly objective. Omar Khan, founder of an international business consultancy, today writes of his experience of being on the "master list" of those to be intensively inspected at airports. Khan writes that his highly common name ("In parts of the world, Omar Khan is as common a name as John Smith.") keeps every Omar Khan in security checks for 2 to 3 hours. Khan notes that this kind of search is a waste of resources. U.S. immigration officials told Khan that they had to process the same people time and again because they were not allowed to use their own judgment, and there is no process to avoid the check by obtaining any paperwork in advance. Even pilots and immigration supervisors are repeatedly subject to these checks despite clearing the security checks each time they travel.

There is certainly something to be said for thoroughness when our security is at stake. But it is clearly inefficient, and indeed, dangerous, to allocate limited resources to redundant checks. Khan lays out a strategy that he discussed with immigration officials on how to avoid unnecessarily wasting their time (as well as the many Omar Khans' time) while ensuring safety. It's worth a read. With funding for airport security currently in jeopardy, it's all the more crucial to find the necessary balance between redundant security objectivity, and the sometimes subjective judgment of well-trained security officials—especially since the "no fly" database of names has proven to be quite flawed due to infrequent updating. A process to enable those on the "no fly" list to obtain documentation that would enable them to be quickly cleared by security officials is just common sense, and would result in a system to better "handle" those with non-Anglo names.

What Robin Hood?

| Tue May 3, 2005 2:17 PM EDT

As usual, E.J. Dionne has a wonderful column on Social Security, lambasting the press for praising the president's supposedly Robin Hood-like proposal for Social Security. Progressive? Please. Taking an axe to every middle-class man, woman, and child in America, and then telling those making under $20,000 a year that they'll be spared from the slaughter, is not what normal people consider progressive. Luckily, Dionne's not among the deluded:

Bush has refused to put his own tax cuts on the table as part of a Social Security fix. Repealing Bush's tax cuts for those earning more than $350,000 a year could cover all or most of the 75-year Social Security shortfall. Keeping part of the estate tax in place could cover a quarter to half of the shortfall. Some of the hole could be filled in by a modest surtax on dividends or capital gains.

But Bush is resolute about protecting the interests of the truly rich by making sure that any taxes on wealth are ruled out of the game from the beginning. The Social Security cuts he is proposing for the wealthy are a pittance compared with the benefits they get from his tax cuts. The president is keeping his eye on what really matters to him.

Ayup. And this underscores how ridiculous the whole debate is. The president has said that "all solutions are on the table" for fixing Social Security, but at the same time he's flatly ruled out tax increases, as well as dedicating any general tax revenue to fixing Social Security. (Unless, of course, we're privatizing the program, in which case he apparently has no problem funneling in trillions of dollars.) Well, that leaves only one option: benefit cuts. And since middle- and low-earners receive most of the program's benefits, that means benefit cuts for them. It doesn't have to be that way, but that's what Bush has chosen. And sure, if you assume from the start that benefit cuts are the only option, then within that framework you're going to look awfully compassionate for shielding the poor from the worst of those cuts. May as well laud a murderer for his "thoughtfulness" because he takes care that no blood stains the carpet.

Who Replaces DeLay?

| Mon May 2, 2005 8:31 PM EDT

It's hard to follow all the ins and outs of the Tom DeLay scandal, but one question I've long wondered is: Should the big guy get ousted, or forced to resign, or whatever form of ignominy will so sweetly smack him upside the head, well, who would replace him? Thankfully, Brian Montopoli did the legwork over in Slate. Seems that most of the replacement candidates, should they get the job, could step right in and do exactly what DeLay was doing—enforce the strict inter-cronyism between K Street and Capitol Hill, run the House with an iron-and-elephant-sized fist, and ensure that no piece of corporate pork gets left behind—and they could do it without suffering from the constant stench of corruption that seems to follow DeLay around wherever he tromps. Quite the deal!

So at one level it seems like the House GOP Leadership is a mostly well-oiled machine that could keep purring along just fine without DeLay. Maybe. On the other hand, the Bug Man's fall could pave the way for some always-entertaining inter-Republican mud-wrestling for power, the sort of thing that could render the whole caucus filthy, slipping all over each other, and wholly preoccupied for a good long while. Now that would be a grand day in Washington.

Sweet, Sweet Strategic Clarity...

| Mon May 2, 2005 8:12 PM EDT

My colleague Onnesha is fond of pointing out that the vague assumptions that undergird the "war on terror" can lead to all sorts of strategic blunders. Well, here's another one, as reported by Joseph Braude in the New Republic. Apparently the U.S. is trying to induce various Arab countries to cooperate with NATO, sharing intelligence and the like, in order to hunt down various Islamist terrorists. Okay.

But over the past few months, the administration seems to have shifted its grand strategy a bit. To judge from various State Department announcements, along with America's recent semi-embrace of both HAMAS and Hezbollah as viable political entities, it seems we're no longer concerned with radical Islamic groups per se. No, the real targets have become, as USAID administrator Andrew Natsios said last week, "autocratic governments led in many instances by militantly secular figures." That is, the root causes of Islamic extremism.

Well, fair enough—and to some extent, I think this is a sound idea, in certain situations. The problem here is that it's awfully difficult to get Arab despots to cooperate with NATO in hunting down dead-enders from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups if those same despots now need to be worried that NATO cooperation is just a backdoor means of undermining their rule. Certainly that's what Arab liberals are hoping will happen. So it's no surprise that one Egyptian foreign ministry adviser responded angrily to the new policy shift: "We were surprised that [NATO] has decided that it has a role in the political process, and in the process of democratic reform." Oops. That doesn't quite sound like a despot (er... make that "friend-of-despot") ready to name names and share intelligence.

At any rate, the point here is that we really ought to decide what, exactly, our priorities for Middle Eastern policy are. No kidding, I know, but still. Do we want to put overt pressure on Arab dictatorships to change their ways, and side with Islamist groups such as HAMAS and Hezbollah, so long as they contribute to the great tide of reform? Or, alternatively, do we strengthen our alliances with Arab dictatorships in order to hunt down al Qaeda and other militant groups, alienating Islamists in the process? Or, perhaps, a little of both? (As Braude points out, different Arab countries are, well, different: the small Gulf monarchies, for instance, will probably cooperate with NATO no matter what because they're most concerned about al Qaeda and aren't too worried about U.S. pressure to reform.) It's also worth noting that those Arab liberals may actually be right on: as Steven Cook has argued, despot-friendly militaries are often a prime force for modernization and reform, and increased NATO cooperation with various Middle Eastern armies may be the best "sneaky" way to promote change in some instances.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes all of these various goals contradict, as Braude shows, especially if the Bush administration remains unclear on what, exactly we hope to achieve in the Middle East. On that note, Nadezhda's long post on a possible "marginalization" strategy that's emerging in the region is well worth reading.

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No Asylum For You

| Mon May 2, 2005 7:54 PM EDT

Sam Rosenfeld has the latest on the REAL ID Act still being pushed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrunner in the House. Now listen, we've said unkind things about the act in the past, but this Washington Post article may have persuaded me otherwise. I mean, come on. If a Cameroon dissident who's been beaten and raped in his home country wants to seek asylum in America, surely it's not too much to ask for him to provide documentary proof of said beatings and rapings before admitting him, is it? Why couldn't he have just videotaped it or something? Asylum-seekers these days, I tell ya...

What Nuclear Rights?

| Mon May 2, 2005 7:19 PM EDT

As a UN conference on nuclear weapons gets underway in New York, the Washington Post points out that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is far, far from perfect:

The treaty is considered one of the most successful arms-control agreements ever. But the basic bargain is often cited as its greatest flaw because countries can peacefully get a pathway to bomb-building [i.e. build reactors and make nuclear fuel] and then leave the NPT without penalty [in order to make bombs], as North Korea did two years ago.

Indeed, I've heard that criticism so often that I just assumed it was wholly true and the NPT really was an incredibly stupid idea. But today in the Wall Street Journal, two non-proliferation experts, Henry Skolski and George Perkovich, argue that the treaty malfunctions this way only because nations have allowed it to do so. They say it's a gross misreading for anyone to suggest that Iran has a "right" to its nuclear program under the NPT:

The NPT's history and common sense clarify why the right to peaceful nuclear energy is qualified. First, the NPT, to which Iran is a signatory, is a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, not a nuclear bartering tool… Second, if there are different ways to interpret a contract, the one that lends the greatest support to its provisions and prime intent is the one any sound lawyer or judge must back. Unfortunately, nuclear promoters and diplomats have disobeyed this sensible rule. When it comes to the NPT, they read the treaty's "inalienable right" to develop "peaceful nuclear energy" as being absolute. This is what leads them to conclude that a state has a right under the treaty to get everything up to but not including a complete nuclear weapon…

This reading of the treaty, besides making a hash of the NPT's intent to block bomb-makers, is simply wrong. Article IV of the NPT makes clear that non-nuclear weapons state members are free to exercise their right to develop peaceful nuclear energy, but only if they do so "in conformity" with the NPT's nonproliferation restrictions. Which restrictions are these? The first is the stipulation in Article II that nonweapons states are "not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons." The other is the requirement in Article III of the treaty that all nonweapons states must place all of their civil nuclear activities under International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards -- i.e., nuclear inspections geared "to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons."

Nuclear activities and materials that cannot be safeguarded, then, cannot count on being protected by the NPT.

That seems about right: The Non-Proliferation Treaty is only as powerful as the countries that enforce it, and the fiction that the NPT offers an "inalienable right" to nuclear power has crippled that enforcement effort. Good. Now three other things. First, in order to have any prayer of getting Iran to abide by this stronger reading of the NPT, a large number of NPT signatories are going to have to sign aboard. Good luck with that. Second, even if the whole world happened to declare Iran to be in violation of the intent of the NPT, that's certainly no guarantee Tehran would happily fork over its bomb-making materials and call it quits. Odds are the U.S. is going to have to wait until after the May Iranian elections, hope that a relative pragmatist like Akbar-Hashemi Rafsanjani comes to power, and then go full-out trying to negotiate various security assurances and other goodies in exchange for Iranian disarmament. What Kenneth Pollack calls the "Triple-Track Approach."

Oh, and third? Yes, well, just a note that enforcing a stricter reading of the NPT would be a whole lot easier if the United States wasn't so brazenly flouting the spirit of the treaty by developing new nuclear weapons and scuttling test-ban treaties left, right, and center. Wade Boese has more on this today in the American Prospect.

Good-bye Federalism

| Mon May 2, 2005 6:44 PM EDT

Now that the GOP controls all branches of the federal government, we've heard time and again the liberals are rediscovering the joys of federalism as a means of experimenting with their own progressive policies at a state level. On the other side of the aisle, as Susan Milligan reports in the Boston Globe, our Republican Congress has all but abandoned federalism, instead using New Deal-style powers in order to "quash state efforts to regulate industry." The brave crusade against clean air and children runs the gamut, from repealing state controls on engine emissions to preventing states from outlawing harmful drugs.

Now the natural thing to do would be to start screaming "hypocrites!" at every conservative you see, especially since it was George Bush himself who said back in 2001: "The framers of the Constitution did not believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful government." But faulting Republicans for not living up to their time-honored states'-rights principles isn't going to get anyone anywhere. As I've said before, this just isn't a debate between federalists and anti-federalists, it's a debate between those who think there should be economic standards and those who don't, and it's really being fought everywhere. Republicans are rightly worried that progressive state experiments could succeed and then bubble up to the federal level, so naturally they'll use every tool in their little Congressional toolkit to stomp these innovations out.

Guess who's championing worker safety?

| Mon May 2, 2005 4:00 PM EDT

You'll have to excuse me for being so jumpy, but every single time I hear that the Bush administration has done something good, I scrunch my eyes and wonder what the catch is. So it goes with this New York Times report today that various federal agencies are increasing cooperation to crack down on workplace violations:

With little fanfare and some adept bureaucratic maneuvering, a partnership between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], the Environmental Protection Agency and a select group of Justice Department prosecutors has been forged to identify and single out for prosecution the nation's most flagrant workplace safety violators.

The initiative does not entail new legislation or regulation. Instead, it seeks to marshal a spectrum of existing laws that carry considerably stiffer penalties than those governing workplace safety alone. They include environmental laws, criminal statutes more commonly used in racketeering and white-collar crime cases, and even some provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a corporate reform law.

Nathan Newman explains that the reason why this sort of coordination can be so effective is that when companies are found to be trampling all over workplace safety laws, "it's a good bet that the company is also violating environmental laws." Certainly something to keep in mind. But hey, why has there been so little fanfare about this? The OSHA administrator won't speak on the record about the initiative, and neither will the Labor Department's top lawyer. Are the technocrats in OSHA and the EPA, who are reportedly very enthusiastic about this new initiative, all afraid that Bush's corporate allies will get wind of what's going on and raise Big Business hell? More to the point, OSHA under the Bush administration has been notoriously awful on workplace protection issues, so one wonders why the sudden change of heart. At any rate, good news on the surface.