Political MoJo

Wal-Mart By the Numbers

| Mon Sep. 19, 2005 5:29 PM EDT

For pure, unbridled Wal-Mart bashing, this compilation (PDF) of figures, studies, and talking points from the Brennan Center for Justice has all the information you need. It's not fair and balanced, but has some great tidbits as: "In a study of over 3,000 counties, researchers found that counties with more Wal-Mart stores had a larger increase (or a smaller reduction) in the poverty rate between 1987 and 1999 than did counties with fewer or no Wal-Mart stores."

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More FEMA

| Mon Sep. 19, 2005 2:50 PM EDT

Swopa notices that the media hasn't yet bought the Bush administration's line on Katrina—namely, that FEMA more or less performed its job, while state and local government officials dropped the ball. As both the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have noted, "FEMA has continued to stumble" in the post-disaster relief phase.

Just Perverse

| Mon Sep. 19, 2005 2:11 PM EDT

Time has a fascinating cover feature this week on the missteps made by the United States in the early months of the war in Iraq. The story has endured countless retellings by now, but this one adds a few new crucial details, especially on how the CPA failed to negotiate an agreement with the major Sunni tribes early during the occupation. But the last two paragraphs in particular—a classic "What is to be done?" moment—merit discussion:

Another hot debate in the intelligence community is whether to make a major change in the counterinsurgency strategy--to stop the aggressive sweeps through insurgent-riddled areas, like the recent offensive in Tall 'Afar, and try to concentrate troops and resources with the aim of improving security and living conditions in population centers like Baghdad. "We've taken Samarra four times, and we've lost it four times," says an intelligence officer. "We need a new strategy."

But the Pentagon leadership is unlikely to support a strategy that concedes broad swaths of territory to the enemy. In fact, none of the intelligence officers who spoke with TIME or their ranking superiors could provide a plausible road map toward stability in Iraq. It is quite possible that the occupation of Iraq was an unwise proposition from the start, as many U.S. allies in the region warned before the invasion. Yet, despite their gloom, every one of the officers favors continuing--indeed, augmenting--the war effort. If the U.S. leaves, they say, the chaos in central Iraq could threaten the stability of the entire Middle East. And al-Qaeda operatives like al-Zarqawi could have a relatively safe base of operations in the Sunni triangle. "We have never taken this operation seriously enough," says a retired senior military official with experience in Iraq. "We have never provided enough troops. We have never provided enough equipment, or the right kind of equipment. We have never worked the intelligence part of the war in a serious, sustained fashion. We have failed the Iraqi people, and we have failed our troops."

So to recap: none of the intelligence officers here, or their ranking superiors, can "provide a plausible road map toward stability in Iraq." Nevertheless, everyone "favors continuing—indeed augmenting—the war effort." That's just perverse. So perverse, one wonders what's going on here. Unlike politicians, or prominent liberal hawks trying to schedule TV appearances, these intelligence officers presumably don't need to save face by declaring that we must stay the course. If they truly thought that Iraq was doomed—i.e., that chaos in central Iraq would threaten the stability of the Middle East and al-Qaeda was destined to seize a safe base of operations—regardless of whether the United States stayed or left, they could presumably just say so. But they didn't. That means they either genuinely think muddling along under the current course is better than leaving because that's a sound assessment, or else they're simply unable to contemplate bad things happening. If the latter, they better start contemplating.

In the past, people like Anthony Cordesman have argued rather convincingly—to me, at least—that the military could more or less muddle through the current course, training Iraqi security forces and the like, and come through with at least a stable Iraq in tow. But the fact that not a single intelligence officer can "provide a plausible road map toward stability" changes that picture in a big way. These folks have screwed up before, but they seem to know more than most. Meanwhile, Elaine Grossman of Inside the Pentagon reports that behind the scenes, officers are cautioning that "even under the best circumstances the emerging Iraqi army does not appear ready to fill the security vacuum left by departing U.S. troops." Peter Galbraith says the security forces are segregated into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, and a cohesive, national Iraqi Army is nowhere to be found: "There is exactly one mixed battalion." Potentially, announcing a U.S. withdrawal will make this situation much, much worse and fracture the army even more, as various militias gird themselves for what they see as an inevitable expansion of the current civil war after the U.S. leaves, which girding only makes that war inevitable. But it's not clear that things will get any better if we stay around. Where's the "plausible road map"? Nowhere.

Where's That Army?

| Mon Sep. 19, 2005 1:36 PM EDT

The Washington Post this morning on the need to create a multi-ethnic Iraqi security force to pacify Iraq:

The answer [to defeating the insurgency in Iraq], military officials and analysts say, lies in something the U.S. and Iraqi governments haven't been able to achieve: the creation of a truly national army that includes Sunni Arabs for deployment into Anbar and other hot spots, and of a national government that gives the Sunni minority back a share of political power.

So how's that going? Here's one report, from Inside the Pentagon's Elaine Grossman:

Behind the scenes, many officers are cautioning that even under the best circumstances the emerging Iraqi army does not appear ready to fill the security vacuum left by departing U.S. troops, regardless of Casey's earlier optimism.

While selected Iraqi units appear ready to fight without U.S. support, many of them are more loyal to their tribes than to a unified army, officials say. For example, with considerable support from the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, units drawn primarily from the Kurdish pesh merga — a militia reportedly feared by many Arab fighters — recently led the charge in the Tal Afar area of Iraq, where hundreds of enemy fighters have been killed or detained.

When U.S. commanders have attempted to partner with Iraqi units, at times they have found they could not rely on their local counterparts to fight against insurgents, several officers point out. In Sunni-dominated areas, American leaders have sometimes imported Shiite or Kurdish troops from other regions to help counter the resistance, as is the case in Tal Afar, officials say.

Here's another look, from Peter Galbraith's latest New York Review of Books piece:

The problems with the Iraqi army go beyond the many opportunities for corruption. In this deeply divided country, people are loyal to their community but not to Iraq, and the army reflects these divisions. Of the 115 army battalions, sixty are made up of Shiites and located in southern Iraq, forty-five are Sunni Arab and stationed in the Sunni governorates, and nine are Kurdish peshmerga, although they are officially described as the part of the Iraqi army stationed in Kurdistan. There is exactly one mixed battalion (with troops contributed from the armed forces of the main political parties) and it is in Baghdad. While the officer corps is a little more heterogeneous, very few Kurds or Shiites are willing to serve as officers of Sunni Arab units fighting Sunni Arab insurgents. There are no Arab officers in the Kurdish battalions, and Kurdistan law prohibits the deployment of the Iraqi army within Kurdistan without permission of the Kurdistan National Assembly.

It's not going very well at all. Galbraith resurrects his oft-repeated plan to partition Iraq into three states—Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab, and Kurd—though this runs into some rather obvious problems. How do you divide the mixed cities—like Baghdad, which has both Sunnis and Shii, or Mosul, which has large Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite populations? Elaine Grossman's piece is interesting: it seems that some officers believe that the Iraqi Army will only stand up and fight for itself if the United States recedes into the background; others think this is madness and the whole thing would disintegrate without heavy U.S. support.

North Korea Disarming? Maybe.

| Mon Sep. 19, 2005 12:47 PM EDT

Back before the election, this blog advocated craven, craven appeasement towards the North Korean regime over the latter's nuclear program, and now that approach seems to have borne some very tentative fruit:

North Korea agreed Monday to end its nuclear weapons program in return for security, economic and energy benefits, potentially easing tensions with the United States after a two-year standoff over the North's efforts to build atomic bombs.

The United States, North Korea and four other nations participating in negotiations in Beijing signed a draft accord in which the North promised to abandon efforts to produce nuclear weapons and re-admit international inspectors to its nuclear facilities.

Foreign powers said they would provide aid, diplomatic assurances and security guarantees and consider North Korea's demands for a light-water nuclear reactor.

The only thing to be said about this is that, as I said, it's very tentative. Once the parties start haggling over verification and inspectors, demands and counter-demands will likely get a lot thornier and who knows where that will go? Also of concern: the breakthrough this time around seemed to come when the United States said it would "consider" providing light-water nuclear reactors—reactors that can provide electricity and are allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—to North Korea. Note that this offer also sat at the center of the Agreed Framework between the Clinton administration and Kim Jong Il in 1994, but that deal fell through first when Congress refused to fund the light-water reactors, and normalization between the two countries fell through. Getting the party of Tom DeLay to fund a nice nuclear-powered Christmas present for Kim Jong Il seems like, um, a bit of a feat, even for Bush. Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, obviously has no qualms about jerking people around.

Anyway, one could harp on the Bush administration for taking three years to return things roughly to where they were in 2002—only now, North Korea has long since carried away those plutonium fuel rods that were once under IAEA lock and key, and could conceivably keep them hidden in an undisclosed location, even if inspectors are allowed back in the country. But whatever, the administration deserves credit for pushing things this far. For awhile, it didn't seem like China was willing to flex its muscles and push North Korea towards an agreement—which was precisely why many observers, John Kerry included, thought the six-party talks had failed—but China's leaders seems to have changed their mind. Why they did so is an interesting question.

What Happened to OTA?

| Fri Sep. 16, 2005 5:23 PM EDT

I haven't read Chris Mooney's new book, The Republican War on Science yet, but a piece he recently wrote for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists probably gives a flavor of the argument. Mooney reports on how, after the GOP took the House in 1994, the party quickly abolished the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in order to save a few measly million bucks—peanuts in the grand scheme of government spending. Prior to that, OTA had provided Congress with comprehensive and unbiased scientific assessments of various public policy issues; yet conservatives harking back to the 1980s had despised the agency after it voiced skepticism over the feasibility of the Reagan administration's Star Wars project.

The problem, of course, is that no other agency is currently doing the sort of publicly available, easily readable, comprehensive assessments that OTA could do. The National Academy of Sciences does very extensive studies that take years to do, not always appropriate for judging policy debates, while the Congressional Research Service does more "he said, she said" type reports, laying out the arguments on all sides in brief, rather than sorting through the bickering and giving solid answers as to who's right and wrong. Without agencies like the OTA, political groups and partisan think tanks are free to seize the mantle of science with their own, often biased, scientific assessments of policy. As a result, science in Washington has become truly postmodern—with truth claimed by those who can shout the loudest, rather than those who are actually, you know, right.

The irony here is that it's not entirely clear that the Gingrich Republicans intended all of this—mainly they just wanted some agency to kill in order to look like they were cutting government waste, and the OTA had irked Reagan less than a decade earlier. Gingrich himself was and is a technology buff. But it certainly goes hand in hand with what Mooney describes as conservative distrust of scientists and technocrats, and the overriding belief that the free market and business interests provide the real driving force behind scientific progress—even if actual scientists are saying otherwise.

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'Neck Deep in Toxic Gumbo'

| Fri Sep. 16, 2005 3:29 PM EDT

Over at AlterNet, Nicole Makris has an important piece on the environmental and health problems lurking in the wake of Katrina, including the adverse effects the toxic flooding will have on Louisiana's already-polluted water supply. One EPA official she talks to brings up a good point: After 9/11, when the World Trade Center collapsed in New York, the White House ordered the EPA to be downplay concerns about air quality around the disaster site. Three years later, 88 percent of 9/11 first responders were found to have had respiratory problems from breathing in the asbestos and other particles released into the air. But science and health concerns took a backseat to the need to "reassure" people that everything was just fine.

So here's the question: The White House quite obviously wants to rebuild and repopulate New Orleans as quickly as possible—President Bush, we are often told, loves "results." In the rush, will the administration, and the EPA, pressure people to return before the health risks have been fully addressed? Will the workers who are now trying to clean out the city be given adequate equipment and protection? 9/11 doesn't provide an encouraging precedent, and as Makris notes, that wasn't half as bad as New Orleans. Meanwhile, it seems the administration is working overtime to demonize environmentalists and blame them for the New Orleans flood, so it doesn't seem likely that concerns about the "toxic gumbo" swirling around in the city will get much attention.

Mad Scientists, Unite!

| Fri Sep. 16, 2005 2:13 PM EDT

So Bush gave his big post-Katrina speech yesterday, pledging a big reconstruction effort that will have Karl Rove running things, ushering in the long march toward authoritarianism via "greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces" at home, and generally trying to get people to like him again. Looking at more substantive matters, though, Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post gives a rundown of some of the possible problems with Bush's specific policy proposals:

1) Bush plans to "give away federal land through a lottery to low-income evacuees who pledge to build homes on the property." This one doesn't seem very objectionable on the surface, though Bruce Katz of Brookings worries that it doesn't come with assistance to help people build or maintain their houses. (And what about renters?)

2) "Bush also proposed to create a Gulf Opportunity Zone, or GO Zone, in which businesses would get substantial tax breaks to invest in equipment and build structures." Some economists think these zones just amount to tax breaks for businesses that would have invested there anyway. Harold Meyerson notes that these zones, first proposed by Jack Kemp in the 1980s, did little to revitalize poor urban areas. Counteracting any hypothetical surge in investment, meanwhile, is the fact that Bush has suspended prevailing wage laws for federal reconstruction. (Which may create its own hassles since, as Nathan Newman points out, by law, service workers would still receive prevailing wages but construction workers would not—likely leading to complaints from all corners.)

3) "Bush proposed worker recovery accounts of as much as $5,000, which evacuees could use to finance job training, child care, transportation or any other impediment to a new job." This is a longstanding Bush idea that no doubt he'd like to experiment with before pushing it on Congress, but it doesn't seem to be a good one. The Economic Policy Institute has noted that the accounts "are too small to purchase meaningful training but just large enough to discourage workers from pursuing cost-effective, short-term services."

So basically the area devastated by Katrina will be the perfect testing-ground for some half-baked conservative ideas and tax breaks in dire need of a laboratory and a few test subjects. No wonder he put Karl Rove in charge. On the other hand, Bush's address had precisely zero words about lending a hand to those who might go into bankruptcy as a result of Katrina, and nothing about extending health insurance to those who have lost their jobs and livelihood. (One idea, of course, would be to temporarily extend Medicaid, but of course he said nothing about it.) Sorry, I don't agree with those who call Bush's speech "Democratic"—though having a bunch of GOP political hacks running around, spending freely on boondoggles and half-baked schemes to enrich their friends will give certainly big-government liberalism a bad name from now until eternity. Maybe that was the point.

Remembering Hurricane Pam

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 7:45 PM EDT

Hurricane Pam, a slow-moving Category 3 storm, hit New Orleans with 120 mph winds. Twenty inches of rain fell in some places, and the storm surge topped the levees. Over a million residents evacuated, and between 500,000 and 600,000 buildings were destroyed. Some say that 60,000 people died; others say the death toll was between 25,000 and 100,000.

If you're trying to figure out why you've never heard of Hurricane Pam, let me explain: Unless you work for FEMA or live in Louisiana, you couldn't be expected to know about it. Hurricane Pam was a hypothetical storm created for a 2004 tabletop exercise done by FEMA and Louisiana officials. The Hurricane Pam scenario involved thirteen parishes, and launched an action plan that included, among other things:

*The establishment of 1,000 shelters, 784 of which were immediately identified

*The identification of resources to support these shelters for 100 days

*A plan for replenishing resources after a 3 to 5 day period

*The identification of search and rescue personnel

*The establishment of a plan to remove people from harm's way--it was estimated that 100,000 in New Orleans would not have cars

*The implementation of an immunization program

*Obtaining emergency preparedness relief staff

*A plan for getting supplies to hospitals and getting patients to temporary medical units

*Establishing a system for debris removal

*Development and staffing of temporary schools

Hurricane Pam was deemed a success by everyone who attended the exercise. Hurricane Katrina, a fast-moving storm which shifted from a Category 5 to a Category 4 and moved eastward right before it landed, did not match Pam on paper, but its results were very similar. What was different was the implementation of the plan, which fell apart when a real storm landed on the Gulf Coast.

Not Over Yet?

| Thu Sep. 15, 2005 6:04 PM EDT

Two links to Josh Marshall in one day, I know, but he seems wrong when he says that the Social Security battle is over: "Not forever. But at least for the next few years." Really? I mean, the odds seem long that the GOP will want to inch near any sort of privatization bill right now, but nevertheless, the Republican leadership hasn't explicitly given the battle up. This Bloomberg piece offers a variety of different quotes, including one from House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, who notes that he's "optimistic" about passing some sort of limited privatization bill; presumably he plans to stuff it with enough pension-related goodies to try and peel off Democratic support.

More notably, the president hasn't given it up. Right before Katrina struck, Bush was cavorting around at various events for seniors, touting his Medicare prescription plan and promising that they would have nothing to lose from privatization—only those under 55 would get screwed. He seems serious. Now granted, the president lives in a cocoon, and would certainly be the last to know that most Americans don't want to abolish Social Security, that the GOP's losing this fight, and that he's crazy for trying. Still, declaring victory seems a bit premature.