Friday, December 29, 2006

Authoritarian Russia

Here's a link to the piece I wrote last week for antiwar.com. It's about the Russian government's pressure on Royal Dutch Shell to give up its majority interest in a gas drilling and pipeline operation on Sakhalin Island, of the coast of Siberia. I think it's evidence of increasing authoritarianism in the Putin administration. And with the death of the old president of Turkmenistan, Russia is likely to look to increase its influence in that country (which has natural gas Russia would like to monopolize). Given that most of the rulers of the Central Asian "stans" are old codgers, several of whom were simply the old communist governors when the Soviet Union considered them part of its empire, the whole region could see some turmoil when they start to die off.

Faster spin cycle

With the 24/7 media, former President Ford went from benevolent healing statesman who saved the country to failed and inept but lovable president, all in about 36 hours after his death. In the old days it might have taken weeks for the media to perform that exercise in revisionism.

Iraq Study Group? What Iraq Study Group?

The Iraq Study Group – not the country’s first exercise in outsourcing important policy decisions to unelected ”wise men” who are reliable purveyors of conventional wisdom – produced what it called a comprehensive, integrated plan. The administration seems to be putting it up on a dart board and throwing darts blindfolded to see which suggestions it will pretend to implement. Ah, the wonders of democratic governance! Too bad Iraq can’t learn to do things so efficiently.

Censorship in Venezuela

Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is showing that like most virtually absolute rulers, his tendency is to get more absolute over time. It seems the more power these clowns have the more thin-skinned and absolutist they become. Chavez just won reelection by a considerable margin and his power is virtually unchallenged. But there's this pesky TV station that's aligned with the opposition, so he wants them silenced.

To be sure, Radio Caracas Television, which has been around since 1953, did support a 2003 "general strike" against Chavez that led to a failed coup attempt. So Chavez, in a speech to his troops, said its license was due for renewal in March and renewal would not be forthcoming. "There will be no new operating license for this coupist TV channel called RCTV," he crowed. "So go turn off the equipment."

This shows what can happen when the government licenses the media. What the government gives it can take away for the most blatantly political or arbitrary reason.

I doubt it would happen here, but if we were smart we would move quickly eliminate the government's power to license the broadcast media. The founders would have included them as part of "the press," about which "Congress shall make no law" restricting their freedom. A medium that depends on a license from government to operate is not genuinely independent.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Justice in Durham?

Well, the North Carolina Bar Association has filed ethics charges against Durham County DA Mike Nifong, who has so thoroughly disgraced himself in the Duke lacrosse player rape-charge case. Could this be the beginning of justice for this disgrace to the legal proession (which takes some doing)? Maybe not until he's run out of town on a rail.

Throttling milk drinkers

One of the more shameful actions Congress took last year (a more detailed version of the story is available here) was crushing an innovative dairyman who found a way around federal dairy regulations that artificially raise the price of milk and cost consumers, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, some $1.5 billion.

It was a bipartisan conspiracy, embodied in an amendment that was never subject to committee hearings through a procedure usually reserved for “non-controversial” legislation.

Hein Hettinga is a Dutch-born dairyman who started out as a hired hand in Southern California dairies and through entrepreneurial moxie came to own several dairies. Then he figured out a way around federal milk marketing regulations.

Passed in the 1930s when most dairies were small and localized, federal milk regulations guarantee a given price – a “floor” price, higher than the market would dictate, of course – for dairies who deliver raw milk to cooperatives or food processors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture enforces these prices through milk “marketing orders.” Defenders of the system laughably claim it benefits consumers.

But the 1937 law allows “producer-handlers,” who bottle milk only from their own cows, to operate outside the pools. For small operators this can be risky. But Hein Hettinga had become a fairly large-scale dairy owner.

So in the early 1990s he built his own bottling plant in Yuma, Arizona. His first customers were in Mexico, then he got a large chain store in Arizona to carry his milk. In 2002 he and his son built a second bottling plant in Yuma to supply Costco stores in Southern California.

The effect on prices was immediate, lowering the wholesale price of milk by 20 cents a gallon. Other suppliers had to cut their prices and their bloated government-supported profits.

Well! Such consumer-friendly marketing couldn’t be tolerated for long. Republican Sen. John Kyl of Arizona introduced a bill to force Hettinga to pay into the state’s diary pool even though he operated outside of it. That didn’t pick up steam until Sen. Kyl united with Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who had issues dairy farmers in Nevada wanted him to address.
Hettinga did hire his own lobbyists, but he was no match for the milk cartel Dean Foods, with 100 plants around the country, spent more than $600,000 on political contributions in 2005 and 2006, and the dairy industry dropped at least $2.5 million on lobbying. (If that sounds like a lot, consider the $1.5 billion the laws force consumers to put in the dairy industry’s pockets each year.)

Last March the amendment was quietly passed, by 13 votes, forcing Hettinga to pay $40,000 a month to the milk marketing pool – subsidizing his competitors.
In a free society with even a glancing understanding of free-market principles, the milk marketing laws would be repealed instantly. Instead they have been reconfigured to hurt one lone producer who simply wanted to offer lower prices to consumers.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Jerry Ford the clumsy?

I was glad an ESPN talking head -- at halftime of the Emerald Bowl, before my beloved Bruins got slaughtered in the second half by Florida State -- discuss one aspect of Jerry Ford's image. He was probably the best athlete to occupy the White House, a skier and golfer of some skill in addition to being a football player invited to play professionally after a sterling college career -- back in 1933 or so, but still. But because he bumped his head and tripped a couple of times in public -- helped along by Chevy Chase back when Saturday Night Live was usually funny -- he got the reputation of being clumsy and subject to funny pratfalls.

Admittedly, interior linemen -- Ford was a center -- aren't known to be gazelle-like, but they have to be highly coordinated to succeed. Ford was highly successful at the University of Michigan, named the team's most valuable player. He hadn't suddenly become a complete klutz by 1975 or so.

In a way, however, the klutz image could be taken as a metaphor for other aspects of his presidency. As fondly as we may view him in retrospect, as much as we might appreciate his basic decency after Nixon, as grateful as we might be that he didn't hector us after leaving the presidency, his term in office was marked by some notable missteps. His Whip Inflation Now (WIN) program was a joke, he continued to approach the oil crisis with controls rather than the decontrol under Reagan that finally worked, his White House was factionalized -- Rumsfeld and Cheney were key players, honing their bureaucratic infighting capabilities -- and on and on. Perhaps his political klutziness was part-and-parcel of his basic decency. He was open and candid and far from calculating.

Trouble in Somalia

Here's a reasonably good background piece on the current fighting in Somalia, by Jonathan Stevenson of the U.S. Naval War College, published in today's Wall Street Journal.

Summarizing and omitting some nuances, here's the situation. Somalia hasn't really had a central government since the "Black Hawk Down" period in 1994, despite some efforts by the U.S. and U.N. to establish one. In fact, this wasn't such a bad situation, as I wrote in a column some years ago; various traditional tribal societies controlled various territories within the Somali region and generally didn't bother one another too much. Despite -- or because of -- the lack of a central government there was some economic development of a Hayekian spontaneous order nature, but without the agreement on rules of trade across a broad region that is usually required to really jumpstart development.

More recently, however, Somalis and outside helpers established the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), but a competitor for power has developed in the Islamist Islamic Courts Union, which actually controls more territory in Somalia, including the traditional capital of Mogadishu. Ethiopia, a traditionally Christian nation (though about 49 percent Muslim now) opposes jihadism and has sent troops to root out the Islamic Courts militia in support of the TFG. So far the more experienced Ethiopian troops have had the better of it, but Eritrea, a traditional rival of Ethiopia is supporting the Islamic Courts, so that's probably not a final outcome. The U.S. is tacitly supporting Ethiopia.

I suspect we would be better off not trying to create a Western-model nation-state superstructure in Somalia. Once there's even a simulacrum of a power center power-hungry or religiously motivated forces will want to seize and control it. If the current fighting continues, however, or if the Islamists seem on the verge of success, pressure could build for the U.S. to intervene out of fear that a state-protected base for jihad could be established. I think that would be a foolish move, but . . .

The situation bears watching.

So Monica has brains too?

So Monica Lewinsky has earned a Master's in social psychology from the prestigious London School of Economics, with a thesis on the difficulty of finding unbiased jurors in the midst of media publicity. She has to have a certain amount of smarts to have accomplished that. Here's a snippy-but-cute piece on the smart-but-dumb phenomenon -- when otherwise smart people do incredibly dumb things, or cultivate a dumb persona.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Gerald Ford, RIP

Gerald Ford may well have been the most thoroughly decent man to have been president in the 20th century. In so many ways he was the right man after the cunning Nixon decamped. His presidency as such was not especially successful -- I remember attending a Whip Inflation Now rally in Washington, where I spent most of the '70s, when the slogan/program was announced and marveling at how empty of substance it all was. And he appointed J0hn Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, a serious misstep. But he restored a sense of decency to the presidency. Perhaps we should not forgive him for that, for the Imperial Presidency has grown apace since then, to the detriment of the country. But at the time he was marvelously reassuring.

Jerry Ford was something of an accidental president. He had a safe seat from Grand Rapids and that helped him rise to House Minority Leader, then to the vice presidency when Agnew resigned in disgrace. His essential decency seemed reassuring, but I suspect that while he was OK as a minority leader he was just not cunning and calculating enough to be a completely successful president.

In a way, I owe my first job on Capitol Hill to Jerry Ford. Everyone said Hill experience was essential to a career inWashington, and I thought that's what I wanted at the time. I had contacts among Republicans and conservatives that led me to the vice president's Senate office, where a very nice and shrewd man -- how terrible I've forgotten his name now -- was placing conservatives in jobs. I was a confirmed libertarian then and seldom bothered to hide it, but I got along with conservatives.

There was a press aide job open in the office of Earl Ruth, from Salisbury, North Carolina. Earl, a former football coach who had been put in Congress by the brothers who owned the local furniture factory, had been in the Navy with Jerry Ford, and I'm sure the fact that his office recommended me was a factor in my getting the job. In fact, of course, Jerry Ford never met me and was entirely innocent of any knowledge about my job search with his old Navy friend.

Earl Ruth, another very nice man who was not cut out to be much of a politician, was swept out in the Watergate landslide of 1974 and I was unemployed again for the third Christmas in a row. But we survive one way or another.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Problems

I don't know why my blogs have not been posting, nor do I know what the stupid error message means

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

President losing it?

One of our readers and a fairly frequent caller phoned me at the office today to lament the president. I haven't seen tape or film of it yet, but this guy is usually fairly reliable. He says the president in his news conference looks as if he has just about given up, he has no spark, no inspiration, no leadership. As he was an early supporter of the war who wanted it to go well, my friend is extremely disillusioned with Bush. It's bad for our country, he says, when the president is seen to be a loser.

I disagree. I think it's good for the country when the president is seen to be fallible, just another human being who climbed the slippery pole of politics and in the process lost a good deal of whatever soul he had at one time. It's good for the people to see the president fumbling, and it's good for people to distrust him -- whoever he (or she) is. A free people should never elevate a mere political leader to a godlike level of respect, nor should the health of the country be equated with the presidency, either as person or institution. A free people should approach any leader with more skepticism than veneration. Insofar as the presidency has become imperial, seeing the president knocked down a few pegs is good for the country.

Time's lameness

It is difficult to express just how lame Time's Person of the Year concept is. A little Mylar mirror on the cover because the Person of the year is You-You-You, who are remaking the world through the Internet. I guess I'm supposed to be flattered because I not only blog here but I blog at ocregister.com and write for the online site antiwar.com. Let's face it, however. I'm a bit of a late-adopter; I probably should have been blogging several years ago. But if I'm a late adopter Time is clueless. Plus they feature not people who are doing significant things on the Web but people who are doing trivial or silly things. Nothing wrong with trivial or silly, of course. But it's not often a harbinger of greatness.

You'd think American culture was narcissistic enough already without this encouragement.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A surge in wishful thinking

Robert Gates's comments on being sworn in as Secretary of Defense yesterday suggest that the hope some people had invested in him as an independent voice who would help to lead the Bushlet out of the Iraqi sandtrap was misplaced. He said the usual stuff about how disastrous it would be to leave before the job was done without specifying just what the job was.

The latest hope for snatching a semblance of something that could be spun as victory in Iraq is the idea of “surging” the number of U.S. troops in the country on a temporary basis. Send in an extra 20,000 to 50,000 troops for six months or so to clean out the nests of insurgents and extremists in Baghdad and elsewhere, goes the theory, and the struggling Iraqi government just might have a chance to stabilize itself and be in a position to handle security in the near future.

According to leaks from the deliberations, civilians in the White House are pushing for a “surge” and the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously oppose the idea. The Pentagon, according to the Washington Post, warns that a short-term mission “could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq.” More troops could lead to more attacks – or the well-armed Shia militias could simply melt back into society for a while and reemerge, perhaps more formidable than before, when the temporary build-up ends.

If a temporary increase were really temporary, designed as a face-saving prelude to substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops, it might be worth supporting. And, as Ted Carpenter, vice president for international studies at the libertarian Cato Institute points out, it could be spun as a success. “Every year so far violence has declined during the winter months, only to surge, so to speak, when summer comes. If a decline in violence coincides with an increase in U.S. troops, that might offer a way for the U.S. to declare victory and come home,” he told me today on the phone.

Pentagon officials may be influenced by the latest Pentagon assessment of the security situation in Iraq. The quarterly report, mandated by Congress, shows that attacks against American and Iraqi targets were at their highest level since the reports began. There were an average of 960 attacks a week against American and Iraqi forces in the August-November period, a 22 percent increase over May-August.

An increase in U.S. forces in Baghdad proper during that period at first had some success in reducing the number of attacks. But sectarian death squads quickly adapted, focusing on neighborhoods where the U.S. had not yet established a presence. And the Pentagon report noted that “Shia death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Service and National Police,” hardly an encouraging development.

It is long past time to acknowledge that the U.S. invasion has not brought democracy in Iraq and that the U.S. is unable to pacify a country deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines.
In the context of the worldwide struggle to cope with al-Qaida and other terrorists, this is a setback, not a defeat. The United States will remain the most formidable force on the planet, perhaps made wiser by having attempted too much in one region on the basis of faulty intelligence.

Admitting a mistake and cutting our losses should strengthen us for other aspects of the long-term effort to neutralize the appeal of Islamic extremists and their ability to do damage to the U.S. and its friends and allies.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Setback for Ahmadinejad

To be sure democracy is something of a sham in Iran. Of the 490 people who initially registered to run for the Assembly of Experts (the more recent the democracy the sillier the titles of the institutions?), 240 were rejected by the Guardian Council, which mainly guards the mullahs' interests. So the choices available to voters are artificially constricted.

Even within the confines of those constricted choices, however, Iranian voters last Friday were able to register at least mild disapproval of President Ahmadinejad, whose most recent stunt was last week's conclave of Holocaust-deniers and Israel haters. Candidates favored by Ahmadinejad didn't" do well in Assembly of Experts and city council races. Those the media call "moderates" did better, though it's difficult to know just what that term means in an Iranian context. Perhaps Iranians were embarrassed by last week's conference.

Even a tyranny rests on implied consent; if all those who disapproved of a tyranny actually revolted, even or especially non-violently, the security forces would never be able to control the situation, as we found out in the former-Soviet empire. The Iranian regime has been told that it has less consent than perhaps it thought it had, and that the president is an embarrassment. We'll see if it has an impact on Ahmadinejad's behavior. It could make a difference in international efforts to at least try to control (or lacking that monitor) Iranian nuclear projects, which might or might not include a weapon.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Gary Webb remembered

Robert Parry, the former AP writer who now does news analysis at consortiumnews.com, has done an excellent piece on Gary Webb, the former San Jose Mercury-News writer who committed suicide a bit more than two years ago, on December 9, 2004. Gary was a fine investigative reporter who wrote a series called "Dark Alliance" in 1996 that explored a link between the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan years and the introduction of crack cocaine into inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s. The gist -- I haven't reread it in years --was that the Contras sold drugs to raise money for their activities (it was prudent of them to have sources other than Oliver North) and much of it was cocaine, and they were instrumental in creating the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s.

I don't think Gary outright said that the Contras created the crack-cocaine epidemic single-handedly, and I would be a bit wary of such a claim. But there is little question that the Contras sold drugs -- as did the Sandinista government they were fighting -- to raise money.

This is hardly a unique situation. It's simply one of the ways that drug prohibition feeds violence. Drug runners and guerrilla fighters (or terrorists or insurgent groups or people addicted to adrenalin rushes) have certain common interests. Guerrillas need money and weapons and secure hiding places.

Under prohibition drugs are ridiculously overpriced, so they are a ready source of cash for unscrupulous or risk-taking or criminal-minded people who are adept at violence and clandestine activity. Drug runners also need hiding places and ways to transport things without the authorities being aware of them or being able to intercept them. It would be astounding if people with such intersecting needs and interests didn't run across one another, and they do. Drug money has financed all kinds of political violence -- in Colombia today, in Kosovo and plenty of other places.

Anyway, Gary was initially praised for his articles, but when they were criticized, beginning in the Washington Times, the journalistic "community" pretty much left him to hang out to dry. The Mercury-News transferred him to some podunk bureau where he would cover car wrecks and city council meetings and the like.

I remember calling him when I found out he was transferred and telling him I thought he was getting a raw deal and wishing him well. He thanked me and said I was one of only a few California journalists who had called and said they appreciated what he had done -- which despite the criticism still holds up pretty well, as Robert Parry shows in his article.

That was the only contact I had with Gary, whose life seems to have fallen apart after that. I regret now that I didn't stay in touch with him. He was a talented investigative reporter who was treated shabbily by his newspaper and most of the vaunted journalistic "community."

Bye Bye Kofi

I think I live in the real world, so I hardly expected Kofi Annan’s last public speech as Secretary-General of the United Nations to be an introspective summing-up of the manifold failures and weakness of the organization he headed for 10 years and of his abject failure – nay, resistance – to any semblance of reform in one of the most unaccountable organizations in modern times. It was just not in the cards for him to acknowledge that the Iraqi Oil-for Food program was perhaps the biggest scandal in history and that he personally profited from it and tried to cover it up, or that rape by U.N. peacekeepers is a problem, or that the Human Rights Council created from the ashes of the U.N. Human Rights Commission is an utter farce.

But a speech at the Truman Library in Missouri dedicated to criticizing the United States for failing to cooperate more fully with the U.N. in pursuit of woolly, sometimes hypocritical and always statism-enhancing projects around the world was a bit much to take.
I guess I feel much the way Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel did after Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez came to the U.N. earlier this year and called President Bush “the devil.” Don’t come into our country and criticize our president and our government. That’s our job.

There are plenty of Americans – including, ahem, this writer, from the beginning – who have criticized the Iraq war and other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. There is plenty to criticize there. But we have just held an election whose results guarantee that the president will be under much more serious scrutiny and criticism for the next two years. We don’t need Kofi Annan lecturing us on our “responsibilities.”

To give Kofi some credit, it is valid to worry whether “America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism.” But the five “principles” he considers essential in this age – collective responsibility, global solidarity, rule of law, mutual accountability and multilateralism – are either ignored by the U.N. or are vaporous clich├ęs.

The principles this country should worry about abandoning are constitutional limited government, respect for individual liberty and property rights, and an emphasis on individual responsibility. The Kofi Annans of this world would have us abandon them at an accelerated pace.

Well, great harm, no foul. Kofi Annan, having made the U.N. even more irrelevant then before he took over, will go on to luxuriant sinecures funded by deluded billionaires. It would be appropriate if he were never heard from again.

Iranian absurdities

Next year I suppose Iran will host an international gathering of the Flat Earth Society. “Our purpose is not to deny or confirm that the Earth is a spheroid,” an organizer will intone sanctimoniously. “We simply want to provide an opportunity for those whose views are derided and suppressed in the Imperialist West to be able to speak freely and openly. This is an important topic that deserves a fresh and independent investigation.”

Those are almost exact quote from organizers of the two-day “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust” that just wrapped up in Tehran. Absurd stuff, but with a serious side.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust a myth, though on other occasions he has claimed to be ready to be convinced. But to call a conference and invite worthies like Louisiana’s Ku Kluxer David Duke, the Frenchman Georges Thiel and the German-born Australian Fredrick Toeben, whose specialty is denying the Nazis had gas chambers, seems over the top.

To be sure, European countries like France, Germany and Austria, which have laws against denying the Holocaust, unwittingly set the Iranians up for this. These laws against freedom of speech and inquiry – even foolish, crackpot or uninformed speech and inquiry – allow the Iranian regime, which strictly controls and punishes speech by Iranians it doesn’t like, to pose as the friend of free inquiry and persecuted “scholars.”

Ahmadinejad has given the real game away several times, most recently at the conclusion of this bogus conference. “The Zionist regime will be wiped out soon the same way the Soviet Union was,” he intoned, “and humanity will achieve freedom.”

Here the riff. If the Holocaust hadn’t happened, the newly formed United Nations would not have authorized and recognized the state of Israel – which is a plausible although arguable proposition. So if we decide the Holocaust never happened, then there’s no justification for the existence of Israel, and we can feel morally justified in saying it should be eliminated. Get it?

That doesn’t account for all the Jews who started moving to the Holy Land at the beginning of the previous century and were numerous and organized enough to demand independence from the British, who ran the place following World War I and were ready to shed their overseas empire after World War II, but hey, no historical theory is perfect.

So why this event? Ahmadinejad has expressed the desire many times to wipe Israel off the map, and Iran has financed and provided training for Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations that attack Israel. Whether Iran would use a nuclear weapon, if it ever built one, on Israel (which has the capacity to respond in kind) is another question, but the Iranian regime’s hostility to Israel, with all that implies for continued unrest in the Middle East, is unquestionable. This conference was an attempt to justify that hostility.

I still think it's better to laugh out loud at it rather than to denounce it in horrified and pompous statements. But there is a serious side to it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Whence the polonium-210?

The death of former KGB spy and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko through poisoning by the exotic nuclear material polonium-210 has occasioned a good deal of outrage and a mad scramble to try to track down possible suspects. Vladimir Putin's government is a prime suspect, of course, though there may be reasons to doubt that and there are plenty of unsavory characters in the Russian underworld who might have a motive.

In this article, however, longtime watcher of things clandestine Edward Jay Epstein argues that the most important thing is to try to track down where the polonium-210 came from -- which will probably help in identifying who did it. But a leak of polonium is troubling for this reason:

"If a rogue nation (or terrorist group) obtained access to any quantity of polonium -- even, say, a half gram -- it could use it as in initiator for setting off the chain reaction in a crude nuclear bomb. With a fissile fuel, such as U-235, and beryllium (which is mixed in layers with the polonium-210), someone could make a "poor man's" nuke. Even lacking these other ingredients, the polonium-210, which aerosolizes at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, could be used with a conventional explosive, like dynamite, to make a dirty bomb."

Epstein tracks what is known about where traces of polonium-210 have shown up to offer a guide for investigators and interested observers.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Why bug princess Di?

Sorry about paucitude of post. Never the most tech-savvy person (I'm Alan but I think not logged in that way), I posted several items last week to an extinct account. I'll try to retrieve them or recreate them later in the day.

For now, I'm fascinated not just that Princess Di's driver the night she was killed was likely at three times the blood-alcohol legal limit, but that it turns out the U.S. "secret services" were watching Diana and bugging her phone calls. (Because the Brits have different ways of saying certain things, the newspaper items might not mean the -- capitalized -- Secret Service, charged with protecting the president and his/her family.)

This was during the Clinton administration. Mickey Kaus has appropriate links and appropriate questions on his blog over at Slate.com. Why? Was there a proper warrant? Could it have been because Diana had an "intimate relationship" with U.S. billionaire Ron Forstmann, an active Republican who once made noises about running against Hillary? Can it be that the Bush administration didn't invent warrantless wiretapping?

Can it be that abuse of intelligence power is more or less built into the system rather than being the province of a particular president, party or administration?

Years ago -- I read a couple of books and interviewed several former LAPD officers some 20 years ago -- the LAPD used to spend an inordinate amount of its intelligence resources digging up dirt on Hollywood celebrities. The department seldom leaked the info but was known to hold deleterious information (which would probably be a career-enhancer these days) over peoples' heads to get cooperation or deter criticism. Can it be as simple as that intelligence services are almost as celebrity-obsessed as the media? Doesn't say much for their seriousness about "protecting" the American people.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Study Group flights of fancy

The Iraq Study Group report contains certain bows to reality, but a number of flights of fancy that suggest the members of the group -- who are, after all, all veteran government employees, suggesting their grasp on reality was never all that strong – have no notion about how hard it would be to implement their ideas.

The most impressive aspect of the report is the assessment contained in the first 40 pages. It is grim but essentially realistic. It highlights the increasing levels of violence and the inability of the current “stay the course” strategy – which is no strategy at all but hope wrapped in illusion – or the Iraqi government as currently constituted to improve conditions substantially.
Most of the troubling facts are here. “Violence is increasing in scope, complexity, and lethality.” Sectarian violence, between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, is the major contributor, while “Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq, but that includes some of the more spectacular acts.” U.S. “military units are under significant strain.” Iraqi security forces are being trained but there are serious questions as to whether they are loyal to a national Iraqi government or to sectarian or tribal groupings, and they are in no position to provide security within Iraq without outside help.

What to do? That’s when it gets a bit nutty. The report’s recommendations are a combination of practical incremental steps and utopian flights of fancy.

The essence? Newly intensified U.S. diplomatic and military efforts combined with timetables for the Iraqi government to accomplish important goals like demobilizing independent militias. Adjusting the U.S. mission to emphasize training of Iraqis by “embedding” U.S. advisers in Iraqi security units rather than confronting insurgents and sectarian militias directly. This should lead to being able to withdraw roughly half of the 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, perhaps by the end of next year. But those remaining would do so on an open-ended basis.
The group’s first proposal, however, strikes me as part useful and part pie--in-the-sky. Launch a “comprehensive New Diplomatic Offensive to deal with the problems of Iraq and the region.” This would include forming an Iraq International Support Group consisting of all countries that border on Iraq, including Iran and Syria,, plus Egypt, the Gulf States, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and other countries – perhaps Germany, Japan and South Korea.

This group would then work to stabilize Iraq, on the assumption that all these countries fear chaos in Iraq, for various regions, including the fear that it might lead to destabilizing their own governments. The Support Group, however, “will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deal directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.” So the U.S. should bring Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestinians who recognize Israel’s right to exist to the table and get a comprehensive peace process going.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, despite occasional respites. has resisted outside mediation for decades. Why does the study group think a new effort is likely to succeed? Beyond noting that “The vast majority of the Israeli body politic is tired of being a nation perpetually at war,” the report does not identify new hopeful developments, and it elides negative developments like the election of a Hamas majority in the Palestinian Authority parliament and the recent war in Lebanon.
It is probably useful to reopen relations and talks with Iran and Syria. But to expect such talks to resolve all the region’s problems sounds utopian.

Other problems are sidestepped. The report acknowledges, for example, that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to a large extent owes his position to the fiercely anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, yet it wants Maliki to disarm that and other Shia militias. How is he to do this?

While acknowledging that the Iraqi central government, such as it is, lacks the capacity to provide security, provide basic services like electricity and trash collection, and is rife with corruption and dominated by sectarian forces, the report expects it to “pull up its socks” (as a certain former Defense Secretary might put it) and go forward with a unity government that respects the rights of minorities and divides oil revenues equitably. It will probably take more than forming an international support group and embedding a few U.S. troops in Iraqi units.

The report never touches the most fateful question. What if the current Iraqi government, which is more fiction than reality already, effectively crumbles?

What is needed in Iraq is more than a minor course correction, but dramatic steps toward ending U.S. involvement in a country we never should have invaded in the first place. There are risks in that course as in any course, including an intensification of sectarian violence or civil war.
The United States started this war and bears some responsibility for the aftermath. But almost four years on it has demonstrated that, as an occupying power whose influence is rapidly diminishing, it cannot solve Iraq’s problems. It is time to let the Iraqis have a go at it.

Better link

I just tried the link to the Baker-Hamilton report in my previous post and it wasn't satisfactory. This link should do the job.

Gates: a dubious saviour

The hearings yesterday on Robert Gates, the new Secretary of Defense, were oh, so chummy and full of hope for a bipartisan future. No significant mention of Iran-Contra or the troubles he ran into the first time Bush 41 tried to promote him to head of the CIA. Pardon me if I register a certain degree of skepticism.

The current atmosphere is based on performance in hearings, not performance in the job. Gates is obviously smooth and well-informed, and deft at playing to all sides. Whether those will be assets when he actually has to make decisions is another matter. Remember it was not so long ago that Don Rumsfeld was the rock star of the administration and now he's the scapegoat.

When he was appointed, there was a flurry of questions as to where Gates stood: was he a traditional conservative, a neoconservative or a Bush family retainer? The answer seems to be that he is a consummate careerist and has been all of those things. He served happily with Brezinski during the Carter administration, then with Casey during the Reagan administration, then with Bush 41 and Scowcroft. Those people represent distinct approaches to U.S. foreign policy -- "realist" Brezinski had significant differences with "realist" Kissinger and his disciple Scowcroft, and both were different from consummate cold warrior "Wild Bill" Casey (head of the CIA under Reagan). Gates accommodated himself to all of them, ending up quite beholden to the Bush family, which was instrumental in getting him into position at Texas A&M.

One of my constant callers, a retired former spook with broad experience, who spent a good deal of time in Texas when Gates was active there, thinks that Gates is a nothing, a glib bootlicker. I don't know for sure, but this guy is often right.

I would prefer to be wrong, but I suspect a lifetime of being all things to all people will lead to trimming, splitting differences and pleasing nobody. I give him a four-month honeymoon.

Link to ISG report

Here's a link to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report issued today. It's in PDF format. I'll be reading the whole thing today and commenting on it when I get the opportunity. Your comments are welcome.

Yesterday's news?

How interesting. It looks as if the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, out today, already feels like yesterday's news, or a footnote to history, what with all the leaks in advance and the frenzied commentary. I haven't found the full report on the Web yet, but I will, and as usual, I'll be conscientious enough to read pretty much the whole thing.

What I wonder -- and doubt -- is whether it will deal with the core question most people are trying to avoid. What if Maliki's government, which is something of a fiction anyway, noticeably falls apart? The problem with the Iraqi army is not its level of training, but its loyalty. Most of the units now are suspected to be essentially sectarian militias rather than arms of a "unity government," as the president continues, against all evidence to the contrary, to call it. He seems to prefer a fantasy-world to the real world, and maybe he's virtually incapable of recognizing reality when he sees it. But whhat if even the fiction of a national government disappears over the next few months?

Do we get the hell out, join one of the sides (probably the Shia, a genuinely catastrophic idea), or hunker down on the relatively isolated and reasonably secure bases in the countryside, hoping to mediate (sometimes forcefully) among the inevitable incursions from Iran, Syria, Jordan Saudi Arabia, etc?

None of the options looks especially attractive.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Iraq: prospects for leaving

Here's a link to my latest column on antiwar.com. It's a discussion of the prospects for a fairly prompt withdrawal from Iraq -- dim in my view unless the Democrats act more forcefully than I expect them to, which suggests more activity contacting congresscritters by people who oppose the war might be a good idea.

Several antiwar.com readers wrote calling me kind of wimpy for not advocating impeachment. It's not that I'm against it -- I wish we'd impeached more presidents in our history and thrown a few out of office, just to keep them suitably nervous. But while the "high crimes and misdemeanors" phrase in the impeachment clause sounds all hyper-legal and like the definition of a criminal act, it's really a term of art with a fairly open definition. In political terms it means, "We're sick of you, bud, and it's time for you to go."

Impeachment is a quintessentially political process, as much as it might appear to be legal. I suspect that politically, the U.S. is not there yet when it comes to Dubya (perhaps in part because of lingering revulsion about the Clinton impeachment, which delighted me). Could be that impeachment sentiment will increase. I'll cheer if it does, but promoting it is not a top priority for me just now.

Hybrids: wrong approach

According to this report in the SF Chronicle, sales of hybrid autos have fallen sharply since August. The reasons? Falling gasoline prices, a smaller tax credit on the most popular models, and a shortage of stickers that allow them to drive in carpool lanes in California.
Hybrids accounted for 1.77 percent of all vehicle sales in August, but only 1.52 percent in November.
Despite the slowdown in sales, we're not seeing price cuts for hybrids (around $26,000 for a Toyota Prius and $23,000-plus for a Honda Civic). That could change, acording to the story, if inventories start to mount.
The aspect of the story that the story itself slights is the idea that very few hybrids indeed might be sold if there were no tax credit. The feds extend a tax credit (more valuable than a deduction) to hybrid buyers, but it starts to phase out once a manufacturer has sold 60,000 units. The amounts are not negligible. Toyota Prius buyers got a $3,150 tax credit in September, but that shrank to $1,575 in October.
I have nothing against offering hybrids to the buying public and even have a certain sympathy with the idea. But at this point they are more expensive than a comparable internal-combustion auto. Giving a tax credit means that people who choose not to buy hybrids are forced to subsidize those who do.
I'm pretty sure that eventually something more efficient and more environment-friendly will replace the internal-combustion engine. It is more likely to happen, not less likely (though it may take a bit longer), if the government doesn't try to "force" the market through interventions like subsidies or special taxes.
Ethanol, for example, is in fact a poor candidate and would probably not even be in the running if not for taxpayer subsidies that enrich Iowa corn farmers, Archer-Daniels-Midland and various oil companies. But it's diverting attention and resources away from the search for a genuinely superior alternative. Hybrids might well turn out to be that superior alternative, but we'll be less sure of it than we would otherwise be because of tax credits distorting the feedback mechanism of the market.

Rumsfeld the scapegoat

I'm not exactly Don Rumsfeld's biggest fan, but during the hearings for Robert Gates, Bush's nominee to replace him as Secretary of defense, it looks as if everybody is piling on him as the sole cause of everything that's gone wrong in Iraq. Not that Rummie is without blame, and he's apparently a prickly guy to work for or with, but the Iraq debacle has many fathers, the principal one being George W. Bush. But Gen. Sanchez, Paul Bremer, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and the whole Weekly Standard gang share paternity.

Yesterday I was inclined to agree with Ted Carpenter at the Cato Intitute that the Nov. 6 Rumsfeld memo leak to the NY Times was likely a "friendly" leak from inside the administration, designed to show that the administration was open to alternatives. Today I'm speculating that it came from Rumsfeld or some of his remaining allies, aware of the scapegoating and designed to distance Rumsfeld from the administration that decided he was a liability. It could be intended to show that he was aware of reality and capable of independent thinking -- and to distance himself from the administration in service of his future legacy, if any.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Counting the cost

The administration is still being a bit coy, but it is possible that this will be a key week in U.S. Iraq policy. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group is expected to release its recommendations Wednesday, and yesterday a leaked memo written by outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld two days before he resigned (or was fired) was published in the New York Times. On Sunday national security adviser Stephen Hadley (also subject to the leaked-memo syndrome) suggested that the president is ready to make “significant changes” in U.S. strategy in Iraq.

Few analysts have stressed the costs of various alternatives. To date U.S. taxpayers have sunk $340 billion or so into this war and occupation, and the ongoing cost is about $8 billion a month – even apart from the ongoing loss of life among American military personnel and Iraqis. It may sound cold-blooded, but it would be useful to apply the principles of cost-benefit analysis to the Iraqi commitment.
A ruthless dictator has been ousted from power. Although plenty of mistakes have been made along the way, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been trained for military and security duty, several elections have been held in relative peace, and thousands of Iraqis have gained experience in relatively democratic practical politics.

On the down side, many Iraqi security forces act more like sectarian militias than a national force for unity or reconciliation. Violence and the deaths of innocents have increased rather than decreased. The United States is less popular in Iraq and around the world than it was three years ago. We are steadily eroding the all-volunteer force, the backbone of U.S. military strength and harming morale in the National Guard and reserves. The commitment of troops in Iraq means resources are not available for other crises that could arise. The pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and eager to inflict further damage on the United States has been sidelined. And the entire region has been thrown into even more turmoil than usual, which could well bring calls for further intervention to fix the problems created by previous interventions.

Whatever the course in the next few months, it is important for Americans to absorb the lesson that intervention into the affairs of other countries is justifiable only if core interests of the country and the safety of Americans at home is at stake. That was not the case in Iraq, and we are paying a fearful price for our eagerness to decide for others how their countries should be run.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Spoiler Bruins

Not that I'm one to gloat, but . . .

I went to UCLA and even played Freshman football (back when they still had Freshman football and those who didn't give in and quit after, as I remember, about three weeks of really grueling practice, were issued a uniform and, in my case, a seat at the end of the bench -- 165-pound guards didn't get much playing time except in blowouts, even back then). Those who know football history will get an idea of how long ago that was when I mention that we played Single-Wing rather than a T-formation.

So you can imagine how elated I am that UCLA managed to pull off what has to be the upset of the year by beating the mighty Trojans of USC. We've lost the last 7 to our crosstown rival (which has really been remarkable since Pete Carroll came to coach; you've got to respect what he's done, and having consecutive Heisman winners didn't hurt). The Bruins had their starting quarterback go down with an injury after a good start, and lost four in a row. But they regrouped and managed to defeat the team expected to beat them handily and go on to play Ohio States in the BCS (Bollixed Championship Series)championship game.

Back in the day, this was an excellent crosstown rivalry, with the outcome of the game unpredictable no matter what kind of record the two teams had -- and almost always a close, hard-fought, well-played game on both sides. That tradition took a bit of a beating during the Peter Carroll era at USC; his teams were always so good. Last year they embarrassed us 66-19.

If this game revives the tradition of the UCLA-USC games always being at least competitive, I will be pleased -- but not more pleased than I am tonight.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Futile meeting

Here's a link to the editorial I did for the Register yesterday on the Bush-Maliki meeting in Jordan. The gist is that, as Larry Diamond, a scholar at the Hoover Institution who spent time with the Coalition Provisional Authority and wrote an excellent book ("Squandered Victory") about post-invasion Iraq, said to me on the phone, The meeting is a bit like "dancing on the decks of the Titanic as the ship is sinking."

One of our readers called me this morning to see if I was cheered up by al-Maliki's declaration that the Iraqis will be ready to take over -- if they get more helicopters, artillery, other weaponry and training -- by June of next year. I said I remain skeptical, especially given Bush's declaration that a "graceful exit" is not in the cards. [Does that mean that he's for a graceless exit, or is subliminally acknowledging that we've bungled so badly that a graceful exit is pretty much impossible?]

Bush, like many intellectually incurious people, is powerfully stubborn, and seems to mistake ignoring the advice of people who know more than he does for virtue, not folly.