Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Andrew Northrup on the Journamalism of Tom Friedman

Blognerds are probably well aware that, at long last, someone in a respectable publication has pointed out that Glenn Reynolds is completely insane. The article in question - by one Paul Campos - compares Reynolds to Ward Churchill, who, if you don’t know, is … um, I don’t know who he is, either. A community college professor or something. But, if you moved in Fox News circles a couple of years back, he was big, big news, which gave them something to talk about besides, you know, reality, and, as an added bonus, probably boosted his lecture fees above the $0.00 level. So I gather the comparison is apt, except that Reynolds gets published in mainstream periodicals, gets his opinions taken seriously on television, is still considered the go-to authority for all issues related to the internet, and is generally treated like a charter member of the Broderian Council of Acceptable Opinion in all matters.

The comment that got him in trouble - that the government should be murdering Iranian scientists and religious leaders, because we have been continuously at war with them for thirty years - was a bit blunt, but wasn’t really unrepresentative of his views. Why should this be getting attention all of a sudden? Fans of his oeuvre could probably think of a handful of crazier comments right off the top of their head - in fact, I immediately thought of that time in 2003 when Prof. Christmas opined that, seeing as we were already at war with France and all, we should probably start some nice proxy wars in Africa. (This was the winner of the first-ever proto-Kippie Award for wingnuttery. Memories.) Now, as this was some time ago, I naturally assumed that this was early-2003 Reynolds riffing on one of conservo-blog intellectual (and MSM-published opinionator) Steven den Beste’s interminable explanations of how France was an integral part of the Transnational Progressive Islamofascist Dhimmocracy, or whatever. (Full disclosure: I have never managed to read an entire SdB post. I’m not convinced that any of them actually end.) In the event, though, he wasn’t.

He was riffing on Thomas L. Fucking Friedman, September 2003, NY Times:

It’s time we Americans came to terms with something: France is not just our annoying ally. It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy.

If you add up how France behaved in the run-up to the Iraq war (making it impossible for the Security Council to put a real ultimatum to Saddam Hussein that might have avoided a war), and if you look at how France behaved during the war (when its foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, refused to answer the question of whether he wanted Saddam or America to win in Iraq), and if you watch how France is behaving today (demanding some kind of loopy symbolic transfer of Iraqi sovereignty to some kind of hastily thrown together Iraqi provisional government, with the rest of Iraq’s transition to democracy to be overseen more by a divided U.N. than by America), then there is only one conclusion one can draw: France wants America to fail in Iraq.

France wants America to sink in a quagmire there in the crazy hope that a weakened U.S. will pave the way for France to assume its “rightful” place as America’s equal, if not superior, in shaping world affairs.

Of course, this is the same Tom Friedman who was telling us at the time that we needed to invade Iraq because we just had to kill some Arabs. We just had to, OK? Something about a bubble or something, too - you had to be there, man, it all made perfect sense. I know it seems weird now, man, but it was this magical time, like the Golden Age of Athens or some shit - The Summer of War! - when we all just knew we were going to change the world. All that stuff our parents told us about Vietnam and all that shit? We were just going to blow that away, man, just tear down their world and build it all up new, like better than ever, like nothing you’d ever seen before! Reynolds was the man, and den Beste was the brains, and everybody was in it together, for freedom and shit. It was great. And the music … well, the music kind of blew, actually. Nickelback was big. And the drugs were pretty crappy. No sex to speak of. But the blogs! Man, you shoulda seen the blogs! Outtasite!

And where are they now? Steven den Beste has stopped illuminating the great cycles of human history, and now writes exclusively about porny Japanese schoolgirl cartoons. Reynolds never got past that summer, never learned how to change with the times, and now he’s Kid Charlemagne. I don’t know what happened to Friedman - he’s behind the Times Select wall now, probably writing about globalization or whatever, or whatever anime den Beste was into 6 months ago. Funny how everyone grew up.

The past really is another country. I would like to bomb it.

Glenn Greenwald on American Journamalism

This New York Times article today, by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and John M. Broder, on the debate among Congressional Democrats over how to end the Iraq War, encapsulates so much of what is wrong with our national media. These are the first two paragraphs of the article:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 -- Congressional Democrats, divided over how to press President Bush to alter his policy in Iraq, are wrestling over whether to use the power of the purse to wind down the war, and they seem headed for a confrontation among themselves, possibly as early as next week, over a proposal to revoke the 2002 resolution authorizing the war.

Some Democrats acknowledge that they are in a sticky situation as they try to map out a strategy that will appease the antiwar left, which is pushing for conditions on war financing, without alienating moderate Democrats and Republicans who fear being painted as unsupportive of the troops.

There are so many lazy and fact-free assertions in these two paragraphs -- which shape the entire article and which, in some sense, are also shaping the overall Iraq debate -- that it is hard to know where to begin.

The insularity of these reporters means that some conventional premise arises among them, typically based in long-standing political stereotypes that they themselves created and perpetuated, and they are then incapable of thinking about issues in any other way even when facts make inescapably clear that their premises are false (the premise that Democrats are politically endangered by their "antiwar left" was the basis for an entire Fox show hosted by Wall St. Journal ideologues last week, and that theme then arrives unscathed in the pages of The New York Times this morning).

In what universe is it the case that demands for an end to the Iraq War are emanating from the dreaded and cliched "antiwar left"? According to the latest Pew poll:

Public support for the war in Iraq continues to decline, as a growing number of political independents are turning against the war. Overall, a 53% majority of Americans believe the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible - up five points in the past month and the highest percentage favoring a troop pullout since the war began nearly four years ago.
That's not a majority merely against the war, or against the surge, or wanting a gradual withdrawal. Those numbers are much higher. This is a majority of Americans favoring "bring[ing] troops home as soon as possible." That's quite an "antiwar left" we have here. And:
[I]n the current survey, 55% of independents say they favor bringing the troops home as soon as possible, compared with 40% who believe the troops should remain.
And, for good measure: "Among Democrats, roughly two-thirds (68%) want Congress to stop funding in an effort to block the troop buildup" and "more Democrats also support a troop withdrawal than did so in January (74% now, 66% then)." So apparently, 3 out of 4 Democrats -- along with a majority of independents -- are now part of the "antiwar left."

And they're not the only ones: "By roughly three-to-one (71%-23%), Republicans believe that U.S. forces should remain in Iraq until the situation there is stable." So almost a quarter of Republicans are now part of the "antiwar Left." And this December, 2006 CNN poll makes the point clearer still.

The national media continues to depict demands for an end to this war as the by-product of the fringe "antiwar left," and perpetuates the banal myth that Democrats face political peril because they have to satisfy this fringe element of their party. In fact, the true fringe group is the group of hard-core war supporters who support the President's desire that the war continue indefinitely. Did Stolberg and Broder happen to notice the results of the 2006 midterm election?

The Times article discusses what appears to be the genuine debate taking place among Democrats over the best strategic option for ending the war. Some, for instance, favor Jack Murtha's plan of incrementally increased limitations on funding tied to troop readiness, while others, such as Rep. Joe Sestak, favor (as his quotes from the article make clear) a different legislative strategy for ending the war -- namely, "setting a date for withdrawal of all forces from Iraq." And Harry Reid and Joe Biden are identified as advocating "rewriting the war authorization."

But those are not left-right conflicts or the by-product of some sort of self-destructive demands from the "antiwar left" that Democrats are being pressured to satisfy. Instead, these are just healty and encouraging tactical debates among Congressional Democrats who share their same objective -- namely, finding the most effective legislative weapon for compelling an end to the war, because that is what not only the overwhelming bulk of Democrats want, but also a clear majority of Americans.

To enable their lazy and fictitious storyline -- "Democrats are in trouble due to shrill demands from their radical leftist fringe" -- Stolberg and Broder invent a complete fiction: namely, that the dreaded "antiwar left" is "pushing for conditions on war financing," and such measures "will alienat[e] moderate Democrats and Republicans." But to the extent there is such a thing as the "antiwar left," it is not in any way attached to the specific tactic of imposing conditions on war funding.

Instead, war opponents favor whatever Congressional measures will work to compel an end to the war -- whether that be a recission of the AUMF or a modification of it or anything else. And that is what a majority of Americans want, according to virtually every poll. Who are the people on the "antiwar left" demanding a funding cut-off as opposed to other binding measures to end the war? They don't exist -- at least not in any substantial degree, if at all -- so Stolberg and Broder just made them up and then depicted these unnamed, imaginary de-funding absolutists as representative of the "antiwar left" which, in turn, became the basis for their whole "antiwar left" article.

The entire theme of the article is factually false and fictitious. It is designed to perpetuate a cliched drama where none exists, and to depict war opponents, rather than war supporters, as a small and radical fringe whose unreasonable demands are -- just as happened in 1972 -- endangering the Democrats. There is not a word about the danger to Republicans of continuing to tie themselves to one of the most unpopular wars in our nation's history.

And this NYT article presents the perfect opportunity to make the only response worth making to the self-defense offered yesterday by Newsweek's Richard Wolffe, who continues to claim that the media criticisms voiced by bloggers are misguided because bloggers are supposedly demanding that reporters act as "partisan advocates." That is just a complete distortion of the criticisms of the press made by bloggers.

Virtually no bloggers call for journalists to advance partisan storylines or advocate partisan views. Rather, they want them to report on matters with factual accuracy, and not slothfully pass on claims from government officials without investigating them for truth or perpetuate lazy storylines that have no basis in fact. That means that reporters should not disseminate anonymous government claims about Saddam's bulging weapons arsenals and expansive alliances with Al Qaeda, nor should they recklessly repeat patently false claims about Nancy Pelosi's demands for large private planes, nor should they falsely attribute anti-war views or demands for the war's end to the "antiwar left."

The laziness of reporters and their insatiable quest to curry favor with government officials continuously causes them to uncritically pass on false information, to protect the officials over whom they are supposed to be exercising scrutiny by granting them anonymity to disseminate government propaganda, and to perpetuate myths which their inside-government sources want to maintain. The complaint about journalists is about inaccuracy, gullibility and sloth, not a lack of partisan vigor. This New York Times article illustrates the fundamental deficiency in our nation's press -- as well as a principal element of media criticism -- quite vividly.

Rodger Payne: The Comedy of Great Power Politics

Next Wednesday in Chicago -- that's February 28, at 8:30 am -- at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, I'll be presenting a paper called "The Comedy of Great Power Politics in the 21st Century." Warning: that's a pdf, which I posted on my rarely used University homepage. On the same panel, my friend Nayef Samhat is presenting "The 'Comedic Turn' and Critical International Relations Theory." If those titles sound strange to you, read my paper (and Nayef's once it is available) and pass along your comments. Better yet, come to the panel. If you are an IR theorist, you probably already guessed a little bit of what we are up to -- or at least what ideas we are challenging. After all, neorealist John Mearsheimer called his last book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Realist theorists of international relations are pessimists and embrace tragic narratives. Classically, the main character of a tragedy was a noble, the story was set in the "great hall" or on the battlefield, and the plot featured the downfall of the protagonist -- often his death. Realist theory is primarily about great powers, their story is set in the competitive "high politics" arena of the international system, and the plots are typically gloomy (featuring war, imperial overstretch, etc.) My paper argues that contemporary great power politics, by realist standards, seems more like a farce than a tragedy -- no balancing behavior, no great power war for decades, the US and China are major trading partners, NATO is thriving, weak and failed states are viewed as the major threats, etc.

Susie: Ethics Roundtable

Sy Hersh on CNN just now:

John Negroponte was seen as too ethical to sign off on the things the State Department wanted him to do.

This John Negroponte… so imagine how bad their proposals must have been.

Bradford Plumer: Poverty? Not a Problem

So the reporters at McClatchy snapped on the rubber gloves, plunged into the dark cavities of the Census Bureau, and pulled out a stunning statistic: "Nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep or severe poverty"--a category that includes individuals making less than $5,080 a year, and families of four bringing in less than $9,903 a year. That number, by the way, has been growing rapidly since 2000. The article itself hits the usual refrains--noting that the United States spends less on anti-poverty programs than any other industrialized country outside of Russia and Mexico--but I found this bit near the end quite striking:
The Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation shows that, in a given month, only 10 percent of severely poor Americans received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 2003--the latest year available--and that only 36 percent received food stamps. Many could have exhausted their eligibility for welfare or decided that the new program requirements were too onerous. But the low participation rates are troubling because the worst byproducts of poverty, such as higher crime and violence rates and poor health, nutrition and educational outcomes, are worse for those in deep poverty.
I doubt those are the only reasons for the low participation rates. As David K. Shipler reported in The Working Poor, welfare agencies spend a great deal of effort dissuading people from applying for assistance. They'll ask single mothers who come in a few perfunctory questions and then--illegally--refuse to give them an application. Or they'll design "Kafkaesque labyrinths of paperwork" that turn any attempt to obtain benefits into a full-time job. Anything to ease pressure on state budgets. Luckily, the Bush administration has taken note of all this and decided to... eliminate the Census's Survey of Income and Program Participation, so that nosy researchers can no longer figure out how many eligible families are receiving assistance. Problem solved!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Scott Horton: Doing God's Work

Two Hundred Years Ago Today, the Global Campaign for Human Rights Achieved Its First Victory "As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you sir, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might, - let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition." - William Wilberforce, speech before the House of Commons, May 12, 1789, Hansard vol. 28, col. 68 Today the cause of universal human rights celebrates an important anniversary. On this day two hundred years ago, the Parliament at Westminster voted an act for the abolition of the slave trade. A few decades later, Parliament also voted the manumission of slaves throughout the British Empire. By that time, in the 1830's, the trafficking in slaves was viewed as a jus cogens crime by legal scholars around the world and the global movement to abolish slavery altogether was well launched.

Ezra Klein: Why Punditry S----

This is nothing personal to Jonah, but why is he going on NPR today to talk about global warming? Does he actually, uh, know anything about global warming? Forget whether his opinion on it is accurate, given the universe of possible participants in a debate about climatological science, a generalist political journalist from The National Review doesn't sound like the most enlightening choice. Indeed, I shouldn't be on talking about global warming either. Not only haven't I read, but I can't even understand, most of the scientific literature on the issue. NPR's listeners deserve better.

This is, in fact, a pretty generalized problem. I was on CNBC recently talking about the President's health care proposals, and not only did the host have no clue what she was talking about, but the generic political consultant I was matched against was similarly out of his element. The difference between a standard deduction and a tax credit seemed totally misunderstood, and no one had any clue what reform plans were floating around Congress. It was embarrassing. There's no way the audience was elevated by that discussion. And yet, these shows can attract experts. And they can choose journalists, non-profiteers, and others who focus in the relevant issue area. But all too often, they just choose...anybody. Balance overwhelms expertise, media skills -- a function of being repeatedly broadcast on the media -- trump analytical ones. It's a shame.

Leonard E. Burman, Jason Furman, Greg Leiserson, Roberton Williams: The President's Proposed Standard Deduction for Health Insurance

The paper describes the new standard deduction for health insurance, proposed in the FY2008 Budget, and evaluates the extent to which it would meet its stated goals of expanding health insurance coverage and restraining healthcare spending, and its effects on the distribution of tax burdens in the short and long terms. The basic approach would improve the market for health insurance, but inadequate attention was paid to problems in the nongroup market or those facing households with low incomes. In consequence, the plan could actually reduce overall insurance coverage. The paper suggests a variety of ways in which the proposal could be improved so more people would be covered, including those with low incomes or in poor health.

The text below is an excerpt from the complete document. Read the full paper in PDF format.


President Bush's FY 2008 budget proposes major changes in tax incentives for health insurance and health care. His plan would eliminate most current tax exclusions and deductions for health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs; for the first time, employer contributions to health insurance would be included in taxable income. In place, the plan creates a separate standard deduction for health insurance in the federal income and payroll taxes for all taxpayers who obtain qualifying health insurance. The plan's intent is to increase the tax incentive to purchase some form of insurance while eliminating the current system's bias in favor of insurance provided through employers and reducing the current tax incentives for over-consumption of health care services and the commensurate under-consumption of other goods and services.

The president's plan also contains several health proposals that lie outside the tax sphere and are not discussed in detail in this analysis. The plan has a vague proposal to allow states greater flexibility to redirect their existing uncompensated care funds to support greater access to affordable health insurance for those with low incomes or chronic health conditions. There are few details on how this would be accomplished. The president also reproposes his Association Health Plan initiative to allow small businesses to purchase health insurance through trade associations and other groups without being subject to state insurance regulations.

The tax proposal is innovative and a step in the right direction, but without substantial expansions and revisions the plan as a whole would weaken existing pooling arrangements and create substantial risks for the current system of health insurance coverage. The proposal implicitly acknowledges that there are no easy answers and spells out some tough choices. It attempts to move forward on the twin problems of the rising number of uninsured and rising health spending without increasing total tax subsidies for health insurance; in fact, as proposed it would even reduce the long-run deficit.

The president's plan effectively turns the existing tax subsidy for health insurance into a kind of voucher. It would increase the amount of tax relief that subsidizes acquisition of some health insurance while eliminating the tax advantages at the margin for increased consumption of health care over all other goods. The proposal will almost certainly encourage some people who currently lack insurance, particularly middle-income families, to get it. And the core of the new proposal is not biased towards the provision of favored forms of insurance (e.g., high deductible policies) over other forms of insurance that could reduce spending (e.g., managed care or plans with higher copayments).

However, as under current law, the subsidy will be more valuable for high-income people than for those with lower incomes who most need help. In fact, low-income households with no income tax liability would get very little help, as is true under the current structure. These limitations could easily be addressed by converting the proposed standard deduction into a flat credit or even a sliding-scale credit that is larger for low-income families.

A more fundamental concern about the plan, as proposed, is that the standard deduction would be available to all who obtained qualifying insurance, whether through an employer or as an individual. That would level the playing field between employer-sponsored insurance and insurance purchased in the individual market. But removing the existing advantage for employment-based plans would lead some employers, especially small and medium-sized businesses, to stop offering health insurance to their employees, exacerbating a trend that is already well underway. Assuming that employers raise wages when they stop offering health insurance, healthy employees will often be able to use their wage boost to purchase inexpensive health insurance in the individual nongroup market, but many who have health problems, especially those with low incomes, will find health insurance unaffordable. Mitigating or remedying these problems would require some combination of expanded public programs, new pooling arrangements, fundamental reform of the individual market, or additional subsidies for targeted groups, such as small employers that offer health insurance, people with chronic health conditions, and low-income households.

The administration proposes to provide states with incentives to address the problems in the nongroup market, but those promises may not be backed by adequate funding. Moreover, the tax changes would go into effect regardless of whether or when states created the complementary programs to expand the nongroup market.

This paper summarizes the proposal and its likely effects on the health insurance market and the level and distribution of tax burdens. We also recommend some modifications that could transform the proposal from a risky change that might destabilize existing insurance into a proposal that would reduce the ranks of the uninsured without collateral costs for vulnerable workers.

Scott Horton: A Tale of Two Georges

Crossposted from Huffington Post

"Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause... for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country." - George Washington, charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775 On February 22, HBO premieres Rory Kennedy's documentary The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. The date is George Washington's birthday. There could be no more appropriate date to launch this documentary, because the experience of Abu Ghraib presents a direct challenge to the legacy of the greatest of America's Founding Fathers. Before America had a Constitution, a Bill of Rights or a Congress - before the institution of the Presidency - it had its first surviving institution, which was the Army. And its first commander-in-chief - the only one to bear that title without simultaneously being president - was the great militia veteran of the French and Indian War, a man whose experience in warfare towered over others, George Washington. From the outset of their confrontation with the British monarchy, the Americans were labeled as traitors and insurgents. They were denied the status of honorable soldiers in arms and were treated shamefully. Even as Washington issued the order quoted at the outset, he knew that all 31 of the prisoners taken by the British at Bunker Hill had died in captivity, many under unsettling circumstances. Of the 2,607 Americans taken prisoner at the capitulation of Ft Washington, all but 800 had died in captivity by 1778. The continental press was filled with accounts of the brutal and inhuman treatment of Americans taken by the British throughout this period. Against a loud public outcry of "eye for an eye," George Washington stood fast. He made it a point of fundamental honor (and that was his word) that the Americans would not only hold dearly to the laws of war, they would define a new law of war that reflected the humanitarian principles for which the new Republic had risen. These principles required respect for the dignity and worth of every human being engaged in the conduct of the war, whether in the American cause or that of the nation's oppressor. They also required respect for the religion and cultural values of foreign peoples. He wrote, "While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case are they answerable." Following the Battle of Trenton in 1776, Washington set firm rules for the treatment of prisoners in American custody. "Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands," he wrote. In all respects the prisoners were to be treated no worse than American soldiers; and in some respects, better. Through this approach, Washington sought to shame his British adversaries, and to demonstrate the moral superiority of the American cause. He also anticipated that the prisoners, treated with such attention and care, would reconsider their loyalties by the end of the war and embrace the American cause (his expectation was fulfilled - nearly all of the surviving prisoners of Trenton, for instance, settled in America and attained citizenship, many after US military service). But Washington makes clear that he took this approach in the end because of his experience in the wilderness, and the lesson he learned there: soldiers who mistreated prisoners, who took up cruel practices, were bad and unruly soldiers - the discipline and morale of the entire fighting force was undermined by such conduct. For Washington, the issues were clear on both a moral and practical level, and his guidance was given with firm conviction. Washington's rules on the treatment of prisoners were doctrine of the United States Army for 227 years. From Washington's perspective, they were not marginal matters. Rather, they defined the United States in relationship to the rest of the world. As David Hackett Fischer writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning account, Washington's Crossing: "In a desperate struggle [he] found a way to defeat a formidable enemy... [He] reversed the momentum of the war. [He] improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition. And [he] chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution." But early in 2002, a later George W, one who knew no military service, decided he knew better than the Founding Father. The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib makes clear that what transpired in that notorious Iraqi prison was not the misdoings of a few "rotten apples," but rather the foreseeable consequence of policies shaped at the highest levels of the Bush Administration. We should keep in mind that Abu Ghraib itself contained abuse that was mild compared with incidents that occurred elsewhere, including more than one hundred deaths in detention - a significant portion of which are linked to torture. Venting at the constraints of international law, which they deemed quaint and outmoded, and seemingly ignorant of the proud American tradition behind that law, policymakers like Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales were determined to dabble in what Vice President Cheney called the "dark side." The consequences of this gravely mistaken departure from America's foundational values have been exactly what Washington foresaw in his charge of September 1775: shame, disgrace and ruin. We should celebrate George Washington's birthday this Thursday by remembering the man and the values for which he stood. And we should redouble our efforts to restore that message of fundamental decency with which our nation came into being. While Congress took an important step forward with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, it was caught by White House trickery the following year in the Military Commissions Act, which has stripped away the writ of habeas corpus, and thus left the Administration unaccountable for the mistreatment of prisoners. If we are to purge this nation of the shame of Abu Ghraib, habeas corpus must be restored, and offenders must be held to account. George Washington would expect no less. He said as much.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Dan Froomkin: A Shaky Briefing on Iran?

For a long time now, Bush administration officials have been promising reporters proof that the Iranian government is supplying deadly weaponry to Iraqi militants.

The administration finally unveiled its case this weekend, first in coordinated and anonymous leaks to a trusting New York Times reporter, then in an extraordinarily secretive military briefing at which no one would speak on the record, journalists weren't allowed to photograph the so-called evidence, and nothing even remotely like proof of direct Iranian government involvement was presented.

The result: The White House got the headlines it wanted.

But there is plenty of reason for reporters to be suspicious of the administration's claims.

And looking at the big picture, one can't help but wonder: Is this deja vu all over again? Is the Bush admininistration once again building a faulty case for war, this time against Iran? And is the press going along for the ride?

The Gordon Piece

Michael R. Gordon started the ball rolling in the Saturday New York Times: "The most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq is an explosive-packed cylinder that United States intelligence asserts is being supplied by Iran."

This is about as close as Gordon gets to skepticism: "The assertion of an Iranian role in supplying the device to Shiite militias reflects broad agreement among American intelligence agencies, although officials acknowledge that the picture is not entirely complete."

Gordon acknowledges the obvious context -- "Any assertion of an Iranian contribution to attacks on Americans in Iraq is both politically and diplomatically volatile," he writes -- but then gives his sources a pass: "The officials said they were willing to discuss the issue to respond to what they described as an increasingly worrisome threat to American forces in Iraq, and were not trying to lay the basis for an American attack on Iran."

It was up to Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher and blogger Glenn Greenwald to put Gordon's own report in context.

"What is the source of this volatile information?" Mitchell asked. "Nothing less than 'civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies.'

"Sound pretty convincing? It may be worth noting that the author is Michael R. Gordon, the same Times reporter who, on his own, or with Judith Miller, wrote some of the key, and badly misleading or downright inaccurate, articles about Iraqi WMDs in the run-up to the 2003 invasion."

Writes Greenwald: "Over the past few weeks, The Los Angeles Times has published several detailed and well-documented articles casting serious doubt on the administration's claims that Iran is fueling the Iraqi insurgency with weapons. . . .

"But today, The New York Times does precisely the opposite -- it has published a lengthy, prominent front-page article by Michael Gordon that does nothing, literally, but mindlessly recite administration claims about Iran's weapons-supplying activities without the slightest questioning, investigation, or presentation of ample counter-evidence."

And as Greenwald notes, Gordon's story appears to violate quite a few of the basic journalistic rules for avoiding the media's government-enabling mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq that I tried to sketch out for NiemanWatchdog.org last week.

Ezra Klein: Anti-Anti-Anti-Anti-Anti-Semites

Sort of without me noticing, TNR's various blogs, writers, and outlets have been hosting a rollicking debate on anti-semites. Bret Stephens, for instance, thinks what's really important is a finely tuned ant-semite-radar, because, "spotting an anti-Semite...requires forensic skills, interpretive wits, and moral judgment." That, I think, is among the most hilarious lines I've ever read, at least until we get to the totally earnest conclusion of, "still, were it up to me Judt, Mearsheimer, Carter et al would be run out of polite society. What's wrong with that?"

Alan Wolfe proceeds to inform Stephens of exactly what's wrong with that. David Greenberg timidly disagrees, and says, "I rather wish that the same outrage that attaches to using the term anti-Semite would attach to using words like "Nazi," "apartheid," and "war crimes" in reference to the Jewish state." Which is weird, because a few sentences earlier, he positively endorses the use of the term "anti-semite" "to shake the scales from the eyes of naifs" who believe words like "apartheid" and "war crimes" can be used in good faith. So it's really not clear what he thinks of any of these words. Alan Wolfe responds in his customarily graceful, devastating, fashion.

And elsewhere, Marty Peretz -- I swear to God -- criticizes George Soros for a spate of delayed JetBlue flights. Could The Spine even get more awesome? The answer is no, my friends. The answer is no.

Greg Sargent: David Brooks And The Doctrine Of Pundit Infallibility

David Brooks' column in the New York Times today perfectly illustrates what can usefully be called the Doctrine of Pundit Infallibility -- or DOPI for short. Brooks writes:

Far be it from me to get in the middle of a liberal purge, but would anybody mind if I pointed out that the calls for Hillary Clinton to apologize for her support of the Iraq war are almost entirely bogus?...

Today, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party believes that the world, and Hillary Clinton in particular, owes it an apology. If she apologizes, she’ll forfeit her integrity. She will be apologizing for being herself.

Putting aside Brooks' argument about Hillary, this one sentence is worth dwelling on, because it perfectly captures our new DOPI -- pronounced "DOPEY." It shows that a pundit like Brooks, who did plenty of relentless cheerleading for the Iraq conflict, can freely operate in the full knowledge that he'll face no ridicule or derision whatsoever from valued colleagues for very visibly heaping scorn on the people who, unlike him, were right about the war.

Also amusing is the fact that Brooks says liberal Dems want the "world" to apologize to them. Actually, they want people like Brooks himself to own up in a serious way to getting it wrong. When Brooks writes a column about Hillary with this headline:

...it's hard to escape the conclusion that he's really talking about himself.

It's also instructive to take note of the way Brooks essentially mischaracterizes what war opponents now want. I'd say they don't want an "apology" so much as they want war supporters to acknowledge their mistake, partly so that, you know, this sort of thing doesn't happen again. Is that so tough to grasp?

Finally, note Brooks' assertion that liberal Dems want the world to apologize to them. Actually, I'd say that most opponents of the invasion want war backers to acknowledge their mistake to the relatives and friends of these people:

Digby: Polarizer In Chief

ABC News' Teddy Davis Reports: In the forthcoming issue of Texas Monthly, former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd writes that President Bush's "gut-level bond" with the American people "may be lost" and that "wholesale change" is needed in Iraq. "Sending in a small contingent of troops is likely going to be seen as not helpful," Dowd writes. "He'd be much better off with the public if he said, 'This is a mess, we made mistakes, and the only way to fix it is a wholesale change.' And that could mean either a serious increase in troop strength or withdrawal." Dowd opines that Bush's problems stem from his success in the 2002 midterm elections. ". . . when all the levers of power in Washington became Republican, creating consensus seemed to become unnecessary at the White House."
Well now, that seems like quite a mistake doesn't it? I'll bet the president wishes he hadn't done that. Who do you suppose told him he didn't need to gain consensus to govern effectively?
In late 2000, even as the result of the presidential election was still being contested in court, George W. Bush's chief pollster Matt Dowd was writing a memo for Rove that would reach a surprising conclusion. Based on a detailed examination of poll data from the previous two decades, Dowd's memo argued that the percentage of swing voters had shrunk to a tiny fraction of the electorate. Most self-described "independent" voters "are independent in name only," Dowd told me in an interview describing his memo. "Seventy-five percent of independents vote straight ticket" for one party or the other. Once such independents are reclassified as Democrats or Republicans, a key trend emerges: Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of true swing voters fell from a very substantial 24 percent of the electorate to just 6 percent. In other words, the center was literally disappearing. Which meant that, instead of having every incentive to govern as "a uniter, not a divider," Bush now had every reason to govern via polarization.
Let the self-serving re-writing of history begin.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Matthew Yglesias: "I See No Loyalty Here, Sir"

To me, the striking thing is how infrequent it is to actually see non-critics of America's Israel policy make the argument that current policy serves the vital interests of the United States (TNR's editorial line, for example, from which some authors obviously deviate, has tended to deny that American policy should be governed by considerations of the national interests; the recent TNR article on the Iranian nuclear program didn't so much as mention American interests). I would genuinely be interested to read an article making the case that it serves American interests to make Israel the largest recipient of American foreign aid dollars. Were someone to put together a strong argument to that effect, then others could read it and put together counterarguments. I think we could, then, have a reasonably civil disagreement about a fairly standard political question, "should our policies be like this or would it be better to change them like this?" instead of a vicious argument about whether Israel is "bad" or its critics are anti-semites.

After all, it's not as if the US's failure to appropriate $3 billion in annual aid to Costa Rica is driven by a sense that Costa Rica is a uniquely horrible country. In fact, it's a rather nice country. We're just not that generous with our foreign aid. But Israel's a weird target for all that aid. Why not a poorer country like Bangladesh? Or one more objectively threatened like Taiwan? At the end of the day, I don't think a failure to think these things through actually constitutes "dual loyalties," it just constitutes a failure to think these things through. A rigorous assessment of national interests might prompt a clash of sentiments or loyalties, so people simply don't do it; and the core element of America's policy vis-à-vis Israel -- heavy financial support whose rationale is unclear -- just goes undiscussed.

Unqualified Offerings: Glenn Reynolds Says: "Assassinations R US"

One of the saddest, despair-inducing phenomena among many in the current American political crisis has been the wholesale moral corruption of people who once were principled and reasonable libertarians or liberals. Among the more disturbing public descents into true depravity has been Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds’ Bush-era ideological trajectory. Some months ago he breezily noted claims that the death, maiming and carnage in Iraq are no more of a big deal than the homicide rates in American cities such as Philadelphia.

Now, he is openly advocating the assassination – assassination — of civilians in nations with whom we are not even at war. Glenn Greenwald, who is now blogging at Salon (brief ad click-though req’d), documents how extreme and contrary to American values and law is Reynolds’ latest horrific pronouncement:

Every administration, Democratic and Republican, have agreed that creating death squads and engaging in extra-judicial assassinations is so repugnant to our political values and so destructive to our moral credibility around the world that an absolute ban is necessary — including at the height of the Cold War…

. And what is most striking is that these anti-assassination prohibitions apply (a) to wartime and (b) even to foreign leaders of nations who are at war. But here, Reynolds is actually advocating that we murder scientists and religious figures who are “radical,” whatever that might happen to mean in the unchecked mind of George Bush.

If we are to be a country that now sends death squads into nations with whom we are not at war to slaughter civilians — scientists and religious figures — what don’t we do?

Yesterday, the popular Republican blog Red State advocated war with Iran and embraced having it spread throughout the Middle East. Now, the respected (look, he is, whether readers here like it or not) law professor Glenn Reynolds is advocating extra-judicial murder of civilians at the whim of George W. Bush — and Hugh Hewitt thinks that’s a great idea. As Greenwald documents, these Bush supporters are embracing a policy Abraham Lincoln explicitly rejected as barbaric during the height of this nation’s bloody Civil War.

It may be a cliché, but those generally exist because they are based in truth; more than a few Bush supporters would have us become the things we purport to hate. We are well down the road of national vitiation already, but not far enough for Glenn Reynolds.

Wonkette: Army Brass Beg 24: "Stop Torturing Everybody"

U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan has pleaded with the producers of a popular teevee show about torturing Arabs to please stop torturing everybody. With the military now forced to accept high-school dropouts, felons, drug addicts, fatsos, gang-bangers, rapists, cretins and half-wits in a desperate attempt to meet the Pentagon’s demand for more bodies, Finnegan is bothered by the show 24 because young recruits now believe it’s “patriotic” to torture and murder Muslims.

“I’d like them to stop,” said Finnegan about the show’s endless torture scenes. “They should do a show where torture backfires.” (Ha ha, there is a “show” like that. It’s called Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.)

The general (also the dean of West Point) took the Army and FBI’s top interrogators to the production company, but 24 co-creator and executive producer Joel Surnow didn’t show up — he was talking on the phone with Fox News chief Roger Ailes.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Majikthese: Froomkin Nails Iran Briefing Story

Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post:

For a long time now, Bush admininstration officials have been promising reporters proof that the Iranian government is supplying deadly weaponry to Iraqi militants.

The administration finally unveiled its case this weekend, first in coordinated and anonymous leaks to a trusting New York Times reporter, then in an extraordinarily secretive military briefing at which no one would speak on the record, journalists weren't allowed to photograph the so-called evidence, and nothing even remotely like proof of direct Iranian government involvement was presented.

The result: The White House got the headlines it wanted.

Read the whole thing.

Matthew Yglesias: Mike Gerson and Condi Rice: Worst Speechwriters Ever

Worst Speech Ever

This is really shocking:

In a pattern that would become familiar, however, a chill quickly followed the warming in relations. Barely a week after the Tokyo meeting, Iran was included with Iraq and North Korea in the "Axis of Evil." Michael Gerson, now a NEWSWEEK contributor, headed the White House speechwriting shop at the time. He says Iran and North Korea were inserted into Bush's controversial State of the Union address in order to avoid focusing solely on Iraq. At the time, Bush was already making plans to topple Saddam Hussein, but he wasn't ready to say so. Gerson says it was Condoleezza Rice, then national-security adviser, who told him which two countries to include along with Iraq. But the phrase also appealed to a president who felt himself thrust into a grand struggle. Senior aides say it reminded him of Ronald Reagan's ringing denunciations of the "evil empire."

Once again, Iran's reformists were knocked back on their heels. "Those who were in favor of a rapprochement with the United States were marginalized," says Adeli. "The speech somehow exonerated those who had always doubted America's intentions."

In short, Michael Gerson and Condoleezza Rice, purely in order to make a speech that (a) sounded good, and (b) pretended not to be exclusively about Iraq, set the United States on a collision course with Iran. That's really got to be a historic speechwriting blunder.

Naturally enough, Gerson's paid a high price for his role in instigating this destructive conflict. After continuing to serve for years in the White House he's been forced to accept a humiliating position as a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and a columnist for some obscure magazine called Newsweek.

War and Peace: Doug Feith: Lyingest Man Alive

Former undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith on Fox News Sunday: my office never said there was an operational relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. Perhaps he has forgotten this leaked Feith memo, cited favorably by the Vice President, and published by the Weekly Standard: "OSAMA BIN LADEN and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda--perhaps even for Mohamed Atta--according to a top secret U.S. government memorandum obtained by THE WEEKLY STANDARD. The memo, dated October 27, 2003, was sent from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith to Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. ...."

William Odom: Victory Is Not an Option

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq starkly delineates the gulf that separates President Bush's illusions from the realities of the war. Victory, as the president sees it, requires a stable liberal democracy in Iraq that is pro-American. The NIE describes a war that has no chance of producing that result. In this critical respect, the NIE, the consensus judgment of all the U.S. intelligence agencies, is a declaration of defeat.

Its gloomy implications -- hedged, as intelligence agencies prefer, in rubbery language that cannot soften its impact -- put the intelligence community and the American public on the same page. The public awakened to the reality of failure in Iraq last year and turned the Republicans out of control of Congress to wake it up. But a majority of its members are still asleep, or only half-awake to their new writ to end the war soon.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Americans do not warm to defeat or failure, and our politicians are famously reluctant to admit their own responsibility for anything resembling those un-American outcomes. So they beat around the bush, wringing hands and debating "nonbinding resolutions" that oppose the president's plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

For the moment, the collision of the public's clarity of mind, the president's relentless pursuit of defeat and Congress's anxiety has paralyzed us. We may be doomed to two more years of chasing the mirage of democracy in Iraq and possibly widening the war to Iran. But this is not inevitable. A Congress, or a president, prepared to quit the game of "who gets the blame" could begin to alter American strategy in ways that will vastly improve the prospects of a more stable Middle East.

No task is more important to the well-being of the United States. We face great peril in that troubled region, and improving our prospects will be difficult. First of all, it will require, from Congress at least, public acknowledgment that the president's policy is based on illusions, not realities. There never has been any right way to invade and transform Iraq. Most Americans need no further convincing, but two truths ought to put the matter beyond question:

First, the assumption that the United States could create a liberal, constitutional democracy in Iraq defies just about everything known by professional students of the topic. Of the more than 40 democracies created since World War II, fewer than 10 can be considered truly "constitutional" -- meaning that their domestic order is protected by a broadly accepted rule of law, and has survived for at least a generation. None is a country with Arabic and Muslim political cultures. None has deep sectarian and ethnic fissures like those in Iraq.

Strangely, American political scientists whose business it is to know these things have been irresponsibly quiet. In the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion, neoconservative agitators shouted insults at anyone who dared to mention the many findings of academic research on how democracies evolve. They also ignored our own struggles over two centuries to create the democracy Americans enjoy today. Somehow Iraqis are now expected to create a constitutional order in a country with no conditions favoring it.

This is not to say that Arabs cannot become liberal democrats. When they immigrate to the United States, many do so quickly. But it is to say that Arab countries, as well as a large majority of all countries, find creating a stable constitutional democracy beyond their capacities.

Second, to expect any Iraqi leader who can hold his country together to be pro-American, or to share American goals, is to abandon common sense. It took the United States more than a century to get over its hostility toward British occupation. (In 1914, a majority of the public favored supporting Germany against Britain.) Every month of the U.S. occupation, polls have recorded Iraqis' rising animosity toward the United States. Even supporters of an American military presence say that it is acceptable temporarily and only to prevent either of the warring sides in Iraq from winning. Today the Iraqi government survives only because its senior members and their families live within the heavily guarded Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and military command.

As Congress awakens to these realities -- and a few members have bravely pointed them out -- will it act on them? Not necessarily. Too many lawmakers have fallen for the myths that are invoked to try to sell the president's new war aims. Let us consider the most pernicious of them.

The Poor Man: Easy Answers to Stupid Questions, Part Double Infinity

Q: Mike Allen of the Politico asks:

Barack Obama’s free ride is ending. […]

Now, Obama’s about to endure a going-over that would make a proctologist blush. Why has he sometimes said his first name is Arabic, and other times Swahili? […]

Even his name offers fodder for the critics. When he was growing up, his family, friends and teachers called him “Barry.” Then as a young man, he started insisting on “Barack,” explaining in a memoir published in 1995 that his grandfather was a Muslim and that it means “blessed” in Arabic. His dad, who was Kenyan, had gone by “Barry” — probably trying to fit in when he came to the States, his son figured. On the campaign trail during his 2004 Senate race, Obama told reporters that “Barack” was Swahili for “blessed by God.”

Whatever its origins, the exotic, multicultural name – so open to interpretation that some Irish folks he ran into assumed “O’Bama” must be one of theirs – is just one of the tools Obama has used to create a captivating narrative about himself as a post-partisan messiah for a nation weary of Potomac combat.


Arabic was so instrumental in the “birth” of Swahili that many non-linguists at one moment wanted to class it as a dialect of Arabic. The truth is that the various Arab trading posts attracted several speakers of different but related Bantu languages. These Bantu speakers could not communicate using a specific Bantu language, but they all needed basic rudiments of Arabic lexis to carry out commercial transactions [*cough* slave trade *cough*]. This situation led to the development of a lingua franca around each Arab trading post. But since, on one hand, the various Bantu languages demonstrated a high degree of lexical and morphosyntactic similarities, and, on the other hand, all these speakers interacted with one and the same common external language, Arabic, the resulting lingua franca in the various settlements, ended up by becoming mere dialects of a new language spoken by the coastal inhabitants - Swahili.

Shorter A: Stop. Writing. Forever.

Of course, at the moment the only people I hear raising this non-question are semi-literate talk radio nonentities like the galactically stupid Debbie Schlussel. But I lack access to the Politico’s patented FuturVision® Time-Travelling Journalistic Interocitor, and so cannot say with certainty what retarded insinuations will - as inevitably as the sunrise, and through nobody’s aggressive idiocy - soon be appearing in the stories which The Magical Press Elves cobble together while all good journalists are fast asleep all snug in their beds. And now, as a good journalist, Mr. Allen has fulfilled his obligation to repeat whatever “somebody” with a transparent agenda just told him anonymously, without once questioning whether he is being played for a complete idiot. For that would be partisan. And we mustn’t do that.

Via Andrew Sullivan, who, in the midst of the biggest debacle since Vietnam, hopes that Obama will “speak …” - wait for it! -”with civility”. If any of readers live near me, and own a sniper rifle, please kill me. Just get me in your crosshairs and take me the fuck out already. I can’t take it anymore.

Matthew Yglesias: Striking!

"What is striking," sagely observes Charles Krauthammer, "is how much of the debate in Washington about Iraq has to do not with the war but with the words." In reality, the most striking thing is that Charles Krauthammer, America's Worst Columnist, continues to be published weekly in The Washington Post. Take, for example, this feeble effort at a gotcha. He notes that the Senate unanimously confirmed David Petraeus and then asks, "If you really oppose the surge, how can you not oppose the appointment of the man whose very mission is to carry it out?"

I promise that Jonah Goldberg could do better than this in his sleep. After a cup of coffee he'd probably even find a way to paint surge opponents as Nazi sympathizers.

To answer Krauthammer's question, nobody opposed Petraeus's appointment because there was no reason to oppose it. The "surge" is the president's plan and whichever general was in command in Iraq would be ordered to carry it out; someone has to be in command of the troops in Iraq even if the troops' mission is to withdraw; and just about everyone seems to think Petraeus is a good general. What's more, the president is always granted very broad deference in these kind of decisions.

What's striking is that Krauthammer obviously knows all of this and is just using his column as an opportunity to write in bad faith. The president is extremely unpopular since at this point everyone knows that he's inept, lazy, corrupt, etc. Petraeus, by contrast, gets good press. So the idea is to paint this as Petraeus's war rather than Bush's. Hence, war opponents should oppose Petraeus' appointment and the argument will be made even though it makes no sense.

Friday, February 9, 2007

David Wessel: Bush's Course on Budget Parallels Iraq

The numbers in President Bush's budget add up -- arithmetically. If his assumptions come true, the deficit will evaporate in 2012.

But there are a lot of ifs -- if Iraq and Afghanistan cost only $50 billion in 2009 and nothing thereafter; if the president and Congress hold growth in annually appropriated domestic spending well below inflation; if they let the alternative minimum tax reach deeper into the middle class or raise taxes on others to prevent that; if Congress squeezes $66 billion (4%) from Medicare over five years.

OK. Give him a break. A presidential budget is an opening bid, not an attempt at stating a consensus.

But is it sound? If former Republican Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton led a budget commission like their Iraq Study Group, what would they say?

They would hardly need to rewrite their cover letter. "There is no magic formula … . However, there are actions that can be taken to improve the situation and protect American interests," they said in the Iraq report. "Many Americans are dissatisfied, not just with the situation...but with the state of our political debate … . Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric, and a policy that is adequately funded and sustainable."

William Gale of the Brookings Institution think tank -- populated by deficit-fearing Democratic wonks who have been trying to find common ground with deficit-fearing Republican wonks -- has been thinking a lot lately about the parallels between Mr. Bush on Iraq and Mr. Bush on the budget.

"The Bush administration's two signature policies have been the war in Iraq and consistent pressure for tax cuts," he argues. "On the surface, they look quite different and were advocated by different parts of the administration. Look a little deeper and some common patterns emerge -- so maybe this says something about the principles or management style of the Bush administration."

It is a provocative and illuminating exercise. Let Mr. Gale kick it off: The president took the U.S. into Iraq with "falsely rosy scenarios" about the post-Saddam landscape there, he says. Mr. Bush built his tax cuts in 2001 on a similarly unrealistic hope that the budget surplus was large enough to cut taxes without creating deficits.

Let us keep going. As Iraq proved different and more difficult than anticipated, and contingency planning was regarded by the Bush White House as a sign of weakness, rather than prudence, Mr. Bush vowed to "stay the course." When then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan argued for "triggers" to undo tax cuts if budget reality didn't match projections, the White House scoffed. Even when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drove spending on homeland security and the military far above projections, Mr. Bush didn't revisit his fiscal strategy.

Smart critics, even inside the administration, were disregarded and shunned...

Dan Froomkin: Washington Journamalism on Trial

Washington Journalism on Trial

By Dan Froomkin Special to washingtonpost.com Thursday, February 8, 2007; 1:34 PM

If you're a journalist, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do? Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public?

Not if you're NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert.

When then-vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby called Russert on July 10, 2003, to complain that his name was being unfairly bandied about by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Russert apparently asked him nothing.

And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That's not reporting, that's enabling.

That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable.

Many things are "on trial" at the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse right now. Libby is the only one facing a jail sentence -- and Russert's testimony, firmly contradicting the central claim of Libby's defense, may just end up putting him there.

But Libby's boss, along with the whole Bush White House, for that matter, is being held up to public scrutiny as well.

And the behavior of elite members of Washington's press corps -- sometimes appearing more interested in protecting themselves and their cozy "sources" than in informing the public -- is also being exposed for all the world to see.

For Russert, yesterday's testimony was the second source of trial-related embarrassment in less than two weeks. The first came when Cathie Martin, Cheney's former communications director, testified that the vice president's office saw going on Russert's "Meet the Press" as a way to go public but "control [the] message."

In other words: Sure, there might be a tough question or two, but Russert could be counted on not to knock the veep off his talking points -- and, in that way, give him just the sort of platform he was looking for.

Russert's description of how he does business with government officials came when prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald asked him whether there were "any explicit ground rules" for his conversation with Libby.

According to someone taking meticulous notes at the courthouse yesterday, Russert replied: "Specifically, no. But when I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission."

In his cross-examination, defense attorney Theodore Wells sounded incredulous that Russert wouldn't have asked Libby some questions. After all, former ambassador Joseph Wilson had gone public just four days earlier with his provocative charge that the administration manipulated intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq. Wilson had done that in a New York Times op-ed -- and on "Meet the Press" itself.

"You have the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States on the telephone and you don't ask him one question about it?" Wells asked. "As a newsperson who's known for being aggressive and going after the facts, you wouldn't have asked him about the biggest stories in the world that week?"

Russert replied: "What happened is exactly what I told you."

Tim Burke: Don't Expect Zimbabwe to Improve Much Soon

Much as I think Mugabe is loathsome, and that his loathsomeness was consistently underestimated by many observers and commenters of Zimbabwe's politics in the 1980s, it's important not to overlook the more systemic problems in the postcolonial Zimbabwean state. Mugabe is not in fact a charismatic authoritarian who somehow overwhelmed an otherwise competent or well-functioning liberal democracy and drove into ruin. He's certainly an autocratic and unscrupulous control freak, and has been ever since he first entered politics. But what has happened to Zimbabwe since the late 1980s has as much to do with a wider circle of people around Mugabe, both in the ruling party and in important and powerful institutions, including the military.

When Mugabe dies, I wouldn't expect things to get magically better. First, because much of what gave Zimbabwe a promising economic and social outlook circa 1988 has been thoroughly and structurally destroyed. Second, because at least some of the people around Mugabe have instincts just as self-destructive and have every reason to inhibit good management or democratization (as they will likely be the ones prosecuted by a vengeful reformist regime).

The problem with fantasizing about unilateral military action in this case is connected to this problem. You could drop a bunch of Special Forces guys on the presidential palace in Harare, take out Mugabe, and change absolutely zero. Frankly you could occupy the country with UN forces and change absolutely zero. What's needed is a huge change in the fundamental architecture of the Zimbabwean state and a change in the basic composition of the thin upper range of the most powerful elite. Those are not transformations which occupiers can readily bring about (something which I'd think should be screamingly apparent to everyone by now).

About the only positive short-term scenario is that some of the younger, smarter, more competent guys in ZANU-PF who have been carefully keeping their heads low through the last decade will move aggressively on Mugabe's death to push aside hacks like Didymus Mutasa and clean out the bureaucratic house. But to really succeed at that, they'd have to reverse a lot of brain-drain and draw back competent managerial and professional elites who have (wisely) left for other countries

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Andrew Leonard: Climate change, the North Pole, and an imaginary Chinese navy

Climate change, the North Pole, and an imaginary Chinese navy, by Andrew Leonard: How the World Works does its best to resist the urge to make fun of Wall Street Journal editorials. It's not that it's too easy. It's just unseemly, like taunting a patient suffering from Alzheimer's disease for his forgetfulness. ...

But I am something of a glutton for exposing myself to absurdist displays of right-wing idiocy, so I read the editorial, which cites a certain Lord Christopher Monckton for most of its revisionist claims. Monckton, we are told, is "a one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher who has become a voice of sanity on global warming."

Oh really? There are few things the blogosphere excels more at than debunking revisionist lies about global warming, so I decided to give myself a quick update on Lord Monckton. There was much to mull over...

Tim Lambert, a computer scientist at the University of New South Wales, noted in his blog, Deltoid, that ... Monckton authored a lengthy piece in the Daily Telegraph that included the following assertion about the medieval era: "There was little ice at the North Pole: a Chinese naval squadron sailed right round the Arctic in 1421 and found none."

Lambert tracks down the assertion: It comes from Gavin Menzies' book "1421: The Year China Discovered America."

"1421" is probably the single most derided book purporting to be a work of Chinese history published in living memory. It has been mocked and rebutted from one end of the Internet to the other. An entire generation of historians has been forced into debt from the dental bills brought on by endless nights of teeth-gnashing at the very thought that Menzies' work might be considered by anyone to be historically accurate. Suffice to say, the evidence that a Chinese naval squadron ever sailed to the North Pole, is, uh, scant.

Lambert's summing up is spot-on: "Hey, if you are going to ignore the consensus view of scientists, you might as well ignore the consensus view of historians." ...

I'd like to say, "You can't makes this stuff up," but apparently you can!

Martin Wolf: In spite of sceptics, it is worth reducing climate risk

In spite of sceptics, it is worth reducing climate risk

By Martin Wolf

Published: February 6 2007 18:06 | Last updated: February 6 2007 18:06

In the public at large, including sizeable sections of the business community, a new consensus on climate change has emerged: it is happening; it is important; and something needs to be done. The publication last week of the latest assessment from the intergovernmental panel on climate change and discussions at this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos made the growing agreement on all these points plain. Yet there is one group among whom dissent reigns: economists.

It was to them, above all, that Sir Nicholas Stern’s review on the Economics of Climate Change was addressed. It has failed to persuade. So much the worse for economists, the environmentally minded will declare. I disagree. Economists are trained to address the costs and benefits of alternative policies rigorously. Scientists are not.

Rick Perlstein: Bloggers upstage the mainstream press yet again

Chalk up 7:22 a.m. EST on Tuesday, January 23, 2007, as the moment a milestone was passed. On Time's new blog, Swampland, D.C. Bureau Chief Jay Carney posted a pre-assessment of the State of the Union address comparing President Bush's political position to Bill Clinton's in January of 1995. Like Bush, "President Clinton was in free fall. ... His approval ratings were mired in the 30's, and seemed unlikely to rise."...

Leonard Weiss and Larry Diamond: Congress must stop an attack on Iran

Congress must stop an attack on Iran

By Leonard Weiss and Larry Diamond, LEONARD WEISS is a senior science fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. LARRY DIAMOND is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. February 5, 2007
DESPITE ANGUISH and anger over the Bush administration's decision to escalate its failing war in Iraq, Congress is unlikely to cut off funding. Even most opponents of the war fear that they could be blamed for not supporting the troops in the field and for a possible descent into even greater catastrophe in the face of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But nothing prevents Congress from using its power of the purse to prevent an American attack on Iran. President Bush's neoconservative advisors and pundit supporters have been beating the drums of war with Iran since 2003, when the president declared Iran to be part of an "axis of evil." Recall that a senior administration official told The Times that Iran should "take a number" in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. In his recent address to the nation on the troop surge in Iraq, Bush issued more threats to Iran. Now the president has named a Navy admiral to head the U.S. Central Command and dispatched a second aircraft carrier and minesweepers to the Persian Gulf, presumably to prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz in the event of conflict. These developments and other administration moves could presage an air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran is not innocent of dangerous and provocative behavior. Tehran has supported insurgent groups in Iraq, including helping to provide sophisticated explosives that have killed U.S. soldiers. And Iran's continued development of a nuclear enrichment facility is in defiance of the international community's demand to halt those actions. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repulsive statements about the Holocaust and Israel add to the nervousness about Iran's future actions. But war is not yet justified, except in the minds of those who have been lobbying for it for years. Iran is still years away from being a nuclear threat, and our experience with "preventive war" in Iraq should teach us a thing or two. Launching another such war without international approval would leave us even more politically isolated and militarily overstretched. Attacking a Middle Eastern country — one much stronger than Iraq and with the ability to cut off oil supplies from the Strait of Hormuz — could inflame the region, intensify Shiite militia attacks on our soldiers in Iraq and stimulate terrorist attacks on Americans and U.S. interests worldwide. But recklessness, not prudence, has been the hallmark of this administration's foreign policy. Beyond this, the president and vice president subscribe to what some call the "unitary executive," which is a fancy way of saying they believe that Congress cannot prevent the president from doing almost anything he wants.

Ogged: AIPAC Is Not "Pro-Israel"; It Is Pro-Blowing Things Up

For What

Posted by Ogged on 02.04.07

This is an obvious point that's been made by (via) lots of people, but I'm going to make it again. It concedes far too much to call AIPAC "pro-Israel." What it is "pro-" is the maximum politically feasible use of American-Israeli military force. If you look at its "issues" and "about" pages, you'll see that it's devoted almost exclusively to touting military threats to Israel, and ensuring that Israel itself remains strong militarily. And it's simply part of the logic of lobbying groups that they will always ask for more: no matter how much opinion shifts toward militarism, AIPAC will argue that more militarism is required. And its greatest success has been in portraying its necessarily marginal views as those of an entire nation; a success which allows it to leverage the moral weight of the safety of Jewish people to advance an agenda which conflates safety with the ability to blow things up.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

John Fialka: Global Warming Report May Understate Effects

WASHINGTON -- U.S. government scientists Friday said the long-term outlook for global warming may be more dire than suggested by this week's United Nations' report, which they say doesn't fully address the impact of clouds and melting glaciers.

Recent evidence of accelerated melting of glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic ice cap came too late to be included in the report released Thursday by the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Glaciers are among the largest sources of fresh water in the world and are contributing to rising ocean levels. Rising sea levels could expose population centers bordering the ocean to more storm damage and could require evacuation in some areas. But the computer models used for the IPCC report based their predictions only on the results of heating of the existing water in the world's oceans, causing the oceans to expand and sea levels to rise, said Tom Delworth, a climate modeler for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government agency in charge of climate science and weather service.

The IPCC report predicts sea levels will rise by between one to two feet over the next 100 years. Mr. Delworth said there remains "much more uncertainty" over how much accelerated melting of glaciers might add to that.

A second area of continuing uncertainty has to do with the impact of clouds on climate change. Warming the ocean sends more water vapor into the air, and the resulting clouds accelerate global warming by trapping more of the sun's heat in the atmosphere and further warm the ocean. Jim Butler, deputy director of NOAA's global monitoring division, called this "a very scary feedback mechanism."

But, so far, the supercomputers the agency uses to model the effect on the earth's climate -- which were also used for the IPCC report -- aren't detailed or fast enough to predict how much clouds are accelerating the problem. Mr. Delworth said computer models divide the earth's oceans and atmosphere into four million boxes, each about 150 square miles, and that these boxes are too large to model the effects of clouds.

"We could use computers that are one million times faster than they are today and still not be satisfied," Mr. Delworth said.

Further complicating the issue are layers of haze containing pollutants from human activity. Such pollutants, including sulfates, soot, dust and nitrates, tend to make the atmosphere brighter, reflecting more of the sun's heat back into space. The IPCC has found that the net effect of the added pollution is to cool the atmosphere.

A.R. Ravishankara, an atmospheric chemist for NOAA, said this raises a problem for governments attempting to clean the air by removing pollutants. "If you take away this cooling effect, then the heating effect would be exacerbated. It's a highly complex problem."

Josh Micah Marshall: The Saudi Connection

Interesting. Earlier I noted that American helicopters appear to be getting downed at a much faster rate of late. Now I see that at a press conference today, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Peter Pace said that "ground fire ... has been more effective against our helicopters in the last couple weeks."

So what's going on? A friend passes on to me this AP story from early December, which notes that ...

Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to key Iraqi officials and others familiar with the flow of cash.

Saudi government officials deny that any money from their country is being sent to Iraqis fighting the government and the U.S.-led coalition.

But the U.S. Iraq Study Group report said Saudis are a source of funding for Sunni Arab insurgents. Several truck drivers interviewed by The Associated Press described carrying boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, money they said was headed for insurgents.


In one recent case, an Iraqi official said $25 million in Saudi money went to a top Iraqi Sunni cleric and was used to buy weapons, including Strela, a Russian shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. The missiles were purchased from someone in Romania, apparently through the black market, he said.

This is a thin reed in itself. But it does suggest at least a possible connection. And it points to a disconnect in much of the charges we've been hearing about Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs. Most of the US troops that are getting killed are getting killed in actions against Sunni insurgents. Not all. But still most, I believe. That's led some anonymous administration officials to speculate that the Iranians are actually supplying both the Shia and the Sunnis in an attempt to foment as much chaos as possible and to make the country ungovernable. That's certainly possible. Iran wouldn't be the first country to pursue such a Machiavellian approach. But a much cleaner explanation -- what Occam's Razor suggests -- is that the people supplying the Sunnis are people who support the Sunnis. And that trail does lead directly south into Saudi Arabia. But it's not nearly as convenient.

Spencer Ackerman: No one should pretend that the 2002 NIE represented an honest, good-faith effort at understanding the truth about Iraq

There's a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq you might have read about. And it puts me in mind of the one written in 2002. Dafna Linzer points out in today's Post that CIA estimates done in January 2003 and summer 2004 hold up rather well in hindsight: the 2003 estimate warned of an insurgency, and the 2004 estimate -- whose time frame ran into mid-2006 -- said the spectrum of political-security outcomes ran from "tenuous stability" to "civil war." The 2002 NIE on Iraqi WMD was an embarrassment to the agency and to the United States. Linzer writes that:

After no such weapons were found, the intelligence community -- particularly the CIA -- significantly altered the way in which it would conduct future analyses, highlight uncertainty and acknowledge dissent.
But that's not really right. After all, the January 2003 estimate was completed months before the invasion, let alone the acknowledgment of phantom WMD. Linzer is, of course, right that the estimate process has changed significantly since the 2002 NIE, and she's also right that the specter of that NIE has driven those changes. But it's worth highlighting the differences behind the 2002 NIE and the 2003, 2004 and 2007 NIEs. In short, what the 2002 NIE doesn't have is instructive. What it doesn't have, of course, is any assessment of Iraq post-invasion. That was by design. In the summer of 2002, Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, requested and received a letter from then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet spelling out, in balanced fashion, an assessment of both the threat from Iraq and what would happen during and after a war. Graham, knowing the debate over war was about to heat up, learned that there was no NIE on Iraq, and requested one be drawn up, hoping to inform the congressional debate. Tenet consented -- but he informed Graham that the NIE wouldn't cover Iraqi politics, and would only cover the Iraqi WMD question. Why? Tenet understood what his bosses wanted, and understood it very well. An NIE that assessed Iraqi politics before the congressional vote on the war would be an NIE that predicted a fragile sectarian politics and Iraqi hostility to a U.S. occupation -- in short, an NIE that looked much like the January 2003 NIE would look. That, in turn, would jeopardize the prospects for the administration winning the war vote; and quite possibly jeopardize George Tenet's job. It was a pattern that had repeated itself throughout 2002. On the question of Iraq's relationship to al-Qaeda, the Directorate of Intelligence's Middle East analysts found no such evidence for collaboration, and a host of reasons to explain that case, but the counterterrorism analysts were more open to the idea. So, when it came time to write an assessment for the White House about Iraq and al-Qaeda in the spring of 2002 -- and compete with Pentagon analysts who insisted on a connection -- Jami Miscik, the head of the Directorate of Intelligence, simply gave the job to the counterterrorism shop. (Their product, still constrained by the facts -- it was subtitled "Assessing A Murky Relationship" -- was rejected out of hand by Doug Feith's analysts as being insufficiently alarmist.) It's good that the intelligence community isn't bending over backwards to tell the administration what it wants to hear anymore. But no one should pretend that the 2002 NIE represented an honest, good-faith effort at understanding the truth about Iraq.

Jonathan Zasloff: Easiest Post Ever

Over at MyDD, diarist Progressive Boy asks, "After 6 Years Can Democrats Finally Forgive Ralph Nader?".


That is all.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Tom Lasseter: U.S. 'Surge' Might Only Help al-Sadr

NEW YORK Tom Lasseter, whose reports from Iraq for Knight Ridder and then McClatchy over the past three years has earned wide praise -- and many notices in E&P -- is back in that country after several months of reporting from Lebanon and elsewhere. He filed the following eye-opening dispatch today. The first part follows, with the rest available at McClatchy newspaper sites or through the McClatchy Washington bureau's main site. * The U.S. military drive to train and equip Iraq's security forces has unwittingly strengthened anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has been battling to take over much of the capital city as American forces are trying to secure it. U.S. Army commanders and enlisted men who are patrolling east Baghdad, which is home to more than half the city's population and the front line of al-Sadr's campaign to drive rival Sunni Muslims from their homes and neighborhoods, said al-Sadr's militias had heavily infiltrated the Iraqi police and army units that they've trained and armed. "Half of them are JAM. They'll wave at us during the day and shoot at us during the night," said 1st Lt. Dan Quinn, a platoon leader in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, using the initials of the militia's Arabic name, Jaish al Mahdi. "People (in America) think it's bad, but that we control the city. That's not the way it is. They control it, and they let us drive around. It's hostile territory." The Bush administration's plan to secure Baghdad rests on a "surge" of some 17,000 more U.S. troops to the city, many of whom will operate from small bases throughout Baghdad. Those soldiers will work to improve Iraqi security units so that American forces can hand over control of the area and withdraw to the outskirts of the city. The problem, many soldiers said, is that the approach has been tried before and resulted only in strengthening al-Sadr and his militia. Amid recurring reports that al-Sadr is telling his militia leaders to stash their arms and, in some cases, leave their neighborhoods during the American push, U.S. soldiers worry that the latest plan could end up handing over those areas to units that are close to al-Sadr's militant Shiite group. "All the Shiites have to do is tell everyone to lay low, wait for the Americans to leave, then when they leave you have a target list and within a day they'll kill every Sunni leader in the country. It'll be called the `Day of Death' or something like that," said 1st Lt. Alain Etienne, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y. "They say, `Wait, and we will be victorious.' That's what they preach. And it will be their victory." Quinn agreed. "Honestly, within six months of us leaving, the way Iranian clerics run the country behind the scenes, it'll be the same way here with Sadr," said Quinn, 25, of Cleveland. "He already runs our side of the river." Four senior American military representatives in Baghdad declined requests for comment.

David Ignatius: A Failed Cover-Up: What the Libby Trial Is Revealing

A Failed Cover-Up What the Libby Trial Is Revealing

By David Ignatius Friday, February 2, 2007; A15

Why was the White House so nervous in the summer of 2003 about the CIA's reporting on alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger to build a nuclear bomb? That's the big question that runs through the many little details that have emerged in the perjury trial of Vice President Cheney's former top aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

The trial record suggests a simple answer: The White House was worried that the CIA would reveal that it had been pressured in 2002 and early 2003 to support administration claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and that in the Niger case, the CIA had tried hard to resist this pressure. The machinations of Cheney, Libby and others were an attempt to weave an alternative narrative that blamed the CIA.

The truth began to emerge on July 11, 2003, when CIA Director George Tenet issued a public statement disclosing that the agency had tried to warn the White House off the Niger allegations. In that sense, the Libby trial is about a cover-up that failed.

What helped start the whole brouhaha was a 2003 op-ed article by former ambassador Joseph Wilson, disclosing that his fact-finding trip to Niger the previous year had yielded no evidence of Iraqi uranium purchases. His piece opened with a devastating question: "Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?" A frantic White House tried to rebut Wilson's criticism by leaking the fact that his wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA and had suggested sending him to Niger -- as if the CIA connection somehow contaminated Wilson's allegations and made the White House less culpable.

To understand the Libby case, it's important to look at the documentary evidence, which has been usefully compiled by washingtonpost.com.

The record begins with a Feb. 13, 2002, memo from a CIA briefer who had been "tasked" by Cheney on the uranium issue: "The VP was shown an assessment (he thought from DIA) that Iraq is purchasing uranium from Africa. He would like our assessment of that transaction and its implications for Iraq's nuclear program." The CIA briefer responded the next day with a comment that should have aroused skepticism on whether Iraq needed to buy any more uranium: Iraq already had 550 tons of "yellowcake" ore -- 200 tons of it from Niger. But the CIA, eager to please, asked Wilson a few days later to go to Niger to investigate the claim.

A glimpse of the pressure coming from the vice president's office emerges from a memo from CIA briefer Craig R. Schmall, after he was interviewed in January 2004 by FBI agents investigating the leak of Plame's covert identity: "I mentioned also to the agents that Libby was in charge within the administration (or at least the White House side) for producing papers arguing the case for Iraqi WMD and ties between Iraq and al Qaeda, which explains Libby's and the Vice President's interest in the Iraq/Niger/Uranium case."

CIA and State Department documents show that analysts at both agencies became increasingly skeptical about the Niger allegation and tried to warn the White House. A memo from Schmall to Eric Edelman, then Cheney's national security adviser, recalled: "CIA on several occasions has cautioned . . . that available information on this issue was fragmentary and unconfirmed." A memo from Carl W. Ford Jr., then head of the State Department's intelligence bureau, noted that his analysts had found the Niger claims "highly dubious."

The Niger issue wasn't included in Secretary of State Colin Powell's famous U.N. speech on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, according to Ford, "due to CIA concerns raised during the coordination regarding the veracity of the information on the alleged Iraq-Niger agreement." But despite CIA warnings, Bush referred to uranium purchases from Africa in his January 2003 State of the Union address, attributing it to British sources.

So we begin to understand why the White House was worried about the CIA in the summer of 2003: It feared the agency would breach the wall of silence about the claims regarding weapons of mass destruction. Robert Grenier, a CIA official who was the agency's Iraq mission manager, told colleagues that he remembered "a series of insistent phone calls" that month from Libby, who wanted the CIA to tell reporters that "other community elements such as State and DOD" had encouraged Wilson's Niger trip, not just Cheney.

The bottom line? Grenier was asked in court last week to explain the White House's 2003 machinations. Here's what he said: "I think they were trying to avoid blame for not providing [the truth] about whether or not Iraq had attempted to buy uranium." Let me say it again: This trial is about a cover-up that failed.