Friday, September 29, 2006

Republican corruption, continued

In a follow up of sorts to yesterday's post, Republican Rep. Mark Foley, R.-Fla., resigned abruptly today after questions were raised about e-mails he sent to a former page.

The resignation leaves no Republican on the ballot just six weeks before the election, meaning a seat that was considered safe for the GOP may now end up Democratic by default.

Tempting as that might be for Democrats, in the interest of giving voters a choice the Republicans should be allowed to choose and field a candidate.

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This is freedom?

The Iraqis are free to pass any laws they want, of course. But is this what we envisioned when we invaded?

Under a broad new set of laws criminalizing speech that ridicules the government or its officials, some resurrected verbatim from Saddam Hussein’s penal code, roughly a dozen Iraqi journalists have been charged with offending public officials in the past year.

Currently, three journalists for a small newspaper in southeastern Iraq are being tried here for articles last year that accused a provincial governor, local judges and police officials of corruption. The journalists are accused of violating Paragraph 226 of the penal code, which makes anyone who “publicly insults” the government or public officials subject to up to seven years in prison.

Okay, let's cut the Iraqi government some slack for being weak and under siege. But besides being ineffective, it's also corrupt, riddled with militias and death squads and increasingly autocratic.

Not a good omen for the future of the country.

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U.S. becoming a rogue state?

I've got my own takes on the detainee bill and the warrantless wiretapping bill. But Matthew Yglesias at the American Prospect asks an interesting question: Has the U.S. become a rogue state?

A sample:

Other countries, of course, practice torture in violation of international law. As has now been clear for a while, we have been in their company for some years. The latest twist, however, is that we now won't show any shame about it. Rather than simply violating the laws to which we have agreed to adhere, we're repudiating them, simply denying that the standard by which civilized nations operate apply to us....

Consequently, the United States now presents itself as what amounts to the globe's largest and most powerful rogue state — a nuclear-armed superpower capable of projecting military force to the furthest corners of the earth, acting utterly without legal or moral constraint whenever the president proclaims it necessary. The idea that striking such a posture on the world stage will serve our long-term interests is daft. American power has, for decades, rested crucially on the sense that the United States can be trusted and relied upon, on the belief that we use our power primarily to defend the community of liberal states and the liberal rules by which they conduct themselves rather than to undermine them.

Agree or not, it's a thought-provoking read.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Republican corruption

I don't think Democrats are inherently more virtuous than Republicans. But it's clear the Republicans shouldn't be trying to claim the moral values high ground anytime soon.

First, a just-released House report documents 485 contacts between the lobbying firm of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the White House, including 82 meetings in the office of Karl Rove -- with Rove himself present at 10 of those.

All in all, that would seem to belie White House claims that they did not have a close relationship with Abramoff.

Meanwhile, an internal HUD investigation found that Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson told his aides to steer contracts to Bush supporters, and avoid awarding them to Democratic donors.

And let's not forget Bob Ney and the near-criminal incompetence and cronyism that went into awarding contracts in Iraq.

Quite a record, really, when you put it all together. But it doesn't appear to be one that Republicans want to run on.

Update:Another Republican Congressman, Mark Foley, has abruptly resigned.

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Rights? What rights?

In one of its final moves before recessing tomorrow, the House passed a bill essentially legalizing President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

The vote was 232-191. The text of the bill is here.

It's little more than a rewrite of the FISA law to make the NSA program explicitly legal.

Under the measure, the president would be authorized to conduct such wiretaps if he:

• Notifies the House and Senate intelligence committees and congressional leaders.

• Believes an attack is imminent and later explains the reason and names the individuals and groups involved.

• Renews his certification every 90 days.

The Senate could vote on a similar bill tomorrow.

The good news is that this bill at least requires Bush to say an attack is imminent.

The even better news is that it's unlikely the House and Senate could work out their differences before the elections, probably rendering the bills moot for the time being.

But there's still no excuse for not requiring a warrant within a few days. It's just not that hard a rule to follow.

Republicans accused Democrats of coddling terrorists, which just shows what a brain-dead bunch they are. The Democrats have the balance right on this one:

Democrats shot back that the war on terrorism shouldn't be fought at the expense of civil and human rights. The bill approved by the House, they argued, gives the president too much power and leaves the law vulnerable to being overturned by a court.


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Congress approves detainee bill

It took 10 hours of debate, but the Senate finally joined the House in passing the detainee-treatment bill, by a vote of 65-34. Olympia Snowe didn't vote.

Yesterday's House vote was 253-168.

Here's the text of the Senate version, while this is the text of the House version.

The bill is a compromise of sorts, rather than a simple rubber-stamping of Bush's plans, but Congress gave the most ground. It still has plenty of odious provisions, notably the denial of habeus corpus rights to detainees -- a provision that could cause serious trouble down the road.

Senator Carl M. Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, argued that the habeas corpus provision “is as legally abusive of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution as the actions at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and secret prisons were physically abusive of detainees.”

And even some Republicans who voted for the bill said they expected the Supreme Court to strike down the legislation because of the habeas corpus provision, ultimately sending the legislation right back to Congress.

“We should have done it right, because we’re going to have to do it again,” said Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican from Oregon, who had voted to strike the habeas corpus provision, yet supported the bill.

Another problematic piece is that while the Senate version pretty carefully defines everything in the bill as only applying to noncitizens, the House version makes no such distinction when defining unlawful combatants. Thus the House version appears to legalize an "enemy combatant" designation for citizens, with criteria to be defined by the administration. If the government designates you an enemy combatant, you have no more legal rights than an alien sent before the military tribunals.

That sound you hear is the Constitution being smudged in some of its more inconvenient places.

The bill dispenses entirely with the need for a search warrant, and allows hearsay evidence. The latter is indefensible, and the former, while making sense under limited circumstances (seizure during combat, for instance), is unnecessarily broad and sweeping.

It bars evidence obtained from "cruel and inhumane treatment", although rather hypocritically it allows such evidence if it was obtained in 2005 or earlier, at the discretion of the tribunal judge.

It has what sounds like a reasonable method for dealing with classified evidence, including providing an unclassified summary of such evidence, or simply admitting facts that would tend to be proved by such evidence. We'll see how that plays out in reality, but at least it addresses the problem.

The only real limit on detainee treatment in the bill is a section defining "grave breaches" of the Geneva Convention, including rape, torture and murder. But the definition of torture and other mistreatment is vague, referring only to "serious" physical or mental pain or suffering. That's better than the administration's preferred wording -- "severe" -- but we'll see how it plays out in practice. Given the administration's history, they will probably define "serious" using the same definition they would have given "severe."

On the plus side, the bill requires the administration to publish its interpretations of such things, so we'll be able to see where they land. And it gives Congress and the judiciary the right to review those interpretations, a clear limiting of Bush's claims of "inherent authority."

And since detainees don't have access to the regular courts, it's unclear how they would seek redress for any violation.

The bill isn't a total disaster. Most of it deals with the structure and conduct of the tribunals, and they're largely based on the UCMJ. And we can hope the "enemy combatant" detail dies in the process of reconciling the House and Senate versions. If that happens, we'll be left with no habeus corpus, no search warrants and hearsay evidence. Plus a "wait and see" on the torture provisions.

That's bad enough, but it could have been worse.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Republicans are coming!

It's official: the Twin Cities are getting the 2008 Republican Convention!

Seriously, this is cool. Not so seriously, some random thoughts:

* I imagine the police are already counting the overtime

* I'm glad I no longer live in Minneapolis. Conventions are supposed to boost the local economy, but the costs will fall most heavily on Minneapolis residents, and I don't think they're going to get their money back.

* Traffic is going to suck; St. Paul streets are a nightmare even without tens of thousands of out-of-towners, and without a light-rail link from the airport all those visitors are going to be driving, busing or taxiing into St. Paul. At least those of us who work in downtown Minneapolis will only get the peripheral effects.

* This should kill our chances of getting the Democratic convention. The two are scheduled to be held on consecutive weekends, and there's no way our humble metropolis could handle both.

* I wonder how hard it will be to get press credentials to blog from the convention center?

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

NIE summary released

The Bush administration has declassified and released (pdf) the summary of the National Intelligence Estimate that was partially leaked last week.

I'm not sure why Bush thinks this validates his strategy, or demonstrates that the leak was misleadingly narrow.

Here's the summary of the summary.

Good news
1. We've seriously damaged the leadership of Al-Qaeda.

2. The ultimate political aim of jihadists -- conservative Sharia government -- is opposed by the vast majority of Muslims.

3. Prominent Muslim clerics have begun condemning Islamic violence with increasing punch and frequency.

Bad news
1. Al-Qaeda remains a serious threat to the U.S. homeland and has grown less centralized, making it harder to penetrate.

2. The number of jihadists is growing, both in numbers and geographic reach.

3. Expect more attacks in Europe, often from home-grown radicals.

4. Iraq is proving a great training and breeding ground for terrorist leaders, breeding a "deep resentment" of the United States and increasing support for jihadist movements.

5. The factors fueling terrorism currently outweigh the factors restraining it, and will continue to do so for the forseeable future.

6. Sunni extremist organizations other than Al-Qaeda are likely to expand their reach unless countered, perhaps obtaining the ability for large-scale terror attacks. However, they pose little threat to the U.S. homeland itself.

Predictions and suggestions
1. Addressing the underlying factors that produce terrorism -- autocratic governments that are corrupt and unjust, fear of Western domination, Iraq, lack of social and economic reforms and pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment -- will help fight it. But the instability inherent in such transitions will provide jihadists with short-term advantages.

2. If jihadists feel they have lost in Iraq, it will dampen their fervor and hinder recruitment.

That's it. Anything strike you about that list? Like, you already knew everything on it? Maybe it's because all the really good stuff remains classified, but there's really nothing new in it; it's all stuff we've known about for a very long time -- including the leaked bit about Iraq helping to breed terrorists. I'm not a CIA analyst, but I've been making much the same points -- including the need to address the factors that breed terrorism -- for years.

That aside, however, what does it mean?

I'm sure war supporters will latch on to the first item under "Good news" and the last item under "Predictions" to say "We're beating Al-Qaeda, and Iraq is where we'll break the back of terrorism."

But that's misreading the document. We've done great harm to Al-Qaeda, true -- and good for us. But that has almost nothing to do with Iraq. And the gist of the NIE is that Al-Qaeda is resilient and still our biggest threat.

As for Iraq, let me break the report down for you.

The NIE first states what is: Iraq is a breeding and training ground for terrorists, and inspiring growth in jihadi ranks worldwide. This is likely to continue for the forseeable future, and the report lists "Iraq" as one of the four underlying factors fueling militant Islam.

It then adds a truism: That if we somehow manage to "win" in Iraq -- whatever that means -- it will be a blow to the jihadists.

Well, no kidding. Besides being blatantly obvious, it is an assessment of what could be -- not what is, not even what is likely to be. In fact, the NIE points out that the situation favors continued growth in the jihadist movement for the forseeable future.

So this is a bit like General Paulus at Stalingrad musing, "Yes, the Russian encirclement is getting stronger every day. But if we could somehow break out, we'd be fine."

Given that it is becoming increasingly obvious that we are not even remotely serious about winning in Iraq, I think it's unlikely we will "win" in the sense suggested by the NIE. But that's beside the point. The point is that war supporters will try to counter the NIE's "what is" assessment with the NIE's "what could be" truism. That's comparing apples to oranges to try to put a brave face on what is a pretty pessimistic NIE.

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DVS bureaucracy

I usually don't hate my encounters with Minnesota government. They may not be the most flexible organizations, but state agencies are usually staffed by nice people who know their job, and the government tries to give you multiple options for getting things done.

For instance, my car's registration renewal form arrived in the mail today. And I had three options for renewing it:

1. Go to a service center and pay in person;

2. Take the pre-printed form and envelope and mail it to them along with a check;

3. Go online, fill out the information at the DVS web site, and pay with a credit card, incurring a $1.25 "convenience fee."

So let's see. Go online, mess around with the Web forms and credit card numbers, and be charged $1.25 for that "convenience." Or write a check, stick it in the envelope with a 39-cent stamp, and drop it in the mailbox.

Kind of a no-brainer for me: mail them a check.

But it seems kind of silly from their end. I'd be willing to bet money that it costs them less to process an electronic payment than it does to process a paper payment. That's why most companies, after initially trying to charge consumers for electronic payments, gave up the ghost and now provide electronic payment options for free; it saves them money.

The State of Minnesota appears to have missed that memo. Their pricing structure encourages people to pay using the method that costs the state the most to handle. That's pennywise and pound foolish.

A note to DVS employees: If I'm wrong and electronic payments actually do cost more, drop me an e-mail or a comment explaining that and I will apologize for impugning the efficiency of state government.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Demand paper ballots

I have no fundamental problem with electronic voting. It would be quicker, cheaper and more user-friendly than the current paper system.

But any voting system that doesn't include a tamper-proof paper record that can be verified by each voter and used to backstop the electronic system should be laughed out of the room.

It has been demonstrated again and again that the most popular system, Diebold's AccuVote, is laughably vulnerable to tampering. Never mind the controversy over Diebold executives' support for Bush.

And now we have a real-life example of problems caused by pure electronic voting. Much of it is traceable to poor performance by poll workers, but the lack of a paper trail makes fixing or even assessing the damage nearly impossible.

Which is why I don't understand why this is still even under debate.

Board members agreed to hold the hearings, probably in December after the fall elections and runoffs.

Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who chairs the election board, has been dismissive of most of the criticisms of the state's voting machines, saying Wednesday that "so-called experts" have not taken into account a comprehensive series of independent security measures put into place in Georgia.

Perhaps those security measures are enough. But why are we holding the hearings after the elections? Isn't this important enough to put on the front burner?

To quote Reagan, "Trust but verify." Insist on a paper backup; problem solved. Otherwise, expect a blizzard of justified lawsuits from voters and candidates after the fall elections.

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The blindingly obvious

In the "what took them so long" department, the CIA has finally recognized that the invasion of Iraq has increased terrorism rather than hindered it.

This has been blindingly obvious for years. As has the solution.

But the Bush administration has never let facts get in the way of policy. Not even when the facts threaten to undermine that policy. For instance, even as the Army is extending more tours in Iraq, the administration has been trying to cut the Army's budget. The Army, in an unprecedented move, has protested the cuts as not only unwise, but as making it impossible to meet current commitments.

This pennywise, pound-foolish approach to security isn't an isolated instance. For instance, the U.S., while calling for U.N. intervention in Lebanon and Darfur, has been concerned about the growing cost of such peacekeeping missions. So in order to keep costs down, they pressured the U.N. to withdraw peacekeepers from East Timor in 2005. That worked so well that Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal had to send troops to restore order in May, and the UN will reintroduce about 1,600 police.

Meanwhile, a group of retired officers who had made stinging criticisms of Donald Rumsfeld individually earlier this year are appearing before a Senate committee today, where they are expected to repeat those blunt assessments. A taste:

"I believe that Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq," retired Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste said in remarks prepared for a hearing by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

A second witness, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, is expected to assess Rumsfeld as "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically ...."

"Mr. Rumsfeld and his immediate team must be replaced or we will see two more years of extraordinarily bad decision-making," said his testimony prepared for the hearing, to be held six weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which the war is a central issue.

At long last, the national consensus is arriving at the conclusion that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake that has hurt our efforts to combat terror. Too bad it took three years, 2,800 American lives, tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, tens of thousands of wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars. What's worse is that, even having reached that conclusion, we cannot simply end the war because of a moral obligation to see the Iraqi people through to some sort of conclusion.

Given all of the above, however, it seems unlikely that the current administration will be able to deliver such a conclusion. In which case, pulling out immediately is the only rational choice. If we're not going to do what we need to do to fix the mess we created, then we should leave before we do any more harm to ourselves and Iraq.

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What unity government?

Looks like the Palestinians need to get their house in order before they can conduct meaningful negotiations with Israel.

After Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said a Palestinian unity government would recognize Israel, Hamas flatly contradicted him. Now the unity talks have been postponed.

Abbas wants a political platform honouring interim peace deals with the Jewish state, which he hopes will satisfy the West. Hamas has sought vague wording that would not contradict the group's charter calling for Israel's destruction.

The president has accused Hamas of reneging on an agreement reached earlier this month on the political programme for the unity government. Hamas has denied the allegation.

This situation needs more than "vague wording." It needs a clear committment to peace talks from the Palestinians. And Abbas should hold Hamas' feet to the fire until they agree. Until then, Hamas cannot be taken seriously in diplomatic efforts.

Maybe Abbas will renew his pledge to call a referendum on recognizing Israel. That would be a gutsy move that would bring this crisis to a head.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Abbas: Unity government will recognize Israel

If he's right, and he pulls it off, this is huge.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly Thursday that the planned national unity government will recognize

Abbas told the assembly's annual ministerial meeting that he has recently sought to establish a government of national unity "that is consistent with international and Arab legitimacy and that responds to the demands of the key parties promoting Mideast peace — recognition, ending violence and honoring past agreements.

"I would like to reaffirm that any future Palestinian government will commit to all the agreements that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Authority have committed to," he said.

So far it's just talk. And there are hotheads on both sides that would like to derail this. And we'll have to see how grudgingly Hamas plays along. Cross your fingers.

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U.S. health care gets a 'D'

Despite paying half again as much for health care as our nearest competitor (Switzerland), a study released this week gives the United States a 66 percent score in health care outcomes, quality, access and efficiency compared to other industrialized nations.

How seriously should we take this? Well, it depends.

The U.S. ranks 15th out of 19 countries in terms of the number of deaths that could have been prevented. The study estimates that each year 115 out of 100,000 U.S. deaths could have been avoided with timely and appropriate medical attention. Only Ireland, Britain, and Portugal scored worse in this category, while France scored the best, with 75 preventable deaths per 100,000.

Here's an example. We rank 15th... but we still only have 115 preventable deaths per 100,000. That's an error rate of about 0.1%. We could do better, but we're still doing pretty darn well.

The U.S. ranks at the bottom among industrialized countries for life expectancy both at birth and at age 60. It is also last on infant mortality, with 7 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 2.7 in the top three countries. There are dramatic gaps within the U.S. as well, according to the study. The average disability rate for all Americans is 25% worse than the rate for the best five states alone, as is the rate of children missing 11 or more days of school.

These are more serious numbers, because life expectancy and infant mortality are basic measures of a society's health. But again, though we lag the competition, we're better off than much of the world; an infant mortality rate of only 0.7 percent isn't too shabby.

What those overall numbers, miss, though, is the unevenness of health care quality in the country. The report notes major gaps in quality and access across the country, with poorer areas, unsuprisingly, having worse outcomes.

So the problem isn't that our health care stinks overall; it's that access to it is uneven, and that we're paying far too much for the results we get.

Further, more and more of that cost is being shifted to workers. Salaries that were negotiated when employers picked up much of the health-insurance premium are now having to absorb a larger share of that premium. The result is that workers are spending a growing share of their income on health care.

Since benefits are part of worker compensation, it's not a particularly big deal if the budget line that pays for health care changes from the benefits side to the salary side -- as long as overall compensation remains stable. But what's happening is that employers are shifting the costs to workers without raising their pay to compensate, meaning a net loss of income to workers. It's a stealth pay cut.

It makes lots of sense to make people pay for their health care directly. Our current system arranges things so that people pay the same for health care whether they use it a lot or a little. This is good because it spreads the financial risk, a prime purpose of insurance. But it also raises some big moral hazards, because consumers have no incentive to limit their use of health-care resources. Giving them incentives to spend their money wisely will encourage more efficient use of those resources and keep overall costs down while possibly improving care -- because people are only going to pay for the care they want, from doctors who provide it efficiently and courteously.

But if workers are expected to pay their own health care costs, their salaries should be bumped up in the interim to compensate and then allowed to adjust to the market from that new base. Anything else is a betrayal of the social contract that has underpinned our health-care system for decades.

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Back in the saddle

It's been crazy busy the last few days, both at work and at home, where we're adjusting to my wife going back to work and having two kids in school. I've barely had time to read the papers, much less post.

Luckily, I make time for the important things. My fantasy football team is now 2-0, having nearly doubled my opponent's score. We now hit bye-week hell. I have to do without Antonio Gates and two of my RBs this weekend, going up against a pretty good team whose only hole is at kicker. I'm pulling out all the superstitious rituals I can to ensure both I and the Vikings go 3-0.

Substantive posts to follow.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Ney pleads guilty

After months of denial, Rep. Robert Ney has pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and making false statements in the Jack Abramoff scandal.

This isn't a wrist slap, either.

The maximum sentence for the two counts is 10 years, but the Justice Department and Ney's lawyers agreed on a sentencing recommendation of 27 months in prison, provided Ney continues to provide truthful information. The final sentence will be determined by a federal judge.

Ney could also be fined up to $500,000, according to the agreement.

Ney had already abandoned his re-election bid. I presume he'll have to resign his Congressional seat.

Time to update the Hall of Shame.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Reading... who needs it?

In case any of you despair about the workers who will be supporting you in retirement:

Educational doomsayers are again up in arms at a new adult literacy study showing that less than 5 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it.

The obsessive measurement of long-form literacy is once more being used to flail an education trend that is in fact going in just the right direction. Today’s young people are not able to read and understand long stretches of text simply because in most cases they won’t ever need to do so.

It’s time to acknowledge that in a truly multimedia environment of 2025, most Americans don’t need to understand more than a hundred or so words at a time, and certainly will never read anything approaching the length of an old-fashioned book. We need a frank reassessment of where long-form literacy itself lies in the spectrum of skills that a modern nation requires of its workers.

Yes, clearly the world will be a better place when nobody is able to process ideas too complicated to be expressed in 100 words or less....

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Delay trial could be delayed until 2007

... because the conspiracy charge against him might be reinstated.

The court could have rejected Earle's appeal outright, sending the case back to Priest's court for additional pretrial motions and a possible trial.

But by accepting the case for review, the high court likely pushed any trial in DeLay's case off until next year. No date for oral arguments has been set.

If anyone was holding their breath waiting for the resolution of this case, now is probably a good time to stop.

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Maybe they bought it off the Internet

Okay, a lot of people won't take the UN's word for anything. But in this case, they seem to have a point.

U.N. inspectors investigating Iran's nuclear program angrily complained to the Bush administration and to a Republican congressman yesterday about a recent House committee report on Iran's capabilities, calling parts of the document "outrageous and dishonest" and offering evidence to refute its central claims. ...

Privately, several intelligence officials said the committee report included at least a dozen claims that were either demonstrably wrong or impossible to substantiate. Hoekstra's office said the report was reviewed by the office of John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.

The report was written by a single GOP staffer, Frederick Fleitz, with hard-line views on Iran and ties to John Bolton. It was not voted on or discussed by the full committee; Republicans simply made it public.

Among the errors:

1. The committee said Iran is producing weapons-grade plutonium, which usually means 90 percent enriched. Iran has in fact only managed to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent.

2. The committee said the IAEA had removed an inspector because he raised concerns about Iranian deception. The inspector has not been removed.

3. Most obnoxiously, the report asserted, without evidence, that the IAEA director had an "unstated" policy of keeping inspectors from telling the truth about Iran.

All this makes me wonder if this is a peek inside the intelligence-massaging techniques that led to the invasion of Iraq. With breathtaking chutzpah, the report makes unsubstantiated assertions about Iran's nuclear capabilities -- and then chastises intelligence agencies for failing to provide information that supports those assertions.

Make your own reality, and then go dig up (or make up) evidence to support it.

Here's the kicker:

Hoekstra's committee is working on a separate report about North Korea that is also being written principally by Fleitz. A draft of the report, provided to The Post, includes several assertions about North Korea's weapons program that the intelligence officials said they cannot substantiate, including one that Pyongyang is already enriching uranium.

The intelligence community believes North Korea is trying to acquire an enrichment capability but has no proof that an enrichment facility has been built, the officials said.


The full text of the IAEA letter is available here.

Update: The Congressional report is available here.

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Some backbone in the Senate

It may be because they face tough re-election battles, but four GOP senators -- including John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee -- defied President Bush and approved legislation on the treatment of detainees. The bill goes to the Senate floor next week.

Unlike Bush's proposal -- which would essentially rubber stamps his own actions -- the bill Warner's committee approved would permit suspects to view classified evidence against them and does not attempt to rewrite the Geneva Conventions.

As senior GOP leaders balked, Colin Powell released a letter opposing Bush's plan.

"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," Powell, a retired general who is also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his letter.

Powell said Bush's bill, by redefining the kind of treatment the Geneva Conventions allow, "would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."

The effect of the split could be seen in the White House's response -- firing testily from the hip and having to apologize later.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Powell was "confused" about the White House plan. Later, Snow said he probably shouldn't have used that word.

"I know that Colin Powell wants to beat the terrorists, too," he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to ignore the Armed Services Committee and bring Bush's proposal directly to the floor for a vote -- a move that would only increase the division in the GOP ranks.

That Bush, he's quite a uniter.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Why are we in Iraq?

Apparently, it's not to defeat the insurgency.

A senior American commander in Iraq said Tuesday that U.S.-led military operations are "stifling" the insurgency in western Anbar province but are not strong enough to defeat it.

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer told reporters in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Fallujah that he has enough U.S. troops — about 30,000 — to accomplish what he called his main mission: training Iraqi security forces.

"For what we are trying to achieve out here I think our force levels are about right," he said. Even so, he said the training of Iraqi soldiers and police had not progressed as quickly as once expected.

"Now, if that mission statement changes — if there is seen a larger role for coalition forces out here to win that insurgency fight — then that is going to change the metrics of what we need out here," he added.

And all this time I thought we were trying to beat the insurgents. Now I find out that the reason American commanders haven't asked for more troops is because that's not their job.

For the rest of his comments, I'll refer you to a previous post on the subject:

He's right that a reconciliation process is the only way to achieve long-term stability. But he just blithely ignores that short-term stability is needed to get the reconciliation process started.

I've got an idea. How about we defeat the insurgents in order to create that short-term stability we need for long-term stability to take root?

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Poor rules of engagement

What to make of this?

The U.S. military acknowledged Wednesday that it considered bombing a group of more than 100 Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan but decided not to after determining they were on the grounds of a cemetery.

I respect the need to be mindful of cultural and religious sensitivities. And there's always the desire to minimize civilian casualties. But look at the picture: They're lined up in rows. Those aren't civilians; those are soldiers. Cemetery or not, pull the trigger.

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Minnesota primaries

Not a lot of surprises in yesterday's primary elections. Kennedy, Klobuchar, Hatch, Pawlenty and Hutchinson all won easily.

One slight (and encouraging) surprise, though: in the conservative Fort Ripley area, State Sen. Paul Koering, the only openly gay Republican legislator in Minnesota, won his primary against a family-values candidate, Kevin Goedker.

Koering wasn't openly gay until last year, and Goedker made his sexuality an issue. So this was in part a referendum on the electability of gay Republicans in outstate Minnesota.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson easily won his primary; we'll see now how his "sanding off the truth" debacle will play with voters in the general election race against Republican Joe Gimse.

Let the campaigning begin in earnest!


A mixed bag for moderates

Yesterday's primaries were a mixed bag for moderates.

In the most closely watched race Sen. Lincoln Chafee defeated a conservative challenger backed by the Club for Growth, guaranteeing that a moderate will be elected no matter who wins in November.

But in Arizona, conservative Randy Graf won the primary battle to replace retiring moderate Republican Jim Kolbe, defeating moderate Steve Huffman, who was endorsed by Kolbe and backed by national Republicans. Graf will face Democrat Gabrielle Gifford in November. This could mean the seat could go Democrat, which is good in the sense that the GOP deserves to lose a lot of seats this year. But I don't know enough about Gifford's politics to say whether electing her would be a good thing for moderates.

In Vermont, the House's lone independent, Bernie Sanders, is trying to become the Senate's lone independent to replace Jim Jeffords, the Senate's current lone independent. I note this for the "independent" angle; Sanders, whose views are rather socialist, is not exactly a moderate.

You'll note one thing about all these races: they are defensive ones, attempting to keep a moderate seat moderate. Such battles are necessary, but we're not going to elect more moderates until we get off the defensive and start putting gerrymandered "safe seats" into contention.


House leaders seek to water down eavesdropping bill

The House Judiciary Committee today will consider its version of a warrantless wiretapping bill. But if GOP leaders have their way, it will be so watered down as to be a pile of dreck.

The main bill already has minimal teeth. It would give the government five days instead of three to seek a FISA warrant following the start of emergency surveillance. Nonemergency warrantless surveillance would require Congressional approval within 60 days. It would also require more consultation with Congress.

A competing measure is better, clearly asserting that the FISA law is the operative law with regard to surveillance issues.

House leaders, though, want to replace all that with a meaningless provision, allowing but not requiring the administration to submit the program to the secret FISA court for a ruling on its legality.


At least there are some voices being raised in opposition to this rubber stamping of administration actions. Voices from both sides of the aisle, in both the House and the Senate. So there remains a chance that the GOP leadership's kow-towing will be defeated and Congress will in fact assert its proper Constitutional role instead of abetting the steady expansion of executive power.

But now would be a good time to call your representative.

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Movement in Palestine

Yesterday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas reached a deal with Hamas for a unity government, in which the Hamas government would resign and be replaced by a mixture of Hamas and Fatah representatives, as well as representatives from various splinter groups.

Most important from the Palestinian viewpoint was the prospect that such a move would mean a resumption of the aid it relies on to pay its bills, aid that was suspended following Hamas' ascent to power. That hope appears to have been fulfilled, as the EU said it would consider resuming aid.

More important to the rest of us, however, is that as part of the agreement Hamas gave Abbas full authority to resume peace negotiations with Israel.

It remains to be seen whether all this talk will result in actual change on the ground. "Peace negotiations" are not the same thing as "peace agreement", and it's an open question whether the more militant Palestinian groups -- or even the military wing of Hamas -- will accept and abide by any such deal. Expect at least a couple of attacks aimed at disrupting the talks if they appear likely to bear fruit.

But Hamas sanctioning negotiations with Israel is a pretty big step. It appears that in this case the economic embargo worked, forcing Hamas to choose between militant purity and seeing to the needs of the Palestinian people. To their credit, they have (at least for now) chosen the latter.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

One and oh, baby!

I run a fantasy football league in my copious spare time -- 10 mostly longtime owners, a fairly normal performance-based scoring system. 14-man rosters, and you have to start 8: QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, TE, K, DEF.

I traded away the #3 overall pick in the draft in order to stockpile picks in rounds 2-5. Which gave me a somewhat odd roster:

QB: Donovan McNabb, Aaron Brooks
RB: Warrick Dunn, Chester Taylor, Julius Jones, Dominick Rhodes, Jerrius Norwood, Cedric Benson
WR: Torry Holt, Lavaranues Coles, Eddie Kennison
TE: Antonio Gates
K: Jason Elam
DEF: Chicago Bears

I was really worried about my running game and who my #2 receiver would be. But for Week 1, at least, everything worked out. I won handily even without my two Monday night players (Taylor and Gates), and it looks like I might have the high score for the week.

Super Bowl, here I come!

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The lost province?

This is what playing whack-a-mole will get you.

The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there, said several military officers and intelligence officials familiar with its contents.

The officials described Col. Pete Devlin's classified assessment of the dire state of Anbar as the first time that a senior U.S. military officer has filed so negative a report from Iraq.

One Army officer summarized it as arguing that in Anbar province, "We haven't been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically -- and that's where wars are won and lost."

It's one man's opinion, of course; but that one man is a very senior intelligence officer whose job is to make assessments like this.

And how did this happen, in Col. Devlin's opinion? No surprise:

Devlin offers a series of reasons for the situation, including a lack of U.S. and Iraqi troops, a problem that has dogged commanders since the fall of Baghdad more than three years ago, said people who have read it. These people said he reported that not only are military operations facing a stalemate, unable to extend and sustain security beyond the perimeters of their bases, but also local governments in the province have collapsed and the weak central government has almost no presence.

I'm stunned. Really. Not enough troops? Who would have thunk it?

A caveat: the Post did not see the report, and is relying on anonymous sources to describe it. But nobody is disputing the nature of the report, not even people who disagree with its conclusions. So it strikes me as genuine.

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Iraq roundup

A few worthwhile links in the ongoing furor over the planning and execution of the Iraq invasion:

Vice President Dick Cheney defended his hard-line role in the White House, amid reports that his influence within the administration is waning and reminders of how wrong he has been on several fronts -- from his now-infamous "last throes" reference to the Iraqi resistance to his belief that toppling Saddam would weaken the forces of jihad. Instead, it has strengthened them and weakened us.

Then there's his unrelenting defense of everything the administration has ever done, indicating an unwillingness or inability to learn from experience. For instance, he said Sunday that if he had to do it all over again he would still invade Iraq. And his ability to dismiss videotapes of him making assertions that have since been proven false. And his continued use of discredited "evidence" to try to tie Iraq to al-Qaeda.

This is a man in denial. A denial almost as deep as that of Donald Rumsfeld, who besides claiming credit for the success of tactics he opposed, has again been fingered as the man who made sure that the post-war occupation would be a stupendous failure.

Months before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld forbade military strategists from developing plans for securing a post-war Iraq, the retiring commander of the Army Transportation Corps said Thursday.

In fact, said Brig. Gen. Mark Scheid, Rumsfeld said "he would fire the next person" who talked about the need for a post-war plan.


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9/11, five years later

A moment of silence. There will be lots of discussion, analysis and blatant politicizing of this. But for now, let's just remember the 3,000 who died, the heroic efforts of first responders, the just and well-executed toppling of the Taliban, and the last time we were unified as a country. May we someday recapture that moment and make it last.


Friday, September 08, 2006

Holding a grudge

In a satirical example of how all politics are personal, I give you this.

In which a diehard Redskins fan takes aim at former Redskins QB Heath Shuler, who is running for Congress in North Carolina. His campaign -- complete with hilarious attack ads -- is supposedly intended to prevent Shuler from bringing his aura of defeat back to Washington.

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Another NSA lawsuit proceeds

An Oregon judge is allowing another suit challenging the NSA eavesdropping program to go through.

U.S. District Judge Garr King said he believes there may be a way for the lawsuit, filed by a now-defunct Islamic charity, to proceed without releasing information that could harm national security.

The lawsuit was filed by the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which had a chapter in Ashland that went out of business after the U.S. government labeled it a terrorist organization.

The foundation charged that two of its lawyers and at least one official were under electronic surveillance in March and April 2004. The foundation asked King to rule the surveillance a violation of a federal law that requires a special court to approve intelligence-related wiretapping.

This is different from the ACLU suit in Detroit, which led to a judge ordering the program shut down -- a ruling that has been suspended pending appeal.

What makes this case interesting is that the plaintiffs seem to have a very good chance of showing proper standing for the suit, as well as the ability to argue that a trial would not compromise national security. Here's why:

The Portland case turns on what King called the "Sealed Document," information that government lawyers accidentally gave Al-Haramain lawyers in 2004 before demanding it back. King said the document is now in a secure room at the FBI's Portland office.

Al-Haramain's attorneys want to use the document to make their case, but the government says any use of it will compromise state secrets.

King said the document remains classified, despite its disclosure to the plaintiffs and to a reporter from the Washington Post.

This would seem to indicate that there is proof the charity was monitored, essentially proving they have standing; and it would seem to obviate much of the security argument, because the information is already out of the bag.

We shall see.

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Caught on Tape II

A couple of months ago, Condoleeza Rice was caught on tape speaking frankly about Iraq. Now it's the Terminator's turn.

In the sanctuary of his Capitol office with an audio recorder rolling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger describes Republican legislators as the "wild bunch" and, referring to a Latina lawmaker, casually says that "black blood" mixed with "Latino blood" equals "hot" — a fiery personality....

They also freely discuss other state legislators and the political process.

It's not particularly startling stuff. And it doesn't impress the listener the way Condi's overheard discussion does. The racial remarks, quoted above, will draw fire from people who say it's racist. But the comments were not said maliciously -- Schwarzenegger actually admires the lawmaker in question. And they aren't all that different from me attributing my penny-pinching ways to my Scottish ancestry.

I just include it here as a glimpse into Arnie's style and personality.

You can listen to an MP3 of the recording here.

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More good news from Lebanon

Yesterday Israel lifted its air blockade of Lebanon. Today, it lifted its naval blockade.

Israel turned over monitoring of Lebanon's coast to Italian naval vessels, who "will continue to enforce the international embargo against the supply of armaments to Hezbollah," Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

It also announced it would withdraw completely from Lebanon within two weeks. And Israel signaled it would be willing to leave ownership of the dispute Chebaa Farms area up to the UN, and cede it to Lebanon if the UN says so.

That territorial dispute is the main obstacle to a permanent peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon, so Olmert's suggestion has fairly large implications.

On the downside, the last time the UN looked into the matter it said the Farms didn't belong to Lebanon -- a ruling Lebanon rejected (it doesn't belong to Israel, either; the UN decision was based on the conclusion that it was originally part of Syria, same as the rest of the adjacent Golan Heights). Both sides would have to agree to abide by the UN's decision for this to work.

More pragmatically, Israel might just cede the territory and be done with it. It's militarily useful territory -- the high ground looks down on Israel on one side and Syria/Lebanon on the other. But it's uninhabited, and a few square kilometers are not worth more than a permanent peace.

All of this leaves one major item unresolved -- the fate of the two Israeli soldiers whose capture sparked the recent fighting. Look for Israel to grudgingly agree to swap prisoners, like it did earlier with Hamas.

After that, we can get down to watching how the Lebanese Army, backed by UN peacekeepers, deal with Hezbollah.

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Surprise, surprise

The promised Senate report is out, and the main conclusion shouldn't surprise anyone who hasn't shared the White House's isolation chamber for the last five years.

There's no evidence
Saddam Hussein had ties with al-Qaida, according to a Senate report on prewar intelligence that Democrats say undercuts President Bush's justification for invading Iraq.

Bush administration officials have insisted on a link between the Iraqi regime and terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Intelligence agencies, however, concluded there was none.

Republicans counter this is "old news." I'd agree with them.... if the administration didn't continue to insist that Iraq had terror connections, and that the invasion was justified. For it to be "old news", war supporters actually have to accept it as true.

And as I noted yesterday, we're still waiting for the real report: What, if anything, the administration did to manipulate or shade the intelligence it received. We won't know until the report comes out, but allow me a purely speculative question: why would Congressional Republicans tie that particular report up in knots unless there actually was something to hide?

Let us hope the truth comes out sooner rather than later.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Whatever happened to Phase 2?

That would be the second part of the Congressional probe of U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq -- the part that's supposed to examine how the administration used the intelligence it had. The part that was postponed until after the 2004 elections so as not to, I don't know, influence them or something.

Phase 2 is still -- surprise, surprise -- tied up in partisan bickering. But at least there's this:

A Senate panel on Thursday voted to release two newly declassified reports on prewar Iraq intelligence, including one examining the role of an Iraqi exile group that spread allegations, later proved false, about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction....

A second report compares U.S. prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's links to terrorism with findings made by military and intelligence officials after the March 2003 invasion.

Look for them on Friday at the committee's Web site.

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Pollster admits making up data

And the victims include several well-known politicians.

The owner of DataUSA Inc., a company that conducted political polls for the campaigns of President Bush, Sen. Joe Lieberman and other candidates, pleaded guilty to fraud for making up survey and poll results.

Tracy Costin pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Costin, 46, faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 when she is sentenced Nov. 30.

I assume the data was fabricated to tell the candidates what they wanted to hear, which could have led to poor choices as far as campaign rhetoric, spending, scheduling and the like.

This is just one pollster, and one I've never heard of at that. I would not use this case to draw conclusions about the ethics and legality of the profession as a whole. But it does highlight the enormous amount of trust people put in pollsters -- not just to be honest, but also to conduct their polls in a professional and statistically valid manner. Usually this is fine, especially when the pollsters publish their methodology and detailed results. But it reinforces the fact that polls should be taken with large grains of salt -- one reason you'll rarely see them quoted here.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A day of revelations

I didn't capitalize the "R" in the title, but perhaps I should have. Let's start at the top.

The Pentagon finally released its new interrogation field manual, and it is a Good Thing.

Forced nudity, hooding, using dogs, conducting mock executions or simulated drownings were among eight abusive interrogation practices banned under new rules unveiled by the U.S. military on Wednesday....

The manual explicitly prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. But it keeps 16 long-standing interrogation techniques and adds three new ones, said Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence.

We'll get to those in a minute. What is most heartening is this acknowledgement:

"No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices," he said. Intelligence obtained under duress, he added, would have "questionable credibility" and do more harm than good when the abuse inevitably became public.

This is good. But as we'll see below, the administration does not actually believe that.

So what is allowed?

Practices still permitted include rewarding detainees for cooperation, flattery and instilling fear. Two of the new techniques were the use of a good-cop, bad-cop approach and allowing interrogators to portray themselves as someone other than a U.S. interrogator.

A third new technique, called "separation," can be used only on detainees deemed "enemy combatants" to keep them away from one another, and only with high-level military approval.

No real issues there. Although the FBI has complained in the past about interrogators posing as FBI agents. And posing as lawyers or journalists can cause other problems.

Nonetheless, I am well pleased. It may have taken years of mounting criticism and a Supreme Court ruling to make it happen, but it has happened. Now perhaps the stain of torture can be removed from the military's reputation.

The downside is that these rules don't apply to the CIA. And that's particularly relevant, because President Bush acknowledged today that the spy agency does, indeed, operate a network of secret prisons for "high-value" detainees -- the final 14 of whom have now been transferred to Gitmo for trial.

The Washington Post has a nice breakdown of the detainees here.

I admit to being torn on this one. Don't get me wrong; we shouldn't be routinely torturing people or operating prisons outside the reach of the law. But my main objection to mistreating prisoners stems from the fact that we did so before proving that the detainee was, in fact, a terrorist, and that we were denying basic rights to a wide swath of people.

But in the case of known high-ranking terrorists, different rules may apply. If we were to capture bin Laden, I would not object to harshly interrogating him to learn of associates and active plots.

So I'm okay in principle with the idea of establishing a different set of rules for a very, very, VERY small number of high-value prisoners. But those rules should be clearly established by Congress, in play for a limited time and conducted under close scrutiny and oversight from higher officials. They should not occur in secret prisons beyond the reach of public accountability.

Speaking of public accountability, Bush also asked Congress to approve his plan for military tribunals. It contains no serious concessions to the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down his previous plan; he's asking Congress to rubber-stamp the plan he came up with. This includes using secret evidence that defendants cannot see, as well as evidence obtained through coercive interrogations.

That's a bad idea. Try and convict them in a fair trial, or not at all. If they're a terrorist, throw away the key. But prove it first.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Lebanon improves

So far, so good.

Turkey pledges peacekeepers to Lebanon, and the Lebanese Army takes over five villages from Israel. Meanwhile, a deal is being discussed to lift the Israeli blockade of Lebanese ports -- a blockade intended to keep Hezbollah from rearming as long as Israeli troops are in Lebanon. And the UN is mediating prisoner-swap talks between Israel and Hezbollah.

Separately, it appears an Israeli soldier being held by Hamas will be swapped for as many as 800 Israeli prisoners -- to be followed by a meeting between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas.


What are we standing up?

I came across this a few days ago and thought it was interesting. It's just one Marine's observations, but it rings true to this ex-tanker.

After discussing what appears to be ingrained Iraqi military culture (officers beating up subordinates, officers stealing supplies, rations and money), this Marine trainer sums it up with:

So after 6 months we've:

- taught them techniques for planning operations...they won't do it.
- shown them how to conduct weapons sustainment ranges...they won't do it.
- we've shown them how to conduct convoys...they won't do it.
- we've taught them moral and ethical behavior required of soldiers...they won't do it.
- we've taught them how to manage logistics...they won't do it.
- we've taught them personnel and administrative management...they won't do it.
- we've taught them how to operate tactically...they won't do it.
- we've taught them how to sustain the life support systems on the camp...they won't do it.

Basically we have taught them how to be a self sufficient battalion, but unless the Marines do it for them, they won't do anything. They ALWAYS revert back to the "Iraqi way" when we are not around and that involves DESTROYING and WASTING everything they get their hands on.

Though repugnant to us, there's nothing inherently destructive about officers striking troops. The South Korean military is one of the best in the world, and is known for doing exactly that -- officers beating the snot out of sergeants, sergeants beating the snot out of privates. It can work if it fits with local culture.

But what the rest implies is that by Western standards the Iraqi Army will never be ready to tackle things on its own.

Of course, under Saddam the Iraqis were rather good at squelching uprisings, so we know that they can get the job done in that respect. But that involved minority Sunnis beating down majority Shiites, so they had incentive to do a good job and there was a limit to how far they could go. And it was brutal. If the new Iraqi Army -- which is mostly Shiite -- begins doing the same to minority Sunnis, it could turn into a minor genocide. Even if it doesn't, their approach is likely to be far messier, brutal and corrosive to democracy than anything we could possibly condone.

Add this to the list of questions that need to be answered as we "stay the course": What can we expect from the new Iraqi Army? At what point do we say, "we've done all we can"?

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Lebanese ceasefire firms up

As Israel races to destroy Hezbollah arms caches, a thousand Italian peacekeepers arrive in Lebanon. On the other side of the Middle East, Kofi Annan is asking Iran to end military support for Hezbollah and compromise on its nuclear program.

I'm not holding my breath on the last two, but they can't hurt.

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Self-inflicted stupidity

I'm not a big fan of Mike Hatch. But if Matt Entenza hadn't already dropped out of the race for attorney general, I'd be suggesting he do so after this latest revelation.

This summer, when the allegation resurfaced, Entenza said he paid only a "couple of hundred dollars" for his research on Hatch. He said some research the firm conducted, including an investigation of a Hatch parking ticket, went beyond anything he authorized.

On Friday, Entenza filed an amended campaign finance report, disclosing that he paid the $40,000 to Gragert Research, the Chicago company that conducted the research.

In a four-paragraph statement, Entenza apologized to Minnesotans for not being forthcoming.

"I made a mistake in the handling and the release of information to the public regarding the research," he said, "and I apologize for that mistake and take full responsibility. … Once the research became public, I should have been more forthcoming and open about it. For that, I am very sorry."

I actually kind of like Entenza, but he's pulled some boneheaded stuff this year.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

The situation in Iraq

I don't even know what to say about this sort of thing anymore. It's all been said.

Sectarian violence is spreading in
Iraq and the security problems have become more complex than at any time since the U.S. invasion in 2003, a Pentagon report said Friday.

In a notably gloomy report to Congress, the Pentagon reported that illegal militias have become more entrenched, especially in Baghdad neighborhoods where they are seen as providers of both security and basic social services.

The administration says it's doing fine. But Harry Reid is right when he says that Bush et al are "increasingly disconnected from the facts on the ground." And I still can't get over the bizarre sight of Donald Rumsfeld arguing that more troops mean more security -- after three years of saying and doing the opposite.

The Labor Day weekend couldn't have arrived at a better time.

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Syria promises to stop weapon shipments

I wouldn't take their word on this, but if they follow through it would be a positive development.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that Syria has pledged to step up border patrols and work with the Lebanese army to stop the flow of weapons to Hezbollah.

Annan also said that he had asked Syrian President Bashar Assad to use his nation's influence to help win the release of three Israeli soldiers held by Lebanese and Palestinian militants allied with Damascus.

According to Annan, Assad said at a meeting in Damascus that Syria will boost the number of its guards along the Lebanon-Syria border and establish joint patrols with the Lebanese army "where possible."

The impetus for this agreement was Israel's insistence that the UN patrol the border with Syria in order to stop weapons from crossing -- something Syria saw as insulting.

Whether this is just words to stave off a UN presence, or a serious commitment by Syria, only time will tell.

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