Thursday, December 28, 2006

Islamists in retreat in Somalia

The internationally recognized transitional government of Somalia, with the backing of Ethiopian troops, has taken control of Mogadishu and put the Union of Islamic Courts into full flight.

When the UIC first rose to power, I counseled patience. Somalis had endured 15 years of violent anarchy between clans and rival warlords; if the UIC could bring peace, they deserved a chance to try. Various sources tried to paint them as an African division of Al-Qaeda, but that was never particularly convincing; what mattered is how they governed the place. And they were almost certainly better than the warlords they replaced.

But they instituted a particularly harsh brand of sharia, with one cleric famously threatening to shoot anyone who didn't pray five times a day. Then they began to attack the transitional government, closing schools to send students to the front. They had not brought peace; they had brought continued war, fought with child soldiers.

But they miscalculated. Not only did they overreach and provoke an Ethiopian counterattack; the heavy casualties suffered in that fighting has caused the UIC to splinter, as clans withdrew their forces in an effort to preserve them.

The question now is whether the transitional government can establish firm control over the country. Already looting and factional fighting has engulfed Mogadishu, and no one is quite sure what hard-core UIC fighters will do: fade into the civilian population? Unleash a guerrilla war?

The Somali government has an opportunity to put an end both to the UIC and the warlords, if they act quickly and firmly and retain the support of the Ethiopian military. If they don't, then Somalia could fade again into anarchy -- and the Somali people's suffering will continue.

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A moderate Republican on Iraq

It's getting harder and harder to paint all Iraq war opponents as far-left crazies.

Frankly, it was impossible from the beginning; many, many reasonable people have opposed the mess from the start, even while hoping things would somehow turn out okay. But the drumbeat of rhetoric labeling such questioners as enemy sympathizers, or demanding that we rally behind the president in this time of crisis, helped delay serious discussion of the war for years.

Now, another Republican is breaking ranks.

At the close of the Senate’s lame-duck session, in between formulaic tributes to senators departing voluntarily or otherwise, a Republican backbencher suddenly rose to give one of the most passionate and surprising speeches about the war in Iraq yet delivered in Congress.

For a solid Republican who had originally voted for the war, the words spoken by the senator, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, on the evening of Dec. 7 were incendiary and marked a stunning break with the president.

“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day,” Mr. Smith said. “That is absurd. It may even be criminal.”

Smith cited two books as influential in changing his thinking: Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco" and a World War I book by John Keegan. In explaining the latter, Smith said:

Mr. Smith said that his use of the word “criminal” in his speech to describe the war in Iraq came from his reading of that book, which he said explained to him the “practice of British generals, sending a whole generation of British men running into machine guns, despite memos back to London saying, in effect, machine guns work.”

Much like the British in World War I, he added, “I have concluded that we are employing strategies that are needlessly getting kids killed.”

It's come to this: a Republican senator is now comparing Iraq to the senseless and indiscrimate slaughter of World War I. Not in scale, of course, but in the stubborn and heedless mindset that let politicians continue to send young men to their pointless deaths.

He might also have consulted "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, which describes the detached reality inhabited by Paul Bremer and his postwar transitional government and the incredible decisions made by the Bush administration on its behalf. Chandrasekaran was a guest on MPR this morning, and he gave multiple examples of Bush's fantasyland at work. Bremer's staff, for instance, was chosen for political loyalty rather than any actual qualifications, with screeners that questioned applicants on their voting record and stance on abortion.

So you had the spectacle of a 24-year-old with no practical experience trying to restart the Baghdad stock exchange; A 21-year-old, not yet out of college, given sole responsibility for reforming the Interior Ministry; and an experienced post-conflict public-health official replaced by a more politically acceptable community-health official from Michigan, whose first order of business upon arriving in Iraq was to start planning an anti-smoking campaign.

Given such startling incompetence from our politicians, it's hardly surprising that we have arrived at the point we have. The question is what to do about it now.

Smith's point in that regard -- that we are pursuing a strategy that is not working and, in the process, is getting people killed needlessly -- is echoed by many soldiers currently serving in Iraq, who were asked if a troop "surge" of up to 30,000 soldiers would help pacify Baghdad.

Spc. Don Roberts, who was stationed in Baghdad in 2004, said the situation had gotten worse because of increasing violence between Shiites and Sunnis. "I don't know what could help at this point," said Roberts, 22, of Paonia, Colo. "What would more guys do? We can't pick sides. It's almost like we have to watch them kill each other, then ask questions." ...

"Nothing's going to help. It's a religious war, and we're caught in the middle of it," said Sgt. Josh Keim, a native of Canton, Ohio, who is on his second tour in Iraq. "It's hard to be somewhere where there's no mission and we just drive around." ...

Pfc. Richard Grieco said it's hard to see how daily missions in Baghdad make a difference. "If there's a plan to sweep through Baghdad and clear it, (more troops) could make a difference," said the 19-year-old from Slidell, La. "But if we just dump troops in here like we've been doing, it's just going to make for more targets."

Translation: We're not making headway; we're just sort of keeping the lid on things, and losing ground as the violence escalates daily. Which is a recipe for still being there 10 years from now, doing the same thing, and watching more of our soldiers die -- not in pursuit of victory, but in denial of failure. And 30,000 troops just isn't enough to make a difference in that equation.

President Bush says he'll announce his brilliant new Iraq strategy in early January. At that point we'll be able to judge whether he actually intends to materially alter the strategic situation. If not, there is little point to our continued presence in Iraq.

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Edwards enters the race

John Edwards is officially in the 2008 presidential race -- a day earlier than planned, after his staff prematurely launched his campaign Web site.

I voted for him in the 2004 primaries, as the best of a bad lot. He was green, but he was smart and articulate and I liked many of his policy proposals.

In 2008, though, the field will be tougher. So he'll have to up his game and demonstrate that he hasn't been standing still in the last four years. Otherwise his main credentials are his single Senate term -- not a big foundation to build a campaign on.

For now it looks like he's going to trot out his "Two Americas" theme again. But he hasn't been standing still. He's focused his antipoverty message through the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, and has been lining up support among unions and other core Democratic constituencies.

He has some interesting ideas, like "Work Bonds" to encourage low-income workers to save money, "stepping stone" jobs to help welfare recipients earn work experience that will help them move up the pay scale, and push to get high-school dropouts back in school so they can earn diplomas.

He also has some standard social proposals, like universal health care and housing vouchers for poor families, for which the devil will be in the details.

Some strategists have suggested that his antipoverty message will seem dated, and won't play well among an electorate obsessed about Iraq. I disagree; while the war will be a major issue, a pure antiwar play isn't likely to be a winner. Even though there is widespread opposition to the war, and a growing sense that it was a mistake and badly botched in the bargain, there remains ambivalence about exactly how to get out, and when. Any candidate that calls for an immediate pullout will run into opposition (although by 2008, the scenario will be quite different). Further, any candidate that promises an immediate pullout must still answer the question of "Okay, you've pulled out of Iraq; what are you going to do for the rest of your term?"

So Edwards is being savvy by running against the grain. He has an Iraq plan, of course -- cutting forces by 40,000 immediately, followed by a gradual drawdown -- but by not focusing on it he distinguishes himself from the crowd that is focused on it. And that lets him keep presenting the upbeat, optimistic attitude that is one of his winning traits.

For now he's short on specifics on a lot of issues, but he's worth watching. He has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into planning the campaign; let's see where he takes it.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Sandy Berger update

Having now read the redacted Inspector General report, including the summary of the Berger interview, a few more points of contention are cleared up.

Note that my purpose here is not to defend Berger; it's to debunk the conspiracy theories that he was covering something up related to the Millennium plots.

Berger visited the Archives four times. Once in preparation for a thorough document review, and then once for each of three separate document releases.

1. Berger was given preferential treatment, being allowed to review the documents in an Archive employee's office instead of in a secure reading room. He was allowed to bring in his cell phone and a briefcase, and was occasionally left alone with the documents.

2. Berger, who owned a consultancy, received time-sensitive work-related calls at the employee's phone, but never used his cell phone (and never told anyone his cell phone wasn't working) as had been alleged.

3. On his first visit, in May 2002, Berger had access to some original documents. The most sensitive were numbered and would be missed if taken, and he was never left alone with them. Still, the Archive cannot say for sure he didn't take anything, in part because a numbered document might have several pages, and the pages themselves weren't necessarily numbered. However, Archive records indicate Berger was not shown any Millennium Attack After Action Review (MAAAR) documents during his May visit.

4. On his second visit, in July 2003, Berger again had access to some original documents. He said he removed some of his notes but no documents, but there's no way to prove he didn't take something.

5. On his third visit, in September 2003, Berger had access to numbered originals of the most sensitive documents and copies of everything else. He couldn't have taken a unique document even if he wanted to, and the Archive says he didn't. He took a fax copy of what he thought was the final version of the MAAAR, plus some more notes.

6. On his fourth visit, in October 2003, he had access solely to copies, including printouts of e-mails. He found another copy of the MAAAR, this one classified differently from the one he had taken on his previous visit. He didn't know why it was classified differently, and he was told the only difference between the two versions involved money, not anything substantive. Nonetheless, he took it so he could compare the two versions later. Later he found yet a third version of the MAAAR and took that, too.

7. Notably, on this visit an Archive employee told him that he had returned a folder missing a document -- and provided Berger with another copy of it. This demonstrates that the Archive had copies of what Berger was reviewing. Berger, for some reason, took that copy, too -- for a total of four. He also took most of his notes.

8. The four documents Berger took were printouts of e-mails, with the MAAAR as an attachment. He never had access to the original MAAAR.

9. There were not any handwritten notes on the documents Berger is known to have removed.

10. Berger didn't consider the MAAAR very sensitive, despite its classification, which is why he was so cavalier about taking it.

So could Berger have taken original documents? Yes, in his first two visits. But his opportunities were limited, and he had no access to original copies of the MAAAR. All that he is known to have taken is faxes and printed e-mails, the originals of which remain in Archive hands.

The most reasonable explanation remains the simplest: that Berger didn't consider the MAAAR sensitive, and considered himself somewhat above the law, since he had written many of the documents in question. So he took them. And got caught.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

A peek behind the media curtain

.... and it isn't pretty.

Whoever Tim is, he's in big trouble.

Update: Here's what happened, as explained by a staffer at the paper in question.

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The misuse of national security

I've written before (examples are here and here) about the problem of improperly classifying information. The government does it routinely, which is why I don't automatically get upset when someone leaks classified materials.

Here's another example. The White House redacted large parts of an op-ed piece by a pair of national security officials, even though the CIA acknowledged none of it was classified and the authors submitted documents showing that all of it was already in the public domain.

At the link you will find the author's describing the situation, as well as the redacted version of their article and all the citations they provided for the deleted portions.

As the authors conclude:

National security must be above politics. In a democracy, transparency in government has to be honored and protected. To classify information for reasons other than the safety and security of the United States and its interests is a violation of these principles. It is for this reason that we will continue to press for the release of the article without the material deleted.

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Ellison, Goode, Prager and the Koran

An update on the misguided uproar over Rep. Keith Ellison's Muslim faith.

When last we left the story, Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia was warning that if we didn't act soon, more Muslims might immigrate to this country.

Ellison responded during a CNN interview. He noted that there are already 5 million Muslims in this country, most of whom oppose terrorism and embrace the American dream as much as any other immigrant.

It's at the end of the video, not in the written text, but for me the best part is where Ellison notes that he can trace his American ancestry back to Lousiana -- in 1742. I wonder if Goode can beat that.

Goode, for his part, said he's not backing down. His quote is a little less coherent.

"I will not be putting my hand on the Koran," Goode said at a news conference Thursday.

That's good, Virgil. Nobody is asking you to. Then there was this gem:

Goode also told Fox News he wants to limit legal immigration and do away with "diversity visas," which he said lets in people "not from European countries" and "some terrorist states."

Yeah, no way we should be letting those non-Europeans in.

Goode has been repudiated by politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Virginia's senior senator, John Warner.

Dennis Prager, who started this whole flap with his ignorant commentary, has been chastised by the board of the Holocaust Museum, of which he is a member. Prager responded by making clear that he hadn't heard a word anyone has said.

Mr. Prager said Muslim American groups and others had pressured the museum board. “Everybody knows there’s no bigotry in what I said, but they felt they had to do it,” he said in an interview.

“I completely respect Congressman-Elect Ellison’s right to take an oath on the Koran, and regret any language that suggested otherwise,” Mr. Prager added in a statement, emphasizing that he began reaching out to the Muslims 20 years ago. “My entire effort in the Keith Ellison matter has been to draw attention to the need to acknowledge the Bible as the basis of America’s moral values. Judeo-Christian values are the greatest single protection against another Holocaust.”

Translation: "I respect his right. Except I suggested in my commentary -- which was also historically ignorant -- that Congress should prevent him from taking his seat, and in fact he should be forced to swear on a Bible."

Sure, Dennis.

Glad to see everyone piling on.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Let's just get along -- my way

Katherine Kersten, one of the columnists most active in pushing the "War on Christmas" theme in recent years, is asking for a ceasefire. Sort of.

When an outspoken atheist such as Dawkins says "Merry Christmas," we may be reaching a consensus. American popular culture has appropriated Christmas, as it has Thanksgiving, and drained it of religious meaning.

Huh? It's a cease-fire as long as we all say "Merry Christmas"?

A ceasefire would be letting people say whatever the heck they want, and not getting bent out of shape about it. It would be nonbelievers saying they don't get offended by "Merry Christmas" and believers like Kersten saying there's nothing wrong with "Happy Holidays" -- essentially repudiating their words of the last couple of years.

From that unpromising starting point, Kersten goes on to lay out what believers and nonbelievers should appreciate about each other. While I believe she is sincere, her examples get a bit muddied.

For one thing, she seems to confuse "believers" with "Christian". For instance, she says nonbelievers should get credit for defining and expanding natural rights, and for coming up with political principles such as due process and separation of powers. That's generous, though it ignores the muddy birth of such principles, with many advocates being Deists and other nonChristian believers.

More broadly, though, she thinks believers (Christians) should get credit for ideas like liberty, equality and personal freedom -- and thus democracy.

That's simply incredible.

Christianity led to democracy? Tell that to the Greeks, who invented democracy 500 years before Jesus was born. Or the Romans, who governed themselves with a Republic from 509 B.C. until Julius Caesar seized power in 44 B.C.

Liberty? Equality? Personal Freedom? The ancient Greeks.

Believers have played a major role in the development and enactment of various social ideals. Believers, for instance, were at the heart of the abolitionist movement in the United States (and Prohibition. Hey, we all make mistakes....). But it's an open question whether various movements should be properly connected to belief/nonbelief, instead of to individuals who happen to believe or not. And crediting Christianity with the original concepts ignores Christianity's status as something of a Johnny-come-lately to the world of philosophy.

Cease-fire in the culture wars? I'm all for it. But I'm not sure Kersten is ready yet.

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Closing the books on Sandy Berger

The pathetic story of Sandy Berger appears to finally be playing out. A report by the National Archive's inspector general lays out his findings. I can't find an actual copy of the report, so I'm relying on various stories describing it.

Here is apparently what happened.

Berger is known to have taken five copies of the same classified document, relating to the Clinton administration's response to various terrorist threats linked to the new Millenium -- the so-called "Millenium plots." The copies contained slight variations, reflecting the input of various agencies, but were substantially the same.

The Archive has consistently asserted that he took only copies, and that they retain the originals of everything in question.

He also smuggled out notes he had taken, in violation of Archive procedures that require such notes to be checked.

It's possible that he took other documents in previous visits. But that remains unknown, partly because of the deference ("special treatment", as the report calls it) that Berger received, as well as the rather disorganized document-tracking system used by the Archives. Berger denies it, and nobody has accused him of doing so.

He said -- and the report agrees -- that he took them to help him prepare for upcoming testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

When he got back to his office, he discovered that three of the documents were identical and destroyed them.

When Archive employees later confronted him about the thefts, he first denied taking them, then admitted he had done so. He returned the remaining copies as well as his notes.

He was later fined $50,000, sentenced to 100 hours of community service and had his security clearance revoked. The relatively light sentence reflected the fact that it was a plea deal and that his motive was banal, his methods comical and the damage light to nonexistent.

One can argue that stealing classified documents deserves a harsher penalty. But even setting aside the sad details of this particular case, the reality is that a trial could have compromised national security and so the government's leverage was limited.

Without excusing Berger's actions -- he committed a crime; he deserved to be caught and punished -- it's also worth noting what the report apparently didn't say: in short, it didn't corroborate most of the lurid speculations and rumors surrounding the case.

1. Berger did not stuff documents in his socks or down his pants.

2. There's no indication that the stolen copies contained margin notes or other handwritten additions that the originals did not have -- whereas there are various authoritative statements that they did not. As the Wall Street Journal, of all sources, pointed out in 2005.

In short, the idea that there was some sort of coverup or conspiracy lacks any evidence or sense whatsoever. What kind of conspiracy destroys copies of documents?

Berger broke the law; he was caught; he's being punished. As it should be.

I'll post a link to the full report if I ever find one. The AP got the report through a Freedom of Information Act request; surely it won't be long before the text finds its way online.

Update: Here's the full (though heavily redacted) report (pdf).

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006


The United States turned over Najaf province to the Iraqi government today, marking the third such turnover since we invaded. It's not a huge deal -- Najaf is one of the most peaceful provinces, in part thanks to the heavy presence of Shiite militias -- but this detail from the handover ceremony caught my attention.

At one point, a small group of elite Iraqi special forces officers wearing dark green T-shirts stepped forward with a live rabbit and ripped it apart with their teeth.

The leader chomped out the animal's heart with a yell, then passed around the blood-soaked carcass to his comrades, each of whom took a bite. The group also bit the heads off frogs.

Who knew the Iraqis were such Ozzy Osbourne fans? Or maybe they were auditioning for "Fear Factor: Baghdad."

I guess if the insurgents ever resort to sending in small herbivores or suicide amphibians, these guys will be all over it.

This is supposed to demonstrate their toughness, but really -- how tough do you have to be to tear apart a bunny? Here, big guy, here's a wild boar. See how you manage with that.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reid gets a pass

Literally, and twice.

Senator Harry Reid, who will be the majority leader in the next Congress, did not break Senate rules in accepting free ringside seats at boxing matches from the Nevada Athletic Commission, the Ethics Committee has concluded.

The Associated Press reported this year that Mr. Reid, Democrat of Nevada, had attended three Las Vegas fights from 2003 to 2005 without paying, using credentials provided by the Nevada Athletic Commission, a state agency. At the time, Mr. Reid was supporting legislation to create a federal agency to oversee boxing, a move that the commission opposed.

First he gets a pass from the boxing commission, then he gets a pass from the ethics panel. Although it's hard to see what else the panel could have done, because gifts from government agencies are explicitly allowed under Senate rules.

Reid defended attending the matches, although he admitted it looked bad and said he wouldn't do it again.

The good news? Reid continued supporting the commission, legislation for which passed in the Senate (though it failed in the House). So it's hard to argue that there was any bribery or other corruption going on.

Most importantly, though, the ethics legislation envisioned by Democrats would explicitly ban such gifts. So this question need never come up again. Assuming Democrats walk the walk in January.

Unless they want to keep enduring mini-embarassments like this, they had better.

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More Koran swearing idiocy

A Republican Congressman from Virginia, Virgil Goode, has thrown himself into the debate over Keith Ellison swearing in on a Koran.

If American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

Oh! The horrors! Funny-sounding people with hard-to-pronounce names might move in next door! They might want to send their children to school with my kids! Aaaaahhhhh!!!

Nativists make no sense (didn't most of them come from Europe originally?). And they really get old after awhile.

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Bush to expand military

The lead of this story is all about how Bush has finally admitted that we're not winning in Iraq, after being roundly criticized for such weird circumlocutions as saying he was "disappointed by the pace of success."

But the meat of the story is that Bush has finally decided that making the military large enough to sustain commitments like Iraq is a good idea.

This would be the same plan that Republicans shot down in 2004 and 2005 -- when it might have made a difference in Iraq -- and as recently as this summer, when it was obvious to everyone else that the military was being stretched too thin.

It's yet another example of Bush's "too little, too late" weakness, where he avoids making hard decisions until it's too late for them to be relevant.

A substantial military expansion will take years and would not be meaningful in the near term in Iraq. But it would begin to address the growing alarm among commanders about the state of the armed forces. Although the president offered no specifics, other U.S. officials said the administration is preparing plans to bolster the nation's permanent active-duty military with as many as 70,000 additional troops.

Too late though it may be for Iraq, the expansion is a good long-term idea, and 70,000 troops -- the equivalent of three Army divisions -- is a serious force boost. It exceeds the 40,000-soldier increase that John Kerry called for during his 2004 campaign.

But don't expect a dramatic difference even when all the soldiers are trained and on duty. The Army is already 30,000 soldiers above authorized strength; the proposal would make those additions permanent and add up to 40,000 more troops on top of it. So while the 70,000 figure is bandied about, the proposal represents a 40,000-soldier increase over current levels. Still good, but not eye-poppingly so.

Separately, reports that Bush is leaning toward a short-term "surge" in Iraq -- sending in up to 30,000 additional troops for half a year or more -- has met with unanimous opposition from the Joint Chiefs, who fear the mission is vague, the surge too small, the time frame too short and the downsides too large.


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How much should you give?

Ethicist Peter Singer has an interesting article in the New York Times magazine on charitable giving. It's largely a discussion of "how much should one give?" and makes the argument that it is perfectly defensible, on moral grounds, to tax the rich more heavily than the poor and to expect them to donate more.

I've been looking for an article like this for some time. I'm nearing 40, and my wife went back to work this year. So we're starting to hit that point in midlife where our discretionary income is high enough to make serious charitable giving a possibility. Up until now our monetary donations have been small and irregular -- several hundred dollars a year, generally. Most of our charity has been about deeds: donating blood, helping neighbors, sending our excess belongings to nonprofits rather than throwing them out or holding a garage sale.

But now we're starting to think about charity in a more organized way, and Singer's article offered some thought-provoking ways to think about it.

Some of his more interesting observations:

1. Of the top four charitable givers in United States history, three were/are atheists or agnostic: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Andrew Carnegie (John D. Rockefeller, the fourth member of the group, was a Baptist). Further, Buffett's charitable pledges -- about $37 billion -- more than double that of Carnegie and Rockefeller put together -- after accounting for inflation. Bill Gates' donations are nearly as large: about $30 billion.

That says nothing, of course, about whether believers or nonbelievers as a group are more generous. But it's food for thought, as well as demonstrating the scale of modern philanthropy.

2. A lot of people argue that the rich owe much of their wealth to the society that helps them create it, but I've never seen the argument laid out in detail. Singer does. He cites Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon, who estimates that social capital -- the prevailing social, governmental and economic conditions -- accounts for about 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like ours. "On moral grounds," Simon adds, "we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent." Simon notes that that would be economically disastrous, but there's nothing unethical with taxing more heavily those who can most afford to pay.

Warren Buffett explicitly agrees with that logic. "If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” he said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.”

3. Further, the better off have an ethical obligation to help the poor, because part of our affluence comes at their expense. This according to Columbia University professor Thomas Pogge, who points to everything from trade barriers that protect rich-but-inefficient American farmers from poor-but-efficient African ones, to corporations that buy natural resources from any government willing to sell -- thus providing a market incentive for civil war and corruption that acts as a tax on the developing country's poor. So helping the poor is not charity; it is compensation for some heretofore externalized costs of our own actions.

4. While Americans as individuals are among the most generous in the world, our government aid is so paltry that when we add the two together we still come in well behind countries like Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, who give three or four times as much total foreign aid (expressed as a share of GDP) than we do.

5. If, Singer says, we define "charitable obligation" as "shoulder our fair share", what does that mean? Singer cites the UN Millenium Development Goals, which hopes, by 2015, to: halve the percentage of people living in extreme poverty; halve the percentage of people who suffer from hunger; halve the percentage of people without access to safe drinking water; provide a primary school education to all children; reduce child-mortality rates by two thirds; reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters; and reverse the spread of AIDS, malaria and other major diseases.

The estimated cost of reaching those goals is $121 billion in 2006, rising to $189 billion a year by 2015. Much of that is already pledged, leaving an annual shortfall of about $48 billion this year and $74 billion by 2015.

If the top 0.01% of U.S. taxpayers (14,400 of them, earning at least $5 million and an average of $12.8 million) gave away 33% of their annual income, they would suffer no hardship and generate $61 billion a year.

If the rest of the top 0.1% of taxpayers (130,000 of them, earning at least $1.1 million and an average of $2 million) gave away 25% of their income, they would suffer no hardship and generate another $65 billion.

Either group alone could fund the Millenium Goals shortfall entirely by themselves. Both groups together could fund the entire program without government help.

You can keep stepping down the income scale, with the top 0.5 percent donating 20% and raising $72 billion; the top 1 percent donating 15% and yielding $35 billion; or the top 10 percent donating 10% and raising $171 billion.

As Singer notes, the most remarkable thing about those numbers is that a scale of donations that is unlikely to impose hardship on anyone would yield an annual total of $404 billion -- from just 10 percent of American families.

Throw in other countries, and the world's wealthy could easily provide $808 billion annually for development aid -- a staggering and world-changing amount.

When the choice is portrayed thus -- buy a yacht, or save 1,000 children from death -- it's not really a defensible decision to buy the yacht; the trickle-down effects of yacht-buying fall far short of the direct effects of charity.

That does not mean the rich should don hairshirts. Singer's numbers leave the wealthy with plenty of money to buy the yacht, and he argues that it's perfectly fine that they do so -- provided they have met their ethical obligations first.

What does that mean for those of us closer to the bottom of the scale? Do what you can. As evangelist Dan Stratton said in the same issue, God's 10 percent (the traditional Christian tithe) should come off net income, not gross. "A tithe isn't supposed to bankrupt you," he explains.

I suggest charitable deeds when your net income is low, scaling up the monetary giving as your net income grows. My wife and I haven't yet figured out what percentage we're aiming for; we're still trying to establish what our true net income is, once we subtract child care and commuting expenses. I don't know if we'll give until it hurts, but Singer has motivated me to make sure we give something meaningful -- and keep giving for the rest of our lives.

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How much does the government owe?

Would you believe $53 trillion?

And the 2006 deficit alone? $4.6 trillion.

That's based on a GAO analysis (pdf) that looks at the present value of future liabilities the government has racked up over the next 75 years.

Are the numbers real? Yes. Are they meaningful? Sort of.

The figures come in answer to the following question: "If the current budget situation continues, what will be the cumulative difference between federal revenue and federal outlays in the next 75 years?"

Note all the important qualifiers: "If the current situation continues" and "75 years." The estimate ignores things like economic growth and population growth and then projects current conditions out over a very long time frame.

That time frame is important, because the longer the time period, the less accurate the projection becomes. It is extremely unlikely that current conditions will prevail for the next three quarters of a century, and even small changes can have big effects on such long-term guesses. Do the same projection in five years and you'll get a much different answer.

Further, the time frame makes the numbers look more scary than they really are. The $4.6 trillion deficit for 2006, for example, works out to about $61 billion a year -- big, but manageable.

Finally, this is not money actually spent; it's money we've implicitly promised to spend, assuming federal policy doesn't change in the next seven decades. Most of it represents Social Security and Medicare payments that won't come due for years -- but for which we've made no preparation, in part because we're using the Social Security "surplus" to pay for current government operations. So far the government has borrowed nearly $2 trillion from Social Security; if that money were instead held in trust, the multiplier effect of 75 years would go a long way toward reducing that $53 trillion.

So we're not really $53 trillion in the hole. What the figure mostly shows is the difference between our promises and our willingness to pay for them.

But they do serve as a wakeup call. The longer we run deficits and refuse to start saving for our long-term obligations, the greater the pain will be in the end -- either through higher taxes or greatly reduced government services. We need to end deficit spending sooner rather than later, start paying money back into the Social Security reserves and make some decisions about the intent and breadth of entitlement programs.

President Bush's tax cuts, mind-bogglingly expensive invasion of Iraq (with a final price tag estimated to be in the trillions) and ill-considered Medicare drug benefit have certainly worsened the problem, but he's not the only one to blame. We all share the blame to one extent or another, for wanting more government than we're willing to pay for.

I've commented before on how unethical it is to live large now and leave the bill for our grandchildren. What the GAO report demonstrates is how large that bill actually is. It's time to act like grownups and pay our own way. Anything else is simply unconscionable.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Iran's Shiite ministate

To round out Colin Powell's "civil war" judgement, consider this report. It's from the Washington Times, which requires a big grain of salt; and it cites an undistributed Saudi report, which requires a doubly big grain of salt. But it asserts some interesting and specific things:

1. Iran has established a ministate inside of Iraq and actively supporting it.

2. The Sunni insurgency has an estimated 77,000 fighters -- with millions of supporters.

3. Shiite militias have about 35,000 fighters -- with millions of supporters.

4. The Saudis view the conflict as between Sunni and Shiites (and between Iranian agents and the remnants of Saddam's secret police), and so are helping fund Sunni insurgents -- not so they can fight the United States, but so they can fight Shiites.

Again, take all this with a very large dose of skepticism. The Saudis are biased, the Times is biased and there's no way to independently verify their claims. But it makes interesting reading, if nothing else because it provides some specifics about insurgent strength and frames a different way of viewing what's happening in Iraq -- and an illustration of the lethal complexity of the conflict.

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Powell does the Iraq Study Group one better

The ISG wants us out of Iraq by the end of 2007.

Colin Powell says we are losing a civil war and should be gone by mid-2007.

"I agree with the assessment of Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton," Powell said, referring to the study group's leaders, former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D). The situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating, and we're not winning, we are losing. We haven't lost. And this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around."

Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," Powell seemed to draw as much from his 35-year Army career, including four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as from his more recent and difficult tenure as Bush's chief diplomat.

Among his other observations:

1. The active Army is "about broken", and the military needs to be enlarged to meet our increased committments.

2. He thinks we should talk to Iran and Syria. "Are Iran and Syria regimes that I look down upon? I certainly do. But at the same time, I've looked down on many people over the years, in the course of my military and diplomatic career, and I still had to talk to them."

3. Asked whether he agreed with Cheney that his long-time rival, Donald Rumsfeld, was "the finest defense secretary this nation has ever had", he said: "Well, that's the vice president's judgment. I've known many fine secretaries of defense. . . . But it's history that will judge the performance of all of us in this troubling time . . . and it is a history that I think will ultimately be written as a result of what happens in Iraq."

In less diplomatic words, "you've got to be kidding!"

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Evangelism in the classroom

Here's a good example of why restrictions on religious speech in the classroom are necessary.

Before David Paszkiewicz got to teach his accelerated 11th-grade history class about the United States Constitution this fall, he was accused of violating it.

Shortly after school began in September, the teacher told his sixth-period students at Kearny High School that evolution and the Big Bang were not scientific, that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark, and that only Christians had a place in heaven, according to audio recordings made by a student whose family is now considering a lawsuit claiming Mr. Paszkiewicz broke the church-state boundary.

“If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong,” Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

He also apparently told a Muslim girl that she was going to hell, although the story is unclear on that detail.

I'm not sure whether to be cheered by this:

Even some legal organizations that often champion the expression of religious beliefs are hesitant to support Mr. Paszkiewicz.

“It’s proselytizing, and the courts have been pretty clear you can’t do that,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a group that provides legal services in religious freedom cases. “You can’t step across the line and proselytize, and that’s what he’s done here.”

Or discouraged by this:

In this tale of the teacher who preached in class and the pupil he offended, students and the larger community have mostly lined up with Mr. Paszkiewicz, not with Matthew, who has received a death threat handled by the police, as well as critical comments from classmates.

Greice Coelho, who took Mr. Paszkiewicz’s class and is a member of his youth group, said in a letter to The Observer, the local weekly newspaper, that Matthew was “ignoring the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives every citizen the freedom of religion.” Some anonymous posters on the town’s electronic bulletin board,, called for Matthew’s suspension.

On the sidewalks outside the high school, which has 1,750 students, many agreed with 15-year-old Kyle Durkin, who said, “I’m on the teacher’s side all the way.”

Paszkiewicz is by all accounts a good teacher. But using his official capacity to proselytize his students in a history class is out of bounds. He has a First Amendment right to speak, which is why he isn't going to jail; that does not make such speech appropriate, however, nor protect him from disciplinary action by his employer.

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Meanwhile, in Iran....

Continuing to focus on the Middle East, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's supporters lost a lot of ground in local elections, with reformists and other opponents gaining a majority of seats.

Compounding his setback was the success of Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential pragmatist and fierce critic of the president's radical policies. Mr Rafsanjani - whom Mr Ahmadinejad defeated in last year's presidential election - received the most votes in elections to the experts' assembly, a clerical body empowered to appoint and remove Iran's supreme leader. By contrast, Ayatollah Mohammed-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, Mr Ahmadinejad's presumed spiritual mentor, came sixth.

Analysts attributed Mr Rafsanjani's resurgence to his newly-found status as a saviour of the reformists, the liberal movement that shunned him as a hated symbol of the establishment when it held power. Mr Rafsanjani has been increasingly identified with reformers since last year's presidential election and many voters turned to him to voice anger at Mr Ahmadinejad.

This is especially interesting given that Iran is a limited democracy at best, with meaningful elections only at the local level, and thousands of opposition candidates routinely banned from running.

It'll be interesting to see if Ahmadinejad moderates his behavior in response -- and if he survives the next presidential vote.

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Showdown in Palestine

I haven't written about Palestine for a while. Just to catch up:

Hamas and Fatah are drifting toward open civil war, with kids getting killed and senior officials getting targeted, including the kidnapping of a top Fatah official.

Meanwhile, weapons smuggling goes on unabated, threatening peace talks with Israel and heightening the danger of civil war.

Amid it all, President Mahmoud Abbas vows to push ahead with early elections in a continuing showdown with Hamas.

Oddly, none of this has me despairing. The Hamas-Fatah split has needed resolving for a long, long time, and the papering over of their differences has been one of the biggest obstacles to a long-term peace deal. The militants in Hamas are being forced to confront the fact that their Israel policy is not the one most Palestinians prefer, which is why Abbas can threaten them with elections: they know they will lose. This confrontation will force Hamas to decide whether they will bow to the will of their electorate and moderate, or become an outlaw faction. The split could degenerate into rampant bloodshed, but it had to be addressed one way or the other.

As for the weapons smuggling, I don't understand the outrage. Why should only one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be armed? I recognize the destabilizing effect that pouring weapons into a burgeoning civil war can have, and so I oppose it on those practical grounds. And of course I oppose barbaric practices like firing unguided rockets into civilian areas. But as far as the mere act of acquiring weapons is concerned, this is a war: both sides can be expected to arm themselves as best they can.

I hope the Palestinians can avert a bloody spiral into internecine warfare. But more than that, I hope the current confrontation resolves the issue and lets the Palestinians negotiate for peace seriously and with a unified voice.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bayh bows out

Evan Bayh has decided not to run for president in 2008.

Meanwhile, John Edwards is in.

I voted for Edwards in 2004 so I'm happy to see this, but he needs to get a new schtick; "Two Americas" will be shopworn by 2008.

Hillary Clinton? Hate propoganda aside, she has carved out a very centrist position. But I'm not thrilled at the prospect of another two years of extreme polarization, and wonder how Clinton fatigue will work against her.

Barack Obama? Nice guy, and as someone who voted for Edwards I shouldn't cast stones about his inexperience. But I will anyway: he needs to get more seasoning before taking a shot at the top job. I'll give him serious consideration in 2012.

Tom Vilsack? I haven't had time to do much research on him. But he's got good experience credentials. I'll give him some thought.



Friday, December 15, 2006

Iraq, iraq, iraq....

Lots of stuff happening today.

Condoleeza Rice rejected the idea of talking to Iran and Syria, as suggested by the Iraq Study Group, saying the cost of a deal would be too high and that if Iran and Syria really want a stable Iraq they'll see that it happens anyway.

Heck, what do we need diplomacy for at all, then?

Meanwhile, President Bush is reportedly considering the "Go big" option, despite the unpopularity of that option with the public and the strain it would put on the military that he has steadfastly refused to expand.

While some key decisions haven't been made yet, the senior officials said the emerging strategy includes:

1. A shift in the primary U.S. military mission in Iraq from combat to training an expanded Iraqi army, generally in line with the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.

2. A possible short-term surge of as many as 40,000 more American troops to try to secure Baghdad, along with a permanent increase in the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps, which are badly strained by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military commanders look warily at a surge, saying that even 20,000 more soldiers and Marines may not be available and wouldn't necessarily help reduce Iraq's violence.

"We would not surge without a purpose," Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, said Thursday. "And that purpose should be measurable."

3. A revised Iraq political strategy aimed at forging a "moderate center" of Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish politicians that would bolster embattled Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The goal would be to marginalize radical Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.

4. More money to combat rampant unemployment among Iraqi youths and to advance reconstruction, much of it funneled to groups, areas and leaders who support Maliki and oppose the radicals.

5. Rejection of the study group's call for an urgent, broad new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reach out to Iran and Syria.

Instead, the administration is considering convening a conference of Iraq and neighboring countries - excluding Iran and Syria - as part of an effort to pressure the two countries to stop interfering in Iraq.

Those plans dovetail nicely with a proposal put forth by Fred Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute, which calls for sending seven more brigades into Iraq to begin clear-and-hold operations, then pouring reconstruction aid into the cleared areas.

The plan got a withering response from E.J. Dionne, who ties it to tax cuts and a willingness to put other people's kids in harm's way.

My criticism is more prosaic: The plan reads like a do-over, what we should have done in 2003. I find it difficult to believe that such an approach will make a difference at this late date. Kagan is right that if we decide Iraq is important enough, we'll send the troops over and leave them there instead of rotating them out, allowing us to sustain a large troop presence for a long time.

But besides the damage that will do to the strategic readiness of our military, as well as recruiting and retention rates, what will 40,000 more troops accomplish? Most credible sources said we'd need 300,000 to 500,000 troops to adequately pacify the country in 2003. In 2006 Iraq is a far more unstable place, and even 40,000 more soldiers would only bring our strength up to about 180,000. That might be close to enough, considering most of the trouble occurs in the Sunni and ethnically mixed regions, accounting for about 40 percent of Iraq's population. But given the established nature of the insurgency, I find that doubtful.

Further, the Iraqi government opposes it.

Sigh. I asked for "get serious." But this isn't a big enough troop boost to qualify.

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A fence built with illegal labor

Oh, the irony.

A fence-building company in Southern California agrees to pay nearly $5 million in fines for hiring illegal immigrants. Two executives from the company may also serve jail time. The Golden State Fence Company's work includes some of the border fence between San Diego and Mexico.

After an immigration check in 1999 found undocumented workers on its payroll, Golden State promised to clean house. But when followup checks were made in 2004 and 2005, some of those same illegal workers were still on the job. In fact, U-S Attorney Carol Lam says as many as a third of the company's 750 workers may have been in the country illegally.

You've got to love the company pointing to its conviction as an example of why we need a guest-worker program. I don't have a philosophical problem with such a program, but it takes some chutzpah to argue that you knowingly kept illegals on the payroll because the government failed to provide enough legal immigrants.

Good to see the Feds going after the supply side of the problem, though, even if this is a rare, even token, case.


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Belgium's "War of the Worlds"

Not particularly important, but kind of funny.

State television broke into regular programming late Wednesday with an urgent bulletin: The Dutch-speaking half of the country had declared independence and the king and queen had fled. Grainy pictures from the military airport showed dark silhouettes of a royal entourage boarding a plane.

Only after a half-hour did the station flash the message: "This is fiction."

It was too late. Many Belgians had already fallen for the hoax.

Frantic viewers flooded the call center of RTBF, the station that aired the stunt. Embassies called Belgian authorities to find out what was going on, while foreign journalists scrambled to get confirmation.

The network said it was merely trying to demonstrate the importance of debate on the future of Belgium, which harbors several linguistic and cultural divides. But most people were not amused.

I was, though.

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Quick! Hide the money!

Governmental transparency is good -- unless it involves legislative salaries.

Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., introduced a bill that would remove all information on House employees from public records....

Wicker’s spokesman, Kyle Steward, said the Web site is what prompted his boss’ interest in drafting legislation. Seward said Wicker plans to reintroduce the measure when the new Congress returns next month.

“While he is an advocate of the free flow of information, he does not think it adds to the public discourse to publish individual staff members’ salaries,” Steward said.

The bill is a direct reaction to LegiStorm, a site that went online a few months ago and allows easy access to, and comparison of, staff salary records.

I understand how he feels. My father was a professor at a big state university. He was particularly prominent in his field, and as a result was one of the highest paid professors at the school.

The university was required to make its top salaries public, and every year our local newspaper published the list, with my dad's name near the top. And every year my dad complained about his pay being splashed all over and talked about. He felt his privacy was being violated for no good reason.

His ire was understandable, but it ignored the same fact that Wicker's bill does: that the people in question are public employees, being paid out of the public purse. And the public's interest in knowing how its money is spent outweighs the privacy concerns of people who have chosen to work for governmental entities.

The same principle is why the pay of a public corporation's top executives are public domain: so shareholders can see how their money is being spent. If a CEO doesn't want his pay to be known, he should only work for privately-owned companies.

Wicker's bill died when the lame-duck session ended, but he says he plans to reintroduce it in the new session. Consider writing your representative to explain why passing it would be a bad idea. The public has the right to know the public's business.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Jefferson blocked from committee seats

William Jefferson, D.-La., handily won his runoff for re-election, garnering 57 percent of the vote despite keeping $90,000 in FBI bribe money in his freezer.

Okay, the voters have spoken, even if what they said isn't particularly great. It happens from time to time: when I lived in New Jersey in the early 1990s, the mayor of Union City was re-elected while sitting in a jail cell.

But that doesn't mean all is forgiven, especially in the new ethics-conscious Democratic caucus.

House Democrats, insistent that they will hold lawmakers to higher standards, decided Tuesday that Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana will not return to an influential committee until a federal corruption investigation involving him is completed.

Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Democratic Steering Committee had resolved that Jefferson, who last Saturday won a runoff election in his New Orleans district, will not be given back his spot on the Ways and Means Committee, the panel that determines tax and trade policies.

Good. Members shouldn't have committee seats taken away on mere allegations, but the weight of evidence in Jefferson's case justifies a vigorous response from the caucus. Especially when what's at stake is merely committee seats, not his seat in Congress.

The story also notes that Pelosi has a couple more headaches to deal with, in the person of James McDermott (who was criticized on Monday by the House ethics committee for letting reporters listen to an illegally taped phone call) and Alan Mollohan, who has been accused of using his position to enrich himself and his friends.

McDermott's transgression is both relatively minor (a leak to the press) and a decade old, so a rebuke strikes me as an appropriate sanction. He also faces a civil case over it, which could end up causing some real pain if he loses.

Mollohan was forced to quit the ethics committee because of the allegations against him, and he should remain off of it until they are resolved. The question at hand is whether he should be stripped of other posts. At the moment the facts don't sustain that: while like Jefferson he is the subject of a federal inquiry, in his case no concrete evidence has surfaced that clearly points to wrongdoing.

He should, however, not be given any post that would give him oversight over the FBI or other agencies that are investigating him.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Whither Iraq

We've heard the Iraq Study Group's opinion, and President Bush's response.

Now we get an elaboration of the latter: Bush will not be rushed into a decision.

Although the White House had initially suggested that Bush would deliver his speech on Iraq strategy before Christmas, he has decided to delay it until early next year.

Defending that decision, Bush said, "I will not be rushed into making a difficult decision ... a necessary decision."

Given Bush's stubborness and perceived inability to acknowledge his mistakes in Iraq, I can understand why such a statement would raise alarm bells that Bush will attempt to ignore reality and simply keep doing what he's been doing.

But those concerns are misplaced. First, Bush is right: important decisions should be made deliberately, not rushed. After all, it was a desire to act quickly while looking tough and decisive that led Congress to rush through the Patriot Act without proper deliberation, for instance.

More importantly, though, is that Republicans would probably string Bush up themselves if "deliberation" turned into foot-dragging and inaction. Change must come: it is up to Bush to decide if he wants to lead the charge or get run over by it.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is preparing to weigh in on Iraq, and the LA Times reports that it increasingly favors "Go big."

Strong support has coalesced in the Pentagon behind a military plan to "double down" in the country with a substantial buildup in American troops, an increase in industrial aid and a major combat offensive against Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite leader impeding development of the Iraqi government.

Of course, troop constraints mean "go big" would really be "go sort of large", with something south of 40,000 new troops. And even that would only be sustainable for a year or so. The plan also calls for increasing the size of the military by 20,000 soldiers, but recruiting and training timetables mean that wouldn't help much in the short term, and it wouldn't make a gigantic difference in the ability to sustain force levels.

And never mind the near-complete lack of public support for such a move. Even the military is sharply divided over the idea.

I also can't help asking: if more troops were the answer (and IMO, they were), why is this plan only being put forward now? Shouldn't we have sent in more troops long ago, when they still could have made a serious difference?

Given the risky nature of going big or doubling down or whatever it will eventually be called, any such plan must also include yardsticks for success, with a plan to call it off if the objectives are not being met. Otherwise we risk an open-ended, ever-growing commitment like we had in Vietnam, where we kept sending more and more troops because nobody wanted to be the one who "lost" Vietnam. The result, beyond the additional lives and money lost, was a shattered military and the emergence of a risk-averse national psyche.

But at least we've now got the debate bookended by what I've long called for: "get serious or get out." At this point in the war I favor the latter, but if we choose the former and go about it intelligently, I'll cross my fingers and hope for the best.

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Prager gets an ally!

In the brouhaha over Rep. Keith Ellison saying he intends to be sworn in on the Koran, Dennis Prager has found a high-profile friend -- (fired) judge Roy Moore.

His take: Congress should refuse to seat Ellison in the name of religious freedom.

I'm not making that up.

Moore, you may recall, is the Alabama state Supreme Court justice who was fired for installing a two-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of his courthouse in the dead of night, then refusing court orders to remove it.

He has the chutzpah to write the following....

To support the Constitution of the United States one must uphold an underlying principle of that document, liberty of conscience, which is the right of every person to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience, without interference by the government.

...and then proceed to carve out a Muslim exception, justifying it by pointing to the words and deeds of extremist Muslims and saying such actions prove that Islam as a whole is incompatible with America.

That's like pointing to Eric Rudolph and claiming that Christianity is incompatible with the Olympics.

Moore's summation:

Enough evidence exists for Congress to question Ellison's qualifications to be a member of Congress as well as his commitment to the Constitution in view of his apparent determination to embrace the Quran and an Islamic philosophy directly contrary to the principles of the Constitution. But common sense alone dictates that in the midst of a war with Islamic terrorists we should not place someone in a position of great power who shares their doctrine.


Eric Rudolph, by the way, recently complained that the conditions of his imprisonment are designed to drive him insane. Sorry, Eric, but that train left the station years ago.

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Sen. Tim Johnson hospitalized

The Democrat reportedly suffered a stroke.

I'll get into this in more detail later as time and information allow. Beyond the personal implications for Johnson and his family, if he is unable to serve his replacement will be named by the state government, which is dominated by Republicans. That would probably lead to a 50-50 split in the Senate, which would throw control of that body back to Republicans thanks to the vice president's tie-breaking vote.

Just when you thought it was over....

Update: As the commenter noted, it wasn't a stroke and doesn't appear to be serious -- although they're not saying what it was.

Update II: Johnson is now in critical condition after brain surgery. The problem was a "congenital arteriovenous malformation", which causes tangled blood vessels.

The surgery was apparently successful and the prognosis is good.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The right words, but hear that siren call?

In yet another sign of how firmly the pendulum has swung to the middle, lobbyists are on the march -- with centrists in their sights.

One of the earliest signs that life for Democrats would be different in the majority came at a post-election event sponsored by the New Democrat Coalition, the pro-business group of centrist Democrats.

Previous affairs drew at most 20 lobbyists, but the “meet-and-greet” at Nortel’s Washington office two days after Democrats swept to power drew around 60 mostly high-tech lobbyists looking to build a relationship, according to Kevin Lawlor, the spokesman for New Democrat Coalition (NDC) Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.).

Worried about what the Democratic Congress may mean for their business clients, to say nothing of the new limits on member access Democrats may impose as part of an ethics reform package, lobbyists have tried hard in the weeks following the election to build new links to the new majority.

One favored path has been through moderate to conservative blocs like the New Democrats and the Blue Dogs, who are a group of budget-minded conservative Democrats mostly from Southern states.

Now the cynical or pessimistic (okay, realistic) among you, may see this as a harbinger of bad things to come, as the huge Niagara Falls of political cash overwhelms yet another class of idealistic freshmen and turns them into greedy, money-grubbing captives of their special interests.

And in the long run, you're probably right; few people resist the temptation forever. But in the short run, there is still hope, because the Democrats keep promising concrete things that they can be judged on.

emocrats taking control of Congress next month say they will try to ban for the remainder of fiscal 2007 the special-interest "pork" projects that got Republicans in so much trouble with voters in the November elections.

"We will place a moratorium on all earmarks until a reformed process is put in place," the incoming Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House appropriations panels, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, said late on Monday.

That won't eliminate the power of special interests, of course, but it would short-circuit one of the most egregious ways they extract direct favors.

The article was worthwhile simply for the spectacle of seeing Byrd, an earmark king, denouncing earmarks. You could almost see Nancy Pelosi behind him, twisting his arm until he could touch his own shoulder blade with the flat of his palm.

But having said it, they'll be hard-pressed to back off on it. And no one will be impressed if they try to weasel out of it by saying they meant no new earmarks -- while allowing all the old ones to slip comfortably through.

Wait and see.... Wait and see....

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The perils of restricting free speech

As all of you undoubtedly know by now, Iran is hosting a conference on the Holocaust. Billed as an academic inquiry, the thinly-veiled gathering of Holocaust deniers has drawn international criticism.

Let's be clear here. Holocaust deniers rank right up there with flat-earthers as people not to be taken seriously. They're a bit like creationists, pointing to bits and pieces here and there, or building elaborate theories based on the flimsiest conjectures, all while ignoring the towering mountains of evidence all around them.

But frankly I think the conference mostly demonstrates why countries like Germany and Austria are misguided when they make denying the Holocaust a crime.

Why? Because by banning discussion of the topic, they make racist, conspiratorial fools like David Duke look reasonable, even civic-minded. From his website:

In some Western nations, to diverge even slightly from Holocaust orthodoxy will cause an historian to face not only a loss of academic career but also imprisonment.

The main theme of the Holocaust Conference is that there must be freedom of speech on this subject as on all others. Free speech, inquiry and debate is the only way to learn the truth on any issue. Many Western governments have imprisoned many academics for simply expressing their historical opinions on the Holocaust.

For instance, world-renowned historian David Irving at this moment sits in a prison near Vienna, Austria for simply stating his historical opinion about Auschwitz in a lecture in Austria in 1989. German researcher/chemist Gemar Rudolf faces years of imprisonment for simply publishing a forensic analysis that challenged the authenticity of alleged Auschwitz gas chambers...

First, freedom of speech is a vital human right. It is the cornerstone of all other rights, because without freedom of speech no one has to the right to even freely know and learn of the abrogation of other rights affecting human freedom and survival. That is why the American founding fathers put freedom of speech, press and religion as the first and highest of the Bill of Rights.

Second, freedom of speech and debate are absolutely vital for the truth to prevail. If one side of any controversial issue can suppress the voice of opposition, we cannot arrive at the certainty of any truth. If academics and citizens can be career and monetarily blackmailed; if they can be threatened with firings, loss of income, or imprisonment from simply sincerely pursuing an historical inquiry and publishing it, how can the truth be fairly arrived at?

See? Duke is simply asking for the right to speak freely, and may the best idea win. How can you disagree with him? You can't; he's right. And by banning him you give him the opportunity not only to indulge his paranoid fantasies ("Look! Look! I'm being repressed!") but to cloak himself in the language of light and freedom.

Never mind that he's a lying loon. He also writes:

I and take no hard position on the historical accuracy of the Holocaust. Obviously, Jews, as well as other nationalities suffered great losses during the Second World War.

But at the conference in Iran:

On Monday, Mr. Duke asserted that the gas chambers in which millions of Jews perished did not actually exist. In prepared remarks published by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, he contended that the depiction of Jews as the “overwhelming victims of the Holocaust gave the moral high ground to the Allies as victors of the war, and allowed Jews to establish a state on the occupied land of Palestine.”

Hmmm... no hard position, except the gas chambers didn't exist. Sure, Dave.

See what happened there? We gave Duke some light, and exposed him for a fraud. That's how free speech works; while bad ideas are never actually banished, they lose their ability to influence the mainstream. Banning bad ideas merely gives bad ideas credibility and a certain outlaw panache.

I recognize that the Holocaust is a much more provocative and painful topic in Europe than it is here in the States. And I can even understand -- though not agree with -- the feeling that such talk needed to be controlled immediately after the war. But 60 years have passed; three generations have been born since then, more than enough time to get some historical distance on those dark days. Holocaust censorship now does more harm than good, and should be stopped.

Update: Duke goes on CNN and calls Wolf Blitzer a "Jewish extremist." And that was before he got really nutty.

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Why does anyone read WorldNetDaily?

Some conservative bloggers are fond of citing the Richard Mellon Scaife-backed WorldNetDaily or its evil twin, NewsMax, to support their arguments. When I criticize such sources, I get accused of attacking the source instead of attacking the argument.

Enter the Captain. I view Captain's Quarters the same way I view Antonin Scalia -- I disagree with much of what he says, but there's no denying that he is smart and thoughtful. He's one of the most influential conservative bloggers out there.

Here's what he has to say about WND:

While this article is an opinion column and therefore slightly less egregious than the news article from last month, it uses some of the same tricks seen in that WND exclusive. It references vague 'studies' without ever naming them or providing links to them. It assumes that a food element consumed for thousands of years in Asia in significant amounts without turning it into a large version of Fire Island has suddenly begun feminizing Americans.

WND reminds me of the National Enquirer. It sometimes gets stories right, and most of the time has at least some elements of truth. More often than they should, WND relies on hyperbole and outrageous exaggeration to draw attention to its political agenda. Readers who know this can pick their way through the chaff -- but those readers know better than to waste their time at WND.

The "last month" article he refers to is this one.

The WND article that triggered all this is here.


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Monday, December 11, 2006

The nature of civil war

James Traub, one of my favorite writers, has a piece in this Sunday's New York Times on Iraq and civil wars in general. He quotes James Fearon, a Stanford University expert on civil conflicts, who ticks off the death toll, the massive refugee flows, the major players, and says "by any reasonable definition, Iraq is in the midst of a civil war."

But that's not really the point of this post, which is to delve into what we might expect in the future as Iraq is consumed by sectarian conflict.

Scholars and diplomats who have closely studied civil wars describe them almost as forces of nature, grinding on until the parties exhaust themselves, shredding bonds that cannot be stitched back together even long years after the killing stops.

Wars that do not end quickly -- as the Rwanda civil war did, for instance -- tend to drag on for years. Take Northern Ireland, for example, or (as the article does) Bosnia and Lebanon. All three continued until everyone finally recognized that they were not going to win by force alone and decided that just about any alternative, including compromise with hated enemies, was better than continuing to fight.

In Lebanon -- perhaps the best parallel for Iraq -- that came only after 5 percent of the population was killed or wounded and half had become refugees. Translated to Iraq, those numbers would mean a war that caused 1.3 million casualties and uprooted 13 million people.

The good news, I suppose, is that we're already making excellent headway on those numbers, with death estimates in the 100,000-plus range and 3.4 million refugees.

Given that civil wars are driven by grievances rooted in tribal, religous and ethnic divisions, it's possible to view an Iraq civil war as inevitable. In this instance we were the catalyst, knocking over the dictator that kept the lid on the bubbling pot. But Saddam wasn't going to live forever, and when he finally shuffled off the scene the suppressed tensions were likely to explode anyway. And one could argue that it's better for that to happen sooner rather than later -- otherwise the grievances keep piling up and make the subsequent spasm of violence that much more gruesome.

So what happens if civil war is indeed in Iraq's future? Assuming the Kurds don't simply secede and the Shiites don't overrun the Sunni, this:

When the sectarian combatants finally do exhaust themselves, Iraq will need a great deal of outside help, though not the kind it has received so far. Civil wars liquidate the trust among parties that makes settlements possible; outsiders must act as guarantors and, usually, peacekeepers. And they have to be prepared to make a major commitment: NATO put 60,000 troops in Bosnia, with a population less than one-sixth that of Iraq, to police the Dayton Accords that ended the war. Today 1,900 soldiers from the European Union are sufficient to do the job.

For Iraq, that means returning in several years as peacekeepers, 400,000 strong -- the same number, not coincidentally, that we should have gone in with in the first place. And it probably won't be us doing it, but a coalition of non-Western forces, perhaps under UN flag, that won't rekindle the anti-Western resistance our presence has provoked.

Perhaps from the perspective of history our invasion of Iraq, flawed as it was, will not be viewed as a horrible catastrophe that caused all sorts of problems in the Mideast. Instead, it will be viewed as the event that merely triggered a catastrophe that was coming anyway. It's a measure of our attenuated ambitions that such a historical verdict might be something for us to hope for.

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