Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bush the unhinged?


We're starting to see various "could be true, might not" stories being floated from various quarters, with one thing in common: Bush is losing it, and he's alienating Republicans while doing so. And they're not coming from DailyKos or Moveon.org.

First, in a column in the Dallas Morning News, columnist Georgie Ann Geyer reports the following:

But by all reports, President Bush is more convinced than ever of his righteousness.

Friends of his from Texas were shocked recently to find him nearly wild-eyed, thumping himself on the chest three times while he repeated "I am the president!" He also made it clear he was setting Iraq up so his successor could not get out of "our country's destiny."

A vivid picture, and it sounds eerily similar to this one from a few weeks back (indeed, it's possible they're describing the same event):

we're hearing that some big money players up from Texas recently paid a visit to their friend in the White House. The story goes that they got out exactly one question, and the rest of the meeting consisted of The President in an extended whine, a rant, actually, about no one understands him, the critics are all messed up, if only people would see what he's doing things would be OK...etc., etc.

This is called a "bunker mentality" and it's not attractive when a friend does it. When the friend is the President of the United States, it can be downright dangerous. Apparently the Texas friends were suitably appalled, hence the story now in circulation.

Note, however, another similarity between the two: the allegations are anonymously sourced and entirely uncorroborated.

Then there's this little doozy from the Washington Times:

The Republican National Committee, hit by a grass-roots donors' rebellion over President Bush's immigration policy, has fired all 65 of its telephone solicitors....

The solicitors were indeed fired, that much is true. But take this with a huge grain of salt, because it's anonymously sourced, the RNC denies it, and the Washington Times is not above little hit jobs like this on policies it doesn't like.

Are the stories true? It's impossible to tell, so unless some confirmation pops up the rational answer is "no." But a lot of people -- not all of them Bush haters -- will readily believe them because they're plausible. Bush's immigration policy isn't popular with a significant element of his base. Bush's Iraq misadventure has left him increasingly isolated and at odds with public opinion. The stories are appealing precisely because they're plausible.

But speaking as a frequent Bush critic, let's stick to provable facts. There are enough of those to work with; no sense in trafficking in rumor on top of it. Doing so is what gives rise to conspiracy theories and urban legends, and we have quite enough of those already.

Update: Mary Katharine Ham has a friend who lived the RNC donation story -- from the donor side.

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Sex and religion

Slate's Hanna Rosin this week reviewed a provocative new book: "Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the lives of American teenagers."

What's so provocative about it? The author, Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, did a detailed survey as well as in-depth interviews to correlate religious belief with sexual behavior. And the results are surprising -- or not, depending on your point of view.

Teenagers who identify as "evangelical" or "born again" are highly likely to sound like the girl at the bar; 80 percent think sex should be saved for marriage. But thinking is not the same as doing. Evangelical teens are actually more likely to have lost their virginity than either mainline Protestants or Catholics. They tend to lose their virginity at a slightly younger age—16.3, compared with 16.7 for the other two faiths. And they are much more likely to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17: Regnerus reports that 13.7 percent of evangelicals have, compared with 8.9 percent for mainline Protestants.

And of course, there's the "not enough information" problem.

When evangelical parents say they talk to their kids about sex, they mean the morals, not the mechanics. In a quiz on pregnancy and health risks associated with sex, evangelicals scored very low. Evangelical teens don't accept themselves as people who will have sex until they've already had it. As a result, abstinence pledgers are considerably less likely than nonpledgers to use birth control the first time they have sex. "It just sort of happened," one girl told the researchers, in what could be a motto for this generation of evangelical teens.

Again, not surprising to any advocate of comprehensive sex education. Keeping kids ignorant about sex simply increases the risk to them when they eventually do have sex.

Which they will. Because while "save it for marriage" pledges and abstinence programs may slightly delay a teen's first premarital sexual experience, they do not generally prevent them. So the risk remains, unabated:

he fate of the True Love Waits movement, which began with the Southern Baptist Convention in the '90s, is a perfect example. Teenagers who signed the abstinence pledge belong to a subgroup of highly motivated virgins. But even they succumb. Follow-up surveys show that at best, pledges delayed premarital sex by 18 months -- a success by statistical standards but a disaster for Southern Baptist pastors.

Yowch.

Before getting all smug about short-sighted moralizing, however, consider a few of the book's caveats and other findings. First, a big caveat:

Partly, the problem lies in the definition of evangelical. Because of the explosion of megachurches, vast numbers of people who don't identify with mainstream denominations now call themselves evangelical. The demographic includes more teenagers of a lower socioeconomic class, who are more likely to have had sex at a younger age. It also includes African-American Protestant teenagers, who are vastly more likely to be sexually active.

There also are demographic splits: Southern teens are more likely to have sex than teens in the North, as are those who are less well-off and less well-educated.

Next, there is a group of teens for which abstinence pledges actually work.

Among the mass of typically promiscuous teenagers in the book, one group stands out: the 16 percent of American teens who describe religion as "extremely important" in their lives. When these guys pledge, they mean it. One study found that the pledge works better if not everyone in school takes it. The ideal conditions are a group of pledgers who form a self-conscious minority that perceives itself as special, even embattled.

So truly committed religious teens wait until marriage. This is hardly surprising; they are living out values they strongly believe in, so outside coercion is unnecessary. I would think such teens would abstain until marriage even without abstinence pledges and even if they attend comprehensive sex-ed classes.

For the same reasons -- strong social networks that reinforce the value system -- Mormons and church-going Asians also have high levels of abstinence.

I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on its methodology. But it seems safe to draw some general (and somewhat obvious) conclusions.

1. Teens are remarkably impervious to coercion that goes against their own values or desires.

2. Pressure to remain abstinent at best delays the onset of sex; there is still a need for comprehensive sex education.

3. If you want kids to avoid sex, you must get buy-in from them -- either as a moral value (wait until marriage or adulthood) or a practical matter (the reward isn't worth the risk). This takes more than threats, lectures and good intentions. It takes responsible, loving and frank parenting over a period of years so that your values become their values, too.

4. Comprehensive sex education, contrary to the claims of its moralistic critics, apparently hasn't been interpreted by teens as license to bang like rabbits.

Discussing healthy sexual behavior with your kids can be a tough road to walk, because there's a certain contradiction involved. You're trying to persuade them to wait until they're older while also trying to avoid going overboard and demonizing sex as "dirty" or bad.

But if you've got a good relationship with your teens, it should work out most of the time. Even with my young children, I've found that kids can handle complex issues and moral ambiguity if it's presented forthrightly. Just avoid rules that are oversimplified, overly draconian or simply not mentioned at all. All three approaches may be more comfortable for the parent, but in each case you're either not giving them information they need or the world you describe is so unlike the one they encounter that they'll conclude you're either lying or clueless.

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the Weekly Standard praises it. Interestingly, the conservative magazine notes that blue-state teens, while sexually progressive in attitude, actually have sex later than their red-state counterparts and are also more likely to use contraception when they finally do have sex. Yet having accepted that, the reviewer goes on to claim that the abstinence movement has played an important role -- citing the same True Love Waits data I quoted above. But at best that shows that encouraging abstinence only works as part of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum -- most of which have always included abstinence anyway.

On a blog run by his publisher, the author, Mark Regnerus, sounds off about the state of sexual learning in the United States. And in a review-plus-interview by the Austin American-Statesman, Regnerus makes some of the same points I do, specifically that "the idea of 'the talk' has to go away. It must be an ongoing dialogue."

And here's a Q&A he did with the Dallas Morning News, where again he sounds a bit like me: "We have to talk about facts, to be open about the beauty and pleasure of sex, and its mixed emotions and consequences. Tell them the complicated truth about the beauty and frustration of marital sex. Admit there is a gray area.... We all know it. No more hiding."

A Presbyterian minister and professor gives the book high marks, saying there's an interesting insight on every page.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Religious intolerance, here and abroad


Two examples of religious bigotry today, which helps illustrate the difference between individual and government discrimination.

First, in New Hampshire, an idiot confronted Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney's visit to New Hampshire started on a sour note Tuesday when a restaurant patron declared he would not vote for the Republican presidential contender because of his faith.

"I'm one person who will not vote for a Mormon," Al Michaud of Dover shouted at Romney when the former Massachusetts governor approached him inside Harvey's Bakery.

The kicker? This wasn't someone from the religious right; it was a self-described "liberal" who said he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton.

There are plenty of questions about Mr. Michaud. If he disagreed with Romney's politics, why make a point of criticizing his faith? Why shout it out in a small, crowded room? It's enough to make one wonder if his goal was actually to embarass Romney. And then there's the classic question of whether he's really a liberal -- and if he actually understands what that word means.

Regardless, I hope we can agree that his moment of fame was classless, rude, illiberal and violative of American values, even if it is in accord with much of American political history. And be glad that in this country a member of a minority faith is only subjected to such individual actions and not (generally) government persecution.

Now let's go to the other side of the globe, where that sadly is not the case.

Malaysia's best known Christian convert, Lina Joy, lost a six-year battle on Wednesday to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card, after the country's highest court rejected the change.

The ruling threatens to further polarize Malaysian society between non-Muslims who feel that their constitutional right to religious freedom is being eroded, and Muslims who believe that civil courts have no right to meddle in Islamic affairs.

On the one hand, this is a fairly minor matter: words on an ID card. She was not actually prevented from converting, and is not in danger of being killed for doing so. And the legal point is minor, too: whether the secular courts have jurisdiction over such matters. They decided not, that only the country's Sharia courts can allow the removal of the words from Joy's card.

Let's put aside, too, the problem of having parallel legal systems. Listen instead to the words of the judge:

"You can't at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another," Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said in delivering judgment in the case.

Or consider the reaction of the crowd outside:

About 200 mostly young Muslims welcomed the ruling outside the domed courthouse with shouts of "Allah-o-Akbar" (God is great).

And what fate awaits Joy in the sharia courts, if she goes that route?

In practice, sharia courts do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, preferring to send apostates to counseling and, ultimately, fining or jailing them if they do not desist.

They often end up in legal limbo, unable to register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Many keep silent about their choice or emigrate.

Fines and jailing, never mind the related legal prohibitions against marrying nonMuslims.

It always astonishes me that believers can justify coerced membership in religion, any religion, failing to understand that doing so not only grossly violates individual rights, but it undermines that religion's legitimacy. It's pure power politics, nothing more.

The world should continue to support Joy and express outrage not just at her treatment, but a legal system that allows such religious-based discrimination and disallows freedom of conscience. This is what true persecution looks like, and Malaysia should be pressured to change its laws to respect individual belief.

And for those of you inclined to ask "where are the moderate Muslims?", consider this very balanced article from Al-Jazeera. Or Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian Muslim women's group that is one of several that has sided with Joy in this case.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More obsessive administration secrecy

First we had the White House declaring that its visitor logs were classified. Now, in yet another example of the "none of your damn business" school of government, it turns out the vice president has done the same.

A lawyer for Vice President Dick Cheney told the Secret Service in September to eliminate data on who visited Cheney at his official residence, a newly disclosed letter states. The Sept. 13, 2006, letter from Cheney's lawyer says logs for Cheney's residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory are subject to the Presidential Records Act.

Such a designation prevents the public from learning who visited the vice president.


Note that there is no high-minded principle involved here. The White House classified its logs to keep people from finding out how many times Jack Abramoff had visited. Cheney classified his logs to keep people from finding out how often he was visiting with leaders of the religious right.

The records are preserved and go into the presidential records of the Bush administration. But other Bush orders (facilitated by none other than Alberto Gonzales) give administrations the right to keep documents out of public view forever.

It's time for Congress to address such government records clearly and directly, spelling out that they are public documents that can only be withheld for certain narrow reasons -- and avoiding embarassment or the judgement of history are not among them.

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Corzine's public service ad


Maybe it's the only thing a politician in his situation could do, but kudos to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine for doing a TV and radio ad that is frank, efficient and essentially says "I was an idiot."

He doesn't try to evade or lay blame, or defend the indefensible. He acknowledged his mistake and urged others not to do so. And the final scene of him walking off on his double crutches said more than any moralistic tagline could have.

This is how adults behave when they make mistakes.

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House bites bullet, does the right thing

In the several days late department: Thanks to pressure from Democratic freshmen, the House finally passed its ethics legislation on Thursday, overcoming earlier objections from some senior members.

The new proposals, which in the end passed overwhelmingly, would expand the information available about how business is done on Capitol Hill and make it available online. They would provide expanded, more frequent and Internet-accessible reporting of lobbyist-paid contributions and sponsorships, and would for the first time impose prison terms for criminal rule-breakers. They would also require strict new disclosure of "bundled" campaign contributions that lobbyists collect and pass on to lawmakers' campaigns. Yesterday's legislation passed 396 to 22.

The bundling provision was a big stumbling block, and perhaps the measure's most important aspect. But Democrats jettisoned several other provisions, including a two-year wait before legislators can become lobbyists (the wait currently is one year).

But all in all, the bill greatly improves transparency about money and access, which is the key to any sort of serious reform.

Now that the House and Senate have finally passed their respective ethics measures, they have to reconcile them in conference committee. The next thing to watch for is what gets kept and what gets tossed during those negotiations. Once the final bill emerges and passes, we'll be able to judge precisely how the Democrats fared on this central campaign promise.

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Zoellick named to head World Bank

The speculation is over: President Bush will nominate Robert Zoellick to succeed Paul Wolfowitz as the new head of the World Bank.

A seasoned veteran of politics both inside the Beltway and on the international stage, Zoellick, 53, has a knack for mastering intricate subject matter and translating it into policies. He is known for pulling facts and figures off the top of his head. He also has a reputation for being a demanding boss.

Bush's selection of Zoellick must be approved by the World Bank's 24-member board.

The White House expects Zoellick to gain the board's acceptance. The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of Bush's announcement, said so far other nations have had a positive reaction.

Bush would have been stupid to pick a controversial nominee, and he didn't. Zoellick's got experience and international credentials. He helped push through CAFTA, which might be an issue here at home but doesn't bother other countries too much -- with the exception of health-related groups like the Global AIDS Alliance, which don't like the drug patent protections Zoellick helped negotiate. In fact, he was so noncontroversial that he was the only rumored candidate I failed to discuss in my previous post on potential nominees! (Well, okay, that was just a boneheaded oversight on my part.)

The more interesting question is whether he will try to continue Wolfowitz's anticorruption drive, which (along with his Iraq war baggage) is what generated such antipathy for Wolfowitz. I hope so: Wolfowitz aside, I'd like to see things cleaned up a bit in that regard, as long as moral purity doesn't end up actually hindering the bank's main goal of reducing poverty.

Finally, for those of you who like suspense and intrigue, consider this statement from the World Bank:

The bank's executive directors, in a statement late Tuesday that made no mention of Zoellick by name, said it is essential the next president have a proven track record of leadership, experience managing a large international organization, a willingness to tackle governance reform and political objectivity and independence. While it had been informed that the United States will be nominating a candidate, the board also noted that nominations may be made by any executive director.

Allowing the United States to nominate the head of the World Bank is tradition and good politics, because the United States is the bank's biggest financial backer. But it's not a rule or a right. It would be interesting (though highly unlikely) if the directors decided to reject Zoellick for one of their own. First, it would be intriguing to see who their choice would be. Second, what would Bush's reaction be> Would he accept it if the person chosen is ideologically acceptable? Would he attempt to slash World Bank funding or even withdraw altogether?

That uncertainty -- and the turmoil that would likely ensue -- are the main reason Zoellick or some other U.S. nominee is a safe bet to run the place. It would be indicative of great disrespect for the Bush administration if the Bank decided to flout him.

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A follower, not a leader

Two items that are not a coincidence.

The United States has rejected the latest draft of a G8 plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the blueprint for the successor to the Kyoto Accord, which was never ratified (thanks to U.S. resistance) but was nevertheless adopted as a goal (if not entirely implemented) in Europe.

Germany, backed by Britain and now Japan, has proposed cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who will be the host of the meeting in the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm next month, has been pushing hard to get the Group of 8 to take significant action on climate change.

It had been a foregone conclusion that the Western European members of the Group of 8 — Germany, Italy, France and Britain — would back the reductions. But on Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan threw his lot in with the Europeans...

And thus the United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, remains an increasingly isolated outlier among western industrialized nations. The draft will form the basis of discussions at next week's G8 summit, setting up what will likely be an uncomfortable if not embarassing several days for the United States.

While I sympathize with the arguments aginst Kyoto -- that it would harm the economy, that developing giants like India and China are exempt -- such fears always struck me as exaggerated, and in any event didn't justify our replacement policy, which was essentially "do nothing and, maybe, hope that the market takes care of it." Emissions are a problem, and the world's largest emitter has a moral and practical obligation to be a large part of the solution.

Further, issues like greenhouse emissions and oil dependency point up the limits of the market in dealing with large, long-term issues.

Free market theory relies on the efficiency of millions of people making individual decisions, collectively developing efficient systems. The whole idea is to harness economic self-interest for the public good.

But that generally works best for short-term decisions, not long-term ones. Enlightened self-interest might lead a market system to invest in green energy and energy independence, but most self-interest isn't enlightened. Thus alternative energy is not competitive as long as oil remains cheap, and few builders are willing to spend the extra 10 percent up front to build a green building, even if the efficiencies will pay for themselves in a few years. Short term, unenlightened self interest means consumers will take the option that is cheapest at the moment, disregarding both long-term and externalized costs. Car buyers only care that gas is $3 a gallon; they rarely factor in the other costs we incur as a nation and as a society in order to deliver gasoline at that price.

In such situations, the market may work -- but only at the last possible minute and at the highest cost, with maximum dislocation.

Poor political leadership could produce equally bad results, of course. And even if the leadership is competent, our political system is focused on short-term results too, so it works much like the market: putting off the problem until it absolutely has to be addressed.

But the pressure point for politicians often arrives earlier than the same one for the market at large, thanks to pressure from advocacy groups and input, public and private, from long-term thinkers. So when it comes to such big, long-term issues, competent political leadership trumps blind faith in the magic of the market, addressing problems years before they become actual crises, and at lower cost.

Which helps explain my second item, a discussion (now behind the Times Select firewall) of the prevalence and outcome of green construction techniques in Europe and the United States. Thanks to actually attempting to follow Kyoto, Europe (and European architects) are way ahead of the United States in terms of environmentally friendly design. What's more, their innovative use of materials and design mean the green buildings don't have to be self-consciously green and don't have to cost an arm and a leg -- in other words, green is mainstream instead of a "personal virtue."

After more than a decade of tightening guidelines, Europe has made green architecture an everyday reality. In Germany and the Netherlands especially, a new generation of architects has expanded the definition of sustainable design beyond solar panels and sod roofs. As Matthias Sauerbruch put it to me: ''The eco-friendly projects you saw in the 1970s, with solar panels and recycled materials: they were so self-conscious. We call this Birkenstock architecture. Now we don't need to do this anymore. The basic technology is all pretty accepted.''

In the United States, architects cannot make the same claim with equal confidence. Despite the media attention showered on ''green'' issues, the federal government has yet to establish universal efficiency standards for buildings. Yet, according to some estimates, buildings consume nearly as much energy as industry and transportation combined. And the average building in the U.S. uses roughly a third more energy than its German counterpart.

The article also notes a difference in the regulatory environment. The European rules, while strict, are flexible: they care more about the final emissions total than how it is arrived at. In the United States, by contrast, the regulations are more of a checklist: if you have a high-efficiency air conditioner, for example, that's worth so many points. It's so specific and status quo that it has the effect of discouraging innovative technologies because they're not on the list.

So what's driving change in the United States -- and doing so years behind our European counterparts -- are clients. Our system depends on individual builders being interested in green energy and emissions reduction and willing to pay to achieve it. It's piecemeal, and relies on many of the innovations pioneered by Europeans.

I believe in harnessing the power of the free market. But in cases where the basic mechanism of the market -- individual short-term self-interest -- is a hindrance rather than a help, the market needs both help and leadership.

Raising gasoline taxes would both generate money for energy projects -- research or subsidies for alternative energy, for example, or funds to build mass transit -- and help account for the intangible and externalized costs of our dependence on gasoline. Then we could let the market work, as people grappled with the new environment of costly gas. We could lessen the pain without sacrificing much of the effect by raising the tax in installments, giving people a couple of years to adjust.

Mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would do the same thing, producing an altered market that gives such emissions a presence in short-term self-interest calculations. We could then let the market do the rest of the work for us.

Would this destroy our economy? I don't see how. There would be expenses, true, but some of that would be offset by the economic opportunities inherent in a switch to greener living, not to mention the global competitiveness advantages of using less energy. Older, inefficient energy consumers would have trouble. But that "creative destruction" is a central point of market economics. And technologies made viable by the altered energy market would help alleviate yet more of the pain.

Should China and India be included? Sure, eventually. But that's no reason not to act now. If they want to keep destroying their environment, poisoning their population and risking world condemnation in pursuit of cheap energy, let them. They will learn the costs soon enough, and I for one am happy to let China become dependent on oil just as we're weaning ourselves off of it. Maybe then it will be Chinese soldiers dying in quagmires in the Middle East instead of ours.

Or maybe our leadership -- and global diplomatic pressure revolving around Kyoto III or whatever it will be called -- will push them to begin going green, creating a huge market for U.S. companies that developed the green technologies we used to reduce our own consumption.

Let's agree not to commit economic suicide. But let's also agree that it is worse to do nothing at all, that going green brings economic benefits as well as costs, that as the world's biggest emitter we have an obligation to lead, that there is a significant long-term cost to ceding such leadership to others, and that we are wealthy enough as a nation to absorb a certain amount of short-term costs in pursuit of the long-term good.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

A small step backward

It's open!

The Creation Museum I wrote about back in August is finally opening its doors.

The Christian creators of the sprawling museum, unveiled on Saturday, hope to draw as many as half a million people each year to their state-of-the-art project, which depicts the Bible's first book, Genesis, as literal truth.

While the $27 million museum near Cincinnati has drawn snickers from media and condemnation from U.S. scientists, those who believe God created the heavens and the Earth in six days about 6,000 years ago say their views are finally being represented.

The funny thing is that their views have always been represented -- they just lose, because not only is there zero evidence to support a 6,000-year-old Earth, but there's mounds of evidence to refute it.

People are free to believe in anything they like. But it's not too smart to believe in easily disprovable things.

I personally think opponents are overreacting:

Scientists, secularists and moderate Christians have pledged to protest the museum's public opening on Monday. An airplane trailing a "Thou Shalt Not Lie" banner buzzed overhead during the museum's opening news conference.

This is like getting worked up about flat-earth theorists. It's just not worth the effort.

Then again:

A Gallup poll last year showed almost half of Americans believe that humans did not evolve but were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

Three of 10 Republican presidential candidates said in a recent debate that they did not believe in evolution.

We can only hope that the museum loses its shirt, or exists as little more than a kitschy oddity.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

30,000

Midtopia had it's 30,000th visitor today, thanks largely to a link from Salon's BlogReport to my rant about gay linguists being drummed out of the military.

The site is averaging nearly 3,000 visitors a month, which breaks down to more than 100 visitors a day during the week (they spiked to nearly 200 on Wednesday) and something less than that on weekends when I don't post.

Some unknown other number of you (thousands, I'm sure....) haunt the site's RSS feeds.

Thanks to everyone who finds my musings worth reading, and make Midtopia part of their day.

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Heffelfinger blows a gasket


You knew it was coming. Minnesota's former U.S. attorney Tom Heffelfinger -- who resigned while, unbeknownst to him, he was on a list of those that the administration was considering firing -- fired back Thursday after weeks of semisilence.

Heffelfinger, who says he had no idea anyone in Washington was thinking of firing him when he resigned his position as U.S. attorney in February 2006, has gradually become more open about his outrage over the controversy around the firing of U.S. attorneys as his name has been more publicly linked to it.

In remarks to the Bar Association in Minneapolis, he reached a new peak, saying among other things that "something is fundamentally broken within the Department of Justice."

And he read aloud from an e-mail, written by Kyle Sampson, then-chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, to other Justice Department officials under pressure to explain how particular U.S. attorneys had become candidates for dismissal.

Sampson suggested the attorneys on the list -- including Heffelfinger -- "had no federal prosecution experience when they took the job."

This elicited a burst of shocked laughter from the audience, many of whom knew Heffelfinger had been a Hennepin County prosecutor, a federal prosecutor, and had served a previous term as U.S. attorney for Minnesota under the first President Bush before the second President Bush appointed him in 2001.

It's not encouraging that the people in charge of firing decisions were so unaware of his record. It's like it was Amateur Hour in the Justice Department executive offices.

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Goodling fallout

Following up on my original post, a couple of items from Monica Goodling's testimony on Wednesday appear destined to cause Alberto Gonzales further trouble.

First, Goodling said that Gonzales talked to her about the prosecutor case.

"It made me a little uncomfortable," Monica Goodling, Gonzales' former White House liaison, said of her conversation with the attorney general just before she took a leave of absence in March. "I just did not know if it was appropriate for us to both be discussing our recollections of what had happened."

Trouble is, Gonzales told Congress that he didn't.

Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that he didn't know the answers to some questions about the firings because he was steering clear of aides — such as Goodling — who were likely to be questioned.

"I haven't talked to witnesses because of the fact that I haven't wanted to interfere with this investigation and department investigations," Gonzales told the panel.

Hmmm....

Perhaps we should give Gonzales the benefit of the doubt on this one and accept the Justice Department explanation: "The attorney general has never attempted to influence or shape the testimony or public statements of any witness in this matter, including Ms. Goodling," said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "The statements made by the attorney general during this meeting were intended only to comfort her in a very difficult period of her life."

All well and good, although that's sort of an odd way to comfort someone. And perhaps he shouldn't lie to Congress about it afterward. And then there's the troubling little fact that he has done this repeatedly: Made a claim, been contradicted by the facts, then backpedaled. Once might be forgiven; but three or four times?

Secondly, the Justice Department is broadening its inquiry into Goodling's hiring practices based on her testimony.

The expanded inquiry, conducted by the department's inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility, comes after testimony Wednesday by former Gonzales aide Monica M. Goodling.

She told a House committee that she had considered party affiliation in screening applicants to become immigration judges.

Judges on top of career prosecutors. Lovely. But why is this a big deal? We already knew that she admitted "crossing the line."

The difference here is that Goodling says she was authorized to do so in this case.

She cited a conversation she had with another Gonzales aide, D. Kyle Sampson, who said the department's Office of Legal Counsel had declared the practice to be lawful.

The Justice Department denies it.

Justice Department officials said no such opinion existed.

They also denied Goodling's assertion that the hiring of immigration judges had been frozen after the department's civil division raised concerns about using a political litmus test.


We now get to play the "somebody's lying" game. Goodling claims she properly briefed James McNulty before his misleading Congressional testimony; he heatedly denies it.

Now she claims she had authorization to use political criteria in hiring; Justice denies it. In that case they could both be telling the truth, but only if Sampson was either lying or grossly mistaken.

Either way, expect more embarassing headlines for Gonzales.

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Koran wins in court

In a case that has some relevance to the resoundingly ignorant flap over whether Keith Ellison could swear on a Koran, a North Carolina judge has ruled that nonChristians can use their own holy book when called as witnesses in the courtroom.

The decision represents a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which sued the state after two Guilford County judges rejected an offer from an Islamic center to provide county courthouses with free copies.

"The highest aim of every legal contest is the search for truth," Wake Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway wrote in an 18-page opinion. "To require pious and faithful practitioners of religions other than Christianity to swear oaths in a form other than the form most meaningful to them would thwart the search for the truth.

"It would elevate form over substance."

The legality should have been beyond question; the judge's opinion simply notes the futility of swearing on a book you don't believe in.

Maybe now Prager et al will cease their hyperventilating about this and concede their point was flawed. But I'm not holding my breath.

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The funny side of dating

Well, it's funny as long as you're not one of these guys.

The site, "I Can't Believe He's Still Single," is a new project of a friend of mine. Check it out. And if you're like me, be glad you haven't had to venture into the dating scene for more than a decade.

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War bill passed Congress

Congress yesterday passed its deadline-free war bill, and Bush says he'll sign it.

But in a sign of things to come, the vote in the house was 280-142, with only two Republicans voting against -- meaning well more than half the Democratic caucus opposed it. The vote in the Senate was more lopsided, 80-14.

In September, if the surge isn't going well and the Iraqi government is missing benchmarks, look for a sizable number of Republicans to join the bloc opposing additional funding.

But even if they don't, don't expect Bush to get his way the second time around like he did here. If the evidence shows his plan isn't working, Congress will refuse to fund more. They'll do this in one of two ways:

1. Passing a bill with firm deadlines and overriding a Bush veto. They'll do this if they think they have the votes to do so, and will probably try this route first.

2. Simply refusing to take up a bill on additional funding. Bush can't veto a bill that isn't passed, and can't spend money that isn't authorized. In conjunction with such a refusal, Congress could pass a separate bill expressly funding a winddown of the war. This is the ultimate power Democrats have by virtue of their control of Congress, using the gridlocked nature of split government to their advantage.

Of course, a likely scenario is that in September the verdict on Iraq will be muddy, with some signs of progress but nothing decisive and perhaps not commensurate to the effort expended. At which point the debate will rage around whether there has been enough progress of the sustainable kind, that indicates a path upward to stability. A question to which many in Congress and the White House will have preconceived answers. So expect even more fireworks as they vie to frame the issue advantageously to their position.

For now, though, Congress did the right thing.

BTW, Hillary Clinton -- in a transparent bid to court the antiwar vote -- voted against the measure. I have no problem with people opposing the bill on principle, as Barack Obama and John Edwards do, for example. But Clinton has argued against an immediate withdrawal, so the centrist, responsible thing to do would have been to support this bill and renew the argument in September. Instead, she was essentially voting to defund the troops in order to set up a political confrontation with Bush. That's just not cool.

There's also this unflattering admission by the Dems:

After weeks of insisting that the Pentagon could fund the war into July, Democrats abruptly changed their tune yesterday. Murtha said Congress had no choice but to act this week, because the war would run out of funds on Monday. The Defense Department could shift funds around, he said, but such accounting tricks would be a "disaster," Murtha said.

I understand why they made that claim -- to prevent Bush from using the pressing deadline as a negotiating tool while they squabbled over funding, and to strengthen their own hand by making it seem as if they were willing to take more time than Bush to pass a funding measure. But while it might make sense tactically, it's simply dishonest. Politics ain't beanball, but it shouldn't include outright lying.

Of course, the president did do some scaremongering of his own (see bottom of linked post) when he claimed that the funding bill had to be passed in April or the troops would run out of money. But that didn't justify the Democrats making up a lie of their own.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Strategically stupid

The irrational pursuit of gays in the military continues to lead to the dismissal of some of our most valuable assets in the war on terror.

Lawmakers who say the military has kicked out 58 Arabic linguists because they were gay want the Pentagon to explain how it can afford to let the valuable language specialists go.

Seizing on the latest discharges, involving three specialists, members of the House of Representatives wrote the House Armed Services Committee chairman that the continued loss of such "capable, highly skilled Arabic linguists continues to compromise our national security during time of war."

One sailor discharged in the latest incident, former Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Benjamin, said his supervisor tried to keep him on the job, urging him to sign a statement denying that he was gay. He said his lawyer advised him not to sign it, because it could be used against him later if other evidence ever surfaced.

There are some inconsistencies in Benjamin's story. First he says he was "always out" since the day he started working there, and it didn't cause problems. Then later he says he was "discreet" and was surprised when the military investigated him. But that could simply be the difference between not hiding his sexual orientation and openly telling the military he was gay (the "tell" portion of "don't ask, don't tell").

But that's pretty much beside the point. This sort of thing is just plain stupid. The need for trained Arabic speakers vastly outweighs the outdated "morals" concerns about gay soldiers. It is pure bureaucratic bloodymindedness to actively hunt these guys down and discharge them.

Stuff like this only further illustrates the asinine nature of the antigay policy. End it now, before we let it further damage our national security.

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Surge update

As the Iraq war-funding bill comes to the floor of Congress today, a report from Baghdad sheds some gloom on the debate.

More than three months into a U.S.-Iraqi security offensive designed to curtail sectarian violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, Health Ministry statistics show that such killings are rising again.

From the beginning of May until Tuesday, 321 unidentified corpses, many dumped and showing signs of torture and execution, have been found across the Iraqi capital, according to morgue data provided by a Health Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. The data showed that the same number of bodies were found in all of January, the month before the launch of the Baghdad security plan.

So they're not just rising -- they're back to where they were before the surge.

They're still below the peak levels hit last year, and a key question is where the killings are occurring. If they're happening in places outside the current "surge" footprint, it has little bearing on whether the surge is working or not. And anyway one isolated datum isn't proof of anything. But it does seem to show that Shiite death squads are still not being meaningfully hindered by either the surge or the Iraqi government.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Goodling testifies


Monica Goodling is testifying before the Senate about the prosecutor firings, and so far the only really interesting stuff involves herself, Kyle Sampson and former deputy AG Paul McNulty.

The Justice Department's former White House liaison ... blamed Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty for misleading Congress about the dismissals.

McNulty's explanation, on Feb. 6, "was incomplete or inaccurate in a number of respects," Monica Goodling told a packed House Judiciary Committee inquiry into the firings.

She added: "I believe the deputy was not fully candid."

She also said the list of those to be fired was compiled by Kyle Sampson. It's not clear if that's a contradiction of Alberto Gonzales' recent statement that McNulty was the driving force behind the firings (notwithstanding his even earlier statement that McNulty wasn't really involved). It doesn't have to be: Sampson is generally acknowledged as having been the keeper of the list, even if he wasn't making all the decisions about who should be on it.

As to herself, she denied playing a major role in the firings but admitted she broke the law when she used politics as a criteria for hiring career prosecutors.

She said she never spoke to former White House counsel Harriet Miers or Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, about the firings. But she admitted to have considered applicants for jobs as career prosecutors based on their political loyalties — a violation of federal law.

"I may have gone too far, and I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions," Goodling said. "And I regret those mistakes."

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., hammered Goodling on her decisions to hire prosecutors who favored Republicans.

"Do you believe they were illegal or legal?" Scott asked.

"I don't believe I intended to commit a crime," Goodling, a lawyer, answered.

"Did you break the law? Is it against the law to take those considerations into account?" Scott said.

"I believe I crossed the line, but I didn't mean to," she responded.

More as it develops.

Meanwhile, some prosecutors have detailed the political interference Goodling introduced into the hiring of career prosecutors.

When Jeffrey A. Taylor, interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, wanted to hire a new career prosecutor last fall, he had to run the idea past Monica M. Goodling, then a 33-year-old aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

The candidate was Seth Adam Meinero, a Howard University law school graduate who had worked on civil rights cases at the Environmental Protection Agency and had served as a special assistant prosecutor in Taylor's office.

Goodling stalled the hiring, saying that Meinero was too "liberal" for the nonpolitical position, said according to two sources familiar with the dispute.

The article also appears to dispute her contention that she wasn't heavily involved in the prosecutor brouhaha.

First, she was Justice's White House liaison. It stretches credibility to suggest that the firings would not have been coordinated with the White House through her.

Second, it notes that she played a central role in the appointment of Rove protege Tim Griffin, met with legislators who complained about David Iglesias and blocked the dismissal of a North Carolina prosecutor.

And then there was this:

Before she and Sampson resigned, Goodling wrote a series of memos summing up the longtime U.S. attorneys she helped to fire. She said that Iglesias was "in over his head," that Carol C. Lam of San Diego showed "a failure to perform" and that Arizona's Paul K. Charlton was guilty of "repeated instances of insubordination."

Yet Goodling's final list, assembled as "talking points" for Congress and the media, also noted that nearly every fired prosecutor had received stellar reviews from Justice Department evaluators.

Now perhaps that was part of her job as Justice Department counsel. But it sure doesn't sound like the actions of someone who wasn't up to her eyeballs in the process.

Update: From the LA Times, yet another example of how Goodling's fingerprints are all over the U.S. attorneys -- this time bypassing a state panel in the search for a new prosecutor in Los Angeles.

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Exploding the myth of Muslim silence

That's the purpose of an interesting piece by Stephen Schwartz, author of "The Two Faces of Islam."

In it he argues that the media ignores moderate Muslims while covering the radicals in lavish, horrific detail, painting a distorted picture of the faith. The centerpiece of the article is a deconstruction of coverage of the plot to attack Fort Dix. He notes that the plotters weren't, as first assumed, Kosovo Albanian Muslims. They were, instead, ethnic Albanians from Macedonia who came here as children and were radicalized in Arab-dominated Wahhabi mosques. His point is that the media misses distinctions between different kinds of Muslims, lumping peaceful, moderate Albanians in with violent Wahhabis.

He then cites several examples of Muslim commentary on the case -- all of it condemning the plot -- that he says got scant coverage.

I didn't follow the Fort Dix story closely enough to judge whether he's right on that score, but the piece once again points up the intellectual bankruptcy of those who demand that Muslims "speak out" against terror. Continuing to make that argument ignores several relevant facts:

1. They do. All the time. I've cited multiple examples in the past year.

2. Demands that Muslims take the lead assume that moderate Muslims have some sort of connection to (or influence over) the extremists. What are (for example) American Muslims supposed to do: Call up Al-Qaeda and yell at them? They don't have AQ's number any more than you or I do, nor will their words be heeded any more than yours or mine.

3. Few groups spend a lot of time flagellating themselves for the extremists in their midst.

Let's expand on that last point for a moment because it's an important one, tied in with assumptions about group identity that simply are not true.

The underlying logic of the "Muslims must denounce terrorism" goes as follows: The terrorists are Islamic, and therefore Muslims have a particular duty to denounce Islamic terror.

This is reasonable to an extent: disavowing the nutjobs operating under your banner is sometimes necessary.

But where it goes off the rails is when people demand that every Muslim denounce every act of Islamic terror every time one occurs.

This is ridiculous. Every time a Christian commits murder, are Christians obligated to go on television and state the obvious -- that murder is wrong and the offender doesn't represent Christian views?

Of course not. They can simply state once (or occasionally) that murder is wrong and unChristian. Actually, they don't even have to do that; it's considered obvious that murder is wrong, so they aren't required to say anything. Silence is not assent in such cases.

So why are Muslims treated differently? Because groups are always good at pointing out the mote in other groups' eyes, even while giving their own members the benefit of the doubt. Do conservatives regularly call out nutjob conservatives? No. Liberals do that, and conservatives disavow them if necessary. Do liberals regularly call out liberal nutjobs? No; conservatives do that, and then liberals disavow them if necessary.

In this country, who spends time identifying atheist/agnostic misbehavior? Believers. Who are most likely to point out believer wrongdoing? Atheists/agnostics.

Simply put, groups are horrible at policing their own, because doing so requires admitting some kinship between your own beliefs and those of the nutjobs -- admitting that your beliefs can be twisted to bad ends. No one likes doing that.

Beyond that, when you're in the group you know that the extremists are just that -- extremists, a tiny minority that do not represent the group as a whole. They are shunned, dismissed; psychologically, the majority separates themselves from the whackjobs to the point they no longer feel kinship with them -- and thus no particular responsibility to account for their actions. Hence Christians feel no particular need to respond every time a Christian misbehaves, and Muslims feel no particular need to respond every time a member of some fundamentalist sect detonates a car bomb.

This is especially true when the actions cross national and sectarian boundaries. Demanding that a mainstream American Muslim denounce fundamentalist terrorism is like demanding that Lutherans denounce the actions of Baptists -- or, more aptly, Christian Identity adherents. It's actually even sillier than that, because at least in the example above everyone involved is American. In the case of Islamic terror, we're demanding that American Muslims feel responsibility not just for another sect, but for another country and culture. So it's more like demanding that Lutherans apologize for the atrocities committed by the Lord's Resistance Army.

Now, political reality is a different matter, and not always fair; in this day and age, there is more political need for Muslims to speak out than there is for Christians. But that doesn't make demands that they do so any less illogical. Nor does it justify the assumptions made about them when they fail to speak up in any given instance.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bomb threat at Falwell funeral

This is weird, and not just in the obvious ways.

A small group of protesters gathered near the funeral services to criticize the man who mobilized Christian evangelicals and made them a major force in American politics -- often by playing on social prejudices.

A group of students from Falwell's Liberty University staged a counterprotest.

And Campbell County authorities arrested a Liberty University student for having several homemade bombs in his car.

Oh, great. Some left-wing whacko tries to bomb Falwell's funeral.

Huh? What's that?

The student, 19-year-old Mark D. Uhl of Amissville, Va., reportedly told authorities that he was making the bombs to stop protesters from disrupting the funeral service.

Not a left-wing nutjob; a conservative Christian nutjob!

You gotta love the logic required to arrive at the conclusion that setting off bombs is the perfect way to avoid disrupting the service....

The good news is that he was an incompetent dimbulb:

The devices were made of a combination of gasoline and detergent, a law enforcement official told ABC News' Pierre Thomas. They were "slow burn," according to the official, and would not have been very destructive.

But then there's this:

Three other suspects are being sought, one of whom is a soldier from Fort Benning, Ga., and another is a high school student. No information was available on the third suspect.

Great. Additional nutcases still on the loose.

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Busy day tomorrow

Wednesday should have a lot of fireworks, thanks to several big items all landing at the same time:

Looking for Ms. Goodling
An immunized Monica Goodling testifies before the Senate about the prosecutor firings. Source have indicated her testimony won't implicate Alberto Gonzales, but then that's what they said about Kyle Sampson -- and his testimony turned out to be another body blow for the embattled AG.

The problem is that, based on what we already know, Gonzales is either mendacious or incompetent. Goodling's testimony can only show one of three things: that Gonzales was more involved than he has admitted, which means he lied to Congress; that Gonzales was totally uninvolved, which indicts his management ability; and/or that the firings were indeed heavily political, which discredits both his judgement and his truthfulness.

War funding
The newest version of the war-funding bill could hit the floor of Congress, with the possibility that the most antiwar Democrats ultimately will vote against it now that the timetables have been stripped out. There still should be enough votes to pass it (with Republican support), but it raises all sorts of tantalizing possibilities.

One is merely theoretical: contemplate what would happen if the war funding didn't have enough Democratic votes to pass without timetables, and didn't have enough Republican votes to pass with them. What would happen?

The other is more concrete: in order to govern, will Pelosi and Reid find themselves increasingly making common cause with Republicans against the more extreme elements of their own party? And will that work, or simply lead to a fracture in the Democratic ranks?

And consider what a Democratic fracture might mean. With the Republicans themselves fractured (united only by the need to stay relevant by thwarting Democratic moves), Congress could find itself in an unstable situation, where each party's leadership is less relevant and instead ad hoc groups of legislators coalesce around individual issues.

That's not going to happen, of course, at least not to a large degree. Party connections are too ingrained, too convenient, too powerful. And the leadership controls the movement of legislation, so they'll never get too irrelevant (though there was a time when committee chairmen were highly independent and arguably more powerful than the Speaker and her deputies). Still, if two fractured parties mean more individual initiative by Congress members, that would be all to the good in my book.

Anyway, tomorrow should be a fascinating day.

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Report: GSA head violated Hatch Act

When last we left Lurita Doan, she was being investigated for (among other things) using her office for improper political purposes, in violation of the Hatch Act.

Now the investigation is over. It's conclusion? She broke the law.

An Office of Special Counsel report has found that General Services Administration chief Lurita Doan violated the Hatch Act, which bars federal officials from partisan political activity while on the job, sources say.

The report addresses a Jan. 26 lunch meeting at GSA headquarters attended by Doan and about 40 political appointees, some of whom participated by videoconference. During the meeting, Scott Jennings, the White House deputy director of political affairs, gave a PowerPoint presentation that included slides listing Democratic and Republican seats the White House viewed as vulnerable in 2008, a map of contested Senate seats and other information on 2008 election strategy.

According to meeting participants, Doan asked after the call how GSA could help “our candidates.”

Now for the bad news:

After Doan responds, the report will be sent to President Bush with recommendations that could include suspension or termination. The president is not required to comply with the suggestions.

Yes, you read that right: punishment is entirely up to the president. This is the Bush administration, so I suppose it's quite possible she won't suffer any adverse effects. But I just can't bring myself to be that cynical. Look for her to resign or be fired sometime in June.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Dems go with common sense on war funding

On Friday, I laid out what sort of war-funding bill Congress had to assemble.

Now it looks like they're doing exactly that.

In grudging concessions to President Bush, Democrats intend to draft an Iraq war-funding bill without a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and shorn of billions of dollars in spending on domestic programs, officials said Monday.

The legislation would include the first federal minimum wage increase in more than a decade, a top priority for the Democrats who took control of Congress in January, the officials added.

While details remain subject to change, the measure is designed to close the books by Friday on a bruising veto fight between Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress over the war. It would provide funds for military operations in Iraq through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Good. Get it done, and start preparing for the next round, in September.

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Generals say "no" to torture

If you haven't read this yet, you should. It's written by a pair of retired generals: Charles Krulak (former Marine Corps commandant) and Joseph Hoar (former head of U.S. Central Command).

Fear can be a strong motivator. It led Franklin Roosevelt to intern tens of thousands of innocent U.S. citizens during World War II; it led to Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt, which ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans. And it led the United States to adopt a policy at the highest levels that condoned and even authorized torture of prisoners in our custody.

The observed effect on military morals:

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture -- only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works -- the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Our soldiers in Iraq confront real "ticking time bomb" situations every day, in the form of improvised explosive devices, and any degree of "flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone -- the rare exception fast becoming the rule.

To understand the impact this has had on the ground, look at the military's mental health assessment report released earlier this month. The study shows a disturbing level of tolerance for abuse of prisoners in some situations. This underscores what we know as military professionals: Complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality.

But even if the use of torture could be strictly controlled, it would hurt our cause:

The torture methods that Tenet defends have nurtured the recuperative power of the enemy. This war will be won or lost not on the battlefield but in the minds of potential supporters who have not yet thrown in their lot with the enemy. If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy. This way lies defeat, and we are well down the road to it.

It also hurts our soldiers.

This is not just a lesson for history. Right now, White House lawyers are working up new rules that will govern what CIA interrogators can do to prisoners in secret. Those rules will set the standard not only for the CIA but also for what kind of treatment captured American soldiers can expect from their captors, now and in future wars. Before the president once again approves a policy of official cruelty, he should reflect on that.

These are not new sentiments. But they are increasingly being expressed by people such as Krulak and Hoar, military professionals who understand the repercussions of such policies. Let us hope that at last the message gets through.

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Specter: Gonzales may resign


It may just be wishful thinking, but that's what Sen. Arlen Specter said yesterday on "Face the Nation", in response to a question about this week's planned vote of no-confidence in the attorney general.

Mr. Specter noted that no-confidence votes were rare, adding, “I think that if and when he sees that coming, that he would prefer to avoid that kind of an historical black mark.” Mr. Specter, of Pennsylvania, would not say how he would vote on a resolution.

Most Senate Democrats and five Republicans have called on the attorney general to resign, but President Bush, who considers Mr. Gonzales one of his most trusted advisers, has steadily supported him.

It seems obvious that such a vote would easily pass, assuming all that was needed was a simple majority. Most Democrats and at least five Republicans would vote yes, and there could be a sizable number of other GOPers that would support it, too.

The White House has denigrated the move as a political stunt and today Bush reiterated his support for Fredo. But the reality is that Gonzales' ability to lead his department would be seriously impaired by such a public rebuke, especially if the vote is lopsided. At that point you have to start wondering why Bush places personal loyalty to incompetent lapdogs above the good of the people and the efficient administration of justice.

Between the no-confidence vote and the upcoming testimony of Monica Goodling, it promises to be yet another bad week for the AG.

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How's it going in Afghanistan?

For an interesting and balanced take on the war in Afghanistan, check out NBC News correspondent Jim Maceda:

So, how IS it going in Afghanistan? Are we winning or losing the war? Or the peace? I see no pat answer. No 10-second sound bite. We are winning some hearts, but losing other minds. We are bringing a sense of peace to parts of the country where we have soldiers at least, but the Taliban is still intimidating whole towns, elsewhere, with death threats posted on residential doors at night, with school burnings, ambushes and roadside bombs. We have defeated Taliban and al-Qaida militants in dozens upon dozens of battles this year, but their suicide bombers keep on coming – and exploding – from inside the Pakistan border, where they are trained and equipped.

Some have called this ‘reaching a tipping point’. Perhaps that’s the best answer: Afghanistan IS balanced between good and bad, war and peace, winning and losing. Some days, in some ways, look very positive indeed. But winning in Afghanistan still appears no better than a 50-50 bet. It could go either way. There are still too many reasons why Afghans could see a low-burn guerilla war that kills thousands of civilians – as well as several hundred American and allied soldiers - every year for years to come.

Sobering stuff, but unsurprising. As long as the tribal regions of Pakistan provide a safe haven for Taliban forces, the war will never actually end no matter how much military success we have. The best we can probably hope for is a low-level conflict that will increasingly be fought by Afghan security forces rather than NATO troops.

Many of the same descriptions could be applied to Iraq. But there is at least one key difference between Afghanistan and Iraq: There is far more political resolve to fight a long war in Afghanistan because the government -- weak and corrupt though it may be -- supports us, and we didn't invade the country under false pretenses.

We also don't have sectarian violence to deal with because there are no sects: nearly the entire country is Sunni (84%) Muslim (99%). The worst split is ethnic: majority Pashtuns and minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and others. But those splits aren't as deep or as pathological as the bloody scrimmage going on in Iraq.

It also shows how much more politically sustainable a war is when we're not doing nearly all the fighting ourselves. A justifiable war attracts meaningful international help, which spreads the burden of combat and builds reinforcing political supports.

The fighting in Afghanistan demonstrates that we have the political and military will to fight a long war when the need and justification are made apparent. And Iraq demonstrates what happens when the government fails to make such a case.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Bush, Congress hit impasse on war funding


This is getting a bit silly.

The White House and Congress failed to strike a deal Friday after exchanging competing offers on an Iraq war spending bill that Democrats said should set a date for U.S. troops to leave....

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said they offered to grant Bush the authority to waive the deadlines. They said they also suggested they would drop billions of dollars in proposed domestic spending that Bush opposed, in exchange for his acceptance of identifying a withdrawal date.

That, by the way, is the Democrats making the obvious concession that they denied they were making a week or so ago.

Bush, for his part, flat refused anything that had deadlines for withdrawal, even if he could waive them. He also indicated he would consider benchmarks for the Iraqi government that would include negative consequences if the Iraqis failed to meet them -- although the details on that score were very vague.

In general, I'm with Bush on this one. The timetables need to be dropped for the time being to give the surge time to work. And the domestic funding has no business being used as a bargaining chip: it shouldn't have been in the bill in the first place.

It's May 18, people; time to stop playing games. The Democrats need to pass (and Bush needs to sign) a bill that does the following:

1. Contains no timetables;

2. Funds the war only through September, at which time the state of the surge and Iraqi political compliance can be assessed;

3. Contains hard benchmarks for the Iraqi government to hit, with generous support if they hit them and negative consequences if they don't.

Reopen this fight when there's meaningful data to fight about.

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Another Republican calls for Gonzales to quit

Ever able to read the shifting political winds, Minnesota's own Norm Coleman has joined the list of Republicans calling for Alberto Gonzales' ouster.

The link identifies the six GOP senators who now want him to quit, as well as six others who have said he should probably quit while stopping just short of calling for his resignation.

The last straw for Norm: revelations that the Justice Department had a list of at least 26 prosecutors it was considering firing -- not the relative handful it has admitted up until now -- and that former Minnesota U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger was on it.

The list isn't a huge deal by itself. It makes sense that the department would consider a larger group of candidates for replacement before settling on a small number to actually can. But Gonzales' testimony last week that the firing effort was limited to the 8 (oops, 9) identified so far was either misleading, a lie, very poorly phrased or an indication that he was totally unaware of the scope of the discussions occurring under his authority.

There's also the question of how a prosecutor ended up on the list. I look forward to analyses matching the names on the list with their prosecutorial history to see if a trend emerges.

Meanwhile, the Senate may hold a nonbinding no-confidence vote on Gonzales next week -- a move that could attract bipartisan support. The White House denounced it as a PR stunt, but it's far more than that: it will be a public display of how little support Gonzales has. It will also force many senators that have been silent up until now to declare a position. I don't think many of them will come down on Gonzales' side, and the White House knows it.

There's also this interesting exchange about the dramatic confrontation in John Ashcroft's hospital room:

Q Let me just follow up on that. Yesterday, Kelly asked the President straight up about the report of when Gonzales was counsel and sending Andy Card down to the hospital. The President refused to answer, saying it was a national security issue. No part of her question had anything to do with national security issues.

MR. FRATTO: No, there are two points there. One is the discussion of classified programs; and the second is deliberative discussions among and between advisors to the President -- and neither of which is an open window for us to look into and talk about.

Now, I think the President -- I think that's the point that the President was making. It puts us in a difficult communications position, because we understand there are questions out there and it's difficult for us from the podium. But that's not something that we can get into, and we're not going to get into.

Q He can unilaterally declassify, so --

MR. FRATTO: He could, but I think he'd prefer to put the safety and security of Americans ahead of that interest.

Q How does it jeopardize the safety and security of Americans, to say whether --

MR. FRATTO: Any time we talk about --

Q -- to say whether he ordered those guys to go to the hotel room?

MR. FRATTO: The hospital room --

Q I'm sorry, hospital room.

MR. FRATTO: -- according to the reports.

Q -- former acting Attorney General.

MR. FRATTO: Any time we talk about classified programs you're opening the door, and we need to be very careful in how we talk about it.

A nice example of invoking "national security", "executive privilege" and (most wretchedly) "the safety and security of the American people" to avoid answering a question that has nothing to do with any of those.

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Wolfowitz agrees to leave

Big surprise.... He leaves at the end of June. President Bush, meanwhile, has promised to move quickly on naming a successor.

Among those mentioned as a possible replacement for Wolfowitz were former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who was Bush's former trade chief; Robert Kimmitt, the No. 2 at the Treasury Department; Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson; former Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa; Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.,; Stanley Fischer, who once worked at the International Monetary Fund and is now with the Bank of Israel; and former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.

That list seems filled with pure speculation. But let's go through them.

Volcker would be an interesting, noncontroversial pick, and likely to attract bipartisan support. And his experience investigating the United Nations oil-for-food scandal may indicate that he'll continue Wolfowitz's anti-corruption drive.

Paulson would be a mistake, unless Bush just likes playing "musical Treasury chairs". There's no real good reason to shake up Treasury one more time simply to fill a slot at the World Bank.

Kimmitt would be a solid choice. He's a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, has ambassadorial and foreign policy experience and previously served on a World Bank arbitration panel. He's shown an ability to get along with other countries throughout a long career.

I'm not sure why Bush would consider Jim Leach, since he's a liberal Republican who opposed the 2002 Iraq war resolution and even opposed the president's 2003 tax cut. This sounds like a case of Leach supporters floating the name, not anything eminating from the White House.

Lugar would be a more business-as-usual pick for Bush -- a fiscal and social conservative who could probably be counted on to continue Wolfowitz's policies. There's also a bit of political calculation involved. Lugar is 75, and thus unlikely to run for the Senate again. Giving him another job would let the Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, appoint a Republican replacement. Lugar just won re-election, so the successor would serve for nearly six years and have the advantage of incumbency when s/he stands for re-election in 2012 -- thus increasing the odds that the seat will stay in GOP hands.

Stanley Fischer I don't know much about. He's an economist, served as chief economist at the World Bank under Bush's dad before moving over to the International Monetary Fund. Sounds qualified, but I have no idea what his politics are.

Of course, I half expect Bush to nominate Harriet Miers just to prove he can....

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The food-stamp diet

This is a pretty good read:

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) stood before the refrigerated section of the Safeway on Capitol Hill yesterday and looked longingly at the eggs.

At $1.29 for a half-dozen, he couldn't afford them.

Ryan and three other members of Congress have pledged to live for one week on $21 worth of food, the amount the average food stamp recipient receives in federal assistance. That's $3 a day or $1 a meal. They started yesterday.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), co-chairmen of the House Hunger Caucus, called on lawmakers to take the "Food Stamp Challenge" to raise awareness of hunger and what they say are inadequate benefits for food stamp recipients. Only two others, Ryan and Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), took them up on it.

Ryan's shopping list for the week:

Yellow cornmeal$1.43
2 jars strawberry preserves4.80
1 jar chunky peanut butter2.48
2 packages angel-hair pasta1.54
Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee2.50
3 cans tomato sauce4.50
2 containers cottage cheese3.00
1 loaf wheat bread0.89
1 head of garlic0.32
Total:$20.66


He could have added some extra calories by forgoing the coffee; I think he's going to regret that particular choice.

The story also notes the irony of eating poor: that the cheapest foods are also the unhealthiest, which is why the poor have trouble with obesity, cholesterol and other diet-related ills.

"No organic foods, no fresh vegetables, we were looking for the cheapest of everything," McGovern said. "We got spaghetti and hamburger meat that was high in fat -- the fattiest meat on the shelf. I have high cholesterol and always try to get the leanest, but it's expensive. It's almost impossible to make healthy choices on a food stamp diet."

Looking at the politics of it, the stunt -- while compelling -- is still something of a stunt. The $21 a week is an average, for starters; the neediest people get more. Second, food stamps were never intended to cover 100% of food costs; they're a supplement. Third, food stamps aren't the only programs available to the hungry. There are food shelves, local food programs and private charities as well.

In addition, the lawmakers are doing this in hopes of adding $4 billion to the $33 billion food-stamp program -- which would boost that $21 weekly average up to a whopping $23.50 or so.

Still, people do go hungry, even if nobody actually starves. And the healthy-eating challenges deserve to be addressed somehow. A few bucks spent helping the very poor buy fresh vegetables now might prevent far more expensive taxpayer-provided health care down the road.

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