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April 24, 2008

McCain the "pork enabler"
Posted by Max Bergmann

In light of the growing controversy over McCain's earmark flip flop/confusion, it is worth pointing out that McCain has a long history of talking tough and doing very little when it comes to busting pork.

Winslow Wheeler, a former defense staffer to Senator Pete Domenici now at CDI, was forced to leave the senate after he released a paper under the pseudonym "Spartacus" titled Mr. Smith Is Dead: No One Stands in the Way as Congress Laces Post-September 11 Defense Bills with Pork. Wheeler was shocked at the growing abuses in defense spending after 9-11 and how almost no members of congress were doing anything about it. John McCain received particular scorn Wheeler, who had a front row seat for Senate defense appropriations proceedings, noted that McCain would simply go through the motions of verbally attacking out of control spending but would actually do nothing to stop it. Wheeler called McCain the "pork enabler."

Writing in the Washington Post in 2004 Wheeler described the McCain charade:

Even Capitol Hill's self-proclaimed "pork buster," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has made a regular practice of calling his colleagues on their gluttony, has essentially given the gorging a wink and a nod. As usual, McCain performed the very useful task of highlighting many of the amendments, tallying up the cost and offering appropriately caustic remarks about his colleagues' penchant for "porking up our appropriations bills."

…Both McCain and the press were just going through the motions. With [Senator Ted] Stevens in a big rush to push the defense bill through in just one day, McCain helped speed things along by not taking the time to actually deliver his speech. Instead, he simply had Stevens insert the text into the Congressional Record. Stevens was probably happy to extend McCain this courtesy. Not only did the unspoken speech not draw undue attention to the Senate's goings-on that day, but McCain was also helping out by taking no parliamentary action against the pork-laden bill. He didn't even throw up a speed bump by seeking recorded roll call votes, let alone any real debate, on the pork amendments. Roll call votes take at least 15 minutes each, and spending that much time on a few dozen amendments was apparently more inconvenience than McCain was willing to impose. Worse still, McCain's printed speech also praised the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee, which had passed a bill authorizing the defense spending.”

Here are the key grafs on McCain from Wheeler's "Mr Smith is Dead:"

But with Senator McCain, the buck does stop; unlike Harry Truman, it stops short of his desk. He gives the good speech, expresses his outrage, lectures his colleagues, and stirs up the place with an occasional, short delay. But then he walks away. When it comes to action—meaningful action—Senator McCain is only a paper press release tiger. In a constitutional system specifically designed to equip a minority—even of one—with the parliamentary weapons to bring the system to a halt unless and until the minority is given some level of satisfaction, Senator McCain has unilaterally disarmed himself.

Of the dozens of tactics available to him to bring the Senate into legislative agony—tactics many others have used to achieve their own ends—Senator McCain has chosen to sit on his hands. His doing so is all the more remarkable because more than any other Senator, he has informed himself of the garbage packed into Congress' defense bills. Knowing at least as well as any other just what is going on, he finds it somehow going too far to put an end to it with the many tools at his disposal.

By assuming this role—i.e. the self-anointed, but also self-disarmed, crusader against "pork"—Senator McCain has made himself not the Senate's "pork buster" but its "pork enabler." If the worst the Congress' most outspoken opponent of pork is going to do is give a speech, there is clearly no meaningful downside. In the absence of any real action, Senator McCain appears to be seeking the appearance of a reformer without the substance. In the final analysis he sinks to the level of the rest: he seeks to be accepted for something he is not. The others seek to be taken as patriots and statesmen while they snatch what they can for their self-advancement. In the Indochina War, Senator McCain proved his patriotism on a daily basis for many painful years, but these days he seeks, just like all the rest, to be seen as something that his actions—or rather inactions—belie.

News from Pakistan
Posted by Patrick Barry

A potentially big story coming out of Pakistan today is that Baitullah Mehsoud, Taliban commander and proclaimed by President Musharraf to have orchestrated the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, has offered a suspension of "provocative activities" to the newly elected coalition government in Islamabad.

The deal, reportedly connected to the release of aging Taliban supporter Sufi Mohammed, could be a big development - Baitullah Mehsoud is believed to command roughly 20,000 followers, and is one of the most prolific figures operating along the restive Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.  That the Pakistan government has negotiated a tentative cease-fire with him confirms that they will take a significantly different tact from the Musharraf government toward dealing with their militant problem.

Coming off the heels of the scathing GAO report released last week, which found that the United States not only lacked a coherent plan for aiding Pakistan's government to tackle this problem, but also that existing assistance was far too heavily weighted toward military activities, this news punctuates the need for a re-conceptualization of current US policy.  For years, we've deluded ourselves into thinking that Musharraf was our man in Pakistan, all while he was re-directing a $10.5 billion assistance budget into ineffectual projects meant more to hedge against India and Afghanistan than to deal with the problem of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This government has signaled that it is taking a new path, albeit one that is not without its risks and we would do well not to jump to condemn it - the status-quo certainly hasn't worked very well.

"Special Groups"
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I am very skeptical of the broad assertions such as the one below.  Sort of makes you wonder if the definition of an Iranian supported "Special Group" is a Shi'a group that launches attacks against American forces. 

Senior officers in the American division that secures the capital said that 73 percent of fatal and other harmful attacks on American troops in the past year were caused by roadside bombs planted by so-called “special groups.”

The American military uses that term to describe groups trained by Iran that fight alongside the Mahdi Army but do not obey the orders of the militia’s figurehead, the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, to observe a cease-fire.  But Col. Allen Batschelet, the Baghdad division’s chief of staff, conceded that there was overlap between the groups.

“These two groups are so amorphous; they go back and forth between one another,” the colonel said at a briefing in Baghdad.

“We see evidence of a guy who might be working very hard inside Jaish al-Mahdi to present himself as a mainstream, kind of compliant person,” he said, using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army, “yet we have other indicators that will show him kind of working the night job doing special group, criminal kind of stuff.”

Is the intelligence really that good that you can tell the difference between an attack by JAM and an attack by the "Special Groups."  Iran is supporting all the main Shi'a factions in Iraq.  Sometimes less is more.  If you really want to make the case that Special Groups are the greatest threat, go ahead an make it.  But when you start throwing out these types of specific numbers without genuine backup, it really undermines your credibility.

More on Petraeus
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Spencer has the definitive wrap up on the Petraeus promotion. 

April 23, 2008

Impressions on Military Shifts
Posted by Shawn Brimley

In addition to Ilan's good points, today's shifts highlight four things to me:

First, it clearly reflects a desire for some continuity in Iraq over the presidential transition – this is a good thing. With Ambassador Crocker retiring in early 2009, this will ensure that at least the top military commander in Iraq will stay consistent through the transition. Wartime transitions are inherently dangerous, and I'm glad Gates and Co. are thinking this through.

Second, this may be interpreted by some as a blow to the institutional Army, as Gates seems to have clearly weighed in on the debate between MNF-I and the Services on resources. With Chiarelli (Petraeus' key aide) replacing Cody as Vice-Chief of the Army, it sends a clear signal that the requests of field commanders will be favorably received (this really isn't news as Odierno was previously slotted for Vice-Chief before Admiral Fallon's resignation shifted things).

Third and related, it likely further reflects Gates' growing frustration with the Services (manifested in his comments this week to the Air Force), that there is not enough urgency from force providers.

Finally, it signals that those in the Army who are very forward-leaning on COIN innovation and adaptation will be rewarded, which is also a very good sign. See here for articles in Military Review by Petraeus and Chiarelli.

COIN in Afghanistan
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

This, I also thought was an interesting element that came out of Gates’ press conference.

Reporter: do you hope that general petraeus will sort of apply his lessons learned from iraq into afghanistan? do you hope that he will overhaul -- help lead to overhaul the afghanistan strategy?

Gates:  First of all, you have to understand that the part of Afghanistan for which CENTCOM commander has responsibility is OEF, which is basically the U.S. forces operating in RC East. RC East already has been a successful exemplar of a successful counterinsurgency, and so the key there would be also to continue to build on success. the question is, how do we do a better job with our allies in RC South? But that' not in OEF's area of responsibility.

That’s a pretty effective dodge. Basically, the argument is that Southern Afghanistan is not Petraeus’s responsibility.  That is a much better answer then we can’t apply effective counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan because all of our troops are in Iraq.

McCain Five Years Ago Today - Praised Rumsfeld, Bush, Conduct of War
Posted by Max Bergmann

Five years ago today and a week prior to Bush's "mission accomplished" speech John McCain was on Chris Matthew's "Hardball" where he praised the President, Rumsfeld, and the strategy and tactics used to go into Iraq. Of note, McCain said Bush had “done a great job,” and that he was a "great admirer of Rumsfeld." He also said he thought the Sunni and Shia would "probably get along" and that we did not need any more international troops on the ground.

This interview - month after the war began - clearly shows that John McCain was not the critic he claims he was. But it does more than that. It shows that McCain was in lockstep with the strategy and tactics that the administration employed in invading Iraq.

McCain was proud of Bush's leadership on the war in Iraq:

MATTHEWS: Let me you about, are you proud of the work, and the leadership of the commander-in-chief in this war?

MCCAIN: Yes, I am. I think the president has led with great clarity and I think he's done a great job leading the country, don't you all? [MSNBC Hardball, 4/23/03]

McCain on admiring Rumsfeld.

MCCAIN: "…and I'm a great admirer of Rumsfeld."

...MCCAIN: I think the president is blessed to have two extremely talented people (Powell and Rumsfeld), experienced people, working for him, and others, but particularly those two. [MSNBC Hardball, 4/23/03]

McCain – Sunni Shia can probably get along.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator McCain, with what you've already said about the powerful presence of the Shiah majority in Iraq, how would you propose we represent that majority in the new democracy?

MCCAIN: Well, I don't think there's any doubt that as the largest population segment, that they would play a major role.

I think one of the tricky areas, of course, is the relationship they have with the Kurds. There's not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shiahs. So I think they can probably get along. [MSNBC Hardball, 4/23/03]

Despite claiming to have called for more troops from the outset, McCain didn't think we needed more international troops on the ground.

MCCAIN: I think that the only military presence required right now would be American and British. [MSNBC Hardball, 4/23/03]

McCain talks about lessons he learned from Vietnam, lessons that apply pretty clearly to Iraq as well.

MCCAIN: ...I have been committed from my experience in Vietnam never to get into a conflict that the American people would not support over time.

I felt that the difference between the Vietnam conflict and this one we just went through is that in Vietnam, we didn't have clear cut objectives. We didn't have a strategy for victory. And obviously, we didn't have, over time, the support of the American people. I didn't feel that the Iraqi challenge in any way could be equated to that in Vietnam. [MSNBC Hardball, 4/23/03]

Petraeus to CENTCOM
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Breaking news is that General Petraeus has been tapped to be the next commander of CENTCOM, which leads to a number of quick questions / observations.

First, it'll be interesting to see how he handles the tension of Afghanistan and Iraq from that position since Gates, Mullen and Fallon have all made clear that Iraq is hurting our mission in Afghanistan.  Somehow I have a feeling that he will advise that we continue to place all of our strategic eggs in the Iraq basket. 

Second, the confirmation hearings should give Democrats an opportunity to finally get Petraeus to answer some central questions.  Is the mission in Iraq hurting Afghanistan and Pakistan?  What is the central front in the fight against Al Qaeda?  What about our overstretched forces?  Is Iraq making America safer?  Petraeus was able to dodge (Somewhat legitimately) on a number of these questions in the past by arguing that this wasn't his job.  Well, now it is.  So he really needs to answer.

Third, there was speculation that Petraeus was going to move off to SACEUR right around January.  This guarantees that if there is a Democratic administration, Petraeus may end up playing a central role in helping design an exit strategy.  Of course, in testimony last month he brought into question whether he'd actually be willing to do that.  Which is huge, and must be asked again during the hearings.

Finally, there is the question of how many quotes Mike O'Hanlon will get today in the media.  Because naturally, that's the only military expert worth talking to.  I'm hoping we see some comments from Andrew Bacevich, Larry Korb, Tammy Schultz, Michele Flournoy or Tony Cordesman and a slew of retired generals (Who aren't part of the Pentagon media strategy).  But I doubt we'll see that.

Update:  Also worth thinking about the fact that General Odierno , Petraeus's number two in Iraq for the last year, is moving over to Army Vice Chief of Staff and replacing General Cody.  General Cody was one of the most outspoken critics of the current state of the Army.  So the Pentagon has now replaced two of the biggest critics (Fallon and Cody) on two of the biggest issues (Afghanistan and military readiness).  And their place, we will have Petraeus and Odierno.  Wow.  OK.  Scratch that.  Odierno's nomination for Vice Chief of Staff of the Army is being pulled and he is going back to Baghdad to take Petraeus's spot as head of MNF-I.

Update: Cernig points out that this also opens up some questions about Iran.

April 22, 2008

The John McCain Economic Doozy of the Day
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today, Kevin Drum highlights this nugget from John McCain's recent appearance on This Week:

Asked Sunday where he would find spending cuts, Sen. McCain mentioned ethanol subsidies, sugar-price supports and payments to wealthy farmers. "We're going to scrub every institution of government," he said on ABC's "This Week." "Is there any American that doesn't believe that there's tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars that can be saved?"

The prevarication in this statement is breathtaking. McCain is calling for a $160 billion cut in discretionary spending but as I mentioned a few days ago, he wants to enact a one year pause in discretionary spending that would exempt military spending and veterans benefits. Well since defense spending is 22% of the budget, McCain isn't going to be scrubbing that hard.

What about entitlement programs, they make up 42% of the federal budget, but McCain has no plan for wringing savings out of those programs, indeed, on the part of his website devoted to issues he does not even have a section on Social Security. I had to dig pretty deep to find even this:

John McCain Will Reform Social Security. He will fight to save the future of Social Security while meeting our obligations to the retirees of today and the future without raising taxes. John McCain supports supplementing the current Social Security system with personal accounts – but not as a substitute for addressing benefit promises that cannot be kept. He will reach across the aisle, but if the Democrats do not act, he will. John McCain will not leave office without fixing the problems that threatens our future prosperity.

 That's not a plan, that's a prayer. Indeed on Medicare, McCain says he will limit the growth in spending, but not only doesn't say how, he actually pledges to cut Medicare premiums for seniors.

If you throw in interest on the debt, you're talking about more than 73% of the budget that is either off limits or not seriously addressed by McCain.

So where is he going to find $160 billion in spending cuts? According to the Wall Street Journal, he could start with "the total budget in 2007 for the departments of Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice and State." What about earmarks - that's only $18 billion a year. Indeed, McCain doesn't list any of the proposed spending cuts that would get him to $160 billion. Oh and by the way, McCain wants to extend the Bush tax cuts.

Look, I understand that politicians say a lot of crazy things about the budget on the campaign trail, but we are facing a serious budgetary crisis in this country, which threatens to do real damage to our long-term economic competitiveness. But instead of addressing this issue, McCain is actually making things worse by basically deceiving the American people into believing any of this will be easy. Cutting the federal budget means genuine sacrifice, but all McCain is offering are empty platitudes.

The Truth About GM
Posted by Michael Cohen

As long as we're on an agriculture tangent today allow me to throw in my two cents about genetically modified (GM) foods.  A couple of days ago the New York Times had a big piece about how food companies and consumers are relaxing their resistance to GM foods. All I can say, is that its about frigging time.

For years now, the anti-GM crowd has waged a largely dishonest campaign against so-called Frankenfoods or genetically engineered foodstuffs on the grounds that such products are not properly tested or will do environmental damage. Frankly, most of it is bunk. The scientific evidence that shows these foods are dangerous to humans or environmentally unsafe is underwhelming. And much of the resistance to GM products in Europe is a back door form of protectionism to prevent American agricultural exports, which rely heavily on GM seeds. (Here's some more info on GM).

Genetically modified foods could represent the next green revolution, but developing countries are often restricted from using these life-saving products because of export bans on GM products to the European Union. It's worth also noting that the use of GM would not only increase food production in the developing world but put an end to the dangerous use of insecticides and environmentally insensitive agriculture techniques such as slash and burn. In short, the benefit of GM foods is overwhelmingly greater than the scare tactics of its opponents.

It's unfortunate that it took this terrible food crisis to loosen the restrictions on GM foods, but frankly better late than never.

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