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April 26, 2008

I Think This Is From A South Park Episode...
Posted by Adam Blickstein


Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who was nominated this week to head all U.S. forces in the Middle East, is preparing a briefing soon on increased Iranian involvement in Iraq, Mullen said. The briefing will detail, for example, the discovery in Iraq of weapons that were very recently manufactured in Iran, he said.

"The Iranian government pledged to halt such activities some months ago. It's plainly obvious they have not," Mullen said. He said unrest in the Iraqi city of Basra had highlighted a "level of involvement" by Iran that had not been clear previously.

But while Mullen and Gates have said that the government in Tehran must know of Iranian actions in Iraq, Mullen said he has "no smoking gun which could prove that the highest leadership is involved."

Besides poor writing and convenient inaccuracies, [CENTCOM has jurisdiction far outside just the 'Middle East' and last time I checked, Afghanistan/Pakistan/Somalia were not technically Middle Eastern countries] how many stale Administration talking points can be found in the preceding paragraphs? I'm all for recycling, but not when it come to inaccurate debunked, and worn rhetoric

I just can't wait for the pending briefing from Petraeus, which will hopefully include cool graphs and statistics. I am also intrigued and enlightened that the events in Basra revealed higher levels of Iranian involvement than previously known.  Also, the last time we heard a high level American official use the phrase "smoking gun", things worked out so well. C/F President Bush October 2002:

Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us.  Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

Maybe there is some solace in the fact that this story is buried in page 7 of the Saturday Washington Post. Maybe the White House press shop is becoming lethargic. Maybe fear tactics have simply become tattered with time. But if this is the best causi belli they can put together against Iran (especially since the nuclear argument is moot), then the Administration simply has to get more creative.

April 24, 2008


Darfur, the other five year war.
Posted by Anita Sharma

The other five year war, Darfur, may receive less attention than Iraq but that doesn’t mean that the level of suffering is less horrific, or the path to peace any easier. In fact the situation is actually worsening: more people are dying and being displaced, food rations to the needy are about to be cut in half, the full deployment of a new peacekeeping force has been delayed until 2009 and the Sudanese government and rebel groups are resisting new peace negotiations.

"We continue to see the goal posts receding, to the point where peace in Darfur seems further away today than ever," said John Holmes, under secretary general for humanitarian affairs at the UN. In his report to the UN Security Council on Tuesday, Holmes said of Darfur's estimated 6 million people, some 4.27 million have now been seriously affected by the conflict and perhaps as many as 300,000 have been killed.

Although the needs continue to be great, the World Food Program recently announced it was cutting food rations in half because attacks on its trucks have reduced stocks. Today the WFP said that one of its drivers was killed when his truck broke down during a police escorted aid convoy, further illustrating the perils.

UNAMID, the a joint U.N.-African Union force agreed to by Sudan, was supposed to be deployed to offer protection to convoys like these. But so far only about 9,000 of the authorized 26,000 peacekeepers have been deployed. Yesterday, Jane Holl Lute, a senior U.N. official who overseas the organization's field operations, (and my former boss at the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict), briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and said that the mission lacks still lacks five critical capabilities to become operational – attack helicopters, surveillance aircraft, transport helicopters, military engineers and logistical support, not to mention the other soldiers to fulfill the mission.

During the same hearing the U.S. Envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson defended the U.S. decision to meet recently with Sudan's government about the possibility of better ties, and said that concrete progress toward ending the "slow-moving genocide" in Sudan's Darfur region must take place before the United States will improve relations with Khartoum.

So what needs to happen?

First: give the UN the equipment is so desperately needs. According to Lute there are 4,000 helicopters currently in NATO countries. This mission requires 24.

Second: according to Ken Bacon, the President of Refugees International, the international community needs to pressure both the government of Sudan and the fractious rebel groups to get to the peace table.

The U.S. and its European and Middle Eastern allies should impose strict travel sanction on Sudanese government and rebel leaders until they reach a peace agreement. In addition, arms embargos on both the government and rebel groups should be closely enforced.

Third: keep up the pressure on China. Although recent events in Tibet have over-shadowed Darfur in terms of Beijing's human rights record, the issue remains the same. China is the top arms supplier to Sudan and a major investor in Africa's largest country, particularly in its oil industry. It has tremendous influence on Khartoum’s decisions. While not calling for a boycott or the Olympics, on Wednesday Dream for Darfur released report cards of the top Olympic sponsors and said 16 out of 19 top Olympic sponsors it had contacted had failed to speak out against the genocide out of fear of offending China. It said it would target corporate headquarters for protests, starting with Coca-Cola.

All three presidential candidates say that President Bush should skip the opening ceremonies if China does not improve its human rights record in Tibet and Darfur. Thus far the leaders of Great Britain, Germany, Canada, Poland, Estonia and the Czech Republic have said they will not attend the opening ceremonies.

Senator Barack Obama, D-Presidential Candidate: "If the Chinese do not take steps to help stop the genocide in Darfur and to respect the dignity, security and human rights of the Tibetan people, then the president should boycott the opening ceremonies.”

Senator Hillary Clinton, D-Presidential Candidate: “At this time, and in light of recent events, I believe President Bush should not plan on attending the opening ceremonies in Beijing, absent major changes by the Chinese government."

Senator John McCain, R-Presidential Candidate: "Unless they change something pretty quickly, I would not go to the opening ceremonies.”

However, President Bush says he will attend the Games.

"I don't view the Olympics as a political event. I view it as a sporting event," he said.

The Situation in Pakistan
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Continuing our focus on Pakistan, the National Security Network today held a comprehenisve conference call with three experts—Rand Beers, President of the National Security Network, Barnett Rubin, Director of Studies and Senior Fellow at NYU's Center on International Cooperation, and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress—examining the resurgence of al Qaeda and other militants along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, and the lack of a coherent American strategy to tackle what our intelligence agencies characterize as the greatest direct threat to the United States. The experts also delved into the changing political dynamics in Pakistan and how American strategy has and should change with the newly elected civilian government there.

You can listen to the analysis here

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.

Fertilizing the Ethanol Problem
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Corn_king As we've hit our agricultural stride on Democracy Arsenal, there's another aspect of the corn, ethanol, energy and agricultural policy debate that is often overlooked: fertilizer. While those who drive gas-guzzling SUV's are often derided for excess oil consumption, you never hear complaints about folks that eat Wheaties or Twinkies or drink Coke as part of the petroleum problem.  Even independent of the oil used in shipping, nearly all our corn-based products, including most of our beef, soft drinks, produce, junk food and chemical byproducts (essentially everything in your average supermarket) is derived in part from oil and produced using petroleum-based fertilizer.  The basis of our agricultural system is oil, and instead of primarily relying on the sun as the energy source of nitrogen for our crops, we use petroleum. 

The U.S. is the second largest consumer of petroleum based fertilizer in the world (behind) China, but we use more petroleum based fertilizer for feed, produce and pasture purposes than any other nation. But while lawmakers in Congress are eager to hold hearings to rail against the automobile industry for its gasoline addiction, or deride our over-dependence on foreign oil, you will never see  inquiries into why the foundation of our agricultural industry is indeed petroleum. It's an integral piece to the energy puzzle that has been missing in the political dialogue. And instead of trying to solve it, we enable the problem through the illogical policies of federal corn subsidies and support for ethanol.

It strikes me as a little more than ironic that we'll need to consume more petroleum via fertilizer in order to grow more corn to produce more ethanol, which has destabilized  the global food markets, all in the name of decreasing our dependence foreign on oil, which we simply can't accomplish by increasing our use of ethanol from any of the sources commonly discussed (see chart below). There is simply nothing about these policies that makes good, practical sense and we've all become children of the corn in more ways than you might think.

(And yes, I just read Omnivore's Dilemma)

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced. (From a 2005 Cornell study)
Human Rights, Intelligence, Terrorism

What the heck is going on down there?
Posted by Ken Gude

I fail to understand how the Bush administration could have screwed up its detainee policy so badly. Yes, their record is a long catalog of catastrophic failures, from the grossly flawed strategy in Iraq to the complete indifference during Katrina. But the issue of detaining and interrogating suspected al Qaeda terrorists is different--they cared as much or more about it as they did getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but they gave the job to a whole bunch of Brownies, and they sure have been doin' a heck uva job.

The latest evidence comes from a story in today's Washington Post and a book excerpt that ran in the Guardian last Saturday. The Post story details allegations from Guantanamo detainees that they were forcibly drugged during interrogations, transfers, and to restrain them in their cells. While it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that there was widespread use of drugs during interrogations, the most plausible explanations for the consistent accounts from detainees is that they were given chemical restraints to subdue them and those administering the drugs had no idea what they were doing.

Philippe Sands, in his new book Torture Team, portions of which were re-printed in the Guardian over the weekend, uncovered more stories of mind boggling inexperience and incompetence. Topping the list was the revelation that the source of greatest inspiration during the development of interrogations techniques at Guantanamo was none other than Jack Bauer. Yes, the guy from 24, and no, I am not kidding. The junior staff lawyer responsible for approving the list of techniques told Sands that Bauer "gave people lots of ideas."

The Bush administration believed that interrogating terrorist suspects was so important that bedrock principles which formed the basis of our military culture for decades were "obsolete". The reason why they thought it was so important was that they feared we were all going to die in another al Qaeda attack and information gained from interrogations was in some cases our first and only line of defense. But instead of bringing in experienced interrogators and knowledgeable regional and al Qaeda experts, we got Dr. Quinn and Jack Bauer. This is the nature of my confusion.

When Corn Kills Revisited
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

A year ago I wrote this post which was inspired by an excellent article in Foreign Affairs by C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer.  The article is the single best piece I've read about how corn ethanol is wreaking havoc on world food markets. 

Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn -- which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year. By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world. Biofuels have tied oil and food prices together in ways that could profoundly upset the relationships between food producers, consumers, and nations in the years ahead, with potentially devastating implications for both global poverty and food security.

Read the whole thing.  It's a great piece.  They clearly saw this coming a year ago.

Nuclear War
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I do agree with Matt.  Hillary Clinton made a mess of the whole nuking Iran question.  From a reality perspective, the idea of Iran actually launching a nuclear attack against Israel is far-fetched.  And Israel has a nuclear arsenal that is perfectly capable of deterring Iranian aggression.  But there are some things that  Presidential candidates shouldn't be speculating about, precisely because they send mixed messages to allies and adversaries and create strategic confusion.  We shouldn't be having discussions of nuclear umbrellas for the entire Middle East right now.  It's just unnecessary and does no one any good.

Hillary should have taken the same position she did in the October debate.

Williams: Respectfully, Senator, same question though: Do you have a threshold, a red line beyond which...

Clinton: I want to start diplomacy. I -- you know, I am not going to speculate about when or if they get nuclear weapons.

We're trying to prevent them from getting so. We're not, in my view, rushing to war. We should not be doing that, but we shouldn't be doing nothing, and that means we should not let them acquire nuclear weapons. And the best way to prevent that is a full court press on the diplomatic front.

It's an annoying answer.  It seems evasive.  I still prefer Obama's approach of more direct talks with Iran.  But seriously, Presidential candidates should probably just refrain from talking about hypothetical nuclear war.

April 21, 2008

I Didn't Exactly Predict It, But
Posted by David Shorr

Almost exactly a year ago, I objected to Tom Friedman's idea that the key to recovering America's standing is for us to go green. The current global food crisis highlights the contrast I drew between greenhouse gas reductions as a feel-good cause for the industrialized world and the more immediate concerns over in the developing world about low living standards.

As recent coverage in the Times indicates, there is even a direct trade-off between the two as we divert corn (much of it grown here in Iowa) from the dinner table to the gas tank, in the form of subsidized ethanol. Obviously American ethanol isn't the cause of the food shortage, but it's a distinct factor. I'm not making an argument against action on global warming, and I understand that emerging dramatic weather patterns associated with climate change are a cause of the food shortage. But my point stands about the important distinction between saving the planet for our kids and grandkids and the need to improve daily life right now to avoid mass suffering and political mayhem on a much shorter timescale. See Sameer Lalwani over at Washington Note for a more strategic and substantive post on the same subject.

For The Good Of The Order
Posted by David Shorr

[Note: I'm at TPM Cafe Book Club this week for a discussion of Matthew Yglesias' excellent new book Heads in the Sand, which should be of interest for DA readers. I will cross-post here; below is the first.]

First off, we needed this book, and Matt has done us a service in writing it so well. So thanks, Matt, for dealing with the root questions -- what does it really mean to be the superpower, what wrong ideas about superpowerdom have led us astray, and why are they so dangerous?

Yes, the problem with circling the wagons of fellow democratic nations is that it's trying to order up legitimacy just the way we want it. Setting aside the question of how many democracies will go along, this is a fundamental misreading of how legitimacy works. Now that the US has a deficit in our moral authority account, we don't get to dictate the terms on which we will bring it back into the black. By definition, legitimacy is not self-conferring.

Continue reading "For The Good Of The Order" »

Heather on BloggingHeadsTV
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Check out NSN's Executive Director Heather Hurlburt debate University of Chicago Law School Professor Eric Posner on Blogging Heads TV.  In it, they trade academic barbs over America's image abroad in the context of global warming, torture, executive power and international law.

Negotiating in Bad Faith
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Dr. Irak (Ya I dig the handle) points out that Michael O'Hanlon's quest to become the President of AEI continues.  This time it's Iran.  O'Hanlon thinks we should talk to the Iranians because those talks will likely fail, but we will then be in a better position internationally to put together the right coalition to pressure the Iranians.  But as the good Dr. points out:

starting these negotiations under the assumption (hope?) that they will fail risks encouraging U.S. diplomats to underrate the possibility that they might actually succeed.

He then goes on to explain that the fact that Iran played a major role in mediating the agreement on Basra is a good indicator that it does in fact have an interest in maintaining stability in Iraq.  And that we actually need to engage in real conversation.

The only thing I would add is that publicly articulating a message that "we want to talk to you so that we can build a coalition to get on tough on you" is not a good way to start a negotiation.  Part of the problem with the U.S.-Iran relationship is that both sides spend so much time calling each other names and using overblown rhetoric that they can never actually recognize that the two countries have a number of common interests.  It may be that talks will fail, and that in the end American and Iranian interests are not compatible.  But any engagement with Iran needs to start with a civil tone and an open mind.  O'Hanlon's approach is a self fulfilling prophecy.  It dooms the project to failure before it starts.

The Politics of Passover
Posted by Michael Cohen

Until today I didn't know there was a way to politicize Passover . . . but thanks to the New York op-ed page, Bill Kristol figures out a way to do it. Today, Kristol analyzes the Passover greetings of the three remaining candidates for President and here's a shocker he really likes what John McCain has to say -- and is not too crazy about Obama and Clinton. Stunning!

Hillary Clinton's greeting is derided as "liberal" because it says that Passover reminds us to "to stand up to oppression, tyranny and discrimination — wherever they are found." That sounds about right to me and is eerily reminiscent of a certain President's inaugural address.

What about Obama, he's a "new-agey and multicultural" because he tells us to "engage in dialogue, and to ask ourselves and each other how the Passover story challenges us to question the world as it is, and to seek a future that is more just and more peaceful for all.” That sounds to me like something a Jew might have written. "Questioning the world" - what could be more Jewish than that!

And what about John McCain. According to Kristol, he understands that Passover is "a time for reflection about sacrifice: 'As families gather together for Seders, members of the Jewish faith reflect upon the painful sacrifices made by their ancestors, the joys of freedom, and the triumph of inherent goodness over evil."

Kristol praises McCain for mentioning current assaults on Jews and referencing three Israelis who remain kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah and notes with approval that McCain would probably enjoy this passage from the Passover Seder “In all ages they rise up against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

Now Kristol tells us that these varying perspectives on Passover tell us a lot about the worldviews of the three candidates. He's right. While Obama and Clinton prefer dialogue, diplomacy and understanding, McCain sees dangers lurking around every corner and views strength - preferably military -- as the best way to safeguard freedom. For Kristol, who seems to believe that the best way to solve any international problem is to bomb it, one can hardly be surprised that he responds with such approval to McCain's language.

Indeed among a certain segment of the American Jewish population, which views Jewish identity primarily through the prism of victimology and perceived threats to Israel, I'm sure McCain's words ring true and reinforce an already bleak world view.

From my perspective Passover is a time of renewal and rebirth and like all Jewish holidays, a celebration of family and friendship. From that perspective, Clinton and Obama's words provide far better guidance - and frankly are much more in the tradition of Judaism.  While constant vigilance is certainly a necessary element of freedom, it is certainly not -- and never should be -- the only element.

Confusion in Pakistan
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Without a doubt, the U.S. desperately needs to more sharply focus on diffusing the resurgence of al Qaeda on the Afghanistan/Pakistan frontier. But, it seems like our strategic shift from unabashed support of Musharraf's regime to the newly-elected civilian  government in Pakistan is creating a web of contradicting reports.  For instance, yesterday Mark Mazzetti in the NY Times reported that the U.S. Military Seeks to Widen Pakistan Raids:

American commanders in Afghanistan have in recent months urged a widening of the war that could include American attacks on indigenous Pakistani militants in the tribal areas inside Pakistan, according to United States officials.

Under Musharraf, America appeared to have carte-blanche to operate militarily in the tribal regions without prejudice  The new Pakistani government, though, is taking a more tepid approach:

The new government has signaled that in its relations with Washington, it wants to take a path more independent than the one followed by the previous government and to use military force in the tribal areas only as a last resort.

It's no surprise that  Pakistan's coalition government, for internal political reason, is more reticent in giving  our military free reign in the region, and this means we must take a new strategic path to going after al Qaeda militants. Last week, I wrote about a  Guardian piece that seemingly contradicts the NY Times report, and that America and the new Pakistani government have already struck a new strategic agreement that would effectively triple American aid to civilian counter-terrorism efforts as well as effectively end unlimited Predator strikes in the tribal border regions. And while the NY Times piece strikes a more aggressive tone, the Guardian piece quotes Administration officials as lavishing praise on the new government and taking a more delicate approach:

A US administration official said: "Each day Musharraf's influence becomes less and less. Civilians are in control. People aren't meeting with Musharraf any more ... we are very pleased with the new civilian government."

The new government says it has also won American support for its policy of opening a dialogue with Pashtun tribes along the Afghan border, led by an ethnic Pashtun group, the Awami National party, that is part of the government coalition.

And the Guardian article also importantly contradicts the notion that the U.S. wants to increase military efforts, and in fact an integral part of the new strategic agreement was a promise to decrease Predator attacks:

Pakistani officials say they have been given assurances by Washington that there will be close consultation with the civilian government, not with Musharraf, before any future strikes. However, the use of Predators is held as a closely guarded secret and US intelligence is reluctant to share information about targets, and there is some scepticism in Islamabad over whether the deal will stick. "We'll have to take them at their word, won't we," said the new information minister, Sherry Rahman, in an interview in Islamabad.

So, has the U.S. already rescinded on its word, as the NY Times report suggests? Or is it all part of a larger P.R. game, with what's being said publicly not aligning itself with private negotiations?  It seems to me that the Administration is simply trying to please all sides and is employing a delicate rhetorical balancing act. We don't want to distance ourselves completely from Musharraf, who still controls the military, but we also don't want to alienate the fragile and new coalition government in Pakistan. If they were to collapse due to acquiescing too much too American military demands, then the subsequent political strife would be bad for everyone's strategic interest.


April 20, 2008

Pentagon Propaganda & Antiwar Analysts
Posted by Ari Melber

The Sunday Times' article detailing the massive, secret coordinated campaign by the Pentagon and all the leading television news channels to sell and defend the administration's Iraq policy is a critical piece of investigative journalism.  David Barstow provided meticulous and aggressive reporting, even referencing how The Times'amplified Pentagon "surrogates" without sufficient disclosure for readers. The Times also deserves credit, both for running the lengthy piece and suing the government to obtain related documents. 

Continue reading "Pentagon Propaganda & Antiwar Analysts" »

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