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September 20, 2008

Military Solutions To What Problems?
Posted by David Shorr

The current issue of The Atlantic has a lot grist for the debate over the purpose and efficacy of American military might. What caught my eye in Andrew Bacevich's piece on counterinsurgency doctrine and Jeffrey Goldberg's article on McCain were a false choice, a falacious choice, and a genuine dilemma.

The piece on McCain is about his views on war, particularly through the lens of Vietnam and the parallels with Iraq. Goldberg asked McCain's friend Sen. Lindsey Graham to shed new light on how McCain approaches the Iraq debate. Graham cited a belief that

"Some political problems have military solutions." A related McCain belief that's even more out of sync with America's current mood: wars are quagmires only until someone figures out a way to win them.

I'm glad the reporter got at these issues, though the choices of the words related and mood strike me as odd. The first quote doesn't really say much, because it's not the real question. Of course there are sometimes military solutions to political problems, but are there political problems for which there are no military solutions? According to the second statement above, apparently McCain believes there's always a military solution (at least once a war is engaged). I'd say the public's skepticism toward this proposition is more than a mood -- it's a conclusion for the current case and if not an enduring belief, at least a persistent wariness.

Another nugget Goldberg came up with was a quote from McCain's favorite book on terrorism, Philip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent:

The war against a global terror network, al Qaeda, is in an early phase. Yet already owing to the Coalition invasion of Iraq, terrorists from this network or any other cannot someday call on Saddam Hussein to supply them covertly with weapons with which to attack the West when he would not have dared to have done so directly, and when he, but not they, had the resources to buy into a clandestine market in WMD.

This is a fallacy we hear all the time from hardliners. If you decisively remove a threat, you have improved security. For me, even if you set aside the absurdity of extrapolating Saddam's WMD capability, you're still left with a ridiculous way of looking at things. It's an accounting system in which your actions are always a net positive because you don't let negative consequences appear on your balance sheet.

A few words about Bacevich's article on Gen. Petraeus, John Nagl, and the question of how oriented toward counterinsurgency the US military should be. I really see both sides of this one. I do believe that stability operations are important (don't forget, for many of us, Bosnia and Rwanda were formative policy experiences). But as with the wider issue of force (see above), you do have to be careful not to delude yourself about unrealistic social/political engineering projects.

Does John McCain understand the Army?
Posted by Moira Whelan

Hat Tip to E&P for catching this one and alerting folks to it:

From David Hulen at the always-valuable Alaska Politics blog at the Anchorage Daily News ( tonight:

"Candidates spend a lot of time talking, and they all misspeak sometimes. But did anyone else notice this, from Wednesday's much-covered McCain-Palin Town Hall event in Grand Rapids,Mich., where Palin answered questions from people in the audience? 

"McCain said this near the end of the clip below, as he's talking up Palin's foreign policy/national security credentials:

'I also know, if I might remind you, that she is commander of the Alaska National Guard. In fact, you may know that on Sept. 11 a large contingent of the Alaska Guard deployed to    Iraq and her son happened to be one of them. So I think she understands our national security challenges....'

"The ceremony Palin attended at Fort Wainwright last week didn't involve the Alaska National Guard. Palin's son is in the Army, and his unit - 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division - deployed to Iraq."

To some, confusing the Army National Guard and the Army would seem a small thing, but to someone with John McCain’s family history, this is a pretty big slip up. Culturally in the military, there’s a tremendous difference between Guard and regular Army, and John McCain must know that.

You add to this McCain professing to understand the impact of deployments on our force structure and it’s a bit confusing as to how he actually could manage to conclude this. He claims he talks frequently to commanders on the ground and is constantly monitoring the well being of our forces. If this is the case, you’d know the Stryker Brigade. If you were Senator who had to vote on the funding for this and really paid attention, “Stryker” isn’t something you’d forget about…

Finally, it's pretty obvious that when your running mate is a governor, you'd know if she was sending a unit off, or simply telling her son goodbye. If you are a governor, you don't really confuse these two things. If you are a Senator, you don't either.

Three possibilities arise in my mind: First, he just doesn’t know the Palins that well. If you told a person in the military that your son was in the Stryker Brigade and was deploying, they wouldn’t forget. This is a pretty notable basic piece of knowledge. They would not confuse it with the Alaska National Guard. However, if this person were hearing from a staffer or someone else…or is not in any way a friend of yours, it’s possible that they’d get it mixed up. The second possibility is age. I hate to say it, but these really obvious gaffes are getting just a bit too frequent. Perhaps the incredible pace McCain is keeping up is taking a toll on him physically and we should admit that. The third possibility is that McCain does get it, and is simply trying to pull one over on voters to beef up Palin's non-existent national security creds. If this is the case, then it's just condescending.

This one shouldn’t be overlooked. In military circles, people would look at him funny with this sort of mix up. On the hill, defense types would note this as realizing they’ve got a lot of teaching to do, because this guy doesn’t totally “get it.” Anyway, it just doesn't say "Commander-in-Chief" to me.

September 19, 2008

The obvious confirmed: Sectarian cleansing major reason for drop in violence in Iraq
Posted by Max Bergmann

Wwwreuterscom_2 It was for some reason a debatable point whether the sectarian cleansing of mixed neighborhoods contributed to the decline in violence. Reuters now confirms - and has visual evidence - to prove that the decline in violence in Iraq, specifically in Baghdad, was caused in no small measure by the massive sectarian cleansing that preceded the surge. The sectarian violence essentially cleansed neighborhoods of their minority populations, reducing opportunities for violence. Maggie Fox from Reuters explains:

Satellite images taken at night show heavily Sunni Arab neighborhoods of Baghdad began emptying before a U.S. troop surge in 2007, graphic evidence of ethnic cleansing that preceded a drop in violence, according to a report published on Friday. The images support the view of international refugee organizations and Iraq experts that a major population shift was a key factor in the decline in sectarian violence, particularly in the Iraqi capital, the epicenter of the bloodletting in which hundreds of thousands were killed..."By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left," geography professor John Agnew of the University of California Los Angeles, who led the study, said in a statement. "Essentially, our interpretation is that violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning," said Agnew, who studies ethnic conflict.

This really is not surprising (Petraeus even admitted this to be the case in his testimony in April).The violence in Iraq in 2005-06 was massive and as a result unsustainable. The reason is simple, if you are living in a neighborhood in which you are a minority and the majority in that neighborhood is actively killing minority residents - what do you do? You leave. You go to neighborhoods in which you are secure and which you are in the majority, where you have more protection. As a result of this flight, the intensity of violence often dissipates because there are less targets of opportunity. This is a common trend in ethnic conflicts and as I wrote about in December, was apparent in Northern Ireland in the early 70s. Violence peaked, neighborhoods homogenize, walls were built to separate, and violence went down. But the important point is that less violence did not mean peace. Instead, Northern Ireland remained fractured and its politics remained broken until very recently. Less violence is definitely a good thing, but the challenge of reconciling ethnically divided and fractured societies is extremely difficult. 

So when John McCain declares "victory" in Iraq and states that the increase of just 30,000 troops was the fundamental reason for the decline in violence, he once again proves that he has no idea what he is talking about.

Even the Bush Administration Admits that Terms like Islamo-fascism are Nonsense
Posted by The Editors

This is a post from NSN's Eric Auner

This item eluded me when it first came out, but it is utterly fascinating. It is a document from National Counterterrorism Center called “Words that Work and Words that Don’t: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication.” Basically the document tells American governmental officials to shush with terms like islamo-fascism and the like, the implication being that the Islamic world is a complicated heterogeneous place that (for some reason!) resents its name being explicitly associated with terrorism.  Some quotes:

Don't Invoke Islam: Although the Al-Qaeda network exploits religious sentiments and tries to use religion to justify its actions, we should treat it as an illegitimate political organization, both terrorist and criminal.

Avoid Ill-Defined and Offensive Terminology: We are communicating with, not confronting, our audiences. Don't insult or confuse them with pejorative terms such as 'Islamo-fascism,' which are considered offensive by many Muslims.

This casts a very negative light on a long standing conservative strategy of using anti-Islamic rhetoric to inspire jingoistic fervor.  We saw at the RNC that several speakers did this, my favorite being Mr. Mitt Romney:

“And at Saddleback, after Barack Obama dodged and ducked every direct question, John McCain hit the nail on the head: radical violent Islam is evil, and he will defeat it!” [Mitt Romney, 9/3/08]

The point, well made in the report cited above, is that Al Qaeda isn’t even really Islam in any real sense, and that even the act of placing Al Qaeda on the same spectrum as the rest of Islam is deeply offensive.  Yet in April of this year, a group of Muslims asked that John McCain stop characterizing Middle Eastern terrorists as “Islamic,” to which Steve Schmidt his top strategist responded: “The reality is, the hateful ideology which underpins Bin Ladenism is properly described as radical Islamic extremism. Senator McCain refers to it that way because that is what it is." Someone should send them this report.

-Eric Auner

It's John McCain, Stupid
Posted by Moira Whelan

A troubling meme is starting to pick up steam in some wrap-up press for the weekend: the idea that the floundering economy is giving Barack Obama a bump in the polls. Perhaps Democrats do better in bad economic climates, but we’ve hardly had enough time for most Americans to see this crisis hit their wallets. No…John McCain failed this week. That’s why his numbers are dropping.

I don’t want to rehash the excellent list put together by Marc Ambinder, but rather to point out that it didn’t stop at the SEVEN mistakes made by McCain by Wednesday.

We were subsequently treated to attacks on Chris Cox (which led to a scathing retort from the Wall Street Journal and a dismissal of McCain’s understanding of the abilities of a President) and more attacks on Fannie and Freddie.  We were even treated to attacks on SPAIN.

By the time Todd Palin’s refusal to comply with a subpoena  and John McCain’s confusion of the FEC and SEC hit the news, it’s sort of difficult to see how they’re still standing, especially after not one, but two, flip-flops on economic policy. But we did see a drop off in coverage, indicating that the press is growing weary of covering McMistakes.

Add to that the endorsement of Obama from the former publisher of the National Review and Republican Representative Wayne Gilchrest and newly-minted McCain advocate Lady de Rothschild calling Barack Obama an elitist and American voters "rednecks" and you have some pretty telling developments this week.

I find it hard to conclude from this recounting that John McCain’s collapse can be blamed on Lehman Brothers or AIG. Certainly, there are a lot of things that will be blamed on financial giants in the next few weeks, but the fact is, John McCain tanked this week all by himself and did so independently of Wall Street. 

Cuba's Human Tempest
Posted by Adam Blickstein

While America's Gulf Coast still reels from the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Ike (with the requisite FEMA incompetence included), the long-term health and societal effects of the massive storm in the Caribbean are just now coming to light. In human terms, the storm, along with Hurricane Gustav, has "overwhelmed" countries like Haiti, sparking a humanitarian crisis with over 800,000 people there in dire need of immediate aid. Across the Windward Passage, Cuba is facing a similar crisis, though there the political component, including America's ongoing embargo, complicates relief efforts. Already struggling with importing enough food to sustain its population, Cuba has put into place emergency measures to try and salvage what domestic goods weren't destroyed by the tempest. But the greatest obstacle towards stabilizing the situation remains political:

The Cuban government has also hit out at the US over the shortages, saying its trade sanctions were the biggest obstacle to Cuba's recovery.

The embargo prevents Cuba from buying supplies directly from the US, and prevents the island from purchasing any US goods on credit.

"The economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed during 50 years by the United States is the main obstacle to Cuba's development," Felipe Perez Roque, the Cuban foreign minister, said.

Massachusetts Representative Bill Delahunt, during a hearing, yesterday said he planned to introduce legislation to temporarily lift the trade embargo in order to help Cuba move past the crisis. The U.S. has already sanctioned $250 million in "farm sales" to Cuba (which includes lumber), but greater measures might need to be taken in terms of infrastructural and medical assistance. Delahunt's legislation has little chance of seeing the light of day, especially in the current political climate and continued Republican archaic intransigence, but whoever gets elected President in November may be facing a humanitarian and political crisis in Cuba. The ramifications in terms of a human exodus from Cuba to Southern Florida could be stark:

The destruction inflicted on Cuba by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike dramatically raises the risk that the next U.S. president will face an immigration crisis next summer when the warm weather makes crossing the Florida Strait propitious for Cuban refugees...

In years past, when economic shocks dashed expectations for a better life on the island, Cubans by the thousands have looked northward. Economic crises have been a prelude to migration crises -- the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 balsero crisis. On both occasions, Washington failed to heed the warning signs that migration pressures were building and was woefully unprepared when the crisis erupted.

The next U.S. president should start planning for the possibility of a new migration crisis on Inauguration Day, if not before. As Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both discovered, once migration pressures reach critical mass and Cubans begin to climb on boats and rafts heading north, none of the policy options available to the president is good.

It certainly would be cheaper, both in terms of capital and societal impact, to simply provide a temporary lift of the embargo to help Cubans in Cuba instead of dealing with a refugee crisis here that would have a far greater ramifications for America. While its unlikely to happen, it makes sense from a policy perspective regardless of political impact, though the tunnel vision of certain policymakers in Washington blinds them to the stark reality that their politically motivated decisions may help incite an unprecedented Cuban exodus to America. It's just sad that political bravado and posturing still trumps a sensible policy shift that would help prevent the crisis from reaching our own shores.

September 18, 2008

Viva Zapata!
Posted by Adam Blickstein


It's McCain's favorite movie, but considering today's news, I don't think McCain will be chanting Viva Zapatero! anytime soon:

But the senator's all-time favorite film? "It is a bit political in its own way: 'Viva Zapata!' I'm sure I've seen it four or five times, but I haven't seen it quite a few years. It was one of Elia Kazan's least appreciated films. I thought (Emiliano) Zapata was a genuine, authentic, uncorrupted leader who fought to improve the plight of his countrymen. He held true to his principles.

"There were many scenes in the movie, but a few stand out," recalls McCain, who quotes verbatim long stretches of dialogue that recall the perfs of Marlon Brando, Jean Peters and Anthony Quinn.

The senator says "Viva Zapata!" influenced him more than any other film "because I had never heard of him before I saw the movie. I became interested in Zapata and started reading about him.

Not a Gaffe? McCain Campaign Willing to Destroy Relationship with Spain, Europe to Conceal Confusion
Posted by Max Bergmann

Worse than Bush. There can be no doubt about it now.

In McCain's bizarre interview with Spanish owned Union Radio he refused to say whether he would meet with Spain's Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Listening to the interview repeatedly, it simply seemed that McCain had no idea who Zapatero actually was. McCain seemed to think he was a Latin American autocrat - despite the reporter repeatedly saying "I am talking about Spain." This gaffe would seem to have very significant implications. Not knowing who the leader of Spain was or thinking Spain was in Latin America would not really be shocking coming from his running mate, but McCain has run on his foreign policy expertise and such confusion completely undercuts his credibility. Furthermore this gaffe would bring up real questions about his age. Is McCain really prepared to deal with a crisis at 3AM, when he can't even remember who the leader of Spain is during a late evening interview?

But was it a gaffe? While it definitely seemed so, now Randy Sheunemann, McCain's foreign policy adviser is shockingly saying that this is not a gaffe but an intentional expression of policy toward Spain. Instead of just admitting that it was small gaffe late in the day, the McCain campaign has decided that they care so little about governing that they are willing to potentially nuke the U.S.-Spain relationship just to get elected. Sheunemann emailed the Washington Post, saying:

The questioner asked several times about Senator McCain's willingness to meet Zapatero (and id'd him in the question so there is no doubt Senator McCain knew exactly to whom the question referred). Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview," he said in an e-mail.

This is beyond extreme. This is beyond reckless. This is insane.

McCain won't meet with a NATO ally, that has nearly 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, that has lost more than 20 soldiers there, has been brutally attacked by Al Qaeda, is incredibly influential in Latin America, has the seventh largest economy in the world, is a DEMOCRACY, and is a large and influential country in the EU. Won't meet with them?

The only plausible explanation for McCain not wanting to meet with Zapatero, is that, like Bush, he is still angry about Spain pulling its troops out of Iraq in 2004. If McCain carries that much of a grudge then how in the world will he rebuild our relationship with Europe, as he has said he would do. In a big foreign policy speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in March, McCain expressed a desire to strengthen the transatlantic relationship.

We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to.  We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact...The bonds we share with Europe in terms of history, values, and interests are unique.  Americans should welcome the rise of a strong, confident European Union as we continue to support a strong NATO.

McCain even told El Pais, Spain's major newspaper, in April that he would bring Prime Minister Zapatero to the White House. (translation via America Blog)

Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, is ready to change the policy of estrangement with the Spanish government that was put in place for four years now by George Bush. He declared that he was ready to fully normalize bilateral relations and that Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was invited to the White House.

And does McCain not know that his campaign has already met with a representative of Zapatero's office? From the BBC in April:

Recently, Bernardino Leon, who is currently heading the General Secretariat of the Prime Minister's Office to attempt to foster Zapatero's interest in international issues, travelled to Washington to meet the foreign policy advisers to Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and to Republican candidate John McCain. [BBC Monitoring 4/22/08]

But Sheunemann's statement now makes it clear that there will be no rebuilding of the transatlantic relationship. Instead, McCain will continue the ruinous approach of the Bush administration and continue to alienate our allies and further isolate America. This should not come as a surprise. McCain has after all shown in the past a reckless eagerness to attack America's allies.

See below for some of his more prominent attacks:


Continue reading "Not a Gaffe? McCain Campaign Willing to Destroy Relationship with Spain, Europe to Conceal Confusion" »

September 17, 2008

Oy, a Debate McCain Really Wants to Have?
Posted by Adam Blickstein

The McCain campaign, via Michael Goldfarb, put out a statement today eviscerating Hilary Clinton's decision to pull out of next week's rally protesting Iran's nuclear program--meant to coincide with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the United Nation's General Assembly--because it basically became a partisan political event with the belated addition of Sarah Palin. According to the McCain campaign:

"Earlier this week Governor Palin accepted an invitation to join Hillary Clinton in speaking to a nonpartisan rally organized by groups dedicated to halting Iran's nuclear program. Senator Clinton has since withdrawn from the engagement, presumably at the behest of the Obama campaign, and according to news reports Senator Obama's campaign may be leaning on organizers to disinvite Governor Palin as well lest the rally appear partisan.

This issue is too important to fall victim to partisan politics. Instead of pressuring Senator Clinton to withdraw and pressuring the event's organizers to disinvite Governor Palin, we hope Senator Obama will consider lending his own voice to this cause. And if Senator subsequently wishes to clarify any remarks that might be misconstrued, he will have the opportunity to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions after he speaks at the UN the following day. After all, the last time Senator Obama took the stage to address a nonpartisan, pro-Israel audience, his call for Jerusalem to remain the "undivided" capital of a Jewish state was easily clarified the next day."

Besides the ridiculousness of trying to fit 80 hollow attacks into a single statement, and the fact that McCain is now to the right of Henry Kissinger and James Baker on the issue of diplomacy with Iran, is this really a fight the McCain camp wants to have?  Attacking Obama is one thing (even if the attacks display as much muscle as my Jewish grandma trying to single-handedly hoist my Bar Mitzvah chair during Hava Nagilah) but if they want to wade into pitting Hillary Clinton against Sarah Palin on the issue of Iran, amongst the New York Jewish community nonetheless, then this is a fight that Democrats should embrace.  Palin's non-existant experience and questionable rhetoric on the foreign policy front already puts her at a disadvantage, but couple that with an existential warriness of Palin in the Jewish community due to her connections to Jews for Jesus and Pat Buchanan, it really makes you question the logic of them wading into this territory. Oh, and apparently Palin's "first meeting with some key Jewish leaders in the US didn't go so well." The wisdom of McCain's campaign jumping on this on both the national security front and the Jewish constituent front are laughable at best. I, for one, think Hillary should challenge Palin to a debate, perhaps a town-hall discussion sponsored by various Jewish organizations, to discuss the current situation in Iran and how it will effect both America's and Israel's security. Of course, telemprompters and talking points excluded. And what is the perception of the Palin pick in Israel? Haaretz's Senior Editor Bradley Burston offered this astute observation:

"This would never have happened in Israel, ever" remarked a journalist friend, referring to the choice of Governor Palin, whose credentials in the realms of foreign policy, statecraft and the military are limited in the extreme.
With irony bordering on the painful, the journalist added, "Sarah Palin has restored my faith in Israel."

Manchester United - brought to you by the U.S. Tax Payers
Posted by Max Bergmann


September 16, 2008

The People's Business
Posted by David Shorr

We're policy wonks, right? So we have beliefs about what goes into policy making, what sound decisions require, and what constitutes good preparation to govern. Which is why I was disappointed to see Tod Lindberg -- a friend and a duly credentialed specialist on the other side of the political spectrum -- parroting flimsy talking points on Barack Obama and Sarah Palin's relative qualifications for high office:

Let's get this straight: Your party has just nominated for president a fellow who has been elected exactly once to the United States Senate, in an uncompetitive race, following a garden-variety stint in a state legislature. And your response to the GOP nominee's choice for vice president--someone who has been elected once as governor following a stint as a small town mayor--is to decry the lack of experience?

What we have here is resume math of the crudest kind: Obama and Palin have roughly the same years of service as elected officials. The factor that's missing from Tod's calculation, of course, is how those years were spent, i.e. the content of their preparation. In foreign policy terms, Tod must be applying a deep discount to service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The entire exercise is obviously not terribly meaningful, which is why I was surprised to see Tod conducting it. Among other things, this approach doesn't grant much credit to the effort Tod himself has invested in developing his expertise.

Luckily, we have David Brooks to referee this dispute. Brooks reminds us of the anti-intellectual tradition in American populism. As he describes this view: "book knowledge is suspect but practical knowledge is respected. The city is corrupting and the universities are kindergartens for overeducated fools." The really interesting thing, though, was to see where Brooks himself comes down on the issue:

I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice.

And the problem with this attitude is that, especially in his first term, it made Bush inept at governance. It turns out that governance, the creation and execution of policy, is hard. It requires acquired skills.

Personally, the last eight years has taught me the urgent need to reconnect the voting public with the debate over American foreign policy. I believe wholeheartedly in the capacity of voters to understand and give the mandate for the major issues of the US role in the world. I have spent much of the last four years here in "flyover country" talking about these issues with anyone who's willing, in small cities and small towns. I've also devoted many posts on this blog to affirming many of the public's common sense instincts on foreign policy.

But as David Brooks says, governing is actually serious business. And no, Tod, only after he or she has done her homework, can any American boy or girl, as the old saying goes, "grow up to be president."

Mmmm... Forbidden Foreign Donut
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Country of origin labels will soon be mandatory on all U.S. food products on most perishable items, including meat, fruit, produce and nuts. According to reports, the main reason for this new labeling regime is to "enable consumers to avoid food that, for example, comes from countries that they have heard have food safety problems." But the problem isn't necessarily with food importations, especially since we import only about 15% of our food supply (though its projected to increase substantially over the next decade), but with what happens to the food once it reaches our shores:

GAO noted that even as food imports surge, FDA inspectors of foreign food firms has dropped from 211 in fiscal year 2001 to fewer than 100 in 2007. About 15 percent of the overall U.S. food supply is imported.

FDA's Science Board, and advisory panel to the agency, said last month that FDA does not have the capacity, such as staffing and technology, to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply.

The report was part of a broader investigation into the FDA that said lives are at risk because the agency is behind in the latest scientific advances, and it is underfunded.

The new labels are also meant "to allow consumers to stick to American-grown food, if that is their preference." One problem, of course, is that one of the countries consumers might want to avoid is the United States itself, as food safety under the Bush administration has been anything but safe:

The Government Accountability Office released an audit Monday suggesting at least six other countries and the European Union have better food safety systems than the United States.

The FDA and USDA have struggled through a year of high-profile recalls. The latest, involving the salmonella poisoning of 1,148 people in 42 states and the District of Columbia, is believed to have been caused by bad produce like tomatoes and jalapeno peppers. The FDA is still trying to find the source of that problem.

Meanwhile USDA, which in February launched the largest meat recall ever (143 million pounds), is experiencing more E coli contamination cases this summer. Nebraska Beef, an Omaha meatpacking company, recently recalled 5.3 million pounds of beef due to E coli contamination. That recall began in June when the Kroger Co., recalled meat from some of its stores.

The main reason for all the domestic food turmoil? FDA inspections, due to budget cuts, of domestic food producing facilities have decreased 56 percent from 2003 to 2007. Not sure labels will sufficiently shield us from this kitchen table health crisis.

An aside, this is a pretty frightening description of imported meat from the Guardian article cited above:

Because of the complexities of the livestock industry, some product labels may list multiple countries. That's especially true of ground beef, since some meat processors combine cuts from a number of countries to make ground meat and hamburger patties.

Ah, there's nothing more American than multinational meatloaf...

September 15, 2008

Not Ronald Reagan's Latin America
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

friend-of-the-blog Johanna Mendelson Forman checks in with some thoughts on the Bolivia-Venezuela imbroglio and how it relates to events here ar home:

A recent New Yorker cartoon featured a group of military men sitting around a conference table.  They look pleased as they view a map of Russia overhead.  The caption states “The return of the Cold War –am I the only one who feels like I’m putting on a comfortable pair of old shoes?”

It is not only with recent events in Russia and its former satellite republic of Georgia, but we witness a similar nostalgia swelling up in some Washington circles regarding Latin America. As Russia’s fleet steams over to participate in joint naval operations with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez the return of the bear has led many to believe that we are again back in an era of East-West confrontation.  Similarly, when  Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega conferred recognition on South Ossetia, the only country aside from Russia in this confederation to do so, the U.S. government cancelled a visit by Secretary of Commerce Gutierrez in retaliation.   Do such outpourings of official support for Moscow become the basis for a new Cold War mentality in the hemisphere?  I think not.

What is really happening is more akin to what young children do when they want attention.   They do something outrageous to get their parent’s attention.   Bringing Russia’s waning military might to Venezuela, or having Nicaragua support a break-way province are symptomatic of deeper divisions in Latin America’s orphan status when it comes to getting U.S. attention or treasure.   This is no Cold War, but a realignment of power in the region that has resulted in some countries like Brazil taking on a leadership role in the vacuum created by the U.S.’s absence since the start of the war in Iraq.

As the U.S. begins its reengagement with the Americas after the November elections it should not assume a Rip Van Winkle approach to the challenges it will face in the months and years ahead.  This is not the Latin America of the early 1990s. Reacting to such churlish actions as most recently demonstrated by Venezuela or Nicaragua in ways reminiscent of Cold War policies will send a signal that it is business as usual in Washington. While the U.S. cannot assume that we can return to the status quo ante, we must also find a way to embrace the multipolarity of regional powers, embrace those who seek to support an agenda that was progressing well in support of democracy, civilian control of the armed forces, and greater economic liberalization with greater free trade and development.   If we respond to the immediate taunts that carry overtones of another era will only jeopardize further U.S. standing in the region. 

Sarah Palin on Government Transparency
Posted by Michael Cohen

One of the many, many failings of the Bush Administration has been the lack of accountability and transparency from the federal government over the past eight years. This has been particularly true of the Vice President's Office, which has gone to great lengths to keep itself out of the public eye. But rest assured, my fellow countrymen, Sarah Palin is coming to the rescue.

"I've got another idea that I think Senator McCain likes. In Alaska, we took the state checkbook and put it online, so everyone can see where their money goes. We're going to bring that kind of openness to Washington," she said.

Well this is great news! I mean this is exactly the kind of change we've been waiting for. Surely, if Ms. Palin says that she will bring to openness to Washington, she ain't kidding around!

Oh wait a minute . . . From the Sunday New York Times:

While Ms. Palin took office promising a more open government, her administration has battled to keep information secret. Her inner circle discussed the benefit of using private e-mail addresses. An assistant told her it appeared that such e-mail messages sent to a private address on a “personal device” like a BlackBerry “would be confidential and not subject to subpoena.”

Ms. Palin and aides use their private e-mail addresses for state business. A campaign spokesman said the governor copied e-mail messages to her state account “when there was significant state business.”

. . . Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought the e-mail messages of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears.

Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought the e-mail messages of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears. (Ms. Palin said the scientists had found no ill effects, and she has sued the federal government to block the listing of the bears as endangered.) An administration official told Mr. Steiner that his request would cost $468,784 to process.

When Mr. Steiner finally obtained the e-mail messages — through a federal records request — he discovered that state scientists had in fact agreed that the bears were in danger, records show.

“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Mr. Steiner said

Never mind.

International Impact of Lehman
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Things are obviously bad on Wall Street, but in this global economy, when a global company goes under, it's impact is felt all over:

More than 4,000 City [London] workers lost their jobs today after a US investment bank folded.

Staff were clearing their desks at the Canary Wharf headquarters of Lehman Brothers. Another 1,000 jobs at the bank's offices in High Wycombe are also in doubt...

Sphinx Patterson, 35, said numerous staff were drinking beer in the canteen on the seventh floor of the Canary Wharf skyscraper. He said: "People are walking around in shock. Girls are crying, blokes hugging each other. People don't know what to do." Mr Patterson, from Willesden, who was told his classes had been cancelled, added: "It's not just the high-fliers who are losing their jobs. I spoke to a receptionist and she was packing up her pens."

And not just receptionists at that. Lehman's collapse could negatively impact vulnerable economies struggling at the bottom of the global financial ladder:

The unwinding of failed U.S. bank Lehman Brothers' trading positions in often illiquid emerging markets could prompt further problems for developing economies struggling with a devastating range of issues.

Having been described as "decoupled" or insulated from global financial and economic worries until just a few months ago, emerging markets have been pounded by the impact of rising risk aversion, a U.S. dollar recovery, retreating commodity prices and political stresses such as the Georgia war.

It's really a culmination of chaos, not just in the financial sector, but across the board with global instabilities along various geostrategic fault-lines. And even before the Lehman collapse, investors were already pulling money out of  emerging markets at a historic rate:

Investors have pulled almost $29 billion from emerging- market equity funds this year, the most ever on a net basis, data compiled by EPFR Global, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based fund research firm, and New York-based Merrill Lynch & Co. show.      

We could be seeing a true twin-global financial crisis, where both those at the top suffer and, because of decreased investment from bigger economies, smaller economies struggle at an equally destabilizing level. And the ones left standing in the best position could be nations with large sovereign wealth funds who have a more stable supply of capital. Though some indications show investment in emerging-markets has hit a bottom, we've heard this phrase continually over the past year in respect to the U.S. housing market and financial sector, yet there really has been no true bottom in sight. As long as the situation remains volatile in the U.S. and in emerging markets, there's going to be a sense of stalemate as individual investor and companies ride out the storm and wait for the global markets to really hit the bottom, if we even know what that will look like.

McCain's Foreign Policy to the Right of Bush
Posted by Adam Blickstein

Dan Eggen has a page-two piece in today's Washington Post examining how the Bush administration’s second term foreign policy shifts have moved him towards a world-view more in line with Barack Obama’s than John McCain’s:

Barack Obama contends that a John McCain presidency would amount to little more than President Bush's third term. But as it turns out, an Obama presidency might look a bit like Bush's second.

On a range of major foreign policy issues over the past year, Bush has pursued strategies and actions very much along the lines of what Sen. Obama has advocated during his presidential race, according to the Illinois Democrat's campaign and many diplomatic and security experts.

Amongst the shifts:

  • The administration has pushed ahead with high-level diplomatic negotiations with Iran and North Korea.
  • Agreed to a "time horizon" for a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq
  • Announced plans last week to shift troops and other resources from Iraq to
  • Afghanistan. Authorized cross-border raids into Pakistan without that government's approval -- an idea that Obama first endorsed, and was heavily criticized for, last year.
  • A measured and tempered response to the crisis in Georgia, including a $1 billion aid package for Georgia that was similar to a proposal previously made by Obama and Biden

I would add one more. As evidenced in the campaign staff of both Obama and McCain, most of the Bush foreign policy cheerleaders from the first term (cough*neocons*cough) are now firmly entrenched in McCain's foreign policy "team," to the extent there is one.  The Randy Scheunemanns and Robert Kagans of the world, those who long advocated war in Iraq at any cost, are driving and formulating McCain's foreign policy agenda, and simply further emboldening McCain's penchant for bellicosity.  Meanwhile, the neocons have been jettisoned from the White House, replaced by a culture of relative moderation, diplomacy and cautiousness. Dick Cheney and his cabal have been largely marginalize while the Condi Rice and Robert Gates faction have been empowered. This, more than anything else, has led to the policy shifts desdcribed in Eggan's piece. It's not so much a shift towards Obama, but a move towards a more sane, realist and pragmatic foreign policy approach. It just so happens that Obama advocates those three tenets in his global philosophy. McCain is not only an outlier, if he were part of the Bush administration, he would have already been marginalized and rendered irrelevant like the rest of the anachronistic and dangerous neocon cult. Which, as NSN Rand Beers President said in the Eggen piece, means:

"...that a McCain presidency would look a lot like a Bush first term and a move back in that direction…The flip side of that is that John McCain is therefore to the right of George Bush.”

America and the world simply can't afford a regression to all that. And this is what makes Sarah Palin's pick that much more frightening:

Comments by the governor of Alaska in her first television interview, in which she said Nato may have to go to war with Russia and took a tough line on Iran's nuclear programme, were the result of two weeks of briefings by neoconservatives.

Sources in the McCain camp, the Republican Party and Washington think tanks say Mrs Palin was identified as a potential future leader of the neoconservative cause in June 2007. That was when the annual summer cruise organised by the right-of-centre Weekly Standard magazine docked in Juneau, the Alaskan state capital, and the pundits on board took tea with Governor Palin.

A former Republican White House official, who now works at the American Enterprise Institute, a bastion of Washington neoconservatism, admitted: "She's bright and she's a blank page. She's going places and it's worth going there with her."

Asked if he sees her as a "project", the former official said: "Your word, not mine, but I wouldn't disagree with the sentiment."

I wonder what the buffet is like on a neocon cruise...

September 14, 2008

At What Price Security?
Posted by Patrick Barry

News that U.S. arms exports have risen dramatically over the past few years - especially as America ramps up its effort to prop up foreign governments in two parts of the world not known for stability - should not come as a surprise.  But as we go about "building a more secure world," (to borrow from Air Force Deputy under secretary Bruce S. Lemkin) it's worth wondering how much security this policy is likely to bring.  More from the article:

From tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships, the Department of Defense has agreed so far this fiscal year to sell or transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion in 2005.

This is, quite obviously, a huge increase, and one that is definitely brought on by commitments to the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, commitments we hope will result in those governments "standing up," so that we can reduce our presence there.  When you consider the scope of internal threats faced by these countries - threats which in some cases come from irredeemable violent elements - it helps, on the face of it, to let at least some aspects of policy be guided by Weberian principles of building state capacity  An Afghan army that can't tackle the Taliban should probably be strengthened, and I'm not arguing against that.

But, and this is where the caution should come in, the history of U.S. military assistance is dotted with many 'short-term success', 'long-term not-so-clear' stories.  Travis Sharp, from the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation raises this concern:

"...if alliances shifted, the United States might eventually be in combat against an enemy equipped with American-made weapons. Arms sales have had unintended consequences before, as when the United States armed militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, only to eventually confront hostile Taliban fighters armed with the same weapons there."

What looks like an imperative, or even wisdom in the short-term can very easily fall under the law of unintended consequences years later. As arms sales rise, and as the the U.S. sends increasingly sophisticated killing weapons abroad, the potential consequences for U.S. interests grow apace.  Twenty years have passed since American-made stinger missiles turned scores of soviet planes and helicopters into piles of scrap that lit up the Afghan Mountains, yet as recently as 2005 the U.S. was still attempting to recover missiles that many fear could be turned into equally lethal instruments of terrorism.  Today's news shows that we've seen this before, and we'll likely see it again. 

Let's not talk about Saudi Arabia
Posted by Shadi Hamid

It's been 7 years since 9/11 and, yet, it's really quite remarkable how we have done very little to recast our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I bring this up because a couple days ago, one of Saudi Arabia's most senior judges declared that the owners of "immoral" Satellite channels could essentially be murdered for their sins. The thing is all of us know that Saudi Arabia is a pernicious force in the Muslim world, continuing to propagate extreme interpretations of Islam. It is also one of the most authoritarian countries in the world, right up there with Burma, Libya, Syria, and North Korea.

Yet we just signed a multi-billion arms deal with the Saudis earlier this year. It is really quite remarkable when you think about it how little this has been talked about by the presidential campaigns. But then again, there hasn't really been much discussion this election season about much on the Middle East besides Iraq/Iran, even though those two countries are two parts of a much bigger problem. Saudi Arabia would be an obvious place to start, since most reasonable people can agree that our relationship with the Saudis is problematic not just from a moral standpoint, but also from the perspective of U.S. national security interests. 

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