Wednesday, August 29, 2007
A nice, unguarded interview with Taibbi, for all you true Taibbi fans like me....
And my suspicions are confirmed: the no-name author of the article " The Great Iraq Swindle," which gave so many of you a rise, is... Matt Taibbi. Who else?
U.S. Poverty Rate Drops; Ranks of Uninsured Grow
Census Data Show Mixed View of Post-Recession Economy
By N.C. Aizenman and Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 29, 2007; A03
The nation's poverty rate declined last year for the first time this decade, but the number of Americans without health insurance rose to a record 47 million, according to annual census figures released yesterday.
Maryland edged out New Jersey as the nation's richest state, with a median household income of $65,144. The Washington region ranked second among metropolitan areas, with three suburban Washington counties -- Fairfax, Loudoun and Howard -- maintaining their status as the nation's wealthiest large counties. Montgomery and Prince William counties also registered in the top 10.
Nationally, however, the statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau offer a mixed picture of the economy's recovery from the recession of 2000-01.
Although median household income, adjusted for inflation, rose for the second straight year, it has not reached the pre-recession high of 1999.
The increase from 2005 to 2006 in median household income, to $48,201, appeared to be mainly the result of a jump in the number of people per household who held a full-time job rather than a rise in wages. Earnings of both men and women declined by slightly more than 1 percent.
Although the poorest households had the largest percentage income gain from 2005 to last year, income inequality remains at a record high. The share of income going to the 5 percent of households with the highest incomes has never been greater.
The 2006 poverty rate of 12.3 percent remained higher than during the recession. And the slight drop in the rate from 12.6 percent the year before was driven by a decrease in poverty among those older than 65. There was no change in the rates for children or for adults 18 to 24.
The release of the statistics yesterday drew divergent responses from the Bush administration and its critics.
"To be in worse shape in the fifth year of a recovery than during the previous recession is both unprecedented and disappointing," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) placed the blame on the administration's economic policies. "Enormous tax cuts for the wealthy and massive budget deficits have failed the vast majority of the American people," she said in a statement. "The rich have gotten richer, but every other income group under the Bush administration has lost ground."
White House spokesman Tony Fratto disagreed, saying that the data on household income are "good numbers," considering the many blows the economy has suffered, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the bursting of the stock market bubble.
"Our economy was in very bad shape for a significant period of time, and when that happens, you are going to see incomes fall," Fratto said.
President Bush released a statement describing the figures as confirmation of the wisdom of his approach. "When we keep taxes low, spending in check and our economy open -- conditions that empower businesses to create new jobs -- all Americans benefit," he said.
The president said that "challenges remain" in reducing the number of people without health insurance.
The addition of about 2.2 million people to the ranks of those without medical insurance was attributed largely to continuing declines in employer-sponsored insurance coverage, census officials said.
In all, 15.8 percent of Americans lacked coverage last year, up from 15.3 percent in 2005.
Children fared worse. Last year, 11.7 percent of people younger than 18 lacked health insurance, up from 10.9 percent in 2005. The percentage of uninsured children has increased two years in a row after declining for at least five years, according to the census data.
The new figures stirred debate between Congress and the White House over the future of the $5 billion a year State Children's Health Insurance Program, which helps insure 6.6 million children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford insurance on their own.
The Senate and House have passed separate bills that would increase funding and make it possible to enroll millions of children for coverage. Bush has promised to veto the bills, saying that they would inappropriately increase the federal role in health care and extend coverage to middle-class families that might otherwise get private insurance.
The administration recently announced new administrative rules that will make it harder for states to enroll children from families that earn more than 250 percent of the poverty level, or $51,625 for a family of four.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of a House subcommittee on health, said in a statement that he is "particularly troubled" that the number of uninsured children has risen for two years.
"Clearly, these disturbing increases over the last two years demonstrate a need to strengthen this important health-care program that provides access to health insurance for our most vulnerable children," Pallone said, referring to the State Children's Health Insurance Program. "I hope these sobering statistics will serve as a wake-up call to President Bush to reconsider his veto threat of this critically important legislation."
But Fratto said Bush remains convinced that the program should remained focused on low-income uninsured children and that expanding it would encourage some middle-class parents to switch their children from private coverage to the government.
"The target population for SCHIP is not being adequately served," Fratto said. "It's not a question of whether SCHIP should be expanded; it's making SCHIP work in a way that it was intended to work."
The figures also reflect a continuing decline in employer-provided coverage. The percentage of people covered by employer-based health insurance fell to 59.7 percent in 2006, down from 60.2 percent in 2005. The figure was 64.2 percent as recently as 2000.
Business leaders have said the spiraling costs of health insurance are threatening their competitiveness in the global market, forcing companies to shift more expenses to workers or consider dropping the benefit.
The new census data show that many of the newly uninsured are working Americans from middle- and high-income families. Of the 2.2 million people who became uninsured in 2006, 1.4 million had a household income of $75,000 or higher. About 1.2 million of the newly uninsured worked full time.
"This is about the problem of the uninsured spreading to the middle class and working people," said Harvard Medical School professor Stephanie J. Woolhandler, a liberal advocate of creating a government-run national health insurance program. "That's the thing that's emerging newly this time."
Paul Waldman | August 22, 2007 | Prospect.org
Just a few weeks from now, the most eagerly anticipated premier of the year will finally be here, complete with fierce disagreement among the critics and relentless hype by the producers, cameras furiously clicking when the starring players emerge in public. That premier is the report coming in mid-September from U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and, more importantly, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of American forces there. If you're expecting a surprise ending, you shouldn't hold your breath.
But it isn't just the report itself that is utterly predictable. The script for what will come afterward is a sure thing, too.
Unfortunately for President Bush, the public is approaching Petraeus's report with a healthy degree of skepticism. A CNN poll last week asked respondents this question: "As you may know, in September the top U.S. commander in Iraq will report to the President and Congress about how the war is going. Do you trust him to report what's really going on in Iraq without making the situation sound better than it actually is, or don't you feel that way?" A majority, 53 percent, said they don't trust Petraeus (who wasn't named) to report what's really going on. After four years of assurances about the "progress" being made in Iraq, the American people have just about had it.
When asked to respond to the poll, the White House telegraphed its strategy. Spokesman Tony Snow said he hoped "people do not try to engage in personal attacks on Gen. Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker." In other words, anyone who criticizes this report will be accused of personally attacking Petraeus.
Without many arguments left in the well, the White House will be hiding behind Petraeus, just as President Bush has been since the general took the job seven months ago. At first the administration didn't want Petraeus to publicly testify about his report, perhaps because it was concerned he might be a little too forthcoming about what is really happening in Iraq. But now the administration seems to have come to its senses, realizing that either Democrats will be cowed into deference by the blinding glare created by all those ribbons and the glittering aura of Petraeus' reputation, or they will question him harshly, at which point they can be accused of hating the troops and their saintly, infallible commander.
Don't interpret my sarcasm to mean that I think Gen. Petraeus is cut from the same dishonest cloth as the rest of the Bush administration. But by this time he is, most certainly, part of that administration. There has never been much dispute over the fact that throughout his career he has been a capable and accomplished, even brilliant, officer. But Petraeus was selected for his current job because of his willingness to support "the surge" (even today, saying it gives you that little shot of testosterone, the scent of victory wafting into your nose). And if he has any desire to keep his job, he will be sure to deliver the message the White House wants.
Not that they're taking any chances. Last week the Los Angeles Times reported, "Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House." Well knock me over with a feather. The Bush White House, exercising an iron grip over the message delivered by people who are supposed to offer their assessments based on their professional knowledge and an objective reality? Who'd have thought we'd see the day?
For all the repeated incantations of "Let's wait and see what Gen. Petraeus reports in September," there's little doubt about what he'll say. The report, in whatever form it is finally delivered, will caution that we have a long way to go, that serious problems remain, and that we wish we weren't where we are today. However, it will say we're making important progress, and we need to stay in Iraq for a good long time -- at the bare minimum, until January of 2009, when the boiling cauldron of hatred and misery that is Iraq becomes some other president's problem. The details of the report could vary (contents may settle during shipping, after all), but if you think its ultimate conclusions will be something other than a validation of "the surge" and the Bush administration's larger strategy, you haven't been paying attention.
And since this White House is writing it, we can be sure that many parts of the report will turn out to be either absurdly misleading or purely false. As the indefatigable journalists at McClatchy recently reported, "U.S. officials say the number of civilian casualties in the Iraqi capital is down 50 percent. But U.S. officials declined to provide specific numbers, and statistics gathered by McClatchy Newspapers don't support the claim ... No pattern of improvement is discernible for violence during the five months of the surge. In January, the last full month before the surge began, 438 people were killed in the capital in bombings. In February, that number jumped to 520. It declined in March to 323, but jumped again in April, to 414." Expect the Iraq report to contain heavy doses of statistical chicanery and shameless spin, with relevant facts conveniently absent.
When the report is released, the nests of conservative partisanship on television, radio, and newspaper op-ed pages will buzz with affirmation. "The surge is working," they will declare, and victory will be ours in the end if we remain firm, turgid, engorged with strength and will and resolve. Considering that the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination recently wrote in all seriousness that the United States was just about to win the Vietnam War in 1972 when we got soft and pulled out in an ignominious victorius interruptus, you can be sure this argument will find eager adherents among those on the right jonesing for their latest dose of Iraq Viagra.
As for those who disagree and raise doubts, they will find their attempts to marshal facts and evidence met with the usual infantile arguments ("Fight them over there!") and inevitable accusations of insufficient fealty to the troops. If nothing else, you can count on that.
And where will we have gotten? Nowhere. American men and women will continue to return home in flag-draped coffins, their young lives sacrificed on the altar of this endless nightmare, brought to us by men with minds so twisted they don't even realize what a mistake it all was. There is no other undertaking in American history that combines the crushing volume of delusion, dishonesty, bad faith, incompetence, and unforeseen yet utterly predictable consequences that is this war. As long as George W. Bush strides purposefully each day into the Oval Office, consumed with looking strong and holding fast, interpreting every feeling that rumbles in his gut as a telegraph from God informing him that he is right in all things, nothing will change.
Robert B. Reich | August 24, 2007 | Prospect.org
Twenty years ago, we divided the world's economic systems into two camps. On one side were communist, government-run economies. On the other side, capitalist, free-market economies.
Now, Chinese free-market capitalists are going gang-busters. And China's problem right now isn't too much government intrusion into its economy; it's too little -- or at least too little of the right kind. Some Chinese toy makers have used lead paint, some Chinese pet-food producers have used toxic chemicals, and makers of counterfeit toothpaste in China have used other toxins.
A basic free market principle is that when consumers cannot differentiate between risky products and good products, they'll withdraw from the market, which is what's happening to China's consumer exports. China's responsible exporters are suffering because irresponsible ones have cut corners to make fatter profits, and global consumers can't tell the difference. So the challenge for China is to rein in its rip-roaring free-market capitalists with regulations that better ensure safe products.
The American financial market is facing much the same challenge. When it became apparent that many sub-prime mortgage loans were far riskier than assumed, and were packaged with other loans, investors began withdrawing from financial instruments altogether. That's because they couldn't figure out how much risk they had taken on. So the challenge for the United States is to rein in our rip-roaring financial capitalists with regulations that clarify risk -- by, for example, forcing hedge funds to disclose more and requiring higher performance from credit-rating agencies.
The lesson on both sides of the Pacific is that free-market capitalism and government intervention are not on opposite sides of a great ideological divide. Free markets need governments to police them so buyers can be confident about what they're buying, whether it's a toy or a bond. If governments fail in this basic role, buyers will be scared off. And this will bring down even responsible sellers.
The practical question, then -- in both China and America -- is not whether you're in favor of free markets or government regulation. It's what kind of regulation is needed to make markets work.
This column is adapted from Reich's weekly commentary on American Public Radio's Marketplace.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
The Iraq debate comes to Earth.
By Charles Krauthammer
August 24, 2007 | Washington Post
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Why is liberalism an "attack" on Christian ethics? Or do you mean abortion again, redundantly? In other words, do you mean, "I'm ready to listen but not embrace because I disagree on too many liberal ideas like abortion, illegal immigrants, and the attack on [pro-life]"?
The basic Judeo-Christian axiom is that we must cherish and value life (because life is a gift from God, not from man). The "revolutionary" Christian axiom is that no life is more or less valuable than any other, i.e. love thy neighbor as thyself (because everyone, even Gentiles, are loved equally by the Father). From these two axioms, we can draw a corollary: That we must value many lives more than any one life, since we mustn't play favorites, not even with ourselves. Therefore, we should embrace what is the best for the most people.
I happen to believe the very same thing, but I don't need the word of God to tell me it is so. Human history tells me it is so.
Abortion is a tragedy, but I think you have to assess rationally which political philosophy -- liberalism or conservatism -- better promotes and cherishes the value of each life individually, and in the aggregate. (Studies have shown that abortion rates are linked to poverty; hence one might seek to alleviate poverty in order to reduce demand for abortions, instead of just outlawing them). Abortion may be a "minus" in the liberal column, but this is heavily outweighed by the many minuses in the conservative column, which don't value or cherish life.
For instance, pure laissez-faire conservatism preaches that there will always be human "refuse" who can't hack it and won't make the cut economically, due to laziness, stupidity, or just plain bad luck. It is a philosophy that not only assumes there will be economic winners and losers -- in order to work properly, it requires winners and losers.
Conservatives have tacked Christianity onto this economic philosophy because it's convenient. Christianity is supposed to sweep up this human refuse at the end of the day through charity. But conservatism and Christianity also flatly contradict one another in terms of how any one person is meant to behave: During my workday I'm supposed to be a selfish economic opportunist, otherwise I may lose my job, my client, my sale, or go out of business; whereas in my free time I'm supposed to be a selfless, community-minded activist, helping those whom I've just done my best to put out of business, or whose job/promotion/sale/client I've just taken away.
Yet history offers no evidence to prove that Christians do an adequate job of caring for the losers and the unfit who drop out of the economic rat race. This is not to say that Christians do nothing; but they leave the majority of life's losers with no alternative but misery or death.
To address this obvious disparity between words and deeds, conservatives have argued that in the aggregate, the "invisible hand" of unfettered free markets leads to win-wins where everybody benefits. In this magical system, each economic actor is absolved of all ethical or personal responsibility, since each man's selfish actions, combined with the independent, selfish actions of everyone else, lead inevitably to the most efficient distribution of scarce goods and resources for everyone. In other words, in a truly free market, the most "generous" thing you can do for your fellow man is to be as greedy and selfish as possible. This thinking is counter-intuitive, to say the least, but it's also a very elegant defense of unlimited greed and selfishness. It means we all get to have our cake and eat it too.
But history doesn't support true conservatives' semi-religious faith in the power of unfettered free markets and unrestrained greed. America and Britain had nearly free markets before 1900, and the disparity in wealth and well being in both countries was immense. At the same time, Christian charities failed -- and have continued to fail -- to help all of life's losers, even in a very Christian country like America.
You may respond, "Well, that only goes to show that everyone should be a Christian!" And that may well be true (I cannot prove otherwise, since it's never happened); but that would also mean that for pure capitalism to work, everyone (or nearly so) would have to be an active, committed Christian.
(This is not to mention another contradiction between capitalism and Christianity: the more time and energy people devote to one, the less they can devote to the other. It may not sound silly to call yourself "sort of" of a capitalist, but it sounds awfully weak, bordering on disingenuous, to say you're "sort of" a Christian, or, "I'm a Christian in my spare time.")
I think America will voluntarily become socialist before its population consists of 301 million Mother Teresa's.
That, in a nutshell, is why I have no choice but to turn to the alternative, liberalism, which says that people have an individual and a collective responsibility to help the poor and unfortunate. And our collective responsibility is usually best exercised through democratic government. This is not to say that I advocate socialism, or that automatically liberalism = socialism. History has shown us that putting too much of the burden of responsibility on government's shoulders (via a socialist system) in the pursuit of everyone's economic well being inevitably leads to government infringement of other liberal ideals, like democracy, personal freedom, and personal responsibility.
Therefore, if neither unfettered free markets nor government can satisfactorily allocate scarce goods and resources and simultaneously promote human freedom and dignity, the answer must be some mixture of the two. (Or some third alternative nobody's thought of yet).
That's why I, like most people, am not a pure liberal. Just like most people aren't pure conservatives. What we have today is a mix, a balancing act. And most of our political debates are really about where to find that balance.
Maybe this is all self-evident, and you think I'm just being long-winded and pedantic. But I want to show you that I've tried to consider all sides. I'm not some brainwashed zealot.
It's not helpful when we demonize each other and call names, because each side has something it must contribute. We could ignore the past 200 years of history and convince ourselves that one side is completely right and the other completely wrong, but we'd only doom ourselves to repeat past mistakes.
I admit it, I too am guilty at times of painting with too broad a brush when criticizing conservatives (although my tone is often tongue-in-cheek). But you must also admit that most Americans have a much stronger, more irrational fear of liberalism than they do of conservatism. In America "liberal" is a dirty word, but "conservative" is something you can be proud to call yourself.
I think this fear and hatred of liberalism betrays an ungrateful ignorance of our history and the liberal reforms that have given us so many of the social protections which today we take for granted -- protections which we would never, ever elect to give back.
For example, would you give up the 8-hour workday? Or say that children don't have to go to school, and instead can work in hazardous factories for lower wages than an adult? Or disband the FDA, and take your chances buying meat tainted with invisible e. coli at the supermarket or dangerous, counterfeit drugs at the pharmacy? Or get rid of the FDIC, so that all the banks that sold risky sub-prime loans couldn't honor your deposits? Or get rid of the SEC, so that stock traders could get rich giving insider deals and information to their cronies while your investments plummet? Or let logging companies cut down all the trees they want, destroying irreplaceable habitats and species and air quality for everybody? Or get rid of OHSA, and let the "labor market" figure out where it's safe to work (but only after they saw you get killed on the job)? Or shut down the EPA, so that factories could go back to pumping untreated waste and sewage into our rivers? Or erase our anti-trust laws, so that eventually our economy would be run by larger and larger corporations with the power to determine the quality and price of essential goods that we can't buy from any other source? I could go on and on like this....
I marvel at the power of markets to turn millions of independent decisions and transactions into a coherent and (fairly) efficient means of distributing scarce goods and resources. But I also revere the contributions of liberal reformers who have made sure that excessive greed, or concentration of wealth and power in too few hands, does not pervert the market and deny the majority of us the benefits of capitalism. I don't want all-or-nothing. All I want is your acknowledgment of the other side of the equation. Give liberalism its due, and -- heaven forbid! -- a thank-you.
Neocon II: Lie Hard with a Vengeance
By Matt Taibbi
June 15, 2007
Call it the Leslie Nielsen effect. Your first attempt at a show-biz career fizzles out and dies, but your failure is so quirky and charming that it wins you a whole second career. Think Robert Goulet, Bill Shatner, even John Travolta. America loves a brave second act, particularly one that doesn't mind doing a take or two with egg still on his face.
What the Zucker brothers did for actors, the neocons are now doing for politics. In the first six years of the Bush presidency the administration's ideological nucleus -- a tribe of humorless conservative revolutionaries led by Dick Cheney and including the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith and Elliott Abrams -- racked up a startling record in matters of official policy. From their juking of the case for the Iraq War to their Jacobin-esque purges within the government's intelligence apparatus to their paranoid and sometimes criminal fragging of political enemies great and minor, the neoconservatives working for George Bush botched virtually every important move they made in the last six years.
Moreover, each time they used the presidency's bully pulpit to make a prediction, be it about the post-invasion spread of democracy in the Middle East, the utility of Iraqi oil revenues in financing the occupation, or the chilling effect our presence in Iraq would have on Palestinian resolve, more or less exactly the opposite ended up taking place.
And yet, despite the walloping defeat of the Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections that seemed to spell the end of neocon rule in Washington, the clowns are once again spilling out of the Volkswagen. Lately the neocons seem to be all over the public airwaves, and not as the targets of purgative public flogging or tarring ceremonies, but as the subjects of serious interviews, with respected journalists treating them like real human beings with real opinions. Even worse, a few are still in office, and appear to be cooking up a last-minute encore before the curtain finally comes down in '08.
Richard Perle, the former head of the Defense Policy Board, known in the Beltway as the "Prince of Darkness," has been on TV a lot lately in a much-publicized public spat with former CIA director George Tenet, who recently accused Perle of targeting Iraq days after 9/11. John Bolton, former UN-hating ambassador to the UN, recently won the Bradley Prize for "outstanding intellectual achievement" -- achievement that presumably includes helping make the case for the Iraq disaster and support for a future invasion of Iran. In his acceptance speech, Bolton cheekily credited Tehran, Pyongyang and other rogue nations for his success, thanking them just for "being themselves." And while Scooter Libby crashed at trial, Doug Feith soft-landed into a tenure track at Georgetown, where he will now teach history, a subject he spent the past five years or so violently misinterpreting.
The neocons remain a bold presence in the media for a number of reasons. Number one, they still have real political power. Dick Cheney is still the vice president, and the Pentagon is still guided heavily by the neocon-dominated Office of Special Plans (OSP), where the power is now reportedly concentrated in an office called the Iranian Directorate, charged with helping make the case for war with Iran. Amid all the public hand-wringing about a congressional demand for an Iraq withdrawal timeline, Washington is abuzz with rumors that the neocons are loading up for one last historical Hail Mary, a "long bomb" to throw at Tehran before Bush leaves office. The knowledge that they are crazy enough to try something like that makes people in the capital take them seriously.
But beyond that, there just hasn't been any effort in the media to identify and really make clear the root causes of the Iraq policy failure. In the current Washington mythology -- a mythology reflected in public statements of everyone from John McCain to Hillary Clinton -- the Iraq War blew up in our faces for logistical reasons, because we didn't send enough troops, or have a sound occupation plan, or have an "understanding of the insurgency." It was the right war, wrong execution, wrong defense secretary. The failure had nothing to do with the mistake of placing our bets on a radical revolutionary policy of "pre-emptive invasion," or with the White House's authoritarian efforts to castrate the Pentagon and the CIA and replace them with their own intelligence-gathering and policymaking apparatuses.
The neocons may have been proven wrong in the particulars, and to ordinary people their legacy may turn out to be a nightmarish Middle East bloodbath and decades of debt, but in Washington they're still revered as canny operators who swept two election seasons with a drooling mannequin for a candidate and for years ruled Washington with almost Caligulan abandon. They were idiots in terms of how the world worked, but they understood power in the Beltway better than Nixon, better than Clinton, better really than any White House clan since the Roosevelt years. That's why they'll keep getting top billing on talk shows and invites to all the best Washington parties, even if, as seems likely, they leave office 18 months from now with half the planet in flames.
In Washington there is no shame in being wrong; there's only shame in losing. The neocons were wrong as hell, but they were also winners. That's why no one should expect them to go away now. That's especially true since their only real competition in the intellectual arena is the cynical third-way corporatism of the Democratic party, a tenuous and depressing alliance of business interests and New-Deal interest groups whose most persuasive "idea" is that it is not neo-conservatism. The neocons, wrong and stupid as they might be, at least represent a clearly-articulated dream of unchecked greed, power and big-stick foreign conquest that appeals in an elemental way to the dark side of the American psyche. Until America rejects that dream -- and don't hold your breath for that -- don't count on the Boltons and the Perles disappearing from view.
By Matt Taibbi
May 23, 2007 | Adbusters
Just think, if it weren't for a Democratic majority in 2006 that refused to ratify John Bolton's nomination, he would be
Intelligence report at odds with U.S. policies on Iraq
By Damien Cave
August 24, 2007 | International Herald Tribune
BAGHDAD: The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate has effectively discredited the dominant American hypothesis of the past seven months: that safer streets, secured by additional troops, would create enough political calm for Iraq's leaders to reconcile.
They have failed to do so in part, suggests the report, which was released Thursday, because the security gains remain too modest to reverse Iraq's dynamic of violence and fear. Baghdad after all, remains a place where women at the market avoid buying river fish for fear that they've been eating bodies.
But just as important, according to Iraqi political analysts and officials, Iraq has become a cellular nation, dividing and redividing, where the constituency for chaos now outnumbers the constituency for compromise.
The central government has not held. Provinces and even neighborhoods have become the stage where power struggles play out, and as a result, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds - or elements of each faction - have come to feel that they could do a better job on their own.
"No one can rely on the political participants who lack a common view of the public interest," said Nabeel Mahmoud, an international relations professor at Baghdad University. "Such a concept is completely absent from the thinking of the political powers in Iraq's government, so each side works to get their own quota of positions or resources."
The Kurds are perhaps best positioned to benefit from the government's failures. Inside their already-autonomous area, cities like Erbil are experiencing a construction boom and already seem entirely disconnected from the rest of Iraqi life. This month the Kurds went even further, passing a regional oil law that would reach its full potential only if a national oil law was never implemented.
Shiites and Sunnis, however, are still the factions with the greatest responsibility for Iraq's political stalemate, and the ones most able to benefit from the dysfunctional status quo.
Shiites in particular, as the majority, have managed to take advantage of the weak government from a number of angles.
Various religious parties in majority-Shiite areas like Basra now openly fight for positions of power. Assassinations by Shiites of Shiite officials in the south have grown more common, and with huge oil wealth located in the region, interference from Baghdad remains entirely unwelcome.
Meanwhile, in the capital, offices run by the militia and civilian organization of the populist cleric Moktada al-Sadr have opened like franchises across the city. His Mahdi army, known as Jaish al-Mahdi, now controls businesses ranging from real estate to guns to gas.
One Mahdi commander from eastern Baghdad recently estimated that the Mahdi army controls 70 percent of the gas stations throughout the capital - a figure that is hard to verify but that falls in line with what American officials describe as a sophisticated network that combines brutality with business.
The American ambassador, Ryan Crocker, for example, recently titled the organization "Jaish al-Mahdi Incorporated."
Sadr, of course, does play a role in the government. Without the support of his party, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite, would not have become prime minister. The Sadr bloc has expressed frustration with Maliki, repeatedly pulling out of the government to register discontent. And yet Sadr has yet to call for a replacement.
Many suppose that it is in part because he knows that a strong government supported by the Americans would likely crack down on what his organization has built.
"The people outside the law, the militia, the terrorists, the tribal leaders - all these people benefit," said Qasim Dawood, a Shiite member of Parliament. "There are people living on the crisis, gaining their power through the crisis."
New sources of power have also formed in the Sunni community. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in American reconstruction contracts have gone to Sunni tribal groups in Anbar who now work alongside the Americans to fight homegrown groups like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
Similar bands of Sunni "guardians," as the American military often calls them, have formed in Diyala Province and in Sunni areas of Baghdad.
Leaders from the groups have said they would like to join the government, but according to some American officers working with the groups, their most common demand has consisted of three things: money, guns and freedom of movement. It is unclear what they will do if they are not given what they consider a fair share of power.
Lieutenant Michael Hoffman, a platoon commander with the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division in Baquba, recently described a scene in which some Baquba Guardians were outraged when he denied them an extraordinary share of a humanitarian food drop meant for some of the area's starved residents.
"There are still a lot of people who don't distinguish between being Baquba Guardians and their heritage," Hoffman said. He added that some of the volunteers he worked with had already quit.
Some Sunni leaders, nearly all of whom have pulled out of Iraq's government, said in recent weeks that they had no choice but to remain in opposition. Their communities view the government as completely opposed to Sunni interests, so signing on to legislation like a new oil law would be viewed as a mistake. Seeing the government work together - at a time when so many are invested in keeping it weak - would be seen as a cause for alarm, not celebration.
Undermining the government for some has become patriotic. As one senior Sunni leader, Saleh al-Mutlak, put it: "We have to satisfy people's frustrations."
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Something happened to Dick Cheney between 1994 and 2001 to make him change his mind about invading Iraq. In 1994 he accurately and presciently cited all of the dangers of invading and occupying Iraq. Yet in 2003 he rejected his own wisdom and recklessly stated that we would be "greeted as liberators" in Iraq.
What made Cheney change his mind??
America's Lib'rul Media has so far refused to call Cheney on this flip-flop -- perhaps the most significant policy flip-flop in U.S. history -- or ask him the simple question: " Why did you change your mind?"
David Strahan gives about as reasonable an explanation as any I can think of to this riddle, although many of you have programmed your minds to reject this possibility.
Read it... if you dare!
Why Dick changed his mind about invading Iraq
Posted on Saturday, August 18th, 2007
By David Strahan blog
While Americans debate continuing the "surge" vs. withdrawal, all the Iraqis who can do so are withdrawing from Iraq. Kind of ironic, isn't it?
Sadly, the Iraqis who leave tend to be the best and brightest -- the very ones Iraq needs to build a functioning government, start businesses, and maintain universities, hospitals, and vital infrastructure. I don't blame them for leaving and neither should you -- not unless you and your family have lived in their shoes.
It's just another depressing example of how the deck is stacked against "victory" in Iraq.
Iraq's Elite Fleeing in Droves
By Amira El Ahl, Volkhard Windfuhr and Bernhard Zand
Der Spiegel | August 20, 2007
One in ten Iraqis has left the country. Baghdad's elite are trying to make ends meet in neighboring Jordan and Syria. Washington wants the United Nations to address the refugee crisis. In the meantime, the country is losing its best minds -- the very people needed to rebuild Iraq.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Slanted media coverage from FOX. What did you expect?
The "surge" is working, say U.S. Senators Levin and Warner… except it isn't. They advise dissolving the Iraqi government because it "cannot produce a political settlement."
Excuse me for quibbling, but wasn't the whole point of the surge to give Iraq's political leaders "breathing room" to settle their differences? If anything, Iraqis are farther apart. The Sunnis have boycotted al-Maliki's government. And Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi'ite cleric and militia leader, calls the al-Maliki government "a tool for the Americans."
So, what has the surge accomplished? This just goes to show that American military power can achieve very little in effecting political change in Iraq.
Withdrawal is the only option. Iraqis must be forced to fend for themselves and settle their differences. And with true responsibility comes true dignity.
Sens. Warner and Levin Travel to Iraq, Praise Surge Results
August 20, 2007 | FoxNews.com
WASHINGTON — After a brief trip to Iraq, Sen. Carl Levin said Monday that the Iraqi Parliament should vote no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki because of its sectarian nature and leadership.
"The Maliki government is non-functional," Levin, D-Mich., said in a conference call with reporters.
Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the panel's top Republican, just returned from a fact-finding mission to the country. The two reported that they are encouraged by the effects of the recent U.S. military surge there, but their enthusiasm is tempered by concerns about Iraq's political climate.
"We have seen indications that the surge of additional brigades to Baghdad and its immediate vicinity and the revitalized counter-insurgency strategy being employed have produced tangible results in making several areas of the capital more secure. We are also encouraged by continuing positive results — in al-Anbar Province, from the recent decisions of some of the Sunni tribes to turn against Al Qaeda and cooperate with coalition force efforts to kill or capture its adherents," the two said in a statement issued after leaving the country.
"We remain concerned, however, that in the absence of overall national political reconciliation, we may be inadvertently helping to create another militia which will have to be dealt with in the future," the two said.
[In other words, we may be creating another "blowback" situation a la bin Laden and Afghanistan where we support and fund one armed group – the Sunni militias – only to have this strategy blow up in our faces. – J]
Speaking with reporters, Levin said he hopes when the Parliament reconvenes in the next few weeks, it will dissolve the government, which he said "cannot produce a political settlement because it is too beholden to sectarian leaders."
Levin said "broad frustration" exists across Iraq and within the Bush administration with al-Maliki, and he noted that the Iraqi constitution provides that 25 members of Parliament can sign a petition to hold this vote.
In a separate event, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an on-again, off-again supporter of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a British newspaper on Monday that the Iraqi government is on the brink of collapse.
"Al-Maliki's government will not survive because he has proven that he will not work with important elements of the Iraqi people," the cleric was quoted by The Independent as saying.
"The prime minister is a tool for the Americans, and people see that clearly. It will probably be the Americans who decide to change him when they realize he has failed. We don't have a democracy here, we have a foreign occupation."
The trip, which included an excursion to Jordan, gave the lawmakers a chance to see progress on the ground. The two met with a host of American and Iraqi officials, including Gen. David Petraeus, commander of Multi-National Forces-Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
The senators also met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Deputy Presidents Adil Abd Al-Mahdi and Tariq Al-Hashimi and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.
The visit comes ahead of an expected September report from Petraeus that is to outline the 18 benchmarks laid out by Congress to measure progress in Iraq. The White House said Monday that report should be provided in open hearings on Capitol Hill on Sept. 11 or 12.
Levin and Warner said that during their meetings they had few reassurances that the Iraqi government will be able to cooperate in any meaningful way.
"In many meetings with Iraqi political leaders, of all different backgrounds, we told them of the deep impatience of the American people and the Congress with the lack of political progress, impressed upon them that time has run out in that regard, and told them of the urgent need to make the essential compromises," the lawmakers said. "In all of our meetings we witnessed a great deal of apprehension regarding the capabilities of the current Iraqi government to shed its sectarian biases and act in a unifying manner."
Levin said the Iraqi government is "stronger and more capable" than 10 months ago when Levin was last in Iraq. The Iraqis have trained 10 of 12 divisions — 163,000 troops. But he said that until U.S. troops pull out of Iraq, the country's army won't take the lead. Levin is still pushing for the U.S. to begin drawing down to well below pre-surge levels in the next four months.
Despite progress being made on the military side of the surge, Sen Levin said that without political progress the military successes won't add up to much.
"There is consensus: there is no military solution to the conflict," Levin said.
While many of the military goals have been met, opponents of the Iraq war are using the failure for reconciliation on several key political goals as ammunition to call for a withdrawal.
Without a political compromise, a lasting calm seems unlikely. However, an additional 20,000 troops are expected to rotate in by December. This is not associated with the surge but would briefly increase the numbers of U.S. soldiers in the country.