Monday, October 30, 2006

Is There an Honest Answer in the House?

It has been said that politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs that properly concern them.

One way this happens is by raising the “disgust” factor so high by smearing one’s opponent that voters simply turn off the entire process.

Another is to deliberately lie – and lie and lie in the hope that the “base” will either forget what used to be the position or will simply shrug off the lie as part of the dirty business of political elections.

And then there are those who listen for something to be said about the real issues of the day – and hearing nothing, see no reason to vote because no candidate speaks to their concerns.

These are not new faults in the system, but this year with a debilitating war going on, with more working men and women and their children existing without health insurance, with more than half a trillion dollars consumed for military purposes, there is greater peril for the future if the public opts not to vote in large numbers.

What remains unfathomable is the state of denial among the very top echelons of the administration when the subject is Iraq. In the old days before video cameras and satellite transmissions, politicians could get away with gaffs by saying the reporter misquoted or made a mistake when taking notes. But today, with instant electronic feeds?

On October 29, President Bush was quoted saying “We’ve never been ‘stay the course’.” In fact, the networks – even the comedy channel – quickly trotted out well over a dozen instances that phrase was used. In fact, just two days earlier, on Air Force Two, Vice President Cheney remarked to reporters “the United States’ ability to stay the course and get the job done is a very, very important piece of business.”

The administration keeps talking about Iraq as a fully sovereign nation with a government elected by the Iraqi people. Yet again on October 29, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters: “I am now prime minister and overall commander of the armed forces, yet I cannot move a single company without coalition approval because of the U.N. mandate.” This is a sovereign government in a fully sovereign state?

The coalition forces complain the Iraqis are not measuring up to the task of providing security, forcing the coalition forces to step in and do the house-to-house, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, patrols. Yet U.S. forces have launched operations with Iraqi counterparts without informing al-Maliki. On October 27, the Iraqi prime minister was so frustrated that he told reporters: “If anyone is responsible for the poor security situation in Iraq, it is the coalition.”

Closer to home, the war is having ever more serious effects on the nation. Pentagon statistics for 2002-2004 reveal abnormally high divorce rates for Army officers – from 2% to 6% at the end of that period. Suicide rates are also rising, from 60 to 67 to 83 between 2003-2005. Yet senior Pentagon officials insist the Army – which numbers about 504,000 – is not overly stressed or stretched. Nor are the Marines.

If so, why have some 75,000 Army troops had their term of service extended under “stop-loss” since 2003? And why have the Reserve and the National Guard been so heavily used – and in some cases misused – as when units are given substandard or incomplete training for the missions they were sent to do in Iraq?

Why have standards been adjusted downward in terms of increased waivers for violations of law, for lower academic achievement? Why has the maximum enlistment age been raised twice in six months?

And why are there 35,000 civilian contractors working under contract for the Pentagon in Iraq and Air Force and Navy personnel diverted to jobs normally done by Army troops? Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, 59 Navy and 28 air force personnel have died in Iraq.

As hard as things were under Saddam Hussein, at least there was some stability, enough predictability to visit friends and relatives and to celebrate the rituals of ordinary life. No more.

Maybe what is needed more than honest answers – both for Iraqis and for the U.S. public – are honest questions?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Keeping the Republic

While I was in Indiana October 26-27, six more U.S. service personnel and one UK soldier became the latest fatalities reported by the coalition military headquarters in Iraq.

The Indiana visit was my first trip beyond a 60 mile radius from Washington, DC for the purpose of meeting and talking with people and trying to gauge what FCNL can do to reinforce and help crystallize the growing opposition to policies that, during the last five years, have undermined the body politic of the United States. There were four gatherings in just one state and in only two cities in that state, but the locales seem representative of the “heartland.”

In Terre Haute, the ordinary men and women with whom I met were deeply concerned about the war I Iraq – the destruction and death suffered by the Iraqi people; the deaths of U.S. military personnel; the injure; all those whose lives had been irrevocably and adversely affected by this war in ways that the vast majority of the U.S. public never experience. There is, interestingly, anger about what many believe were the deliberate deceptions that the administration perpetrated to gain the support of a large part of the public who, in turn, acquiesced in the congressional resolution granting President Bush the opportunity to claim authority to initiate preventive war against Saddam Hussein.

But there is even more anger at the Congress. Only this anger centers on those who were content, even eager, to totally abrogate their constitutional duties and responsibilities as a co-equal branch of government to check and to balance the claims of the executive branch to more and more power – claims which, as has happened before – that finally overreaches so far that Lord Acton’s dictum again is fulfilled: “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

On the other hand, hardly any of the working adults, the college students, and the retirees are still taken in by the administration’s constant fear mongering that was so prominent right through the Iraq invasion. Most realize that, despite the White House proclamations, terror as a fact of life did not begin with Osama bin Laden or with September 11, 2001. Terror is a condition engendered by fear – fear of the unknown, of the future, of the unexpected. It is the accomplishment of humanity that we have developed ways to evaluate and to control our sense of fear, but it is also the bane of our life that some among us will play on fear to try to further their agendas, their purposes, even to the point of artificially inflating the proximity of danger.

Most heartening of all, however, is the concern expressed about the need to radically reinvigorate the processes of constitutional governance as provided for in the U.S. Constitution. People from different work backgrounds, experiences, and ages seem to understand that until the public reasserts its role as the source of power in our representative (republic) form of governance, the country will remain fundamentally at risk – not from acts of terror – but from the usurpation of the rights and privileges of citizens by the executive branch with the abject acquiescence of legislators more interested in re-election than in securing the general welfare.

In true emergencies, ones that pose such a fundamental challenge that the very existence of the state is imminently threatened, the people will give the “commander in chief” sufficient latitude to act to preserve the Union. But such grants have always been understood as temporary and ultimately subject to judicial review. For in the end, despite George Bush’s declaration, it is not the president but the people that can rightly claim the title of “Decider-in-Chief.”

More than once, I was reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s observation (as documented by the Congressional Research Service) at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 when it became known that the delegates had drafted not a revised Articles of Confederation but a new Constitution. In full context:

On leaving Independence Hall at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Franklin was asked “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?” According to Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate, he replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

Gone fishin'

Well, not really. I've been away traveling in Indiana for the last two days and returned home late today. I will post tomorrow about the trip and what I saw and heard from a part of the "heartland."

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Spinning the Iraq War

President Bush gave another press conference today, trying to spin the Iraq war into a necessary if tough struggle that inevitably will be “won.” Acknowledging the recent violence as a “concern,” Bush nevertheless insisted that U.S. troops will stay in Iraq until the “job is done.”

While acknowledging that the people’s patience is not unlimited, Bush called on the public to exercise patience and to trust the generals and the government – meaning the White House. He again asserted that there is a plan to win the war, with “winning” defined as leaving in place in Iraq a democratically elected, sovereign government able to defend itself. Bush asserted that the first two conditions already exist: the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a sovereign government that was elected by the Iraqi people in a free election.

The forms of election – one person, one vote; pluralism; secret balloting – generally were met. But the ballots were presented on the basis of ethnic\sectarian affiliation which negates the principle of the plurality of shifting alliances that serves as a check on the tyranny of the majority. Moreover, five months after al-Maliki’s government was approved by the Council of Representatives (the “lower” house of parliament), the major power blocs in the Council have moved toward devolving power to regions (Kurds in the north, a possible nine-province Shi’ite region in the south) at the expense of the Baghdad government. The result is a further, frustrating, and often fatal delay in meeting the expectations of more than one-quarter of the Iraqi people that a “permanent government” would be able to provide improved security and important government services.

As for President Bush’s declaration that the al-Maliki regime is sovereign, the Iraqi prime minister was so surprised by a joint U.S. Special Forces and Iraqi army raid in Sadr City aimed at a Mahdi army official suspected of running death squads that the Iraqi Prime Minister held his own press conference to denounce the operation. Initial reports said 20 Iraqis were killed and an equal number wounded.

President Bush outlined his strategy in Iraq: train an adequate number of Iraqi army units and police – the goal is 325,000; gradually have the Iraqi security forces, bolstered by embedded small numbers of U.S. trainers – take the lead in operations; and then have Iraqis operate completely independent of U.S. support – including logistics. A few minutes later, Bush said the job of the U.S. in Iraq in conjunction with the al-Maliki regime is to prevent the outbreak of civil war. With only 325,000 Iraqis and 140,000 U.S. and allied troops, this is verging on “Mission Impossible.”

“Which is it?” is a fair question to put to the president, particularly as he provided at least five rolling rationales for starting the war in the first place. The answer seems to be that the mission is whatever the president says it is – reminiscent of the infamous “mission creep” in Vietnam. Nor does Bush seem to be concerned about the effects of such imprecision despite the military’s cardinal rule that it be given a clear, unambiguous mission that contributes to the nation’s overall political goal.

One question that came up in Bush’s press conference concerned the existence of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. The commander in chief said he wasn’t concerned about permanent bases because that was long-term whereas the emphasis for the moment had to be on short-term security. He did acknowledge that at some point the bases discussion would have to occur with whatever government was in power in Baghdad. But that might be five to ten years in the future.

Ironically, October 26 also marked the first reports in mainstream media of the growing number of active duty soldiers who are challenging the continued presence of U.S. troops and bases in Iraq. (Although small, the group’s objections are reminiscent of the so-called “refuseniks” in Israel.) And just a few days earlier, The Washington Times carried a short item about a “massive military base” being built by the U.S. at Arbil in Kurdish Iraq.

Speaking of permanent bases, having shipped about 1,000 “terrorists” to Guantanamo Bay – often with no evidence of highly suspect accusations that a prisoner had fought against U.S. troops or in anyway supported al-Qaeda – Washington now finds itself with 355-375 captives it would like to release. Few countries are budging, particularly since Washington is demanding as a condition of repatriation, that the governing authority in a detainee’s country of citizenship put the returnee in jail, on trial, or otherwise under surveillance. Many governments simply refuse to accept Washington’s terms, meaning that there are prisoners who have not been charged with any crimes, will never be charged, but cannot leave Guantanamo or the prisons therein.

One option the administration is unlikely to consider even though it is responsible for the perversion of justice is to offer permanent residency to those at Guantanamo deemed “no threat” by military commissions. It seems the very least Bush could do – but then….

Monday, October 23, 2006

Lies and Damn Lies

To anyone and everyone who reads this entry: WARNING!!! To continue reading risks exposing your integrity, at the very least, to the blandishments of polished practitioners of those deceitful arts of diplomacy that ordinary mortals call lies.

This warning may call to mind the witticism famously attributed to Mark Twain by some and to Benjamin Disraeli by others – including Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” So that you do not inadvertently prevaricate, neither Twain nor Disraeli seem to have been the first to combine these three elements. Some claim to have found two other sources, but whatever the truth, the phrase was in use in the 1890s and subsequently popularized by Twain.

Now if you want a damn lie, simply tune in to the October 23 edition of MSNBC’s “Countdown” with Keith Olbermann. It seems that the day before, on ABC’s “This Week,” President Bush asserted that his administration’s Iraq policy had never been “stay the course.” In 30 seconds, Olbermann made mincemeat of this claim. One can hear White House spokesman Tony Snow on October 24 starting his press briefing with the equally famous line: “What the President meant to convey was….”

And the statistics? Unfortunately, these do not lie – 87 U.S. dead in October so far, 3.1 million Iraqis internally displaced or refugees in Jordan and “unfriendly countries" like Iran and Syria; hundreds of thousand of Iraqi men, women, and children killed – the list goes on.

Today seems like the opportune moment to shut off the official statements and to turn to the statements of those on the ground in Iraq, the ordinary U.S. soldier and civilian and the ordinary Iraqis who see the real world that is Iraq – or at least their part of the real world.

“Sometimes we have a feeling of complete hopelessness.” SGT 1st Class Jeff Nelson.

“We just want them to settle down long enough to get out of here.” CPT Alan Renazco.

“The civil war that everyone was afraid of is getting started.” Colonel (ret.) Thomas Hammes, USMC.

“Baghdad has become the capital of death.” Hussein Kari, Iraqi civilian.

And this from a U.S. general: “Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do.”

No wonder it's so grim.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Where in the World???

From time to time the public reads reports that detail the inability of U.S. school children, college students, and working adults to identify – even using a map – the 50 states that constitute the Union.

More numerous are comparisons with foreigners in identifying countries in the world or even more generally, on which continents various countries are. And when it comes to history – our own as well as others, especially non-European – the knowledge gap always weighs against us.

But this?

On October 17, Jeff Stein of the Congressional Quarterly wrote a commentary for The New York Times that confirms – again – what the public has known instinctively for a number of years: Members of Congress doesn’t know who benefits and how from the laws they pass and the funds they appropriate in the name of the U.S. people.

Stein wasn’t delving into some minor program buried in some bureau of one of the less controversial executive agencies. Nor had he pulled out some massive 1,000 page bill that a Member simply could not read through before having to vote – as has happened when one or the other political parties wants to ram through an omnibus spending bill so Congress can go home.

He was interested in Iraq, specifically, if Members know the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis and which sect is where. Considering the stakes involved – the U.S., coalition and Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqi men, women, and children being killed everyday; the more than half a trillion dollars spent or obligated for Iraq, Afghanistan, and the “global war on terror”; and the spectre of a fragmented, failed nation-state sitting on some of the largest oil reserves in the world – one would think that Members would know which was which.

More troubling is Stein’s revelation that some U.S. counter-terror officials could not answer basic questions about Islam. As Stein put it, “Most American officials …don’t have a clue.”

One Member who didn’t know but then asked to be filled in, subsequently remarked : “what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”

One normally might simply observe “better late than never.” But for 2,780 U.S. soldiers and the uncounted Iraqis killed, there is no “late” – only “never.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Spooks are Back -- And It's Not Halloween

GAME SHOW HOST: Hello John and Jane Q. Public: it’s time once again to play “Connect the Policy Program Dots !!” – the congressional game that lets you be a virtual Member of Congress and do as many of the following as you can in 30 minutes: research, write, debate, filibuster (if a senator), possibly read before voting, investigate, and perform oversight.

The way the game works is contestants are given the name of an existing, proposed, or cancelled policy or program. They then must decide how many of the categories to work on, such as write a bill that justifies the policy in terms of expected outcome (intent); sets minimum performance standards; gives projected costs, funding source, and what other programs will be cut to pay for theirs; identify who benefits most; and picks which political action committees will be lobbying for or against the proposal. Points are awarded if a contestant can link all the elements mentioned above into a believable narrative of the political and social imperatives in play, with a 50 point bonus for holding the floor for 20 minutes. The studio audience’s choice of the winner by its applause will be worth 100 points.

Our first contestant, Jane Public, is ready. Your policy program is: TIA Begin NOW!!

JANE PUBLIC: TIA stands for Total Information Awareness. It is essentially a perpetual data-mining operation that scoops up electronic transmissions around the world In theory, it employs a series of classified filters to hone in on the conversations of terrorists or supporters of terror to learn their plans and to try to identify others who are part of the terror networks. Originally targeting conversations that either originated abroad or terminated abroad, the program became public in November 2002, at which time it caused a political storm. By the following September, the program was all but dead as Congress said no money could be spent on this kind of operation inside the U.S. But Congress did allow the executive branch to use the technology in foreign countries if the president determined there was a national security need.

The original head of the TIA was to have been Admiral John Poindexter, one of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisors whose connection to the illegal Iran-Contra affair made him suspect in the eyes of many. The atmosphere surrounding the TIA and other surveillance programs that the Bush administration proposed as part of its “war on terror” grew noticeably colder after the White House renamed it the Terrorism Information Awareness program and attempted to re-launch it under cover of the FY 2004 annual budget submission.

But the Bush White House was determined not to surrender easily. If the policy could not be legislated, its objectives would be achieved through executive order and administrative fiat. Thus the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the FBI expanded their data-mining operations based on the invocation of the dubious premise of the unitary executive and its associated claim to broad inherent powers. In short, Bush decided that he could set aside statutes, structures, even constitutional guarantees simply by the stroke of a pen.

One such dictat bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court that approves government electronic eavesdropping on U.S. persons after the expiration of the time allowed the government to conduct such surveillance without a warrant – if the government asserts a continuing need to monitor the communications.

In retrospect, TIA and FISA can be considered the warm-up for what came later. Sensing that Congress would roll over and not complain too loudly and expecting the Supreme Court would defer to the “inherent power” of the commander in chief in the conduct of the “global war on terror,” Bush decided that when Congress authorized him to “use any means” to apprehend those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, it also meant to empower him to prevent future attacks by, among other means, listening to conversations between innocent U.S. persons that originated and terminated within the U.S.

In a May 2004 General Accounting Office (GAO) report on data-mining by the federal government, the GAO found that 52 of 128 federal agencies had 199 data mining efforts, of which 131 were operational. Fourteen were targeted for intelligence and counter-terrorism purposes, 15 were directed against criminal activity, and 24 against fraud, waste, and abuse.

Now comes the “son of” TIA: a $2.4 million start-up effort funded by the Department of Homeland Defense intended to create “sentiment analysis” software that will examine what is said or written for “negative opinions of the United States or its leaders.”

Ostensibly, like NSA’s Carnivor, TIA and FISA, the objective of this development, should it come to pass, is to discover what foreigners think. But in an administration as closed off to outside influences as is the Bush White House, practically everybody not in the inner circle is a “foreigner.”

One of the reasons for having a written constitution is to specify who does what and who has what powers. In the U.S. Constitution, powers are divided among the three branches of the national government and between the federal and state levels. But there is another division that is found in the Tenth Amendment – the last in the Bill of Rights:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the
Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are
reserved for the States respectively, or to the people.”

GAME SHOW HOST: Time has expired. One question for our winner: what would be your next action if you had more time?

JANE PUBLIC: Send a copy of the Tenth Amendment to the White House and everyone running for Congress.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Bush 43 Iraq Legacy

One of the recurring rationales for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by Bush 43 was to finish what Bush 41 could not or would not do with more than twice the number of troops – a form of generational one-upmanship with a political twist.

Few whose experiences in policy formulation and implementation stretch back to 1990-91believe that Bush 41 had any option other than to stop the ground offensive once the Iraqis had been driven from Kuwait and the combat capabilities of the most forward deployed Iraqi military units had been damaged or destroyed. Absent a UN mandate to crush the regime in Baghdad, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein by military force would have ruptured the alliance between the Arab states from the Western nations led by the U.S., UK, and France.

In the current embroglio, Bush 43 seems unconcerned about which countries are with him, were with him and have left, or never joined. He sees as a central element of his legacy the creation in the heart of the Muslim world of an “enduring” democracy with all (or substantially all) the freedoms that U.S. citizens enjoy.

With the security situation in the middle of Iraq, including Baghdad, so precarious and so close to if not into multiple civil wars, the steady call from most quarters is to strengthen the political mechanisms, pull back U.S. and other foreign forces, and to give increased responsibilities to the Iraqis to run their country.

One problem with this is that Iraq doesn’t even have all the political bodies called for in its constitution even though it has gone through the western processes of democratic governance and has the forms of democratic societies that elections produce. It has held ballots for a constitutional assembly and a 275-member Council of Representatives (parliament), a basic constitution has been accepted, and a chief executive (prime minister) and his cabinet approved by the parliament.

What has not been formed yet is the other part of the legislative branch – the Federation Council – originally meant to be a rough equivalent of the U.S. Senate in that it is not based on population numbers, according to Beirut professor Chibli Mallat. Provided for in Article 62 of the constitution, it received no attention in the media coverage of the rush to meet the time deadline for the constitutional referendum.

The Federation Council is suppose to provide representation for any governorates or other areas that may not be organized into regions. (The Kurdish areas in the north have long been organized into a semi-autonomous region, and of late some Shi’ites have been trying to form a Shi’a region in nine of the southern governorates. There may also have been a thought to provide representation in the Federation Council for the various small ethnic and religious groups who otherwise would have absolutely no voice in governance. But Article 62 was never developed to provide any details other than to make it the total creature of the Council of Representatives. The latter body is to “regulate the Federation Council formation, its membership conditions and its specialization’s (sic) and all that is connected with it.”

Since the referendum and the elections that have been held do not seem to have changed much in Iraq except to worsen the violence, the inaction on Article 62 might be a blessing in disguise. As it is, al-Qaeda-in-Iraq and other insurgent groups have now declared a new Islamic republic from Anbar province through to Baghdad. Even more ominous, hints that a palace coup might be shaping up in Baghdad are starting to take shape. These suggest a five-member ruling council might be anointed by the parliament to replace the current government and be empowered to take on the foreign “jihadists" and others unwilling to fall in line.

Of course when one starts down this road, some would be sorely tempted to dispense with a parliamentary “invitation” altogether.

Either way, it would wreck Bush 43’s vision of his legacy – not to mention the additional carnage and death that would become the legacy of the Iraqi people.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Lancet Study -- A rejoiner to October 12 Comments

The 2006 Johns Hopkins-sponsored epidemiological survey of “excess deaths” (that is, deaths above the pre-March 19, 2003 death rate) in Iraq attributed directly and indirectly to the U.S.-led intervention in that country and to the increased chaos has – not unexpectedly – drawn dismissive criticism from the White House.

Over at the Pentagon, the findings, published in the British medical journal Lancet, were the topic of the first question at an October 11 press conference held by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General George Casey. Casey, the senior U.S. general in Iraq, characterized the report’s finding that 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths had occurred between March 19, 2003 and September 2006 as “not credible.”

That’s not how Middle East expert Professor Juan Cole sees it. But the numbers have to be disaggregated to really make sense.

For example, Cole notes that about 200,000 Iraqis have been killed EACH YEAR in the sectarian strife that broke out after the U.S. invasion. Depending on the margin of error (always given as a probability range), that breaks down to between 350 and 470 Iraqis dying from political violence daily.

By contrast, UN agencies in-country estimate only about 100 die daily from the sectarian struggle. This is patently an undercount since the UN relies on statistics from morgues. And anyone who has followed Iraq (or any country or population segment that is Islamic) knows that many bodies never reach a morgue because of the practice of burying the deceased before the sun goes down on the day of death or no longer than 24 hours after death.

On a practical note, Iraqi government workers and non-combatants alike do not have consistent access to certain parts of the country – places like Anbar province, some of the marsh areas in the south of Iraq, and of course some of the slum areas of Baghdad. Cole notes that Iraq has 89 urban areas plus Baghdad. If the capital averages just 100 dead daily and the other 89 cities average 4, one would be in the 655,000 range of the study.

Media reports of casualties concentrate on the fatalities in and around Baghdad, rarely covering other areas unless a really egregious incident occurs. As Professor Cole notes, even when there is sustained sectarian or inter-tribal bloodshed in a city, those numbers seem not to be included in the monthly statistics from Iraqi authorities.

The Lancet study breaks the total into “excess violent deaths” and non-violent excess deaths – 601,000 and 54,000, respectively. Of the violent deaths over the entire period, only 30% are attributed to U.S. forces, and this percentage is dropping as the sectarian strife increases.

Finally, a bit of perspective is in order.

The U.S. Army War College records that in the four years of the U.S. Civil War (April 1861-April 1865), the combined battle deaths of all the armies on both sides came to 184,600. Non-battle deaths IN THE ARMIES of both sides totaled 373,450. Thus total deaths IN THE ARMED FORCES were 558,050.

Other sites note that Union Army records list another 50,000 deaths from causes ranging from executions, captivity, murder and suicide to drowning and sunstroke. When added to the War College estimate (Confederate non-combat deaths are estimates), the total (608,000) approximates the unofficial but regularly used total of 620,000 deaths or an average of 155,000 per year just within the armed forces. The civilian population killed in the war, especially in the Confederacy, has never been calculated.)

(Interestingly, U.S. census records for the area labeled “South” record a population increase of 1.3 million between 1860 and 1870 against a total U.S. population growth of 3.8 million in the same ten years.)

Hemisphere's Defense Ministers meet

The combination of the page scandal in the House of Representatives and the revelations about the Bush administration’s shortcomings chronicled in Bob Woodward’s latest book mesmerized the U.S. media in early October. So it was not surprising that the meeting of western hemispheric defense and security chiefs received little notice in the U.S. press.

Admittedly, the Managua, Nicaragua meeting of the 32 defense chiefs and Costa Rica’s security head (Costa Rica has neither an army nor a defense minister) in early October was tame stuff compared to the above. Conferees reiterated traditional calls for more cooperation to prevent international terrorism, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. But under the surface there were clear signs of tension, particularly with regard to U.S.-Venezuela relations.

Driving this disagreement is Venezuela’s recent purchase of as much as $3 billion in Russian and Spanish military equipment. The Bush administration, which in May banned transfers of U.S. military equipment to Venezuela, considers the purchases to be destabilizing because they might start an arms build-up in Latin America. Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the OAS secretariat have also voiced concern over the acquisition of 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 24 fighter jets, and 53 helicopters. Others worried about the increasing danger that terrorists and drug dealers will steal stockpiled small arms that the Venezuelan military will no longer need, either by breaking into storage sites or intercepting shipments from Venezuela to other OAS countries – including Cuba.

There were, however, substantive achievements that came out of the meeting. The conferees agreed to create in Managua an Interhemispheric Landmine Clearing Center, staffed by experts from Mainly Central American nations who have extensive experience in removing landmines buried through the region in the volatile 1980s. Another proposal that is being advanced is increased participation in UN peacekeeping operations and response to natural disasters around the globe.

The Bush administration is also changing course on sanctions it imposed on 21 countries, including eleven in the Americas, that had refused to buckle to White House insistence that they exempt U.S. troops from possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes. The eleven – Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad, and Uruguay – had been cut off from training programs in the U.S.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Death in Iraq, And What the U.S. Public Really Thinks About the War

Perhaps because it was only yesterday the latest ABC/Washington Post Poll was released, the blockbuster story on Iraq in today’s Washington Post ended up on page A12. Whatever the reason, the incredible number in the black-ink headline – 655,000 dead – still leapt off the page at the unsuspecting reader.

As was done a year ago, a team of Iraqi and U.S. epidemiologists had surveyed 1,849 households and, by using a process called “systematic equal step sampling” to create statistical “clusters” that were then extrapolated to the entire survey population. In 2004, using the same methodology as in this year’s work, the medical sleuths estimated that in the first 18 months following the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, there were 100,000 “excess” Iraqi deaths – that is, deaths from any cause that exceed historical and statistical equilibrium. When the findings were published in the respected British medical journal, Lancet, the authors and their conclusions were belittled by many conservative and even a few liberal organizations.

By coincidence, President Bush held a news conference at the White House today. Asked about the fatality report, Bush brushed off the findings, labeling the researchers’ methodology flawed and even asserting – mistakenly or purposefully, that the study’s authors said their methodology was flawed.

Without question, when “excess deaths” jump of half a million in one year, methods should be questioned. However, what the researchers discovered seems to point to a high degree of accuracy in the methodology:

- separating out the fatalities in the first 18 months from the total time period yielded the same percentage of “excess” deaths in the 2006 study as in the 2004 one, validating the process of clustering data;

- the overwhelming majority of deaths were validated with death certificates;

- the upward spurt in deaths recorded in the Lancet study mirrors the findings of other organizations, although the actual number of total deaths recorded by these other organizations are lower.

By a further coincidence, General George Casey, overall commander of the coalition troops in Iraq, spoke to reporters at the Pentagon. Asked to comment on the same report, Casey – who said he had not seen the report – thought the estimate not credible. Casey cited a figure of 50,000, but was unable to say where he saw that figure. (The British-based Iraq Body Count estimates 50,000 Iraqi dead, but it concedes its totals are based on incomplete information.)

Separately, the Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center reports that between the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and September 30 2006:

20,687 U.S. military personnel serving in the operation suffered wounds;

30,365 U.S. military personnel suffering from wounds, disease, or non-hostile injuries required medical air transport out-of-country; and

a total of 44,779 U.S. military personnel participating in the operation are “non-mortal” casualties.

The latter figure roughly equals three standard U.S. combat divisions “lost” at least temporarily, with two division-equivalents lost for a substantial period because they were aero-medically evacuated.

Other points on Iraq that tie in with the ABC/Washington Post survey, that pertain to the substance of the Lancet report, or that came out at the Pentagon briefing include:

- 64% of those surveyed disapprove of the way the Iraq war is being handled, while 84% say Iraq will be important in how they vote this November;

- 63% say the war is not worth the cost to the U.S., and 51% that U.S. forces should be decreased. Of the latter, 37% called for immediate withdrawal.

- coalition fatalities in Iraq are rapidly approaching 3,000 – they are a mere nine short of that grim total. The U.S. has lost 2,384 dead, the UK 119, and the other allies with forces in Iraq 118.

- at the Pentagon press briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that the U.S. had returned approximately 55 of the 108 bases that have been set up in Iraq since the end of combat operations on May 1, 2003.

- General Casey said he saw no need to ask for additional troops in Iraq.

By a fourth coincidence, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Asia Society released the results of an extensive survey of the publics in the U.S., China, India, South Korea, and Australia centered on the subject of “The United States and the Rise of China.” (Japan’s survey results will be released in November.) The questions pertained both to the national self-image of each population and to the views of each public of the other countries named.

One question in particular illustrated graphically the intensity of the feeling that is emerging in the U.S. toward the Iraq war. On a scale of 1 to 100, the public was asked to rate how favorably they felt toward selected countries around the world – obviously a “touchy-feely” question whose answer would include a certain level of emotional intensity. Of 15 countries listed, 5 were 50% or higher (but none over 71%), six clustered between 40-47%, , Saudi Arabia came in at 34% and Iraq at 27%. Only avowed “enemies” North Korea and Iran were lower – at 23% and 21%, respectively.

More on the Chicago study later.

Monday, October 09, 2006

October Anniversaries

Although this is being written some nine hours after the first reports of North Korea’s nuclear test at 10:00am Pyongyang time, details are still flowing in on the test such as the explosive force – estimated between 5 and 15 kilotons, comparable to Hiroshima which was 15 kilotons – and indications that the test may not have been completely successful. Moreover, the pundits are speculating about possible action by the UN Security Council which has scheduled an emergency meeting later today in New York. So I will defer direct comment on this subject other than to note that this test will undoubtedly produce calls for more spending on missile defense by the United States, which in turn will ratchet up Defense Department spending even more than projected last month by the Congressional Research Service in its September 22 report to Congress on “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11.”

(If you missed it, that cost estimate was $509 billion. And that total does not include sums just made public yesterday. The Army says it needs $17.1 billion in 2007 to repair and replace damaged and destroyed equipment plus $13 billion for each of the next six years. The Marine Corp’s bill in 2007 for equipment repair and replacement is $13 billion. These latter by themselves add $108.1 billion to cost of fighting terror.)

Lest we forget, today just happens to fall between two important dates in George Bush’s global war on terror. Five years ago yesterday, October 8, 2001 in Afghanistan (October 7 in Washington), the first U.S. bombs and missiles hit al-Qaeda training bases and government buildings in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Ironically, the attack came four days after Bush pledge $320 million in additional humanitarian aid to Afghanistan on top of the $184 million pledged earlier in the year.

(What is often missed in the chronology of that period is that on the same day he pledged the added millions, Bush called up for active duty 3,283 Army Reservists and Army National Guard soldiers, almost doubling (to 7,765) earlier post-September 11, 2001 activations.)

Over time, the declared U.S. goals in that war included:

- capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda figures responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.;

- removing “oppressive” Taliban policies toward women, including restrictions on education, voting, employment outside the home, movement, and dress;

- reform of government from autocracy to parliamentary/presidential democracy and the rule of law;

- integrating the economy into the broader economic activity of the region;

- developing peaceful relations with neighboring countries and fighting terrorism; and

- eliminating or at least reducing the acreage devoted to poppy production for opium.

In a December 2001 interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS, Secretary of State Colin Powell said: “I think one can make the case that the power of al-Qaeda as an organization functioning in Afghanistan has been fractured, if not destroyed….they're on the run, and… they're sure not who they were six weeks ago.”

Today, where does Afghanistan stand?

- Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar are still free, probably in Pakistan;

- Taliban fighters are challenging U.S. and NATO forces for control of Afghan provinces running the entire length of the border with Pakistan;

- Afghan President Hamid Karzai controls little more than the area of the capital, Kabul, and he is at odds with neighboring Pakistan to the south, the former Soviet Central Asian Republics to the north, and with former warlords-turned-governors in some Afghan provinces;

- “morality” police impose strict dress codes on women, insist on men wearing beards, break up any gatherings in which men and women freely mingle, require women to be escorted by male relatives whenever they leave their homes, and prevent women from driving cars,;

- women find it difficult to maintain outside employment in occupations where they would have contact with men other than relatives;

- educational opportunities for women and girls are disappearing, with Taliban or other “conservative” groups in rural areas threatening teachers and burning schoolhouses;

- poppy production reached an all-time high last year; and

- the economy remains so precarious that latest estimates project the government has only six to eight months to improve conditions before it loses the population’s support.

Tomorrow, October 10, marks the fourth anniversary of the completion of congressional action on the resolution authorizing President Bush to use the Armed Forces of the United States to protect the nation’s security against Iraq. (Bush signed the bill October 16, 2002.)

Again, over time, the Bush White House had justified its March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq with a rolling litany of “crimes” by Saddam Hussein that were “offensive” to civilized nations and posed a “threat to U.S. security” – which, under the October 10 resolution, Bush claimed authority to:

- enforce UN Security Council resolutions demanding Saddam give up weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and end all programs on WMD;

- liberate Iraq from a brutal dictator and create a democracy in the heart of the Middle East;

- restore the Iraqi economy and, using a revitalized oil sector, give Iraqis the opportunity to live in peace with prosperity; and

- create an ally in the war on terror.

Four years later, the overall pattern in Iraq mirrors the pattern of failure in Afghanistan. The single difference is that Saddam and most of his lieutenants have been captured or killed. But Iraq is verging on becoming a failed state politically and economically. The four central provinces are in seemingly intractable chaos with armed militias operating beyond control of the government which, unlike Afghanistan, cannot claim to control even the capital city and its 7 million residents. The Iraqis have less trust in the “reformed” police force than they in Saddam’s day. Moreover, basic services normally provided by government are either non-existent or unpredictable, and production in the oil sector, which was to be the engine of the new economic boom, remains depressed.

Ironically, compared to the freedoms that women enjoyed during Saddam’s rule, in this new, more “religious” Iraq, the status of women is being progressively curtailed and shows no sign of stopping. And as to the last point, don’t be surprised should Iraq, once the coalition forces leave the country (and assuming it holds together as one country), distance itself from the U.S. and U.S. policies.

Friday, October 06, 2006

"Walter" Warner?

Anyone who has been half awake these last 43 months will have heard pundits making and refuting similarities between Vietnam and Iraq.

Now there is a new one. The Vietnam component is the last few moments of the February 27, 1968 CBS News segment “Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?” In what some consider a seminal moment in television reporting, Walter Cronkite stated his belief that Vietnam could not be won militarily and warned that the United States had to change course. One month later, when he announced he would neither run for nor accept nomination for another term as president, Lyndon Johnson also announced a change in course that would lead to the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

John Warner, senior senator from Virginia, former Secretary of the Navy and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, met with reporters October 5 after returning from a trip to Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. Warner told the press: “I assure you, in two or three months, if this thing hasn’t come to fruition and if this level of violence is not under control and this government able to function, I think it’s a responsibility of our government internally to determine: Is there a change of course that we should take?”

And in what must be the first time this formulation has been used in the context of NOT threatening to bomb some country back to the Stone Age, he added: “And I wouldn’t take off the table any option at this time.”

Warner, unlike Cronkite in Vietnam after Tet, is not quite ready to declare that the war in Iraq cannot be won militarily – as Senate majority leader Bill Frist did of Afghanistan last week. Warner said he is prepared to wait two or three months to see if the Iraqis can turn things around and do “what is necessary to bring about a situation in Iraq whereby the people are able to live, have sufficient food and fresh water, and have a sense of confidence in their government that they’re going forward,…We’re not going to give up hope yet. Let’s give it more time to work.”

Warner, among others in Congress, have “turned the corner” or identified “the next three to six months as critical” so often that I have lost count. But with the “permanent” Iraqi government still unable after six months on the job to rein in the armed militias, still unable to exercise the powers of a functioning and sovereign regime, and with the White House unable to imagine anything other than “stay the course,” Warner has suggested that Congress may have to make the “bold decisions” that will set the U.S. on a new direction.

In fact, in both the Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Appropriations and Defense Authorization legislation, Congress has taken the first step by declaring that no funds will be spent to construct permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. The next step is to implement plans drawing down U.S. military forces, ramping up reconstruction funding and other assistance, and let the Iraqis actually govern themselves. It is, after all, their country; only they can make it work.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Why Habeas Corpus is Critical

I missed the October 3 story in the Rocky Mountain News about the lawsuit alleging wrongful arrest of a Denver man by the Secret Service on June 16.

His crime? Walking up to Dick Cheney while the Vice-President was glad-handing supporters in an open, unrestricted forum and telling Cheney to his face that administration policies were reprehensible.

According to court papers, the man and his son walked on. But when they retraced their route some ten minutes later, they were stopped by a member of Cheney’s Secret Service detail who accused the Colorado citizen of assaulting the vice-president, handcuffed him and took him to the country jail, demanding that the local police issue a summons for harassment.

Our good citizen did not touch or in any way pose an imminent threat to Dick Cheney’s physical well being. That is obvious in that the Secret Service agent made no reference to “battery,” which does involve attack on another’s physical person, and instructed local police to lodge a summons for harassment.

I might not have returned to the story except that I came across this passage from Helen Nichols’ book “An Open Letter to George W. Bush” published earlier this year by BookSurge LLC:

“Twice during your administration when I sent letters to the friend Mary, who considers herself a moderate Republican…said I was probably going to be put on some kind of ‘special list’….Mary is too afraid to speak out [or do] something as brave (or as ‘foolhardy’ as she describes it) as exercising her First Amendment right of free speech in ‘these days.’…When I dropped off those letters at the post office, I did have moments afterward when I wished I could take them back – moments when…my fearful imagination took over. I imagined Dick Cheney…warning me [to] stop sending letters to newspapers criticizing our commander in chief – or else.”

Helen and her friend Mary have not been accused of anything – yet. But in light of the treatment of the Denver man, there clearly is a propensity within at least one U.S. armed security force to try to intimidate citizens who simply seek to communicate with those who occupy political office. While Cheney may not have actually said of his critic the equivalent of Henry II of England’s “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”, it is well known that audiences at most events where Cheney appears are pre-screened to “weed out” opposition voices that might be raised to protest administration policies.

Helen and Mary, along with every other American who has succumbed to the siren call to forfeit civil rights for “security,” have started down the road whose grim milestones run from arbitrary arrest and extended periods behind bars because some “authority” designates you a “material witness” to vigilante “justice” characterized by verdicts and sentences without any (let alone fair) trials, the use of torture, indefinite secret detention because the president decides you are an “unlawful combatant,” renditions and other “disappearances” – including death and disposal of corpses in secret unmarked graves.

And you wonder why so many individuals and groups hold that the foundation of democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people is habeas corpus?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Keeping Distance

Most of the last two weeks I was in Canada, with about half of that period in Stratford, Ontario at the Stratford Festival. It used to be called the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, but as the season expanded and more and more plays, musicals, operettas, and related activities were added, the Festival’s movers and shakers decided that retaining “Shakespeare” in the title would sound too restrictive given a repertoire ranging from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to 21st century experimental productions.

As it so happens, for the first time in the ten or so years of going to Stratford, none of the five plays I saw were by Shakespeare. Moreover, four of the five – “The Glass Menagerie” (Tennessee Williams), “Don Juan” (Moliere), “Ghosts” (Ibsen), and “The Duchess of Malfi” (John Webster, a late contemporary of Shakespeare) – are “dark plays,” although only the “Duchess” came close to the on-stage body count (eleven “dead”) that The Bard racked up in “Coriolanus.”

That’s the immediate background against which I caught a passing reference on September 28 to a ruling by Federal District Judge Karen Caldwell on September 26 that struck down a Kentucky law that barred protests at the funerals, memorial services, wakes, and burials of deceased members of the military.

The overall context prompting so many states to act is the nation-wide effort mounted by members of the avowedly anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas to attribute the deaths of service members in Iraq and Afghanistan to the judgment of God on an institution (the military and its “don’t ask, don’t tell policy”) and a society that “tolerates” homosexuals.

Should the ruling stand, Kentucky is not the only state that would potentially be affected; more than half of the states as well as the federal government have passed laws restricting picketing at funerals.

The Kentucky law required protesters to maintain a distance of at least 300 feet from those attending the funeral or related service even if the participants cannot see or hear the protesters. Judge Caldwell ruled that in setting the 300 foot exclusion zone, the Kentucky General Assembly had infringed on free speech rights of the general public. She reasoned that such a large exclusion zone could unduly inhibit communications on streets and sidewalks on matters unrelated to the funeral, memorial, wake, or burial.

The choice by the Kentucky General Assembly of a 300 foot separation distance apparently is based on the proviso that requires partisan campaign workers and candidates for elected office to remain at least 300 feet from where voting occurs during elections. Obviously, when it comes to elections, the voters as willing participants need to hear the messages from the candidates and their surrogates in order to make informed choices but without real or imagined coercion at the polls. But when mourning and burying those who have died, the last thing participants in these activities need is the disruption by groups who have no interest in the meaning, purpose, and significance attached to a public ritual of private farewell that has its origin in pre-history and is common to every human civilization.

I fully support the principles of freedom of peaceful assembly, peaceful protest, and free speech. But there are limits, as the Supreme Court itself has acknowledged over the years, and I would look to the creation of a zone of privacy for those mourning the deaths of loved ones under any circumstances. Yes, churches and cemeteries are public places and are thus fora for dissent as well as assent. But if the “sanctity” of the fundamental ritual of democracy – the ballot – warrants 300 feet separation, surely the sanctity of the rituals of death – which is irreversible – warrant the same consideration.