Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Renditions Redux

David Rivkin and Lee Casey, Justice Department officials in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post (“Europe’s Runaway Prosecutions,” February 28, 2007) in which they urged Congress to enact legislation making “it a crime to initiate or maintain a prosecution against American officials if the proceeding itself otherwise violates accepted international legal norms” such as “where there is a clear case of immunity.”

The apparent catalyst for their op-ed is a rash of indictments from European courts and prosecutors and official investigations begun by European governments in February. In particular, the Europeans are looking into post-9/11 CIA renditions – defined as kidnapping in one country an individual” known” to be or suspected to have connections to terrorism and transporting him to a third country where the victim is subjected to torture by that third country’s security services.

Italian courts are proceeding with a trial in absentia of 26 CIA agents. They stand accused, along with 5 members of the Italian secret service, who will be in court, of kidnapping – the op-ed writers use the more neutral “apprehend” to characterize what took place on a Milan, Italy street February 17, 2003 – and transporting to Cairo the Egyptian cleric and terror “suspect” Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr. Nasr, who had sought asylum in Italy, claims in an eleven-page letter that he was tortured repeatedly by Egyptian security personnel.

Further north, at the beginning of February, German prosecutors issued warrants for 13 CIA agents suspected of engineering the “extraordinary rendition” of Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese heritage, who was “disappeared” at the Serbian-Macedonian border and flown to a CIA prison in Afghanistan. Like Nasr, al-Masri alleges he was tortured after being turned over to Lebanese security personnel.

Also in February, Switzerland’s government (the Federal Council) gave a green light to Swiss courts to begin criminal prosecution of anyone involved in transporting Nasr through Swiss air space. (Allegedly, the CIA flew Nasr from Aviano Airbase in Italy to Ramstein Airbase in Germany and thence to Egypt.) Simultaneously, the European Parliament approved the findings of an investigation into the complicity of European nations in the rendition program in violation of EU policy – citing Britain, Germany, and Italy in particular but also noting that others knew of but ignored CIA flights carrying drugged “rendees” through their national airspace.

Rivkin and Casey do not object to extraordinary rendition which they characterize almost benignly: “a long-standing [“time honored”] and legal [at least in customary law] practice that generally involves the cooperation [connivance or conspiracy] of two or more governments in the capture and transportation of a criminal suspect outside of normal extradition proceedings” [alternate terms mine].

Note in their definition the absence of the terms “terror,” “terrorism,” or “terrorist” – what George Bush’s “war” is all about – and the use of the judicial referents “criminal” and “extradition,” terms that are understood by non-lawyers even without recourse to Black’s Law Dictionary.

Herein is either a major oversight by the writers or chutzpah of the highest order. They appropriated a definition of rendition intended to apply to serious breaches of national and international criminal law by individuals who have fled national law enforcement or are beyond INTERPOL’s reach in locales whose rulers refuse to enforce international standards or extradition agreements. They then leap from the court system to the anti-terror war system in what seems to be an attempt to justify all instances of rendition of accused “terrorists” to “cooperating” intelligence and security services, even those know to have little if any regard for human rights. Interestingly, as if they felt a high-profile “success” had to be trotted out as Exhibit A, the op-ed authors cite the use of rendition in finally bringing to justice the international terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” who was seized in Sudan after a “political” agreement and with Sudanese foreknowledge – and taken to France for trial – in 1994.

(I was not surprised that no mention was made of the effort by Spanish magistrates to bring Augusto Pinochet of Chile before the bar of Spanish justice. All the conditions of “rendition” – a person traveling to or living in a foreign land indicted for alleged war crimes or crimes against humanity in a second foreign country who is then detained by order of officials – except the one that makes all the difference, the secret violation of civil liberties, are on exhibit in that case.)

Rivkin and Casey see in these European actions a pattern [conspiracy?] intended to intimidate and dissuade U.S. authorities and field operatives from using extraordinary rendition against those the U.S. suspects or “knows” to be associated with terror. They propose legislation that would give U.S. prosecutors the power to indict foreign judges or magistrates who investigate and try CIA and other U.S. operatives who, echoing Nuremberg, are only doing what is necessary to ensure U.S. national security and, by extension, the security of an unappreciative Europe. They ascribe the Europeans’ stance to their typical anti-war sentiment and opposition to any secret CIA activity in Europe that might even remotely become a “shoot-out” with lethal consequences for abductors, intended abductees, and innocent bystanders.

In effect, the op-ed writers seem to be advising the U.S. to carve out another unilateral “preventive” posture – as with the International Criminal Court – by instigating reciprocal indictments of “a few overreaching foreign officials,” even when it is clear that an injustice was done by the original CIA rendition. But in pursuing this course, the writers fail to acknowledge, as President Bush did in his most recent press conference, that neither supreme leaders nor presidents know everything that goes on in their governments – and thus cannot be held accountable for what might go wrong in any single rendition. (Demonstrating knowledge of and approval by a supreme leader of a pending rendition is one of the “immunities” the writers suggest negates culpability of field operators.)

In the end, the writers recommend that in Europe “extraordinary rendition can probably be abandoned without severely undercutting the war effort.” Why? To avoid continuing (or increasing) the already hard feelings on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nothing about justice.

Nothing about civil rights.

Nothing about respect for human dignity.

And what of Nasr and al-Masri?

Earlier this month, after four years, an Egyptian State Security Court ordered Nasr’s unconditional release. The Egyptian court said that his original detention was unfounded.

Four months after he was abducted, al-Masri was abruptly flown to Albania and set free – with no more than a cursory explanation that his detention was a case of “mistaken identity.”

Monday, February 26, 2007

Right of Redress

They stand as bookends, encompassing on one side the statement of the source of power – “We the People’ – by which a new social compact and form of governance were constructed, and denying to the central executive the right to assume powers through proclamation by reserving unenumerated rights “to the people” and all undelegated powers “to the states or to the people” (Amendments IX and X to the U.S. Constitution).

The key to safeguarding the “power of the people” against the tendency of governmental “mission creep” lies in giving effect to the prohibitions on governmental activities by a watchful citizenry. In the U.S. Constitution, translating this concept of accountability of power is achieved through the First Amendment which reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Somehow, since September 11, 2001, many among “We the people” have simply surrendered our responsibility – it is this as well as a right – to demand an accounting by the Congress of its part in enacting legislation that has infringed on every category of rights – enumerated, unenumerated, and undelegated – that the Constitution gives or leaves “to the people.” Moreover, Congress owes We the People a full accounting of why, especially since September 11, 2001, it has ceded so abjectly its responsibilities under the Constitution in the conduct of foreign policy, war, and peace.

Similarly, “We the People” need to direct the power of the First Amendment’s “right of redress” to the White House. The whole point of the War of Independence in terms of the social compact and the restrictions on the authority to govern was to prevent the centralization of both the right and the means to arbitrarily impose restrictions in a single person.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that, from the very beginning of the Republic, the tendency for government to re-centralize power has been at work. And while much of the mischief has been the result of executive overreach, much harm has also accrued by Congress' abdication of its responsibilities to the executive branch. And this abdication has been magnified by enactment of legislation that purports to freeze the right of judicial review of laws passed by Congress and implemented by the executive.

More than 1,400 active duty men and women are seeking redress for the grievances associated with an illegal war. Detainees held in Guantanamo are seeking redress of grievances by regaining their basic rights as human beings to habeas corpus under the Constitution.

No longer, it seems, can We the People await elections every two or four years to obtain redress of grievances. Too much can happen too quickly that in time become almost impossible to reverse. We have a right and responsibility to future generations to demand an accounting for what has been done and continues to be done in the name of “We the People.”

Friday, February 23, 2007

Cluster Munitions Ban Moves Ahead -- Unexpectedly

An unexpectedly strong 46 nations – nearly a quarter of all the countries on the globe – agreed at the end of a two-day gathering in Oslo, Norway, to push ahead with an international Treaty that bans the manufacture, stockpiling, transfer, or use of cluster munitions such as those used by Israel and Hezbollah in the 33-day war in July-August 2006. Both a target date for completing the treaty – 2008 – and – and a schedule of three working meetings between now and early 2008, were agreed at the Oslo gathering of 49 countries.

Cluster munitions are bomblets encased in a large carrying container dropped by aircraft or fired by long range artillery. At a preset altitude the container opens, spilling the bomblets in a pattern that is often compared to landmine fields. The most modern cluster munitions can be targeted against armored vehicles as well as troop carriers or unprotected infantry. Each bomblet has a timer or other control that is supposed to detonate or otherwise render inactive any bomblet that has not exploded after the predesignated time period – usually hours or days – has passed.

The problem is with that “supposed.” Older munitions had dud (unexploded or active) rates of 20 to 40 percent, and even the most recently produced munitions could have a one-to-two percent dud rate, potentially as many as 40 to 60 bomblets that malfunction and effectively became landmines waiting for a child, a farmer, an animal to disturb them, causing explosions that more often than not are fatal.

As in 1996, when many governments refused to step forward and lead the drive to develop an international treaty banning anti-personnel landmines, non-governmental organizations provided significant support to the few countries willing to press for the ban. Meeting in Ottawa, representatives from more than 50 governments were jolted when Canada called for a treaty banning all anti-personnel mines. Over the next 12 months, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and Norway hosted meetings at which details of the comprehensive ban were developed. When the September meeting in Oslo ended, eighty-nine countries pledged to support the draft document when it was opened for signing in December 1997 in Ottawa. In less than two years enough governments had ratified the treaty to make it “effective.” By January 2007, more than 150 countries had ratified or signed the treaty.

The 2007 Oslo meeting attracted 49 countries, of whom 46 signed the following declaration detailing their goal and a time frame to complete and open for signature an international treaty affecting cluster munitions.
Declaration by the Oslo Conference on Cluster Munitions, 22-23 February 2007

A group of States, United Nations Organisations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Cluster Munitions Coalition and other humanitarian organisations met in Oslo on 22 – 23 February 2007 to discuss how to effectively address the humanitarian problems caused by cluster munitions.

Recognising the grave consequences caused by the use of cluster munitions and the need for immediate action, states commit themselves to:

1. Conclude by 2008 a legally binding international instrument that will:

(i) prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians, and

(ii) establish a framework for cooperation and assistance that ensures adequate provision of care and rehabilitation to survivors and their communities, clearance of contaminated areas, risk education and destruction of stockpiles of prohibited cluster munitions.

2. Consider taking steps at the national level to address these problems.

3. Continue to address the humanitarian challenges posed by cluster munitions within the framework of international humanitarian law and in all relevant fora.

4. Meet again to continue their work, including in Lima in May/June and Vienna in November/December 2007, and in Dublin in early 2008, and welcome the announcement of Belgium to organise a regional meeting.

Now the real work begins.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

And Then There Were Just 150,000

Well, there are a few more than that as a few countries have hung on in Iraq.

Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair announced today that 2,100 British troops would be withdrawn from Iraq in two troches. The first 1,500 will leave in the next few weeks with the remaining 500 coming out in late spring or early summer. The balance of the British forces – 5,000 troops – will turn over day-to-day security patrolling to the Iraqi army and pull back into two large bases outside Basra – one of which is the Basra airport. UK soldiers will patrol the border with Iran and serve as a rapid response force should the Iraqis need help.

Some British media suggested that by the end of 2007, UK troop strength in Iraq might be down to about 3,000. At that point, if not before, the main concern will shift from fighting to keeping the logistics lines of communications open so that U.S. forces in Baghdad will not unexpectedly find they have neither beans nor bullets. This also implies that, should the Iraqi army need help from the Brits, the U.S. might have to come in and help the Brits help the Iraqis.

Press reports also said that Denmark will withdraw its 650 troops and that Lithuania may well follow suit. On the other hand, the Australians are talking of sending another 70 soldiers to Iraq. And in case you missed the semantic spin, the Aussies insist that the UK is reducing forces, not withdrawing, since the UK will maintain a presence. But the Danes – sounds like the Aussiea consider their departure “cut and run.”

And while on the topic of semantics, there is a report that the U.S. Navy is now referring to the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Sea. Granted, Persia was renamed Iran in 1935, while across the water there was the Arabian peninsula – at least that’s what western cartographers called it.

I thought the Arabian Sea was outside the Gulf as a subset of the Indian Ocean in the area of water bounded by eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and western India. So why – if the report is valid – change now, 72 years after Persia changed its name? Could it be gratuitous nose-tweaking? Or maybe map makers are looking for work.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Bombing on Presidents' Day

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington must have cringed when spokesmen for the government of Nouri al-Maliki announced that the daily death toll in the Iraqi capital had fallen dramatically in the first three days after Operation Law and Order commenced. Sure enough, the bombings continues as insurgents and other’s simply switched targets – Kirkut this time.

Concurrently, back in Baghdad, those prone to bombings and executing civilians studied the manner in which U.S. and Iraqi forces interacted with each other and with the Iraqis still living in the neighborhoods that coalition forces hope to be able this time to not only “clear and hold” but also to “stay and rebuild.” It apparently didn’t take as long as the U.S. had hoped would be the case before the insurgents developed their own countermeasures. On Sunday, the day after the Iraqis announced that violent deaths in Baghdad had dropped by 80%, 63 people (at least) died in bombings with another 130 wounded. Today, early counts revealed another 30 bodies already.

Meanwhile, in India, a pair of homemade bombs placed on a train killed at least 65 passengers. Transportation is a frequent target in India, but with a number of active insurgencies in the country, especially in the northeast of India, sometimes those responsible are not always easily identified. This bombing of the Delhi to Attari train (Attari is on the border between the two countries) will likely be ascribed to Kashmiri guerrillas who have rejected the truce between India and Pakistan reaffirmed just last September at a side-meeting during the conference of Non-aligned States held in Cuba. With additional meetings at ministerial level scheduled for today and next month, and with the re-establishment of transportation links between India and Pakistan one of the few areas in which there has been progress in resolving outstanding issues, the perpetrators undoubtedly thought their action carried an ironic symbolism at the same time it killed. As it was, authorities found three unexploded bombs on other train cars. Had these detonated, the toll could well have reached or surpassed the 180 who died in a series of blasts last July on trains bringing commuters into Mumbai (Bombay).

Finally, some 30 bombs exploded in the Muslim areas of southern Thailand, killing seven.

And last week, the president said that the border area of Pakistan is more wild than the American Wild West – and smiled!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Repeating History -- Almost

She was U.S. ambassador to the UN.

He was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It was 1993 and Sarajevo was under siege by Bosnian Serbs.

He, with many years experience near the seat of political power tempered by combat experience, was the quintessentially reluctant warrior-politician who could see no military necessity dictating troop deployments nor any political end-game to be achieved and no exit strategy.

She, a foreign policy academic in her first high level diplomatic post, described by those who knew her as a “humanitarian hawk,” was in full form as she famously asked: "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

Nearly 14 years on, another Secretary of Defense assumes his office with nearly 200,000 U.S. service personnel fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, supporting troops in those two countries, or on the way to the area. . At the same time, many administration officials are calling for military action against Iran because of its refusal to cease work associated with uranium enrichment Iran’s defiance of the UN with regard to uranium enrichment.

As National Security Advisor, she had been circumscribed (and circumspect) by the overwhelming personality of his predecessor when dealing with media representatives. But she legitimately earned the “hawk” label not only because of her role in the Afghan and Iraq wars but from her insistence that the U.S. would not deal with the Palestinian-Israeli stand-off until the terror-listed Palestinian Hamas movement, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006, either formally acknowledged Israel’s right to exist or was replaced as the government of the Palestinian Authority.

He is adamant that the administration has no plans calling for war against Iran. Nonetheless, Iran stands accused of complicity, at some level below the “very highest,” in the transfer of deadly explosive devices that Iraqi insurgents use against U.S. and coalition forces. And one month after the president announced the “surge” into Iraq, the administration said another 3,200 troops would be extended beyond their tour of duty in Afghanistan. Following this, the outgoing Chief of Staff of the Army told Congress that none of the army units not in or preparing to go to the battle zones could be considered combat ready.

She has become her own, albeit selectively engaged, Special Envoy to the Middle East. She did nothing to intervene in the internecine warfare of the last three weeks between the security forces of President Mahmoud Abbas and those of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. This was left to the Saudis, who helped forge a compromise that included a statement that Hamas would “respect” prior agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. It did not meet two other stipulations of the Quartet (U.S., EU, Russia, UN): recognition of Israel and renouncing violence. Hamas also ceded the majority of the cabinet seats to Fatah and independent figures.

She will meet Monday with the Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister. How much the Mecca agreement will move the international discussions forward can’t be predicted. What really is needed is a strategy of patiently weaving the interests of all participants into a seamless whole that will be too costly to dismember. Whether these small movements constitute the first warp and woof remain to be seen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Force Protection" Job #!?

“My job is to protect the troops.”

That was the essence of President Bush’s response during his February 14 press conference to a reporter’s question about why the U.S. public should trust administration claims linking the highest levels of the Iranian government to the presence in Iraq of deadly Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs).

The subject itself is not new; EFPs have been mentioned publicly since mid-2005. What rejuvenated the issue were statements from the U.S. diplomatic sources in about Iranian “operatives” in Iraq whose mission was to prolong the conflict. Given the nature of the allegations, reporters demanded hard evidence, which the U.S. ambassador promised would be forthcoming.

When American officials in Baghdad presented the evidence and then re-asserted that the whole business could be traced to the highest levels of the Teheran government, it was a step too far.

Given the history of events leading to the Iraq invasion, by the time of Bush’s press conference the misuse of intelligence in the Iraq war was again a primary question. But in the time interval, another Bush met reporters on Wednesday, the issue had another dimension: the credibility of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace. Bu

Monday, the day after the Baghdad briefing by the three unidentified officials (including one intelligence analyst and an explosives expert), General Pace told reporters in Jakarta where he was on an official visit that he had no knowledge of any intelligence that linked the senior clerics who rule Iran with the transfer of EFPs and other weapons to Iranian militias in Iraq.

Bush concurred after noting that weapons had been found in Iraq with identification markings indicating the items were produced in Iran. He categorically stated that the weapons were moved from Iran to Iraq by elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard units called Quds. These formations are believed to be under the direct control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. But as with Pace in Indonesia, the president stopped short of actually saying that Khamenei directed the operation.

However, Bush’s statement that protecting the troops is his first priority leaves open the possibility that U.S. ground forces could, either in “hot pursuit” or on special missions to interdict Quds operatives and EFPs, cross into Iran. Moreover, in his January 10 2007 speech announcing and justifying the dispatch of 21,500 more troops into Iraq, Bush did accuse Iran of providing “material support” to anti-U.S. insurgents.

And this, of course, is where the allegations fonder, for most estimates put 90-94 percent of U.S. fatalities at the feet of Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq, neither of whom is likely to be supplied by Shi’a Iran.

In Iraq, the administration’s “evidence” for war was nothing more than a house of cards – and from a stacked deck. This time around, the public demands more – not justifications for staying but action to get out. So far, each time the White House has only had to fold, But it soon may find the only play left is to cash in its chips and go.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lincoln vs. Bush

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birth date. Were he still alive, he would be 198 years old.

For 48 months, between April 12,1861 and April 9, 1865, Lincoln led the Union during the U.S. Civil War. According to the Civil War Battlefield Commission, the War cost the nation 620,000 lives lost in 10,500 armed conflicts ranging from battles that had strategic consequences for the war to minor skirmishes. The Commission identified 26 states in which at least one of the War’s 384 principle battles occurred. Eight states endured 15 or more of these 384, with Virginia accounting for 123 of them – nearly one-third.

George Bush was born on July 6, 1946. He is 60 years old. He has presided over a country that has been fighting for 64 months (since October 8, 2001) on two fronts and seemingly is now headed for a third. So far in these two wars, 3,585 U.S. soldiers have died. Another 417 soldiers from “coalition” partners have also died.

The number of Iraqis and Afghan civilians killed may never be known, but in the first two months of fighting in Afghanistan, one U.S. researcher estimated 3,767 civilians were killed. Human Rights Watch estimates that in 2006, at least 1,000 more Afghan civilians perished in the war.

In the last 26 months in Iraq, the estimated minimum number of civilian deaths is 24,521 with another 6,100 security personnel killed.

George Bush and Lincoln seem as different as night and day even though both men were "commanders-in-chief." Lincoln did not relish the role; Bush is "comfortable" with it.

Lincoln was tormented and troubled by doubt. George Bush has no doubts. At first I considered the way age can affect a person; Lincoln was 55 when the Civil War began. But then, so was George Bush whenU U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan.

Lincoln’s ordeal involved the survival of the nation. George Bush seems to believe his Wars are also for national survival. George Bush is wrong.

That’s the big difference.

One other observation: George Bush will leave the White House in January 2009. He will be gone when the United States observes the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

Friday, February 09, 2007

It Comes Down to Mission

By accident, it seems, Congress is beginning to untie the Gordian knot of policy, mission, troop morale, and support for the troops.

During confirmation hearings for General Petraeus, the new commander of all coalition forces stationed in Iraq, one senator asked if troop morale was suffering (or could suffer) if soldiers “in harm’s way” heard about it from relatives, friends, or just on CNN. (The CNN part I made up in this context, but I did on occasion hear “breaking news” with military import on television before it filtered down military “channels.")

The first time the subject was broached, Petraeus responded to the effect that dissent could have a negative effect. Senator John Warner, a World War II and Korean War combat veteran, former Secretary of the Navy, and long-time Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, cautioned the coalition force commander-nominee to stay clear of answers to questions that address political, not military, issues. When another committee member tried to elicit a further comment on morale changes because of congressional action, the general sidestepped the question.

On Wednesday this week (February 7), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace, were asked to give their candid view on the same topic by members of the House Armed Services Committee. Obviously this question posed no restrictions on the answer by the Defense Secretary because he represents the President and the administration in a policy making position – that is, in a political post. General Pace, currently the senior uniformed member of the armed forces and the senior advisor to the president and Secretary of Defense, has a foot in each camp as his advice carries both military and policy consequences

It was refreshing to hear both Gates and Pace refute the idea that congressional debate and votes in general have no adverse effect on troop morale. At the basic level, soldiers are too busy and need to be attentive to circumstances around them to become engrossed about what Congress is doing 8,000 miles away. The very fact that Congress is debating and voting ought to strengthen morale, for this freedom, which extends to the whole body politic, is ostensibly one of the reasons there are 150,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq.

Gates and Pace did say that if the debate and vote were about cutting off money for the mission before it was completed, this could adversely affect morale. Their explanation for this position was that cutting off funding represented a “no-confidence” vote in the troops and the mission. And if this were the case, then the question that would weigh on the minds of the troops is why were they sent to fight in the first place?

Although Gates and Pace did not make as clear-cut a distinction between supporting the troop while opposing the mission as they had between policy debate and troop morale, they did separate the obligation of government to provide for the welfare of those it sends to do battle and the mission assigned to those troops. That is to say that one can object to and vote against the mission given the forces by the commander-in-chief and, without contradiction, vote to provision those sent to fight with what they need to survive in a hostile environment.

Were these elements – debate and vote, policy, mission, and “supporting the troops” – so conjoined as to restrict or deny the right to the first, insist on the orthodoxy of the second and third, and require the uncritical acceptance of the fourth as defined by the commander-in-chief, there would be no reason to call Congress into session once fighting began. The only way out of the situation would be obliteration of one side or the other. (This is especially true when the president dispatches the troops without congressional approval)

At the same time, it seems to me that Congress, as the prelude to cutting war funding, ought to unambiguously register its disapproval of the existing mission and redirect it through the power of the purse. Under a new mission, Congress could restrict, cap or otherwise direct that funds made available are for a new mission: to bring the troops home.

I can’t imagine that a mission that says to troops in the field, “Come home,” would not boost morale out of sight.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Democratic Alternative in 2007?

The situation in Iraq today is “desperate but not terminal.”

The president’s plan to “surge” U.S. ground units in Iraq is “a fool’s errand.”

This was the tone of testimony by three of four retired generals when they testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 18. Nonetheless, in his State of the Union Speech five days later, President Bush announced that 21,500 more U.S. troops would be in Iraq in late April or May. Most of the increase, already underway, will be generated by units being held past their original date to rotate out or by units whose in-country date has been moved forward

The operational objective of the surge is a re-invigorated “clear, hold, build” approach. The main difference from past, similar efforts, according to military briefers, is that this time government troops will project not just a sense of but an actual, physically permanent central government presence in Baghdad’s neighborhoods. What residents should experience, the White House hopes, is dramatically improved physical security, more Iraqi police and army units in the neighborhood 24 hours a day every day, with U.S. back-up, particularly in the “clear” phase when the war planners expect more resistance than in the past.

There is much that administration spokespeople do not want to discuss about their “new strategy” (or is it simply their latest adjustment?). One challenge in this scheme is to ensure even-handed treatment and resolution of disputes by security personnel of one ethnic or sectarian identity working in a neighborhood containing residents of other ethnicities and creeds. The fact that every day men dressed in police and military uniforms driving official-looking SUVs kill and kidnap scores of Iraqis simply on the basis that the victims are “not like us.”

This past Monday, February 5, the White House sent its Fiscal Year 2008 Budget Request to Congress. Within the Defense Budget, the Pentagon requested $1.1 billion for what it terms “critical military construction projects in direct support of deployed troops” – with the vast majority going to bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two U.S. occupied Iraqi airbases – Al Assad in western Anbar province and Balad north of Baghdad will get $318 million under the Bush request while another $650 million is to go to Bagram air base in Afghanistan. This base is the hub of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

Now in a federal budget of $2.9 trillion and a Defense budget of $623 billion, $1.1 billion is miniscule – virtually invisible. But what’s important at this point is not so much the dollars but whether the budget accords with statements made to Congress by administration officials. In this regard, last month Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the House Armed Services Committee that there had not been any change to the Pentagon’s opposition to retaining permanent bases in Iraq. Even then, Gates apparently was unconvincing as Representative Barbara Lee reintroduced legislation barring the Pentagon from acquiring permanent bases in Iraq. With the budget out, and an apparent direct contradiction between Gates’ statement and the budget, Democrats and fiscal hawks of both parties ought to require an explanation. I’m sure there is one; it might even be a good one.

The last election in part was a demand by the public for government to be accountable. As the majority in both Houses of Congress, it is up to the Democrats to answer the public’s demand. One is. Representative Henry Waxman is holding hearings in an effort to find out how the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad managed to lose track of almost $12 billion dollars in cash.

As a final note, should the Democrats fail to respond to the demand for accountable government, there is always Sam Waterson’s on-line “Virtual Party” for 2008.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Budget Number Relationships

The Fiscal Year 2008 Federal Budget From Another Viewpoint

The Fiscal Year 2008 Budget Request for the United States Government comes to $2.9 Trillion. Written out, that is 2.9 plus eleven zeros

Now that’s starting to get into spitting distance of 3 Trillion – 3 with 12 zeros.

That recalled to mind the “big” announcement from the Census Bureau that on October 17, 2006 the population of the United States hit 3 hundred million – that is 3 followed by eight zeros.

Now if you divide the Budget request by the population, the President proposes to spend $10,000 for each person living in the United States. For the purists, if we stick with the budget submission at $2.9 Trillion, total spending per capita by the federal government comes out to $9,666.

If one takes the Federal Budget request at $2.9 trillion and divides it by the amount of this year’s Defense Department Base budget of $481.4 billion, the result is 6.02. That is the number of years of spending just on Pentagon programs for Defense to equal the total 2008 budget request.

To fight the “Global War on Terror” in 2008, the White House wants another $141.7 billion. In 20.5 years – virtually a single generation – spending at this rate will hit $2.9 Trillion. In a press briefing today on the Budget, the Pentagon said it had no intention of coming back for more money in FY2008. But this is the same outfit that said the war would cost no more than $50 billion when, including the 2008 request, the dollar cost is approaching $750 billion.

And the trend lines are going in the wrong direction.

The Pentagon recently revised its estimate of monthly expenditures for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan from $8.0 billion to $8.4 billion – that is 8.4 followed by eight zeros. Taking 30 days as an average month, that means the war is costing $280,000,000 per day. As it happens, that is within spitting distance of the U.S. population figure – the aforementioned 300,000,000. So each person in the U.S. might as well hand over $365 to the Pentagon except for 2008 when the cost would be $366 since 2008 is a leap year.

Better yet, perhaps every person should consider deducting $365 (or $366) from their taxes.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Statistics and Other Tidbits

The Federal budget for Fiscal Year 2008 will go to Congress and the public Monday.

To get acclimatized, today’s entry will recap odds and ends in the news.

Item: A January 26, 2007 unreleased Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said the Pentagon has failed to “adequately track” equipment shortages in the National Guard that degrade the Guard’s capability to react to natural disasters. Why? Because Guard units deploying to Iraq take the best equipment with them – and not all of it comes back or comes back in usable condition.

Item: On January 31, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau told the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves that the Army and Air Guard needed $40 billion to return their equipment to “acceptable” readiness standards – i.e., 80% of equipment on hand and operational. Nearly 90% of Guard units in the U.S. have on average only 40 % of their equipment

Item: The Afghan army took possession of 800 HMMVEEs and trucks and 12,000 weapons on February 1. The White House is asking for $8.6 billion more for the Afghan army and police.

Item: When Iraqis were told that failure to meet commitments for reinforcing their security units in Baghdad could lead Congress or the Pentagon to hold back on equipment deliveries, the Americans were flabbergasted when the Iraqis replied they would simply go elsewhere to get what they needed.

Item: The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the 21,500 combat troops the President is sending to Iraq will, in the end, actually be somewhere between 35,000 and 48,000. What the President forgot to say was that for each 4,000 combat troops, the Pentagon has been sending another 5,500 support troops. If the Pentagon skimps by doubling up on some functions for the “surge,” it might get by with only 3,000 support troops for every 4,000 fighters – hence the 35,000 figure.

Item: Suicides in 2006 among Army troops in Iraq remained at the same high level as in 2005 – 19.9 per 100,000. Seventeen other deaths in Iraq in 2006 are still under investigation.

Item: A report detailing anti-U.S. activities by Iranians in Iraq, first due out Tuesday and then today, reportedly was returned to its authors in the intelligence community because of disagreements over the validity of some “evidence.” The White House wanted unanimity, which it didn’t get.

Item: The unclassified version of the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq did come out today. Despite the public relations spin, it was bad news in that it didn’t even offer a convincing rationale for how 21,500 more combat troops (and as many as 27,000 support personnel) will have any lasting effect.

Item: The 2007 Supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, also due out Monday, will request at least $100 billion. That is in addition to the $70 billion already approved for the war for 2007. With war funding rolled into the regular Pentagon spending bill, the 2008 funding request (not including nuclear weapons programs) is expected to exceed $650 billion.