Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Buddy Can You Spare $200?

On January 23, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released an update on spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for reconstruction, and for “war on terror” associated projects.

CBO put the combined costs at $691 billion, of which nearly two-thirds – $440 billion –has been poured into Iraq. CBO estimates the current monthly expenditure for war-fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq comes to $11 billion, but the administration’s 2008 requests haved topped out at $193 billion. This translates into a significantly higher monthly “burn rate” – more like $16 billion.

These numbers may be old hat to many of you, but unless you can roll these bellweather sums off your tongue without thinking twice – or the total national debt now stands at more than $9 trillion, up from $5.6 trillion when Bush started his first term in office; or that the minimum raid on the Treasury to pay for the “economic stimulus package” will be another $150 billion – you must not feel in your bones just how much damage this president has done to the country.

But there is some “sorta” good news. The administration will not rent a truck this year to haul 537 copies of the President’s 3,000 page Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2009 to Capitol Hill so that each member of Congress can have a copy. The Office of Management and Budget will post the entire budget on the White House Internet URL.

The notice of the change appeared first on the White House Internet portal, from where the Wire Services and CNN picked it up. The person who posted the notice pointed out that a number of trees had been spared from the woodsman‘s axe to grow at least one more ring. However, the approximate number of trees that were spared remains unknown as of this posting.

I have my own theories as to why the White House is not providing Members of Congress with a hard copy of the Budget:

-not enough money in the Treasury to pay for the ink and paper;

-not enough mature trees still standing to convert into paper;

-no available credit to buy gasoline for the truck – assuming they can find someone willing to loan them a truck;

-the truck driver is a union member;

-should they miscalculate again, they can change the figures or, in extremis, claim they lost another batch of e-mails.

In the end, the White House did offer an alternative: a Member could get a printed and bound copy of the budget from the Government Printing Office for $200. How long this might take is unclear, however, as the traditional source for quills – Canadian geese – all seem to have flown north ever since the buying power of a “loony” (the nickname for Canadian dollars) surpassed that of the American eagle.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Guest Bloggers on the State of the Union

President Bush gave his final State of the Union address last night, focusing on war, threats of war, and the economy. If you missed the speech, you can read it on the White House’s web site or watch the video posted by The New York Times

Several colleagues at FCNL asked if they could join me in blogging about their reactions to the speech. In the next few posts you’ll hear from

Joe Volk, who says the president missed the basic truth that our house of democracy is falling down.

Ruth Flower, who wonders how we can review the state of the union without mentioning the seven cities where child poverty is over 30 percent.

Ned Stowe, who points out that the president treated climate change like a side show in his speech, but it's a bigger problem than al Qaeda and Iraq.

Jim Fine, who notes that, despite his rhetoric, the president is acting like the U.S. is going to be in Iraq for a long, long time.

Ann Vaughan, who applauds the president for keeping the crisis in Sudan in the public view but was disturbed by any mention of diplomacy as an approach to world problems.

Jim Cason, who sees the speech as more relaxed than in previous years but with an underlying message consistent the president’s seven year campaign to empower the Executive at the expense of the power of Congress and the courts.

• And I give an overview of the speech and talk about the contradictions and legacy of President Bush.

State of the Union Overview

President George Bush opened his final State of the Union speech by reminding the Congress: “All of us were sent to Washington to carry out the people’s business.”

While disappointing, it was predictable. It echoed an aphorism of another President, Calvin Coolidge, popularly (and erroneously) rendered as “The business of America is business.” Indeed, the current diplomatic, military, and domestic and international economic deficits that beset the United States after seven years of the Bush presidency could be seen as the inevitable product of a highly inappropriate management philosophy for modern government.

This somewhat innocuous opening statement was no accident. In fact, the speech turned from domestic issues to military concerns of peace and war using the business metaphor. And the final word before the ritual “God bless America,” was – “business.”

Bush or his speechwriter might have done better by consulting the text of Coolidge’s 1925 speech to the Association of American Newspaper Editors for the exact quote, which is: “The chief business of the American people is business.” In fact, the final thoughts expressed by Coolidge in his speech to the editors places strong emphasis on that which – to borrow from a popular television credit card commercial – is “priceless” because it cannot be bought, sold, or traded.

“We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth,
but there are many other things that we want very much
more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is
so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of
the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often
that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive
to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

But beyond these deficits, Bush never does get to the critical pragmatic detail of who decides what is the “”people’s business,” who translates the idealism of which Coolidge spoke into practical achievements? George Bush once famously said that he was “the decider”; yet the history of the struggle of Colonial North America against the British crown repudiates the claim that the chief executive of the United States government fills that role.

Bush does concede the point rhetorically: “We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens.” But this is to affirm a form of populism that, in describing the benefits of free trade for democracy, he labels all who oppose such trade as “purveyors of false populism.”

Other contradictions appear. He speaks of the “armies of compassion” that descended on the U.S. Gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. Yet just before that point in his speech, he calls on the Senate to approve his judicial nominees who will “rule by the letter of the law, not the whim of the gavel.” While justice must be under law and not under men, to insist strictly on the letter of the law excludes mercy or compassion – and arguably is itself a form of injustice. Similarly, Bush’s demand that the growth of entitlements be reined in because “they are growing faster than we can afford” is disingenuous when he has poured a trillion dollars into wars that need never have been fought and that continue to drain lives and national treasure.

Bush also declares that the U.S. is “engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century,” one that “years from now, people will look back [on] and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fight, and left behind s more hopeful region and a safer America.”

Is there not in this declaration an attempt by the president to capture for his legacy an echo of what many Americans still believe was the “last good war” of the last century?

After more than six years of continuous war, the president calls for more war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan and threatens a new war with Iran, all for what he calls “vital national interests.”

As discouraging as this is, what is worse is that those who would be president starting next January 20th have no better understanding that America’s real national interest is peace – which lies at the intersection of truth, justice, and trust between and among all people.

State of the Union: Where’s the Diplomacy?

Ann Vaughan
Ann Vaughan, FCNL
Guest blogger

It was refreshing to hear the president's references during the State of the Union to the importance of confronting global poverty and hunger and to hear his pronouncement about doubling funding for HIV/AIDS --albeit during the next President's tenure. I was especially pleased to hear the President challenge Congress to fix some of the problems of US international food aid by allowing for the US government to buy food locally and help build up foreign countries indigenous capacity to produce food and combat famine.

But I was disturbed and disheartened by the absence of the word “diplomacy,” which was not used once during the State of the Union address. This silence in regards to laying out a comprehensive and effective foreign policy is particular stunning at a time when more and more voices are highlighting the importance of diplomacy. Last November, Secretary of Defense Gates called for more funding for diplomacy and development to address the "Global War on Terror," instead of just focusing on a military solution to defeating the terrorists.

While 2008 has already been written off by many as an election year when nothing much of consequence can happen in Washington, the president could make this year a banner year by working actively to support the State Department and USAID. He could begin by following the advice of his Secretary of Defense to recognize the importance of a balanced foreign policy that focuses on prevention of conflict and support for diplomacy and development.

On a more positive note, I’m thankful the president used his platform last night to mention the crisis in Sudan and keep continued attention on the genocide that is occurring there. The president can make a positive legacy by continuing to focus on Sudan throughout the year and ensuring that there is a focus on an 'all Sudan' solution.

State of the Union: A Return on Success in Iraq?

Jim Fine
Jim Fine, FCNL
Guest blogger

President Bush told the nation last night that U.S. strategy in Iraq is guided by the principle of "return on success." It sounds good. Everyone loves success and the president rightly acknowledged that a large majority in the country want U.S. troops to return home.

But the president didn’t tell the nation that far from planning to have U.S. troops return home, he is negotiating an agreement with the Iraqi government to have U.S. military forces remain in Iraq for years to come. Only hours before his state of the union message, the president declared in signing the 2008 military authorization bill that he would not be bound by the act’s prohibition on building permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, a provision that FCNL helped to initiate and ultimately led the lobbying to bring into law.

A ban on permanent bases in Iraq could, he said, prevent the president from exercising his constitutional authority as commander in chief. By the end of July the administration plans to have a strategic cooperation agreement with Iraq that will establish South Korea or Philippines-style U.S. bases in Iraq. He must not be expecting success.

Perhaps he is not expecting success because he is unwilling to acknowledge and pursue the elements of a strategy that have made for success and could make for more. General Petraeus has noted the importance of Syrian efforts to interdict the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq and of Iranian cooperation in curbing the flow of weapons and explosives from Iran. Petraeus has also acknowledged how important Moqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire order to his Jaish al-Mahdi militia has been in reducing both U.S. and Iraqi casualties. The president mentioned none of these things—all first, tentative steps in the regional and inside-Iraq diplomacy that will be essential for real success in Iraq.

The president’s slogan should have been “return for success.” Success in Iraq requires convincing Iraqis and everyone in the region that the U.S. intends to withdraw all of its military forces from Iraq. The president should have announced that the U.S. seeks no permanent bases in Iraq, and will place a timetable for withdrawal on the table at negotiations with Iraqi groups and the neighboring states.

Diplomacy is largely responsible for the limited and fragile success achieved in Iraq to date. Real and lasting success requires much more of the same diplomatic outreach to Iraq’s warring factions and its neighbors in the region.

State of the Union: Our House of Democracy

Joe Volk
Joe Volk, FCNL
Guest blogger

The specifics of the message in President George Bush’s 2008 State of the Union are insignificant and dwarfed by the one basic truth looming over our people.

Our House of Democracy is falling down. Our democracy’s maintenance funds have been diverted to military misadventures abroad and to pigs at the public trough at home, and Congress has failed to protect the Constitution and serve the public interest:

Our House of Democracy suffers growing instability due to growing gaps:

* Wealth Gap: the gap between the super rich and our dwindling middle class that we see manifested in billionaires with multiple dwellings and working people at risk of losing their one and only home;
* Values Gap: the gap between the values of our citizens and the practices of our government that we see when the U.S. endorses and practices torture;
* Security Gap: trillions go to promises to “win” security and safety through military contests (wars of choice), and only millions go to renovation of our structures for understanding and cooperation;
* Spending Gap: scarce public capital has been squandered on the military misadventure in Iraq, starving urgently needed repairs of our country’s most basic infrastructure: bridges, roads, railroads, water resources, and public education;
* Credibility Gap: The lies our public officials have told us have so undermined trust in our government institutions that today the public presumes they cannot trust them to tell the truth.

Reliance on war as the primary tool for U.S. safety and security, rather than as an absolute last resort, has brought us to these dire circumstances. Both major parties share responsibility. The Republicans, generally, argue for continuing the Iraq war until victory is achieved. The Democrats, generally, argue that Iraq is just the wrong war and that the right war is the war on terror, and it should be fought to victory. They are both wrong, because war is not the answer.
    On the contrary, war is making things worse, and the U.S. war in Iraq is prime evidence of that fact.

    The rebuilding of our House of Democracy will have to begin with demilitarization for democracy. Closing the gaps will help to stabilize the abode of our liberty. Those gaps can be closed if and when our Congress makes different choices about which policies to authorize and what spending should have priority.

    We can get those changes in choices, if we send elected officials to Washington who commit to demilitarization for democracy and to new spending priorities for understanding and cooperation. Security, safety, peace, and liberty are possible, but not with the political thinking typical of government today. We have less than a year to either convert incumbents to a new way of thinking and acting or to replace them with new leadership.

    Two thousand eight is the Year of the Voter, and every voter needs to send candidates a strong message: War is not the answer, and Peace is possible through peaceful means.

    State of the Union: A Limerick

    There once was a president from Texas
    Who from the start seemed certain to vex us.
    Compassion he called for.
    But instead he brought global war,
    And built up the military industry complexes.

    On the issue of extreme global warming
    In the wake of Katrina’s fierce storming
    How could oil profits be saved
    While feigning the action all craved?
    You could see in his mind a cloud forming

    Disregarding the warnings of science
    In ignorance he placed his reliance.
    With his head in the sand
    While global emissions expand
    He holds progress back with defiance.

    So what of the union’s true state
    As Bush pushes yet another rebate?
    Do you feel more secure now?
    Are we on the right track now?
    Will your grandchildren welcome their fate?

    -- Ned Stowe, FCNL

    State of the Union: Some Questions from the Back Bench

    Ruth Flower
    Ruth Flower, FCNL
    Guest blogger

    In tonight’s State of the Union address, the president didn’t say much about the state of the union. He delivered a menu of items, large and small, that he would like Congress to deliver in the remaining 135 days of the congressional session. But he didn’t share with Congress and the nation his assessment of the overall health of this country. So those of us in the back benches are left with a few significant questions.

    How are we doing, Mr. President, as a democracy? Our foreign policy is built on the idea of spreading democracy all over the globe. How are we doing here at home? During your term as president, we’ve seen power siphoned from Congress and the courts and concentrated in the White House. You used an avalanche of signing statements and then vetoes and rulemaking to diminish and dismiss the Congress’ role in lawmaking whenever it did not conform to your plans.

    Now you are in a dispute with congressional leaders over your wish to commit the U.S. to another international agreement to lock into place a longterm U.S. military presence in Iraq. Congressional leaders say this is a treaty and that the Senate must consider and ratify such an agreement; you say that the commitment is yours alone to make. We elect a representative government to make our laws, Mr. President. That’s how a democratic republic works; that’s what we teach to nations recovering from the rule of dictators.

    How is our economy doing, Mr. President? Things seem to be falling apart – can you explain why? Does it have anything to do with the huge debt that we’re accumulating to pay for the war and occupation in Iraq? Or is it because of the things we’re not investing in here at home – education, health care, employment and training? Does the housing mortgage crisis have its roots in the deregulation of banks? Or could our weak economy be a boomerang effect, born of the impact of U.S. policies and programs in other countries –such as NAFTA?

    Mr. President, can you explain why a recent government report found that 44% of the children in Detroit live in poor households? And 40% in Atlanta, 38% in Milwaukee35% in Miami and Philadelphia, and 32% in Washington and Chicago? How can that be? Can you share your plan for reducing poverty? Congress just passed a resolution to cut poverty in half in the next 10 years. Do you agree? Is this a national problem and a national responsibility? Why did you veto the bill that would have at least provided health care to these children this year, and the one appropriations bill that provides some relief to these poor families? Why do you insist on federal control of elementary education?

    Much of your speech, Mr. President, was focused on trust. In whom should we trust? Our confidence needs to rest on a network of connections with people and nations around the world, not on a single strong ruler and a large and active military force. Our hope for the future and our children’s future would flourish in a world in which the U.S. was once again respected and welcomed as a partner. Do your plans include cooperation with other nations, in internationally controlled arenas such as the United Nations?

    Your talk gave us very little by which to assess the state of our nation. Answers to these questions and others raised in your talk tonight might help us to begin an honest assessment and a realistic course correction.

    State of the Union: A Missed Opportunity on Climate

    Ned Stowe, FCNL
    Guest blogger

    Last night, once again, President Bush treated climate change as just another side show, just as he has for the past seven years. Wars, threats of war, and the economy again got most of the attention. The concern for energy policy and the climate got its paragraph.

    But climate change is not a side show. It is a rapidly advancing global crisis that is already harming millions in the most vulnerable places around the world. It threatens the well-being of future generations the world over. This, frankly, is bigger than al Qaeda or Iraq. Lots bigger.

    The US economy, driven by fossil fuels over the past century, is the leading cause of the climate crisis that humanity faces today. Yet, with effective government policies and investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, the US economy can be turned around to help lead the world toward a sustainable future.

    But in last night's speech, President Bush once again ignored the singular US moral obligation to take the first steps, as the leading global greenhouse gas emitting country, to cut its emissions. There was no call to begin capping or taxing emissions - which are the most powerful and effective ways to shift an economy toward conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. There was no call to mobilize the full resources of the nation at the order of magnitude that is needed to address this unprecedented crisis.

    Rather, energy and climate were dutifully given their little paragraph, buried in a speech that will soon be forgotten. And, if the president has his way, another year will go by, business as usual for the fossil fuel industries and other major greenhouse gas emitters.

    Scientists warn us that we do not have much time to turn things around so as to prevent the worst things from happening. We, the American people must demand better - if not for ourselves, then for our grandchildren. With our voices raised, perhaps Congress will lead where our president won't.

    State of the Union: Reasserting Government Power

    Jim Cason
    Jim Cason, FCNL
    Guest blogger

    President George W. Bush’s last State of the Union address was remarkable for the relaxed tone, the absence of the usual use of props, or angry rhetoric. I’ve watched all of the last 15 State of the Union messages on television or sitting in the House chamber press gallery and almost all have made me sad, angry, and searching for hints of the world that is possible.

    In this context, I’m glad to be able to celebrate the president’s appeal to Congress to “find a sensible and humane way to deal with people here illegally.” I hope others in both parties can adopt at least that part of his appeal. As someone who has worked in Africa, and on Africa policy issues since the 1970s, I’m also frankly amazed that a president of the U.S. persuaded Congress to spend $15 billion on HIV/AIDs in Africa (even with all the caveats and problems with the program) and is now calling for another $15 billion in expenditures.

    Equally impressive for me was the president’s appeal for support for an initiative to purchase food aid directly from farmers in the developing world to “build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine." This is common sense for many development experts, but I don't remember a previous president ever making such an appeal.

    Sadly, but not surprisingly, the underlying message of the speech was consistent with the president’s seven year campaign to curtail the power of Congress and the courts, seize more power for the Executive, expand the military budget, and undermine the Constitution. The “headline” from the speech was the announcement that the president will issue an executive order Tuesday directing government agencies to ignore the directions of Congress on how to spend money unless they are explicitly voted into legislation. The president also promised to veto any legislation that did not cut said “earmarks” in half. I’m sure someone at FCNL will write more about earmarks in the future, but isn’t the job of Congress to direct how your tax dollars are spent?

    The president followed this declaration up with a reassertion of his right to spy on citizens of the United States without full review of that surveillance by a court of law. We at FCNL hope Congress refuses to rubber stamp the president's warrantless spying program and grant blanket immunity to phone companies that broke the law. If you’ve forgotten the Fourth Amendment, FCNL has posted a copy.

    This last state of the union was also about the president’s legacy and the longterm effort of this administration to shrink the size of all parts of the federal government except the machinery of war. Other colleagues will no doubt write about the president’s continuing blind insistence that the war on Iraq is working. The real struggle in this last year of the Bush administration will be focused on making the tax cuts – or as my colleague Ruth Flower calls them the tax expenditures – permanent. She demonstrated last year the effects of these policies on increasing inequality. The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that making the president’s tax cut permanent will cost the federal government $4.3 trillion over the next ten years.

    Of course we could just pay for that tax cut by eliminating the Pentagon (which is spending $500 billion a year) and still have money left over. But I doubt politicians from either political party would go along with that proposal. And if members of Congress from both parties cave into a proposal like this, the resources available to build the world we seek – from cutting child poverty and feeding the hungry to funding peaceful prevention of deadly conflict and supporting international institutions that can guarantee our collective security – will not be there.

    Monday, January 28, 2008

    State of the Union - Preliminary Impressions.

    President Bush spoke for almost an hour, including applause time. With regard to applause, one could almost believe that the extended time period between the President's arrival at the podium and Speaker Pelosi's gaveling the session to order was an attempt by the Speaker to wear down the enthusiasm of the Republicans through exhaustion. If so, she did not succeed.

    President Bush started with his version (or is it his "vision"?) of governance whereby the political parties can "compete for votes while they cooperate for results."

    Not a single initiative, from the war against terror to the war on civil liberties, from free trade treaties to a treaty on greenhouse gases, from education reform to immigration reforms, did he fail to mention and, in general, chide Congress for inaction, insufficient action, or interfering action on his programs.

    On the wars during his term in office, he affirmed that the U.S. troop surge had succeeded, that the Iraqis were undertaking a surge of their own, and that July 2008 would see 20,000 fewer troops in Iraq than were there in July 2006.

    The President ended as he began, calling on the Congress to cooperate together and with him to do the public's business.

    There will be "Other Voices" Blog on Tuesday, January 29.

    Friday, January 25, 2008

    Last Monday's Question

    Why Iraq Doesn’t Matter Anymore
    “In the style of” Jeopardy, Monday’s entry posed a number of possible answers to a hypothetical question. I had planned to use Wednesday’s entry to provide my choice and rationale, but outside events intervened. As it is, the two days have confirmed a growing sense that a “tipping point” about the war may have slipped past without notice.
    The six “possible” answers to the question were: a) when President Bush's plea to the Saudis to increase oil production was rejected and the price per barrel hit and stayed above $100.b) when the Federal Reserve pumped nearly $50 billion into the banking system in November to preclude a tightening of credit, followed in January by an uncharateristic mid-cycle drop of 75 basis points in the federal funds overnight rate. c) when Congress caved in and voted the $70 billion "bridge" war supplemental without conditions, an indication that it will again cave when it considers the rest of the administration's $196 billion this Spring.d) when the avowedly anti-war presidential candidates in both parties were marginaliized or forced from the contest.e) when the pundits and the political spinmeisters assured the public that the soon-to-be 18-month-old change in tactics (the “surge”) has permanently altered the strategic posture (a politically and economically viable Iraq) in the Persian Gulf into one that will be sustainable with a “minimal” permanent presence of U.S. forces.f) all of the above (or perhaps none of the above).
    Taking each possible response in turn, consider:
    a) January 8-18 saw President Bush on a visit to Israel-Palestine followed by a swing through the Persian Gulf countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. Although planned for some time, the visit happened to coincide with reaching an unhappy benchmark: on January 2, oil prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit $100 per barrel for the first time while the next day gold and platinum were at all-time highs.
    Remember what then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress both right before (February 27, 2003) and right after (March 27, 2003) the invasion of Iraq? “It's got already, I believe, on the order of $15 billion to $20 billion a year in oil exports…” and “The oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years.…We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon.”
    There are two truths about Iraqi oil: the country still has not reached the pre-March 2003 production levels, and most of the revenue from oil exports has gone to finance the occupation of the country or to traditional nepotism, cronyism, and corruption.
    In Saudi Arabia, Bush asked for the kingdom to open the oil spigots wider – something only the kingdom can do given the still shabby state of oil infrastructure in Iraq and the sanctions the U.S. and – at Washington’s insistence – the UN have imposed on Iran.
    The Saudi Oil Minister’s response was not just an emphatic “No!” but “Hell no!” –politely phrased, of course.
    That refusal, plus the conspicuous omission of a visit to Iraq by the president while in the region (especially as he stopped at virtually every other country in the Gulf except Iran) sent a signal loud and clear that this administration has effectively given up on Iraq and wishes to open up the maximum psychological and policy distance between Washington and Baghdad.
    (b) As 2007 neared its end, the true depth and breadth of the “sub-prime” mortgage debacle finally moved out of the shadows. Major investment houses and transnational financial institutions suffered billions in losses just from the meltdown in the housing market alone – foreclosures, falling new home starts, drooping sales of existing homes. At first, the Federal Reserve Chairman and the administration soft-pedaled the extent of the crisis. The Fed pumped additional funds into the banking system to prevent a credit crunch, but this was not enough. The stock market plunged as the extent of the losses became known in the first half of January, and the contagion spread to markets around the globe.
    c) In the initial session of the 110th Congress, the first since 1995 with the Democrats in the majority (although not necessarily in control), every attempt to cut war funding, to mandate cutbacks in troop levels, or to attach political pre-conditions to be met by Baghdad before additional funds could be obligate, was scuttled by congressional Republicans or, in one case, was vetoed by Bush.

    The only “success” the Democrats could claim actually rested on a provision of the 2007 Defense Appropriations Act requiring the White House to include in the 2008 budget request for DoD the money intended for Iraq and Afghanistan. However, as a practical matter this provision was irrelevant, for as soon as the appropriators began examining the proposal they separated the war spending from the rest of the bill – only to havie to fold $70 billion back into the $555 billion 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Act. Technically, this means that to date for Fiscal 2008, Congress has not considered a war supplemental. In the meantime, the “burn rate” for Afghanistan, Iraq, and smaller operations that are deemed part of the “Global War on Terror” is up to $13 to $15 billion per month.

    d) The turn of the calendar to 2008 saw other “turnings.” The most conspicuous was “turning on” the microphones for an unusually large field of candidates in the two main political parties vying for the right to be their party’s presidential candidate in November. The scramble by a number of states to hold primaries earlier in the year in a bid to be “relevant” in the selection process further turned up the anxiety level and the volume of the speeches and the debates. As of January 25, the two avowed anti-war candidates in the two major parties –Republican Representative Ron Paul (TX) and Democrat Representative Dennis Kucinich (OH) have either been effectively marginalized (Paul) or have formally dropped from the race because the national and state party establishments refused to “make room” for him in the race (Kucinich).

    e) Even the pundits and the political spinmeisters seem only to be going through the motions of maintaining the statistics and tweaking their well-worn prognostications about the way ahead: back down to 130,000 U.S. troops (including 15 combat brigades) in Iraq and 45,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Republicans in particular will seize on any and every morsel of news that suggests the “surge” of troops in 2007 turned the tide so decisively that there will be no turning back, no reverse “turning point,” in Iraq.

    f) There will be a four to five month window from the time that U.S. forces in Iraq get down to 15 combat brigades and the date of the U.S. general election. Insurgents and others fighting the occupation may well maintain a “low profile” to create the illusion of “progress” in the expectation that this will hasten the expected departure of the foreign armies.

    However, this past week the curtain has been raised on the insurgent and al-Qaeda counter-surge tactics. Sunni self-defense militias increasingly appear to be the primary targets, not U.S. troops. And overall the civilian death toll is up in the new year from the last few months of 2007.

    Having over-stretched the armed forces; having spent the U.S. into a fiscal and monetary black hole – the national debt has already nearly doubled under Bush, a trillion dollars has been consumed in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil has hit record prices, the dollar is chronically weak – and having pushed the U.S. economy to the brink of recession, it is little wonder that the public is less than concerned, even less than interested, about an Iraq that for too long has clouded their vision, blackened their horizon, and threatened their entire future and the future of their children’s children..

    Oh yes: the question, or one way to ask the question: When did you realize that the “American century” as envisioned by George Bush and proclaimed by the neocons, was never real, was never meant to be real, and could only “be over before it began?”

    My answer is: All of the above, any one of which would be enough to scuttle that designation.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008

    Cluster Munitions II

    Cluster Munitions: 35 years After the Treaty of Paris.

    January 27th, 2008 marks the 35th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris between the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong. Two months and two days later, March 29th, the last U.S. ground troops departed Vietnam as President Richard Nixon proclaimed that “the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come.”

    But U.S. warfighting didn’t end even then. Not until August 14th, 1973, did the bombing of Cambodia and USAF air strikes supporting South Vietnamese army operations end in accordance with legislation enacted by Congress earlier in the year.

    What also didn’t end – and what has still not ended to this day – are the deaths and injuries sustained by Cambodian and especially Laotian civilians from unexploded “cluster munitions” dropped by U.S. aircraft during the secret bombing campaign of those countries ordered by President Nixon.

    Cluster “bomblets” had existed for nearly half a century before U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The British Army developed cluster munitions during World War I as an incendiary weapon against German troops and field fortifications. By World War II, many countries had acquired cluster bombs with interchangeable payloads featuring shrapnel/fragmentation or chemical as well as the original incendiary warhead favored for striking German and Japanese cities when unitary bombs were unavailable.

    Most British and U.S. fliers were less than enthusiastic about using these early models (also known as “Cluster Bomb Units or CBUs) because their point of impact could not be predicted or controlled, forcing multiple missions to obliterate a target. With the development of the Norton Bomb Sight in World War II, pilots gained more confidence that their attacks would more often hit closer to the intended targets.

    In the late 1950s, the U.S. Navy renewed development of the CBU munition that featured a new dispenser/carrier and new fusing options (impact, proximity, altitude, or delay). By the middle of the next decade, the Navy had both anti-personnel and anti-tank CBUs – “just what the doctor ordered” for the rapidly escalating Vietnam War. The Air Force
    jumped on the bandwagon, and, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.”

    In Southeast Asia, that history was to be long and bloody and it continues today – and tomorrow and every day in the years to come when someone dies or is maimed because they come in contact with an unexploded cluster munition.

    This is the connection to the Treaty of Paris, for the U.S. Wars in Southeast Asia – involving Cambodia, Laos, North and South Vietnam – were the ”proving grounds” for the updated weapon developed by U.S. forces.

    But development never stopped, even during the heaviest combat. Cluster munitions were developed for use by field artillery, naval guns, and the new army surface-to-surface missile systems. Another “innovation” involved packaging all three warhead “effects” into a single canister/dispenser. This allows firing one munition that can attack lightly armored vehicles as well as people and equipment. But there can be a complication from added complexity: dud rates can be as high as 40%.

    The Pentagon has consistently opposed any restrictions on the employment of cluster munitions. In the spring 2001 issue of Air Force Law Review, Major Thomas Herthel, an Air Force Staff Judge Advocate, argued that cluster munitions, when used as intended, do not violate the Geneva Conventions (First Protocol, Article 36), the laws of land warfare, or the UN Convention Against Certain Conventional Weapons. (See “On the chopping block: cluster munitions and the law of war - unexploded submunitions from cluster bombs.”)

    Herthel notes that cluster technology is now widespread around the globe, having grown from four producing or using countries in 1978 to 14 in 1994 to 24 in 1996. Herthel counts 14 conflicts in which CBUs had been used through 2000, highlighting Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Allied Force (Serbia-Kosovo) in 1999. To that number must be added at least two more U.S. wars – Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq). In the four years after Bush declared major combat in Iraq had ended, the USAF used an estimated 60,000 pounds of air-dropped CBUs. And there is little doubt that the renewed high rate of air sorties south of Baghdad in January during which 30,000 pounds of bombs were dropped featured a high rate of cluster munitions.

    One other recent conflict must be added to Herthel’s count of wars featuring extensive CBU use: the summer 2006 33-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Although it was quite evident that a cease fire would be achieved within 72, in that period the Israeli’s dropped or fired nearly 2 million CBU bomblets into southern Lebanon and Hezbollah dominated suburbs of south Beirut.

    For all his arguments defending the legality of using cluster munitions, Herthel did concede – witness NATO’s use of CBUs against Serbia – that improper functioning of the weapon led to civilian fatalities in urban areas. But for him, “the most significant problem” associated with the use of CBUs is the high dud rate – not in relation to innocent civilians but as these unexploded bomblets contribute to friendly force fatalities and affect U.S. operations.

    In discussing the first Iraq War (1991), Herthel notes that 25 U.S. soldiers were killed by unexploded cluster munitions. He also attributes the slowness of U.S. Marines to clear and hold Kuwait City Airport to the extensive presence of unexploded CBUs.

    And here is precisely why the Pentagon – even by its own rules and priorities – ought to be forging ahead as rapidly as possible to ban cluster munitions. The two primary considerations for any commander are “accomplishing the assigned mission” and “looking out for the welfare of those under command” – especially minimizing casualties. The use of cluster munitions in any conflict would seem to violate these two cardinal principles that underlie and help shape a commander’s decisions.

    Thus, even in a purely military context, it seems that a charge of dereliction of duty could be laid against commanders who choose to ignore or downplay the adverse effects of cluster munitions on either mission accomplishment or troop welfare – let alone the effects on civilians in the battle zone.

    For more information, go to

    Monday, January 21, 2008

    Multiple Choice (Corrected and Extended)


    These are the answers: can you come up with the question?

    a) when President Bush's plea to the Saudis to increase oil production was rejected and the price per barrel hit and stayed above $100.

    b) when the Federal Reserve pumped nearly $50 billion into the banking system in November to preclude a tightening of credit, followed in January by an uncharateristic mid-cycle drop of 75 basis points in the federal funds overnight rate.

    c) when Congress caved in and voted the $70 billion "bridge" war supplemental without conditions, an indication that it will again cave when it considers the rest of the administration's $196 billion this Spring.

    d) when the avowedly anti-war presidential candidates in both parties were marginaliized or forced from the contest.

    e) when the pundits and the political spinmeisters assured the public that the soon-to-be 18-month-old change in tactics (the “surge”) has permanently altered the strategic posture (a politically and economically viable Iraq) in the Persian Gulf into one that will be sustainable with a “minimal” permanent presence of U.S. forces.

    f) all of the above.
    More to come.

    Friday, January 18, 2008

    The Iran NIE

    An article by Ken Silverstein (“Fairy Tales”) in the May 18, 2006 issue of Harper’s ( recounted the sorry response by the Bush White House to reports written over the preceding three years by CIA station chiefs and other Iraq specialists. The problem, of course, was the reports did not offer the “evidence” the administration wanted about of what was really happening in Iraq.

    No, that’s wrong – wrong because the reports from station chiefs and agency analysts didn’t simply fail to support the official line about Iraqi progress. They contradicted the Bush-Cheney fictionalized accounts of what ought to be happening and what the White House wanted the public to hear.

    The results of the constant repetition of “ground truth” that took no note of ideological bias were predictable. On the personal level, according to Silverstein’s sources, those who were the messengers suffered the usual modern bureaucratic retaliation: at least four careers were ended, derailed, diverted, or delayed. Outside the agency, the cost was higher – much higher – in terms of fatalities, serious wounds, and national treasure and natural resources squandered.

    What prompted this look back at the inglorious history of Bush-in-the Middle East is the president’s just-completed 10-day, six nation trip to the region – a trip where he did not go to Iraq at all. The trip ostensibly was undertaken to keep the spotlight and the pressure on the post-Annapolis summit (November 22, 2007) peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian experts as well as the direct meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

    There were two other purposes for the visit. Although already announced by the administration, Bush used the occasion of his travel to reiterated earlier pledges to Olmert to provide $30 billion in new military aid to Israel and $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. The other purpose was to reiterate to the Gulf allies the White House position that Iran “was a danger, is a danger, and will be a danger” to the Gulf countries – whether or not (but more so should it do so) it ever acquires the know-how to produce nuclear weapons.

    The public might be forgiven should this sound like a record already played – and recently. In 2004, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq ran counter to the rosy “paint-by-numbers” picture portrayed by the White House. Bush, Cheney et al. mounted an intense campaign denigrating the NIE, an effort that reached its nadir in the infamous September 21 2004 joint press conference with the interim Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi ( when Bush declared: “They [CIA analysts] were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like. The Iraqi citizens are defying the pessimistic predictions.”

    The metaphysical distance between what was really happening and what the president wished to be happening was not so much a fairy tale as an example of the “tail wagging the dog.” The democracy Bush wanted has to be grounded in the real world to materialize. After September 11, 2001, the public lost touch with reality as it saw terrorists ready to assault the U.S – and the administration rode this disconnect for five years for its own purposes.

    Yet while the Bush-Cheney et al. disdain for intelligence that wasn’t “theirs” never wavered, the rest of the country finally began shifting, a shift culminating in the congressional elections in November 2006 that returned a narrow Democratic majority in both houses.

    The shift in the power to examine reality that this introduced into the political mix complicated matters for Bush. With but two years left in the Oval Office, Bush had to choose whether to go after North Korea or Iran. This was, in some ways, an easy choice, for much of what was classified about North Korea was known in outline, at least, in the public domain. Moreover, while both the Orient and the Mid-East were cultures generally alien to Bush, he was more comfortable with the latter. And although the “hook” used to go after Saddam Hussein – the nuclear “yellow cake” – was completely discredited, the “nuclear” bogeyman still could be used.

    This time, however, agency analysts seemed far better prepared for the White House blowback. Media reports portray a thorough-going review of every source and every piece of information, for and against, the conclusions. By the time the original conclusions had been validated and the findings declassified, it was December 3, 2007 – a month before the Mid-East trip.

    The CIA had learned from the Iraq debacle; the American public had learned from the Iraq debacle. The administration had not. No sooner had the unclassified finds reached the public than the war hawks labeled it “bureaucratic payback” and “politicized.”
    For his part, Bush reportedly told his hosts in private conversations that the NIE’s conclusions did not reflect his own views on Iran’s intentions.

    One can only wonder what his sources are.

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008

    In Iraq For How Long?

    It was obvious that the reporter, in attempting to give his question some context by referring to what President Bush had said before Christmas, misjudged the mood of Senator cum presidential candidate John McCain: Reporter: “President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years…”

    McCain: “Make it a hundred…”

    Perhaps Senator McCain was still feeling the New Year’s Day humor – the question was asked on January 3rd. Or maybe McCain was “out-Bushing” the president on strategy in Iraq. After all, he is not reticent in reminding voters that he had frequently and publicly criticized the original White House war strategy long before it became “fashionable” to do so among Republicans.

    Contrast the positions on troops and permanent (or “enduring”) bases in Iraq shared by the three “leading” Republican presidential candidates with the three “leading” Democratic candidates as the latter finally articulated their positions during last night’s debate in Las Vegas.

    The question of “how long” U.S. troops would be in Iraq came not from the press moderators but during the segment in which the candidates asked each other a prepared question on any subject (an “innovation” by NBC News). Democrats believe that Bush will try to convince the public that he, like Moses, has led the country to an oasis of security from which they can see the “ocean of peace” he promised in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and the upper India subcontinent.

    The price, at least the as expected by the “top three” Democratic contenders, is that Bush will engineer a continuing commitment of U.S. blood and treasure that his successor(s) will be obliged to honor. Indeed, the Iraqi Minister of Defense just this week spoke of a ten-year presence of U.S. troops – until 2018 at least.

    Also expected is a dip in the number of troops and fatalities in the war just before the November U.S. general election to create the perception that peace has arrived. Is it just coincidental that the additional “surge” of 3,200 Marines into Afghanistan will end about Labor Day, just before the home stretch for the election?

    What was striking about last night’s Democratic debate was the way all three candidates worked their language to minimize distinctions among their positions while not ceding anything to the G.O.P.

    It reminded me of volleyball, with Obama fielding the ball from a phantom server.

    Obama: “I have put forward a plan that will get our troops out by the end of 2009. My first job as president… is going to be to call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say, ‘You’ve got a new mission’…to responsibly, carefully, but deliberately start to phase out our involvement there.”

    This puts the ball almost too far forward for Clinton to get it without touching the net (she has to respond to the moderator’s challenge to match Obama’s 2009 deadline)

    Clinton: “I’m on record as saying exactly that, as soon as I become president, we will start withdrawing within 60 days. We will move as carefully and responsibly as we can, one or two brigades a month… and we’ll have nearly all the troops out by the end of the year, I hope.”

    This tips the ball into the backcourt toward Edwards –

    Edwards: “I’ve actually…been the most aggressive and said that I will have all the combat troops out in the first year that I’m president….I will end combat missions. And while I’m president, there will be no permanent military bases in Iraq.”

    When challenged that they all had declined to “take the 2009 pledge” last September, (thereby going “out of bounds”), each demurred.

    Obama: “Your question [in September] was, could I guarantee all troops would be out of Iraq. I have been very specific in saying we will not have permanent bases there. I will end the war as we understand it in combat missions. But we are going to have to protect our embassy [and]our civilians. We’re engaged in humanitarian activity there. We…have to have some presence that allows us t strike if al-Qaeda is creating bases inside of Iraq, So I cannot guarantee that we’re not going…to maintain some troop presence there, but is not going to be engaged in…this sort of permanent bases and permanent military occupation that George Bush seems…intent on.”

    The ball bounced back to Clinton –

    Clinton: “Well…obviously we have to be responsible, we have to protect our embassy

    – who deftly deflected it toward Edwards for the set-up –

    Edwards: “[I]t is dishonest to suggest that you’re not going to have troops there to protect the embassy….There is, however, a difference between us….I will have all combat troops out in the first year that I’m president, and there will be no further combat missions, and there will be no permanent military bases.

    But Obama, trying to keep in the play – tipped the ball into the back court again –

    Obama: “I think it’s important…to say that you may go after terrorist bases inside Iraq if they should form, in which case there would potentially be a combat aspect, or you’re not. And…if you’re not, then that presents some problems in terms of the long-term safety and security of the United States.”

    Fortunately, Edwards was still positioned well enough to keep the ball in the air –

    Edwards: …as long as you keep combat troops in Iraq, you continue the occupation. If you keep military bases in Iraq, you're continuing the occupation. The occupation must end. As respects al Qaeda …I would keep a quick reaction force in Kuwait in case it became necessary, but that is different than keeping troops stationed inside Iraq because keeping combat troops [in Iraq]… and continuing combat missions…is a continuation of the occupation. And I think a continuation of the occupation continues the problem, not just in reality, but in perception that America's occupying the country.”

    – long enough for Obama to regain his footing and make the point:

    Obama: “I think there’s a distinction without a difference here. If it is appropriate for us to keep that strike force outside of Iraq, then that obviously would be preferable. The point is you might have [to use] that capacity.”

    Hardly an oasis, but maybe not a complete mirage.

    Monday, January 14, 2008

    Explosiveless Warheads

    This month marks the start of a two year campaign by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) to educate the Congress and the U.S. public about a “conventional” weapon in the Pentagon’s arsenal whose effects are anything but conventional.

    These weapons have no chemical or biological agents. They have no nuclear or radiological material. What they have are very faulty clocks that refuse to run down to zero, at which time the weapon – actually a “bomblet” – is suppose to explode.

    Now the United States is not the only country that manufactures these weapons – what are called “cluster munitions.” The principle behind the weapon is simple: take a large “carrying case” that can withstand the gravitational or “G” force when dropped from an airplane or fired by long-range artillery, fill it with hundreds of high-explosive sub-munitions (the bomblets), attach a timing or altitude fuse that will blow off the “cover” of the carrying case in flight so that the bomblets scatter over the terrain underneath the remainder of the flight path of the carrying case.

    Any personnel in the area – said to be roughly two to four U.S. football fields in size depending on the bomb or the shell selected for use – saturated by these bomblets – would be killed or wounded and any vehicles destroyed or damaged. The bomblets are designed to explode on impact. Many, especially the older munitions, do not; “dud” rates in these weapons run as high as 40 percent. Even the dud rates in the newest weapons acquired by the Pentagon still run as high as six percent.

    Attempts have been made to devise some type of mechanism that would turn a live bomblet into an inert munition if it has not detonated after a certain number of minutes, hours, or days. Results have been marginal, witness the fact that 98 percent of the known victims of cluster bomblets in the past four decades have been unwary civilians who may not know a battle – let alone a war – was fought, leaving unexploded ordnance to wreak future havoc.

    Because cluster munitions, like land mines, are equal opportunity killers, countries opposed to their use tried for years to restrict their use in urban areas. But always, there were Washington and Tel Aviv, blocking progress. Israel’s inundation of southern Lebanon with four million submunitions just before the cease fire took effect that ended the 33-day war with Hezbollah in summer 2006, reenergized the effort. Meeting in Norway in February 2007, forty-six nations pledged to develop by the end of 2008 a binding treaty banning the production, stockpiling, transfer, or use of cluster munitions.

    But as so often happens, technology interjects itself, especially if a shooting war is on and weapons are being developed or redeveloped.

    This month, the U.S. Army concluded that its Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) was so precise it could strike targets at a range of 70 kilometers (43 miles). As a result, the Army has ordered 43,560 more rockets, which employ powerful explosive grenades for effect. But a new terminal warhead will replace the 404 explosive grenades in the standard warhead with kinetic-energy “rods” similar in their effect to those being tested in the Pentagon’s missile defense system.

    Now I’m not in the business of endorsing weapons of any kind and am extremely wary when anyone claims they have a weapon so precise that they can hit the intended target without inflicting "collateral damage." But from the standpoint of civilians around the world, living and yet to be born, if the Pentagon is determined to have GMLRS rounds that can “precisely” hit a target 70 kilometers away, is it not preferable to have the warhead contain only inert steel rods and no explosives instead of the current design which uses 404 explosive “grenades” – some of which inevitably will not explode on the target but remain capable of killing and injuring noncombatants.

    Indeed, if this “inert rod” concept is deemed by war planners to be as or more effective than traditional explosives, it might provide the wedge the arms control community has been seeking to finally push for and get international agreement to end the use of an entire class of weaponry.

    Who knows: even the White House might start supporting treaties that don’t just restrict but completely ban indiscriminate weapons systems.

    Friday, January 11, 2008

    A Few Updates

    President George W. Bush is on his first trip to the Middle East – three years into his second term of office. Look for a phrase in the State of the Union speech January 28 – maybe multiple phrases – to the fact that he has seen with his own eyes and spoken with people who live in the West Bank and Gaza and in the Gulf states that he visited on his 10 day trip.

    That is to say, he will claim “street credibility” – which will be true compared to those who have never been to the area (like me).

    President Bush said that he is confident that the Israelis and the Palestinians will sign a peace treaty before either the end of calendar 2008 or the end of his time as president. If the former, that will be in 355 days. If the latter, 375 days. I can only think of the saying: “If you want something bad enough, that’s how you will get it.”

    Total U.S. fatalities in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq hit 4,400 yesterday; there will be more. Given that the generals have apparently turned to a massive aerial bombing campaign, the question is how many local people will die before the operations north and south of Baghdad end.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) published a study of the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed in war-related violence between March 2003 and June 2006. The WHO estimates that 151,000 Iraqis were killed. By comparison, the nonprofit Internet website of the Iraq Body Count says 47,668 Iraqi civilians died because of the war in the same period. The Brutish medical journal Lancet said last year that there have been about 600,000 excess deaths between March 2003 and July 2006. The WHO relied on personal interviews and judges the study’s accuracy at 95 percent.

    Wednesday, January 09, 2008

    Self-Fulfilling Wishes?

    On the subject of war – notwithstanding the assertion attributed to General George S. Patton in the movie bearing his name that “Americans love war” – I submit that the overwhelming majority of ordinary citizens, government officials, and individuals serving in the armies of the world really do not want war.

    That is to say they do not want to personally experience the consequences of war – destruction of what they have and the deaths of those they know and love.

    Nonetheless, many – and most regrettably many officials who have the power to unleash military force – may be said to be in love with the idea that they can, with complete impunity, threaten war to achieve a short-term diplomatic or political advantage or simply to test the limits and the steadiness of a potential adversary’s nerves.

    This played out in the Strait of Hormuz last Sunday when five Iranian fast patrol boats intercepted three U.S. warships in international waters, it is a dangerous and all too often deadly variation of “chicken.”

    Pundits needed no oracle, entrails, or tea leaves to know that a confrontation of some sort was brewing. In both Iran and the United States, power centers were vying with each other to influence the course of events,

    In the United States, members of both Houses of Congress had cautioned the president that prior to any hostilities with Iran (self-defense excluded), he was obliged to seek authorization from the Congress for war. This assertion, predictably, was rejected by the White House, from where President Bush and Vice-President Cheney were attempting to orchestrate new punitive international sanctions against Tehran for its alleged continued pursuit of nuclear weapons technology and “know how.”

    Early December proved pivotal in the discussion. First, after being withheld for months from the public, the administration finally released the unclassified findings of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program. All sides immediately seized on what seemed to validate their positions while dismissing everything else. But the bottom line could not be ignored: Iran had stopped working on nuclear weapons programs four years earlier and had not – contrary to the White House position – resumed them.

    The following week, the administration found itself rebuffed by its Gulf allies for maintaining a double standard with regard to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons and Iran’s nuclear program. Undeterred, Bush stuck to his mantra in an end of year press conference: “Iran was a threat, Iran is a threat, Iran will be a threat” as long as it is allowed to continue to learn how to make nuclear weapons.

    If Iranians were puzzled by events and pronouncements from Washington, so too were U.S. Iran-watchers by what must have been going on in Tehran. On January 3rd, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking to Iranian students, said Iran may someday resume relations with the United States. But in what can be seen only as a preemptive rejection of any suggestions that Tehran engage in high level direct talks with Bush administration officials, Khamenei added that Iran would gain nothing by pursuing discussions on restoring diplomatic relations.

    This was a softer tone than had been the norm in the autumn of 2007, particularly from the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (RG) and its elite Qods Force that western intelligence puts directly under the Supreme Leader’s control. Indeed, when Khamenei appointed a 28-year veteran, Mohammad Ali Jafari, as the new commander of the entire RG, his predecessor blasted the Bush administration’s designation of the entire force – all 200,000 – as a terrorist organization because, in the view of the White House, the RG is a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and provides Iraqi insurgents with conventional weapons or components that are used to kill American troops in Iraq.

    Under Jafari, the incidents of alleged weapons transfers fell off – and perhaps the explanation for this lies in a shift in emphasis from tactical measures to more strategic considerations – specifically, anticipating that any encounter in the Strait between U.S. and Iranian naval assets will drive the price of oil sky-high.

    Finally, having seen the video released by the Pentagon, below, and knowing just enough about procedures used by the U.S. Navy when unidentified vessels get too close, I have no doubt that the incident occurred as reported. As to the location – whether in international waters or in Iranian waters, it would be very risky for the Navy to lie with a Congress already dubious about the Iraq war. Moreover, consider that the Iranians first said the encounter was not a major event and then changed their response to an accusation that the Navy fabricated the whole incident.

    Thanks to Mike Nizza at the New York Times for pointing to the video.

    After this blog was originally posted, the Iranians released an audio tape with their version of the encounter.

    Unfortunately, this incident may signal a new calculation by the RG that at some point will turn into a miscalculation -- an exchange of fire, a sinking, and the loss of life. If the Supreme Leader wants to see diplomatic relations restored, he might consider reining in the RG’s naval arm when it comes to ships of any nation transiting the Strait in international waters. Similarly, the Bush White House ought to tone down its rhetoric, sit down with the Iranians, and “test the waters” (the sincerity) of the Supreme Leader’s wish for re-establishing diplomatic relations before a miscalculation happens.

    Monday, January 07, 2008

    Perpetuating Cruelty

    Last Saturday I saw a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamerlane (aka Timur the Lame).

    Tamerlane is one of those names that Americans may think they recall but cannot tell you the context – dates, occupation, where she or he became famous and precisely why – or (briefly) what was going on elsewhere that impelled the protagonist to initiate action, the consequences of which unfold (or are recalled and retold) from the present into the future.

    To set the stage: - Tamerlane’s milieu is what today’s world calls Uzbekistan. His was one of the fearsome Mongol tribes that swept across parts of Asia and Europe in the 13th century CE,

    - He lived (1336-1405) some 100 years after the exploits of the great Mongol warrior, Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde. By the time Tamerlane was old enough to fight, the old Mongol empire had fractured from the strains of ambition or the incompetence of Genghis Khan’s sons and generals.

    - At its greatest expanse, Tamerlane’s empire was no slouch. From its center in Samarqand, it stretched north into Russia, where the remnants of the Golden Horde held sway; south into India, east to the borders with China, and west to the Mediterranean Sea via Anatolia and Constantinople (Istanbul).

    The underlying theme of Marlowe’s tale, the first of seven plays he penned in his short life (he was stabbed to death at age 29), is said to be transformation. Now in principle, transformation – or its equivalent, change, whose “agent” each of the 2008 Democratic party presidential candidates claims to be – as process is neutral. Whether the transformation is “good” or “bad” depends on what, how, and to what end the process moves.

    Marlowe’s title character begins his “career” modestly as a ruthless thief and sometime shepherd who aspires to “royalty.” He allies his followers with the troops of an invading warlord. At the latter’s demise, he plays two rivals against each other and sequentially annihilates both, thereby gaining complete control of the old warlord’s domains.

    Turks, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks – no rival can defeat him on the battlefield, and those kingdoms and empires that lie beyond his domains live in fear of the day when Tamerlane will strike, wiping out entire cities simply to demonstrate his power.

    Despite the passage of 600 years, this mindset is still evident in the wars of the late 20th and early 21st century. This is not warfare for critical resources, not for revenge, not to preempt, not for defense; it is mayhem and genocide simply for the sake of mayhem and genocide.

    One other theme running just under the play’s consciousness is the futileness of empire building – futile because empires never endure no matter how many thousands or even millions of people die in the creation of the empire.

    In the western world, Alexander the Great’s empire was divided among his generals. Charlemagne’s was carved into thirds to be ruled by his three sons. Today in the Middle East, secular “dynasties” are emerging in Syria and Egypt. Even Tamerlane, most “un-royal” as he was, failed to bequeath permanently his empire to his bloodline through a son.

    While cruelty seems endemic to the human condition, it is learned. As such, like the drive for hereditary rule, it is not inevitably passed from one generation to the next. That is to say, transformation of the human condition is possible through the transformation of the human psyche.

    Marlowe’s Tamerlane failed to realize the latter transformation, even in his own family (he killed one of his sons).

    One wonders, had he lived, whether Marlowe could have been transformed.

    More to the point, can the United States in today's world learn how to replace the cruelty of empire with the humility of democracy?

    Friday, January 04, 2008

    Peacekeeping by Pakistan After Decemer 27, 2007

    The aftermath of the assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto December 27th seemed all too familiar. The government of President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists in general and specifically al-Qaeda or an al-Qaeda inspired group.

    It could hardly do otherwise, for the alternatives – ranging from “mere” incompetence to active collusion with extremists – were not just bad but disastrous.

    To Bhutto’s supporters, who expected that the January 8th 2008 election would restore an anti-Musharraf majority civilian government after nine years of military rule, the worst was also the most likely. Widespread rioting broke out, eliciting responses by heavily armed police and, in some instances, the Pakistan army. Spokespersons for the Musharraf government, thrown on the defensive by accusations that government-provided security for Bhutto not only was lax but totally non-existent, gave conflicting accounts of the cause of death – only to be entirely discredited by video footage of the attack obtained from a number of private citizens who had come to see and hear the former prime minister.

    Suspicions of government conspiracy were fueled by the fact that Rawalpundi is a garrison town. If the army could not provide physical security in Rawalpundi, is there anyplace in Pakistan that is safe? The conspiracy theories were then re-enforced when, an hour after the assassination, Pakistani authorities washed the murder scene with high-powered hoses, destroying any possibility of finding forensic evidence.

    Yet, days later, Musharraf announced that Britain’s New Scotland Yard would provide technical assistance to Pakistani investigators as they try to piece together what happened and why the one hundred security personnel present at the campaign stop (as asserted by Musharraf in a meeting with Western correspondents) did not thwart the assassination.

    Repercussions of the assassination will reverberate in Pakistani society long past the new date – February 18th, for the parliamentary election that was to be held January 8th. Almost completely unremarked by the mainstream media is the possible effect on the willingness of Islamabad to continue to supply large numbers of troops to United Nations peace operations. Indeed, with 10,623 troops, observers, and police detailed to UN peacekeeping operations, Pakistan is the largest source (just under 13 percent of the total deployed “blue helmets”) of manpower for these efforts.

    (Interestingly, the next two largest contingents, as of November 30, 2007, are Bangladesh – formerly East Pakistan – with 9,831 and India – Pakistan’s nemesis since both countries achieved independence in 1947 – with 9,343.)

    Islamabad’s troops serve in five of the current 17 missions and has participated in eleven missions that have been completed. Should they pull back, UN peacekeeping could be jeopardized, for the countries of Europe and the U.S. are not inclined to send their military forces on peace operations.

    Wednesday, January 02, 2008

    What Always Goes Up

    It is January 2, 2008.

    In the sober (one hopes) light of day, many citizens pause for a moment to assess the damage to credit card limits and cash-on-hand in the post-holiday period.

    As children, we thought that what goes up must come down. For the most part, this is true in daily life. Throw a ball in the air and it will fall back to earth in accordance with the laws of physics. Laws of finance come into play when you spend money, thereby increasing your debt. Alas, sooner or later the bills come due and are paid -- or you declare bankruptcy. Either way, debt is reduced, although in the latter case other laws come into force.

    Except if the "you" is the federal government. But even government can pay off its debt. Bill Clinton managed to lower the total debt of the United States during his years in office, reversing 12 years of heavy spending and rapidly increasing debt. When George Bush entered the White House some economists were projecting that the entire debt of the federal government could be erased in a decade. (Some pundits argue that Clinton's "achievement"was not what it seemed, for the figures used for the debt did not include the interest on the debt accrued by Clinton's predecessors.)

    Under George Bush, the cost of everything seems to have always been in one direction – up, and up “”bigtime.”

    In the 6 years and months of the Bush administration (January 20, 2001 – August 22, 2007), the nation debt rose by$3.25 trillion to a total of $8.98 trillion – an increase of 36%. If current spending trends persist, by the time Bush completes a full eight years in office on January 20, 2009, he will have added more to the national than have all his predecessors combined.

    Mandatory Medicare costs and Social Security obligations are significant contributors to the increasing debt, but so is something wholly owned by George Bush: the "global war on terror." How much is being added? For Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) Noble Eagle (DoD contribution to defending the homeland) and other security improvements: $804.2 billion so far, according to the Congressional Research Office on a November 2007 publication.

    And how does that total accumulate? By spending $15.8 billion each and every month on war -- plus spending $481 billion for "routine" military requirements.

    Ironically, the person who blew the whistle on the monthly costs of the war is the same person who brought (bought?) the American public the (in)famous "bridge to nowhere," Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. According to the Defense Department average monthly costs in Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 for Iraq, Afghanistan, and other "global war on terror" activities stood at $6.2 billion. By FY2005, it was $7.7 billion and by August 2007, the FY 2007 "burn rate" was $11.4 billion. But DoD did not include the $30 billion in "classified activities" or congressional action that adds funds for war-related purposes that the Pentagon considers "normal" procurement.

    Given that the average Member of Congress -- let alone the average citizen -- doesn't know what the Pentagon includes or excludes, how does the Senator get to $15.8 billion? He goes to the administration's FY2008 war fighting total request, which is $189.3 billion. Divide that by twelve and he gets $15.775 billion.

    Close enough for government work.