Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Geaghan: Department of No Comment

Sometimes the data just lend support to the obvious. Here's a recent example (with thanks to Scott Lemieux of Lawyers, Guns and Money for the tip on this article by Brad Plummer at The New Republic Online):
"The statistics on inequality are well known and... present a clear picture. Between 1979 and 2004, the richest 1 percent of Americans saw their after-tax incomes triple, while those of the middle fifth grew by only 21 percent and those of the poorest fifth barely budged, according to Congressional Budget Office data. By the late '90s, the richest 1 percent of American households held one-third of all wealth in the U.S. economy, and took in 14 percent of the national income--a greater share than at just about any point since the Great Depression.

"In politics, this all matters a great deal. Larry Bartels of Princeton has recently studied the voting record of the Senate between 1989 and 1994--a time, note, when Democrats controlled Congress. He found that senators were very responsive to the preferences of the upper third of the income spectrum, somewhat less attentive to the middle third, and completely dismissive of the policy preferences of the poorest third. In one striking example, Bartels discovered that senators were likely to vote for a minimum wage increase only when their wealthier constituents favored it--the views of those directly affected by the hike had 'no discernible impact.'"
With "wealthier constituents" refusing to support the minimum wage bill recently passed by the House, the Senate wouldn't approve an increase without an "$8 billion package of tax breaks and regulatory concessions for small business..." The Senate bill passed today by a vote of 87-10. An earlier bill, lacking these business-friendly "concessions," failed on January 24th.

GRAPHIC: "Minimum Wage History," Oregon State University (January 17, 2007)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Posthumous justice

Since the Supreme Court reinstated the "modern" death penalty in 1976, 1,060 inmates have been executed in the U.S. Proponents of the death penalty have long denied that any—not even one—of those executed was innocent of the crime that placed them on Death Row. They've argued that the many legal safeguards in place serve as a rigorous filter to ensure that only the truly guilty suffer the ultimate legal sanction. These safeguards include fine-grained state and federal appeal processes that can consume decades and the availability of post-conviction relief though the increased use of DNA and other scientific evidence.

But as refined scientific investigative techniques (like DNA analysis) become more widely available, there's more reason to believe that the executions of innocent persons may have been more common than we have been led to believe.

Consider, for example, the case of Cameron T. Willingham (1). In 2004, He was executed by lethal injection after being convicted of setting a fire that killed his three daughters at his home in Corsicana, Texas, in 1992. The courts, the State Board of Pardons and Governor Rick Perry refused to stop the execution despite new forensic evidence.

In another Texas case that involved almost identical evidence of arson, Ernest R. Willis was also sentenced to death for killing two women in a house fire in 1986. Willis spent 17 years in prison before his exoneration and release in 2004, just ten months after Willingham's execution. The State of Texas paid Willis about $430,000 for wrongful imprisonment.

While investigating the Willington case, attorney Barry C. Scheck of the Innocence Project assembled an expert panel of forensic scientists, all volunteers, who reviewed the evidence in both cases. The panel's report found that
"...prosecution witnesses in both cases interpreted fire indicators like cracked glass and burn marks as evidence that the fires had been set, when more up-to-date technology shows that the indicators could just as well have signified an accidental fire. In one case, the signs were accepted as proof of guilt, the report said; in the other, they were discarded as misleading.

"'These two outcomes are mutually exclusive,' Mr. Scheck said. ''Willis cannot be found 'actually innocent' and Willingham executed based on the same scientific evidence...'''

"In the Willingham trial, the committee found, a deputy state fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez, erred in tracing the blaze to an accelerant. The committee discredited his finding of arson. 'Each and every one of the 'indicators' listed by Mr. Vasquez means absolutely nothing,' the report said...

"Many arson investigators were self-taught and 'inept,' the report said, adding: 'There is no crime other than homicide by arson for which a person can be sent to death row based on the unsupported opinion of someone who received all his training 'on the job.'

"Texas leads the nation in inmates serving time for arson, the report said: 666 as of 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available."

The report was submitted to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which so far has taken no official action.

The net result: the evidence used to convict and execute Willington was hopelessly flawed, and some unknown percentage of those serving time for arson in Texas may have been convicted using similar evidence.

In an editorial dated January 29th, the New York Times noted with approval that a half-dozen states have established "innocence commissions" (2), then stated:
"Modern DNA testing is steadily uncovering a dark history of justice denied. More than 190 DNA exonerations in 18 years show ever more alarming patterns of citizens, wrongly convicted, suffering in prison."
But proponents of the death penalty will still argue more or less as follows: "It's regrettable that some innocent people may be executed, and we should strive to reduce their numbers, but society as a whole benefits from the death penalty because its most dangerous criminals are prevented from causing further harm to society." Or, in the words of one academic supporter:
"Despite precautions, nearly all human activities, such as trucking, lighting, or construction, cost the lives of some innocent bystanders. We do not give up these activities, because the advantages, moral or material, outweigh the unintended losses. Analogously, for those who think the death penalty just, miscarriages of justice are offset by the moral benefits and the usefulness of doing justice." (3)
This is a morally indefensible position, and it would be interesting to hear the writer try to articulate it to Cameron Willingham's family. The "miscarriages of justice" that result in convictions could easily be mitigated or remedied by simply not imposing the death penalty. Surely it's preferable to wrongfully imprison someone, even for decades, than to wrongfully execute them. Life imprisonment, without possibility of parole, adequately protects society (4) while also allowing for mistaken convictions to be set aside based on new evidence.

The support for capital punishment, fortunately, has faded in recent years; the number of executions has also declined from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 53 in 2006. New Jersey may soon join the dozen other states (plus the District of Columbia) that have no death penalty.

While immediate repeal of the death penalty would be the best way to prevent the execution of innocent persons, it's unlikely that state legislators--in the absence of a real consensus on the subject--will take action that might be interpreted by some as "coddling" criminals.

Meanwhile, capital punishment may be quietly falling into disuse as fewer juries are willing to impose the death penalty, especially when they're given the alternative of life imprisonment without parole. In 2006, juries sentenced 128 defendants to death—a substantial reduction since 1999, when 298 received the death penalty.

Of the 38 states that nominally retain capital punishment, 13 (plus the federal government) have conducted five or less executions in the last thirty years. Some, like New Jersey, have conducted none, while there have been just two here in Oregon. Over 65% of all executions since 1976 occurred in just five states. The death penalty is used far more often in the South than in any other region of the country.

Despite publicity about cases like Cameron Willingham's, Texas may prove to be the last bastion of the death penalty in the U.S. During 2006, Texas executed 24 inmates, or nearly half the total for the entire country; Ohio was a distant second, with five. There are 392 Texas inmates on Death Row, roughly the same as the number in Florida but less than California's 657 (with twice the population of Texas).

So how many of the 1,060 prisoners who have been executed since 1976 were innocent of their crimes? No doubt we'll never know. In many cases evidence has been destroyed or DNA evidence is simply not available. An unknown number of convictions were the result of factors like perjured testimony, inadequate representation by counsel (5), jury selection processes that racially disciminate and prosecutorial or police misconduct. But such things are often difficult or impossible to prove, especially many years after an execution.

But there's larger point behind all this. It makes no difference even if every single executed person was guilty: the death penalty is an aberration in a society that claims to be civilized, and it should be abolished immediately wherever it exists.


(1) My primary source on the Willington and Willis cases is a New York Times article ("Faulty Testimony Sent 2 to Death Row") dated May 3, 2006. Most of the data on capital punishment is from the excellent online materials compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

(2) These commissions serve as "independent investigative bodies of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police officers and forensic scientists who re-examine case facts after prisoners are exonerated using DNA evidence."

(3) "The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense" by Ernest van den Haag, Harvard Law Review Association (1986). No doubt many guilty persons have been acquitted by juries or released by judges for various reasons, perhaps including such notables as O.J. Simpson. But those cases don't reinforce the dubious arguments against the death penalty.

(4) Prison guards and other inmates may be at risk of attack by people with life sentences who have nothing to lose. But that danger poses operational issues for prison administrators, who need to do everything possible to eliminate the risk from inmates who are truly a threat to others.

(5) In the infamous Texas case of Calvin Burdine, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA)
acknowledged that "the defence attorney had fallen asleep repeatedly during a capital murder trial. Nonetheless, the TCCA upheld the conviction, finding that this gross misconduct had not affected the outcome of the trial." [There's that British "defence" again.] Amnesty International observes that the TCCA's rulings in this area "are a maze of contradictory and sometimes bizarre decisions." In a plea bargain in 2003, Burdine (a gay man) agreed to accept three life sentences to avoid execution. In arguing for the death penalty at Burdine's trial, the prosecutor had stated that "the jury should not send Calvin to prison because prison is not a punishment for a gay man." His lawyer failed to object to this offensive and inappropriate argument, possibly because he was asleep.

PHOTO: Cameron Willingham

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Trashing the Tillamook

"I have seen a lot of scenery in my life, but I have seen nothing more tempting as a home for man than this Oregon country. . . . You have a basis here for civilization on its highest scale, and I am going to ask you a question which you may not like. Are you good enough to have this country in your possession? Have you got enough intelligence, imagination and cooperation among you to make the best use of these opportunities? "

Lewis Mumford
Speech to The City Club of Portland, Oregon (1938 )

Few areas on the planet are as amenable to the growth of lush coniferous forests as the Oregon Coast Range and Cascades. Abundant rainfall (sometimes exceeding 200 inches annually) and deep winter snowpacks nourish old-growth forests with softwood trees that often exceed 200 feet in height and ten feet in diameter. The dominant species are Douglas fir and, near the coast, Sitka spruce, although western hemlock and western redcedar are very common. In North America, only the redwood forests (also found in southwestern Oregon) support larger trees.

If the Oregon Cascades and Coast Range have a tragic flaw, it can be found in a geology and summer climate that make them relatively easy to log compared to the precipitous North Cascades or Olympics of Washington State. National forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service—which, revealingly, is an agency of the Department of Agriculture—encompass most of the Cascades, while forest ownership in the Coast Range is more complex. Vast areas of the Coast Range are owned by large timber corporations, the state of Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Oregon has long been the leading timber producer in the U.S., with its timber "harvests” (1) reaching their historic peaks during the sixties and seventies. The culminating years were 1968 and 1972, each with harvests of more than 9.7 billion (2) board-feet (BF). Extensive logging continued through the Reagan years at nearly the same levels, leaving a vast checkerboard of grotesque, reddish-brown clearcuts across the landscapes of Oregon, Washington and other western states.

Clearcuts strip the living vegetation from a mountainside, baring the mineral soil and subjecting it to erosion. Heavy equipment compresses the topsoil, making it more difficult for plants to reclaim the slopes. Water quality is damaged by silt and landslides. Air quality is impaired by the practice of slash-burning the woody debris that remains on the ground after clearcutting. The result is a visual nightmare that degrades and fragments the mountainous landscape for decades. (In the official literature, this is often described as a "mosaic of forest conditions," as if it were a work of art.)

During the nineties, timber production declined markedly for a variety of reasons, including lower prices, intense international competition (especially with Canada) and endangered-species litigation related to the spotted owl and marbeled murrelet. By 2001, production in Oregon fell to 3.4 billion board-feet, with predictable effects on mills and timber-dependent rural communities across the state.

But, with friends in the White House, Congress and the state legislature, the timber corporations have been recovering nicely. Oregon’s total harvest reached 4.5 billion board-feet in 2004, and harvests on corporate timberlands have increased impressively (see next photo). Federal forest lands have also increased production.

The Tillamook State Forest

The Tillamook State Forest of northwest Oregon was largely spared from the ravages of industrial logging for the seven decades that followed the gargantuan Tillamook Burn, still one of largest forest fires in North American history. The Burn was started during the summer of 1933 by an illegal logging operation and destroyed 355,000 acres of old-growth forest.

Subsequent fires, through 1951, further devastated the area and its topsoil. About 1.5 million trees (7.5 million BF) were salvaged by commercial loggers in the Burn. The state took over the private timber holdings in the Burn and eventually created the Tillamook State Forest, then began a massive replanting effort that continued until 1973. The forest has now “matured” to the extent that it considered ready for another round of harvests, though many of the trees would be considered mere “matchsticks” by the standards of forty years ago.

Despite official rhetoic about "structured forest management," not one square inch of the Tillamook is designated as protected wilderness or wildlife habitat. But there are 200 miles of "motorized trails" where off-road vehicles are permitted to run amok. And, under Oregon law, the highest priority of the Tillamook and other state forests is to produce logs and revenue.

Ballot Measure 34

The fate of the Tillamook's 550 square miles of forestlands has been the subject of much controversy as plans for its management, with a heavy emphasis on timber production, have been developed by the Oregon Department of Forestry. In this state, though, Big Timber is the 800-pound gorilla whose dominance is assumed rather than debated. Politicians at every level, and from both major parties, have historically been reluctant to take on a major source of influence, revenue and campaign contributions. Oregon counties rely on timber revenues from state and federal forests for a significant portion of their budgets (3). Professional and academic foresters are also dependent for their livelihoods on timber production, directly or indirectly, so they rarely depart from the corporate line on questions of “multiple use” and “integrated forest management.”

In 2004, citizen groups attempted to take on Big Timber and its political allies by placing Measure 34 on the statewide ballot. If adopted, it would have de-emphasized timber production and promoted other values for the Tillamook such as forest restoration, recreation, wildlife habitat and water quality. Proponents argued that the state Forestry Department’s current plan would cut up to 85% of the trees in the Tillamook within twenty-five years. Big Timber responded with a predictable media onslaught of disinformation, leaving no doubt about its intention to crush BM 34 (4). And so it did, by a statewide margin of 61-39% (with nearly 4-1 opposed in Tillamook County). The measure lost handily in every county except Multnomah (Portland).

Even at the allegedly liberal University of Oregon, the columnists for the student newspaper unanimously opposed BM 34. One argument, familiar throughout Oregon, went like this: “I trust the Oregon Department of Forestry knows more about what they are doing than I do, so I will vote to leave management in their hands” [revealing an attitude towards authority that also made the Iraq war possible.]

Since the defeat of BM 34, the Tillamook has been off the political radar screen. Not surprisingly, though, the ripening forest hasn't been forgotten by the corporate opponents of that measure.

The Future of the Tillamook

So now it’s back to business as usual in Oregon’s forests, including the Tillamook. Private timber companies like Stimson Lumber have recently inflicted massive clearcuts on the margins of the state forest (see photos). Total timber harvests in Washington County increased from 74 million BF in 1986 to 178 million BF by 2004. And there’s growing evidence of similar “active management” inside the state forest as well: production has increased from just 1.2 million BF in 1986 to 28.3 million BF in 2004.

In twenty-five years, will the Tillamook look like the rest of Oregon’s ravaged forests (other than the snippets preserved in designated wilderness areas)? Will the state legislature or another group of citizens attempt to redefine the goals for its future managment? As Lewis Mumford asked: "Are you good enough to have this country in your possession?" It’s too soon to tell, but a survey of Oregon's forestlands (with some notable exceptions) offers little reason for hope.


(1) Industrial forestry has always been permeated with euphemisms, from the currently popular “Healthy Forests Act” (read: more logging of old growth) to “intensive management” (clearcutting) to “multiple use” (clearcutting). “Harvests” suggests that trees are just another crop, another renewable resource like corn, that can simply be replanted after the land is stripped of vegetation down to the topsoil. Anyone who believes that this comparison is valid should examine the total wasteland of a clearcut one year after it’s done. Clearcuts are prominent features of a landscape for decades, not just a few months.

(2) Unless otherwise referenced, the Oregon Department of Forestry has been the primary source for this posting, especially its 2005 publication "Oregon’s Timber Harvests: 1849-2004" and its website.

(3) The Tillamook State Forest already generated $15 million in revenues for Washington and Tillamook counties in 1997, a year of relatively low harvests. Revenues will increase proportionately as the area is logged.

(4) The "no" campaign outspent the proponents by a factor of about 7-1, with the vast majority of the funding (well over $2 million) coming from such Big Timber luminaries as Weyerhaeuser, Boise Cascade, Stimson, RSG, the Oregon Forest Industry Council and Hampton Lumber.

GRAPHICS: The first photo (by the author) shows a recent clearcut on private lands in Washington County right next to the boundary of the Tillamook State Forest.

The aerial photo, from Google Earth, shows a portion of the Coast Range to the northwest of where I live. The image is an overlay of two series of photos, including one set obviously taken when there was snow on the ground. If you question whether this scene is typical, see for yourself on Google Earth by “flying” north and south over the Coast Range and Cascades at any “altitude.” You’ll see that much of Washington has been as devastated by industrial logging as Oregon.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A bake sale in Halifax?

It's been a while since I've seen the bumper sticker that goes (with many variations): "When will the navy have to hold a bake sale to buy a new battleship?" If you live in Canada, perhaps that time has come.

Surfing the news from the Great White North on the CBC, I came across this headline: "No NATO exercise for cash-strapped navy." The article goes on:

"The Canadian navy is pulling three ships out of planned NATO exercises off Nova Scotia next week, citing a lack of funding. There's no money for the warships to join the U.S. and German ships, navy officials said Friday."

Let me repeat: The Canadian defense budget doesn't contain enough money for three ships to take part in these exercises, which will be conducted off their own coast. Furthermore, it seems that "now the navy says other exercises and missions could be cancelled because of the budget crunch."

All this took place just two weeks after a "sovereignty exercise" by HMCS Halifax off the Newfoundland coast was canceled because "the navy couldn't afford fuel" (though it quickly changed its mind in the face of adverse publicity).

Meanwhile, the U.S. and German navies will begin the NATO exercises off Halifax without the benefit of any Canadian presence. The cost of participation would've been $3.5 million Canadian, an amount equal to what the U.S. spends in 16 minutes on the Iraq war (1).

This may sound like so much Schadenfreude (2), or even a kind of American triumphalism, but it all seems strangely refreshing to me.

But all kidding aside, I hasten to emphasize that Canada has suffered from its involvement in the war in Afghanistan, with 44 soldiers killed (all but 8 of them in 2006). Much of the strain on its defense budget is a result of Canada's prominent role in that conflict, with 2,500 troops on the ground. Many Canadian units are stationed around Kandahar, an especially dangerous part of the country.


(1) The National Priorities Project notes that, "on average, the federal government spends about $11 million every hour on the Iraq War, $256 million each day, or around $8 billion per month." Their total estimated cost of the war to date is $361,536,871,486 and counting.

This useful German word means, roughly, "finding joy in the suffering of others." The Finns have a saying that goes "schadenfreude is the purest joy, since it doesn't include a bit of envy." But the CDF's budget crunch hasn't created a national crisis for our neighbors, fortunately.

GRAPHIC: Alleged recruitment poster for the Canadian navy.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Cultural pseudosubspeciation" in action

Anthropologists have a way with words, as demonstrated in a catchy phrase that describes what's been happening in Iraq: cultural pseudosubspeciation. This term can roughly be defined as a tendency to perceive another ethnic or religious group as a different, and ultimately quite subhuman, species. That tendency is often incited or reinforced by the political, religious or cultural elites that stand to gain from isolating the target group.

The pseudo- suffix means, of course, that any such efforts are false because they're based on arbitrary social categories—distinctions that have no meaningful biological basis (1). Familiar modern examples include such distinctions as: Sunni/Shi'ite, Tutsi/Hutu and Aryan/non-Aryan.

The obvious purpose of pseudosubspeciation is to redefine a society so that some disfavored group becomes isolated, ostracized and hated. A subhuman social group loses its claim to civil equality, respect, and, eventually, even life itself.

Before Iraq's civil war began with the American invasion, Baghdad's Sunnis and Shi'ites often lived comfortably together as neighbors, had social relations and intermarried (2). They were frequently unaware of, or at least indifferent to, their neighbor's affiliation. The same was true of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs until the civil war of the 1990's. The Tutsi-Hutu distinction already existed, but it was strongly reinforced and exploited by the Belgian colonizers who, beginning in 1933, made Rwandans carry passcards that identified their tribal affiliation.

In a healthy, pluralistic society, racial, ethnic and religious distinctions have little or no political significance. In fact, the concept of "race" is so arbitrary (3) and loathsome, and carries so much historical baggage, that it should be abandoned altogether. But once such distinctions are reinforced, in the popular culture and the political apparatus, it can set in motion a process that leads to systematic persecution of disfavored minorities and, finally, civil war.

This dynamic led to an early escalation of the Iraq civil war. On last night's Charley Rose show (January 24th), John Burns of the New York Times was asked about the rather shaggy afro that has become something of a trademark for him. Burns said that barbers in Baghdad became an early target for fundamentalist insurgents who believed that men's hair and beards must be cut in a very specific way to conform to Muslim law. Armed men stormed into numerous barbershops and slaughtered offending barbers and their customers on the spot. Anyone who failed to conform to the strictest grooming standard was redefined by this insurgent culture as inhuman and unworthy of any consideration whatsoever. So Burns chose not to get haircuts, a practice that he continued even though barbers were available inside Baghdad's Green Zone.

Once this process begins, it creates a feedback loop that carries it ever further into barbarism. If the relatives of the Baghdad barbers and their customers retaliate with atrocities of their own, it only serves to reinforce the initial assumption that they're subhuman monsters.

Civil war may be the inevitable result of pseudosubspeciation, as occurred in the U.S. itself. The NYT's David Brooks, one of the few conservative columnists who occasionally gets something right, describes (4) the process well:
Amid the turmoil, the complexity of life falls away, and things are reduced to stark polarities: Sunni-Shiite or Shiite-Sunni, human-subhuman. Once this mental descent has begun, it is possible to kill without compunction. (5)
In his interview on the Rose show, Burns said: "Friends of mine who are Iraqis — Shiite, Sunni, Kurd — all foresee a civil war on a scale with bloodshed that would absolutely dwarf what we’re seeing now.”

The process of pseudosubspeciation artificially defines the Other in monolithic terms, creating a dynamic that could feed the dreaded—but possibly irresistable—"war of civilizations."


(1) The DNA of African Americans can barely be distinguished from the DNA of European Americans, and that minute difference only affects skin color and a few other minor (but quite visible) characteristics. I suspect it would be impossible to find any substantial biological differences between Sunnis and Shi'ites, or Palestinians and Israelis.

(2) This is not to suggest that Iraqi society was harmonious, or that deep Sunni-Shi'ite tensions didn't exist, but at least Iraqis weren't slaughtering each other with the regularity that we see every day in Baghdad and elsewhere.

(3) For example: "Recent work in anthropological genetics suggests that the traditional, historic and socially-constructed ‘racial’ aggregates that have permeated the Western biomedical literature since the 18th century are largely genetic illusions. Important human biological variation exists, but classical races, as the term is used systematically and taxonomically in the natural sciences, appears inapplicable to modern humans....." Wikipedia article on Genetic views on race.

(4) To get access to the whole article ("Breaking the Clinch"), you need to subscribe to something called "TimesSelect." Fortunately, the practice of charging for access to online opinion columns doesn't seem to be spreading.

(5) Brooks goes on to suggest a "soft partition," a proposal based on the growing acknowledgement that Iraq has been partitioning itself for some time already (as described on these pages on January 13th).

Finally, there's an interesting paper by Jim Fussell on the devious uses of identity cards: "Group Classification on National ID Cards as a Factor in Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing," Yale University Genocide Studies Program, November 15, 2001. Fussell writes: "Ethnic classification on ID Cards in Rwanda instituted by the Belgian colonial government and retained after independence, was central in shaping, defining and perpetuating ethnic identity. Once the 1994 genocide in Rwanda began, an ID card with the designation 'Tutsi' spelled a death sentence at any roadblock. No other factor was more significant in facilitating the speed and magnitude of the 100 days of mass killing in Rwanda."

GRAPHIC A Rwandan identity card with the bearer's "Tutsi" affiliation established immediately under the photograph.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Geaghan: "Professing virtues he does not respect..."

At the risk of immodesty, I note that I long ago ventured a prediction that George Bush would discover global warming toward the end of his term and propose some very mild "solutions" that would allow him to claim that he was on top of this issue, if not downright prophetic. Of course these "solutions" would have little political or budgetary effect on him, since their effects (even if adopted) would be delayed until after his successor takes office.

Tonight, in the State of the Union address, Bush may finally be coming out of the closet as a crypto-environmentalist, with his staff suggesting that his proposals on energy and fuel economy will "knock your socks off."

Bush's model for this political strategy has been clear for some time in Iraq:
"One credible forecast is that Bush is intent on delaying any withdrawal in Iraq until the next president takes office. Leslie Gelb, a former State Department official in the Carter administration, said: 'The worst challenge the next president will inherit will be to figure out how to lose in Iraq without the appearance of losing. Then there's huge problems at either end of Asia - Iran and North Korea. The next president is heading into the biggest, most dangerous set of problems we've faced since the Cuban missile crisis.'" Sunday Herald (Scotland), January 23, 2007.
And so it is across the board, from global warming to budget and trade deficits.

As for the Bush transformation on global warming, the great Ambrose Bierce so nicely put it:
HYPOCRITE, n. One who, professing virtues that he does not respect, secures the advantage of seeming to be what he despises. The Devil's Dictionary (1906)
GRAPHIC: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Saying no to torture

"Treat [British POW's] with humanity, and Let them have to reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army in their Treatment of our unfortunate brethren."

—George Washington, in an order to Lt.Col Samuel Blachley Webb during the Revolutionary War.

Washington "often reminded his men that they were an army of liberty and freedom, and that the rights of humanity for which they were fighting should expend even to their enemies."

—Historian David Hackett Fisher in Washington's Crossing (2004)
While the torture "debate" inexplicably continues, this might be a good time to propose a solution that worked quite well during the first 214 years of this country's existence: don't torture, ever. Or abuse, mentally or physically. Apart from the obvious moral issues that shouldn't (but apparently do) require discussion, it's in the manifest self-interest of the U.S. to stop torture, if only for the protection of its own soldiers who might some day be held by foreign governments.

This solution requires no more than a strict application of the Golden Rule: treat prisoners as well as we have a right to expect American prisoners of war and citizens to be treated abroad. Such a rule against torture would apply equally to all prisoners in U.S. custody, of every nationality, whether members of the uniformed armed forces of another country, "detainees," "unlawful combatants," or American citizens.

All persons have an absolute right to be free of torture and abuse, mental and physical. Period. No exceptions and no wiggle room, ever, for any reason.

Unfortunately, endless parsing over the definition of "torture" has been a prominent feature of this absurd and degrading national debate. It should be self-evident that a government has a right to confine persons only when they present a clear and demonstrated danger to others, as determined by lawful processes, whether they're domestic criminals or suspected international terrorists. Those persons should be confined as long as necessary (but no longer), in humane conditions, with adequate shelter, nutrition, medical care, recreation and freedom to observe their religious practices. Prisoners shouldn't be held incommunicado, and they have the right to communicate with family and friends—under supervision, if necessary to protect national security. And they should have a right to legal counsel. Any deviation from these minimal standards quickly becomes a form of abuse or torture.

The moral objections to torture, and the international legal prohibitions on it, are beyond the scope of this posting*. But we needn't look to international law for guidance. American jurisprudence has long recognized that torture and other forms of harsh interrogation can produce very unreliable results and violate both the letter and spirit of the Bill of Rights. This recognition predated the liberal decisions of the Warren court on criminal procedure (primarily made during the sixties) by several decades. So here's a quick stroll down memory lane, with highlights of some major Supreme Court decisions on torture and coerced confessions:

From Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227** (1940):
"The rack, the thumbscrew, the wheel, solitary confinement, protracted questioning and cross questioning, and other ingenious forms of entrapment of the helpless or unpopular had left their wake of mutilated bodies and shattered minds along the way to the cross, the guillotine, the stake and the hangman's noose. And they who have suffered most from secret and dictatorial proceedings have almost always been the poor, the ignorant, the numerically weak, the friendless, and the powerless."
From Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49 (1949):
"The requirement of specific charges, their proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the protection of the accused from confessions extorted through whatever form of police pressures, the right to a prompt hearing before a magistrate, the right to assistance of counsel, to be supplied by government when circumstances make it necessary, the duty to advise an accused of his constitutional rights—these are all characteristics of the accusatorial system and manifestations of its demands.

"Protracted, systematic and uncontrolled subjection of an accused to interrogation by the police for the purpose of eliciting disclosures or confessions is subversive of the accusatorial system. It is the inquisitorial system without its safeguards."
Here's Justice Douglas, concurring in Watts v. Indiana:
"Detention without arraignment is a time-honored method for keeping an accused under the exclusive control of the police. They can then operate at their leisure. The accused is wholly at their mercy. He is without the aid of counsel or friends; and he is denied the protection of the magistrate... The procedure breeds coerced confessions. It is the root of the evil. It is the procedure without which the inquisition could not flourish in the country.
And finally Justice Jackson, also concurring in Watts v. Indiana:
"Such treatment not only breaks the will to conceal or lie, but may even break the will to stand by the truth. Nor is it questioned that the same result can sometimes be achieved by threats, promises, or inducements, which torture the mind but put no scar on the body. I suppose no one would doubt that our Constitution and Bill of Rights, grounded in revolt against the arbitrary measures of George III and in the philosophy of the French Revolution, represent the maximum restrictions upon the power of organized society over the individual that are compatible with the maintenance of organized society itself. They were so intended and should be so interpreted." [My emphasis.]
Eleven years later, in Spano v. New York, 360 U.S. 315 (1959), the Supremes stated:
"The abhorrence of society to the use of involuntary confessions does not turn alone on their inherent untrustworthiness. It also turns on the deep-rooted feeling that the police must obey the law while enforcing the law; that in the end life and liberty can be as much endangered from illegal methods used to convict those thought to be criminals as from the actual criminals themselves..."

"Thus, in cases involving involuntary confessions, this Court enforces the strongly felt attitude of our society that important human values are sacrificed where an agency of the government, in the course of securing a conviction, wrings a confession out of an accused against his will. This insistence upon putting the government to the task of proving guilt by means other than inquisition was engendered by historical abuses which are quite familiar."
Ah, but I can hear the legions of parsers already: "These are decisions in criminal cases, where the issue was extracting evidence (like confessions) rather than information, and they involved U.S. citizens subject to ordinary constitutional protections and not suspected terrorists." To which I answer with a loud Bronx cheer. Torture and abusive detentions raise practical and (especially) moral questions that transcend narrow distinctions between citizens and noncitizens, and between criminal prosecutions and intelligence "inquisitions."***

Meanwhile, some 400 "detainees" languish at Guantanamo and others sit in secret CIA prisons in eastern Europe and elsewhere. Some of these prisoners have been in U.S. custody for five years, and some unknown percentage was clearly involved in activities that could be called "terrorist" or in armed opposition to U.S. forces in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

If any of these detainees had any information that was of value in 2001 or 2002, it has long since become obsolete. Terrorist and guerilla organizations have a cellular structure that's designed to limit the damage that would result from the capture or death of members of a given cell, including the leadership. These adjustments happen very quickly, out of necessity. [This beehive structure was clearly demonstrated in Battle of Algiers, the powerful 1966 film by Gillo Pontecorvo that was rediscovered by the Pentagon after September 11th.]

If any of the remaining prisoners represent a continuing danger to the U.S., the government should present evidence of that fact to justify their continued detention. Meanwhile, why do relatively few Americans object to the harsh treatment and extended confinement of these prisoners? Two reasons, I imagine. First, few people are willing to take the risk of releasing any prisoners if one or more of them may commit future terrorist acts. Second, there's a widespread assumption that they must all be guilty of something. If not, why are they being held?

Nonetheless, all persons held by the U.S. government have a due-process right to a hearing with basic protections that include the right to counsel, the right to confront the evidence against them and the right to an impartial magistrate.****If we persist in denying these fundamental rights, we have to ponder some very difficult implications for a self-proclaimed democracy: who are we as a people, and what are we becoming? Right now, despite some encouraging signs in Congress and the courts, the answers to those questions aren't at all clear.


*Wikipedia and other online sources have useful information about international legal standards that apply to torture. For example, see Wikipedia's articles on unlawful combatants, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, torture and the U.N. Convention Against Torture. And also the American Bar Association article mentioned at the top of this posting.

**The citation "309 U.S. 227" refers to volume 309, page 227 of the United States Reports, which contain the full text of the Supreme Court decision. Finding it online is simple: just Google "309 U.S. 227" and you'll find numerous links (of which a few might require free registration).

***Nothing that I say is meant to preclude obtaining evidence or intelligence through noncoercive, voluntary interrogations. Is there a "bright line" that separates noncoercive from coercive questioning? Physical and mental abuse go over that line, including psychological tortures like sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, various forms of humiliation (such as public nudity), mock execution, sensory deprivation and long-term solitary confinement without human contact (as in the Padilla case). The question is always: is this how we would want a fellow citizen to be treated in another country?

***The fact that some other governments, or terrorist groups, notoriously don't apply similar humanitarian standards in their treatment of American captives is no excuse for our own bad behavior, for all the reasons described by George Washington.

GRAPHIC: Notinourname.net

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Geaghan Exclusive: On the inside track

To show my immediate value as a new contributor to Runes, I respectfully submit the following exclusive report:

A White House insider confirmed today that George Bush and his staff have successfully vetted the likely next nominee for any vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. If he is confirmed by the Senate, the new nominee will join two other Bush appointees on the bench: Chief Justice John Roberts (age 51) and Samuel Alito (age 56), the two youngest members of the Court.

The likely nominee is Thornberry T. Pistlethwaite IV of Coyanosa, Texas, the son of George Bush's roommate at Philips Academy in Massachusetts. Pistlethwaite, age 24, has impeccable conservative credentials and his father is a major Bush campaign contributor. The prospective nominee is currently a second-year student at Davy Crockett Law School in Loco Alta, Texas. Though he has distinguished himself as a proofreader for the school's law review, he does not have a judicial paper trial that might subject him to greater scrutiny by the Democratic Senate.

My informant states that "as far as we can tell, the Constitution doesn't require a nominee to be either a licensed attorney or a law-school graduate, though we're confident that Thornberry will eventually obtain those credentials." If this proves to be an obstacle, the Attorney General's office has already prepared a signing statement that, according to a source in that office, "will exempt the nominee from any unfair Constitutional impediments, including the necessity of Senate confirmation."

If appointed, Pistlethwaite's judicial career could easily extend until 2060 and beyond.

GRAPHIC: Pistlethwaite taking a break while snowboarding in Aspen last week.

Welcome, Geaghan!

In the very new future, Runes will be adding Geaghan as a new contributor. He claims that he'll do some freelance investigative reporting and add a new perspective to our comment and analysis. Welcome, Geaghan!

Grover to Guantanamo

Today we learned that Brigadier General Cameron A. Crawford of the Oregon Army National Guard, a "Forest Grove native and West Point graduate," will oversee the daily life of the 400 "detainees" at the Guantanamo Bay "facility" in Cuba.* Maybe General Crawford can make his fellow Grovers proud by overseeing its dismantling at the beginning of his one-year tour.

*The Oregonian, 1/20/07

GRAPHIC: http://www.po.org.ar/

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More on "wars of choice"

Picking up this thread, the estimable Ellis at Disambiguation argues:
"I'm inclined to think that if we have to choose a set of principles, they should be wholly pacifistic. Allowing for particular exceptions seems far less dangerous to me than allowing for general exceptions. The problem with this, of course, is that it means that we have to consider every potential war as a particular case. But we already do this."
If each war as a "particular case," we end up in the pragmatist position of doing a cost-benefit analysis that might go something like this: is war in a given situation likely to produce a better result than refraining from war, or conversely, is it likely to result in less overall harm? Clearly such an analysis is based on principles, but those principles can't be determined in advance and they can vary widely depending on the nature of the conflict and the alternatives.

My critique of the Kaiser article was founded some of the traditional principles of evaluating what constitutes a "just war"--a concept that would never include a "war of choice" such as the one in Iraq. But is a defensive war the only kind of war that can be justified? I argued that , in extreme situations, military intervention on humanitarian grounds (which may sound like an oxymoron) can be justified based on moral necessity.

Later I'll get back to the "principled pacifism" that Ellis supports. From this perspective, surrender may be the preferred option in response to an attack (as the Danes usefully demonstrated in 1940). But first I'd like to place the categories of military conflict on a rough continuum:

1. A strictly defensive war fought as an inescapable response to actual aggression (as fought by the Poles during the blitzkrieg of 1939);

2. A pre-emptive war in response to a clear and imminent threat of aggression (the ground asserted by the Israelis during the Six Day War of 1967). The difficult question is: how imminent does an attack have to be before a military response can be justified?

3. A preventive war designed to defeat a hostile nation before it can launch an attack at some indeterminate date in the distant future (the putative ground for the Operation Iraqi Freedome in 2003).

4. A humanitarian intervention, authorized by the United Nations in response to genocide or other large-scale and systematic atrocities that can't be stopped by such means as economic sanctions (which provided the basis for the NATO interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo).

Only the fourth category, preventive war, would always be an impermissible "war of choice," as I argued.

It's difficult for me to refer to "humanitarian" military action without gagging, but I think the concept has some utility in an era when ethnic or sectarian "cleansing" seems to be increasing. The arguments against initiating military action on strictly humanitarian grounds are usually founded on principles of pacifism, national sovereignty and (I admit) logic.

The basic components of modern just war theory were recognized, for example, in a declaration of the 1993 U.S. Catholic Conference. It stated that the "strong presumption against the use of force" can only be overcome "to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations..." [my emphasis].

When does a "violation of the basic rights of whole populations" become so "massive" that a government essentially loses its right to exist? Stated differently, when does the claim of sovereignty become subordinate to the greater claim of protecting civilian populations from outrages like ethnic cleansing and systematic persecution? Can violence ever be justified in the name of reducing violence, given how unpredictable military conflict can be (as the Iraq war demonstrates by the day)?

The "presumption against the use of force" should not just be "strong": it should be nearly insurmoutable. But it's not difficult to come up with real and hypothetical situations where the presumption fails.

Imagine Germany in 1939, for example, before the war began in September. Suppose that Hitler had been deterred from attacking Poland, at least temporarily, but decided to accelerate an extermination program of "racial hygiene" and political repression within Germany's borders. Suppose the targets of this domestic Holocaust were identified as "Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Freemasons, political dissidents political dissidents, priests, preachers, religious opponents, and the disabled."

Under the Catholic bishops' formulation, such a "massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations" would clearly overcome the presumption and justify outside intervention to stop the program. Or, more specifically, the statement provides:
  1. "In situations of conflict, our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through nonviolent means.
  2. "But, when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, then legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice."
The problem with outside intervention and "limited force," of course, is the unpredictability of the result. If the intervention produces a general European war, with fifty million deaths, was it justified? On the other hand, can governments and international organizations like the United Nations simply look on in dismay while thousands are killed, tortured or imprisoned by dictatorships in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur or Kosovo?

Humanitarian interventions are likely to succeed only where there is a large disparity in force: in other words, where military action is likely to succeed quickly and decisively. Military intervention with a limited chance of success is likely to only add to the sum total of human misery, since a protracted war or total failure might result.

So I close, for now, by conceding that Ellis makes a strong point in his arguments in favor of "principled pacifism." As he concludes:

So how do we avoid the next war? Try not to elect idiots, and try to keep idiots from acting out their war fantasies when we do. Take it to the streets, and take it to the ballot box. That's the best we can do.

GRAPHIC: Refuseandresist.org

Monday, January 15, 2007

"A war of choice?" Never.

After making some astute comparisons between the Iraq and Vietnam wars, Robert G. Kaiser of the Washington Post writes:
"How did this happen again? After all, we're Americans - practical, commonsense people who know how to get things done. Or so we'd like to think. In truth, we are ethnocentric to a fault, certain of our own superiority, convinced that others see us as we do, blithely indifferent to cultural, political and historical realities far different than our own. These failings - more than any tactical or strategic errors - help explain the U.S. catastrophes in Vietnam and Iraq."
But then, in the third-to-last paragraph of his column, he adds:
"What's the lesson to be learned? Modesty. Before initiating a war of choice, define the goal with honesty and precision, then analyze what means will be needed to achieve it. Be certain you understand the society you propose to transform."
What exactly is a "war of choice?" Since when is it a legitimate national purpose to "transform" another society by initiating such a "war of choice," whether we "understand" that society or not?

Kaiser assumes that a war to "transform" another society can be justified as long as we define our goal with "honesty and precision." So, by this reasoning, the invasion of Iraq might have been vindicated if the Bush administration had simply been more candid and specific about its goals, rather than hiding behind various pretexts.

International law lends no support to these interventionist notions, nor does history. Admittedly the NATO interventions in Bosnia (1994-95) and Kosovo (1999) were "optional" for the U.S. in the sense that its security interests were not directly threatened there. But in both cases, intervention was deemed necessary—and not really "optional"—to prevent further ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity. For the same reason, interventions in Rwanda or Darfur to prevent humanitarian catastrophes would not be "optional," either.

If war is ever a "choice," then the choice must always be to avoid it. The real question is: when is war necessary and not a choice at all? Aside from self-defense in the face of an actual or imminent attack, there are few situations where war can be morally, legally or politically acceptable. These situations only arise when there are egregious violations of international law in general, and the Nuremberg Principles in particular, and political, economic or diplomatic measures prove inadequate. For example:
1. When a government wages a genocidal war against its own population;

2. When a government attacks another country without provocation (as the Bush administration did in Iraq); or,

3. When a country is faced with a humanitarian crisis of such proportions that its own government is unable to respond due to internal instability or civil war.
Military responses in these situations are arguably necessary, and not merely optional. In each case, a collective response by the United Nations, or some regional group authorized by the U.N. Security Council, may be appropriate. Only in the most extreme situations can a government take unilateral military action, and never for the sole purpose of "transforming" the society that it attacks.

A "war of choice," in other words, can never be justified.

As for the notion of changing the nature of another society by force, the U.S. certainly helped to "transform" Japan into a modern democracy after World War II, but that conflict began as a defensive war rather than a "war of choice." Certainly one goal of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was to transform its society, but that conflict also began as an essentially defensive war. It's hard to imagine a situation in which a "war of choice" could be justified for the sole purpose of transforming another society, no matter how much one dislikes their leadership, culture or system of government.

A war of choice is, especially for "transformative" purposes, is precisely the kind of "aggression" condemned by Robert H. Jackson, the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg:
"To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
Unfortunately, Kaiser's position on "wars of choice" undermines his powerful arguments against an American foreign policy founded on arrogance, unilateralism and hubris.

PHOTO: Robert H. Jackson addressing the Nuremberg Tribunal.

"A huge debt of gratitude"

This mindboggling exchange, with the familiar mangled grammar of Bushspeak, occurred on last night's 60 Minutes:
PELLEY: Do you think you owe the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job?

BUSH: That we didn't do a better job or they didn't do a better job?

PELLEY: Well, that the United States did not do a better job in providing security after the invasion.

BUSH: Not at all. I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude, and I believe most Iraqis express that. I mean, the people understand that we've endured great sacrifice to help them. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq.

PELLEY: Americans wonder whether . . .

BUSH: Yeah, they wonder whether or not the Iraqis are willing to do hard work necessary to get this democratic experience to survive. That's what they want.
No doubt "most Iraqis" woke up this morning with thoughts of gratitude that fortified them for the following "democratic" experiences:
  • Another botched hanging, this time resulting in the decapitation of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam's half-brother and former director of his secret police.
  • Continuing heavy pressure from the U.S. to support Bush's plans to escalate the fighting in Baghdad despite the vocal opposition of their own government.
  • Open warfare along Baghdad's Haifa Street, as described by an Iraqi doctor who lives there: "The problem is that we are living in a dark house, in a dark flat. There is no electricity. We have no water really. We are shivering from cold, from fear. We are afraid from snipers, from the shots."*
  • The usual daily risks of suicide attacks, firefights, car bombings, snipers, IED's, air attack, mortars and door-to-door raids.
  • Continued sectarian cleansing, as thousands of Iraqis are driven from their neighborhoods or the country (see entry for January 13th).
  • Unemployment rates "estimated at 30 to 50 percent for the nation and as high as 70 percent in some areas" despite oil prices at $53 a barrel.
  • Dysfunctional or nonfunctional infrastructure, and students who no longer dare to walk the streets to attend schools. And limited electricity at a time when temperatures at night are down in the mid-30's (about 2-3 C).
  • Ineffectual and corrupt government ministries that respond, if at all, to sectarian rather than national needs.
  • No progress toward a political resolution of the Iraqi civil war, and no recognition in Washington or their own capital that a military solution is impossible.
No wonder Bush faults the Iraqis for their lack of gratitude. As Francis Fukuyama said (see last night's entry): "One has the impression that they live in another world."


*In the same interview, Dr. Quraish Fajir al-Kasir also stated: "I spent 32 years working for this country. I have saved so many people in surgery; I have done a lot for the people here. Why I should be killed? Why? I don't know why."

PHOTO: Dubya bloviating, but not on 60 Minutes.

A "tidal wave" of liberty?

Recovering neocon Francis Fukuyama, who teaches international political economy at Johns Hopkins, was interviewed by Le Monde of Paris for its Saturday edition. Here are a few excerpts concerning Iraq and the coming escalation (with my translation from the French):

Q. Can you explain how the president and his advisors seem unable to understand the true nature of the situation?

A. Despite the last election in the U.S., and the criticisms addressed to the administration, there is an incapacity to recognize reality as it is. One of the most significant moments was at the reception given to Donald Rumsfeld when he left the Pentagon. George Bush declared that the invasion of Iraq represented a "tidal wave in the history of human liberty." One has the impression that they live in another world.

Q. How can the Democratic majority in Congress influence foreign policy?

A. In our constitutional system, foreign policy is controlled by the president. The Democrats can only take action on the military budget, but they won't because they don't want to be attacked for not supporting our troops.

After September 11th, I took part in many strategic discussion with the Democrats who are looking to formulate another foreign policy. And each time they ran into this obstacle: it was politically impossible to define the magnitude of the dangers because there's no such thing as zero risk...

Q. What has been called the "unilateral moment" for the U.S. was of short duration.

That was inevitable. The fact that one country, the U.S. as it happened, could act on others without their having any influence on that country provoked resentment. But once again the Bush administration accelerated the process.

Q. Will it be difficult to repair the damage?

I think that it's the business of a generation, at least. I don't understand why they still haven't closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay. That will be the point of departure for the process of repair.

PHOTO: Francis Fukuyama (Exmundo)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Persian Gulf incident?

What with the raid on an Iranian consulate in the Kurdish city of Erbil, the movement of a second carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf and yet more bellicose rhetoric out of Washington, it is reasonable for Digby to conclude: "It is obvious that they are trying to provoke Iran into some kind of Gulf of Tonkin incident. "

Such an incident, modeled on the bogus Gulf of Tonkin "incident" in 1964, could indeed be manipulated to justify an attack on Iran or, at least, move a reluctant Congress towards greater support for Bush policies in the Middle East.

But is there a serious risk that the U.S. will provoke a war with Iran? The problem with this hypothesis is the lack of military resources to sustain a war after any such Persian Gulf incident. The Pentagon is already struggling to come up with 21,500 troops to supply Bush's escalation in Iraq. At best, or maybe I should say worst, the Fifth Fleet might mount an aerial offensive for a few weeks that would barely even encumber Iran's nuclear program. A ground attack, or any kind of sustained offensive against Iran, would be unthinkable without a major military (not to mention political) mobilization in the U.S. And that simply ain't gonna happen, unless the Iranians do something very stupid. To Iran's President Ahmadinijad (whose capacity for foolishness shouldn't be overlooked), Bush' s provocations must seem like so much bluster.

Meanwhile, Bush's support seems to be eroding by the hour—it's practically down to McCain, Lieberman, Laura and Barney.

Another hypothesis: A truly insane George Bush will provoke a major war against Iran without caring about U.S. resources or the likely outcomes, militarily or politically.

As Bush becomes ever more isolated and reckless, the demands for impeachment will likely increase. Right now, though, impeachment seems very unlikely without a major revolt among congressional Republicans. Unless Bush goes completely over the edge—something that can't be ruled out—it's hard to imagine any realistic scenario where 2/3 of the Senate would vote to convict and remove Bush and Cheney, regardless of the evidence that might justify such action.

Meanwhile, the Decider plods on, unabashed:
"Bush has always said he sleeps soundly, admitting to no fretting about his decisions and no concern about polls. Johnson, by contrast, famously obsessed over the war night and day, asking to be awakened every time someone died.

"'I'm wondering if this is not some kind of tragically misguided notion of statesmanship on the part of Bush, that there is something noble about ignoring public opinion,' said Margaret Susan Thompson, who teaches a Modern Presidency course at Syracuse University's Maxwell School." [Jennifer Loven, Associated Press]
PHOTO: Barney (the last Bush loyalist?) making policy in the White House.

Some good and bad ideas out of Iraq

American politicians, when discussing
Iraq’s “young democracy,” often seem to be describing adolescents who are one week into an eighth-grade civics class. Yet the Iraqis may have something useful to teach their self-proclaimed mentors, as these provisions from the current Iraqi constitution demonstrate:
Article 8: Iraq shall observe the principles of a good neighborliness, adhere to the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, endeavor to settle disputes by peaceful means, establish relations on the basis of mutual interests and reciprocity, and respect its international obligations.

Article 31: Every citizen has the right to health care.

Article 35: (1)(A): The liberty and dignity of man are safeguarded.

Article 35 (1)(B) No person may be kept in custody or interrogated except in the context of a judicial decision.

Article 35(1)(C): All forms of psychological and physical torture and inhumane treatment shall be prohibited. Any confession coerced by force, threat, or torture shall not be relied on. The victim shall have the right to compensation in accordance with the law for material and moral damages incurred.

Article 35(2): The State guarantees the protection of the individual from intellectual, political and religious coercion.
Many of these provisions would be a solid addition to our own constitution, or at least our vast collection of federal statutes.

: The new plan to introduce Kurdish units into Baghdad, to the tune of 3,600 troops, is appalling and short-sighted. So far the Kurds have managed to remain neutral, or at least aloof, in the midst of the Arab civil war. Although this move is one way to supplement the expanded U.S. presence in Baghdad, it could invite retaliation later and embroil the Kurds in a truly nationalized conflict. Among other problems, the Kurds don’t speak Arabic, don’t know Baghdad and come from a region that is largely rural. And Kurds, who possess vast oil reserves and comprise only 17% of the population, are widely resented and distrusted by Iraqi Arabs.

Meanwhile, the Mahdi army in Sadr City is planning to be less active and less visible during the next few months, just biding its time and concealing its heavy weapons for later use. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Maliki has announced that the first target of the escalation in Baghdad will be the Sunni insurgency and not the Shi’ite militias like the Mahdi army.

GRAPHIC: Iraqi constitution and flag from UNESCO.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

On the ground: de facto partition

In his weekly radio address, George Bush complained that “those who refuse to give this plan [for Iraq] a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success. To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible.”

So in the spirit of constructive criticism that Bush invites, here are some modest proposals for bringing relative stability to Iraq while extricating U.S. troops in the near future. Some of these ideas are not entirely new, but they at least reflect the situation on the ground, and the limitations it imposes, more than anything that has come out of the Administration.

The profound flaws of the Bush proposal have already been exposed in minute detail, both in the Congress and around the world. It’s founded in delusional thinking rather than any tenable view of reality. It assumes a level of military and political cooperation from the Iraqi government that would be unprecedented in this long conflict.

Last spring, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware proposed a formal partition in order to “maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group ... room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.” Biden also suggested that the U.S. could maintain a small “residual” force of about 20,000 to train Iraqis and deter internal and external threats.

Biden’s proposal attracted a substantial amount of criticism. For one thing, the federal model he proposed is already written into the Iraqi constitution, including a formula for allocating oil revenues on a per capita basis. Critics argued that a formal partition would also result in even greater disruptions caused by the massive relocation of Iraqis from one region to another, raising the specters of Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing (which killed 110,000 people and dislocated 1.8 million) and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (with 14 million dislocated and up to a million killed).

During the eight months since Biden made his proposal, while politicians dithered in Washington and Baghdad, Iraq has been staggering towards a de facto partition, with over 12,000 Iraqis killed and countless uprooted since August. Death squads, suicide attacks and car bombings have forced Sunnis and Shi’ites alike to massively abandon* their homes and businesses in areas controlled by opposing militias. U.S. forces have discovered that aggressive patrolling can temporarily pacify contested neighborhoods, but these patrols regularly expose American troops and Iraqi civilians to firefights and attacks by IED’s, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and snipers. Once American and Iraqi units leave, insurgents are quickly able to infiltrate back and resume their strategies of intimidation, sectarian cleansing and mass slaughter.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including many academics and professionals, have voted "no confidence" with their feet by fleeing mixed Sunni-Shi’ite neighborhoods or leaving Iraq altogether*. Baghdad is rapidly evolving into a divided city, with Sunnis on the west bank of the Tigris river and Shi’ites on the east.

The de facto partition of Iraq into Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish regions is a harsh reality and the least onerous alternative is to adapt to it and address the humanitarian catastrophe that it's creating. The Iraqi and U.S. governments need to take immediate action to reduce the miseries of hundreds of thousands of refugees by offering material aid and assistance in relocation, including adequate food and shelter. Meanwhile, the U.S. should discontinue the aggressive and futile patrols in contested urban neighborhoods that serve no real purpose except to create more targets for insurgents, causing a steady drumbeat of casualties among Americans and Iraqi civilians.

The Iraqi military and police, as now constituted, simply can’t or won't perform their assigned duties. Shi’ite members of an Iraqi army unit, for example, are unlikely to follow orders that require them to fight their fellow Shi’ites in the Mahdi army. Sunnis are unlikely to perform aggressively, if they even show up, in offensives against Sunni insurgents in places like Fallujah or Ramadi. Kurd units like the elite Peshmerga (estimated at 100,000 strong) are highly motivated to defend Kurdish autonomy, but they seem to have little or no allegiance to the Shi'ite government in Baghdad.

For now, a majority of Iraqi soldiers and police is far more likely to defend perceived sectarian interests than national interests. Attempts to utilize integrated security forces have usually failed for this reason. Sadly, many or even most Iraqis no longer identify their self-interest with anything like "national" concerns. Nonetheless, the Iraqi regime and the U.S. should attempt to quickly form and equip several elite integrated units that will have the capacity and motivation to defend the central government in Baghdad and, perhaps, the small portion of Iraq's critical infrastructure that remains intact.

As the internal flow of refugees makes partition even more of a reality, separate Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd units, organized like state national guards in the U.S., could prove more effective at providing security than the nominally “integrated” forces that exist today. Sunni units patrolling the Sunni Triangle, for example, would play a very different role than they would in Sadr City, where their presence is provocative in the extreme. Ideally, these regional guard units would retain, or eventually develop, an Iraqi identity that would enable them to be mobilized for a true national emergency.

During a transitional period of three months or so, U.S. forces should concentrate on two roles that are primarily defensive and low-profile, thereby making them much less vulnerable to casualties and calming the political situation in Iranand at home.** First, they can train and equip Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurd forces to provide security in their autonomous regions. Second, American troops can deter large-scale attacks on the three regions by foreign or domestic enemies and, if necessary, help defend them (or the central government) if attacks occur.

The prompt transition to a defensive role is critical for both the U.S. and Iraq. Although sustained urban guerilla warfare neutralizes many of its military advantages in Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to be challenged by any foreseeable organized units there. In a conventional setpiece battle, overwelming American superiority in armor, air power, training and weaponry will almost certainly be decisive. This defensive role has the additional advantage of making U.S. forces far less visible as occupiers, while providing greater security for civilians and risking far fewer civilian deaths and injuries. The U.S. could further reinforce its background role by announcing that it has no ambition to establish permanent military bases in Iraq.

Military disengagement, beginning with immediate withdrawal of American forces not needed for a defensive role, should be joined with a far more assertive strategy of political and diplomatic consultations. It's abundantly clear that there will be no military solution for any side in this conflict. An overall political strategy would have to include participation by Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia as well as the contending parties within Iraq.

The central question for Iraqis, meanwhile, is whether Article 1 of their present Constitution has any meaning: “The Republic of Iraq is a single, independent federal state with full sovereignty.” If the central government in Baghdad fails, of which there is an obvious risk, Iraq could quickly disintegrate into three separate entities on the Yugoslav model. These states could soon be at war with each other or with foreign invaders such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Even worse, the Sunni and Shi’ite regions could suffer from irreconcilable internal conflicts of their own between rival factions and gangs, producing the ultimate failed states on the Somali model.

In the case of the Sunni Triangle or Shi'ite areas, there’s the additional risk that Al Qaida or another radical group could seize effective control and create a base for terrorist activities elsewhere, on the Afghan model. Either or both regions could become Islamist fundamentalist bases, a risk that the Bush plan fails to address due to its focus on Baghdad. Even a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north could provoke Turkish intervention, as threatened many times in the past.

The real choice is between a Bush plan that is doomed from the beginning, since it's a nothing but a regurgitation of failed approaches from the past, and a somewhat less risky approach that could reduce U.S. and Iraqi casualties, quickly end U.S. engagement and give Iraqis a reasonable hope for greater stability. Meanwhile, the partition of Iraq by sectarian cleansing will continue no matter what political choices are made in Washington or Baghdad.


*Since the bombing of the Samarra temple last February, an estimated 452,000 internal refugees have registered with the Iraqi government, including 108,00 in December alone, while another 100,000 have been leaving the country each month.

**Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki suggested that U.S. forces lower, rather then raise, their profile when he met with Bush in Jordan on November 30th.

GRAPHIC: Leksikon