Saturday, March 03, 2007

Bring Back the Politics of Personal Destruction

The New York Times
March 4, 2007

IF you had to put a date on when the Iraq war did in the Bush administration, it would be late summer 2005. That’s when the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina re-enacted the White House bungling of the war, this time with Americans as the principal victims. The stuff happening on Brownie’s watch in New Orleans was recognizably the same stuff that had happened on Donald Rumsfeld’s watch in Baghdad. Television viewers connected the dots and the president’s poll numbers fell into the 30s. There they have largely remained — at least until Friday, when the latest New York Times-CBS News Poll put him at 29.

Now this pattern is repeating itself: a searing re-enactment of the Iraq war’s lethal mismanagement is playing out on the home front, again with potentially grave political consequences. The Washington Post’s exposé of the squalor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — where some of our most grievously wounded troops were treated less like patients than detainees — has kicked off the same spiral of high-level lying and blame-shifting that followed FEMA’s Katrina disasters.

Just as the debacle on the gulf was a call to arms for NBC’s Brian Williams and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, so the former ABC anchor Bob Woodruff has returned from his own near-death experience in Iraq to champion wounded troops let down by their government. And not just at Walter Reed. His powerful ABC News special last week unearthed both a systemic national breakdown in veterans’ medical care and a cover-up. The Veterans Affairs Department keeps “two sets of books” — one telling the public that the official count of nonfatal battlefield casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan stands at 23,000, the other showing an actual patient count of 205,000. Why the discrepancy? A new Brownie — Jim Nicholson, the former Republican National Committee hack whom President Bush installed as veterans affairs secretary — tells Mr. Woodruff “a lot of them come in for dental problems.”

Yet 2007 is not 2005, and little more damage can be inflicted on the lame-duck Bush White House. The long-running Iraq catastrophe is now poised to mow down a second generation of political prey: presidential hopefuls who might have strongly challenged Bush war policy when it counted and didn’t. That list starts with the candidates long regarded as their parties’ 2008 favorites, John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

Senator McCain, who, unlike Senator Clinton, fervently supports the war and the surge, is morbidly aware of his predicament. This once-ebullient politician has been off his game since a conspicuously listless January “Meet the Press” appearance; on Thursday, he had to publicly apologize after telling David Letterman, in an unguarded moment of genuine straight talk, that American lives were being “wasted” in Iraq. (Barack Obama had already spoken the same truth and given the same pro forma apology.)

Last week a Washington Post-ABC News Poll confirmed Mr. McCain’s worst political fears. Rudy Giuliani now leads him two to one among Republicans, a tripling of Mr. Giuliani’s lead in a single month.Mr. Giuliani is also a war supporter and even contributed a Brownie of his own to the fiasco, the now disgraced Bernard Kerik, who helped botch the training of the Iraqi police. But, unlike Mr. McCain, Mr. Giuliani isn’t dogged by questions about Iraq. To voters, his war history begins and ends with the war against the enemy that actually attacked America on 9/11. He wasn’t a cheerleader for the subsequent detour into Iraq, wasn’t in office once the war started, and actively avoids speaking about it in any detail.

What makes Mr. Giuliani’s rise particularly startling is that his liberal views and messy personal history are thought to make him a nonstarter with his own party faithful. These handicaps haven’t kicked in, the Beltway explanation has it, because benighted Republican voters don’t yet really know that “America’s mayor” once married a cousin or that he describes himself as “pro-choice.”

But perhaps these voters aren’t as ignorant as Washington thinks. After the flameouts of Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, Ralph Reed and other Bible-thumping politicos who threw themselves on the altars of Terri Schiavo or Jack Abramoff, maybe most Republicans could use a rest from the moral brigade. Maybe these voters, too, care more about the right to life of troops thrust into an Iraqi civil war than that of discarded embryos used in stem-cell research.

The same cultural dynamic is playing out among Democrats, though Mrs. Clinton doesn’t seem to know it. Her poll numbers, too, are showing erosion — some of it because of Mr. Obama’s growing profile among African-Americans, but some of it (in a Time survey) after her dust-up with the Hollywood tycoon David Geffen. Most Washington hands declared Mrs. Clinton the winner in that spat because she had forced Mr. Obama off his high horse of “hope.” But there’s no evidence to support this theory. In the real world, most Americans don’t know who Mr. Geffen is. There wasn’t even any video of him to run on “Hardball,” where the Clinton campaign spokesman’s Jim Cramer-esque hyperbole made him look threatened by Mr. Obama’s rising popularity.

The most revealing aspect of the incident was not in any case the who’s-up-who’s-down prognostications for a primary process some 10 months away. Rather, it was the fervor with which the Clinton campaign accused Mr. Geffen and Mr. Obama of practicing “the politics of personal destruction.”

This over-the-top reaction seemed detached from reality, almost as if the Clinton camp were nostalgically wishing it could refight the last political war — and once again clobber repellent old impeachment nemeses. But that battle may not be in the offing. Anti-Clinton rage has cooled, and the Clinton hating industry ain’t what it used to be. As The Times reported last month, even Richard Mellon Scaife, who bankrolled much of the vast right-wing conspiracy, has moved on. As with Mr. Giuliani’s marital history, any scandalous new revelation about the Clintons’ private lives might play out less momentously in post-9/11 America than it did in the last century.

You can’t blame the Clinton campaign for praying it had Kenneth Starr and The American Spectator to kick around again. It would be easier to fight that war than confront the one in Iraq. Far easier. Senator Clinton’s words about the war still don’t parse. When I made this point previously, a Clinton ally phoned to say that whatever the senator’s Iraq statements, she is an exceptionally smart and capable leader by any presidential standard. I agree, and besides, Iraq isn’t the only issue in 2008. But Iraq will overshadow every candidate and every other subject as long as the war grinds gruesomely on, whether in Baghdad or at a V.A. hospital.

The issue is not that Mrs. Clinton voted for the war authorization in 2002 or that she refuses to call it a mistake in 2007. Those are footnotes. The larger issue is judgment, then and now. Take her most persistent current formulation on Iraq: “Obviously, if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn’t have been a vote and I certainly wouldn’t have voted that way.” It’s fair to ask: Knew what then? Not everyone was so easily misled by the White House’s manipulated intelligence and propaganda campaign. Some of her fellow leaders in Washington — not just Mr. Obama out in Illinois, not just Al Gore out of power — knew plenty in the fall of 2002. Why didn’t she?

Bob Graham, then Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, was publicly and privately questioning the W.M.D. intelligence. So was Nancy Pelosi. Chuck Hagel warned that the war was understaffed, that an Iraq distraction might cause Afghanistan “to go down again” and that the toppling of Saddam could be followed by chaos. Joe Biden convened hearings to warn of the perils of an ill-planned post-Saddam Iraq.

Some of these politicians ended up voting to authorize war exactly as Mrs. Clinton did (Senators Hagel and Biden). Some didn’t. But all of them — and there were others as well — asked tougher questions and exerted more leadership. John Edwards, by the way, did not: he was as trigger-happy about speeding up the war authorization then (“The time has come for decisive action”) as he is gung-ho about withdrawal now, despite being an Intelligence Committee member when Mr. Graham sounded alarms about the Bush administration’s W.M.D. claims.

Another fair question is what Mrs. Clinton learned once the war began. Even in the summer of 2003 — after the insurgency had started, after the W.M.D. had failed to materialize, after the White House had retracted the president’s 16 words about “uranium from Africa,” more than two months after “Mission Accomplished” had failed to end major combat operations — she phoned a reporter at The Daily News, James Gordon Meek, to reiterate that she still had no second thoughts about the war. (Mr. Meek first wrote about this July 14, 2003, conversation in December 2005.) Was that what this smart woman really believed then, or political calculation?

Either way, she made a judgment, and she will not be able to spend month after month explaining it away to voters with glib, lawyerly statements. The politics of personal destruction, should they actually visit the Clintons once more, will not take America’s mind off the politics of mass destruction in Iraq.

Aid Workers With Guns

The New York Times
March 4, 2007


The U.S. has built a little-known military base here that represents one of our best strategies to fight terrorism in the coming years: The aim is to build things rather than blow them up.

This base in Africa, established in 2003, sits at the entrance to the Red Sea in the small Muslim country of Djibouti, next to Somalia. Security is as tight as the sun is hot, with lots of bomb shelters, but the most apparent threats are distinctly, well, African.

“We’ve got two hyenas out there,” said Cmdr. Darryl Centanni of the Navy, executive officer of Camp Lemonier, pointing to a jogging trail on which troops were running through the semidesert. “So the running gets pretty interesting.”

He added that a pack of wild dogs also speeds up joggers but that the dogs mostly get food by catching fish in the sea. (I’m not sure I trust military intelligence on that one.)

After 9/11, the focus of America’s response to terrorism has been mostly on using military force to destroy possible threats in places like Iraq and intimidate just about everyone. The ethos was borrowed from the ancient Romans: “Oderint, dum metuant” — “Let them hate, so long as they fear.”

Yet all in all, that strategy has backfired catastrophically, particularly in Iraq, and turned us into Al Qaeda’s best recruiter.

So that’s why the softer touch in Centcom’s strategy here is so welcome. It aims to help bring stability to northeastern Africa and to address humanitarian needs — knowing that humanitarian involvement will make us safer as well.

“The U.S. started to realize that there’s more to counterterrorism than capture-kill kinetics,” said Capt. Patrick Myers of the Navy, director of plans and policy here. “Our mission is 95 percent at least civil affairs. ... It’s trying to get at the root causes of why people want to take on the U.S.”

One humanitarian mission for which the U.S. military is superbly prepared is responding to natural disasters. While the U.S. has spent vast sums broadcasting propaganda to the Muslim world, the two most successful efforts at winning good will both involved the military. One was the dispatch of soldiers to help Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, and the other was the use of U.S. forces to help Pakistan after the Kashmir earthquake.

The 1,800 troops here do serve a traditional military purpose, for the base was used to support operations against terrorists in Somalia recently and is available to reach Sudan, Yemen or other hot spots. But the forces here spend much of their time drilling wells or building hospitals; they rushed to respond when a building collapsed in Kenya and when a passenger ferry capsized in Djibouti.

Rear Adm. James Hart, commander of the task force at Camp Lemonier, suggested that if people in nearby countries feel they have opportunities to improve their lives, then “the chance of extremism being welcomed greatly, if not completely, diminishes.”

The U.S. announced last month that it would form a new Africa Command, aimed partly at blocking the rise of ungoverned spaces that nurture terrorism. The new command offers tremendous humanitarian potential as well, for in some poor countries the most useful “aid workers” are the ones in camouflage carrying guns.

In the Central African Republic in September I visited a town with a lovely new hospital built as a foreign aid project. But the hospital was an empty shell, gutted by militias rampaging through the area. In places like that, there’s no point in building schools or clinics unless you also help with security.

Some of the most successful aid projects in Africa have been the dispatch of armed peacekeepers to Mozambique and British troops to Sierra Leone. In both places, troops brought what the besieged population most desperately needed — order — and laid the groundwork for recovery. We should be far more aggressive about dispatching small numbers of troops to impose a no-fly zone over Darfur or to destroy Sudanese militias that invade Chad and the Central African Republic.

We can also do far more to train armies in Africa. The deal we offer African presidents should be along these lines: You run a country cleanly and tolerate dissent, and we’ll help ensure that no brutal rebel force comes out of the jungle to create chaos and overthrow you.

Helping fragile countries with security is just as important as helping them with education and medical care. So let’s hope that this new base in Africa is the start of a broad new policy that doesn’t aim to make us hated or feared, but respected.

Neither Clinton, Nor Obama

The New York Times
Published: March 4, 2007

So there I was, sitting in my office, quietly contemplating suicide. I was watching a cattle call of Democratic presidential candidates on C-Span. In their five-minute speeches, they were laying it on thick with poll-tested, consultant-driven clichés of the Our Children Are Our Future variety. The thought of having to spend the next two years listening to this drivel set me wondering if it was literally possible to be bored to death.

Then Bill Richardson walked onstage. He was dressed differently — in slacks and a sports jacket. He told jokes that didn’t seem repeated for the 5,000th time. He seemed recognizably human, unlike some of his overpolished peers. He gave the best presentation, by far.

Then a heretical question entered my head: What if Richardson does this well at forums for the next 10 months? Is it possible to imagine him as a leading candidate for the nomination?

When you think that way, it becomes absurdly easy to picture him rising toward the top. He is, after all, the most experienced person running for president. He served in Congress for 14 years. He was the energy secretary (energy’s kind of vital).

He’s a successful two-term governor who was re-elected with 69 percent of the vote in New Mexico, a red state. Moreover, he’s a governor with foreign policy experience. He was U.N. ambassador. He worked in the State Department. He’s made a second career of negotiating on special assignments with dictators like Saddam, Castro and Kim Jong Il. He negotiated a truce in Sudan.

Most of all, he’s not a senator. Since 1961, 40 senators have run for president and their record is 0-40. A senator may win this year, but you’d be foolish to assume it.

When it comes to policy positions, he’s perfectly positioned — not by accident — to carry liberals and independents. As governor, he’s covered the normal Democratic bases: he raised teacher pay, he expanded children’s health insurance, he began programs to stall global warming, he built a light rail line.

But he also cut New Mexico’s top income tax rate from 8.2 percent to 4.9 percent. He handed out tax credits to stimulate economic growth. (He’s the only Democrat completely invulnerable on the tax cut issue.) He supports free trade, with reservations. And he not only balanced the budget — he also ran a surplus.

On cultural issues, Richardson has the distinct advantage of not setting off any culture war vibes. He was in college in the late 1960s, but he was listening to the Beach Boys, not Janis Joplin. He was playing baseball in the Cape Cod League, not going to Woodstock. He idolized Humphrey, not McCarthy.

Richardson is actually something of a throwback pol — a Daley or La Guardia who doesn’t treat politics as a moral crusade. That might appeal this year.

On the nuts and bolts of the campaign, he has some advantages as well. He won’t have the $150 million war chests that Clinton and Obama will have. On the other hand, he won’t have the gigantic apparatuses that fund-raising on that scale requires. While those campaigns may be bloated, overmanaged and remote, Richardson has the potential to be small and nimble.

Furthermore, he could generate waves of free media the way John McCain did in 2000. He’s a reporters’ favorite — candid, accessible and fun to be around. “I’m a real person, not canned. I don’t have a whole bunch of advisers. I’m a little overweight, though I’m trying to dress better,” he told me last week. So far, rumors of personal peccadilloes are unfounded.

Finally, there is the matter of his personal style. This is his biggest drawback. He’s baggy-faced, sloppy (we like our leaders well groomed), shamelessly ambitious and inelegant. On the other hand, once a century or so the Democratic Party actually nominates somebody the average person would like to have a beer with. Bill Richardson is that kind of guy.

He is garrulous, amusing, touchy-feely (to a fault), a little rough-edged and comfortably mass-market. He’s Budweiser, not microbrew. It doesn’t hurt that he’s Hispanic and Western.

In short, when you try to think forward to next winter, you see that this campaign will at some point leave the “American Idol”/“Celebrity Deathmatch” phase. The Clinton-Obama psychodrama may cease to fascinate while the sheer intensity of coverage will create a topsy-turvy series of revolutions.

I wouldn’t bet a paycheck on Richardson. But I wouldn’t count him out. At the moment, he’s the candidate most likely to rise.


Committee subpoenas former Walter Reed chief

By Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer
Army Times
Posted : Saturday Mar 3, 2007 9:31:09 EST

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has subpoenaed Maj. Gen. George Weightman, who was fired as head of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, after Army officials refused to allow him to testify before the committee Monday.

Read complete coverage of the Walter Reed controversy.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and subcommittee Chairman John Tierney asked Weightman to testify about an internal memo that showed privatization of services at Walter Reed could put “patient care services… at risk of mission failure.”

But Army officials refused to allow Weightman to appear before the committee after he was relieved of command.

“The Army was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the decision to prevent General Weightman from testifying,” committee members said in a statement today.

The committee wants to learn more about a letter written in September by Garrison Commander Peter Garibaldi to Weightman.

The memorandum “describes how the Army’s decision to privatize support services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was causing an exodus of ‘highly skilled and experienced personnel,’” the committee’s letter states. “According to multiple sources, the decision to privatize support services at Walter Reed led to a precipitous drop in support personnel at Walter Reed.”

The letter said Walter Reed also awarded a five-year, $120-million contract to IAP Worldwide Services, which is run by Al Neffgen, a former senior Halliburton official.

They also found that more than 300 federal employees providing facilities management services at Walter Reed had drooped to fewer than 60 by Feb. 3, 2007, the day before IAP took over facilities management. IAP replaced the remaining 60 employees with only 50 private workers.

“The conditions that have been described at Walter Reed are disgraceful,” the letter states. “Part of our mission on the Oversight Committee is to investigate what led to the breakdown in services. It would be reprehensible if the deplorable conditions were caused or aggravated by an ideological commitment to privatize government services regardless of the costs to taxpayers and the consequences for wounded soldiers.”

The letter said the Defense Department “systemically” tried to replace federal workers at Walter Reed with private companies for facilities management, patient care and guard duty – a process that began in 2000.

“But the push to privatize support services there accelerated under President Bush’s ‘competitive sourcing’ initiative, which was launched in 2002,” the letter states.

During the year between awarding the contract to IAP and when the company started, “skilled government workers apparently began leaving Walter Reed in droves,” the letter states. “The memorandum also indicates that officials at the highest levels of Walter Reed and the U.S. Army Medical Command were informed about the dangers of privatization, but appeared to do little to prevent them.”

The memo signed by Garibaldi requests more federal employees because the hospital mission had grown “significantly” during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It states that medical command did not concur with their request for more people.

“Without favorable consideration of these requests,” Garibaldi wrote, “[Walter Reed Army Medical Center] Base Operations and patient care services are at risk of mission failure.”

"What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?"

Exploding Dickhead: [Not for the squeamish...]


A Word Too Far

The New York Times
March 3, 2007

Recently, the law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski had to grovel after one of its recruiters used a racist epithet in an interview exercise at Duke University Law School.

The recruiter was quoting a Waco, Tex., prosecutor in a 1920s murder case in which Leon Jaworski, one of the firm’s founding partners, represented a black defendant.

But never mind. One student heard an upsetting word and lodged a complaint.

Without explaining the context of the partner’s use of that horrible word, the law school’s dean, Katharine Bartlett, sent e-mail to students, saying: “I appreciate the strong feelings this incident has raised.” And before long, Steven Pfeiffer, the chairman of the firm’s executive committee, was traveling to Durham, N.C., to apologize.

As reported in the Texas Lawyer, Pfeiffer said, “There is no excuse for what happened on this campus. There is no context for which that is permissible conduct.”

Closer to home, a perplexing event took place at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where I teach.

As reported in The Capital Times: “Clearly, eloquently and sometimes tearfully, the seven young Asian women who raised the issue of a law professor’s allegedly insulting remarks about the Hmong told their story at a public forum Thursday night.”

What were these “allegedly insulting remarks”? Well, we’re only talking about alleged remarks, because even though the incident in question took place in mid-February, we have yet to hear the law professor’s version of the story of what he said to his class. Teaching a lesson about the failure of the law to take cultural differences into account, Prof. Leonard Kaplan said something about the Hmong that upset several students.

Despite the confusion about what happened, demands for apologies and remedies fill the air. The truth that seems to matter is the fact that the students felt bad.

You might think that a law school would want to teach scrupulous procedure, including a passion for the search for the truth and the need to find the facts before devising the remedy. But the notion instead seemed to be that we could simply treat the feelings and try to make everyone feel good again.

Ironically, you have to care enough about engaging energetically with issues of race to run into this sort of trouble. It’s so much easier to skip the subject altogether, to embrace a theory of colorblindness or to scoop out gobs of politically correct pabulum. It’s only when you challenge the students and confront them with something that can be experienced as ugly — even if you’re only trying to highlight your law firm’s illustrious fight against racism — that you create the risk that someone may take offense.

Perhaps students will jot down the few words you just said that made their ears perk up. What was the rest of this complicated pedagogical exercise, intrusively stirring up difficult emotions?

It would have been so much easier to teach using simple, straightforward lecturing, with every sentence carefully composed, with a sharp eye on the goal of never giving anyone any reason to question the purity of your beliefs and the beneficence of your heart.

Your colleagues may sympathize with you in private, but most likely they’ll be rethinking this idea — heartily promoted in law schools since the 1980s — that they ought to actively incorporate delicate issues of race into their courses.

Publicly, the school goes into damage-control mode. After all, it has worked so hard to bring together a diverse student body and to convey a feeling of welcome to everyone. How can we bear to hear a student say, as one Wisconsin student did on Thursday, that “unless we have a safe learning environment,” the school’s commitment to diversity “doesn’t mean anything”?

But this is madness! Our question should not be about what we can do to make you comfortable or how we can make your life pleasant again.

We owe our law students respect, but part of that respect is the recognition that they are adults who are spending many thousands of dollars and hours of study trying to acquire the critical thinking and fortitude that will enable them to serve clients and to stand up to adversaries who are only too ready to shake their nerve — like that real racist, the prosecutor who tried to intimidate Leon Jaworski in Texas in the 1920s.


Ann Althouse is a law professor at the University of Wisconsin and writes the blog Althouse. This is her last guest column.

Coulter Calls Edwards "Faggott" at GOP Hate Fest

Okay, so it's not surprising to learn that the odious Ann Coulter called John Edwards a "faggott" during her CPAC speech. But I wish I could say that I'm surprised about the dismal fact that the audience at the gathering of "chest-thumping conservatives" laughed and applauded.

Media Matters notes that Coulter "previously ridiculed Edwards" for talking about the death of his 16-year-old son. And, of course, the sweetheart of conservatism termed Al Gore "a total fag."

Andrew Sullivan observes that this sad lady "truly represents the heart and soul of contemporary conservative activism . . . The standing ovation for Romney was nothing like the eruption of enthusiasm that greeted her. . . She is the new Republicanism. The sooner people recognize this, the better.

"Oh, so that's why Coulter continues to be invited to speak "at the same podium as the Vice President."

This is what the darling of the Republicans said in her speech to the annual gathering of conservatives:

"Oh, and I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards. But it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word "faggot," so I'm -- so I'm kind of at an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards." [video at Think Progress ]

Coulter was introduced by presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R-MA), thusly: "I am happy to hear that after you hear from me, you will hear from Ann Coulter. That is a good thing. Oh yeah!"

What an honor for Mitt Romney. He has actually been endorsed by Ann Coulter. How nice for him. He has the scum vote all sewed up.

Americablog has the statement issued by the Human Rights Campaign. Here's an excerpt:

"The Conservative Political Action Conference was attended by 2008 Republican Presidential candidates: Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and former Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA). Vice President Dick Cheney also attended the event."

"Make no doubt about it, these remarks go directly against what our Founding Fathers intended and have no place on the schoolyard, much less our country’s political arena. . . We demand that every single Presidential candidate in attendance at this conference, along with Vice President Cheney stand up and publicly condemn this type of gutter-style politics. If not, then their silence will be deafening to the vast majority of Americans who believe this type of language belongs no where near the discussions about the future of our country.

"Howard Dean has also called for the Republican presidential candidates to denounce Coulter. [via]

Don't hold your breath. At least, not if you're looking for any kind of sincerity.

Photo via Bradblog

[ Acknowledgements to Tennessee Guerilla Women ]

Friday, March 02, 2007

Where’s His Right Hook?

The New York Times
March 3, 2007


As I sit across from Barack Obama in his Senate office, I feel like Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” when she plays a nun who teaches a schoolboy who’s being bullied how to box.

I’m just not certain, having watched the fresh-faced senator shy away from fighting with the feral Hillary over her Hollywood turf, that he understands that a campaign is inherently a conflict.

The Democrats lost the last two excruciatingly close elections because Al Gore and John Kerry did not fight fiercely and cleverly enough.

After David Geffen made critical comments about Hillary, she seized the chance to play Godzilla stomping on Obambi.

As a woman, she clearly feels she must be aggressive in showing she can “deck” opponents, as she put it — whether it’s Saddam with her war resolution vote or Senator Obama when he encroaches on areas that she and Bill had presumed were wrapped up, like Hollywood and now the black vote.

If Hillary is in touch with her masculine side, Barry is in touch with his feminine side.

He turned up his nose at his campaign’s sharp response to Hillary and her pinstriped thug, Howard Wolfson. He told The Times’s Jeff Zeleny that he had not been engaged in the vituperative exchange because he was traveling on a red-eye flight, getting a haircut and taking his daughters to school.

I ask why he couldn’t have managed the donnybrook while he traveled and did errands. Since he’s sitting across from me using his BlackBerry, I wonder: “Where was your BlackBerry? Did your aides not ask you how to respond or did you not want to ride herd on them — even just to tell them to ignore Hillary?”

“Look, I came up through politics in Chicago,” he says. “When I arrived in Chicago in 1985, I didn’t know a single person. Seventeen years later, I was the United States senator and in a position to run for president. So I must know a little something about politics.”

Channeling Ingrid, I press on and say: “I know you want to run a high-minded campaign, but do you worry that you might be putting yourself on a pedestal too much? Because people also want to see you mix it up a little. That’s how they judge how you’d be with Putin.”

“When I get into a tussle,” he replies, “I want it to be over something real, not something manufactured. If someone wants to get in an argument with me, let’s argue about how we’re going to fix the health care system or where we need to go on Iraq.”

If campaigns follow the arc of the hero myth. ...

“What’s the demon that I’ve slain?” he finishes. “You’re getting kind of deep on me here. I think that, for me, the story was overcoming a father’s absence and reconciling the different strands of my background and coming out whole.”

Has he ever been struck by the similiarity of Bill Clinton’s growing up without his father?

“You don’t want to go on with too much pop psychology,” he replies. “Somebody said that every man is either trying to live up to his father’s expectations or trying to make up for his father’s mistakes. And in some ways, when your father’s not there, you’re doing both. You try to live up to the expectations of somebody who’s not present to tell you that you’ve done a good job, but you’re also trying to make up for the mistakes that partially led to his absence.”

Does Al Gore have first dibs on the presidency?

“I love Al Gore,” he replies. “He’s a smart guy.” He said he liked Mr. Gore’s seriousness on issues he cares deeply about. “This sounds clichéd, but this week I had five mothers of folks headed to Iraq cry during rope lines where I was shaking hands and had me hug ’em. This stuff is just not a game. ... Now that doesn’t mean that there’s not the basic blocking and tackling of politics. I’ve got to raise money. I’ve got to manage my press. We’ve got to respond rapidly to attacks. But what I don’t want to do is get drawn into the sport of it.”

When the Tiger Woods of politics goes to a civil rights commemoration in Selma, Ala., this weekend — just as the story breaks that his white ancestors had slaves — he will compete for attention with Hillary and the man billed as the first black president. How does he feel about the Clintons double-teaming him?

Talking about the woman he described at the Beverly Hills fund-raiser as smarter, better-looking and meaner then he is, he grins: “My wife’s pretty tough.”

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Big Meltdown

The New York Times
March 2, 2007

The great market meltdown of 2007 began exactly a year ago, with a 9 percent fall in the Shanghai market, followed by a 416-point slide in the Dow. But as in the previous global financial crisis, which began with the devaluation of Thailand’s currency in the summer of 1997, it took many months before people realized how far the damage would spread.

At the start, all sorts of implausible explanations were offered for the drop in U.S. stock prices. It was, some said, the fault of Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, as if his statement of the obvious — that the housing slump could possibly cause a recession — had been news to anyone. One Republican congressman blamed Representative John Murtha, claiming that his efforts to stop the “surge” in Iraq had somehow unnerved the markets.

Even blaming events in Shanghai for what happened in New York was foolish on its face, except to the extent that the slump in China — whose stock markets had a combined valuation of only about 5 percent of the U.S. markets’ valuation — served as a wake-up call for investors.

The truth is that efforts to pin the stock decline on any particular piece of news are a waste of time.

Wise analysts remember the classic study that Robert Shiller of Yale carried out during the market crash of Oct. 19, 1987. His conclusion? “No news story or rumor appearing on the 19th or over the preceding weekend was responsible.” In 2007, as in 1987, investors rushed for the exits not because of external events, but because they saw other investors doing the same.

What made the market so vulnerable to panic? It wasn’t so much a matter of irrational exuberance — although there was plenty of that, too — as it was a matter of irrational complacency.

After the bursting of the technology bubble of the 1990s failed to produce a global disaster, investors began to act as if nothing bad would ever happen again. Risk premiums — the extra return people demand when lending money to less than totally reliable borrowers — dwindled away.

For example, in the early years of the decade, high-yield corporate bonds (formerly known as junk bonds) were able to attract buyers only by offering interest rates eight to 10 percentage points higher than U.S. government bonds. By early 2007, that margin was down to little more than two percentage points.

For a while, growing complacency became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the what-me-worry attitude spread, it became easier for questionable borrowers to roll over their debts, so default rates went down. Also, falling interest rates on risky bonds meant higher prices for those bonds, so those who owned such bonds experienced big capital gains, leading even more investors to conclude that risk was a thing of the past.

Sooner or later, however, reality was bound to intrude. By early 2007, the collapse of the U.S. housing boom had brought with it widespread defaults on subprime mortgages — loans to home buyers who fail to meet the strictest lending standards. Lenders insisted that this was an isolated problem, which wouldn’t spread to the rest of the market or to the real economy. But it did.

For a couple of months after the shock of Feb. 27, markets oscillated wildly, soaring on bits of apparent good news, then plunging again. But by late spring, it was clear that the self-reinforcing cycle of complacency had given way to a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety.

There was still one big unknown: had large market players, hedge funds in particular, taken on so much leverage — borrowing to buy risky assets — that the falling prices of those assets would set off a chain reaction of defaults and bankruptcies? Now, as we survey the financial wreckage of a global recession, we know the answer.

In retrospect, the complacency of investors on the eve of the crisis seems puzzling. Why didn’t they see the risks?

Well, things always seem clearer with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, even pessimists were unsure of their ground. For example, Paul Krugman concluded a column published on March 2, 2007, which described how a financial meltdown might happen, by hedging his bets, declaring that: “I’m not saying that things will actually play out this way. But if we’re going to have a crisis, here’s how.”


'U.S. lives have been wasted in Iraq. But it’s not Conservatively Correct to say so. Therefore…I reserve the right to revise & extend my remarks. Let’s change “wasted” to “sacrificed”.'

(Yeah…Sacrificed to Moloch…)




Image Hosted by
Prince George's Boy Dies After Bacteria From Tooth Spread to Brain

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007; B01

Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver died of a toothache Sunday.

A routine, $80 tooth extraction might have saved him.

If his mother had been insured.

If his family had not lost its Medicaid.

If Medicaid dentists weren't so hard to find.

If his mother hadn't been focused on getting a dentist for his brother, who had six rotted teeth.

By the time Deamonte's own aching tooth got any attention, the bacteria from the abscess had spread to his brain, doctors said. After two operations and more than six weeks of hospital care, the Prince George's County boy died.

Deamonte's death and the ultimate cost of his care, which could total more than $250,000, underscore an often-overlooked concern in the debate over universal health coverage: dental care. [MORE]

COMMENT: We must finally & utterly rid ourselves of the profits-over-people AmeriKKKornball Jerk Ethic. Enough is enough!

No wonder that even Cuba--with universal healthcare, by the way-- has a better child mortality rate than the good old stingy rotten bible-babbling theocratic neo-Confederate rightwing reactionary ridden USA!

I say, suspend the healthcare benefits of those Senators & Representatives enjoying medical coverage on the public dime while denying it to tens of millions of the very citizens whose taxes (through income &/or consumption taxes) pay for it-- until they get the message.

Old codgers dropping dead on the floors of the houses of Congress due to lack of proper healthcare would indeed be a sight to behold…

Global markets slide after China sell-off

By Nick Beams
28 February 2007

Global stock markets tumbled on Tuesday after a near 9 percent drop in the Chinese market—the biggest fall in a decade—sparked fears that a series of financial imbalances in the global economy could start to cause serious problems.

The global sell-off, which hit all major markets, culminated in a drop of more than 415 points on Wall Street or more than 3 percent. This was the biggest one-day decline since the markets re-opened after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. At one point, the Dow was down by 545 points for the day, while two other key indexes, the Standard & Poor’s 500 and the Nasdaq Composite fell 3.5 percent and 3.9 percent respectively.

When trading opened on Wednesday, the Australian stockmarket, highly sensitive to economic developments in China, joined the global slide, falling by more than 3 percent and wiping off about $45 billion in stock values.

The immediate cause for the China slump appears to have been concerns that financial authorities were about to take action to curb speculation, including a lift in interest rates and a capital gains tax. The rumoured action has sparked fears that riskier financial trades and investments around the world could now be in danger.

“What we’re looking at here is a big move away from risk,” David Durrant, a currency analyst with a New York investment management firm, told Reuters. “The big fall in Chinese stocks especially has got some people nervous about the carry trade.”

The carry trade refers to the process in which financial investors borrow money in one currency at a low interest rate and then place it in high-risk assets in other markets. This process causes what are considered distortions in currency exchange rates. For example, while the Japanese currency should be strengthening because of increased economic growth, the carry trade has seen a fall in the value of the yen as investors transfer yen holdings elsewhere.

Large profits can be made from these transactions but they depend on market stability. Once that comes into question, with an event like the China sell-off, there can be a rush for the exits.

Yesterday, International Monetary Fund managing director, Rodrigo Rato, warned that carry trades “could lead to more entrenched exchange rate misalignments that worsen global imbalances.” Rato said the actual size of the carry trade—estimated to be anywhere from $200 billion to $1 trillion—was unknown, adding that there was no “simple solution” to the problems. Financial markets and countries would be exposed if there were a sudden unwinding of financial flows, he warned.

A number of other factors appear to have fed into the Wall Street slide. According to figures released by the US Commerce Department, orders placed with factories for durable goods dropped by 7.8 percent in January, more than the predicted decline, as excess inventories caused companies to limit spending. Orders for business equipment experienced their biggest decline for three years.

The decline in durable goods orders is another sign that the US gross domestic product (GDP) is slowing and adds weight to predictions that the economy could move into a recession later this year.

Speaking via satellite link to a business conference in Hong Kong on Monday, former Federal Reserve Bank chairman Alan Greenspan warned that there was a possibility of recession by the end of 2007. The US economy had been expanding since 2001 and now there were signs that the cycle was coming to an end.

“When you get this far away from a recession, invariably forces build up for the next recession and indeed we are beginning to see that sign. For example in the US, profit margins ... have begun to stabilise, which is an early sign we are in the later stages of a cycle,” he said.

Tuesday’s slide—and there could be more to come—will confirm the view of those economists and analysts who have insisted that, while the world economy has been growing, it is inherently unstable because of massive financial imbalances—above all, the US balance of payments deficit. These critics have voiced concerns that the continuous expansion of liquidity by the central banks has given a distorted picture of actual risk levels.

In a comment published on Monday, Morgan Stanley chief economist Stephen Roach warned that a “new level of complacency” had set in. “It’s not just a financial-market thing—extremely tight spreads on risky assets and sharply reduced volatility in major equity and bond markets. It’s also an outgrowth of the increasingly cavalier attitude of policy markets. That’s true not only of central bankers but also .... [of] the global authorities charged with managing the world’s financial architecture. ... After four fat years, convictions are deep that nothing can derail a Teflon-like global economy. That’s the time to worry the most.”

Roach warned that an exceptionally low level of nominal interest rates had fuelled “the great liquidity binge that underpins an extraordinary degree of risk taking still evident in world financial markets.”

In a conversation with Roach, a former central banker had declared: “Who are we to judge the state of the markets?” Reporting the remark, Roach said it was indicative of a “very narrow perspective of the role and purpose of central banking. Most importantly, it relegates financial stability to a secondary consideration at precisely the time when financial globalisation and innovation could be inherently destabilising.”

Whatever the immediate outcome of the latest market turbulence, the events of yesterday are a reminder of how rapidly the situation can turn in conditions where trillions of dollars shift around the world every day.


See Also:

The multi-billion dollar demise of hedge fund Amaranth [4 October 2006]

Warnings of a US recession and global slowdown [18 August 2006]

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Slavery Is Not Dead. It’s Not Even Past.

The New York Times
March 1, 2007

The Rev. Al Sharpton seemed subdued, quiet, reflective — which was unusual.

Just when we thought the news couldn’t get any weirder, we learned this week, via The Daily News, that Mr. Sharpton’s great-grandfather was a slave who was owned by relatives of Senator Strom Thurmond, the longtime archsegregationist who ran for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948.

“There’s not enough troops in the Army,” Mr. Thurmond told a screaming crowd during that campaign, “to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our schools and into our homes.”

Mr. Sharpton seemed a little shaken by the revelation. “You’re always kind of thinking that your ancestors were slaves,” he said. “But this was my grandfather’s father. I knew my grandfather. It’s eerie when it becomes so personal.”

The days of slavery are closer than we tend to think, and they were crueler than we tend to realize. Mr. Sharpton’s great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was sent with his wife and two children from South Carolina to Florida so a woman named Julia Thurmond Sharpton could send them out as laborers to pay off debts left by her late husband.

Julia Sharpton was a first cousin, twice removed, of Strom Thurmond.

“They were sent there solely for that reason,” Mr. Sharpton said. “To make money to pay her debt. It was just so clear that they were nothing but property. The complete dehumanization — I don’t think I fully understood it until this hit home.”

There’s a great deal that Americans don’t fully understand about slavery. It’s such an uncomfortable subject that the temptation is to relegate it to the distant past and move on. But the long tentacles of that evil institution are still with us. Slavery was the foundation of the thriving consumer society that we have today and the wellspring of the racism that still poisons so many white attitudes and black lives.

The sheer size of the phenomenon of slavery, which was woven into the very being of the early Americas, is not well known today. The historian David Brion Davis, in his book “Inhuman Bondage,” tells us:

“By 1820 nearly 8.7 million slaves had departed from Africa for the New World, as opposed to only 2.6 million whites, many of them convicts or indentured servants, who had left Europe. Thus by 1820 African slaves constituted almost 77 percent of the enormous population that had sailed toward the Americas, and from 1760 to 1820 this emigrating flow included 5.6 African slaves for every European.”

For most of the time between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the United States was governed by presidents who owned slaves.

One of the points Mr. Davis stressed was that the commodities produced in such tremendous volume by slaves — sugar, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, cotton — were crucial to the formation of the world’s first global mass market.

“From the very beginnings,” wrote Mr. Davis, “America was part black, and indebted to the appalling sacrifices of millions of individual blacks who cleared the forests and tilled the soil. Yet even the ardent opponents of slaveholding could seldom if ever acknowledge this basic fact.”

Instead of reaping rewards for this seminal role in the creation of a rich and powerful nation, blacks have been relentlessly vilified by a profoundly racist society and frozen out of most of the nation’s bounty. Consigned to the bottom of the caste heap after emancipation, and denied some of the most basic human rights, blacks became the convenient depository of whatever blame and negative stereotypes whites chose to cast their way.

The abject state ruthlessly imposed upon blacks for so long became, perversely, proof of their inferiority. Blacks gave whites of all classes someone to look down upon.

Slavery, like the past, as Faulkner reminded us, is not dead. It’s not even past. It’s not something that you can wish away.

The other night Reverend Sharpton flew into Miami to attend a conference. At the airport someone asked for his autograph.

“It was the first time in my life that I thought about why my name is Sharpton,” he said. “I mean this whole thing is as personal as why your name is what it is. You’re named after someone who owned your great-grandparents.”

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ozone Man Sequel

The New York Times
February 28, 2007


Al Gore now has a movie with an Oscar and a grandson named Oscar.

Who could ask for anything more?

Al Gore could.

The best ex-president who was never president could make one of the most interesting campaigns in American history even more interesting. Will he use his green moment on the red carpet in black tie to snag blue states and win the White House?

Only the Goracle knows the answer.

The man who was prescient on climate change, the Internet, terrorism and Iraq admitted that maybe his problem had been that he was too far ahead of the curve. He realized at a conference that “there’re ideas that are mature, ideas that are maturing, ideas that are past their prime ... and a category called ‘predawn.’

“And all of a sudden it hit me,” he told John Heilemann of New York magazine last year. “Most of my political career was spent investing in predawn ideas! I thought, Oh, that’s where I went wrong.”

As Mr. Gore basked Sunday night in the adoration of Leo, Laurie David and the rest of the Hollywood hybrid-drivers, Democrats wondered: Is this chubby guy filling out the Ralph Lauren three-piece tuxedo a mature idea or an idea that’s past its prime?

With Hillary overproduced and Barack Obama an unfinished script, maybe it’s time to bring the former vice president out of turnaround.

Hillary’s henchmen try to prognosticate the Goracle’s future by looking at his waistline, according to Newsday; they think if he’s going to run, he’ll get back to fighting weight.

With her own talent for checking the weathervane, Hillary co-opted Mr. Gore’s eco-speak right after the Oscars, talking environment throughout upstate New York. Given his past competition with Hillary, Mr. Gore must have delighted in seeing his star rise in Hollywood as hers dimmed.

If he waits long enough to get into the race, all the usual-suspect-consultants will be booked — which would be a boon for Mr. Gore, since his Hessian strategists in 2000 made him soft-pedal the environment, the very issue that makes him seem most passionate and authentic. The same slides about feedback loops and the interconnectedness of weather patterns that made his image-makers yawn just won his movie an Academy Award.

But what’s going on in his head? Like Jeb Bush, Al Gore was the good son groomed by a famous pol to be president, only to have it snatched away by a black sheep who didn’t even know the name of the general running Pakistan (the same one he just sent Vice to try to push into line.) It must be excruciating not only to lose a presidency you’ve won because the Supreme Court turned partisan and stopped the vote, but to then watch the madness of King George and Tricky Dick II as they misled their way into serial catastrophes.

Even though Chickenhawk Cheney finally got close to combat in Afghanistan, his explosive brush with a suicide bomber has not served as a wake-up call about the danger of Osama bin Laden’s staying on the lam, and Afghanistan’s slipping back into the claws of the Taliban and Al Qaeda while we are shackled to Iraq.

A reporter asked Tony Snow yesterday what the attack on the Bagram Air Base that targeted the vice president and killed at least 23 people said about the Taliban’s strength. “I’m not sure it says anything,” he replied.

Mr. Gore must be pleased that he’s been vindicated on so many fronts, yet it still must rankle the Nobel Peace Prize nominee to hear the White House spouting such dangerous nonsense. He must sometimes imagine how much safer the world would be if he were president.

The Bush-Cheney years have been all about dragging the country into the past, getting back the presidential powers yanked away after Watergate, settling scores from Poppy Bush’s old war, and suppressing scientific and environmental advances. Instead of aiming for the stars, the greatest power on earth is bogged down in poorly navigated conflicts with ancient tribes and brutes in caves.

Surely the Goracle, an aficionado of futurism, must stew about all the time and money and good will that has been wasted with a Vietnam replay and a scolding social policy designed to expunge the Age of Aquarius.

When he’s finished Web surfing, tweaking his PowerPoint and BlackBerrying, what goes through his head? Does he blame himself? Does he blame the voting machines? Ralph Nader? Robert Shrum? Naomi Wolf? How about Bush Inc. and Clinton Inc.?

With the red carpet rolled up, the tux at the cleaner’s, and the gold statuette on the director’s mantle, not his, the Goracle is at his Nashville mansion, contemplating how to broker his next deal. Will he cast himself as the savior of the post-Bush era, or will the first Gore in the Oval Office be Karenna, mother of Oscar?

Outsource the Cabinet?

The New York Times
February 28, 2007

Yes, it’s true, a picture is worth a thousand words — but some are worth a whole dictionary. I came across one the other day on The story was headlined “Israeli Minister in Vision Gaffe.”

Next to it is a picture showing Israel’s defense minister, Amir Peretz, inspecting troops on the Golan Heights alongside Israel’s military chief of staff, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Both men are peering into the distance through binoculars, but with one big difference: Mr. Peretz was watching the maneuvers through binoculars with the lens caps still on. ...

“According to the photographer,” the BBC reported, “Mr. Peretz looked through the capped binoculars three times, nodding as Gen. Ashkenazi explained what was in view.”

Oh my, I’d rather misspell “potato” on national TV than be remembered for that.

That picture is so evocative not only because Mr. Peretz — a former labor organizer — has already been savagely criticized for being out of his depth as defense minister. It’s also because much of Israel’s leadership seems to have blinded itself lately with all sorts of bizarre and criminal behavior.

Where do I start? Israel’s police commissioner just resigned after an investigative committee criticized his actions in a 1999 case involving an Israeli crime family. His resignation came in the wake of a rape allegation against Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav, as well accusations of corruption against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the suspension of his office director, whose house arrest is part of a widening investigation into the Tax Authority — whose chief also just resigned under a cloud. The finance minister is being questioned about embezzlement at a nonprofit, and the former justice minister has been convicted of indecent behavior for kissing a female soldier against her will. There’s more, but I don’t have space.

Here is the really bizarre thing: Israel’s economy — particularly its high-tech sector — has never been better.

“The economy is blooming, growing in the last quarter of 2006 by almost 8%,” said Sever Plocker of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, who is one of Israel’s top economics writers. “Foreign direct investment is flowing in at unprecedented rate — $13.4 billion in 2006. The high-tech sector exports are approaching $18 billion, and the stock exchange is at an all-time high. The shekel is stronger than ever, the inflation nonexistent. Interest rates are lower than in U.S. or Britain, the budget deficit less than 1% of G.D.P., and the balance of payments is positive, which means Israel achieved its economic independence and is actually a net creditor to the rest of the world.

“In short, we never had it so good in the economy.”

Yossi Vardi, one of the founding fathers of Israel’s high-tech industry, told me that in the last month alone, four start-ups that he was an investor in were sold: one to Cisco, one Microsoft, and two to Israeli companies. “In the last nine months I’ve probably invested in at least nine new companies,” added Mr. Vardi, all started by “kids 25 to 35 years old.”

So maybe Israel doesn’t need any cabinet ministers? It’s not so simple. When the cabinet is so weak, no peace deal is likely with the Palestinians because no leader has the strength to push it through — and that is a ticking time bomb. Moreover, high-tech doesn’t employ a lot of people, and if the cabinet that should be looking out for the rest of Israel is hobbled — another bomb is ticking.

“Almost half of the population does not enjoy the boom,” Mr. Plocker said, noting these statistics: The unemployment rate is 8.3 percent. Israel’s poverty rate is still the highest in the West, by far: 24.4 percent of the entire population and 35.2 percent of all children are described as poor, living under the official “poverty line.” In the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sectors, child poverty is especially high: more than 50 percent. The real income of the poorest quarter of Israelis is lower than six years ago.

“There is a growing feeling that something is deeply rotten in the Israeli political system,” Mr. Plocker e-mailed, “as it can’t deliver a decent social policy — reducing poverty, inequality and unemployment — even during the good times.

“Tom, I never saw in the streets of Israel such a total contempt for the government by almost everybody — the poor and the rich, the Jews and the Arabs, the left, the right and the collapsing center. This is the essence of our situation — a contrast between the ‘you never had it so good’ economy and the ‘you never had it so bad’ government. This is the spring of our discontent. Excuse me for being rather lengthy, but it hurts.”

Communist Party Cautions Reformers in China

Remarks an Answer to Reform Debate

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 28, 2007; A13

BEIJING, Feb. 27 -- The Communist Party cautioned China's increasingly impatient reformers and intellectuals Tuesday that political liberalization and democracy are still a long way off despite the rapid pace of economic change over the last two decades.

The warning, in an article attributed to Premier Wen Jiabao in the official People's Daily newspaper, constituted the party's first known response to a bubbling up of political debate as China prepares for an annual session of its legislature and an important Communist Party congress that is scheduled for this fall.

Most of the debate has remained behind closed doors, in keeping with the party's tradition of secrecy. But two recent articles by prominent establishment figures brought into the open suggestions to President Hu Jintao's government that moving faster on political reforms would help smooth the transformation to a market economy.

One, by Zhou Ruijun, a former People's Daily editor known for reformist views, said greater democratic opening is necessary to defuse tensions over a growing gap between rich and poor, which he warned could lead to instability. Another, by former Renmin University vice president Xie Tao, suggested that China should move speedily toward a Scandinavian-like social-welfare democracy.

Wen, who recently was reported to be in charge of preparing a leadership platform for the party congress, reached into familiar Marxist vocabulary to build an argument that China is not yet ready for such a democracy, even though it remains a distant goal for the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" that the party hopes to build.

"We are still far away from advancing out of the primary stages of socialism," he said. "We must stick with the basic development guideline of that stage for 100 years."

At the same time, Wen said that "the socialist system is not contradictory to democracy," adding: "A highly developed democracy and a complete legal system are inherent requirements of the socialist system and an important benchmark of a mature socialist system."

Wen's comments were seen as a foretaste of the platform Hu and his lieutenants will put forth at the key 17th party congress, essentially calling for the continuation of rapid economic development but without bold political departures. The remarks were also in keeping with Hu's reputation as a cautious, bet-hedging leader.

The congress is held every five years, and analysts have described this fall's assembly as a pivotal moment for Hu. Five years after taking power, he is expected to cement his leadership by making sure officials loyal to him are placed in key positions on the Politburo and its decision-making Standing Committee. That implies the retirement of some current party officials identified with the former president and party leader, Jiang Zemin, they noted, and so Hu is eager to avoid ideological disputes that could complicate the personnel changes.

Liu Xiaobo, a writer and political dissident, suggested Hu and Wen were working toward a trouble-free party congress by trying to walk a line between conservatives and liberals, who for different reasons are uncomfortable with China's political system. While conservative party stalwarts have become upset at the growing distance from Mao Zedong's founding ideology, eager reformers have become frustrated that the liberalization started by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s still focuses mainly on economic reform.

"China has undertaken the opening and reform policy for 20 years, and many outsiders have applauded China's glamorous economic achievement," Liu added, "but those who really understand China know that many deep-rooted problems haven't been touched at all."

In another aspect of the debate, Chinese scholars posted a petition on the Internet recently calling on the legislature to slow down the privatization of state-owned companies and legal protection for their new owners.

Hundreds of large government-owned firms have been closed in recent years because they lost vast sums of money and survived only by ever-more-precarious loans. The closures have resulted in unemployment for hundreds of thousands of workers, the scholars complained, broadening the rich-poor gap and raising the threat of instability.

"With the relentless advance of privatization, our country already has a serious gap between rich and poor, which is polarizing into two extremes," said the petition, which was signed by, among others, Gong Xiantian, a Peking University law professor; Li Chengrui, former head of the National Statistics Bureau; and a dozen academics from the party's own Central Party School.

Similar opposition among party officials led Hu's government to pull back a law protecting private property, including privatized state enterprises, after it was submitted to last year's session of the legislature, the National People's Congress. The government has prepared a new law for this session. But the scholars warned that, practically speaking, the law would sanction the corruption that often accompanies such sell-offs and should be delayed again until new rules are drawn up.

Underlying the opposition is a reluctance among many tradition-minded party members to abandon the long-standing socialist principle that the state owns all land. Their fight against legal protection for private property ownership has become a kind of last stand against the wholesale jettisoning of communist doctrine that has occurred in China since Deng's reforms began.

Without directly addressing the petition, Wen acknowledged that China's market-oriented economic development must also include more social justice, calling these "two interrelated and mutually beneficial tasks." But he also expressed determination to keep at the reforms.

"Without sustained rapid growth of the productive forces, it is impossible to finally secure the fairness and social justice that lie at the heart of the socialist system," he wrote.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Land of Camel Milk and Honey

The New York Times
February 27, 2007

HARGEISA, Somaliland(?)

Here’s the ethos of Somalia, as a former Mogadishu resident explained it to me: “If I use a dollar to buy food, then tomorrow I have nothing. If I use a dollar to buy a bullet, then I can eat every day.”

That enterprising can-do spirit has turned most of Somalia into the poster child of a failed state, where you feel underdressed without an assault rifle. But wait! Here in the north of the carcass of Somalia is the breakaway would-be nation of Somaliland, and it is a remarkable success — for a country that doesn’t exist.

The U.S. and other governments don’t recognize Somaliland, so the people here get next to zero foreign aid. And when the “country” was formed in 1991, it had been mostly obliterated in a civil war and was a collection of ruins and land mines.

Yet the clans and elders here formed their own government, held free elections and even established an international airline. Relying on free markets and a general exhaustion with violence, the people of Somaliland embraced tranquillity and democracy and searched for ways to make a buck.

Walk down the streets of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, and instead of gunmen you come across the thriving jewelry and financial market: scores of vendors, most of them women, are hawking millions of dollars worth of gold, precious stones and foreign currency out in the open air. (Don’t try that at home!) Continue down the street, and you see that Hargeisa has police cars, DHL service, cable television, orthodontists, a multitude of Internet cafes and traffic jams (including the horses and camels). There are public schools and hospitals — even a public library.

This is a conservative Muslim country, yet it is generally pro-American and tolerant. In the last election, more women voted than men. Women’s groups are fighting the traditional practice of genital mutilation, administered to 97 percent of girls here.

The lesson of Somaliland is simple: the most important single determinant of a poor country’s success is not how much aid it receives but how well it is run. If a country adheres to free markets and good political and economic governance, it will generate domestic and foreign investments that dwarf any amount of aid.

As President Dahir Rayale Kahin told me: “There is a proverb in our country: ‘You can wash your body only with your own hand.’ Outsiders can help, but the indigenous people must find a solution themselves.”

One lesson is that Western countries should not only increase their financial aid but also their pressure for better governance. It’s great to forgive debts, but not graft or antimarket policies.

The U.S. Millennium Challenge aid program, which promotes good governance, is a useful step in that direction. So is Tony Blair’s program to battle corruption in Africa.

One useful kind of Western aid is simply support for civil-society groups that battle corruption. Here in Somaliland, the press is generally free, but the president recently tossed three journalists in prison for reporting on corruption in his family. If Western countries speak out strongly in their defense, that effort may be worth a few million dollars in aid by reducing corruption in the future.

More peer pressure from within Africa would also help. Other African countries should stand up to a racist like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe with the same vigor they once used to stand up to white racist governments.

Another essential kind of foreign aid is supporting market-friendly economic policies, especially those that would nurture manufacturing industries.

In Mauritania, whose location in northwestern Africa would be ideal for exporting clothing to Europe and America, it takes 82 days to start a new business, which would then have to make 61 tax payments each year, requiring 696 hours to calculate and pay. And in the end, the tax would amount to 104.3 percent of the profit, according to the World Bank.

All that explains why you don’t have any shirts in your closet labeled “Made in Mauritania.”

So let’s be more generous with foreign aid, giving more than 22 cents per $100 of national income to development assistance (the average for rich countries is 47 cents). But those of us who call for aid and debt forgiveness also need to push just as hard for recipient nations to improve their governance, for ultimately the best way for poor countries to prosper is to adopt pro-growth policies.

And in the meantime, it’s time to recognize Somaliland as a nation. When a place does this well, we should hail it as a model, not shun it.

From the WHAT HATH G.O.P. WROUGHT? files

“Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes and we should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens. ”

-- Britney Spears; interview with Tucker Carlson, Wed. September 03 2003.

Whatever you say, Britney. You little minx…

Get well soon.

Seymour Hersh on the planned invasion of Iran



The New Yorker

Is the Administration’s new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism?
Issue of 2007-03-05
Posted 2007-02-25


In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The “redirection,” as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration’s perspective, the most profound—and unintended—strategic consequence of the Iraq war is the empowerment of Iran. Its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made defiant pronouncements about the destruction of Israel and his country’s right to pursue its nuclear program, and last week its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television that “realities in the region show that the arrogant front, headed by the U.S. and its allies, will be the principal loser in the region.”

After the revolution of 1979 brought a religious government to power, the United States broke with Iran and cultivated closer relations with the leaders of Sunni Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. That calculation became more complex after the September 11th attacks, especially with regard to the Saudis. Al Qaeda is Sunni, and many of its operatives came from extremist religious circles inside Saudi Arabia. Before the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Administration officials, influenced by neoconservative ideologues, assumed that a Shiite government there could provide a pro-American balance to Sunni extremists, since Iraq’s Shiite majority had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They ignored warnings from the intelligence community about the ties between Iraqi Shiite leaders and Iran, where some had lived in exile for years. Now, to the distress of the White House, Iran has forged a close relationship with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The new American policy, in its broad outlines, has been discussed publicly. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that there is “a new strategic alignment in the Middle East,” separating “reformers” and “extremists”; she pointed to the Sunni states as centers of moderation, and said that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah were “on the other side of that divide.” (Syria’s Sunni majority is dominated by the Alawi sect.) Iran and Syria, she said, “have made their choice and their choice is to destabilize.”

Some of the core tactics of the redirection are not public, however. The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution or the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process, current and former officials close to the Administration said.

A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee told me that he had heard about the new strategy, but felt that he and his colleagues had not been adequately briefed. “We haven’t got any of this,” he said. “We ask for anything going on, and they say there’s nothing. And when we ask specific questions they say, ‘We’re going to get back to you.’ It’s so frustrating.”

The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney. (Cheney’s office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, “The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran.”)

The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat. They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The new strategy “is a major shift in American policy—it’s a sea change,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states “were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq,” he said. “We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it.”

“It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals,” Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. “The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.”

Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that “the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War.” Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy. “The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq,” he said. “It’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is upside down.”

The Administration’s new policy for containing Iran seems to complicate its strategy for winning the war in Iraq. Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran and the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued, however, that closer ties between the United States and moderate or even radical Sunnis could put “fear” into the government of Prime Minister Maliki and “make him worry that the Sunnis could actually win” the civil war there. Clawson said that this might give Maliki an incentive to coöperate with the United States in suppressing radical Shiite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Even so, for the moment, the U.S. remains dependent on the coöperation of Iraqi Shiite leaders. The Mahdi Army may be openly hostile to American interests, but other Shiite militias are counted as U.S. allies. Both Moqtada al-Sadr and the White House back Maliki. A memorandum written late last year by Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser, suggested that the Administration try to separate Maliki from his more radical Shiite allies by building his base among moderate Sunnis and Kurds, but so far the trends have been in the opposite direction. As the Iraqi Army continues to founder in its confrontations with insurgents, the power of the Shiite militias has steadily increased.

Flynt Leverett, a former Bush Administration National Security Council official, told me that “there is nothing coincidental or ironic” about the new strategy with regard to Iraq. “The Administration is trying to make a case that Iran is more dangerous and more provocative than the Sunni insurgents to American interests in Iraq, when—if you look at the actual casualty numbers—the punishment inflicted on America by the Sunnis is greater by an order of magnitude,” Leverett said. “This is all part of the campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on Iran. The idea is that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the Administration will have an open door to strike at them.”

President George W. Bush, in a speech on January 10th, partially spelled out this approach. “These two regimes”—Iran and Syria—“are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq,” Bush said. “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

In the following weeks, there was a wave of allegations from the Administration about Iranian involvement in the Iraq war. On February 11th, reporters were shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in Iraq, that the Administration claimed had come from Iran. The Administration’s message was, in essence, that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its own failures of planning and execution but of Iran’s interference.

The U.S. military also has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians in Iraq. “The word went out last August for the military to snatch as many Iranians in Iraq as they can,” a former senior intelligence official said. “They had five hundred locked up at one time. We’re working these guys and getting information from them. The White House goal is to build a case that the Iranians have been fomenting the insurgency and they’ve been doing it all along—that Iran is, in fact, supporting the killing of Americans.” The Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured by American forces in recent months. But he told me that that total includes many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who “get scooped up and released in a short time,” after they have been interrogated.

“We are not planning for a war with Iran,” Robert Gates, the new Defense Secretary, announced on February 2nd, and yet the atmosphere of confrontation has deepened. According to current and former American intelligence and military officials, secret operations in Lebanon have been accompanied by clandestine operations targeting Iran. American military and special-operations teams have escalated their activities in Iran to gather intelligence and, according to a Pentagon consultant on terrorism and the former senior intelligence official, have also crossed the border in pursuit of Iranian operatives from Iraq.

At Rice’s Senate appearance in January, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, of Delaware, pointedly asked her whether the U.S. planned to cross the Iranian or the Syrian border in the course of a pursuit. “Obviously, the President isn’t going to rule anything out to protect our troops, but the plan is to take down these networks in Iraq,” Rice said, adding, “I do think that everyone will understand that—the American people and I assume the Congress expect the President to do what is necessary to protect our forces.”

The ambiguity of Rice’s reply prompted a response from Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who has been critical of the Administration:

Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary. And that was Cambodia. And when our government lied to the American people and said, “We didn’t cross the border going into Cambodia,” in fact we did.

I happen to know something about that, as do some on this committee. So, Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the President is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous.

The Administration’s concern about Iran’s role in Iraq is coupled with its long-standing alarm over Iran’s nuclear program. On Fox News on January 14th, Cheney warned of the possibility, in a few years, “of a nuclear-armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world.” He also said, “If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried. . . . The threat Iran represents is growing.”

The Administration is now examining a wave of new intelligence on Iran’s weapons programs. Current and former American officials told me that the intelligence, which came from Israeli agents operating in Iran, includes a claim that Iran has developed a three-stage solid-fuelled intercontinental missile capable of delivering several small warheads—each with limited accuracy—inside Europe. The validity of this human intelligence is still being debated.

A similar argument about an imminent threat posed by weapons of mass destruction—and questions about the intelligence used to make that case—formed the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. Many in Congress have greeted the claims about Iran with wariness; in the Senate on February 14th, Hillary Clinton said, “We have all learned lessons from the conflict in Iraq, and we have to apply those lessons to any allegations that are being raised about Iran. Because, Mr. President, what we are hearing has too familiar a ring and we must be on guard that we never again make decisions on the basis of intelligence that turns out to be faulty.”

Still, the Pentagon is continuing intensive planning for a possible bombing attack on Iran, a process that began last year, at the direction of the President. In recent months, the former intelligence official told me, a special planning group has been established in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged with creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented, upon orders from the President, within twenty-four hours.

In the past month, I was told by an Air Force adviser on targeting and the Pentagon consultant on terrorism, the Iran planning group has been handed a new assignment: to identify targets in Iran that may be involved in supplying or aiding militants in Iraq. Previously, the focus had been on the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities and possible regime change.

Two carrier strike groups—the Eisenhower and the Stennis—are now in the Arabian Sea. One plan is for them to be relieved early in the spring, but there is worry within the military that they may be ordered to stay in the area after the new carriers arrive, according to several sources. (Among other concerns, war games have shown that the carriers could be vulnerable to swarming tactics involving large numbers of small boats, a technique that the Iranians have practiced in the past; carriers have limited maneuverability in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, off Iran’s southern coast.) The former senior intelligence official said that the current contingency plans allow for an attack order this spring. He added, however, that senior officers on the Joint Chiefs were counting on the White House’s not being “foolish enough to do this in the face of Iraq, and the problems it would give the Republicans in 2008.”


The Administration’s effort to diminish Iranian authority in the Middle East has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia and on Prince Bandar, the Saudi national-security adviser. Bandar served as the Ambassador to the United States for twenty-two years, until 2005, and has maintained a friendship with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. In his new post, he continues to meet privately with them. Senior White House officials have made several visits to Saudi Arabia recently, some of them not disclosed.

Last November, Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia for a surprise meeting with King Abdullah and Bandar. The Times reported that the King warned Cheney that Saudi Arabia would back its fellow-Sunnis in Iraq if the United States were to withdraw. A European intelligence official told me that the meeting also focussed on more general Saudi fears about “the rise of the Shiites.” In response, “The Saudis are starting to use their leverage—money.”

In a royal family rife with competition, Bandar has, over the years, built a power base that relies largely on his close relationship with the U.S., which is crucial to the Saudis. Bandar was succeeded as Ambassador by Prince Turki al-Faisal; Turki resigned after eighteen months and was replaced by Adel A. al-Jubeir, a bureaucrat who has worked with Bandar. A former Saudi diplomat told me that during Turki’s tenure he became aware of private meetings involving Bandar and senior White House officials, including Cheney and Abrams. “I assume Turki was not happy with that,” the Saudi said. But, he added, “I don’t think that Bandar is going off on his own.” Although Turki dislikes Bandar, the Saudi said, he shared his goal of challenging the spread of Shiite power in the Middle East.

The split between Shiites and Sunnis goes back to a bitter divide, in the seventh century, over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis dominated the medieval caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, and Shiites, traditionally, have been regarded more as outsiders. Worldwide, ninety per cent of Muslims are Sunni, but Shiites are a majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, and are the largest Muslim group in Lebanon. Their concentration in a volatile, oil-rich region has led to concern in the West and among Sunnis about the emergence of a “Shiite crescent”—especially given Iran’s increased geopolitical weight.

“The Saudis still see the world through the days of the Ottoman Empire, when Sunni Muslims ruled the roost and the Shiites were the lowest class,” Frederic Hof, a retired military officer who is an expert on the Middle East, told me. If Bandar was seen as bringing about a shift in U.S. policy in favor of the Sunnis, he added, it would greatly enhance his standing within the royal family.

The Saudis are driven by their fear that Iran could tilt the balance of power not only in the region but within their own country. Saudi Arabia has a significant Shiite minority in its Eastern Province, a region of major oil fields; sectarian tensions are high in the province. The royal family believes that Iranian operatives, working with local Shiites, have been behind many terrorist attacks inside the kingdom, according to Vali Nasr. “Today, the only army capable of containing Iran”—the Iraqi Army—“has been destroyed by the United States. You’re now dealing with an Iran that could be nuclear-capable and has a standing army of four hundred and fifty thousand soldiers.” (Saudi Arabia has seventy-five thousand troops in its standing army.)

Nasr went on, “The Saudis have considerable financial means, and have deep relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis”—Sunni extremists who view Shiites as apostates. “The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out of the box, you can’t put them back.”

The Saudi royal family has been, by turns, both a sponsor and a target of Sunni extremists, who object to the corruption and decadence among the family’s myriad princes. The princes are gambling that they will not be overthrown as long as they continue to support religious schools and charities linked to the extremists. The Administration’s new strategy is heavily dependent on this bargain.

Nasr compared the current situation to the period in which Al Qaeda first emerged. In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the Saudi government offered to subsidize the covert American C.I.A. proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities. Then, as now, many of the operatives who were paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama bin Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.

This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”

The Saudi said that, in his country’s view, it was taking a political risk by joining the U.S. in challenging Iran: Bandar is already seen in the Arab world as being too close to the Bush Administration. “We have two nightmares,” the former diplomat told me. “For Iran to acquire the bomb and for the United States to attack Iran. I’d rather the Israelis bomb the Iranians, so we can blame them. If America does it, we will be blamed.”

In the past year, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Bush Administration have developed a series of informal understandings about their new strategic direction. At least four main elements were involved, the U.S. government consultant told me. First, Israel would be assured that its security was paramount and that Washington and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states shared its concern about Iran.

Second, the Saudis would urge Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian party that has received support from Iran, to curtail its anti-Israeli aggression and to begin serious talks about sharing leadership with Fatah, the more secular Palestinian group. (In February, the Saudis brokered a deal at Mecca between the two factions. However, Israel and the U.S. have expressed dissatisfaction with the terms.)

The third component was that the Bush Administration would work directly with Sunni nations to counteract Shiite ascendance in the region.

Fourth, the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria. The Israelis believe that putting such pressure on the Assad government will make it more conciliatory and open to negotiations. Syria is a major conduit of arms to Hezbollah. The Saudi government is also at odds with the Syrians over the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, in Beirut in 2005, for which it believes the Assad government was responsible. Hariri, a billionaire Sunni, was closely associated with the Saudi regime and with Prince Bandar. (A U.N. inquiry strongly suggested that the Syrians were involved, but offered no direct evidence; there are plans for another investigation, by an international tribunal.)

Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, depicted the Saudis’ coöperation with the White House as a significant breakthrough. “The Saudis understand that if they want the Administration to make a more generous political offer to the Palestinians they have to persuade the Arab states to make a more generous offer to the Israelis,” Clawson told me. The new diplomatic approach, he added, “shows a real degree of effort and sophistication as well as a deftness of touch not always associated with this Administration. Who’s running the greater risk—we or the Saudis? At a time when America’s standing in the Middle East is extremely low, the Saudis are actually embracing us. We should count our blessings.”

The Pentagon consultant had a different view. He said that the Administration had turned to Bandar as a “fallback,” because it had realized that the failing war in Iraq could leave the Middle East “up for grabs.”


The focus of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, after Iran, is Lebanon, where the Saudis have been deeply involved in efforts by the Administration to support the Lebanese government. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is struggling to stay in power against a persistent opposition led by Hezbollah, the Shiite organization, and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has an extensive infrastructure, an estimated two to three thousand active fighters, and thousands of additional members.

Hezbollah has been on the State Department’s terrorist list since 1997. The organization has been implicated in the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that killed two hundred and forty-one military men. It has also been accused of complicity in the kidnapping of Americans, including the C.I.A. station chief in Lebanon, who died in captivity, and a Marine colonel serving on a U.N. peacekeeping mission, who was killed. (Nasrallah has denied that the group was involved in these incidents.) Nasrallah is seen by many as a staunch terrorist, who has said that he regards Israel as a state that has no right to exist. Many in the Arab world, however, especially Shiites, view him as a resistance leader who withstood Israel in last summer’s thirty-three-day war, and Siniora as a weak politician who relies on America’s support but was unable to persuade President Bush to call for an end to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. (Photographs of Siniora kissing Condoleezza Rice on the cheek when she visited during the war were prominently displayed during street protests in Beirut.)

The Bush Administration has publicly pledged the Siniora government a billion dollars in aid since last summer. A donors’ conference in Paris, in January, which the U.S. helped organize, yielded pledges of almost eight billion more, including a promise of more than a billion from the Saudis. The American pledge includes more than two hundred million dollars in military aid, and forty million dollars for internal security.

The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the U.S. government consultant. “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can,” the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money “always gets in more pockets than you think it will,” he said. “In this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don’t have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don’t like. It’s a very high-risk venture.”

American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.

During a conversation with me, the former Saudi diplomat accused Nasrallah of attempting “to hijack the state,” but he also objected to the Lebanese and Saudi sponsorship of Sunni jihadists in Lebanon. “Salafis are sick and hateful, and I’m very much against the idea of flirting with them,” he said. “They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly.”

Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, “The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous.” Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. “I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah,” Crooke said.

The largest of the groups, Asbat al-Ansar, is situated in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. Asbat al-Ansar has received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora government.

In 2005, according to a report by the U.S.-based International Crisis Group, Saad Hariri, the Sunni majority leader of the Lebanese parliament and the son of the slain former Prime Minister—Saad inherited more than four billion dollars after his father’s assassination—paid forty-eight thousand dollars in bail for four members of an Islamic militant group from Dinniyeh. The men had been arrested while trying to establish an Islamic mini-state in northern Lebanon. The Crisis Group noted that many of the militants “had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.”

According to the Crisis Group report, Saad Hariri later used his parliamentary majority to obtain amnesty for twenty-two of the Dinniyeh Islamists, as well as for seven militants suspected of plotting to bomb the Italian and Ukrainian embassies in Beirut, the previous year. (He also arranged a pardon for Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian militia leader, who had been convicted of four political murders, including the assassination, in 1987, of Prime Minister Rashid Karami.) Hariri described his actions to reporters as humanitarian.

In an interview in Beirut, a senior official in the Siniora government acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside Lebanon. “We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here,” he said. He related this to concerns that Iran or Syria might decide to turn Lebanon into a “theatre of conflict.”

The official said that his government was in a no-win situation. Without a political settlement with Hezbollah, he said, Lebanon could “slide into a conflict,” in which Hezbollah fought openly with Sunni forces, with potentially horrific consequences. But if Hezbollah agreed to a settlement yet still maintained a separate army, allied with Iran and Syria, “Lebanon could become a target. In both cases, we become a target.”

The Bush Administration has portrayed its support of the Siniora government as an example of the President’s belief in democracy, and his desire to prevent other powers from interfering in Lebanon. When Hezbollah led street demonstrations in Beirut in December, John Bolton, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., called them “part of the Iran-Syria-inspired coup.”

Leslie H. Gelb, a past president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Administration’s policy was less pro democracy than “pro American national security. The fact is that it would be terribly dangerous if Hezbollah ran Lebanon.” The fall of the Siniora government would be seen, Gelb said, “as a signal in the Middle East of the decline of the United States and the ascendancy of the terrorism threat. And so any change in the distribution of political power in Lebanon has to be opposed by the United States—and we’re justified in helping any non-Shiite parties resist that change. We should say this publicly, instead of talking about democracy.”

Martin Indyk, of the Saban Center, said, however, that the United States “does not have enough pull to stop the moderates in Lebanon from dealing with the extremists.” He added, “The President sees the region as divided between moderates and extremists, but our regional friends see it as divided between Sunnis and Shia. The Sunnis that we view as extremists are regarded by our Sunni allies simply as Sunnis.”

In January, after an outburst of street violence in Beirut involving supporters of both the Siniora government and Hezbollah, Prince Bandar flew to Tehran to discuss the political impasse in Lebanon and to meet with Ali Larijani, the Iranians’ negotiator on nuclear issues. According to a Middle Eastern ambassador, Bandar’s mission—which the ambassador said was endorsed by the White House—also aimed “to create problems between the Iranians and Syria.” There had been tensions between the two countries about Syrian talks with Israel, and the Saudis’ goal was to encourage a breach. However, the ambassador said, “It did not work. Syria and Iran are not going to betray each other. Bandar’s approach is very unlikely to succeed.”

Walid Jumblatt, who is the leader of the Druze minority in Lebanon and a strong Siniora supporter, has attacked Nasrallah as an agent of Syria, and has repeatedly told foreign journalists that Hezbollah is under the direct control of the religious leadership in Iran. In a conversation with me last December, he depicted Bashir Assad, the Syrian President, as a “serial killer.” Nasrallah, he said, was “morally guilty” of the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the murder, last November, of Pierre Gemayel, a member of the Siniora Cabinet, because of his support for the Syrians.

Jumblatt then told me that he had met with Vice-President Cheney in Washington last fall to discuss, among other issues, the possibility of undermining Assad. He and his colleagues advised Cheney that, if the United States does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would be “the ones to talk to,” Jumblatt said.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a branch of a radical Sunni movement founded in Egypt in 1928, engaged in more than a decade of violent opposition to the regime of Hafez Assad, Bashir’s father. In 1982, the Brotherhood took control of the city of Hama; Assad bombarded the city for a week, killing between six thousand and twenty thousand people. Membership in the Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria. The Brotherhood is also an avowed enemy of the U.S. and of Israel. Nevertheless, Jumblatt said, “We told Cheney that the basic link between Iran and Lebanon is Syria—and to weaken Iran you need to open the door to effective Syrian opposition.”

There is evidence that the Administration’s redirection strategy has already benefitted the Brotherhood. The Syrian National Salvation Front is a coalition of opposition groups whose principal members are a faction led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian Vice-President who defected in 2005, and the Brotherhood. A former high-ranking C.I.A. officer told me, “The Americans have provided both political and financial support. The Saudis are taking the lead with financial support, but there is American involvement.” He said that Khaddam, who now lives in Paris, was getting money from Saudi Arabia, with the knowledge of the White House. (In 2005, a delegation of the Front’s members met with officials from the National Security Council, according to press reports.) A former White House official told me that the Saudis had provided members of the Front with travel documents.

Jumblatt said he understood that the issue was a sensitive one for the White House. “I told Cheney that some people in the Arab world, mainly the Egyptians”—whose moderate Sunni leadership has been fighting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for decades—“won’t like it if the United States helps the Brotherhood. But if you don’t take on Syria we will be face to face in Lebanon with Hezbollah in a long fight, and one we might not win.”


On a warm, clear night early last December, in a bombed-out suburb a few miles south of downtown Beirut, I got a preview of how the Administration’s new strategy might play out in Lebanon. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, who has been in hiding, had agreed to an interview. Security arrangements for the meeting were secretive and elaborate. I was driven, in the back seat of a darkened car, to a damaged underground garage somewhere in Beirut, searched with a handheld scanner, placed in a second car to be driven to yet another bomb-scarred underground garage, and transferred again. Last summer, it was reported that Israel was trying to kill Nasrallah, but the extraordinary precautions were not due only to that threat. Nasrallah’s aides told me that they believe he is a prime target of fellow-Arabs, primarily Jordanian intelligence operatives, as well as Sunni jihadists who they believe are affiliated with Al Qaeda. (The government consultant and a retired four-star general said that Jordanian intelligence, with support from the U.S. and Israel, had been trying to infiltrate Shiite groups, to work against Hezbollah. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has warned that a Shiite government in Iraq that was close to Iran would lead to the emergence of a Shiite crescent.) This is something of an ironic turn: Nasrallah’s battle with Israel last summer turned him—a Shiite—into the most popular and influential figure among Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region. In recent months, however, he has increasingly been seen by many Sunnis not as a symbol of Arab unity but as a participant in a sectarian war.

Nasrallah, dressed, as usual, in religious garb, was waiting for me in an unremarkable apartment. One of his advisers said that he was not likely to remain there overnight; he has been on the move since his decision, last July, to order the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid set off the thirty-three-day war. Nasrallah has since said publicly—and repeated to me—that he misjudged the Israeli response. “We just wanted to capture prisoners for exchange purposes,” he told me. “We never wanted to drag the region into war.”

Nasrallah accused the Bush Administration of working with Israel to deliberately instigate fitna, an Arabic word that is used to mean “insurrection and fragmentation within Islam.” “In my opinion, there is a huge campaign through the media throughout the world to put each side up against the other,” he said. “I believe that all this is being run by American and Israeli intelligence.” (He did not provide any specific evidence for this.) He said that the U.S. war in Iraq had increased sectarian tensions, but argued that Hezbollah had tried to prevent them from spreading into Lebanon. (Sunni-Shiite confrontations increased, along with violence, in the weeks after we talked.)

Nasrallah said he believed that President Bush’s goal was “the drawing of a new map for the region. They want the partition of Iraq. Iraq is not on the edge of a civil war—there is a civil war. There is ethnic and sectarian cleansing. The daily killing and displacement which is taking place in Iraq aims at achieving three Iraqi parts, which will be sectarian and ethnically pure as a prelude to the partition of Iraq. Within one or two years at the most, there will be total Sunni areas, total Shiite areas, and total Kurdish areas. Even in Baghdad, there is a fear that it might be divided into two areas, one Sunni and one Shiite.”

He went on, “I can say that President Bush is lying when he says he does not want Iraq to be partitioned. All the facts occurring now on the ground make you swear he is dragging Iraq to partition. And a day will come when he will say, ‘I cannot do anything, since the Iraqis want the partition of their country and I honor the wishes of the people of Iraq.’ ”

Nasrallah said he believed that America also wanted to bring about the partition of Lebanon and of Syria. In Syria, he said, the result would be to push the country “into chaos and internal battles like in Iraq.” In Lebanon, “There will be a Sunni state, an Alawi state, a Christian state, and a Druze state.” But, he said, “I do not know if there will be a Shiite state.” Nasrallah told me that he suspected that one aim of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer was “the destruction of Shiite areas and the displacement of Shiites from Lebanon. The idea was to have the Shiites of Lebanon and Syria flee to southern Iraq,” which is dominated by Shiites. “I am not sure, but I smell this,” he told me.

Partition would leave Israel surrounded by “small tranquil states,” he said. “I can assure you that the Saudi kingdom will also be divided, and the issue will reach to North African states. There will be small ethnic and confessional states,” he said. “In other words, Israel will be the most important and the strongest state in a region that has been partitioned into ethnic and confessional states that are in agreement with each other. This is the new Middle East.”

In fact, the Bush Administration has adamantly resisted talk of partitioning Iraq, and its public stances suggest that the White House sees a future Lebanon that is intact, with a weak, disarmed Hezbollah playing, at most, a minor political role. There is also no evidence to support Nasrallah’s belief that the Israelis were seeking to drive the Shiites into southern Iraq. Nevertheless, Nasrallah’s vision of a larger sectarian conflict in which the United States is implicated suggests a possible consequence of the White House’s new strategy.

In the interview, Nasrallah made mollifying gestures and promises that would likely be met with skepticism by his opponents. “If the United States says that discussions with the likes of us can be useful and influential in determining American policy in the region, we have no objection to talks or meetings,” he said. “But, if their aim through this meeting is to impose their policy on us, it will be a waste of time.” He said that the Hezbollah militia, unless attacked, would operate only within the borders of Lebanon, and pledged to disarm it when the Lebanese Army was able to stand up. Nasrallah said that he had no interest in initiating another war with Israel. However, he added that he was anticipating, and preparing for, another Israeli attack, later this year.

Nasrallah further insisted that the street demonstrations in Beirut would continue until the Siniora government fell or met his coalition’s political demands. “Practically speaking, this government cannot rule,” he told me. “It might issue orders, but the majority of the Lebanese people will not abide and will not recognize the legitimacy of this government. Siniora remains in office because of international support, but this does not mean that Siniora can rule Lebanon.”

President Bush’s repeated praise of the Siniora government, Nasrallah said, “is the best service to the Lebanese opposition he can give, because it weakens their position vis-à-vis the Lebanese people and the Arab and Islamic populations. They are betting on us getting tired. We did not get tired during the war, so how could we get tired in a demonstration?”

There is sharp division inside and outside the Bush Administration about how best to deal with Nasrallah, and whether he could, in fact, be a partner in a political settlement. The outgoing director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, in a farewell briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee, in January, said that Hezbollah “lies at the center of Iran’s terrorist strategy. . . . It could decide to conduct attacks against U.S. interests in the event it feels its survival or that of Iran is threatened. . . . Lebanese Hezbollah sees itself as Tehran’s partner.”

In 2002, Richard Armitage, then the Deputy Secretary of State, called Hezbollah “the A-team” of terrorists. In a recent interview, however, Armitage acknowledged that the issue has become somewhat more complicated. Nasrallah, Armitage told me, has emerged as “a political force of some note, with a political role to play inside Lebanon if he chooses to do so.” In terms of public relations and political gamesmanship, Armitage said, Nasrallah “is the smartest man in the Middle East.” But, he added, Nasrallah “has got to make it clear that he wants to play an appropriate role as the loyal opposition. For me, there’s still a blood debt to pay”—a reference to the murdered colonel and the Marine barracks bombing.

Robert Baer, a former longtime C.I.A. agent in Lebanon, has been a severe critic of Hezbollah and has warned of its links to Iranian-sponsored terrorism. But now, he told me, “we’ve got Sunni Arabs preparing for cataclysmic conflict, and we will need somebody to protect the Christians in Lebanon. It used to be the French and the United States who would do it, and now it’s going to be Nasrallah and the Shiites.

“The most important story in the Middle East is the growth of Nasrallah from a street guy to a leader—from a terrorist to a statesman,” Baer added. “The dog that didn’t bark this summer”—during the war with Israel—“is Shiite terrorism.” Baer was referring to fears that Nasrallah, in addition to firing rockets into Israel and kidnapping its soldiers, might set in motion a wave of terror attacks on Israeli and American targets around the world. “He could have pulled the trigger, but he did not,” Baer said.

Most members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities acknowledge Hezbollah’s ongoing ties to Iran. But there is disagreement about the extent to which Nasrallah would put aside Hezbollah’s interests in favor of Iran’s. A former C.I.A. officer who also served in Lebanon called Nasrallah “a Lebanese phenomenon,” adding, “Yes, he’s aided by Iran and Syria, but Hezbollah’s gone beyond that.” He told me that there was a period in the late eighties and early nineties when the C.I.A. station in Beirut was able to clandestinely monitor Nasrallah’s conversations. He described Nasrallah as “a gang leader who was able to make deals with the other gangs. He had contacts with everybody.”


The Bush Administration’s reliance on clandestine operations that have not been reported to Congress and its dealings with intermediaries with questionable agendas have recalled, for some in Washington, an earlier chapter in history. Two decades ago, the Reagan Administration attempted to fund the Nicaraguan contras illegally, with the help of secret arms sales to Iran. Saudi money was involved in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, and a few of the players back then—notably Prince Bandar and Elliott Abrams—are involved in today’s dealings.

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal. Abrams led the discussion. One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”—a reference to Cheney’s role, the former senior intelligence official said.

I was subsequently told by the two government consultants and the former senior intelligence official that the echoes of Iran-Contra were a factor in Negroponte’s decision to resign from the National Intelligence directorship and accept a sub-Cabinet position of Deputy Secretary of State. (Negroponte declined to comment.)

The former senior intelligence official also told me that Negroponte did not want a repeat of his experience in the Reagan Administration, when he served as Ambassador to Honduras. “Negroponte said, ‘No way. I’m not going down that road again, with the N.S.C. running operations off the books, with no finding.’ ” (In the case of covert C.I.A. operations, the President must issue a written finding and inform Congress.) Negroponte stayed on as Deputy Secretary of State, he added, because “he believes he can influence the government in a positive way.”

The government consultant said that Negroponte shared the White House’s policy goals but “wanted to do it by the book.” The Pentagon consultant also told me that “there was a sense at the senior-ranks level that he wasn’t fully on board with the more adventurous clandestine initiatives.” It was also true, he said, that Negroponte “had problems with this Rube Goldberg policy contraption for fixing the Middle East.”

The Pentagon consultant added that one difficulty, in terms of oversight, was accounting for covert funds. “There are many, many pots of black money, scattered in many places and used all over the world on a variety of missions,” he said. The budgetary chaos in Iraq, where billions of dollars are unaccounted for, has made it a vehicle for such transactions, according to the former senior intelligence official and the retired four-star general.

“This goes back to Iran-Contra,” a former National Security Council aide told me. “And much of what they’re doing is to keep the agency out of it.” He said that Congress was not being briefed on the full extent of the U.S.-Saudi operations. And, he said, “The C.I.A. is asking, ‘What’s going on?’ They’re concerned, because they think it’s amateur hour.”

The issue of oversight is beginning to get more attention from Congress. Last November, the Congressional Research Service issued a report for Congress on what it depicted as the Administration’s blurring of the line between C.I.A. activities and strictly military ones, which do not have the same reporting requirements. And the Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Senator Jay Rockefeller, has scheduled a hearing for March 8th on Defense Department intelligence activities.

Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, a Democrat who is a member of the Intelligence Committee, told me, “The Bush Administration has frequently failed to meet its legal obligation to keep the Intelligence Committee fully and currently informed. Time and again, the answer has been ‘Trust us.’ ” Wyden said, “It is hard for me to trust the Administration.”

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