Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wrong on Iraq, wrong on Iran

On Friday, a group of seven key House Democrats -- including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the chairs of the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, and long-time grandstander Henry Waxman -- wrote President Obama to offer qualified support for his diplomatic overtures to Iran. But in their letter (pdf), the esteemed group of lawmakers caution that the practice of engaging the Iranians can’t be “open-ended”, and argue that unless the Iranian regime suspends its uranium enrichment program, the U.S. should pursue a new round of the type of trade sanctions that worked so well at affecting change in places such as Iraq and Cuba.

Since the letter is about Iran’s nuclear program and is written by U.S. politicians, it also contains a number of, shall we say, misstatements (or as they're known in the real world: lies). Indeed, in the opening paragraph the lawmakers -- six of seven of whom backed the illegal invasion of Iraq, which should give you a good sense of the group’s collective foreign policy acumen -- state:
"We are distressed by the recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that Iran has already stockpiled enough low enriched uranium to generate one nuclear weapon."
Unfortunately for this merry band of bullshitters, the most recent IAEA report (pdf) says that international inspectors have “been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran” to a weapons program. It also says nothing about Iran possessing enough low enriched uranium for a bomb, probably because you can’t make a nuclear weapon from low enriched uranium.

As Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin noted at a hearing in early March, “uranium for civil nuclear power production has to be enriched from two to four percent,” whereas “highly enriched uranium which is necessary for a nuclear bomb or warhead, needs to be enriched to about 90 percent.”

The February 19 report from the IAEA, meanwhile, states that Iran has enriched its uranium to 3.49 percent, a far cry from the level necessary to build a nuke. And as Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair stated at the same hearing, “We assess now that Iran does not have any highly enriched uranium.”

Furthermore, if Iran were to decide to build a nuclear weapon -- which Blair, echoing the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, says the Iranian government has not chosen to do -- it would need to kick out the IAEA inspectors currently overseeing its enrichment facilities and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus alerting the whole world to its intentions.

Now perhaps Mr. Waxman and Mr. Hoyer et al are simply unaware of these widely reported facts. Or, perhaps, they’re just liars who prefer politically convenient fear-mongering to nuanced, reality-based analysis of Iran's nuclear program.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Institutionalized Injustice"

. . . that's the term former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper applis mandatory minimum sentencing, but it could equally apply to the entire war on drugs -- a war Stamper has become a forceful and eloquent opponent of since retiring from law enforcement. Speaking with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman this morning, Stamper did not merely call for a greater focus on "harm reduction" or other half-measures designed to put a kinder, gentler face on the drug war, but struck at the root of the problem -- and laid out a simple solution:
I actually support the legalization of all drugs. And in fact, the more dangerous or sinister or sensationally reported the experience of certain drugs, the greater the justification for the government, as opposed to drug cartels and street traffickers, to regulate that commerce. There’s been more harm done by the drug war than good. We have spent a trillion dollars prosecuting that war since Richard Nixon proclaimed drugs public enemy number one and declared all-out war on them.
And what do we have to show for it? While rates can fluctuate, drugs are more readily available today at lower prices and higher levels of potency than ever before. So it’s a colossal failure. And the only way to put these cartels out of business and to restore health and safety to our neighborhoods is to regulate that commerce as opposed to prohibiting it.
Be sure to check out the rest of the interview for similarly blunt statements about the U.S.'s disastrous and destructive drug war. Also check out Stamper's response to President Obama's smirking dismissal of marijuana legalization over at the Huffington Post.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Do they even realize they’re lying?

In his recent prime time press conference, President Obama declared that his delayed response to the AIG bonus scandal was because “I like to know what I talk about before I speak.” One wishes Obama would apply the same principle to his statements on Iran’s nuclear program, which have consistently defied reality and the views of the U.S. intelligence community (not always the same thing). Even this week -- in the midst of defending his video overture to the Iranians -- Obama again contradicted the findings of the IAEA and the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, suggesting that Iran actually has nuclear weapons right now:
When it comes to Iran, you know, we did a video sending a message to the Iranian people and the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And some people said, "Well, they did not immediately say they were eliminating nuclear weapons and stop funding terrorism." Well, we didn't expect that. We expect that we're going to make steady progress on this front.
It may seem a bit trifling to criticize Obama while he tries to defend reaching out to the Iran, but it’s important to remember that words actually have meaning. Obama does not appear as ready to attack Iran as the Bush administration sometimes appeared -- which explains much of the muted progressive reaction to his repeated distortions of U.S. intelligence -- but neither did President Clinton seem ready to do much else but bomb and starve Iraq. Still, his policies, and his signature on a bill declaring regime change in Iraq official U.S. policy, contributed to the successful selling of a war with Iraq in 2003.

So far, Obama doesn’t seem to be calling for regime change, and his overtures to Iran are certainly welcome, if a bit showy. But those overtures have not yet been backed by a change in policy. For instance, in early March, Obama, following in the footsteps of the Clinton and Bush administrations, extended sanctions against Iran, declaring that, “The actions and policies of the Government of Iran are contrary to the interests of the United States in the region and pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.

And here I thought frugal Asians were to blame for America’s economic woes.

What 'free market'?

It has become a key aspect of liberal dogma that deregulation and the "free market" are to blame for the collapse of the global economy. But blaming laissez-faire for the world's economic malaise is a lot like blaming U.S. "isolationism" for 9/11: it ignores years of government interventions -- like bailouts, cheap credit from the central bank and overseas military campaigns -- that contradict the ideologically convenient retellings of history preferred by those eager to cast every crisis as the fault of anyone but the state and the political establishment.

Claiming that a non-existent free market is what got us to where we are today is to pretend that the Bush administration was in good faith, if naively, pursuing a hands-off approach to the economy -- in essence, arguing that if they were guilty of anything, it was being too ideologically committed to allowing people to exchange goods and services with minimal state intervention. But if anything, the Bush administration modeled its economic policy more off Mussolini than Adam Smith, actively expanding state power to enrich its corporate cohorts through the type of crony capitalism best embodied by quasi-private firms like Halliburton and Goldman Sachs.

As economist Dean Baker writes on his blog for The American Prospect:
The media are busy perpetuating a myth that the United States has been a beacon of "free market" capitalism. This is a lie. The United States never had free market capitalism and certainly the system in place over the last three decades hardly qualifies.

The U.S. put in place policies designed to transfer income from the poor and middle class to the wealthy. This is most evident now with the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent bailing out the banks. For the last three decades, the banks and their top executives, made vast fortunes using a free government insurance policy called "too big to fail," under which bond holders and other creditors could lend money to the banks knowing that the government would honor their debts if they ever got into trouble.

It is an outright lie to call this a "free market." This is a huge government handout. This insurance policy is enormously valuable and the banks did not have to pay a penny for it. The banks are ardent opponents of free market capitalism. None of them have advocated that they be allowed to collapse.
Recently, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan -- conscious of his fall from "economic genius" in the 1990s to Man Most Responsible for Our Economic Demise now -- has taken to blaming the menace of Asian savings for the economic collapse. In an op/ed for The Wall Street Journal, "Great Depression II: No Really, It's Not My Fault", Greenspan blames the "free market" as well as the Chinese for the world's problems, the latter for simply saving too much money -- the commie bastards -- and then injecting it into our economy. This caused the U.S. housing bubble, Greenspan argues, rather than, say, the central bank's dramatic expansion of the money supply under his stewardship during the artificial boom of the last decade.

Back in 2007, however, Greenspan conceded in a revealing interview with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart -- a journalist masquerading as a comedian, as opposed to the usual other way around -- that insofar as there exists a government institution with the monopoly power to literally create money out of thin air, which it can then dole out to a politically connected elite in the financial sector, then there is not a free market.

More importantly, Greenspan admits that after more than four decades of experience in the economic forecasting "profession", loosely defined, he still has no better understanding of market forces than he did when he started out -- and neither does any other would-be central planner. Now that the full brunt of the policies he pursued has been realized, however, Greenspan is quick to argue that a free market existed, and that, if anything, people like him were guilty of just not intervening in the market forcibly enough. One should take the more recent explanation as the last attempt at legacy-saving that it is.

Whatever one's views on whether a genuine free market -- which would include an abolishment of "intellectual property" and corporate personhood, a repeal of restrictions on organized labor such as Taft-Hartley, and other aspects of laissez-faire curiously absent from the propaganda of many supposed free-marketeers -- that central planning can never adequately substitute for the distributed, decentralized knowledge of human society should weigh heavily on those willing to trust the likes of the Greenspans and Geithners with constructing a more enlightened and sustainable economic policy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

More of the same from the agent of change

Back when he was still a candidate seeking to capitalize on liberal outrage over the Bush administration's raids on medical marijuana facilities and arrests of cancer patients for the sin of smoking pot and inhaling, Barack Obama had this to say:
I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It's not a good use of our resources.
Asked later in the campaign pointblank whether he would put a stop to the federal raids on voter-approved medical marijuana dispensaries in states like California, Obama declared:
I would because I think our federal agents have better things to do, like catching criminals and preventing terrorism.
And just a few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder said respecting state pot laws was "now American policy", leading the credulous The New York Times to procaim: "Obama Administration to Stop Raids on Medical Marijuana Dispensers".

You know where this is headed . . .
Feds raid S.F. medical marijuana dispensary
The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO—A medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco that gave out free marijuana to poor people is mostly empty after a raid by federal agents.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents descended on Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic Wednesday afternoon.
Agents loaded up several pickup trucks parked outside as they carried out marijuana plants, grow lights and other equipment.
Saying the specific reason for the raid is under court seal, the DEA would only say the dispensary is suspected of violating federal and state law.
Perhaps Obama will really end the federal raids during his second term, when he plans on implementing all those great progressive policies many of his supporters are convinced he believes in. Indeed, maybe he'll end the raids right after he brings the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and ends the use of warrantless spying and rendition.

My suggestion for those hoping for more sane drug laws in the U.S.? Don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Poland's safe, but what about my $100 billion?

The U.S. government has for years justified building an unworkable “missile defense system” in Eastern Europe, allegedly -- and I’m serious -- because of the threat posed by Iranian (not Russian, definitely not Russian) missiles, despite the fact that Iran has not attacked another country in centuries, a record the U.S. could do well to copy.

But in a March 25th press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell suggested that there may be no need to defend Poland from the specter of Persian rocket fire, telling reporters that “if the Iranians were to abandon their pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles or a nuclear weapon, it would to some degree obviate the need for a European missile defense.”

As Morrell certainly knows, of course, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the consensus opinion of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- including, presumably, the Defense Departments intelligence outfits -- declared “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Translation: a major declared rationale for the so-called missile defense system may not be true.

And here I thought we were going to waste more than $100 billion on a military-industrial boondoggle that doesn’t even work. What a relief!

Legalize it

The U.S.-led war on drugs has been a colossal failure, a senior U.S. official said last week. And while numerous administrations have sunk tens of billions of dollars into the effort to combat illegal drugs, “we have gotten nothing out of it, nothing.”

Refreshing honesty from the Obama administration’s newly appointed “drug czar”? If only. Rather, the words in question are those of Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was speaking more narrowly of the efforts to eradicate opium production in one of America’s colonial possessions (no, that one).

But while Holbrooke’s remarks were focused on solving the U.S.’s imperial dilemma in Afghanistan, they could just as easily apply to the entire model of the drug war -- a war which has led the land of the free to become the land of the incarcerated, with more than 7 million Americans either imprisoned or on parole, many because of the laws the current vice president helped enact during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But attempts to combat illegal drug production with law enforcement and military force have failed, Holbrooke noted, with efforts to crack down on opium cultivation in hopes of cutting a key source of funding for the Taliban having not hurt the fundamentalist militia “one iota, because whatever money they're getting from the drugs trade, they get whatever they need whether we reduce the acreage or not." In sum, “it is the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years." Indeed, the BBC points out that despite poppy cultivation allegedly being reduced 19% last year, Afghanistan is still the source of 90% of the world's heroin supply.

Meanwhile, here in the United States government officials are as oblivious as ever, plowing ahead with their efforts to ramp up the drug war, both within the U.S.’s borders but also in neighboring Mexico, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates promising increased military cooperation and joint exercises with the U.S.’s southern neighbor.

Just this week, the Obama administration announced a massive new effort (read: futile) to stem the flow of illicit drugs from Mexico, while also aiding the Calderón government in its militaristic and demonstratively counterproductive approach to taking on the drug trade. But any plan that seeks to curb the supply of illicit drugs is bound to fail so long as there remains demand, as any limits on supply will only increase the street costs of the drug -- and the profits to be made selling it -- thus ensuring there will be an endless supply of would-be dealers attracted by the prospect of astronomical earnings, whatever the risks.

To get a glimpse of the scope of the "new" plan -- which represents as much fresh thinking as a Jerry Bruckheimer production -- consider Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano's remarks at the press conference announcing it:
First, we are doubling the number of law-enforcement personnel that are working in border enforcement teams . . . . We are also strengthening Operation Armas Cruzadas. . . We are tripling the number of Department of Homeland Security intelligence analysts located on the southwest border. . . . We are increasing . . . . We will be increasing . . . . We are doubling . . . . We're quadrupling . . . We are bolstering technology and resources . . . . We are embarking on increased screening . . . . We are moving mobile x-ray units to the border . . . . We are moving today a hundred more CBP personnel to the border . . . We are moving three mobile response teams . . . . etc.
In late 2007, I wrote about the Bush administration’s proposed Mérida Initiative for Inter Press Service -- including the opposition to it from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, on the other hand, made clear that the new administration remains committed to the program, under which “we are investing $700 million this year to work in collaboration with Mexico on law enforcement and judicial capacity.”

With President Obama showing no signs of backing away from the U.S commitment to the war on drugs in Latin America and beyond (having openly campaigned on stepping up said war), he appears set to follow in the footsteps of every president since Richard Nixon in pursuing a militarized approach to combatting the use of substances not sanctioned by the U.S. government. He should expect the same results.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


The BBC reports:
An Israeli military college has printed damning soldiers' accounts of the killing of civilians and vandalism during recent operations in Gaza.

One account tells of a sniper killing a mother and children at close range whom troops had told to leave their home.

Another speaker at the seminar described what he saw as the "cold blooded murder" of a Palestinian woman.


The Palestinian woman and two of her children were allegedly shot after they misunderstood instructions about which way to walk having been ordered out of their home by troops.

"The climate in general... I don't know how to describe it.... the lives of Palestinians, let's say, are much, much less important than the lives of our soldiers," an infantry squad leader is quoted saying.

In another cited case, a commander ordered troops to kill an elderly woman walking on a road, even though she was easily identifiable and clearly not a threat.
As this slaughter took place, it’s useful to remember that the only criticism great humanitarian, progressive political leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could muster was to express meek “concerns” to the Israeli government about “the collateral damage that is occurring in Gaza.” Since Palestinians don't experience Western-style emotions – life is cheap over there, don't you know? 72 virgins and such – they weren’t worthy of much concern from our Botoxed political elite, their deaths at the hands of U.S.-subsidized munitions being unfortunate insofar as they detracted, in the words of Ms. Pelosi, from the “good things that are happening on the ground there as well.”

Ever get the feeling you're being ruled by monsters?

Who will think of the corporation?

The continuing descent of Reason magazine from irrelevant inanity to outright self-parody continues, this time with Katherine “It's quite exciting to inaugurate a war” Mangu-Ward -- last seen defending the use of private jets by the CEOs of failed corporations (which actual libertarian Jim Henley termed an “understated masterpiece” in making the case that “libertarians are just shills for corporate privilege”) -- lashing out against, of all people, critics of the AIG bonuses.

In her latest ill-considered defense of corporate excess, Mangu-Ward implies critics of failed companies using the U.S. Treasury to enrich their undeserving employees object to all instances of firms providing bonuses, including to those who deserve them. Taking the absurdity to the next level, she then suggests President Obama's statement that, “We believe in people getting rich based on performance and what they have add in terms of value and the products that services that they create,” somehow contradicts his (belated) attacks on the AIG bonuses. “Don't know why anyone would think otherwise,” she snarks, linking to this BBC article about the the U.S. government pressing AIG to payback the bonuses (which were only made possible by the federal government's generous gift of more than $170 billion in taxpayer dollars).

But like her fellow Weekly Standard castoff and resident Reason hack Michael Moynihan -- who earlier this week defended poor Jim Cramer from mean old Jon Stewart’s attacks -- Mangu-Ward's chief fault is not so much her views on war or the corporate state, per se, but the fact that her writing is so incredibly dull, dull, dull and devoid of any semblance of actual thought. Her schtick, like her boss Matt Welch, is apparently to poke fun at silly leftists – like those quacks who opposed the Iraq war and earlier sanctions and think bankrupt companies shouldn't lavish their employees with taxpayer-funded bonuses – rather than, say, the actual people in positions of power to, I don't know, start illegal wars and commence the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich in U.S. history.

An actual libertarian might point out that AIG, as an elite financial institution, for years benefited from a state policy of easy credit from the central bank and an implicit guarantee -- now made explicit -- of a government bailout in the face of hard times. Even without a bailout the AIG bonuses would be of questionable morality, seeing as how firms on Wall Street actually authored the state-granted priviledges they benefitted from in the heady days leading up to the current economic malaise.

If opposition to force is the core of libertarianism, and if AIG is using stolen money from you and me to finance tennis lessons for the children of the corporate elite, then that would make them little more than thieves, no? Mangu-Ward, however, sees an attack on rich corporate executives and can't help but reflexively leap to their defense. The takeaway from all this? Some (vulgar) libertarians really are just defenders of corporate privilege -- shocking, I know -- and organizations that advocate "privatizing" prisons are probably not the best allies in the fight against corporatism.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Politicians outraged over their actions

Apparently the folks at insurance giant AIG are using taxpayer dollars to subsidize the lavish lifestyles of the very people responsible for destroying their company and the global economy, prompting faux-populist outrage from everyone from President Obama to Barney Frank -- that is, the very people who overseen or supported the transfer of more than $170 billion to AIG to date. But one shouldn't dwell on the mistakes of the past. After all, who could have possibly foreseen corporate executives at a bankrupt firm using tens of billions of dollars in no-strings-attached bailout funds in ways that are . . . less than ideal?
Also confounding: that granting an elite group of financial institutions access to abundant capital in the form of cheap credit from the Federal Reserve -- including the ability to borrow $40 for every dollar they possessed in assets -- and implicitly guaranteeing a government rescue should the days of Dow 36,000 give way to Bailout $9 Trillion, could lead to reckless speculation and irresponsible behavior.

As Jim Cramer would say, who could have known?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cheney echoes Obama talking points

While in Argentina earlier this year, a Buenos Aires taxi driver asked me what I thought about the new president of the United States -- "who is it, Cheney?" -- which served as a reminder that 1) the world doesn't hang on the election of a new caesar as much as the media here in the U.S. would have you believe (Vogue magazine on Michelle Obama: "The First Lady The World's Been Waiting For". The rest of the world: who?) and 2) while President Obama isn't exactly much of an improvement upon his predecessor, things could be worse, if only by a little.

I was reminded of that on Sunday when former Vice President Dick Cheney emerged from his underground lair to remind the world what evil looks like, and to snarl to CNN's John King about all the ways President Obama's superficial attempts to roll back some of the Bush-era "war on terror" policies -- such as dropping the term "enemy combatant" while retaining the power to indefinitely imprison terrorism suspects -- were making us all less safe, doing his part to flame the fiction that there actually is some deep, meaningful chasm between the way Republican and Democratic administrations view maintaining the American empire (when there in reality exists at best minor squabbles over the methods, not the ends).

Indeed, Cheney echoed verbatim the cabal of godless liberals now in power in claiming -- contrary to the findings of the U.S. intelligence community and the IAEA (a phrase I've written a dozen times this year) -- that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons (video):
"[W]e still have an Iran that I believe is pursuing nuclear weapons. What they've done, I think, as best I can tell -- I'm not reading the intelligence reports anymore like I did before January -- is they produced a fair amount of low enriched uranium, the kind that you would use for a power plant. That's the hardest step to get to. Once you have got low enriched uranium, it's relatively simple to change it to highly enriched uranium, and that's the last step that's needed before you've got fissile material for a weapon. So I'm not sure exactly where they are at this point, but I am confident of what their objective is, and I don't think that's changed."
With Cheney unarmed and about as popular as . . . well, a Republican, it should have been easy for any competent (remember that word), professional journalist to bring up the fact that all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies disagree with the former vice president's assertion. Indeed, back when the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was released, CNN described it thusly:
"Iran halted work toward a nuclear weapon under international scrutiny in 2003 and is unlikely to be able to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb until 2010 to 2015, a U.S. intelligence report says."
Fairly straightforward, no? A competent journalist might even use this information to their advantage, say, when a high-ranking former official states the exact opposite.

But during Sunday's interview King made no mention of the report or of the international inspectors currently inspecting Iran's nuclear facilities, choosing instead to accept the validity of Cheney's statement at face value. "Do you wish your administration had taken more aggressive steps" on Iran, asked the credulous King. "Were you boxed in by opposition to Iraq not only here but around the world?"

Likewise, King remarked that Cheney's use of "over reliance" would be "a good term, a fair term" to describe the Bush administration's approach to "diplomacy" with Iran. The Bush administration, which rejected Iranian diplomatic overtures in 2003 and actually berated the Swiss for passing the message along, was overly reliant on diplomacy and the negotiating efforts of its European allies, according to King. If you find that characterization to be wildly inaccurate and contrary to empirical evidence -- good news: you're a member of the reality-based community. The bad news? Good luck getting a job at CNN.

As for Cheney, it appears he stole his talking points on Iran from the very people he claims are on the verge of surrendering to the terrorists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, told a German television station on March 6th that Iran "is very aggressive in their pursuit of nuclear weapons." A day earlier she declared that she doesn't "think there is a credible debate about their intention" to develop nukes (after earlier acknowledging an "ongoing debate" about the status of Iran's nuclear program -- a nuance she didn't allow a day later).

Cheney might not be in the White House, but his spirit lives on.


For those interested, I have compiled a list of some of the more egregious untruths uttered by the Obama administration (and Cheney) about Iran's nuclear program, with a few statements from Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair thrown in for a bit of contrast. Download a PDF of the file here, and feel free to suggest quotes for inclusion or engage in ad hominem attacks via email or in the comments.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tweets by twits, or: Journalism (??? - 2009)

ABC News' George Stephanopoulos is now conducting interviews with senators about complex omnibus appropriations bills via Twitter. That is, the so-called Fourth Estate is now holding U.S. politician's feet to the fire with in-depth questions 140-character "tweets" about the details of $410 billion in federal spending. This, apparently, is one of the blessings of technological progress -- and without a doubt a more persuasive case for Luddism than anything the Unabomber ever wrote.

That this technological gimmickry (bullshit) is seemingly being proposed by over-eager P.R. types for the benefit of people in my demographic -- 20-something Gen Y tech-porn enthusiasts -- is what really kills me (and it doesn't provide much in the way of hope for the future of the media in this country).

Here's an optimisitc look at the quality of journalism you can expect to find in, say, a decade:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A guy named Chas

Chas Freeman will not be the next chair of the National Intelligence Council -- the body responsible for putting together things like the ’07 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran -- as he has withdrawn his nomination, blaming the so-called “Israel Lobby” for waging a campaign against his appointment. Juan Cole has his personal letter to friends and supporters on the news, in which he writes:
“There is a special irony in having been accused of improper regard for the opinions of foreign governments and societies by a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government – in this case, the government of Israel. I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.”
Though Freeman may have unfortunate views on the role of the state, and the Tiananmen Square massacre in particular (as I wrote about here), plenty of officials in the State Department and the Pentagon have deplorable views -- they are conducting foreign policy for the largest empire in world history, after all -- so the vocal opposition to his appointment was clearly about more than just his views on China.

What I found particularly interesting about the Freeman controversy was the sudden interest in foreign policy over at Reason -- to libertarianism what Commentary is to pacifism -- where writer Michael Moynihan criticized Freeman for stating (over a decade ago) that Iraq was “not a flimsy construction.” This calls into question Freeman’s “understanding of the history of the Middle East,” writes Moynihan, who apparently had no qualms with the appointment of numerous other Obama officials like Hillary Clinton who -- like him -- backed the invasion of the Iraq war and cast the occupation in the rosiest of terms.

How Moynihan can muster up the temerity to criticize someone else over predictions on Iraq proved wrong by events is a stunning example of a compete lack of awareness on the part of Reason’s b-list neo-con. Here’s just a bit of Moynihan’s “humiliatingly error-plagued 2003 column“, in the words of Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, for “Capitalism Magazine”, a loony, objectivist (or do I repeat myself?), total war-advocating webzine:
As the fiercest fighting draws to close, I am sifting through the debris of Europe's anti-war movement. The ideological revolution was contingent upon a great humanitarian disaster. Neither have happened. So what can they say in their defense? The ones who marched through democratic Sweden waving Iraqi flags? How do those opposed to war on a set of vague, lop-sided moral principals react when seeing cheering Iraqis swarm American Humvees, shouting that they, the wretched of the Earth, love Booooosh?
I believe the Iraqi “love” for George Bush was best expressed by this guy, last seen throwing his shoes at the leader of the free world to the applause of, well, everyone.

Meanwhile, Reason editor Matt Welch -- who courageously declined to take a stance on the Iraq war (while spending the lead up to the invasion attacking “the goofy anti-war Left”, which presumably presented the greatest threat to the peace and freedom cherished by libertarians at the time) -- attacked Freeman for being too close to the Saudis. Exhibit A? Freeman, a lifelong diplomat, once said he was a “friend” of Saudi Arabia. Shocking.

Yet while he appears to have developed a sudden interest in Obama's foreign policy appointees, Welch has been conspicuously silent on the appointment of Dennis Ross, who served on the board of the Israeli government-funded Jewish Policy Planning Committee (and more notably, seemingly has no in-depth knowledge of Iran justifying his status as a “special advisor” on and rumored envoy to the country). Odd, that.

Meanwhile, in a dazzlingly ignorant update to a post heralding Freeman's withdrawal, Welch implies Freeman is a tinfoil hat-wearing loon for blaming the “Israel Lobby" for his downfall. “You stay classy, Chas,” writes Welch, seemingly unaware of Senator Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) remark that Freeman’s “statements against Israel” -- not, say, his views on China or Mao Zedong (sorry Matt!) -- disqualified him from chairing the National Intelligence Council. Man, is that Freeman guy a crackpot or what?

But one shouldn’t be surprised by the inanity from Reason, as Welch is the same guy who co-wrote a piece for The Washington Post last year arguing -- apparently in all seriousness -- that the 80s TV show Dallas and its portrayal of materialistic, capitalist excess brought down the Soviet Union. I remain undecided as to which is worse: that the Post published the piece, or that Welch needed a co-author to write it.

In the future, I suggest Welch sticks to what he’s good out -- publishing clueless defenses of the use of corporate jets and further marginalizing libertarianism -- and leave the foreign policy analysis to those more capable (like interesting and actually thoughtful Reason writers Brian Doherty and Jesse Walker).

In related news: In a post last week defending the appointment of Freeman, Juan Cole appeared to recognize the inherent ludicrousness of the claims of governments everywhere that they exist "to protect you” in offering this critique of Zionism:
Zionism is a form of nationalism centered on the necessity of turning Judaism into a base for a nation-state. Probably a majority of Jews, and virtually all American Jews, were offended by this notion before WW II. And although Zionists think they were vindicated by the events of the 1930s and 1940s, it is not at all clear in the 21st century that having a state makes you safe (my state has nuclear missiles aimed at it), or, just as important, adds to your wellbeing.
Though I doubt Professor Cole meant to undermine the case for government in general, the idea that centralized, militaristic states are incompatible with peace and tranquility is something that Independent Institute economist and historian Robert Higgs has written about extensively. If Cole grows a beard, he might just yet be the next Spooner.

Dennis Blair: Iran not developing nukes

Admiral Dennis Blair may face credible allegations of abetting Indonesian war crimes, but he's turning out to be the most honest and reality-based official in the Obama administration when it comes to Iran's nuclear program. Here's The Washington Post on Blair's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday:
Iran has not produced the highly enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon and has not decided to do so, U.S. intelligence officials told Congress yesterday, an assessment that contrasts with a stark Israeli warning days earlier that Iran has crossed the "technological threshold" in its pursuit of the bomb.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said that Iran has not decided to pursue the production of weapons-grade uranium and the parallel ability to load it onto a ballistic missile.
Blair's testimony is consistent with the findings of the 2007 NIE on Iran and the reports from the IAEA, which would not be remarkable had his fellow administration officials -- from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to President Obama himself -- repeatedly contradicted those reports, and the statements of the top U.S. intelligence official.

For example: Just over a week ago -- and after Blair had told another Senate panel that Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons -- Secretary Clinton told ABC News' Charlie Gibson Martha Raddatz that "Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon is deeply troubling to not only the United States, but many people throughout the world." Obama has likewise consistently referred to Iran's "development" or "pursuit" of nuclear weapons.

Apparently committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) was equally perplexed by the "apparent inconsistencies" in the administration's statements on Iran, as he asked Blair a string of questions aimed at setting the record straight:
LEVIN: There had been some confusion and I think some apparent inconsistencies in our assessment of Iran's uranium enrichment activities and their intent. It's my understanding that uranium for civil nuclear power production has to be enriched from two to four percent but that highly enriched uranium which is necessary for a nuclear bomb or warhead, needs to be enriched to about 90 percent. Let me ask you first, director, does the intelligence community believe that as of this time Iran has any highly enriched uranium?
BLAIR: We assess now that Iran does not have any highly enriched uranium.
LEVIN: On March 1st, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen was asked if Iran has enough fissile material to make a bomb, and he said we think they do. Now that seems to be different from what you just said the intelligence community thinks, which is that you believe they do not. Have you talked to Admiral Mullen or what is the explanation for that apparent difference?
BLAIR: Mr. Chairman, Admiral Mullen later issued a clarification that he was referring to low enriched uranium, not highly enriched uranium.
LEVIN: Now does the intelligence community assess that Iran currently has made the decision to produce highly enriched uranium for a warhead or a bomb?
BLAIR: We assess that Iran has not yet made that decision.
LEVIN: And in 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran said that, quote, "The intelligence community judges with high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." Is the position of the intelligence community the same as it was back in October of 2007? Has that changed?
BLAIR: Mr. Chairman, the nuclear weapons program is one of the three components required for deliverable system, including a delivery system and the uranium. But as for the nuclear weapons program the current position of the community is the same -- that Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities in 2003 and did not -- has not started them again at least as of mid- 2007.
Later, in an exchange with Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Blair dispelled the notion that Iran's recent missile tests are an indication it is pursuing nuclear weapons:
MCCAIN: Last month, Iran successfully launched its first satellite into orbit. And President Ahmadinejad proclaimed in a televised speech the official presence of Islamic Republic was registered in space. Last Sunday, Iran tested a precision air-to-surface missile with a 70 mile range. Does that lead one to the conclusion that it's pretty likely, or very likely, that Iran will be developing a nuclear weapon to go along with these weapons of delivery vehicles -- development of delivery vehicles?

BLAIR: I don't think those missile developments, Senator McCain, prejudice the nuclear weapons decision one way or another. I believe those are separate decisions. The same missiles can launch vehicles into space, they can launch warheads, either conventional or nuclear, onto land targets. And Iran is pursuing those for those multiple purposes. Whether they develop a nuclear weapon, which could then be put in that warhead, I believe, is a separate decision which Iran has not made yet.
This is as honest an assessment of Iran's nuclear ambitions and capabilities as I've heard from this administration, which raises the question: is Blair the next to resign?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Time magazine gets it right on Iran -- almost

It's hard to criticize any article appearing in a mainstream rag like Time that gets across these crucial facts in the face of the ceaseless fear-mongering:
In order to turn its stockpile of low-enriched uranium into bomb fuel, Iran would have to unambiguously declare its intentions by kicking out the inspectors and breaking from the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation] treaty. Only then could it reconfigure its centrifuge cascades and reprocess the material to higher grades of enrichment, which would likely take a number of months. And the single very crude, very large nuclear device that would result — too large to be delivered by missile or by fighter aircraft — would not constitute a credible strategic nuclear capability.
However, the same article gets this critical aspect of the story very wrong:
Last month, Obama mentioned Iran's "development of a nuclear weapon" at a news conference before later correcting himself to specify that he was referring to Iran's pursuit of the "capability" to produce such a weapon. That's in line with the assessment offered by his director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, in a Feb. 9 briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee: "Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them."
At no time in the February 9th news conference to which the Time article refers does the word "capability" appear. Obama's "correction", if it can be called that, was to refer to Iran's "development of a nuclear weapon or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon." The fact that Obama didn't even hedge his statement with the misleading qualifier "capability", while his Director of National Intelligence states Iran ended any such nuclear weapons program more than five years ago, is a telling example of the new administration distorting intelligence with as brazenly as the last one.

That the administration's top foreign policy officials -- the president and the secretary of state -- are casually and regularly distorting the intelligence on Iran's nuclear program is a big deal. Someone ought to call them on it.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The administration's muddied message on Iran

Iran has enough material for a nuclear weapon, says Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, picking up on a misleading and debunked interpretation of the latest report from the IAEA. But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says Iran "is not close to a weapon at this point."

Confused? You're not alone, as the Obama administration has failed to coalesce around a unified message on Iran's nuclear program. The most visible administration officials, from the president to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have all claimed Iran is developing nuclear weapons. CIA Director Leon Panetta has also claimed there is "no question" in his mind Iran is pursuing nukes.

On the other hand, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran declares with "high confidence" that Iran ended whatever nuclear weapons program it may have had more than five years ago -- a conclusion that The Los Angeles Times says "U.S. officials now discount", but one which Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair said just this past week remains valid.

Indeed, while claiming that Iran is, "at a minimum," keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, Blair told the House Select Intelligence Committee that Iran long ago halted its weapons activities:
"The halt, since 2003, in nuclear weapons design and weaponization was primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure, so it leads us to believe that some combination of threats of intensified internal scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security goals, might prompt Tehran to extend the halt to some other nuclear weapons-related activities."
So while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton overstate the intelligence on Iran's nuclear program, choosing politically convenient fear-mongering over politically inconvenient facts, the administration's top intelligence official reaffirms that while Iran may not have entirely innocent intentions, they ended their nuclear weapons program years ago. Under Bush, this would have merited a post at the slavishly pro-Democrat Think Progress as an example of the government's indefensible distortion of intelligence -- and rightly so.

Now the greatest threats to the Republic are opponents of the president's agenda and Rush Limbaugh. Who says elections don't change anything?