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Baked Alaska?

Sep
4
2008

Cosi Fan Tutte – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

It was a wonderful week for women and it more than made up for the fact that Hillary Clinton is neither the Democrats’ presidential nor vice-presidential candidate. Both events took place on the Republican side of the aisle. It is hard to decide which was more significant so I shall relate them chronologically.

In a brilliant move that contrasted sharply with the activities of Michelle Obama during the week of the Democratic convention, Cindy McCain, a major shareholder in a $300 million-a-year beer distributing company started by her father went off to Georgia (the one that used to be in Russia) on her first foreign policy mission. While Michelle Obama was giving her Monday night speech in the safety of Denver’s Pepsi Center, Cindy was flying to Georgia where she planned to meet with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and visit soldiers wounded in that country’s war with Russia that had ended – sort of – just a few days earlier. Although reports do not indicate what she intended to talk to Saakashvili about it is safe to say this was a diplomatic mission and that Cindy McCain assured the Georgian president that he would enjoy the same level of support from a McCain administration that it has received from the Bush administration.

For John to send Cindy off on her first diplomatic mission less than a week before the beginning of the Republican convention was a stroke of genius diverting attention, as it did, from the Democrats’ activities in Denver. Cindy said that the trip was really part of the U.N. World Food Program in which she has been active, but her plans to visit the president and wounded soldiers hints that her mission was nothing more than a cover-up for real purpose of the trip.

Indeed, Cindy told Time magazine that she had wanted to visit Georgia for some time and told the magazine that that kind of a trip is “an important part of what I’m about, what makes me tick.” As Nicolle Wallace, a McCain adviser told Time: “While she’s on the phone with the World Food Program, he’s on the phone with Saakashvili. It’s like this great picture of what they’ll be like in the White House.” I got quite a few goose bumps when I read that.

The other great news pertained to Senator McCain’s brilliant choice of a vice-presidential running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Sarah, like Cindy, has quite a bit of foreign policy experience. She comes from Wasilla, Alaska, a town that is not much more than 1,500 miles from Russia as the crow flies. Being in such proximity to Russia has given Sarah a unique perspective and sensitivity to the relations between the United States and that country.

And Sarah is a fast learner.

Politico.com reports that as recently as a month ago Sarah told an interviewer that she didn’t know what the job of vice-president entailed. “As for that VP talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day? I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration,” Palin was quoted as saying.

Presumably she was comparing the vice president’s job to the important kinds of things she did as mayor of Wasilla, a town with a population of less than 8,000 and an annual budget of approximately $20 million. Or perhaps she was thinking of her short tenure as governor. My guess is in the interim between first hearing of the job – and its lack of productivity and becoming McCain’s running mate, Sarah had a chance to interview current Vice President Dick Cheney. In his case, he ran the country although George Bush got most of the credit, being president. Sarah no doubt understands that she’d not have quite the same authority being unable to match Dick’s knowledge of how a vice president can make government do what he wants it to do rather than what the framers intended.

Nevertheless, Sarah’s selection is a stroke of genius and provides everyone the opportunity to see the kind of leadership choices John McCain will make if elected. And Sarah will certainly attract many – if not all – of the women who were supporting Hillary Clinton. The only real differences between them, after all, are their positions on abortion, Supreme Court appointees, oil drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, gun control, the death penalty, same-sex marriage and whether to teach intelligent design in the classroom. Those differences – the two women agree on none of these issues – are insignificant given the fact that what they have in common is that they are both women.

If you don’t believe me, ask the Hillary supporters who plan to vote for John and Sarah. If you can find them.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Sex, Politics and Economics

Apr
24
2008

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. Her lips suck forth my soul; see, where it flies! -Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus [1604]

Lowest common denominator.

That’s the group to whom George Stephanopolous and Charles Gibson of ABC news were appealing during the first half of the April 16 presidential debate for which they served as moderators. That explains the reason for the really dumb questions they posed and pursued with remarkable, if mindless, persistency, about lapel pins, helicopter landings, bitter people and sermons. Nonehas the slightest relevance to determining which of the debaters would be a better president.

George Bush never appears in public without his American flag lapel pin and few believe he was a good president. Hillary Clinton never appears in public with a lapel pin and that does not suggest she would be a bad president. Since appealing to the lowest common denominator was the goal of Messrs. Gibson and Stephanopolous, I have a suggestion for a future program that will draw even more viewers than did the debate and will appeal to an even lower common denominator.

They should interview Ashley Youmans for an hour and a half. Ashley Youmans, now known as Ashley Alexandra Dupré is the woman whose face, metaphorically speaking, brought down an empire. Or at least a governorship. Ashley is the young woman at the center of the Eliot Spitzer scandal.

Without casting aspersions on either of the two presidential candidates who debated (each of whom is well dressed and attractive) all would agree that to the extent anything interesting was elicited from the candidates by their inquisitors, it was unrelated to what they were wearing. It is safe to assume, on the other hand, that no matter how pathetic the questioning, Ashley would have made a better visual impression than either of the candidates, especially if she had been counseled to attire herself in such a way as to display the attributes that make her both interesting and successful.Furthermore, she could provide information that would be of interest to lots of viewers, especially those with mildly prurient interests – a group larger than the viewers would like to admit.

Since the economy is undeniably in a slump, she could have explained how competitive pricing works in the industry in which she is employed, thus introducing transparency to a profession that frequently operates in the dark. It would almost certainly be of interest to the viewer to know and understand why, for example, radio executive, Tom Athans, of Michigan, who is married to U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow and was recently arrested in a Residence Inn near Big Beaver and Interstate 75 (no double entendre intended and apologies to Kurt Vonnegut) paid a woman engaged in Ashley’s line of work only $150 whereas Mr. Spitzer reportedly paid Ashley $4300.

It is not adequate to attribute the difference in price to depressed economic conditions in Michigan nor can it be attributed solely to the length of the encounter. As an examination of the rate structure of Ashley’s company set out below demonstrates, for $150 at her employer one would get little more than a cup of water with which to down a Viagra pill.

It would be interesting to hear Ashley explain, in response to questions from the ABC team, the details of the price list formerly displayed on the Emperors Club Website. (The site uses the apostrophe sparingly and inconsistently.)

The quality of the services are, as restrooms at gas stations were in days gone by, measured by diamonds and, conveniently, (as gas stations were not) in dollars, euros and pounds so that prospective customers know what to expect. The rates are either hourly or by the day. A three-diamond encounter of one hour’s duration costs $1,000 or 700 Euros whereas a 7-diamond encounter of the same length costs $3,100 or 2200 Euros. (Based on today’s exchange rates it makes more sense to pay in dollars.) Day rates that are described as “dawn to dawn” range from $10,000 to $31,000.

Ashley could have discussed competitive pricing, variation in pricing depending on locales, and how income is shared between Emperors and its subjects. There will be readers who suggest that such a program would be a waste of time since only those of prurient interest would want to watch.

To them I can only say Gibson and Stephanopolous offered so little worthwhile in their one and a half hours that any subject, no matter how trivial, would be an improvement. Would it were otherwise.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:40 AM | Permalink

A Vote From The Grave

Apr
3
2008

Drink a health to the wonders of the Western world, the pirates, preachers, poteen-makers. . . .John Millington Synge, The Playboy of the Western World

John McCain has two advantages over Barack Obama. Whereas Barack has only one spiritual advisor, John has three – one of whom is dead and two of whom say nuttier things than Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright. McCain’s three advisors, are, however, supporting a Republican and thus, based on the silence from the right, one can only conclude their comments need no explanation. That may be because their sort of nuttiness is indigenous to a party whose biggest present to the United States in the 21st Century is George W. Bush.

John Hagee is the most prominent supporter and where the Lord has led him was explored here earlier. John McCain’s statement that he was “very proud to have pastor Hagee’s support” tells you more about McCain than an 800-word column can. So does McCain’s acceptance of Rod Parsley as his religious advisor.

Rod is a bible-college drop out who began preaching to small crowds some 20 years ago. Today he is the chief pastor of the World Harvest Church of Columbus, an organization that has 12,000 members.

One week before the Ohio primary, Senator McCain appeared with Rod Parsley at a campaign rally in Cincinnati in which Rod described McCain as a “strong, true, consistent conservative.” Accepting the description and with Rod standing next to him the senator described Rod as a “spiritual guide.” That occupation does not, however, enable Rod to live up to his full potential. Rod would make an excellent Secretary of State since he knows a fair amount about foreign policy as his writings show. Mother Jones writer David Corn describes some of the things Rod has written that lend weight to my suggestion.

In his book 2005 Silent No More Rod describes the fact that there is a war between “Islam and Christian civilization.” As quoted by Mr. Corn, Rod writes: “The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore.”

Of course a Secretary of State has to understand history as well as current events in order to be effective, and Rod has the appropriate background for that as well. In his book, Rod says Columbus: “dreamed of defeating the armies of Islam with the armies of Europe made mighty by the wealth of the New World. It was this dream that, in part, began America.”

Rod’s dislike of Muslims is not irrational. Rod has discovered, he says, that “Islam is responsible for more pain, more bloodshed, and more devastation than nearly any other force on earth at this moment.” (Lest he appear naïve it should be observed that the book was written before Mr. Bush trumped Islam by invading Iraq.) Furthermore, Rod continues, Islam is not simply evil. It is actually the “anti-Christ religion.” Muhammad “received revelations from demons and not from the true God. Allah was a ‘demon spirit’.”

In his book Rod calls himself a “Christocrat”, wants to prosecute folks who commit adultery (but probably not for past offenses since that would include Senator McCain if Bernard Shaw’s uncontradicted statement to Mr. McCain during a 1999 CNN interview that the senator had an affair while married, is to be believed) and compares Planned Parenthood to Nazis. There are no reports that McCain has disavowed anything Rod has said.

The third endorsement comes from a corpse and one is forced to rely on a blog called BuzzFlash for the report of that endorsement.

According to the blog, shortly after the primary season voting started, the McCain campaign announced that the senator had been endorsed by Jerry Falwell. When a reporter asked how that news had been imparted since Jerry had gone on to his great reward some months earlier, the spokesman said the endorsement was a matter of controversy “you know, like global warming . . .. following Senator Brownback’s lead, and indeed that of Gov. Huckabee, about what counts in life, we take the Falwell endorsement on faith.”

It’s not surprising that the campaign welcomes the endorsement. A corpse is considerably less likely to say things publicly that embarrass John McCain than either of the two self-proclaimed representatives of the Lord he has adopted as spiritual advisors. Of course, John being elderly, may not even notice.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:32 AM | Permalink

Iraq’s Murky Battle for Basra

Apr
1
2008

DUBAI — Has Moqtada al-Sadr blinked? Or has Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Teasing out what’s going on behind yesterday’s cease-fire is like reading tea leaves in a hurricane. The pieces move very quickly.

But it looks like this yet another negotiated settlement that al-Sadr excels at. The questions now are why did this happen, why did it stop and what does it mean for Iraq’s future?

Some background: On Sunday, the so-called “firebrand” cleric — who is currently in Iran — ordered his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets in Basra and Baghdad and called on Maliki to stop raids against his followers. He also called for the release of his men from Iraqi prisons and an amnesty.

Maliki welcomed this offer, in no small part because the Mahdi Army was poised to trounce government forces in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and heart of the country’s economy. (Ninety percent or so of Iraq’s revenues derive from the oil pumped through pipelines running through Basra.)

To get the stand-down, two of Maliki’s men, Ali al-Adeeb, a member of Maliki’s Da’wa Party, and Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization in Iraq, traveled to Qom to broker the cease-fire with al-Sadr — along with the help of the head of Iran’s Qods Force. So much for countering Iranian influence in Iraq.

With this truce offer, al-Sadr has short-circuited President George W. Bush’s fantasized-about final showdown with an old nemesis. But it’s not like it wasn’t predictable. Al-Sadr is very, very good at getting into scraps with the powers-that-be and then talking out an inconclusive end to the fighting that leaves nothing resolved. He did it in 2004 — twice! — and in 2006. Each time, the Americans and their Iraqi allies proclaim victory only to have to beat up on the Mahdi Army again some time later. And each time al-Sadr comes out looking better to his supporters and wavering Shi’ites who are looking for alternatives to the ISCI.

This time, he appears strong and statesmanlike. Maliki, by way of contrast, looks weak. After a week of chest-pounding about no negotiations and ultimatums, Maliki has to go to al-Sadr begging for peace. And what does he get back? Demands from al-Sadr for amnesty and a release of prisoners. Plus, no promises to disarm. As Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote, “This sounds like it’s an offer to Maliki to declare victory and then leave town. Or else.”

The situation in Iraq right now is fluid and chaotic but the violence of the past week clarified one thing: Iraq’s security may be getting better, but it’s a tissue-thin veneer of protection against calamity. As this week’s demonstrated, one word from al-Sadr and Iraq can go up in flames.

American military commanders have known this for a while, although they rarely voice it in public. Perhaps even Bush knows it (although this is doubtful given his statements in the past few days.) He’s called this a “defining moment” for Iraq and claims the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the government forces — allied with the Mahdi Army’s rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — as a sign of strength for Maliki’s toddling government.

At the same time, the Americans would love to tackle al-Sadr. For all the talk of “the honorable Sayyid Moqtada” from American commanders, the young cleric and his militia is responsible for a good number of American deaths. On the other hand, U.S. commanders don’t feel like taking on a 100,000 strong guerilla force. No, it’s the Iraqis who usually step into between and negotiate the settlements. They like kicking the can down the road.

Which – in combination with the weakness of Iraq’s security forces – begs the question: Why was this offensive started anyway? The most commonly agreed upon explanation — among outside observers such as myself — is that Maliki decided it was time to fatally weaken his political opponents. The Supreme Council and the Badr Organization had finally agreed to the timing of provincial elections — in which al-Sadr’s party is expected to do well — right after a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney and before the start of the offensive. Perhaps Maliki saw the last chance to strengthen his and his political allies positions with a quick, decisive victory?

Almost all the press reports say the Iraqi prime minister didn’t consult with the United States, but that’s a bit hard to believe. An operation involving 30,000 troops in Iraq’s second largest city doesn’t go down without the American military knowing full well what’s going on.

So why did the U.S. allowed it to happen? It’s not like it was good for them. A long-drawn out struggle — or an unsatisfying status quo — doesn’t look good in the run-up to Gen. David H. Petraeus’s report to Congress, due in April. It brings up all the security issues and undercuts the president’s assertions that things are going well. It does, however, provide a pretext for demonstrating how precarious the situation is, and thus justifies an extended U.S. troop presence. If the building’s about to explode, you don’t send the firefighters home.

This is pure conjecture, but is it possible that Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Iraq was the blessing to Maliki’s offensive? Is it possible that Cheney brought the ISCI vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi, on board for the provincial election law — long sought as a trophy for Bush’s claim of reconciliation — by agreeing to help with a takedown of al-Sadr’s forces? Al Qaeda is already on the run and if the Mahdi Army — the next most dangerous militia, according to U.S. officials — were also neutralized, that would look pretty good come November for a candidate running on Iraq’s success story. Yeah, I’m looking at you, John McCain.

And what happens next? That’s a tougher one to answer. If the fighting truly dies down, we’re back to an uneasy status quo — one that can be upset at any time by a few hotheads on a mortar team. Al-Sadr has been strengthened by this, and Maliki weakened. Instead of a strong prime minister wiping out a political rival, Maliki may be facing a long, hot summer.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 4:00 AM | Permalink

Preacher Politics

Mar
30
2008

Longhaired preachers come out every night; Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right. – Joe Hill, The Preacher and the Slave

As John McCain and his presumptive vice-presidential running mate, Joe Lieberman, toured the Middle East together (Joe to remind John of who is on first in Iraq so as to correct gaffs born of John’s ignorance or old age, and John to demonstrate that notwithstanding his occasional gaffes, he still has the intellectual ability to be president of the United States) it was useful to keep in mind the words of one of John’s recently announced supporters, John Hagee.

It was especially useful since instead of hunting and exposing the fox as responsible media should do when in pursuit of truth, the media has been docilely led and influenced by the fox in the fox’s unceasing attempts to savage Barack Obama because of the words of his friend and pastor, Jeremiah Wright. A reading of the sermon that inspired the fox’s incessant diatribe reveals that the sermon is no worse than, and in many respects considerably more thoughtful than, the hatred expressed by John McCain supporter, John Hagee (Hagee) over the years.

Hagee’s calumny has made anything even hinted at by Reverend Wright seem bland. He has explanations for just about everything bad that has ever happened and, amazingly, and as MediaMatters, the press watchdog site has noted, they all relate back to God’s and Hagee’s view of current events.

Interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air on September 18, 2006 Hagee explained his and God’s thinking. About Hurricane Katrina he said that on the day of Katrina’s arrival, a homosexual parade had been planned in that city. As a result of that and a generally dissolute life style pervasive in that city, he explained: “I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are-were- recipients of the judgment of God for that. . . . And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.” Asked by Ms. Gross whether Muslims have a mandate to kill Christians and Jews he replied that the Quran “teaches that very clearly.” Muslims and gays are not the only groups that have received the benefit of the Lord’s thinking as explicated by Hagee.

On February 28, 2008, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights, commented on the Hagee’s endorsement of John McCain the preceding day saying: “[F]or the past few decades, he [Hagee] has waged an unrelenting war against the Catholic Church. For example, he likes calling it ‘The Great Whore,’ an ‘apostate church,’ the ‘anti-Christ,’ and a ‘false cult system.’ . . . In Hagee’s latest book, Jerusalem Countdown he calls Hitler a Catholic who murdered Jews while the Catholic Church did nothing. ‘The sell-out of Catholicism to Hitler began not with the people but with the Vatican itself’ he writes.” Of course Mr. Donohue is not totally objective. He’s a Roman Catholic.

Hagee also knows how to raise money. On July 27, 2006, in a longer profile of the minister, the Wall Street Journal reported on a fund-raiser sponsored by Hagee’s 16,000 member Cornerstone Church. In the church bulletin, “The Cluster”, the fundraiser was announced with a catchy lead-in. It said: “Slavery in America is returning to Cornerstone.” The teaser ended with the sentence “Make plans to come and go home with a slave.”

John McCain was delighted to be endorsed by Hagee. Following the endorsement he said: “All I can tell you is I’m very proud to have pastor Hagee’s support.” He was not asked to explain whether that meant he, too, shares that John’s feelings about Muslims, Catholics, and the joys of slavery. A few days after the endorsement and told of Hagee’s comments about Catholics, John McCain partially followed Barack Obama’s lead and repudiated any of Hagee’s comments if they were “anti-catholic or offensive to Catholics.

John McCain’s acceptance of the endorsement by the other John may well have been influenced by his mentor, Joe Lieberman. Joe is a big fan of both Johns. He hangs out with the John who’s running for president. He admires the other John.

In July 2007, Lieberman was a speaker at a convention of “Christians United for Israel,” a group of which the other John is founder and national chairman. In thanking the other John for inviting him, Joe said: “I would describe Pastor Hagee with the words the Torah uses to described Moses, he is an “Eesh Elo Kim,” a man of God because those words fit him; and, like Moses he has become the leader of a mighty multitude in pursuit of and defense of Israel. . . . If ever there was a man who will be blessed because he has blessed Israel, Pastor Hagee, it is you. . . .”

Whether John McCain is blessed because John Hagee blessed him – only time will tell.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 2:54 PM | Permalink

Voting Early and Often?

Mar
15
2008

As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it? – William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, 1871

How is the Democratic party to re-enfranchise the voters in Michigan and Florida?

They have been disenfranchised through the wrong-headed actions of their fellow party-member with the result – unless corrected – that their delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver will attend in a mute state destined to create such chaos as to insure the election of Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

The most frequently heard solution to enfranchisement of the disenfranchised is that there be another primary in those states, either through the caucus system, a mail-in vote or an actual election. In any of those scenarios Senators Clinton and Obama would have an opportunity to campaign in Florida and Michigan on an equal footing and the voters would have an opportunity to make their wishes known. The downside, we are solemnly told, is that some of those who voted earlier may, for a variety of reasons such as death, be unable to vote in a second election thus rendering meaningless their earlier votes, votes which the entire debate already demonstrates was meaningless.

Since the only way the errors of the past can be corrected and a Democratic debacle avoided is through a second election, the question the average citizen is asking is simple: Why the delay in setting the date? The answer, not surprisingly, is money. Since money is the answer, the next question is where can the money be found? And herewith the suggestion (not original with the writer) and the consequences (that are).

There is no reason to burden the taxpayers of Michigan and Florida with the cost of the election nor is there any reason to burden the Democratic party establishment with the cost. According to the Associated Press, Michigan Democratic chairman Mark Brewer, said it would cost the state party $8 million to $12 million to set up party-run election sites and allow voting by mail or over the Internet. The same report quoted Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida as saying that conducting a primary in Florida would cost between $22 million and $24 million whereas voting by mail would cost approximately $8 million and a caucus process about $4 million.

Whichever method is decided upon, the best solution is to permit the two campaigns to share the cost equally, a cost they can well afford. In February alone, Hillary Clinton raised $35 million and Barack Obama raised $55 million. The total cost of new elections in both states would cost somewhere between $36 million and $48 million, depending on what kind of an election is held. If the campaigns pay for the two elections, the Clinton campaign would have $11 million left from its February winnings and the Obama campaign would have $31 million left.

Here are the happy consequences of that outcome.

The candidates would have $18 million and perhaps as much as $24 million less to pay for television advertising. This would free Democrat and Republican alike from thousands, if not, indeed, hundreds of thousands of hours of perfectly meaningless television ads that benefit none but the candidates – if them – and the television stations who profit thereby.

Without the need to produce so many ads, those whose job it is to compose the ads could devote more of their time to polishing their skills and making sure that the ads they still have money to produce are grammatically correct. As a result, viewers would not be subject to the incessant question of “Who” we’d like to have answering the telephone in the event of an emergency. (That usage, sponsored by the campaign of a Wellesley College graduate, almost certainly confirms in the minds of many, that “who” is the correct word to use in that particular sentence structure thus guaranteeing its infliction on the rest of us for years to come.)

Of course, deflecting the $48 million televised assault on our senses is but a temporary reprieve. If the campaigns continue their successful fund raising, in the next four months they will raise between them close to half a billion dollars, more than enough to pay for other assaults on our senses and rendering the reprieve brief at best.

A brief reprieve, however, coupled with the enfranchisement of the citizens of Florida and Michigan is not something at which to sneer.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 4:21 PM | Permalink

Open Borders, Closed Hearts

Mar
7
2008

See the conquering hero comes;
Sound the trumpet, beat the drums. — Thomas Morrell,
Joshua

Iraq is a sovereign and free country. That means it gets to decide whom to invite for dinner and sleepovers. It was made free by George W. Bush. That means he gets to decide who can invade Iraq. He made the first decision before Iraq was a free and sovereign country and that decision is what turned it into a free and sovereign country. That was back in 2003.

Having nothing much else to do in 2003, Mr. Bush decided an invasion of Iraq would be one way of creating the kind of legacy every president is searching for. A good war seemed like an insurance policy for his reputation. Accordingly, he fabricated some facts that if believed by others, he believed, would justify an invasion of Iraq. He presented them to the legislative bodies that needed to approve war and, the approval in hand, he proudly sent his armies to conquer Iraq and install a government that would be to his liking.

The war did not turn out exactly as he had hoped although he kept telling his people that it was going really well and that democracy was being installed in a country that had been subject to the whims of another ruthless ruler, Saddam Hussein. The war is still going on and no one knows how it will end but its ending is not what concerns Mr. Bush who is only concerned about his reputation. What is important to him, as to a small child pretending to be a great warrior, is that he be remembered as the president who led the country in a time of war even though it was a conflict he had created.

With Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq completed, Mr. Bush approved an invasion of that country by another foreign power, even though Iraq in fact has its very own leaders who probably thought that since they were in charge, they would get to decide when, if ever, another power would be given permission to invade.

The Kurdish Workers Party or PKK that lives in the northern part of Iraq has long been an annoyance to the Turkish government since it keeps crossing the border of Iraq to enter Turkey and engage in combat with Turkish troops. Since the Iraqis have been unable to halt the incursions, Turkey undertook to do that on its own.

Crossing the border with troops into a foreign country would under normal circumstances be defined as an invasion of that country even if the invaders said they had only a limited purpose. In this case it was not an invasion. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan personally told George Bush of his plans to invade before the invasion took place. Mr. Bush did not object. Mr. Erdogan also let Mr. al-Maliki know. Mr. al-Maliki was less understanding. According to his spokesman he telephoned Mr. Erdogan and informed him of the “need to respect Iraq sovereign authority.” Mr. al-Maliki may have forgotten that George Bush said the invasion was OK. Scott Stanzel, White House spokesman said that: “We were notified and we urged the Turkish government to limit their operations to precise targeting of the PKK to limit the scope and duration of their operations . . . .”

The Iraqis may be surprised that Mr. Bush is the one who gets to give another country permission to invade Iraq. They shouldn’t be. As was explained by one “senior U.S. official” in a CNN broadcast in August 2007, “any country with 160,000 foreigners fighting for it sacrifices some sovereignty.” He got that right. The Iraqis still have some rights although they’re not quite as good as deciding who gets to invade it. They get to decide who gets to come on state visits aside from Americans and that’s how they happened to invite Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to pay them a visit. Mr. Ahmadinejad was able to freely travel around. He got to drive from the airport to the green zone (unlike George Bush who, being a bit of a ‘fraidy cat notwithstanding his bravado, always goes in by helicopter). It is rumored that Mr. Ahmadinejad will be bringing $1 billion in loans to Iraq to enable it to rebuild its infrastructure, something Mr. Bush has been trying unsuccessfully to do for many years.

Not everyone in the U.S. administration was happy with the visit. One senior Bush administration official told Reuters the U.S. was concerned Iraq could cozy up too much to Iran. This official said: “There is still significant evidence of Iran’s illicit meddling in Iraq. . . This has to stop.” Nonetheless, said the same official: It ” is important to remember that this is a sovereign Iraqi decision and we have faith that the Iraqis will be able to deal with his visit.” They were. They would probably have preferred to have the power to deal with the visit from the Turkish army. They didn’t.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 7:51 AM | Permalink

Worries For Iraq

Mar
2
2008

I was at an impromptu dinner party here in Abu Dhabi last night and one of the guests, the mother of a former Spanish diplomat asked me what I thought would happen in Iraq. The other guests around the table grimaced; Iraq is a well-worn and tiresome topic here in the Gulf emirate and many have made up their minds already as what is going to happen.

But despite White House statements that every year is a make-or-break year for that poor country, I really do believe 2008 will be a crucial one for Iraq.

Iraq and the United States face huge challenges this year. But the gains made under the current surge strategy aren’t the only measure of what’s going on in Iraq; it remains a series of delicately balanced accords. If one worsens it can be managed, but more than that and the U.S. would again be overwhelmed. Everything has to go just right for Bush to hand a stable and relatively peaceful Iraq off to his successor.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the issues that will confront George W. Bush in his last year in office — and what lies in store for the next president

The Surge: The surge is coming to an end this summer, like it or not. Five combat brigades — about 30,000 troops — will leave Iraq by the end of July because their deployments are up and there aren’t any more reserves ready to go. There’s just no getting around it. The big question is then: Will there be an increase in general violence once the U.S. presence is back down to around 140,000 troops, about the same number who were in-country during the worst of the 2004-2006 violence?

Some say it’s not the numbers of troops, but the mission, and the U.S. has been far more aggressive getting troops into neighborhoods and protecting Iraqi civilians. That’s led to more intelligence tips and a routing of al Qaeda in Iraq to the northern part of the country.

But the competency of the Iraqi security forces, while improving, is still in doubt. With fewer U.S. troops on the ground, the Iraqis will have to pick up the slack. The White House says it intends to continue withdrawing troops after a brief pause to assess the situation. Which means there are likely to be even fewer troops if things go pear-shaped in the fall.

Sunni Awakening: The Surge was successful because of the so-called Sunni Awakening, which started in fall 2006, before the U.S. increased its presence. Sunni tribes in Anbar – the large Western part of the country – realized they would lose any civil war against the Shi’ites and signed on with the U.S.. In return, they got money and weapons if they turned on the foreign jihadists in their midst. It was a good plan and it’s a big reason for the drop in violence. But it’s starting to fray at the edges.

Sunnis in Anbar and Diyala, to the east, are growing frustrated with the Americans and the Iraqi government and have upped their demands. Diyala Awakening militias have basically gone on strike because the Americans aren’t pressuring Baghdad enough to hire all of the Sunnis back into the Iraqi Army and police forces.

“Now, there is no cooperation with the Americans,” said Haider Mustafa al-Kaisy, an militia commander in Baqoubah, the seat of Diyala’s government. “We have stopped fighting al-Qaeda.”

This isn’t a large-scale movement yet but it could become one as the summer rolls on and the Iraqi government continues to blackball Awakening members for jobs in the security services. With a combination of lower troop levels, lack of competent security forces and 80,000 angry Sunnis, Iraq could be looking at the bad days of 2004-2006 again.

Shi’ite Divisions: First, the good news: Nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced he would extend his Mahdi Army’s six-month ceasefire another six months. Along with the surge and the Awakening movement, al-Sadr’s decision to have his men stand down has led to a huge drop in violence.

But his followers, like the Sunnis, are growing frustrated. When he announced the extension last week, many of his followers were upset.

“This is a huge shock,” said Bassim Zain, a militiamen from Diwaniyah. “We were expecting that Sayyid Moqtada will end the freeze in order to defend ourselves.”

Who are they defending themselves against? Mainly another Shi’ite faction: the armed wing of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, which controls many of the police forces across the south and have used its positions to torture and kill their political enemies: the Sadrists.

And just last week, a law heralded by the United States as a step toward political reconciliation was vetoed by the SIIC. The SIIC, the Shi’a political party, favors giving more power to the provinces. The Sadrists favor a more centralized government.

But it’s really about postponing provincial elections. The SIIC currently controls many of the oil-rich south’s local governments, but is widely expected to lose in new elections slated for this fall. By vetoing the bill, they tie the election process up in knots and delay an expected drubbing. And they get the levers of the state to continue their fight against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. But how long will al-Sadr keep his men from fighting?

The Turks: Finally, there’s the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, which Ankara ended after eight days. The Kurds are furious with the U.S. for giving Turkey the green light to operate in their territory. The Turks are furious at the Kurds and the U.S. for not cracking down more effectively on the Kurdish nationalist group, PKK, which Washington and Ankara consider a terrorist organization.

Neither of these dynamics have changed, and the Turks hardly finished off the PKK in eight days. That means the Turks will likely be back this year, and they’ll eventually run up against the Iraqi Kurds’ pesh mergas. And then you’ll have a real war, with the U.S. right in the middle of it.

Hang on, it’s going to be a very bumpy summer.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 10:15 AM | Permalink

Corrupt Dictators and Their Friends

Feb
28
2008

People have got to know whether their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.
– Richard Nixon,
Press Conference 11/11/1973

Herewith an introduction to Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan.

Mr. Nazarbayev was elected president of Kazakhstan by the Supreme Soviet on April 24, 1990. On December 1, 1991, Kazakhstan being on the verge of independence, he was elected by Kazakh citizens with 95 percent of the vote and most recently was elected in 2005 with 91 percent of the vote. The 2005 election was only slightly marred by the observation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an organization he now chairs, that there were “numerous and persistent examples of intimidation by the authorities” and an “overall media bias in favor of the incumbent.” One month before the election Zamanbek Nurkadilov, an opposition leader, was said by authorities to have committed suicide. He did it by shooting himself once in the head and twice in the chest. Two months after the election, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, one of the opposition leaders was killed, reportedly by state security officials.

In May 2007, satisfied with the way he’d been performing, President Nazarbayev signed a constitutional amendment that permits him (and only him) to seek re-election indefinitely beginning in 2012 when his current term expires.

Mr. Nazarbayev presides over what has been called one of the most corrupt regimes in central Asia. He has closed newspapers, banned or refused to register opposition parties and permitted harassment of advocacy groups. Miklos Marschall, the regional director of Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization said of the president: “You don’t have free elections, and the press is pretty much controlled by his family and a significant portion of assets in Kazakhstan are directly or indirectly controlled by his family.” Marschall told the Washington Post in August, 2006. Although he went on to say that the president was making some step-by-step reforms, on the Transparency International Scale of corrupt countries, Kazakhstan is ranked 2.6, 1 being the most corrupt and 10 being least corrupt.

In 2006, Mr. Nazarbayev was a guest of Mr. Bush at the White House. Welcoming Mr. Nazarbayev 9 months after Mr. Nazarbayev had been reelected with 91 percent of the vote, a slightly envious Mr. Bush said: “I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet sphere to one that now is a free nation . . . . And I welcome you here to the White House, and I’m looking forward to buying you lunch.” After lunch Mr. Nazarbayev went to Kennebunkport to visit the first President Bush.

The visit to the White House was preceded by a visit to Kazakhstan in 2006 by Vice President Dick Cheney who in response to Mr. Nazarbayev’s welcome said: “I think all Americans are tremendously impressed with the progress that you’ve made. . . in the last 15 years. . . . I’m delighted to have the opportunity to spend some time with you here in Astana. We met 10 years ago. . . and it’s a pleasure to renew our friendship.”

An even more prominent visitor than Mr. Cheney, however, was Bill Clinton who visited Mr. Nazarbayev in 2005. He arrived in a private jet owned by Frank Giustra of Canada who accompanied Mr. Clinton on the trip. All that happened when Dick Cheney visited was a friendship renewed. According to a story in the New York Times, three important things happened as a result of Mr. Clinton’s visit.

The first was that Mr. Clinton voiced support for Mr. Nazarbayev’s bid to lead OSCE (that had been critical of the 2005 election) notwithstanding the Bush administration’s lack of support for that bid, saying: “I think it’s time for that to happen, it’s an important step, and I’m glad you’re willing to undertake it.” Then the next important thing happened.

Mr. Giustra’s small company, newly interested in uranium mining, signed agreements enabling it to become partners in three state-owned uranium projects, agreements that are described as worth tens of millions of dollars. Then the last good thing happened.

The William J. Clinton Foundation got a $31.3 million gift from Mr. Giustra. That gift was only publicly disclosed in December 2007. More recently the foundation received another $100 million from Mr. Giustra.

When interviewed on Fox News and asked about her husband’s visit to Kazakhstan and praise for Mr. Nazarbayev, Sen. Hillary Clinton said: “He went to Kazakhstan to sign an agreement with the government to provide low cost drugs for HIV/AIDS, a growing problem in Central Asia. . . .” Asked about the former president’s praise for Mr. Nazarbayev she said that Dick Cheney also had good words for Mr. Nazarbayev when he visited the country.

This is one of the few times any Democrat has used Dick Cheney as justification for a bad decision. Should she become president one can only hope Sen. Clinton doesn’t use Mr. Cheney as a role model for other bad decisions. That would bode ill for us all.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 9:26 AM | Permalink

Death in Damascus Raises Questions

Feb
14
2008

At approximately 11 p.m. on the night of Feb. 12, the most wanted terrorist in the world, after Osama bin Laden, was blown up by a car bomb in Damascus.

Imad Mugniyah, head of Hezbollah’s Special Operations Command, thought he was safe in the Syrian capital, and with good reason. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, working closely with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered Mugniyah a valuable asset. He allegedly reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini in Tehran, putting him on the same level as Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. Protecting him was a high priority.

But his enemies were legion.

The most wanted terrorist after bin Laden – the FBI put him on its most wanted list and slapped a $25 million bounty on his head – Mughniyah was fingered for master-minding the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Maine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 servicemen, as well as numerous kidnappings of Westerners in the 1980s in the Lebanese civil war, including Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson. He may have been in contact with al Qaeda operatives in the 1990s, and was accused of being behind the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Now the question arises: Who killed Imad Mughniyah?

The easy answer – and the one that most people have settled on – is that the Israelis did. Hezbollah’s television station, al Manar, outright accused the Jewish state. “The martyr was killed at the hands of the Israeli Zionists,” the group said via a statement read on air.

It would make sense. Car bombs are not attacks of opportunity; they require advanced knowledge of the subject’s locations and travel patterns, and it needs operatives on the ground to trigger the bomb. This attack has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated intelligence hit.

The explosion left a charred crater approximately 700 yards east of the Cham City Center in the Kafer Soseh area of Damascus. That’s right next to an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office, and Mughniyah was apparently meeting Hamas and Syrian intelligence. Whoever killed him knew where he was and who he was meeting. That means Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, or possibly the CIA, has penetrated Hamas, Syrian intelligence agencies, Hezbollah or possibly all of them.

If it was the CIA, this assassination would represent a delicious bit of revenge for the agency. The CIA has been gunning for Mughniyah since the 1980s. In addition to the Marine barracks bombing, Mughniyah is blamed for the attack on the U.S. embassy that same year that left 63 people dead – including eight senior CIA agents. He was also suspected of kidnapping and torturing to death Beirut’s CIA station chief William Buckley in 1984.

The method of his passing is significant, too. A car bomb makes a statement. It’s a terror tactic, frankly, and the goal is to show the Syrian regime as weak and incapable of providing security for its “guests.” If the CIA planted a car bomb, that’s a giant “screw you” to the Syrians, who are widely suspected of being involved a similar style assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri who was killed three years ago on Feb. 14. The timing of the Mughniyah’s car bomb death — just two days before the Hariri anniversary — is unlikely to be coincidental.

Another possibility is that Syria ratted Mughniyah out to CIA or Mossad, perhaps as part of a deal Syria offered up Mughniyah in exchange for flexibility in Lebanon or the Golan. While this idea is circulating in Lebanon’s political circles, along with the suggestion that the Syrians did the deed themselves, it strikes me as unlikely. Syria usually doesn’t blow up its gifts to the West. They commit suicide by putting several bullets in their heads, as in the case of Abu Nidal in Baghdad in 2002. – a “suicide” widely seen as an attempt by Saddam Hussein to turn over a wanted terrorist as a show of good faith to the West.

A third possibility is that Mughniyah isn’t really dead at all, and Hezbollah – which announced his death to the world – is making an already invisible man disappear even more. But why? What could they have planned? In recent weeks, there have been rumors of a new campaign of kidnappings against Westerners in Beirut to force concessions from the U.S.-backed government of Fuad Siniora, with whom Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon have been locked in a stalemate for more than year.

There’s no doubt Mughniyah’s death raises a lot of questions, quite apart from who did it. Another one is why did Hezbollah proclaim his death as a martyr and hold a massive demonstration for him in southern Beirut today — the same day that Hariri’s supporters packed the city’s downtown to commemorate his death? After the Israeli pullout in 2000, Hezbollah claimed to be changing its ways, that it was no longer the terror group of the 1980s, that it was a legitimate political group. To tie itself again so tightly to a wanted terrorist with American blood on his hands is at once a cry of defiance and a worrying sign that more extreme Iranian influences are again on the upswing within the organization.

No matter who killed him or what happens next, one of Iran’s and Syria’s main chess pieces was just taken off the table. There are high-fives in Langley and Jerusalem these days.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 3:53 PM | Permalink

 

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