Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Quote du Jour

Minxin Pei writes in Foreign Policy that China is headed for decay:
If you are not convinced, raise your right hand and repeat after me: "China in the 20th century had two major revolutions, a civil war, a World War, The Great Leap Forward [sic], mass starvation, the Cultural Revolution, arguably the most tyrannical dictator ever and he didn't even brush his teeth, and now they will go from rags to riches without even a business cycle burp." I don't think you can do it with a straight face.

Iraq I: Civil War

Time magazine has a nifty symposium in which four experts of various backgrounds and political stripes discuss why civil war in Iraq is now not only imaginable, but possible. Scary stuff.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post weighs in with this awful news, which was published before another 75 deaths today in Baghdad alone:

Grisly attacks and other sectarian violence unleashed by last week's bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine have killed more than 1,300 Iraqis, making the past few days the deadliest of the war outside of major U.S. offensives, according to Baghdad's main morgue. The toll was more than three times higher than the figure previously reported by the U.S. military and the news media.

Hundreds of unclaimed dead lay at the morgue at midday Monday -- blood-caked men who had been shot, knifed, garroted or apparently suffocated by the plastic bags still over their heads. Many of the bodies were sprawled with their hands still bound -- and many of them had wound up at the morgue after what their families said was their abduction by the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Former CIA operative Larry Johnson believes the civil war is already under way in a post at TPM Cafe headlined "The Nile in Iraq." His lead-in:

Whoops! I meant, "Denial in Iraq". The denial in question is why most of the US media and the Bush Administration persist in refusing to accept the reality of the civil war already well underway in Iraq? What do we need in order to be convinced? Guys wearing blue and butternut squaring off in an apple orchard in Gettysburg?

Iraq II: What Went Wrong?

Peter Galbraith reviews two timely treatises on Iraq in the New York Review of Books -- Paul Bremer's "My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope" and George Packer's "The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq." Both go a long way to explaining what went wrong.

Bremer, the former head of the U.S.'s Coalition Provisional Authority, whose impossible job it was to snatch victory from the hands of a post-war occupation headed for defeat, provides the perspective of an insider's insider. Galbraith notes that Bremer is admirably free of self pity, which is a good thing since he has a lot to be sorry for, most notably mouthing the administration line that all was well with the occupation when he well knew otherwise and could have pressed the White House to get off it's high horse and deal with the unfolding disaster that the occupation has become.

Packer, a New Yorker writer, spent much of the past three years in Iraq. He is even handed to a fault and quotes extensively from everyone he meets, which includes Bremer himself, so it is as if they are speaking to you in their own voices.

I know this because I am about two thirds of the way through "The Assassin's Gate." (Bremer's offering will have to wait for another day.)

As knowledgeable as I am about Iraq, "The Assassin's Gate" is nevertheless a mind-blower and, to date, the most devastating critique of the man who occupies the Oval Office.

Writes Galbraith:
In his State of the Union address, President Bush told his Iraq critics, "Hindsight is not wisdom and second-guessing is not a strategy." His comments are understandable. Much of the Iraq fiasco can be directly attributed to Bush's shortcomings as a leader. Having decided to invade Iraq, he failed to make sure there was adequate planning for the postwar period. He never settled bitter policy disputes among his principal aides over how postwar Iraq would be governed; and he allowed competing elements of his administration to pursue diametrically opposed policies at nearly the same time. He used jobs in the Coalition Provisional Authority to reward political loyalists who lacked professional competence, regional expertise, language skills, and, in some cases, common sense. Most serious of all, he conducted his Iraq policy with an arrogance not matched by political will or military power.
* * * *

Meanwhile, 72 percent of American troops in Iraq think the U.S. should withdraw within the next year and nearly one in four say they should leave immediately, according to a new Le Moyne College/Zogby International survey.

Notes Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly:
Soldiers are famous for being disgruntled, of course, but I doubt that 72% of military respondents in 1943 would have favored pulling out of World War II within 12 months. . . . it looks like the big difference is that troops in Iraq are pretty confused about why they're there and whether they're doing any good.

Seem a heck of a lot like Vietnam, eh?

* * * *

There is good news from Iraq, or Kurdistan in the northern part of the country, to be exact.

Michael Totten, who is blogging (with lots of photos) from Kurdistan, says it's peaceful, prosperous and construction is booming. The biggest problems are an increase in air pollution and lack of urban planning.

Why are things going so well?

Totten doesn't answer that question, but I will: Kurdistan has been in Kurdish hands since the end of the first Gulf War. The Kurds have been masters of their own destiny, while their countrymen (sic) to the south have had to endure an additional 13 years of Saddam, an invasion and a botched occupation.

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan at Daily Dish.)

You Are Your Cell Phone, Your Cell Phone Is You

The San Francisco Chronicle has an interesting big-picture article on what it appropriately terms "the seismic cultural shift created by the cell phone."

How Low Did They Go?

President Bush's approval ratings rebounded slightly late in 2005, but are again creeping southward as a result of pessimism about the war in Iraq and the uproar over the Dubai ports deal.

His approval rating has fallen to a personal all-time low of 34 percent in a new CBS News poll. Vice President Cheney, the administraiton's Death Star, clocked in at a pathetic 18 percent and he hasn't even shot anyone in a couple of weeks.

(For an analysis of the poll by GOP pollster Bob Moran, go here. Moran says that things aren't as bad as they look, but acknowledges that the GOP is in a heap of trouble, anyway.)

Anyhow, Bush's 34 percent low is a record for him, but not unfamiliar territory.

Here, courtesy of reader "AJ" at Talking Points Memo, are the high and low poll numbers of Presidents Bush and predecessors as computed by the Roper Center:

G.W. Bush: 92-34
Clinton: 73-36
G.H.W. Bush: 89-29
Reagan: 68-35
Carter: 75-28
Ford: 74-37
Nixon: 67-23
Johnson: 80-35
Kennedy: 80-56
Eisenhower: 79-48
Truman: 87-22
Roosevelt: 84-48
An observation:

Bush's record 92 percent approval rating came in the wake of 9/11 when Americans, almost to the last man and woman, rallied around him. His fall to 34 percent takes him into dangerous territory because it is indicative that only the hardest of the hard core are maintaining their support for him.

That must be frightening for an administration that believed that it had the country -- if not the world -- by the short and curlies not that long ago but has run out of rabbits to pull out of its hat and has nearly three more years to make an even bigger mess of things.

It is simply extraordinary how the president, helped along nicely by events, to be sure, has squandered his mandate. The same can be said for LBJ (because of another fool's mission, the Vietnam War) and Truman (who found leading in peace to be a whole lot more difficult than in war).

And another observation:

The White House has lost control of Congress. It is no longer unthinkable that the Republicans could lose their majority in the mid-term elections, as well.

Fukuyama on Europe's Growing Muslim 'Problem'

Francis Fukuyama, recently in the news for more or less renouncing his neoconservative roots insofar as American foreign policy is concerned, is one of the great thinkers of our time. Writing for Slate, he reviews several books by American authors, among them the scummy Pat Buchanan, that offers Europe advice on how to deal with its growing Muslim "problem."

Fukuyama concludes that
Unfortunately, anyone looking for more specific prescriptions from America—where, after all, assimilation has a long history—will find more sound and fury than useful insights.
And then offers his own:
The problem that most Europeans face today is that they don't have a vision of the kinds of positive cultural values their societies stand for and should promote, other than endless tolerance and moral relativism. What each European society needs is to invent an open form of national identity similar to the American creed, an identity that is accessible to newcomers regardless of ethnicity or religion. . . . Muslims coming to Europe would be minimally expected to accept this perspective as their own. . . .

Time is getting short to address these questions. Europeans should have started a discussion about how to integrate their Muslim minorities a generation ago, before the winds of radical Islamism had started to blow. The cartoon controversy, while beginning with a commendable European desire to assert basic liberal values, may constitute a Rubicon that will be very hard to re-cross. We should be alarmed at the scope of the problem, but prudent in responding to it, since escalating cultural conflict throughout the Continent will bring us closer to a showdown between Islamists and secularists that will increasingly look like a clash of civilizations.

Update on the Dubaiya Ports Debacle

As surely as winter follows fall, the sorry truth about the security review of Dubai Ports World would eventually come out -- and would be yet another black eye for an administration that has been criminally negligent when it comes to homeland security.

The Bush administration, in defending the controversial deal under which United Arab Emirates-owned DPW would manage six major U.S. ports, had called the review thorough and by the book, and asserted that there was no security threat.

But Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told a very different story yesterday in calling the review "truly flawed."

Collins disclosed a Coast Guard report on DP World's impending purchase of P&O, the British-based operator the ports, that stated:

There are many intelligence gaps concerning the potential for DPW or P&O assets to support terrorist operations that precludes an overall threat assessment of the potential merger. The breadth of the intelligence gaps also infer potential unknown threats against a large number of potential vulnerabilities.

"I know the administration disagrees," Collins said, "But I can only conclude that there was a rush to judgment -- that there wasn't the kind of painstaking, thorough analysis that needed to be done despite serious questions being raised, and despite the wide variety of involvement by agencies."

And I can only conclude that business and politics once again trumped homeland security.

Oh, what a friend we have in George Bush. Christ Almighty, what a pal.

* * * *

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly offers this insight on why Bush has not backed down:
As for why George Bush has defended the deal, one hardly has to resort to paeans to his open-minded humanity to figure this out. I don't think Bush is a bigot, but the reason he stuck to his guns on the port deal is because his first instinct is always to stick to his guns. When Bush is attacked, he attacks back, whether he knows anything about the issue at hand or not. Anyone who hasn't figured that out after five years of Bush watching really does need to go back to school, and not just for a refresher in elementary arithmetic.

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Jihadist Goes to Yale

Talk about landing on your feet!

Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, former ambassador-at-large for the Taliban, is now studying at Yale University on a student visa. Read all about it in a Sunday New York Times cover story.

John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, for one, has a big problem with this. I'm not exactly feeling all warm and fuzzy, either.

The Dubaiya Ports Debacle

The New York Times has an interesting story today on the latest chapter in the long slide of the Bush administration.

That would be the firestorm over the Dubai Ports World deal, which is being dubbed "Dubaiya" by less charatable commentators such as yours truly. The excerpt below notes that the conflagration was fueled by what might be loosely called the "new media."

The story of how President Bush, who has staked his political fortunes on his reputation for protecting the nation, was blindsided by the port security issue did not begin in Washington. When the news first broke, two weeks ago, the attention of the national news media was largely consumed with other matters, including Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a fellow hunter.

But pressures from far beyond the capital forced the spotlight onto the Dubai deal. Fueled by a backlash on conservative talk radio and taunting by liberal blogs and comedy shows, the national outcry seemed almost organic, a bipartisan chorus that grew ever louder over the span of a week, reaching a cacophony that President Bush and members of Congress, besieged by calls from constituents, could not ignore.

Iraq: An Invitation to Blog

The third anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq is March 19.

I don’t know about you, but I’m just about tapped out on commenting on the conduct and progress (or lack thereof) of the war and occupation, so Kiko’s House will be taking a different tack to mark this important anniversary:

How has the war in Iraq changed the U.S.?

I welcome your views on this provocative question.

Specifically, how has the U.S. changed in the three years since the invasion and what long-term changes, if any, do you anticipate regarding how Americans and others view the U.S.’s place in the world and its responsibilities as the sole remaining superpower?

Will there be an isolationist backlash or more Iraq-like wars in other trouble spots? Which view, if either, do you support?

And have Americans and others changed their views of the Bush administration specifically and the responsibilities of presidential administrations generally when it comes to foreign affairs, as well as the use of presidential powers?

Visitors to Kiko's House live literally the world over. You don't need to reside in the U.S. to comment. Anonymous comments are welcome.

Please send them to kikokimba@gmail.com

Many thanks.

Iraq: The View From the Street

Riverbend at Baghdad Burning confirms my long-held view that "ordinary" Iraqis just want to get on with their lives and survive the Saddam Era and Bush Era and want no part of the saber rattlers who seem bent on civil war.

An excerpt:

It does not feel like civil war because Sunnis and Shia have been showing solidarity these last few days in a big way. I don’t mean the clerics or the religious zealots or the politicians — but the average person. Our neighborhood is mixed and Sunnis and Shia alike have been outraged with the attacks on mosques and shrines. The telephones have been down, but we’ve agreed upon a very primitive communication arrangement. Should any house in the area come under siege, someone would fire in the air three times. If firing in the air isn’t an option, then someone inside the house would have to try to communicate trouble from the rooftop.

. . . I’m reading, and hearing, about the possibility of civil war. The possibility. Yet I’m sitting here wondering if this is actually what civil war is like. Has it become a reality? Will we look back at this in one year, two years . . . ten . . . and say, “It began in February 2006 . . . ”? It is like a nightmare in that you don’t realise it’s a nightmare while having it — only later, after waking up with your heart throbbing, and your eyes searching the dark for a pinpoint of light, do you realise it was a nightmare . . .

(Hat tip to Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly.)

Proposed Ohio Adoption Bill: Absurdly on Target

A mischievous Democratic state legislator from Ohio says he plans to introduce a bill to prevent Republicans from adopting children.

The legislator says that "credible research" reveals that children brough up in Republican households tend to exhibit

emotional problems, social stigmas, inflated egos, and alarming lack of tolerance for others they deem different than themselves and an air of overconfidence to mask their insecurities.

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish.)

The Devil's Dictionary VII

Here's the seventh entry in an ongoing series from Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary.”

Bierce (1842-1914) was a brilliant but underappreciated American author and journalist who had a long and tumultuous relationship with press baron William Randolph Hearst, and was a misanthrope possibly without peer.


Noun. The lower world; the residence of departed spirits; the place where the dead live. Among the ancients the idea of Hades was not synonymous with our Hell, many of the most respectable men of antiquity residing there in a very comfortable kind of way. Indeed, the Elysian Fields themselves were a part of Hades, though they have since been removed to Paris. When the Jacobean version of the New Testament was in process of evolution the pious and learned men engaged in the work insisted by a majority vote on translating the Greek word "Aides" as "Hell"; but a conscientious minority member secretly possessed himself of the record and struck out the objectional word wherever he could find it. At the next meeting, the Bishop of Salisbury, looking over the work, suddenly sprang to his feet and said with considerable excitement: "Gentlemen, somebody has been razing 'Hell' here!" Years afterward the good prelate's death was made sweet by the reflection that he had been the means (under Providence) of making an important, serviceable and immortal addition to the phraseology of the English tongue.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

They Swear It's Australian

You've got to hand it to the Aussies for not mincing words.

The bloody geniuses at country's tourist board have kicked off a posh new US$120 million ad campaign with a TV spot replete with bog standard themes -- dusty outback roads, Abos, scantily-clad sheilas, roos and wallabees, as well as golf, beer and more beer -- that is aimed at its biggest overseas markets. These include the U.S., China, India and Japan.

As stereotypical as the spot may, be campaign's theme is a real corker:

We've switched on the lights.
Turned up the Verdi.
And the champagne's on board . . .

So where the bloody hell are you?

Here's a link to a video of the spot. Methinks the theme is aces and will encourage even more folks to give Australia a burl.

William F. Buckley on Iraq: 'It Didn't Work'

William F. Buckley, the dean emeritus of conservative American journalists, has lost a step or two in recent years, but is still worth reading and heeding. His view on the state of affairs in Iraq falls somewhere between mine and Country Bumpkin's, whose reponse to my blathering yesterday (Iraq: 'We Broke It, Now We Own It') is a thoughtful counterpoint.

Here's a link to Buckley's brief commentary in the National Review, as well as an excerpt:
Mr. Bush has a very difficult internal problem here because to make the kind of concession that is strategically appropriate requires a mitigation of policies he has several times affirmed in high-flown pronouncements. His challenge is to persuade himself that he can submit to a historical reality without forswearing basic commitments in foreign policy.

He will certainly face the current development as military leaders are expected to do: They are called upon to acknowledge a tactical setback, but to insist on the survival of strategic policies.

Yes, but within their own counsels, different plans have to be made. And the kernel here is the acknowledgment of defeat.
* * * *

Meanwhile, the Pentagon yesterday downgraded the only Iraqi battalion capable of fighting without U.S. support. The battalion had been repeatedly cited as an example of the growing independence of the Iraqi military.

* * * *

And finally, this chilling excerpt from Healing Iraq, the widely disseminated blog of "Zayed," who is a Baghdad dentist:

Fierce streetfighting at my doorstep for the last 3 hours. Rumor in the neighbourhood is that men in black are trying to enter the area. Some armed kids defending the local mosque three blocks away are splattering bullets at everything that moves, and someone in the street was shouting for people to prepare for defending themselves.

There's supposed to be a curfew, but it doesn't look like it. My net connection is erratic, so I'll try to update again if possible. The news from other areas in Baghdad are horrible. I don't think it's being reported anywhere.

My father and uncle are agitatedly walking back and forth in the hallway, asking me what we should do if the mob or Interior ministry forces try to attack us in our homes? I have no answer for them.

Bangles' BMW Butt

I've never been a car guy in any regular sense (hot rodding teenage years, shadetree mechanic adulthood, crazy about NASCAR, etc.). But I do have an aesthetic appreciation for a well turned out automobile and follow the auto industry both from a design-engineering and market perspective.

I drove VWs and then Volvos for years because of their practicality and reliability. But from a design perspective, no other automaker was ever inclined to steal the VW's noseline or Volvo's boxy profile to adhese to spiff up its own product line. Then I took up with Audis because of their practicality, reliability and marvelous Quattro all-wheel drive system. It was then that I noticed that other automakers were nipping and tucking some of their own offerings with Audi touches.

This has prompted an interest in the often subtle evolution of design themes from one car to another, which leads me to an interesting recent New York Times article on Chris Bangle, BMW's chief of design and the most influential -- and controversial -- designer of his generation.

The focus of the article was on Bangle's BMW Butt, as I will call it.

I refer to Bangle's introduction in the redesign of the 2002 7-Series of a trunk lid that rose above the rear fenders, as opposed to the typical rounded off design. Over the years, Bangle has crafted this butt onto the entire BMW product line, although it has been a bit toned down in recent years. The metamorphosis is now complete with the introduction of the new Z4 coupe (pictured above).

I don't care for Bangle's BMW Butt. I find it ungainly, and familiarity has not warmed me to it as it has other designs that I disdained at first such as the Lexus RX or radical recent Cadillac redesigns.

But other automakers have taken notice, and Bangle's BMW Butt is oft imitated on many Japanese and Korean models and now even (gasp!) the new Mercedes flagship -- the S-Class.

I'm not sure what all this proves. Other than once again imitation is the severest form of flattery.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Iraq: 'We Broke It, Now We Own It'

Forget about all the justifications, good intentions, historical precedents, flag waving, democracy wishing, opportunism, finger pointing and other blame gaming surrounding the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

With that war-torn country consuming itself in an orgy of violence following the bombing of the Golden Dome earlier this week, one thing needs to be remembered above all.

As former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it with the accumulated wisdom of a distinguished military career that spanned Vietnam to the first Gulf War, and a second career as a diplomat on the world stage:
We broke it, now we own it.
And, I add, are compelled to fix it.

Powell's words must not be forgotten as Iraq teeters on the brink of civil war and the Bush administration's post-invasion scheme further unravels. (Notice that I did not call it a strategy; there never was one.)

The Times of London provides this horrifying summary of the last 24 hours:
At least 200 Iraqis and 7 U.S. soldiers killed. These included 53 in Baghdad, 47 at a roadblock in Nahrawan on the outskirts of Baghdad, 25 in Basra, where 12 inmates were removed from a prison and 11 were killed, and 16 in Baquba where a bomb aimed at an Iraqi foot patrol took out 8 soldiers and 8 civilians.
The U.S. created, aided and abetted the conditions that led to this upsurge in sectarian violence.

I believe from the bottom of my heart that most Iraqis -- no matter their ethnicity or religion -- want a civil, violence-free society. But merely acknowledging that is only a starting point.

With responsibility comes accountability.

It is the responsibility of the U.S. to ameliorate the conditions that it created that have led to this latest and hitherto greatest crisis, which inconveniently comes at the very time when political necessity at home demands a plan to withdraw troops that are now more desperately needed than ever.

The Bush administration also must be held accountable for the witch's brew of horrors that it concocted.

I take no comfort in the fact that the architects of the war -- notably Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz -- have been revealed as profoundly incompetent and extraordinarily shortsighted.

(Have any three key American government officials been as wrongheaded and caused more carnage than these? Well, perhaps LBJ, McNamara and Rusk. But that only serves to remind us that the lessons of the Vietnam quagmire, which had so much to do with the emergence and growth of the neoconservative movement that underpins Bush foreign policy, have been cast asude by the president's own coven of "we know best" neocon hawks. They have chosen to forget history and we all are condemned to repeat it.)

Yes, Iraqi politicial and religious leaders also have responsibilities. Yes, the fledgling national Army and police forces must prove that they are capable of putting down the violence and maintaining law and order over the long haul without U.S. hand holding. But confining U.S. troops to their garrisons while Shiites and Sunnis maraude, loot, kidnap and kill will not win the day.

Only the U.S. can provide the stability still so maddeningly elusive in Baghdad and some other parts of the country nearly four years after a post-invasion occupation that Vice President Cheney smugly predicted would be over practically as soon as it began. A mere three months, he said, and American troops would be homeward bound.

Only the U.S. can deal with an infrastructure crisis that leaves Iraqis with less oil, fewer hours of electricity and, extraordinarily, less hope in some respects than during Saddam's reign. Did anyone believe that there would be a need for daytime curfews three years and nine months after Bush declared "Mission Accomplished"?

It would be criminal to simply dump the huge mess that the U.S. has made back on Iraqis and say, "it's your country, it's your responsibility, it's time for us to go," but more and more people are suggesting just that in and out of Washington. But abandonment is not an option.

The Bush administration has been notable for talking the talk, but falling far short when it comes to walking the walk.

It is one thing when the victims of its hubristic ineptness are Americans, whether New Orleans residents clinging to makeshift rafts amidst raging floodwaters because of a botched federal disaster response or elderly pensioners desperately in need of life-saving medications because of a botched federal prescription drug plan.

It is entirely another when they are a people who, for the most part, are trying to put behind them the duel nightmares of first the Saddam Era and now the Bush Era and get on with their lives.
We broke it, now we own it.
And are compelled to fix it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Another Update on Ports Security

As the dust settles a bit around the furor over the takeover of the management of six major U.S. ports by the government of the United Arab Emirates, several things are clear:

* A fair number of smart people agree with me that the issue is not the deal itself, although it raises a bunch of questions on its own.

President Bush's veto threat is idiotic -- and has only served to further anger his fellow Republicans -- but he's probably right on this one.

* The issue is the lousy state of ports security specifically and homeland security generally some four and a half years after 9/11 despite Bush administration bluster to the contrary.

The vitriolic Republican reaction to the deal was all but inevitable following publication last week of a Republican report revealing the stunning magnitude of the administration's failure to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

* The administration's ongoing ineptitude on homeland security has resulted in the unthinkable: The Democrats have seized the high ground on a national security issue.

Here's a roundup of comments from hither and yond:

From a Washington Post editorial:
You know there's something suspicious going on when multiple members of Congress -- House, Senate, Democrat, Republican, future presidential candidates of all stripes -- spontaneously unite around an issue that none of them had known existed a week earlier. . . . [W]e're wondering if perhaps American politicians are having trouble understanding some of the most basic goals of contemporary U.S. foreign policy. A goal of "democracy promotion" in the Middle East, after all, is to encourage Arab countries to become economically and politically integrated with the rest of the world. What better way to do so than by encouraging Arab companies to invest in the United States? Clearly, Congress doesn't understand that basic principle, since its members prefer instead to spread prejudice and misinformation.
Mansoor Ijaz in National Review Online:
It is understandable that American politicians would want to seek clarifications, safeguards, and accountability on the DP World deal in honor of all those who were mercilessly murdered on that tragic September morning. But the best way to honor their memories is to use the Dubai deal as a model to build effective bridges to the Arab and Muslim world — as we did in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan — instead of erecting barriers that reveal America's paranoia and fear about some Islamist doomsday scenario no one can predict, all the while alienating the very people we need to help raise up the Muslim world's disaffected so they are not so desperate to tear us down.
From a New York Times news analysis:

The administration's core problem at the ports, most experts agree, is how long it has taken for the federal government to set and enforce new security standards — and to provide the technology to look inside millions of containers that flow through them.

Only 4 percent or 5 percent of those containers are inspected. There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who enter and leave the ports to pick them up. If a nuclear weapon is put inside a container — the real fear here — "it will probably happen when some truck driver is paid off to take a long lunch, before he even gets near a terminal," said Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander who is an expert on port security at the Council on Foreign Relations.

. . . "I'm not worried about who is running the New York port," a senior inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency said, insisting he could not be named because the agency's work is considered confidential. "I'm worried about what arrives at the New York port."

Will Bunch in Attytood:
All these righty talking-head types seem stunned . . . that Bush didn't know about the ports deal until he read about it just a few days ago. Surprised that our president was out of the loop on something? Our question is this: Are you freakin' kidding me? Where have you people been for five years?

This isn't Jimmy Carter telling callers they took orange sunshine and to listen to some Allman Bros. This is exactly the guy you knew you were voting for not once but twice: The least-involved, most out-of-the-loop president in American history.

Here's the deal, OK. If you're truly outraged about the Bush's administration's support for Arab terrorists, then you shouldn't just stop a UAE company from buying our ports. You also need to stop buying any oil produced in Saudi Arabia, because that money directly supports terrorists. And unless they're willing to do that (and they aren't), then the critics of this are being hypocritical.

Peggy Noonan asks in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column why terrorists would want to target ports when airport security remains so lousy:
It's almost five years since 9/11, and since the new security regime began. Why hasn't it gotten better? Why has it gotten worse? It's a disgrace, this airport security system, and it's an embarrassment.

. . . So we're all talking about port security this week . . . That debate is turning bitter, and I wonder if the backlash against President Bush isn't partly due to the fact that everyone in America has witnessed or has been a victim of the incompetence of the airport security system. Why would people assume the government knows what it's doing when it makes decisions about the ports? It doesn't know what it's doing at the airports.

This is a flying nation. We fly. And everyone knows airport security is an increasingly sad joke, that TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] itself often appears to have forgotten its mission, if it ever knew it, and taken on a new one--the ritual abuse of passengers.

Now there's a security problem. Solve that one.

Slang Primer No. 8

Herewith the eighth in an ongoing series of entries on slang, this one drawn from Robert L. Chapman's marvelous "Dictionary of American Slang (Third Edition)."

(1) noun phrase: By 1953: A mock court "The toughest prisoner announced that he was president of the Kangaroo Club and would hold court" -- E. Lavine

(2) noun phrase: By 1940s: A small-town police court where traffic fines to transients are high, and usually divided among the police. [Origin unknown]

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Avian Flu: To the Tower, Derrick

In another sign of spreading concern over the avian flu, the Tower of London has decided to keep its famous ravens indoors. Special aviaries have been created for the six birds within one of the towers of the fortress on the Thames.

Legend has it the Tower of London will collapse and the kingdom will fall if all the ravens leave.

The Tower ravens - named Branwen, Hugine, Munin, Gwyllum, Thor and Baldrick - are said to be getting used to their new surroundings.

The Tower's Yeoman raven master, Derrick Coyle, told BBC News:

Although we don't like having to bring the Tower ravens inside, we believe it is the safest thing to do for their own protection, given the speed that the virus is moving across Europe. We are taking advice on the vaccinations against avian flu, and in the meantime, we will continue to give our six ravens as much care and attention as they need.

The Golden Dome: A Blast Too Far?

Will the destruction at the al Askariya Golden Mosque in Samarra today mark a turning point in in Iraq?

Most Iraqs seem to be sick and tired of sectarian violence, so one can only hope so.

Less likely is that the incident will end the battle of wills between Shiites and Sunnis over forming a new national government. It may even spark the full-fledged civil war that many have feared.

The mosque and its centerpiece "Golden Dome" is a Shiite holy site. Or I should say was after a group of men dressed like Iraqi police commandos set off explosives and pretty much destroyed the dome. The explosion, in a province with a large Sunni population, triggered other attacks elsewhere between Shiites and Sunnis.

Foreign fighters were likely responsible, and the attack bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq, said Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.

"They are really testing the patience of the Iraqi people," he said, calling on Muslims around the world to condemn "this act of terrorism."

Like I said, one can only hope so.

Update on Ports Management

Practically everything that is wrong with the Bush administration and Congress, as well as the sorry state of the debate on homeland security, is on display in the firestorm over White House approval of a deal to hand over stevedoring duties at six major American ports to a company based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

I was quick to argue that the deal with Dubai Ports World (DPW) should be put on hold until it is more thoroughly vetted, and nothing that has transpired in the last 24 hours moves me from that belief.

And it's been a heck of a 24 hours:

* President Bush threatened to veto any bill blocking the deal.

It would be his first veto in five-plus years in office and a strange one at that considering all of the outrageous legislation and downright crap that he has signed off on with nary a whimper. Adding to the surreal quality of the whole thing, methinks that Bush may actually be right.

* Republicans and Democrats joined hands in a belated display of righteous bipartisan concern.

These are the very clowns who have been AWOL when it comes to Congressional oversight on a host of enormously important issues, most recently the NSA's secret domestic spying program. Their new found comraderie was touchingly insincere.

* In fact, the political reaction on the right has been far more intense than on the left.

Notes TPM Cafe blogger Jay Ackroyd in an astute post:

It's dimwits like Michelle Malkin who are losing their s---. By permitting this contract, Bush has broken the narrative line, the one Ann Coulter recited at CPAC--that Muslims are out to get us--that a large fraction of their base believes. That's the political fallout.

* While the debate is welcome, the question arose as to why has it taken years for the issue of the vulnerability of U.S. ports to a terrorist attack to move front and center?

That is in large part because of special interests, political antipathy and public apathy. Only a tiny percentage of cargo containers entering the U.S. are checked, while plans for more thorough inspections are bogged down by bureaucratic inertia and lack of funding.

* The weakened state of the Bush presidency again was on full display, and it is not a pretty sight.

If press reports are to be believed, King George didn't even know about the deal until after it was done. That is astonishing given the sensitivities it was going to unleash. But the insular and tone-deaf White House has been so incoherent and in such disarray that the president's aides may also have been out of the loop or were too busy dealing with the Cheney hunting accident, Scooter Libby, the Medicare drug plan meltdown, further fallout from the Hurricane Katrina debacle, and other crises small and large.

This may help explain why key Republicans had not been briefed and why they quickly broke ranks with the administration and linked arms with Democrats in a display of independence unthinkable even a few weeks ago.

Not even Republicans buy the "trust me" defense anymore.

The discombobulation of the White House no matter what comes down the pike these days is truly frightening.

* Defense Secretary Rumsfeld lied. Again.

In the gadzillionth example of an administration official fibbing about something not worth fibbing about, Rumsfeld claimed yesterday that he had just heard about the deal. In fact, he was a member of something called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States that unanimously approved it on Feb. 13 after what seems to have been a perfunctory review of DPW.

* The letter of the law covering such deals was not followed.

The law requires a 45-day review. The review lasted barely half that, creating the impression that it was a rush job. As in, "Let's get it through before anyone notices."

* The administration, so willing to sacrifice individual rights in the so-called service of homeland security and the overall War on Terror, again was not willing to budge on a business interest.

The White House has coddled chemical companies and their fat-cat campaign donating executives by blocking legislation to make hugely vulnerable refineries and other plants less vulnerable to terorrist attacks. It has protected pharmaceutical companies from being sued as a result of problems with anthrax and other vaccines.

So it was predictable, but pathetic, to see the president stoutly defending a Mideastern country whose antiterrorism record has been decidedly mixed.

How mixed?

Two of the 9/11 hijackers came from the United Arab Emirates. Much of their money was laundered through the UAE's banking system. It was also the main transshipment point for the Pakistani nuclear engineer who ran the world's largest nuclear proliferation ring from warehouses near the Port of Dubai. On the other hand, the UAE has welcomed U.S. warships and supported overall U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

* The first several of the "special" connections for an administration who's motto might well be "Incest Is Best" came tumbling out.

For starters, David Sanborn, who ran DPW's European and Latin American operations, was tapped by Bush last month to head the U.S. Maritime Administration. Treasury Secretary John Snow ran the rail conglomerate CSX, which was purchased last year by DPW. And there are several Bush cronies on DPW's board.

You can expect numerous other connections to be revealed. And not that he needed the help, but this is a redemptive moment of a sort for Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 911") and others who have been trying to get us to pay attention to the potential insidiousness of these kind of relationships.

* Otherwise intelligent people acted like they just found out that globalization of ports management -- in fact vast sections of the American infrastructure -- has been a fact of life for years.

The shipping and ports industry is rightfully befuddled about opposition to the deal since foreign-based private firms, as well as nations such as Singapore, already run more than 30 percent of U.S. port terminals and the six ports in question have been run by a London-based firm.

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly went to the trouble of tracking down the reactions of the directors of the six affected ports. He found that
They seemed pretty sanguine about the whole thing.

* * * *

Mainstream media reaction to the imbrolio broke along predictable fault lines.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page got it all wrong, as usual, in equating Republican defections with some sort of aberrant and therefore unpatriotic behavior, while conveniently directing most of their criticism at members of the party not in power and not responsible for the mess:
The Democrats are also piling on . . . but this behavior of Republicans strikes us as peculiar coming from people who claim to support the war on terror.

. . . So the same Democrats who lecture that the war on terror is really a battle for "hearts and minds" now apparently favor bald discrimination against even friendly Arabs investing in the U.S.? Guantanamo must be closed because it's terrible PR, wiretapping al Qaeda in the U.S. is illegal, and the U.S. needs to withdraw from Iraq, but these Democratic superhawks simply will not allow Arabs to be put in charge of American longshoremen. That's all sure to play well on al Jazeera.

Yesterday Mr. Bush defended his decision to allow the investment to go ahead, and he threatened what would be his first veto if Congress tries to block it. We hope this time he means it.

The New York Times noted that the Bush administration's refusal to play by the rules was bound to have consequences:

The administration's intransigence has inspired a rare show of bipartisanship. The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, and the speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, along with a slew of other Republican members of Congress, have joined leading Democrats in objecting to the move. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, are introducing a bill that would put the decision on hold and require closer examination of the proposal. The bill would ultimately give Congress the final say.

The Schumer-King bill takes the right approach, and members of Congress from both parties should rally around it. Rather than using his first veto on such a wrongheaded cause, President Bush should make the bill unnecessary by acting on his own to undo the ports deal.

And there was reaction aplenty from the blogosphere:

James Lileks at Screedblog:

It’s one thing for an Administration to misjudge how a particular decision will be received; it’s another entirely to misjudge an issue that cuts to the core of the Administration’s core strength.