January 30, 2007

The Short End of the Reconstruction Stick

With the sheer scale of the disaster that has been the presidency of George W. Bush, the litany of his failures has, in almost absurdist fashion, begun to provide a modicum of political cover to the country's embattled chief executive. There are simply so many major issues demanding the public's attention that even the continuing struggle to rebuild one of the nation's most colorful and historic cities after an unprecedented natural disaster can almost get lost in the shuffle. Still, while Mr. Bush may be understandably less than keen to call attention to the continuing struggles of New Orleans, it was shocking that the President's most recent State of the Union address contained not a single mention of the Hurricane Katrina clean-up.

Today, the Crescent City is suffering what may be its worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War. With tens of thousands of homes demolished by the storm or made uninhabitable, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that the rental rate in New Orleans is at 100 percent. Eighteen months after Katrina made landfall in The Big Easy, and despite an exodus that has seen the population of Louisiana's biggest city roughly halved, there isn't close to enough housing to go around, especially for the poorest residents.

Given the urgency of the situation, it would not be unreasonable to expect that reconstruction efforts would focus on providing housing in the fastest, most cost-effective manner. As has so often happened in the 6 years since George W. Bush claimed the White House however, the reasonable expectation is not the case. Instead, HUD has announced plans to demolish more than 4,500 St. Bernard Parish public housing apartments in the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, St. Bernard and Lafitte developments, and replace them with approximately 800 mixed income units, of which only half would be targeted to lower income families. In other words, despite a severe housing shortage, the federal government is moving forward with plans to supply less than one-eleventh of the units it aims to raze.

This would be at least somewhat defensible if the buildings in question were unsafe, but that is not the case. John Fernandez, an Associate Professor of Building Technology in the Deptartment of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), conducted an assessment of the affected public housing units, and made the following statement:

My inspection and assessment found that no structural damage was found that would reasonably warrant any cost-effective building demolitions. While I found a range of Katrina related damage to these buildings, I did not find any conditions in which the integrity of the structure and exterior envelope of the buildings or the interior conditions of residential units themselves could not be brought to safe and livable conditions with relatively minor investment.

I also found that there was only a minimum use of cellulose-based materials (wood in rough openings and baseboards and paper in the rare use of gypsum wall board for example). This lack of organic material significantly aided in the very low incidence of moisture retention in the walls and floors of the buildings....

[D]emolition of any of the buildings of these four projects is not supported by the evidence of the survey, replacement of these buildings with contemporary construction would yield buildings of lower quality and shorter lifetime duration, the original construction methods and materials of these projects are far superior in their resistance to hurricane conditions than typical new construction, and with renovation and regular maintenance, the lifetimes of the buildings in all four projects promise decades of continued service that may be extended indefinitely.

Worse, documents from the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) show that repairs on the affected housing developments - and even wholesale rennovation - could be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of demolition and the subsequent building of fewer units. Bill Quigley, a law professor and attorney representing residents of the apartments scheduled for demolition, quotes the HANO documents as follows:

... Lafitte could be repaired for $20 million - even completely overhauled for $85 million - while the estimate for demolishing and rebuilding many fewer units will cost more than $100 million. St. Bernard could be repaired for $41 million or substantially modernized for $130 million, while demolishing and rebuilding fewer units will cost $197 million. B.W. Cooper could be substantially renovated for $135 million, compared to $221 million to demolish and rebuild fewer units. C.J. Peete's own insurance company reported that it would take less than $5,000 each to repair the C.J. Peete apartments.

Housing advocates point out that the complexes were safe during past hurricanes because they were solidly built of steel, concrete and brick, and that many apartments escaped flooding from Hurricane Katrina altogether. Meanwhile, C. Donald Babers, the New Orleans housing authority's federally appointed administrator, maintains that "It's not just about bricks and mortar. We're looking at quality of life for our families," adding "Change is difficult for people. They're afraid of the unknown."

Past experience however, has made low-income residents of Louisiana public housing wary of such claims, and their anxiety is justified by recent history at the St. Thomas complex. St. Thomas, which originally housed around 1,500 families, was demolished in 2002. To date however, only 296 replacement units have been constructed and just 122 of them are low-income housing. Taking this as their cue, residents and activists have recently re-occupied the housing complexes targeted for demolition - despite lacking both power and water - and now, HUD and the New Orleans housing authority are suing to have them removed.

Tragically, there appears to be little appetite at the federal level to ensure fairness in reconstruction. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee as an Independent, campaigned for re-election in 2006 partly on the strength of calls to pursue an investigation into the failure of the federal response to Katrina. After a bitterly contested race which saw him lose the Connecticut Democratic primary, Lieberman has since said he may vote Republican in the 2008 presidential election, and his spokesperson has publicly stated that he will not pursue further inquiry into missteps surrounding the Bush Administration response to the hurricane.

While no allegations of criminal wrongdoing have been made, past actions at St. Thomas and the general foot-dragging that seems to be continuing in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina make it difficult to discount contentions that race and class are playing a role in decisions about public housing. The apartment complexes in question were undoubtedly poor and crime-ridden, but the fact remains that rebuilding insufficient housing will further displace thousands of people who have already been homeless for more than a year.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown may genuinely believe that "People deserve better than this," but when he says, "If they could just be patient. A mixed-income neighborhood can better attract businesses and better schools," he reveals an arrogance it is difficult to imagine being applied to more affluent elements of Louisiana society. Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights and racial justice group representing tenants seeking to reclaim their apartments, thinks that's the case, and makes a credible claim when she notes:
It's definitely about race and class. If you look at what happened after Hurricane Katrina, the people who were residents of public housing were the people who were left behind at the Superdome and Convention Center, and now they are the same people who are being locked out.
As Jacquelyn Marshall, a former resident at C.J. Peete put it:

We are not against the redevelopment of public housing. We are against the process. I'm not for tearing down something that's livable when it will result in thousands of families being homeless. They need to start renovating before they demolish.
That's pretty hard to argue.

January 25, 2007

Kissing the Inhofe Doctrine Good-Bye

It took the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, as well as the need to both bargain with a legislature held by the opposition and soften the focus on failures in Iraq, but George W. Bush passed a milestone in Tuesday's State of the Union address. For the first time since he took office, he acknowledged both climate change and the growing certainty of humanity's role in it, saying:
And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.
Whether the reasons behind this change of direction are purely political or represent a genuine change in viewpoint matters not; the cat is out of the bag, and there is little cover left for Republican opposition to mitigating the production of greenhouse gases. While fools like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe may now be forced to give ground, the next battle will be in implementing viable plans with which to move forward. Although Mr. Bush's speech finally acknowledged climate change, his proposed solutions remain in the realm of the voluntary and the theoretical, calling only for more ethanol usage and a reduction in gasoline consumption, and avoiding any discussion of cap-and-trade measures.

Fortunately - if pathetically - the situation has reached critical mass; local governments and private groups, fed up with federal procrastination and pandering to the scientific fringe, are leading the way. With California and several other states in the Northeast devising their own environmental requirements and even suing the federal government over carbon dioxide emissions, the potential for a morass of varied and even conflicting regulatory environments has pushed a number of large firms to partner with environmental groups and form the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP). USCAP's intent is to pressure the federal government to enact laws that will severely curtail greenhouse gas emissions, and one of its central recommendations for doing so - one it terms "essential" - is a cap-and-trade system.

Congress appears ready to listen - and perhaps even to override any threatened presidential veto of a cap-and-trade schema. There are currently four versions of legislation to establish such a system in the Senate alone, each with a different balance between pollution reduction and economic safeguards, and hearings to permit additional introductions are scheduled for the end of this month. Wading through this sudden surfeit of forward thinking will be arduous, and it will almost certainly leave some quarters unhappy, but the mere fact of the opportunity - almost six years after President Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol - is cause for optimism.

While the businesses within USCAP are hardly operating out of pure altruism, the kind of partnership they have created with green groups is no less laudable. There is no reason to condemn their enlightened self-interest, as they move to influence what they see as inevitable change, and it is difficult to make the case that finding ways to stabilize the world's climate must perforce come at the expense of America's economy. Further, there will almost assuredly be new sectors that benefit from a cap-and-trade system, whether it be the architects and administrators of the market that results, or the inventors and producers of anti-pollution equipment. This is not - as industry's involvement indicates - a death knell for the American economy; done correctly, it's a way to both reach emissions goals and maintain robust growth that's good for everybody.

Nonetheless, at this point, this promise of progress is only just that, and it will be important to tease out the effective measures from what will very likely be a raft of cosmetic efforts designed to maintain the status quo for special interests. As we do so, it will be crucial to remember that compromise is important, but that with following truths, the consequences are too great for further inaction:
  • Rank of 2006 as hottest year on record in the continental United States: 1
  • Rank of America as top global warming polluter in the world: 1
  • Increase of America's carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels since 1990: 20%
  • Increase of America's carbon dioxide emissions forecasted by 2020 if we do not cap pollution: 15%
  • Decrease in U.S. global warming pollution required by 2050 to prevent the worst consequences of global warming: 80%
  • Number of days by which the U.S. fire season has increased over the past 20 years - tied closely to increased temperatures and earlier snowmelt: 78
  • Number of people around the world who could be displaced by more intense droughts, sea level rise and flooding by 2080: 200,000,000
  • Number of U.S. mayors (representing 55 million Americans) who have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement pledging to meet or beat Kyoto goals in their communities: 358
  • Number of federal bills passed to cap America's global warming pollution: 0
  • Number of times President Bush has mentioned "climate change" or "global warming" in his State of the Union speeches: 1 (January 23, 2007)
  • January 20, 2007

    A Crass But Necessary Accounting

    As the conflict in Iraq has become part of daily life in both that country and the United States, the human costs of our war of choice have either faded into the background noise of an America inured to the conflict, or been shouted down when estimates have proven too shocking to our sensibilities. It is important to recognize, however, that the war in Iraq has levied expenses that are hard often hard to fathom in their magnitude, and that we need a language with which to discuss them.

    In late 2005, perhaps sensing that need and moving to set the terms of discussion himself, President Bush - after religiously avoiding comment on the Iraqi death toll - ventured:
    I would say 30,000 more or less have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.
    Disregarding the fact that every single one of those 30,000 was a son or daughter or brother or sister or mother or father, it must have seemed a reasonable price to pay to "protect our freedoms" and "bring democracy to Iraq." The President's estimate was in line with - and may well have been drawn from - a contemporaneous tally from the Iraq Body Count (IBC) project. Not keen to look too deeply into the deaths we were causing, the citizens of the United States comforted themselves that some eggs simply needed to be broken to make the omelet of an Iraq free from Saddam Hussein.

    Unfortunately, the IBC figures were never intended to be an estimate of the total effects of the invasion and occupation; rather, they are simply a compilation of documented deaths as reported by English-language media. The IBC therefore may easily miss deaths from hunger, disease or other secondary effects of war, may not catch unreported deaths, and is vulnerable to overlooking individual deaths within mass killings. Still, no one dug more deeply.

    Then came the second of two studies conducted by epidemiologists and published in the British medical journal The Lancet, and a firestorm of controversy - albeit a brief one - was unleashed. As The Washington Post reported:
    A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.
    Of the total 655,000 estimated "excess deaths," 601,000 resulted from violence and the rest from disease and other causes, according to the study. This is about 500 unexpected violent deaths per day throughout the country.
    Gunshot wounds caused 56 percent of violent deaths, with car bombs and other explosions causing 14 percent, according to the survey results. Of the violent deaths that occurred after the invasion, 31 percent were caused by coalition forces or airstrikes, the respondents said.
    President Bush was quick to dismiss this estimate as "not credible," and Republican pollster Steven E. Moore chimed in that he "wouldn't survey a junior high school, no less an entire country, using only 47 cluster points." The study was just as vociferously defended, and it was noted that, not only was its methodology "tried and true," but that:
    The U.S. Congress should agree: in June this year [2006] they unanimously passed a bill outlining financial and political measures to promote relief, security and democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bill was based in part on the veracity of a survey conducted by the Burnet Institute (Melbourne) and the International Rescue Committee (New York) that found 3.9 million Congolese had perished because of the conflict. This survey used the same methodology as Burnham and his associates [the study's authors]. It also passed the scrutiny of a U.K. parliamentary delegation and the European Union.
    The sad truth of the matter, is that while The Lancet study did not claim that the U.S. had been directly responsible for killing more than 655,000 Iraqis, the idea that the consequences of our invasion could lead to such widespread horror was simply too much. Even if the epidemiologists had over-estimated by a factor of three, that still meant that more than 200,000 Iraqis had died because we had invaded, and even that number was nearly seven times the President's guess. Americans either couldn't, or wouldn't, wrap their minds around such a notion; it produced the type of cognitive dissonance with which we as a nation are historically unable to cope.

    And then, somewhat predictably, no one talked about it anymore.

    Since there is ongoing debate about the Iraq War however, Americans still need a way to measure exactly what is being lost. Strikingly, it appears they may be more comfortable chewing over the financial costs of the war in Iraq, even though voters have raised little fuss over the fact that President Bush refuses to include appropriations to support his blunder in the budget. Still, despite the fact that no one seems willing to press him on the fact that, as an ongoing concern since 2002, the cost structure of the war should no longer be a mystery, there appears to be growing concern over this utterly shameful waste of taxpayer money, all human costs aside.

    The Boston Globe reported earlier this month that a Columbia University study estimated that the total financial impact of the war - including indirect costs like health care for veterans and a necessary rebuilding of a worn-down military - could exceed two trillion dollars. The White House, which originally forecast that the war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion dollars, appears unfazed by the prospect of having been off by a factor of 1,000, and a spokesman remarked that the Office of Management and Budget "does not comment on this type of speculation."

    The New York Times followed up last Wednesday with an article that included a more conservative estimate, which accounts only for direct costs. While there are some who will note that at $1.2 trillion, this forecast shaves 40% from the total reported in The Globe, it still represents a staggering amount of money, even though its author terms it "conservative." Still, the scale of trillions of dollars remains hard to grasp; what exactly have we lost by spending our money on a war of choice?

    Handily, The Times presents some clear examples. With the annual hard cost of the war in Iraq around $200 billion, for scale, note the following:
    • Annual cost of universal health care for all uninsured Americans: $100 billion
    • Annual cost of Universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds: $35 billion
    • Annual cost of carrying out all 9/11 Commission recommendations: $10 billion
    • Annual cost for full funding of federal cancer research: $6 billion
    • Annual cost of immunization of all the world's children against a host of diseases: $0.6 billion
    [Click on the image for a larger, more legible version.]

    In other words, for what we spend on the occupation of Iraq in a year, we could provide health coverage to every American who needed it, preschool education for all children prior to kindergarten, make meaningful strides to protect ourselves from terrorism, push forward research into a cure for a major killer, and make children in every country on earth healthier. And we'd still have nearly $50 billion left over.

    It can be argued that having to break the costs of President Bush's war into dollars and cents, and focusing on its cost to us in order to make it relevant - rather than on the lives of soldiers we have sacrificed and the apparently uncountable, faceless Iraqis we have killed or caused to die by our actions - is crassness of the highest order. While the need for a financial argument over the justification and the righteousness of this conflict is somewhat repellent, in the end, what matters most is that people start to talk about what we lose by pursuing this folly, using whatever frame of reference they need to use in order to have that conversation.

    All politics are local, and if it takes a self-centered perspective to shut down the worst foreign policy blunder in American history, so be it. In this case, the ends unquestionably justify the means.


    Thanks to Anonymous for catching a factual error in my description of the methodology used by the Iraq Body Count project. I had inadvertently posted a draft version of this piece that included incorrect third-party information on the IBC stating that it only counted deaths accompanied by a death certificate, and did not include information from non-Western sources like al Jazeera. Neither of those points is correct, and the accurate, final version of this post now appears above. I apologize for the error.

    January 17, 2007

    Seeing Ourselves As Others See Us

    Milenio Diario Ad - Bush

    This picture is part of an award-winning ad campaign supporting Guadalajara, Mexico's Milenio Diario daily newspaper with the tagline (roughly translated) "A complex world needs a simple explanation." It's probably not the image either the United States - or President Bush as an individual - wishes to project, but unfortunately, it's sadly accurate, and it's undeniably effective advertising.

    For more from the Milenio campaign, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Zinedine Zidane, Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez, click on the image above.

    January 15, 2007

    In Memory of a Great Man

    Today we remember the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the single most important figure in the 20th century American civil rights movement. King, the youngest man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize - and the only person born later than 1800 to have a federal holiday named for him - was assassinated on April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray.

    While Dr. King would undoubtedly be pleased to see the progress in race relations that has been made in this country, he would just as assuredly be struck by how far we have yet to go, and by the manner in which our leaders have clung to some of the less proud traditions - like spying on citizens and violating civil liberties - to which he himself was subjected.

    A truly magnetic public speaker, Dr. King's most famous speech - "I Have a Dream", delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial - is one with which many people are familiar, but which few have heard or read in its entirety. The excerpts to which most have listened fail to adequately convey that that speech is much more than just fiery oration - much more than simple passion given voice - and it is made all the more extraordinary for a good portion of it having been extemporaneous.

    Simply expressed, "I Have a Dream" is one of the most inspiring and righteous declarations of hope and determination ever made by an American, and with the aspirations of its author in mind, it is presented below, in its entirety in both text and video.

    [For more on Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the best book written on his role in the civil rights movement is David Garrow's Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.]

    I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

    Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

    But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

    In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

    But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

    We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

    It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This weltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

    But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

    The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

    We cannot walk alone.

    And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

    We cannot turn back.

    There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

    I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

    Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

    And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

    I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

    I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

    I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    I have a dream today!

    I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

    I have a dream today!

    I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

    This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

    With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

    And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

    My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

    Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

    From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

    And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

    Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

    Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

    Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

    Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

    But not only that:

    Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

    Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

    Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

    From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

    And when this happens, when we allow freedom [to] ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

    Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

    January 11, 2007

    A Trickle - Not a Surge - and Its Imminent Failure

    [Click on the cartoon to go to the original image, and to visit the Ted Rall archive.]

    On Wednesday, President George W. Bush unveiled his plan to escalate the number of American troops in Iraq. That plan calls for deploying an additional 17,500 men and women to Baghdad and 4,000 more to al Anbar province, where they will work to crack down on Sunni insurgents. Roughly two brigades will deploy immediately, with the remainder shipping out in the coming months, but while there had been early indications that he might name a deadline for turning over security responsibliity to Iraqis, the "surge" - as the White House insists on calling the escalation, despite little evidence that such a term is in common military usage - has been left open-ended.

    Until recently, the focus of the Bush escalation plan has been on putting more troops in Baghdad, under the belief that securing the capital will force the rest of Iraq into line. Splitting American forces between Baghdad and al Anbar is more than just a new wrinkle however, since diverting almost one-fifth of the additional forces to al Anbar violates the core military principle of force concentration for operations shoring up existing deployments. The motivation for the split is likely a political accommodation to address the fact that American forces in Baghdad will be working to restrain, disarm and pacify Shiite militias - especially those led by Muqtada al-Sadr - that represent the most serious challenge to the remaining, faint hope for a political settlement. Concentrating "surge" forces against the Shia might potentially be construed as pro-Sunni intervention, and sending troops to al Anbar to take on Sunni insrugents there is a concession to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leading Shia.

    Further, and confirming that the idea of a "surge" has never been anymore than a marketing campaign, deployment of the 21,500 new troops to Iraq will happen not all at once, but gradually over what is likley to be months. While there is some dark humor in noting that advocating a "trickle" sports none of the élan carried by pushing for a "surge," the sad reality is that whatever "shock" benefit to the military situation in Iraq there might have been is now rendered non-existent. If there was ever any argument - and there has been - about whether the proper term for Mr. Bush's "new" plan was "escalation" rather than "surge," this should end it.

    Having never previously been constrained by reality, it is unsurprising - although nonetheless horrifying - that President Bush continues to ignore it. While a recent USA Today/Gallup poll indicated that 61 percent of Americans oppose a short-term troop increase, only twelve percent advocated sending additional military personnel to Iraq on anything longer than a temporary basis. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, has made yet another open-ended commitment, merely wagging his rhetorical finger at the Iraqis, admonishing, "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people, and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people." Sadly, and apparently unrealized by our commander in chief, those dire consequences have already come to pass, irrespective of his own 26% approval rating on Iraq.

    And that brings us to the crux of the issue: While escalation has been touted as a military strategy, it is clearly a political plan designed for domestic consumption.

    No one with any direct military experience in Iraq advocates increasing troop levels, and neither does anyone with extensive international diplomatic experience. Instead, the author of the "surge" strategy is housed at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, home base for Richard Perle, who was one of the staunchest and most bellicose advocates for the initial invasion. As Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, Jr. of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation wrote:
    An obvious weakness of this plan is that focusing on securing Baghdad could simply push insurgents out of the city and into the surrounding provinces of al Anbar, Diyala, and Salah ad Din. Since the force ratios required to protect civilians in these sparsely populated regions are beyond American capacity, the U.S. will get stuck playing provincial “whack-a-mole”: insurgents will be suppressed in one area only to reemerge somewhere else.

    For evidence that a troop escalation will probably fall short, just look at recent history. Besides Operation Together Forward, which failed to secure Baghdad during fall 2006, the U.S. added at least 10,000 additional soldiers within a single month on three previous occasions in Iraq: March 2004 to prepare for the Iraqi Governing Council signing the interim constitution; December 2004 to prepare for electing the National Assembly; and October 2005 to prepare for the constitutional referendum.

    These three “surges” all turned out the same: no effect the first month, drastically increased violence the second month, and a temporary reduction in insurgent activity the third month. The data suggest that a troop surge is not a permanent fix - it is a renewed military commitment that will likely catalyze more violence against both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians during the initial and transition phases. In layman’s terms, things will get worse in Iraq and there is no guarantee they will ever get better.
    Worse than the strategic and tactical implications of the President's scheme however, are the political realities on the ground. Peter Galbraith, also of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation describes it as follows:
    At this late stage, [even] 30,000 additional troops cannot make a difference. U.S. troops are ill prepared to do the policing that is needed to secure Baghdad (among other problems, they lack language skills). But, the fundamental problem is political. Bush continues to imagine that Nouri al-Maliki heads a national unity government. Everyone else understands he is a sectarian Shiite politician allied with the Shiite militias and bent on vengeance.

    The surge strategy depends on the Iraqi police and military eventually taking over from the U.S. forces. This in turn assumes that Iraq’s army and police are somehow exempt from the country’s sectarian and ethnic divisions and can therefore be neutral guarantors of public safety. But, of course, Iraq’s security forces are as polarized as the country itself, with the important distinction that the police and army have weapons and are trained to use them. The Shiite police include the death squads while the Sunni police are insurgent sympathizers or the insurgents themselves. The army is not quite as bad, but still, most battalions are more loyal to their religious or ethnic leaders than to a civilian chain of command that is itself mostly sectarian. The Saddam execution illustrated just how pervasive is the militia penetration of Iraq’s security services. Since the surge proponents have no idea how to make Iraq’s police and army Iraqi, they simply pretend the problem doesn’t exist.
    Although there appears little political appetite to cut off funding for the President Bush's adventurism in any way that could potentially be perceived as failing to "support the troops," it is crucial that every effort be made to do so. While the results will speak for themselves, encouragingly, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stated the following in response to the Mr. Bush's speech:
    In the days ahead, Congress will exercise its Constitutional responsibilities by giving the President's latest proposal the scrutiny our troops and the American people expect.

    We will demand answers to the tough questions that have not been asked or answered to date. The American people want a change of course in Iraq. We intend to keep pressing President Bush to provide it.

    Ultimately, the question is this: Is there actually any such thing as "Iraq" anymore, or has it ceased to exist as a nation, leaving only Sunnis, Shia and Kurds? If that is the case - and it appears increasingly that it is, then any timetable - like any surge - is irrelevant, and any commitment of American lives to the quagmire of Iraq is unconscionable.

    Keith Olbermann has more on the history of President Bush's credibility:

    January 7, 2007

    Feeding the War of Choice

    [Click on the cartoon to go to the original image, and to visit the Jeff Danziger archive.]

    After finding recommendations by the Iraq Study Group to pursue regional diplomacy and begin the withdrawal of forces in Iraq unpalatable, President Bush is expected to announce his own "new plan" for the American occupation of that country some time this week. Those plans, it has been reported, will call for additional troop deployments of about 20,000 men and women, who, it is hoped, will be able to finally secure Baghdad and allow jobs and reconstruction programs to take hold.

    Having met with less than enthusiastic support among even the military for what the White House is determined to call a "surge" rather than the escalation it is, the President has gone so far as to replace Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Abizaid and the top commander in Iraq, General George Casey. Both of these men, it should be remembered, were commanders to whom he had previously pledged to listen in making decisions about troop levels, but that was apparently only so long as those decisions were in line with the political necessities of a commander in chief circling the political drain.

    The stakes are high - with even Frederick Kagan, the author of the escalation plan admitting, "If we surge and it doesn't work, it's hard to imagine what we do after that"- but George W. Bush has entered a phase of his presidency in which his "legacy" appears to trump both the national interest and the lives of those who will be futilely cast into the cauldron of Iraq in an attempt to shore it up.

    Appallingly, although perhaps not unexpectedly in a nation benumbed but personally unaffected by daily violence in Iraq, there has been little outrage over the prospect of wasting more lives to allow Mr. Bush to save face. The President, reported to be working on a speech announcing his plan whose "central theme will be sacrifice," appears determined to forge ahead despite an apparent inability to address even the fundamental question about from where additional troops would be drawn, telling Senator Blanche Lincoln that that is "a very good question."

    There are signs that the new Democratic majority in Congress is speaking with a unified voice, and is determined to subject the President's plan to intense scrutiny, but it is beyond time to stop simply accepting that nameless, faceless body counts will continue to rise. It is time to own up to the very basic betrayal we are visiting on the men and women of the armed forces by throwing them into the maw of this blundering war of choice, and it is unquestioningly time to stop comforting ourselves that the American death toll, when "compared to previous military operations, [is] relatively small."

    It takes a special kind of person to put his or her life on the line for this country. It requires courage, dogged determination and loyalty to one's brothers in arms, but it also requires faith in the commander in chief and belief that the people at home value soldiers and sailors and airmen, and will waste neither their lives nor their bravery. By talking about a "surge" rather than escalation, by couching policies of failure in terms of "sacrifice" and honor," President Bush seeks to take advantage of their genuine drive to succeed, as well as the desire of most citizens to do right by their soldiers. Permitting him to do so, however, will not only have tragic results for more Americans and Iraqis, but it is to the great future detriment of our armed forces.

    The point is not that people die in war; the point is that this war should never have been fought, and that with every betrayal, with every deployment based on political expedience rather than national interest, we make it harder for the United States to recruit and retain the type of men and women we need to defend ourselves in situations of genuine threat. George W. Bush is both breaking the Army and pointlessly sending soldiers to their deaths, all in the name of selfishness, crass stupidity and desperate vanity.

    As we wait for the unveiling of the President's newest Iraq policy speech, it is vital to remember that it is deeds rather than words that matter, and to recall that, by that measure, his past performance should countenance no faith whatsoever in his ability to lead responsibly going forward. While there is undoubtedly a lingering national desire to "make things right" in Iraq, it is up to us as citizens to recognize futility when we see it, and to enforce the mandate of the midterm elections that were a clarion call for change.

    Every person who dies in Iraq has a family that loses a child, a father, a mother, a brother or a sister. If Mr. Bush's plan is followed, we wound ourselves as a nation by wasting valuable members of society, and by hurting the people we will count on when freedom is actually threatened. Perhaps worse, we diminish men like First Sergeant Charles Monroe King who wrote these words in the journal he left for his newborn son before being killed in action on October 14th:
    Things may not always be easy or pleasant for you, that’s life, but always pay your respects for the way people lived and what they stood for. It’s the honorable thing to do.
    While supporters of the Bush Administration would have us believe that Sgt. King died "protecting our freedom," the facts that have slowly and tragically become public knowledge since the U.S. invasion of Iraq have made it abundantly clear that that is not the case. While Sgt. King did die serving his country,
    it is crucial that we understand the difference, and that we only call on men like him when the nation is truly in peril; not to implement some flawed vision of a new world order rooted in the ignorant bravado of the wholly unqualified. Their lives - all lives for that matter - are simply too precious.

    The honorable thing to do is to pay our respects to the men and women we have put in harm's way by making sure that as few of them as possible die for what has been a tragic mistake. The honorable thing to do is to begin withdrawal from Iraq. The honorable thing to do is stop George W. Bush from sacrificing more lives to a failed policy.

    Outrage, and action, are needed.

    Please take a moment to read From Father to Son, Last Words to Live By, an appreciation of First Sergeant Charles Monroe King written by his widow, and to view Keith Olbermann's special comment on sacrifice, below.

    January 4, 2007

    The Gathering Storm in Central Asia

    [Click on the cartoon to go to the original image, and to visit the Ted Rall archive.]

    Ted Rall is an uncompromising liberal columnist and cartoonist with whom, because he is uncompromising, I at times disagree. Mr. Rall doesn't claim to be open to compromise however, so the occasional stridency of his opinions should come as no surprise, and it is out of that worldview that he serially caricatures President George W. Bush as "Generalissimo El Busho," complete with five o'clock shadow, tin pot dictator's uniform (albeit absent from the above cartoon) and even what appear to be fangs.

    Whatever your opinion of his political leanings however, one thing that Mr. Rall brings to the table is firsthand knowledge of Central Asia and a keen mind that is well-suited to observing and understanding the shifting political landscape of that part of the world. In his latest column, Mr. Rall calls attention to a recent event that got little serious news coverage, but that could have serious implications for the United States, especially given the foreign policy blunders of the past six years and the overburdened state of the American military. Said event was the death of Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov, the despotic leader of Turkmenistan, and one of a shrinking number of Soviet-era dictators who held onto power when the U.S.S.R. dissolved:
    The Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and - until now - Turkmenistan are all being ruled by the same former Communist Party bosses who ran them in Soviet times. Niyazov's death marks the beginning of the end for the post-Soviet authoritarian order and the beginning of a period of increasing instability, as foreign powers attempt to monopolize access to oil and natural gas resources and pipeline routes. Kazakhstan alone may possess more untapped oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and Iraq combined, and the politics and economies of the Central Asian republics are closely intertwined. What is at stake is nothing less than the security and control of the world economy.
    As so ably illustrated in the cartoon above, the Bush Administration's deadly adventuring in Iraq has left us exposed to our true enemy, al Qaeda. Unfortunately, what this also means - and which the column points out, is that we are without the means to address other foreign policy crises that arise while we remain mired in the Persian Gulf. Check out Ted Rall's column, and keep an eye on "the 'Stans".