Archive for January, 2005

Election Day was a push towards troop withdrawal

Sunday’s elections were a great success. An estimated 60% of Iraq’s 14 million eligible voters cast their ballots and all went as expected. While Sunni turnout was low, the Shiites voted in great numbers. In the insurgent-Sunni stronghold of Ramadi for example, only 1,700 of the eligible 400,000 went to the ballot box, but in the Shiite town of Najaf, 85% of eligible Iraqis voted. The Iraqi Election board reported that even as 80% of all polling places documented irregularities, the election was fraud-free. To the relief of many, Election Day was also relatively bloodless. Out of 175 attempted attacks, only 44 Iraqis and 11 U.S. soldiers lost their lives.

Once final election results become available, the newly elected 275-member-assembly will serve out an 11 month term. The group will select a governing council–which will elect a prime minister–and draft a permanent constitution which, if approved, will clear the way towards a national election of a permanent body in mid-December.

Above all, the elections are a powerful victory and credibility boost for the president. But he can’t take all the credit. The Washington Post reminds us that “the Bush administration initially resisted the idea of holding elections this soon and only succumbed under pressure from Iraq’s most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The original plan, designed by then-U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, was a complicated formula of regional caucuses to select a national government, which would write a constitution, and then hold the elections.”

“It was Sistani who demanded one-person, one-vote elections. So to the extent it’s a victory, it’s a victory for Iraqis. The Americans were maneuvered into having to go along with it,” said Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan.

But while credit allocation is superfluous, voter intent and objective are not. Opinion polls have long shown Iraqis’ desire for U.S. troop withdrawal. A new Zogby poll is no different. According to the survey, 82% of Sunnis and 69% of Shiites now favor a U.S. pullout. As the Post points out, “many Iraqis viewed the election as one way to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal rather than a vindication of U.S. policy.” Put another way, the Iraqis went to the polls and voted for troop withdrawal. But the president has never respected freedom of choice and thus”ruled out creating a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq” even before the election.

In the eyes of Iraqis, a troop withdrawal is well justified. And despite administration fiction, Iraqi justification is rooted in ground-war realities, not anti-Americanism sentiment (although that might be a contributing factor). Figures from Iraq’s Ministry of Health suggest that of the 3,300 civilians killed between July of last year and the New Year, over 2,000 were killed by the U.S. coalition and Iraqi forces; 1,200 were killed by the insurgency. Occupation opponents (and I’m not talking about the extremists) are mothers and fathers, and a perception that Americans only intensify conflict and violence persuades many to vote for withdrawal. (Whether this will happen or not is of course impossible to predict).

Still, many questions lie unanswered: If great majorities of the Iraqi people want American troops out, but the newly elected government doesn’t yield to popular demand, what does this mean for democracy in the region? Or, what if Iraqi policy goals don’t match American foreign objectives? What will the elections mean for other Middle Eastern countries? What kind of precedent have they established? Major conflicts must be avoided: How will the new Shiite dominated government attract the secular Sunnis? When will Iraqi troops stand on their own? And what about reconstruction? Only $2.7 billion of the $18.4 billion appropriated has found its way into Iraqi rebuilding efforts. With the elections behind us, will the focus shift to reestablishing basic services?

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Kennedy’s speech was not extreme

Speaking at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy cautioned Americans against falling into another Vietnam and called for a phased-withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Republicans and conservative talk radio instantly labeled Kennedy an irresponsible liberal extremist out of touch with America; but the numbers tell a different story. Consider the following:

“We must recognize what a large and growing number of Iraqis now believe. The war in Iraq has become a war against the American occupation. We have reached the point that a prolonged American military presence in Iraq is no longer productive for either Iraq or the United States. The U.S. military presence has become part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

This is true. According to an April, 2004 poll, “only a third of the Iraqi people now believe that the American-led occupation of their country is doing more good than harm.”

“Americans are rightly concerned about why our 157,000 soldiers are there — when they will come home — and how our policy could have gone so wrong…The President bungled the pre-war diplomacy on Iraq and wounded our alliances.”

A CBS News/New York Times Poll taken from Jan. 14-18 showed that 55% of Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq and 49% now say that America should have staid out of Iraq.

“No matter how many times the Administration denies it, there is no question they misled the nation and led us into a quagmire in Iraq. President Bush rushed to war on the basis of trumped up intelligence and a reckless argument that Iraq was a critical arena in the global war on terror, that somehow it was more important to start a war with Iraq than to finish the war in Afghanistan and capture Osama bin Laden, and that somehow the danger was so urgent that the U.N. weapons inspectors could not be allowed time to complete their search for weapons of mass destruction.”

Most Americans agree with Kennedy. The CBS/NYTimes Poll also found that 59% of the public now believes that the Bush administration was either hiding elements or mostly lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

“As a result of our actions in Iraq, our respect and credibility around the world have reached all-time lows.”

According to a July 2004 Pew Research Center for the People & and the Press poll “two-thirds (67%) say the U.S. is less respected, as opposed to just 20% who say the U.S. retains as much respect around the world as in the past.”

“We all hope for the best from Sunday’s election. The Iraqis have a right to determine their own future. But Sunday’s election is not a cure for the violence and instability.”

A Jan. 11-12, 2005 FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll showed that while 54% of respondents believed that elections are very likely or somewhat likely to be successful, 55% predicted more violence and instability in their wake. Just recently, The Wall Street Journal published a poll which found that 50% of Americans believed that the Iraqi elections would be illegitimate.

“The American people are concerned. They recognize that the war with Iraq is not worth the cost in American lives, prestige, and credibility.”

Asked if the United States and its allies never find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, 53% of Americans surveyed in a CBS News/ New York Times poll said the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq would not be worth it.

“Once the elections are behind us and the democratic transition is under way, President Bush should immediately announce his intention to negotiate a timetable for a drawdown of American combat forces with the new Iraqi Government…America’s goal should be to complete our military withdrawal as early as possible in 2006.”

75% of Americans don’t think President Bush has a clear exit strategy. Still, while 51% believe that the U.S. should stay in Iraq as long as it takes (to ensure democracy and stability), 42% want to withdraw as soon as possible. In May 2004 that number was at 55%.

Senator Kennedy’s speech has opened up a national dialogue over American troop withdrawal. Labels and accusations only narrow discussion and undermine the integrity of the question. Public opinion reveals that Kennedy’s sentiment is shared by many (and in some cases most) Americans. Contrast Kennedy’s “approval” with that of the President. Only 24% of Americans believe, like Bush does, that “spreading democracy abroad” should be a top foreign policy priority and 55% disapprove of his handling of Iraq. Judging by these numbers, President Bush (not Senator Kennedy) is the radical and irresponsible extremist.

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Early election chaos

The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq released the names of all the candidates for Sunday’s vote yesterday but has so far withheld the names of 5,600 polling centers. That information will be released on Sunday morning. David Enders, a Mother Jones reporter stationed in Iraq, writes that while the location of many polling stations is a secret to many Iraqis, “guerillas have made claims that they know the locations of many of the polling centers and have already damaged a few.”

The New York Times is reporting that “Baghdad is not under control, either by the Iraqi interim government or the American military.” Last week, the city experienced “7 suicide car bombings, 37 roadside bombs and 52 insurgent attacks involving automatic rifles or rocket-propelled grenades.” The violence intimidates voters. “In one Baghdad office, only one of 20 people who were asked said he intended to vote.”

More blogging on the election is upcoming. Please comment below.

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One neocon down, many more to go

Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy is stepping down. Feith ran the Office of Special Plans where he manufactured and cherry picked evidence to support the administration’s claims of large WMD stockpiles in Iraq. Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks called Feith “the stupidest guy on the face of the Earth.”

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New civil service system at the DHS

The Bush administration is instating a new play-plan in which employees of the Department of Homeland Security will have their salary ranges determined by geographic location, annual market surveys of what similar employees earn in the private sector and other government entities. Workers will be assigned to 1 of 4 pay bands, based on skill and experience, and promotions will be dolled out according to performance evaluations. In the coming month, the administration will propose legislation “to allow all agencies to restructure their personnel systems in a similar way. On the face of it, the new rules seem extremely efficient and respectable: a way to weed out good workers from bad, and encourage the hardworking to work even harder. But the American Federation of Government Employees is threatening to challenge the new regulations in court, claiming that the restructuring would narrow “employees’ rights to collective bargaining” and would force government workers “to take their concerns to an internal board appointed by the secretary of Homeland Security with no requirement for Senate confirmation…this [they claim is a] violation of the constitutional right to due process [that] shortchanges the American taxpayer.” Labor leaders also fear that under the new plan, DHS officials would no longer “negotiate over such matters as where employees will be deployed, the type of work they will do and the equipment they will use.”

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Few Americans support Bush’s empty ideals

Speaking to reporters for the first time since his second inauguration, President Bush distanced himself from speculations that his second term foreign policy will “confront all manner of autocrats around the planet” and acknowledged, like his handlers had on Friday, that the inaugural “reflected the policies of the last four years,” not a major policy shift. But then, in an attempt to clarify his position, Bush contradicted himself, telling reporters that while “ending tyranny in our world” was a reflection of his first term policy (oh really?), it also set “a bold new goal for the future.”

So are we then to conclude that “ending tyranny in our world” by “persistently” challenging “every ruler and every nation” is an empty goal with no policy behind it? The president acknowledged that in order to attain this goal, a “policy shift” would be required. Thus currently, the United States is not in the business of “ending tyranny”– and won’t be in the next four years.

Bush maintained that as Americans “weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life,” they must consider “the long-term objective… to spread freedom. Otherwise, the Middle East will continue to be a cauldron of resentment and hate.” But most Americans disagree with this “long-term objective” and don’t consider the tradeoff (death of American soldiers for so-called Bush-defined freedom) worth it.

In July 2004, a Pew Research Center for the People & and the Press poll found that among 19 foreign policy issues, “promote democracy abroad” rated 18th. Protecting the nation against terrorist attacks, securing the jobs of American workers, and reducing AIDS occupied the first three spots. But regardless, Bush’s inaugural address dealt with a single foreign policy goal: the spread of democracy. According to pollsters, only 24% of Americans cited Bush’s “idealism” as a top policy priority.

Moreover, a Jan. 14-18, 2005 CBS News/New York Times Poll determined that 49% of Americans now believe that the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq (compared to 45% who support the invasion), 55% disapprove of Bush’s handling of the situation and 59% of the public say that the Bush administration was either hiding elements or mostly lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Iraqis are even more disheartened. According to an April, 2004 poll, “only a third of the Iraqi people now believe that the American-led occupation of their country is doing more good than harm.” Five percent of those polled in November of 2003, said that the United States invaded Iraq “to assist the Iraqi people,” and only 1% believed it was to establish democracy there.

So as Bush uses empty rhetoric to define and shape a foreign policy of global intervention, the entire world shudders. But as this president likes to say, “we had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election.” The next moment comes this Sunday, when “thousands” of Iraqis (hopefully) head to the polls.

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In Iraq, torture is still routine

According to Human Rights Watch, “Iraqi police, jailers and intelligence agents, many of them holding the same jobs they had under Hussein, are ‘committing systematic torture and other abuses.'” As a result, Iraqis are routinely beaten, hung and shocked with electrical wires. Meanwhile, the ACLU has released more documents of prison abuse in American-controlled prisons. Although it is unclear whether the abuses described in the documents are new, the documents indicate a ‘clear pattern of abuse’ that stretches well beyond “a few bad apples.”

In an effort to “put security as our priority,” Prime Minister Ayad Allawi “appears to be actively taking part, or is at least complicit, in these grave violations of fundamental human rights,” Human Rights Watch concluded. “The majority of detainees [in Iraqi prisons] . . . stated that torture and ill-treatment during the initial period was commonplace, routine beatings . . . using cables, [rubber] hosepipes and metal rods . . . kicking, slapping and punching, prolonged suspension from the wrists,” were just some of the torture techniques employed by Iraqi security forces. One abuse victim is quoted by the Washington Post as saying that “it was worse than Saddam’s regime.” (Human Rights Watch disputes this claim).

Thus, as abuse becomes a standard technique of operation, employed by both Iraqis and Americans, it will increasingly become an accepted method of interrogation. New reports of abuse are already seen as ‘drops in the bucket’, and the president’s refusal to deal or address these charges only adds to their (increasing) faintness. The U.S. Army expects to keep its troop strength in Iraq at about 120,000 for at least two more years. This means that at least American-led instances of abuse will continue.

The actions of Iraqi forces are condoned by the prime minister (who is intent at wiping out the insurgency by any means possible). But instances of abuse, only fuel the opposition, and the violence intensifies. Moreover, open support for ill-treatment creates a political culture of acceptance and tolerance for ‘kicking, slapping and punching, prolonged suspension from the wrists.’ And a people who fight terrorism with terrorism can expect more terrorism.

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The Republicans are desperate. To boost their claim that Social Security is in crisis, Bush administration officials are taking a page out of Rush Limbaugh and claiming that Bill Clinton and other Democrats had previously supported a SS privatization plan. But there is only one problem: “Clinton’s repeated calls during his second term to ‘save Social Security first’ were specifically to thwart what President Bush ultimately did: cut taxes based on federal budget surplus projections.”

Rush Limbaugh (on his January 17, 2005 program) Gregory Mankiw, chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, and White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten all quoted Clinton as saying that “this fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every generation,” but ignored another passage in which Clinton warned that “before we spend a penny on new programs or tax cuts, we should save Social Security first. I think it should be the driving principle . . . Do not have a tax cut. Do not have a spending program that deals with that surplus. Save Social Security first.” Moreover, Clinton proposed using the surplus to finance personal savings accounts on top of the Social Security system, not in place of it.

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Bush’s 2006 budget will bring big cuts in domestic programs

Rumors of large budget cuts began swirling in May 2004 when a White House budget memorandum warned government agencies that if Bush won reelection, his 2006 budget would seek cuts in education, veteran’s affairs, environmental protection, and urban development. While on the campaign trail, Bush boasted of his administration’s commitment to education and veteran affairs but his 2006 budget is expected to reduce the funding for the Department of Education to $1.5 billion from $1.7 billion, and cut Department of Veterans Affairs expenditures back below the 2004 level.

In an effort to restore what White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card called “very, very strong discipline,” the Women, Infants and Children nutrition “would be cut by $122 million. Head Start, the early-childhood education program for the poor, would lose… 2.5% of its budget…The $78 million funding increase that Bush has touted for a homeownership program in 2005 would be nearly reversed in 2006 with a $53 million cut [and the] National Institutes of Health spending would be cut 2.1%.”

Major funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will also be withheld. Most of the HUD programs will be moved into the Labor and Commerce departments forcing them to “compete for resources in Commerce and Labor budgets that are not likely to expand to accommodate the shuffle.” HUD could lose as much as a quarter of its $31 billion budget.

HUD’s $4.7 billion Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG), which helps establish program clinics, recreation centers, day-care facilities, literacy programs and housing development could be cut by as much as 50%. All the while, skyrocketing housing and property values will likely create greater demand for CDBG grants.

Meanwhile, to avoid Democratic opposition, Budget Committee Chairman Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire “is laying plans to institute a procedure that would make it harder for Democrats to block benefit cuts.” Since the Budget Committee sets spending limits for other Senate committees, Gregg will “attach language to this year’s budget resolution instructing the committees with jurisdiction over some of the entitlement programs to cut them.” The subsequent cuts will be packaged within a single “reconciliation” bill which, unlike ordinary legislation, cannot be filibustered by Senate Democrats. Thus, Gregg’s plan “would allow senators to approve budget cuts with a simple majority, rather than the usual 60 votes.”

President Bush’s 2006 budget, scheduled for delivery on February 7th, will not include the estimated $2 trillion cost of privatizing social security. The University of Chicago estimates that under Pan II of the President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security (CSSS), private financial management companies are slated to collect $940 billion. Wall Street firms raised millions for Bush’s reelection campaign and have since “begun meeting with Congressional and White House staff members, pushing the idea that [Social Security] private accounts are not only good for the country but also good for business.”

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Bush to cut Medicaid benefits

“Don’t cut Medicaid pa!”

From the AP: “President Bush is readying a new budget that would carve savings from Medicaid and other benefit programs, congressional aides and lobbyists say…White House officials are not saying what Bush’s $2.5 trillion 2006 budget will propose saving…”

But back to (what the media likes to focus on) the inauguration festivities. New Energy, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of ethanol, contributed $250,000 to Bush’s big day and is “a long standing recipient of federal research funding.” It “will likely be among the biggest winners of the Energy Bill, which Congress plans to reconsider later this month. A previous version of the bill… would have tripled the amount of ethanol produced in the U.S., costing taxpayers nearly $5 billion.”

If only those Medicaid beneficiaries were able to dole out such cash…

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