Category Archives: Iraq

DIY News and Views: Intelligence and the Lack Thereof

Intelligence

There was an open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday, and for those who like their news unfiltered, here’s the link.  DNI Director Daniel Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and FBI Director Christopher Wray got the headlines; but, there’s more to be learned from DIA Director General Robert Ashley, NSA Director General Paul Nakasone, and NGA Director Robert Cardillo.

DNI Director Daniel Coats’ opening statement is linked here. (pdf) It should be of interest that the first two topics addressed in his presentation to the committee were (1) Cyber security threats; and, (2) Online Influence Operations and Election Interference.  As noted in several national broadcasts, the “southern border” — for which Trump claims “crisis status,” — doesn’t appear until page 18 of the print edition. While on that page, please note that Mexican sourcing is mentioned for fentanyl, most fentanyl is coming in from China.

On the other hand, from the lack of intelligence department, the president* is challenging the conclusions of his own intelligence gathering and analytical agencies, disputing their priorities and findings. [MST] The report that Iran is abiding (for now) with the previous arms deal, and North Korea definitely is not, seems not to be sitting well with the Oval Office occupant.  It’s instructive to take a closer look at some of the findings reported to the Select Committee, before heading back to the generalities of news outlet commentary.  Russia and China:

“At present, China and Russia pose the greatest espionage and cyber attack threats, but we anticipate that all our adversaries and strategic competitors will increasingly build and integrate cyber espionage, attack, and influence capabilities into their efforts to influence US policies and advance their own national security interests. In the last decade, our adversaries and strategic competitors have developed and experimented with a growing capability to shape and alter the information and systems on which we rely. For years, they have conducted cyber espionage to collect intelligence and targeted our critical infrastructure to hold it at risk. They are now becoming more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave, and decide. As we connect and integrate billions of new digital devices into our lives and business processes, adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will gain greater insight into and access to our protected information.”

The Defense Technical Information Center offers this advice on how to analyze Russian use of cyber assaults and activities:

 “Russian military theorists generally do not use the terms cyber or cyberwarfare. Instead, they conceptualize cyber operations within the broader framework of information warfare, a holistic concept that includes computer network operations, electronic warfare, psychological operations, and information operations; In keeping with traditional Soviet notions of battling constant threats from abroad and within, Moscow perceives the struggle within information space to be more or less constant and unending. This suggests that the Kremlin will have a relatively low bar for employing cyber in ways that U.S. decision makers are likely to view as offensive and escalatory in nature; …”

Review, their activities are ongoing, surreptitious, and holistic.  To get further into these weeds, see the Minority Report, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, January 2018. (pdf) on Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and EuropeChapter 4, on the weaponization of civil society, ideology, culture, crime, and energy is especially informative.

As the president* disparages the information, evaluation, and analysis of our intelligence community efforts, and is revealed to have even more ‘undocumented’ meetings with Uncle Vlad, [FinTimes] … and probably won’t stop having secret meetings with the Russian dictator [VanityFair]… we need to keep our focus on Russian and Chinese activities, not to the exclusion of other pressing subjects, but toward being able to discern how much of our internal turmoil has external support and encouragement.

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Filed under Iran, Iraq, Politics

Trump: Even Truthiness Doesn’t Matter

Al ZarqawiThe man in the photo above is the founder of ISIS (Daesh).  And then there’s this from the latest round of Trump0matic Rhetoric:

“In the wide-ranging phone interview (with CNBC), Trump insisted that President Barack Obama “absolutely” founded ISIS. He also discussed economic issues, including regulation and infrastructure spending.

Asked about them, he doubled down and said “[Obama] was the founder of ISIS absolutely, the way he removed our troops. … I call them co-founders,” he added, referring to his Democratic presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton.”

I know full well that correcting Trumpisms is like shoveling sand up hill, but at least we don’t have to reside in the land of utter stupidity and ignorance.  Let’s focus on “the way he removed our troops.” Obama removed our forces based on the SOFA agreed to by George W. Bush.

December 14, 2008:

“It is true that Bush signed an agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, on Dec. 14, 2008, that said: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s secretary of state, wrote in her 2011 book, “No Higher Honor,” that Bush did not want to set a deadline “in order to allow conditions on the ground to dictate our decisions.” She wrote that she met with Maliki in August 2008 and secured what she thought was an agreement for a residual force of 40,000 U.S. troops. But she said Maliki soon “reneged” and insisted on “the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.” She said Bush “swallowed hard” and agreed to what she called “suitable language” to do just that.” [FactCheck.org]  (emphasis added)

The remainder of the argument depends on a subjective opinion as to how “hard the Obama Administration tried to renegotiate the SOFA.”  Critics of the withdrawal of combat forces charge that the Administration “didn’t try hard enough.”  However, the insistence of the Maliki government that any agreement would have to be put to the Iraqi Parliament didn’t help matters.  This also leaves open the argument that perhaps the Bush Administration didn’t press the Maliki government hard enough either.

Critics of the US policy in regard to Iraq, and the deployment of troops to that country, are caught arguing “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda,” when there are altogether too many variables in a complex situation to make blanket charges of any kind.

And, while Trump says he will continue to say Obama and Clinton are the “co-founders of ISIS” (I prefer Daesh) the timeline rebuts this presumption.  A brief trip down memory land —

2004: Abu Musab Al Zarqawi establishes Al Qaeda in Iraq.

2006: Zarqawi, killed in a US air strike, is replaced by Abu Ayyub Amasri at the head of AQI. October 15, 2006: Al Masri announces the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq; Sunni tribes begin a campaign to kill AQI members, and AQI is rebranded the Islamic State in Iraq.

In reality, the formation of Daesh goes back a bit further, as is explained here:

“ISIS/IS has its origins in an obscure militant group, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), that was stood up in 2000 by a Jordanian one-time criminal-turned-Islamist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (AMZ).1 His intent was to fight the Jordanian government, but he failed to gain traction.2 Zarqawi then traveled to Afghanistan to fight on the side of the mujahidin (resistance) in the jihad against the Soviets. Having arrived after their departure, he soon returned to his homeland to fight the well-entrenched Jordanian monarchy. His efforts came to naught, and he eventually returned to Afghanistan, where he ran an Islamic militant training camp near Herat.” [MEPC.org]

And now the plot thickens and becomes more nuanced:

“Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi moved into Iraq. There he developed extensive ties with Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), a Kurdish Islamist group. In March 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. A brilliant conventional campaign led to the erroneous belief on the part of the George W. Bush administration that Iraq would stabilize and progress towards democracy. By summer 2003, the disgruntled Sunni minority — toppled from power with the downfall of Saddam Hussein — launched a deadly insurgency. It consisted of five distinct groups, four composed largely of Iraqis from the former regime, nationalists, tribal elements and various Islamist fighters. The fifth group was AMZ’s JTJ, consisting of a smattering of Iraqis and many foreign fighters.”  [MEPC.org]

Not that any of this matters to Donald J. Trump.  However, what we do know is that the Trump pronouncements on foreign policy are as vapid and ill informed as his sloganeering on any other topic.  ISIS (Daesh) morphed from a fifth element in the Iraqi insurgency into a major and deadly part of the conflict in the region, but they certainly didn’t find their origin in the Obama Administration.

Those wishing to get a longer, more historical look at the issues surrounding the current conflict in the Middle East may want to start with David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World.  Also recommended is Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. These are three notable books which will give a person something to do besides listen to Trump’s simplistic sloganeering and sloppy irrationality.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Iraq, Politics

Get Serious or Get Lost? GOP lack of focus on ISIS

ISIS I’ll take the Republicans, especially the ones in Congress, seriously when they speak of ISIS threats to national security when they take up the bill sent to Congress during the week of February 11, 2015 which authorizes U.S. action against the Islamic State.  The joint resolution had a bit of something for everyone:

“The proposed legislation limits Obama from the use of “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” deliberately vague language intended to win over those on the left wary of mission creep and those on the right who don’t want to restrict possible military action against ISIS.” [TheHill]

As of the moment it merely looks as if the GOP wants to turn foreign and defense policy into a semantic game for the purpose of giving Democrats headaches in an election many months away.  Witness the whinging from Senator Lindsay Graham:

“One by one, nearly a dozen GOP presidential hopefuls took the stage here last weekend for a Lincoln Dinner, each different in style and stature but all joining a rising Republican chorus that lays blame for the Islamic State terrorist group squarely at the feet of President Obama. “If you fought in Iraq, it worked. It’s not your fault it’s going to hell. It’s Obama’s fault,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) said to cheers.” [WaPo] …

“This deterioration of our physical and ideological strength has led to a world far more dangerous than when President Obama entered office,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a speech this month. “We’ve seen [the Islamic State] sweep across multiple states, commit brutal atrocities and attempt to establish a caliphate.” [WaPo]

If the Republicans want more U.S. involvement in Iraq, then why not authorize the administration to apply more force in the region – as in bring the joint resolution to the floor for a debate and vote?

Perhaps the delay is because the Republicans don’t want to address key issues, and would rather launch verbal flames than real ones.  Consider the flap over the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government.

If the Obama Administration had been serious about winning in Iraq it would have negotiated a status of forces agreement,” wail the right wingers. Not. So. Fast. It takes two parties to negotiate such an agreement and the al Maliki government wasn’t playing the game:

“But ending the U.S. troop presence in Iraq was an overwhelmingly popular demand among Iraqis, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appears to have been unwilling to take the political risk of extending it. While he was inclined to see a small number of American soldiers stay behind to continue mentoring Iraqi forces, the likes of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, on whose support Maliki’s ruling coalition depends, were having none of it. Even the Obama Administration’s plan to keep some 3,000 trainers behind failed because the Iraqis were unwilling to grant them the legal immunity from local prosecution that is common to SOF agreements in most countries where U.S. forces are based.” [Time 2011]

The Iraqi government under al-Maliki, once touted as the harbinger of democracy, proved to be a colossal failure.

The Iraqis wanted stable government, less corruption, economic reconstruction, and all the other things modern governments can provide. However, rather than moving forward from the gains made during the last months of U.S. occupation, the al-Maliki government swung away. The situation fell apart almost immediately.

Maliki’s government used “de-Baathification” laws, introduced to keep members of Saddam Hussein’s regime out of government, to target his opponents — but not his many allies, who also had been senior members of the Baath Party. The 2010 government formation process turned out to be yet another opportunity for politicians of all stripes to grant themselves senior positions which they could use to plunder the state. When tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in February 2011 to protest corruption, they were branded terroristsand were attacked and beaten by security forces and hired thugs. Dozens were killed and thousands arrested and tortured until the protests fizzled. Meanwhile, though terrorist groups were not operating as openly as before, hundreds of civilians continued to be killed every month, particularly in Baghdad, denying Iraqis in many parts of the country even a brief period of normalcy. [ForeignPolicy]

This is not exactly a recipe for popular government, or even a respected one. However, the situation with the Iraqi security forces was even dimmer.

“The security sector, which had an annual budget greater than the budgets for education, health, and the environment combined, was subject to minimal oversight. Soldiers were enrolled and paid monthly salaries without reporting for duty. Overpriced and faulty equipment was procured using the laxest standards. Training sessions were financed on paper but never took place in practice. Appointments were politicized. Officers close to the prime minister’s office who failed to investigate leads on terrorist attacks were almost never held accountable for their actions. Even the most grotesque failures, including the military’s passivity in the face of regular attacks against Christians in Nineveh over a period of years, went unpunished. Morale among the rank and file was low, and there was very little desire to take risks on behalf of political elites who were viewed as wildly corrupt.” [ForeignPolicy]

And we wonder why the Iraqi forces couldn’t hold Mosul, and  can’t hold Ramadi?   By 2006 the political atmosphere was getting obvious, only the willfully blind could avoid seeing the implications of the Sunni-Shia split, and al-Maliki’s role in that disintegration:

“By the time Maliki took office, the police and the Army were overwhelmingly Shiite, packed with former militiamen bent on cleansing Baghdad of Sunni Arabs. In the summer of 2006, each morning brought new reports of sectarian atrocities. Maliki did very little to stop them, according to Matthew Sherman, the civilian adviser to the U.S. Army. “We’d go into his office, we’d tell him about a massacre that had been carried out by his men,” Sherman told me. “And Maliki would just sit there and say, ‘I’m sure they were terrorists.’ We could never get him to act against the death squads.” (Maliki says that he never received any evidence that his soldiers or police had acted improperly.)” [NYorker 2014]

The eggs laid by the parliamentary elections of December 2005 were fully hatched by 2014.   By 2015 the eggs were completely scrambled, and not in a good omelet sort of way.

al-Maliki’s resignation in 2014 didn’t alleviate the situation. As of August 12, 2014 the Iranian government pulled its support for al-Maliki, offered him asylum, and backed his successor Hiadar al-Abadi. [Guardian] The disaffected Sunnis, the former criminal gangs, the death squads and the local militias were now a fact of life in Iraq’s daily existence.  Nor has U.S. policy been all that helpful.  The Iranians, who are positioned to assist the current Iraqi government in its fight with ISIS, are the subject of saber rattling by members of the U.S. Congress who want to do everything from bolster current embargo terms to engage in outright military action against Tehran.

In other, less elegant terms. if we weaken the Iranian government then we risk undermining the Iraqi government’s efforts to retain or retake territory seized by ISIS.

It is very difficult to have a consistent and rational foreign policy when the requirements are (1) opposition to the Iranian government, and to all forms of Iranian involvement in Iraqi military operations against ISIS; (2) opposition to ISIS which doesn’t incorporate Shia interests in Iraq; and (3) support for Sunni participation in Iraqi governance, when the Sunnis could be convinced that their interests would be better served by ISIS than by the governing Shia groups in Baghdad. Perhaps these contradictions help explain why the Republicans don’t want a full blown discussion of U.S. foreign policy vis a vis Iraq, and seem content to snipe from the sidelines?

If the GOP is serious about discussing our policy toward Iraq, then it’s time to bring the joint resolution to the floor, debate the ramifications seriously, recognize the historical and political implications of the policy, and to take a stand on those issues.  The rest is simply political noise making, the equivalent of slide whistles and noise-makers.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Iraq

Thank You For Your Service, Maybe?

PTSD There’s a difference between Militarism and Supporting Our Military.  There is also a difference between being militaristic and being supportive of our nation’s service members and veterans.  A militarist tends to regard military efficiency as the best ideal of the state, and to subordinate all other interests to those of the military services. [DictRef]  Now that the terms are defined, why do conservatives have such a difficult time comprehending the problems created when they call for a “strong” Department of Defense, and a “strong” nation, or a “strong” foreign policy, and almost simultaneously disparage the members of the military and veterans when those people express their needs?

The latest manifestation of this issue comes from radio talker Michael Savage, who offered his opinion on Armed Forces members and veterans who are suffering with PTSD:

“If the whole nation is told, ‘boo-hoo-hoo, come and get a medication, come and get treatment, talk about mental illness,’ you know what you wind up with? You wind up with Obama in the White House and lawyers in every phase of the government, that’s what you wind up with. It’s a weak, sick nation. A weak, sick, broken nation.” […] “You need men like me to save the country,” he said. “You need men to stand up and say stop crying like a baby over everything.” He continued that “men are so weak and so narcissistic” that it is “no wonder ISIS can defeat our military.” [Savage/RRW]

It Helps To Know What You’re Talking About

Mr. Savage must know what he’s doing; he must know that there’s an audience for this kind of nonsense.   First, it is obvious Mr. Savage has absolutely no personal military experience.  Had he any experience he’d know the truth of the old adage: A war leaves no one unwounded.  He was about 26 at the height of the war in Vietnam, but didn’t serve.  Nonetheless, he’s certain the nation needs “men like me to save the country.”

Shut Up and Shoot Yourself?

Secondly, the fossilized notions about mental illness embedded in Savage’s rant are appalling.  If a person seeks treatment for mental health issues, then he is “weak, sick, and broken?”  Savage/Weiner couldn’t have crafted a more blatant recipe for further weakening injured individuals.  Again, even a cursory familiarity with the U.S. military would demonstrate the Department of Defense takes PTSD very seriously, in fact there’s been the establishment of the Defense Centers of Excellence – for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.  

In August 2013, the DoD, the Veterans Administration, and other agencies created a joint research program to study PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries. [Defense.Gov]  One element of the study will be a collaboration to study the factors influencing the chronic effects of mild TBI in order to improve diagnostic and treatment options, keying on a better understanding of the relationship between TBI and neurodegenerative disease.   No “boo hoo hoo” here, simply a directive from the Department of Defense and the White House that we take a serious scientific look at nature and treatment which ought to be available to any of the 2.5 million U.S. service members who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since September 2001 and need mental health treatment.

The conception that “real men (and women) don’t cry” or that “real men (and women) don’t want to be stigmatized as having a mental health issue is dangerous in and of itself.  During a presentation for the American Psychiatric Association in 2012 it was noted that fewer than half the soldiers who reported combat related PTSD received the necessary care, and of those who participate in a treatment program between 20% and 50% will stop before the treatment is complete.  When 93% of Army infantrymen have come under fire from rockets, artillery, or mortars, and when 91% report having been ambushed or attacked, and 87% report they know someone who has been seriously injured or killed, then it’s obvious some form of scientifically based treatment programs will need to be in place to assist those who develop PTSD. [Stripes]

There’s no “boo-hoo-hoo” factor when a mental health issue, such as PTSD,  produces intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance symptoms, negative feelings about self and others, inability to experience positive emotions, feeling of emotional numbness, feelings of hopelessness, memory problems, difficulty in maintaining close relationships, anger and irritability, overwhelming guilt or shame, self destructive behaviors, problems with concentration, problems with insomnia, difficulties created by being easily startled or frightened.  [MayoClinic]

This is serious stuff.  While the rates for civilian suicides remained steady at 19:100,ooo over the period of a recent study for the National Institute of Mental Health, the Army suicide rate – historically lower than the civilian rate – surpassed it in 2008 and kept climbing, until it finally dropped a bit in 2012-13.  [USAT]  What is Savage/Weiner advocating? Is his message so divorced from reality that it’s little more than “Just Shut Up and Shoot Yourself?”

An Alternative Universe of Memory

Mr. Savage/Weiner evidently defines ‘manhood’ in antediluvian terms.  Men back in the good old days were Real Men, and women knew how to act like ladies?  This TV scripted perspective never existed in any real form. Mr. Savage/Weiner seems stuck in a wonderland of Leave it to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet.  His definition of masculinity sounds more like an interpretation of a John Wayne movie script.  It certainly isn’t Bogart sending Bergman off in Casablanca, or Sidney Poitier in Raisin in the Sun. It most certainly isn’t ultimate slacker Hoffman in The Graduate. [NPR]  Nor is it to be found in Gregory Peck’s performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.  And, merciful heavens, it must not be anywhere near the comedic rendition from Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.  The hard sad truth is that Mr. Savage/Weiner’s interpretation never even existed in Hollywood outside the genre of stock war movies and derivative westerns.

If Mr. Savage/Weiner is reaching about 3 million Americans with his entertainments,  about 1% of the population, then why waste pixels and print?  Because, his views energize some of the least attractive and least socially useful elements in our national repertoire of ideas.  Surely, nothing is less useful than militaristically bantering about the glories and barbarities of war, while disparaging those who come home from it  to the nightmare of PTSD.

Talk Without Money

Perhaps this isn’t such a far fetched perspective when placed in proximity to the Republican budget proposals of the recent past.  Flags, color guards, pomp and circumstance are all part of the 4th of July atmosphere attached to political performances.  However, when it comes down to the money, the appropriations for Veterans’ services life gets stickier. 

The lack of specificity in budgets crafted by Representative Paul Ryan make it very difficult to predict what the impact of his budget slashing might be, especially in the short term.  Rep. Ryan once referred to budget cuts in cost of living formulas for retired service-members as a “modest adjustment to a particularly generous program.” [WaPo]  Other modest adjustments were considered:

“The House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has told a veterans’ group it is studying a plan to save $6 billion annually in VA health care costs by cancelling enrollment of any veteran who doesn’t have a service-related medical condition and is not poor.

Committee Republicans, searching for ways to curb federal deficits and rein in galloping VA costs, are targeting 1.3 million veterans who claim priority group 7 or 8 status and have access to VA care.” [vmusa]

In other words, “No matter what we told you about taking care of you if you volunteered to take care of our country, if we can cut back on government spending at your expense we’ll do it.”  A veteran with a priority group 7 or 8 status is on his or her own – no matter how many paeans were offered and “thank you’s for your service” rendered.

Since when did we decide, as a nation, that a veteran is not really a veteran if he or she is in the “wrong category” and is thereby less worthy of a nation’s gratitude?

How much difference is there between the hate-radio talker who disparages the mental illnesses exacerbated or triggered by combat experience and the impact of that experience on a returning veteran, and the casual elimination of veterans’ benefits from selected categories merely to satisfy the “drown the government in a bathtub” crowd?

There is a point at which it must be acknowledged that militarism creates veterans, and promises to those veterans should be kept.

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Filed under Afghanistan, conservatism, Defense Department, Foreign Policy, Health Care, Iraq

The Halloween Campaign Season

Halloween House It’s always great fun when Halloween and Mid Term Elections converge.   Or, as comedian Jon Stewart puts it, “We’ve got nothing to fear, but fear itself, so we’re going with fear.”   If I were really getting into the spirit of the campaign/Halloween season I’d put the Halloween candy up on the roof, take down the ladder and lock it up in the shed, and then tell the kiddies that if they are patient, hard working, diligent, and patriotic some day the candy will trickle down to their eager little mitts.

However, since I’m definitely not a Republican, the candy will stay on the porch where everyone gets a shot at it.   So, what’s scary this season?

Halloween Pumpkin

It’s three pumpkin scary that there are still a large number of voters who are clinging to the failed and long debunked hoax that what is good for Wall Street is necessarily good for Main Street.   Wall Street, and the financialists therein,  love the witches brew of mergers and acquisitions – whether the companies involved are actually improved or gutted – and tales of layoffs, off-shoring, and other devices to reduce costs and improve “shareholder value.”  Anything which reduces the expenses is received with joy, such as not paying their share of taxes by using accounting tricks and the ever popular Inversions.  

So, when faced with the probability that they might have to contribute their fair share or face their responsibilities, the corporate shills resort to dragging out their well rehearsed talking points – taxes cost jobs, the wealthy create jobs, taxes make us less ‘competitive,’ and regulations are a burden.  These lines are just so much mush in the core of an over-ripe pumpkin.

The good folks on Main Street and Elm Street are left holding the bag, every time a multi-national corporation plays games with the tax system Main Street and Elm Street have to foot the bills for roads, infrastructure, education, national defense, and health services.  

Halloween Pumpkin

Another three scary pumpkins for a political system so cynical that cheating is required to win.  There’s NO epidemic of voter impersonation fraud in this country.  An analysis of 2,068 cases of fraud in the entire nation since 2000 revealed that there were only 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud. There are approximately 146,000,000 registered voters in this country.  Do the arithmetic.  Your calculation should result in an answer of 6.84e-8.  (If that “e-8” is throwing you, just remember to move the decimal point place 8 places to the left.)

However, that infinitesimally small number hasn’t stopped candidates from advocating Photo ID laws, the purpose of which  is to reduce the number of the elderly, the young, the ethnic minorities, and the women at the polling stations.   We even have our very own Vote Suppressionist running to be the chief election officer (Secretary of State) in Nevada.  Voting suppression bills are enacted because voters buy into the fear-mongering about fraud, and the utterly illogical personalization talking point, “Would you want your vote to be canceled out by a fraud?”   The answer, of course, is “no,” but the odds against this actually happening are literally astronomical.

Halloween Pumpkin

It’s also three pumpkins scary we have media outlets which cater to the least attractive  human characteristics – like, fear and what it does to otherwise rational beings.   Yes, what the Islamic State proposes to do in Iraq and Syria is serious stuff, but remember the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are 1:20,000,000.   The terrorists would no doubt like to get us sufficiently agitated so that we’d agree to send troops to their region, which would make it ever so much easier to kill Americans. 

And yes, the Ebola virus is a nasty little bug. However, it tends to thrive in places where medical facilities are both rare and not well regulated.  It seems to prefer places with inadequate sanitation infrastructure.  Thus far that does not describe the public health systems in North America and western Europe.  What should concern us more than the incidents are questions about how our privatized health care delivery services are to regulated in order to prevent outbreaks of any infectious disease.

There is an old bit of business advice which says, “You can’t control what you don’t own.”  We can apply the adage to public health care facilities.  Government standards can be enforced in public facilities, whereas under the current system of corporate health care standards come in the form of guidelines – the implementation of which may not be as uniform as we’d like. One relatively recent report says that public hospitals declined by 27% in major suburban areas from 1996 to 2002, and by 16% in major cities.  [AmMedNews]  Are standards of accreditation strong enough to maintain a level of health care practices in which the environment is safe for both the patients and the medical staff?  This question leads to our next set of pumpkins.

Halloween Pumpkin There ought to be three scary pumpkins awarded to the advocates of de-regulation.  The exploiters, polluters, and “shareholder value” advocates have been beating drums about “burdensome regulations” since the corporate interests organized their campaigns to repeal any law which impinged on their profits.  For example, since January 2011 the House of Representatives have voted 297 times to weaken public health and environmental protections. [CWA]  

Though the Enron Debacle seems a distant memory from 2002, the Republicans are still trying to repeal the Sarbanes-Oxley Act which sought to curb the abuses that allowed the scam to spread through the financial sector.  Opponents of financial regulation are still calling for the Act’s amendment or outright repeal in spite of the benefits stemming from its enforcement.   The Dodd Frank Act, enacted in the wake of yet more financial sector abuse, and the cavorting in the Wall Street Casino leading to the Housing Bubble disaster,  passed its 4th anniversary with more calls from the GOP to repeal it.

It would be remiss not to mention the REINS Act again.  This bit of legislation from the House is a de-regulator’s wet dream, and everyone else’s nightmare.  Congress would have to approve any and every regulation set forth by any agency of the federal government – environmental, financial, and (compliments of the Smith Amendment) public health. [See H.R. 367] Representative Jason T. Smith (R-MO8) offered amendment #450 which included all regulations under the Affordable Care Act.  This is as good a time as any to see what Representative Smith’s amendment would do in terms of hospital regulations.

Section 3025 of the ACA outlined a “readmission reduction program” which penalizes hospitals which have readmission rates higher than acceptable.  The idea was to get hospitals to use Best Practices (pdf) to reduce the readmission rate for cardiac patients, those who were at risk of being readmitted because of a lack of resources, and those who might show signs of infections after initial hospitalization.   Now, imagine the members of the House of Representatives “de-regulating” hospitals which have high readmission rates by refusing to approve the CMS standards.   That’s more money in the coffers of the 81% of Alabama hospitals which have been penalized; 82% of the hospitals in Arkansas which have been penalized; 89% of the hospitals in Illinois which have been penalized; and the 153 hospitals in Texas (out of 322) which have been penalized. [Kaiser]

Want to get scared again?  There’s credible research suggesting that hospital acquired infections affect the readmission rate [AmMedNews] and hence the regulations from Section 3025 relate to hospital sanitation practices and the prevention of hospital acquired infections.  Now, grab the remote and try to find a cable news channel that isn’t overloading the airwaves about Ebola. Quiver again, while thinking that Representative Smith’s little amendment could remove the incentive for corporately owned hospitals to literally clean up their acts.

Halloween Pumpkin

Instead of being fearful, let’s enjoy the Halloween season with thoughts of increasing the minimum wage and adding about $22 billion to our gross domestic product. [TP]  Or, we could think about further reducing our dependence on foreign oil by encouraging more solar power research, and ending the $4 billion annual subsidy paid by taxpayers to highly profitable Giant Oil Companies.  Or, we could think of reducing the burden on college students by allowing them to renegotiate or refinance student loans.  We could start by insuring students aren’t required to repay more than 10% of their annual income. [WH] We could improve the Voting Right Act and insure that everyone, in every state has an equal opportunity to cast his or her ballot.  We could enact legislation to require equal pay for equal work, improving family financial situations across the country.  We could employ people in our construction sector by starting to work on our infrastructure issues – our airports, dams, bridges, water lines, wastewater facilities, and  levees could all use some work.  [ASCE]  We could enact reasonable gun safety legislation.  And we could enact legislation to insure there’s no discrimination of any kind in American commerce.

The scary part is that none of these things will get started, much less accomplished, with Republicans sowing fear and discomfort – belaboring spooky apparitions like “Benghazzziiiii,” or “IRSssssss,” or “ISISssssss,” or other specters, wraiths, and spirits.   It’s Halloween after all, and  those are manufactured phantoms, nor more material than the costumes available at any big box store.   Instead of focusing on the Spooks of October, we ought to be enthusiastic about the opportunities in November, such as electing people to state and national offices who aren’t afraid of their own shadows.

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3 Reasons to Ignore Beltway Blather about ISIL

White House Press Room Senator Lindsey Graham (R-Fainting Couch) wants a muscular U.S. policy against ISIL before we’re all murdered in our beds.  However, before we get all pumped up from watching cable news and beltway media blathering it might be a nice exercise to know more pesky details about the situation, especially with regard to ISIL held territory in Syria and Iraq.

#1.  Beltway blathering demonstrates little understanding of the situation inside the area under consideration.  The White House Press corps, which is evidently so shallow they can’t concentrate on major policy statements if the President or speaker is wearing a suit made of any fabric not dark gray or dark blue, persists in analyzing the “optics” or “atmospherics” surrounding such statements without listening to what is being said.  Were they better informed about the political and military situation their opinion pieces would be significantly improved.  Here’s an example:

During the White House press briefing on September 12, the Press Secretary fielded two questions concerning the relatively quiet response from NATO ally Turkey on joining the alliance against ISIS (L).  After Mr. Earnest offered a very diplomatic explanation the second questions was:

But any disappointment that particularly Turkey, a NATO member, would not sign on to something like this?” As if the explanation required more explication.  It did, but had the questioner a bit more background it would have been understood why the Turks are reticent and the White House Press Secretary more diplomatic.  Here’s what the press missed —

On June 11 ISIS (L) captured Mosul, and in the process of doing so attacked the Turkish consulate in that city, taking 79-80 hostages. [WSJ] As of September 1, 2014 the Foreign Ministry of Turkey sought to alleviate concerns about the health and well being of the hostages expressed by some of their family members and sources in the Turkish press. “Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc talked on the latest developments regarding the Turkish hostages held by ISIS militants, claiming they were alive, their location was known and that contact with them was being maintained.”  The Ministry went one step further — “The accuracy and reliability of information in respect to the source is necessary,” Bilgic said. “Since the first day our staff were taken hostage, our government has been conducting extremely sensitive work through all relevant institutions.”

It doesn’t take too much analysis to translate that statement as “We are working really hard with anyone who will cooperate to insure that our people from the Mosul Consulate are where we’ve been told they are, and are being treated humanely.”  After the grisly scenes of what has happened thus far to two American citizens and one British citizen, it is no wonder the Turks are less than enthusiastic about wanting to discuss their contributions to the “war on ISIS(L).”

So, the ill-informed member of the Press Corps asked a redundant and undiplomatic question, inferring that the Turks are not enthusiastic about defeating the ISIS(L) forces – perhaps a better question would have been something like – What are the allied nations doing to assist the Turks retrieve their consulate personnel?

#2The U.S. beltway media too often characterizes elements in complicated situations in simplistic terms.  Nothing illustrates this quite so well as in the case of the Syrian opposition.  There must be good guys and bad guys, and the U.S. should team up with the good guys!  However, what do we do when the coalitions and networks aren’t so conveniently classified? The Free Syrian Army, which some think we should arm, is actually a network of about eight large battalions and many smaller independent groups which are united in their opposition to the Assad Regime. [LATimes]

Consider for a moment the complications of arming the FSA, as described by the GulfNews organization:

“…equipment was in short supply and could not possibly match what the Syrian army had, or received from Iran and Russia. Moreover, Washington demurred when Riyadh readied shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank launchers, and vetoed such transfers. The FSA’s fighting hands were thus tied allegedly because Western powers were not sure if some of these lethal weapons would fall under extremist control. In time, sophisticated American-made anti-tank missiles reached the FSA, though Al Nusra and, more recently, Isil boasted more advanced weapons. Timidity towards the FSA, ostensibly because its leaders maintained correct ties with moderate Islamist factions, translated in an entirely different outlook for Syria.”

Notice the policy of the Iranian government in this brief description, it is aligned with the Assad Regime (Alawite)  against the rebels in Syria – but aligned with the anti-ISIS(L) (Shia)  forces in Iraq.  Also, remember that the U.S. is trying to negotiate an agreement with Iran concerning its capacity to manufacture nuclear weaponry [Reuters] and actions which align with Iran’s interests in Iraq may promote this project, but those not aligned with Iran’s interests in Syria could derail the negotiating process.  In this instance it’s not so easy to shuffle groups into the Good Guys, Bad Guys categories.

#3The D.C. media are seemingly eager to critique policy without much background, especially as it pertains to the Arab states.  Witness this question from the September 12th briefing:

“One is on the Arab states.  They said that they would be prepared to do their share, and they talk about “as appropriate, joining in many aspects.”  But this language is a little amorphous.  It’s hard to get your hands around it.  What are they actually saying that they would do, besides Saudi Arabia hosting the Syrian rebels for training?  Will they provide troops, for example?”

The Saudis have a problem.  In August 2014 they donated $100 million to the United Nations to fund a counter terrorism agency, but they rejected a rotating seat on the UN Security Council.  Why the half in, half out posture? “Amorphous” is simply another way of saying we have a really sticky issue here and we aren’t ready to crawl out on a branch.  Ed Husain, writing for the New York Times explains:

“This half-in, half-out posture of the Saudi kingdom is a reflection of its inner paralysis in dealing with Sunni Islamist radicalism: It wants to stop violence, but will not address the Salafism that helps justify it.

Let’s be clear: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe.”

While the reporter might have wanted the Press Secretary to answer for the Saudi government, or explain its position, the question would be better addressed directly to the Saudi government itself.   The issue has profound implications for the Saudi government – and has tentacles reaching back to the 1744 treaty or Holy Alliance:

“Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” an austere form of Islam, arrives in the central Arabian state of Najd in 1744 preaching a return to “pure” Islam. He seeks protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, and they cut a deal. The Al Saud will endorse al-Wahhab’s austere form of Islam and in return, the Al Saud will get political legitimacy and regular tithes from al-Wahhab’s followers. The religious-political alliance that al-Wahhab and Saud forge endures to this day in Saudi Arabia.” [Frontline]

Thus the Saudis have a 270 year old agreement with ultra-conservative elements in Islam, who represent perhaps 3% of the total number of Muslims world wide, and which produces an ultra-conservative government with the means and intent to spread the ultra-conservative message – to ISIS(L) and other religious fanatics.  And we wonder why the response from the Saudis is “amorphous?

Drafting this post took approximately one hour and forty minutes, during which reporting from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, one D.C. press briefing, and an article from the Gulf News were perused.   Unfortunately, the White House press corps seems not to have taken the time to accumulate background information, or if some members did, they weren’t the ones who were called upon.  And thus we get the Parsing Game, in which sentences are analyzed for political meaning without much attention paid to the underlying policy; followed by endless speculation about the meaning of utterances without context. 

Instead of enhancing our understanding of intricate issues with a myriad of policy options, the press corps is trying to offer us the perfect news story, one with drama (preferably bloody), a hint of mystery, and the capacity for endless speculation.  Sometimes the WH Press Room might as well be empty.

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The Poetry and Bombast of War

  Iraq War

If all you know of Brian Turner is the “Hurt Locker,” you are missing some other good work, like 2000 pounds, and R & R.  And, there’s “Stick Soldiers” from veteran Hugh Martin. There’s more from him too, and more from others.  Every war generates its own poetry.

“I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days, or five weeks, or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” [Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense]  

There is something about the shape and texture of poetry which sharpens the images, enhances the sounds, and highlights the sensory aspects of an experience beyond prose.

A prose version of Henry V’s  speech on the eve of St. Crispin’s Day?  “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”  Hardly.    “Come Up From The Fields, Father… there’s a letter from our Pete, and come to the front door Mother, there’s a letter from thy dear son.” Few but Walt Whitman could let us know both so harshly, and gently, that the handwriting is not their son’s.

“Why don’t we just [bomb]? We know where ISIS is. What’s the harm of bombing [ISIS] at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” [Bill Kristol]

Whitman’s war begat the era of automatic weapons, and Siegfried Sassoon captured its fury in staccato; “Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear, They leave their trenches, going over the top, While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists, And hope, with furtive eyes, and grappling fists, Flounders in the mud. O Jesus make it stop.”

Wilfred Owen added to the imagery of World War I, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle, Can patter out their hasty orisons….” 

“I think that it requires additional U.S. troops, not ground combat units, but it is going to require some more special forces. It is going to require some more forward air controllers.” [Senator John McCain, 8/31/14]

World War II added the skies to the battlefields, and John Magee let us “slip the surly bonds of Earth, and dance the skies on laughter silvered wings.  However, the battles on earth still beat with Sassoon’s fury: “Bring it into action, spin those trails around? There’s grunts up the sharp end, screaming out for rounds.”

“The homeland is threatened by the presence of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. To change that threat, we have to have a sustained air campaign in Syria and Iraq. We need to go on offense.” [Senator Lindsey Graham]

As if to prove poetry lends shape – MacAvoy Lane describes one experience in Vietnam: “When the M-16 rifle had a stoppage, Once could feel enemy eyes. Climbing. His. Bones. Like. Ivy.”

And we return to:  “What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes, Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.  The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.” [Owen]

All it takes is a thought from Brian Turner to bring us up to date:

I have a lover with hair that falls

like autumn leaves on my skin.

Water that rolls in smooth and cool

as anesthesia. Birds that carry

all my bullets into the barrel of the sun.  [R&R]

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