Monday, November 21, 2005

Channel hopping

Last night had a TV juxtaposition that just made me so ... happy!

On one channel, "Legally Blonde," fluffy Reese Witherspoon star vehicle.

On the other channel, Classic Sports re-running Ali-Frazier III, "The Thrilla in Manilla."

I loved watching 'em both, and the commercials were aligned to perfection. Just kept toggling on the last channel button.

I suppose this is pretty strong evidence that I'm a metrosexual. That and the fact that I was appalled by the fact that Frazier's trunks were blue denim.

What a great fight, though.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Dems: bums

Piechart from The War Resisters League's Where your money really goes flyer

Sure, it was cheap theater for the Republican leadership to put forth that resolution Friday. But give them credit--they once again exposed the Democrats' gutlessness, and made me question anew who exactly it is the "opposition" party represents. If 60 percent of the population says it was not worth going to war, wouldn't you expect more than three (THREE!) democrats to agree to a non-binding resolution that says we should get the hell out of Iraq?

I couldn't be more pleased that the Bush adminstration is having its problems. But I wonder where exactly this is all leading. Will anything really change?

If and when the Iraq nightmare ends, what kind of country will we have? Will we stop being the only country to regularly attack other countries? Will we still be directing nearly 50 percent of our tax dollars to military expenditures? Will we still have 10,000 nuclear weapons armed and aimed, with a pea-brained religious fanatic holding the key to the codes? Will the arms manufacturers, who spread out their "wealth" into virtually every congressional district in the country, still say "jump" and get congressmen to answer "how high?" every time?

Chalmers Johnson is quite pessimistic (and, sadly, convincing) on this topic:

It is hardly news to anyone who pays the slightest attention to American politics that Congress is no longer responsive to the people. Incumbency is so well institutionalized that elections generally mean virtually nothing. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay approves the private ownership of assault weapons and machine guns despite complaints from police around the country that they're outgunned by criminals, despite the 65% of the public who want them banned, despite pleas from the relatives of murdered Americans. On this issue, the National Rifle Association seems to own the Congress.

A similar situation exists with regard to munitions makers. In one district after another the weapons industry has bought the incumbent and the voters are unable to dislodge him or her. On really big projects like the B-2 stealth bomber, contracts are placed for pieces of the airplane in all of the 48 continental states to insure that individual members of Congress can be threatened with the loss of jobs in their districts should they ever get the idea that we do not need another weapon of massive destruction. The result is defense budgets of $425 billion per year (plus that extra $75 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, another $20 billion for nuclear weapons, and $200 billion more for veterans and the wounded), leading to the highest governmental deficits in postwar history. It seems likely that only bankruptcy will stop the American imperial juggernaut.

For the past six months, I've been reading as much as I can get my hands on by Andrew Bacevich, a West Point grad, Vietnam vet and former contributor to the National Review (!). In his book The New American Militarism (excerpted here), he spells out in detail just how expensive our war state is and makes it quite clear that, "Simply put, for the Department of Defense and all of its constituent parts, defense per se figures as little more than an afterthought."

So what about the Democrats, then? Where do they fit in? Are they the solution, or a major part of the problem?

As this piece by Jeremy Scahill points out, the Dem bums are as responsible for this mess we're in as anyone, and their behavior, in refusing to represent the majority of Americans that want the troops home fast, is beyond reprehensible.

None of the horrors playing out in Iraq today would be possible without the Democratic Party. And no matter how hard some party leaders try to deny it, this is their war too and will remain so until every troop is withdrawn. There is no question that the Bush administration is one of the most corrupt, violent and brutal in the history of this country but that doesn’t erase the serious responsibility the Democrats bears for the bloodletting in Iraq. As disingenuous as the Administration’s claims that Iraq had WMDs is the flimsy claim by Democratic lawmakers that they were somehow duped into voting for the war. The fact is that Iraq posed no threat to the United States in 2003 any more than it did in 1998 when President Clinton bombed Baghdad. John Kerry and his colleagues knew that. The Democrats didn’t need false intelligence to push them into overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was their policy; a policy made the law of the land not under George W. Bush, but under President Bill Clinton when he signed the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, formally initiating the process of regime change in Iraq.

Manipulated intelligence is but a small part of a bigger, bipartisan 15-year assault on Iraq’s people. If the Democrats really want to look at how America was led into this war, they need to go back further than the current president’s inauguration.

As bloody and deadly as the occupation has been, it was Bill Clinton who refined the art of killing innocent Iraqis following the Gulf War. One of his first acts as president was to bomb Iraq, following the alleged assassination plot against George HW Bush. Clinton’s missiles killed the famed Iraqi painter Leila al Attar as they smashed into her home. Clinton presided enthusiastically over the most deadly and repressive regime of economic sanctions in history – his UN ambassador Madeline Albright calling the reported deaths of half a million children "worth the price." Clinton initiated the longest sustained bombing campaign since Vietnam with his illegal no-fly zone bombings, attacking Iraq once every three days for the final years of his presidency. It was under Clinton that Ahmed Chalabi was given tens of millions of dollars and made a key player in shaping Washington’s Iraq policy. It was Clinton that mercilessly attacked Iraq in December of 1998, destroying dozens of Baghdad buildings and killing scores of civilians. It was Clinton that codified regime change in Iraq as US policy. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq but he could not have done it without the years of groundwork laid by Clinton and the Democrats. How ironic it was recently to hear Clinton call the war "a big mistake."

It’s easy to resist war with a president like Bush in the White House. Where were these Democrats when it was Clinton’s bombs raining down on Iraq, when it was Clinton’s economic sanctions targeting the most vulnerable? Many of them were right behind him and his deadly policies the same way they were behind Bush when he asked their consent to use force against Iraq. As the veteran Iraq activist and Nobel Prize nominee Kathy Kelly said often during the Clinton years, "It’s easy to be a vegetarian between meals." The fact is that one of the great crimes of our times was committed by the Clinton administration with the support of many of the politicians now attacking Bush.

Herein lies the real political crisis in this country: the Democrats are not an opposition party, nor are they an antiwar party – never were.

So what then? I agree but am at a loss....

Friday, November 18, 2005

What she said

Two recent entries in Baghdad Burning, House of Horrors and Conventional Terror (here and here), by "Iraqi girl blogger" riverbend are as compelling as they are sad.

They address, from a (once) moderate, (once) middle-class Iraqi point of view, this week's two horrid revelations (or confirmations of what Iraqis believed all along) about the "torture houses" in once-fashionable neighborhoods and the unspeakable use of white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah last year. Here is a good chunk of her post on the latter topic:
I avoided the computer for five days because every time I switched it on, the file would catch my eye and call out to me… now plaintively- begging to be watched, now angrily- condemning my indifference.

Except that it was never indifference… it was a sort of dread that sat deep in my stomach, making me feel like I had swallowed a dozen small stones. I didn’t want to see it because I knew it contained the images of the dead civilians I had in my head.

Few Iraqis ever doubted the American use of chemical weapons in Falloojeh. We’ve been hearing the terrifying stories of people burnt to the bone for well over a year now. I just didn’t want it confirmed.

I didn’t want it confirmed because confirming the atrocities that occurred in Falloojeh means verifying how really lost we are as Iraqis under American occupation and how incredibly useless the world is in general- the UN, Kofi Annan, humanitarian organizations, clerics, the Pope, journalists… you name it- we’ve lost faith in it.

I finally worked up enough courage to watch it and it has lived up to my worst fears. Watching it was almost an invasive experience, because I felt like someone had crawled into my mind and brought my nightmares to life. Image after image of men, women and children so burnt and scarred that the only way you could tell the males apart from the females, and the children apart from the adults, was by the clothes they are wearing… the clothes which were eerily intact- like each corpse had been burnt to the bone, and then dressed up lovingly in their everyday attire- the polka dot nightgown with a lace collar… the baby girl in her cotton pajamas- little earrings dangling from little ears.

Some of them look like they died almost peacefully, in their sleep… others look like they suffered a great deal- skin burnt completely black and falling away from scorched bones.

I imagine what it must have been like for some of them. They were probably huddled in their houses- some of them- tens of thousands of them- couldn’t leave the city. They didn’t have transport or they simply didn’t have a place to go. They sat in their homes, hoping that what people said about Americans was actually true- that in spite of their huge machines and endless weapons, they were human too.

And then the rain of bombs would begin… the wooooosh of the missiles as they fell and the sound of the explosion as it hit its target… and no matter how prepared you think you are for that explosion- it always makes you flinch. I imagine their children covering their ears and some of them crying, trying to cover up the mechanical sounds of war with their more human wails. I imagine that as the tanks got closer, and the planes got lower- the fear increased- and parents searched each other’s faces for a solution, for a way out of the horror. Some of them probably decided to wait it out in their homes, and others must have been desperate to get out- fearing the rain of concrete and steel and thinking their chances were better in the open air, than confined in the homes that could at any moment turn into their tombs.

That’s what we were told before the Americans came- it’s safer to be outside of the house during an air strike than it is to be inside of the house. Inside of the house, a missile nearby would turn the windows into millions of little daggers and walls might come crashing down. In the garden, or even the street, you’d only have to worry about shrapnel and debris if the bomb was very close- but what were the chances of that?

That was before 2003… and certainly before Falloojeh.

That was before men, women and children left their homes only to be engulfed in a rain of fire.

Last year I blogged about Falloojeh and said:

“There is talk of the use of cluster bombs and other forbidden weaponry.”

I was immediately attacked with a barrage of emails from Americans telling me I was a liar and that there was no proof and that there was no way Americans would ever do something so appalling! I wonder how those same people justify this now. Are they shocked? Or do they tell themselves that Iraqis aren’t people? Or are they simply in denial?

The Pentagon spokesman recently said:

"It's part of our conventional-weapons inventory and we use it like we use any other conventional weapon,"

This war has redefined ‘conventional’. It has taken atrocity to another level. Everything we learned before has become obsolete. ‘Conventional’ has become synonymous with horrifying. Conventional weapons are those that eat away the skin in a white blaze; conventional interrogation methods are like those practiced in Abu Ghraib and other occupation prisons…

Quite simply… conventional terror.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

At last, proof of WMD use in Iraq ...

... and it was the U.S. military that used 'em.

The use of napalm, and napalm-like substances, as weapons, and then lying about it (even to "coalition partners"), is more than just the latest outrage. It's still more evidence that "our" side has absolutely no moral case for its actions. It's naked aggression, with no discernable restriction on severity of tactics, and if there's a strategic intent short of creating an unconscionable number of casualties and calling them all "insurgents," I have yet to see it.

It's also an interesting case study in how the blogosphere is stepping into spaces the mainstream media won't go.

First, there has been no shortage of rumors and allegations about napalm and like substances used in the 2004 attack on Fallujah, many of them from quite credible sources.

Second, proof was claimed in the form of the Italian TV documentary last week, but said proof wasn't conclusive. George Monbiot dismisses the evidence as "flimsy and circumstantial."

But that report goaded bloggers into doing some serious collective digging, and they in turn turned up the smoking guns. Here's Monbiot:

The first account the [bloggers] unearthed in a magazine published by the US army. In the March 2005 edition of Field Artillery, officers from the 2nd Infantry's fire support element boast about their role in the attack on Falluja in November last year: "White Phosphorous. WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive]. We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out."

The second, in California's North County Times, was by a reporter embedded with the marines in the April 2004 siege of Falluja. "'Gun up!' Millikin yelled ... grabbing a white phosphorus round from a nearby ammo can and holding it over the tube. 'Fire!' Bogert yelled, as Millikin dropped it. The boom kicked dust around the pit as they ran through the drill again and again, sending a mixture of burning white phosphorus and high explosives they call 'shake'n'bake' into... buildings where insurgents have been spotted all week."
I love the banality of "WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition" and the cutesy "shake and bake" name for a tactic that does this to human flesh (warning: hideously graphic images, all paid for by our tax dollars.) And the fact that the nickname exists indicates that "shake and bake" is likely a regularly used tactic, not just a one-off improvisation.

Monbiot continues:
Until last week, the US state department maintained that US forces used white phosphorus shells "very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes". They were fired "to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters". Confronted with the new evidence, on Thursday it changed its position. "We have learned that some of the information we were provided ... is incorrect. White phosphorous shells, which produce smoke, were used in Fallujah not for illumination but for screening purposes, i.e. obscuring troop movements and, according to... Field Artillery magazine, 'as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes...' The article states that US forces used white phosphorus rounds to flush out enemy fighters so that they could then be killed with high explosive rounds." The US government, in other words, appears to admit that white phosphorus was used in Falluja as a chemical weapon. The invaders have been forced into a similar climbdown over the use of napalm in Iraq. In December 2004, the Labour MP Alice Mahon asked the British armed forces minister Adam Ingram "whether napalm or a similar substance has been used by the coalition in Iraq (a) during and (b) since the war". "No napalm," the minister replied, "has been used by coalition forces in Iraq either during the war-fighting phase or since."

This seemed odd to those who had been paying attention. There were widespread reports that in March 2003 US marines had dropped incendiary bombs around the bridges over the Tigris and the Saddam Canal on the way to Baghdad. The commander of Marine Air Group 11 admitted that "We napalmed both those approaches". Embedded journalists reported that napalm was dropped at Safwan Hill on the border with Kuwait. In August 2003 the Pentagon confirmed that the marines had dropped "mark 77 firebombs". Though the substance these contained was not napalm, its function, the Pentagon's information sheet said, was "remarkably similar". While napalm is made from petrol and polystyrene, the gel in the mark 77 is made from kerosene and polystyrene. I doubt it makes much difference to the people it lands on.

So in January this year, the MP Harry Cohen refined Mahon's question. He asked "whether mark 77 firebombs have been used by coalition forces". The US, the minister replied, has "confirmed to us that they have not used mark 77 firebombs, which are essentially napalm canisters, in Iraq at any time". The US government had lied to him. Mr Ingram had to retract his statements in a private letter to the MPs in June.

We were told that the war with Iraq was necessary for two reasons. Saddam Hussein possessed biological and chemical weapons and might one day use them against another nation. And the Iraqi people needed to be liberated from his oppressive regime, which had, among its other crimes, used chemical weapons to kill them. Tony Blair, Colin Powell, William Shawcross, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Ann Clwyd and many others referred, in making their case, to Saddam's gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. They accused those who opposed the war of caring nothing for the welfare of the Iraqis.

Given that they care so much, why has none of these hawks spoken out against the use of unconventional weapons by coalition forces? Ann Clwyd, the Labour MP who turned from peace campaigner to chief apologist for an illegal war, is, as far as I can discover, the only one of these armchair warriors to engage with the issue. In May this year, she wrote to the Guardian to assure us that reports that a "modern form of napalm" has been used by US forces "are completely without foundation. Coalition forces have not used napalm - either during operations in Falluja, or at any other time". How did she know? The foreign office minister told her. Before the invasion, Clwyd traveled through Iraq to investigate Saddam's crimes against his people. She told the Commons that what she found moved her to tears. After the invasion, she took the minister's word at face value, when a 30-second search on the internet could have told her it was bunkum. It makes you wonder whether she really gave a damn about the people for whom she claimed to be campaigning.

Saddam, facing a possible death sentence, is accused of mass murder, torture, false imprisonment and the use of chemical weapons. He is certainly guilty on all counts. So, it now seems, are those who overthrew him.
And just now (Tuesday evening, EST) in the Guardian, the most direct admission yet by a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, who told the BBC:
Yes, it was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants. When you have enemy forces that are in covered positions that your high explosive artillery rounds are not having an impact on, and you wish to get them out of those positions, one technique is to fire a white phosphorus round into the position: the combined effects of the fire and smoke - and in some case the terror brought about by the explosion on the ground - will drive them out of the holes so you can kill them with high explosives.
Ah, that word, terror. A tricky one, innit?

Morning after meddling

Hardly surprising, but no less creepy for all that, this comes on top of the news that Target—Target!—is letting its pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions for Plan B.

From Knight-Ridder:
Top officials at the Food and Drug Administration appear to have decided to block over-the-counter sales of a controversial emergency contraceptive months before completing their review of the application in 2004, a new government report said yesterday.

According to the Government Accountability Office, top officials -- some of them political appointees of President Bush -- took "unusual" steps to impede the approval process.

The GAO's findings renew accusations of political meddling at the FDA, which has been criticized for more than two years for failing to bring the Plan B contraceptive to market despite the urging of its scientific staff.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

American Girl, Bullwinkle, and lesbianism

This piece by Madison Capital Times columnist Joel McNally offers a pretty good take on this ridiculous story:

It turns out that when suburban mothers buy American Girl dolls that look and dress exactly like their own little girls, they may unwittingly be purchasing tiny, lesbian partners for their children.

At least, that is the fear of the wacko, right-wing watchdogs who keep track of exotic threats to our children that most of us are too naive - or not nearly psychologically twisted enough - to recognize.


Guess which has gotten American Girl into hot water? You got it. It's the complaints of the American Family Association and the Pro-Life Action League.

The American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., the birthplace of Elvis Presley, has a long history of seeing threats to our children that most people are far too intelligent to notice.

The American Family Association was among the few organizations to perceive that preschool children were being brainwashed into pursuing a life of homosexuality by a sexually ambiguous Teletubby named Tinky Winky.

The organization once protested an episode of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" in which Bullwinkle the Moose married Cinderella. You might think the American Family Association would rejoice at such a high-profile celebrity endorsement of traditional marriage.

But those vigilant protectors of conservative morality recognized the Bullwinkle-Cinderella liaison for what it was - a subtle endorsement of inter-species relations promoting sex with animals.

So what could be so objectionable about American Girl dolls to attract protests from the American Family Association and, even more curiously, the Pro-Life Action League? The last we knew no embryos were destroyed producing American Girl dolls, which are not actually alive, just perky.

It turns out purchasing American Girl dolls helps promote concepts these groups find offensive. You know, objectionable concepts such as living healthy lives and being tolerant toward others.

The two groups have launched a crusade against American Girl for contributing philanthropically to Girls Inc., formerly the Girls Clubs of America, which for 140 years has organized programs encouraging young girls to feel good about themselves and strive for achievement.

This is where the charges about lesbianism come in. It seems that in educating adolescent girls about sexuality, Girls Inc. fails to teach young women to hate themselves or anyone else if they happen to be gay.

Almost as bad, in attempting to prevent teenage pregnancy, Girls Inc. reveals to girls that abstinence is not the only method of birth control. Since abstinence has been known to fail, it also acknowledges the existence of contraception and abortion.

No advocacy is involved. It's a simple matter of providing an honest education in the basics of good health for adolescent girls.

American Girl dolls aren't proselytizing innocent young girls into lesbianism or teenage whoredom. That's just standard laughable exaggeration from wild-eyed goofballs on the right.

But when the president of the United States lends legitimacy to the wild-eyed right on issues such as teaching religious beliefs as science in our schools, pretty soon other institutions in our society start taking seriously other ridiculous right-wing ideas.

I'd heard about the Tinky-Winky kerfuffle, but Bullwinkle? And the really sad thing is that the opinions of these loonies do have real-world consequences. A Catholic school in Brookfield, Wisconsin (about as far from Tupelo as you could get, or so you might think) cancelled an American Girl fashion show that was expected to raise from $10,000 to $30,000 for the school.

Everyone move over one

There's an interesting and persuasive piece on Jordan and regional geopolitics at Just World News, in which CS Monitor columnist Helena Cobban looks at the game of "musical kings" as played, first, by the French and British colonial powers in the wake of WWI and, more recently, by that ambitious and demented clique of freelance world-changers in PNAC.
Well, in the late 1990s, the Project for a New American Century and other pro-Likud neocons started pushing for their own, more recent version of Middle Eastern "musical kings". This was the approach sometimes known as "Everybody Move Over One" (see, e.g., here.) Under EMOO, Israel would get to keep the West Bank. The Palestinians-- who have been squeezed very hard in the West Bank since 1967 and have long constituted a numerical majority in Jordan-- would "get" Jordan. And the Hashemites would play another round of musical kings and "get" Iraq.
Except it hasn't really worked out that way yet, has it? Instead, what we seem to be seeing in the region is the unfolding of an EMOO theory that-- like all the indigenous writing systems of this region-- moves from right to left, rather than left to right. The Iranians-- who didn't even really feature in EMOO-Mark 1-- have majorly extended their influence westward into Iraq. That has squeezed the Sunni Arabs of Iraq... And now, using the network of linkages that's always existed between western Iraq and Jordan, the chaos and violence from Iraq have been bleeding over into Jordan, too.

No, I am not saying that this means that in the near future the Palestinians will suddenly be able to push westward back against the Likud and establish their own power in the West Bank. But I do think we can draw a few broader and more general lessons from what has been happening:

    1. Any use of violence has unpredictable human consequences-- and the more major the violence used, the more unpredictable and long-lasting the aftershocks will be. Washington's cavalier and very violent "move on the Middle Eastern chessboard" against Saddam had consequences that were unforeseen, literally unforeseeable, and have continued to this day to cause serious harm to the interests of the peoples of that region (and the US citizenry.)

    2. National boundaries drawn in colonial times, by colonial hands, certainly had detrimental effects on the interests and lifestyles of the indigenous peoples. But over their decades in existence those boundaries acquired some coherence and legitimacy, even if only through force majeure. They allowed some predictability in governance and the possibility (if nowhere the reality) of the emergence of accountability in governance. All the pan-Arabist challenges to the Sykes-Picot boundaries failed. Current attempts to redraw the regional map-- even if "only" through the emergence of quasi-independent statelets inside Iraq-- will certainly ricochet throughout the whole region. This will bring the threat of violence and social breakdown to increasing circles of population throughout the region.

    3. Jordan has always been a buffer state. Right now, it's a very uneasy "buffer" between Israel and Iraq. It is a major conduit for the shipment of US war supplies into Iraq-- whether these come into Jordan through Aqaba or through or from Israel... It is also the territory where population of the dispossessed and angry population of Palestine mixes with the dispossessed and angry population of western and central Iraq.

Jordan-- like much of the rest of the region-- feels to me like an explosion waiting to happen. So far, the King has acted with agility. Getting his supporters very visibly out on the streets of Amman yesterday, before the pro-Islamist people could get their people there, was a smart move. Zarqawi hurt himself badly-- and quite possibly also damaged the anti-US cause more broadly-- by the wanton and inhumane nature of Wednesday's violence. (The counter-productive effect of the purveyors of terror on the building of genuine, mass-based social movements was ever thus.) So maybe the explosion has been staved off from Jordan for a little while?

Still, the whole region of the Middle East is now bubbling with different kinds of political energy. It hasn't looked this volatile and unpredictable since 1970. That was the year when these things happened:

    (1) The Palestinian militants of George Habash's PFLP tried and failed to topple the monarchy in Jordan. But they threw the whole country into chaos as they did so.

    (2) Gamal Abdel-Nasser died of a heart attack-- in the midst of trying to negotiate an end to the Palestinian-Jordanian battles in Jordan.

    (3) Hafez al-Asad, then the commander of the Syrian Air Force and a relative moderate in the Syrian Baath Party, made the crucial decision not to use air power to support Syrian tanks going to aid the Palestinians in Jordan... That decision persuaded the Syrian tank commanders to turn back home; and shortly afterward Asad made the coup that brought his much less adventurous branch of the Baath to power in Damascus.

In 1969, Qadhafi had seized power in Libya and Saddam Hussein did the same in Iraq... So 1969 and 1970 were really transformative years for the politics of the whole region. Jordan was a crucial locus and engine of much of that change.

Since 1970, as I've written before, the political systems of nearly all these polities became quite ossified. Thirty months ago, Washington took a sledgehammer to the Iraqi part of the region's bone-set, and now, much of the ossification seems to be shattering. The whole Middle East will most likely see a lot of deep, rapid, and hard-to-predict change in the two years ahead. This much is easy to predict though: these changes will look nothing like the rosy scripts of spread of US-style democratization and US influence touted by the war-planners before March 2003 and since.

Read the whole post...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Ali ropes another dope

Headline stolen from the Daily Mail. Here's the story. Was Ali making the crazy sign to indicate the president would be "crazy to take him on," (that's what the BBC says) or to indicate the president is just ... crazy?

Hey, Ali gets the same medal Bush gave to Tommy Franks, George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer. He must be a great American.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Genetic pollution: Scam of the century?

"Oops. Sorry, we contaminated your seedstock, cultivated over thousands of years. Forever. And it looks like you're going to have to pay us to grow our crap, er crop, now."

Too bizarre? too evil? too simply unbelievable? It's not. Happens all the time. And it's even landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

The ramifications of this scam of the century are spelled out with characteristic verve by Tom Philpott, the author of Bittergreens Gazette who now spends most of his blogging hours posting on Grist.
The Wall Street Journal came out with a terrific page-one article documenting "genetic pollution" -- the damage caused when genetically modified crops cross-pollinate with conventional crops.

The article leads with an organic farmer in Spain whose sells his red field corn at a premium to nearby chicken farmers, who prize the product because it "it gives their meat and eggs a rosy color." (I'd be willing to bet that rosy color also translates to higher nutrition content.)

Now the farmer is screwed -- his seeds, carefully bred over time, have become contaminated by GM corn from nearby farms. The rich red color of his corn, like his premium, has vanished into the ether.

The article goes on to document devastating cases of genetic contamination in Oaxaca, Mexico -- birthplace of corn and home to ancient germplasm lineages; and also in the United States, where 45 percent of corn and 85 percent of soybeans are genetically altered.

The issue is: Who is legally responsible for such contamination -- i.e., who pays the damages when a farmer like the above-mentioned Spanish one loses his hard-earned premium? Who pays up when a corn culture that dates back thousands of years faces sudden extinction?

The issue will be huge as the battle lines around GM are drawn. In the last ten years, the number of global acres planted with GM crops has risen from zero to about one billion -- perhaps the most rapid spread of new technology in agriculture's 10,000-year history.

Monsanto has taken the offensive in the U.S. As a recent report from the anti-GMO stalwart Center for Food Safety shows, Monsanto operatives scour the countryside in commodity-agriculture areas, investigating farms that haven't bought Monsanto traits for intellectual-property violations, often based on tips from informants. When Monsanto's goons find GM traits on a farm that hasn't paid up, the company sues -- even despite the distinct possibility of genetic contamination. In other words, Monsanto seeks damages from farms that its traits might have damaged.

This kind of thing leaves me floundering for a word that denotes chutzpah taken up about seven orders of magnitude!

Read the whole article...

"The generals love napalm..."

"We napalmed both those [bridge] approaches," said Colonel James Alles, commander of Marine Air Group 11. "Unfortunately there were people there ... you could see them in the cockpit video. They were Iraqi soldiers. It's no great way to die. The generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect."
—Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, Aug.10, 2003
On the anniversary of the siege of Fallujah, new accusations and evidence from Italian TV of the use of white phosphorus and a "new, improved form of napalm" in Fallujah a year ago.

The U.S. military calls claims that it used white phosphorus as a weapon "disinformation"—they say they did use "willy pete," but only to illuminate battle areas. But, according to the Independent, "[p]hotographs obtained by [Italian TV network] RAI from the Studies Centre of Human Rights in Fallujah, show the bodies of dozens of Fallujah residents whose skin has been dissolved or caramelised by the effects of the phosphorus shells."

As blogger the Heretik writes, "It is impossible to reconcile phosphorus shot into the air at night for illumination purposes with people burnt in their beds."


As regards the larger catastrophe in Iraq, George Monbiot looks at the manipulations and untruths behind the Pentagon's bizarre "we don't do body counts"/"oh yes, we do" strategy, and tees off on the shameful performance of the media on both sides of the Atlantic regarding the unjustly maligned Lancet survey.

This has been a rather major bee in my bonnet for some time. As I've pointed out before, a very thorough article by Lila Guterman in the Chronicle of Higher Education refutes in a most convincing manner, most if not all of the criticisms of the Lancet survey.

Writes Monbiot:

In the US and the UK, the study was either ignored or torn to bits. The media described it as "inflated", "overstated", "politicised" and "out of proportion." Just about every possible misunderstanding and distortion of its statistics was published, of which the most remarkable was the Observer's claim that: "The report's authors admit it drew heavily on the rebel stronghold of Falluja, which has been plagued by fierce fighting. Strip out Falluja, as the study itself acknowledged, and the mortality rate is reduced dramatically." In fact, as they made clear on page one, the authors had stripped out Falluja; their estimate of 98,000 deaths would otherwise have been much higher.

But the attacks in the press succeeded in sinking the study. Now, whenever a newspaper or broadcaster produces an estimate of civilian deaths, the Lancet report is passed over in favour of lesser figures. For the past three months, the editors and subscribers of the website Medialens have been writing to papers and broadcasters to try to find out why. The standard response, exemplified by a letter from the BBC's online news service last week, is that the study's "technique of sampling and extrapolating from samples has been criticised". That's true, and by the same reasoning we could dismiss the fact that 6 million people were killed in the Holocaust, on the grounds that this figure has also been criticised, albeit by skinheads. The issue is not whether the study has been criticised, but whether the criticism is valid.

As Medialens has pointed out, it was the same lead author, using the same techniques, who reported that 1.7 million people had died as a result of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). That finding has been cited by Tony Blair, Colin Powell and almost every major newspaper on both sides of the Atlantic, and none has challenged either the method or the result. Using the Congo study as justification, the UN security council called for all foreign armies to leave the DRC and doubled the country's UN aid budget.

The other reason the press gives for burying the Lancet study is that it is out of line with competing estimates. Like Jack Straw, wriggling his way around the figures in a written ministerial statement, they compare it to the statistics compiled by the Iraqi health ministry and the website Iraq Body Count.

In December 2003, Associated Press reported that "Iraq's health ministry has ordered a halt to a count of civilians killed during the war". According to the head of the ministry's statistics department, both the puppet government and the Coalition Provisional Authority demanded that it be stopped. As Naomi Klein has shown on these pages, when US soldiers stormed Falluja (a year ago today), their first action was to seize the general hospital and arrest the doctors. The New York Times reported that "the hospital was selected as an early target because the American military believed that it was the source of rumours about heavy casualties". After the coalition had used these novel statistical methods to improve the results, Blair told parliament that "figures from the Iraqi ministry of health, which are a survey from the hospitals there, are in our view the most accurate survey there is".

Iraq Body Count, whose tally has reached 26,000-30,000, measures only civilian deaths which can be unambiguously attributed to the invasion and which have been reported by two independent news agencies. As the compilers point out, "it is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media ... our own total is certain to be an underestimate of the true position, because of gaps in reporting or recording". Of the seven mortality reports surveyed by the Overseas Development Institute, the estimate in the Lancet's paper was only the third highest. It remains the most thorough study published so far. Extraordinary as its numbers seem, they are the most likely to be true.

And what of the idea that most of the violent deaths in Iraq are caused by coalition troops? Well according to the Houston Chronicle, even Blair's favourite data source, the Iraqi health ministry, reports that twice as many Iraqis - and most of them civilians - are being killed by US and UK forces as by insurgents. When the Pentagon claims that it has just killed 50 or 70 or 100 rebel fighters, we have no means of knowing who those people really were. Everyone it blows to pieces becomes a terrorist. In July Jack Keane, the former vice chief of staff of the US army, claimed that coalition troops had killed or captured more than 50,000 "insurgents" since the start of the rebellion. Perhaps they were all Zarqawi's closest lieutenants.

We can expect the US and UK governments to seek to minimise the extent of their war crimes. But it's time the media stopped collaborating.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Gadfly Sy: only two options

Where would we be without Seymour Hersh?

Here, the Globe and Mail pays attention to what Mr. Hersh says, at length. Why his comments aren't on page one of the Times and Post is another question worth pondering.

Of Fitzgerald, Hersh is, er, pretty optimistic: "He's going to save America.... Fitzgerald's going deep. He may just unravel the whole conspiracy."

But as for the bigger picture, maybe not so optimistic:
"We're so out of control," he says of the United States. "We have a colossus out of control. It's the end of the world, brought to you by the neocons."
This from a man who at the top of the interview was judged to be "in an upbeat mood. At least for him."

As for the United Nations interim report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, it's no sale with Sy:
"[Mehlis] is relying on intercepts of an unnamed source inside the Iranian air force, someone without inside stuff. It's not empirical."

And echoing Juan Cole's excellent Bush Dunnit post earlier this month, Hersh wonders if the Prez is as dumb as everyone thinks:

Although Bush is sometimes seen as a political marionette, manipulated by unseen masters, Hersh isn't so sure. He recalls a Saturday Night Live skit from the Reagan years that portrayed the then-president as a doddering fool who, once the cameras were off and the doors closed, calls a National Security council meeting, starts speaking Chinese and gives a detailed assessment of strategic threats.

"So sometimes I wonder," says Hersh. In Toronto, he says, he will talk about responsibility and war crimes and "make the case that gets Bush in the middle of it. There is a case for the President's direct participation. It's not something that happened without his acquiescence. I'd like to think he knows what's going on."

In the meantime (Hersh is waiting to see if Fitzgerald drops more indictment bombs), "he's the sleeper, a true unassailable. The White House calls him Eliot Ness [the Prohibition-era federal agent whose team of 'Untouchables' helped bring down mobster Al Capone], not with affection, so I've heard."

Hersh predicts that "every day will get worse in Iraq. Another 30,000 Iraqis will die if we keep going. Fewer will die if we get out. There are only two options, as I see it: Pull out now or pull out tomorrow."