Sunday, December 31, 2006

PAUL KRUGMAN: A Healthy New Year

The U.S. health care system is a scandal and a disgrace. But maybe, just maybe, 2007 will be the year we start the move toward universal coverage.

In 2005, almost 47 million Americans — including more than 8 million children — were uninsured, and many more had inadequate insurance.

Apologists for our system try to minimize the significance of these numbers. Many of the uninsured, asserted the 2004 Economic Report of the President, “remain uninsured as a matter of choice.”

And then you wake up. A scathing article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times described how insurers refuse to cover anyone with even the slightest hint of a pre-existing condition. People have been denied insurance for reasons that range from childhood asthma to a “past bout of jock itch.”

Some say that we can’t afford universal health care, even though every year lack of insurance plunges millions of Americans into severe financial distress and sends thousands to an early grave. But every other advanced country somehow manages to provide all its citizens with essential care. The only reason universal coverage seems hard to achieve here is the spectacular inefficiency of the U.S. health care system.

Americans spend more on health care per person than anyone else — almost twice as much as the French, whose medical care is among the best in the world. Yet we have the highest infant mortality and close to the lowest life expectancy of any wealthy nation. How do we do it?

Part of the answer is that our fragmented system has much higher administrative costs than the straightforward government insurance systems prevalent in the rest of the advanced world. As Anna Bernasek pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times, besides the overhead of private insurance companies, “there’s an enormous amount of paperwork required of American doctors and hospitals that simply doesn’t exist in countries like Canada or Britain.”

In addition, insurers often refuse to pay for preventive care, even though such care saves a lot of money in the long run, because those long-run savings won’t necessarily redound to their benefit. And the fragmentation of the American system explains why we lag far behind other nations in the use of electronic medical records, which both reduce costs and save lives by preventing many medical errors.

The truth is that we can afford to cover the uninsured. What we can’t afford is to keep going without a universal health care system.

If it were up to me, we’d have a Medicare-like system for everyone, paid for by a dedicated tax that for most people would be less than they or their employers currently pay in insurance premiums. This would, at a stroke, cover the uninsured, greatly reduce administrative costs and make it much easier to work on preventive care.

Such a system would leave people with the right to choose their own doctors, and with other choices as well: Medicare currently lets people apply their benefits to H.M.O.’s run by private insurance companies, and there’s no reason why similar options shouldn’t be available in a system of Medicare for all. But everyone would be in the system, one way or another.

Can we get there from here? Health care reform is in the air. Democrats in Congress are talking about providing health insurance to all children. John Edwards began his presidential campaign with a call for universal health care.

And there’s real action at the state level. Inspired by the Massachusetts plan to cover all its uninsured residents, politicians in other states are talking about adopting similar plans. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has introduced a Massachusetts-type plan for the nation as a whole.

But now is the time to warn against plans that try to cover the uninsured without taking on the fundamental sources of our health system’s inefficiency. What’s wrong with both the Massachusetts plan and Senator Wyden’s plan is that they don’t operate like Medicare; instead, they funnel the money through private insurance companies.

Everyone knows why: would-be reformers are trying to avoid too strong a backlash from the insurance industry and other players who profit from our current system’s irrationality.

But look at what happened to Bill Clinton. He rejected a single-payer approach, even though he understood its merits, in favor of a complex plan that was supposed to co-opt private insurance companies by giving them a largely gratuitous role. And the reward for this “pragmatism” was that insurance companies went all-out against his plan anyway, with the notorious “Harry and Louise” ads that, yes, mocked the plan’s complexity.

Now we have another chance for fundamental health care reform. Let’s not blow that chance with a pre-emptive surrender to the special interests.

BOB HERBERT: The Not Wanted Signs

I’ve heard the concern expressed dozens of times by New Orleans residents who are poor and black and still living in enforced exile from their wounded city: Maybe they don’t want us back.

You hear it again and again and again, the tone of voice varying from sadness to anger to resignation, but always laced with the unmistakable pain of feeling unwelcome in one’s own home. I’ve come to think of it as the New Orleans lament.

“They are not trying to bring us home,” said Geraldine Craig, who is living in a federally sponsored trailer encampment in Baton Rouge. “Just the opposite. They’re telling us to find housing here.”

“It hurts,” said Mimi Adams, a woman who wore out her welcome with relatives in Houston and Atlanta but has no idea when she might return to New Orleans. “Even if I could find a place, the rents are too high,” she said. “They’ve gone up a lot. I’m told they don’t want us poor folks back, that they’re making it a city for the well-to-do. That’s what I’m hearing.”

Sixteen months have passed since the apocalyptic flood that followed Hurricane Katrina. More than 13,000 residents who were displaced by the storm are still living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Another 100,000 to 200,000 evacuees — most of whom want to return home — are scattered throughout the United States.

The undeniable neglect of this population fuels the suspicion among the poor and the black, who constitute a majority of the evacuees, that the city is being handed over to the well-to-do and the white.

If you talk to public officials, you will hear about billions of dollars in aid being funneled through this program or that. The maze of bureaucratic initiatives is dizzying. But when you talk to the people most in need of help — the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the children — you will find in most cases that the help is not reaching them. There is no massive effort, no master plan, to bring back the people who were driven from the city and left destitute by Katrina.

Only the federal government could finance such an effort. Neither the city of New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana has anywhere near the kind of money that would be required. “You’ve got a lot of people who don’t have a place to stay,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco told me in an interview on Friday, “and they’re spread all over creation.”

The federal government has not come close to meeting the challenge of this overwhelming humanitarian crisis. Instead of a concerted, creative effort to develop housing and organize the return to New Orleans of the poor and working-class families who were the heart and soul of the city, the government focused to a large extent on rolling out travel trailers to temporarily house an embarrassingly small percentage of the people in need.

“FEMA spent a lot on trailers,” said Governor Blanco, “trailers that are falling apart right now. And they spent as much money on those trailers in many cases as you would on putting a new house in place.”

The simple fact is that no one at any level of government, city, state or federal, has shown the leadership that was needed in response to this astounding tragedy. I tried to talk about this last week with the mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, but he and his chief press aide were on vacation.

The most candid official I spoke with was Raymond Jetson, the chief executive of the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, an independent, nonprofit group set up by the state in the wake of the storm.

“The most daunting aspect of the recovery is the human recovery,” he said, “and at this point it has certainly not received the resources or the attention that it needs.”

What was readily apparent in the aftermath of the botched rescue was the damage to the levees, the ruined homes and the city’s devastated infrastructure. “I don’t think,” said Mr. Jetson, “that the reality of what was happening in the lives of people and families was as apparent.”

The situation remains desperate for thousands of displaced residents. “Working families are finding it difficult to re-establish their households,” Mr. Jetson said. “People who are out of state want to come back home. The clock is ticking on the people who are living in the FEMA trailer communities. You have some people who are totally isolated from resources. And the emotional well-being of a significant number of people and families is literally in peril.”

This is how the new year is starting out for the victims of the great flood of 2005.

The Hope of a Fresh Start

NYT Editorial

New Year’s Day is the simplest holiday in the calendar, a Champagne cork of a day after all the effervescence of the evening before. There is no civic agenda, no liturgical content, only the sense of something ended, something begun. It is a good day to clean the ashes out of the wood stove, to consider the possibilities of next summer’s garden, to wonder how many weeks into the new year you will be before you marvel at how quickly 2007 is going. “This will be the year ...,” you find yourself thinking, but before you can finish the thought you remember what all the previous years have taught you — that there’s just no telling.

We are supposed to believe in the fresh start of a new year, and who doesn’t love the thought of it? But we are just as likely to feel the pull of the old ways on this holiday, to acknowledge the solid comfort — like it or not — of the self we happen to have become over the years. We may not say, like Charles Lamb in 1820, that we would no more alter the shape of our lives “than the incidents of some well-contrived novel.” But we know what he means.

No one has faced the prospect of New Year’s time more honestly than Lamb. He knew that its real theme was what he called “an intolerable disinclination to dying,” something he felt especially sharply in the dead of winter, awaiting the peal of bells ringing in the new year. It was an inescapable syllogism for him — New Year, the passing of time, the certainty of death.

What it forced from him was the very thing it should force from all of us — a renewal of our pleasure in life itself. “I am in love,” he wrote, “with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets.”

Saturday, December 30, 2006

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF: Ten Suggestions for Rescuing the Bush Legacy

Particularly after all the tributes to Gerald Ford in the last few days, President Bush may be pondering his own legacy and obituary. Sorry, Mr. Bush, but it doesn’t look good right now, with your obit perhaps beginning something like this:

“George W. Bush, who achieved tremendous acclaim for his handling of the 9/11 terror attacks but left office vilified and disgraced, mired in the Iraq war and stalemated at home, his hard-line partisan tactics souring the electorate and crippling his beloved Republican Party for a generation, died. …”

But Mr. Bush, your plight isn’t hopeless. In the holiday spirit, let me offer you 10 suggestions for what you can do in 2007 to try to rescue your legacy.

First, seriously engage Iraq’s nastier neighbors, including Iran and Syria, and renounce permanent military bases in Iraq. None of that will solve the mess in Iraq. But these steps will suggest that you are belatedly trying to listen and are willing to give diplomacy a chance. They may also help at the margins: renouncing bases is a simple move that has no downside and will make it harder for Iraqi militants to argue that Americans are just out to steal Iraqi oil and grab military bases.

Second, start an intensive effort to bring peace to the Middle East. Work with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to flesh out his peace proposals. And vigorously back the Geneva Accord approach to an Israeli-Palestinian peace, since everybody knows that is what a final peace deal will look like. Frankly, it seems unlikely that peace is going to break out anytime soon in the Middle East, but there is a huge dividend for America’s image if we at least try.

Third, confront the genocide in Darfur. President Bill Clinton has said that the biggest regret of his administration is not responding to the Rwandan genocide, and someday you — and your biographers — will rue your lame response to Darfur. For starters, how about inviting the leaders of Britain, France, China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to travel with you to Darfur and Chad to see firsthand the women who have been mutilated and raped, the men whose eyes have been gouged out? Follow that up with a no-fly zone, an international force to prop up Chad and the Central African Republic, and a major push for an internal peace among Darfur tribes.

Fourth, encourage Dick Cheney to look pale in public. Then he can resign on health grounds, and you can appoint Condi Rice or Bob Gates to take his place. Mr. Cheney has been the single worst influence on your foreign policy, as well as the most polarizing figure in your administration. There’s no better move you could make to signal a new beginning than to accept Mr. Cheney’s resignation.

Fifth, revive the theme of compassionate conservatism by extending your excellent five-year AIDS program (while not being so squeamish about condoms in the future). And above all, work with Europe to promote incentives for business investment in Africa, modeled after the African Growth and Opportunity Act program. The best hope to raise Africa’s standard of living is to nurture factories manufacturing clothing, shoes and toys for export.

Sixth, address climate change. Nobody expects you to be an Al Gore, but you sully America’s image when you run away from any serious attempt to curb carbon emissions.

Seventh, put aside those thoughts of a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites, and make it clear to Israel that we oppose it conducting such an attack. A strike would set back Iran’s nuclear programs by only five years or so, but it would consolidate hard-line rule there for at least 25 years.

Eighth, instead of giving up on Social Security, revive the reform proposals that President Clinton urged in 1999. That does mean bringing the budget back into black ink, which will mean phasing out some tax cuts for the wealthy.

Ninth, address our disgraceful inequities in health care. You could push for comprehensive coverage for children up to age 5 (as President Jimmy Carter tried to achieve a generation ago), and for almost zero cost you could mount a public health campaign to tackle obesity in children. Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Arkansas, has shown how state governments can fight diabetes and obesity, and you should take his approach nationwide.

Tenth, don’t toss this newspaper to the floor and curse the press for your unpopularity. Instead, borrow from your playbook after you lost the New Hampshire primary in 2000 — grit your teeth, retool and steal ideas from your critics and rivals. It worked then, and it just might help in 2007.

Interior Officials' Ties to Oil Probed

WASHINGTON - Federal investigators are looking at whether Interior Department officials played favorites or took money from companies vying for big oil and gas contracts.

The probe is the latest in a series of investigations into Interior's handling of $10 billion a year in royalties paid by companies on the $60 billion in oil and gas they produce from leased public lands.

The latest investigations into Interior's handling of oil royalties were reported Saturday by The New York Times, which cited unidentified officials speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigations were not yet made public.

Those royalties are the federal government's second-biggest source of revenues, behind only taxes. Other investigations are looking at multibillion-dollar shortfalls in royalty payments.

The Justice Department is investigating the allegations based on the work of the Interior Department's inspector general's office, an internal watchdog. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said his staff were told earlier this month of two related matters that the Interior inspector general's office referred to the FBI and Justice Department.

Markey said Saturday in a statement given to The Associated Press that it was "beyond the pale" that several Denver-based officials in Interior's Minerals Management Service may have illegally benefited by acting as paid consultants to some of the oil and gas companies. At issue is whether the officials steered oil-trading contracts to favorite companies.

The Minerals Management Service helps oversee a program the Bush administration has promoted that allows companies to pay "in-kind" amounts of oil and gas, rather than cash royalties, for drilling federal lands. Such payments total about $3.7 billion in oil and gas a year.

Interior sent most of the oil and gas to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but lately has sold it by hiring private companies that solicit bids. Through that bidding, companies offering the highest premium over daily market prices is supposed to win the oil-trading contract.

"The allegation that any senior official who is responsible for collecting royalties from companies that drill on public lands is also taking money from those companies as a consultant is beyond a conflict of interest, if true, it is a crime," according the statement Saturday from Markey, a senior member of the House Resources Committee.

"The Interior Department is riddled with people who got their jobs because they were close to the oil industry and could be expected to tilt every decision accordingly," he said. "Royalties owed to the government from production on public lands have become the currency of cozy cooperation between industry and its special friends in the Interior Department."

Markey promised that Democrats taking over Congress in January will fully examine the royalties program, which Congress has begun investigating.

Friday, December 29, 2006

When Iraqis Gave Up on Government ... Sorry they ever took part in the elections

BAGHDAD (IPS) - The Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki, like earlier governments assigned by U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq, appears to have killed Iraqi dreams of a brighter future.

General elections Dec. 15, 2005 brought in a government that was supposed to listen to Iraqis all over the country. It was called a unity government because the cabinet was formed to include ministers from all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds after months of negotiations in the parliament.

"This is a unity government that no one should object to," al-Maliki told reporters recently in Baghdad. "All of the powers in parliament should take part in improving security and services in order to achieve success."

"We are not really in the government," Tariq al-Hashimi, leader of the Islamic Party, and one of Iraq's two vice-presidents told IPS earlier. "Maliki and his coalition never gave us any real role in the government, and our ministers' actions are therefore paralysed."

Hashimi's group, like other Sunni groups and also some moderate Shia groups, are nearly voiceless in the feeble Iraqi government.


Al-Ani cited recent polls to say that more than 90 percent of Iraqis are angry with the government. People continue to blame the government for everything going wrong from the high level of violence to lack of employment and of water and electricity.

One of the darkest clouds of illegitimacy over the Iraqi government is the alignment of top officials with the Sadr Movement, which has been accused of backing most of the sectarian death squads that are now the leading cause of death in Iraq.

"This government failed on all the promises it made to Iraqis, and so all Iraqis want it changed," Muhammad Basher al-Faidhy, spokesman for the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars told IPS. "They are sorry they ever took part in the elections. Our Association warned Iraqis that this government would be the worst ever. They simply cannot get rid of death squads because they are their major ally."

Most Iraqis see no future for Maliki's struggling government, which barely controls the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad where its offices are located. The rest of the country is fragmented, and the economy and infrastructure are in ruins.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

PAUL KRUGMAN: A Failed Revolution

After first attempting to deny the scale of last month’s defeat, the apologists have settled on a story line that sounds just like Marxist explanations for the failure of the Soviet Union. What happened, you see, was that the noble ideals of the Republican revolution of 1994 were undermined by Washington’s corrupting ways. And the recent defeat was a good thing, because it will force a return to the true conservative path.

But the truth is that the movement that took power in 1994 — a movement that had little to do with true conservatism — was always based on a lie.

The lie is right there in “The Freedom Revolution,” the book that Dick Armey, who had just become the House majority leader, published in 1995. He declares that most government programs don’t do anything “to help American families with the needs of everyday life,” and that “very few American families would notice their disappearance.” He goes on to assert that “there is no reason we cannot, by the time our children come of age, reduce the federal government by half as a percentage of gross domestic product.”

Right. Somehow, I think more than a few families would notice the disappearance of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and those three programs alone account for a majority of nondefense, noninterest spending. The truth is that the government delivers services and security that people want. Yes, there’s some waste — just as there is in any large organization. But there are no big programs that are easy to cut.

As long as people like Mr. Armey, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were out of power, they could run on promises to eliminate vast government waste that existed only in the public’s imagination — all those welfare queens driving Cadillacs. But once in power, they couldn’t deliver.

That’s why government by the radical right has been an utter failure even on its own terms: the government hasn’t shrunk. Federal outlays other than interest payments and defense spending are a higher percentage of G.D.P. today than they were when Mr. Armey wrote his book: 14.8 percent in fiscal 2006, compared with 13.8 percent in fiscal 1995.

Unable to make good on its promises, the G.O.P., like other failed revolutionary movements, tried to maintain its grip by exploiting its position of power. Friends were rewarded with patronage: Jack Abramoff began building his web of corruption almost as soon as Republicans took control. Adversaries were harassed with smear campaigns and witch hunts: Congress spent six years and many millions of dollars investigating a failed land deal, and Bill Clinton was impeached over a consensual affair.

But it wasn’t enough. Without 9/11, the Republican revolution would probably have petered out quietly, with the loss of Congress in 2002 and the White House in 2004. Instead, the atrocity created a window of opportunity: four extra years gained by drowning out unfavorable news with terror alerts, starting a gratuitous war, and accusing Democrats of being weak on national security.

Yet the Bush administration failed to convert this electoral success into progress on a right-wing domestic agenda. The collapse of the push to privatize Social Security recapitulated the failure of the Republican revolution as a whole. Once the administration was forced to get specific about the details, it became obvious that private accounts couldn’t produce something for nothing, and the public’s support vanished.

In the end, Republicans didn’t shrink the government. But they did degrade it. Baghdad and New Orleans are the arrival destinations of a movement based on deep contempt for governance.

Is that the end for the radical right? Probably not. As a long-suffering civil servant once told me, bad policy ideas are like cockroaches: you can flush them down the toilet, but they keep coming back. Many of the ideas that failed in the Bush years had previously failed in the Reagan years. So there’s no reason to assume they’re gone for good.

Indeed, it appears that loss of power and the ensuing lack of accountability is liberating right-wingers to lie yet again: since last month’s election, I’ve noticed a number of Social Security privatizers propounding the same free-lunch falsehoods that the Bush administration had to abandon in the face of demands that it present an actual plan.

Still, the Republican revolution of 1994 is over. And not a moment too soon.

7 Police indicted in Katrina bridge shootings


Seven police officers were indicted Thursday on murder and attempted murder charges in a pair of shootings that left two people dead during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The charges cover two separate shootings on bridges. In one case, two young men were killed on the Danziger Bridge connecting two predominantly black neighborhoods. In the other, four people were wounded on a span over the Industrial Canal.

At the time, the sweltering city was still littered with corpses as rescuers tried to evacuate stranded residents and looters ransacked stores.

Police initially said the Sept. 4, 2005, shooting on the Danziger Bridge occurred after shots were fired at Army Corps of Engineers workers. It became one of the most widely cited examples of the anarchy that descended after the storm.

Woodward: Ford Disagreed With Bush About Invading Iraq

Former president Gerald R. Ford said in an embargoed interview in July 2004 that the Iraq war was not justified. "I don't think I would have gone to war," he said a little more than a year after President Bush had launched the invasion advocated and carried out by prominent veteran's of Ford's own administration.In a four-hour conversation at his house in Beaver Creek, Colo., Ford "very strongly" disagreed with the current president's justifications for invading Iraq and said he would have pushed alternatives, such as sanctions, much more vigorously.

In the tape-recorded interview, Ford was critical not only of Bush but also of Vice President Cheney -- Ford's White House chief of staff -- and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff and then his Pentagon chief."Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq.

They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction," Ford said. "And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do." More

BOB HERBERT: Lessons Never Learned

It would not be easy to find two men more different than Gerald Ford and James Brown. But I had a similar reaction to each of their deaths — a feeling of disappointment at some of the routes the nation has traveled since their days of greatest prominence.

Both men were important figures, symbolically more than substantively, at crucial periods in postwar American history — Mr. Brown at the crest of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s and Mr. Ford in the trough of the “long national nightmare” of Watergate.

Both were unlikely harbingers of the new. Mr. Brown, with his gleaming (and anachronistic) pompadour, became the very embodiment of black pride, a troubadour exhorting his followers to “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” at a time when schoolhouse doors were opening and unprecedented opportunities were beckoning to black Americans after centuries of almost unimaginable degradation.

Mr. Ford was more than just the designated healer after Watergate. The U.S. was also in the final throes of the long national nightmare of Vietnam. And it was stuck in a protracted energy crisis. The nation was looking for a way forward.

My disappointment stems from the opportunities never seized and the lessons never learned from those two periods, which were all but bursting with possibilities.

Mr. Brown’s message was relentlessly upbeat and optimistic. Despite the continuing plague of racism, there were dreams in the 1960s of fabulous days ahead for black Americans, days in which the stereotypes and degradation of the past would be erased by a new era of educational, professional and cultural achievement.

Those dreams did not include visions of an enormous economically disadvantaged population that would continue to live in poverty, or near-poverty, more than 40 years later; or a perennially ragged public school system, largely segregated in fact, if not by law, that would turn out generation after generation of educationally deprived children; or a black prison population so vast and so enduring it would come to seem normal to legions of black youngsters, actually dictating to a great extent their tastes in fashion, art and music; or a level of sustained violence that has condemned thousands upon thousands of black youngsters to an early grave.

Oh, there have been plenty of strides since the mid-1960s. That’s undeniable. But one would have to be blind not to notice that there is much cause for disappointment, as well.

James Farmer, who helped create the Congress of Racial Equality on Gandhian principles of nonviolence, once told me that even as the civil rights movement was racking up its stunning successes, its leaders made a grave error.

“We did not do any long-range planning,” he said. “So we were stuck without a program after the success of our efforts, which included passage of a civil rights bill and voting rights legislation. We could have anticipated the backlash that followed. We could have asked ourselves what the jobs prospects would be for blacks in the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, and later on. By and large we didn’t do that, except for affirmative action. We should have had a plan.”

It would be foolish to suggest that the United States as a whole hasn’t made tremendous progress since the 1960s and ’70s. But it’s impossible to reflect on the presidency of Gerald Ford, who formally ended U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam, and fail to notice that his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and chief of staff, Dick Cheney, were among the chief architects of the current calamity in Iraq. There were lessons galore to be learned from Vietnam. But Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney, like frat boys skipping an important lecture, managed to ignore them.

The trauma of the 1973 oil embargo actually spooked the country into action on the energy front. Fuel economy standards for automobiles were ratcheted up and improvements were made in the energy efficiency of refrigerators, air-conditioners and other household appliances. But those successful early efforts, instead of being strengthened, were undermined by the conservative political tide of the past several years.

Now we’re confronted with the dire threat of global warming, and as usual there is no plan.

If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history. We could have stepped back from the war in Iraq, and stepped up to the challenge of global warming. We could have learned something when James Brown was on the charts and Gerald Ford was in the White House.

ROGER COHEN: Words of Hope for Iraq, if Only Bush Had Said Them

Here's a speech President George W. Bush might address to Iraqis as a year of bloodshed draws to a close:

I want to address myself today to the Iraqi people. You stand at the end of a year of anguish that has made you doubt your government, your army and police, your American ally and, no doubt, the very existence of your fragmented country. I share your dismay and I sense your outrage. Some of your suffering results from mistakes for which I take responsibility. But we must all try to look forward. The past is instructive. Yet the past will not put food on your tables, nor deliver electricity to your homes. It can feed hatred; it cannot feed you.

I spoke of mistakes. We freed you of the tyrant
Saddam Hussein. Yet we did not have a serious plan for the consolidation of that freedom nor a serious estimation of the social revolution that the end of tyranny would bring. I understand now the instinct of liberated Shiites to be among Shiites, Sunnis among Sunnis, Kurds among Kurds. Each group feels safer that way. Each would prefer to rule than be ruled. Each would rather wield the stick than suffer its blows. Modern Middle Eastern history scarcely counsels any other course.

Yet consider the millions of cellphones you have all acquired since the dictatorship was ended. They are made for communication, not for the building of walls. Consider the goods you've imported, the cars and the air conditioners. That trade is about opening up, too. I know, we've put walls around the Green Zone, we've put concrete and razor wire between you and your government. But those walls will come down one day as surely as the barriers of hatred that have hardened these past three years.

Walls take you backward. They crumble before the liberating technologies of our age. Iraq is marked today by lines of division. Yet it can rise above them. It must, because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. I ask you: If Iraq were so unnatural a creation, would it take so much blood to try to break it apart?

Some of my critics have found a new name for my decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They call it: "The War of the Imagination." By that, I guess they mean that I imagined the threats Iraq posed, imagined its weapons of mass destruction, imagined a wave of liberation in the Middle East and imagined a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy. O.K., perhaps I did let my imagination run away with me a little.

But there's a publication over here called The New York Review of Books, no friend of mine, and it recently ran an article called "The War of the Imagination" over a photograph of an Iraqi searching for the remains of his relative among one of Saddam's mass graves. One thing I did not imagine was those graves. One thing I did not imagine was Saddam's secret police coming for you in the night. One thing I did not imagine was a terror so deep you were scared even to think ill of the now-judged despot.

One thing I did not imagine was how Saddam borrowed from the Nazis to organize his Baath Party and borrowed from Stalin for his personality cult.

America helped free Europe of those totalitarian scourges. There are those who believe the Middle East was unworthy of, or unready for, or unmovable by, a similar liberation. They argue that the drawing of such parallels between Europe and the Middle East is foolish or naïve. I think otherwise. And I cherish the hope, still, that you will not squander the opportunity the United States has now offered you.

The description I prefer is a "War of Creation." What's at stake now is nothing less than the creation of modern Iraq. That's the solemn responsibility of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and I give my solemn undertaking that the United States will do all it can to help him. You never owned the Iraq of Saddam. You never owned the Iraq of the Baathists, nor of the monarchy, nor of colonial rulers. Yet you can own this Iraq.

You can make it yours, make it one and make it whole. For that to happen, loyalty to the flag, to your elected government, to the new uniforms of the army and the police, must rise above loyalty to tribe. I know how hard that will be. We fought wars against our former rulers and among ourselves to forge our nation. These are not matters of days or weeks or even years. They are generational struggles. Yours has just begun.

I spoke of mistakes. We will not compound them by cutting and running, or even cutting and walking. But America cannot make the new Iraq; you must. Wherever and whenever we can we will hand responsibility to you.

Over time we will cut and, if that is your wish, end our military presence.

Germany is a friend and we still have soldiers there. Vietnam is now a friend, too, and our soldiers are gone, but we have forces nearby. People tend to forget the role America's far- flung garrisons play in the unprecedented peace and stability that much of humanity enjoys. Neither you nor I have the privilege of such forgetfulness.

It is fashionable to mock my country and to describe Iraq as lost.

But fashion is not the best moral compass, nor the best policy guide. We will work hard in the coming year to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer, to engage where we can with your neighbors, and to blunt fanaticism.

For too long America was a status- quo power in the Middle East while it changed the status quo in Europe and Asia. You suffered from that as you have suffered from our policy change. The difference is you now have your future in your hands. I urge you to seize that opportunity.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gov't Watchdogs Under Attack From Bosses

WASHINGTON - The inspectors general entrusted to unearth waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies are increasingly under attack, as top government officials they scrutinize try to erode the watchdogs' independence and authority.

During 2006, several inspectors general felt the wrath of government bosses or their supporters in Congress after investigations cited agencies for poor performance, excessive spending or wasted money.

For instance:

-The top official of the government's property and supply agency compared its inspector general to a terrorist, hoping to chill audits of General Services Administration regional offices and private businesses.

-Directors of the government's legal aid program discussed firing their inspector general, who investigated how top officials lavishly spent tax dollars for limousine services, ritzy hotels and $14 "Death by Chocolate" desserts.

-Administration-friendly Republicans in Congress tried to do away with the special inspector general for Iraq, who repeatedly exposed examples of administration waste that cost billions of dollars. Among the contractors criticized was Halliburton Corp., once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

-The Pentagon has been making its inspector general use lawyers picked by the defense secretary instead of independently hired attorneys.

"It's hard to believe that the government is serious about policing itself when it's whacking the people who are actually minding the store," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group that tracks government waste and fraud. "These people are our security officers who help guard tens of billions of dollars. It's ridiculous to prevent them from doing their jobs."

Sean Kevelighan, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the Bush administration counts on "independent and unbiased views" of the watchdogs and is willing to intervene in any disputes.

"If and when there are times where intervention is necessary, the administration will do so to ensure all the parties are educated about one another's roles and the importance of maintaining a productive relationship - and a healthy respect for the responsibilities of all involved," he added.

When GSA Inspector General Brian Miller's team intensively audited the agency's regional offices, he ran into strong resistance from agency administrator Lurita Doan.

A business owner, Doan suggested some auditing functions be taken away from the watchdog and given to small businesses.

"There are two kinds of terrorism in the U.S.: the external kind and internally, the IGs have terrorized the regional administrators," she told Miller and his staff on Aug. 18.

The quotes are from a participant's meeting notes obtained by The Associated Press. Miller aide Robert Samuels attended the meeting and confirmed the comments, as did another attendee.......

Baker sought to cover-up illegal trade with Saddam's Iraq, Israeli charges

Insight Magazine

Former Secretary of State James Baker was involved in a cover-up of illegal trading by his law firm with the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, according to a former contractor who did work for Mr. Baker’s firm.

Mr. Baker used non-Americans to help acquire funds from Iraq in violation of the United Nations embargo and U.S. law, the former contractor said.

Nir Gouaz, an Israeli security veteran, said that in 1999 Mr. Baker's leading deputy at the law firm of Baker Botts ordered him to destroy all documents that detailed how he obtained from Iraq more than $250 million for a client.

Mr. Baker's firm has denied Mr. Gouaz's account.

But the Israeli said he has documents that could destroy Mr. Baker's reputation. He said he has been angered by Mr. Baker's attempt to press the Bush administration to impose an anti-Israeli policy in an attempt to win Arab cooperation to help stabilize Iraq. Mr. Baker, appointed by President Bush in 2003 as his envoy to recover debts from Iraq, has also co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, which on Dec. 6 issued 79 recommendations on U.S. policy in Iraq. .....

Who's shouting now?

Baltimore Sun

Ever since Fox News Channel, founded in 1996, proved that news delivered with attitude, opinion and even belligerence could wipe the clock of just about any competitor, CNN - once the undisputed leader of the cable news pack - and a handful of smaller channels have been struggling to find a formula that brings in the same kind of numbers.

Now, CNN and the others appear to have found an answer. Virtually all the competitors are slashing at the Fox ratings lead by offering their own versions of noisy and opinionated news. CNN has been closing on Fox and the others, including MSNBC and CNBC, have on occasion closed on CNN. They're all doing it by delivering the news with a strong personal flair.

The shakeout among the main cable news networks is all the more notable for the audience losses at Fox News Channel, which has suffered a 21 percent decline in total viewers when compared to the fourth quarter of 2005. Its biggest star, Bill O'Reilly, virtually invincible for much of the Bush administration's tenure, has also lost a significant number of viewers in the past year as the administration's fortunes have waned, its Iraq policy in shambles and its midterm electoral defeats conclusive.

Overall, though, O'Reilly remains the king of cable, ahead of CNN's Larry King and the target of almost relentless invective from MSNBC's Olbermann, who cheerfully describes O'Reilly as "the worst person in the world."

O'Reilly, quick to take offense from any challenge to his bedrock conservative views, is equally dismissive of Olbermann. Watching the two go after each other is a spectator sport....

FBI Says Files In Leak Cases Are ‘Missing'

SAN FRANCISCO — The FBI is missing nearly a quarter of its files relating to investigations of recent leaks of classified information, according to a court filing the bureau made last week.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the FBI said it identified 94 leak investigations since 2001, but that the investigative files in 22 of those cases "are missing" and cannot be located. "There is no physical slip of paper on the shelf which indicates that the file has been charged out to a particular FBI employee, so therefore there is no way of knowing where the file may actually be," an official in the bureau's records division, Peggy Bellando, wrote in a December 22 declaration.

"That's an amazing number," an academic who has studied the FBI's record-keeping procedures, Athan Theoharis of Marquette University, said in an interview yesterday. "These are very sensitive investigations. ... They could be called to account for whether they are monitoring reporters. These are records that should be handled very well."

Monday, December 25, 2006

Iraqi President 'Unhappy' About Iranian Detentions


Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is "unhappy" that U.S. forces detained two Iranian officials during their recent visit to Iraq, a Talabani spokesman said Monday. "Two Iranian officials who came to Iraq at the invitation of President Talabani have been apprehended by U.S. troops, and the president is unhappy about it," the spokesman said. "The invitation took place during the visit of President Talabani to Tehran. It was done in the framework of an agreement to improve security in Iraq." The spokesman said the Iranians were arrested last week after arriving in Iraq in late November. He described the Iranians as "security officials" but gave no further details. No one was immediately available for comment at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad. The U.S. military has not responded to requests for comment.

UK troops storm Iraqi police HQ


More than 1,000 UK troops have stormed the headquarters of an Iraqi police unit to rescue 127 prisoners, dozens of whom they had feared would be killed.
The forces demolished the Jamiat police station, which was the Serious Crimes Unit's base in Basra.

The British said the unit was suspected of murder and the rescued prisoners appeared to have been tortured.

However, Mohammed al Abadi, head of the city's council, said the raid was illegal and provocative.

He said the council had withdrawn co-operation with the military, saying they had not been informed of the operation and that it violated earlier agreements.

Major Charlie Burbridge, speaking on behalf of the British Army in Basra, insisted that the troops had prior political support from Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Malaki.

Meanwhile, US forces in Iraq have detained two Iranian envoys who were invited in by President Jalal Talabani.

A spokesman told the French news agency AFP that the president was unhappy with the arrests.

The Christmas Day raid on the police station took place at about 0200 local time (2300 GMT) and was a "very significant move" according to Maj Burbridge.

Road kill off menu this Christmas

Road kill fan Arthur Boyt will be foregoing his usual Christmas treat of badger, weasel or fox this year.
Instead he will be tucking into roast turkey and all the usual trimmings at his in-laws' home.

Mr Boyt, 66, from Davidstow in Cornwall, has a freezer full of road kill which he eats regularly.

Although he has been an enthusiast for creatures killed on the road for 30 years, he said he would never foist his taste on his relatives.

"I'm a bit disappointed, but one has to go along with other people's prejudices," he told
BBC News.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

BOB HERBERT: The Ninth Ward Revisited

Spike Lee, who has made a stunning six-hour documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, was telling me the other day about his first visit to the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, which was annihilated by the flood that followed the storm.

After more than a year his voice was still filled with a sense of horrified wonder. “To see it with your own eyes,” he said, “and you’re doing a 360-degree turn, and you see nothing but devastation .... I wasn’t born until 1957 but I automatically thought about Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Berlin after the war.

“It looked like someone had dropped a nuclear bomb. It was all brown, and there was the smell, the stench. It was horrible.”

His words echoed the comments of a woman I had met on a recent trip to New Orleans. She remembered standing in the Ninth Ward after the waters had receded. “Everything was covered in brown crud,” she said. “There was nothing living. No birds. No dogs. There was no sound. And none of the fragrance that’s usually associated with New Orleans, like jasmine and gardenias and sweet olives. It was just a ruin, all death and destruction.”

Said Mr. Lee: “You couldn’t believe that this was the United States of America.”

The film, which was produced by HBO and has been released in a boxed set of DVDs, is called “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” It’s Mr. Lee’s best work, an informative, infuriating and heartbreaking record of a cataclysmic historical event — the loss of a great American city.

What boggles the mind now is the way the nation seems to be taking this loss in stride. Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half of its population is gone and an enormous percentage of the people who are still in town are suffering.

As Mr. Lee noted, the public face of the city is to some extent a deceptive feel-good story. The Superdome, a chamber of horrors during the flood, has been made new again. And the city’s football team, the Saints, has turned its fortunes around and is sprinting into the National Football League playoffs. (They beat the Giants in New York yesterday, 30-7.)

“They spent the money on the Superdome, and you can get drunk in the French Quarter again, and some of the conventions are coming back,” Mr. Lee said, “so people are trying to say that everything’s O.K. But that’s a lie.

“They need to stop this focus on downtown and the Superdome because it does a disservice to all those people who are still in very deep trouble. They need to get the cameras out of the French Quarter and go to New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. Or go to St. Bernard Parish. You’ll see that everything is not O.K. Far from it.”

Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental health situation, for the people in New Orleans and the evacuees scattered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.

There’s actually a fifth act, only recently completed, to “When the Levees Broke,” in which a number of people reflect on what has been happening since the storm. Wynton Marsalis, ordinarily the mildest of individuals, looks into the camera with an expression of anger and deep disgust. “What is the government doing?” he asks. “They’re trying to figure out how to hand out contracts. How to lower the minimum wage so the subcontractors can make all the money. Steal money from me and you, man. We’re paying taxes, you understand what I’m saying?”

For most of America, Katrina is an old story. In Mr. Lee’s words, people are suffering from “Katrina fatigue.” They’re not much interested in how the levees have only been patched up to pre-Katrina levels of safety, or how the insurance companies have ripped off thousands upon thousands of hard-working homeowners who are now destitute, or how, as USA Today reported, “One $7.5 billion Louisiana program to help people rebuild or relocate has put money in the hands of just 87 of the 89,403 homeowners who applied.”

There are other matters vying for attention. The war in Iraq is going badly. Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell are feuding. And, after all, it’s Christmas.

“You know how Americans are,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re on to the next thing.”

PAUL KRUGMAN: Helping the Poor, the British Way

It’s the season for charitable giving. And far too many Americans, particularly children, need that charity.

Scenes of a devastated New Orleans reminded us that many of our fellow citizens remain poor, four decades after L.B.J. declared war on poverty. But I’m not sure whether people understand how little progress we’ve made. In 1969, fewer than one in every seven American children lived below the poverty line. Last year, although the country was far wealthier, more than one in every six American children were poor.

And there’s no excuse for our lack of progress. Just look at what the British government has accomplished over the last decade.

Although Tony Blair has been President Bush’s obedient manservant when it comes to Iraq, Mr. Blair’s domestic policies are nothing like Mr. Bush’s. Where Mr. Bush has sought to privatize the social safety net, Mr. Blair’s Labor government has defended and strengthened it. Where Mr. Bush and his allies accuse anyone who mentions income distribution of “class warfare,” the Blair government has made a major effort to reverse the surge in inequality and poverty that took place during the Thatcher years.

And Britain’s poverty rate, if measured American-style — that is, in terms of a fixed poverty line, not a moving target that rises as the nation grows richer — has been cut in half since Labor came to power in 1997.

Britain’s war on poverty has been led by Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer and Mr. Blair’s heir apparent. There’s nothing exotic about his policies, many of which are inspired by American models. But in Britain, these policies are carried out with much more determination.

For example, Britain didn’t have a minimum wage until 1999 — but at current exchange rates Britain’s minimum wage rate is now about twice as high as ours. Britain’s child benefit is more generous than America’s child tax credit, and it’s available to everyone, even those too poor to pay income taxes. Britain’s tax credit for low-wage workers is similar to the U.S. earned-income tax credit, but substantially larger.

And don’t forget that Britain’s universal health care system ensures that no one has to fear going without medical care or being bankrupted by doctors’ bills.

The Blair government hasn’t achieved all its domestic goals. Income inequality has been stabilized but not substantially reduced: as in America, the richest 1 percent have pulled away from everyone else, though not to the same extent. The decline in child poverty, though impressive, has fallen short of the government’s ambitious goals. And the government’s policies don’t seem to have helped a persistent underclass of the very poor.

But there’s no denying that the Blair government has done a lot for Britain’s have-nots. Modern Britain isn’t paradise on earth, but the Blair government has ensured that substantially fewer people are living in economic hell. Providing a strong social safety net requires a higher overall rate of taxation than Americans are accustomed to, but Britain’s tax burden hasn’t undermined the economy’s growth.

What are the lessons to be learned from across the pond?

First, government truly can be a force for good. Decades of propaganda have conditioned many Americans to assume that government is always incompetent — and the current administration has done its best to turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the Blair years have shown that a government that seriously tries to reduce poverty can achieve a lot.

Second, it really helps to have politicians who are serious about governing, rather than devoting themselves entirely to amassing power and rewarding cronies.

While researching this article, I was startled by the sheer rationality of British policy discussion, as compared with the cynical posturing that passes for policy discourse in George Bush’s America. Instead of making grandiose promises that are quickly forgotten — like Mr. Bush’s promise of “bold action” to confront poverty after Hurricane Katrina — British Labor politicians propose specific policies with well-defined goals. And when actual results fall short of those goals, they face the facts rather than trying to suppress them and sliming the critics.

The moral of my Christmas story is that fighting poverty isn’t easy, but it can be done. Giving in to cynicism and accepting the persistence of widespread poverty even as the rich get ever richer is a choice that our politicians have made. And we should be ashamed of that choice.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

FRANK RICH: Yes, You Are the Person of the Year!

TIME’S choice for 2006 Person of the Year — “You” — was a bountiful gift of mirth to America, second only to the championship Donald Trump-Rosie O’Donnell bout as a comic kickoff to the holiday season. The magazine’s cover stunt, a computer screen of Mylar reflecting the reader’s own image, was so hokey that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert merely had to display it on camera to score laughs. The magazine’s disingenuous rationale for bestowing its yearly honor on its readers was like a big wet kiss from a distant relative who creeps you out.

According to Time, “You” deserve to be Person of the Year because you — “yes, you,” as the cover puts it — “control the Information Age” and spend a lot of time watching YouTube and blogging instead of, well, reading dead-tree media like Time. The pronouncements ginned up to inflate this theme include the observation that “Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger” (which presumably makes the Old Testament in effect the first Facebook). The desperation of Time to appear relevant and hip — “fantastically cutting-edge and New Media,” as
Nora Ephron put it in a hilarious essay for The Huffington Post — was embarrassing in its nakedness.

And sad. This editorial pratfall struck me, once a proud Time staff member, as a sign that my journalistic alma mater might go the way of the old Life. Like Time today, Life in the late 1960s was a middle-of-the-road publishing fixture sent into an identity crisis by the cultural revolution that coincided with a calamitous war. The fabled weekly finally shut down in 1972, the year Rolling Stone celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Let’s hope publishing history doesn’t repeat itself. So in Time’s defense, let me say that the more I reflected on its 2006 Person of the Year — or perhaps the more that Mylar cover reflected back at me — the more I realized that the magazine wasn’t as out of touch as it first seemed. Time made the right choice, albeit for the wrong reasons.

As our country sinks deeper into a quagmire — and even a conclusive Election Day repudiation of the war proves powerless to stop it — we the people, and that includes, yes, you, will seek out any escape hatch we can find. In the Iraq era, the dropout nostrums of choice are not the drugs and drug culture of Vietnam but the equally masturbatory and narcissistic (if less psychedelic) pastimes of the Internet. Why not spend hour upon hour passionately venting in the blogosphere, as Time suggests, about our “state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street”? Or an afternoon surfing from video to video on YouTube, where short-attention-span fluff is infinite? It’s more fun than the nightly news, which, as Laura Bush
reminded us this month, has been criminally lax in unearthing all those “good things that are happening” in Baghdad.

As of Friday morning, “Britney Spears Nude on Beach” had been viewed 1,041,776 times by YouTube’s visitors. The count for YouTube video clips tagged with “Iraq” was 22,783. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But compulsive blogging and free soft-core porn are not, as Time would have it, indications of how much you, I and that glassy-eyed teenage boy hiding in his bedroom are in control of the Information Age. They are indicators instead of how eager we are to flee from brutal real-world information that makes us depressed and angry. This was the year Americans escaped as often as they could into their private pleasure pods. So the Person of 2006 was indeed you — yes, you.

Unless it was Borat. The often uproarious farce that took its name from that hopelessly dense and bigoted fictional TV correspondent from Kazakhstan was the year’s most revealing hit movie. It was escapism incarnate, and we couldn’t eat it up fast enough. “Borat” also encapsulated the rising xenophobia that feeds American fantasies of the ultimate national escape: fencing off our borders from the world. If its loutish title character hadn’t been invented by Sacha Baron Cohen for us to ridicule and feel morally superior to, then Lou Dobbs would have done it for him.

The second most revealing movie hit of this escapist year was “Casino Royale.” Though technically an updating of the old Bond franchise — it is, nominally at least, set in the present — its screenplay actually hewed closely to the original Ian Fleming novel of 1953. The film merely changed the villain from a lethal Soviet operative to a terrorist financier, thereby recasting the confusing, hydra-headed threat of Al Qaeda and its ilk as a manageable, easily identifiable enemy that 007 could vanquish as decisively as the ham-fisted Iron Curtain Commies. Better still, Daniel Craig’s James Bond smites the terrorists in two hours plus change, not the 24 hours it takes Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. There could be no happier fairy tale for a country looking in the eye of defeat.

Christ, I miss the cold war,” M, Bond’s boss at British intelligence, says early on in “Casino Royale.” M — the reassuring Judi Dench — speaks for the entire audience. Nostalgia for the cold war, which America won unambiguously, was visible everywhere this year as we lost a war that has divided the country. In Florida, there was a joyous countdown to Fidel Castro’s imminent demise. At NASA, there was a new plan to return to the moon. Throughout the news media, there was a Hannibal Lecterish pleasure in the excruciating physical decline of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy murdered by poison. As the CNN anchor John Roberts put it rather gleefully, “For many of us, headlines out of London seemed like a James Bond movie or a distant echo of the cold war.” Heaven knows those headlines were easier to take than those coming out of the hot war — or, for that matter, out of London itself when terrorists struck there 18 months ago. It’s no surprise that “Casino Royale” sold way more tickets than “World Trade Center” and “United 93” combined.

The most revealing index of our lust for escapism this year cannot be found at YouTube or the multiplex, however, but in the sideshow villains who distracted us from main news events in the Middle East: James Frey, Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Judith Regan. It was a thrill beyond schadenfreude to watch them be soundly thrashed and humiliated for their sins.

FAR be it for me to defend any of them; Mr. Gibson once threatened to have my “
intestines on a stick” after I raised the notion that the author of “The Passion of the Christ” might be an anti-Semite. But our over-the-top pleasure in their comeuppance still seems like escapist fare. It may be satisfying to see “Apocalypto” fade fast after its opening weekend or watch Ms. Regan lose her job after enriching O. J. Simpson for a sleazy book project. Yet something is out of whack when these relatively minor miscreants are publicly stoned and the architects of a needless catastrophe that has cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives escape scot-free. On the same day that Ms. Regan was canned, the fired Donald Rumsfeld was given a 19-gun salute and showered with presidential praise in a farewell ceremony at the Pentagon.

For that matter, Ms. Regan’s worst offenses can’t compare even with those of her former lover,
Bernard Kerik, the Giuliani-era New York City police commissioner who was appointed by President Bush in 2003 to train Iraqi’s police. Mr. Kerik promised to stay “as long as it takes to get the job done,” then fled months later without explanation and without the job even started. Today the Iraqi police he failed to train are not only useless but are also routinely engaged in sectarian violence, including torture, helping to ensure that Iraq is more dangerous for everyone than ever, American troops included.

Mr. Kerik has never been held accountable for that failure, only for less lethal and unrelated graft in New York. Paul Bremer, whose early decisions as our Iraqi viceroy all but guaranteed our defeat, received the
highest civilian award from the president. So did both George Tenet, who presided over the “slam dunk” intelligence that sped us to war, and Gen. Tommy Franks, who let Osama bin Laden get away. Even now, no generals have been fired for their failures in Iraq; the only one to lose his job was the former Army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, who antagonized Mr. Rumsfeld before the war by correctly warning that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to secure Iraq. But never mind. That’s ancient history. We can avoid confronting these morally grotesque skeletons in our closet as long as we can distract ourselves with Michael Richards’s meltdown.

Besides, it’s time for the home front to party. Whatever else is to be said about Time’s Mylar cover, it’s news you can literally use: it is just a paper shredder away from being recycled as the most glittering of New Year’s Eve confetti.

GOP lawmaker blames bloggers for Jesus controversy

Crooks and Liars

On Thursday, we learned that Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) articulated a rather unique vision for resolving the crisis in the Middle East. According to an account in a local paper in Hayes' hometown, the lawmaker said:

"Stability in Iraq ultimately depends on spreading the message of Jesus Christ, the message of peace on earth, good will towards men. Everything depends on everyone learning about the birth of the Savior."

It sounded rather Coulter-esque, considering her opinion that the only effective way to respond to Middle Eastern terrorists is to "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

Of course, Hayes' comments aren't exactly helpful in winning over "hearts and minds" in the Middle East, so reporters started calling the lawmaker's office yesterday for an explanation.

Apparently, the controversy is our fault.

UK Poll: Religion Does More Harm Than Good

The Guardian

More people in Britain think religion causes harm than believe it does good, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today. It shows that an over- whelming majority see religion as a cause of division and tension - greatly outnumbering the smaller majority who also believe that it can be a force for good.

The poll also reveals that non-believers outnumber believers in Britain by almost two to one. It paints a picture of a sceptical nation with massive doubts about the effect religion has on society: 82% of those questioned say they see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16% disagree. The findings are at odds with attempts by some religious leaders to define the country as one made up of many faith communities.

Most people have no personal faith, the poll shows, with only 33% of those questioned describing themselves as "a religious person." A clear majority, 63%, say that they are not religious - including more than half of those who describe themselves as Christians.

End of the neo-con dream


The ambitions proclaimed when the neo-cons' mission statement "The Project for the New American Century" was declared in 1997 have turned into disappointment and recriminations as the crisis in Iraq has grown.

"The Project for the New American Century" has been reduced to a voice-mail box and a ghostly website. A single employee has been left to wrap things up.

The idea of the "Project" was to project American power and influence around the world.

The 1997 statement (written during the administration of President Bill Clinton) said:

"We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan Administration's success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities."

Among the signatories were many of the senior officials who would later determine policy under President George W Bush - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams and Lewis Libby - as well as thinkers including Francis Fukuyama, Norman Podheretz and Frank Gaffney.

The neo-conservatives were called that because they sought to re-establish what they felt were true conservative values in the Republican Party and the United States.

They wanted to stop what they felt were the isolationist tendencies that had developed under President Clinton, and even under the pragmatic President George Bush senior.

They saw the war in Iraq as their big chance of showing how the "New American Century" might work.

They predicted the development of democratic values in a region lacking in them and, in that way, the removal of any threat to the United States just as the democratisation of Germany and Japan after World War II had transformed Europe and the Pacific.


Since so much was pinned on Iraq, it is inevitable that the problems there should have undermined the whole idea.

"Neo-conservatism has gone for a generation, if in fact it ever returns," says one of the movement's critics, David Rothkopf, currently at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, and a former official in the Clinton administration.

"Their signal enterprise was the invasion of Iraq and their failure to produce results is clear. Precisely the opposite has happened," he says.

"The US use of force has been seen as doing wrong and as inflaming a region that has been less than susceptible to democracy.

"Their plan has fallen on hard times. There were flaws in the conception and horrendously bad execution. The neo-cons have been undone by their own ideas and the incompetence of the Bush administration.

"George Bush is about the last neo-conservative standing, Cheney as well maybe. Bush is not an analytical person so he just adopted the neo-cons' philosophy.

"It fitted into his Manichean, his black and white view of the world. After all, he gave up his dissolute youth and was born again as a new man, so it appealed to his character."


The fading of the dream has led to a falling-out among the neo-conservatives themselves.

In particular, two leading neo-conservatives, Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, attacked the Bush team in Vanity Fair magazine. Both had been on a Pentagon advisory board. Both had argued for war in Iraq.

In an article called "Neo Culpa", Richard Perle declared that had he known how it would turn out, he would have been against it: "I think now I probably would have said: 'No, let's consider other strategies'."

Kenneth Adelman said: "They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era.

"Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional."

Donald Rumsfeld "fooled me", he said.

He declared of neo-conservatism after Iraq: "It's not going to sell."

Defence and counter-attack

Other neo-conservatives defend their record, arguing strongly that the original idea had an effect, and pressing the point raised by Perle and Adelman that it was the execution of the idea not the idea itself that was wrong.

Gary Schmitt used to be a senior figure at the "New American Century" project. Now he is director of strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and he says the project has come to a natural end.

"When the project started, it was not intended to go forever. That is why we are shutting it down. We would have had to spend too much time raising money for it and it has already done its job.

"We felt at the time that there were flaws in American foreign policy, that it was neo-isolationist. We tried to resurrect a Reaganite policy.

"Our view has been adopted. Even during the Clinton administration we had an effect, with Madeleine Albright [then secretary of state] saying that the United States was 'the indispensable nation'.

"But our ideas have not necessarily dominated. We did not have anyone sitting on Bush's shoulder. So the work now is to see how they are implemented. Obviously it makes life difficult with the specific failure in Iraq, but I do not agree with Richard Perle that we should never have gone in.

"I do argue that the execution should have been better. In fact, I argued in late 2003 that we needed more troops and a proper counter-insurgency policy."

Indeed, not all neo-conservatives have given up all hope in Iraq.

The AEI, which has become the natural home for refugees from the American Project, is promoting an article entitled: "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq".

The article calls not for a withdrawal of US troops but for an increase. President Bush's decision is expected in early January.

UN Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran

"The UN Security Council voted unanimously on Saturday to impose sanctions on Iran’s trade in sensitive nuclear materials and ballistic missiles, a move aimed at getting Tehran to halt uranium enrichment work.

“Today we are placing Iran in the small category of states under Security Council sanctions,” Acting US Ambassador Alejandro Wolff told the council before the 15-0 vote.

Israel's Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman told Ynet that "this is a very important decision.

According to Gillerman, who remained at his home during the vote, "Iran is joining the exclusive club of countries under the Security Council's sanctions. Russia and China's support allows for the first time to present a united international front that tells Iran – enough."

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who was successful in watering down parts of the resolution, emphasized that the resolution did not permit any use of force."


GOP: In Full Blown Complaining and Whining About Lost Election

WASHINGTON - Narrowly defeated in his bid for a fourth term, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns turned his anger on the National Republican Senatorial Committee and commercials it had run months before the election.

"The ads hurt me more than they helped. I wouldn't have spent the money," he said, his comments characteristic of the season of second-guessing now unfolding among Republicans.

President Bush's low approval ratings, the unpopular war on Iraq, voter concern about corruption and Democratic fundraising all figured in the GOP loss of Senate control in last month's elections. But among Republicans, long-hidden tensions are spilling into view, with numerous critics venting their anger at the GOP Senate campaign committee headed by North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

In recent interviews, officials said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., as well as Ken Mehlman, the party chairman, set up outside checks on the committee at critical points in the campaign.

As early as last summer, Mehlman signaled he lacked full confidence in Dole's committee. In an unprecedented move, he set up an independent entity to control more than $12 million that the Republican National Committee spent for television advertising in Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri.

Aides at both party committees insisted at the time the decision was a joint one. But Mehlman privately told associates he was frustrated with the Senate campaign committee. His actions contrasted sharply with the battle for control of the House, where the RNC contributed funds to an existing campaign organization rather than create its own.

Frist also wanted an outside check. In an unusual move, he hired a polling firm, The Winston Group, shortly before Labor Day to conduct surveys in six important races.

Based on the results, officials said Frist stepped in to help overhaul Bob Corker's struggling campaign in his home state of Tennessee. Corker ended up beating Democrat Harold Ford Jr. Frist also pushed for a resumption of party-paid advertising in Montana and questioned plans for a multimillion-dollar investment in New Jersey.

Final fundraising figures show Dole's committee raised $30 million less than the Democratic counterpart headed by Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. Given the disparity, several Republican strategists questioned the decision to spend more than $4 million last fall in New Jersey and $800,000 in Michigan in an unsuccessful attempt to find a weak spot in the Democratic lineup. Democrats won both races by relatively comfortable margins.

At the same time, more than a dozen party officials and strategists criticized the steps the committee took - or did not take - in Montana and Virginia in the campaign's final weeks.

Burns and Sen. George Allen lost exceedingly close races - the margin of defeat a fraction of a percentage point. A victory in either one would have left the Senate tied at 50-50, giving Republicans control on Vice President Cheney's ability to break tie votes.

Two more weeks of ads in Montana might have made a difference, said one of many Republicans who expressed anger that Dole's committee aired no television advertisements in Burns' behalf for between Labor Day and Halloween.

In Virginia, Allen and the Senate campaign committee combined were outspent on television advertising in each of the last five weeks by challenger Jim Webb and the Democratic campaign committee, according to internal GOP figures. The gap exceeded $700,000 in the final seven days.

Numerous Republicans also have displayed anger at Bush for the party's election losses, in particular his decision to wait until after the election to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

"If Rumsfeld had been out, you bet it would have made a difference," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who was not on the ballot but lost some of his power nonetheless. "I'd still be chairman of the Judiciary Committee."

The prospect of presidential visits sparked debate within campaigns.

At one point, officials said, White House aides wanted Bush to make a late-campaign trip to Missouri. NRSC strategists were opposed, fearing the impact of his low approval ratings. Ultimately, Sen. Jim Talent's campaign aides decided the president should go to strongly Republican areas, but not Kansas City or St. Louis, where surveys showed the president was particularly unpopular.

Some Republicans, including at the Senate campaign committee, complain that the White House and the RNC were urging candidates to use the fight against terrorism as a campaign issue, but offered no advice on combating voter anger on the war in Iraq - an issue that one official referred to as the "800-pound elephant in the room."

Also, NRSC officials said the White House and RNC had recommended the late-campaign investment in new Jersey and Michigan.

None of the NRSC's critics agreed to place their views on the record. All spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they did not want to contribute to intraparty squabbling.

Dole is recovering from hip replacement surgery and was not available to comment. But Mehlman and others stepped forward to defend her tenure.

"I think Senator Dole did a fine job under extremely difficult conditions, probably the toughest election environment for Republicans since 1974," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the incoming Senate GOP leader.

Mark Stephens, the committee's executive director, strongly defended its work. He said it was the only GOP entity to increase fundraising from 2004, and that Burns and Allen - both of whom were plagued by self-inflicted political wounds - probably would have lost by larger margins without its support.

Without the committee's efforts, he said, "I think it could have been a lot worse than 49 seats," pointing to Republican victories in Tennessee and Arizona.

But in the current postelection environment, nothing escapes notice.

Numerous Republicans expressed anger that a top aide at the Senate campaign committee, political director Blaise Hazelwood, was allowed to devote some of her time to a business she owns.

Hazelwood declined comment, but Stephens defended the arrangement. "At no time did anybody else's business interfere with their work here," he said, adding he would have stepped if had it been otherwise.

Burns, a three-term senator who was under constant attack for ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the NRSC aired no television commercials in September or October after committee aides concluded he appeared hopelessly behind. That left Burns to face double-barreled televised attacks from his rival, Jon Tester, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which spent $1.4 million over the same period.

"You'd turn on the television at night and they'd typically have ... three ads whacking Conrad and then we'd have one," said one Republican.

"The campaign didn't merit" earlier advertising, countered Stephens. He said polling showed Burns not only trailing his rival but also viewed unfavorably by many more voters than regarded him favorably.

In a similar vein, campaign officials said the GOP senatorial committee was off the air for two weeks in Missouri in early September, leaving Talent without protection as he faced attacks from Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill and the Democrats' Senate campaign committee.

Unlike in Montana or Missouri, the NRSC had budgeted no money for Virginia, where Allen initially appeared to face little threat. After a mistake-plagued campaign, though, the first-term senator had burned through his sizable campaign treasury by fall.

"I put $5 million into that race in October," said Stephens, adding that the effort had helped Allen recover lost ground in the race.

"There were a lot of factors that contributed to Allen's loss. It wouldn't be fair to blame it on the senatorial committee," said Ed Gillespie, a senior strategist for the campaign and Mehlman's predecessor as RNC chairman.

In an ironic campaign postscript, some party officials and outside strategists expressed anger in interviews that Dole did not borrow more heavily in October in hopes of preserving the GOP majority. The committee recently reported debts of $1.1 million.

But several Republicans said McConnell and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada - the incoming Senate GOP leader and Dole's successor, respectively - made clear they wanted as little postelection debt as possible.

Republicans face a difficult political environment heading into 2008 and they did not want to begin in a deep hole.

Watching the Exits

NYT Editorial

In 1996, Congress ordered immigration officials to create a system to track everyone who enters the country and everyone who leaves. That sensible directive lay on a back burner until 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security then hastened to set up the U.S. Visit program, which requires people to be photographed and fingerprinted at ports of entry for checking against databases of terrorists and other undesirables.

That system has been running since 2004, and has plucked hundreds of bad people from the huge visitor stream without horribly disrupting tourism and business travel. But news came last week that the other half of the program — monitoring foreign travelers when they leave — has been abandoned.

The Homeland Security Department had hoped to begin tracking departures at the 50 busiest land border crossings by next December. But it has given up meeting that deadline after deciding that the cost — including time lost in long lines at the borders — would be prohibitive. Part of the problem is technological: tracking methods that would work are too expensive.

The Government Accountability Office, echoing the Bush administration’s conclusions, said that a cost-effective departure system may not emerge for five to 10 years. And so, after spending $1.7 billion since 2003 on the U.S. Visit program, the administration will keep doing what it has been doing at the nation’s land exits, which is basically nothing.

It’s good to know who’s leaving the country — and who isn’t. About a third of illegal immigrants are believed to be those who entered lawfully but stayed after their visas expired. Some of the 9/11 hijackers were in this group. Hunting such people down is not even theoretically possible until you know whom you are looking for.

There are a few lessons in this downbeat development. One is simply a reminder that faith in technology is easily misplaced. Border security is a paradoxical mission — maximizing the steady, efficient flow of tourists, students and seasonal workers while admitting exactly zero terrorists and visa- defying illegal immigrants. All this while respecting everyone’s privacy and not spending too much money. There may be a technological fix that will solve all these problems cheaply, but we could grow old and poor waiting for it.

Another is that the same people who make lofty arguments for things like sealed borders tend to disappear when the discussion gets down to the nitty-gritty of trade-offs and acceptable costs. Washington has tons of people who want to keep out terrorists and illegal immigrants, but far fewer who want to commit the time and money to a realistic discussion of how to do that. The Bush administration says that keeping Americans safe at home is the overriding mission of our time. But it has allowed distractions to get in the way, like invading Iraq, cutting taxes for rich people and minimizing disruptions to everyday life for everyone not in the military. This administration keeps reminding us of the high price we all must pay for homeland security, but it always blanches when the bills arrive.

Congressional aide (R) admits trying to hire hackers to boost his college GPA

According to Network World's Paul McNamara, the communications director for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Todd Shriber, hired two 'hackers' to break into the computer of his alma mater, Texas Christian University, and change his college grades.He went trolling for the law-breaking 'hackers' on a computer security website. But instead of finding anyone to do his dirty work he came across a couple non-criminally minded techies who proceeded to chat him up about his scheme, draw out in explicit detail that what he was asking them to do involved mulitple felonies and then posted their complete email correspondence on the site,

This all happened back in September. But it was apparently only this week that McNamara, who has a blog at the Network World site, figured out who Todd Shriber was and started trying to get the guy on the record about what the hell he was thinking.After what was apparently a good deal of prodding, Shriber told McNamara: "I did something that's greatly out of character for me and it's a mistake that I regret." Asked why he attempted this criminal enterprise: "I would rather not get into that at all. I just got a little too far ahead of myself thinking about things down the road." More

Media Matters Latest, December 23, 2006

Blitzer: Ellison [not Goode or Prager] "touched off a raging controversy"
Wolf Blitzer attributed the "raging controversy" over Rep.-elect Keith Ellison's reported intention to use a copy of the Quran in his swearing-in ceremony to Ellison rather than those who have denounced Ellison. Read more

On MSNBC, Jacobus thought it "strange" to focus on Rep. Goode's bigoted remarks instead of Muslim Rep.-elect's use of Quran
On the December 21 edition of MSNBC News Live, Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus said she thought it was "a little bit strange" that "we're focusing on" controversial remarks by Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) instead of Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN), whom Jacobus called "a newly elected member of Congress trying to cause controversy." As the weblog TPMMuckraker noted, the weblog Waldo Jaquith posted a letter by Goode saying: "I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America." In the letter, Goode also attacked Ellison: "[I]f American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran." Ellison reportedly intends to use a copy of the Quran presumably during the ceremonial photo op on the day he is sworn in. Read more

From the White House's mouth to CNN's ... mouth?
CNN's adoption of the phrase "listening mode" to describe President Bush's reaction to the Iraq Study Group report is just the latest example of CNN journalists' repeating White House phrases without challenge and reporting Bush administration talking points as fact. Read more
Wash. Post suggested that Dems need to "restore" image among minorities, working class, womenIn a December 22 article by staff writer Lyndsey Layton, The Washington Post reported that the "four days of celebration surrounding" Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) January 4, 2006, swearing-in as House speaker is part of an effort "to restore the [Democratic] party's image as one hospitable to ethnic minorities, families, religion, the working class and women." Implicit in Layton's claim is the assumption that support for Democrats among each of these groups is in need of restoration. In fact, national exit polls from the 2006 midterm elections show that in three out of these five demographics -- minorities, members of the working class, and women -- a significant majority of voters supported Democrats. Further, while most Protestants voted Republican, a majority of those identified as Catholic or Jewish favored Democrats. Indeed, the only demographic groups encompassed by the Post's categories in which Republicans had a clear majority were married people with children and voters who identified themselves as weekly churchgoers: Read more

Matthews: Gore is "the Hindenburg"
On the December 21 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley if former Vice President Al Gore was "in fighting weight" and then said of Gore: "He's the Hindenburg." Read more

Your World smackdown: Guest flatly refuted Asman claim that he is "all for" global warming
On the December 21 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, an on-screen graphic read: " 'Global Warming': Great for Business & Economy?" during guest host David Asman's interview with Michael Farr, president of the investment firm Farr, Miller & Washington, about the positive effects of mild winters on the economy. When Asman said that "my next guest says if what's happening in New York is global warming, he's all for it," Farr responded, "Well, now, hang on, David. First of all, global warming is a very serious issue, and it could have devastating effects. That we are having a milder winter is a really good thing for the economy, and milder winters are always pretty good." Farr later added, "Global warming is not a good thing. Global warming is a tremendously bad thing." Read more

Only on Fox: Panel discussed video of "Rep. Ancy Lagosi" attacking FDR during WWII
The "All-Star Panel" segment on the December 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report contained a clip from This Is DNN, a "satirical video" in which World War II-era "Congresswoman and House leader Ancy Lagosi" attacks the war and then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the segment of This Is DNN that aired on Special Report, "Lagosi" says that "250,000 of our finest [have come] home in wooden boxes ... [t]o support a lie." When "Lagosi" asks, "What has Germany and Italy got to do with Pearl Harbor?" the audience at her speech responds, "Nothing!" and then chants, "Roosevelt lied, millions died." Special Report host and Fox News Washington bureau managing editor Brit Hume described the film as "filled with sepia-toned scenes from ... what purports to be an old newsreel of modern-style coverage of World War II." He then asked the panel, "[I]s that a realistic picture of what it might have been like if today's politics and today's news media coverage had prevailed in World War II?" Read more