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The Daily Briefing 3/11/05
1 Terrorists are criminals, not a threat
Tony Blair appears to have been forced to compromise on one aspect of his proposed anti-terrorism laws in what The Guardian describes as one of his most damaging days as Prime Minister - he also accepted the resignation (for the second time) of his accident-prone former Home Secretary David Blunkett (there is plenty more on Blunkett's chaotic career in TDB archives). The compromise appears likely to see the plan to hold terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge cut to 28 days.
Staying with Blunkett for a moment, Jonathan Freedland says his transformation from "the man who beat blindness to arrogant libertine is a parable of New Labour itself".
Also in The Guardian, Tony Benn maintains his rage toward Blair, the direction of the Labour Party and the anti-terror laws. "What we are witnessing is nothing less than the erosion of parliamentary democracy and its substitution by a near dictatorship, as in the House of Lords forever being topped up by the prime minister's nominees - some of whom, we are told, have contributed to New Labour's campaign funds. Lloyd George must be laughing in his grave. A parliamentary chamber chosen by patronage may even be the model of democracy that George Bush and Blair would like to enforce in the Middle East."
On the more substantial issue of the anti-terrorism laws, Sir Simon Jenkins (link below) is concerned that the bill, and the government's decision to turn on a state ceremony to honour those killed in the July 7 London bombings grants terrorism a significant tactical victory. (Do politicians ever feel a moment of awkwardness dancing to the terrorist's tune by curtailing traditional freedoms?) "Awarding criminals political status, as happened in Northern Ireland, not only raises their self-esteem within their community, it also pollutes the attitude of government. Having elevated the potency of an enemy, a ruler feels the need to elevate his own. Since July 7, a battery of new laws has been sought by Downing Street, against free speech, freedom of assembly and habeas corpus. An astonishing £10bn is being found for identity cards. International human rights have been traduced. Torture evidence has been readmitted to British justice. Police powers under the Terrorism Act have been used against hecklers, demonstrators and assorted immigrants."
And The Independent reports that Amnesty International has condemned the proposed laws.
SIMON JENKINS/THE GUARDIAN
2 What did happen to those WMDs
The last words in TDB about the Valerie Plame affair and assorted other woes troubling George Bush came from conservatives Mark Steyn and William Kristol who were arguing that it was all much ado about nothing, and/or that it all could have been much worse. That was Monday, and things are already much worse, not so much because of anything Bush has done, but because events seem to have taken on a momentum all of their own. For one article that gives a good account of the reaction to the nomination of Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, while giving a good sense of the atmosphere building up around the presidency, go to David Broder's column for The Washington Post, below. "the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll contains a clear warning. Self-described conservatives made up only 31 percent of the electorate. Moderates numbered 44 percent. And the moderates were nearly exact opposites of the conservatives in their views toward Bush, disapproving of his job performance by a 38 to 61 percent margin, while conservatives approved 61 to 39."
Another good wrap up is this column by Ron Fournier, also in the Post, who says that even Bush allies think he has lost his way, and that issues of competence and credibility (once his strengths) are doing the damage.
Both competence and credibility are in play with the Iraq issue and the indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby (yes, we got that the wrong way around the other day) has again focused attention on the case for war in Iraq. As has been widely reported, the Democrats (finally finding some backbone?) have forced an investigation into why a Senate committee has not made more progress with its investigation into the case for the invasion. That involved an unusal closed session of the Senate, something all the papers report (NYTimes here) but The Guardian's account may be the best because it doesn't presume so much local knowledge.
This NYTimes editorial explains how the Libby indictment is linked to the claims about WMD's and raises some of the questions still to be answered. "Were officials fooled by bad intelligence, or knowingly hyping it? Certainly, the administration erased caveats, dissents and doubts from the intelligence reports before showing them to the public. And there was never credible intelligence about a working relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda."
In The Washington Post, E.J. Dionee notes that the indictment could have been brought down last October if Libby had not dragged the process out - the critical difference in the timing being that whole drama would have been played out before Bush's re-election. "As long as Bush still faced the voters, the White House wanted Americans to think that officials such as Libby, Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney had nothing to do with the leak campaign to discredit its arch-critic on Iraq, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. And Libby, the good soldier, pursued a brilliant strategy to slow the inquiry down."
But the bad news for the Bush administration does not stop there. The current front page lead in The Washington Post is an investigation into the CIA's chain of secret prisons holding terrorist suspects."The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long."
In the prison about which at least somethings are known, the NYTimes reports that "two dozen Guantanamo Bay detainees are currently being force-fed in response to a lengthy hunger strike, and the detainees' lawyers estimate there are dozens more who have not eaten since August. Military officials say there are 27 hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay, all of whom are clinically stable, closely monitored by medical personnel and receiving proper nutrition."
On the invasion itself, the striking feature of almost anything written about it is the sudden consensus, despite the vote on the constitution, that things are going badly, and that it may not have been such a good idea after all (there is slightly more debate on that last point). For example, both Reason magaine and the Cato Institute supported the invasion. But in the latest magazine's latest edition, Gene Healy and Justin Logan from the insitute says that after the deaths of more than 2,000 US soldiers (those tens of thousands of Iraqis rarely rate a mention) muddling through in Iraq is no longer an option. "Based on the administration's public statements, they have no realistic plan for victory in Iraq. And without a victory strategy, there is only one alternative: an exit strategy. It is past time we develop one."
And in line with recent practice of ending these round-ups with a conservative voice, Christopher Hitchens in the Wall Street Journal also thinks the Plame affair is much about nothing, one that has made hypocrites of everyone involved and which may cause the Democrats grieve when they regain office.
DAVID BRODER/THE WASHINGTON POST
3 Cheney, torture and the White House
A second item on US politics, mainly to highlight the role of Vice-president Dick Cheney, of whom The Washinton Post said recently this vice-president has become an open advocate for torture.
Blogger Marty Lederman has some good background on the torture issue, and notes that the 9/11 Commission recommended that the Geneva Convention should apply to "enemy combatants".
Maureen Dowd, available for free via truthout.com, looks at the replacements for Lewis Libby in Cheney's office, and says if anything, it is likely to be worse than business as usual. "Once Scooter left, many people, including a lot of alarmed conservatives and moderate Republicans, were hoping that W. and Vice would throw open some White House windows to let the air and sun in, and climb out of that incestuous, secretive, vindictive, hallucinatory dark hole they've been bunkered in for five years. But they like it in their paranoid paradise."
And for those who had not had the good fortune to be reading TDB last November when this article was linked to, it is a profile of the ultimate Washington insider Karl Rove, sometimes know as "Bush's brain", or "T*rd Blossom" to his friends.
4 Iraq: the buck stops with Bush
As mentioned above, virtually no-one any longer disputes that Iraq is a badly bungled mess, one that perhaps was ill-conceived in the first place. Regrettably little of that is being commented upon by our local hacks and the silence is loudest from that previously vocal bunch of Bush-boosters that includes Sheridan, Bolt, Ackerman, Henderson, Blair and Albrechtsen. Not one has put their hand-up to admit that they were on the wrong side of history, and certainly not to explain how they so completely misread the situation, that their readers could be assured such grevious errors will not happen again. Or better still, offered to resign as commentators because they are so obviously useless at it. Even worse, where are their loud complaints that what they trumpeted as a noble cause has been mishandled at the cost of so many lives, and with many more to come, perhaps for generations? Does it not trouble them that to the extent that their warmongering helped bring this about, they have blood on their hands? Gutless lap poodles with barely a speck of intellectual courage or integrity, the lot of them. But I digress.
The Dean of Harvard's School of Government Stephen Walt says there is enough blame for the fiasco to go around (link below), but that ultimately George Bush will have to wear it. "This excuse suffers from two glaring weaknesses. First, the war may not have been winnable no matter what we did, because Iraq was a deeply divided society from the onset, and occupying powers almost always face fierce resistance. That the occupation was badly executed is indisputable, but it is by no means clear that any occupation would have succeeded. Second, if hawks such as Kristol thought we needed a bigger military to perform a global imperial role, they should have withheld their support until adequate forces were available. Instead, they did everything they could to get us into the regime-changing business as quickly as possible."
Speaking of what could be the legacy of the war, Peter Bergen and Alex Reynolds at the New America Foundation remember that the bin Laden gang that carried out the Septemer 11 attacks were trained and battle-hardened (by the US) in the war against the old Soviet Union in Afghanistan. They warn that the "blowback" from Iraq could be far worse. "The current war in Iraq will generate a ferocious blowback of its own, which--as a recent classified CIA assessment predicts--could be longer and more powerful than that from Afghanistan. Foreign volunteers fighting U.S. troops in Iraq today will find new targets around the world after the war ends. Yet the Bush administration, consumed with managing countless crises in Iraq, has devoted little time to preparing for such long-term consequences. Lieutenant General James Conway, the director of operations on the Joint Staff, admitted as much when he said in June that blowback "is a concern, but there's not much we can do about it at this point in time." Judging from the experience of Afghanistan, such thinking is both mistaken and dangerously complacent."
STEPHEN WALT/FOREIGN AFFAIRS
5 Take Iran's bluster seriously
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declaration that "Israel must be wiped off the map" has of course been widely condemned, but it has also sparked a debate about whether it signals serious intent, or is simply stirring rhetoric for the masses at home. Martin Indyk, director of foreign affairs studies for the respected Brookings Institution (link below) thinks the bluster carries a serious message. "So, does Israel really need to fear the populist ranting of an Iranian hothead president, who seems only to be using Israel as a whipping boy to stir up support for his already faltering government? Shouldn't Israel be satisfied that he scored an own-goal, further isolating Iran and placing its actions under greater international scrutiny? The answer to my mind is clearly no. There is plenty of International Atomic Energy Agency evidence to indicate that Iran is bent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and that this goal is broadly supported by all of Iran's political factions."
MARTIN INDYK/BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
6 Katrina and all that jazz
It's about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but it's a civics lesson on the responsibilities of being a citizen. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. "You see, we are too busy to worry about poverty, public education, homelessness, drug addiction, the arts, even the political process. "I'm too busy to follow what goes on in Congress." "Don't they have organizations for these types of things?" "I gave to them last year." "Oh, I'm sure that they will take care of it." I believe the United States will help to rebuild New Orleans, because New Orleans helped to build the United States; but the way we rebuild it can show the world that American greatness is more than stock markets and military might. I know that we are capable of building more than malls and theme parks, of acting like a community. I know this from the art of jazz."
WYNTON MARSALIS/THE NEW REPUBLIC
7 Woman of the Year
Mukhtaran Bibi, the Pakistani rape victim whose ordeal and subsequent challenge to traditional authority was championed by Nicholas Kristof in the NYTimes, has been named Glamour magazine's 'Woman of the Year' . Who could argue with that (Kristof discribed her as the most courageous woman on the planet), although previous winners have included Britney Spears and actor Ellen DeGeneres. For those who came in late, go to archives and type in Bibi or Kristof - TDB followed the story closely.
8 The chat room that changed the world
Hadn't heard of it before this, but according to Robert Andrews, "some of the most revolutionary software emerged not from Silicon Valley startups or high-powered universities, but from a humble online chat room", an Internet Relay Chat channel called #Winprog. "But they are not the only ones to benefit from #Winprog's critical and surprisingly wide-ranging influence. Members of the channel also counsel the likes of DVD encryption cracker John Lech Johansen, SmartFTP developer Mike Walter, Electronic Arts game developers, Windows Vista engineers and contractors for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As many as two dozen Microsoft developers hang out in the channel every day, getting support -- as well as giving it."