Friday, August 08, 2003

Funneling cash to Halliburton wasn't the reason we invaded Iraq. It was just an attractive fringe benefit:

The Bechtel Group, one of the world's biggest engineering and construction companies, has dropped out of the running for a contract to rebuild the Iraqi oil industry, as other competitors have begun to conclude that the bidding process favors the one company already working in Iraq, Halliburton.

Worried that this sort of thing might cause legal problems for Dick Cheney's old firm (which, by the by, is still paying him millions of dollars in delayed compensation)? Don't be; they're protected from far more than that:

An executive order signed by President Bush more than two months ago is raising concerns that U.S. oil companies may have been handed blanket immunity from lawsuits and criminal prosecution in connection with the sale of Iraqi oil.

The Bush administration said this week that the immunity wouldn't be nearly so broad.

But lawyers for various advocacy organizations said the two-page executive order seemed to completely shield oil companies from liability -- even if it could be proved that they had committed human rights violations, bribed officials or caused great environmental damage.

So, unfair trade practices ought to be a slam dunk.

Dubya's folks are very concerned with proper law enforcement. It's a potential threat to doing business...

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Some American businessmen think we should consider the policies of successful governments of the past, in trying to formulate new policy. Like these guys:

Glenview State Bank executives apologized to Jewish people on the bank's Web site Tuesday night, after a bank newsletter to customers praised Adolf Hitler as an economic leader of the 1930s.

"We sincerely apologize for this error. We did not intend to offend anyone. Please forgive us for this mistake," the 83-year-old suburban bank said Tuesday. It said it received "many" letters and phone calls from upset people.

The bank's president, Dave Raub, who wrote the offending newsletter, has now acknowledged that

The problem with this particular [newsletter] was that you can't address the topic I addressed and divorce it from the rest of the story of Germany in the '30s and Hitler's regime, which was, of course, based on terror and mass murder. That was the genesis of the mistake.

I guess the folks he usually hangs out with aren't so, so... touchy on the subject of Adolf Hitler, so he didn't really know what to expect.

via Orcinus

More on the quality of Ashcroft justice:

Intel engineer Mike Hawash has plead guilty to assisting the Taliban. The slashdot comments on the story include this one, which brings up the case of the Lackawanna six -- who were advised by their lawyers to plead guilty, because, in their words, "We had to worry about the defendants being whisked out of the courtroom and declared enemy combatants if the case started going well for us." There's also this comment, pointing out that the confessions in Stalinist show trials were at least as convincing. But the most depressing comments are the ones like this, which argue that since he agreed to a plea bargain, he must be guilty, because the Feds would never, ever deploy the big guns against an innocent man.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

The marvel of our federal structure is its flexibility. Suppose, for instance, you're John Ashcroft, and you want to institute an invasive program scrutinizing the financial and other records of scads of people on whom you couldn't possibly meet probable cause requirements. And let's suppose Congress has slapped you down. Well, you can always fund a similar initiative by a friendly state government, like Florida's, one which won't even care that the politically connected guy running the project is apparently a former drug smuggler himself.

Conversely, let's suppose there's a crime which would ordinarily be prosecuted at the state level, but the state isn't going for capital punishment, and you really want to fry somebody. You can preempt the local authorities by bringing charges at the federal level. Mind you, the system has its flaws -- the lily-livered local jury may focus on trivialities like "reasonable doubt" and "lack of evidence" and fail to convict -- but at least the system gives you the option.

And some people say he's got no respect for the basic principles of American law...

(some links via The Daily Kos).

Housing prices in New York, San Francisco, and Boston, are soaring well above levels in the country as a whole, with comic results; here in Boston people sometimes wind up buying condos on Beacon Hill the size of closets in the houses they moved out of in Texas. Atrios says bully for "decadent liberal socialist enclaves"; Nathan Newman blames preservationists, at least in New York, for opposing new buildings.

But that's just talking about housing prices. What intrigues me is rents. In Boston at least, housing prices are continuing to go up, as in the other decadent liberal socialist enclaves, but rents have been stable or declining the past few years. And as I may have noted before, if you take rents as a measure of underlying value, that's a symptom more than anything else of a bubble in the market.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

A lot of hawks, in and out of the blogsphere, are now arguing that even if the road to Dubya's war in Iraq was paved with lies, that's OK, because it served a true, higher purpose. A few weeks ago, Matthew Yglesias noted a problem with these arguments:

...once we concede that the road to war was paved with deception, there's no way to know that we're not the chumps. I mean, a smart deceiver would understand that the sort of crude methods that fool the hoi polloi won't work on news junkies and political webloggers, so there's a different deception for us.

Let's say that you believe that the WMD story was fake, but the real purpose of the invasion was to introduce Western Democracy to the Arabs. (Forcibly imposing democracy? Never mind...). How can you be sure that that isn't yet another story, designed to mask, say, good old-fashioned imperialism, perhaps à la Laurent Murawiec?

Which brings me to an interesting quote from Tom Friedman. Friedman recall, was arguing even before the war, in the pages of the New York Times, that the WMD case was essentially fraudulent, but might be useful to gain support from the project from our reluctant allies. (He seems to be of the view that no one in their foriegn ministries reads the New York Times). And Oliver Burkeman quotes him as saying that Dubya's hinting at connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda were likewise "just a lie". The story he presented in the Times as the true justification for the project was that if we just got control of the territory in Iraq, we could light a beacon of democracy and reshape the culture of Muslims the world over, or something like that. But Burkeman finds a hint at something else lurking in Friedman's writing. Says Friedman:

"Saudi Arabia would have been fine; Pakistan would have been fine. We did Iraq because we could... My motto here to my liberal friends is that some things are true even if George Bush believes them. It's very Machiavellian, and very hard to sell. [But] a Roman emperor would have understood it perfectly."

Michael Parenti to the contrary, Roman emperors are not usually noted for their support of democracy...

A homeowner puts a UN flag on his front lawn. Some local bureaucrats tell him to take it off; having that flag is against the rules. He's refused, and will probably wind up in court. If the local bureaucrats were government officials, libertarians would be all over this as an example of the silly excesses of the nanny state. But the bureaucrats are members of a private homeowner's association, and some libertarians seem quite pleased:

The home owner, in the same misguided state that makes him think the UN is a organization worth supporting, cited the U.S. Constitution against the association. Of course, the Constitution is about the federal government, not home owners associations, but this kind of confusion seems to be common.

This incident illustrates a key difference between libertarianism and libertinism. The former is about choices and the latter about avoiding consquences. The home owner in this case is a libertine, believing that he should be able to do what ever he wants without consquences. He knew about the association when he chose to buy his house, but now that it’s inconvenient he wants to ignore the consequences of that choice. Libertarians want people to be able to chose, but also believe that every choice has consquences, good and bad, that can’t be separated from the ability to make choices.

What's interesting here is that if the homeowner's association were a formally constituted government body -- say, a zoning board -- the homeowner would face pretty much the same set of choices that he does against a private body: fight in court, petition the board to change its policies, or run for a seat on the board and start to work from the inside. And the argument that "he know about the association when he chose to buy his house" applies just as well to a zoning board. The main difference is that, as our libertarian commentators are quick to point out, there are restraints on government, like the first amendment, which do not apply to private bodies and cannot be used to defend against them.

Which all might give some people the feeling that there's something ever so slightly wrong with libertarianism. (At least if you think it's supposed be about empowering people and not corporations; if the latter, there's no problem at all).

via Hector Rottweiler, Jr.

More: Remember back when EBay was bragging to law enforcement about all the things they could do for the cops that that pesky Bill of Rights kept the cops from doing for themselves? Now, they're cooperating even more with government, by kicking off an artist whose offense was mocking Dubya. But hey, he can't have any reason to object, since he must have known of EBay's terms of service!

By the way, I'm sure all my readers are familiar with all of the terms of their ISPs' acceptable use policies and the various clauses of their software license agreements. Down to the letter. Why, not to read them just wouldn't make sense...

via The Agonist...

Someone asked me whether I thought it was a good thing that Saddam was gone. My response was that it depends what comes after. The presidency of Iraq could go, for instance, to a member of the fanatical Shiite organization which helped set up Hezbollah, among other things. Oh, wait. It already has:

Iraq has its first temporary president, and his name is Ibrahim Jafari. (He'll hold the job for a month: It's a rotating presidency, handed off like a relay baton between nine "chairmen", each of whom was in turn chosen by a USDA-approved 25-member Governing Council.) Jafari hails from the Shiite fundamentalist party Al Dawa.

Dawa? Would that be the same Dawa that carried out a series of Reagan-era bombings in Kuwait of, among other things, the American and French embassies and the residential housing of American Raytheon employees -- bombings that killed five people and injured 80? The same Dawa that took inspiration from the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the Ayatollah Khomenei? The same Dawa that founded and set up Hezbollah in Lebanon? Why yes, it would. Only now, after three decades of guerrilla and terrorist violence, they've surfaced to demand a share of ruling post-Saddam Iraq, and claiming they now believe in democracy and rule of law. And we trust them on this because ... well ... who can keep track of all these guys anyway?

So, we're getting Iraq to "embrace modernity" and get more comfortable with the secular west by putting guys like this in power. But hey, it's only for a month, after which he's just another chairman. Then we get to see who's next.

Besides, at least the Mukhabarat, Iraq's notorious secret police, is no longer operating. Except when reconstituted, under US auspices -- and coordinating with the Mujaedeen Khalq, another armed faction which is too brutal for even some of Saddam's former secret police to deal with in good conscience.

Dawa link via Tom Spencer.

There's a new rationalization theory circulating in DC on why we've yet to find those weapons that Saddam certainly had before the war. Jesse Taylor, who finds it intriguing, calls it the dumbshit theory, and you can also find it relayed here by a surprisingly credulous Josh Marshall, who describes it in brief:

Saddam had actually shuttered his WMD programs but intentionally kept the world guessing to produce the deterrent effect of having people believe he still had them.

There's only one problem with this theory: just before the war, Saddam Hussein admitted inspectors, and gave them (for him) unprecedented levels of cooperation, in an effort to support his overt and repeated statements that the programs had been shut down. By the time the United States attacked, the only significant problem the inspectors had left was that they had been unable to interview Iraqi scientists under preferred conditions. (The US has since been able to interview many of the same people at length -- one, Amir Saadi, has been in solitary for months -- and they apparently have nothing to tell. One is still being imprisoned until he will echo the administration line on those damn aluminum tubes). And he submitted disclosures, the ones the US repeatedly derided as useless, which actually described what little suspect technology he seems to have had -- the laughable drone aircraft program, and the al-Samood missiles which exceeded their permitted range by a few miles, if you left off the warhead.

If this was attempting to convince the world that he did have weapons, how might he have tried to convince them that he didn't?

Oops, sorry. There's another problem with the theory. Saddam wasn't always such a dumbshit. See, for instance, Jim Henley's takedown of a Kenneth Pollack article from before the war, pointing out that Pollack himself repeatedly points out instances where Saddam made some threatening move or other, then pulled back in response to a counterthreat -- somehow taking that as evidence that Saddam was the kind of madman who could not be deterred. The invasion of Kuwait -- the canonical dumbshit move -- happened only after he briefed the American ambassador and seems to have sincerely believed that he had a go-ahead. And even in the first Gulf War itself, he had chemical weapons and was deterred from using them by American threats.

It's worth recounting, by the way, why Saddam might have had legitimate reasons to be a bit leery of the inspectors. His first inspection crew was led by David Kay, who gave intelligence agencies hostile to his regime a free hand to use the inspection regime for their own purposes. By the by, Kay was more recently Dubya's source for the bogus claim that the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that Iraq was six months away from having a nuclear bomb back in 1991; no such report exists. And he's now in Iraq running our current WMD search, working directly for the CIA this time, and promising some surprises for skeptics... any day now.

So, why believe this dumbshit theory? What intrigues Josh Marshall, so far, is that it's based on the testimony of an anonymous Iraqi described by the AP as having "daily contact" with Saddam, though he wasn't "part of the national leadership". And what reason could this ex-butler, or whatever, possibly have to tell a lie?

(link on Kay's bogus claim via Eschaton).

Note added: This post's getting linked more than usual, so to fill in a detail: The scientist who's apparently not telling the right story on the aluminum tubes is Mahdi Obeidi -- the same one who had centrifuge parts buried in his garden. I'm going by the WaPo report I linked above on the scientists in general, which reports that "Obeidi said the tubes were for rockets, as Iraq had claimed before the war," but that "CIA analysts do not believe he has told the whole truth", and he has left Iraq under "CIA auspices".

And yet more: Josh Marshall confirms that Obeidi is being held against his will -- in Kuwait, it turns out -- until he tells the CIA what it wants to hear.

Monday, August 04, 2003

More Life in Ashcroft's America:

A 17-year-old kid, Donald Socha, recently left a note in his luggage, which the Boston Globe reprinted as follows:

[Expletive] you. Stay the [expletive] out of my bag you [expletive] sucker. Have you found a [expletive] bomb yet? No, just clothes. Am I right? Yea, so [expletive] you.'

He is now on trial for making a bomb threat.

via Boing Boing.

Tom Friedman says once again that

the good reasons for this war — to unleash a process of reform in the Arab-Muslim region that will help it embrace modernity and make it less angry and more at ease with the world — will take years to play out.

Our project of making the Iraqis more at ease with the world by invading them without provocation under false pretenses, installing a woefully unprepared authority which can't even communicate with the people it's supposed to rule, dispatching scared, trigger-happy troops who frequently offend local custom out of sheer ignorance, with frequently lethal results, and unleashing a wild spree of looting and worse which we have yet to bring under control, will certainly take quite some time to play out.

But it's not too early to ask for a progress report.

Two useful bullet points:

  • For lack of any other functioning authority, the Shiites in Najaf are going to religious courts established by hotheaded young clerics -- who condone honor killings and are already calling for an end to the US occupation (with the idea, no doubt, that they stay in control).
  • Meanwhile, when the Bahraini phone company started offering cell-phone service in Iraq, the American authority quickly shut them down. It seems the Arabs are supposed to embrace modernity on our schedule, not their own.

Friedman's rationale for invasion hasn't changed since before the war -- when he was happy to say that he didn't believe Saddam was a threat, but that we should invade anyway because we needed to civilize the Arabs by force. Not quite his words, but there's no other reading of the sentiment, as I noted last winter, when I also noted that mere exposure to Western ways didn't seem to damp Islamic fanaticism (growing up in Britain didn't help Richard Reid), and warned that any American occupation of Iraq, much less a botched one, could be Osama bin Laden's dream recruiting tool.

Is it too early to ask what plans Friedman has up his sleeve should we fail in the project?

Friedman gives other reasons for the war in the same column. It was supposed to "send a message to all the neighboring regimes that Western governments were not going to just sit back and let them incubate suicide bombers and religious totalitarians, whose fanaticism threatened all open societies." Never mind that our declared allies -- Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- were far more active in both those spheres than Iraq could ever have been, Pakistan in particular having been instrumental in the creation of the Taliban. Both say they're cooperating now, but there are plenty of reasons to question whether either Pakistan or the Saudis are fully sincere.