Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Myth of the Surge

Rolling Stone has a great piece on the details of the surge and the recent reduction in violence. This is one of the best examples of spurious causality I've seen outside a research methods textbook. A political scientist's dream. Here's an excerpt:

"We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority," says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. "Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future."

Read the whole article here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

That Damn Middle Class!

I came across an interesting piece in Foreign Policy a while back by Moises Naim titled "Can the World Afford a Middle Class?" it blamed a growing middle class for rising food prices. I'm not sure why the novelty of the theory also suffices for evidence in this case, but the argument can be summed up in the following excerpt:

"These protesters are the most vociferous manifestations of a global trend: We are all paying more for bread, milk, and chocolate, to name just a few items. The new consumers of the emerging global middle class are driving up food prices everywhere. The food-price index compiled by The Economist since 1845 is now at an all-time high; it increased 30 percent in 2007 alone. Milk prices were up more than 29 percent last year, while wheat and soybeans increased by almost 80 and 90 percent, respectively. Many other grains, like rice and maize, reached record highs. Prices are soaring not because there is less food (in 2007, the world produced more grains than ever before), but because some grains are now being used as fuel and because more people can afford to eat more."

Not ONCE in this article does Naim mention oil, which, because it is used in everything from the production of food to its transportation and storage, will cause food prices to increase when its own price increases. Also, as the international financial institutions try to 'restructure' developing economies they usually encourage (or force) the cultivation of cash crops over subsistence crops meaning that instead of growing their own food many people are now growing exotic flowers and other luxury crops to export to Europe and the US. They're paying more for their food (and rioting about it as the author alludes to above) because the food they now get is often nutritionally inferior to what they would have been growing themselves so now they have to buy more of it. (For an example of this read Tim Mitchell's book Rule of Experts which details this process in Egypt).

Then, I saw the front page of today's NYT, which reads: "Rising Inflation Creates Unease in Middle East" and contains the following evaluation of food prices:

"Even as it enriches Arab rulers, the recent oil-price boom is helping to fuel an extraordinary rise in the cost of food and other basic goods that is squeezing this region’s middle class and setting off strikes, demonstrations and occasional riots from Morocco to the Persian Gulf.

The inflation has many causes, from rising global demand for commodities (a nod here to Naim) to the monetary constraints of currencies pegged to the weakening American dollar. But one cause is the skyrocketing price of oil itself, which has quadrupled since 2002. It is helping push many ordinary people toward poverty even as it stimulates a new surge of economic growth in the gulf.

“Now we have to choose: we either eat or stay warm. We can’t do both,” said Abdul Rahman Abdul Raheem, who works at a clothing shop in a mall in Amman and once dreamed of sending his children to private school. “We’re not really middle class anymore; we’re at the poverty level.”

I'm also suspect of why an increase in the demand for soybeans means more people are middle class. Is the new definition of middle class "those not requiring food aid from Oxfam"? I would hardly consider someone who has to worry about the rising price of milk "middle class." Perhaps a better headline for Naim's article would be: "What if all these poor people start eating more food, becoming educated and demanding more rights from their sweatshop foremen?"

It's all so surreal . . . . .

The last eight years have yielded some genuinely surreal moments. A number of times I've thought about Surrealism and Dada - the art movements that grew out of the atrocities of WWI and reflected the absurdity of politics of the age. In particular it's made me think of Rene Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" - the painting of a pipe with the words "This is not a pipe" written directly beneath.

I know rationality is not the answer to every human predicament, but it seems to have been completely tossed aside since 2001. Words you would never expect to hear uttered by a sane individual have graced the speeches of our elected officials. Phrases like 'axis of evil,' 'evil-doers,' 'smoke them out of their holes,' and 'dead or alive.' It's not just that these phrases become fodder for books on Bush's lexicon and material for the Daily Show. They seep into your unconscious mind and slowly you become more tolerant of all absurdities. People in power tell you things you KNOW to be false - but you don't call them on it.

Like how could the president and Congress pass an economic stimulus package that gives $600 to every taxpayer when we're in the middle of a war costing $30 billion/month, millions of people are losing their homes, even more are without healthcare and we don't think we can afford social securtiy programs? They said themselves that lower and middle income citizens are more likely to spend it - "Do your duty and be a good consumer." That is - if you're poor and ignorant enough to go out and spend your precious dollars on cheap non-durables. If you're wealthy (and don't worry, you get a refund too) you won't spend it, you'll probably put it in your savings. After all, that's what wealthy people do - that's why they're wealthy. Let the rest of the poor urchins stimulate the economy - obviously Bush's supply-side economics haven't done the trick.

How can they talk about a WWIII with Iran when we're at war in Iraq and Afghanistan? How can they say this when the Iranians sent an official document via the Swiss Ambassador to the State Department offering to enter neogitations? And how can Condaleeza Rice say she never saw it? Does anyone really believe that? Doesn't she need to cook up a better story, like it must've been intercepted by some warmongering underling?

How can the US - supposedly the most democratic nation in the world - have a Supreme Court decide one election and Superdelegates decide another? Why have the elections in the first place? Window dressing? The outcome is the same in dictatorships that declare 99% of the votes, only in the US we accept it as legitimate. We rationalize it away with electoral colleges and other archaic institutions that are only an insurance policy for the establishment should the rabid legion of voters decide incorrectly.

They tell you it isn't a pipe, or a failed democracy, or an absurd conflict, or an attempt to keep you in your place. But you know it is - trust yourself, not the administration. You don't have to be a full-time observer of politics to know when you're being lied to.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

End to the Cuban Embargo?

There are many policies in the US that defy logic: subsidies for huge agribusiness to supply substances that contribute to obesity, the electoral college (try explaining the utility of that wonderful institution to a foreigner sometime), superdelegates, tax breaks for pharmaceuticals to dump expired medicines on African communities and write-offs for people who purchase oversize SUVs. The list goes on. But one of the most visible stupid policies is our embargo on Cuba, which as I understand only benefits US sugar producers. Life in Cuba isn't like life in America - but I can think of a few hundred other places that are worse: Cabrini Green in the early 90s, for example, Chile under Pinochet, Vietnam during the US invasion, the list goes on. Our 45+ year embargo on Cuba is a humanitarian disaster, and hasn't changed despite major advancements in economic reform by the Cuban regime - Libya got far more just for declining to nuke us. If foreign policy is a system of carrots and sticks then in order to be effective it needs to be applied consistently. The embargo on Cuba is no longer a symbol of the victory of capitalism over socialism - it is a symbol of special interests in the US forcing the government to maintain a disastrous policy. Fidel Castro's announcement that he is stepping down is the perfect opportunity to revisit the embargo issue. It brings to mind other opportunities this Administration has squandered - the Iranian offer to negotiate that was sent via the Swiss Ambassador that received no reply at all from the State Department, and most tragically, the goodwill we enjoyed after 9-11 and before we invaded Iraq.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bi-Partisan Center for Public Integrity releases database of false statements made in run-up to Iraq War

The Center for Public Integrity has compiled a searchable (by keyword) database of false statements made by the Bush Administration in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. A grand total of 935 - here are some highlights:

* On August 26, 2002, in an address to the national convention of the Veteran of Foreign Wars, Cheney flatly declared: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." In fact, former CIA Director George Tenet later recalled, Cheney's assertions went well beyond his agency's assessments at the time. Another CIA official, referring to the same speech, told journalist Ron Suskind, "Our reaction was, 'Where is he getting this stuff from?' "
* In the closing days of September 2002, with a congressional vote fast approaching on authorizing the use of military force in Iraq, Bush told the nation in his weekly radio address: "The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given. . . . This regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material could build one within a year." A few days later, similar findings were also included in a much-hurried National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction — an analysis that hadn't been done in years, as the intelligence community had deemed it unnecessary and the White House hadn't requested it.
* In July 2002, Rumsfeld had a one-word answer for reporters who asked whether Iraq had relationships with Al Qaeda terrorists: "Sure." In fact, an assessment issued that same month by the Defense Intelligence Agency (and confirmed weeks later by CIA Director Tenet) found an absence of "compelling evidence demonstrating direct cooperation between the government of Iraq and Al Qaeda." What's more, an earlier DIA assessment said that "the nature of the regime's relationship with Al Qaeda is unclear."
* On May 29, 2003, in an interview with Polish TV, President Bush declared: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories." But as journalist Bob Woodward reported in State of Denial, days earlier a team of civilian experts dispatched to examine the two mobile labs found in Iraq had concluded in a field report that the labs were not for biological weapons. The team's final report, completed the following month, concluded that the labs had probably been used to manufacture hydrogen for weather balloons.
* On January 28, 2003, in his annual State of the Union address, Bush asserted: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production." Two weeks earlier, an analyst with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research sent an email to colleagues in the intelligence community laying out why he believed the uranium-purchase agreement "probably is a hoax."
* On February 5, 2003, in an address to the United Nations Security Council, Powell said: "What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence. I will cite some examples, and these are from human sources." As it turned out, however, two of the main human sources to which Powell referred had provided false information. One was an Iraqi con artist, code-named "Curveball," whom American intelligence officials were dubious about and in fact had never even spoken to. The other was an Al Qaeda detainee, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who had reportedly been sent to Eqypt by the CIA and tortured and who later recanted the information he had provided. Libi told the CIA in January 2004 that he had "decided he would fabricate any information interrogators wanted in order to gain better treatment and avoid being handed over to [a foreign government]."

If Iran were America: A Timeline

This was sent to me by a friend of mine from Hanover College. Sometimes parody is the only way to illustrate a truth that is so absurd it's almost unbelievable.

If Iran Were America (And We Were Iran): A Timeline

by J. L. Bryan

This is for anyone interested in understanding what American foreign policy has done to people in Iran. (For simplicity's sake, I have combined the roles of the USA and the UK, as the USA was assuming control of the former British Empire at this time.)

1953: Coup in America

Dwight D. Eisenhower is elected President of the United States, a country that receives most of its income from oilfields in Pennsylvania and Texas. The oil is pumped and distributed by the Persian-American Oil Company, owned by Iran.

Fulfilling a major campaign promise, Eisenhower reviews the oil production-sharing agreements between Iran and the USA. As Iran is taking more than 90% of American oil revenues, Eisenhower attempts to renegotiate this arrangement on more even terms for his country.

Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran is outraged at this show of "American greed." Instead of negotiating, Iran sends its intelligence agents to carry out a policy of regime change. They hire an assortment of American street gangs to do the grunt work.

Bombs destroy churches and community centers across the United States. Fliers and pamphlets appear everywhere, claiming that Eisenhower is a member of Communist Party USA. The Communists, according to the fliers, are destroying churches for Eisenhower to help liberate Americans from the "opiate of the masses." Local newspapers, covertly funded by Iran, echo these ideas. American public opinion is inflamed against President Eisenhower.

The Iranians bribe unpatriotic generals like L.L. Limnitzer to lead the coup against Eisenhower. The Iranians want an authoritarian, fiercely anti-Communist dictator who will never attempt anything resembling nationalization of the American oilfields. After carefully weighing the options, Iran installs Senator Joseph McCarthy as their puppet king to rule the USA.

1953–1979: The McCarthy Era

King Joe McCarthy rules with an iron fist for 26 years. Though initially reluctant to obey a foreign government, King Joe soon embraces his sweeping new powers, as well as the constant flow of Iranian aid and weapons that makes it all possible. Iranian intelligence agents create, for McCarthy's regime, the Department to Surveil and Vet Americans for the King (SAVAK).

Hundreds of thousands of "suspected Communists" disappear from American society, in a general purge of teachers, newspaper reporters, and numerous government officials. It is rumored they are vanishing into a gulag of secret prisons in northern Alaska built by Brown & Root.

1978–1979: The Christianist Revolution

Under SAVAK rules, large groups of Americans can only congregate in two places: pre-arranged, pro-McCarthy rallies, and houses of worship. As a result, revolutionary tendencies sprout and grow in churches, led by radical clerics Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jim Bakker. With other evangelical leaders, they form the Supreme Council for the Christian Revolution in America (SCCRA), or the "Christian Coalition."

Anger at King Joe McCarthy, and the Iranians who control him, reaches a fever pitch in 1979. Millions of young Americans throw their support behind the SCCRA. The young people may not agree with all of the radical clerics' goals, but they cannot abide the brutal McCarthy era any longer. They overthrow the oppressive dictatorship of King Joe.

In the course of this, American revolutionaries seize control of the Iranian embassy in Washington, from which the puppet McCarthy government was controlled. Iranian TV manages to feature this "American hostage crisis" night after night for 444 days without mentioning that America had suffered for decades under a puppet regime installed by Iran.

Eventually, a secret deal is reached between the Christian Coalition – now the rulers of America – and Iran, and the hostages are released.

1980–1988: The America-Mexico War

The Iranians have previously maneuvered one of their long-time Mexican intelligence assets, whom we'll call "José Husseino," into the position of dictator of Mexico. Now they provide their pet dictator with arms, aid and intelligence, and launch Mexico into an invasion of the United States.

Ideally, this policy will topple the revolutionary Christianist government in Washington. Failing that, the Iranian leadership hopes Mexico will seize the oil-rich province of Texas, denying revenue to the new Washington government, while keeping Texas oil within the Iranian "sphere of influence."

1988: Oops

As it turns out, Americans are not about to surrender their country to the Mexican army. They fight hard to repel the foreign invader. Millions die on in each country, and infrastructure along both sides of the border is bombed into rubble.

Iran provides the Mexican regime with chemical and biological weapons, which the Mexican dictator Husseino wields against American soldiers and civilians alike. The war wounded and maimed number in the millions. Long trenches are dug to bury the American dead. The USA must cope with a generation of chemically-burned war orphans.

Husseino also uses these chemical weapons to crush an uprising in Chihuahua, earning himself the nickname 'Murderer of Mexico City.' The Iranian regime shows no concern about this humanitarian catastrophe, and continues supplying weapons of mass destruction to Husseino.

The war is fought to a draw. Husseino claims victory while his soldiers beat a hasty retreat back to Mexico.

1991: Oops again

Iranian politicians realize they have inadvertently built Mexico into one of the world's most powerful militaries. Mexico now threatens Iranian interests in the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America. When Husseino shows interest in invading the small neighboring country of Guatemala, the Iranian government decides to encourage him. The Iranian ambassador allegedly told Husseino:

We have no opinion on your American-American conflicts, such as your dispute with Guatemala. Secretary of State Mohammed Mossadegh III has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Mexico in the 1960s, that the Guatemala issue is not associated with Iran.

The Rendon Group is hired to cook up anti-Mexican propaganda. A teenage girl relates a sobbing story of the brutality of Mexican soldiers against innocent Guatemalan babies. The story is reported and repeated through every news outlet in Iran. (Years later, it will be revealed as propaganda. This, however, is never widely reported to the Iranian public, nor referenced by major journalists when the next round of wartime propaganda rolls out.)

Iran invades Guatemala and Mexico, destroying most of Husseino's military. They leave their formerly-favored dictator in power, however. The Iranian State Department advises that removing Husseino will lead to turmoil and civil war in Mexico, bogging down Iranian troops for an unknown number of years. Also, the removal of Husseino could only empower the hated Americans. Tehran decides not to go there.

Guatemala is now home to several new Iranian bases, which keep a close eye on events in Mexico, the United States, and other Iranian interests in the region.

1991–2001: The Interbellum Years

The destitute people of the United States struggle to recover from the massive loss of life and property during the America-Mexico War of the 1980s. We watch as Iran enforces a "no-fly" zone over Mexico, and we hope our troubles with those two countries are over. Perhaps they will finally leave us alone.

Still, Iran wields its enormous international influence to impose economic sanctions on both Mexico and the United States. Half a million children die from malnutrition, while depleted uranium left over from the "Gulf Coast War" of 1991 sows an epidemic of cancer throughout Mexico and the southern half of the United States.

Iran covertly funnels millions of dollars to any and every dissatisfied group in America. The KKK, the Black Panthers, the John Birch Society, and even the Vermont Secessionists experience a surge in anonymous foreign donations.

9/11/2001: 23 Jumada al-Akhar

An airplane crashes into Azadi Tower (or, interestingly, "Freedom Tower") in Iran. Within minutes, "counterterrorism experts" emerge from the woodwork to blame a relatively obscure terrorist group in Cuba. No other suspects, not even obvious contenders like Russian intelligence, are ever mentioned. A Latin American passport is found in the rubble of Azadi Square, and this apparently proves the first guessers correct.

Iranians are stunned to learn, via their news media, that the West is full of murderous killers driven by an extreme, violent religion. Apparently, these "Christofascists" are everywhere, and they hate Muslims for their way of life, especially Iranians. Iranians learn the West is full of groups that would kill and die for the chance to remake the Middle East in their own image.

(Hold on, I lost track of which was the real timeline and which was imaginary…OK, I'm back.)

October 2001: Iran Invades Cuba

Iran invades Cuba and topples the Castro regime, in spite of their previously close alliance. The United States offers its help to Iran, an attempt at friendship and solidarity against a common enemy after the horrific 23 Jumada attack, but Iran rebuffs America.

1/29/2002: Axis of Evil

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (we'll say) pronounces that the United States, Mexico and Venezuela constitute an "Axis of Evil" that threatens the world. He cites America's history of genocide, slavery, and segregation, its wars against the Philippines and Vietnam.

American citizens are puzzled. Our president and Venezuela's have been threatening each other for some time. And didn't we just fight a bloody, protracted eight-year war against the invading Mexicans? How can anyone believe we are three allied nations?

Iran accuses all three countries of developing nuclear weapons. This, too, puzzles the Americans. Iran has tens of thousands of nukes, and is the only country that ever actually used them. (Through baroque circumstances too complex to describe here, Iran obliterated two Argentinean cities in the 1940s).

America is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows us to create nuclear power plants for peaceful energy. America needs nuclear power –the Pennsylvania oil is long gone, and even the rich Texas fields are playing out. We will need alternative sources of energy to survive as a civilization.

However, this sort of logic is denounced as "pro-American propaganda" in the halls of Tehran.

March 2003

After endless harassment, Mexico's José Husseino fails to divest himself of the weapons of mass destruction he does not possess. Iran invades and occupies Mexico. No WMD are found, though it takes the Iranian government a year or two to gradually acknowledge this. No matter. Mexicans suffered horrendously under the Husseino dictatorship. Remember how he gassed the poor Chihuahuans? (Forget the context, or where he got the weapons, just remember that it happened.) They should welcome Iranian occupation, even if the number of violent deaths soars!


After a quick victory over the Husseino government, Iran begins hurling threats at America and Venezuela, the other "Axis" members. However, Iran fails to neutralize the fierce Mexican resistance, and the situation devolves into factional fighting as various interests compete for power.

Iran responds by stepping up the threats against America.

August 6, 2005: America Radicalizes

In response to the drumbeat of threats from Iran, Americans vote out the somewhat-less-hawkish Bill Clinton (serving his, er, third term) and we elect a new, "tougher" prime minister to protect us: militant religious fanatic George W. Bush.

Iranian newspapers tell the world that "W," as his brainwashed followers call him, believes in a crazed End Times cult that expects God to destroy the world at any moment. Iranian politicians argue that such a fanatical extremist, with a head full of Armageddon and the Second Coming, can never be trusted with even one nuclear weapon.

The new Bush regime immediately cracks down on dissent and any sign of "Easternization" among Americans. Body piercings, tattoos, and belly shirts are immediately outlawed. Websites, from, to the American Conservative, to the Huffington Post, plus thousands of others, vanish without explanation overnight.

Congressmen Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich disappear into the Alaskan gulag. Filmmakers Michael Moore and Alex Jones are forced to share a prison cell, to their deep mutual annoyance. Fortunately, the prison was built by Halliburton. All of them escape in a general riot, in which the prisoners simply kick the walls until they topple over.

The New Jersey Department of Education sends Max Raskin to re-education camp. He stands accused of chanting "Death to the state!" rather than the legally mandated "Death to Iran!" at a football pep rally. Naturally, there will be no hearing to determine if the accusation is true. (It is.)

October 9, 2006: Boom.

The world is stunned when Hugo Chavez of Venezuela detonates a small nuclear bomb. Now that Venezuela is a nuclear power, Iranian leaders no longer speak of an "Axis of Evil." Iran dispatches ambassadors to Caracas to find a "reasonable solution" to Venezuela's entrance into the nuclear club.

This sets off high-level discussion between Ayatollahs Robertson and Dobson. (Ayatollah Bakker has been disgraced and removed from power, while Ayatollah Falwell is away having frosted-doughnut-related surgery, and is not long for this world.) Maybe, their thinking goes, America should develop a nuclear bomb to deter Iran, considering Iran's long history of aggression and subterfuge against America. They recognize the difference between Iran's treatment of nuclear Venezuela versus non-nuclear Mexico.


Some level of trade across the USA-Mexico border continues, as it always has. However, Mexican society has disintegrated into endless conflict, and tens of millions of war refugees pour into the United States. The American government sends agents to monitor the situation in Mexico and search for solutions to the instability along the southern border.

Iran cites this involvement as proof that the USA is secretly behind the Mexican insurgency. The idea that the Mexicans themselves want to resist the foreign, Iranian occupation is still not allowed on Iranian television.

Iran steps up its threats against the United States, claiming that America is "very close" to building a nuclear weapon. (Iranian intelligence disagrees, but this is not exactly emphasized by Iranian media.) Iranian aircraft carriers and warships appear in the Gulf of Mexico and along the coast of New England. American children stand on piers in Maine and Florida to watch the Iranian war games.

The Iranian people, meanwhile, are weary of the prolonged, apparently endless wars in Cuba and Mexico. They have no desire for war with America, but neither do they control their government.

Ahmadinejad claims Bush is threatening to "wipe Canada off the map," though this has long been revealed as an inaccurate translation. (Bush's actual words: "Where the heck is Canada? I can't find it on the map.")

The world holds its breath, wondering if Iran will hit America with bombs, or even a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and ignite World War III, which will likely engulf the Americas. The future of civilization depends on the restraint and rationality of a foreign power whose leadership, so far, has displayed no evidence of possessing either trait.

July 5, 2007

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Big Piece of Humble Pie

A lot of the evil that goes on in the Middle East can be laid at the feet of US foreign policy. But some of it can't - like these too frequent stories about archaic, unIslamic, barbaric laws about the interaction between men and women. Two sisters in Iran were recently condemned to death by stoning because one of their husbands has video of them, gasp, in the company of two other males. And a woman in Saudi Arabia was kidnapped, interrogated, threatened and dehumanized for having coffee with a male co-worker in Saudi Arabia. When I was studying in Yemen a friend of mine was staying in a house with a family whose two daughters were sent 'away' so they wouldn't be murdered by the eldest male son who threatened to kill his two sisters after they ran to the aid of a man outside their home who had been hit by a car and was lying motionless in the street. I loved my time in Yemen-and it makes me so sad that such a hospitable, kind people can also harbor such violent feelings toward their women.

When men and women are always divided their rare interactions are inevitably going to be sexually charged. When men can't interact with women as co-workers and friends and the only women they see are their female relatives and prostitutes the identity of other women becomes one of a sexual object - how could it be anything different? Want to keep Gulf men from thinking about sex when they see a rogue uncovered ankle? Then allow women to become more to them than potential sex. Allow them to work and live side-by-side with men.