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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Dept of Misleading Headlines

According to the latest New York Times poll, "two-thirds of those polled said the United States should reduce its forces in Iraq, or remove them altogether." The same number believes the war continues to go badly.

So why is the Times story about the poll headlined "Support in US for Initial Invasion has Risen, a Poll Shows?"

Presumably because the number of Americans who say the war was right to fight stands at 42 percent, compared to an all-time low of 35 percent in May. And those who think the war is going "very badly" has decreased from 45 percent earlier in the month to 35 percent today.

Promising news, one could suppose, for the Bush Administration. But the overall findings of the poll indicate a hardened and continued pessimism about the direction of the war, which is not at all reflected in the pro-war headline.

The Washington Post, in its own Iraq poll today, had a very different take.

"Overall attitudes about the conflict continue to be decidedly negative," the Post writes, "with more than six in 10 saying that given the cost, the war was not worth fighting."

Eight in ten Americans say Bush is not willing enough to change his policy, a 12 percent increase since December.

The Post headline: "Poll Finds Democrats Favored on War."

So much for the Times' alleged "liberal bias."

The Dems' Nuclear Option

We've done all we can do, Democrats said after pulling an all-nighter last week, when Republicans blocked yet another vote on a proposal to begin withdrawing American troops from Iraq.

It takes sixty votes to pass anything in the Senate these days. And Democrats had only fifty-two. After much hype, just three Republicans broke with President Bush. Until more Republicans defect, Congress is stuck in a stalemate.

But there's another option. Democrats could give Republicans a taste of their own medicine and invoke the "nuclear option." Two years ago Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster if Democrats didn't allow an up-or-down vote on President Bush's judicial nominees. Frightened Democrats acquiesced and allowed the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito, thus ensuring a conservative majority on the court for decades to come.

Is the war in Iraq equally important to Democrats? Vowing to alter the rules of the Senate would be a risky and unpredictable move. But it would prove that the party stands for more than all-night PR stunts.

DeLay's Not Dead

Tom DeLay is not dead. In Max Blumenthal's new video he appears at the College Republicans annual convention, offering an unconventional solution to America's illegal immigration problem: ban abortion.

"If you don't believe abortion doesn't affect you," DeLay told the youngsters, "I contend it affects you in immigration. If we had those 40 million children who were killed over the last 30 years, we wouldn't need the illegal immigrants to fill the jobs that they are doing today." He pauses awkwardly, before offering this gem: "Think about it."

Our own David Corn also ran into DeLay this week. Corn asked DeLay what he was up to. Trying to be the "Democrats worst nightmare," he answered. Didn't DeLay already have that gig?

He also said he wanted his old nemesis Newt Gingrich to run for president. That's just the boost Newt needs.

Powell: Engage Hamas

The Bush Administration, in advance of a much-hyped Middle East conference in September, continues to push a "West Bank first" strategy in the occupied territories that confines Gaza to a Hamas-led wasteland.

That plan now has at least one high-profile American critic: Colin Powell.

"I don't think you can just cast them into outer darkness and try to find a solution to the problems of the region without taking to account the standing that Hamas has in the Palestinian community," Powell said today.

That point, so often missed by American and Israeli policymakers, should be self-evident. But Powell went further, describing how US policy actually empowered Hamas. "They won an election that we insisted upon having," Powell said. "And so, as unpleasant a group they may be and as distasteful as I find some of their positions, I think through some means, the Middle East Quartet… or through some means Hamas has to be engaged."

This is what democracy looks like...

Bush to Children: Drop Dead

On so-called philosophical grounds, President Bush opposes health care for children. A bipartisan group of Senators want to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) by $60 billion over five years, covering 3.3 million additional low-income children. Bush will only except half of that, saying "when you expand eligibility...you're really beginning to open up an avenue for people to switch from private insurance to the government."

So the President is for children's healthcare--as long as we don't spend too much on it and private insurance companies reap the benefits. Anything less will prompt a White House veto.

That came as news to conservative Republicans Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, cosponsors of the Senate's bill. "It's disappointing, even a little unbelievable, to hear talk about Administration officials wanting a veto of a legislative proposal they haven't even seen yet," Hatch and Grassley said on July 12th. In a follow-up release yesterday, they called the President's proposal a "non-starter."

[UPDATE: The Senate Finance Committee voted 17-4 today to reauthorize and expand SCHIP, in defiance of Bush.]

This is what Bush's presidency has been reduced to: vetoing legislation to help poor children.

SCHIP is not the only successful government program Bush opposes. "I believe government cannot provide affordable health care," he said yesterday. I guess he forgot Medicare and Medicaid.

Sleepless in the Senate

Matthew Blake reports from Capitol Hill:

Full disclosure: this humble reporter left the Capitol at 1 am but continued watching on C-Span until 2:30 am before nodding off. The Senate never slept.

Though it was done through the medium of a partly absurd, often tedious "all-night" debate, Democratic politicians have finally seemed to convey what they can and cannot do to stop George Bush's disastrous Iraq War policy.

Last night Democratic Senators talked and talked on an empty Senate floor--and to a Senate park packed with anti-war advocates--about how the chamber must vote now to begin bringing troops home. Not in September when Army General David Petraeus releases a progress report on the "surge" and not in 2009 when a new President assumes office. But antiwar Senators stressed again and again that troop withdrawals cannot happen unless 60 Senators vote to end debate on an amendment that says troops must start leaving Iraq in 120 days.

"We're going to read tomorrow that the Senate voted down the Levin-Reed amendment," co-sponsor Carl Levin of Michigan told a crowd of hundreds of anti-war advocates last night. "No they didn't--they voted to filibuster."

Indeed, the Senate just minutes ago failed to clear the Levin-Reed amendment by a vote of 52 yeas to 47 nays.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who orchestrated the Senate session, had pinned the hopes on ending the war on Senate Republicans like Virginia's John Warner and New Mexico's Pete Domenici, who have spoken out against the war but did vote to end debate on the amendment. For their part, moderate Senate Republicans seem focused on both waiting until September and endorsing the guidelines of the Iraq Study Group Report, which they dismissed not so long ago. "There is a careful sequence of events between now and September," Warner said when he spoke on the Senate floor last night.

While Republicans emphasized careful deliberation and held up copies of the Iraq Study Group Report, some Democrats seemed to have found a new sense of urgency. Patty Murray of Washington state told a story of a soldier she spoke with who just returned from Iraq. "He told me every time I heard somebody contentedly sitting in a coffee shop or restaurant, I just wanted to say 'Wake up!' and that's what we're saying Republican Senators now tonight. And we're staying up all night to tell them that."

Back on the Senate floor, Democrats stood by "Let Us Vote" posters and other visuals that emphasized how Iraq has distracted America from its biggest security threats. Louisiana's Mary Landrieu used additional visuals such as a most wanted poster of Osama Bin Laden with the headline "Priority Number One." Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown spoke beside a poster stating, "The Iraq effect: War has increased terrorismseven-fold."

Much of the curiosity surrounding the event centered on Senators staying up all-night and sleeping on cots. Capitol Hill workers complained about having to bring up dozens of boxes of Chick Filet sandwiches to the Senators.

But, however tangential and monotonous, each Senator spoke about Iraq and national security. A motion to close debate on the amendment failed by eight votes today. But at least Democrats have hammered home exactly where Congress stands on getting out of Iraq. "I don't think spending one night on the Senate debating Iraq is too much to ask," Landrieu said.

Deconstructing the Benchmarks

Last week the Bush Administration announced that the Iraqi government had made "satisfactory" progress on just 8 of the 18 benchmarks the Administration and Congress set this spring. Yet little attention has been paid to what these benchmarks actually are and whether they matter.

McClatchy newspapers analyzed all 18 benchmarks. The Washington Post summarized the report thusly:

 

The report judged that progress was "satisfactory" in eight of 18 benchmarks, including a review of the Iraqi constitution; legislation to divide Iraq into semi-autonomous regions; the protection of minority rights; and government, military and civil support for the new strategy. But it noted mixed progress on new electoral laws, militia disarmament and the reduction in militia control of local areas.

 

 

Areas receiving unsatisfactory grades included reform of Iraq's de-Baathification laws; enactment of a new law governing oil revenue; the ability of Iraqi security forces to operate independently from U.S. forces; and a range of benchmarks measuring sectarian bias in the government.

 

So the most important targets--curbing sectarian violence, empowering Iraqi forces, cracking down on militias, fairly distributing oil revenues--remain unmet. The Administration has little to show for the $2 billion per week our government is spending in Iraq.

Yet the incessant talk about benchmarks, on both sides of the Iraq debate, misses the point. "By setting 18 benchmarks that will be nearly impossible to reach but saying you won't leave until they are met is a recipe for long-term occupation," says Erik Leaver, an Iraq expert at the Institute for Policy Studies in DC. "There's no need for benchmarks at this point if you believe the war is a failure and can't be won."

Leaver notes that there is no similar mechanism of accountability or official indexes of progress for US troops and reconstruction teams. We didn't benchmark our way into this war and we won't benchmark our way out.

Unjust Execution Delayed

Guest post by Liliana Segura. Liliana is a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and has written on the death penalty for The Nation and other publications.

UPDATE: This evening the Georgia pardon board granted Troy Davis a 90-day stay, just a night before the state was set to execute him for a crime witnesses say he didn't commit. His tragic story is recounted below.

The case of Troy Anthony Davis is a textbook example of blind prosecutorial zeal--and the legal blockades that can leave the innocent condemned to death.

Davis is a black man convicted for the 1989 killing of a white police officer in Savannah, Georgia. Those facts alone should raise an eyebrow or two when it comes to Southern justice. But consider these facts:

The case against Davis relied solely on eyewitness testimony. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. Nor was there a murder weapon found.

Out of nine non-police witnesses, seven would later admit to having been coerced by police and recant their testimony.

As the Washington Post reports:

"Three of four witnesses who testified at trial that Davis shot the officer have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Two other witnesses -- a fellow inmate and a neighborhood acquaintance who told police that Davis had confessed to the shooting -- have said they made it up. Other witnesses point the finger not at Davis but at another man. Yet none has testified during his appeals because federal courts barred their testimony."

Why would the courts refuse to hear such compelling evidence regarding a prisoner's possible innocence?

One reason is the Clinton-era Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which in 1996 rolled back federal reviews of state death penalty convictions, making it nearly impossible for prisoners facing execution to introduce potentially exculpatory evidence. It's chilling to think of what the subsequent decade has wrought, given the number of overturned death sentences in recent years. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 124 people have been exonerated from death row. Six have been from Georgia. As Jared Feuer, the Southern Regional Director of Amnesty International told Democracy Now! this morning, "It really is a runaway train."

One would think that officials in Georgia would be hesitant to go through with an execution on so little evidence.

One would be wrong.

On Friday afternoon the state Board of Pardons and Paroles denied a request from Davis's lawyers asking for more time to make their case for clemency.

In legal papers filed last week, Chief Assistant District Attorney David T. Lock dismissed the witnesses' recanted testimonies, writing: "A recantation...does not prove that the witness' testimony was in every part the purest fabrication."

So much for "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"They're saying that actual innocence doesn't matter," Davis's sister Martina Correia told Democracy Now!

With Davis's execution previously hours away, more than 4,000 letters of support have been sent the Georgia parole board. Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte, and even William Sessions, the former head of the FBI, have spoken out against the execution. A number of jurors spoke before Georgia's clemency board this morning, saying that they would never have convicted Davis based on what is known now. And longtime civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis told the board: "If executing Troy Davis on the evidence we now have is the best our justice system can do, then that system is not worthy of the word justice."

Click here to voice your support for clemency in this case.

Call the Board of Pardons and Parole at (404) 657-9350.

Send an e-mail to: Clemency_Information@pap.state.a.us

FEMA: Still F’d Up

Written and Reported by Matthew Blake

Gulf Coast residents who've witnessed the incompetence of FEMA might find dark humor in the federal agency's unifying effect. Democratic and Republican Senators, Louisiana and New Orleans government leaders, and even former FEMA officials say the agency remains a major obstacle to Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery.

Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska upped the ante at a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing Tuesday, decrying FEMA as fundamentally incapable of correctly spending and allocating the $110 billion dollars it was given by Congress to assist the Gulf. (In reality, only $26 billion was appropriated to rebuild Louisiana.) The Republican Senator compared the damage from Katrina to France and Germany after World War Two concluding, "You need a new Marshall Plan for this area, not just FEMA."

That comparison struck a chord with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who convened the hearing. "You really hit the nail on the head comparing it to parts of Europe after World War Two," she said. The city's population is 60 percent of what it was before Katrina, murder rates have climbed to the deadliest in America and areas like the Lower Ninth Ward remain blighted and barren.

Stevens, one of the oldest and most conservative members of the Senate, would seem an unlikely champion of aggrieved New Orleans citizens. But he effectively conveyed both the magnitude of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita's devastation and the structural problems FEMA has encountered under the Bush Administration and the four year-old Department of Homeland Security.

Additional voices in the anti-FEMA chorus Tuesday included Mark Merritt, an assistant director at FEMA under Bill Clinton; Jeff Smith, the Louisiana governor's office executive director for homeland security and emergency preparedness, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Nagin told the committee that, "There needs to be some consistency. Every two months we deal with a different FEMA representative. It's like we're always starting from scratch."

Example after example was given to illustrate how FEMA has not delivered promised funds. Witnesses were sharply critical of the agency's "project worksheets," the excessively bureaucratic and inefficient reimbursement program through which federal Katrina recovery money is rewarded to state and local government--and often delayed, if it arrives at all. "If we used project worksheets after World War Two, we'd still be rebuilding Germany today," Landrieu remarked.

For example, Kevin Davis, President of St. Tammany Parish in New Orleans, said one FEMA official gave the green light to a plan to clean up his devastated neighborhood, but then a new official was reassigned to the area and concluded that the worksheet's wording disqualified his Parish for funding.

"FEMA officials arbitrarily decided what they could and could not get done," he said. St. Tammany Parish is now suing the agency in federal court.

Such criticisms come a day after a House Homeland Security Committee report noting that about one-third of all top-level FEMA positions are currently unfilled. Landrieu conceded that ultimately "it's the private sector that will rebuild New Orleans." Yet "without basic government infrastructure" she said, the city will remain in rubble.

Taylor Testifies—Sort Of

The news was that there was no news.

She showed up and testified--but in the end former White House political director Sara Taylor didn't--or couldn't--say much.

Again and again at a hearing of the Senator Judiciary Committee, the underling of Karl Rove invoked the order of executive privilege President Bush mandated on Monday to prevent his aides from testifying about the dismissal of nine US Attorneys. But in between her frequent bouts of non-answer, Taylor did manage to include a plug for her boss.

Taylor told Chairman Patrick Leahy that she never discussed firing the attorneys with the President. "I don't believe the White House did anything wrong," she stated.

If there was no foul play, Senators wondered, then why couldn't she discuss what went on at her old employ?

Leahy blasted the President's executive privilege intervention as "an unprecedented blanket assertion" and kept asking "What is it that the White House is trying to hide?"

President Bush announced this afternoon that Harriet Miers will not testify on Thursday before Congress as scheduled. Senator Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Committee and the only GOP Senator to originally show up, even suggested that Taylor and Miers could face criminal contempt charges for following Bush's order "not to testify concerning White House communications whether internal or external."

The 32-year-old Taylor, who worked with Rove on a daily basis for four years, did an expert job of cherrypicking. She spent three hours of testimony answering almost any question that did not implicate the White House in "Attorneygate" and invoked executive privilege when Senators pressed for specifics about the hiring and firing of federal prosecutors. She admitted toward the end of her hearing that while she tried to be consistent in honoring the President's executive privilege, "perhaps I have not done a great job."

In fairness, Taylor was placed in an untenable spot by the President. Answer questions and violate a however misguided presidential order. Or refuse to talk and anger Senators hungry to get to the bottom of this convoluted story. Senators understood that she was yet another pawn in the Bush Administration's resistance to Congressional inquiry. "The White House has put you in a position of being a tight-rope walker," said New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. Illinois's Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, added, "Karl Rove should be sitting at that table, not you."

Reporting by Matthew Blake

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