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The Nation

Bush's Crumbling "Coalition" in Iraq

"We have won, and now we have to start working to implement our program and unify the country," Romano Prodi told Italians after the official count confirmed from that country's national elections confirmed exit polls showing Prodi's center-left coalition had deposed the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had allied Italy with George W. Bush's foreign policies.

With his Olive Tree coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, liberals, Greens, Socialists, former Communists and Communists on track to gain solid control of the lower of the two houses of the Italian Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and a narrow majority in the upper house, the Senate, Prodi says he is positioned to begin to implement an ambitious agenda. If all goes as planned, one of the new prime minister's first moves will be to pull Italy's contingent of 2,600 troops out of Iraq.

That will deprive the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing" occupation force in Iraq of its fourth largest contingent.

The Italian withdrawal will be the latest blow to the administration spin that suggests the occupation is a multinational initiative. A score of countries have withdrawn their troops or are in the process of doing so. Many of the exits were hastened by elections that -- as in Italy this week -- saw voters chose political leaders and parties that promised to quit the coalition.

With Italy out, only three countries -- the U.S., Great Britain and South Korea -- will have more than 1,000 troops on the ground in Iraq.

The Italian exit is expected to come quickly.

Prodi's coalition promised during the campaign to implement an immediate withdrawal and, in nationally-televised debate last week he spelled out how it will work. "When we go to the government we'll decide for a speedy pullout of the troops, in secure conditions, talking with the Iraqi authorities," said Prodi, who explained that his priority would be to implement the exit strategy "as soon as possible."

Prodi could have a hard time implementing much of his program, as the close divide in the Senate and his own unwieldy coalition are likely to make governing difficult. But the process of getting Italian troops home will be eased by the fact that many member of Berlusconi's coalition also favor withdrawal. Indeed, in an attempt to diffuse the war issue during the recent campaign, Berlusconi, himself, had suggested that he would try to get Italian troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President Bush and his supporters spent a great deal of time talking about a "coalition of the willing" that at one time included four dozen countries. The president's use of the term "coalition" was always something of a misnomer, as it suggested a great deal of shared responsibility, when in fact the overwhelming majority of troops on the ground were from the U.S. Aside from the U.S. and Great Britain, no country ever had more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, and many of the coalition "partners" never had more than 100 troops in the country. Additionally, some of the largest troops contingents came from countries in eastern and central Europe that had been coerced to join the coalition by the U.S., which promised support for their efforts to integrate into international economic and political organizations in return for the commitment of troops to Iraq.

The president makes few references to his "coalition of the willing" these days because the coalition has been crumbling. Among the countries that have exited the coalition are Singapore (in January 2004), Nicaragua (February 2004); Spain (April 2004); Dominican Republic (May 2004); Honduras (May 2004); Norway (June 2004), Philippines (July 2004); Thailand (August 2004); New Zealand (September 2004); Tonga (December 2004) Hungary (December 2004); Portugal (February 2005); Moldova (February 2005); Netherlands (June 2005), Ukraine (December 2005) and Bulgaria (January 2006).Compared with the U.S. casualty rate, the Italians have suffered relatively few losses in Iraq.

But those losses have been deeply felt, as they have been in other coalition countries. Twenty-seven Italian soldiers died in Iraq, according to a CNN count. That's out of a coalition death toll, as of April 10 of 2,560 -- 2,353 of them Americans, one Australian, 103 Britons, 13 Bulgarians, three Danes, two Dutch, two Estonians, one Fijian, one Hungarian, one Kazakh, one Latvian, 17 Poles, two Salvadoran, three Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, two Thai and 18 Ukrainians.

Prodi has always said that the Italian death toll was 27 too many.

Prodi, a former prime minister, reentered Italian politics two years ago -- after serving as president of the European Commission -- when he backed a campaign against Italian participation in the coalition that used the slogan: "Iraq: A Wrongful War." Now, as the prime minister once more, Prodi will be able to implement the promise of that campaign by withdrawing Italian troops from the coalition and by further confirming that the ongoing occupation of Iraq is George W. Bush's project -- as opposed to that of a genuine "coalition of the willing."

It's the Cover-Up

After all the breathless suspense, after all the effort federal agents spent trying to seal a national security breach, after all the fingers were pointed directly at the Vice-President, last week it was revealed that the President of the United States, who everyone had previously thought was way too clueless to be involved, was behind the scandal the entire time. Yes, I'm talking about President Logan on Fox's long-running hit show 24.

How life imitates art.

In the long-running Washington DC tragicomic reality show The Bushies, it was also revealed last week that it was President George W. Bush who was behind the leak that led to the uncovering of CIA agent Valerie Plame's undercover identity.

Whatever the legality of his actions, it is clear that he lied to the American public when he pretended not to know who was responsible for the leak. Instead of clearing up the matter three years ago, Bush's belligerence cost the American tax-payers millions of dollars as Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutorial version of Jack Bauer, wasted three years sending reporters to jail to track the deceit back to the highest office in the land.

Bush promised to fire the leaker. If he was a man of his word, he would resign. But we know he is not.

Kerry Breaks Ranks

With his op-ed piece in the New York Times on Wednesday; his remarks on Meet the Press this past Sunday; and his e-mail and online petition calling for a withdrawal from Iraq today--John Kerry has broken ranks with a silent Democratic leadership and joined the likes of Russ Feingold and John Murtha in taking a strong position against the war.

In addition to his new stance, it is good to hear that the man who wasn't known for punchiness on the campaign trail is striving for, in his own words, "pretty simple messages" such as, "Tell the truth. Fire the incompetents. Get out of Iraq. Have health care for all Americans."

And while Kerry didn't say he will run again in 2008 there are sure signs he is back on the trail: his non-answer on Meet the Press and reports by Washington insiders that he is planning to set up a national security think tank in the nation's capital (just what the city needs--the heck with voting rights, how about another think tank?) in an effort to bolster his "strong on defense" image.

But there are still signs of lessons not yet learned. On Meet the Press, Kerry said his campaign's biggest mistake was to not spend more money on commercials to combat the Swift Boat lies. But it wasn't about money or more commercials--it was about his own will and guts and fighting instinct.

Nevertheless, this has been a good week for Kerry when it comes to will and guts. Let's hope he builds on it--and that his Democratic colleagues do the same.

IRS Privacy Nightmare

The IRS has quietly proposed astounding new rules which would allow tax preparers to sell the contents of their client's tax returns to third-party businesses, as long as a requisite form is signed. Historically, tax returns were a strictly private affair, with both tax preparers and IRS agents forbidden to share the info with anyone for any reason. But this could all change if the IRS's blatant corporate giveaway is passed. That's great news for "data-brokers" like ChoicePoint that make tens of millions of dollars selling personal information to corporate marketers. (Scroll down to the comments section below to see ChoicePoint's response to this line.)

Here's how the new rules would work: when you visit your accountant or a tax-preparation firm like H&R Block, your tax preparer would ask you to sign a form authorizing them to release your information at their discretion. Once you sign that form, your tax preparer has permission to sell or share the information contained in your tax filings. You have no control over how that data will be used, who will get it, or whether it'll be adequately safeguarded from identity thieves.

The proposed rule would require express written permission from the consumer to allow the information to be sold, but as Beth McConnell of PennPIRG argued before the IRS on April 4, that's not good enough for a number of reasons: nothing in the IRS rules would prohibit tax preparers from offering incentives in exchange for privacy--say, a ten percent discount on accountant fees and a free clock in return for a signature could sound very appealing. There's also nothing to prevent unscrupulous preparers from adding another in a long series of forms for their clients to sign at tax time without amply detailing the consequences of the signature.

In any case, there's absolutely no good reason for the new rule--and lots of good reasons to oppose it, including the arguments of law-enforcement officials who are warning that this rule would be a boon to identity theft, and are urging the IRS to drop the proposal. ("The IRS would allow tax preparers to sell a consumer's return to companies that have a terrible track record of safeguarding information from identity thieves," testified Beth McConnell.)

This issue should cross ideology. Bob Barr has already spoken out about it. And, as Stephen Lilienthal wrote in the smart, conservative online magazine Enter Stage Right, "Conservatives have good reason to express displeasure with this IRS initiative....The "consent signatures" are too likely to be signed by taxpayers based upon trust in their tax-preparer. Conservatives have qualms about mandated collection of information by government; that a government rule might serve to encourage the selling of that information to third parties, such as data brokers, should give conservatives pause."

The best way to help fight what the IRS and corporate lobbyists are trying to do is simply to tell people about it. It's happening very quietly--though thanks to the good work of the state PIRGs, not nearly as quietly as the IRS and business interests had planned--so click here to find contact info for local newspaper editors and talk-radio hosts and then write and ask them to look into and take a stand on the issue. You can also contact the Bush Administration through the PennPIRG site and demand that it direct the IRS to abandon this proposal and keep taxpayers' returns private. Finally, and perhaps more fruitfully, click here to get contact info for your own local elected reps and then ask them to support Barack Obama and Maria Cantwell's Protecting Taxpayer Privacy Act, which would prohibit tax preparers from disclosing taxpayer information to third parties.

All the Gossip That's Fit to Print

When the New York Times redesigned its website, I started to worry -- so dumbed down, so much white space, so many bells and whistles. Was the Times having another identity crisis trying to keep up with the Ipod-Slvr Phone generation?

This weekend's papers confirmed my concerns as the Times went VH1 over allegations that New York Post "Page Six" contributor Jared Paul Stern attempted to extort California billionaire Ronald Burkle. Over 48 hours, the Times relentlessly deluged readers with multimedia graphics, photos, charts, sexed up backstory and snarky quotes from irrelevant pundits. It doggedly tracked down former co-workers and associates who lurked in the "dark corners of nightclubs and parties" with Mr. Stern sipping on "champagne with supermodels." It obtained a copy of the key evidence (a grainy security tape of Stern with Burkle) and expertly analyzed it. It camped out at Stern's Catskills home and uncovered this vital piece of information: "he paid $220,000 for it." This revelation, however, paled in comparison to the bombshell that Mr Stern claims to "be the only child at his northern Ontario camp reading Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City." Ah hah!

Meanwhile the paper devoted far less space to Scooter Libby's revelation that Bush personally authorized intelligence leaks in the Iraq/WMD scandal -- referring to it as "no shock to official Washington" before launching into a numbingly dull rehash of previous coverage and intelligence leak history. The stories broke within 24 hours of each other, and here's the recount for the weekend:

Articles about Scooter Libby: 2 (plus one op-ed by Maureen Dowd)

Articles about Jared Paul Stern: 5

Number of reporters contributing to Libby coverage: 4

Number of reporters contributing to Stern coverage: 9

Total word count for Libby articles: 2,872

Total word count for Stern articles: 5,468

So on a story involving national security and the lies and misconduct of the President of the United States, the paper of record seems to be saying, "It's hard. And difficult. And boring. You wouldn't be interested anyway." Meanwhile, it practically launches a special section on a freelance gossip columnist for a rival daily. Gee, could the Times be trying an old trick publicists use to keep juice on their clients out of the news (give the reporters "better dirt on somebody else")? Could the Times be trying to deflect attention away from the prominent role a certain disgraced, former staff reporter had in the scandal that really matters? And why didn't the Times devote these kinds of resources to investigating the administration's case for war instead of relying on said reporter's tainted sources and canned information?

Only in New York, kids, only in New York.

Reconstruction Corruption Watch IV

First, the company's own employee blows the whistle on its failure to use water purification equipment. And now a physician serving in Iraq ties an outbreak of bacterial infections among soldiers to foul-smelling water she noticed at Qayyarah Airfield West during the same time period.

As the Houston Chronicle reported on Friday, testing now confirms that water used by the soldiers to bathe and brush their teeth contained coliform and E. coli bacteria.

Halliburton spokeswoman Cathy Mann had the audacity to state that subsidiary (you guessed it) Kellogg Brown & Root provided water "consistent with the army's standards." This shouldn't come as a surprise since the company also dismissed larvae spotted by its own employee as "an optical illusion caused by a leak in the toilet fixture."

This is not a liberal, conservative or partisan issue. These are American soldiers, risking their lives, and being hindered by a company that is short on performance and long on excuses. And the lack of corrective action is simply staggering.

Dick Cheney--with all of his bluster about his support of the troops--should personally call for the pulling of his until-now favorite corporate son off of the job. What results does he see to justify the continuing funneling of contracts in its direction? Could it be the earnings reports? The stock's performance?

Our soldiers can no longer afford for this Administration and a Republican-controlled Congress to turn a blind eye to incompetence and egregious behavior. Only an independent War Profiteering Commission will keep up the pressure for answers and change. In the meantime, I urge shareholders to contact Halliburton and demand an end to the excuses. And all citizens should issue a call to their Representatives that Halliburton be replaced immediately.

Berlusconi Backfires

Following up on John Nichols' post about Silvio Berlusconi's likely election defeat, I'm posting a dispatch from our ace Washington intern Cora Currier, who lived in Italy and, unlike the rest of us, speaks fluent Italian.

 

Berlusconi's parading as Bush's buddy at the start of the Iraq war was the least of his problems. Italy's slick, perpetually tanned billionaire prime minister will likely lose the election because, after five years of scandals and corruption, Italians have had enough of his antics. Before the election he ceded to overwhelming popular opinion by promising to pull Italian troops from Iraq by the year's end, but it was too late to save face.

 

 

While Italy's economy floundered, Berlusconi, ranked the country's richest man by Forbes Magazine, was busy re-writing laws to avoid charges of tax-fraud, corruption and bribery. During the run-up to the election, supporters of opposition candidate Romano Prodi protested the inequality of TV time between the candidates. Little surprise: through various businesses, Berlusconi controls an alleged 90 percent of the national media. Last week Berlusconi announced to supporters at a rally in Naples: "we will win because we are not coglioni," using a vulgar term literally meaning "testicles" to paint the opposition as "assholes." The next day, T-shirts were seen on the streets of Rome reading Io Sono un Coglione: "I am an asshole." Looks there are quite a few of them in Italy these days…

 

Italy Votes for Withdrawal

George Bush's second closest comrade in the neoconservative "coalition of the willing" occupiers of Iraq has been swept from power. And that means that Italy will soon withdraw its troops from the coalition and Iraq.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who after British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the strongest supporter of Bush's policies in Europe, and perhaps the world, was swept from office in voting that ended Monday. Berlusconi will be replaced by Romano Prodi, whose center-left Olive coalition promised in its manifesto to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq.

Exit polls for the state broadcaster RAI gave Prodi's coalition of liberals, socialists and communists a majority in both houses of parliament.

Opposition to the war was not the only factor in the defeat of Berlusconi, whose five-year tenure as prime minister was characterized by corruption and totalitarian tactics, and whose reelection campaign degenerated into crude bluster and obscenity. But the prime minister's alliance with Bush, whose approval ratings are almost as low in Italy as in the U.S., certainly played a role.

Prodi's says the withdrawal of Italian troops will be completed "in the technical time necessary," following consultation with Iraqi authorities. That will go over well with the Italians who marched in the millions against Berlusconi's decision to send his country's troops to fight George Bush's war.

When Will Democrats Break With Bush?

In light of the news that President Bush authorized a top Administration aide to use previously classified information as part of an orchestrated political attack on a prominent critic of the Administration, a radio host asked me over the weekend: "What will it take to get Republicans to break with Bush? How bad will things have to get before they realize that he's a disaster for the country?"

I answered that, in small but significant ways, Republicans have been breaking with Bush for some time now. When the President travels to states around the country to pump up support for his war, he often does so without the accompaniment of GOP members of Congress who find that they are otherwise engaged on the days that the Commander in Chief drops by their hometowns. While most leading Republicans refuse to admit as much publicly, they are putting more and more distance between themselves and a President whose approval rating has dropped to Nixon-in-Watergate depths.

When Congress voted recently on whether to extend the Patriot Act, some of the loudest "no" votes came from conservative Republicans such as Don Young of Alaska and Butch Otter of Idaho, who argued with Democratic US Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin that the legislation was an assault on basic liberties and Constitutional standards. As but a handful of Senate Democrats and key House Democrats such as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel were lining up with the Bush Administration to curtail civil liberties, Texas Republican Ron Paul, perhaps the most consistent critic of the Patriot Act in the House, complained that "one prominent Democrat opined on national television that 'most of the 170-page Patriot Act is fine,' but that it needs some fine tuning. He then stated that he opposed the ten-year reauthorization bill on the grounds that Americans should not have their constitutional rights put on hold for a decade. His party's proposal, however, was to reauthorize the Patriot Act for only four years, as though a shorter moratorium on constitutional rights would be acceptable! So much for the opposition party and its claim to stand for civil liberties."

Perhaps even more significant than GOP opposition to the Patriot Act is the opposition from some of the most conservative Republicans in the House--including Paul, Walter Jones and Howard Coble of North Carolina, and John Duncan of Tennessee--to the war in Iraq. These Republicans, among others, are now among the most ardent and articulate Congressional critics of the Administration's policies in the Middle East.

Last week, Paul, Jones and a moderate Republican, Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, joined with three Democrats--Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Marty Meehan of Massachusetts-–in a push to get the House to hold a daylong debate on the war, declaring that: "Americans deserve an open and honest debate about the future of US policy in Iraq by their Representatives in Congress." While the debate demand of these Republicans stalwarts was stymied by their party leadership in the House, it is notable that House Republican leaders chose not to block a March 16 amendment by US Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, which put the House on record as opposing the construction of permanent US bases in Iraq. The decision not to fight Lee's amendment, which passed by an overwhelming voice vote, was a tacit acknowledgment by GOP leaders of the reality, pointed up in a recent University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll, that 60 percent of Republican voters oppose a permanent US presence in that country.

Indeed, while a predictable 80 percent of Democrats support moves to begin withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, according to the PIPA poll, a rather more remarkable 52 percent of Republicans now want Washington to begin bringing the troops home.

Although their President and Vice President and a few key Congressional leaders may still be clinging to neoconservative fantasies, Republicans who actually care about their country-–as well as Republicans who care about the political viability of their party at a time when a new Associated Press/Ipsos poll finds that Americans would prefer a Democrat-led House by the widest margin in recent history, 49 percent to 33 percent-–are indeed beginning to make meaningful breaks with Bush.

So the question of the moment is not "What will it take to get Republicans to break with Bush?" The question is: "What will it take to get Congressional Democrats to break with Bush?"

Despite mounting evidence not just of the President's unpopularity but of his reckless disregard for the law-–which was again confirmed by last week's news of former Cheney chief of staff I. "Scooter" Libby's testimony that Bush authorized distribution of previously classified data as part of a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had revealed that the "case" for going to war in Iraq was based on false premises-–most Congressional Democrats continue to resist calls to hold the President accountable.

An American Research Group poll conducted in March found that 70 percent of Democrats, 42 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans surveyed favor censuring Bush for authorizing wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining court orders. Yet Feingold's motion to censure Bush has drawn just two Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa.

The same American Research Group poll found that 61 percent of Democrats, 47 percent of independents and 18 percent of Republicans are supportive of moves to impeach Bush. Yet Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has attracted just 33 co-sponsors for his resolution calling for the creation of "a select committee to investigate the administration's intent to go to war before Congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment." Most Democratic members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, have signed on. But House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and others in leadership positions remain aggressively critical of the initiative.

Where, at the very least, is the united Democratic support for Representative Maurice Hinchey's call for the expansion of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into White House leaks-–which produced the indictment of Libby and last week's revelation about the role of the President and Vice President-–to examine the motivations of all of those involved in the White House's political assault on Joe Wilson? Hinchey, a New York Democrat, has been on the case since last summer, when he got thirty-nine other House members to sign a letter he wrote to Fitzgerald calling for the expanded investigation. As Hinchey says, "Justice will not be served until all of these matters are fully addressed in the courts and in the Congress."

Hinchey's right. But the fundamental truth of American politics remains that justice will only be served when the opposition party moves, as a united force encouraged and supported by its leadership in the House and Senate, to demand accountability from this Administration. For most Democrats, that will demand something they have not yet been willing to make: a break from Bush. And Democrats had better be quick about making that break, unless they want their Republicans colleagues to beat them to the punch.