The Nation

The Beltway Media Gets the Iraq War Band Back Together

Bill Kristol

Neo-conservative pundit Bill Kristol (Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore, CC 2.0)

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The Beltway Media Gets the Iraq War Band Back Together
By Reed Richardson

One measure of the health of a nation’s discourse is how well it holds accountable its political and thought leaders. Do the men and women with a track record of getting things stupendously wrong ever have to face the music for their words and deeds? Do their arguments and opinions correspondingly suffer in the marketplace of ideas? Or do these same people keep getting free passes despite the sorrow they’ve sown? And do they continue to enjoy broad acceptance as serious, legitimate thinkers despite plenty of evidence to the contrary?

A brief survey of the US establishment press over the past few weeks is all it takes to get a clear answer on just how sclerotic, insular, and narrow-minded our country’s foreign policy discussions are. Ever since the ISIS-fueled insurgency started an unraveling of northern Iraq, mainstream news organizations have dredged up almost every neoconservative pundit and old Bush foreign policy hand still alive to pontificate on how Obama should fix, or has caused, this crisis. A crisis that, ironically, they helped to foment through an unnecessary, decade-long war based on false intelligence. Indeed, it has been mystifying, if not somewhat unsurprising, to watch how quickly the Beltway media has blithely rehabilitated the reputations of those responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis.

The past week, in particular, has felt like 2002 déjà vu. So many of the same old neocon faces marching to the same saber-rattling beat on the same news shows. The experience is almost reminiscent of those ;old, late-night K-Tel commercials selling compilation albums of songs by bands long since forgotten, and for good reason. I say almost because those commercials offered more historical context than most of the mainstream press does for these Iraq War neocons. After all, when was the last time you heard a talk show host or op-ed columnist even mention that Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz brought us such classic lines as “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” “This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war,” and, my personal favorite: “I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq.”

Last month, it was Robert Kagan who kicked off the No Accountability 2014 Iraq War reunion tour with an epic, 12,700-word essay: “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.” ;Covering almost the complete back catalog of neoconservative historical thought, Kagan’s overlong riff ran in The New Republic, a somewhat fitting evocation of the magazine’s infamous role providing intellectual cover to the pro-invasion left 12 years ago. Notably, though, discussion of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq—which were supposed to be seminal triumphs of neoconservative foreign policy, remember—only amounts to a few grace notes in Kagan’s bloated opus. Even in those few lines where he does address the war, his treatment of it is laughably benign, criminally disinterested. War, what is it good for? Kagan’s answer: Eh, who knows?

“At the end of the day, George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest.” [emphasis mine]

While Kagan may be too much of a coward to admit the obvious, the American public isn’t—a majority now feel removing Saddam Hussein wasn’t worth the trillions of dollars and lives lost. But has this strong public sentiment, which also includes opposition to military intervention in neighboring Syria, translated into an uptick in anti-war viewpoints being presented in the news? One might think those few souls who defied the DC conventional wisdom and warned of the dire consequences wrought by invading Iraq would be hot media commodities today, with recent events having proven them right yet again. Think again. Instead, it’s neocons like Kagan who get almost unlimited space to repackage their militaristic policies for a new generation.

But that’s just where it starts. Last week, thanks to the sudden successes of the ISIS insurgency—which already seem to be fading—Kagan’s “much-discussed” essay begat a long, flattering profile in the New York Times. Though the Times does at least lump Kagan in with a group of “largely discredited neoconservatives,” the paper nonetheless expends the next thousand-plus words largely bestowing credit back upon him, his life, and his work. Indeed, the only critics quoted by the Times of Kagan’s neoconservative—or as he now prefers to call it, “liberal interventionist”—policies are, I kid you not, his father, who thinks his son is too easy on Obama, and his wife, who is portrayed as a demanding editor of his writing. Talk about the kid glove treatment. To be fair, one can’t accuse the Times of engaging in false balance in this article.

Kagan, you may recall, was a co-author, along with Bill Kristol, of a seminal bit of war propaganda put out by the Weekly Standard back in the fall of 2002. Tellingly, its headline—as noted by the punctuation—was not a question: “What to Do About Iraq.” Similarly, Kagan and Kristol’s plan—“American ground forces in significant number are likely to be required for success in Iraq”—was not a solution. As for skeptics of their plan, the pair had little interest in hearing all their overly dire predictions:

“It is almost impossible to imagine any outcome for the world both plausible and worse than the disease of Saddam with weapons of mass destruction. A fractured Iraq? An unsettled Kurdish situation? A difficult transition in Baghdad? These may be problems, but they are far preferable to leaving Saddam in power with his nukes, VX, and anthrax. As for the other arguments, the effort to remove Saddam from power would no more be a "diversion" from the war on al Qaeda than the fight against Hitler was a "diversion" from the fight against Japan."

This damning paragraph—all of which has come to pass except, most notably, the existence of any WMDs—should have been enough to banish Kagan and Kristol and countless others from the op-ed pages and green rooms of Washington, D.C. for the rest of their lives. But never let it be said neoconservatives lack for hubris. For, this week Kristol and Fred Kagan, Robert’s brother, penned a Weekly Standard column that eerily echoed the one from 12 years ago, right down to its unquestioning, self-assured headline: “What to Do in Iraq.”

Once again, the neocon answer to instability in Iraq is “regular US military units, on the ground.” But the most outlandish part of this column comes in its conclusion. There, Kristol and Kagan try to skip past years of failed strategy in order to re-ignite the same old fear-driven military response:

Now is not the time to re-litigate either the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or the decision to withdraw from it in 2011. The crisis is urgent, and it would be useful to focus on a path ahead rather than indulge in recriminations. All paths are now fraught with difficulties, including the path we recommend. But the alternatives of permitting a victory for al Qaeda and/or strengthening Iran would be disastrous.” [emphasis mine]

Who would fall for such a transparent attempt by Kristol and Kagan at avoiding accountability for their mistakes while simultaneously advocating we repeat them? Turns out, most of the Sunday morning news shows, which played host to a plethora of Iraq War architects and cheerleaders, this past weekend. Back on the same old media stages folks like Kristol and Wolfowitz, John Negroponte and Ryan Crocker comprised a neocon chorus blaming the Obama administration for the Iraqi unrest and calling for a “muscular” response. As for contrition on their part? Not happening.

And it kept spreading. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this past Monday, there was Paul Bremer, the man who summarily disbanded the Iraqi Army in 2003 in one of the biggest strategic blunders of the war, happily holding court and advocating for “boots on the ground.” Not to be outdone, POLITICO had the temerity to quote Doug Feith blithely lecturing Obama about how to execute foreign policy. Left out of the article—that Feith was the man most responsible for both manipulating the pre-Iraq war intelligence and botching the post-war planning. And lest we forget, Feith’s office in the Pentagon was also in charge of running Abu Ghraib prison. But yeah, let’s get their brilliant advice on what Obama isn’t doing right.

Senator John McCain, perennial seeker of foreign bomb targets and favorite DC media gadfly, also got plenty of press—OK, that’s not that unusual—when he called for the resignation of Obama’s entire national security team. (Just check out the photo accompanying this National Journal article to get a sense of McCain ensconced in his natural Capitol Hill environment.) It’s just the kind of click-ready headline that the Twittersphere eats up. What the press never bothers to mention is McCain’s hypocrisy here, since he not once called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation during three-and-a-half years of gross negligence running the war. Oh well, it’s not like people were dying back then, right?

Don’t forget the throwback stylings of torture apologist Marc Thiessen either, who was writing speeches for Rumsfeld during the run-up to the Iraq War. On Monday, he too weighed in with an op-ed in the Washington Post unironically entitled “Obama’s Iraq Disaster.” However, Thiessen didn’t have to call in any special favors in the media to get his column published. That’s because, like many others in the Bush administration diaspora, he failed upward after leaving the White House, landing a high-profile gig in the media as a ;Post columnist. And like almost every other member from the Bush neocon glory days, Thiessen made a point of blasting Obama this week for “squandering” a supposed victory in Iraq. This he did while conveniently disappearing the years of quagmire that preceded Obama’s tenure as well as George Bush’s role in signing the Status of Forces Agreement that was actually responsible for removing all US forces from Iraq. It’s rank, right-wing revisionism: Iraq was so much older then, it’s younger than that now.

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Last, but certainly not least, we heard once more from the neocon capo di tutti capi, Dick Cheney. Thanks to the reliably-conspiratorial Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Vice President Cheney, along with his war hawk protégé daughter, Liz, got to fire off a mendacious hit piece on Obama’s foreign policy so intellectually dishonest as to border on parody. The column’s subhead alone—“Rarely has a U.S. President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many”—radiates unintentional irony with enough force to power a small city. Of course, Cheney’s goal here isn’t to engage in a real debate, as evidenced by the dog’s breakfast of right-wing memes he desperately heaves at the president:

“American freedom will not be secured by empty threats, meaningless red lines, leading from behind, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies, or apologizing for our great nation—all hallmarks to date of the Obama doctrine. Our security, and the security of our friends around the world, can only be guaranteed with a fundamental reversal of the policies of the past six years.”

All this matters to our foreign policy debate because it demonstrates that conservatives like Cheney, Kristol, Kagan, et al. aren’t really grappling with past mistakes or the current facts on the ground, they’re just recycling the same policies for the future. They’re angry, bitter old men (and women) upset about having been so publicly proved wrong. But rather than trying to learn from the painful lessons of Iraq, they remain stuck on the idea of deploying the hammer of military force to the nail of whatever brown people they don’t happen to like at the moment.No doubt, this kind of policy ossification on the right is bad for our discourse, but sadly it comes in handy for opinion page editors and cable show bookers who want to consistently offer up the pro-war side of the debate (with or without pushback from ideological opponents). This interplay between neocon foreign policy and media exposure produces a self-reinforcing effect, argues Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. As someone who also supported the Iraq War in its early stages, Gelb readily acknowledges an ugly truth: the only way to maintain credibility in the foreign policy establishment is to push for using military force (5:40 mark in this video). Pro-war pundits and politicians get more press, in other words, which further shifts the Beltway debate more toward war, which, in turn, creates a greater incentive for pundits and politicians to be more pro-war, so they can get more press…

In the end, the song remains the same. And it leaves our democracy at risk of revisiting the same foreign policy disasters. But as Andrew Bacevich argues in his eloquent rebuttal to Robert Kagan in Commonweal, the deafening silence of the neocons on their legacy in Iraq should be a disqualifying trait: “without accountability there can be no credibility.” It’s a standard that the media should hold itself and its sources to as well. The architects of the last Iraq War who are trying to ignite the next one need no platform and deserve no encore.


Correction: In my post two weeks agoon the Roberts Court’s stealth campaign against a free press, I mistakenly misspelled Prof. Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky’s name as Larissa. My apologies to Prof. Lidsky.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.


Read Next: George Bush's legacy is alive and well in Iraq.

Will Obama Listen to Slaughter and Power?

Anne-Marie Slaughter and Samantha Power

Anne-Marie Slaughter and Samantha Power (Kris Krüg/PopTech, AP/Cliff Owen)

It’s appropriate that two of the leading liberal interventionists, both of whom have served in prominent positions in Barack Obama’s administration—are named Power and Slaughter.

Samantha Power, of course, is Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, and a leading advocate of using American force overseas, especially when in her opinion civilian casualties can be exaggerated as “genocide.” And Anne-Marie Slaughter, long a foreign policy insider and currently head of the New America Foundation, served under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as director of policy planning at the State Department (2009–11). Back in 2011, Power and Slaughter joined Clinton and a handful of White House aides in supporting the US military action to topple Muammar Qaddafi, an action that turned that country into a warring mosaic of militias, terrorists and freelance warlords.

So it’s not surprising that in today’s New York Times, the influential Slaughter issues a clarion call for US military action in both Iraq and Syria. In the piece, “Don’t Fight in Iraq and Ignore Syria,” Slaughter asks what the United States can do about the twin crises, concluding that the answer “may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries.” And she says that the United States should ignore and go outside the United Nations if the UN Security Council won’t authorize action. Arrogantly, she says:

If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power. This is not merely a humanitarian calculation. It is a strategic calculation. One that, if the president had been prepared to make it two years ago, could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.

So, like the hawks and neoconservatives of the Republican party, Slaughter is blaming Obama for the crisis, since if he acted with force “two years ago” everything in Iraq and Syria would be dandy.

It’s certainly true, as I’ve argued in this space, that the wars in Syria and Iraq have become a single conflict. But the conflict is a regional one, pitting Saudi proxies and allies against Iranian ones, in a war that is both sectarian (Sunni vs. Shiite) and a geopolitical, state-vs.-state struggle for regional hegemony. But the solution is political and diplomatic, not military. (Indeed, in Syria the government of President Bashar al-Assad has turned the tide, and he’s winning that war, while in Iraq—after huge setbacks and shock in Baghdad, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is likely to rally his sectarian Shiite base and recapture cities seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)

To ease the crisis, as I wrote yesterday, President Obama ought to wind down US support for Syria’s rebels, who are dominated by Islamists, ISIS and Al Qaeda, thus freeing up Assad’s forces to concentrate on ISIS-held territory in Syria’s north and west. And as The New York Times says in an editorial today, Turkey “should shut its border to militants and to materiel flowing into Syria and Iraq.” That would go far to deprive the Syrian rebels, of all stripes, of the oxygen that they need to fight Assad.

And then the president should order a round-robin of diplomacy with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to get them to use their vast influence inside Iraq to end the war there. Most likely, that would involve working with Iraq’s kaleidoscope of political players to settle on a replacement for Maliki, someone who could credibly brings Sunni political leaders into government and strike a workable accord with the Kurds, who’ve carved out a fiefdom in northeast Iraq.

It does appear that Obama, egged on no doubt by liberal-interventionist advisers such as Slaughter and Power, will use limited airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS. It’s possible, still, that the White House will decide against such action, especially as it becomes clearer and clearer that Maliki has no intention of heeding the Obama’s demand that he become more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Indeed, Maliki is rallying Shiites to his side, even those who might have joined Sunnis and Kurds to push him aside as factions jockey in the wake of the recent elections in Iraq. Even the Times, in its editorial (“A Balancing Act on Iraq”), acknowledges that Obama may well carry out military action against ISIS.

Need we add that countless hawks of the conservative and right-wing variety agree with Slaughter? Says The Wall Street Journal today, in its own editorial:

[Obama’s] abdication on Syria created a mecca for jihadists and his total withdrawal from Iraq created a vacuum for regional sectarians and Iran to fill. Mr. Obama could still save Mr. Maliki and reclaim US influence with a diplomatic and military intervention of the kind that Danielle Pletka and Jack Keane laid out in these pages on Tuesday. But if would have to be a large enough intervention to convince Mr. Maliki that it was worth making political compromises with his Kurdish and Sunni opponents.

Pletka and Keane, by the way, call for interdiction bombing against ISIS, providing air cover for an Iraqi offensive, US coordination with Iraqi ground forces, and the use of US Special Forces to guide the Iraqi action.

According to The New York Times, Obama is “considering a targeted, highly selective campaign of airstrikes against Sunni militants …most likely using drones.” But, the Times adds, such strikes would be difficult to carry out, in part because the United States has poor intelligence about ISIS, and so the White House is primarily focused on a “political solution” and “diplomatic options.”

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Given the pressure from the GOP hawks and the echoes from Slaughter and Co., it’s a good sign that a fair number of liberals and Democrats in Congress and the establishment are urging Obama to stay out. Today, Obama meets with the four leaders of the Senate and the House, to brief them on the Iraq crisis. The McClatchy story on that meeting, which takes place mid-afternoon on Wednesday, includes the following intelligent comment from Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat:

The president should be wary of calls to intervene militarily through an air campaign that will not affect the strategic balance on the battlefield, and is as likely to alienate the local population as it is to accomplish any tactical objective.… Our limited intelligence and the civilian nature of the battle space make the use of our air power even more problematic.… We do not want to be perceived as siding with Shia over Sunnis in another increasingly sectarian conflict, which would inevitably be the case if we should unintentionally cause Sunni civilian casualties.

And as The Hill reports, the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to another US adventure in Iraq, by a margin of 74-16. (The poll addressed only the question of sending US troops, not airstrikes.)

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on how to fix the Iraq crisis.

Did the Heritage Foundation Bully a Muslim Woman for Being Muslim?

Muslims Praying

Muslims praying on New York City's Madison Avenue. (AP Photo/Emile Wamsteker)

The incident drew wide coverage earlier this week: an audience member at a large right-wing forum in Washington, DC, on, what else, Benghazi, was taunted by a crowd after simply asking why panelists were acting like most Muslims are terror-connected. The woman was clearly identifiable as a Muslim herself. Dana Milbank of The Washington Post was there to offer the bad news.

But then Dylan Byers, media reporter at Politico, after getting the organizers’ spin, charged that Milbank’s account was misleading. He claimed that the event was merely held at the Heritage Foundation, they were not behind it. And he asserted that the taunting was over-hyped and the woman didn’t seem to really mind all that much. So Milbank’s account was a “disaster.”

Well, Milbank has responded this morning by throwing the same charge back at Byers. He claimsthat the Politico columnist was basing his retort on a nine-minute video of the entire proceedings—while Milbank was actually there and saw the whole thing. Heritage, in fact, was a co-sponsor of the event. The woman, in fact, was very upset. The taunting and cheering actually was considerable. And so on.

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We’ll chart how Byers responds. But Milbank, while qualifying a couple of his own statements (now that a full video is out), hits him hard, especially for allegedly lazy “armchair” reporting.

It’s possible, of course, that Byers could have sat at my side for the entire event and still thought I misjudged it; such interpretations are subjective. But had he witnessed all these remarks, and heard the hisses in the audience and observed the moderator’s sneers, he might have understood better the exchange with Ahmed that followed. That’s why there is no substitute for shoe-leather reporting.

UPDATE  Byers so far has only responded on Twitter,  with:  "Two quick thoughts -- 1. Funny that 's talking shoe-leather journalism after failing to adequately report on an event he attended...… and 2, you'd be surprised, , how much news you can break from an armchair."   Meanwhile, latest Milbank piece has drawn 613 comments, and counting.


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‘They Only Value Animals, Not Work’: Lax Labor Regulations for Migrant Cowboys Outlawed

Sheep herders in Colorado

Sheepherders at the junction of Highway 64 and Highway 13 near Meeker, Colorado (Jeff Foster, Creative Commons)

The life of a cowboy used to be the stuff of Hollywood heroism: ranging freely over rolling plains in pastoral solitude. These days, home on the range is pretty much a sweatshop without walls. But there’s hope on the horizon: last week, a federal court struck down labor rules that have long kept immigrant herders mired in a stone-age regulatory regime.

Under the H-2A visa program for agricultural labor, the government invites hundreds of “guestworkers” each year from Peru, Nepal and other countries for seasonal livestock jobs. Similar to the H-2A migrant laborers who harvest crops, these workers form part of the country’s huge temporary migrant labor force, denied the full legal rights and labor protections afforded to regular “native” workers. They are relegated to specific low-wage agriculture jobs, which supposedly could not otherwise by filled by US-based workers. And in sharp contrast to the cowboy of yore, today’s Western herders typically endure long periods of isolation while living in destitution in brutal environments. Abuses are common, as labor rules are notoriously weak and enforcement even weaker.

Last week, however, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit invalidated Labor Department rules that exempt herder employers from key labor protections, including wage-and-hour rules and requirements for workers’ housing conditions. The lawsuit was filed in 2011 by a group of US-based herders who argued that the lax federal regulations—with exemptions granted supposedly in response to the market and industry needs—had driven down working conditions for not just immigrants but US workers as well. Since the exemptions undermined their prospects in the labor market, they argued, the rules violated the visa system’s ostensible purpose of filling workforce gaps but not directly displacing native US workers. The court ruled that the Department of Labor had violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the federal rule-making process, by quietly changing the rules without holding a mandatory public comment period. The case will be remanded to the lower court “to determine whether to vacate the rules immediately or leave all or a portion of them in place while the DoL undertakes a new rule-making,” according to the announcement posted by Public Citizen, which litigated the suit along with Colorado Legal Services and Utah Legal Services. Hinged on a bureaucratic dispute within a broader labor struggle, the case pitted farmworker advocates against both federal authorities and livestock trade groups, which argued that despite granting huge exemptions for migrant herders, the rules did not warrant a full public vetting process.

It is unclear whether the ruling will spur major reforms to the cowboy rules, but any change would help rein in the current lawlessness. The workers are often recruited from their home countries into a system of virtual indenture, going deep into debt to secure US jobs. The program chains them to a single employer, leaving them extremely vulnerable to abuse—and to retaliation if they try to assert their rights.

In an investigative report by the advocacy group Farmworker Justice, a herder from Peru, “Pedro,” recounted horrific labor violations—up to fourteen-hour days, earning just $750 per month, with a deduction for health insurance—and being stripped of his passport to keep him from escaping. After he became extremely ill and his boss denied him medical care, he escaped only by fleeing to the police and then connecting with a legal aid group.

“I knew that slavery had once taken place,” he testified. “But here in the United States, slavery is still being experienced…a form of modern-day slavery.”

A 2010 report on herders in Colorado depicted primitive housing conditions—-mobile campers or makeshift shelters. They lacked access to running water and electricity, using wood stoves for heat, with no refrigerator to store food. Eighty percent reported that their boss prohibited them from leaving their ranch, and nearly three-quarters said their boss “never” allowed them to engage in social activity.

One worker reported, “They don’t give me enough water to wash my clothes, and only wood for heat. The boss limits how much wood. I had to buy my own Coleman lamp.”

Although the remote location and mobility of the workers contribute to the problem, the H-2A regulations themselves actually invite such conditions. According to Public Citizen’s analysis of most recent version of the H-2A rules, last updated in 2011, the rules are fraught with regulatory exemptions that allow employers to force herders to be on call around the clock, without a day off, and earn just $750 per month, just a fraction of the regular minimum wage. The rules enabled employers to “offer only the most basic housing accommodation for herders living on the range. Those accommodations do not need to include electricity, running water, refrigeration or toilets.”

Julie Murray, a Public Citizen attorney working on the case, hopes that the appeals court decision leads to a public-oriented regulatory process that exposes how the wages and conditions for the US workforce is also damaged by the H-2A system. She tells The Nation via e-mail that through a fresh rule-making procedure, “we believe that once the public has an opportunity to weigh in—which it hasn’t had thus far—it will become clear to DOL that the current standards are insufficient to ensure that US workers are not adversely affected by the H-2A program.”

But the plight of the guestworkers also broaches crucial questions of human rights in migrant labor. The previous regulatory exemptions are what made it cruelly attractive to hire “imported” guestworkers, but the convergence between the interests of both “native” and foreign-born labor is that when conditions are improved and rights are equalized across the sector, all workers benefit from more sustainable jobs.

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Today advocates say the system works for no one but the employers, and the herders suffer the most. Their disempowerment is underscored by the fact that regular farmworkers, who also come under the H-2A program, earn much higher wages, thanks to federal protections on minimum wage and “prevailing wage” rates, pegged to the local labor market. One possible reason for the different conditions is that workers in the fields have been organizing for generations, developing unions and campaigning publicly for equal rights and decent treatment. With solitude endemic to their job, herders face higher hurdles in marshalling that kind of collective action.

The hushed plains they roam may seem naturally tranquil, but there is no peace beneath workers’ enforced silence.

One worker put it tersely in Colorado report: “They only value animals, not work.”


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Was Mitch McConnell’s Friend Behind the Clandestine Recording of His Opponent?

Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes (AP/Timothy D. Easley, Manuel Balce Ceneta)

It appears that Kentucky’s US Senate race will continue to be filled with recordings of off-the-record conversations that were not intended for public consumption.

First was the recording of a supposedly private conversation between Senator Mitch McConnell and close advisers at his campaign headquarters in April of last year, in which they discussed using their opposition research against actress Ashley Judd, who was considering a Senate run. The culprits, a hapless Democratic PAC opposed to McConnell, anonymously leaked the recording to Mother Jones, before being outed by WFPL in Louisville. McConnell’s campaign referred to this as “Gestapo tactics,” and tried to imply that Alison Lundergan Grimes or even President Obama had put them up to it.

Last fall, a hot mic caught McConnell and Senator Rand Paul discussing the government shutdown in between television interviews, with Paul telling McConnell, “I think we can win this.”

Two weeks ago it was Alison Lundergan Grimes’ turn to be caught on audio at a private DC fundraiser with Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Weeks earlier, Grimes vowed to use the occasion to tell Reid that she is strongly opposed to new EPA regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants, which she says will hurt Kentuckians. However, an audio recording of the speech was later anonymously leaked to Politico, revealing that she did not mention coal at all, which McConnell’s campaign claimed was Grimes breaking a promise and further evidence that she will be beholden to Democratic leaders who aren’t looking out for coal. Grimes’s campaign said she did privately relay that message to Reid before the fundraiser, and the entire kerfuffle was much ado about nothing. Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a Super PAC working to elect McConnell, came out with a new TV ad today hitting Grimes over the audio from the fundraiser, calling her “two-faced.”

While the Politico piece described the anonymous recorder of the audio as a “source” who is “a Washington consultant,” a Democratic operative who attended the fundraiser tells me that all available evidence points to Richard Hohlt, a super-insider DC consultant and lobbyist who worked for three Republican presidents and is a huge Republican donor—and a personal friend of McConnell.

The Democratic operative tells me that there was confusion at the event about whether Hohlt had RSVPed, though he paid $500 at the door to enter. The source also says that the audio of the recording—which features Grimes moving around the room to meet donors before speaking—was taken from the part of the room where Hohlt was sitting.

A recent New York Times profile of McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, featured a quote from Hohlt, who was described as “a friend of the couple.” Hohlt’s friendship with McConnell also includes a large amount of contributions to his Senate campaigns, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican Party of Kentucky and a long list of other Republican candidates and committees.

Over the last two decades, Hohlt and his wife have given over 600 contributions to Republican candidates, PACs and committees, totaling almost $2 million.* A search of FEC reports shows that they only contributed to seven Democratic candidates over that time, totaling well under 1 percent of their total contributions. Since their contribution to Representative John Dingel (D-MI) in May of 2007, Hohlt and his wife have made nearly 300 contributions totaling $774,900, exclusively to Republicans.

Hohlt has heavily donated to McConnell, as well. He and his wife have given $13,400 to McConnell’s campaigns, with his wife giving McConnell the full $5,200 maximum allowed for his current race, and Hohlt just $100 shy of that amount. He and his wife have combined to give McConnell’s Bluegrass Committee $10,000, including $5,000 after McConnell’s last election in 2008. The Hohlts also donated $20,000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky on one day in March of last year, the same month they combined to contribute $3,200 to McConnell’s Senate campaign. The Hohlts have also contributed $120,300 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, including $91,600 since McConnell was last elected.

A 2009 New York Times profile of Hohlt also reveals this nugget:

Hohlt is also a founding member of an informal Washington salon, known as the Off-the-Record Club, where prominent Republicans, including Vin Weber and Karl Rove, gather for dinner to trade strategy. Mr. Hohlt is also a well-known background source for Washington journalists.

Presented with this evidence, it doesn’t seem likely that Hohlt, out of the blue, decided one day to break his seven-year drought of donating to a Democrat—a Democrat who just happened to be running against his good friend Mitch McConnell.

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However, that’s exactly what Hohlt told me in an e-mail. Though he didn’t reply to a call and e-mail last week, Hohlt quickly replied to my e-mail yesterday describing what I was writing, conceding that he attended the Grimes fundraiser and donated to her, but denying that he recorded her speech. Hohlt tells me that he called the person who sent him an invitation the night before the fundraiser, which he called a “good event.”

Asked why he would contribute to Grimes—considering his seven years of exclusive Republican support and his friendship with McConnell—Hohlt didn’t elaborate, but said he’s also given to Senator Mark Warner (D-VA). No record of that contribution exists in FEC records, but it could have happened in the current quarter. However, the Hohlts’ last contribution on record is $7,800 to Ed Gillespie—Warner’s Republican opponent.

Grimes’s campaign declined to comment to me for this story, the reason for which I’m guessing is that they either want the fundraiser audio story to go away, or embarrassment for letting Hohlt in.

Another interesting question—if Hohlt did in fact make the recording and leak it to Politico—is if anyone put Hohlt up to it. Like, say, a personal friend who would stand to benefit from a recording of Grimes saying something embarrassing at a private fundraiser that could damage her campaign for the Senate? I’m trying hard, but nobody’s coming to mind…

Anyway, it surely couldn’t have been orchestrated by anyone involved with McConnell and his campaign—after all, they consider such behavior “Gestapo tactics.” Although, it might be worth asking them, anyway.

*A prior version of this story understated the contributions to McConnell.

Read Next: Joe Sonka: Kentucky’s Senate race is falling deeper into the coal mine shaft

Will the Death Penalty Return to the US This Week?

Georgia death penalty

This 2001 photo shows the death chamber at the state prison in Jackson, Georgia. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)

Three prisoners could be executed in the coming days, ending a nearly two-month, de facto moratorium on American capital punishment since a gruesomely botched attempt in Oklahoma renewed national debates over death penalty procedures.

Georgia inmate Marcus Wellons is set to die today at 7 pm ET. The Florida execution of John Ruthell Henry is scheduled for 6 pm Wednesday. A stayed execution in Missouri, originally scheduled for midnight tonight, could still proceed if state prosecutors succeed in appealing a federal judge’s decision.

If Wellons’s execution goes as planned, it will be the first to take place in the United States since Oklahoma officials botched the execution of Lockett on April 29. Lockett “writhed and grimaced,” apparently in pain, during a forty-three-minute procedure, even after he was already declared unconscious.

Lockett’s gruesome death prompted calls for increased transparency over death penalty procedures. President Obama last month asked the Justice Department to investigate the implementation of capital punishment throughout the country, calling the situation in Oklahoma “deeply troubling.” Judges have stayed or delayed eight executions since April’s botched lethal injection.

“Oklahoma turned the corner. People are more skeptical of how reliable the whole process is. That puts a high burden on Georgia and Florida to be prepared,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Now, with executions, everybody is watching to see if anything goes wrong.”

As with Oklahoma, the three states set to execute prisoners this week won’t disclose where they procured their lethal injection drugs. Georgia’s Supreme Court most recently upheld a law protecting the anonymity of the state’s drug source, arguing that secrecy makes the execution process “more timely and orderly.”

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Wellons’s attorneys cited Oklahoma’s botched execution in arguing that Georgia’s secrecy statute “deprives him and this court of the information necessary to determine whether those procedures present a ‘substantial risk of significant harm’ in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights.” Wellons was sentenced to death for the 1989 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl.

A federal judge last week temporarily halted the execution of John Winfield, originally scheduled to die in Missouri at 12:01 am Wednesday, but state prosecutors are appealing that decision. Winfield’s lawyers presented evidence that state prison officials had unlawfully interfered in his clemency process. Winfield was convicted of shooting three women in the head, killing two, during a 1996 rampage against an ex-girlfriend.

Florida’s Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal from John Henry, whose attorneys argued that he is not mentally fit for execution. Henry stabbed his estranged wife and 5-year-old son to death in 1989. He has an IQ of 78, according to a test, but attorneys said his “abhorrent childhood, extensive personal and family mental health history, poor social adjustment, and lack of rational thinking and reasoning skills so impaired his adaptive functioning that he was actually performing at the level of a person with an IQ of 70,” the state’s cutoff for executions.


Read Next: “Autposy Report Reveals Oklahoma Officials Botched Execution.”

How to Fix the Iraq Crisis

Iraqi Solider

Security forces inspect the scene of one of three suicide bombings in Baqouba, Iraq, Wednesday, March 3, 2010. (AP Photo)

It’s still possible that the United States will use airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al Qaeda offshoot whose surprise seizure of Mosul and a string of other cities in Iraq has left devastation, chaos and mass executions in its wake. But since President Obama has said, pretty much explicitly, that he won’t defend the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unless Maliki reconciles with the Sunnis and Kurds and becomes more inclusive, and since Maliki isn’t likely to do so, there doesn’t seem to be much of an opening for the United States to act militarily in his defense.

In any case, in the short term Maliki probably doesn’t need Washington’s help. (Not that US airstrikes would help: they’d cause many civilian casualties, inflame the Sunnis against the United States and embolden Maliki to continue his sectarian course.) Maliki can count on getting whatever help he needs from Iran, which is next door, has a strong interest in crushing the Sunni revolt in both Iraq and Syria and has ready-made militias in Iraq who are already mobilizing to defend Baghdad and Shiite shrines in Samarra, Najaf and Karbala. Many of them are religious fanatics, equal in their zeal to the Sunni fanatics of ISIS, and the first signs of sectarian, tit-for-tat massacres are already emerging. As in 2006, things in Iraq will probably get very ugly, very fast.

The central irony of the joint Iraq-Syria civil war—and it has, indeed, become a single war now—is that the United States is on both sides of the war. In Iraq, the United States supports Maliki. In Syria, the United States backs the Islamist rebels who are battling President Bashar al-Assad. (Iran shows no such signs of schizophrenia, and it supports the governments in both Baghdad and Damascus.) And while it’s wrong to blame Obama for leaving Iraq too soon, in 2011—that schedule was set by President Bush in 2008, and Obama tried to extend the deadline but failed—it’s certainly legitimate to blame Obama’s support for the anti-Assad rebels for helping to strengthen and intensify ISIS military force in both countries.

So the first thing that Obama could do to blunt the ISIS offensive in Iraq is to stop American support for the Syrian rebels. The Obama administration hasn’t figured it out quite yet, but Assad has already won that war, and the rebels have lost. Even so, ISIS and its radical, Al Qaeda–linked allies control parts of Syria’s north and east, and by ending American (and Saudi) support for the anti-Assad forces, it might free up enough Syrian troops to head north and east and crush ISIS et al. Meanwhile, the United States can try to work with Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia to negotiate a political deal in Syria.

If any deal in Syria is to happen, and the same goes for Iraq, the essential element is a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As I’ve written before, the Syria-Iraq civil war is a proxy war pitting Iran and its Shiite-Alawite coalition, including Hezbollah, against Saudi Arabia and its Sunni bloc, including Iraq’s Sunni tribal militia, remnants of the Iraqi Baath party and Syria’s majority Sunni population. Obviously, Maliki’s intransigent refusal to deal fairly with Iraq’s Sunnis and Assad’s dictatorial refusal to accommodate Syria’s own Sunni-led opposition both generates radicalism among the region’s Sunnis and creates recruits for extremists such as ISIS and the Al Nusra Front in Syria.

How would a détente help? Iran could twist Assad’s arm to force him, newly re-elected, to negotiate a government of national unity in Syria, bringing in some of the opposition forces (though not the terrorists). And Saudi Arabia could help isolate the terrorists, such as ISIS and Al Nusra, along with some of the egregious hotheads among the Qatar-backed Syrian militants, and persuade them to sit down with Assad at a Geneva-style peace conference. It could take years for that to work, but the first step could be a cease-fire, and that could happen a lot more quickly. So that’s Syria.

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In Iraq, Maliki is probably not capable of leading a peaceful transition. He’s a hated figure. But Iran, with vast influence among the Shiites, could find another candidate who’d agree to succeed him and who’d reach out to Iraq’s Sunni tribal militias. Iran doesn’t want to “own” Iraq, it just wants an Iraq that doesn’t threaten Iran à la Saddam, in which the Sunnis are contained and the Kurds neutralized. As for Saudi Arabia and Turkey, they’d have to pave the way for the Sunnis in Iraq to accept a new Iraqi prime minister, who’d give them a proper share of Iraq’s oil wealth and adequate prestige and recognition. That, too, could take several years, and many thousands of Iraqis are going to die before ISIS is exhausted and is destroyed.

Weirdly enough, the United States is talking to Iran about some sort of cooperation in Iraq. (Not so in Syria: there, the United States is escalating its military opposition to the pro-Iran government in Damascus.) Since 2003, Iran has held the high cards in Iraq, even during the US occupation, by virtue of its close ties to Maliki’s Al Dawa party, to Ahmed Chalabi, to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and other anti-Saddam Shiite groups. Now Iran has close ties to powerful Shiite militias in Iraq, including the Badr Organization, which was founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as SCIRI’s own private army. Lately, the head of the IRGC’s Al Quds force has been in Baghdad, working out anti-ISIS strategy with Maliki.


Read Next: How Iraq’s crisis got started, and how it didn’t.

How Many Times Do the Neocons Get to Be Wrong Before We Stop Asking Them What to Do in Iraq?

Iraq flag protest

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr burn a US flag during demonstration in Najef, April 9, 2010. (Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani)

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Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Can someone explain to me why the media still solicit advice about the crisis in Iraq from Senator John McCain (R-AZ)? Or Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SS)? How many times does the Beltway hawk caucus get to be wrong before we recognize that maybe, just maybe, its members don’t know what they’re talking about?

Certainly Politico could have found someone with more credibility than Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration and one of the architects of the Iraq War, to comment on how the White House might react to the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Iraq today. Certainly New York Times columnist David Brooks knows what folly it is to equate President Obama’s 2011 troop removal with Bush’s 2003 invasion, as he did during a discussion with me last Friday on NPR?

Just a reminder of what that 2003 invasion led to: Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes authoritatively priced Bush’s war at more than $3 trillion. About 320,000 US veterans suffer from brain injury as a result of their service. Between 500,000 and 655,000 Iraqis died, as well as more than 4,000 US military members.

 Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Read Next: "Time For Evolution in US Cuba Policy"

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