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Media Nostalgic for Satanic Abuse Scandals?

Boy, does the media love a good daycare controversy. Since we haven't had a good Satanic abuse or child molestation daycare story in years, we have to make do with provocative statistics. It's not the same, but it allows us to air our gender anxieties and maternal issues, and we seem to have a collective need to do that at least once a year.

Last week's media frenzy focused on the latest National Institutes of Health day care study-- actually on one finding in particular: kids who spent three or four preschool years in daycare had marginally more behavior problems in school. Researchers themselves said kids were "in the normal range" and parents shouldn't freak out -- but such caveats were lost in the cacophony. This week, the reports are still making the roundsin the blogosphere, with many bloggers offering a salutary corrective to the way the story was initially reported. Many mainstream journalists, as usual, were eager to twist the results to confirm the most reactionary assumptions: mothers shouldn't work. The very best analysis anywhere was Emily Bazelon's terrific dissection on Slate.

The study suggests some interesting possibilities. The quality of the day care mattered a great deal (though the quality of the care children received at home, from their parents, mattered even more). Many day care centers are substandard, especially those available to poor people. Watching TV in the company of underqualified strangers can't be terribly helpful to a kid's development. Raising the pay of child care workers would certainly help improve the quality of care, and more oversight of the daycare industry would be helpful. There's a great daycare center in my neighborhood-- caring, intellectually and socially stimulating -- but since it costs more than three years of my college education, I have never even visited it. All kids deserve to attend places like that. But in addition to improving daycare, we need to get more companies to offer on-site babysitting so that parents and children can spend more time together. And of course, people should have more choices: it should be made much easier for parents to take longer parental leaves or work part time when their children are very young.

Another possibility is that some of these "behavior problems" are just no big deal. As American University/University of Maryland economics professor emerita Barbara Bergmann writes in a not-yet-published paper on these studies ("Long Leaves, Child Well-being and Gender Equality"), "It would be helpful in thinking about policy issues to have an idea of how bad the behavior of the children...actually is. Are they merely argumentative, or are they a bit nasty at times, or are they monsters? Unfortunately, it is impossible to get that kind of understanding from these reports." Like so many well-researched studies, this one inevitably leads us to the conclusion that...more research is needed.

Refunds for Good

Did you know that the most wide-reaching tax refund in IRS history is on tap for this year?

The Telephone Excise Tax Refund (TETR) is a one-time payment available on your 2006 federal income tax return. It's designed to refund previously collected long distance telephone taxes that have been ruled illegal by the courts. Any American who purchased long distance or wireless phone service between March 2003 and August 2006 is entitled to the refund. The trick is that you have to request it. (Click here for instructions.)

The Phone Excise Tax was enacted by Congress in 1898 to help fund the Spanish-American War. The government at the time was skittish about its ability to pay for its latest colonial venture so it enacted the tax over widespread public opposition. Shockingly, though it took US forces less than four months to conquer the island of Cuba, the tax to fund that operation has been on the phone bills of US consumers ever since.

In May 2006, following the losses of five federal court decisions, the IRS finally agreed to stop assessing the surcharge and to accept a court order to refund taxpayers. The American public is eligible to receive an estimated $20 billion through this refund, if taxpayers claim it; half going to businesses and non-profits, and half to individuals. Individuals are due to receive from $30 to $60 each based on their own deductions. But the IRS is counting on more than half of all people eligible to neglect to ask for the money.

To urge people to claim their refunds and then donate this found money to a good cause, two social entrepreneurs, Jonathan Gorham and Michael Swartz, have launchedrefundsforgood.org. The interactive site--which has drawn support from thirteen Nobel Peace Laureates--offers clear guidance on how to claim the refunds and highlights three US non-profits as potential recipients of this unexpected residual.

*PeaceJam Foundation works to nurture a new generation of young leaders committed to social change through peace-making service projects in local communities.

* Solar Electric Light Fund brings solar power and modern communications to rural villages in the developing world for enhancements in health, education, and economic well-being.

* Physicians for Social Responsibility organizes medical and public health support for policies to stop nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.

Taxpayers can use the secure form at refundsforgood.org to make a tax deductible donation of any amount to one or more of the three non-profits. Kudos to Gorham and Swartz for this great idea. Let's take full advantage of it.

Bush v. Constitution... Again

George Bush's presidency has been distinguished by nothing so much as his consistent disregard for the Constitution. He wages war without required Congressional declarations. He orders spying that is in direct conflict with the 4th Amendment. He permits tortures and extraordinary renditions that violate the 8th Amendment,

Above all, the President disregards the basic requirement of shared governance. He shows little respect for the separation of powers, let alone for the system of checks and balances that requires Congress to participate in domestic and foreign-policy decision making.

Bush's anti-Constitutionalism was on full display today, as he echoed claims by his aides that it is somehow inappropriate for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to travel to Syria--a county the White House has tried, with almost no success, to isolate from the international community.

"Going to Syria sends mixed signals, signals in the region and, of course, mixed signals to President Assad," Bush said. "And by that I mean, you know, photo opportunities and/or meetings with President Assad lead the Assad government to believe they're part of the mainstream of the international community, when in fact, they're a state sponsor of terror."

The President is upset that Pelosi has chosen to take seriously the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which recommended multilateral diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, as a means of promoting stability in the the violence-torn nation and the region surrounding it. Despite the fact that the ISG was essentially led by his father's former Secretary of State, James Baker, Bush II had rejected the sort of bilateral diplomacy that allowed Bush I to work so well with Syria during the tense days before and after the first Gulf War.

"Sending delegations doesn't work. It's simply been counterproductive,'' claims the Bush of the moment, illustrating once again the ahistoric approach to global affairs that has defined his presidency.

Just as the present President chooses not to be informed by the record of his father's era, he also rejects the intent of the founding fathers.

The Constitution makes clear that the Congress has broad authority to actively participate in foreign and military affairs. After all, the founders created the legislative branch as the first defined branch of government and afforded to it the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations," "to define and punish... offenses against the law of nations," "to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water," and "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof."

House and Senate leaders have a long history of being regular travelers abroad, and they have sometimes overstepped their boundaries. Famously, according to documents obtained by the National Security Archives at George Washington University, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, secretly advised Colombian authorities to ignore the human rights requirements that had been attached to US military aid allocations made to Colombia during the Clinton years.

But, while there are always fine lines to be walked by traveling legislative leaders, there has never been any real question of the intent that they should travel, consult, gather information and otherwise prepare themselves to check and balance the executive branch's international initiatives.

Translation: Speaker Pelosi travels to Syria and other diplomatic hot spots with the encouragement of James Madison and George Mason, if not George Bush. No, it's not Pelosi's job to negotiate treaties or to engage in the fine-tuning of diplomatic relations. That is usually, and appropriately, the work of the State Department, where the secretary in charge serves, yes, at the pleasure of the president but, also, with the approval and the oversight of the Congress.

It is Nancy Pelosi's job to open and maintain the lines of international communication that allow her--and, by extension, the Congress--to be full and active participants in the forging of America's foreign policy priorities. She does so not as an interloper on executive authority but as the leader of a co-equal branch of the federal government of the United States.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Supreme Court Stands Up for the Polar Bears

The Supremes have spoken. George, we put you in the White House back in 2000, but we can't go along with your "junk science" on global warming. We order you and your weak-spined EPA to obey the law. Do something real about the climate-change carbon emissions from automobiles that are killing the polar bears. Or, if you decide not to do so, then give us an explanation based on science, not on the latest press release from your pals at Exxon Mobil.

How radical is that? Of course, the four Corporate Justices – Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito--choked and sputtered and pounded the bench. In the majesty of the Constitution, they insisted, this issue should never have come before the court. Leave it to the Congress. In the wisdom of democratic process, the lawmakers can decide whether to side with Al Gore and a zillion anxious scientists or the good folks from autos, oil and electric utilities who pass out the checks to deserving legislators.

After the court delivered its 5-4 decision, a political hack who fronts for the car makers, solemnly announced they "look forward to working constructively with both Congress and the administration." That's a hoot. Detroit has resisted every small step forward for forty years, starting with Ralph Nader's observation that many fewer people would be killed if the companies designed more for safety, less for testosterone.

The political muscle of the Big Three (now two and a half) has fought every measure for better fuel usage and cleaner tailpipe emissions. And, sad to say, the United Auto Workers, once one of the most progressive unions, marched side by side with the companies' reactionary strategy. The US industry, one can say, planned its own demise--building bigger and bigger gas wagons because they deliver more profit per pound--while those crafty Japanese engineers at Toyota were designing better cars--better mileage, less damage to nature.

The Supreme Court's other environmental case--a slam-dunk 9-0 decision against Duke Energy--provides a cautionary tale about the prospects for achieving real progress on global warming. I don't doubt that Congress will act, at least once there is a new president. But reformers should be very wary about joining the corporates in a cooperative mode.

Some leading corporations are sincerely committed to solutions, but the trade groups and industry lobbyists really want a hand in drafting the legislation so they can build in loopholes and escape hatches--legal gimmicks they can exploit later to stall on compliance.

That's what the case against Duke Energy was about. In 1970, when the Clean Air Act was first enacted, the electric utilities industry screamed and begged for dispensation. Repairing older power plants to reduce emissions would be hugely expensive and a waste of capital. Give us a "grandfather clause" that allows us to keep operating those old plants until they become obsolete--then we will build new plants with the latest pollution-control technologies.

Congress gave them that deal, partly to round up votes from coal-producing states. The industry has proceeded to ignore the terms ever since. Over many years, EPA and the Justice Department tried to get compliance. They tightened law, they sued the companies. Duke Energy and others filed appeals, stalled and dissembled and managed political fixes at the White House or Congress.

So here we are 37 years later--still waiting for these companies to obey the law. Even the Corporate Justices have had enough. The 9-0 ruling essentially said, for god's sake, obey the damn law.

If Congress enacts carbon legislation with the same friendly approach to the well-being of the polluters, the polar bears are not saved. They will be long gone before the titans of industry have changed their behavior.

Bush Defense Follies (continued)

Here's another nominee for the Best Bush Folly--the Administration's latest plan to expand its "missile defense shield" by locating a radar base and 10 missile interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively.

While too few among our pundit and political class are willing to expose the insanity of this plan, Czech and Polish citizens appear to have more sense --and guts.

According to the Financial Times, 70 percent of Czechs oppose the shield and Poles are evenly split – the latter is especially "surprising in a country that sees itself as the most pro-American in Europe."

Jan Neoral, the mayor of the Czech village of Trokavec where the radar site would be positioned, "…feels the US and Czech governments are lying about the dangers posed by the radars and the possible economic benefits that will accrue to villages in the area." In a village referendum on the radar 71 of 72 votes were against!

"Trokavec will get nothing but this harmful radar," Neoral told the Financial Times.

Many Poles would agree with Neoral's assessment. Even Radek Sikorski, Poland's Secretary of Defense until February of this year (and also a former fellow at a neocon think tank in DC who maintains many close contacts and friends in the US government), thinks this plan is a terrible idea. Writing in a Washington Post op-ed Sikorski put it bluntly: "… the war in Iraq has dented Central European trust. The spectacle of the US secretary of state at the UN Security Council solemnly presenting intelligence that proved unreliable shook our faith. Our old-fashioned expectation that the United States would show gratitude for our participation in Iraq also proved misplaced. Public perceptions of America are plummeting, while opposition to U.S.-led military operations, and above all to the proposed missile site, grows." Sikorski is particularly strong in laying out the potential for this proposal to "provoke a spiral of misunderstanding, weaken NATO, deepen Russian paranoia and cost the United States some of its last friends on the continent."

Indeed, the Bush proposal is further evidence of what Russia scholar Stephen Cohen (full disclosure: my husband) described last year in a Nation cover story as the current state of affairs between the US and Russia: "The cold war ended in Moscow, but not in Washington." Cohen notes that the US unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in an attempt to build this missile defense shield which would also give the US first strike capability. It has abandoned real and meaningful reductions of nuclear stockpiles while developing new weapons. These actions "have all but abolished long-established US-Soviet agreements that have kept the nuclear peace for nearly fifty years," and a "dangerously provocative military encirclement of Russia and growing Russian suspicions of US intentions" will now only increase.

And for what?

"Their whole reason for what it is supposed to defend – the continental United States, The United States and western Europe, Europe only? – keeps shifting, depending on the political winds," says Victoria Samson, Research Analyst at the Center for Defense Information. "Now they're talking about creating a whole new interceptor - the two-stage version, which would presumably require a whole new testing regimen. But you don't hear about that last part. And what is this threat anyways? I think that the Administration is trying to create institutional momentum for missile defense so that whatever happens in the 2008 election, it will continue to steam ahead. The more money that gets spent on this program, the more voices are raised when discussions are made of future cuts. If you can get other countries involved in lobbying for this to continue, all the better from the perspective of the missile defense regime."

Samson notes that missile defense already receives more annually than any other Pentagon weapons system – $10.85 billion in FY 08 – despite the fact that it has "demonstrated [no] capability to defend the United States against enemy attack under realistic operational conditions."

Last year, Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, wrote in an op-ed that the Bush administration "broke the bars that had caged the nuclear beast." The latest missile defense follies only serve to make the beast more difficult to recapture. It's time for some sanity – call on Congress--and the Presidential candidates-- to end this missile defense fraud.

John McCain and the Jew-Counter

Every day, the presidential campaigns email to reporters press releases touting the endorsements they have most recently snagged. On Tuesday morning, the John McCain campaign, stinging from the news that its first-quarter fundraising efforts were anemic, zapped out word that GOP moneyman Fred Malek is joining the McCain team as a national finance co-chair. The press release hails Malek:

Fred Malek has been a pioneer in four professions including corporate management, government, politics, and finance. After distinguished service as an Airborne Ranger in the U.S. Army, Malek joined the Marriott Corporation and rose to become president of Marriott Hotels and Resorts. He later served as president and co-CEO of Northwest Airlines.

Malek has played a central role in government over the past 30 years. He has served as Deputy Under Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and Deputy Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He also served President Ronald Reagan in a number of advisory capacities and, in 1990, was Director of the Summit of Major Industrialized Nations--with the lifetime rank of Ambassador.

Malek's political career spans over three decades. In 1972, after Watergate, he served as the deputy chairman of President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. Malek was director of the 1988 Republican National Convention and campaign manager for President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

The McCain press shop left out an interesting piece of Malek's history: when he counted Jews for President Richard Nixon. Two years ago--when Malek was leading an investment group seeking to buy the new Washington Nationals baseball team, my friend Tim Noah at Slate reviewed Malek's dark past. Here's what he wrote:

It's one of the more gothic stories about Nixon related in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's The Final Days. As they tell it, late in 1971--the same year, coincidentally, that the Washington Senators moved to Texas and changed their name to the Rangers--Nixon

summoned the White House personnel chief, Fred Malek, to his office to discuss a "Jewish cabal" in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The "cabal," Nixon said, was tilting economic figures to make his Administration look bad. How many Jews were there in the bureau? he wanted to know. Malek reported back on the number, and told the President that the bureau's methods of weighing statistics were normal procedure that had been in use for years.

In 1988, when George Bush pere installed Malek as deputy chairman for the Republican National Committee, Woodward dusted off his notes and, with the Washington Post's Walter Pincus, further revealed that two months after Malek filed a memo on the matter--he'd counted 13 Jews, though his methodology was shaky--a couple of them were demoted. (Malek denied any role and said Nixon's notions of a "Jewish cabal" were "ridiculous" and "nonsense.") The 1988 story raised a predictable ruckus, and Malek beat a hasty retreat from the RNC. As exiles go, Malek's was pretty painless. He still got to run the 1988 Republican Convention (and in 1992 he would be Bush pere's campaign manager). He joined George W. Bush's syndicate to purchase the Rangers, he went on the board of the American-Israel Friendship Society, he took over Northwest Airlines, and he started an investment firm, Thayer Capital Partners.

Counting Jews was not Malek's only shady enterprise. As a Nixon aide, he set up a project that sought to influence government decisions to assist Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign. In 2006, Washington Post columnist Colbert King described this program as "a scheme designed, organized and implemented...to politicize the federal government in support of Nixon's reelection." Citing a memo Malek wrote about the project, King noted,

The Malek memo also claimed another accomplishment: The steward of a dockworkers union local in Philadelphia, an active Nixon backer, had been accused of being responsible for illegal actions of the union's president. The Pennsylvania Committee to Reelect the President asked that the Labor Department rule in the steward's favor. It did, Malek claimed, adding that "this action had a very strong impact on the local ethnic union members."

Malek's responsiveness program was extensively investigated by the Senate Watergate committee. The panel found that the program was aimed at influencing decisions concerning government "grants, contracts, loans, subsidies, procurement and construction projects," decisions regarding "legal and regulatory actions," and even personnel decisions that affected protected "career positions" -- all to advance Nixon's reelection.

Malek, the committee determined, also called for channeling federal grants and loan money to blacks who would support Nixon's reelection efforts and, conversely, away from minorities who were considered administration foes. Equally striking, Malek wanted the program to be falsely structured so that Nixon and the White House would be dissociated from it in the event of a leak.

Malek was serious about keeping his pervert-the-government efforts secret. In a March 17, 1972 memo to H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, Malek wrote,

No written communications from the White House to the Departments -- all information about the program would be transmitted verbally...documents prepared would not indicate White House involvement in any way."

Ten years later, the Republican led Senate government affairs committee refused to approve Malek's nomination to be a governor of the US Postal Service, in part because some senators believed he had not been testified straightforwardly about this program during a confimation hearing. Still, the Bush clan embraced him, and he went on to run the 1988 Republican convention and President George H.W. Bush's unsuccessful 1992 reelection campaign. Last year, Malek's group lost its bid to buy the Washington Nationals. These days, he chairs two private equity firms and sits on the advisory committee for the Scooter Libby defense fund.

The McCain campaign press release quotes McCain saying, "Fred is an inspiring public servant who has served our nation well. I am honored to have his support and look forward to his guidance and counsel in the days and months ahead." Inspiring? How's that for straight talk? Is McCain, who once upon a time campaigned as a good-government candidate, truly inspired by Malek's days as a Nixon lieutenant, when Malek tallied Jews, rigged government contracts, and improperly influenced law enforcement and regulatory decisions? If McCain has to turn to Malek for help in fundraising, his campaign surely is in difficult straits.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Politicize the War

Generally that was a predictable performance by the Decider, but one thing stuck out to me. The New Rationale TM for the war, (I've lost track of how many this is) is that the generals say the surge will work and the politicians should just butt out and let the men do their jobs. As Josh Marshall points out, this is patently untrue. The generals didn't think the surge would work so Bush replaced them with someone who did. But even more absurd is the notion that the people executing war policy should be actually determining war policy, that we should just outsource the decisions about the duration of our occupation of Iraq to the all-knowing David Petraeus.

This is particularly ironic against the backdrop of the US Attorney's scandal. The administration's MO from the very beginning has been to overide the judgement of experts and career civil servants, whether they be scientists assessing climate change, or public health officials evaluating food and drugs, or US attorneys weighing whether there is sufficient evidence for an indictment. In short they have politicized every last function of the government, so much so that the work product of the entire federal bureacracy must now be assessed as if it were little more than an RNC press release. And now, on the single most vital political issue, Bush wants to argue that politics should play no part and the judgement of a single man should dictate the entirety of US policy.

Did Bush Machinations Provoke Seizure of Brits?

President Bush describes Iran's seizure of fifteen British sailors and Marines as "inexcusable behavior."

But did the Bush Administration's anti-Iran machinations lead to the escalation in tensions that culminated in the seizure of the Brits?

One of the finest reporters on the Middle-East affairs argues that this is precisely the case.

Below you'll find the cover story from Tuesday morning's editions of The Independent, the London daily newspaper that publishes Robert Fisk and that has made a name for itself as a source for cutting-edge reporting on the Middle East.

The author, Patrick Cockburn, is a respected journalist who has since 1979 been a Middle East correspondent for British newspapers such as The Financial Times and The Independent.

Cockburn, the brother of Alexander, is the author most recently of a critically-acclaimed account of the Iraq quagmire, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso Books), which has been nominated for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction.

Here's what Patrick Cockburn reports:

The Botched US Raid That Led to the Hostage Crisis

By Patrick Cockburn

A failed American attempt to abduct two senior Iranian security officers on an official visit to northern Iraq was the starting pistol for a crisis that 10 weeks later led to Iranians seizing 15 British sailors and Marines.

Early on the morning of 11 January, helicopter-born US forces launched a surprise raid on a long-established Iranian liaison office in the city of Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. They captured five relatively junior Iranian officials whom the US accuses of being intelligence agents and still holds.

In reality the US attack had a far more ambitious objective, The Independent has learned. The aim of the raid, launched without informing the Kurdish authorities, was to seize two men at the very heart of the Iranian security establishment.

Better understanding of the seriousness of the US action in Arbil - and the angry Iranian response to it - should have led Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence to realise that Iran was likely to retaliate against American or British forces such as highly vulnerable Navy search parties in the Gulf. The two senior Iranian officers the US sought to capture were Mohammed Jafari, the powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to Kurdish officials.

The two men were in Kurdistan on an official visit during which they met the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, and later saw Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), at his mountain headquarters overlooking Arbil.

"They were after Jafari," Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Massoud Barzani, told The Independent. He confirmed that the Iranian office had been established in Arbil for a long time and was often visited by Kurds obtaining documents to visit Iran. "The Americans thought he [Jafari] was there," said Mr Hussein.

Mr Jafari was accompanied by a second, high-ranking Iranian official. "His name was General Minojahar Frouzanda, the head of intelligence of the Pasdaran [Iranian Revolutionary Guard]," said Sadi Ahmed Pire, now head of the Diwan (office) of President Talabani in Baghdad. Mr Pire previously lived in Arbil, where he headed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Mr Talabani's political party.

The attempt by the US to seize the two high-ranking Iranian security officers openly meeting with Iraqi leaders is somewhat as if Iran had tried to kidnap the heads of the CIA and MI6 while they were on an official visit to a country neighbouring Iran, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Iran believes that Mr Jafari and Mr Frouzanda were targeted by the Americans. Mr Jafari confirmed to the official Iranian news agency, IRNA, that he was in Arbil at the time of the raid.

In a little-noticed remark, Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, told IRNA: "The objective of the Americans was to arrest Iranian security officials who had gone to Iraq to develop co-operation in the area of bilateral security."

US officials in Washington subsequently claimed that the five Iranian officials they did seize, who have not been seen since, were "suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraq and coalition forces". This explanation never made much sense. No member of the US-led coalition has been killed in Arbil and there were no Sunni-Arab insurgents or Shia militiamen there.

The raid on Arbil took place within hours of President George Bush making an address to the nation on 10 January in which he claimed: "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops." He identified Iran and Syria as America's main enemies in Iraq though the four-year-old guerrilla war against US-led forces is being conducted by the strongly anti-Iranian Sunni-Arab community. Mr Jafari himself later complained about US allegations. "So far has there been a single Iranian among suicide bombers in the war-battered country?" he asked. "Almost all who involved in the suicide attacks are from Arab countries."

It seemed strange at the time that the US would so openly flout the authority of the Iraqi President and the head of the KRG simply to raid an Iranian liaison office that was being upgraded to a consulate, though this had not yet happened on 11 January. US officials, who must have been privy to the White House's new anti-Iranian stance, may have thought that bruised Kurdish pride was a small price to pay if the US could grab such senior Iranian officials.

For more than a year the US and its allies have been trying to put pressure on Iran. Security sources in Iraqi Kurdistan have long said that the US is backing Iranian Kurdish guerrillas in Iran. The US is also reportedly backing Sunni Arab dissidents in Khuzestan in southern Iran who are opposed to the government in Tehran. On 4 February soldiers from the Iraqi army 36th Commando battalion in Baghdad, considered to be under American control, seized Jalal Sharafi, an Iranian diplomat.

The raid in Arbil was a far more serious and aggressive act. It was not carried out by proxies but by US forces directly. The abortive Arbil raid provoked a dangerous escalation in the confrontation between the US and Iran which ultimately led to the capture of the 15 British sailors and Marines - apparently considered a more vulnerable coalition target than their American comrades.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Pelosi's Spring Break in Syria

If it's spring break in Washington, then that must be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi--accompanied by, my goodness, the perpetually pro-Israel Tom Lantos!-- heading for Syria this week.

Pelosi's delegation is currently in Lebanon. AP's Zeina Karam writes there that the Speaker,

    said she thinks it's a good idea to "establish facts, to hopefully build the confidence" between the US and Syria.

"We have no illusions, but we have great hope," she said.

Pelosi, who is leading a congressional delegation on a fact-finding tour of the Middle East, said she would speak to the Syrians about Iraq, their role in the fight against terrorism, their support for militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas--whose exiled leaders live in Damascus--as well their influence in Lebanon.

And guess who's waxing apoplectic about this? Yes, that would be Dana Perino, the fill-in for Tony Snow as White House spokesperson. Karam's piece notes that Perino said,

    "We ask that people not go on these trips... We discourage it. Full stop." [Plus, it] "sends the wrong message to have high-level U.S. officials going there (to Syria) to have photo opportunities that Assad then exploits."

Oops! Then I guess having the Bush administration's very own Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs Ellen Sauerbrey go to Syria last month was all a terrible mistake then?

Even Israel's Acting President, Dalia Itzik, was much more moderate than Perino. She told Pelosi yesterday that,

    "Your expected visit to Damascus has naturally touched off a political debate in your country, and of course, here... I believe in your worthy intentions. Perhaps a step, seen as unpopular at this stage ... will clarify to the Syrian people and leadership they must abandon the axis of evil (and) stop supporting terrorism and giving shelter to (terrorist) headquarters."

But the main thing Washington needs to talk to Syria about right now is Iraq. And this strand of the American-Syrian diplomatic dance is quite complex, and in some ways very counter-intuitive. Did you think that it was the Syrians and their Iranian allies who want US troops out of Iraq and the stubborn old Bush Administration that wants them to stay?

To a great degree you'd be wrong, on both counts. Here in London a couple of weeks ago my friend the veteran strategic analyst Hussein Agha told me (and on reflection, I quite agree) that, for now, all of Iraq's neighbors prefer that US troops stay tied down inside Iraq, rather than withdraw. The gist of what Agha said was that for some of those neighboring countries--and this definitely includes both Syria along with Iran--the status quo lessens the likelihood of US attacks against them. Meanwhile for others of the neighbors (and yes, that includes Syria, once again) it represents a situation strongly preferable to the regional turmoil they fear might follow US withdrawal.

As for the Bush administration--well yes, at the ideological/political level of Bush and his resident "brain", Dick Cheney, it is quite possible that some of them still believe all that stuff about "staying the course", the value of the "surge", etc. But Matthew Dowd, who was a key Bush political advisor during the 2004 election campaign is only one of the former Bush supporters who has now been "mugged by reality", and has come out as openly critical of the way the Prez has been waging this war.

As for the serving military, it has been clear for some time that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace has been prepared to quietly push back against the Bushites' rampant bellophilia. And former commander of the US Army War College Maj.-Gen. (Retd.) Robert H. Scales recently wrote openly in the Washington Times that,

    the current political catfight over withdrawal dates is made moot by the above facts. We're running out of soldiers faster than we're running out of warfighting missions. The troops will be coming home soon. There simply are too few to sustain the surge for very much longer.

Since Scales is also a former advisor to Rumsfeld when Rummy was at the Petnagon, I guess that makes him a clear defector from the Bush project in Iraq, too.

Here's the bottom line though: It is now not only (or perhaps, even, not mainly) the Dems, in Washington, who now want to find the speediest and safest possible exit for the US troops from Iraq. It is also the uniformed military--and also, quite likely, the very low-key Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who seems to see his role overwhelmingly as acting as the "anti-Rumsfeld" in the Pentagon.

But the Syrians, Iranians, and all the rest of Iraq's neighbors are meanwhile (quietly) quite keen to see the US troops remain in Iraq. I have a little direct evidence of that myself. When I defied the President';s injunctions and went to Damascus at the end of February, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem was adamant during the interview I conducted with him that the US should effect a complete withdrawal of all its forces from Iraq--but when I pressed him to specify the time period over which he thought this withdrawal should occur, he notably declined my invitation to do that.

So the diplomacy of this US withdrawal from Iraq look set to be very interesting indeed.

(Cross-posted to my 'Just World News' blog.)