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Friday, September 29, 2006

America, NOW Have You Seen Enough?

One would think two news reports out today would be enough to convince ANY American voter that it is time for a major change in Washington.

First, clips from the 60 Minutes interview of Bob Woodward to air 10/1/2006 indicate that key policy makers within the Bush administration have been spinning apart for over a year on Iraq strategy and in every direction except closer to reality. Probably the most stunning point in Woodward's new book is that George Bush is personally consulting with HENRY (secret bombing of Cambodia) KISSINGER for advice on Iraq. Kissinger's advice? The only exit strategy is victory. Losing the Vietnam war and slogging on for another six years apparently isn't enough for Kissinger, Rumsfeld and Cheney. They want to prove a loss of American will led to the loss of the Vietnam War by staying the course in Iraq and sacrificing countless more American soldiers towards the same flawed, unachievable goal.

Second, Republican Representative Mark Foley from Florida resigned today after news became public of sexually inappropriate emails and instant messages sent by Foley to multiple teenaged male Congressional pages.

So America, there you have it. How many times do you want to fight the Vietnam war? Wasn't once enough? What will it take to figure out that the Republican Party has no monopoly on morals and family values? A Senator or Representative getting busted by NBC's Chris Hansen on Dateline for child solicitation?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bush Raises the Bar (Again) in Hypocrisy

Sometimes, the commentary just kind of writes itself.

On Tuesday, September 19, 2006, George Bush spoke to the United Nations General Assembly on a range of issues including the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, the security struggles in Iraq and the larger global War On Terror (TM). In the portion of his speech regarding the War On Terror (TM), Bush included these comments addressed directly to the people of Syria:

To the people of Syria, your land is home to a great people with a proud tradition of learning and commerce. Today, your rulers have allowed your country to become a crossroad for terrorism.

In your midst, Hamas and Hezbollah are working to destabilize the region, and your government is turning your country into a tool of Iran. This is increasing your country's isolation from the world.

Your government must choose a better way forward by ending its support for terror and living at peace with your neighbors, and opening the way to a better life for you and your families. ( http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/bush_text )

For once, I am in one hundred percent agreement with Der Decider. One thing Syria can IMMEDIATELY begin doing to begin living in peace with its neighbors in the world community is to STOP "IN-SOURCING" THE TORTURE OF ALLEGED TERRORISM SUSPECTS ON BEHALF OF THE UNITED STATES.


Canadian terror suspect tortured in Syria after 'rendition' by US

Campaigners have demanded that the Bush administration be held accountable for the illegal seizure of a Canadian citizen who was handed over to Syrian authorities and subsequently tortured.

They said the case of Maher Arar, who was cleared by a Canadian public inquiry of being any threat to that country's national security, exposed the faults of President Bush's "war on terror".

The inquiry concluded that Mr Arar, who was seized by US agents while changing planes at a New York airport in 2002 and incarcerated in Syria for 10 months, was the victim of false information about his alleged link to al-Qa'ida being passed by Canadian police to the US.

Somehow, I think a page or two from George's prepared text must have been lost on the way from Air Force One to the UN. I think the page he meant to read had the following text:

I would like to personally thank the people and the government of Syria for being the perfect partners in my, excuse me, the War on Terror (TM). You're there when I need you as a bad guy to help turn out the votes in the Red States and you're there as a bad guy when I need you to torture other bad guys so I don't get indicted for war crimes. The next time you're in Crawford, come on over and say "howdy". We can tool around in my Faux Ford truck, cut some brush, and reminisce about hanging KSM from his big toes. Hee hee hee hee....

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Gospel According to Adam Smith?

Looking back over just one week's worth of news in the Wall Street Journal regarding corporate management and malfeasance turns up the following stories:

Briston-Myers Board Urged to Fire CEO and General Counsel - Bristol-Myers had been operating under a deferred-prosecution deal (isn't THAT a neat concept?) after fraudulently boosting earnings by stuffing sales channels with extra product. The firm has been subsequently found to have conspired with others to delay introduction of generic drugs that would have competed against one of its big moneymakers. (9/12/2006)

Dell Delays Filing Financials -- The largest computer maker by units confirmed it would not file its current quarter financials on time because of irregularities associated with recognition of expenses in the form of "cookie jar reserves." One auditor found a tax calculation on repatriated foreign income that produced an extra $65 million in booked expenses that were not incurred, allowing the extra cash on hand to be used to smooth some other unexpected shortfall in a later quarter. (9/12/2006)

Hewlett-Packard Chairman Resigns after Illegal Private Investigations -- Patricia Dunn resigned from H-P after details of a private investigation she initiated came to light and indicated H-P illegally obtained phone records to/from board members in an attempt to identify the source of leaks about board deliberations. (9/13/2006)

Federal Reserve Official Voices Concern About Margin Requirements on Hedge Funds -- A WSJ story cites comments from a speech Timothy Feithner, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, made in a Hong Kong conference about the danger of large hedge funds operating with small or zero margin terms banks typically offer their best customers. The problem is that large hedge funds are NOT typical customers, but businesses specifically designed to operate "on the edge" and leverage relatively small market fluctuations into profits, making them highly volatile when unexpected market conditions arise. (9/15/2006)

Former Senator Alfonse D'Amato Likely to be Ousted from Board of CA (Computer Associates) -- D'Amato is currently the longest serving board member of a company that has been under investigation for accounting irregularities for at least 3 years. D'Amato, if you recall, was subjected to investigations by the Senate Ethics Committee in the early 90s and also made a hefty profit on a intra-day stock sale on shares made available to him by a brokerage firm under investigation by the SEC at the time. (9/16/2006)

The "Big Three" or the "Dead Three"? -- Ford announced yet another massive restructuring of both its blue collar and white collar ranks as it continues to bleed cash. At the same time, Chrysler announced it has estimated its current quarter loss at $1.5 billion. (9/16/2006)

The common thread among all of these business fiascos involves a combination of a sense of invincibility / immunity and corporate decisions warped by prior business success or lack of proper oversight.

I've written before about the "faux conservatism" that has led many people to vote for policies that, properly and fully understood, are definitely NOT in their best interest. One concept that has taken on the weight of gospel with many conservatives is the famous "invisible hand" from Adam Smith's 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. When applied without context, blind faith in the invisible hand of the market can produce (and has produced) major problems, yet many faux conservatives retain an unquestioning, unqualified faith in the concept.

The Invisible Hand

Most Americans have heard the term "the invisible hand" and, if quizzed about it, would probably say it has something to do with economics and business and basically means consumers and business know best, so less regulation is generally better than more regulation.

Not bad for an answer on "Jaywalking" but like many other concepts separated from their context by vast amounts of time and oversimplification, the paraphrasing leaves quite a bit of valuable insight behind. Here are the two paragraphs from The Wealth of Nations that frame the original reference to the idea of an "invisible hand":

But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote and end which was not part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual, it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him. The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

Smith's idea seems intuitively obvious but the political and economic environments that existed in the mid-1700s that influenced his thinking bring with them major caveats. First, the decentralized decision making Smith described implies a market with a large number of sellers and buyers where no one seller or buyer affects enough of the market to materially affect supply or demand. This concept has evolved into the basics of standard price theory in economics. Second, Smith's examples in explaining market forces affecting buyers and sellers involved simple industries and basic tax and tariff policies with direct, measurable costs that each buyer and seller could see and incorporate into their individual decisions.

In short, "the invisible hand" is a useful concept when analyzing markets where no buyer or seller can individually control the market and where buyers and sellers all have "perfect" information about prices and where prices accurately reflect all costs.

From the "Invisible Hand" to Laissez-faire

Smith's concepts influenced politicians and economists throughout the world but the United States and Great Britain did more to incorporate specific policies reflecting these ideas than most countries. Industrialization produced even larger gains in wealth for western countries, eventually changing perceptions about Smith's theories from useful theory to something resembling a law of nature that always produced what was "best" for society.

In that sense, The Wealth of Nations has interesting parallels to the ideas published 100 years later in Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species which described how natural selection influences the development of biological species without a centralized, coordinating mechanism other than the mechanics of biology. However, unlike many who extrapolated Smith's theory into a value judgment, Darwin did not state that because evolution works the way it does, it is "best" in some absolute sense. It just is. It simply reflects the result of simple micro-level rules followed individually billions of times over billions of years. Darwin's theories don't preclude the possibility of conditions temporarily favoring an organism's growth to the extent it can completely dominate it's environment, only to be wiped out completely by a sudden change in climate.

With a few possible exceptions (railroads, banking, oil refining), practical limitations on communications technologies and international transportation kept most industries reasonably close to the "linear" range of the economic spectrum where modest regulation produced the benefits predicted by laissez-faire believers. However, it is safe to assume that Adam Smith and most economists in the 1800s and early 1900s could not have foreseen the concentration of economic power in multinational companies common in today's economy. Today's economy literally has individual companies whose profits exceed the GNP of many COUNTRIES, yet many adherents of laissez-faire policies are reluctant to recognize any upper bound in the "optimal" size of a company.

Another Hand on the Wheel

There's a reason economics is called the "dismal science." Virtually everything in economics involves:

* simple concepts that, at first, make obvious, intuitive sense
* formulas involving factors with seemingly easy to obtain, specific values
* human behavior acting upon information presented by the economy

The first two factors tempt many into using a theory that explains behavior in a limited range to extrapolate the outcome of the idea applied to a much broader problem. The human factor is the undoing of any large-scale application of otherwise simple theories. Anytime human psychology is involved, no formula can hold true in all cases because human behavior cannot be quantified. It's a widely accepted fact that humans often become crazy when presented with unbounded inputs (money, power, fame, you name it).

The news stories cited at the beginning of this piece are prime examples of the consequences of huge corporations concentrating enormous economic power and operating with insufficient public oversight and transparency. All involve businesses which at times generated enormous profits, commanded large market shares, and provided lavish compensation to executive management. Some cases (Dell, CA, Bristol-Myers) involve situations where executives were either over-incented to grow a business that due to its size could not be grown organically any further without fraud. Some cases (Ford, Chrysler, GM) involve situations where the business successfully "captured" its regulators to insulate itself in the short term from the consequences of bad long term decisions. Some cases (HP) involve executives possibly inhabiting some twilight zone of morality where the "rights" of the company to get what it wants outweigh the rights of its employees and third parties not even tied to the company.

The most important takeaway from these stories is their illustration of the danger of concentrating too much economic decision making power in a smaller and smaller gene pool of management talent. With the stratospheric levels of compensation being given these managers, it is pretty obvious that normal financial motivations are no longer driving their actions. If you make six million dollars a year, can money really be a driver or do other factors such as power or prestige begin to dominate? Is it really wise to have a single company whose direct or first tier impacts affect two or three percent of the entire country's economy being led by someone motivated by these factors? A team of 20-30 top managers at a huge company may have the brainpower to steer the firm through ninety percent of the economic scenarios that arise. What about the other ten percent of the time? What if the financial controls of a company so large cannot be clearly understood by more than one or two people? What if one of those people begins manipulating the books? These aren't hypothetical questions. These scenarios have occurred and destroyed HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS of dollars overnight.

Pro-business conservatives often support laissez-faire regulatory policies by claiming any other approach will lead to big government, reduced consumer choice and a reduction in income and wealth for the country. No reasonable person would suggest the adoption of a communist or socialist style command economy is an appropriate solution to correcting problems in our economy or the larger global economy. No reasonable person is arguing that no company should be allowed to become as large as GE, Cisco, etc. if they make good products and compete fairly. In fact, no reasonable person is even arguing that the majority of the economic levers in our system are broken. Most are working quite well. As soon as a hard drive shrunk to the size of a credit card, Americans had iPods to wear to the gym so they could listen to the Backstreet Boys while doing Pilates. (OK, maybe the music industry is broken…)

Moderates DO have a legitimate claim that unchecked corporate power resulting from blind faith in the "gospel according to Adam Smith" and resulting hands-off regulatory policies are leading to big problems in key industries with profound effects on all citizens. No one is arguing for removing the invisible hand from the steering wheel of the economy. However, it's clear another hand is needed as a counterbalance in some scenarios. Applying this balance isn't "anti-business", it's actually pro-business because it allows the economy to benefit from the efficiencies of the invisible hand in those scenarios where the market DOES know best while allowing society to stabilize its influence in cases where caveats apply.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Voter Photo ID Fraud

In an attempt to reduce the potential for election fraud, many states have enacted legislation that requires a valid photo ID to be presented in order to receive a ballot. According to supporters of these laws, the photo ID requirement will help prevent "Al Capone syndrome" (vote early and vote often) and will prevent votes from people who shouldn't be voting from "disenfranchising" legal voters by "canceling" out their legal vote.

Opponents object to photo ID requirements because the process of obtaining a photo ID could be burdensome to many people who are elderly or unable to drive and therefore lack a driver's license that most Americans use for a photo ID. Another objection that has been upheld in some courts is that requirement of a photo ID effectively acts as a "poll tax" since either the cost of the ID itself or the "cost" of spending the time to get it essentially charges voters to obtain a ballot.

The real fraud behind the voter ID issue is the fixation on the issue itself as the biggest problem in elections. First, the language about "disenfranchising" legal voters by having illegal votes "cancel" legal votes is telling. For me to view someone else as "canceling" my vote, I have to assume they are voting for the opposite candidate or position than I on the ballot. Statistically, if those casting the illicit ballots were spread evenly across the political / social / ethnic / financial spectrum, the "error" induced in the election results by the extra fraudulent ballots would essentially average out to zero, or, stated more accurately, average out to the larger intent of the voting public in that particular election for that candidate or issue. In reality, the largest percentage of legitimate voters lacking a photo ID are the poor and the elderly poor who are not likely to vote in equal percentages across the political spectrum.

A more subtle fallacy about the value of photo IDs in reducing election fraud involves the idea that photo IDs ensure a one to one correlation between a valid, legal voter and a clean ballot entering the tabulation system, ensuring no party or group can stuff the ballot box. The obvious flaw in this logic is that many new electronic voting machines being deployed throughout the country lack ANY verifiable audit trail for a ballot between the voter's selections in the polling place and the final tabulation. As a result, someone bent on tilting an election doesn't have to focus on "stuffing the ballot box" at the front end with illegal ballots that will then be accurately counted in their favor. Instead, they could focus on hacking the tabulation process and in many locales, NO ONE would be able to identify or prove the corrupted counts.

So where is the real risk to election integrity? The potential for a few percent of the vote total to have been fraudulently CAST or the potential for ALL of the votes to be mis-counted due to fraud or software errors with ZERO ability to audit the process? It is interesting that many of those fixated on photo IDs as the solution to voter fraud seem to have no qualms about the documented flaws in electronic voting systems being deployed throughout the country.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

New Lingo for the War On Terror (TM)

We're making so much progress on so many fronts in the worldwide War on Terror (TM) that it is often difficult to keep up with all of the new inventive terminology being used to report on our progress.

No proud backer of the War On Terror (TM) wants to experience that awkward feeling at a local PNAC or Republican fundraiser when someone uses a really cool new term from the war (while discussing how quickly we'll recoup the cost of the Iraq war from a grateful Iraqi populace throwing us billions in oil revenue, no doubt) and not know the meaning of the term. Here's an introduction to a new term being bantered about by the "in-crowd" (as in "stuck in Iraq").

ESM -- execution style murders

So many cases have come up where scores of tortured, murdered bodies (20, 40, 60+ at a time) are being found throughout the country of Iraq in the past few months that the newness has worn off. Instead of a one-page note at the top of the daily briefing about the latest horror, this new category of horror has joined a collection of other horrors which have been sanitized and converted into alphabet soup for more friendly-sounding, crisp communication. Apparently "execution style murders" was taking up too much horizontal space in the Excel spreadsheet used to track our progress.

The frequency of execution style murders is leading many to conclude that the government has already reached the point where it cannot control the levers of government, including police and security forces. We are two months into the six month interval cited by Iraq's ambassador that would be the make or break proof if the Iraqi government could stand up on its own. It's becoming clear the answer is firmly headed in the NO direction.

Don't be left out! Update your personal copy of the War-Mongerer's Dictionary now with this great new term. If you need a little alphabetic help, the new entry for ESM goes between the entries for CINC and SNAFU.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Failures of Imagination: Theirs and Ours

Americans certainly have a great deal to consider five years after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The networks will inevitably mine the seven days of 24-hour coverage of the attacks and their aftermath to air elaborately produced retrospectives of the event complete with ethereal violin soundtracks and heart-wrenching personal diaries of those who lost people in the attacks. However, very few writers have the ability to transcend the now-routine melodramatic templates those same networks apply to so many other situations ranging from some athlete overcoming some "struggle" for the sake of his sport to a teenager dying in a car accident on prom night.

Applying those formulas to those that experienced 9/11 doesn't cut it. Any anniversary piece is unlikely to convey the other-worldly horror experienced by those that lived through the experience first hand or lost loved ones in the attacks. As a result, those retrospectives seem destined to provide little comfort for those that suffered and even less insight for the rest of us to use in figuring out better ways of avoiding similar events in the future.

Since the visuals of the attacks themselves were (and still are) so overwhelming, the scale of the emotional shock doesn't seem to process. Probably the only feeling that did process at the time and still does now after watching video of the news from those days is the logical shock from the basic details of the attacks:

  • terrorists intentionally flew civilian jetliners into national landmarks

  • flight schools provided training to foreign nationals who paid cash and only wanted instruction on FLYING, but not TAKING OFF and LANDING

  • security regulations actually ALLOWED box cutter knives on planes

While overwhelmed with the emotional aspects of the day, these points kept sticking in the logical part of our collective brains and driving home one single conclusion. We were sucker-punched. How could we not see this coming?

Virtually everything about the events in the middle east and their effects on America seems to involve a series of "failures of imagination". Some of them by those we are fighting, some of them ours.

The Benefits of Islamic Government (NOT)

Would-be jihadists don't have to search long to get an idea of the type of economy and society they are likely to enjoy after a "successful" jihad. They only have to look at the quality of life and efficiency of government in Lebanon, the Palestinian territory and Afghanistan. In each of these countries, governments with militant Islamic factions had varying degrees of success in imposing basic security and stability for brief periods but none have succeeded in creating sustained economic growth and all demonstrated high degrees of corruption and cronyism.

The Taliban only achieved five years of "success" in imposing a circa-700 Islamic utopia in Afghanistan before being toppled and leaving the country in shambles. Now Afghanis are living in a chaotic shambles as the Taliban tries to regain control. In both the Palestinian territory and Lebanon, parties with active terrorist membership won parliamentary seats in democratic elections principally by focusing on providing social services at the local level and claiming to provide an alternative to the corrupt reputation of the ruling parties.

Think about THAT for a second. Muslims in these countries have to choose between corrupt parties who squander or steal desperately needed aid and internal revenue and parties filled with "suicide bombers you can trust." Quite a slogan there. That not only constitutes a failure of imagination on the part of the party members but of the people left continuing to choose between the two rather than forcing another alternative.

Choosing the Enemy for Jihad

The September 11, 2006 edition of The New Yorker has a well-written story by Lawrence Wright entitled "The Master Plan" about the tactical debates that have been taking place within Al Qaeda for years, even prior to September 11, 2001. The basic thesis of the story is that bin Laden's ambitions have crippled Al Qaeda's ability to achieve whatever religious or political goals it had. If you assume for a moment that Al Qaeda isn't 100 percent populated with completely irrational fanatics, their "logical" goals involved

  • toppling rulers corrupted by western oil money (the house of Saud in particular) and replacing them with theocratic Islamic governments

  • eliminating infidel western military forces from sacred holy lands

Al Qaeda quickly realized direct attacks on mid-east governments supported by an energy-dependent West was pretty much futile. They then decided to focus more of their energy on attacking American interests directly, starting with attacks in 1993 on American troops stationed in Somalia, then escalating to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, then the U.S.S. Cole, then 9/11.

The New Yorker piece cites correspondence from Abu Musab al-Suri ("Suri"), a top Al Qaeda strategist, that states in the mid-1990s, Al Qaeda itself feared it was nearing extinction due to increased cooperation of international police forces and successes in capturing terrorists or eliminating hiding locations. Relief came temporarily when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996 but dissent quickly returned when many within Al Qaeda worried bin Laden's overt attacks on America starting in 1998 would lead to the elimination of the Taliban and Al Qaeda's safe haven.

The article makes another interesting point as well. Iraq as a country or people within Iraq were unlikely to be willing partners with the leaders of Al Qaeda since most Iraqi Muslims are Shi'ite while Al Qaeda consists of Sunnis (most of the Wahhibi persuasion). According to the article, al-Zarqawi only plead allegiance to bin Laden in exchange for bin Laden's blessing of Zarqawi's plan to escalate attacks on Iraqi Shi'ites as an attempt to spook Iraqi Sunnis out of complacence in the larger jihad.

The article also makes it clear that Al Qaeda's fantasy of replacing the corrupted mid east governments with some utopian Islamic Caliphate was (and still is) exactly that -- pure fantasy. The article cites information published under the name Abu Bakr Naji which might be a real person or a pseudonym for a collection of Al Qaeda writers. From the article:

Alone among Al Qaeda theorists, Jani briefly addresses whether jihadis are prepared to run a state should they succeed in toppling one. He quotes a colleague who posed the question "Assuming that we get rid of the apostate regimes today, who will take over the ministry of agriculture, trade, economics, etc.?" Beyond the simplistic notioin of imposing a caliphate and establishing the rule of Islamic law, the leaders of the organization appear never to have thought about the most basic facts of government. What kind of economic model would they follow? How would they cope with unemployment, so rampant in the Muslim world? Where to they stand on the environment? Health Care? The truth, as Naji essentially concedes, is that the radical Islamists have no interest in government; they are only interested in jihad.

The geniuses at the top of Al Qaeda have absolutely no clue about how to organize and operate even the basics of a government capable of meeting the needs of a country. Those details are left as an exercise for the diligent jihadist.

That failure of imagination is identical to that demonstrated by Yassir Arafat in rejecting the proposed peace deal with Israel in 2000. The strategies of Arafat and those of Al Qaeda are absolute proof that militant Islam has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to offer the people of the mid-east. A plan with no "after" horizon cannot possibly succeed.

Of course, a plan with no "after" plan can still fail and produce a great deal of harm…

America in Afghanistan

Virtually no one in 2001 nor anyone now argues about the justification for invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban government. Al Qaeda had openly operated training camps for terrorists within Afghanistan with the consent of the Taliban. Some of the key strategy meetings that led to the September 11 attacks were conducted in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was still present in Afghanistan after the attacks and the Taliban government refused to hand him over or assist in locating him.

The Taliban posed no material obstacle to the United States so the short term outcome of the war was never in doubt. However, Afghanistan is a poster child for virtually every problem that can produce terrorism and make it difficult to eradicate once terrorism takes root:

  1. Afghanistan has virtually no natural resources capable of generating material revenue to operate a government with traditional police forces, basic public services or social services.

  2. Most of the citizens of Afghanistan are poorly educated, making it difficult to jump start a "knowledge based economy" that isn't dependent on natural resources.

  3. The population of Afghanistan lacks any dominant cultural binding ties and instead is divided into many tribal factions with centuries-old memories and grievances.

  4. The terrain of the country is rugged and difficult to control with traditional military equipment and tactics.

  5. The country DOES have a climate that allows the production of poppy that produces enormous amounts of cash for an underground economy that destabilizes the regular economy and government.

Nature abhors a vacuum and a country lacking natural resources and wealth is normally of ZERO interest to industrial powers. As a result, the only forces that are likely to fill that vacuum are those willing to impose their own totalitarian regime (the Taliban) or those wanting to exploit the anarchy for other purposes (terrorists).

America quickly topped the Taliban and initially enjoyed a great deal of support from the majority of Afghan citizens who suffered tremendously under the Taliban. However, our failure to understand the relatively simple dynamics above and plan appropriately has jeopardized our progress. Afghanistan has suffered some of the most intense fighting in the past five years in just the past four weeks and the Taliban is back in control in many outlying areas of the country. Conditions in the two largest cities, Kabul and Khanduhar, are deteriorating rapidly.

America in Iraq

America's disastrous experience in Iraq is actually two examples in one of a failure of imagination on the part of the Bush Administration. At some level, it is hard to decide which of the failures is more troubling:

  • the failure of imagination that led the Bush Administration to decide on an attack on Iraq within TWO DAYS of 9/11/2001 as a productive means of battling Al Qaeda and terrorism when Iraq was not involved in 9/11 and Saddam did not support Al Qaeda militarily or financially

  • the failure of imagination in planning the war itself and the subsequent occupation with forces insufficient to control the ground, provide a stable government and police presence, and prevent jihadist and Sunni / Shi'ite sectarian terrorists from dominating entire regions of the country

Our failures in choosing to enter Iraq then choosing to short-staff the occupation have resulted in an extended war of occupation that has already cost America about $313 billion which is more than the roughly $200 billion in direct economic damages from the attacks on September 11, 2001. America's conduct of the Iraq war has actually strengthened support for Al Qaeda in many countries, something unthinkable on September 11, 2001.

In some sense, the parallels between Americans and citizens of the Middle East are startling. From both camps, the other side is viewed as a people who seem curiously unable to steer their governments away from flawed policies and thinking but themselves are not fundamentally bad people. If nothing else, all sides involved must continue to make an extra effort to look beyond the governments involved and understand what is really happening and what the real intents of the citizens are.


Two thousand, nine hundred and seventy three innocent people lost their lives in New York, Washington, DC and Shanksville on September 11, 2001. Nearly the entire world saw the magnitude of that crime and felt solidarity with us not as Americans but as citizens of a single world filled with an unlimited variety of extremists who now had a new example on which to pattern future atrocities.

We owe a moment of quiet reflection to the people who died and those they left behind. We owe a great deal of thanks to the thousands of people who helped as best they could in the aftermath. We also owe ourselves some serious think time to ensure we have a better understanding of the events that produced September 11, 2001 and the strategies we have adopted since then to prevent a recurrence.

The War on Logic Continues

The Bush Administration is attempting to conduct another full court press on the American press and public in selling their "war on terror" (TM). That can only mean one thing. The administration is slipping in the polls and an election is coming.

Bush in the Weekend Wall Street Journal

Paul Gigot published a lengthy interview with President Bush in the 9/9/2006 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Early on in the piece, Gigot addresses concerns about our fixation on "democracy" given what seems to be arising from some of those elections:

Mr. Bush concedes that Hamas's "militant wing," as he calls it, is "unacceptable." But he says he sees a virtue in "creating a sense where people have to compete for people's votes. They have to listen to the concerns of the street." The answer is for other Palestinian leaders to out-compete Hamas to respond to those concerns. "Elections are not the end. They're only the beginning. And, no question, elections sometimes create victors that may not conform to everything we want… On the other hand, it is the beginning of a more hopeful Middle East."

Hmmmm. Governments should listen to the concerns on the street. Except the Bush Administration, which refuses to put Bush in any situation where a stray word of dissent might be heard. Except Bush himself, who feels he was already held accountable to the American public in November of 2004 and can do as he likes for the rest of his term because he's the "decider." Congress, the courts and the public be damned. The only street Bush listens to begins with a K.

Cheney on Meet the Press

First of all, the appearance of Dick Cheney on ANY television program can only mean one of two things: 1) the administration has decided to begin beating the drum to build support for some new fiasco or 2) George Bush has been losing ground in the polls by opening his mouth and attempting to explain the unexplainable and the Administration needs someone to speak in complete sentences to mitigate the damage.

Russert played a snippet of a speech Cheney made in August 2002 in which Cheney stated: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

Based on what you know now, that Saddam DID NOT HAVE the weapons of mass destruction you described, would you still have gone into Iraq?

Yes , Tim, because what the reports also showed while he did not have stockpiles, clearly the intelligence that said he did was wrong, that was the intelligence all of us saw, it's the intelligence that all of us believed, it was, when, when George Tenet sat in the oval office and the President of the United States asked him directly, he said "George, how good is the case on Saddam and weapons of mass destruction?" and the Director of the CIA stated "It is a slam dunk, Mr. President, a slam dunk.", that's the intelligence that was provided to us at the time and based upon which …

So if the CIA said to you at that time Saddam does not have weapons of mass destruction, his chemical and biological have been degraded, he has no nuclear program underway, you'd still invade Iraq?

Because again look at the Dulfer report, look at what it said. No stockpiles, but they also said he has the capability, he done it before, he had produced chemical weapons before and used them, he had produced biological weapons, he had a robust nuclear program in 91. All of this true. Said by Dulfer. Facts. Also said that as soon as the sanctions lifted, they expected Saddam to be back in business.

So there you have it. Given EVERYTHING we now know about Saddam having NO weapons of mass destruction or current abilities to manufacture them, the Bush Administration would STILL invade Iraq, squander over 2600 American lives, and burn over $313 billion dollars for NOTHING.

Simply mind boggling.

Rice on Face the Nation

Bob Schieffer asked Rice about this week's Senate Intelligence report that confirmed US operation of secret CIA prisons.

Last week, the President announced the people that were in these secret prisons were going to be transferred to military control. I'm told that within the Administration you were one of those who argued that this needed to be done. I'd like to ask you, Madame Secretary, when did you learn that the CIA was operating these secret prisons?

Well, Bob, we've talked in the past… When I was in Europe, I talked about the fact that yes, we had intelligence activities that were trying to gain essential information from detainees because the President early on…"

Did you know early on about this?

I'm not going to talk about intelligence activities.

Hmmmm. Condi, you just WERE talking about intelligence activities.

She stepped around this when question because her comments in Europe earlier in the year claimed we had not / are not / will not use torture for intelligence operations. Yet the facts now clearly indicate this has been the case and that Rice and other Administration officials knew of it from the start because THEY DIRECTED THE POLICY.

Schieffer then asked her "Is what you are saying that it is all right for a democracy to operate secret prisons but we just got all we could out of these people so we took them out of the prisons?"

Bob, it is clearly an important thing for a democracy to protect itself and to use all legal means available to it and including those that live up to our treaty obligations to do that. Of course we are going to continue to run intelligence activities when they are needed.

Hmmmm. So transporting suspected combatants to secret prisons not in America, not in the country where they were captured and not in a country directly involved in an active war such as Afghanistan or Iraq meets our obligations under the Geneva Conventions? Does lying about the existence of these operations for four years to the American public meet the expectations for a democratic government?