Saturday, April 15, 2006

Blair fatigue grips Britain

According to The Washington Post, in an interesting article in Sunday's edition, "Blair fatigue has become the dominant narrative in British politics."

There are other narratives, to be sure, including the rise of Blair's rival and presumptive successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and of the new and dynamic Conservative Leader David Cameron; scandal upon scandal; and, of course, Iraq. But, simply, it seems that the British have grown tired of a prime minister who, not so long ago, "could do no wrong" (in the words of one pollster). His approval ratings are lower even than his pal Bush's at "just over 30 percent".

To be fair, Blair has had his accomplishments, some of them quite significant. However: "It is [his] passionate -- some say disastrously stubborn -- leadership on Iraq that is the one issue that continues to weigh him down. There is a widespread perception that the prime minister exaggerated, or even fabricated, the dangers of weapons of mass destruction in taking the country to a war that has no end in sight." Like Bush, Blair's fortunes are wrapped up in the ongoing debacle that is the Iraq War and Occupation. Whatever else he's done, Iraq will likely constitute the bulk of his legacy.

When will he step down? When will he let Brown take over? There is currently "debilitating speculation about exactly when he might go". There is pressure on him to leave sooner rather than later, preferably this year, but all he has said is that he won't seek a fourth term (the next election must be held by 2010).

Whatever happens, whenever he decides to leave, one thing is certain: The Iraq War -- the war that is his as it is to an even greater degree Bush's -- will still be raging in one form or another. His premiership is nearing its end. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the mess he helped to create.

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Saturday @ the Movies

By Creature

The Girl in the Cafe (2005): When The Girl in the Cafe arrived from Netflix I sighed, "not another love story." Mrs. C has control of the Netflix account, so while I wanted King Kong, what I got was Four Weddings and a Funeral. Boy, was I ever wrong. This is a brilliantly crafted love story with a bleeding-liberal, do-the-great-thing message. If the love story doesn't get your weepy glands going, the politics will. Bill Nighy deserved an award for his quirky performance as a lonely bureaucrat (who we ALL can relate to). While Kelly MacDonald had me smitten within minutes (just tell me she doesn't remind you of Kate Winslet). I couldn't help but fall, and feel, for these characters immediately. And the best part is that after you fall for them, the movie really begins. Props must also go out to director David Yates. Nighy may have stolen the scenes, but Yates framed them perfectly. This is a must-see movie. And to the boys (Jeff, Ted, Jim, Fixer, Toast, Adam, Reynaldo, Michael*) in the audience, surprise your ladies, rent this movie. If you don't get points, come back and I'll pay for your rental.**

*This is not an extensive list of the "boys" in the audience. Please do not take offense if your name is not on the list. Open thread your name if you can't take being left out.
**I will not be paying for your rental, sorry.
***And please refrain from sissy-boy cat-calls. A boy can feel too, you know.

(Cross-posted at State of the Day.)

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Uncovering the Cheney-directed Libby leak

For our must-read of the day, make sure to read Murray Waas's latest in the National Journal.

It begins: "Vice President Dick Cheney directed his then-chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on July 12, 2003 to leak to the media portions of a then-highly classified CIA report that Cheney hoped would undermine the credibility of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, according to Libby's grand jury testimony in the CIA leak case and sources who have read the classified report."

So when will Cheney be fired? And when will Bush be held accountable?

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Victory to Prodi

Well, it looks like the Italian election results will be settled sooner than expected. From the BBC: "[Opposition leader] Romano Prodi looks set to be confirmed as the winner of Italy's general election after the number of contested ballots was drastically lowered." Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi claims that he will continue to "resist" and that Italy is "at a standstill," but "even if all the contested ballots [and there aren't nearly as many as initially reported] went to Mr Berlusconi the final result would not change".

Prodi's center-left coalition, The Union, will have a majority over Berlusconi's center-right coalition, House of Freedoms, in both the Chamber of Deputies (348-281, with one independent) and the Senate (158-156, with one independent).

Good news, yet I wonder if we've heard the last of Berlusconi. He may yet fight these results with all the firepower he can muster. And when you run the media, there's an awful lot of firepower to be had.


Here's Italy's red-blue divide (the green independent area in the north-west is quasi-autonomous Valle d'Aosta):

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The madman of Tehran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is completely crazy. Just in case you weren't quite sure, consider this: According to the AP, the Iranian president today declared that Israel is "heading toward annihilation," a "permanent threat," and "a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one storm".

One storm? As in a nuclear one?

I've recently argued (see here and here) that non-military options need to be considered in response to the Iranian nuclear crisis and that a window of opportunity now exists for such options to be pursued. But, clearly, we're dealing with a madman here. I'm still hopeful that a potentially disastrous military strike can be averted, disastrous in terms of the repercussions throughout the Muslim world, and it may very well be that Ahmadinejad's fiery comments were intended largely for domestic consumption, but the prospect of Iran with a nuclear bomb, with a madman at the helm, and with Israel as a prime target is truly worrisome.

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Rummy fun

By Creature

As the woodwork begins to fill with more and more people calling for the removal of our whippersnapper of a defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, it's statements like this from the president's office that make me want to hurl:

"The president believes Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a very fine job during a challenging period in our nation's history," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said at a briefing.

It really is no wonder that most of the country has completely tuned out the president. To say Rumsfeld is doing a fine job is laughable. While I have called for the ouster of Rumsfeld many times (why they don't listen to me I'm still not sure), at this point I'm hanging with the who-gives-crap crowd. Does it really matter anymore if Rumsfeld stays or goes? I guess when we start bombing Iran, to help the presidents sagging poll numbers, it would be nice to have somebody else in there. But, isn't it all too little too late.

All this talk. All this wasted news print and pixels is just another exercise in futility. The Bushes will manage (as they always do) to stonewall and obfuscate through this latest round of removal gibberish. Eventually the media will move on, the public will tire, and we will be left with the tin ear government we have grown accustomed to. I'm with the whiskey drinking guy on this one:

The chances that Dick Cheney will fire his old boss and ideological comrade in crime are only slightly higher than the chances that Rumsfeld's removal would lead to even a minor improvement in the situation in Iraq. It's almost like asking Cheney to fire himself.

Plus, if Rumsfeld goes, sure a few soldiers lives may be saved, but who would we turn to for those now famous Rumsfeldisims.

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do no know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know”

I say Rummy should stay. This administration's accountability moment will come in November. So, let's have Rummy fun until then.

(Cross-posted at State of the Day.)

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Saving face

By Creature

North Korea, not a country fond of being ignored, made some nuclear noise today. Here are the basics:

North Korea said on Thursday it might boost its nuclear deterrent if six-country talks on ending its atomic programs remained deadlocked, but said it would return if Washington met a demand to unfreeze it assets.

And some fiery rhetoric:

There is nothing wrong with delaying the resumption of the six-party talks. In the meantime we can make more deterrent. If the United States doesn't like that, they should create the condition for us to go back to the talks."

The emphasis is mine, because there is no rhetoric, better than nuclear rhetoric. Now, the problem with the North Korean rhetoric, while biting in tone, is that it needs to be a bit more showy. The North ones should take a page out of the Iranian Nuclear Rhetoric Handbook. It's simple actually, to get the attention of the ADD crowd living in the White House, a show is needed; video screens, a chanting crowd, english titles, and a person off to one side for the hearing impaired. The nuclear stage is big, so come on North Korea, pick up your game. Here is an excerpt from the Iranian handbook:

Ahmadinejad's speech was broadcast live from the ornate Imam Reza library in the holy city of Mashad, where Iran's top politicians and clerics watched a video montage of nuclear facilities as dramatic music played in the background. The Quran, the Islamic holy book, was read, a boys' choir sang the national anthem, and dancers wearing the dress of Iran's ethnicities chanted "God is great."

Oh, I forgot, North Korea is an axis-of-evil country that already has the bomb. Silly me, they don't need to pick up their game, they got all the game they need.

Now, If adults ran this country, instead of schoolyard bullies, something like this would be an option:

An analyst in Seoul said Kim's comments might indicate Pyongyang was fishing for a compromise, where the United States could say not all of the North's accounts frozen at the Macau bank were used for illicit activity and then free up some funds.

"Seoul's preference is for the U.S. to find some gesture that will help North Korea save face. China's position is not all that different," said Kim Sung-han, head of North American studies at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

Again, the emphasis is mine, because saving face is an act George Bush would never allow, and a concept he could never understand.

Save face more.

(Cross-posted at State of the Day.)

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Ottawa's new anti-environmentalists

As some of you may know, I've been extremely tough on the Bush Administration over its lack of concern for the environment, specifically for global warming and other facets of climate change. See here, for example, where I argued that America needs "a president who understands and cares about the environment, one who is willing to adopt far-reaching policies to deal with climate change".

But let no one think that we're doing all that much better up here in Canada. Stephen Harper's new Conservative government is already setting the anti-environmental tone. Consider this, as reported today in the Toronto Star: "A scientist with Environment Canada was ordered not to launch his global warming-themed novel Thursday at the same time the Conservative government was quietly axing a number of Kyoto programs."

Harper's minority government may not last for long, but the damage it inflicts on this country and the environment could be long-lasting. I doubt that the opposition parties will defeat the government over Kyoto, but hopefully we won't have to put up with Ottawa's new anti-environmentalists for too much longer.

Canada can -- and must -- do better.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Spinning for war: Ratcheting up the incendiary rhetoric on Iran

In my last post I argued that there is now an opportunity to roll back the incendiary rhetoric and to consider what other, non-military options should be on the table with respect to the Iranian nuclear crisis. In fact, "crisis" is too loaded a term. There is some sort of crisis, to be sure, but there is no immediate crisis. Iran is not about to build a nuclear arsenal in the near future, let alone to launch it against Israel and Europe. It's true that Iran is now enriching its own uranium, but it's also true that enriching uranium isn't an all-or-nothing deal. Simply put, Iran has a long way to go before it can produce weapons-grade uranium. The U.S. and the E.U., not to mention Russia and China, need to take advantage of this short-term window to come up with a non-military solution to the problem of a nuclear Iran. After all, it's much better to deal with a nuclear Iran in its infancy than with a nuclear Iran pushing its weight around with missiles behind its back. (The IAEA's ElBaradei is in Tehran for talks.)

(Consider what David Ignatius wrote in today's Post: "The Bush administration has demonstrated, in too many ways, that it's better at starting fights than finishing them. It shouldn't make that same mistake again. Threats of war will be more convincing if they come slowly and reluctantly, when it has become clear that truly there is no other choice.")

The problem is, the incendiary rhetoric continues as the White House prepares for, and seems intent on, war. And it seems like 2002-03 all over again. Just substitute Iran for Iraq -- except that Bush has little to no credibility left. The chief warmongers -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, all those neocons who have disappeared into the ether like Saddam's Republican Guard -- have credibility problems, too, of course, and they're not pushing war now the way they were pushing it back then. As far as I know, Cheney hasn't used the words "mushroom" and "cloud" on the Sunday talk shows yet. But Rice, who seems to have been given the lead on this (because at least she has some credibility left) and who is at least working with the U.N., has stated that "strong steps" are needed. And McClellan -- whom, one presumes, still speaks for the White House -- has stated that "[i]t is time for action". Strong steps and action... vague, no?

In addition, Bloomberg (which may as much of a White House spokesman as McClellan) is reporting this: "Iran, which is defying United Nations Security Council demands to cease its nuclear program, may be capable of making a nuclear bomb within 16 days if it goes ahead with plans to install thousands of centrifuges at its Natanz plant." This according to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Stephen Rademaker. Which means, of course, that there isn't much of a window. If Iran is only days away from building a nuclear bomb, then surely there are no suitable options other than military ones.

But is this even true? It would appear not. According to the BBC, Iran may still be two or three years away from enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. And that's if all goes well. (It may not.) True, this is much smaller than the ten-year window predicted by the CIA and various experts on nuclear technology, but two or three years is a bit more of a window than, say, 16 days. Surely there is still time to consider non-military options.

Iran has stated that it has enriched uranium to 3.5 percent. Here's Juan Cole:

The ability to slightly enrich uranium is not the same as the ability to build a bomb. For the latter, you need at least 80% enrichment, which in turn would require about 16,000 small centrifuges hooked up to cascade. Iran does not have 16,000 centrifuges. It seems to have 180. Iran is a good ten years away from having a bomb, and since its leaders, including Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, say they do not want an atomic bomb because it is Islamically immoral, you have to wonder if they will ever have a bomb.

So what's going on?

What is really going on here is a ratcheting war of rhetoric. The Iranian hard liners are down to a popularity rating in Iran of about 15%. They are using their challenge to the Bush administration over their perfectly legal civilian nuclear energy research program as a way of enhancing their nationalist credentials in Iran.

Likewise, Bush is trying to shore up his base, which is desperately unhappy with the Iraq situation, by rattling sabres at Iran. Bush's poll numbers are so low, often in the mid-30s, that he must have lost part of his base to produce this result. Iran is a great deus ex machina for Bush. Rally around the flag yet again.

If this international game of chicken goes wrong, then the whole Middle East and much of Western Europe could go up in flames. The real threat here is not unconventional war, which Iran cannot fight for the foreseeable future. It is the spread of Iraq-style instability to more countries in the region.

Bush and Ahmadinejad could be working together toward the Perfect Storm.

I'm obviously much more concerned about a nuclear Iran than Professor Cole is. A "civilian nuclear energy research program" is one thing. But do we trust Iran to stop there? Are we really prepared to deal with a nuclear Iran that at the very least has the capacity to build nuclear bombs? And if the goal is peaceful, i.e., nuclear energy, then why didn't Iran allow Russia to enrich its uranium? It seems to me that the risks of a nuclear Iran are simply too high for us to back off entirely.

Yet Professor Cole is surely right that much of this is political bluster. Iran is a deeply nationalistic country. Young Iranians may look favourably at American culture, but they look even more favourably at their own nation, at Iran's political autonomy. What could be more popular, more appealing to Iranian nationalism, than refusing to give in to U.S. and European demands on such a high-profile issue as nuclear technology and the prospect of nuclear weaponry?

And Professor Cole is also surely right that Bush is rattling his sabres. After all, what does he have left?

We need to pull back from these short-term considerations and focus on devising a solution to the long-term prospects of a nuclear Iran. As I've said before, military action may eventually be necessary. And this reckless game of chicken may indeed take us to that point whether we like it or not. But there is truth and there is spin. The spin is the incendiary rhetoric of impending doom, of a crisis that is about to burst. The truth is that there is still time.

May the truth win out.

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Iran's enriched uranium and the possibility of preventive war

Well, it was only a matter of time, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. If you missed it, Iran has announced that it has "succeeded in enriching uranium to new levels," according to The Washington Post.

Is this a crisis? Yes. We simply cannot accept a nuclear Iran and, obviously, Iran is well on its way to becoming a nuclear state. So what to do? Reports suggest that the Bush Administration is preparing for war and that a plan to use nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear facilities is on the table. Our guest blogger J. Kingston Pierce, responding to a Seymour Hersh piece in The New Yorker, recently addressed those reports here. At Slate, one of our favourites, Fred Kaplan, argues that we are probably not going to use nuclear weapons against Iran, that, in fact, there may be any number of reasons why the nuclear option is on the table. Eric Alterman, contra Kaplan, thinks that it's all quite possible.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Iran has apparently succeeded in enriching uranium to 3.5 percent, "an amount consistent with a fuel cycle and far below the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon". This is an improvement, from Iran's perspective, but there's still a long way to go: "Iran had previously enriched uranium to a level of about 2 percent, using a smaller cascade, and separately enriched uranium to about 15 percent during laser experiments in 2002. Bomb-grade uranium must be enriched to a level of well over 80 percent."

This development is indeed "a significant breakthrough in Iran's nuclear program," and we do need to take it seriously. But it's imperative, I think, that we roll back the incendiary rhetoric and consider what other options should be on the table. I would not and do not rule out a military strike, or perhaps even a more significant military campaign, but the use of military force should be the last resort, not the first -- and certainly not in this case, given what repercussions a military strike could have.

As Kaplan argues: "Pre-emptive war -- attacking a country to keep it from attacking us or an ally -- is sometimes justifiable. Preventive war -- attacking a country to keep it from developing a capability to attack an ally sometime in the future -- almost never is." We need to be extremely careful not to cross the line from the former to the latter. Think how a U.S.-led strike would play throughout the Muslim world. What would happen in Iraq? How would al Qaeda respond? Those two questions alone should give us pause to consider other, non-military options.

Thankfully, there is still time. Perhaps not much, but having even a little time is better than having none at all.

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The nature and history of Islam

Our friend and guest blogger Sean Aqui of Midtopia has written an excellent post on Islam's Reformation -- see here. He argues that "what we are seeing today is Islam passing through the same painful adolescence that both Judaism and Christianity endured centuries ago," which is to say, we are witnessing "Islam's bloody transition from its medieval origins to modernity."

Sean's conclusion: "Our job... is to encourage and support the moderate reformers while opposing and undermining the medievalists. It will take patience, money, intellectual firepower and an acknowledgement that it will proceed in fits and starts. But the entire world will benefit from Islam shedding its medieval past. If ever there was a project well worth undertaking, this is it."

It is tempting to view the world-historical event surrounding 9/11 and Iraq in purely Huntingtonian terms, that is, as a clash of civilizations. To an extent, that's right. This isn't just about American bases in Saudi Arabia and the existence of Israel. It's also about jihadism that doesn't stop at Islam's political borders, about a political expression of Islam (both state-oriented and not) that seeks to annihilate its enemies, including Israel. And, of course, it's also about the spread of Western Civilization and the global dominance of American culture. The conflict was brought to American soil, to New York and Washington. The jihadist perpetrators want the U.S. out of the Middle East, off Muslim soil, but they also want America wiped out. This should prompt us not only to fight back but to think about ourselves, our values, our ideas, our culture, our civilization, and the place of all of those things in the world beyond our shores. We must defend ourselves. When necessary, we must attack. But we must also engage in some serious self-reflection. Without in any way justifying the actions of the jihadists, surely we can admit that we aren't perfect.

And yet: There is also a civil war raging within Islam itself. These are religious growing pains akin to what Christianity went through during its own reformation, the Reformation. As with the Christian one, the Islamic Reformation is not without its complexity. There aren't simply the moderates and conservatives, just as there weren't simply the Protestants and Catholics. But Islam must go through this, and it must go through it largely on its own. This is where I part company with Sean. I agree with him that we need to encourage and support Islam's "moderate reformers" and to oppose and undermine its "medievalists". In theory. In practice, how is that to be done? Yes, we need to engage ourselves in the war of ideas in terms of the larger clash of civilizations, but how can we possibly engage ourselves in the war of ideas that is raging within Islam? It simply isn't our place to involve ourselves in Islam's own crisis.

Of course, we may (and should) engage with "moderate reformers" wherever and whenever we can. Perhaps there are some indirect ways to show our support. Opening up dialogue with the reformers in our own countries could help to tilt the balance in their favour. However, it seems to me that any overt engagement will be seen by all sides as interference. And if there's anything that could unite the various elements of Islam, it's opposition to interference from the West. That's part of the problem already: This theological civil war is raging even as a political war is being fought in Iraq, even as the United States and the European Union are contemplating their next move with respect to the Iranian nuclear crisis, even as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on. This is not a call for disengagement. Iraq is what it is, like it or not, something needs to be done about Iran, Israel needs our continued support, rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan need to proceed, and, of course, political and economic engagement with the entire Muslim world, from Nigeria to Indonesia, cannot be halted -- indeed, it is surely in our long-term interests to strengthen that engagement. But we must be aware that such political and economic (not to mention military) engagement is not without its consequences. And one of them is that Islam's civil war will continue to be fought out within a context that encompasses more than theological minutiae. If nothing else, we need to be sensitive to that reality.

Such are my thoughts for now.

Make sure to read Sean's post in its entirety. You may or may not agree with him, just as you may or may not agree with my response here, but it's a thoughtful, provocative post. And it's an issue that deserves our serious attention.


Sean also wrote about the recent by-election in Kuwait, the first time women have been allowed to vote in that country -- see here.

Once again, his conclusion gets it right: "Our job now is to support these countries -- using aid and trade agreements to demonstrate the tangible benefits of moving toward democracy and tolerance -- while gently pressing them to adopt true democracy and hold elections for top leadership posts. That approach has risks: the current Western-friendly emirs could be replaced by more hostile radical Islamists, as happened in Palestine. But the Gulf emirates are not Palestine, and if we cannot persuade them to move forward instead of backward, we have lost the war of ideas."

Absolutely. This would be the right kind of engagement. We need to do what we can to steer the Muslim world towards not just democracy but liberal democracy. Simply, this is a war we mustn't lose.

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The ecstasy and the agony

Here's one of the most bizarre stories I've read in a long, long time. According to the Guardian Online: "Doctors from London University have revealed details of what they believe is the largest amount of ecstasy ever consumed by a single person. Consultants from the addiction centre at St George's Medical School, London, have published a case report of a British man estimated to have taken around 40,000 pills of MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, over nine years."

40,000 pills over nine years. Or, to put it another way: "At the peak, the man was taking an estimated 25 pills every day for four years."

That's... a lot.

Is it any wonder that the ecstasy has turned into agony? "Though the man, who is now 37, stopped taking the drug seven years ago, he still suffers from severe physical and mental health side-effects, including extreme memory problems, paranoia, hallucinations and depression. He also suffers from painful muscle rigidity around his neck and jaw which often prevents him from opening his mouth. The doctors believe many of these symptoms may be permanent."

Read on. It's an incredible story.

(Also, this article provides one of the best overviews of the effects of ecstasy I've ever read. It cuts through all the anti-drug propaganda and gets at what ecstasy is all about.)

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Prodi claims victory, Berlusconi refuses to concede

Here's the latest on the Italian election from the BBC:

Italy's centre-left opposition leader Romano Prodi has been declared official winner of the parliamentary election after an extremely close race.

But his rival, centre-right PM Silvio Berlusconi, refused to admit defeat, saying there had been irregularities.

Official results showed Mr Prodi had won just enough seats to control the Senate (upper house) after having already won a lower house majority.

He rejected Mr Berlusconi's suggestion of forming a grand coalition.

Now, to understand these results you need to know a few things about Italy's weird electoral system (I know a thing or two about electoral systems and this one's truly weird). You can find a good overview of that system, as well as of Italy's electoral history, here.

This was the first election held under a new PR (proportional representation) electoral system. For the Chamber of Deputies, 617 of 630 seats are elected according to (or in proportion to) the popular vote. One seat is elected in Valle d'Aosta, a quasi-autonomous region of the country in the north-west. The remaining 12 seats are elected by Italian citizens abroad. A similar system is used for the Senate.

The results of the Senate elections put Prodi's The Union coalition at 158 seats and Berlusconi's House of Freedoms coalition at 156 seats. The vote of Italian citizens abroad put Prodi over the top.

And for the Chamber of Deputies? According to The New York Times: "The final results, released late Tuesday, showed Mr. Prodi winning the lower house with 49.8 percent of the votes, compared to Mr. Berlusconi's 49.7." In terms of seats, however, the results put Prodi ahead of Berlusconi 348 to 281. This is because the new electoral system automatically gives the coalition that wins the popular vote a minimum of 55 percent of the seats. If the results hold, Prodi will form a government with a sizeable majority (by Italian standards at least) even though he only beat Berlusconi by 0.1 percent of the popular vote of 38 million. That amounts to a difference of just 25,000 votes.

And that's where the problem lies. Again from the Times: "In each chamber, there were still some 40,000 contested ballots, plus half a million blank ballots and another half a million that were nullified or contested during the initial counting." The Guardian Online is reporting that the difference in the popular vote for the Chamber of Deputies is 28,000 votes and that there are 43,028 spoiled ballots.

Remember Florida? This is like that, only much, much bigger. And Italian. No wonder Berlusconi won't concede. Given that this is likely Berlusconi's last chance, and given that he runs the Italian media and has tons of money at his disposal, look for him to contest these results and to concede nothing to his bitter rival.

I'll have more on this in the days and weeks to come (yes, this may drag on). In the meantime, go see Matthew Shugart at Fruits and Votes, an excellent blog devoted largely to all things electoral. He demystifies Italy's electoral system here. In fact, you can find all of his posts on Italy here. (Matthew, who has often commented here at The Reaction, is a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego. He knows whereof he blogs.)

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Sign of the Apocalypse #33: How much for that mint julep?

What can one possibly say about the $1,000 mint julep that'll be sold at this year's Kentucky Derby?

The sweet cocktail will be made with one of the state's finest bourbons and served in a gold-plated cup with a silver straw to the first 50 people willing to put down the cash at the May 6 race.

Mint from Morocco, ice from the Arctic Circle and sugar from the South Pacific will put this mint julep in a class of its own, the distillery selling the drink said.

Um, yeah... Not that this is a culture of decadence or anything.

(Although it all seems to be for a good cause, New Jersey's Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.)

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Reclaiming liberalism

By The (liberal)Girl Next Door

There has been a distinct shift in political rhetoric over the last decade or so, and liberalism has taken a beating for sure. But is that really because, as a society, we made a conscious decision to reject liberalism, or is it a result of a targeted effort by the GOP to sully the word “liberal” and distort its meaning?

Michael wrote a beautiful post here last week about liberalism, and he makes a good argument that the United States has always been a liberal society. Regardless of the gains made recently by neo-conservatives and the religious right, we are already in the process of swinging back toward our more natural liberal center. I hope he is right, but what I got most out of his post is that liberalism is worth reclaiming. The bastardization of the word liberal that we on the left have allowed to go unchecked for so many years, must finally be countered, and the first step is claiming it for ourselves, loudly and proudly.

There is a reason that the word liberal reminds us of words like liberty and liberate. To be liberal is to give freely, as in “be liberal with the whipped cream on my all-American apple pie.” We exemplify the best of what this country has to offer and are responsible for the history most choose to embrace as the basis for what truly defines us as Americans. Liberal is defined as favorable to progress or reform. We want to continue to move forward, make progress, and reform what is wrong. In other words, we want to be liberal.

Even those who claim the label conservative most likely are not interested in stopping progress. Yet they have disdain for a political movement that, at its core, is about moving us forward and instead embrace an ideology that is all about stagnation. While Democrats have allowed the true meaning of liberalism to be forgotten, the GOP has been very effective at tying conservatism to tradition, as in traditional values. But to be true to our traditional values as a country, we would have to embrace liberalism, progress, and change.

Traditional, as far as the definition of conservative goes, means unchanging. Should we have held on to the tradition of denying women the right to vote? Should we have kept the tradition of segregation going? Traditional, when it comes to America, means being true to our founding principles. We have traditionally righted wrongs, we have traditionally striven to make a more perfect union, and we have a long tradition of being liberal, giving freely, and leading the way toward progress.

To be conservative is to be cautious, moderate, controlled, guarded, unimaginative, undaring, timid, and opposed to change. That doesn’t sound like America, but it also doesn’t sound like the Bush Administration. There is nothing moderate, cautious, or controlled about this president, and that is because he isn’t a conservative but rather a neo-conservative. In order to accurately describe this administration, we would need synonyms for neo-conservative, such as imperialist, grandiose, domineering, shortsighted, belligerent, elitist, corporatist, arrogant, obstinate, and preemptory. Again, these are not words that come to mind when we think of America.

We are advanced, enlightened, free, rational, reasonable, tolerant, big-hearted, and generous, all synonyms for liberal and all perfect descriptions of what America stands for. We are a liberal country, and it's time we started acting like it again.

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Give me novocaine

By Creature

I should be numb to the lies by now, but I am not. George Bush would have you believe that his "justifiable declassification" and subsequent "briefing" of the media was a matter of "national security" because a critic was spreading "misinformation" about the "truth" he was using as justification for going to war.

What George Bush meant to say was that his "leaking" of classified material to a few "select reporters" was a matter of "covering his ass" because a patriot was "exposing the lies" that he was using as justification for going to war.

Here is Bush's first public statement on the whole sordid matter:

"I wanted people to see the truth and thought it made sense for people to see the truth," Bush said during an appearance at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

"You're not supposed to talk about classified information, and so I declassified the document," he said in a question-and-answer session after delivering a speech on Iraq. "I thought it was important for people to get a better sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches. And I felt I could do so without jeopardizing ongoing intelligence matters, and so I did."

The insincerity just oozes out, doesn't it?

It's also the right-wing justification of all this insincerity that really has me going today. They continue to insists that Saddam was looking to procure uranium from Niger. Hitchens does it here, and the Leeden does it here. The folks that are still standing up for the Niger claim are those right-wing pundits, and Bush apologists, who were far from the White House when the cherry-picking decisions were being made. If the sixteen words were true, why leak, why backtrack, why admit fault? Simply be proud that you did your homework and stand behind the facts as they were originally set out. See, dear right-wingers, the facts were not facts, they were lies. The White House knows it (hence the destruction and subsequent cover-up of Joe Wilson and the entire Plame affair), why can't you accept it?

Basically I picture the White House in June 2003 as a bunch of sniveling, scared, little rats who realized that the jig was up, and yet, they were determined, at all cost, to keep the jig down.

For more on the descontruction of the White House spin, the media's playing along with that spin, and the shrill right-wing defense of that spin I suggest trips to (and in no paticular order) AMERICAblog, Booman Tribune, the Left Coaster, and for those of you more inclined to the visual I suggest Crooks & Liars. Go, I promise you will learn something.

(Cross-posted at State of the Day.)

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Me and David Gilmour

Alas, no posts tonight. I went to the David Gilmour concert here in Toronto this evening, and that has taken precedence over blogging. I'll be back with more, much more, on Tuesday, as will our co-bloggers. So keep checking back.

How was the concert? Awesome. Simply awesome. The entire new album, On an Island, then, after a 20-minute break, such classics as "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," "Breathe," "Time," "High Hopes," "Echoes" (yes, the complete version -- the highlight of the show), "Wish You Were Here," and, of course, "Comfortably Numb" (my favourite song of all time).

Like I said: awesome.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

The truth about abortion policy

Over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Scott Lemieux sums up what the abortion debate is all about: "[T]he only major question about abortion policy is whether poor women will have the same access to safe abortions inevitably enjoyed by the affluent."

Read the whole post. It's partly a response to a New York Times magazine article on abortion in "pro-life" El Salvador.

Read that, too, and check out The Mahablog, Eschaton, The Sideshow, and Echidne of the Snakes.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Sy Hersh and Iran update

An addendum to Jeff's guest post on the coming shock and awe in Iran:

The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh was on CNN's Late Edition today. Crooks and Liars has the video here. For more on Hersh's appearance, see TalkLeft and Think Progress.

Michelle Malkin claims that Hersh is blowing U.S. cover. Oh, so that's how the right will spin this. He's not wrong, he should just shut up. (Of course, the right has zero interest in open political discourse generally.)

My pal Joe Gandelman has an excellent round-up here. Make sure to read Jeff's post (link above), then head over to check out Joe's take at The Moderate Voice.

Then go see The Carpetbagger Report, where the Sunday Discussion Group is answering these questions: "Is this some kind of bluster intended to bolster European diplomacy? Is the Iranian threat legitimate? Is the threat of war Bush's new campaign strategy for the midterm cycle? If Bush's war planning is folly, what would a responsible Iran policy look like? How do Democrats approach the political element of this national security debate?"

More good stuff can be found at: The Heretik, NewsHog, Political Animal, The American Street, OxBlog, AmbivaBlog, Centerfield, The Glittering Eye, and Linkmeister, Comments from Left Field.

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Forza Italia?

The Italian election is underway -- polls close tomorrow (Monday) at 3 pm local time.

I'm rooting for Romano Prodi's The Union coalition, although I suspect I'd support any reasonable opposition to Silvio Berlusconi's House of Freedoms coalition (which includes his own party, Forza Italia). Seriously, is there a more corrupt, venal, and shamelessly plutocratic leader in the Western world than Berlusconi? (If so, let me know.)

Back in February, I wrote about the Italian election, specifically Berlusconi's alliance with fascism -- see here. I'll have more on the election once the results start rolling in.

Update: Germany's Der Spiegel, always a great source for European news and commentary, wonders if this could be "the end of the Silvio show" -- see here. Funny passage: "After all the escapades he's had, the eternally grinning little man -- who wears special shoes to make him look taller -- has come to be seen by some of his EU colleagues as a mixture between Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, and jittery Italian comedian Roberto Benigni. Not someone to be taken quite seriously, in any case."

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The tale of the ferry and the whale

From the BBC: "A high-speed Japanese ferry has collided with a suspected whale, leaving 49 people injured -- 13 in a serious condition." The incident occurred "near the city of Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu". Apparently, "[t]he ferry is now unable to move on its own and will have to be towed back to port".

But was it a whale? "Officials believe the boat collided with a whale or another large sea animal." No word on the poor creature's welfare or whereabouts.

How would you feel if a high-speed ferry zoomed across your natural habitat?

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Shock and Awe -- the sequel?

Guest post by J. Kingston Pierce of Limbo

(Ed. note: Here's a second guest post from our friend Jeff. Please take the time to read it in its entirety. It's an excellent, link-filled examination of the Iranian nuclear crisis and the Bush Administration's foolhardy plans to deal with it. -- MJWS)


Oh, great. Since George W. Bush figures his Iraq war has gone so well and according to plan, he's now ready to begin lobbing nuclear weapons at a recalcitrant Iran. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, writing in this coming week's New Yorker magazine, says that the White House is "planning for a possible major air attack" if Iran continues to pursue "a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium" -- which the White House sees as a significant step on the way to Iran constructing its own nuclear weapons arsenal. Hersh quotes "a government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon" as saying that Bush "believes that he must do 'what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do'": launch a "sustained bombing campaign in Iran [that] will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government." According to the consultant, Bush believes that "saving Iran" will be "his legacy". No matter that it might also provoke World War III.

What is most amazing in all of this, of course, is that the Republican administration seems to be leading the United States down the very same road that it followed in launching attacks against Saddam Hussein three years ago. Aren't people -- even spoiled rich kids turned politicians like Bush -- supposed to learn from their mistakes? How long before we hear that diplomatic channels aren't doing enough to prevent Iran from launching attacks on the United States, and that another "pre-emptive war" is necessary in the Middle East? Hersh explains that Iran's nuclear experimentation is already understood as a secondary but potentially saleable pretext for war:

"This is much more than a nuclear issue," one high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna. "That's just a rallying point, and there is still time to fix it. But the Administration believes it cannot be fixed unless they control the hearts and minds of Iran. The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next ten years."

A senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror expressed a similar view. "This White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war," he said. The danger, he said, was that "it also reinforces the belief inside Iran that the only way to defend the country is to have a nuclear capability." A military conflict that destabilized the region could also increase the risk of terror: "Hezbollah comes into play,” the adviser said, referring to the terror group that is considered one of the world's most successful, and which is now a Lebanese political party with strong ties to Iran. "And here comes Al Qaeda."

Despite the prez's insistence this week that he doesn't engage in "crass politics," there's plenty of that in his efforts to lay the groundwork for a war on Iran:

In recent weeks, the President has quietly initiated a series of talks on plans for Iran with a few key senators and members of Congress, including at least one Democrat. A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, who did not take part in the meetings but has discussed their content with his colleagues, told me that there had been "no formal briefings," because "they’re reluctant to brief the minority. They’re doing the Senate, somewhat selectively."

The House member said that no one in the meetings "is really objecting" to the talk of war. "The people they’re briefing are the same ones who led the charge on Iraq. At most, questions are raised: How are you going to hit all the sites at once? How are you going to get deep enough?" (Iran is building facilities underground.) "There’s no pressure from Congress" not to take military action, the House member added. "The only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it." Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, "The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision."

It's been estimated that "at least four hundred targets would have to be hit" to knock out Iran's nuclear program, and Hersh contends Bush is seriously considering an offensive of the most powerful and lethal sort. "One of the military’s initial option plans," he writes, "as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites." Some experienced military officers question the efficacy of the prez's war planning, but that may not be enough to halt the build-up. Hersh writes:

The attention given to the nuclear option has created serious misgivings inside the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,... and some officers have talked about resigning. Late this winter, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to remove the nuclear option from the evolving war plans for Iran -- without success, the former intelligence official said. "The White House said, 'Why are you challenging this? The option came from you.'"

The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror confirmed that some in the Administration were looking seriously at this option, which he linked to a resurgence of interest in tactical nuclear weapons among Pentagon civilians and in policy circles. He called it "a juggernaut that has to be stopped." He also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. "There are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries," the adviser told me. "This goes to high levels." The matter may soon reach a decisive point, he said, because the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran. "The internal debate on this has hardened in recent weeks," the adviser said. "And, if senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen."

The adviser added, however, that the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in such situations has gained support from the Defense Science Board, an advisory panel whose members are selected by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "They’re telling the Pentagon that we can build the B61 with more blast and less radiation," he said.

The chairman of the Defense Science Board is William Schneider, Jr., an Under-Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration. In January, 2001, as President Bush prepared to take office, Schneider served on an ad-hoc panel on nuclear forces sponsored by the National Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. The panel's report recommended treating tactical nuclear weapons as an essential part of the U.S. arsenal and noted their suitability "for those occasions when the certain and prompt destruction of high priority targets is essential and beyond the promise of conventional weapons." Several signers of the report are now prominent members of the Bush Administration, including Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; and Robert Joseph, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

Hersh notes that "[t]he threat of American military action has created dismay at the headquarters of the [International Atomic Energy Agency], in Vienna. The agency’s officials believe that Iran wants to be able to make a nuclear weapon, but "nobody has presented an inch of evidence of a parallel nuclear-weapons program in Iran..." Those officials shouldn't be the only ones concerned about Bush's "messianic vision" of "saving" Iran through nuclear assaults. Hersh quotes a Pentagon adviser saying that "bombing Iran could provoke 'a chain reaction' of attacks on American facilities and citizens throughout the world: 'What will 1.2 billion Muslims think the day we attack Iran?'"

Does Bush really believe that dropping nukes on Iran is the best way to "protect the American people, advance American interests, enhance global security, and expand global liberty and prosperity," which his administration claimed in a 2006 National Security Strategy report is its goal? One is tempted to presume that all these threats are nothing more than political posturing and brinksmanship -- a particularly egregious and embarrassing episode of dick-waving -- and that no U.S. president would be so foolhardy as to risk inciting a world war by rushing to the use of nuclear bombs, before every conceivable diplomatic effort to ensure a peaceful Iran was exhausted. But then, Americans used to think that no president would launch an attack on another sovereign nation under false pretenses, or that the man in the Oval Office would change his rationales for starting such a war almost as often as he changes his socks, or that any president would leak classified intelligence information merely to undermine his opponents -- and then lie about not knowing it was done.

In the simplest but most frightening way, John Aravosis of AMERICAblog lays out the dilemma facing Americans when it comes to Iran. "Iran cannot be allowed to have nukes," he writes. "But George Bush cannot be allowed to be the man running the war against Iran -- he’s going to screw it up. Something has to give, and that give is Bush. The only way to take on Iran responsibly -- whether that means war or diplomacy or something else -- is for Bush and his senior leadership to step down. America cannot afford this man as president any longer. He is, quite literally, going to get us all killed."

Preventing Bush from taking unilateral action against Iran might be difficult, if he pushes for an assault over the next few months, when his Republican sycophants still hold sway in Congress. However, if an attack can be delayed -- by media scrutiny or political timidity, or else by signs of diplomatic progress in restricting Iran's nuclear development -- and then the GOP loses control of Capitol Hill in November's midterm elections, the game changes. A Democratic majority would be considerably less likely to sanction Bush’s bellicosity. They’d force more debate on the wisdom of launching another war, before -- and not after, as in the case of Iraq -- any attack orders are issued.

Bush may not have learned a damn thing from the mess he has created in Iraq, and is now prepared to leave to his successor, but the rest of us certainly have.

DAMNED IF YOU DO: A Sunday story in The Washington Post returns once more to the dire consequences of provoking a war -- nuclear or otherwise -- with Iran:

Preparations for confrontation with Iran underscore how the issue has vaulted to the front of President Bush's agenda even as he struggles with a relentless war in next-door Iraq. Bush views Tehran as a serious menace that must be dealt with before his presidency ends, aides said, and the White House, in its new National Security Strategy, last month labeled Iran the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country.

Many military officers and specialists, however, view the saber rattling with alarm. A strike at Iran, they warn, would at best just delay its nuclear program by a few years but could inflame international opinion against the United States, particularly in the Muslim world and especially within Iran, while making U.S. troops in Iraq targets for retaliation.

Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hits that same point, saying, "Whatever you do is almost certain to accelerate a nuclear bomb program rather than destroy it." Read the whole article here.

READ MORE: "U.S. Hurries Plan to Hit Iraq, Article Says," by Eric Schmitt (The New York Times); "Iran’s Nuclear Steps Quicken, Diplomats Say," by Alissa J. Rubin and Maggie Farley (Los Angeles Times); "Scott Ritter Debunks the L.A. Times Iranian Nuclear Threat" (Crooks and Liars); "A Global Game of Chicken: Can Washington and Tehran Avoid War?" by Fred Kaplan (Slate); "Iran Will Defend Nuclear Program to ‘Last Drop of Blood'" (AP); "Top Ten Reasons Why Sy Hersh’s New Article Should Scare the Stuffing Out of You," by Barbara O’Brien (The Mahablog); "Oh, Hell No," by Tim F. (Balloon Juice); "Envoy Warns of Possible Civil War in Iraq," by Robert H. Reid (AP); "Iran: Nuclear Developments," by Lionel Beehner (Council on Foreign Relations); and "Armageddon," by John Steinberg (The Raw Story).

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