April 12, 2008

As Tax Day Approaches, Iraq's Cost by the Numbers

A little perspective: suppose you owe $5,000 in income taxes on your 1040. The Iraq war will use your contribution in 1 second. Like a drop of water hitting a red-hot skillet: pffsssst! Gone. Here's the interesting part: it did no good whatsoever. The $5,000 you just paid in will do absolutely no good. Indeed, it is a down payment on future calamity, as Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz tells us in predicting the total cost of the Iraq war will be $3 trillion. Your $5,000 ante simply maintains soldiers in the field, who will be shot, blinded, blown up, traumatically amputated, massively burned, and driven insane. Those soldiers will then bring all their problems home to a country which is unequipped to handle them.

I've been writing this post now for about 180 seconds. During that time the United States spent $900,000. Half of our urban high schoolers no longer graduate from public high school, so the next question is tricky for them maybe: how long till we get to $1 million? That's right, we're there. It took 20 more seconds. We're now past $1 million, and still spending. Actually, I don't know anyone who owes $1 million in taxes personally, so a lot of us around here must be pitching in.

Well, actually we're not paying for it. We just provide the money used to pay interest on the loans used to pay for it. To finance the Iraq war, BushCo borrows the money from foreign sources. We can't actually afford to pay for the war. The Chinese, the Japanese, the British, the Gulf States, they're the ones lending us the money to pay for the war. Let's figure out how much we spend a minute so we can keep up with the cost of this blog post. 60 x $5,000 = ? $300,000 per minute. $18 million per hour. $432 million per day. $3 billion per week. $12 billion per month. $144 billion per year. Here's the other thing: the Iraq war keeps getting more expensive as we go. I suppose that's because we've worn everything out over there, and keep hiring more and more mercenaries and contractors to replace fully-depreciated soldiers, and the guns-for-higher cost a lot more than the patriotic grunts sold a bill of goods by their government. The guys at Blackwater aren't going to put their asses on the line in exchange for George W. Bush's tear-stained mumbles of gratitude.

Besides, we must have plenty of money if we can afford to spend $432 million per day on just one war. Right? No, not really. We're over $9 trillion in debt and the economy is in recession. We're becoming like everybody's drunk brother-in-law who keeps borrowing money from relatives till they pretend not to be home when he knocks on the door. "Shhhh! It's the United States at the door! Act like we're not here!"

It's going to be hard to get around in the USA anymore since all the airlines are now collapsing. They can't afford to buy jet fuel. ATA went belly up because they couldn't afford the $25,000 it takes to fly one-way from San Francisco to Honolulu. The Iraq war apparently didn't do much to control the price of oil. People think twice before driving anywhere now. Consumer confidence is in the toilet. Housing prices are slumping, depriving the US of A of its regular adrenaline fix of re-fi and line o' credit moolah to keep Target and Best Buy humming. No dough, no go.

So this is what it looks like when you put a career screw-up, a guy who took every business placed at his mercy and ran it into the ground, in charge of the United States of America. He couldn't handle relatively simple businesses, so we thought, in our collective wisdom, we would put him in charge of the most complicated economic-social organism on Earth and see how that would work. Surprised? Why? It should confirm your sense of the natural order of things. He can't prioritize; he can't adapt to changing circumstances; he can't think creatively to find another way out. He resorts always to one principle: if he said he was going to do something, he'll keep doing it even when it proves to be the wrong thing. That is his one value: to remain obstinately dedicated to the error of his ways.

Took 30 minutes here. $9 million down the tube in Baghdad. We'll soon be following it down the chute.

April 10, 2008

That's Some Catch

There was only one Catch and it was Catch-22, which stipulated that if things were okay in Iraq, then we couldn't withdraw our troops because if we did things wouldn't be okay and we would need them; and if things weren't okay, we couldn't withdraw our troops because we would need them until things were okay, at which point we couldn't withdraw them because if we did things wouldn't be okay and we would need them.

Senator Carl Levin whistled in appreciation. "That's some catch, that Catch-22."

"It's the best there is," agreed Doc Petraeus.

Our troops were there and so things were okay and we didn't need them anymore; but if we withdrew them, things wouldn't be okay, so we couldn't leave because we would need them.

"I'm still trying to understand this," said Levin.

"Take your time," said Doc Petraeus. "It's confusing for everybody at first."

"Let me ask this," said Levin. "Aren't we wearing out our troops?"

"Yes indeed," said Petraeus. "That's why we're shortening tours of duty."

"For the troops in the field?" asked Levin.

"No," said Petraeus. "Not for the troops who are there. Only for the ones who are not there."

"We're shortening tours of duty for troops who are not in Iraq?"

"Yes," grinned Doc Petraeus. "Exactly. Those troops who arrive in August will only serve one year."

"What does that do for the troops who are already there?"

"Nothing," said Petraeus amiably, "but it does everything for President Bush, because his tour of duty ends on January 20, 2009."

"So that means..."Levin began.

"That no one will really be able to leave while Bush is still President. Right, exactly. But it looks like troops will be leaving sooner while he's in office even though they aren't."

"That's why you chose August," said Levin.

"Right, Senator."

"Even though that does nothing for the troops who are already worn out," said Levin dourly.

"The idea was never to help the troops who were already worn out," said Doc Petraeus. "It was to help the troops who aren't worn out."

"Not that anyone can really leave anyway because of Catch-22," said Levin.

"Bingo," said Doc Petraeus.

"Is there any way around Catch-22?" said Levin.

"I think we've plugged most of the holes," said Petraeus. "We don't think it can be beat."

Levin slumped in his chair. "How did we get to such a crazy impasse?" he asked quietly.

"I don't make the Catches," said Petraeus, with a big smile. "I just enforce them."

April 09, 2008

Barack Exposes the Bush Fallacy in Iraq

In truth, I find it hard to work up a head of steam against General David Petraeus. I tuned in yesterday to watch a little of his testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee, and there he was in his usual formation sitting next to the other Siamese Twin of the Surge, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They both seem like decent guys. Petraeus is smart, wily, adept, and clearly very competent. I think he was given a fairly simple mission, at least in its verbal formulation if not in its execution: get the violence in Iraq under control. Despite liberal wishing that the situation were much worse, bloodier, than it currently is, it's not. That's because Petraeus is a task-oriented, can-do man in the great tradition of Yankee ingenuity. Bush told him to calm things down and Petraeus went to work. He did whatever he had to do. He arranged to put the Sunni insurgents on the U.S. payroll, and now there are well-armed "Sons of Iraq" rousting al-Qaeda remnants in Anbar province and elsewhere. He built walls between warring neighborhoods in Baghdad. He based U.S. soldiers out in the boonies, like police stations. He beefed up the Iraqi army and police. While a lot of credit for the comparative peace is often given to Muqtada al-Sadr for arranging a truce and stand-down for the Mahdi Army, who's to say Petraeus wasn't instrumental in making that happen? He works 24/7 over there; he knows what's going on.

He was honest in acknowledging that Nouri al-Maliki went off the reservation when he impetuously decided to attack Sadr's militia in Basra. Professionally, it must have appalled Petraeus; that's not how you plan a military operation. Yikes, he probably thought; right before I testify to Congress, this shmendrick pulls a stunt like this. Petraeus was also candid in admitting that Iran's influence in Shia-controlled Iraq is pervasive, exactly as one would expect when two Shia-controlled countries exist side by side, and the ruling personnel of Iraq used to hide in Iran during the Saddam years. So what?, Petraeus in effect said. All of his many three-color charts prove that the death rate, the hostile-incident rate, the general-mayhem rate is down, down, down. It isn't Petraeus's fault that the debate about Iraq has been so dumbed-down that the infusion of $12 billion a month, the expenditure of American lives (whether in a trickle or a torrent), the breaking of the once-proud U.S. military all hinge on a simple calculus: is it more or less violent in Iraq? He didn't set the terms of the political debate. If it's less violent, we have to stay to keep it that way; if it's more violent, we have to stay so it doesn't get worse.

The Democrats let it get that stupid. Instead of going deeper, asking more fundamental questions, they have often chosen to fight the facts. It is not less violent!, they thunder, even though it is. We are not safer at home because of this war!, even though no one, of course, can tell, as Petraeus smilingly admits.

There was one electrifying exception to the parade of fatuous interrogators at yesterday's session: Barack Obama. What a mind this man has. I can see why the other Senators, in a sort of paternal way, marvel at his skill. Using his brief six-minute window, he asked short, leading questions which completely knocked Petraeus off his well-rehearsed game.

It went this way. Suppose, mused Barack, the idea is to allow us to bring the troops home. Everyone agrees that's the goal. So you, General, have referred to certain "metrics" as determinant of that possibility. Violence; Iranian meddling and interference; government cohesion and reconciliation; elimination of terrorist nests. He then posed a series of easy hypotheticals. Suppose that we reach the point where violence is about like it is now, or less, and Iranian influence is no worse, the government is functional, with some corruption but generally in control, and the Iraqis are keeping the lid on al-Qaeda. Can we begin withdrawing? Petraeus didn't know. So Obama kept pushing Petraeus to refine the "parameters" of success. Do we have to reach the point of zero violence? Zero Iranian influence? Zero al-Qaeda insurgence? Zero corruption? Of course not, the General said. Then how much above zero is tolerable? He didn't know that either. He doesn't know how "fragile" things are in Iraq, what its tolerance for chaos really is. It must be less than it is now, because Petraeus thinks we need to stay and to stop withdrawing soldiers in July. How much less? Who knows? Maybe we'll just be able to tell when we get there.

There you have it: the central Bush Fallacy neatly exposed. We don't know when we can leave because there's no way to tell, at any point in time, if the situation we've created is stable enough to remain in place after our departure. We'll never know in a place as volatile, as sectarian, as inherently unstable as Iraq, with its ethnic and religious forces always exerting centrifugal forces on cohesion. This is what happens when an ambitious, competent, bright man like Petraeus goes to work for a menial intellect like Bush. He's working on a dumb project. He's doing what he's supposed to do, follow orders and get the violence under control, all to conform to the terms of a stupid political debate, but it leads nowhere. Indeed, it leads to ruin.

I think, on the whole, General David Petraeus would a helluva lot prefer to be working for Barack Obama.

April 07, 2008

Don't Worry, China!

Waldenswimmer, a blog with a Luddite name but with a progressive, hip attitude, goes with the flow. It's part of our can-do attitude here at the Pond, a recognition that with access to plug-and-play technology, you're dumb not to stay oh so au courant tech-wise. We, in other words and IMHO, can dig it. And I'm there, baby. Just as one example among many, we've got a hit counter which can map where the readers are, down to street level. Some, ahem, appear to be in Washington, D.C. Ha! ha! Although I know the CIA and the NSA and the FBI and the rest of the alphabet soup spooks don't run software that tells where they're spying from. I'm sure they encrypt and mask...don't they? Sure they do.

But anyway, what I wanted to say was that the map shows an address in Beijing. This goes out to you, brother in China! Welcome aboard. And congratulations on your bravery, because this site is run by Google, an American company with a pretty chummy relationship with the Chinese government. Unless, of course, you are the government...Well, so much the better, because you're the one I wanted to talk to anyway.

It's about this palaver going on here Stateside about "boycotting" the opening ceremonies at the Olympics this summer. Senator Hillary Clinton, who's running for President, is all over this one. You probably read about the problems the French are having just getting the damn torch across town. Look, they tend toward hysterics in Paris. Aux barricades! and all that crap. What a load. Everybody is posturing about the ongoing Chinese crackdown in Tibet and the Chinese support for the oppressive Sudan government. Darfur, blah, blah, blah. I notice that when Hillary was living in the White House, the wholesale slaughter going on in Rwanda didn't make her lose any sleep, and I doubt that Bill Clinton paused between bone-waxings to even think about it. Hillary's just trying to grab some headlines about her "principled" stand. That, and she wants to embarrass Bush. See, George W. is chief baton twirler for the Freedom's on the March-ing Band, way out there in front high-stepping in his Coldstream Guard bearskin hat. Never mind if you don't get all those references. Because it's bullshit anyway. George's Freedom Agenda won't conflict with China's Tyranny Agenda because Tibet, so far as I know, doesn't have any more oil than Darfur does.

We don't mean any of it. It's all P.R. for domestic consumption. Look, we know where our bread is buttered, and who butters it. You guys own an absolute ton of U.S. Treasuries, and we borrow money like crazy from everybody to keep this shaky operation going. We've noticed you've already sort of slacked off with recycling the cash. There's not a big problem, is there? That's good to hear. I mean, you're not going to dump all those T-Bills and start doing business in euros, right? Whew!! Had us going there.

So don't worry about the Olympics. It's going to be fun! Especially the opening ceremonies. George'll be there. Count on it. It's not going to be like that dumbass boycott of the whole Moscow Olys back in 1980. All we did was screw up a bunch of American athletes who had devoted their whole lives to getting there -- and then it turned out that Carter's man Zbig had manipulated the Russkies into invading in the first place. So have fun in Tibet. Knock yourselves out. And Darfur, Schmarfur -- it's a judgment call, just like we made about Rwanda. Or didn't make. So oppress away, we're just messing with you! See you at the finish line.


Maybe Petraeus Should Count the Iraqi Dead

Here's a novel idea for a Q&A topic during General Petraeus's testimony before Congress this week: how about an estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths?

It is nothing short of astounding that this question is officially ignored by the Bush Administration. When the Johns Hopkins/Lancet study was published, indicating an estimate through 2006 of 600,000 violent deaths, Bush dismissed the estimate as the product of "flawed methodology," without, however, offering an estimate of his own. It's the official position of the Pentagon that they "don't do body counts." This does not stop other organizations from trying, such as the World Health Organization's recent effort which will be published later this month in the New England Journal of Medicine (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2008/pr02/en/index.html). Using the same cluster sampling approach as the Lancet study, but with greater access to households (interviewing 23 times as many), the WHO study estimated 151,000 violent deaths and an overall death rate from all causes (illness, etc.) twice as high as before the invasion. As with the earlier Lancet study, the mortality figures covered only the first three years of the five-year occupation, and allowed the possibility that the true figure could be as high as 223,000, citing the difficulty posed by the refugee situation in Iraq. To wit, many families may have left Iraq (there are presently two million such refugees) after a violent death without responding to any survey. Since most of 2007 was also extremely violent, a fair extrapolation of the median figure of 151,000 would produce a current death count of about 200,000.

The Iraq Body Count (IBC) places the death toll for civilians at about 90,000 to date. The methodology used does not rely on statistical extrapolation but on morgue and medical records, and other official sources, and the IBC admits this probably results in an underestimate in a fractured and disorganized country like present-day Iraq. But here's the deal: no responsible group has ever come up with a figure as low as the Bush Administration's self-serving, wild-eyed guess of 50,000 (given when they have actually been pressed to come up with something "unofficial"), a number it apparently consoles itself with. How, indeed, can the Bushies credibly cling to their lowball number in the face of a count of actual dead people by the IBC? The utter contempt for the consequences of occupation is probably among the factors that support the popularity of anti-U.S. figures like Muqtada al-Sadr. We should have the common decency to figure out how many people are dead because we're there.

So maybe some "maverick," like John McCain, should simply pose the question to General Petraeus. What do you think of these various studies that place the death toll at figures no less than twice the Pentagon's guess, and in other cases four to twelve times higher? If one of the arguments for staying is that a "blood bath" will ensue if we leave "irresponsibly," shouldn't we try to determine whether a blood bath is already underway by virtue of being there? Is it actually going to get a lot worse if we leave? And how do we know if we never bother to count? It does seem, at the very least, like a data point essential to figuring the question out.

April 06, 2008

Clinton Blather, Israeli Accomplishment

The Clintons have published their tax returns for years 2000 through 2006, and have provided the estimate for 2007's income as well. They're an American success story. Over the period in question, they've earned about $110 million. Virtually all of their income is attributable to the celebrity of Bill Clinton's charismatic presidency. $50 million for Bill's speeches, $30 million from Bill's exciting autobiography (I never read it; don't know anyone who has), another $10 mil for Hill's autobiography (ditto, re: readership), something north of $1 million for Hillary's Senate salary (she would not have been elected without Bill's presidency), and then a lot of vague income from Bill's connections to Demo high rollers like Ron Burkle and his Yucaipa Co., and its connections to Dubai, from whence (increasingly) all blessings flow. The only income item you would not connect to the fact of Bill's fame & adulation is his presidential pension, which accounted for only about $1 million during those years.

I think the Clintons always wanted to be rich. It's why, long ago, they got involved in the Whitewater investment, why Hillary dabbled in commodities trading. When Bill was President, I think the Clintons were among the least wealthy inhabitants of the White House in recent memory, just a couple of bright kids from modest backgrounds who yearned, more than anything, to be a power couple. Hillary's tolerance for Bill's sexual antics is not really that surprising. Fidelity was subservient to ambition, even, as Shakespeare said, to a "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls upon another." The Clintons had no desire to remain commoners; I think the troubles they've gotten into with matters like Whitewater and now Bill's dealings with Ron Burkle and Dubai (which will inevitably get messier as the facts are revealed) arose primarily from their naivete about sophisticated business dealings. The fatcats saw their potential and usefulness and ingratiated themselves with the callow Clintons, who have tended to be smarter than they are wise.

When the Clintons went on vacation, lacking a Western White House or Rancho Cielo or Prairie Chapel Ranch like the Republican plutocrats, they went to Martha's Vineyard and hung with the beautiful people. This is where and how they wanted to be; to be Big Rich like their increasingly rich friends, with a Texas Unit of $100 million. Bill got up from his quintuple bypass in 2004 to resume his dogged pursuit of cash. He didn't slow down at all really. In the seven years covered by the tax returns of 2001 to 2006 and the 2007 estimate, Bill made about $7 million a year, on average, from speaking. That's about $135,000 a week. I imagine that each speech is a variant on a standard template; I would surmise that whatever trade group or conference he's speaking to, his speech is full of standard Renaissance Weekend phrases. Lots of "challenges," and "integrated solutions," and doing things that "scale." Sort of like reading a Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times, in other words, when Friedman dons his "geo-green" outfit. (I hereby bet myself $100 that the book Friedman is working on right now while on leave from the Times contains his pet coinage "Geo-green" in the title. He's been test-marketing the phrase in his columns for about a year now, and he's really pleased with himself.) The growing ranks of Clinton detractors muse that all these groups buying his speeches are seeking "access" to a new Clinton White House. While that might be true to a very limited extent in some cases, it's stretching things in my opinion to generalize across the board. Most people just like that feel-good Clinton blather.

As in his presidency, nothing gets solved by all this jargoneering. The period between 1992-2000 was a critical period for the United States to move toward self-sufficiency in renewable energy, securing water supplies and dealing with climate change. As Al Gore has proudly told us, he knew about these things way, way back in his Harvard undergrad days, and he was in the Administration for eight years with Clinton. The Kyoto Treaty was defeated 95-0 while Clinton was President and Gore was VP. The 1990's were also the heyday of SUV development in the U.S., probably the most retrograde environmental action we could have taken short of burning coal outdoors for no reason at all, including power production. This set the stage for the ruinous deficits of oil importing, the trade imbalances and now the runaway inflation of gasoline prices. All of this usually gets laid at the door of George W. Bush, of course, but it took a long time to get to where we are.

The state of Israel, the American Left's favorite whipping-nation, has been faced with even more intractable environmental problems. While liberal America beats up on Israel for displacing Palestinians in 1947, without, I notice, offering to cede back all of the present United States to the Native Americans, the Israelis have ambitiously undertaken real fixes to the same problems. Israel is building 500,000 recharging stations for electric cars that are being built by a Renault-Nissan consortium. The cars will have a range of 120 miles and operate with the power of a 1.6 liter gasoline engine. The recharging stations, in turn, will be powered by wind turbines and by a giant photovoltaic array being built in the Negev. The electric cars will become the basis of Israeli private transportation, and the system will be in place by 2011. And recognizing that an eventual two-state solution will increase pressure on water supplies for a growing population, Israel has become a world leader in seawater desalination using the reverse osmosis system. Desalinated water now accounts for 15% of all water use in Israel, and this water is also supplied by the Israelis to the Jordanians and Palestinians. The price has been reduced to about 60 cents per cubic yard, a price reaching competitive levels with fresh water supplies.

Israel's response to environmental problems seems to consist of three parts. 1. Figure out what the problem is. 2. Research how to deal with it. 3. Deal with it. The United States, by contrast, is almost good at step 1, does a little of step 2, but never bothers with #3. I think the Clintons (and soon George W. Bush, who wants to do a little speaking himself, to "replenish the ol' coffers" after his term ends) are prime examples of how this process of stagnation happens. We don't deal with pressing environmental problems because, increasingly, the "leaders" see their trajectory as leveraging their public careers into private wealth which will insulate them from -- well, I guess, the natural world and all its problems.

Israel's response to the same dilemmas we face stands as a rebuke to the flaccid inertia of American leadership. Maybe the difference arises from something very fundamental: Israel shares an attitude of common purpose, reinforced by its worldwide pariah status, which no longer exists in the United States. Celebrities like Bill and Hillary Clinton are very good at pandering to the sentimental fiction that such commonality of interest still exists here in America, but it's simply a marketing gimmick, as their private lives demonstrate.