Archives: 11/2009

Iraq: Making Few Friends and Less Profits

When the Bush administration started its misguided adventure in Iraq, the president and his Neocon chorus presumed that the U.S. would be acquiring a loyal, even obseqious ally.  With the American-subsidized bank embezzler Ahmed Chalabi in charge, Baghdad would create a Western-style democracy, enshrine women’s rights, recognize Israel, provide the U.S. with permanent military bases, and offer a new market for American businesses.

Alas, we’ve struck out:  zero for five.  Although America’s uber-hawks bridled at reference to our “occupation” of Iraq, Iraqis had no hesitation in using the word and surprised the Bushies by demanding a deadline for the withdrawal of American forces.  And Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation has affected their attitude toward Americans in other areas.

Although none of this is, or at least should be, surprising, the lack of success by private U.S. companies should provide a particularly powerful lesson of the perils of intervention.  Reports the New York Times:

Iraq’s Baghdad Trade Fair ended Tuesday, six years and a trillion dollars after the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and one country was conspicuously absent.That would be the country that spent a trillion dollars — on the invasion and occupation, but also on training and equipping Iraqi security forces, and on ambitious reconstruction projects in every province aimed at rebuilding the country and restarting the economy.

Yet when the post-Saddam Iraqi government swept out its old commercial fairgrounds and invited companies from around the world, the United States was not much in evidence among the 32 nations represented. Of the 396 companies that exhibited their wares, “there are two or three American participants, but I can’t remember their names,” said Hashem Mohammed Haten, director general of Iraq’s state fair company. A pair of missiles atop a ceremonial gateway to the fairgrounds recalled an era when Saddam Hussein had pretensions, if not weapons, of mass destruction.

The trade fair is a telling indication of an uncomfortable truth: America’s war in Iraq has been good for business in Iraq — but not necessarily for American business.

American companies are not seeing much lasting benefit from their country’s investment in Iraq. Some American businesses have calculated that the high security costs and fear of violence make Iraq a business no-go area. Even those who are interested and want to come are hampered by American companies’ reputation here for overcharging and shoddy workmanship, an outgrowth of the first years of the occupation, and a lasting and widespread anti-Americanism.

While Iraq’s imports nearly doubled in 2008, to $43.5 billion from $25.67 billion in 2007, imports from American companies stayed flat at $2 billion over that period. Among investors, the United Arab Emirates leads the field, with $31 billion invested in Iraq, most of that in 2008, compared to only about $400 million from American companies when United States government reconstruction spending is excluded, according to Dunia Frontier Consultants, an emerging-market analyst. “Following this initial U.S.-dominated reconstruction phase, U.S. private investors have become negligible players in Iraq,” Dunia said in a report.

So much for the old theory of mercantilism.

Think about it.  The U.S. overthrows the dictator, pours in billions of dollars for reconstruction projects, and promotes democratic elections — and instead of applauding America and filling the land with statues to George W. Bush, the locals prefer to buy goods from other people.  Maybe invading and bombing other countries, disrupting and wrecking other societies, and killing and injuring other people isn’t the best way to promote good relations with the rest of the world.

‘Has Any of This Made Us Safer?’

In the November 6th Washington Post, Petula Dvorak lamented the effect of REAL ID compliance on women who have changed their names. The Department of Homeland Security is about to give out blanket waivers to states across the country who have not complied with REAL ID requirements — again. But some states have been making it harder to get licenses because of the national ID standards they still think are coming.

“I doubt the most notorious terrorists of our time — the Sept. 11 hijackers, Timothy McVeigh — would have been stopped by these new DMV requirements,” Dvorak writes. ”All these laws have done is make us more harried, more paranoid and more red-faced than ever.”

The FISA Amendments: Behind the Scenes

I’ve been poring over the trove of documents the Electronic Frontier Foundation has obtained detailing the long process by which the FISA Amendments Act—which substantially expanded executive power to conduct sweeping surveillance with little oversight—was hammered out between Hill staffers and lawyers at the Department of Justice and intelligence agencies. The really interesting stuff, of course, is mostly redacted, and I’m only partway though the stacks, but there are a few interesting tidbits so far.

As Wired has already reported, one e-mail shows Bush officials feared that if the attorney general was given too much discretion over retroactive immunity for telecoms that aided in warrantless wiretapping, the next administration might refuse to provide it.

A couple other things stuck out for me. First, while it’s possible they’ve been released before and simply not crossed my desk, there are a series of position papers — so rife with  underlining that they look like some breathless magazine subscription pitch — circulated to Congress explaining the Bush administration’s opposition to various proposed amendments to the FAA. Among these was a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) that would have barred “bulk collection” of international traffic and required that the broad new intelligence authorizations specify (though not necessarily by name) individual targets. The idea here was that if there were particular suspected terrorists (for instance) being monitored overseas, it would be fine to keep monitoring their communications if they began talking with Americans without pausing to get a full-blown warrant — but you didn’t want to give NSA carte blanche to just indiscriminately sweep in traffic between the U.S. and anyone abroad. The position paper included in these documents is more explicit than the others that I’ve seen about the motive for objecting to the bulk collection amendment. Which was, predictably, that they wanted to do bulk collection:

  • It also would prevent the intelligence community from conducting the types of intelligence collection necessary to track terrorits and develop new targets.
  • For example, this amendment could prevent the intelligence community from targeting a particular group of buildings or a geographic area abroad to collect foreign intelligence prior to operations by our armed forces.

So to be clear: Contra the rhetoric we heard at the time, the concern was not simply that NSA would be able to keep monitoring a suspected terrorist when he began calling up Americans. It was to permit the “targeting” of entire regions, scooping all communications between the United States and the chosen area.

One other exchange at least raises an eyebrow.  If you were following the battle in Congress at the time, you may recall that there was a period when the stopgap Protect America Act had expired — though surveillance authorized pursuant to the law could continue for many months — and before Congress approved the FAA. A week into that period, on February 22, 2008, the attorney general and director of national intelligence sent a letter warning Congress that they were now losing intelligence because providers were refusing to comply with new requests under existing PAA authorizations. A day later, they had to roll that back, and some of the correspondence from the EFF FOIA record makes clear that there was an issue with a single recalcitrant provider who decided to go along shortly after the letter was sent.

But there’s another wrinkle. A week prior to this, just before the PAA was set to expire, Jeremy Bash, the chief counsel for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent an email to “Ken and Ben,” about a recent press conference call. It’s clear from context that he’s writing to Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein and General Counsel for the Director of National Intelligence Ben Powell about this press call, where both men fairly clearly suggest that telecoms are balking for fear that they’ll no longer be immune from liability for participation in PAA surveillance after the statute lapses. Bash wants to confirm whether they really said that “private sector entities have refused to comply with PAA certifications because they were concerned that the law was temporary.” In particular, he wants to know whether this is actually true, because “the briefs I read provided a very different rationale.”  In other words, Bash — who we know was cleared for the most sensitive information about NSA surveillance — was aware of some service providers being reluctant to comply with “new taskings” under the law, but not because of the looming expiration of the statute. One of his correspondents — whether Wainstein or Powell is unclear — shoots back denying having said any such thing (read the transcript yourself) and concluding with a terse:

Not addressing what is in fact the situation on both those issues (compliance and threat to halt) on this email.

In other words, the actual compliance issues they were encountering would have to be discussed over a more secure channel. If the issue wasn’t the expiration, though, what would the issue have been? The obvious alternative possibility is that NSA (or another agency) was attempting to get them to carry out surveillance that they thought might fall outside the scope of either the PAA or a particular authorization. Given how sweeping these were, that should certainly give us pause. It should also raise some questions as to whether, even before that one holdout fell into compliance, the warning letter from the AG and the DNI was misleading. Was there really ever a “gap” resulting from the statute’s sunset, or was it a matter of telecoms balking at an attempt by the intelligence community to stretch the bounds of their legal authority? The latter would certainly fit a pattern we saw again and again under the Bush administration: break the law, inducing a legal crisis, then threaten bloody mayhem if the unlawful program is forced to abruptly halt — at which point a nervous Congress grants its blessing.

The Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on failures in the following departments and agencies this week:

Also, in addition to losing more money, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lose their inspector general.

The Missing Leg of Immigration Reform

In a speech this morning in Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the Obama administration remains committed to enacting real immigration reform. In a key passage in her remarks, she said reform must contain three essential components:

Let me be clear: when I talk about “immigration reform,” I’m referring to what I call the “three-legged stool” that includes a commitment to serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here. That’s the way that this problem has to be solved, because we need all three aspects to build a successful system.

The phrase “improved legal flows” is rather vague, but it points toward some kind of expanded visa program to allow future workers to enter the country legally. Our current immigration system offers no legal channel for anywhere near a sufficient number of foreign-born workers to enter the country legally to fill the lower-skilled jobs our economy creates in times of normal growth.

I’ve made the argument for expanded legal immigration in a recent op-ed, and in a Free Trade Bulletin when the Senate last debated reform in 2007.

After a promising start, Secretary Napolitano spent most of the rest of her speech touting how much has been done on the enforcement side, and almost nothing about how we can expand opportunities in the future for legal immigration as an alternative to illegal immigration.

Without that crucial third leg, Congress will just be repeating the two-legged failure of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

The Hypocrisy of “Well-Fed Activists”

Speaking at a food security conference in Milan, Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe today criticized “well-fed activists” whose protests and lobbying activities have, in his opinion, held back the adoption of food technologies that could help the starving poor:

It is disheartening to see how easily a group of well-intentioned and well-fed activists can decide about new technologies at the expense of those who are starving.

Nestlé has been subject to intense criticism in recent years, primarily over its strategies to sell infant formula in developing countries, but I think Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe is spot-on here.

Penn & Teller made a similar, if  more forcefully put, point in the last few seconds of this excellent video (warning: language may be offensive to some).

Who Will Protect the Women?

As I mentioned here yesterday:

[W]hen some people in Washington hear that nation-building in Afghanistan is not a precondition to making America safer, or that prolonging our presence undermines America’s security, the argument for remaining then shifts to preserving the security and human rights of the people of Afghanistan.

For example, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, (D-MD), a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Aid and Dean of the Senate Women, said last April, “The United States should do everything it can to encourage Afghanistan to respect the basic rights and welfare of women and children.”

But Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman elected to her country’s Parliament, says in yesterday’s Mercury News (via GG):

As an Afghan woman who was elected to Parliament, I am in the United States to ask President Barack Obama to immediately end the occupation of my country.

Eight years ago, women’s rights were used as one of the excuses to start this war. But today, Afghanistan is still facing a women’s rights catastrophe. Life for most Afghan women resembles a type of hell that is never reflected in the Western mainstream media.

In 2001, the U.S. helped return to power the worst misogynist criminals, such as the Northern Alliance warlords and druglords. These men ought to be considered a photocopy of the Taliban. The only difference is that the Northern Alliance warlords wear suits and ties and cover their faces with the mask of democracy while they occupy government positions. But they are responsible for much of the disaster today in Afghanistan, thanks to the U.S. support they enjoy.