If US officials think they're going to find Syrian allies to prevent war atrocities, or be able to take swift control of Syria in the event of Assad's defeat and steer it in a pro-US direction, they are going to be sorely disappointed.
As evidenced by a graphic video uploaded to YouTube yesterday that shows a terrified group of at least a dozen men, defeated fighters for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, huddled together on a bare concrete floor in a battle-scared building in the market town of Saraqeb, Syria, the other day as their scowling captors, kicked and cursed them into a pile before executing them.
The jumpy footage shows the following: Men in rags, many stripped of their shoes. Some appear dazed from the wounds of a battle they'd just lost. Others appear to be hyperventilating out their last prayers and thoughts. One pleads for his life. A rebel walks among the prisoners, getting in a few last kicks to the head of one of them.
Then, the cries of "God is great" from the triumphant murderers are drowned out by a buzzsaw of automatic rifle fire.
This latest atrocity is hardly out of character for Syria's civil war. Pro-government troops massacre captives too, and the Assad regime has been bloodthirsty in its torture of not just captured fighters but their family members.
Looking for good guys in this war? They are few and far between.
The execution appears to have been carried out by one of the jihadi militias that have grown ever more prevalent in the fight against Assad. Even the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group that supports the uprising against Syria's Baathist regime, suggests that the murders were carried out by an Al Qaeda-inspired rebel group. Rami Abdelrahman of the observatory told Reuters that the killings were carried out by the Jabhat al-Nusra militia.
But what happened at Saraqeb is about more than the prevalence of jihadis in Syria's civil war. The "Free Syrian Army" is a nice concept. In practice, however, the fighters against Assad are a loosely affiliated patchwork of militias, with no unified command.
The behavior of these irregular units varies widely, as do their sources of funding. Some groups have received a trickle of communications and non-lethal aid from the likes of the US. Others have received weapons from states like Qatar or right private donors in fellow Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia.
Reliance on Syrian exiles
The influence of the exiled Syrian National Council – which Secretary Clinton declared a failure Wednesday when she announced that the US was withdrawing support – over fighters on the ground is near zero.
So in that sense, the Obama administration is right to look to spend its money and political influence elsewhere. But if Clinton or anyone else in the government thinks they are going to find Syrian allies to steer it in a pro-US direction, they are going to be disappointed.
On Wednesday, Clinton dismissed the utility of working with Syrian exiles on shaping events in Syria. “There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," she said.
Look at Libya
But you have only to look to Libya to understand how difficult it is to exert influence after a triumphant rebellion in states where politics has merely been another word for patronage for decades, where the lust for revenge is strong, and where the rebellion itself is backed with Islamist militants who not very long ago were fighting US forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Libya is a far more religiously and ethnically homogenous place than Syria. The sectarian shadow that now looms over Syria, with the bulk of the rebellion composed of Sunnis fighting a regime dominated by the minority Alawite sect of the Assads, is happily absent from Libya. But even there, the future remains murky. The Sept. 11 assault on the US intelligence and diplomatic outposts in Benghazi that claimed four American lives, is evidence enough of that. The exiled civilian leaders of the uprising in Libya have exerted questionable, limited influence over the militias who fought and defeated Qaddafi last year.
The militias, it turns out, have ideas of their own about the future. They have fought among themselves over the spoils of victory, and continue to wield guns in what was hoped to be Libya's emerging democratic politics.
What is the current US plan for Syria?
Next week, Clinton heads to Qatar for a discussion on how regional powers will work to reshape the "leadership structure" (in her words) of the uprising. She'll be bearing a list of names of Syrians the US wants promoted to the senior ranks.
The choice of Qatar is an interesting one, given that monarchy's steadfast support for Islamist militias first in Libya and now in Syria. These are not the type of groups the US wants to see strengthened in either place. Qatar, by its actions, clearly disagrees, and has been far more aggressive and responsive in funneling support to them. Qatar does not share the US alarm at the jihadi factions fighting against Assad.
More nationalist rebels have expressed frustration at all this, saying that the character of the Syrian rebellion would have been far different if the US had provided support to them sooner.
In the final debate last week, President Obama said that the US was doing “everything we can” to help the opposition, but warned that “to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step,” and that the US had to be “absolutely certain that we know who we are helping.” Likewise, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said he would “make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves,” as long as weapons don’t get into “the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road.”
More radical jihadists?
But on the ground, many Syrians say the US reluctance to support their cause is yielding more jihadists, and more radical ones. And it's questionable whether American reluctance is significantly hampering the flow of weapons to jihadists.
"If the Americans do not give us weapons, then the jihadists will get them from somewhere else," says Abu Baraa, a local Aleppo commander. In his view, current US policy "has opened the doors for jihadist Islam, not for moderates.”
Abu Baraa's complaint is a common one, though not necessarily true.
During the US occupation of Iraq, the US provided plenty of weapons and support to its erstwhile allies there, yet jihadis nevertheless poured in Iraq from Saudi Arabia. And Jordan. And Libya. And Syria.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a native of Zarqa, Jordan, and the leader of what became Al Qaeda in Iraq, was US public enemy No. 1, until his death at the hands of the US in 2006. His followers plague the country to this day, while the Iraqi government, led by the Shiite Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has watched in horror at the unfolding prospect of the very people who fought the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq coming to power in their Syrian neighbor.
Jordan hasn't been happy about events either. Zarqawi's band of jihadis hated the Jordanian monarchy as much as they did the Shiites of Iraq, and carried out a series of horrific terrorist bombings in their home country in the last decade. In October, AFP reported that Jordan had arrested two cousins of Zarqawi as they returned home after fighting for five months against the Assad regime in Syria.
The Syrian war, its factions and regional implications, grow more entangled and complicated by the day. Can the intervention of outside powers tip the outcome in favor of the rebels, in a general sense? Certainly. Will the weapons provided end up being used in further atrocities? Quite likely.
Atrocities happen in war, and far more frequently when there aren't accountable officers to stop it. Perhaps that's a price worth paying to be rid of Assad.
But trying to shape what comes next is another matter. Recent history indicates that usually eludes the grasp of America and its allies.
Niall Ferguson is an academic, a financial historian of some repute. But he's also a political agitator prone to wildly inaccurate polemics that couple his own right-wing vision for America with a very poor understanding of the worlds of defense and diplomacy.
His distant relationship with the facts when it comes to his political activism in print has been well covered elsewhere.
He starts out by saying that President Obama could really use some good news to sway undecided voters in his direction. Obama's once-commanding polling lead has indeed dwindled of late, and it seems clear that the race between Obama and Romney will be a tight one. So one point to Mr. Ferguson.
It all starts to come apart, though, when he suggests that "we might" just have one of two so-called "October surprises" from Obama in a cynical effort to win the election.
Invented Ferguson surprise no. 1: Obama will achieve a comprehensive nuclear settlement with Iran, solely to spite Mitt Romney.
Invented Ferguson surprise no. 2: Obama will tell Israel it's a good idea to start a war with Iran immediately and that the US will help.
Let me go on record as saying neither of these things that Mr. Ferguson says may happen will happen, between now and when the polls close on Nov. 6. Of course, Ferguson will later say that he couched his wild, and frankly silly, speculation in the language of "maybe."
But his closing two sentences make it clear where he's placing his bets, and his own loathing for Obama's character: "Never underestimate the ruthlessness of the Chicago machine that has been the key to Barack Obama’s rise," he writes. "With his fall suddenly a real possibility, the only thing that would really surprise me would be no October—or November—surprise."
Ferguson will be surprised then.
There simply is no comprehensive nuclear settlement with Iran on the table at the moment, and the thought that such a deal could be negotiated in the coming days is ludicrous. As for Obama going to war with Iran to win an election, which like all wars will be easy to start but harder to finish, as a cynical power grab? No.
For one thing, most Americans don't want another war after the ruinous Afghan and Iraq adventures of the past decade. If the electorate sniffed that Obama had fecklessly sent the nation to war for his own ambition (Ferguson detests Obama sufficiently that he appears to believe this is likely), they would likely punish him at the polls.
For another, the coils of a sanctions regime are slowly tightening. Obama wants to see if they'll work. Even the Israelis acknowledge that Iran has stepped back from its nuclear progress of late. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak just pushed back the oft-pushed-back Israeli "moment of truth" on Iran another eight months.
The way Ferguson deals with his "surprise no. 1," though, is illustrative of his world view and yet another reason why his opinions should be treated with, well, metric tons of salt. The fact is that an agreement from Iran to abandon its nuclear program, without a shot being fired, would be an unalloyed good thing from a US perspective, no matter who was in the White House. Yet Ferguson views his hypothetical only through the lens of what it might mean for Romney:
If the White House could announce a historic deal with Iran—lifting increasingly painful economic sanctions in return for an Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium—Mitt Romney would vanish as if by magic from the front pages and TV news shows. The oxygen of publicity—those coveted minutes of airtime that campaigns don’t have to pay for—would be sucked out of his lungs.
You can take it to the bank that Ferguson's speculation will be proven wrong in the very near future. And almost as certain is my prediction that he'll be pushing forth similarly fanciful and inaccurate theories on the pages of The Daily Beast some time soon.
Shortly before Iraqi central bank governor Sinan al-Shabibi was fired on Oct. 16, his soon-to-be replacement charged, in essence, that Iraq's economy is among the most corrupt on the planet.
Abdul Basit Turki al-Sae'ed, now Iraq's acting central bank governor, is simultaneously the head of the country's Supreme Audit Board. In September, he led an audit of central bank currency auctions that convinced him that $800 million is "transferred illegally under false pretenses" outside of the country every week, according to the latest report from the US government's Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).
Mr. Shabibi was fired by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shortly afterward.
The claim is staggering, even for a country whose politicians and government agencies are generally acknowledged to be among the most corrupt in the world. The Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Iraq 175th out of 182 countries (Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, North Korea, and Somalia were the only countries deemed more corrupt). If Abdul Basit got his figures right, $38.4 billion is illegally laundered and sent abroad every year. For comparison's sake, that's 30 percent of Iraq's annual GDP, and 65 percent of the $60 billion US taxpayers have spent on reconstruction of the country since 2003.
There is no question that huge amounts of Iraq's oil revenue and related contracting are flowing into the pockets of senior politicians and their political parties. Contracts related to government work and the oil business are frequently inflated and awarded without competition to the friends and relatives of Iraqi leaders. Still, taking an $800 million bite every week out of national revenue is an astonishing accomplishment that points to far more than inflated contracts. It's hard to see how this could happen without revenue from oil exports being more or less directly diverted to personal, rather than government, accounts.
And corruption is a sport played by every political faction within Iraq. Some parties are just more successful than others, with their loyalists stuffed into the ministries with the largest budgets. Junior party members at, say, the oil ministry, are placed there with the expectation they'll direct revenue to the party and its senior members. Failure to do so means they are replaced by bureaucrats willing to play ball. It's basically the same system as under Saddam Hussein, except atomized. Multiple parties competing for the biggest piece of the pie they can get rather than the Baath eating the whole meal.
There is very, very little interest among Iraq's senior leaders to stop the music and bring the national, oil-fueled corruptathon to an end. Popular agitation for political change that briefly flared last year in both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Libya, was successfully crushed, so pressure for change from below seems unlikely.
So was the central bank governor really canned for apparent corruption that has to have involved hundreds of officials, many of them far more senior and powerful than he? Not everyone is convinced. Nor will I be, until paddy-wagons begin backing up to luxury villas in Baghdad's international zone and carting large numbers of government ministers and members of parliament away, starting with members of the most powerful parties.
"Political opponents of Prime Minister al-Maliki, along with many banking and financial experts, expressed immediate concern that the dismissal of Dr. al-Shabibi ... was an attempt to bring the [central bank] and its $63 billion in reserves under executive branch," SIGIR writes in its quarterly report. In his foreword to the report, Inspector General Stewart Bowen called Shalibi's removal a "peremptory and constitutionally questionable move."
Mr. Maliki, leader of the Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, has steadily amassed more power for himself, both by bringing legal cases against political opponents and by seeking to change Iraq's internal rules. In February, a council of judges largely appointed by Maliki said they approved of independent agencies like the central bank being brought under the prime minister's supervision, rather than the Parliament.
How does the fraud work? Iraqis need documentation to prove their money was legally obtained in order to convert large sums of Iraqi dinars into US dollars via the central bank. Abdul Basit's audit found that the overwhelming majority of such documents were forged.
There's little mystery as to how cash can be illicitly obtained in Iraq. As Bowen's report explains:
According to several current and former [Iraqi] officials, corruption in Iraq is not tied to personal criminal activity but has become ingrained in the government infrastructure through the political parties. A widespread method to accomplish this corruption has been government contracts, often using shell companies outside of Iraq. The companies that received these rigged awards then move the funds outside of the country through fraudulent means.
Anecdotal tales of inexplicable sickness and deformities have abounded in Iraq for years. In their broad brushstrokes, they seem plausible. The first Gulf War had littered much of Iraq with depleted uranium from the armor-piercing bullets the US used to destroy Saddam Hussein's retreating columns in1991. (The Monitor's Scott Peterson traveled around Baghdad with a Geiger counter in 2003 and found plenty of "hot spots" more than a decade later).
The country's health and sanitation had collapsed during the decade of international sanctions that followed that war, and the stresses of daily life, with new deprivations heaped on the state terror Hussein relied on to retain power, soared. A population that lives in fear is always a less healthy one, and the fright of average Iraqis only grew after the US-led invasion of 2003, with the thunder of "shock and awe" soon replaced by a sectarian civil war that claimed more than 100,000 lives and saw tens of thousands of Iraqi families uprooted from their homes.
But at the same time, a tearful anecdote told of a sickly child, with blame laid on unknown toxins, wasn't proof. It's natural for people to see causes and patterns in essentially random events. As a reporter, perhaps to my shame, I pushed aside pursuit of stories about cancer clusters or surges in childhood illness, since the reality of people's suspicions was unknowable, absent scientific study.
A new study
Now, unless a new study published in The Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology is found to be flawed in some way (it looks solid to this admittedly unprofessional eye), we may have a "known known" about the effect of extended war on the health of children: in Fallujah, which saw probably the fiercest sustained combat of the Iraq war, there was a surge in birth defects after the combat in 2004 that persists to this day. In the southern city of Basra, a hospital there reported a similar surge in birth defects following the bombing campaign at the start of the war, according to the study, which was funded by the University of Michigan's department of obstetrics and gynecology.
While the study doesn't prove a causal relationship, the authors found substantially higher concentrations of lead and other metals in affected children and their families in both cases.
The Al Basrah Maternity Hospital reported 1.37 birth defects per 1,000 children born in the period of the year ending October 1995. In the full year of 2003, by contrast, that rate was 23 birth defects per 1,000 births. By 2009, the rate in Iraq's second-largest city had jumped again to a peak of 48. Last year, the maternity hospital reported the rate had fallen somewhat, to 37.
If the baseline from 1995 is accurate, that means in 2011, a child born in Basra was 27 times more likely to suffer from a birth defect than 16 years earlier. The data from Fallujah is less complete, since it's based off the experience of 56 families who agreed to participate in a survey of childhood health. But it paints a similar picture. As David Issenberg, whose post earlier this month brought the study to my attention, summarizes:
The University of Michigan study monitored 56 families in Fallujah. Between 2007 and 2010, more than half the babies born in those families had some kind of birth defect. That figure was under 2 percent prior to the year 2000. The most common abnormalities included congenital heart defects, brain defects, malformed or missing limbs and cleft palate. In addition, between 2004 and 2006, 45 percent of the pregnancies among those families resulted in miscarriage.
Did the bullets and bombs that fell over these two Iraqi towns lead to higher concentrations of heavy metals in these children, and were those heavy metals the causes of their medical problems? Unproven, but that seems plausible. Heavy combat also led to more holes being poked in dilapidated local water and sewage systems, meaning that previously existing contaminants would have had easier access to the drinking water supply.
"Present knowledge on the effects of prenatal exposure to metals, combined with our results, suggests that the bombardment of Al Basrah and Fallujah may have exacerbated public exposure to metals, possibly culminating in the current epidemic of birth defects," the authors write. "Large-scale epidemiological studies are necessary to identify at-risk populations in Iraq."
The toll of the Iraq war will be counted for years, in its impacts on politics and on the health of survivors. The study is the latest reminder that wars don't necessarily end when the guns fall silent.
SIGAR, the US government body assigned to audit and oversee US spending on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, has released the latest in a series of reports detailing contractor failings with minimal accountability in Afghanistan.
The report out today focuses on $72.8 million contracted to DynCorp international by the Army Corps of Engineers to build "Camp Pamir" for the Afghan National Army in Kunduz Province, which is meant to house 1,800 Afghan soldiers. The specifics of the report are reminiscent of dozens of previous reports on US contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. In Iraq, contracting problems were apparent almost from the start of the war. (I wrote in June 2004 on shoddy school reconstruction in Iraq.)
When the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction closed up shop, its final report fretted that "billions" of US taxpayer money may have been wasted while enriching contractors. That there are major problems in Afghanistan as well has been long understood.
So the latest report is just a reminder that huge amounts of money have been wasted for a decade and that administrations – both Democrat and Republican – have failed to plug the leaks. The same defense and development contractors' names come up again and again on these reports and individual contracts get black marks for poor execution, but when its time to start passing out money again, they remain at the front of queue.
What happened this time?
Back in April of 2010, a SIGAR inspection warned that the buildings were being constructed on unstable, insufficiently flat ground and that drainage problems abounded. Problems apparently persisted. The Army Corps then "released DynCorp from further contractual liability in December 2011, when it entered into a settlement, paying DynCorp $70.8 million on the construction contracts and releasing it from any further liabilities and warranty obligations." SIGAR followed up with a visit in March of this year and found "additional structural failures, improper grading, and new sink holes."
On top of the cost of DynCorp's work, deadlines were missed. The first phase missed its deadline by $20 million and at a cost of $19 million more to US taxpayers. Phase two was hardly better:
"It was nearly 14 months past its completion date, the U.S. government had paid more than $51 million of the $72.8 million contracted value for construction, and ANA troops were being housed in tents outside the garrison," according to SIGAR. "In addition to the severe settling and site grading issues, we noted examples of inadequate construction quality and noncompliance with contract specifications, such as poor quality welds and rust forming on steel roof support beams and other structural bracing in barracks and other facilities on the garrison."
The report identifies ongoing sinkhole and drainage problems that will probably require more spending to fix. Though it doesn't come out and say it, the impression is of an unstable garrison that, without extensive spending, could end up a write-off after not too many more years of rain and erosion.
The report is particularly concerned that DynCorp was allowed out of its contractual responsibilities, and requests answers as to why from the Army Corps.
DynCorp contests the inspector general's analysis. "We absolutely disagree with several of the report’s conclusions concerning the causes for the issues experienced at this site,” DynCorp spokeswoman Ashley Burke told Bloomberg in an e-mail today. “Further, work was completed and this contract was closed out last year so we are unable to comment on 2012 site conditions that may or may not exist today.”
DynCorp continues to prosper. It was bought by Cerberus Capital Management for $1.5 billion in 2010 and in the second quarter of 2012 reported more than $960 million of revenue, almost all of it from US government contracting. It remains a major player in US contracting in Afghanistan and was awarded long-term business status under the US Army's Logistics Civil and Augmentation Program (LOGCAP).
In the second quarter, the company said LOGCAP revenue increased by 3.9 percent to $417.5 million "primarily as a result of continued increased demand for services under the Afghanistan task order."
The attempt to play politics with the murders of four Americans in Benghazi just won't go away. Anyone who buys into the notion that there is some enormous cover-up or political scandal around the public statements from the Obama administration since the attack doesn't understand intelligence collection, the chaos of reports after a tragedy of this magnitude, or the fact that the reality of events like this aren't fully known until months after the fact, if then.
In fact, I consider it unlikely that anyone knows precisely what happened in Benghazi yet, beyond the men who planned and carried out the Sept. 11 assault on the US consulate there that ended in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens, diplomatic guards and former Seals Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and embassy information management officer Sean Smith.
The outlines of what happened are now understood. An assault was planned and carried out by a Libyan militia, almost certainly one with Islamist political leanings. The publicly identified culprit has been a group called "Ansar al-Sharia," but public evidence has as yet been scant. And within the Benghazi context of multiple militias with fluid and changing memberships and identities, saying "Ansar al-Sharia did it" is not as informational as it might seen. A sub-set of Ansar al-Sharia members? A group of men, many of whom, but not all, worked with the militia in the past? Some other group eager to pin the blame on the militia? All are possibilities. Finally "Ansar al-Sharia" ("Helpers of Islamic Law") is a popular moniker in jihadi circles.
Did the Obama administration's early belief, based on reporting from the ground, that the attack was somehow tied in to anger over an anti-Islam YouTube video, damage efforts to find the killers? No. Sorry Rep. Rogers. An FBI team was dispatched quickly to Libya to begin coordinating the investigation, and there is zero evidence that resources were misallocated based on the early confusion. Are claims made on Facebook proof of, well, anything? Again, no.
It is a complicated world, and the large US intelligence operation in Benghazi (which was clearly a big part of what the consulate there was doing) was in understandable disarray after the main compound was torched and the US survivors managed to flee to safety after a safe-house prepared on the outskirts of town was also attacked. To demand that the Obama administration, or State Department managers, or the CIA should have had an accurate and complete picture of what went down there within days of the assault is to misunderstand the limits of our abilities and the need to sift through often-conflicting and confusing reports from the field.
Did Obama and his subordinates make mistakes in the aftermath? Undoubtedly. They should have said less, and what they did say should have made it clear that information was still coming in. They should have admitted uncertainty and caution, never mind that uncertainty doesn't play well in the middle of a reelection campaign. Those missteps may have harmed the president politically, and did lead to confusion among the US public at large. But is it relevant to the efforts to find the killers, and to address the security missteps that left the US operation in Benghazi so vulnerable? No.
Joshua Foust wrote a good piece on all this for PBS yesterday that places blame on the Obama people where it appropriately belongs and points out that the so-called political "narrative" in DC is missing the boat. He points out that real damage is being done by the notion that intelligence uncertainty was some kind of crime.
The (intelligence community) is now absorbing the blame for the public misconception about the attack. President Obama was briefed by the CIA each morning for the first week proceeding that the attack was a spontaneous protest. It has since come to light that a CIA cable suggested otherwise immediately after the assault and administration critics have publicly accused the President of concealing information about the attack. Even some administration officials have placed blame on the intelligence community itself for not being clear enough about what happened.
The problem with this after-the-fact treatment of information is that it ignores how difficult solid reporting is to get from complex, high-profile events. Raw intelligence – firsthand accounts, video surveillance, and other forms of data – rarely adds up to a coherent picture straight away. I worked as an analyst in the intelligence community for many years, and more often than not reports are contradictory, misleading, and paradoxical....
But now the partisan knife fight has happened. One side is accusing your boss of hiding what happened, and the other side is saying it’s your fault for not knowing it sooner. How does this change the intelligence process?
It is being said over and over again that the Obama Administration deliberately obfuscated what happened in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Day by day a trickle of old e-mails, partial early reports and developing assessments are hailed as "proof' that something shameful happened and is happening in the US Government, something hidden.
The truth is that early reports and judgments of traumatic, sudden events like this are usually incorrect and need to be developed and "straightened out" with the passage of time and completed investigations.
Complicating the situation in Benghazi was the location there of a CIA base covered as other than that. These people were working on the very problems that eventually resulted in the attack and the deaths. Not surprisingly, the CIA has not been desirous of the revelation of the presence and status of its employees and so the declarations to the press have not been accurate in that regard.
Ari Fleischer, former White House spokesman from President George W. Bush at the time the US decided to go to war with Iraq, goes for a kind of twofer in a tweet today, suggesting that people must either accept that intelligence is a murky business, or that the previous administration should be exonerated for the false prewar claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction "For Bush critics who say he lied about WMDs, is Obama lying about Benghazi? Or is intelligence info sometimes wrong?" he asks.
Well, I don't believe Bush and his administration lied about what they thought about WMD and Iraq, so much as they systematically downplayed doubt in the intelligence reporting and urged America to war because "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice put it in September 2002. The US ended up going to a war that cost trillions of dollars, replaced a counterbalance to Iran's regional ambitions with a government that is much friendlier to the current US public enemy No. 1, and killed more than 4,400 US troops and 100,000 Iraqis.
The two situations are simply not analogous, and there remains hope that an accurate picture of what happened will ultimately be cobbled together and reasonable steps will be taken to bring the killers to justice.
Well, the South Dakota GOP has decided not to take any chances, and has rolled out a campaign ad attacking Mr. Varilek for his globe-trotting, carbon-trading, and corndog-eating ways (yes, corndogs). The video was uploaded to Youtube on October 17, and veered so close to parody in its depiction of Varilek's educational background and international travel that I called the South Dakota GOP to check if the video is legitimate (it is.)
Will the video have an impact on the race? I don't know. But there is a kernel of serious concern for me in the fact that international experience and a concern for the environment are being painted as suspicious and perhaps dangerous in a campaign for national office.
Varilek apparently worked at the Biosphere II, "known as an incubator of radical environmental ideas," the ad warns, (a Monitor article in 1987 called it "a sophisticated laboratory to study Earth ecology, perhaps yielding clues on such phenomena as the 'greenhouse effect' and the impact of creeping deserts in Africa"; in 2009, staff writer Pete Spotts wrote about how scientists there were studying how rising temperatures could kill trees.)
It then contrasts how Varilek earned a master's degree at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1999, and went to work as a carbon broker for Natsource, an investment firm focused on profiting from renewable energy and emissions markets, against Ms. Noem's apparently more wholesome decision to work on the family farm. In 2001, Varilek heads to Cambridge University for a second master's degree in Environment and Development and speaks at a UN global warming summit in Morocco, while Noem is "living in Castlewood South Dakota, farming, raising a family, helping to balance the books and manage a family restaurant." (Ms. Noem did receive a degree herself in political science from South Dakota State University in 2011).
The ad continues in this vein; in 2003, Varilek, apparently suspiciously, attended a global warming summit in Milan, Italy, while Noem was receiving a Young Leader award from the South Dakota Soybean Association; in 2004, he went to work as "Washington DC political staffer" (he served as South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson's economic development director) and then it gets well, really weird. "In 2006 Matt Varilek hosts a raucous national corndog day party in his swanky DC neighborhood." (This may be the first time that "swanky" and "corndog" have ever appeared in the same sentence.)
Apparently, alcohol was also served at the party. In 2008, he finally returns home to South Dakota. Corndogs were consumed once more.
I don't usually cover national US politics, and I know next to nothing about South Dakota's politics or the specific concerns of its electorate. I have no idea which candidate will better serve their constituents in Washington.
But there is a certain sneering contempt for international experience and high levels of education in corners of America that this campaign ad seems to typify. Environmental issues? One can argue about whether economic interests should be sacrificed for environmental ones, but efforts to create a market in carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions is, well, a market-oriented approach.
When did education and international experience become black marks for legislators?
A few days ago I wrote about the L'Aquila earthquake verdict in Italy, that saw seven Italians, some of them the country's most eminent seismologists, sentenced to prison for failing to "adequately warn" about an earthquake that claimed 300 lives in the central Italian city in April 2009.
I wrote on Monday "today, a court in the central Italian city of L'Aquila... sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead."
Longtime Monitor science reporter Pete Spotts pointed out that my story may have overstated the case, and directed me to a good article in Science, "Aftershocks in the courtroom," that was written ahead of the verdict but is one of the better pieces on English about the background to the court case that has drawn condemnation from around the globe and seen a number of top Italian government scientists resigns their posts in protest. (The Science article is paywalled).
The nuance I missed? The prosecution did not seek manslaughter convictions for the seven men strictly on the basis that they "failed to predict" the earthquake. Instead, the complaint was that they downplayed the probability of a major earthquake around the time that L'Aquila was hit, and were therefore liable for the deaths because they had unduly reassured the public. If the scientists had been more alarmist, the reasoning seems to go, residents of the L'Aquila area would have been more inclined to sleep in cars or outdoors, and therefore fewer would have died in building collapses.
This distinction feels a little like hair-splitting to me, since the demand is still that they should have known that an earthquake was more likely than their own predictions indicated. But since predicting an earthquake at a particular time and place is impossible, so is assigning precise probabilities. If you ever hear someone say that there's a 72 percent chance of an earthquake in your town next Tuesday, know that you are talking to a charlatan.
Nevertheless, some of the people involved in communicating to the public ahead of the L'Aquila quake, in which a "swarm" of tremors had heightened local concerns that a big one might be on the way, certainly got their science wrong.
In late March of 2009, Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then the deputy head of Italy's Civil Protection Department, appeared on a L'Aquila area local television station to address fears that a major earthquake was on the way. According to Science, Mr. De Bernardinis said recent tremors did not increase the risk, and that “the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation.”
Science writes: "The ongoing tremors helped discharge energy from the fault, De Bernardinis explained. Trial witnesses later said this was particularly reassuring because it suggested the danger decreased with each tremor."
Well, no. Though there is some science that indicates that the energy released in earthquakes, particularly major ones, lessens the chance of another major earthquake until tension builds up along a fault again, that isn't always the case. And while a swarm of tremors sometimes passes without a major quake, they sometimes presage one. To say that a series of tremors has lessened the chance of a major earthquake is as incorrect as saying they mean one is definitely coming.
At around that time, L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente told another local TV station that "there should be absolutely no risk" of major damage to local buildings. That was an unknowable at the time (and clearly wrong given later events) and Mr. Cialente's reassurance was inappropriate, to say the least.
But Cialente was not one of the men sentenced to prison this week. De Bernardinis was among the seven, the only of the convicted who isn't a geologist. All seven men appeared at a press conference in L'Aquila on May 30, 2009. Science summarizes the tone of their overall remarks "as reported in newspaper articles and television reports, was: Stay calm; it’s not possible to predict earthquakes, but we don’t expect a major quake is on the way."
Well, they were wrong. But in any given time window, it's more likely that a major earthquake will not occur than that one will. The L'Aquila quake struck on April 6, seven days later. Had the men been more alarmist would people have stayed outside of buildings for the next seven days, saving lives? Perhaps, though that seems unlikely.
Lead prosecutor Fabio Picuti complained in his indictment against the men that they were culpable because they had provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information."
Well, of course. Neither can an earthquake be predicted accurately, nor can precise probabilities be assigned. University of Rome Volcanologist Franco Barberi had said during a meeting ahead of the May 30 press conference that a "seismic sequence doesn’t forecast anything," a point that Mr. Picuti strongly took issue with, though in a strict sense, Mr. Barberi was right.
Science writes of Picuti's summation.
Picuti pointed out during his summing up that L’Aquila’s 1461 and 1703 quakes were also preceded by foreshocks—and argued that the defendants knew this and should have taken it into consideration. “Why,” he asked, “didn’t another commission member say: ‘No, Professor Barberi, we can’t make such a definite statement; let’s instead talk in terms of probability—that very rarely a seismic swarm can evolve into a strong tremor’? If this had been written in the minutes, I certainly wouldn’t be spending my time here discussing this.”
So in essence, he pursued the prosecution because a scientific commission had failed to say that "very rarely a seismic swarm can evolve into a strong tremor." The assertion that this would have saved lives seems risible.
New Scientist has been kinder to the verdict than many other outlets, however, and their point about public communication and science is worth considering:
Employed by Italy's Major Hazards Committee to assess earthquake risks and communicate them to the government and the public, the seismologists got the science right, but left the job of public communication to a civil protection official with no specialist knowledge of seismology. His statement to the press was, to put it mildly, a grossly inaccurate reflection of the situation: "The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable." At this point, the seismologists should have stepped in. But they did not, and the message stuck.
... Many commentators argue that the L'Aquila verdict will have a chilling effect on the provision of scientific advice in Italy and beyond. That is clearly a concern worth taking seriously.
However, it should also encourage scientists who take on those roles to think long and hard about the responsibilities that come with them. It is tempting for scientists to defer communication with the public to others who are supposedly "experts" in doing so. But this approach often leads to confusion, as evidenced by a litany of failures in the past: BSE [mad cow disease], vaccines, genetically modified crops and many more.
Rarely since a Catholic inquisition in Rome condemned Galileo Galilei to spend the remainder of his days under house arrest for the heresy of teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun, has an Italian court been so wrong about science.
Today, a court in the central Italian city of L'Aquila, 380 years after that miscarriage of justice, sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead.
This headline isn't the sort of thing that's generally expected from Italy anymore. The church quietly abandoned its objections to heliocentrism in the early years of the 18th century, and by the early 19th, had fully accepted the scientific facts. ( Continue… )
I spent a decade covering Indonesia and a large chunk of that covering finance and investment there, most interestingly the "Asian tiger" bubble and the painfully deep hangover called the 1998 "Asian financial crisis" that triggered the end of the durable dictator and ally of the West, Soeharto.
Though it's been a long time since I've been there, I keep an eye on the place.
The country has made great strides since the chaos of the immediate post-Soeharto years. Economic growth has resumed, living standards have improved, and the small religious wars and separatist conflicts that tore at the country in the early years of the past decade have gone off the boil. East Timor is now an independent nation, the Free Aceh Movement in north Sumatra has laid down its guns, and the jihadi Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out bombings across the country, has been beaten back by an effective policing and intelligence effort.
The international banks that lost billions in the Indonesian crash, after various Indonesian conglomerates had spent years skimming off the top of loans for themselves rather than putting them to productive uses, have resumed lending heavily to the country and its businesses.
But it's still not an investment climate for the faint of heart, particularly if the complaints of Nathaniel Rothschild are to be believed. The scion of the Rothschild banking dynasty, which has funded governments, speculators, and kings for centuries, has seen a $3 billion tie-up with the politically connected Aburizal Bakrie family hit the rocks.
Judging from an article in The New York Times, Mr. Rothschild was extremely ignorant of the modern history of corporate Indonesia. In 2010, he led an investment group that spent $3 billion in cash and stock-buying stakes in two coal mining companies owned by family of Aburizal Bakrie, a scion of a business dynasty in his own right.
The complex transaction amounted to a reverse takeover of Vallar PLC in the UK, with Rothschild's Vallar taking stakes in two of Indonesia's largest coal producers (controlled by the Bakrie family), and Bakrie-controlled companies in Indonesia ending up with 43 percent of Vallar. Indra Bakrie, Aburizal's brother, took the chairmanship of Vallar, which was quickly renamed Bumi Resources ("Bumi" is Indonesian for "earth") and trades on the London Stock Exchange. The Bakrie family stake has since been reduced by a sale of some of its shares to another Indonesian tycoon.
Indonesia a top supplier of coal
A smart investment? Well, Indonesia is now the world's largest supplier of coal to power plants, a money-spinning business whatever the environmental costs. The Bakries' political leverage has made them major players in natural resources in Indonesia; licensing and business problems go much more smoothly in Indonesia when you're dealing with the politically connected.
But that's a double-edged sword. Rothschild has now fallen out with the Bakries, making the same complaints about them that a string of disappointed investors made in the 1990s and the early years of the last decade.
From my distance, it seems like the past made new. Many of the same local players and politicians remain as powerful, or more so, than ever; corrupt, cozy business practices remain the norm. And the "savvy" international investors who end up in Indonesia appear to be as far behind their local partners as the banks and other investors who lined up behind Indonesia's crony capitalists in the 1990s and lost billions of dollars in the process.
Aburizal Bakrie was one of the politically connected players then. How connected? In 1991, as Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc. renegotiated its contract to work the most profitable copper and gold mine on the planet, it provided gratis a piece of the mine worth about $200 million to Bakrie to smooth over negotiations with Indonesia's Soeharto government.
Bakrie a presidential contender
Bakrie is even more powerful today, nearly 15 years after Soeharto was deposed. He's the chairman of the Golkar political party that Soeharto founded, which holds the second largest percentage of seats in the Indonesian parliament. He's considered a front-runner for Indonesia's presidency in 2014.
In November of last year, Rothschild released a letter in which he'd asked Bumi's chief executive to return corporate money "deposited with connected parties." The Bakries sold part of their stake in Bumi last year to Samin Tan for $1 billion. Rothschild complains that the sale to Mr. Tan was a sweetheart deal that hurt minority shareholders' interests.
Is it true? In this case, unproven. But tangling with the Bakries has always been dicey. The Bakrie family's business practices in the 1990s, when I followed them closely, left a trail of disappointed minority shareholders and creditors. The family's publicly traded companies in Jakarta were in the habit of raising money from minority shareholders, then turning around and using the cash to buy assets from family members.
In 1997 and 2008, family companies were on the brink of bankruptcy, an eventuality that was staved off when creditors agreed to take pieces of family equity instead.
Investors often talk about doing "due diligence" ahead of time. Yet in 20 years of watching investment in Indonesia, time and again I've seen big capital apparently ignorant of recent history of corporations and individuals.