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Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Wizard Has Been Exposed

Just finished reading "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an assistant editor for The Washington Post who was stationed in Baghdad from Sep. 2002 through Sep. 2004. The book is a behind the scenes look at the inner workings and political maneuverings in the Green Zone after the fall of Baghdad in March 2003. The story can be summed up as follows: A bunch of neo-con ideologues given free reign to create their version of a free-market utopia.

Qualifications be damned, as long as you voted for Bush in 2000 and watched Fox News, you too could get a well-paying job in Iraq.

"Once the Americans arrived, the job of rehabilitating Iraq's health-care system fell to Frederick M. Burkle, Jr., a physician with a master's degree in public health and postgraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and the University of California at Berkeley. Burkle was a naval reserve officer with two Bronze Stars and a deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. He taught at the John Hopkins School of Public Health, where he specialized in disaster-response issues. During the first Gulf War, he provided medical aid to Kurds in northern Iraq. He had worked in Kosovo and Somalia. And in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, he had been put in charge of organizing the American response to the expected public health crisis in Iraq. A USAID colleague called him the "single most talented and experienced post-conflict health specialist working for the United States government"". (pp. 211 - 212).

Pretty impressive resume, huh? I bet you if they were going to replace a guy like that to head the reconstruction of Iraq's health care system, it would be with someone who has postgraduate degrees from five prestigious universities (instead of Burkle's measly four).

"A week after Baghdad's liberation, Burkle was informed that he was being replaced. A senior official at USAID told him that the White House wanted a "loyalist" in the job. Burkle had a wall of degrees, but he didn't have a picture of himself with the president". (p 212)

OK, so Bush wants someone who sees eye-to-eye with him on Iraq. I'm sure the replacement is a well-qualified individual.

"Burkle's job was handed to James K. Haveman, Jr., a sixty-year-old social worker who was largely unknown among international health experts. He had no medical degree, but he had connections. He had been the community health director for the former Republican governor of Michigan, John Engler, who recommended him to Wolfowitz. Haveman was well-traveled, but most of his overseas trips were in his capacity as a director of International Aid, a faith-based relief organization that provided health care while promoting Christianity in the developing world. Prior to his stint in government, Haveman ran a large Christian adoption agency in Michigan that urged pregnant women not to have abortions." (p. 121)

I guess it's not so bad. Even though Haveman doesn't have the experience of Burkle, at least women in Iraq won't be getting abortions.

OK, let's be fair here. Just because Bush decided to replace experienced, well-qualified people with neo-con newbies doesn't mean that they didn't get some things done. I'm sure if we take a look at the big picture there are many shining examples of American goodwill and altruism in Iraq. And who would know better than the Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for post-war Iraq and the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer.

"In an interview before his departure, Bremer insisted to me that Iraq was "fundamentally changed for the better" by the occupation. The CPA, he said, had put Iraq on a path toward a democratic government and an open economy after more than three decades of a brutal socialist dictatorship. Among his biggest accomplishments, he said, were the lowering of Iraq's tax rate, the liberalization of foreign-investment laws, and the reduction of import duties. As our conversation was drawing to a close, I asked a broad question about unfinished business. "When I step back," he answered, "there's a lot left to be done."" (p 289)

So the three biggest accomplishments of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq are:

1. Lowering of Iraq's tax rate
2. Liberalization of foreign-investment laws
3. Reduction of import duties

Come on Paul, don't be so modest. It sounds like you just about accomplished everything you set out to do.
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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Merry Christmas Everyone

I'm sure we've all heard by now about the Rabbi Who [Nearly] Stole Christmas.

I understand the Rabbi's frustration. Christmas in this country definitely overshadows the other various holidays and celebrations this time of year. But to the good Rabbi and anyone else who may feel left out of the holiday festivities, there really is no need to deny yourself the fun of decorating a tree or watching your children open presents from Santa. Once you realize the true meaning of Christmas, you'll be the first one on your block to have their lights up.

You see, there's a little secret that we atheists have known for a long time now. A secret that Christians don't want leaking out and are trying desperately to suppress. But once you understand, you'll be able to celebrate Christmas guilt free with the rest of us drinking egg nog by an open fire.

Christmas is not a religious holiday.

Kids don't look forward to opening presents from Jesus on Christmas morning. Jesus didn't need any reindeer to fly to the heavens. And from the pictures I've seen, he certainly ain't no jolly old fat man in a red suit. Yep, everything great about Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever.

We decorate trees because it is fun to do. We put up lights because it is fun to do. We give each other presents because it is fun to do. Christmas is merely an excuse to have a little fun and spread some good cheer. And it probably gives those with Seasonal Affective Disorder a reason not to kill themselves during the Winter.

So when someone asks an atheist or a Jew if they celebrate Christmas, the answer should be "Yeah, why not? Christmas is a fun secular holiday that everyone can enjoy. After all, who doesn't want to get presents from Santa?" And not only do you get to enjoy the Christmas festivities, but the more people who recognize Christmas for the secular holiday that it is, the sooner we will put to rest those Christian fantasies that anyone is actually celebrating the birth of their savior.

Granted, there are still some Christians out there who are hanging on to that last shred of hope that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Here's a little challenge. Take a walk around your neighborhood tonight and count the number of houses that have a lighted Santa or snowman or reindeer on the roof. Now, count the number of houses with a nativity scene. My guess is that Santa wins hands down. You see, that's what happens when you try to impose your religious holidays onto the public sphere, they get watered down and eventually lose any religious meaning they may have once had. Santa's your daddy now bee-yatches.

You want your religious holiday back? How about "ChristDay" or "JesusDay"? Just make sure you get the date right this time.
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Thursday, December 07, 2006

My Christmas List

You want to know what to get me for Christmas? Anything with a pair of boobs and an American flag on it.
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Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Remember when we were told that the Iraqis would greet us with flowers and candy? Conventional wisdom said that we would merely need to remove Saddam from the equation and democracy would flourish and the whole invasion would pay for itself with gushing oil revenues. Yeah, there were a few naysayers out there raining on our Operation Iraqi Liberation, oops, I mean Operation Iraqi Freedom parade, but they were merely unpatriotic, freedom-hating, French-loving, Bush-bashing traitor hippies. Besides, it was a slam dunk. We'd go in, remove the most dangerous man in the world, and then leave in no time at all (six days, six weeks, I doubt six months), all while basking in the gratitude of Iraqis who will have forgiven us for the past decade of deadly sanctions, also stabbing them in the back by encouraging them to overthrow Saddam after the first Gulf War and then allowing him to violently crush their revolts, and of course destroying their country and killing their people with the most lethal weaponry in the world. In fact, it was such a gimme that we didn't even need to bother preparing for any other alternative. After all, George Bush leads with his gut, and his gut was hungry for Freedom Fries, hold the insurrection.

And that is the main point of Thomas Ricks' book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq". The Bush administration and the military were unprepared for the fallout from our invasion because they did not consider any alternatives to the flowers and chocolates scenario. There was no guiding policy from the top on how to handle the inevitable unrest and insurrection. There was infighting among the Bush Administration and the military, often with inexperienced White House appointees overuling top military commanders (e.g. disbanding the Iraqi army and "de-Baathification"). A vast majority of the military were not trained properly to handle the civilian population, treating them as enemy combatants instead of trying to win their hearts and minds. And what's even worse is that three years later we're still in the same situation. No leadership, no clearly defined policy, no change of tactics. In fact, it may now be too late to stop the growing civil war that is developing, and according to Ricks, we have no one to blame except ourselves.

Our actions speak louder than words, and the Iraqis are listening. While the country continues to battle with third-world like conditions, our troops live in tightly secured bases with all the amenities of home and have little contact with Iraqi civilians. While Iraqis are sleeping, our troops bust down their doors in the middle of the night and round up all the military-aged males for interrogation. And if they can't find someone they are looking for, they'll just take some of his relatives as hostages, hoping to convince him to turn himself in. Want to get some information from someone? Try beating him to a pulp, then threaten to kill him, and finally send him to one of the makeshift overcrowded prisons run by untrained contractors and military grunts to be tortured and held without charges. The message is loud and clear. America may say it stands for Democracy and Freedom, but it sure has a funny way of showing it.

After reading Ricks' book, you realize that the whole mission has been one big clusterfuck. Of course we should have never gone there in the first place, a point which Ricks spends the first third of his book on. But after you make the decision to invade and send the troops in, there are still things you can do to make the best of a bad situation and try to "help" the Iraqi people govern themselves (if indeed that is your real goal). And time and time again the Bush Administration and the military command (with very few individual exceptions), either suffering from delusions of grandeur or possibly too cynical to care, made decisions that not only were bad for Iraq but ultimately stoked the flames of the insurgency which has now lead to civil war. "America First" isn't just a slogan here in the states. It seems to be the only consistent guiding principle this war has ever had.
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