Posted by: Shaun | May 24, 2008

Junk science, failed institutions and BPA

Last night on Bill Moyers’ Journal, a report about Bisphenol A (BPA) by the PBS investigative journalism outfit Exposé was aired, complete with a kickin’ eighties guitar intro that makes you feel like you’re right there chasing down the bad guys with Crockett and Tubbs. The bad guys in question aren’t peddlers of narcotics but of every day household goods made of plastic containing BPA and their products are all perfectly legal in spite of a growing number of studies suggesting links between the chemical in question and a number of endocrinological maladies.

The story on Moyer’s show recapitulated the efforts of science journalists at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2007 to sift through the research on BPA and determine where the evidence actually pointed. What they found is disturbingly familiar:

Of the 258 studies reviewed by the Journal Sentinel, 168 studies looked at low-dose effects of bisphenol A.

The vast majority – 132 studies- found health problems at low doses, including hyperactivity, diabetes and genital deformities. All but one of those studies were conducted by non-industry scientists. Nearly three-fourthsof the studies that found the chemical had no harmful effects were funded by industry.

Shockingly, the lion’s share of “scientific” inquiry concluding that bisphenol A is perfectly safe has been funded by the very industries that depend on the chemical for their products. Now, the question remains, given the significant quantity of data in hundreds of studies about it, how did the National Toxicology Program panel on BPA assess the risks of the chemical in its report that year?

The panel said it considered more than 700 studies by university scientists, government researchers and industry-funded chemists. It picked the work it felt was best and threw out the rest.

The Journal Sentinel found that panel members gave more weight to industry-funded studies and more leeway to industry-funded researchers.

• The panel rejected academic studies that found harm – citing inadequate methods. But the panel accepted industry-funded studies using the same methods that concluded the chemical does not pose risks.

• The panel missed dozens of studies publicly available that the Journal Sentinel found online using a medical research Internet search engine. The studies the panel considered were chosen, in part, by a consultant with links to firms that made bisphenol A.

• More and more university researchers and foreign governments are finding that bisphenol A can do serious damage in small doses. But the panel rejected studies mostly submitted by university and international government scientists that looked at the impact at these levels.

• The panel accepted a Korean study translated by the chemical industry’s trade group that found bisphenol A to be safe. It also accepted two studies that were not subjected to any peer review – the gold standard of scientific credibility. Both studies were funded by General Electric Co., which made bisphenol A until it sold its plastics division earlier this year.


Panel chairman Robert Chapin, a toxicologist who works for Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical giant, defended his group’s work.

“We didn’t flippin’ care who does the study,” said Chapin, who worked as a government scientist for 18 years before joining Pfizer.

If the studies followed good laboratory practices and were backed with strong data, they were accepted, Chapin said.

Of course, pressure has mounted since then and NTP has revised its conclusions in a report published last month, as Americanus has previously reported. Still, the industrial-regulatory nexus of faux enforcement and revolving doors is growing quite tiresome, especially in a case where people’s health and perhaps even lives are at stake.

Posted by: Shaun | May 23, 2008

Good money after ($8.2 billion of) bad

From the New York Times this morning:

A Pentagon audit of $8.2 billion in American taxpayer money spent by the United States Army on contractors in Iraq has found that almost none of the payments followed federal rules and that in some cases, contracts worth millions of dollars were paid for despite little or no record of what, if anything, was received.


In one case, according to documents displayed by Pentagon auditors at the hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a cash payment of $320.8 million in Iraqi money was authorized on the basis of a single signature and the words “Iraqi Salary Payment” on an invoice. In another, $11.1 million of taxpayer money was paid to IAP, an American contractor, on the basis of a voucher with no indication of what was delivered.

It’s certainly a good thing someone is looking into this prodigal allocation of Defense Department funds…five years into the war.  Is this really all that surprising, though?  With almost $20 billion of reconstruction aid funneled to Iraq and Afghanistan through various federal channels, we are still left with a pair of shattered countries, each with crumbling infrastructure, desperate power shortages, and, in Iraq’s case, stagnant oil production.  Should we really be shocked that taxpayer money is being siphoned off to by Ahmed Chalabi a new diamond studded collar for his purebred Affenpinscher?  Okay, I may have made that last part up, but you get the idea…

Posted by: Shaun | May 21, 2008

U.S.-China cooperation at Guantánamo?

Today, the New York Times ran a story about a 437 page file on accusations of illicit activity by U.S. troops compiled by agents of Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The FBI file, dubbed the “war crimes file,” apparently documents a number of excesses carried out at the Guantánamo Bay naval facility where America’s terrorist suspects are kept in a legal Purgatory.  Most are, unfortunately, all too familiar: sexual humiliation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and the use of dogs to terrorize detainees.

One piece of information in the FBI’s file is, however, rather new:

In one of several previously undisclosed episodes, the report found that American military interrogators appeared to have collaborated with visiting Chinese officials at Guantánamo Bay to disrupt the sleep of Chinese Muslims held there, waking them every 15 minutes the night before their interviews by the Chinese.

September 11th was a turning point in U.S.-China relations under President Bush.  Lingering animosity over the collision of an American spy plane with a Chinese fighter aircraft as well as Bush’s comments about doing “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan were set aside so the two could cooperate against a common foe: Islamic extremists.

In China’s case, the “extremists” in question are almost certainly Muslim Uighurs from the northwestern province of Xinjiang who belong to East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group the Chinese government claims is responsible for several bombings in the early 1990s and is still working to violently separate Xinjiang-or Turkestan, as they call it-from Chinese rule.  Even though most Western analysts are skeptical of the danger posed ETIM, after 9/11 the Bush administration cemented its anti-terrorist partnership with China by adding the group to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

This new report, however, is the evidence (at least the first I have seen) of active cooperation between the two countries in the interrogation of detainees.  It would seem that the Bush administration has found a friend that shares its penchant for the flagrant violation of the rule of law.  Oh, and that “war crimes file” built by concerned FBI agents who doubted the legality of American practices…it was ordered closed by the Department of Justice.

Posted by: Shaun | May 19, 2008

Can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

President Bush recently wrapped up a Middle Eastern foray meant to pay homage to Israel’s 60th year of statehood, prod along the Palestinian peace process, and beg Saudi Arabia for oil. So what did he choose for a grand finale? Another insipid call for Arab democracy, devoid of any comprehension of the enormous challenges such a project entails nor the consequences for public diplomacy of such an exhortation when viewed along side his laudatory address to the Israeli Knesset.

Leaving aside the practical and philosophical problems of Bush’s democracy crusade for a moment, let’s first consider how his remarks played in the Middle East. After one journalist pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the likely perception of Bush’s words as further evidence of a pro-Israel bias in administration policy, she responds:

SECRETARY RICE: […] I haven’t heard how they’re viewing it. I know that these allies know they have a very strong ally in President Bush. You know, it would have been interesting to see if that was a view from Iraqis, for instance, who’ve been liberated from Saddam Hussein. […]

And these are discussions that the President and I and all of us have with Arab leaders all the time. The Middle East needs change. It needs reform. This is not the first time the President has said it. It’s not the last time that he’s going to say it. We do it in a spirit of respect for them and for their traditions, but also in an understanding that when you have a region that’s producing fewer patents than South Korea alone, you have a problem. But it’s not just something the United States has said. You remember, the Arab Human Development reports that talk about the need for change.

But, you know, the President isn’t pro-this or pro — the President is pro-democracy and pro-peace — and pro-peace. And he has stood for a Palestinian state, he’s pressed, through Annapolis, to bring together the coalition of states that can support it, and now he’s pressing both sides to come to an agreement. And that’s being in favor of both sides, because both sides need a say.

There are some in the Arab world who beg to differ with Secretary rice:

“The president was himself, finally. Maybe because this is the end of his political career,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and now a lecturer at Birzeit University. “This is actually him. This is George Bush the human being, not the politician. . . . I always thought he was a Christian Zionist and a fundamentalist ideologue.” […]

Hani Masri, a Palestinian columnist for the newspaper Al Ayyam, said, “Bush is trying to wash his hands from his promise. All his Middle East policies have failed, in Iraq, Lebanon and now here. So he tries to appear that he is fighting for democracy just for the sake of his legacy.”

Once more, the President has shown himself to be oblivious to the impact of his words on Arab, and especially Palestinian, public opinion; something that will have to change if he really expects to make progress in brokering a settlement between Israel and Palestine.

Bush has also once more demonstrated a profound historical ignorance in pressing for the rapid democratization of the Middle East. This is not because “Arabs aren’t ready” for democracy; it is because Arab states are not ready for democracy. The legal, social, and political institutions upon which liberal democracy is dependent, by and large, do not yet exist in the Near East. Oft forgotten are the centuries of accumulated common law, civil liberties, and gradual enfranchisement that led to democracy in the English speaking world.

The Middle East has yet to experience this process, or rather its own indigenous version of such. Consequently, when democracy is imposed prematurely, the result is a country in which majority political factions use the levers of government to bolster their own power and repress their opponents, just as the ruling Shia factions have done in Iraq. And, of course, there is the old problem of democratic outcomes that aren’t in line with American interests, such as the victories of Hamas in the Palestinian elections and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s 2005 vote. Strange how there’s been so little White House criticism of the virtual repudiation of those results…

Posted by: Shaun | May 18, 2008

Everything old is new again

Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American

Power. BY FRED KAPLAN. Wiley, 2008, 246 pp., $25.95

It was abundantly clear to anyone watching television on the morning of September 11, 2001. The United States had been attacked on its own soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor and everything had changed; international politics would never be the same from that date forward. Except that it would.

This is the central premise of Frad Kaplan’s new book, Daydream Believers, which argues that a number of misconceptions led policy makers to the false conclusion that a new era had dawned after September 11th when the old realities of global politics were, in fact, alive and well. Kaplan, who holds a doctorate from MIT and writes the “War Stories” feature for Slate, takes his cue from T.E. Lawrence’s famous missive on the dangers of “dreamers of the day” who are prepared to make real their wild fantasies.

At the root of the illusory world view posited by Kaplan was the fundamental misreading of a very real realignment of world power, the collapse of the Soviet Union. This left the United States the most powerful country in the world and the lesson George W. Bush and his administration drew from this was that they could “do pretty much as they pleased: issue orders and expect obeisance, topple rogue regimes at will, honor alliances and treaties when they were useful, and disregard them when they weren’t.” However, what the neoconservatives and other backers of the “unipolar moment” thesis failed to consider was that by removing a common threat, the demise of the Soviet Empire left many states throughout the world without the need for U.S. security guarantees and thus less susceptible to American demands. In some ways, the end of the Cold War left America weaker.

Other febrile beliefs under girded this central strategic assumption, and two of the most important highlighted by Kaplan are the efficacy of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). The RMA was supposed to harness the power of information technology to enable the ultimate joint operations. Real-time battlefield intelligence, instant communication, precision weapons, and high mobility forces all enmeshed in a digital network supposedly made the old, dirty, time-consuming methods of war familiar to veterans of Korea or Vietnam obsolete while promising rapid victories with minimal manpower almost anywhere in the world.

If no country on earth could challenge the U.S. in conventional military power, then some might try to deter American adventurism with nuclear weapons. Missile Defense would ostensibly negate this possibility by creating an advanced system of radars and interceptors designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles before they reached American soil. No matter that such technologies has been explored without success since the dawn of the missile age; with the proper investment, we could make it work (or so the Bush administration thought).

Thus, Kaplan argues, an America that thought itself unbeatable in battle, soon to be invulnerable from rogue missile attacks, and with no peer competitors in sight found itself attacked on 9/11. This was the catalyst for the disaster to follow. George W. Bush and his acolytes set out to transform the world, through force if necessary, in a strategy that culminated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Bush’s 2005 inaugural address, in which America’s interest in security and its ideal of democracy were supposedly unified in a grand quest to make the world free.

Except that the RMA proved unsuited to nation building and America’s military found itself vulnerable to the same sorts of tactics that dogged Napoleon in Spain. We still find ourselves sidling up to dictators in Beijing, Riyadh, and Alma-Ata. We are still forced to negotiate with rogue regimes like Kim Jong Il’s. And we are increasingly incapable of exercising influence in world affairs as our power is sapped by war, recession, and the reticence of our allies to aid the administration that so haughtily dismissed their concerns in prior years.

Kaplan ends his book by urging a return to realism (with a small “r”, not of the capitalized Kissingerian variety) with a conscience. Taking as his model the strategists of the early Cold War, like Dean Acheson, he believes America must base its strategy on an empirical assessment of the world and develop new institutions and alliances through which to pursue our interests in the world as it is.

While it does not contain much in the way of new or revelatory information, Daydream Believers is a cogent and highly readable account of the false assumptions that led the U.S. to the strategically precarious situation in which it finds itself. It is, by and large, a critique of the second Bush administration and largely leaves Bill Clinton off the hook. While Bush certainly carried the ideas of American supremacy to their extremes, we shouldn’t forget that Clinton’s Pentagon was the first to embrace RMA, that he was no stranger to the use of force in the name of abstract ideals, and that it was his secretary of state who declared America to be the “indispensable nation.” Still, Kaplan’s book is worth a read and the lessons he illuminates should be taken to heart by anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy.

Posted by: Shaun | May 15, 2008

Why the U.S. is losing in Iraq and Afghanistan

It’s an all too familiar scenario from the 21st century urban battlefield.  An Iraqi soldier posted at the security barrier in Sadr City, Baghdad, is killed by sniper.  American military advisers are dispatched to rectify the situation.  Their solution: lase the building housing the sniper and blast it with a Hellfire missile.  This is but one example of the intermittent but fierce combat faced by U.S. troops in the city.  Quoth the New York Times:

The formal truce that was announced in the Green Zone with great fanfare on Monday has meant nothing here. Shiite militias have been trying to blast gaps in the wall, firing at the American troops who are completing it and maneuvering to pick off the Iraqi soldiers who have been charged with keeping an eye on the partition.

American forces have answered with tank rounds, helicopter rocket strikes and even satellite-guided bombs to try to silence the militia fire. On some stretches, the urban landscape has been transformed as the Americans have leveled buildings militia fighters have used as perches to mount their attacks.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, an official for the United Nations is speaking out about lethal raids by “foreign intelligence services” that are, in some cases, taking the lives of civilians with no accountability.  The official doesn’t specify details about these foreign agencies, but my guess is he refers to CIA or SOCOM missions targeting al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.

If America’s chief interest in these two conflicts is finding and killing international terrorists who might otherwise strike the United States proper, this is all just fine.  However, if we intend to fulfill John McCain’s rosy scenario of a democratic Iraq and Afghanistan with minimal violence by 2013, we have another thing coming.  Dropping a 2,000 pound JDAM on a building in Baghdad to eliminate a sniper may be tactically expedient, but it won’t win very many “hearts and minds;” certainly not those of the building’s owners when they return, nor their extended family if they happened to be inside the building at the time.

Americans face a difficult decision about the conflicts in which we are now engaged.  If we decide that democratic state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan is truly in our interests, we must realistically assess what accomplishing this will entail.  It will mean a long-term commitment for years to come.  It will mean recruiting more troops for the Army and Marine Corps and putting them in harms way; essentially expanding the “surge” and making it permanent.  It will mean changing tactics by drawing on the successes of those American units that have worked with local officials, successfully blending the military and political, to secure their areas of operation.  It will mean all of this, but it will still will not guarantee victory.

On the other hand, we could scale back our objectives and simply focus on attacking the terrorist threat in both countries without regard for the broader political implications of our actions.  This path, too, has its risks and comes with no assurance of success.  The only thing of which we can be certain is that if we maintain our present compromise approach of using excessive firepower to make up for deficiencies in personnel, we will neither build democracies nor secure America when our wars come to an end.

Posted by: Shaun | May 15, 2008

Farm Bill update & liberal rage

Yesterday, Reilly White posted an excellent piece of writing detailing the excesses of the latest incarnation of a Depression Era agricultural policy that masks corporate welfare in the guise of aid to “small farmers.” I refer, of course, to the Farm Bill. Yesterday, the House passed this legislation by a vote of 318-106 and the Senate followed suit today, passing the bill by an 81-15 margin. All three presidential candidates wisely made themselves scarce from the Senate floor, dodging a politically difficult decision. President Bush is expected to veto the bill but, given the margins of victory in each House, it will be easily overturned and enacted into law sans Bush’s approval.

Forty-seven million Americans have no health insurance today. As of 2006, almost thirty-seven million Americans lived at or below the federal poverty line, to say nothing of the millions more who struggle to survive with incomes that don’t meet the technical definition of “poverty.” Nationally, we are $9 trillion in debt and our major entitlement programs are facing critical shortfalls over the next thirty to forty years. Yet, we still see fit to lavish $307 billion of unnecessary aid on farmers who are now earning record profits from high commodity prices and we do so with overwhelming political support. Excuse the cliché, but where’s the outrage?

Posted by: Reilly | May 14, 2008

Subsidize This

The mythical American Farmer comes again to the forefront of American policy, as Congress debates the $300 billion annual Farm Bill. The premise of the bill reads pretty well for a defense of a depression-era farmer out of a Steinbeck novel – pity, then, that there really aren’t many of them left

Today’s Wall Street Journal Opinion section points out some important points about this year’s debate

“This year farm income is expected to reach an all-time high of $92.3 billion, an increase of 56% in two years, making growers perhaps the most undeserving recipients in American history.”

With agricultural and commodity prices skyrocketing, it becomes particularly difficult to justify such exorbitant agricultural subsidies. But then again, that’s not the point – the subsidies are expected to keep American farmers farming (because that’s what we do in America).

However, the architecture of subsidy policy dates from the 1930’s, when 25% of Americans were farmers; now, just 2% of Americans are so employed, and the vast majority of agricultural products are produced at large or corporate farms. Viewed in that sense, it’s already failed to preserve the identity of the small farmer anyway. But the piece goes further

“A bigger scam is the new income limit to qualify for subsidies. Mr. Bush sought a $200,000 annual income cap, but Congress can’t bring itself to go below $750,000.”

Fascinating. Seemingly under the radar of most Americans, the Government is effectively doling out farm subsidies to some of the wealthiest members of its society – and mind you, Congress apparently exceeds even the President’s lofty concepts of wealth.

But that’s not even the largest problem – we continue to annoy the rest of the developing world (including our friend in NAFTA) with our protective agriculture policies, which have the adverse effect of pricing developing agricultural economies out of the market – ironic considering the competitive advantage they would maintain in a free trade environment.

But regardless, this is getting out of hand – add impetus for biofuels, rising fuel costs, and the highest commodity prices seen in decades, and you’ve got the equivalent of giving Exxon a welfare check and a tax break. Oh wait, we already do that too.

Complicating this, any congressman with rural constituents recognizes that voting against the bill gets them six cyanide pills and a game of Russian Roulette closer to political suicide. And, who can resist that well-paid farm lobbyist with that winning smile and near-earnest appreciation of working folk?

Posted by: Shaun | May 13, 2008

Dark undercurrent on the campaign trail: racism

A disturbing piece out of the Washington Post today recounts the reaction from some voters encountered by many of Senator Barack Obama’s campaigners while making their rounds.  The story offers many anecdotal accounts of hostility and racial slurs like this one:

Victoria Switzer, a retired social studies teacher, was on phone-bank duty one night during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. One night was all she could take: “It wasn’t pretty.” She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn’t possibly vote for Obama and concluded: “Hang that darky from a tree!”

It also notes that, in spite of the experiences of campaign staff, gathering objective data on the racial attitudes of voters is difficult.  Thankfully, American society has made some progress since the days when publicly expressing overtly racist views was socially acceptable behavior.  However, if the experiences recounted here are true, there still much further to go.

Posted by: Shaun | May 12, 2008

Russia and China: friends forever?

Dimitry Medvedev’s first trip abroad as President of the Russian Federation will take him to China (with a brief stopover in Kazakhstan). It seems that since the end of the Cold War, bitter memories of the Sino-Soviet split and the 1969 border conflict that left these two Asian giants on the brink of war have been set aside in order to forge a strategic partnership that has brought both states closer to one another than at any time in the past.

The two codified their budding friendship in 2001 with a “Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendship,” which pledged both to mutual nonaggression, support for their respective hot-button issues like Taiwan and Chechnya, and various forms of consultation. China and Russia regularly exchange state visits, such as the one on which President Medvedev is soon to embark, in addition to ministerial level talks on a range of issues. Each is an active member in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a multilateral grouping that facilitates economic and security partnerships in Central Asia. Then there were the national years, with 2006 dubbed “the year of Russia” in China and 2007 “the year of China” in Russia. Moscow has even seen fit to supply its neighbor with billions of dollars of advanced weaponry to fill the gaps in China’s ambitious military modernization program.

However, there are clouds on the Eastern horizon. China has a population of nearly 1.5 billion people and a GDP of about $3.4 trillion at official exchange rates, a value that grows by 8 to 10 percent a year. Russia has a population of about 140 million, one which has been declining in recent years, and a nominal GDP of $1.3 trillion which is growing, but is heavily dependent on energy exports. All this means that over the next twenty to thirty years, China will almost certainly exceed Russia in every measure of national power, except, perhaps, the size of its nuclear arsenal. This certainly does not portend conflict as a matter of course, but it is enough to make Russian strategists lose sleep over the future.

In a Moscow Times opinion piece, author Richard Lourie says as much, commenting on a lingering sense of “Sinophobia” amongst many Russian officials who are wary of the stirring giant on their southern frontier. Siberia is the source of their angst, according to Lourie:

Geography abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature. The Russian Far East, which is two-thirds the size of the continental United States, has only 7 million people. On the other side of the Russian border, in the three northeastern Chinese provinces, there are 100 million people in an area one-eighth the size of the Far East.

The fear, fed in part by Russian xenophobia, is that those 100 million Chinese will spill across the border and submerge the sparsely populated, resource-rich lands of eastern Russia. Border areas are already marked by tensions between native Russians and Chinese migrant laborers.

Again, this is not a forecast of an inevitable Sino-Russian war; such a prospect is remote. I do, however, think that the geopolitics and geoeconomics of Northeast Asia cast doubt on the longevity of a Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Such a relationship remains valid only so long as the two are on a relatively equal footing and share mutual interests. The future of both these prospects is questionable at best.

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