Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Iraq: First the Good News

The right wing talking point of the last fortnight seems to be that the MSM is failing to report all the good news from Iraq. Laura Ingraham, William Bennett, Michael Fumento, Howard Kaloogian, George Bush, and many others have all pushed this theme.

Stephen Kaus asks the right question. What, exactly, is the good news that the MSM is failing to report? For the most part, I agree with the Kaus's answer: there is no good news. In one area, however, I disagree. Unlike Kaus, I think that there is evidence that the Iraqi army is increasingly capable, and that one could make a case that this "good news" is underreported. However, I would argue that the good news about the improved ability of Iraq's military forces is overwhelmed by terrible news in the broader political situation, and that as a result, the overall picture in Iraq is terrible and getting worse.

Kaus is understandably skeptical of claims that the Iraqi military is improving:

Is it [the underreported good news] the Iraqis taking over the battle? We have heard that before and the statistics then went backwards. Laura Ingraham acknowledges that the previous iterations were false ("I think what we're doing now in Iraq is maybe finally the right thing. The Iraqi military is taking over more of the battle space."), but neither she nor the government seems to have anything specific. Saying that "more and more Iraqis are taking the fight," as President Bush did on Thursday is a little short in the evidence department.

Good point. Since Laura Ingraham and George Bush failed to tell us that the Iraqi military was in bad shape before, they're hardly credible when they tell us know that the situation has improved. However, we needn't rely on them. Anthony Cordesman of the Center on Strategic and International Studies is one of the leading American experts on Middle Eastern militaries and the author of Inexcusable Failure: Progress in Training the Iraqi Army and Security Forces as of Mid-July 2004. If the title doesn't convince you that Cordesman is willing to be critical of the administration, here are some details:
. . . failed dismally to execute their plans in the security sector . . .

The CPA never standardized its public reporting on the status of Iraqi training, although the data always implied a much higher level of training than actually took place. The training data on the Iraqi security forces were also altered in ways that disguises the level of training in most services in the in CPA reporting issued from April 2004 onwards, by implying that training under the Ba’ath regime, or limited on the job training under the Transition Integration Program (TIP) was adequate.

Most of the training was little more than at the token level . . .

No single mission is more important than security, and no Iraqi popular desire is clearer than that this mission be done by Iraqis. The US has been guilty of a gross military, administrative, and moral failure. It seems to be finally taking steps to correct these mistakes, but its past history shows that detailed progress reporting is essential, and that the US military has been reluctant at best to come to grips with the need for an effective effort.
So if Cordesman thinks that the quality of the Iraqi military is improving, I think we should take notice. Here he is in a February 15 draft report:

In spite of the problems facing Iraqi forces, they have made major progress. Changes in the US led Coalition advisory effort have led to steadily higher selection and training standards and better equipment and facilities. Embedding US training teams in each new Iraqi unit, and pairing them with US combat units until they could operate on their own, has made a major qualitative difference in the field. More and more Iraqi units have come on-line.
By early December, a total of 50 battalions were at Level 1-3 readiness and active in dealing with the insurgency. In March 2005, there were only three battalions manning their own areas—all in Baghdad. A total of 24 battalions were in charge of their own battle space in October and 33 in late December. In January 2006, the US army transferred an area of operation to an entire Iraqi army division for the first time in Qadissiya and Wassit provinces, an active combat area south of Baghdad. In early February 2006, 40 of the army’s 102 battalions had taken over security in the areas where they operated, and in contested areas, such as parts of Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra.

The Army was making real progress in developing effective personnel. NCO and specialist training improved, officers and NCOs now had considerable experience, and most training institutions were now functional. The Iraqi Military Academy at Al Rustamiyeh, modeled on the British academy at Sandhurst, graduated its first year-long course of 73 officer cadets on January 19, 2006.62 The NCO academy at Q-West Base Complex was also fully functional, and provided training to NCOs which had already demonstrated their capability by serving in Iraqi forces. A "master trainer program" to teach Iraqi NCOs how to train other Iraqi soldiers was underway and producing significant numbers of graduates by January 2006.
Is this enough progress? Does this progress excuse the administration's earlier failures? No. But it is progress nonetheless.

But how important are these changes? Does the fact that Iraqi security forces are improving mean that the overall situation in Iraq is improving? Are we making progress? Citizen Cain says no. Our next post will cover just a few of the reasons for pessimism.

(note: lightly edited for format and to add links on 4/2)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Citizen Cain: Prophet of the Israeli Election

After Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by stroke, conventional wisdom was that his newly-formed Kadima party would be in trouble and that Likud would be resurgent. Citizen Cain resisted the conventional wisdom put forth by lesser minds and prophecied the victory of the center-left and the exclusion of Likud from the new government. From January 5:
Citizen Cain's bold prediction-- a coalition that excludes Likud will win. Some combination of Kadima, Labor and smaller parties, who will continue the policy of selective unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians.

Events prove: never bet against Citizen Cain.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Even Worse

Zeyad reports that al-Iraqiya TV has been highly critical the U.S. attack on Madhi army militiamen, described by the U.S. as a terror cell. Al Iraqiya is referring to them as "martyrs."

How bad is that? Al-Iraqiya is the U.S.-funded network that is supposed to be the pro-American alternative to al Jazeera. Apparently, we can't even buy a friend in Iraq any more.


The situation in Iraq keeps getting more untenable. The Washington Post reports that U.S. and Iraqi forces killed at least 16 members of a "terrorist cell" tied to Moqtada al Sadr. This cell, according to the Post, was "responsible for attacks on soldiers and civilians."

Of course, while some of Sadr's followers are engaging in terror attacks, others are holding positions in Parliament and in goverment ministries.

An outspoken opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq, Sadr has become a potent political force, fielding more than 30 loyal members in Iraq's new parliament. The incident Sunday was his deadliest encounter with U.S. and Iraqi forces since his Mahdi Army militia waged two violent uprisings in 2004.

"I think we are going to have a firm stance against the American forces because of this crime," Salam al-Maliki, the country's transportation minister and a close Sadr ally, said on al-Iraqiya television.

So we're dammed if we do and dammed if we don't. Either we allow the operation of terror cells, or we kill people closely affiliated with a member in good standing of Iraq's governing coalition. Maybe there was a time, back just after the fall of Baghdad, when we could have prevented some of this by crushing Sadr's movement. Maybe when they were looting the city would have been a good time. Or maybe after they murdered Abdel Majid al-Khoei, the moderate cleric under (ineffective) U.S. military protection. Or maybe after the 2004 uprisings.

Now, however, they're part of the government. Such a key part of the government, in fact, that prime mininister praises them in a March 20 Washington Post opinion piece:

Sidelining Moqtada al-Sadr's group from the Governing Council was a mistake. Had it been integrated into the political process back then, long before the formation of the Mahdi Army, events would have turned out differently in the south. I corrected this policy and brought Sadr's group into the democratic process. This inclusive approach resulted in the huge nationwide turnout for the December elections and a parliament that truly reflects Iraq.

During my term as elected prime minister, Sadr's group has not attacked any coalition troops. Furthermore, Sadr and several Sunni leaders are now catalysts for maintaining the peace in Iraq, calling on their followers not to retaliate against terrorist provocations, which aim to ignite civil war.

I'm not saying that al-Jafari's policy is wrong-- he may be making the best of a terrible situation. But how long with the U.S. be able to maintain its position in Iraq while at war with not only an insurgency but with a key member of the governing coalition?

Sorry, I'll stop now. I should probably be blogging about a good news story, like the opening of an Iraqi school or something.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Sad Prose Poem from an Iraqi Blogger

Citizen Cain's favorite Iraqi blog, Healing Iraq, resumed regular posting about a month ago after a long hiatus. Zeyad, Healing Iraq's maitre de blog, had been extremely optimistic about the prospects for his country in the aftermath of the invasion, and very positively-inclined towards the Coalition. It has been sad to see Zeyad's building frustration over the years with the circumstances in his country, and with the failures of the occupation.

His latest post, which describes the growing chaos in Baghdad, concludes with an intensity and passionate insistence on bearing witness that brings to mind Dylan's Hard Rain, albeit in realistic prose rather than Dylan's dream-like poetry.
Please don’t ask me whether I believe Iraq is on the verge of civil war yet or not. I have never experienced a civil war before, only regular ones. All I see is that both sides are engaged in tit-for-tat lynchings and summary executions. I see governmental forces openly taking sides or stepping aside. I see an occupation force that is clueless about what is going on in the country. I see politicians that distrust each other and continue to flame the situation for their own personal interests. I see Islamic clerics delivering fiery sermons against each other, then smile and hug each other at the end of the day in staged PR stunts. I see the country breaking into pieces. The frontlines between different districts of Baghdad are already clearly demarked and ready for the battle. I was stopped in my own neighbourhood yesterday by a watch team and questioned where I live and what I was doing in that area. I see other people curiously staring in each other’s faces on the street. I see hundreds of people disappearing in the middle of the night and their corpses surfacing next day with electric drill holes in them. I see people blown up to smithereens because a brainwashed virgin seeker targeted a crowded market or café. I see all that and more.

Don’t you dare chastise me for writing about what I see in my country.

I'm not sure who the last sentence is aimed at. Who is chastising Zeyad for writing about what he sees? Whoever it is, don't listen Zeyad! Keep on calling it like you see it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Third Anniversary

We should all pause to recognize the anniversary of this major event.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Kinsley: Don't Make Me Sick!

I realize that I'm commenting on this late, but Michael Kinsley's Friday column on healthcare is a terrible disappointment. What atypically weak reasoning from one of Citizen Cain's faves.

Kinsley critiques the superior arguments of Krugman and Wells on a couple of points.

First, regarding the superior efficiency of single payer health care, Kinsley says, that Krugman and Wells :
don't do much more than simply assert that a single, government-run insurance program would be more efficient. Even the most competitive industry can seem wasteful and inefficient when described on paper. Dozens of computer companies making hundreds of different, incompatible models, millions spent on advertising: Wouldn't a single, government-run computer agency producing a few standard models be more efficient? No, it wouldn't.

Actually, Krugman and Wells don't merely assert that a government-run insurance program would be more efficient. They show that government-run insurance programs in other countries are more efficient than our patchwork public-private system. They also explain that, unlike computer software companies, with health care "the fragmentation of a system that relies largely on private insurance leads both to administrative complexity because of differences in coverage among individuals and to what is, in effect, a zero-sum struggle between different players in the system, each trying to stick others with the bill." Krugman and Wells note that an additional reason for superior efficiency of government-run insurance is its ability to bargain for lower-price pharmaceuticals (unless, of course, as with the Medicare drug benefit, pharmaceutical-company-written law prohibits such bargaining).

Second Kinsley states that:

Krugman and Wells note repeatedly that 20 percent of the population is responsible for 80 percent of health care costs. But that doesn't explain why health insurance should be different from other kinds. The small fraction of people involved in auto accidents in any year is responsible for almost all of the cost of auto insurance. You insure against the risk of being in that group.

But healthcare insurance isn't like auto insurance. It seems just and appropriate that people who get in a lot of accidents or who have DUIs and speeding tickets should have to pay more for their auto insurance. Does it seem right that sick people should have to pay more for health care insurance? Most people would say no. And while some might agree with making smokers or heavy drinkers pay more for health care, few would agree with denying such people insurance entirely. By contrast, if someone has a terrible driving record, denying them insurance (and a driver's license) might be the best thing for society.

This Kinsley argument is just depressing, coming from a liberal:

Krugman and Wells say that private insurance is flawed by "adverse selection": Insurance companies will avoid riskier customers. Only a single payer (that is, an insurance monopoly) can insure everybody, and spread the risk. But anyone is
insurable at some price -- a price that reflects the cost he or she is likely to impose on the insurer. Adverse selection is only a problem to the extent that insurance is not really insurance but rather a subsidy.

No no no! Adverse selection is a problem to the extent that it prevents sick people from getting insurance. Adverse selection is a problem to the extent that it makes employers want to avoid employing potentially unhealthy people because of the impact that it could have on employer-provided health insurance costs.

Kinsley concludes by recommending a pathetically small health care reform, based on a bogus issue.

Should people be allowed to opt out of rationing if they can afford it? That is, if the system (private or single-payer) won't pay for the $100,000 pill, should you be able to pay for it yourself? Fear that this would not be allowed helped to kill the Clinton health care reform 13 years ago.

Bizarrely, Kinsley fails to explain that this fear was unfounded. The Clinton plan would have allowed individuals to purchase additional insurance or health care as they chose. Moreover, no one is proposing national health insurance programs that would prevent people from buying additional health care.

Kinsley concludes by stating that "if a few smaller reforms like that don't work, maybe it will be time for single-payer." This makes no sense politically. Can he really be serious that progressive forces in this country should mobilize in favor of small reforms that are unlikely to do any good, and that after "a few" such failed reforms, then we'll be in position to convince the country that single-payer is the way to go?

Ignore Kinsley. His way would ensure that progressives lose the trust of the nation on health care issues for a generation. Now is the time to build a movement that can elect a government that will support the most just and efficient system-- single-payer government-provided healthcare.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Howard Fineman: A Tale of Two Politicians

Howard Fineman has recent articles discussing the possible Presidential prospects of Rudy Guiliani and Hillary Clinton. He doesn't have any news to report in either case, but the articles make for an interesting contrast in how Fineman treats the two politicians. For one, it's the best of coverage; for the other, the worst of coverage. Can you guess which one is which?

First Guiliani. The article is called "Awaiting the Almighty: Rudy Giuliani may or may not run for president. But he's having a heavenly time thinking about it." While "lesser birds" will flock to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, "America's mayor" flies "alluringly alone." He has "near-total name ID, a 9/11 hero's aura—and, most valuable in these post-Katrina days, a reputation for administrative competence." He's "macho" and has "a hide of titanium." He dazzles audiences "with his energy and his revival-style witness to his faith in Jesus." He's got "charisma."

By the way, the Guiliani article also contains the gem that Newt Gingrich is "rapidly re-emerging and always provocative."

Now Clinton. This time it's called "Hillary's Money Politics: The Clintons take a page from the Bush playbook, but what about Bill and those ports?" Getting into a Clinton fundraiser "is no easy trick." She chooses "to keep her toughly worded anti-Bush rhetoric (the kind that excites Democratic hearts and opens their wallets) safely behind the closed, hand-rubbed doors." Her political strategy is to intimidate the rest of the possible Democratic field by raising so much money that they'll give up before the race starts. "It's an ironic but exact copy of what Bush did in 2000." She's "on the way to becoming the leading female empire-builder in the history of American elections." And "not only is she asking big donors to support her—she is, at least implicitly, asking them NOT to give to anyone else." Hillary isn't "completely secretive" because she "now has an interest in leaking—on her own terms, of course—the names of big shots . . ." Her "obsessive money focus" creates the "risk" that she will become "blind to the politics of an issue." Also it "can create conflicts—or at least the appearance of conflict—between candidate and spouse," for instance when Bill praised the "Dubai guys" and collected $600K in speaking fees from them while Hillary was denouncing the Dubai ports deal. Finally, it's lucky for Hillary that foreign citizens aren't allowed to give campaign contributions, because, says Fineman "the rules had allowed it, I'm sure they would have been asked—and Hillary would have had even more explaining to do."

Nowhere in his article does Fineman ever explain how Clinton is "implicitly" asking donor not to give to other candidates. Perhaps its just obvious that any politician would prefer that potential opponents not receive financial backing. Can Fineman explain how this is more true of Hillary than anyone else? Nor does Fineman explain how he's sure that Hillary would have gone begging to Dubai, or whether he thinks that other politicians, like say George Bush or John McCain might also have some explaining to do in this hypothetical situation. Most importantly, he doesn't explain why he chooses to end his articles about some politicians but not others with a zinger based on a hypothetical possibility. He doesn't explain whether Guiliani might occasionally have a meeting behind "closed, hand-rubbed doors," and if so, why he chooses to use this snarky language only in Clinton's case.

If this is a harbinger of the kind of coverage Clinton can expect during the 2008 election, the Democrats might as well run Al Gore.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Autism-Mercury News

A couple of news items news to report on the autism-mercury front.

First, a couple of bloggers seem to have figured out independently that contrary to some assertions, California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS) data do not support the idea that new cases of autism are decreasing in response to the removal of thimerosal from most childhood vaccines. Interverbal has done a very thorough analysis, including some spiffy graphs, showing that while the total number of cases managed by CDDS is growing at a reduced pace, among children aged 3-5 (the supposed beneficiaries of reduced thimerosal) autism cases managed by CDDS is continuing to grow. Joseph at Autism-Natural Variation also has a crack at the California numbers, and shows why the “thimerosal theory” for explaining increased diagnosis of autism is much less likely to be correct than the theory that increased diagnosis is due to broadening criteria.

Nice job fellas! But while you may have done it better, don’t forget who did it first. I just want to be loved. Is that so wrong?

Second, proponents of the thimerosal theory can now point to a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (JAPS) that says that autism rates are declining as a result of removal of thimerosal from vaccines. But what kind of peer review did this study really go through? How good is the evidence? Orac provides the answers. I highly recommend his respectful insolence. I won't rehash his arguments, but rather offer a few supplemental thoughts:
  • Citizen Cain can reveal, after an exclusive investigation, that “peer review” in JAPS means approval by a panel consisting of Phyllis Schlafly, Randall Terry, Jack D. Ripper, and a chipmunk. For you kids out there, Jack D. Ripper is a character in the classic movie Dr. Strangelove, who drinks nothing but rainwater and grain alcohol so that his “precious bodily fluids” won’t be contaminated by fluoridated water. Anti-chipmunk prejudice may explain why JAPS has no scientific standing, and why it isn’t listed in Medline.

  • This study, by a father-son team, David and Mark Geier evaluates two data sources to determine changes in autism incidence. One is the CDDS data. If only the Geiers read Citizen Cain, or even those Johnny-come-latelies Interverbal or Autism-Natural Variation, they could have spared themselves a lot of embarrassment.

  • The second data source is the Vaccine Adverse Event Report System (VAERS). As you might have guessed from its title, VAERS isn’t a system for tracking autism or other neurological conditions; it’s a system for tracking adverse reactions to vaccines. Therefore, not surprisingly, very few reports of autism incidence are made to this reporting system. According to Figure 1 in the Geiers' article, between 1993 and 2005 nationwide reports of autism to VAERS ranged from zero per quarter to about 78, with most quarters receiving fewer than 40 reports. Since about 1 million little Americans are born every quarter, and since an estimated 1 out of 166 people are thought to be on the autistic spectrum, something on the order of 6000 autistic Americans are coming into the world every quarter. Therefore, VAERS is finding about 2/3 of a percent of autistics. Can you, dear reader, see it might not be a good idea to try to track trends in autism incidence through a system that can't account for even one percent of autistic children? Trends in autism reported to VAERS clearly have far more to do with changes in the fraction of autistic children who are reported to VAERS than with actual changes in the number of autistic children.

What does real science on autism incidence look like? Nothing like what the Geiers have excreted. Real science looks like this. A team of researchers evaluated cohorts of four to six year old children in 1987 and 2002, using "diagnostic interviews, psychometric tests, and medical workups." They found that despite reported increases in pervasive developmental orders, the actual prevalence found in these evaluations had not changed, "suggesting a stable incidence."


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Debunking the Sexual Repression Theory of Terrorism

Andrew Sullivan approvingly links to an Ian Buruma article that attempts to resurrect one of the less persuasive theories about the origins of Islamist terrorism-- that sexual repression in Islamic countries leads to distorted, sexually-frustrated personalities that are prone to violence. Exposure to the permissive and sexualized West "provokes a mixture of rage and envy" that causes some to express their violent urges in terrorist acts against the West, or against Israel. Three weeks after 9/11, anthropologist Lionel Tiger put forward a similar argument in Slate, although in his case he emphasized the role that polygyny plays in limiting the sexual prospects of underprivileged men in parts of the Islamic world.

Citizen Cain would not deny that the differing sexual mores of Islam and Western countries could promote rage and envy among some Moslem men, nor that certain manifestations of terror-- such as the promise of sex in the afterlife for suicide bombers -- arise uniquely out of a particular social-sexual ideology. No doubt, sexual repression and segregation of men and women in some Islamic cultures has far-ranging cultural and psychological impacts.

But as an explanation of the motivations for terror, this theory just doesn't fit with the evidence. If sexual repression promoted terror, one would expect that it would also promote a variety of other violent expressions. If Islamic terrorism were caused by a generalized frustration among Islamic men, it would stand to reason that Islamic countries would be generally more violent than more sexually permissive countries. Is it so?

Bernard Lewis is a favorite among conservatives, and isn't usually accused of taking an excessively positive view of Islamic peoples. But here he is in his influential September 1990 Atlantic essay:
There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations.
Hmm. Dignity? Courtesy toward others rarely equaled in other civilizations? Doesn't sound to me like a culture riven by violence. Lewis continues:
And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government of an ancient and civilized country -- even the spokesman of a great spiritual and ethical religion -- to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions.
Okay, so that doesn't sound so good. But it doesn't seem, in Lewis's telling, that this "rage and hatred" is driven by sexual frustration. After all, it's hard to see why sexual frustration would be especially powerful during periods of "upheaval and disruption." Lewis, rather, attributes this rage and hatred to the challenge that the West poses to Islam as an alternative source of values and social organization, to the (correct) identification of the West as the source of "cataclysmic changes" that threaten traditional ways, and to the humiliation of a proud civilization bested economically, scientifically, and militarily by the West.

Is Lewis's assessment right? Beats me. But it provides no support for the theory that sexual repression is at the heart of Islamic rage.

If a generalized sexual frustration drives terrorism, surely it should also drive other forms of crime. And yet, here's Robert D. Kaplan, describing a 2002 trip to Yemen:
The Arab world, while afflicted by political violence, had little or no common crime. In this sense, Islam had risen to the challenge of urbanization and modern life, and was a full-fledged success.
Kaplan again:
For decades millions of Muslims have been pouring out of the villages and leaving behind, you know, a situation where religion was just a natural outgrowth of age-old practices. And rushing into these pseudo western cities where there was bad sewage, bad plumbing, you know, electricity and water systems were decaying and where family life was under attack. And in order to keep crime rates low, to keep family life stable-- which they did successfully-- they had to reinvent religion in starker, more ideological austere terms. This worked. So you have these cities in the Muslim world with millions of people, poor, downtrodden yet random crime is very low, almost nonexistent because the intensification of religiosity has worked but it's produced an ironic situation. There is now a fertile . . . [petri] dish to call it that for the emergence of disease germs like terrorists.

No generalized rage here, in Kaplan's version. Just an intense religiousity that reinforces traditional family life and social order, but that also incubates in its followers a willingness to commit terrorist acts to defend or promote or impose their religion. Is he right? Again, Citizen Cain doesn't know. But at least Kaplan's explanation, unlike the sexual repression hypothesis, accounts for both the low crime rates in many Islamic countries and the existence of terrorism.

Kaplan might be prone to over-generalization, or he might just be wrong about the low crime rate in Islamic countries? What do the statistics say? Let's turn to the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control for an Epidemiology of Violent Deaths in the World. This publication does not distinguish between Islamic countries non-Islamic countries, or between sexually repressive and sexually permissive countries. But it does break out homicide data by region, including the "Middle Eastern crescent." In 1990, this region had an age-adjusted homide rate overall and for males that were lower than the world averages, and lower than the United States. Overall rates of violent death were high, but as the result of the Iran-Iraq war, not as a result of homicides.

The proponents of the theory that Islamic sexual repression leads to terrorism lack an explanation of how this causation could work without also promoting high rates of non-terrorist violence. So can we please move on and think more sensibly about what the real sources of terror are, both in Islamic culture and in our own policies?