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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Iraq: the case against the case against withdrawal

Mark Lynch (aka "Abu Aardvark") had an excellent post this week about the imagined "worst case" should the US withdraw from Iraq. He called his post, "debating withdrawal II: the phantom menace."

Lynch is not yet convinced that withdrawal is the best policy, but he does a terrific job of shooting down some of the arguments made by war supporters.

For example, Lynch doesn't think there's much risk of Iraq serving as al-Qaeda's future base. It won't be another Afghanistan:
"Al-Qaeda can not seize control of Iraq because of the ethnic and regional balance of power, regardless of America's presence. The majority Shia, backed by Iran, would fight tooth and nail against it. So would many Sunnis - probably with the backing of the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and even Syrians who see al-Qaeda as a direct threat to their own security and survival. The al-Qaeda role in the insurgency has always been exaggerated, with the bulk of what we call the insurgency rooted in the local Sunni community..."
Even if Iraq becomes a failed state, Lynch finds it unlikely that al-Qaeda would be able to establish an operational base there. He argues that whatever Iraqis are in charge, they would not allow it.

However, I'm not sure this really gets at the administration position. The kind of truly failed state they imagine is early '90s Afghanistan or Somalia. The risks might be highest if no one is clearly in charge.

Like war opponents, Lynch thinks that the US presence in Iraq provides Al-Qaeda with a justification for killing Americans in the field that resonates with the Iraqi and Arab publics. Thankfully, he concludes:
If the Americans left, al-Qaeda would likely soon follow because killing other Iraqis does them little good - it is fighting and killing Americans which sells videos and wins recruits.
This would probably be good news for those who fear US withdrawal means civil war. True, foreigners constitute only 10% of the insurgency, but the withdrawal of both American and jihadi forces would almost have to make any civil war less deadly. After all, there would be fewer weapons and targets.

Lynch says that a more serious argument offered by war proponents is that Al-Qaeda might claim victory and erode US credibility. He finds this point "unpersuasive," however, largely because the US presence in Iraq was obviously not a key al-Qaeda grievance on 9/11. Do "they" really hate us more now than they did then? The Iraq war may provide an additional recruiting spark in Iraq, but withdrawal would likely reduce that threat. Lynch also discusses some academic work about state reputation suggesting that these kinds of fears about credibility are overblown (related work here).

Finally, Lynch accurately notes that the war is also economically costly to the US, which may actually be consistent with terrorist goals.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006


The BBC reports this interesting bit of news, August 29:
Iran's president has challenged US President George W Bush to a live TV debate on world affairs.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the US and UK of abusing their "special privileges" and said a debate would let both sides air their views uncensored.
The White House declined.

Maybe Bush wants to debate Iran's ex-President instead? The US just granted him a visa to visit next week. He'll give a speech in Washington and then head to the UN for a conference.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Lately on the Duck of Minerva

Earlier today at the Duck of Minerva group IR blog, I posted "Turkey: frontline state?" concerning recent key political decisions and violence in the pivotal geostrategic country.

On Saturday August 25, I posted "Conspiracy?" on the Duck, concerning recent revelations about the Pentagon lying about its actions on 9/11.

And last Thursday I posted about the "Film class: week I."


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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Just doin' my job

Would you brag about this?
From January 1983 to November 1986, Oliver North was the U.S. government's counter-terrorism coordinator. During his tenure the world witnessed a dramatic increase in hijackings, bombing and kidnappings by radical Islamic terrorists.
That's how Fox News recently promoted its well-known talking head.

According to Rupert Murdoch's network, North's "experience will provide you with a unique and unprecedented perspective."

Update note: I sometimes forget my younger readers. Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who was working in the National Security Council, "masterminded" the illegal sale of arms to Iran in the mid-1980s. According to Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh in 1993, North "was the White House official most directly involved in secretly aiding the contras, selling arms to Iran, and diverting Iran arms sales proceeds to the contras."

Since January 19, 1984, Iran has been on the official State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. It's a significant list:
Countries determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism are designated pursuant to three laws: section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act. Taken together, the four main categories of sanctions resulting from designation under these authorities include restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.

Designation under the above-referenced authorities also implicates other sanctions laws that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with state sponsors.
North's conviction for assorted crimes was overturned because his nationally televised (and immunized) congressional testimony had likely tainted the jury.

So he sold arms to a terrorist-sponsoring nation, but got off on a technicality.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Iran threat: known unknowns

The BBC, from the latest House Intelligence Committee report:
"There is a great deal about Iran that we do not know," it says, warning that "policymakers will need high-quality intelligence to assess Iranian intentions to prepare for any new round of negotiations".

"A special concern is major gaps in our knowledge of Iranian nuclear, biological, and chemical programmes," the report says.
Despite the uncertainly acknowledged in the report, most of the news stories seem to quote the parts of the document that make Iran seem especially threatening.

Yes, the full report asserts that the threat from Iran is growing. And Iran's alleged pursuit of WMD is described as "probable."

However, there is another interesting possibility raised on p. 13. Iran could just be bluffing -- like Iraq apparently was:
Although it is likely that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, there is the possibility that Iran could be engaged in a denial and deception campaign to exaggerate progress on its nuclear program such as Saddam Hussein apparently did concerning his WMD programs. U.S. leaders need more definitive intelligence to judge the status of the Iranian nuclear program and whether there have been any related deception efforts.
I haven't seen this view referenced widely throughout the media reports.

For some additional healthy skepticism about the report, see Gary Sick's thoughts, as reported by Laura Rozen guesting blogging at Political Animal.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose

I saw Dwight Yoakam last night at the Kentucky State Fair and he put on a great show. Over the course of two hours, the singer performed a broad sample of his hits and a diverse array of covers (many by his friend and hero, Buck Owens).

The weather was great, especially for the Ohio River Valley in August, but it was not a perfect show. Dwight Yoakam may be a performer near the peak of his artistic career, but the sound system was not especially good (at least where I was sitting) and his voice lacks some of the range and force of his youth.

The title of this blog post is a track title from Yoakam's 1990 CD, "If There Was a Way." It's a song about a guy trying to use (loud) music to forget a "memory that's driving me lonely, crazy and blue." It was one of the most inspired songs Yoakam sang last night. His voice effectively conveys dispair and loneliness, and I don't think the guy in the song is able to overcome his pain.

Indeed, as Marty Rosen wrote in his published review, Yoakam "ventured off the trail into places of primeval madness — 'Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose' dissolved into soft yips and barks that might have come from a den of wolf pups."

Primeval madness. Hey, that reminds me of somebody else...

In fact, the song's chorus reminded me, author of this political blog, of a post I did not complete yesterday about another guy in trouble and his most recent pathetic attempts to deflect his suffering.

Did I mention that Yoakam began the evening with "Blame the Vain"?

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Iraq: Does the right think it's time to quit?

A year ago today, I wrote a post called "Framing Iraq: a Lesson from the Vietnam Experience." If you didn't read it, please do so because I think it is one of my better posts; indeed, I feature it among the "Greatest Hits" in the sidebar.

If you read the post a year ago, you probably recall my argument that the Bush administration's frame about Iraq is false. The policy choice is NOT simply between "stay the course" and "cut-and-run." War supporters employ this frame to silence its critics -- and to link them to the perceived far left of American politics. Anyone witnessing the right's reaction to Ned Lamont's primary victory witnessed the battle plan.

However, there is an obvious third possibility that the administration (and its left-leaning) critics mostly ignore: escalation.

I argued last August 21 that war opponents might be able to convince a sizable portion of the American electorate to abandon the Bush administration if it becomes clear that the U.S. is not really serious about winning in Iraq. They would support escalation, in order to win the war decisively, but that is apparently not on the table. If "stay-the-course" means civil war without much prospect for US victory, then so-called "Jacksonian" Americans might prefer withdrawal altogether to the status quo.

Why am I bringing this up again? Well, self-described right-wing blogger Rick Moran posted this yesterday: "IRAQ: QUIT OR COMMIT." I certainly don't agree with much of his diagnosis or analysis, but I do think Moran's post reflects exactly the type of thinking I was talking about a year ago.

Note: Karl Rove may already be all over this problem. It could explain why RNC Chair Ken Mehlman explicitly now rejects the "stay-the-course" phrase in favor of "win by adapting." Then again, the administration sometimes seems to trot out new rhetoric merely on a trial basis; thus, this new label might not last. Spokesperson Tony Snow used "stay the course" just last week. Bush said "stay the course" most recently on July 11.

Hat tip to Dave Johnson at Seeing the Forest for pointing me to Moran's piece.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book promotion

Pittsburgh's City Paper ran a nice review of Hitting First: Preventive Force in U.S. Security Strategy in the July 20 edition. Here's what Chris Potter wrote about my contribution:
Administration critics will enjoy seeing contributors like Rodger A. Payne replay flawed administration claims about Iraqi WMD. In light of current events, its almost amusing to be reminded of Cheney’s pre-war claims that Iraq “has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons” and that it “has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.” Intelligence agencies played along. Payne notes that in 2001, the government’s National Intelligence Estimate surmised that “Iraq did not appear to have reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.” A year later, however, the estimate began warning that Iraq “began reconstituting its nuclear program shortly after the departure of [weapons] inspectors in December 1998.”
The article includes interviews with editors Gordon Mitchell and Bill Keller. Potter also talked to a couple of the other local contributors and to Michael Glennon of Tufts and Ivo Daalder of Brookings.

Those latter two guys are made men in the American foreign policy mafia -- CFR members with past and present connections to U.S. policy -- Congress, the NSC, and State.

Maybe that means the book will get some traction this fall.

Note: the book's table of contents are here. That's a pdf from the press. Chapter 1 by the editors has also been posted, "Preemption, Prevention, Prevarication."

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Let this tide you over

I have moved down the hall to a larger office and the semester begins next week. Since I still have around 20 boxes of books to unpack and a course syllabus to finish, expect light posting here for a few days.

This should keep you busy: I wrote today about the ongoing questions about the airliner plot in my post on "Nuclear Plant Safety" over at the Duck of Minerva. The post tries to consider big picture issues concerning relative risks.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

It's good to be King

How will Republicans talk about Iraq this fall? That could be a critical factor determining whether or not the Democrats can win one or both houses of Congress in 2006.

Well, one of the most conservative members of Congress, Republican Steve King from Iowa received a lot of attention two months ago for making this claim about Iraq on the floor of the House of Representatives:
"27.51 Iraqis per 100,000 die a violent death on an annual basis. 27.51. Now what does that mean? To me, it really doesn't mean a lot until I compare it to people that I know or have a feel for the rhythm of this place. Well I by now have a feel for the rhythm of this place called Washington, D.C., and my wife lives here with me, and I can tell you, Mr. Speaker, she's at far greater risk being a civilian in Washington, D.C. than an average civilian in Iraq. 45 out of every 100,000 Washington, D.C. regular residents die a violent death on an annual basis."
King's claim is nearly as egregious as one made by Fox anchor Brit Hume, who back in 2003 asserted that US soldiers (then dying at a rate of 1.7 per day) were safer in Iraq than average people are in California (which has 6.6 murders per day). To justify his claim, Hume noted that California and Iraq are nearly the same geographic size!

Hume failed to note that California has a population of 33.8 million people, while Iraq has hosted only about 160,000 US soldiers even when the troop rotations have been boosted for significant threats -- related to elections, etc. If the US deployed just 1.6 million soldiers, and if they were killed at the same rate, that would mean a death rate of 17 per day -- and California would still have more than 20 times as many people. That was a foolish comparison .

If I were a Democrat running for Congress, I think I'd want my opponent to make these kinds of delusional comments about Iraq. The American people know that "stability and order" have not yet arrived in Iraq -- verbal trickery is NOT going to change that.

I want to look in a more detailed fashion at King's remarks. First, consider what King admits he didn't count:
King said that with the help of the Congressional Research Service and a Web site that tracks Iraqi deaths, he and his staff compiled statistics on how many civilians per 100,000 in Iraq die a violent death. He said he did not include police - because they are involved in combat - and other members of the Iraqi military....

King said he did not have the ability to break out figures for Baghdad, where much of the violence in Iraq has occurred, and which would provide a city-to-city comparison.
These errors significantly distort the data. There have been 2200+ police deaths in Iraq since March 2003. Iraq's population is less than 10% of America's, but only 155 American police offers died in the line of duty in 2004 -- and half of those were killed in traffic accidents!

A study by the Brookings Institution reveals what even President Bush knows and discusses publicly-- that Baghdad is a particularly nasty place to live:
Brookings arrived at a Baghdad violent death rate of 100 per 100,000, as of May, but cautioned that "our estimates could be too high as some of the gunshot victims may be insurgents killed intentionally by the U.S. military, or too low since many murder victims are never taken to the morgue but buried quickly and privately and therefore never recorded in official tallies."
Clearly, Baghdad isn't safer than the US capital. According to the assistant director of the Baghdad morgue, 90% of the deaths this past July (2006) were due to violence.

King also cherry-picked the data about Washington DC, which in 2003 had a violent death rate (45 per 100,000) significantly higher than it did in 2005:
Brookings also noted that the homicide rate for Washington in 2005 was 35 per 100,000, down from the 2003 rate quoted by King.
If we reversed King's deception, he looks like a complete idiot because the national U.S. violent death rate is 4.2 per 100,000.
National rate: Iraq 27 (by King's count); US 4
Capital rate: Baghdad 100; Washington, DC 35
I hope every Republican running for Congress asks Steve King to visit and campaign. So long as voters aren't getting their news exclusively from Brit Hume, they should be able to spot the fools.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

How significant was the threat?

As my regular readers know, I've long been interested in the problem of threat inflation. One of my earliest publications was about this phenomenon back in the Reagan '80s -- and my most recent book chapter again returns to this issue. On this blog, I've repeatedly explored the hyperbole and deception used to sell the Iraq war.

In a new post at the Duck of Minerva, I explore recent speculation and evidence that the Bush administration, in cahoots with the Blair government, may have exaggerated the threat in last week's airline plot.

Check it out.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Film class selections

As I've previously mentioned, I'm teaching "(Global) Politics Through Film" this semester for the first time. For months, I've been trying to select the appropriate movies. Kudos to various readers for making suggestions -- and please accept my apologies for not selecting all films that were recommended. There were simply too many good possibilities.

Given that classes begin a week from tomorrow, this list is final, though the order could change a bit as I tweak the syllabus:

I. Realist view of world politics: the role of states, the importance of fear and violence in international political life, and the alleged "tragedy of great power politics."
Twelve O'Clock High
Saving Private Ryan

II. Nationalism, idealism and internationalism
The Quiet American
Black Hawk Down
Breaker Morant
Red Dawn

III. Critical perspectives: comedy and critique
The Great Dictator
Wag the Dog
Dr. Strangelove

IV. Human security
The Whale Rider
Hotel Rwanda

You can probably tell from my list that I decided to screen primarily good (or even great) films. I decided to avoid, for the most part anyway, truly bad cinema.

My syllabus includes this disclaimer:
Many of the films are rated R and “feature” crude language, intense scenes of violence and naked human bodies. If that offends you, then please do not remain in the class.
Let me know if you think that should be reworked.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Hitting First is out

My copy of Hitting First: Preventive Force in U.S. Security Strategy arrived this past week, so go ahead and order yours now.

I've mentioned this edited volume -- and the work that went into it -- several times in the past.

This synopsis appears on the University of Pittsburgh Press website:
A critical analysis of the political dialogue leading up to the embrace of preventive war as national policy and rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Offers a framework for avoiding future policy breakdowns through deliberative public and governmental debate.
As you might have guessed, this work includes a chapter by yours truly.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Latest terror plot

I was interviewed twice today about the terrorist arrests in England. The local public radio station (WFPL) talked to me around noon, and then WHAS TV came by at 2 pm.

So far, I haven't heard or seen either broadcast, but I presume they won't use more than 20 to 45 seconds of tape even though I talked for 5 to 10 minutes to each of the reporters.

Basically, I said that these kinds of arrests reflect good intelligence and police work, and are arguably the most important part of the "war on terror" as most people think of it. There are reports that some of the suspects are linked to Pakistan and US officials are already suggesting al Qaeda connections. If the plot to blow up multiple planes had been successful, it would have been nearly as dramatic -- and traumatic as 9/11.

Of course, I also mentioned that the risks of terrorism are relatively low. It has been nearly 5 years since 9/11 and few Americans have died in terror attacks. This doesn't mean that law enforcement and intell officers should not be vigilant, but it does suggest that the general public has little need to live in a constant state of heightened fear and anxiety.

The risk of terror attack is sort of like the risk of dying in a lightening strike. It's horrible when it happens, but society survives and there is no need to turn the nation into a police state. There is no way to eliminate every risk of terrorism (bombs in stadiums, schools, etc.) and many freedoms would be lost if we tried too hard to limit behavior.

In any case, the arrests were certainly good news.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Missing students

Have you seen the story about the missing international students? From CNN:
Immigration agents and the FBI are looking for 11 Egyptian students who entered the United States on valid student visas, then failed to show up at a university in Montana, authorities said.
17 exchange students arrived a JFK on July 29, but only 6 of them ended up at Montana State. The names of the other 11 are publicly listed by the FBI and CNN.

This could be nothing -- and it probably is.

But fears of 9/11 remain. Everyone knows that some hijackers posed as "students" -- a couple even received approved visas months after the attacks.

International visitors arrive with great frequency in the US and many decide to visit relatives or friends. Others seek jobs as undocumented workers.

Colleges have been burdened by new security-related federal regulations in the post-9/11 world and this most recent case may provide lawmakers with all the excuse they need to crack down further.

Foreign student enrollments have declined significantly and this has aleady adversely effected the science and engineering fields.

Given the great anti-immigrant sentiment that exists in the US, let's hope that these Egyptian students turn up soon...perhaps recovering from a bender.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006


Ever wonder who answers those Nigerian phishing scams?

Here's a possible subset of the population. From today's AP story:
a Harris Poll released July 21 found that a full 50 percent of U.S. respondents -- up from 36 percent last year -- said they believe Iraq did have the forbidden arms when U.S. troops invaded in March 2003, an attack whose stated purpose was elimination of supposed WMD. Other polls also have found an enduring American faith in the WMD story.
Yes, after all this time, half the population tells pollsters that Iraq had WMD!

I've previously mentioned one explanation for this mistaken belief. Some members of Congress keep emphasizing the meaningless chemical shells found in the past few years:
But the Pentagon and outside experts stressed that these abandoned shells, many found in ones and twos, were 15 years old or more, their chemical contents were degraded, and they were unusable as artillery ordnance. Since the 1990s, such "orphan" munitions, from among 160,000 made by Iraq and destroyed, have turned up on old battlefields and elsewhere in Iraq, ex-inspectors say. In other words, this was no surprise.
If the US went to war against every weak chemically-armed state, it would need to prepare for 50 wars.

Some other "experts," without any real evidence, claim that Iraq's missing WMD ended up in Syria.

At least this AP reporter, Charles Hanley, is willing to call the President out on his role in continuing the mass misperception:
Bush himself, since 2003, has repeatedly insisted on one plainly false point: that Saddam rebuffed the U.N. inspectors in 2002, that "he wouldn't let them in," as he said in 2003, and "he chose to deny inspectors," as he said this March.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Memo from Baghdad

The British ambassador to Iraq has returned home, but William Patey's last official confidential diplomatic telegram provides what the BBC calls a "devastating official assessment of the prospects for a peaceful Iraq". As the BBC reports, the pessimism reflected in the leaked memo "stands in stark contrast to the public rhetoric":
The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy.

Even the lowered expectation of President Bush for Iraq - a government that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror - must remain in doubt.
The Guardian story about the memo notes that a secret American study prepared a few months ago arrived at much the same conclusion:
In April, an internal US government report portrayed a grim picture of Iraq's stability, rating six of the country's 18 provinces as in a "serious" situation and one "critical".

The US ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, confirmed the report, which was leaked to the New York Times. The report, a "provincial stability assessment", prepared by the US embassy and the US military command, was in marked contrast with the sunnier assessments generally heard from the White House and the Pentagon.
The next time President Bush or some other self-serving politician declares, as Bush did just last Wednesday July 26, that he is "confident we will succeed" in Iraq, consider whether the public rhetoric matches the great doubt expressed much more privately by the true experts.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Facts of the day: clean water

It's hot and dry across the USA right now, but at least Americans generally have plentiful access to clean drinking water and toilets. Much of the world does not, which is why the UN's Millennium Development Goals include plans to improve access.

Consider this information, from the Earth Policy Institute:
The United Nations Millennium Development Goal for environmental sustainability calls for halving the proportion of people lacking sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. Meeting this goal would require doubling the $15 billion a year that the world currently spends on water supply and sanitation. While this amount may seem large, it pales in comparison to the estimated $100 billion spent each year on bottled water.
As the EPI article points out, bottling water creates all sorts of negative externalities for the environment -- the bottles alone require millions of barrels of oil and several million tons of plastic, most of which is NOT recycled. In the US, about 85% of bottles end up as garbage or litter and nearly 40% of recycled bottles are exported!

Americans drink about one-sixth of the world's bottled war annually; the top two brands are Aquafina and Dasani. Those familiar bottles are filled with filtered tap water, marketed and sold by Pepsi and Coke. According to government and industry estimates, about one-fourth of all bottled water is merely tap water. Chemical tests often reveal that bottled water is not safer than water from the tap and is often less healthy.

Since bottled water frequently (perhaps typically) costs more per gallon than gasoline, figure that Americans spend somewhere around $10 to $15 billion per year on this product.

I will repeat from above. The UN MDG seeks $15 billion annually to provide clean drinking water to 1 to 1.5 billion people (mostly in Asia and Africa) and basic sanitation to nearly 2.5 billion people.

Lack of access to clean water and sanitation are major factors in various childhood diseases, like diarrhea, which kill 11 million kids under the age of 5 annually. These factors are also a large reason why malaria kills 1 million of the 300 million cases of infection every year. Women and children spend considerable amounts of time finding and carrying water -- often instead of attending school.

The world currently consumes 150+ billion liters of bottled water each year, so it would cost less than 10 cents per liter to achieve the MDG goal.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

News media connections

Remember the good old days when foreign correspondents married Democrats?

Apparently, that's ancient history now. The so-called "liberal media" is voluntarily crawling into bed with Republicans with strong connections to the Bush administration:
Weekend Today co-anchor Campbell Brown, 37, and Dan Senor, 34, a FOX News analyst, were married on Sunday in Colorado...

Brown is also a correspondent for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and the Today show. She and Senor were first reported to be dating in October 2004, and got engaged last November.

Senor, a Republican strategist as well as a FOX News contributor, previously worked in Iraq as a spokesperson for and senior advisor to U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer.
I don't know if Brown invited NBC colleague Andrea Mitchell. She's married to Alan Greenspan.

The Washington Post has a business relationship with NBC, but I likewise don't know if columnist Robert Kagan was invited. He's married to Victoria Nuland.

It's a small world, isn't it?

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My latest posts over at the Duck of Minerva:

Are you desperate for work? August 1, 2006. This addresses the latest job ads for social scientists in Iraq...with Pentagon cash, naturally.

Nero's empire, July 28, 2006. The post addresses the prospects for wider war in the Middle East, based partly on Condi Rice's failed diplomacy.

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