The Secret History of the Impending War with Iran

In the November issue of Esquire, two former high-ranking policy experts from the Bush Administration say the US has been gearing up for a war with Iran for years, despite claiming otherwise.

In the years after 9/11, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann worked at the highest levels of the Bush administration as Middle East policy experts for the National Security Council. Mann conducted secret negotiations with Iran. Leverett traveled with Colin Powell and advised Condoleezza Rice. They each played crucial roles in formulating policy for the region leading up to the war in Iraq. But when they left the White House, they left with a growing sense of alarm — not only was the Bush administration headed straight for war with Iran, it had been set on this course for years. That was what people didn’t realize. It was just like Iraq, when the White House was so eager for war it couldn’t wait for the UN inspectors to leave. The steps have been many and steady and all in the same direction. And now things are getting much worse. We are getting closer and closer to the tripline, they say.

What comes through in the article is how Iran and other countries in the Middle East have been making overtures to the US for years, to solve the regions’ many problems and its differences with the United States. Everett and Mann were at the center of many of these efforts, but were continually rebuffed by the White House.

Read the full article here. Read also how they’ve been silenced.

Moral Relativism

After years of hearing the right-wing decry the ‘moral relativism’ of ‘liberals’, I was at a loss for the proper description of Rudy Giuliani’s approach to waterboarding.

Linda Gustitus, who is the president of a group called the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, began her question by saying that President Bush’s nominee for attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey (who happens to be an old friend of Mr. Giuliani’s) had “fudged” on the question of whether waterboarding is toture.

“I wanted to ask you two questions,’’ she said. “One, do you think waterboarding is torture? And two, do you think the president can order something like waterboarding even though it’s against U.S. and international law?’’

Mr. Giuliani responded: “O.K. First of all, I don’t believe the attorney general designate in any way was unclear on torture. I think Democrats said that; I don’t think he was.’’

Ms. Gustitus said: “He said he didn’t know if waterboarding is torture.”

Mr. Giuliani said: “Well, I’m not sure it is either. I’m not sure it is either. It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. I think the way it’s been defined in the media, it shouldn’t be done. The way in which they have described it, particularly in the liberal media. So I would say, if that’s the description of it, then I can agree, that it shouldn’t be done. But I have to see what the real description of it is. Because I’ve learned something being in public life as long as I have. And I hate to shock anybody with this, but the newspapers don’t always describe it accurately.”

It depends on who does it?

It depends on the circumstances?

I have to see what the real description of it is?

So, suppose, just for the sake of argument, that US forces were trying to pacify a foreign land, which was plagued by a fanatical insurgency, and we needed to get information from suspected insurgents or sympathizers? American lives are being lost to brutal attacks, and even the friendly locals may be turning around and supporting the insurgents when our backs are turned? Would that be appropriate circumstances?

Towards the end of 1900, the Americans declared martial law. To combat guerrilla warfare, they launched a scorched-earth “pacification” campaign. Every Filipino was viewed as an enemy regardless of whether he or she took up arms. Entire towns were held responsible for the actions of guerrillas. Mere objection to the Americans was termed treason. Villages sympathetic to the guerrillas were burned and people indiscriminately killed. Torture was systematically used to elicit information from suspected guerrillas or their sympathizers. One form of torture was the “water cure” treatment where the victim was forced to drink excessive amounts of water after which he was stomped on the stomach. One U.S. soldier bragged in a letter that Americans were shooting Filipinos “like rabbits.” Even though the U.S. War Department imposed blanket censorship, these atrocities became widely known because American soldiers wrote to their families and relatives in the U.S. and related stories of abuse. Some of these letters were eventually published in American local newspapers, highlighting the brutality of these “pacification” campaigns, leading to Congressional investigation, public outrage, and considerable embarrassment for the White House.

Part of the strategy was the introduction of “reconcentration”, a policy of hauling thousands of Filipinos (whom Americans referred to as their “little brown brothers”) into concentration camps to flush out the guerrillas among them and to cut their material support to the resistance movement. In the process of reconcentration, whole towns suffered from starvation and disease. Villagers were taken from their sources of livelihood and were not decently fed. Worse, living conditions were less than adequate, with people confined in overcrowded camps without proper sanitation. Camps then became breeding grounds for the spread of deadly diseases such as cholera.

The guerilla war for independence did not immediately end with Aguilnaldo’s capture on March 23, 1901; the insurrection lasted until July 1902. In the end, it took over three years to “pacify” the Philippines. More than 120,000 American soldiers served in the Philippines, 4,200 of whom died. It was estimated that 25,000 Filipino rebels and 200,000 civilians also died.

Since Rudy wants to know the details, perhaps he should hear about how it was previously done by American forces:

Riley, a sergeant in the Twenty-sixth Regiment, the son and brother of reputable men well known in Northampton, wrote home on November 25, 1900, as follows:

Arriving at Igbaras at daylight, we found everything peaceful; but it shortly developed that we were really “treading on a volcano.” The presidente, the priest, and another leading man were assembled, and put on the rack of inquiry. The presidente evaded some questions, and was soon bound and given the “water cure.” This was done by throwing him on his back beneath a tank of water and running a stream into his mouth, a man kneading his stomach meanwhile to prevent his drowning. The ordeal proved a tongue-loosener, and the crafty old fellow soon begged for mercy and made full confession…. The presidente was asked for more information, and had to take a second dose of “water cure” before he would divulge.

Of course, experts like Torquemada had a more refined technique, apparently unknown to ‘reputable men well known in Northampton’:

The methods of torture most used by the Inquisition were garrucha, toca and the potro. The application of the garrucha, also known as the strappado, consisted of suspending the criminal from the ceiling by a pulley with weights tied to the ankles, with a series of lifts and drops, during which arms and legs suffered violent pulls and were sometimes dislocated. The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had impression of drowning. The potro, the rack, was the instrument of torture used most frequently.

In modern parlance, I think they call garrucha a “stress position”.

Still, it may be there have been some refinements in modern times. If one is to believe the biased liberal media, it has been discovered that actual ingestion of the water is no longer necessary for the psychological effect of drowning. Perhaps Rudy believes that covering the face with cellophane makes the process something other than torture. Not surprisingly, Human Rights Watch disagrees:

The Convention Against Torture prohibits practices that constitute the intentional infliction of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.” The federal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2340A, similarly prohibits acts outside the United States that are specifically intended to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

Waterboarding is torture. It causes severe physical suffering in the form of reflexive choking, gagging, and the feeling of suffocation. It may cause severe pain in some cases. If uninterrupted, waterboarding will cause death by suffocation. It is also foreseeable that waterboarding, by producing an experience of drowning, will cause severe mental pain and suffering. The technique is a form of mock execution by suffocation with water. The process incapacitates the victim from drawing breath, and causes panic, distress, and terror of imminent death. Many victims of waterboarding suffer prolonged mental harm for years and even decades afterward.

Waterboarding, when used against people captured in the context of war, may also amount to a war crime as defined under the federal war crimes statute 18 U.S.C. § 2441, which criminalizes grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (in international armed conflicts), and violations of Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions (in non-international armed conflicts). Waterboarding is also an assault, and thus violates the federal assault statute, 18 U.S.C. § 113, when it occurs in the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,” a jurisdictional area which includes government installations overseas. In cases involving the U.S. armed forces, waterboarding also amounts to assault, and cruelty and maltreatment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

John McCain has his own opinion:

“All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today,” Mr. McCain, who spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, said in a telephone interview.

Of presidential candidates like Mr. Giuliani, who say that they are unsure whether waterboarding is torture, Mr. McCain said: “They should know what it is. It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.”

But of course, according to Rudy that’s all an exaggeration. It all depends on the circumstances.

See Digby and the Anonymous Liberal for more.

(cross-posted from Ratiocination.)

Naomi Wolf on “The End of America”

Naomi Wolf presents the ideas in her book, The End of America, at the University of Washington. Video is a bit long, but the illuminating introduction explains what drove her to write it, and promises some hope by the end of her talk.

Wolf argues that the language, images, and manipulations that despots used in the past to break down democracies have a consistent pattern, and are being employed here and now. From Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, and to the present, she finds that all modern despots do the same things. Mussolini created the formula, Hitler followed it, and Stalin studied Hitler – this pattern gets passed down. Wolf summarized this blueprint in ten points:

  1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
  2. Create a gulag
  3. Develop a thug caste
  4. Set up an internal surveillance system
  5. Harass citizens’ groups
  6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
  7. Target key individuals
  8. Control the press
  9. Dissent equals treason
  10. Suspend the rule of law

In the video, Wolf argues that all of these factors are now underway in the USA. It’s a different take on the popular 14 points of fascism – without invoking the "f" word. Her phrase "shutting down a democracy", gets past the objections associated with "fascism". However, Wolf goes beyond a simple list of features and demonstrates both the predictive nature of her model, and the non-linear nature of change as a democracy weakens. She closes with:

…History shows it’s not enough to impeach criminals and murderers. You have to put them behind bars.

The Founders did not intend for us to delegate the defense of liberty to a professional class of pundits or politicians or constitutional scholars. The Founders intended for us to do it.

What the Founders intended was for ordinary Americans, ordinary people to assume the patriot’s task and lead the fight to restore democracy, and to see themselves as leaders.

Happy Trails to Me

I’ll be away from the Internets from early tomorrow morning until Sunday night, attending a meditation retreat. I’m leaving Mahablog in the capable hands of Moonbat and Biggerbox, and maybe a couple of other people if they feel like posting. Just pick up after yourselves while I’m gone, OK?

What We Might Do

Twenty years ago, President Reagan made this offhand remark: “I think it’s better if the Iranians go to bed every night wondering what we might do.'” The late Herbert Block drew a cartoon (click here or on thumbnail) showing a sleepless American, also wondering what we might do.

Maybe Bush and Cheney aren’t so different from Saint Ronnie after all.

A White House request for $88 million to fit “bunker-busting” bombs to B-2 stealth has caused speculation of attacks on Iranian nuclear sites. Today the Bushies announced broad new sanctions on Iran.

From today’s Morning Edition on National Public Radio:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Thursday that new sanctions against Iran will protect the international financial system from “the illicit activities of the Iranian government.”

The sanctions will “provide a powerful deterrent to every international bank and government that thinks of doing business with the Iranian government,” Rice said. …

… The idea is to cut Iran from the international financial system. U.S. sanctions could hurt because of the signal it sends to the rest of the world. The U.S. has put in its list three banks, in addition to the defense ministry and the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps controls numerous businesses in Iran, including some in the oil sector. Specifically it means any assets these groups may have in the U.S. will be frozen and Americans can’t do business with them.

On the other side of the debate, Rice is playing defense and losing, according to experts who say sanctions only push the two countries into a situation where it will be harder for future administrations to deal with Iran.

Barbara Slavin writes for National Interest Online,

The Bush administration’s decision Thursday to put new sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its elite Quds force is a calculated gamble intended to convince Iran’s leadership to behave better in Iraq and suspend uranium enrichment.

But the step could backfire by arousing a nationalist backlash in Iran and convincing the leadership there that the U.S. government is not interested in negotiations—only in squeezing the Iranian economy until its people rise up and overthrow the regime.

Unfortunately, the chances of regime change remain minimal while oil approaches $100 a barrel. Meanwhile, U.S. actions could eliminate whatever slim chance there is of a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program and its rising power in the Middle East.

With whom exactly is the United States supposed to negotiate such a solution? The Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, is a Quds force commander, according to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military man in Iraq. Does that mean that U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker,­ who has met twice with Kazemi-Qomi, cannot speak to him again? Or just that Crocker can’t lend him money?

One man’s terrorist is another’s diplomat.

It’s a bit like watching a herd of buffalo stampede toward the brink of the Grand Canyon.

Rosa Brooks of the Los Angeles Times asks, “What’s a constitutional democracy to do when the president and vice president lose their marbles?”

We’re in the middle of a disastrous war in Iraq, the military and political situation in Afghanistan is steadily worsening, and the administration’s interrogation and detention tactics have inflamed anti-Americanism and fueled extremist movements around the globe. Sane people, confronting such a situation, do their best to tamp down tensions, rebuild shattered alliances, find common ground with hostile parties and give our military a little breathing space. But crazy people? They look around and decide it’s a great time to start another war.

That would be with Iran, and you’d have to be deaf not to hear the war drums. Last week, Bush remarked that “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III . . . you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” On Sunday, Cheney warned of “the Iranian regime’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East and to gain hegemonic power . . . [we] cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its most aggressive ambitions.” On Tuesday, Bush insisted on the need “to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat.”

Huh? Iran is now a major threat to Europe? The Iranians are going to launch a nuclear missile (that they don’t yet possess) against Europe (for reasons unknown because, as far as we know, they’re not mad at anyone in Europe)? This is lunacy in action.

Writing in Newsweek on Oct. 20, Fareed Zakaria, a solid centrist and former editor of Foreign Affairs, put it best. Citing Bush’s invocation of “the specter of World War III if Iran gained even the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon,” Zakaria concluded that “the American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. . . . Iran has an economy the size of Finland’s. . . . It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are . . . allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?”

Planet Cheney.

The thing is, we’ve gotten so used to an executive branch making no sense whatsoever that most of the country pays little attention. And if we did pay attention, how could we sleep at night?

Update: See also Crooks and Liars.

Burning Blame

Firefighting continues in California, but the most recent news is that there is hope the raging wildfires are being brought under control.

Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press:

The fires have destroyed 1,500 homes and caused at least a half-million people to flee – the largest evacuation in state history. At least 1,200 of the damaged homes were in San Diego County, and officials believe that number will rise.

“Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster,” Ron Lane, San Diego County’s director of emergency services, told reporters during a news conference.

The announcement of San Diego’s staggering losses came as President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California in the wake of the wildfires that have charred about 426,000 acres, or about 665 square miles.

I’d say “Let the finger pointing begin,” but people didn’t wait for the fires to die down before beginning the Blame Game.

Frustration over the firefighting effort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.

Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters’ lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.

The director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection disputes that. Yet there is grumbling. Kirk Johnson and Jennifer Steinhauer write in today’s New York Times,

Some fire officials were congratulating themselves on having avoided extensive loss of life, even setting dates for when the biggest fires might be brought under control.

But the second-guessing that comes with any natural disaster was already beginning. Questions were being raised about how the fight against the fires had been coordinated, how resources had been deployed and whether Southern California had become smarter after the 2003 fires that ripped the region and its psyche, or if it had just become lucky.

Some fire chiefs and elected officials said that they were angry with the state government for not adopting recommendations made by a blue-ribbon panel after the fires in 2003, in particular those that called for more firefighting equipment.

“There were a lot of calls for equipment and resources,” said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, who represents a district in Orange County. “When you have a finite amount of resources, you have to prioritize life and property first, and so we didn’t get water dropping until we started to lose structures.”

I’m watching from the other side of the continent so it’s hard to tell, but my impression is that Governor Schwarzenegger has been visibly active throughout the crisis. Jill Serjeant of Reuters writes,

… the California governor seemed to cement his transition from action movie star to serious politician with his unflagging crisis management of the worst wildfires to sweep the state in 100 years.

In the four days since some 20 blazes erupted across Southern California, burning hundreds of homes and sending half a million people fleeing, Schwarzenegger has been everywhere.

He has mobilized state funds, deployed National Guard troops and staged up to four news conferences a day at different venues.

Yet the reviews aren’t all positive. This is from an editorial in yesterday’s San Diego Union Tribune:

The response of local authorities to the horrific San Diego County wildfires has been a sharp improvement on what was seen during the 2003 Cedar and Paradise fires. But we’re not sure the same holds for state and federal officials.

It first became apparent last Thursday that the expected Sunday arrival of hot, windy Santa Ana conditions would put drought-stricken Southern California at grave risk. Sure enough, wildfires broke out in many areas. Why weren’t U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard planes already at nearby airfields and ready to drop water or retardant, by prearrangement of the Pentagon and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Instead, The Associated Press reported that the Pentagon’s OK of the governor’s request for such planes to help in San Diego County did not come until yesterday morning. The planes won’t join the fight until this morning — six days after experts first warned of a possible Santa Ana-fueled conflagration and nearly three days after the Witch Creek blaze began its rampage from Ramona west to Rancho Santa Fe and south to Poway. This is inexplicable.

Fingers have also pointed at Iraq, which has soaked up California National Guard troops and equipment that might otherwise have been deployed to fight the fires.

Today President Bush will visit California. Spencer S. Hsu writes for the Washington Post:

President Bush embarks this morning on a tour of the wildfires ravaging California to showcase his administration’s ability to respond better to natural disasters than it did after Hurricane Katrina two years ago. Yesterday, he pronounced the federal government’s actions “well-coordinated” after a Cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis.

Federal and state emergency managers say, however, that the two disasters can hardly be compared. Katrina’s floods and winds wreaked havoc on a far larger scale. California’s local responders lead the nation in training and coordination, while Louisiana’s rank near the bottom. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s responsibilities for battling wildfires are far more limited than its role in dealing with hurricane damage.

“FEMA is not getting a real test in putting direct federal assets on the ground,” said George W. Foresman, undersecretary of preparedness for the Department of Homeland Security in 2005 and 2006.

By contrast, even some Democrats say Bush has mastered the political response to the wildfires, a not-insignificant achievement that both fosters hope from the victims and spurs close coordination with local officials, starting with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Californians are lucky they have a Republican governor. Had the governor been a Democrat, the White House would have worked overtime thinking up ways to use the disaster to make him look bad. And if the past is any guide, whatever promises Bush makes to California today will be promptly forgotten as soon as he returns to Washington. On the other hand, California’s 55 electoral votes may inspire keen interest in follow-up among other Republicans in Washington, if not Bush himself.

The California fires are “Not Another Katrina,” declares the Washington Post. Give it time, I say. Ain’t a pooch born that Dubya can’t screw.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson writes for New American Media:

Bush was in a rush to get out front on the wildfires for good reason. He still reels from the big hits that he took, and continues to take, for his comatose response to the Katrina disaster. Charges of racism, insensitivity, bungling, incompetence, disdain for poor people, and Republicans playing politics with poor blacks’ lives were only a sampling of the digs that were hurled at Bush for fiddling while New Orleans and the Gulf region sank. Bush has barely a year left in his White House tenure. His domestic and foreign policy initiatives are in shambles. He has a pack of Republican presidential candidates screaming at him to do something, and do something fast, to rescue the flagging fortunes of the party and their candidacies. In short, to look and sound more presidential.

The California wildfires give him a chance to look like a strong, caring and decisive leader in a time of crisis, and to atone for his Katrina fumble. It also helps that the hundreds of homes that were wiped out were not in a poor, ramshackle, crime-plagued, inner city neighborhood such as the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, but are in middle and wealthy, suburban, resort and semi-rural neighborhoods and areas. A speedy offer of bushels of federal dollars and personnel is a win-win guarantee to draw public praise and applause. …

… But despite Bush’s speedy response, as terrible as the wildfires are and the suffering and damage that they have wreaked, they are no more horrific than the towering suffering and damage Katrina wreaked. Two years later, thousands of hurricane victims are jobless, homeless, stuck in trailers in distant cities. The hard hit, mostly black and poor Ninth Ward in New Orleans still looks like a ghost town. New Orleans officials still shout at the Bush administration to do more to speed up the glacial pace of the rebuilding process there.

As for the causes of the fire — you probably heard that Faux Snooze claimed a link between the fires and al Qaeda. Rightie bloggers picked up that ball and ran with it. I’m surprised they also didn’t blame illegal immigrants, although maybe they did and I missed it.

Arson is suspected in starting some of the fires. However, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, last year there were 86,184 “wildland” fires in the United States, burning 9,396,011 acres. Of those, 307 fires were in “protected” forests, according to the United States Forest Service. Of those 307 fires, 89 fires were caused by “debris burning,” 58 by lightning, 34 by campfires. And 22 were “incendiary,” which I’m assuming means they were deliberately set.

In other words, wildfires started by many means, including arson, are not exactly rare. The more interesting question is how the current fires got so out of control. I assume Osama bin Laden wasn’t personally fanning them.

Michelle Malkin was quick to blame environmentalists for the fires (this was before she picked up the arson angle). “Lawsuits have tied up the president’s Healthy Forests Initiative passed in 2003,” she said. I don’t know about the lawsuits, but it’s pretty much universally understood that the HFI intitiave, if fully implemented, wouldn’t have done a dadblamed thing to stop wildfires. Glenn Hurowitz writes that, among other things, the HFI “subsidizes the logging of fire-resistant old growth trees.”

Environmental groups claim that if the real purpose of HFI is to reduce forest fire hazzard, the initive would call for thinning of forests and underbrush on the edges of forests, near residential areas. Instead, HFI actually is more about allowing the cutting of big trees deep in national forests. According to the Environmental Protection Information Center,

Congress’ passage of “healthy forests” legislation marks the triumph of a propaganda campaign to change the debate over public forest policy. Though sold as a compromise by politicians and press, the bill gives the Bush Administration–and the logging industry–pretty much what it asked for (see The Legislation sidebar). Thus, the law adds force to a radical program of forest policy changes already underway, and already sweeping in its implications.

The law conflicts with sound science and common sense, failing to provide increased protection from fire for human communities. However, in the Senate, all but 14 environmental votes abandoned forest defense in the furor over huge fires in Southern California. Those fires burned primarily in windswept, fire-adapted chaparral invaded by suburbs, miles from any National Forest. They devastated places where the “healthy forests” bill, tied to National Forests, could never and will never have any effect at all. Human tragedy, death, and property destruction were used as political props to pass a law that will pry open our remnant backcountry forests to industrial logging and development.

The Sierra Club, October 2003:

The current fires in California are a clear example of the importance of prioritizing the prevention efforts near where people live. Along with the Malibu fires of a decade ago and other more recent fires, there is no shortage of evidence indicating the essential role that clearing brush near communities plays in protecting homes and lives. In these areas, the risk of wildfires always exists, and there are steps we can take to help protect homes and lives. The Forest Service’s own fire scientists found that the best way to protect communities from fire is to thin brush and small trees within 500 yards of where people live. But that’s not where the bulk of attention is from the Bush administration and Congress. Instead, they focus on thinning in the backcountry and across the landscape.

Bryan Walsh writes about the current fires in Time:

More than 8.6 million Western homes have been built within 30 miles (50 km) of national forest since 1982; in California, where the population has more than tripled since 1950, in excess of 50% of new housing has been built in a severe-fire zone. That’s risky for obvious reasons: if more people choose to live in areas threatened by fire, more people will be in harm’s way when disaster finally strikes. But those houses, especially if owners fail to prioritize fire safety, are often more sensitive to fire than are untouched forests, and just a few scattered houses in the woods can amplify a wildfire. “Isolated homes surrounded by natural vegetation are probably the most dangerous combination for fires,” says Jon Keeley, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geographical Survey (USGS).

The current fires, Walsh writes, were born of a wet winter in 2004-05, which encouraged tree and shrub growth, followed by extremely dry weather since, which turned all that growth into kindling. Add “Godzilla” sized Santa Ana winds, and you’ve got a heckofa fire. Unless al Qaeda has figured out how to control weather, they can’t take credit for the devastation.

What about global climate change? Some people are stating confidently that global warming is not behind the southern California fires, but it seems to me they are jumping the gun. What was behind the prolonged drought? What was behind the unusually high Santa Ana winds (except perhaps huffing and puffing jihadis)? I don’t think there’s proof that global climate change was a cause of the fires, but I don’t see how it can be so glibly ruled out.

Peter Fimrite writes in today’s San Francisco Chronicle,

The 16 wind-blown fires that forced the largest mass evacuation in California history may or may not be the result of climate change, but studies have shown that the hot drought conditions that fed the flames are becoming more common.

“Fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and to property,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said. “Each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer.”

The flames stretching from Malibu to the Mexican border struck during the driest year in Southern California history. Measurements taken by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection detected less than 10 percent moisture in the region’s vegetation. The moisture level in kiln-dried lumber is generally 12 percent.

“They got less rain than they’ve ever gotten,” said Hugh Safford, a Forest Service ecologist. “Any time you have a dry year like this one, you are going to get fires.”

It is so dry that state forestry officials said a newly shod horse started a fire earlier in the year from the sparks it created running on the pavement.

Hey, that might have been a Muslim horse.

Fundraising Follow-Up

Mahadaughter Erin here again. I wanted to report that New York Cares Day was this past Saturday, and my team (Team Truthiness) worked at a school in Jamaica, Queens, where we painted and cleaned up the grounds. My team leader mentioned that this was one of those schools that No Child Left Behind left behind, since their funding got cut when grades were low. The good news is that test scores are back up, so they’re getting money again. (I think this is some pretty Republican logic. Your school is failing? Let’s take away your money!) So the work New York Cares does is necessary.

So I figured I’d post and thank those of you who donated for doing so. If you missed out, you’ve got until November 9th to contribute and can do so by going to my personal donation page.

That’s all. I will stop bugging you about money now. Back to your scheduled blogging.

Oblivion With an Order of Fries

This is why Joe Bageant is becoming one of my favorite writers. Excerpt:

…But it is safe to say most Americans don’t give a damn about the rest of humanity, starving infants, the homeless and whatnot, so long as the unhygienic swarms stay the hell out of our yards and don’t bring up that tired commie stuff about our lifestyle being based upon sweatshop misery. In that way, we all test positive for the devil’s hickey.

Republicans may flaunt their hickeys like high school kids in the locker room, but guilt-plagued Democrats console themselves that they can banish it at the ballot box, if only they close their eyes and wish upon a star. Thus, their comfortable self-delusions that the Tiger Woods of the Democratic Party, the technically black, is somehow blessed with a melanin-based inner moral compass lacking in the rest of society, and therefore does not bear the damnable mark. Wiser souls, who are aware that Barack Obama possesses a net worth of several millions, a Harvard law degree and a career born in that venerable political whorehouse called Chicago, assume the mark is probably located where we cannot see it. Another political wish upon a star is that Hillary Clinton, a woman marked by so many hickeys she looks like a victim of massive subdermal haemorrhaging, will reform the brutal health care system without pulling up her skirt for the insurance industry. She says “there is no possible governmental solution that does not include the insurance industry”.

Well, of course not. Industry is America’s government. Voters merely decide which industries have front spots at the public trough. One’s home is the new debtor’s prison, a place where we sleep while we work off interest payments on the mortgage.

Meanwhile, out there in the vast looms of government-as-corporation, the fast food industry weaves the MacDonald’s Cheeseburger Bill, giving itself immunity to lawsuits as it fattens a nation of steers whose sole purpose is to consume, never to be butchered, except in the wars that protect the corporate cheeseburger. Even on the battlefront, it turns profit on millions of burgers and fries that are served to those who fight America’s oil and cheeseburger wars.

American consumers watch this on TV and see it as comfortably familiar. We cannot possibly be doing so badly in Iraq if a soldier can get a Red Bull energy drink and a Puff Daddy CD on the battlefield.

Right? Which is true enough, if you have been obliviously conditioned to see these as symbols of liberty and the utmost accomplishment of the republic – if you see it as “our way of life”. And indeed our way of life is rapidly coming to that: oblivion with an order of fries.

He loses me a bit with the riff on McDonalds, although I get where he is trying to go.