Month: October 2004

A Tale of Two Elections

Is there really much difference between John Kerry and George Bush when it comes to Iraq? George Bush’s remark that Kerry’s Iraq plan is the same as his own has some basis in truth, since neither Kerry nor Bush is willing to do the one thing that’s necessary to end the armed insurgency in Iraq: begin withdrawing US troops immediately.

When the Left says the troops must be brought home now, today, many mainstream people stop listening. “That’s giving up responsibility,” they say. “We created the mess, so we must fix it”–a common theme among liberals and conservatives alike, but one that’s based on the arrogant assumption that the US is the world’s global police force with a mandate to “fix” problems and clean up the world under the banner of democracy. “We might make a few mistakes, but our intentions are good; give us time and we’ll make it right” or so the thinking goes. Even among those who agree that the war in Iraq has little to do with fighting terrorism, there’s still the assumption that terrorists are our main enemy, that they’ve joined the battlefield in Iraq, and they must therefore be “hunted down and killed,” to use John Kerry’s oft-repeated phrase.

In fact, Iraq is neither a mess we have to clean up nor a magnet for terrorists. Military analysts, including diehards at the Pentagon, are starting to admit that the Iraqi insurgency is composed of indigenous Iraqi nationalists–people who have suffered too long under US occupation. Unemployment has reached as high as 80% in some areas of the country. Electrical blackouts still occur daily in Baghdad and other cities, and any electrical supply at all is the exception, not the rule, in many rural areas. One in three urban households lack safe drinking water; in the countryside it’s worse, with three in five households lacking clean water. As for the healthcare system, conditions are worse than under the sanctions of the 1990s, with health care having deteriorated to levels seen in Sudan and Afghanistan. One in three Iraqi children is malnourished, routine vaccinations are unavailable, and doctors worry that measles, mumps, and rubella will kill vast numbers of children this winter. As for the adult population, preventable diseases like typhoid and tuberculosis are already at epidemic proportions.

From these statistics, we can begin to understand why the insurgents have had such an easy time recruiting new members. At the same time, foreign terrorists have been hard to find in Iraq. Earlier this month, US troops encircled the city of Tal Afar, determined to capture foreign terrorists supposedly sneaking across the border from Syria. They came up empty-handed, however, finding instead that the insurgency in Tal Afar amounted to about 70 armed locals who were fed up with the miserable conditions under US occupation.

That’s not to imply that the insurgents are united under one banner or all adhere to the same political philosophy. The guerrillas are disparate, composed of many small groups that have conflicting viewpoints. Some are merely nationalists, some are Shiite militiamen loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, some are Sunni tribesmen worried–with justification–that they are being sidelined from the political process, and some (a tiny minority) are Muslim fundamentalists dreaming of a global jihad. What unites all these different groups is one thing: hatred of the US occupying force and contempt for the Iraqi interim government, which is composed mostly of exiles imported and financed by the United States.

If US troops were to leave tomorrow, the insurgency would break apart into its constituent groups. It would dissolve, lacking the one thing that unites it. The fear that a civil war might break out is real, but not likely–at least not yet. Iraq is in a critical period: the elections have not happened yet, and so no single group of Iraqis has been officially disenfranchised. There is still hope among Iraqis that democracy might work. A recent poll taken by the US government found that 85% of the Iraqis interviewed (those willing to speak to US representatives) wanted to vote in an upcoming election. If US troops were not busy alienating Sunnis from the polls and the UN were able to run the election with UN peacekeepers to protect the polling places, then the willingness to participate in a peaceful political process might be universal.

The prospects for a peaceful election in January, however, are becoming dimmer by the day. Currently, there are only 35 UN personnel in Iraq, and only 5 of these people are specialists from the UN’s electoral committee. Because of the security situation, they are unable to leave the Green Zone, the walled compound in the heart of Baghdad that houses the US embassy and the interim Iraqi government. UN staffers are currently “working in secret” to hire native Iraqis to register voters and run polling stations–they’re literally hiring people over the phone. This adds a dimension of potential corruption and infiltration by the insurgents that could be nightmarish in scale.

Another process is occurring in secret: political parties are drawing up lists of candidates to run for positions on the new assembly. “Political parties” is the polite term that Iraqis use to describe the returning exiles who’ve shoehorned themselves into positions of influence in the interim government. No other political campaigning has been taking place, and candidates without a “political party” to back them have been at a serious disadvantage in the past. This is unlikely to change between now and next January.

Although the Bush administration is pursuing military offensives throughout the Sunni triangle to “pacify” the countryside in preparation for the elections in January, this strategy is likely to fail. Many Pentagon and State Department personnel acknowledge this, and have discussed the possibility of holding partial elections in the Kurdish north, in Baghdad, and in the Shiite south. Disenfranchising the Sunni population, however, is the quickest route to creating an entrenched guerrilla army, which will mean no withdrawal for US troops in the near future–not for years, and maybe not for decades.

Meanwhile, the only other viable option–delaying elections to allow time for a UN force to replace US troops–carries the risk of turning Ayad Allawi’s government into a dictatorship in the eyes of the Iraqi populace, and perhaps in actual fact. Allawi has already earned the reputation as a strongman, from his heated rhetoric about subduing the city of Fallujah, to his mouthing of Bush administration fantasies about foreign terrorists invading his country. In addition, the training and deployment of Iraqi special forces teams that operate above the law, torture suspects, and arrest and hold detainees indefinitely have caused many Iraqis to fear that Ayad Allawi is a new Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration is sensitive, as John Kerry would also be, to the charge that the US invaded Iraq only to replace Saddam Hussein with a more friendly dictator.

So, while the most important step in dealing with the insurgency (immediate withdrawal of US troops) appears to be foreclosed, the issue is not so black-and-white. Intermediate steps can and must be taken towards that goal now, while there’s still time. The Bush administration must cease its disastrous policy of pacification of the Sunni triangle, which is sparking an intensification of the insurgency. Negotiations with the force that the French foreign ministry now calls “the legitimate armed opposition in Iraq” must be undertaken in earnest, not merely as a delaying tactic between military strikes, as has been the case in the past. Meaningful reconstruction must be undertaken by directly using Iraqi companies with Iraqi employees, and not through Bechtel, Halliburton, and other foreign corporations with high overhead costs and dubious reputations.

More importantly, the Bush administration must cede control of the “mission” and allow foreign troops to replace US troops in Iraq. A group of Muslim nations recently offered to send troops to Iraq, but George Bush said no because the UN would be in control of the new Muslim force. This is not a “lack of planning,” as John Kerry asserts; it is ideological fanaticism and should be rewarded with scorn and condemnation.

While John Kerry might do things somewhat differently if he’s elected, he will have a limited time in which to analyze the problem and make the complete reversal that’s necessary–if he’s willing. The US people must first vote George Bush out of office, then protest loudly and long about what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. We have to call for negotiations, an end to the pacification program, ceding control to the UN, and the beginning of a US troop withdrawal before the January elections. John Kerry should take office with no illusions about what must be done in Iraq, and that it must be done quickly.


“We’ve Seen the Enemy and They Are…Who, Exactly?” Edward Wong, New York Times, 10/17/04,

“2 pictures emerge of militants’ power,” Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe, 10/18/04,

“Prolonged US occupation turning Iraqis into fighters,” Newhouse News Service, reprinted in The Seattle Times, 10/24/04, A21

“Iraq faces soaring toll of deadly disease,” Jeremy Laurence, The Independent, 10/13/04,

“Election doubt as UN staff asks to pull out,” Kim Sengupta, The Independent, 10/8/04,

“Religious Leaders Ahead in Iraq Poll,” Robin Wright, Washington Post, 10/22/04

“Iraq Faults UN on Lack of Staff to Aid in Voting,” Dexter Filkins and Warren Hoge, NY Times, 10/21/04,

“UN Aide Says Iraqi Elections Are on Target,” Dexter Filkins, NY Times, 10/22/04,

“Vote Monitors Concerned by Iraq Violence,” Hamza Hendawi, Associated Press, 10/21/04

“US-led troops will protect UN officials in Iraq vote: Powell,” French Press Agency (AFP), 10/21/04

“US Plans Year-End Drive to Take Iraqi Rebel Areas,” Dexter Filkins, NY Times, 9/19/04,

“Fighting in Sunni Triangle Dims Prospects for Talks,” Edmund Sanders, LA Times, 10/13/04,

“Inside besieged Falluja,” BBC, 10/19/04, htt://

“Sacking of crusading judge fuels concerns over Iraq rights record,” AFP, 10/19/04

“Iraqi Government’s Peace Talks With Falluja Break Off; US Drive Against Rebels Expected,” Dexter Filkins, NY Times, 10/19/04,

“Profiteering Inflates Costs of US Reconstruction Projects in Iraq,” T. Christian Miller, LA Times, 10/20/04,

“Army to Let Halliburton Keep Iraq Payment,” Reuters, 10/22/04

“Report: Bush Blocked Plan for Muslim Iraq Force,” Irwin Arieff, Reuters, 10/18/04

And You Thought Paul Schell Was Bad

Mayor Greg Nickels has just released his draft budget for the City of Seattle for 2005. In the next few weeks, the city council will review the budget, make changes, and vote on it, then send it back to the mayor for his approval. Unfortunately, there’s a lot in this budget that requires closer scrutiny.

On the revenue (income) side, one issue stands out: the budget assumes that the economy will continue to grow, and that it will grow at a pace that’s faster than it has this past year. Total tax revenues are projected to grow by 3.25%, yet the current revised budget for 2004 only shows growth of 1.9%. This problem becomes even sharper when we look at the budget detail. Taxable retail sales have been in a slump since the third quarter of 2000 and current national estimates of consumer spending have shown a downturn, but Nickels includes a preposterous graph that estimates a sudden and dramatic upturn in annual retail sales growth in 2005. And the same is true with his estimates of B&O (business) tax revenue.

Nickels could save the city a lot of wasted time and money if he were more realistic in his expectations about the economy. With these revenue projections, the city council will be back at the drawing board halfway through next year, writing another revised budget and asking why they need to make more cuts–just like they did this year. Do these folks never learn?

That’s not the only problem with the revenue side of the budget. The local media has pointed out that Greg Nickels is increasing fees and licenses and imposing a whole bunch of new fines and fees, from requiring park users to pay for parking in formerly free city parking lots, to increases in swimming pool fees. The added fees assume that folks will have no choice but to pay; however, people tend to cut back on discretionary expenses during hard economic times. When you impose a new fee, you have to expect that people will find ways not to pay. Pay parking at city parks, for example, will drive a lot of park users to find street parking instead or ride their bikes or take the bus.

Also, Nickels assumes that the State of Washington will give the City of Seattle increased funds for operations (the state gives funds to cities and local governments all over the state). The state legislature, however, will be looking at a $1 billion shortfall in its budget next year, and may choose (as in previous years) to make cuts in what it passes to cities and local governments. The city may have trouble getting the same amount as last year, much less the increase Nickels expects.

On the expense side of the budget, nearly every category takes a cut, except for the holy trinity: Public Safety (cops, courts, and fire department), Utilities & Transportation (City Light, etc.), and Administration (money to operate the government itself). Arts and parks lose 4%, Neighborhoods & Development lose 1.7%, and Health & Human Services–the big loser, as usual–gets an astonishing 20% cut. It’s criminal.

Drilling down to the details reveals interesting information about our mayor’s priorities. Here’s the breakdown by category:

Arts, Culture & Recreation. Community centers are cut by 4%, the Conservation Corps loses 4% of its funding, and Woodland Park Zoo loses a whopping 28% of its support from the city. Seattle Public Library will have to give up its book mobile program, which is a scandal, given that public libraries exist to serve folks who can’t afford to buy their own books–and that includes the elderly and house-bound.

Neighborhoods & Development. Funds are cut for historic preservation, while zero dollars are allocated for neighborhood matching funds and implementing neighborhood plans. This abandonment of neighborhoods began with last year’s budget (and, some would argue, with Mayor Nickels’ tenure), and is now becoming a trend. It’s time to stop that trend.

Mayor Nickels also pencilled in a 7% increase for the Department of Planning & Development, which serves–you guessed it–mostly builders and developers. At the same time, funds for low income housing were cut by 12%.

Health & Human Services. Under Community Development Block Grants, the mayor cuts funds for community building, community services, and homeownership by 7%, while funds for “Leadership & Corporate Services” are increased. The numbers for both public health and human services were zeroed out in some categories and new categories were established; in other words, the numbers were juggled around so that it’s hard at first to tell where the cuts are. The presentation is dishonest, given that this part of the budget takes the biggest hit. The city council should look very closely at these numbers and make appropriate corrections to restore funding to those vital services that would otherwise fall through the cracks.

A quick cross-check of the numbers shows that the following categories take substantial cuts: family support services, HIV/AIDS programs, oral health, and school-age health. The following categories are cut completely: methadone vouchers, tuberculosis control (a community health problem that’s getting worse, not better!), asthma funding, funds for chemical and physical hazards, and funds for budget and financial planning within the health department. The following categories lost funding in 2004 and won’t get any new funds in 2005: child care health and safety, epidemiology (that’s homeland preparedness for you!), family planning, immunizations, and interpretation services for non-English speakers.

All of these should be a priority and take precedence over, for example, upgrading parking meters or widening sidewalks.

Given that the entire budget assumes a 7.65% increase in spending, where does all the money go?

Well, there’s the enormous City Light refund that has to be paid out to customers in 2005–that takes a generous chunk of change. Then Nickels wants to hire more cops and firefighters, as usual. He also ups the police pension fund by 10%, while cutting the pension fund for other city employees by 14%. Thanks, Boss. While cutting the fund for the City Auditor by 6% (simply can’t allow a regular review of the finances) and the Office of Sustainability and Environment by 7%, Nickels pours buckets of money into the Cumulative Reserve, the Emergency Subfund, and into debt service on bonds. Debt service? That can’t all be for interest payments on the new downtown library, can it?

Sure enough, it’s not. Among the new glamour projects Nickels wants the city to go into debt for: improvements to Pier 59 and Pier 62/63, new parking pay stations (yawn), Mercer Street improvements (when did we vote on this?), and $5 million in bonds for the Alaskan Way Viaduct (ditto).

Other major projects completed in the past or currently in progress that are draining money out of the budget: University District improvements, Monorail financing, McCaw Hall (new opera house at the Seattle Center), and that wonderful catch-all category of “Various Capital Projects.” All these goodies charged on the credit card will have to be paid eventually. Bond Debt Service gets a huge 60% increase in Nickels’ 2005 budget.

The money that Nickels has socked away into savings–the Cumulative Reserve Subfund and Emergency Reserve Subfund–is very helpful in improving the city’s credit rating, which in turn makes it easier to issue bonds for the type of big, showy projects that our mayor likes to focus on. Of course, his pals in big business seem to have already had their say in the drafting of this budget. For example, Paul Allen must be very pleased by the $1.9 million in bonds set aside for Mercer Street improvements, which will help the marketability of his South Lake Union properties. Has anyone checked to make sure this money will be used for actual street improvements and not to pay for Paul Allen’s street car? Don’t bet on it.

We’re in an economic slump; now is not the time to cut services for the poor in order to pay for big improvement projects–unless, of course, you’re a mayor beholden to developers, the police union, and ex-Microsoft billionaires.

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