advice from a fake consultant

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Monday, October 29, 2007

On Coffee Addiction, Or, Smarter Foreign Policy, One Cup At A Time

We did not mean to write a story about economics, or foreign aid, or National Security when writing began today. We meant instead to write a story about unusual and rare coffees and the odd fixations of those who spend many months a year under gray skies.

As it turns out, all of those themes intertwine-which is why in today’s conversation we’re going to talk about Rwanda, the United States Agency for International Development, alternative methods of diplomacy and their potential effect on the Nation’s future...and the difference between “washed” and “natural” coffee.

And as I am wont to do on many a morning, let’s start with the coffee.

There’s Folger’s (Nestle for our European and Australian friends), and then there’s Starbucks, and then there are coffee companies who are even more upscale...who specialize in what are essentially the “single malts” of coffee-small batches of unique coffees produced from single specific source farms.

It is the desire of have this sort of fine coffee experience that brings me to the “living room” of Zoka Coffee Roasters’ Snoqualmie, Washington store early on Saturday morning for a “cupping” (tasting) of six premier coffees, led by Zoka’s Proprietor Jeff Babcock and Trish Skeie, the company's Director of Coffee.

Before we talk about specific coffees, let’s address the manner in which the coffee business works.

Traditionally, large “commodity” roasters (the national and private brand producers) purchase huge lots of coffee on the “spot” or “futures” markets and blend the purchases in an attempt to produce the same flavor over and over.

My Scot readers will recognize this process as the method by which “blended” Scotches are made (for the benefit of some of my American readers, Scots are people, Scotch isn’t). My Scot friends will also be aware that “single-malts” are made from one single batch, and are not blended.

This allows the discerning taster to enjoy unique flavors and characteristics that are not present in the blended varieties of Scotch-and those characteristics will change from year to year, even within the same distillery. The same is true with coffee: specific growing locations around the world produce unique “small batch” coffees; and there are roasters and shops on at least four continents catering to this market.

This is a crop that is grown in some of the poorer regions of the world, and there has been a movement to put more of the money in the hands of the growers; and to that end you may have seen Fair Trade Coffee advertised at your local retailer.

A more recent development has been the advent of the “Cup of Excellence” country auctions, in which the wholesale buyer community sends professional judges into the host country; and in a marathon “cupping” session the best coffees in these countries are identified and then offered for auction, with the money raised going to the farmer and the coop to which they belong.

The Cup of Excellence countries include Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Brazil, Honduras and other words, the Western Hemisphere’s big shots of coffee. That will soon change...but more on that topic later.

And there is substantial money involved.

Most retail consumers in the US are paying $5 to $12 or so per pound of coffee, but the coffees purchased in these auctions are selling-in the home country, at wholesale-as high as $47.06 per pound.

Yes, you heard correctly.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters paid $100,222 to the Las Golondrinas Estate in Mozonte, Nicaragua for 14 150 pound bags of what was judged to be the finest coffee presented for sale in the auction in Nicaragua this year.

Prices above $12 are not unusual in these auctions, and examples of wholesale prices between $12 and $19 are quite common, as the Guatemala results demonstrate.

So how does all this relate to international affairs?

These days there’s a new kid on the block-Rwanda is involved in the Golden Cup process, which is the lead-in to the Cup of Excellence program, in which they will participate next year as the first African nation to enter the process. This is the culmination of several years of work connecting the farmer to the international market, and there was a major amount of effort made overcoming the political barriers that existed between the groups on the ground before this could be accomplished.

But to really tell their story, we have one more bit of background to address.
Call it “coffee anatomy”, if you will.

Rain causes the coffee bush to flower and bud. Coffee beans are found inside that bud-or the “cherry”, as it’s called in the trade.

Some coffee producers use a process that involves soaking and mechanical means to remove the beans from the cherries before they are dried (“washed” coffee); while others allow the cherries to dry with the beans inside (“natural coffee”), after which the cherry is milled away.

Each method produces beans with different flavor “notes”, and neither is considered inherently better. In fact, Trish Skeie was telling us about a conversation she had with a grower’s group where that question came up, and her response was basically that you can process using either method, as long as you do it well.

Which brings us back to Rwanda.

For the past seven years, Tim Schilling of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been involved in a project to develop a coffee industry in Rwanda, including the recent establishment of about 150 “washing stations” throughout the country (with another 150 on the way). Each station combines soaking pools (the “bad” beans float, and are easily separated) with mechanical equipment that removes the cherries.

Rwanda has more or less 500,000 coffee farmers, each farming an average of about an acre, Jeff Babcock told us; and he had just returned from a trip to the country where he was one of the judges (and eventual buyers) of coffees at the event, including Karmonyi, the fifth highest rated of the coffees auctioned at Rwanda’s Golden Cup (and one of the coffees we “cupped”).

By the way, the washing stations perform two functions for the Rwandans: besides the obvious economic boost provided by access to improved production technology, the washing stations are available, without discrimination, to Hutu and Tutsi alike, creating a sort of local “cracker barrel” where neighbors can gather and maybe some ethnic healing can begin.

At this point, a word about “cupping”: this is a controlled tasting method that has very specific rituals. In front of the “cuppers” (us) are small bowls arranged in pairs. Each pair of bowls contains 14 grams of the same dry ground coffee. (Your barista uses 7 grams in that little cup they attach to the espresso machine when they make your espresso or cappuccino or latte.)

(Two examples of each coffee are paired to guard against the possibility that one of the bows might contain a bad bean, causing a misunderstanding of that crop’s true potential.) We are tasting six varieties of coffee, thus there are two tables, each with six pairs of labeled samples.

We then smell the samples in order from “lightest” to “heaviest” flavor-a practice familiar to wine tasters. Also familiar: we are seeking the aforementioned flavor “notes”-the hints of berry, or vanilla, or hazelnut, or any of a thousand other tastes and smells that combine to create the unique character of each coffee.

Hot water is then added to the samples. During the four minutes of steeping we again smell the offerings. I’m walking around the table, doing the old “pushing the steam to my nose” thing to try to get a more complete sense of the aromas present.

Next comes the moment that the coffee “liquor” is “cracked” (the liquid in the cups is an extraction of coffee, as is the beverage you drink. It is thus accurate to say you are not drinking a cup of coffee, but instead an extraction-a cup of coffee liquor). Cracking involves first removing the “crust“ that has formed on the surface of the liquid, then stirring the liquor-exactly four stirs-with the goal of drawing the grounds that have accumulated on the surface down into the liquor.

And now we taste.

Spoons are dipped into hot water between each taste, then into the liquor. Trish Skeie demonstrates the “sip and slurp”-in which the liquor is drawn into the mouth along with an intake of air, the better to spread the taste across the tongue. A quick swish, and then spit into the provided cups.

Repeat 11 more times, in the same order as before (“light” to “dark”, if you will), and all 12 bowls have been tasted. We will return to the samples again as the liquors cool, the better to evaluate the increase in acidity associated with the reduction in temperature.

Wine tasters would feel right at home, believe me.

Jeff Babcock tells us that his Rwanda trip involved having to perform this ritual as many as five times daily, with as many as 15 samples to be examined in each session. The coffee event was being held at the same time and place as a national soccer tournament, which was sponsored by Jeremy Torz, was who one of the Judging participants, and a co-founder of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee of London.

The farmers and their families who benefit from this project (and the communities who benefit as well) are the exact people that we need to influence in positive ways if we hope to advance American interests around the world in a successful manner; and if you ask me (which, in a way, I guess you are...) we should be creating as many Tim Schillings as we can find and sending then into the world like bees from a hive to implement Tip O’Neill’s admonition that “all politics is local”.

Jeff had a slideshow for us to see, and if I had any questions about the success of Schilling’s work, the slide showing Torz wearing the native Chief’s hat and holding the elaborately topped spear he was given as gifts suggests these folks actually appreciate what these efforts have done for their communities-and I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of 500,000 Rwandan families feel good about our country every time they go to the local washing station.

(Tip for the future: Babcock reports that the next African country to embark on this process will be Burundi.)

Finally, on to the coffees: we started with the Finca Carrizal from Costa Rica; and then a very special coffee produced at the Hacienda la Esmerelda in Panama. Jeff tells us that this crop was not sold in the usual 150 pound bags, because of its scarcity. Instead, only one dozen 50 pound bags were available worldwide, and we were tasting from the one he was able to purchase.

Next was the previously discussed Karmonyi from Rwanda (we noted a strong cherry presence in this one), and then a Sumatran coffee that I frankly found fairly ordinary. (Notice how I now assume I actually know what I’m talking about? Oh, the confidence of not enough experience...)

But the big finale was the two Ethiopian Yirga Cheffes, which were paired-except that one was washed, and the other was natural. For me-and it appeared, for the other tasters as well-the evidence of hazelnut was quick to the nose when sniffing the dry natural coffee; and the nut note was very easy to discern in the natural coffee liquor as well.

So that’s our story for today: we left expecting to try some coffee, and we came back with much more: an example of another type of American stationed overseas who is doing great work on a shoestring budget, who is setting a great example for how we should be spending tax dollars to influence world opinion, and who actually has the potential to create new foreign allies for this Nation, as opposed to new foreign enemies. All that and we’re set up to start making people’s lives better in the bargain.

And in Rwanda, where more or less 10 million folks live in an area more or less 6 times the size of Rhode Island, we seem to be moving in the right direction to do exactly that.

What’s not to love?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

On Revenge, Or, Joe Torre, Have I Got An Offer For You

I’m not much of a sports fan, but even I can see that Joe Torre has been given such a raw deal by the Yankees that there are juries that might not convict him for a chainsaw wielding act of revenge upon the Steinbrenner family, who exercise ultimate control over the team’s fate.

There’s something else I can see, sports fan or not.

I can see that there exists, for a moment, an opportunity for Torre to exact some serious revenge upon those who have wronged him. And to do it in a way that is particularly offensive to his former bosses.

For those not aware, the New York Yankees are the most storied of American baseball teams. The history of the Yankees includes the names Babe Ruth and Roger Maris and Lou Gehrig, who is famous not only for his work on the field, but for the amazing coincidence of dying from a disease that shares his name.

The team is also famous for its iconoclastic owner, George Steinbrenner, who burned through Yankee managers at such a pace that he was forced to hire and fire the same one (Billy Martin) five times before it was all over.

To give those of you who are not American readers an understanding of what Steinbrenner means to our culture, consider this: the word “blog” was not originally part of the “dictionary” that is included in the version of Microsoft Word that I am using to create this blog…but if you misspell Steinbrenner, Word will inform you of the error.

Steinbrenner and the fans feel the team should appear in the (American teams only, but that’s an irony for another day) World Series more or less every year, and Torre’s failure to deliver on this desire is the source of his current unemployment-despite his extraordinary success these past 12 years with sometimes less than extraordinary teams

Today the Yankees are well known (and resented) by fans everywhere both for their on-field successes and their enormous payroll; and there are teams who are well known for their contempt of the Yankees.

The Boston Red Sox have advanced this resentment into a legendary and amazing disgust of the Bronx Bombers-a hatred that is so pervasive that during the runup to the baseball playoffs residents of Salem, Massachusetts are more likely to burn you at the stake for wearing a Derek Jeter shirt in public than for using witchcraft to help the Sox.

The casual reader, not yet aware of the potentially deep and cruel nature of my darker mind, might think: “what a great idea…find a way for Torre to become the manager of the team that hates the Yankees above all others.”

Frankly, I consider that a good idea, but not an idea dark enough to really make it worth Torre’s time and effort. No, a man wronged as badly as he deserves a finer form of revenge.

For example, this:

Imagine if there was a team that is today a thorn in the Yankees’ side…a team that currently sucks, but could be turned-by the right manager-into a giant killer…a team that has proven itself capable of going into Yankee Stadium and embarrassing the home team in front of the Steinbrenner’s faces.

Well, there is.

They have a lovely new stadium; the city is surrounded by beauty on a scale far beyond that experienced by those who toil in the urban centers of the American East Coast, and the team is well and truly in the dumper-but with many of the parts in place to ruin the dreams of the hated Yankees, if they had the right leadership.

Joe Torre, meet the Seattle Mariners.

Look, we had a run in the ‘90s, but the reality is this is a situation crying out for you: the team has potential upon which it has not delivered these past few years, you would be a very large fish in a pond that only four people currently share since the death of grunge (Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Ichiro Suzuki and Mike Holmgren being those four), and I can promise you will never be treated with the disrespect you were just shown by the Yankees.

Now here’s the good part: the people of Seattle are by nature quiet and withdrawn…with one odd exception. In what most regard as a town not full of fanatical sports fans, the Seattle Seahawks are the team that introduced the “12th Man” to the NFL-the concept that the noise of the fans is in itself an additional member of the team that bedevils and confuses the enemy. The Seahawks fans are today considered the preeminent practitioners of this art, and Qwest Field is today considered the NFL’s loudest stadium.

To show our sincerity, I offer the following disclosures: it will be tough to find a decent grinder, or a pizza, or a Kosher or Italian deli. (You can always grab a nice Italian dinner at Angelo’s, though, so it’s not without hope…)

There is a bright side.
When it comes to an espresso, a cappuccino, or just about any other coffee drink you can think of, well, to steal a line from Pulp Fiction…we’ll take the "Pepsi Challenge" with New York City anytime.

And it really is a nice stadium.

Think about it, Joe…a team that is not that far away from being capable of continuing its history of embarrassing the Yankees at crucial times, and beyond that, with the right leadership, capable of going deep into the playoffs.

A team that can be a showcase for your talents.

A fan base that will rally to your cause, will treat your presence as a reason for celebration, and who are fully prepared to well and truly hate the Yankees…as we have since before you became their manager.

Mariners’ management? There should be no reason for me to tell them what to do here…and if we have the chance to find another situation for Mike Hargrove in order to create the opening for Torre it would indeed be an opportunity not to be missed.

And just imagine how rich it would be…game 7 of the ALCS…the Mariners beat up the Yankees…Ichiro has his career night, and we go into the World Series with you as a conquering hero, honored from here to Japan.

And there we are…a more or less kinda sorta baseball fan offering advice to a baseball icon, with the fond hope that he takes it-because even I, a more or less kinda sorta baseball fan, would love to see you stick it to the Yankees real good.

Friday, October 19, 2007

On Errata, Or, Your Author Apologizes

Although your friendly fake consultant tries to bring news that is interesting and accurate, I am obligated to apologize for and to correct two significant recent errors, which is the purpose of today’s conversation.

In both cases the “victims” are easily identifiable and public, and as a result we will offer a personal apology to each of them as well.

So with the introduction out of the way, let’s get to the salient facts.

The last story I published (On Solutions, Or, Congressman Reichert, I Believe You Were Looking For This) began by asserting that Democrats are unable to articulate a vision that will extract us from the Iraq mess.

When I posted this story at the (Washblog), however, I was reminded that Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich have articulated such plans.

To be perfectly frank, I did not remember the positions of either Kucinich or Richardson when considering the candidates…and I actually sit through most of the debates.

Had I chosen my words more carefully I might have said that none of the major candidates for the Democratic nomination can offer such a vision, or I might have pointed out that few voters are able to identify any Democratic candidate’s vision for ending the war.

But I did not say either of those things, and as a result I owe Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich my apologies.

Sorry about that, gentlemen.
My bad.

I have one other example of how poor research can cause you to have to publicly ask forgiveness-and it took place in the story that set up the last one.

In that story I reported that Representative Dave Reichert is the Member representing Fort Lewis, Washington, when in fact the base is located in Washington’s 9th District…making Adam Smith their Representative.

In this case, I misread a map, which caused the error.

Interestingly, I sent a note to Reichert’s office pointing him to the original posting, and it’s replication at Kos, with an invitation to respond and correct any misimpressions or inaccuracies that might exist, and there was no response correcting my rather blatant error.

But that doesn’t really matter in the end-I made the error, and for that I apologize to the Congressman, and to you, the readers that are kind enough to look to me for interesting and useful news.

Having taken a day to review my methods, I feel confident that this is a failure that is not systemic, but was instead related to individual failures in each story.

As a result, I continue to move forward with stories currently under development, and you’ll see the product of that work over the next few days.

As for the future…I will be working harder than before to be as close to 100% accurate as I can be-but knowing that no one’s perfect, I suspect there will come a time when we have this conversation again.

Let’s just hope it’s not too soon.

As I’m writing this it is alternately cloudy and sunny, which is an excellent allegory for this situation-the work goes well, then a cloud or two obscure the good work, and then the sun comes out again, and you take advantage of that to get out and renew your commitment to getting the job done.

So once again, my apologies to everyone involved, my thanks for your “patronage”, and we’ll see you in a couple days with another story to tell.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

On Solutions, Or, Congressman Reichert, I Believe You Were Looking For This

As I reported in a recent story, I was fortunate enough to have a talk with my Member of Congress, Dave Reichert, regarding the “surge”.

While we disagreed with many aspects of his (and my) interpretation of events, there was one valid point he made that deserves a detailed response: that Democrats cannot articulate a path forward that could be reasonably expected to reduce the chances of “the bloodshed and chaos” that is so ominously predicted in so many quarters.

My goal today is to reach way outside the conventional thinking to offer such a path.

So let’s get right to it, shall we?

Before I can offer a set of specific proposals, I need to take a minute to frame the discussion that is to follow.

I will do this through the use of a set of hypotheses.
For example:

--I would suggest we are fundamentally wrong to view the events in Iraq since more or less the 1960s as a series of actions that are motivated solely by the desire of one religious group to dominate another

--We view the conflict that is evident today as a battle against terrorism that is directed at us...or some vague notion of Islamofascism; when in fact much of the violence in Iraq is in no way related to the struggle between extremist elements in Islamic countries and the US.

--I submit that we can get better results by viewing the troubles in Iraq as fundamentally an economic and political power struggle, where various groups are seeking to fill the vacuum left by the removal of the Al-Tikriti clan from power.

--Unemployment and corruption combined with a “failure of hope” for the future are our biggest enemies. A functioning economy and a Government perceived as honest wouldn’t fix all the problems in Iraq; but if we were perceived as the ones who helped Iraq get back to work, it might well keep things from getting worse-and when you’re in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging.

Our first hypothesis states that the events in Iraq are not solely related to the desire of one religious group to dominate another.

Is that correct?

Consider a few facts:

His name was not just Saddam. A more correct representation of his name would be Saddam Hussayn Al-Tikriti. Why does this matter? Because, as with many Iraqi names, the Al-Tikriti refers to the person’s tribe.

Remember the “Playing Cards”?
Look at the’s Al-Tikriti all over the deck.

This fact alone tells us that a major portion of the Iraqi governing apparatus was tribally related-and when you combine this with the fact that the Baath Party was more or less a secular organization you can quickly see that Hussein’s was mostly a “capitalist” oppression, and not so much a religious one.

How did the Baath Party rule?
Not as a theocracy.

By Islamic standards, before 2003 Iraq was a middle of the road country. Women had more freedom of movement and options in public life than today. There was not a movement to establish a strict Sharia Law, nor an effort to “export Islam”.

Despite the claims of certain parties, there was no synergy between the Baath Party apparatus and Al Qaeda.

The economy was the real interest of Hussein’s-and the management of the “Oil for Food” program is an indication of how entrenched the culture of distributing opportunity to your friends for a piece of the action had become.

Political oppression? Plenty of it, indeed-but I submit that oppression, and the attacks on the Kurds and Shi’a were motivated more by a desire to remain in absolute power, facing no opposition, then they were a product of religious animosity.

Evidence to support this proposition is found in the fact that both Kurdish communities in northern Iraq (who are predominantly Sunni) and Shi’a communities were attacked on orders from Hussein, who of course was Sunni.

If the attacks were solely intended to send a religious message, why were fellow Sunnis in the north targeted?

It is important to keep in mind, as we evaluate all of this, that the area from more or less the Tigris River west to the Syrian border (the historically Sunni Arab area, which includes Tikrit, Falluja, and Hadithah) is the one portion of Iraq with the least oil resources; and that at the time of the gassings of the Kurds and Shi’a both were considering nationalist movements-funded by the oil beneath their lands. This would leave the Al-Tikritis with no real source of income. (Do you know what Iraq’s biggest export is after oil? I don’t either...and that’s not good if you’re running what’s left after the Iraqis with all the oil have broken away.)

In that context, the use of gas against Hussein’s own countrymen seems more logical-he did whatever he had to do to keep control of the cash register...and he was perfectly willing to send the most brutal of messages to anyone seeking to diminish that control.

We have advanced a second proposition in this discussion: that the violence in Iraq is not primarily a function of Al Qaeda exporting “Islamofascism” to a new “central front in the War on Terror”.

Sure enough, there are facts available that support this analysis. For example, we are told that “foreign fighters” are responsible for a rather small proportion of attacks in the country. Conversely, we are told that local combatants are the parties responsible for the great majority of attacks...both against US forces, and other Iraqis, as well.

That’s not surprising, if you think about it.

The most basic reality that US planners should have anticipated in 2003 is that no one really appreciates being matter how “enlightened” the motives of the invader might seem.

The US itself is no exception. There is no question that the US Constitution is under wholesale assault by this Administration to a degree never experienced outside of a period of declared war. So try to imagine Gordon Brown announcing to Parliament that the UK feels the need for “regime change” in this country because the current Administration has become controlled by extremists and possesses “weapons of mass destruction”.

Imagine Mr. Brown announcing that British troops have landed on US shores, and will be marching on Washington...and then inviting us to “greet them as liberators”.

Despite the best intentions of the UK forces, the greeting would probably look something more like the biggest hunting season you ever saw, with militia members finally getting to use those stashed antitank rockets that are probably buried in back yards all over this country.

And so it is in Iraq.

Obviously the fact that enormous quantities of munitions were left laying around and unguarded makes it even easier to not “greet us as liberators”; and facts suggest that something like the process I’ve just described is taking place.

Of course, violence in Iraq is not just directed at the “coalition of the willing”-a major portion of the violence is between the Iraqis themselves.

Our third proposition addresses that violence, and suggests that majority of the violence is not predicated on religious struggle, but economic.

As we previously discussed, control of a lot of oil has suddenly changed hands, and conventional thinking might lead us to believe that this asset will be divided along sectarian lines.

The fact that the Mahdi Army, led by Al-Sadr is fighting the government of Al-Maliki, and that both are Shi’a...and the fact that Shi’a sects have begun to violently engage with each other in the Basra region as UK troops withdraw should tell you two things...’s not all about sect, and... .

...despite what Joe Biden might think about the wisdom of such a plan, dividing the country into three parts along sectarian lines will not stop the Shi’a on Shi’a struggle; which is a major component of the troubles today, and likely to be a greater portion of the troubles in the future.

The history of Iraq, for most of those alive today, is the 35 years that the Baath Party has held power-and total control of the economy...and all that oil money, and the oppression and fighting with Iran that accompanied those years....and of course, the 12 years between the Gulf Wars when the US operated the “no-fly” zones, and led the charge for the sanctions that so affected average Iraqi’s lives, and the 5 years that have followed.

And all of a sudden, the lid of the “pressure cooker” that had suppressed all other political aspirations has been removed. The internal power struggles, and the perception that Al-Sadr represents Iraq’s Shi’a poor (and that the Iraqi Government doesn’t) have come to the front, as has Iran’s interest in a more theocratic-and Shi’a dominated-Iraq.

Al-Sadr also seems to benefit from a reputation of being less corrupt than Al-Maliki’s allies in Government.

All of this said, we should realize that religious considerations are to varying degrees important to the players; and that appears to be particularly true in the south.

Which brings us to solutions...

Of course, before we can discuss what to do, we need to define what we are trying to do.

With all respect to Congressman Reichert and those who share his perspective, there seems little probability that the surge will develop conditions that achieve the political reconciliation he seeks.

To put it another way, Iraq is not gonna be a “thousand points of light” anytime soon.

My goals are much more modest:

--Success would be to stop creating conditions that engender resentment towards the US.

--Success would be finding ways to help put Iraqis to work.

--Success would be working with institutions inside and outside of Government to improve the professionalism of Government; with the goal of reducing the perception that corruption is the normal way of doing business.

--Any success we might attain in “engaging” leaders and future leaders (religious, tribal, business, and political...who are often the same people) to whom we currently have no direct connection would be a greater victory that we have today.

Bill Richardson aptly points out that when it comes to engendering resentment, the presence of US troops is making things worse, not better.

So the first thing that should be done, Congressman, is to get the troops out of the business of policing a civil war.

I suspect if we were sitting together having this conversation you would tell me that we cannot withdraw troops because of the potential for bloodshed and chaos once we leave. To which I would respond...

...we are incapable of continuing the surge past this spring. We just don’t have the troops. If the surge was required for “victory”, and we can no longer continue the surge, how are we to achieve the “more stable, self-sufficient Iraq” you were hoping for in January?

...even if we had the troops to continue the surge forever, there is no political will to create the reconciliation the surge was supposed to engender. All knowledgeable observers, including General Petraeus, agree that the only way to success of any kind is through the political process-and that, as the General says, the process needs to include our opponents as well as our friends.

...the surge does not reduce the pent up pressures that have developed between tribal and religious groups over these past 35 years, and more and more it seems evident that we are merely delaying any retribution that might occur-and losing troops to do it.

Another source of resentment: the state of the economy. As we discussed above, unemployment is the enemy, and we should more or less hire every Iraqi we can find to rebuild whatever local communities request that is reasonable.

The Defense Department has discretionary funds available for commanders, and we need to do the same thing on a much larger scale through the auspices of the State Department. Many more Provincial Reconstruction Teams resources are needed and local “Sub Teams” should be established. This will require the presence of troops for some time to come, for the purposes of security. But there’s no reason for 130,000 troops and another 150,000 or so contractors...and probably not 30,000, either.

My next idea for the Congressman will involve some looking at the neighbors for inspiration-particularly Syria and Jordan.

If we are to create a more professional governing community, we should aggressively start the process of educating those future leaders...even those who come from groups we might not today support.

Iranians and Iraqis attended US schools in the past, along with citizens from many other countries. Do these contacts matter? I would invite the Congressman to consider these words:

“The relationships that are formed between individuals from different countries, as part of international education programs and exchanges ...foster goodwill that develops into vibrant, mutually beneficial partnerships among nations."

Who said that?
Our current President, that’s who.

To get a sense of what impact this can have, here’s a list of foreign leaders who attended school in the US-and the list literally goes from Afghanistan to Zambia.

Training in the US is a good idea...but what can be accomplished locally? That’s where Jordan comes in.

The Talal Abu-Ghazaleh College of Business in Amman, Jordan is an excellent example of what we have not yet been successful in creating in Iraq-a genuine professional school that can operate with reasonable security.

Schools like this can be created in Iraq-if we make the schools either inclusive...or we help the various groups on the ground set up schools that meet their own needs...always trying to emphasize the positive effect on Iraqi citizens from knowing how to operate and maintain the infrastructure they are building.

This needs to go both ways...until we have schools that teach Americans how to understand this part of the world, our actions are as likely to fail as they are to succeed.

The mistrust that currently exists between the US and the Iraqi communities suggests we may have to accept a limited degree of control and oversight in order to create the perception that we aren’t ramming these schools down anyone’s throats.

This is like drilling wells for African villages-you build the facilities based on what the communities and the US can arrange...but then you let the locals run the show, and you hope they like you the better for it. That process, repeated a thousand times or so, is not only cheaper than today’s combat gets better results. As a matter of fact, it’s the exact same process we are using in places as disparate as the Philippines and Angola and Somalia-and Baghram.

The faster the US is perceived as the country that builds things for poor people the faster we will find real National Security-because those folks will have less reason to hate us.

It sounds simplistic, but if it’s already our policy in the rest of the world...why not Iraq?

Along the same lines, we need to get credit into the local economy-and the Syrians, who are attempting to adopt a “social market economy” model, are trying to move ahead with a brand of capitalism that both connects their economy to the larger world economy and capital flows; and does it while being empathetic with Islamic economic sensibilities.

We could learn much from an Islamist approach to economic reconstruction as we try to redevelop the economy of the next-door country.

Finally: we have to get to know the people we want to persuade them to see our point of view.

Advertisers the world over know that the first step in any communications effort is to know your target market-and if there’s one thing we don’t know enough about, it’s Iraq.

We don’t speak the language, we don’t understand the culture, and we have limited personal relationships with local leaders. To make matters worse, we transfer out our troops just as soon as they get to know the local leaders, and we replace them with a new set of troops who have to develop the relationships all over again.

This is another State Department and Intelligence Community problem, and we need to have greater Defense/State Department integration so that these relationships can be developed and nurtured over longer periods of time.

To paraphrase George Patton, why take the same real estate twice?

So Congressman Reichert, there you have it: a strategy that is far more likely to work than what the President has proposed to this point, a strategy that will stop us from digging our proverbial hole deeper, and a strategy that will, in the end, save lives-ours and theirs.

And here’s the best part-this same strategy would also go a long way towards fixing our Iran problem.

Monday, October 8, 2007

A Fake Consultant Exclusive: The Congressman And I Discuss “The Surge”

Every once in a while, serendipity provides a gift to those who answer its call.

But like a cat, you must be always ready; and that’s why I decided to turn around and see what was going on under the tent perched on the corner of the vacant lot this afternoon.

What was going on was that Republican Congressman Dave Reichert was giving a speech. I don’t get a chance to meet the local Congressman very often, and I said to myself: “Self…what a great chance to talk about Iraq…with a Member of Congress. You should go talk to him.”

So I did.

As it turns out, he was most gracious and more than willing to talk; and we spent about 10 minutes in a back-and-forth. As Paul Harvey would say, “the rest…of the story” is continued below.

There are a couple of reasons why I was particularly interested in talking about Iraq: one is that I have a godson now involved; but even more important is that Reichert is, in effect, the Congressman from the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, as Fort Lewis, Washington is within his district (WA-08). As you may or may not know, these troops are at “the point of the spear” as far as the “surge” is concerned, and they are taking casualties in substantial numbers.

So by now I’ve parked the car, and walked up to join the crowd of about 60. The Congressman is here today to be honored for his efforts to help the City of Snoqualmie with its redevelopment efforts; and with the requisite speechifying and handshaking of dignitaries complete, it’s time for my first question…which is basically that I don’t understand how he can continue to support the surge.

Reichert began by reminding me that he was not in office at the time of the original vote. He pointed out that members of both parties felt that there was a reason for the invasion.

Interestingly, he then commented on the fact that hindsight is 20/20…but he told me that if he knew then what he knows today, he would have still voted to invade.

He told me he had just returned from a trip to Iraq with Democratic Congressman Brian Baird, and that Baird had changed his mind as a result of the trip, and now supports remaining in the country.

Reichert recounted his trip through the market, and told me that on previous trips he could not have visited the “Red Zone”. He expressed more than once his belief that violence had been dramatically reduced, as well.

He told me that he had spoken to “hundreds” of troops on the ground, and that not a single one had expressed to him that we should get out because the war was serving no purpose.

He recalled a meeting with Jane Harmon, amongst others; and the problem with the Democratic stance on the war, as he sees it, is that the Democrats offer no alternative plan-or at least could not offer one when he confronted Harmon and the others about this issue at that meeting.

Taking a moment to offer a second question, I asked Reichert if the violence might be reduced in Baghdad these days because we are now at the end of a process of ethnic cleansing. I reminded him that Sunni and Shi’a are separated now more than ever before in the city. I pointed out that Sunni enclaves are now surrounded by blast walls, and that the Shi’a use the checkpoints as locations for targeting Sunni to be attacked if they enter Shi’a territory.

The Congressman told me I am mistaken regarding these issues. He informed me that ethnic cleansing is not an issue. In fact, he reports the local police chief he spoke with (who happens to be Shi’a-I asked), is married to a Sunni woman, and that there are no problems whatsoever. He further challenged my sources regarding this sort of information.

He also reports that Shi’a and Sunni death squads were targeting each other, but that they represent a small minority of the residents of these communities, and that this problem is nothing about which we should be concerned.

He then told me that he is the Ranking Member on the Homeland Security Committee, and as a result he has access to “Top Secret information” that flows from a source at a higher level than mine.

A most interesting moment occurred when he told me that we have to listen to the Generals to decide when to get out of Iraq. I asked him if it wasn’t actually Congress’ job to tell the Generals when to fight wars and when to end them. He said it was not. I then asked him if he believed in the concept of civilian control of the military.

He responded that he did not want me to put words in his mouth; that he was basically trying to say that we don’t want 435 more Generals micromanaging the war.

Although he spent a considerable time talking to me, at one point he looked at me and said “I can see I’m just wasting my time here…” in a reference to his inability to sway me to his point of view. Nonetheless, we continued to engage until his “handler” gently played “bad cop” and led him away.

So what did we learn?

The Congressman seeks succor in the fact that violence is reduced, he does not acknowledge that there are ethnic cleansing problems, now or in the past, and he tells us he is of the belief that we are on the right track.

What he did not like was the question of civilian control over the military. He was far more comfortable with the concept that we should not question our Generals.

What he did not mention was any element of the political situation…suggesting there is not much he wants to highlight in that regard, particularly as it relates to the problems of internal Governmental struggle and its connection to the inability to successfully “nation build”.

Ironically, on the day we were speaking, Iraq’s Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister was announcing that “there will be no reconciliation…”

The question I forgot to ask?

In an effort to improve the conditions faced by our troops back home, I have proposed that Members of Congress get their health care from VA and military facilities. I forgot to ask the Congressman how he might view such a proposal.

In any event, that’s the story for today: we meet a Member of Congress, we have a conversation, and we find that, although he was happy to spend the time, we still find ourselves very far apart on some very basic issues.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

On Larry Craig, And Filibusters, Or, Wanna Make A Trade?

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”
--Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

There are times when only the most evil of thinkers are able to grasp an excellent opportunity to do good in a most unlikely place.

As one of the most evil thinkers I know, I stand here today to tell you that we have an opportunity to turn this Larry Craig situation into a chance to stand Mr. Bush’s war plans on their head-if we are willing to play the extremely brutal political game required.

Wanna hear more?
Read on...

Before we proceed further, I offer two stipulations:

--I acknowledge up front that this is entirely inappropriate behavior for a civil person to propose.

--I further admit that this is no way to treat a man (Senator Craig) who is, in his heart, a troubled person in a most difficult situation.

That said, let’s set the stage:

We cannot advance the choices we want in regard to the war because our Republican friends in the Senate threaten to block any action with a filibuster; and further threaten to “hold the cards” that prevent the override of that veto.

There is enormous fear in the Republican community because of the “moral threat” posed by Craig’s decision not to leave the Senate, and the fact that that image of Craig’s “wide stance” will persist all the way to Election Day, dragging the Rs deeper into the muck the closer the vote gets.

At the moment, the Rs cannot remove Craig, which they would dearly love to do, because there is no way to obtain a majority on the Ethics Committee unless Democrats agree to join the R members of that committee in a vote.

Beyond that, there is no way the Rs can obtain the votes on the Senate floor to remove Craig unless Ds decide to throw the Rs a life preserver.

So what I’m advising is:

Let’s throw them that life preserver...for a price.

Harry Reid should approach Mc Connell and say something more or less like this: “You give me the votes I need to pass a Defense Department budget with a timeline attached, and you deliver the votes for the override...and the next day we’ll give you the votes to remove Craig.”

I know how inherently bad this is on a moral level, but you know what?

I’m sick of the idea that nothing will change in this war for 18 months, at least-and I’m ready to take any action that will stop Mr. Bush from creating the momentum he wants to carry this war into the next Administration.

I will happily trade Craig’s political life for the very real lives of the 1000 or so troops that will die before January 2009.

If all that wasn’t enough, it will teach the Rs some very real lessons about what you sow when you treat politics as a Rovian exercise.

So that’s my idea for today.

I admit it is the wrong way to practice politics, but that said I feel the savings of 1000 American lives is well worth the sacrifice of Craig...and I suspect any Republican who is a fan of Jack Bauer will have a tough time disagreeing.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

On Challenging Iran, Or, My Letter To Senator Murray

We are all by now aware of the Senate vote to encourage the State Department to identify a unit of the Iranian Army as a terrorist organization.

I was so amazed to discover that Washington's Senator Patty Murray voted for the resolution that I immediately sent her an email expressing my most severe displeasure.

She was kind enogh to respond.
Today I have replied to her response.

Those two emails are the rhetorical tofu in tonight's dinner discussion, and I invite you to pull up to the table and join us.

First, allow me to present Senator Murray's email, which I recieved today:

Thank you for contacting me regarding U.S.-Iran relations and your concerns about possible U.S. military action in Iran . I appreciate hearing from you on this important matter.

The Iranian government's uranium enrichment program, sponsorship of terrorism, and human rights abuse s greatly concern me. President Ahmadinejad's statements calling for the destruction of Israel and denying the Holocaust are also alarming. Iran should play a more constructive role in the Middle East, and I support diplomatic efforts recommended by the Iraq Study Group to encourage Iran to do so.

I have recently cosponsored two bills to address Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and support for terrorism in the Middle East. S. 970, the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, introduced in March 2007, would tighten sanctions against Iran 's energy sector and identify Iran 's Quds Force as a terrorist organization. S. 1430, the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, introduced in May 2007, would allow states and localities to divest funding from companies with more than $20 million invested in Iran 's energy sector. It is important to note that neither of these pieces of legislation threatens or authorizes military action against Iran .

Please know that I share your concerns about our relations with Iran and will continue to closely monitor developments in Iran and the Middle East . As the Senate addresses this and other issues, I will keep your thoughts in mind.

And below, my response, sent today:

First, thanks for taking the time to reply.

It's much appreciated.

While I do share your concerns about the potential of future Iranian actions, the fact is those are potential actions.

Balanced against that are the realities that Mr. Ahmadinejad is relatively weak in his own country, Iran's recent history of being potentially supportive of US interests (particularly after 9/11), our own inability to offer an effective, sustained military response, and the fact that this action makes no sense in terms of actually making the US safer.

Here's what I mean:

Suppose we do mount a bombing raid against Iranian nuclear facilities (many of which are underground (, and located near populated areas ( -the "human shield" effect), or has been suggested, that we strike at "Revolutionary Guard" targets?

it is highly unlikely that we would successfully destroy any underground facility with any tool short of tactical nuclear weapons.


Because of the simplicity of providing relatively low-tech countermeasures: specifically shock mounting critical equipment (, and providing blast valves, as seen in this ( diagram of the "Site R" facility with which you may already be familiar.

The more likely result of such an attempt would be to cement the relationship between Iran and North Korea and Islamist elements in Pakistan; both countries which currently possess nuclear weapons, and who have demonstrated a willingness to offer those for export. It is also highly likely that such an attack would be perceived as further proof that Iran has "arrived" as a regional power, and that the US is expanding its "war on Islam".

Attacking "Revolutionary Guard" targets?

Again, our own ignorance will be greatly to our disadvantage. Exactly what is a Revolutionary Guard target? If, as appears to be the case, the Revolutionary Guard functions in the same way as the Peoples' Liberation Army in China, this would mean the Guard is an economic as well as a military organization. Do we therefore attack oil facilities, and are we prepared to accept the likely Iranian response of attacks on third-country oil facilities, or the shutoff of the Iranian oil spigot, which will cause China to apply pressure on us to back off?

Will we be looking at $150 oil the next week, coupled with the public humiliation of backing down from another pointless show of force?

Or do we instead attack troop emplacements, creating martyrs and guaranteeing the absolute support of the Iranian people in any military actions against the US that might be mounted-and absolutely guaranteeing the failure of any diplomatic efforts that might be considered or under way?

Finally, we must consider the history of our own President.

There is no doubt that he either lied or was fundamentally unaware of the most critical facts about Iraq before he chose invasion.

Further, the Downing Street memos ( demonstrate that Mr. Bush never intended to find a diplomatic solution before invading-and why would you believe, based on his long history of disingenuousness on a variety of issues that he intends to seek a diplomatic solution now?

Further, the history of the action in Iraq-the lack of planning and the obvious failure to consider any long-term consequences in particular-should leave you unwilling to trust this president; and your vote to designate the Guard as a terrorist group suggests both a greater willingness to trust this President than is safe, and a failure to recall his recent history of bad decisions and lack of forethought.

If all that wasn't enough, Mr. Bush has a history of "power-reaching" that suggests he will take this vote as all the authority he needs-or he will attack Iran based on the Commander-in-Chief's "need to respond to all those Iranian IED attacks on our troops..."

This is an absolute disaster in the making...and let's not forget that the USS Cole was nearly sunk by basically a Zodiac boat and two suicide bombers.

The narrow spaces in which our Navy will be forced to operate will be much to our disadvantage, the Straits of Hormuz are riddled with antiship missile emplacements, and we might well lose a ship or two in a major escalation-not to mention the effect on the world economy if the Straits close to commercial oil tanker traffic.

Will we be forced to invade and hold the Straits to keep the oil flowing?

So let's summarize: it will be exceptionally difficult to target and destroy any facility that is of significance, we will empower Iran by doing so, we do not have the understanding of Iran that we need to pull this off, and we are not well prepared for the consequences.

And if all that doesn't scare us, this President has a track record that, to be gentle, suggests his grasp on honesty is tenuous, at best. Trusting him to do the right thing at this point seems absurd, and that was the main source of my disappointment in your vote.

Now to be fair, I generally like Patty Murray, and I was quite appreciative that she took the time to respond; but her vote proves we, as a community, have not yet succeeded in getting the message across to everyone in the House and Senate-even those we would usually think of as likely votes for our cause.

My's not all done on these pages. A personal note to your Senator and Representatives is another way to advance the conversation; and perhaps we, as bloggers, need to put more of our attention on this most basic aspect of representative democracy.