Today's Papers

Benchmark Flashback

The New York Timesleads with word that, once again, the White House is talking “benchmarks” when it comes to Iraq. The new strategy that President Bush will propose will allegedly include “a series of goals” the Iraqi government will have to meet by a specified time. The Washington Postleads with Iraqi Health Ministry data that reveals 22,950 Iraqi civilians and police officers died violently last year. The Post emphasizes the huge difference between the first half of the year, when 5,640 Iraqi civilians and police officers were killed, and the second, which saw 17,310 violent deaths. The Wall Street Journal tops its worldwide newsbox with the Democratic lawmakers who went to the Sunday talk shows to discuss their views on Iraq and President Bush’s expected plan to ask for more troops. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi characterized Iraq as “complete chaos” and warned that if the president wants to add troops to the mission “he’s going to have to justify it.”

USA Todayleads with a look into how states are expanding their health-care coverage in order to try to reduce the number of uninsured. The federal government is now preoccupied with other matters, so states are starting to take the issue into their own hands. This all amounts to the biggest experiment with health policy since the 1980s, according to one expert. The Los Angeles Timesleads locally with news that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will propose a $465 million cut in California’s welfare budget. Democrats vowed to fight the plan, which risks eliminating aid to “tens of thousands” of children.

It should come as no surprise if talk of “benchmarks” and a “timetable” feels like déjà vu. After all, as the NYT is quick to point out, the Bush administration and the Iraqi government have agreed on timelines before, but nothing has come of them. The paper points out toward the end of the story that several of the benchmarks in the current plan were merely copied and pasted from an October list. Regardless, these benchmarks might be necessary to satisfy lawmakers from both parties who have made clear they want any escalation in troops to include specific goals for the Iraqi government. But what happens if the Iraqi government doesn’t meet the benchmarks? Administration officials wouldn’t discuss specific penalties. More to the point, if the United States really wanted to impose some sort of punishment (a big if), what kind of penalties are even possible? Short of threatening to abandon Iraq (something everyone would treat as a mere bluff at this point), what else is there?

The Post got the data through an anonymous Health Ministry official, who was not authorized to release the information. The official also emphasized the figures are incomplete, which means the final toll could be higher. A spokesman for the Health Ministry denied the existence of these numbers, and some officials said the number is too big. At the beginning of the year, a figure released by the ministries of defense, health, and interior said the total number of violent deaths last year was 13,896. A U.N. report released in November said 28,000 civilians died violently in the first 10 months of 2006.

Everybody mentions five more U.S. service members were killed in Iraq in recent days.

Pelosi said Congress would not cut off funding for troops, but she did emphasize the White House will no longer have a “blank check.” Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who confirmed he will be seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, put a damper on hopes that Democrats could affect Iraq policy. Biden said it would be unconstitutional for Congress to “micromanage the war” after it had authorized the use of force. “As a practical matter, there’s no way to say, ‘Mr. President, stop.’ ” So, wait, according to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there’s nothing Congress can do about Iraq? If true, it definitely makes Pelosi’s threats sound emptier than they normally would. But is he right? Some views from experts might have helped to figure out the validity of his statements.

Regardless of Biden’s feelings on constitutionality, he is planning on going forward with his extraordinarily original plan to solve the Iraq problem. Apparently, starting Tuesday, his committee will ask “experts from every perspective” what options remain in Iraq.

All the papers mention a meeting reporters had with Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who is the new American operational commander in Iraq and is in charge of day-to-day activities. Odierno didn’t reveal much information about Bush’s new plan, but he did emphasize that any new strategy that is designed to take control of Baghdad must involve coalition troops targeting both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. Odierno said up until now efforts have been too concentrated on Sunni areas. As the NYT emphasizes, Odierno also said it might take another “two or three years” before American and Iraqi troops gain control.

The Post fronts a look at how most immigrants fighting deportation orders often do so without a lawyer. Although they have to present themselves to an immigration court, the government provides no legal counsel for the poor. In a related article, the Post goes inside with complaints that new anti-terrorism laws are being used to reject asylum applicants. Those who give “material support” to terrorist groups are being barred from seeking asylum, even if the “support” was given at gunpoint.

If the story sounds familiar, that’s because on Dec. 22 the LAT fronted a very similar  story. Besides having the same topic, both stories mention how “advocates for refugees” gave as examples a Colombian nurse who was forced to treat a guerrilla fighter and a woman in Liberia was forced to cook for rebels who killed her father, raped her, and occupied her home. If it’s such a widespread problem, there should be more compelling stories, no? The Post does have two other examples the LAT didn’t mention, but it does quote two of the same experts mentioned in the Times last month.

The LAT and WP front results of a new study that seems to show some stem cells in human amniotic fluid have many of the same qualities as embryonic stem cells. These cells can be easily retrieved from a pregnant woman during routine checkups and would not involve using destroyed human embryos, which is a factor that has led some to oppose stem-cell research.

Wesley K. Clark writes an op-ed in the Post in which he criticizes the plan to increase troop levels by 20,000 in Iraq. Clark emphasizes “we’ve never had enough troops in Iraq” and says that in Kosovo the United States had 40,000 troops for a population of 2 million. Using the same ratio, it would mean at least 500,000 troops should be in Iraq. Regardless, Clark insists the United States should focus on diplomacy in order to find a solution to the crisis. “The underlying problems are political, not military,” writes Clark.

Shocking! … According to a new study by the Congressional Budget Office mentioned in the NYT, the ones who benefited most from Bush’s tax cuts were, wait for it, the very rich.