David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) announced today on Meet the Press that he intends to run for President again. But it was this portion of his appearance, on the subject of Iraq and the "surge," which caught my attention:

MR. RUSSERT: You said the other day that this is President Bush’s war, and there’s...

SEN. BIDEN: It is.

MR. RUSSERT: ...there’s really little Democrats can do. Why not cut off funding for the war?

SEN. BIDEN: I’ve been there, Tim. You can’t do it.


SEN. BIDEN: You can’t do it. It’s—what—because it made sense in the Constitution when you said you could cut off funding when you had no standing army. We have a standing army with a budget of hundreds of billions of dollars. You can’t go in and, like a tinker toy, and play around and say, “You can’t spend the money on this piece and this piece and”—he—able—he’ll be able to keep those troops there forever constitutionally if he wants to.

MR. RUSSERT: Why not have legislation then that would cap the number of troops in Iraq?

SEN. BIDEN: Because it’s very difficult to—it’s constitutionally questionable whether or not you can do that. I think it is unconstitutional to say, “We’re going to tell you you can go, but we’re going to micromanage the war.” When we wrote the Constitution, the intention was to give the commander in chief the authority how to use the forces, when you authorize them, to be able to use the forces.

Biden here is his reliably muddle-headed self. Congress can declare war (or, in this case, resolve to authorize the use of force) but not reverse itself later? Congress cannot redline certain defense expenditures?

Giving Biden the benefit of the doubt, what I think he is trying to say is that it would be utterly unproductive for Democrats in Congress to get bogged down in the tactical minutia of our Iraq policy. I completely agree. To surge or not to surge is really not the issue. But it would be nice to see a Democratic presidential contender better able to articulate that notion.

Biden told Russert:

I am running for president. I’m going to be Joe Biden, and I’m going to try to be the best Biden I can be. If I can, I got a shot. If I can’t, I lose.

Is this the best Biden he can be?

The Chicago Tribune has obtained a copy of a 6,300-word, handwritten letter by radical Muslim cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr describing his abduction in Italy and alleged rendition to Egypt, which has resulted in charges against more than two dozen American CIA operatives and the former chief of Italian intelligence.

Business as usual?

Iraq's massive oil reserves, the third-largest in the world, are about to be thrown open for large-scale exploitation by Western oil companies under a controversial law which is expected to come before the Iraqi parliament within days.

The US government has been involved in drawing up the law, a draft of which has been seen by The Independent on Sunday. It would give big oil companies such as BP, Shell and Exxon 30-year contracts to extract Iraqi crude and allow the first large-scale operation of foreign oil interests in the country since the industry was nationalised in 1972.

. . .

Oil industry executives and analysts say the law, which would permit Western companies to pocket up to three-quarters of profits in the early years, is the only way to get Iraq's oil industry back on its feet after years of sanctions, war and loss of expertise. But it will operate through "production-sharing agreements" (or PSAs) which are highly unusual in the Middle East, where the oil industry in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the world's two largest producers, is state controlled.

Opponents say Iraq, where oil accounts for 95 per cent of the economy, is being forced to surrender an unacceptable degree of sovereignty.

. . .

Supporters say the provision allowing oil companies to take up to 75 per cent of the profits will last until they have recouped initial drilling costs. After that, they would collect about 20 per cent of all profits, according to industry sources in Iraq. But that is twice the industry average for such deals.

Update: Meanwhile, in Iran, "a new U.S. campaign to dry up financing for oil and natural gas development poses a threat to the republic's ability to continue exporting oil over the next two decades," reports the LA Times.

Spurious rumor alert: Negroponte to State to replace Rice, who is tapped to replace ailing Cheney.

Update: As long as we're gossiping, did you hear what Laura said? Just between you, me, and the fence post, of course.

Another day in Iraq:

* 30 dead in central Baghdad clash between Iraqi Army and gunmen following reports that Sunnis had set up fake checkpoint where they were detaining Shiites, shooting them, and hanging their bodies from lampposts; * 27 bodies were dumped behind a hospital in Baghdad;

* 72 bodies were recovered around Baghdad on Saturday, most showing signs of torture.

From the (Murdoch-owned) Sunday Times:

ISRAEL has drawn up secret plans to destroy Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons.

Two Israeli air force squadrons are training to blow up an Iranian facility using low-yield nuclear “bunker-busters”, according to several Israeli military sources.

. . .

Israeli and American officials have met several times to consider military action. Military analysts said the disclosure of the plans could be intended to put pressure on Tehran to halt enrichment, cajole America into action or soften up world opinion in advance of an Israeli attack.

. . .

Israeli pilots have flown to Gibraltar in recent weeks to train for the 2,000-mile round trip to the Iranian targets. Three possible routes have been mapped out, including one over Turkey.

Air force squadrons based at Hatzerim in the Negev desert and Tel Nof, south of Tel Aviv, have trained to use Israel’s tactical nuclear weapons on the mission. The preparations have been overseen by Major General Eliezer Shkedi, commander of the Israeli air force.

Sources close to the Pentagon said the United States was highly unlikely to give approval for tactical nuclear weapons to be used. One source said Israel would have to seek approval “after the event”, as it did when it crippled Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak with airstrikes in 1981.

Late update: As I hinted in the parenthetical, it's important to consider the source.

This is worrisome. It comes from a McClatchy report on the likely selection of Ryan Crocker as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, replacing Zalmay Khalilzad:

Crocker "must answer: Whose side are we on?" said a State Department official in Washington, who asked not to be identified because the official isn't authorized to speak to the news media. "It is going to be extremely difficult."

We keep hearing about a faction within the Administration that wants to choose sides (i.e., back the Shiite majority) in order, presumably, to bring the civil war to a quicker and more decisive end so that we can declare victory and withdraw. I say presumably because there are so many problems with this approach that trying to tease out its proponents' objectives almost misses the point.

But here's the thing. One might expect that faction to reside at the Pentagon or NSC--but the State Department? That can't be a good sign.

One of the nice things about weekend blogging is that I'm not quite as captive to the news cycle as during the week. So on a Saturday morning during flu season, let me put on my tinfoil hat and digress into one of my pet fascinations: the spread of the H5N1 influenza virus.

About this time last year, I read John Barry's The Great Influenza, about the 1918 pandemic. (A good read, though not in the same league as his seminal work on the Great Flood of 1927, Rising Tide. If you want to really understand Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, start with Rising Tide.) Beyond the sheer number of deaths from what was dubbed the Spanish Flu is the speed with which the virus spread and the ferocity with which it attacked its victims. It simply overwhelmed the ability of political, social, and medical institutions (such as they were at the time) to respond in any meaningful or effective way. Advances in medical science would help mitigate the effects of a flu pandemic today in developed countries, although probably not to the extent we would like to think. It would make Katrina look like a gentle spring rain.

There have been other flu pandemics since 1918, though none so lethal, and the experts assure us that another pandemic is just a matter of time. It is the high mortality rate among human victims of the H5N1 virus that has public health experts particularly worried, combined with the fact, not surprising, that the virus has taken hold in bird populations in underdeveloped countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam where birds and humans live in close proximity and where monitoring and treatment is hampered by a lack of resources, among other things.

Still, and this is why I started out with the tinfoil hat reference, the total number of H5N1 human deaths worldwide since the virus first emerged is dwarfed by the annual number of deaths in the U.S. from regular old strains of influenza. So H5N1 may or may not be the next pandemic flu. There are good reasons to worry (more people died of H5N1 in 2006 than the previous three years combined), and good reasons not to panic (a swine flu showed signs of going pandemic in the 1970s but never did).

In the meantime, there's no better place from where to keep a watchful eye on the spread of H5N1 than the H5N1 blog.