Monday, December 29, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere?

The latest findings from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter offer some promising signs that the early aqueous environment on Mars was not the acidic mess that some had theorized. The presence of carbonates in key strata of Martian bedrock argue convincingly for a neutral-to-alkaline composition of past Martian waters (since an acidic environment would dissolve the carbonate in short order). This in turn suggests that conditions were favorable (or at least not brutally hostile) for the emergence of life as we know it in ancient Martian surface water.

You can see on this map that the orbital assay has revealed carbonate in several equatorial regions of the Martian landscape. The fact that carbonates were also detected by the Phoenix lander on the northern polar plains suggests that relatively hospitable waters were once found in widely distributed regions of Mars in the ancient past.

Does this mean that life once existed on our neighboring planet? Insufficient data. But it should be noted that life appears to have emerged on the young, cooling Earth almost immediately (in geological time). This suggests that the processes which lead to the complexification of organic molecules into self-organizing, pre-biotic hypercycles can occur quite readily when conditions permit. I have a sneaking suspicion that more detailed study will yield evidence of at least primitive life having existed on Mars in the distant past. Whether some life still exists (e.g., in deep aquifers kept liquid by the planet's internal heat) is very much an open question.

As immense a find as that would be, I actually hope we find that life flourished on Mars for one brief, shining moment, then slipped into oblivion. The presence of extant life on Mars would greatly complicate the ethics of eventual colonization, given the immeasurable scientific value of coming to understand the biology of a separate cradle of life in our own solar system. But that's a question for another day. For now, it is very exciting to have begun to solve the riddle of the missing carbonates, and so moved one step closer to the discovery of a "second Creation," and thence to the tantalizing indication that our universe may in fact be teeming with life.

Might make stargazing a rather less lonely experience.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Needless to say, posting has been almost embarrassingly light this month. Part of this, I'm sure, can be attributed to the impending Holidays, and their effects on my schedule (think three-dimensional Tetris). Plans to travel and see family, coupled with attempts to squeeze clients into time-slots, while accommodating various vacations and exams (most of my clients are teens and 20-somethings) have had their impact on blogging.

However, if I'm to be entirely honest, I must confess that the outcome of the election has had an impact on me. At first, there was a kind of depression (not so much clinical/personal --I'm not that far gone-- as blogospheric). I'd devoted so much energy to the candidates' qualifications and positions, debunking and exposing and advocating and warning and generally obsessing, that the end of it all left me rather spent.

Also, I have not wanted to be the one who prematurely blasted or gave a pass to the President-Elect. I have been surprisingly sanguine about his appointments to foreign-policy-relevant Cabinet positions; there are signs there of a degree of maturity and pragmatism which frankly I did not expect to see from Obama. Keeping Bob Gates on as Sec Def was an intelligent and politically risky move, for example. I'm not even displeased with Hillary as Secretary of State; she is, if anything, a canny and pragmatic politician, a master triangulator, and a moderate on the Hawk-Dove continuum. Sec State was arguably the role she was born to play. Other appointments have left me rather more wary...which is a subject for another day.

In short, Obama has so far earned a wait-and-see attitude from me, which is quite astonishing, considering his campaign persona and the blindingly foolish things coming out of his mouth as he contended with John McCain for the Big Chair. I suppose the realities of governing have had the hoped-for effect on his policies, a moderating and focusing effect which is inevitably --for someone who is truly intelligent-- going to be at variance with the need to inspire an electorate to cast its vote. I live in hope that reality continues to mug the POTUS-Elect, and that he continues to exercise the sort of political jujitsu for which one can only hope a street fighter like Rahm Emmanuel will be able to provide cover against the unalloyed horror embodied by the likes of Pelosi and Reed.

Meanwhile, before the subject of McCain drops too far in the rear-view, I direct your attention to an editorial from the WaPo, by Sens. McCain, Lieberman, and Graham, in the wake of their recent trip to Iraq. Their observations embody the sort of careful optimism which the near-miraculous turnaround in Iraq has inspired in so many of those who are able to shed the goggles of partisanship long enough actually to look at what has been transpiring there:

Based on our observations and consultations in Baghdad, we are optimistic that President-elect Obama will be able to fulfill a major step of his plan for withdrawal next year by redeploying U.S. combat forces from Iraq's cities while maintaining a residual force to train and mentor our Iraqi allies. We caution, however, that 2009 will be a pivotal year for Iraq, with provincial and then national elections whose secure and legitimate conduct depends on our continued engagement. By allowing a greater number of forces to remain in Iraq in the short term, we will be able to set the conditions for much deeper troop cuts thereafter.

Really, there is nothing new here; this has always been the plan: stay long enough to stabilize the situation, allow the government to dig in and prove its legitimacy, and train up the Iraqi military and police to the point that they can function as a modern, professional force in the service of the Iraqi people's interests, guided by civilian leadership which will set sound policy. Then pull out in a responsible manner, and let the Iraqi people chart their own course. The difference is that those goals are far less abstract than they once were. Indeed, they are very much in sight.

Just as the destiny of Iraq was very much in question as little as 18 months ago, so the nature of an Obama Administration's strategies and tactics were a terrifying cipher until recently. It is my considered opinion that there are unexpected grounds for hope on both fronts. It is still my belief that McCain would have been a simply superb President (a statement which is likely to draw considerable fire from both Liberals and Conservatives who may read these words). But I am starting to see that Obama may not prove the unmitigated disaster I'd been so certain he would be (ditto!).

I have not forgotten that Obama opposed the change in strategy which has made the current situation in Iraq possible. The fact that he has shown indications of being able to respond intelligently to current conditions is not prima facie evidence that he will have the wherewithal to craft and implement policies which will result in similarly favorable conditions in the future. There will likely be only a short span in the early days of his presidency during which he can ride the coattails of --and vehemently disavow-- the accomplishments of Bush's foreign policy team. After that, he is on his own. Interestingly, this is something which he and Nouri al Maliki share.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Palin's Church Torched

Today's Examiner reports that the church attended by Governor Sarah Palin and her family has been badly damaged by a fire which has been determined to have been caused by arson.

The details, perpetrators and motives are still under investigation, and I will, of course, suspend judgment until all the facts are in, but let this stand as a conditional statement: Here is a glaring example of the depths to which the vitriolic atmosphere which grows like a cancer in American politics will ultimately take us. Somehow we have come to a place where policy differences become yoked to a visceral hatred which invites the unhinged to take actions like these.

It is a very ominous trend, one which undermines the very foundations of our democracy, and of our pluralistic society as a whole. If we cannot disagree without demonizing, then we will surely reap the whirlwind.

If this shameful incident turns out to be what it appears, then it is a stain on our Republic, and I hope even the most fervent Palin-haters out there will use it as an occasion to reflect on the pathology which the Governor has awoken in dark hearts of some people. Aside from all the other ways in which an act like this is nauseating, it points to a fundamental breakdown in the faith which some citizens of this great Nation place it its system of laws and in their validity for resolving differences among us. Chaos waits hungrily, just outside the gates of such an outrage.

UPDATE: Link fixed.

UPDATE 2: Just to be perfectly clear, here, I am not equating those who emigrate from the US as a result of their beliefs with those who would torch a church, bomb a government building, etc. The latter are dangerously deranged, and deserving of nothing but scorn and punishment as the criminals that they are, regardless of their views. The former may hold beliefs that I find problematic...but at least they have the courage of their convictions. Further, those who choose to check out of the US are exercising their freedom under its laws (more than a bit ironic, actually), while those of a terroristic bent are implicitly voting "no confidence" in those laws and the freedoms they protect.

It's an important difference, which bore clarifying.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tehran Changing Course in Iraq?

Today's Examiner reports that the number of the deadly roadside ambush bombs known as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) has lately been decreasing sharply in Iraq. These sophisticated and lethal devices, it is widely accepted, have been supplied by Iran (likely through its Quds Force) for years, and have been responsible for many coalition and Iraqi deaths. Their progressive disappearance from the battlespace might signal a strategic shift in the policy of the Mullahcracy toward its neighbor:
Iran is no longer actively supplying Iraqi militias with a particularly lethal kind of roadside bomb, a decision that suggests a strategic shift by the Iranian leadership, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said Thursday. Use of the armor-piercing explosives - known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs - has dwindled sharply in recent months, said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, head of the Pentagon office created to counter roadside bombs in Iran and Afghanistan.

Metz estimated that U.S. forces find between 12 and 20 of the devices in Iraq each month, down from 60 to 80 earlier this year.

"Someone ... has made the decision to bring them down," Metz told reporters.

Asked if the elite Iranian Republican Guard Corps has made a deliberate choice to limit use of EFPs, Metz nodded: "I think you could draw that inference from the data."

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh agreed Iran has curtailed its activity inside Iraq. He said he thinks Iran has concluded that a new security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq poses no threat to Iran. Iran opposed the agreement as a blessing for foreign forces to remain in Iraq, and encouraged Iraq's democratic government to reject it.

It is doubtful that the regime in Tehran has actually concluded that a peaceful, prosperous, US-Aligned Iraq on its border "poses no threat." Even if the Iranian fear that the US would station large numbers of troops in Iraq has decreased (allayed by the language of the SOFA with respect to American withdrawal plans), the presence of such a State would arguably pose a larger strategic threat to the Repressive Persian regime by embodying an alternative to its theocratic stranglehold on the Iranian people.

More likely, the devastating effects upon the Iranian economy of low petroleum prices on global markets have prompted a recalibration of Iranian tactics in its near-abroad. The costs of international adventurism (in the form of support for Hezbollah and Hamas, for example) must be starting to sting right about now, and the fait accompli represented by the SOFA , along with the diminishing clout of Iran-aligned Shiite militias in Iraq would all argue strongly for a change of approach between the two Middle Eastern states. It may be that the Mullahs have opted to vie for a less nakedly bellicose stance with regard to Iraq, in favor of a longer game of more insidious seduction and division.

Be that as it may, anything which leads to an improved security situation ahead of provincial elections in Iraq next month is a welcome development. More importantly, these terrifying weapons' disappearance from the streets of Iraq will be good news to our valorous troops and their families.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Finding Change in the SOFA

In yesterday's Washington Post, columnist and commentator Charles Krauthammer posted an editorial about the recently-approved Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which creates the legal framework for American forces' continued presence in and ultimate withdrawal from Iraq. Krauthammer is one of my favorite commentators on the nightly panel of "Special Report with Britt Hume." Sure, he looks a bit like Rumpelstiltskin, and is clearly dealing with a whopper of a dysfluency/stutter (and imagine the moxie of an individual with such a condition who chooses to make his living speaking before TV cameras!). But I find his intellect to be formidable, his analyses to be useful and insightful, and his humor to be dry as a Gobi salt flat and intermittently hilarious.

If nothing else, the SOFA will put the lie to many of the hysterical claims that OIF is an "illegal war" (never mind Saddam's continual material breaches of multiple binding UN Security Council resolutions before the invasion, and the UN mandate which had authorized the presence of forces since then...). The SOFA is a legal agreement between sovereign nations, arrived at through the peaceful actions of a democratically elected government (Iraq's), carefully laying out the terms under which the forces of another government (ours) will help to bolster the security and enable the further stabilization of the host nation's government. Indeed, it is the very familiar political machinations by which the SOFA was agreed-upon which Krauthammer rightly points out as well-nigh miraculous, all things considered:

Also largely overlooked at home was the sheer wonder of the procedure that produced Iraq's consent: classic legislative maneuvering with no more than a tussle or two -- tame by international standards (see YouTube: "Best Taiwanese Parliament Fights of All Time!") -- over the most fundamental issues of national identity and direction.

The only significant opposition bloc was the Sadrists, a mere 30 seats out of 275. The ostensibly pro-Iranian religious Shiite parties resisted Tehran's pressure and championed the agreement. As did the Kurds. The Sunnis put up the greatest fight. But their concern was that America would be withdrawing too soon, leaving them subject to overbearing and perhaps even vengeful Shiite dominance.

The Sunnis, who only a few years ago had boycotted provincial elections, bargained with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, trying to exploit his personal stake in agreements he himself had negotiated. They did not achieve their maximum objectives. But they did get formal legislative commitments for future consideration of their grievances, from amnesty to further relaxation of the de-Baathification laws.

That any of this democratic give-and-take should be happening in a peaceful parliament just two years after Iraq's descent into sectarian hell is in itself astonishing. Nor is the setting of a withdrawal date terribly troubling. The deadline is almost entirely symbolic. U.S. troops must be out by Dec. 31, 2011 -- the weekend before the Iowa caucuses, which, because God is merciful, will arrive again only in the very fullness of time. Moreover, that date is not just distant but flexible. By treaty, it can be amended. If conditions on the ground warrant, it will be.

Much could still go wrong in Iraq, to be sure. It is unlikely that Tehran will simply sit on its haunches and allow a prosperous, democratic, and US-aligned Iraq to flourish on its border without attempting to wreak continued mischief. Still, with oil under US$50 a barrel, the Iranian regime may have its hands full without pumping resources toward the destabilization of its neighbor. As Krauthammer points out, we must expect intermittent upticks in deadly attacks inside Iraq, as Provincial elections (scheduled for January 2009) approach.

Still, it is looking more and more like it would take a system perturbation of currently uncommon proportions to derail Iraq's trajectory toward something unprecedented in the Middle East: an Arab state with a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic, democratically elected legislature (which includes women), a growing middle class, and a diversified economy, and a commitment to lawful, stable interactions with its neighbors, which it can back with credible, professionally-fielded (and civilian-controlled) military force. Krauthammer lays out the potential up-side of this for the region (to say nothing of the Iraqi people themselves):

-- a flawed yet functioning democratic polity with unprecedented free speech, free elections and freely competing parliamentary factions. For this to happen in the most important Arab country besides Egypt can, over time (over generational time, the time scale of the war on terror), alter the evolution of Arab society. It constitutes our best hope for the kind of fundamental political-cultural change in the Arab sphere that alone will bring about the defeat of Islamic extremism. After all, newly sovereign Iraq is today more engaged in the fight against Arab radicalism than any country on earth, save the United States -- with which, mirabile dictu, it has now thrown in its lot.

No one knows the dangers of unchecked extremism, and the retrograde traditionalism which feeds it, like the Iraqi people do; it's been scant months since they were nearly dragged into the fires to which it ultimately leads. The promises of a new Iraqi State are yet but a delicate crust over the chaos from which it was so recently rescued. But I'll bet you dollars to dinars that the Iraqis have had a bellyful of that mayhem, and will be loath to go back for a second helping. If Dubai is a sort of bizarre Disney Land version * of a Middle Eastern future, Iraq may one day be its New York.

* cf. my comment here, #220.