Devil in the Details

No Sweat, Doctor

Just how craven a panderer is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist? Consider the following: The office of Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman released a report early in December analyzing 13 curricula for abstinence-only education programs currently receiving federal funding. Most of these programs are backed by the religious right and are intended to bring back that idyllic era of sexual ignorance and misinformation in which American youth flourished before Alfred Kinsey ruined everything. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the report found that 11 of the 13 curricula contained significant scientific errors and fallacious use of medical data. One curriculum claimed that condoms often do not reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Another hyped a phony connection between chlamydia and heart disease. A third claimed that HIV/AIDS could be transmitted through sweat and tears.

A few days after the report's release, the good doctor Frist -- a real-deal, Harvard-educated M.D. -- appeared on ABC's This Week. Host George Stephanopoulos brought up the report and said to Frist, half in jest, “Now, you're a doctor. Do you believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?”

But it turned out this was a trickier question than Stephanopoulos realized. “I don't know,” Frist replied, obviously reluctant to question the scientific veracity of educational literature put out by elements of the GOP's evangelical base. A startled Stephanopoulos repeated his question, giving Frist the chance to offer a second opinion. But Frist wouldn't budge, refusing to say explicitly that a person could not, in fact, contract HIV through sweat or tears.

Stephanopoulos asked again, then again; his fourth swing at bat was his last. “I wanted to move to another subject; let me just clear this up, though,” he said. “Do you or do you not believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?” Bill Frist, M.D., offered his final diagnosis. “It would be very hard,” he said.

Curious to see if Frist's note of ambiguity reflected the current medical consensus on AIDS transmittance, we posed the sweat and tears question to folks at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A spokeswoman for the CDC's National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention answered our question with a crisp “no” and referred us to some CDC literature stating, with notable lack of Frist-like qualification, that “HIV has not been recovered from the sweat of HIV-infected persons. Contact with saliva, tears, or sweat has never been shown to result in transmission of HIV.”

Dr. Edmund Tramont, director of the AIDS division of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, concurred, noting that Frist's “I don't know” response “is a very safe answer.”

We look forward to future This Week appearances to hear Dr. Frist's take on hairy palms syndrome (HPS).

--Sam Rosenfeld

Soft on War Crimes?

In the months following Iraq's January election, Saddam Hussein will stand in the dock for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But as the Butcher of Baghdad awaits trial, a surprising dilemma has surfaced: Do we want him convicted? On one charge, at least, doing so might have lasting repercussions for the United States down the road.

Long before troops from the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division rooted Hussein out of his “spider hole,” plans were well under way to set up a tribunal to prosecute him and his Baath Party co-conspirators for crimes committed during their 35-year reign. Initially, Pentagon lawyers and civilian legal experts borrowed heavily from the statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the war-crimes tribunals for Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia to piece together a draft statute for the Iraqi Special Tribunal to try Hussein and his cohorts.

Purposefully left out of the draft, and excluded from the jurisdictions of these existing tribunals, was the crime of aggression. In customary international law, aggression is generally understood as the use of armed force by one state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence of another state when not in self-defense or without the United Nations Security Council invoking Article VII of the UN Charter (which authorizes the use of force to maintain global peace and security).

Though the crime of aggression played a central role in the Nuremberg trials, it has been a touchy subject for the United States since the end of the Cold War. For better (think Kosovo) or worse (try Iraq), the United States is more likely than any other country to apply armed force without a by-your-leave from the UN. For that reason, the United States has sought to avoid making aggression a clearly defined war crime.

The Iraqi Special Tribunal, however, is a collaborative process between the United States and Iraq. When presented with the draft statute, Salem Chalabi, then president of the tribunal, insisted that the final version include a catchall provision for crimes recognized by Iraqi law.

And wouldn't you know? Iraq had a law on the books that prohibits aggressive war against another Arab country. Michael Scharf, director of the Frederick K. Cox International Law Center at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, attended an October meeting in London with all the Iraqi Special Tribunal judges and magistrates, where, he told the Prospect, a consensus was reached to try Hussein for the crime of aggression for invading Kuwait.

What an awkward moment this could be for the United States! Which is why the authors of the Bush doctrine of preemptive war may not be overly disappointed if Hussein beats this particular rap -- or, better yet, if he never faces the charge at all.

--Mark Leon Goldberg

Islamabad is Good

Up early on the morning of Saturday, December 4, for a joint press conference with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, U.S. President George W. Bush took the opportunity to reiterate his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The solution in the Middle East ,” he said, “is for there to be a world effort to help the Palestinians develop a state that is truly free -- one that's got an independent judiciary, one that's got a civil society, one that's got the capacity to fight off the terrorists, one that allows for dissent, one in which people can vote.” An inspiring vision, no doubt.

But Bush has some curious ideas about how to turn it into a reality. “One of the interesting lessons that the world can look at is Pakistan,” Bush said, citing it as a refutation of those “who do not believe that a Muslim society can self-govern.”

Well, of course Muslim societies can self-govern. Just check out Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, where Muslim populations have erected functioning electoral democracies. But Pakistan as a model democracy? The State Department's most recent report, released in February 2004, called that nation's local and legislative elections of 2001 and 2002 “deeply flawed” and noted that no actual legislation has been passed by the National Assembly since 2002. The government, says the report, is dominated by “President Musharaff, the intelligence services, and the military.” The report describes Pakistan's human-rights record as “poor,” citing “extrajudicial killings,” “near-monopoly control of broadcast television and radio,” and a judiciary “subject to executive branch and other outside influences.”

Despite such cavils, Bush insisted that “President Musharaff can play a big role” in teaching Palestinians the value of freedom. Certainly, Yasir Arafat hardly provided a model of democracy, liberalism, or transparent government. On the other hand, unlike Musharaff, he never organized a coup to topple a democratically elected government, driving the former leaders into exile before backing out of a commitment to relinquish power by pushing through some constitutional amendments to consolidate his regime. In the course of the amendment process, Musharaff promised to step down as army chief by the end of 2004. But in October of this year, the fifth anniversary of his coup, Pakistan passed the “President to Hold Another Office Bill 2004,” reneging on that commitment.

And we wonder why skepticism persists in the Muslim world that the United States is really interested in promoting freedom and democracy there.

--Matthew Yglesias

What? No tang?

Early in 2004, George W. Bush tried unsuccessfully to channel John F. Kennedy, unveiling a new space initiative that included the promise of a manned mission to Mars by 2030.

“This agency and the dedicated professionals who serve it have always reflected the finest values of our country: daring, discipline, ingenuity, and unity in the pursuit of great goals,” Bush declared to a crowd gathered at NASA headquarters in Washington. “America is proud of our space program. The risk-takers and visionaries of this agency have expanded human knowledge, have revolutionized our understanding of the universe and produced technological advances that have benefited all of humanity.”

But one year after Bush's dramatic announcement, the United States can't even seem to spare a MoonPie for the two crewmen aboard the International Space Station. On October 13, U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov blasted off from Kazakhstan for a six-month stay aboard the space station. In early December, however, only two months into their mission, NASA officials announced that the station is running so low on food that the two crewmen must cut back on their eating. And if a scheduled supply flight fails to arrive on Christmas Day, the pair may have to abandon the orbiting laboratory altogether.

NASA and the Russian Space Agency discovered the shortage in early December when they noticed that the astronauts had begun dipping into the 45-day food reserve weeks earlier. According to NASA officials, an independent team is currently investigating how the food supplies ended up being tracked so poorly. The United States is responsible for operating the major systems -- including food -- aboard the station.

Of course, the hungry crewmen are just the latest casualties of the Bush administration's preference for grand strategy over gritty logistics. Other victims include soldiers in Iraq who have to dig through landfills for scrap metal to armor their vehicles, and soldiers serving under the Pentagon's stop-loss order, which amounts to little more than a de facto draft of otherwise former military personnel. And then there are this year's flu victims, many of whom braved long lines only to discover a shortage of vaccines.

In the parlance of Texas that our president so favors, this administration is all hat and no cattle.

--Ayelish McGarvey


From the December 3, 2004, broadcast of the nationally syndicated The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly:

Caller: The thing is, is when you have, for example, Christmas carols or gift exchanges being done in school, that kind of sets the kids up to being converted.

O'Reilly: Yeah, but you give gifts on Hanukkah, don't you?

Caller: No, there's not really a Jewish tradition of giving gifts on --

O'Reilly: Well, the seven candles [sic]; you get a gift for every night, don't you?

Caller: Actually, the Jews give gifts on --

O'Reilly: All right. Well, what I'm tellin' you, [caller], is I think you're takin' it too seriously. You have a predominantly Christian nation. You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus. And you don't wanna hear about it? Come on, [caller] -- if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then. I mean, because we live in a country founded on Judeo -- and that's your guys' -- Christian -- that's my guys' -- philosophy. But overwhelmingly, America is Christian. And the holiday is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus. So, you don't wanna hear about it? Impossible.

     And that is an affront to the majority. You know, the majority can be insulted, too. And that's what this anti-Christmas thing is all about.

-- Compiled with assistance from Media Matters for America