Tag Archives: Environmental Protection Agency

AL JAZEERA COLUMN: U.S. Double Standard: Gaddafi Bad, Karimov Good

The US shows its hypocrisy by accusing “tyrants” of human rights abuses while not owning up to supporting dictators.

“After four decades of brutal dictatorship and eight months of deadly conflict, the Libyan people can now celebrate their freedom and the beginning of a new era of promise,” President Obama said last week. The capture and death of Moammar Gaddafi prompted him and other U.S. officials to congratulate the Libyan people on their liberation from a despot accused of terrible violations of human rights, including the 1996 massacre of more than 1200 prison inmates.

The kudos were as much for the U.S. itself as Libya’s victorious Transitional National Council. After all, the United States played a decisive role in Gaddafi’s death. First President Obama put together the NATO coalition that served as the Benghazi-based rebels’ loaner air force. When the bombing campaign was announced in February, Gaddafi’s suppression of the human rights of protesting rebels was front and center: “The United States also strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people,” Obama said at that time. “That includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech, and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. They are not negotiable. They must be respected in every country. And they cannot be denied through violence or suppression.” (No word on how police firing rubber bullets at unarmed, peaceful protesters at the Occupy movement in Oakland, California fits into that.)

And in the end, it was a Hellfire missile fired by a Predator drone plane controlled by the American CIA—in conjunction with an attack by a French fighter jet—that destroyed the convoy of cars Gaddafi and his entourage used to try to escape the siege of Sirte, driving him into the famous drainage pipe and into the hands of his tormentors and executioners.

American officials and media reports were right about Gaddafi’s human rights record: It was atrocious. They cautioned the incoming TNC to make human rights a priority: “The Libyan authorities should also continue living up to their commitments to respect human rights, begin a national reconciliation process, secure weapons and dangerous materials, and bring together armed groups under a unified civilian leadership,” Obama said. (No word on how Gaddafi’s execution fits in to that.)

Yet the very same week the United States was cozying up to another long-time dictator—one whose style, brutal treatment of prisoners, and notorious massacre of political dissidents is highly reminiscent of the deposed Libyan tyrant.

Like a business that maintains two sets of records, one for the tax inspector and the other containing the truth, the United States has two different foreign policies. Its constitution, laws and treaty obligations prohibit torture, assassinations, and holding prisoners without trial. In reality there are secret prisons like Guantánamo. Similarly, there are two sets of ethical standards in America’s dealing with other countries. Enemies are held to the strictest standards. Allies get a pass. This double standard is the number-one cause of anti-Americanism in the world.

In yet another display that exposes American foreign policy on human rights as hypocritical and self-serving, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Uzbekistan to establish closer ties to the Central Asian republic’s president for life, Islam Karimov. Even as her State Department was ballyhooing the bloody conclusion of Gaddafi’s 42-year reign as a victory for freedom and decency, the former First Lady was engaged in the cynical Cold War-style of one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.

Read the full article at Al Jazeera English.

AL JAZEERA COLUMN: The US Love Affair with Drones

A War Strategy Built Around Drone Attacks Is Not Only Unethical, But Will Hurt US Interests in the Long Run.

One of the pleasures of traveling through the developing world is that things develop. They change. There’s always something new.

Afghanistan is, depending on one’s point of view, developing, deteriorating, or doing both at once.

Example: Last August found me and two fellow Americans in a hired taxi zooming past bombed-out fuel trucks through Taliban-held Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan near the Tajik border. The sense of menace was palpable, but our driver seemed calm.

Then his face darkened. We were passing into the flatlands east of Mazar-i-Sharif. We saw nothing but dirt, dust and rocks, all the way to the horizon. Yet our driver was nervous. He scanned this bleak landscape. “Motorcycles,” he said. “I am looking for the motorcycles.”

The adaptable neo-Taliban increasingly rely on the classic tactics of guerilla warfare. Rather than hold territory, these postmodern Islamists-cum-gangsters rely on hit-and-run strikes using something I hadn’t seen in 2001: motorcycles. Like a scene from the Kazakh film epic about Genghis Khan updated by Quentin Tarantino, squadrons of bearded bikers are terrorizing Afghanistan’s newly/cheaply paved highways.

I call them the Talibikers.

One of the more intriguing revelations in last year’s WikiLeaks data dump was that the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency has been supplying the Taliban with thousands of Pamir dirtbikes, including a 2007 shipment of 1,000 to the Waziristan-based network led by Mawlawi Jalaludin Haqqani. Talibs ride the Pamirs and their preferred brand, the Honda 125 and its Chinese knock-offs, to assassinations. They launch attacks on highways from bases in villages 10 to 15 kilometers away.

The Talibikers speed across the desert in great clouds of dust, “Mad Max” style, to ambush and bomb fuel trucks. There they set up checkpoints where they shakedown travelers for cash. Sometimes they kidnap motorists and demand ransom payments from their families. By the time the hapless Afghan national police shows up, the resistance fighters are long gone.

An early report on the Talibikers appeared in the Telegraph in 2003. “The motorcycles have played a key role in Taliban hit-and-run operations in the south of the country where the campaign against international troops and aid workers has intensified,” the British newspaper reported in November of that year. “In the latest incident, a Frenchwoman working for the United Nations was shot dead this month by the pillion passenger on a motorcycle in the south-eastern town of Ghazni. The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack. In another recent attack, a group of motorcyclists opened fire on an aid convoy near Kandahar, killing four Afghans. In August, two motorcyclists threw a grenade into the Kandahar compound of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, damaging the building but causing no injuries.”

ISI-funded motorbikes continue to play a vital role in the Taliban’s war to drive U.S. and NATO occupation troops out of Afghanistan. “Day and night, Taliban assassins on motorbikes hunt their victims, often taunting them over the telephone before gunning them down in the city’s streets,” Paul Watson wrote in The Star, a newspaper in Canada in February 2011. “They are working their way through lists, meticulously killing off people fingered as collaborators with the Afghan government or its foreign backers…The build-up of Afghan police and soldiers, and foreign troops, in and around Kandahar city over recent months has improved security, but agile and coldly efficient motorbike death squads remain active.”

Mass attacks continue as well. “About 100 Taliban fighters on motorcycles attacked a northern Afghan village that was working to join the government-sponsored local police program against the insurgency, killing one villager, police said Wednesday. An ensuing battle also left 17 militants dead,” the Associated Press reported in May 2011.

There are fewer than 10,000 Talibikers in Afghanistan. They could be eliminated—if the U.S. and NATO stopped focusing on assassination-by-drone and instead used the same technology to increase security.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) date to the maiden flight of the now-familiar Predator drones in 1994. After 9/11 the United States became addicted to the Predator and its successor, the Reaper.

Today the Air Force and CIA have at least 7000 UAVs in service around the world, representing the biggest and most visible presence of the U.S. military in Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. This trend is likely to accelerate. As of March 2011 the U.S. Air Force was training more remote drone “pilots” than those for conventional planes. Next year the Pentagon wants $5 billion just for drones.

Drones are getting smaller and more numerous. “One of the smallest drones in use on the battlefield is the three-foot-long Raven, which troops in Afghanistan toss by hand like a model airplane to peer over the next hill,” according to The New York Times. “There are some 4,800 Ravens in operation in the Army, although plenty get lost.” More on this later.

It’s easy to see why generals and politicians are so enthusiastic. The pilotless planes, guided by operators manning a joystick at military and pseudomilitary agencies such as CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia and armed by Xe, the private contractor formerly called Blackwater, are relatively cheap. A Predator costs $4.5 million; an F-22 Raptor fighter jet runs $150 million a unit. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, cites the “three Ds.” Drones are “dull” because they can patrol empty stretches of barren land 24 hours a day. They’re “dirty” because they can fly in and out of toxic clouds, including radiation. Most appealingly, they are “dangerous” because the absence of a pilot eliminates the risk that a pilot—they cost millions to train–will be killed or captured by enemy forces. UAVs exploit the element of surprise: though relatively unobtrusive, they fire supersonic armor-piercing Hellfire missiles capable of striking a target as far as five miles away.

“People who have seen an air strike live on a monitor described it as both awe-inspiring and horrifying,” The New Yorker magazine reported in 2009. “‘You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff,’ a former C.I.A. officer who was based in Afghanistan after September 11th says of one attack. (He watched the carnage on a small monitor in the field.) [Bleeding] human beings running for cover are such a common sight that they have inspired a slang term: ‘squirters.'”

Charming.

According to the Pentagon, drones hit their targets with 95 percent accuracy. The problematic question is: who are their targets?

Thousands of people have been rubbed out by drones since 9/11.

(Press accounts document between 1400 and 2300 extrajudicial killings by allied forces, mostly in the Tribal Areas adjacent to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. According to media reports cited by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 957 Pakistanis were murdered by American drones in 134 airstrikes during the year 2010 alone. Since the media only learns about a fraction of these “secret” killings, the real number must be many times higher.)

Since the Pakistani government does not officially acknowledge, much less authorize, such attacks, they are illegal acts of war.

Political philosopher Michael Walzer asked in 2009: “Under what code does the CIA operate? I don’t know. There should be a limited, finite group of people who are targets, and that list should be publicly defensible and available. Instead, it’s not being publicly defended. People are being killed, and we generally require some public justification when we go about killing people.”

One would think.

Legal or not, Christine Fair of Georgetown University says the U.S. doesn’t use drone planes indiscriminately: “You have lawyers, you have targeteers, you have intelligence operatives, you actually have pilots who are manning the drones. These are not 14-year-old kids right out of basic training, playing around with a joystick,” she told National Public Radio.

In the real world, it’s often hard to tell the difference. There’s no doubt that drone operators make mistakes. In April 2011, for example, two American marines were killed by a Predator in Afghanistan.

Of course, the majority of victims are local civilians. In Afghanistan and Pakistan drone strikes have killed countless children and wiped out so many wedding parties that it’s become a sick joke. Estimates of the civilian casualty rate range from a third (by the New America Foundation) to 98 percent (terrorism expert Amir Mir). There is no evidence that a single “terrorist” has ever been killed by a drone—only the say-so of U.S. and NATO spokesmen.

Errors are inherent due to the principal feature of the technology: remoteness. Manned aerial warfare is notoriously inaccurate; pilots zooming close to the speed of sound tens of thousands of feet above the ground have little idea who or what they’re shooting at. Drone operators have even less information than old-school pilots. Like a submariner peering out of a periscope, they are supposed to decide whether people live or die based on fuzzy images through layers of glass. They call it the “soda straw.”

Nowadays, staffing is a troubling challenge: it takes 19 analysts to study images and other data from one drone. In the future, a war could eliminate unemployment entirely: it will take approximately 2000 men and women to process information from one drone equipped with “Gorgon stare” optics capable of scanning an entire city at once.

There’s also a huge gap in education, experience and culture. Virtual warriors require simple rules that don’t apply when trying to kill jihadis. At the beginning of the U.S. war against Afghanistan in 2001, for example, it was an article of faith within the Pentagon that men wearing black long-tailed turbans were Talibs. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of noncombatants were killed because of this incorrect assumption. In February 2002 a drone operator blew up a man because he was tall—as was Osama bin Laden. In fact, he and two other men killed were poor villagers gathering scrap metal. Again, this doesn’t address the broader issue of whether it’s OK to murder people simply because they are members of the Taliban.

At least as interesting as the choice of target is whom the U.S. does not try to kill: the Talibikers.

Unlike the wedding parties, houses and tribal councils that have been mistakenly incinerated by the aptly-named Hellfire missiles, Taliban bike gangs are easy to identify from the air. One or two hundred dirtbikes speeding across the desert toward a truck on an Afghan highway are unmistakable. Most Afghans, even those who oppose the U.S. occupation, fear the Talibikers and resent being robbed at impromptu checkpoints. There have been a few scattershot drone strikes, nothing more. Why don’t the CIA whiz kids make these easily identified fighters a primary target?

I posed the question to Afghan government officials. They told me that the same U.S. military that blows $1 billion a week on the war won’t lift a finger to save Afghan lives by providing basic security. “Afghan lives are worth nothing to the Americans,” a provincial governor told me.

Last week the United Nations announced that civilian casualties were up 15 percent during the first six months of 2011. If the same rate continues, this will be the worst year of the ten-year-long American occupation.

A well-placed U.S. military source confirms that Afghan security “isn’t a priority, it isn’t even much of a passing thought.” Contrary to President Obama’s claim that U.S. is in Afghanistan in order to prevent the country from becoming a base for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups and to combat opium cultivation, he says that Afghanistan isn’t about Afghanistan at all. “Afghanistan is a staging area for drone and other aerial strikes in western Pakistan,” he says. “Nothing more, nothing less. Afghanistan is Bagram [airbase].”

Under Obama the death toll has risen, worsening relations between the White House and its puppet president, Hamid Karzai. Beyond the horror of the deaths themselves, it would be impossible to overstate the contempt that ordinary people in nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan feel for the drone program. “Americans are cowards” was one refrain I heard last year. Real soldiers risk their lives. They do not send buzzing machines to kill people half a world away…people they know nothing about.

Back in 2002, former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith worried about blowback. “If [Taliban leaders and soldiers are] dead, they’re not talking to you, and you create more martyrs,” he noted. Ongoing drone attacks “suggest that it’s acceptable behavior to assassinate people…Assassination as a norm of international conduct exposes American leaders and Americans overseas.”

These days, the media gives little to no time or space to such concerns. Americans have moved into postmorality. Right or wrong? Who cares?

Recently international law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame University said that the new reliance on drones could prompt an already militaristic superpower to fight even more wars of choice. “I think this idea that somehow this technology is allowing us to kill in more places and…aim at more targets is for me the fundamental ethical and legal problem.”

Meanwhile, adds Mary Dudziak of the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law: “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on…endless war.” No casualties? No problem.

Meanwhile, at a “microaviary” inside an air force base north of Dayton, Ohio, “military researchers are at work on another revolution in the air: shrinking unmanned drones, the kind that fire missiles into Pakistan and spy on insurgents in Afghanistan, to the size of insects and birds,” approvingly reports The New York Times.

Ted Rall is an American political cartoonist, columnist and author. His most recent book is The Anti-American Manifesto. His website is rall.com.

AL JAZEERA COLUMN: Too Soon To Tell

I am pleased to announce that I am now writing a weekly long-form column for Al Jazeera English. Here is my second piece for Al Jazeera:

One Year Early, Obama’s Reelection Far From Certain

The American punditocracy (and, perhaps more importantly, Las Vegas oddsmakers) currently cite Barack Obama as their odds-on favorite to win next year’s presidential election. Some even predict a landslide.

Mainstream media politicos acknowledge the atrocious economy, with its real unemployment rate nearly matching the worst years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, as an obstacle to reelection. But most of them believe that other factors will prove decisive: disarray in the field of candidates for the nomination of the opposition Republican Party, the GOP’s reliance on discredited Reagan-style austerity measures for the masses coupled with tax cuts for the wealthy, and Obama’s assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Maybe they’re right. But if I were the President, I wouldn’t be offering the White House chef a contract renewal any time soon. Count me among the majority of Americans (54 to 44 percent) who told a March 2011 CNN/Opinion Research poll they think Obama will lose the 2012 election.

I could be wrong.

Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, doesn’t think much of these so-called “trial-run” polls. “A review of polls conducted in the first quarter of the year preceding the election found many of them forecasting the wrong winner—often by substantial margins,” Keeter wrote in 2007, citing three elections as far back as 1968.

However, a historical analysis of the more recent presidential races, those over the two decades, reveals an even bigger gap. The year before a U.S. presidential election, the conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. The early favorite at this point on the calendar usually loses. So betting against the pundits—in this case, against Obama—is the safe bet at this point.

The meta question is: what difference does it make who wins next year? In practical terms, not much.

For one thing, American presidents tend to find more heartbreak than political success during their second terms. Had Richard Nixon retired in 1972, for example, he would have been fondly remembered as the architect of the Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War, the founder of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the defender of the working and middle class (for imposing wage and price controls to soften the effect of inflation). His second term saw him sinking into, and ultimately succumbing, to the morass of the Watergate scandal.

The next second termer, Ronald Reagan, was similarly preoccupied by scandal, in case the Iran-Contra imbroglio in which the United States traded arms to Iran in return for hostages held by students in Tehran and illegally funded right-wing death squads in Central America. Bill Clinton’s last four years were overshadowed by his developing romance, and the consequences of the revelation thereof, with intern Monica Lewinsky. George W. Bush’s second term, from 2005 to 2009, was defined by his administration’s inept response to hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the deteriorating security situation in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic collapse that began in 2008. His number-one political priority, privatizing the U.S. Social Security system, never got off the ground.

Presidents rarely accomplish much of significance during their second term. So why do they bother to run again? Good question. Whether it’s ego—1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is one hell of an address—or something else, I don’t know. Whatever, I have long maintained that a sane president would think of himself as standing for one four-year term, then announce his intention not to run again at the last possible moment.

From the standpoint of the American people and the citizens of countries directly affected by U.S. foreign policy, it is unlikely that the basic nature of the beast will change much regardless of Obama’s fortunes in the next election. One only has to consider the subtle “differences” between the tenures of Presidents Bush and Obama.

On the domestic front Obama continued and expanded upon Bush’s non-reaction to the economic crisis, exploiting the panic created by widespread unemployment, the bursting of the housing bubble and a massive foreclosure crisis that put tens of millions of Americans out of their homes in order to pour hundreds of billions of federal dollars into the pockets of the top executives of the nation’s largest banks, with no resulting stimulus effect whatsoever. Controversial attacks on privacy rights and civil liberties inaugurated by the Bush years were expanded and extended: the USA-Patriot Act, the National Security Agency “domestic surveillance” program that allowed the government to spy on U.S. citizens’ phone calls, emails and other communications. Obama even formalized Bush’s assertion that the president has the right to unilaterally order the assassination of anyone, including a U.S. citizen, without evidence or proof that he or she has committed a crime.

As promised during the 2008 campaign, Obama expanded the U.S. war against Afghanistan, transforming what Bush described as a short-term attempt to find Osama bin Laden after 9/11 into the most protracted military conflict in the history of the United States. The war continued in Iraq, albeit with “combat” troops redefined as “trainers.” During the last few years, the “global war on terror” expanded into Pakistan, east Africa, Libya and Yemen. Drone attacks escalated. Violating his campaign promises, he continued to keep torture available as a legal option—indeed, he ordered it against a U.S. solder, Private First Class Bradley Manning—and kept Guantánamo and other Bush-era concentration camps open.

If Obama goes down to defeat next year, then, the results should be viewed less as a shift in overall U.S. policy—hegemonic, imperialistic, increasingly authoritarian—than one that is symbolic. An Obama defeat would reflect the anger of ordinary Americans caught in the “two-party trap,” flailing back and forth between the Dems and the Reps, voting against the party in power to express their impotent rage, particularly at the economy. Mr. Hopey-Changey’s trip back to Chicago would mark the end of a brief, giddy, moment of reformism.

The argument that an overextended, indebted empire can be repaired via internal changes of personnel would be dead. With the reformism that Obama embodied no longer politically viable, American voters would be once again faced, as are the citizens of other repressive states, with the choice between sullen apathy and revolution.

Obamaism is currently believed to be unstoppable. If history serves as an accurate predictor, that belief is good cause to predict its defeat next November.

During the late spring and early summer of 1991, just over a year before the 1992 election, President George H.W. Bush was soaring in the polls in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, which the American media positively portrayed as successful, quick, internationalist, and cost the lives of few America soldiers. A March 1991 CBS poll gave him an 88 percent approval rating—a record high.

By October 1991 Bush was heavily favored to win. A Pew Research poll found that 78 percent of Democratic voters thought Bush would defeat any Democratic nominee. New York governor Mario Cuomo, an eloquent, charismatic liberal star of the party, sized up 1992 as unwinnable and decided not to run.

When the votes were counted, however, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated Bush, 43 to 37.5 percent. Although Republicans blamed insurgent billionaire Ross Perot’s independent candidacy for siphoning away votes from Bush, subsequent analyses do not bear this out. In fact, Perot’s appeal had been bipartisan, attracting liberals opposed to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and Mexico and globalization in general, as well as conservative deficit hawks.

The most credible explanation for Bush’s defeat was handwritten on a sign that the victorious Bill Clinton’s campaign manager famously taped to the wall of the Dems’ war room: “It’s the economy, stupid.” As the 1989-1993 recession deepened Bush’s ratings tumbled to around 30 percent. A February 1992 incident, in which Bush was depicted by The New York Times as wearing “a look of wonder” when confronted with a supermarket price scanning machine, solidified his reputation with voters as patrician, out of touch, and unwilling to act to stimulate the economy or alleviate the suffering of the under- and unemployed. “Exit polls,” considered exceptionally reliable because they query voters seconds after exiting balloting places, showed that 75 percent of Americans thought the economy was “bad” or “very bad.”

In 1995, Bill Clinton was preparing his reelection bid. On the Republican side, Kansas senator and 1976 vice presidential candidate Bob Dole was expected to (and did) win his party’s nomination. Perot ran again, but suffered from a media blackout; newspapers and broadcast outlets had lost interest in him after a bizarre meltdown during the 1992 race in which he accused unnamed conspirators of plotting to violently disrupt his daughter’s wedding. He received eight percent in 1996.

Clinton trounced Dole, 49 to 40 percent. In 1995, however, that outcome was anything but certain. Bill Clinton had been severely wounded by a series of missteps during his first two years in office. His first major policy proposal, to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military, was so unpopular that he was forced to water it down into the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise. Clinton’s 1993 attempt to deprivatize the healthcare system, mocked as HillaryCare after he put his wife in charge of marketing it, went down to defeat. He signed the pro-corporate, Republican-backed trade agreement, NAFTA, alienating his party’s liberal and progressive base. Low voter turnout by the American left in the 1994 midterm elections led to the “Republican Revolution,” a historic sweep of both houses of the American Congress by right-wing conservatives led by the fiery new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

1995 saw the so-called “co-presidency” between Gingrich and a cowed Bill Clinton, who was reduced to telling a press conference that “the president is relevant.” The United States, which does not have a European-style parliamentary system, had never seen a president so politically weak while remaining in office.

During the spring and summer of 1995 Bob Dole was already the heir apparent to the nomination of a Republican Party that traditionally rewards those who wait their turn. Dole was a seasoned campaigner, a Plains States centrist whose gentlemanly demeanor and credentials as a hero of World War II. Conventional wisdom had him beating Clinton. So did the polls. A March 1995 Los Angeles Times poll had Dole defeating Clinton, 52 to 44 percent in a head-to-head match-up. “Among all voters, Clinton’s generic reelect remains dismal, with 40 percent inclined to vote him in again and 53% tilting or definitely planning a vote against him,” reported the Times.

By late autumn, however, the polls had flipped. Though statisticians differ about how big a factor it was, a summer 1995 shutdown of the federal government blamed on the refusal of Gingrich’s hardline Republicans to approve the budget turned the tide. At the end of the year the die was cast. As Americans began to pay more attention to his challenger they recoiled at Dole’s age—if elected, he would have been the oldest president in history, even older than Reagan—as it contrasted with Clinton’s youthful vigor. The Democrat coasted to reelection. But that’s not how things looked at this stage in the game.

When analyzing the 2000 race, remember that Republican George W. Bush lost the election to Al Gore by a bizarre quirk of the American system, the Electoral College. The U.S. popular vote actually determines the outcome of elected delegates to the College from each of the 50 states. The winner of those delegates is elected president.

Most of the time, the same candidate wins the national popular vote and the Electoral College tally. In 2000, there is no dispute: Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote, 48.4 to 47.9 percent. There was a legal dispute over 25 electoral votes cast by the state of Florida; ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court decided, along party lines, to award the state to Bush despite clear indications that Gore would have won recounts by tens of thousands of votes in that state.

Regardless of one’s views of the 2000 Florida recount controversy, from a predictive standpoint, one should assume that Gore won because no one could have anticipated a difference between the results of the electoral and popular votes.

Under normal circumstances Gore should have faced, as Dick Cheney said about the Iraq invasion, a cakewalk. A popular sitting vice president, he enjoyed the trappings of incumbency and a reputation as a thoughtful environmentalist and government efficiency expert. The economy was booming—always a good argument for the “don’t change horses in midstream” sales pitch. The early favorite on the Republican side, George W. Bush, was considered an intellectual lightweight who would get eaten alive the first time the two met in a presidential debate. But Monicagate had wounded Bill Clinton to the extent that Gore made a fateful decision to disassociate himself from the president who had appointed him.

A January 1999 CNN poll had Bush over Gore, 49 to 46 percent. By June 2000 the same poll had barely budged: now it was 49 to 45 percent. “The results indicate that the public is far more likely to view Texas Governor George W. Bush as a strong and decisive leader, and is also more confident in Bush’s ability to handle an international crisis—a worrisome finding for a vice president with eight years of international policy experience,” analyzed CNN in one of the most frightening summaries of the American people’s poor judgment ever recorded.

Gore didn’t become president. But he won the 2000 election. Once again, the media was wrong.

In the 2004 election, it was my turn to screw up. Howard Dean, the combative liberal darling and former Vermont governor, was heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination against incumbent George W. Bush. I was so convinced at his inevitability after early primary elections and by the importance of unifying the Democratic Party behind a man who could defeat Bush that I authored a column I wish I could chuck down the memory hole calling for the party to suspend remaining primaries and back Dean. In 2004, John Kerry won the nomination.

Oops.

But I wasn’t alone. Polls and pundits agreed that George W. Bush, deeply embarrassed by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would lose to Kerry, a Democrat with a rare combination of credentials: he was a bonafide war hero during the Vietnam War and a noted opponent of the war after his service there.

Bush trounced Kerry. “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?” asked Britain’s Daily Mirror. Good question. Maybe that’s why no one saw it coming.

Which brings us to the most recent presidential election. First, the pundit class was wrong about the likely Democratic nominee. Former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, everyone “knew,” would win. It wasn’t even close. An August 2007 Gallup/USA Today poll had Clinton ahead of Obama, 48 to 26 percent. As it turned out, many Democratic primary voters were wowed by Obama’s charisma and annoyed by Clinton’s refusal to apologize for her brazenly cynical vote in favor of the Iraq war in 2003. Aging Arizona Senator John McCain, on the other hand, remained the best-funded, and thus the continuous favorite, on the Republican side.

Obama’s advantages over McCain became clear by 2008. “The political landscape overwhelmingly favors Obama,” reported USA Today in June. At this point in 2007?

He didn’t stand a chance.

Ted Rall is an American political cartoonist, columnist and author. His most recent book is The Anti-American Manifesto. His website is rall.com.