CBS and BBC reported last night the study from Johns Hopkins estimating 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths since the start of the war. I know President Bush feels the war in Iraq is a spectacular success, and that Donald Rumsfeld has done a ‘superb’ job – and in fairness, this is a far, far cry from the 3 million civilian casualties of the Vietnam war that young George strongly supported (stopping short only of fighting in it) – but you have to imagine that for each of the 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died thus far, a majority of them as a result of American bombs according to the Hopkins study, there must be hundreds of thousands more who have been merely maimed or wounded in some way, including children who will harbor these scars, physical and psychological, for 60 or 70 years . . . along with a great many Iraqis (millions?) who, while neither killed nor wounded, are relatives of those who were.

And then of course there are the Iraqi military casualties and the American dead and wounded, and their families.

So all in all – even leaving aside the $225 billion I think we’re now up to or shortly will be – you have to wonder whether this hasn’t been a bit of a botch.

By way of comparison, Iraqi deaths since the liberation began are already nearly double the American deaths suffered in Vietnam – and this in a country with about a tenth the population of ours. So adjusted for the relative size of the two countries, the Iraqis have already suffered about 20 times as many casualties as we did in Vietnam . . . and the war doesn’t seem to be completely over yet. Indeed, if CIA predictions of a possible civil war should be borne out, it may only have begun.

And note that the deaths we suffered in Vietnam were, to some extent, elective. We chose to send troops to Vietnam (even if – with brave exceptions like John Kerry – most of the troops themselves did not choose this). That can’t necessarily be said of the Iraqis.

So.

Might it have been wiser to continue the inspection process and ‘no fly’ restrictions?

To use the authorization of force not as a means to rush in, but as a lever to keep pressure on Saddam and enforce the inspections and no-fly zones?

To go to war, as President Bush had promised in seeking that authorization, only as a last resort?

To take the time to make a plan for success in case we were not greeted with flowers? (I think that is what is referred to as ‘a contingency plan.’)

To keep our Special Forces on the hunt for Bin Laden instead of diverting so many of them so soon to prepare for the as yet undeclared Iraq War? A war that President Bush had apparently envisioned in some form even before 9/11? even before he was elected on his promise of a ‘humble foreign policy?’

If we had done all that, we might still have gone into Iraq, perhaps even just a few months later, but with a more genuine coalition sharing the cost and legitimizing the mission. Flooding the country immediately with enough troops to keep order and ample jobs to get about the business of rebuilding and improving lives – at Iraqi wage scales, not Halliburton wage scales – might actually have made for a success.

And with this approach we might have killed Bin Laden long ago, before al-Qaeda had been allowed to metastasize in the way it has.

But the Bush team blew it. Not only are there hundreds of thousands dead and wounded, hundreds of billions of dollars spent – a successful conclusion is not assured! So it’s not even certain what all this will have bought us, except, certainly, the creation of thousands of new terrorists who hate America because they fail to see the purity of our intentions. You see it and I see it. But the children of dead parents might be forgiven if they miss the big picture and are inclined to reach for guns instead of roses.

The Bush team blew it and the Bush team has not been honest with us. There are so many important examples, but let’s just leave it at this. One poll shows that fully 70% of likely Bush voters believe Iraq played a meaningful role in attacking us on 9/11. (Versus only 30% of non-Bush voters who believe this.) In fact, of course, Iraq played no such role.

How did so many Americans come to believe it did?

That’s not a small question. One could argue that hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars have been lost because of that misperception. How did it arise? How has it stayed alive?

We’ve found no significant role that Iraq played in attacking us, even though President Bush immediately ordered his people to find it anyway.

And look at all the other things we haven’t been able to find! Can’t find WMD we were sure were there, can’t find Bin Laden, can’t find 377 tons of high explosives, can’t find the person who blew Valerie Plume’s CIA cover, can’t find anyone who saw Lieutenant bush in Alabama, can’t find enough money for after-school programs, can’t find 58,000 absentee ballots in largely Democratic Broward County . . .

And this was going to be a column recapping some of the stocks that have been mentioned in this column! But I am easily set off these days, and likely to remain on edge until at least Wednesday.

Even so, let me do a little of that, just so those of you who hate my politics get a little of what you come here for.

1. Google – GOOG – which went public at $85 in a Dutch auction, continues to soar, closing at $193.30 yesterday, bought in great quantity by people who didn’t care to buy it at less than half the price two months ago. (Nearly 15 million shares traded hands yesterday, or nearly $3 billion worth.) The puts I’ve bought are obviously not doing well. One columnist thinks the stock will be $400, or certainly $250. (Thursday?) I will probably buy more puts as it rises higher, thinking, as I’ve said, that as insider shares get released from their lock up, some of those insiders will want to cash in. But this is risky, and the same caveats as always apply.

2. ARC – so far, so bad, as well. Down from just over $14, where I suggested it, to $12.70 last night. If this troubled trailer park real estate investment trust were able to solve its problems and maintain its $1.25 distribution, it would have a phenomenal yield. I’m not tremendously confident, but I’m holding mine.

3. Apple LEAPs. Suggested here last November 25 at around $4 when the stock was just above 20, Apple’s long-term calls (known as LEAPS) are now around $30, with the stock at 50. Stupidly, foolishly, and reprehensibly, I suggested selling half at the end of March, for little more than a double (what was I thinking?), thinking that you would be then be playing ‘with the house’s money’ with the rest. And later, when the LEAPS had tripled, I suggested perhaps selling a like number of out-of-the-money calls to make for what would have been a likely quadruple while you waited for the LEAPS to go long-term. So if you followed these suggestions, you would have long since doubled half your money and quadrupled the other half, but be sitting here like me, rocking back and forth wringing your hands, imagining how sweet life would be if you had just held on. You’d have nearly an octuple on ALL your money. And not even all that long to wait until it went ‘long-term’ to be lightly taxed. Oink, oink. Still, it could have been worse. (Well, like GOOG, for example.)

4. Borealis – BOREF – the great lottery ticket of this column. At $7-ish, it’s about double where I first started suggesting it years ago as the ‘stock that would surely go to zero’ – unless it didn’t, in which case it would go to the moon. But, boy (as I stressed), was this ever too good to be true. Well, as before, there’s a good chance it will be zero. But the upside it so enormous if it’s real, I plan to hold mine (I have a ton of it) until I’m either the envy of my nursing home, and Charles comes to visit me on Sundays in one of our two helicopters . . . or, more likely, until it’s gone to zero and I get to write a funny story about it.

5. CICI was suggested here at 35 cents last December 23. When it hit 90 cents not long after, I suggested selling two-thirds of it. The remaining third got back down close to 35 cents but last night closed at 68 cents, so overall we have better than a double. I plan to hold my remaining third a while. Who knows?

6. Oil stocks have been suggested here from time (February 16) to time (June 14), including TXCO at $4.50 (now only a little higher, at $5.30) . . . APC, suggested at $56.50, now $67.50 . . . and CSPLF, up from $4.30 or so to $6.30 or so. Maybe oil will be $8 a barrel next year, after the Iraqis throw flowers and start pumping in earnest again. But my current plan is to hold all these for some time to come.

(Incidentally, say what you will about the ‘middle class squeeze’ and the millions of Americans who’ve fallen below the poverty line, but haven’t the last 4 years been fantastic for Texas oil men and the Saudi Royal Family? People unable to afford heating oil this winter may freeze to death, and there’s no denying that’s sad. But let’s not forget how good the Bush Administration has been to people in the oil business. ‘Bandar Bush’ and his gargantuan extended family in the Kingdom pump more than 10 million barrels a day, don’t they? So with oil up about $25 a barrel, to $50, they’re making an extra quarter billion dollars – a day. So stop your moaning about making ends meet. On average, when you add in the huge tax cuts for the rich and the gigantic profits of Texas oil men, it all evens out.)

7. SYM, suggested here in February a hair below $8 a share is now $10.45, up 30% in six months. I plan to hold on until ‘something happens.’ There is the hope they will sell out and that the value of their real estate handily exceeds the current price.

8. TIPS, PCL and TRF were mentioned here May 4, at $119, $30.20 and $35.70 respectively. (I had suggested them before, at lower prices; this was a progress report.) Half a year later, they closed last night at $127, $36.60 and $41, respectively (plus a little ‘yield’ along the way from the first two). I wouldn’t rush to buy them at these prices, but I might well still own them in 10 years.

9. ILA, CMM were suggested earlier, but on May 10, when one of you asked about them, they were around $3.90 and $10.75, and I said I was holding them. ILA has dropped to $3.15 or so, CMM risen to $16 or so – and I’m still holding them.

10. NTII was suggested August 16 at $2.60, closed last night at $3.65, and I’m holding it, too.

All in all, not a bad year. On some kind of blended average maybe up 30%?

But that raises all the usual caveats and more. First, if I could do this well consistently, I wouldn’t have to write this column. I got lucky. Second, you don’t find me doing these little recaps when things are bad – by being able to report to you when I want to, not on some fixed schedule, the game is stacked in my favor. Third, when I have done OK, as now, that generally bodes ill. From now on you should probably short all the stocks I suggest, except for the ones I suggest shorting, like Google, which you should buy. Fourth, there is the inadvertent but real tendency to forget to include the clunkers. So if you blame me for some stock I forgot to include here, just me-mail me and I will try to wriggle out of any responsibility for it by blaming my subordinates. Fifth, most people should do the preponderance of their stock market investing – if they should be in the stock market at all – via something as simple and sensible as Vanguard Index Funds. Low expenses and tax exposure all but guarantee you will do better than most of your friends who try harder. Sixth, the stock market is risky. You must promise me to invest only money you won’t need to touch in the next year or three. Because you don’t ever want to be in a position where you’re selling because you have to – only because you want to. Seventh, I think the next few years in the stock market could be challenging. If you’re young, by all means get into the habit, or continue the habit, of investing $500 a month, or whatever you can afford – and be thrilled if the market drops. That just means you can buy new shares ‘on sale.’ But if you’re 70, I sure wouldn’t have all my money in the stock market at today’s levels (or any levels). I’ve seen arguments that the broad market averages are 40% lower than their fair value. But that assumes interest rates will stay low, and other things will go right, and there is some risk in those assumptions. So I have a fair amount in stocks, but a fair amount not in stocks. I am a very fortunate fellow to have enough assets to be able to diversify, and I have a President working hard to try to make me even more fortunate by borrowing money from your children to lower my taxes. PLEASE help me get rid of this guy Tuesday.

‘It was a difficult call, given that we endorsed George Bush in 2000 and supported the war in Iraq. But in the end we felt he has been too incompetent to deserve re-election.’
– Bill Emmott, editor of the Economist (45% of whose readers are American), on their decision to endorse John Kerry

 

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