Sunday, December 30, 2007


January 9, 2007

The Bush administration has brought disaster to the country; no thinking observer could believe otherwise. At times, I am tempted to go a step further and conclude that it is a threat. That is, it not only has caused damage which will require years, if not generations, to overcome, it is in the process of making fundamental changes in our political structure, moving us from a constitutional government to an authoritarian regime. I try to avoid such thoughts, and remind myself not to be a blind partisan and not to overreact. In addition, it has been my view that American institutions and traditions are strong enough to defeat any attempt to seize power. However, like others I have begun to doubt that.

Such worries are not new. A dozen years ago, Richard Goodwin reflected on the decline of the Democratic Party and the limitations of the newly resurgent Republicans. Finding both to be unable to cope with major problems, he concluded that we were left with "only the prospect of a new political movement outside the present party structure. . . . The only issue is whether such a movement, building on popular discontent, will be led by progressive and populous forces or whether we will fall prey to a demagogue who will seek to take us toward an authoritarian right." <
In 1986, Arthur Schlesinger referred to similar predictions, based on the perceived failures of the New Deal and "the Reagan counterrevolution." He noted that Walter Dean Burnham foresaw "an escalating crisis of rule - a crisis . . . in the foundations of the constitutional regime." Kevin Phillips expected "not a revival of the liberal spirit of the New Deal but rather a nationalist, right-wing populist authoritarianism operating an activist and repressive state. . . ." 2

When I recorded those comments in 1995, I thought, to borrow a title but not the message from Sinclair Lewis, that it can't happen here. My optimistic assessment was that, "although probably no society is ever far removed from the brink of authoritarianism, the advent of that on a national scale is a highly implausible scenario." A recent book describes a discussion in the early 70s in which gives that reservation a specific basis: "though there were many fascistic or protototalitarian elements in America, and much danger, the protections American democracy still afforded were keeping the country from descending into totalitarianism."3 Schlesinger, whose comments were directed primarily to domestic issues, offered a similar word of reassurance: "Democratic values are deeply rooted in American life - more deeply, it would appear, than capitalist values. At least when democracy and capitalism have diverged, democratic values have proved more potent." Whether the danger perceived is totalitarianism (which certainly is overstating the problem), authoritarianism or economic injustice, we have tended to think that we will always stop short of the brink.

Can we still safely assume that our political traditions will protect us from authoritarianism? Schlesinger was "skeptical of apocalyptic foreboding," but Burnham and Phillips might have been describing the Bush-Cheney years. Given the consistent, unapologetic arrogation of power by the administration and the timid response - or lack of response - by Congress, the media and most of the people, I'm not sure. Bush and Cheney adopt policies, such as rendition, secret prisons and torture that violate principle, international norms and probably our laws; American citizens are held indefinitely without charge merely on the declaration that they are "enemy combatants;" to support such actions, legal theories are invented which assert unlimited powers for the "Commander-in-Chief" and provide immunity for perpetrators; the administration claims the right to open mail, intercept telephone calls and otherwise spy on anyone it chooses, in the name of national security; the President's signing statements declare that he will interpret laws as he sees fit, even if that requires violating the very law he signs; deceit and secrecy are standard procedure. If all this flowed only from the desire for power and control, it would be dangerous enough. However, it flows in part from ideology, or more accurately ideologies, one of which is religious. Believing that one or one's leader has been chosen by God trumps everything: doubt, caution, reason, facts, laws and, if one had them, humane instincts.

I also have resisted the notion that impeachment is warranted. I'm no longer sure about that either.


1. Mr. Goodwin's comment is, I think, from The Los Angeles Times, 1/13/95.

2. The Cycles of American History, 46.

3. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters, p.35, describing a discussion by Hans Morganthau of Hannah Arendt's book The Origins of Totalitarianism.

January 16, 2007

Polls taken this month indicate that 23 to 29% of respondents approve of the way that President Bush is conducting the war in Iraq. It's difficult to imagine how even 23% could approve - leaving aside the question whether we ever should have invaded - given that the administration's conduct of the war has been an unbroken pattern of blunders, indecision and falsification. However, realistically that is a devastatingly low rating, 23% representing the core of unmovable conservatives. The President's speech last Wednesday didn't offer any reason for others to rally around; it was basically the same program outlined at various times over the past fourteen months, and already discredited. Here's a brief history:

In a speech on November 30, 2005,1 the President tried to reassure an already dubious public2 that he had things under control. The New York Times played along, headlining its report "Bush gives plan for Iraq victory and withdrawal." The speech was, in fact, something of a departure in that, instead of merely defending the decision to go to war, it attempted to sketch a plan for the future. The word "victory" was used repeatedly and a document was released entitled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. The strategy had three elements or "tracks," labeled "political, "security" and "economic." The political track, apart from elections, consisted of pressuring Sunni Arabs to leave the resistance and support the government. As to security, the program was one of "cleaning out areas controlled by the terrorists and Saddam loyalists, leaving Iraqi forces to hold territory taken from the enemy, and following up with targeted reconstruction to help Iraqis rebuild their lives." The economic element was "helping the Iraqis rebuild their infrastructure, reform their economy, and build . . . prosperity . . . ." Rebuilding infrastructure certainly would have been constructive, but "reforming the economy" probably was a euphemism for privatization and opening up Iraq's resources to foreign exploitation.

Not much was offered as to withdrawal other than to give a new spin to the stand-up, stand-down formula: "As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists." The conditional nature of any withdrawal was made clear by this passage: "Most Americans want two things in Iraq: They want to see our troops win, and they want to see our troops come home as soon as possible. And those are my goals as well. I will settle for nothing less than complete victory. . ." There was no meaningful definition of "victory," although the speech and the strategy document made several passes at it. The tone of the speech, especially the insistence on "complete" victory, offered little hope of early withdrawal.

However, in January, 2006, President Bush announced that "in 2006, the mission is to continue to hand over more and more territory and more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces." 3 Because we were training large numbers of Iraqis - "today, there are more than 125 Iraqi combat battalions fighting the enemy, and 50 of those are in the lead" - a reduction from 17 to 15 American combat brigades was under way. "This adjustment will result in a net decrease of several thousand troops below the pre-election baseline of 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The decrease comes in addition to a reduction of about 20,000 troops who were in Iraq to assist with security during the December elections." A reduction did take place, the force level eventually reaching about 127,000 in June. 4

In March, 2006, Mr. Bush again discussed the November policy, which by then had come to be known as "clear, hold, and build." Although the slogan appears to have been used first by Secretary Rice in November, 2005, the President described it as a strategy employed in a campaign in May 2005. He told us that the new strategy had been made possible by "the significant gains made in training large numbers of highly capable Iraqi security forces," 5 a development not generally visible.

"Build" didn't seem to have much to do with physical structures. Mr. Bush, in his March speech, said that "build" meant that we would "leave well-trained Iraqi units behind to hold the city, and work with local leaders to build the economic and political infrastructure Iraqis need to live in freedom." In Dr. Rice's formulation, the term meant "to build durable, national Iraqi institutions." 6 In the National Strategy for Victory, there were several definitions. "Clear, hold and build" fell under the security track, and there it meant "build Iraqi Security Forces and the capacity of local institutions to deliver services, advance the rule of law, and nurture civil society." (Under the political track, the slogan for which was "isolate, engage, build", it meant "build stable, pluralistic, and effective national institutions that can protect the interests of all Iraqis, and facilitate Iraq’s full integration into the international community." Under the economic track - "restore, reform, build" - it meant "build the capacity of Iraqi institutions to maintain infrastructure, rejoin the international economic community, and improve the general welfare of all Iraqis.")7 As with so many of the administrations's programs, this one was long on happy talk and short on substance.

Little physical reconstruction has taken place, perhaps because of the administration's fascination with building abstractions. In addition, much of the money appropriated for reconstruction was diverted to other needs, especially security, and in January 2006, the administration announced that it would not ask for additional funds for reconstruction projects, although apparently an additional amount eventually was requested and approved.8

In June, just as force levels reached the low point, Operation Together Forward, a program to deal with violence in Baghdad, was announced. Allegedly an Iraqi initiative and supposedly to be led by Iraqi forces, it included some 7,200 "coalition" troops. It failed, so Operation Together Forward II was announced in August, involving 15,000 coalition troops. The total American troop level in Iraq increased modestly for three or four months; then, despite increased sectarian warfare, it fell again, reaching about 132,000 this month, barely above the June level.

The administration never has been clear - or candid - about the entire Iraq adventure, including its beginning. As to that, a new bumper sticker says it all: "No, seriously, why did we invade?" Lack of candor also accompanied the move into Baghdad; statements in July 2006 were ambiguous as to whether the troops sent there were assigned to suppress sectarian violence. On October 25, the President still was evasive: he said that "we have moved additional coalition and Iraqi forces into Baghdad so they can help secure the city and reduce sectarian violence," but claimed that "Americans have no intention of . . . standing in the crossfire between rival factions." 9

At about the same time, the White House informed us that its strategy never had been "stay the course," even though Mr. Bush had used that slogan repeatedly and the administration's attitude hardly could be described in any other way. Mr. Bush declared that "the only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done," which sounds like the same thing. In an attempt to avoid that conclusion, he added that "stay the course means, we're going to win. Stay the course does not mean that we're not going to constantly change." The major changes, though, have been in rhetoric. In December, he stated that we are neither winning nor losing, although in November, he had said that "absolutely, we're winning."

Last Wednesday, yet another new strategy was announced, one which sounds suspiciously like those that have gone before. Like Operation Together Forward, the new plan allegedly was put forward by the Iraqi government.

Even though the President's speech10 had been postponed and he had reviewed advice from diverse sources, it was hardly a new departure. It was stuffed with the usual lofty phrases about aiding the advance of freedom and winning the war on terror. It invoked The Author of Liberty. It pretended that the war is noble and necessary. It mourned the loss of American life. Fear of another 9-11 was encouraged. All of this was read in a monotone accompanied by a blank stare, as befitted the repetition of tired, insincere phrases.

Not only was the wrapping recycled, there wasn't much in the box. The plan still is clear, hold and build: "In earlier operations, Iraqi and American forces cleared many neighborhoods of terrorists and insurgents, but when our forces moved on to other targets, the killers returned. This time, we'll have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared." The last sentence describes the only real change: more American troops. As to Iraq as a whole, the increase is illusory, as it only returns the force level to where it was in October or November, and below the level of a year ago, but more American troops will go to Baghdad. However, the Baghdad campaign depends primarily on deployment of more Iraqi army and police personnel, so again we need those yet-to-be-seen fully-trained Iraqi units. Not to worry; "we will accelerate the training of Iraqi forces." Again. The President told us that American troops now will be allowed to conduct operations in Shia neighborhoods; that, too, remains to be seen. So does the feasibility of having American troops under Iraqi direction.

Building or reconstruction of some sort is again part of the plan. "To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs." However it appears that we are sending a reconstruction coordinator and hundreds of people to augment "regional reconstruction teams," so this, like the rest, appears to be something imposed on the Maliki government. Reports to date indicate that, as before, "reconstruction" doesn't necessarily involve physical rebuilding. 11

"We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." Haven't we tried that repeatedly? If there is anything new here, it is an implied threat of military action against those countries. "We will use America's full diplomatic resources to rally support for Iraq from nations throughout the Middle East." Exactly what that support would be was not specified, nor is it clear that our "diplomacy" will be successful, as it consists of an attempt to make those counties "understand that an American defeat in Iraq would create a new sanctuary for extremists and a strategic threat to their survival." If those countries do not so believe now, it seems unlikely that we will persuade them, especially given the clumsy, hectoring nature of our diplomatic efforts.

Mr. Bush asserted that he had "made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended." However, no real penalty was threatened. This too is old news; in October, the President declared that his patience with the performance of the Iraqi government is limited, but refused to say what he'd do if the patience ran out. On Wednesday, withdrawal of troops was rejected for the usual reason: chaos would follow; also as usual there was no examination of whether our presence makes the chaos worse and whether it will be less if we leave later.

Meanwhile, we have passed the 3,000 mark in fatalities. The American military death rate has been above two per day for three years, and nothing we heard last week suggests a change in 2007.


2. Approval of his handling of Iraq then ranged from 32 to 37%.
4. It's difficult to be precise as to troops levels, as different sources give somewhat different numbers.
8. The Washington Post, 1/2/06; The Guardian, 1/3/06; The Iraq Study Group Report, p.25
11. State Department; The Washington Post 1/14/07; The New York Times 1/15/07. One physical reconstruction project has been mentioned: repair and reopening of idle factories.

January 27, 2007

If members of Congress are no more intelligent, discerning or sophisticated in considering legislation or conducting oversight than they are as an audience for the State of the Union, it's no wonder we're in such trouble. They will applaud almost anything. The insincerity or hypocrisy of the President's statement makes no difference. The emptier the statement the better, so long as it includes talismanic phrases, such as "support our troops," "protect the American people," "help small businesses," "more enterprise" or "balance the federal budget." (Somehow, Mr. Bush omitted any reference to the family farm on Tuesday). As Bob Herbert put it in Thursday's New York Times, "The audience kept mindlessly applauding - up and down, like marionettes - when in fact there was nothing to applaud."

There was so little in the speech that was true, sincere and new that comments on the substance are almost pointless. It was a measure of the President's desperation to show that he's protecting the homeland that he dredged up the alleged plot to fly a plane into the Library Tower in Los Angeles. He first made that claim in October, 2005, and gave a more detailed account in February, 2006, stating that the plot had been "derailed in early 2002." Assuming the plan to have been as real and dangerous as claimed, it's a bit shopworn as an example, in 2007, of "success" in the "war on terror."

I was more intrigued by the recent interview of Vice President Cheney by Wolf Blitzer. Mr. Cheney was in full spin mode, denying that "there is a terrible situation" in Iraq and finding "a lot of success." As to why we invaded, there was this bizarre exchange:

Q But he [Saddam Hussein] was being contained as we all know --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: He was not being contained. He was not being contained, Wolf.

Q -- by the no-fly zones in the north and the south.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Wolf, the entire sanctions regime had been undermined by Saddam Hussein. He had --

Q But he didn't have stockpiles of weapons of --

THE VICE PRESIDENT: -- corrupted the entire effort to try to keep him contained. He was bribing senior officials of other governments. The oil-for-food program had been totally undermined, and he had, in fact, produced and used weapons of mass destruction previously, and he retained the capability to produce that kind of stuff in the future.

Q But that was in the '80s.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: You can go back and argue the whole thing all over again, Wolf, but what we did in Iraq in taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do; the world is much safer today because of it. There have been three national elections in Iraq, there's a democracy established there, a constitution, a new democratically elected government, Saddam has been brought to justice and executed, his sons are dead, his government is gone and the world is better off for it.

. . . And you and I can have this debate -- we've had it before - but the fact of the matter is, in terms of threats to the United States from al Qaeda, for example, attacks on the United States, they didn't need an excuse. We weren't in Iraq when they hit us on 9/11. 1

First, he told a whopper. Not only was Hussein contained, Cheney knows it. On September 16, 2001, he said "Saddam Hussein's bottled up, at this point. . . ." 2 When Blitzer pointed out that there were no WMD, Cheney referred to production and use "previously" (which Blitzer demolished: "that was in the '80s)," then claimed, contrary to the findings of the Iraq Survey teams, that Iraq "retained the capability to produce that kind of stuff in the future." He dodged behind the "bad man" defense and ended up with the "we weren't in Iraq on 9/11" ploy, a lame response to a issue Blitzer hadn't raised.

George Bush's inability to explain why we started a war isn't due entirely, or even primarily, to his intellectual shortcomings. The administration's explanations don't make sense, and can't, whether defended by Bush, Cheney (admittedly also not the brightest guy on the block, but presumably the real "decider"), Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, or anyone else who has made the attempt.


January 28, 2007

On Sunday, The Washington Post published a column by Dinesh D'Souza defending his latest book from adverse reviews he labeled "hysterical." He suggested that the reviewers must consider his book "dangerous," because otherwise they would simply ignore it. I have not read any of Mr. D'Souza's books, and probably never will, because the descriptions of them have convinced me that ignoring them is indeed the appropriate course. However, now that the Post has given him a platform, one comment is in order.

In the midst of several paragraphs detailing the slanders to which he has been exposed and describing his previous writings, he tells us that "the American left bears a measure of responsibility for the volcano of anger from the Muslim world that produced the 9/11 attacks." (I might be more inclined to take him seriously if he didn't identify President Carter as part of the American left.) He then distances himself from the Bush slogan that Islamic radicals hate us for our freedom.
"Rather, they hate us for how we use our freedom." By this he means that 9/11 happened because "Planned Parenthood International opens clinics in non-Western countries and dispenses contraceptives to unmarried girls . . . [and] human rights groups use their interpretation of international law to pressure non-Western countries to overturn laws against abortion or to liberalize laws regarding homosexuality. . . ."

Leave his theory to one side; ignore, for example, whether commercial globalization contributes to the resentment. The weird part of the column is the sudden turn taken at the end. It turns out that his real concern is the domestic application of the agenda of the left:

. . . It is Bush, more than bin Laden, they say, who threatens abortion rights and same-sex marriage and the entire social liberal agenda in the United States. So leftist activists such as Michael Moore and Howard Zinn and Cindy Sheehan seem willing to let the enemy win in Iraq so they can use that defeat in 2008 to rout Bush -- their enemy at home.

. . .I fear that the extreme cultural left is whispering into the ears of the Democratic Congress. Cut off the funding. Block the increase in troops. Shut down Guantanamo Bay. Lose the war on terrorism -- and blame Bush.

In other words, the left has no real complaint about spending ourselves into decline, nor about the irrational conduct of an unjust war, nor about the indefinite incarceration of whomever the administration chooses, nor about the dubious but useful concept of war on a tactic. All of this is cover for abortion and homosexuality.

"Pointing this out," he concluded, "is what makes me dangerous." "Seriously confused" comes closer.

February 8, 2007

Op-ed columns published over the past week reveal that some pundits who supported the invasion of Iraq finally see that it's time to propose a pullback of some sort, although not with eyes quite fully open. However, let's start with a writer who apparently has learned nothing.

Rich Lowry, in a column entitled "It's Howard Dean's Party," commented on the Winter Meeting of the DNC: "all the Democratic presidential candidates appearing here borrow from Dean and try to appease the party's yowling, antiwar base." 1 I wish that there had been more yowling by those "pacifist and isolationist" folk; Congress and the people have been slow to take a stand against this misbegotten adventure. Lowry predicts that the Democrats will lose Iraq as they lost Vietnam, by cutting off funds. He thinks that Democrats are in "Vietnam flashback," but he remains entrapped in a fantasy about Vietnam which he projects onto Iraq.

By contrast, one of the neoliberal fans of the war has, more or less, realized that Iraq already is "lost." Thomas Friedman criticized the conduct of the occupation from the start, but continued to believe that the cause was just. However, by 2005, things were going so badly that he was casting about for a villain. He concluded that we were "faltering" in Iraq because of the administration's incompetence, "but also because of the moral vacuum in the Sunni Arab world, where the worst are engaged in murderous ethnic cleansing - and trying to stifle any prospect of democracy here - and the rest are too afraid, too weak, too lost or too anti-Shiite to do anything about it." 2 After all, the failure couldn't be due to the flaws in a theory of freeing people by bombing them, bestowing democracy on them through imperialist action and creating stability by destroying their government. It must be the Sunnis.

During 2006, Mr. Friedman declared that it was a "season of decision;" he spoke of deadlines. None of that produced peace and an open society, so this week he gave up on his dream and opted for withdrawal, combined with a proposal that we "impose a tax that creates a floor price of $3.50 a gallon for gasoline - forever." 3 (The latter is going to make us independent of Middle Eastern oil.) As to the former, "Negotiating in the Middle East without leverage is futile. . . . So how do we get leverage? The first way to do that is by setting a firm date to leave - Dec. 1. All U.S. military forces are either going to be home for Christmas 2007 or redeployed along the borders of Iraq, away from the civil war. . . ." He held out the hope that the threat of withdrawal would force the Iraqis to shape up: ". . . if setting a date to leave miraculously brings them to their senses, our aspirations for the Iraqis will have been achieved, and we'll be stronger. And if it doesn't, but we have set an exit date and a gas price, we'll be out of Iraq and more energy-secure - and we'll also be stronger." We'd be stronger still if we hadn't started the war, but never mind.

David Ignatius has followed a similar course. In November, 2006 he decided that the culture of the Middle East was too great an impediment to the grand plan. He referred to a "disease . . . eating away at the Middle East. . . . It is the idea that the only political determinant in the Arab world is raw force -- the power of physical intimidation." 4 His focus was assassination, specifically of Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese cabinet minister, but he obviously had Iraq, and the notion that we could transform its society, in mind as well.

. . . So many things are going right in the modern world - until we reach the boundaries of the Middle East, where the gunmen hide in wait. . . .

The Middle East needs the rule of law -- not an order preached by outsiders but one demanded by Arabs who will not tolerate more of this killing. . . .
The idea that America is going to save the Arab world from itself is seductive, but it's wrong. . . . We aren't tough enough for it or smart enough - and in the end it isn't our problem. The hard work of building a new Middle East will be done by the Arabs, or it won't happen. . . ."

On Wednesday, he told us that he has concluded that "this story isn't going to have a happy ending." (He's a little slow. By 2006, Richard Cohen, another early supporter, had concluded that the administration "thinks that this or that adaptation to new conditions will somehow change the outcome. It will not. The end was set at the beginning. It is better that it come sooner rather than later.")5 Mr. Ignatius offered a five-point plan: contain the sectarian violence, protect the oil, shield the Iraqi population, negotiate with Syria and Iran, and push for Arab-Israeli peace. The details are vague, but a military pullback is implied. As to the first goal, he concluded that "The United States can't stop the Iraqi civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, but it can try to keep this conflict within Iraq's borders," and as to the third, "America hasn't been able to stop the civil war, but U.S. troops can reduce the slaughter and help provide humanitarian relief for what's likely to be a growing tide of refugees fleeing the battle zones."

Messrs. Friedman and Ignatius have gone their own way on Iraq, supporting the invasion but for different reasons than those of the administration or, to be more accurate, those that the administration has given from time to time. Charles Krauthammer has been more in the Bush camp; he managed somehow to think that our "objectives in Iraq were twofold and always simple: Depose Saddam Hussein and replace his murderous regime with a self-sustaining, democratic government." However, even for a true believer, the trend of events is difficult to ignore. Like Friedman and Ignatius, Krauthammer decided that the fault must lie elsewhere. "We have given the Iraqis a republic, and they do not appear able to keep it." He acknowledged that the administration has made mistakes - one of his complaints is that we did not shoot looters - but criticizing ourselves would be to surrender to the blame- America syndrome; "the root problem lies with Iraqis and their political culture." 6

In January Krauthammer reiterated his disdain for the Iraqi government and, intentionally or not, recited in advance the predictable excuse for the failure of the surge plan: "I am confident that Petraeus knows what he's doing and that U.S. troops will acquit themselves admirably. I'm afraid the effort will fail, however, because the Maliki government will undermine it." Like the others, he had a redeployment plan. Maliki won't believe a threat to "abandon Iraq," but would believe a threat of "an intermediate redeployment within Iraq," so his plan "would be not so much a drawdown of troops as a drawdown of risk to our troops." He doesn't say so, but the thought obviously is that public pressure here would evaporate if casualties did. "If we had zero American casualties a day, there would be as little need to withdraw from Iraq as there is to withdraw from the Balkans." Here's the plan:

We say to Maliki: Let us down, and we dismantle the Green Zone, leave Baghdad and let you fend for yourself; we keep the airport and certain strategic bases in the area; we redeploy most of our forces to Kurdistan; we maintain a significant presence in Anbar province, where we are having success in our one-front war against al-Qaeda and the Baathists. Then we watch. You can have your Baghdad civil war without us. We will be around to pick up the pieces as best we can.7

Continuing operations in Anbar isn't likely to reduce casualties to zero, nor will any redeployment within Iraq, but they might be low enough to accomplish his goal of making people forget about Iraq. All of the plans assume that Iraqi sovereignty is a sham, but this one seems more blatant than the others in that respect.

Last week Dr. Krauthammer returned to the question of whom to blame and reiterated that it's the Iraqis: "America comes and liberates them from the tyrant who kept everyone living in fear, and the ancient animosities and more recent resentments begin to play themselves out to deadly effect." Fareed Zakaria had criticized his line about giving the Iraqis a republic. Krauthammer responded:

Iraqis were given their freedom, and yet many have chosen civil war. Among all these religious prejudices, ancient wounds, social resentments and tribal antagonisms, who gets the blame for the rivers of blood? You can always count on some to find the blame in America. "We did not give them a republic," insists Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. "We gave them a civil war."

Of all the accounts of the current situation, this is by far the most stupid. . . .


. . . It willfully overlooks the plainest of facts: Iraq is their country. We midwifed their freedom. They chose civil war. 8

I suppose that it is too much to expect that advocates of the war would realize and admit that they were wrong, that invasion was a very bad idea. It is so much more comforting to look for other reasons, to dump the blame on someone else: Iraqis, Sunnis, Syrians, Iranians, Muslims, Maliki, Democrats. In today's Doonesbury, we reached the ultimate fallback position. The president is asked "Who do we blame if we lose in Iraq?" After deciding that past praise eliminates Rumsfeld, Franks, Tenet, Bremer and Casey, he admits that that leaves only God.

We may attack Iran. If that's another disaster, at least we'll know Whom to blame.

1. The Seattle Times 2/6/07
2. The New York Times 9/28/05
3. The New York Times 2/7/07
4. The Washington Post 9/24/06
5. The Washington Post 8/8/06
6. The Washington Post 11/17/06
7. The Washington Post 1/19/07
8. The Washington Post 2/2/07

February 13, 2007

It is a matter of debate whether the media or the opposition party should take the lead in criticizing the administration. (See my note of June 4, 2004). In the case of the Iraq war, and to a lesser extent other policies of the Bush administration, both have failed. Each is beginning to awaken to the futility of prolonging the war in Iraq, but it is a painfully slow process.

In my note of February 8 ( February 11) I referred to suggestions by several columnists of a disengagement from Iraq. Those columns didn't break any new ground except in the sense that they reflected the beginnings of change in the mainstream, establishment media. However, as cautious as these commentators are, they still are several steps ahead of Congress.

Having watched the Senate tie itself in procedural knots, the House Democrats have decided to debate as stripped-down a resolution as one could imagine. Here's the full text:

(1) Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq; and

(2) Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq.

It's a start, but much more is needed.

If the mainstream media don't alert Congress to its responsibilities, who might? Bloggers have some impact. Military and foreign affairs analysts have more, and some of them are highly critical of the war. Take Edward Luttwak, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as an example. In an op-ed in The New York Times on February 6, he said that the surge will fail, and the sooner the better, as that will allow Bush to blame the Maliki government for the failure and start withdrawal. Whether Mr. Bush would in fact respond in that fashion is doubtful, but it provides an entrée for Luttwak's suggestion: "Fortunately, there is a promising, long-term policy ready and waiting for President Bush whenever he decides to call off the good old college try of his surge: disengagement."

Luttwak rejects "total abandonment," and even phased withdrawal, but his plan sounds like the latter. "[I]t would start with a tactical change: American soldiers would no longer patrol towns and villages, conduct cordon-and-search operations, or man outposts and checkpoints. An end to these tasks would allow the greatest part of the troops in Iraq to head home, starting with overburdened reservists and National Guard units." The remaining forces would cease acting as a police force, and end their embedding in Iraqi units; they would "hole up within safe and mostly remote bases in Iraq - to support the elected government, deter foreign invasion, dissuade visible foreign intrusions, and strike at any large concentration of jihadis should it emerge."

Retired General William E. Odom, former head of the National Security Agency and professor at Yale, is another source. Writing in The Washington Post on February 11, he began with a reference to the January 7 National Intelligence Estimate: "Victory, as the president sees it, requires a stable liberal democracy in Iraq that is pro-American. The NIE describes a war that has no chance of producing that result. In this critical respect, the NIE, the consensus judgment of all the U.S. intelligence agencies, is a declaration of defeat." The last two sentences overstate the case, but it's certainly true that the NIE gives little comfort to those who still tell us to the stay the course.

Odom's article contains a good summary of the myths involved in the Iraq debate. Myth no. 1 is "We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon." His response: "Undoubtedly we will leave a mess - the mess we created, which has become worse each year we have remained. . . .But this 'aftermath' is already upon us; a prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists." He is unambiguous in declaring the Iraq war to be a disaster: "The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options."

In addition to the NIE, the White House had the Iraq Study Group report for guidance. It was not an impressive document but it offered the administration a way out of Iraq. Andrew Bacevich, retired colonel and professor at Boston University, discussed its impact in a recent article in The American Conservative. In his view, it had an entirely different impact. "To embrace the ISG's findings meant renouncing unilateralism . . . . Neoconservatives instantly grasped the nature of the threat: the issue at hand was not simply Iraq. . . . If Bush took the bait - if he chose to cut his losses in Iraq - the effect would be to discredit their entire approach to foreign policy." From their panic arose a counter-solution: the surge. Bacevich believes it won't succeed, and it that simply delays the time when we must face "Iraq's incontrovertible lessons: that preventive war doesn't work, that American power has limits, that the world is not infinitely malleable, and that grasping for 'benign global hegemony' is a self-defeating proposition."

My final example is Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor and professor at Johns Hopkins. On February 1, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he delivered a scathing indictment of our Iraq policy. The war in Iraq, driven by "Manichean impulses and imperial hubris," is an "historic, strategic, and moral calamity." Remaining bogged down in Iraq will lead to further disaster, including conflict with Iran. "The United States should reaffirm explicitly and unambiguously its determination to leave Iraq in a reasonably short period of time. . . . The United States should announce that it is undertaking talks with the Iraqi leaders to jointly set with them a date by which U.S. military disengagement should be completed, and the resulting setting of such a date should be announced as a joint decision. In the meantime, the U.S. should avoid military escalation."

The other source of influence is the public. Usually we think of public opinion as following and being molded by the pronouncements of the administration, Congress, the media and the experts. However, this is one of those situations in which the public sees the light more clearly than the first three. The administration pretends that the election didn't happen, the Democrats in Congress are too timid to act on its message, and the mainstream media still take their cues from the White House. As Odom put it, "The public awakened to the reality of failure in Iraq last year and turned the Republicans out of control of Congress to wake it up. . . . For the moment, the collision of the public's clarity of mind, the president's relentless pursuit of defeat and Congress's anxiety has paralyzed us."

So, as our leaders dally, the end of this tragedy is pushed further into the future. The twelve-to-eighteen month timelines we keep hearing about, leading to "victory" or withdrawal, never quite seem to begin. The first step down either road is like a song from "Annie": "Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya, tomorrow. You're always a day away!"

February 17, 2007

Numerous articles have speculated that the U.S. is about to attack Iran. Any such action seems like madness on more than one level, and for that reason I've discounted the warnings. However, it's become impossible to ignore signs pointing that way.

The recent agreement with North Korea marks an abrupt change of direction for a President who included that country in the axis of evil and declared his loathing for its leader. The fact that the tentative deal is similar to the one negotiated by the Clinton administration makes this development all the more striking, and has caused complaint by hardliners. What would induce the administration to make such a move?

One possibility is that it has realized that military action will not accomplish its aims. If that were a general reappraisal, it would be good news. (More likely, it would be a judgment that North Korea is a tougher target than Iraq - or Iran.)
Another possibility is that the administration has decided that North Korea is not a nuclear threat at present or in the near future and that diplomacy will suffice. That too would be good news as to Iran, which poses less of a threat.

Unfortunately, another possible interpretation is that we are simply getting Korea off the table so that we may concentrate on war with, or at least an air attack on, Iran. The recent hype regarding weapons sent from Iran into Iraq makes this all too plausible.

Last Sunday, a presentation was made to reporters in Baghdad in an attempt, at least initially successful, to persuade them to write stories stating that Iran is supplying weapons, especially explosives, to Iraqi insurgents. Those weapons allegedly have killed 170 Americans.

After a day or two, more skeptical articles appeared, including one in The Washington Post which described the presentation: military officials sought to "link Iran to deadly armor-piercing explosives and other weapons that they said are being used to kill U.S. and Iraqi troops with increasing regularity." The weapons displayed included mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and an "explosively formed penetrator" or EFP. The weapons allegedly were brought into Iraq by the Quds Force, "an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that U.S. officials believe is under the control of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

The meeting was conducted by "a senior defense official," "a defense analyst" and "an explosives expert," none of whom would allow their names to be used. Reporters were not allowed to record, photograph or videotape the briefing nor to photograph the weapons.

The only direct evidence for any of the claims had to do with Iranian manufacture: "Two rocket-propelled grenades, with the markings 'P.G. 7-AT-1,' were said to be made exclusively in Iran." Other evidence of origin was increasingly speculative. It was claimed that mortars displayed showed signs of Iranian manufacture because their tail fins "were made from a single fused piece of metal, while other countries make mortar shells that have removable parts." Components of the EFPs required precision machining which, reporters were told, "Iraq has shown no evidence of being able to perform." It isn't clear what that means. Do Iraqis not have the skill; do the necessary tools not exist in Iraq; do the insurgents not have access to them, in Iraq or otherwise?

Iran may be supplying weapons for use in Iraq, but this briefing was propaganda, not proof.

At his press conference on Wednesday President Bush was asked several times about the allegations, and responded with a programmed answer: "I can say with certainty that the Quds force, a part of the Iranian government, has provided these sophisticated IEDs that have harmed our troops." He did not at any point offer evidence for any of his claims. When asked "What assurances can you give the American people that the intelligence this time will be accurate?" he simply repeated the formula about Quds and protecting the troops, a formula which appeared a total of five times and which sounds like an excuse for military action. The pattern is ominously reminiscent of 2002.

March 6, 2007

Since before the start of the Iraq war, we have been urged to "support the troops." Usually, this has been an indirect way of telling us to support the war. Certainly the message can't be that we should "support" the troops as the President has.

From time to time Mr. Bush has attempted to display concern for military personnel, by expressing grief at their deaths, proclaiming gratitude for their service, vowing to protect them from harm. All of these expressions have been, to put it mildly, insincere; more than once he has demonstrated a flippant, callous indifference to casualties.

The administration's record in supporting the troops reflects this attitude. For example, complaints abut inadequate armor surfaced soon after the invasion. At the end of 2004, twenty-one months into the war, so little had been done that, on a visit to Kuwait, Secretary Rumsfeld was told "We're digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that's already been shot up, dropped, busted, picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat." He replied with his version of flippant unconcern: "you go to war with the Army you have. . . ." The problem persists: the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General issued a report on January 25, 2007 which included this: "Based on responses from approximately 1,100 Service members, they experienced shortages of force-protection equipment, such as up-armored vehicles. . . . "

The casualties continue to mount. Despite the "enormous progress" seen by Vice President Cheney, which left the insurgency in its "last throes" nearly two years ago, casualties continue in Iraq at the same rate, or a little worse. The six months ending with February had the second-worst six-month American military fatality count of the war. February also ended the worst seven months and the second-worst five months.1 The total now is 3,185.

In addition, thousands have been wounded - the exact number apparently is in doubt - and one of the most glaring failures is in their medical care. In 2003, numerous stories recorded complaints about funding for veterans' care and benefits. An article in October of that year described miserable living conditions for those waiting for medical attention at Fort Stewart, Georgia. More than three years later, similar conditions still exist at the Army's premier facility, Walter Reed Hospital, and at other sites across the country.

When The Washington Post exposed conditions at Walter Reed, the initial response from the White House was to dump the blame on the Army, as if it were not part of the Bush government. Now that there is a flood of complaints, the President has responded, predictably, with surprise and outrage, assuring us in his radio broadcast Saturday that the situation "is unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to our country, and it's not going to continue." I seem to recall a similar statement about the conditions in New Orleans.

1. 4/1/07: It continues. March concluded the worst five-, six- and seven-month periods, with 530, 602 nad 667 deaths respectively.

March 10, 2007 ...

It's time for the periodic rant about the state of our leading newspapers.

The New York Times' op-ed page now requires two more guest columns per week to fill the space left vacant by the departure of John Tierney. One of the guest columns Wednesday was by Anthony Lewis, which served to remind us of how much better the page used to be.

The Times hasn't had much luck in picking conservative columnists, perhaps because the pool of sensible ones is small. The other relatively recent addition on the right, David Brooks, has made two principal contributions: to give a neocon spin to Thomas Friedman's delusions about transforming the Middle East through death and destruction and to bring to all issues the viewpoint of the smug and comfortable.

The Times' house editorials haven't exactly been a summons to the barricades, but they have, in their mild and diffident way, offered a running commentary on the deficiencies of the Bush administration.

The news sections of the Times are somewhat less kind to the administration than they were, and there have been critical stories, such as the disclosure of the domestic spying program, but on the war in Iraq gullibility seems still to be the rule, especially in the reports by Michael Gordon. One of the oddities of the Times is that its business pages, where one might expect to find conformity and conservatism, have been far more willing to offer criticism of the powers that be.


The Washington Post offers a different mix. Its news pages have been more aggressive than the Times', but its editorials tend to support the establishment, or conservative positions, or both, as do many of its op-eds. The Libby trial provides examples.

Charles Krauthammer advised us that the verdict is unjust - poor Scooter had too much on his mind - advocated an immediate pardon, and cited as authority Victoria Toensing, who wrote a nutty article, published in the Post on February 18, about indicting Joseph Wilson, Patrick Fitzgerald, and others.

In the house column on March 7, the editors initially got the point of the verdict:

[A]bundant testimony at his trial showed that [Libby] had found out about Ms. Plame from official sources and was dedicated to discrediting her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Particularly for a senior government official, lying under oath is a serious offense. Mr. Libby's conviction should send a message to this and future administrations about the dangers of attempting to block official investigations.

However, the Post editorialists cannot forgive Wilson for blowing the whistle on the administration's uranium story.

Mr. Wilson was embraced by many because he was early in publicly charging that the Bush administration had "twisted," if not invented, facts in making the case for war against Iraq. In conversations with journalists or in a July 6, 2003, op-ed, he claimed to have debunked evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger; suggested that he had been dispatched by Mr. Cheney to look into the matter; and alleged that his report had circulated at the highest levels of the administration.

A bipartisan investigation by the Senate intelligence committee subsequently established that all of these claims were false . . . .

Even assuming that the Roberts Committee report is to be considered a reliable source, this is a weak argument. Take the allegations in order.

First: it's false that Wilson "debunked evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger." Wilson said he found no evidence to support the uranium story, and in fact there was none; eventually he made his findings public. That sounds like debunking to me.

Perhaps the Post meant that Wilson wasn't the only one to advise the administration that the uranium story was unfounded, which is so, and it's true that the Senate committee went to great lengths in its report to suggest that Wilson's trip didn't add much to what had been developed from other sources. However, Wilson didn't claim to be the first or only source. Here's what he said in his July 6, 2003 op-ed column:

The "vice president's office asked a serious question. I was asked to help formulate the answer. I did so. . . ." Our ambassador in Niger told him that "she knew about the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq - and that she felt she had already debunked them in her reports to Washington." Wilson and the ambassador agreed that he should interview "people who had been in government when the deal supposedly took place, which was before her arrival." He did so and concluded that "it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place." He reported that to the ambassador, to her staff, to the CIA and to the State Department.

The Senate report doesn't contradict any of Ambassador Wilson's statements.

Certainly the Post can't have meant that the administration didn't allege that Iraq was seeking uranium; that claim was made in eight statements by six members of the administration in January 2003, including the State of the Union address.

Second: it's false that Wilson was "dispatched by Mr. Cheney to look into the matter." Here the Post was reaching for something to attack, as it only asserted that Wilson "suggested" that Cheney sent him. Even that's an exaggeration. In his op-ed, Mr. Wilson said "The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office." In an interview in July 2003, he said that he went to Niger "at the request I was told of the office of the vice president." The Senate report states that the CIA sent him "in response to questions from the Vice President's Office. . . ."

Finally, it's false that his report had been "circulated at the highest levels of the administration." The closest to any such claim by Wilson appears to be this: "The office of the vice president, I am absolutely convinced, received a very specific response to the question it asked and that response was based upon my trip out there." The Senate report states that, upon his return from Africa, he was debriefed by the CIA, and, on March 8, 2002, a report based on his findings "was widely disseminated in routine channels." As the inquiry had originated in Mr. Cheney's office, it's reasonable to assume that he received the answer. (Ms. Toensing, searching for offenses on which to "indict" Mr. Wilson, alleged that although he "has repeatedly claimed that neither his trip nor his oral report was classified, the CIA sent documents about the trip marked 'classified' to the vice president's office . . . .")

The Post's attack on Wilson, besides being vague and unsubstantiated, wasn't even original: its claims of falsity are a variation on those in an article in The Weekly Standard on July 25, 2005. The Post's reason for trashing Mr. Wilson is the same as the Standard's: the war they pushed has been a disaster, and admitting that it was sold through lies would be embarrassing.

April 13, 2007

On Thursday The Washington Post web page carried a headline "Wolfowitz Apologizes for Scandal." He's owning up to the lies that led to war, I thought (briefly). No, it's about sex and money; what else earns a headline in the era of Anna Nicole? As to Iraq, the rhetoric remains as before, but enhanced by the frantic attempt by John McCain to gain the Republican nomination by telling the base fairy tales about progress.

Undaunted by the derisive laughter which greeted his report of a stroll through "safe" Baghdad, Senator McCain told an audience at Virginia Military Institute on Wednesday that we have made "memorable progress and measurable progress in establishing security in Baghdad. . . ." 1 However, he added a comment which seemed inconsistent with that assertion and which further undercut his claim about the safety of the market he visited on April 1: "A couple of days before I arrived in Baghdad, a suicide car bomb destroyed a large, busy marketplace." He claimed that the event was unusual given the new security measures. However, as if to remove any doubt that he has been fantasizing, two bombs went off in Baghdad on Thursday. One destroyed a bridge across the Tigris. The other exploded within the supposedly impregnable Green Zone, killing at least one member of parliament. Two weeks earlier, two suicide vests had been found stashed within the Green Zone.

McCain's theory of the war, by now a familiar one, is that we cannot afford to lose or, as he put it, "Given our security interests and our moral investment in Iraq, so long as we have a chance to prevail, we must try to prevail." However, he's concerned that not everyone understands: "What struck me upon my return from Baghdad is the enormous gulf between the harsh but hopeful realities in Iraq, where politics is for many a matter of life and death, and the fanciful and self-interested debates about Iraq that substitutes for statesmanship in Washington." That was intended as a slam against Democrats, but "fanciful and self-interested" certainly could describe his description of the situation.

Appearing with Secretary of State Rice on Thursday, The Senator had this to say about the Green Zone attack: "I fully expect the enemy to try to orchestrate more spectacular attacks such as rocketing the Green Zone and other acts which would understandably grab the attention and the headlines in the United States of America because they realize that if they can erode American public's will, then they will be able to achieve success. . . . But I don't think that that should change the larger picture, which means that we are achieving some small successes already. . . ." 21 That is truly lame: a major and revealing failure of security is dismissed as a headline-grabbing stunt, and we mustn't let it obscure our successes (now reduced to some and small).

Dr. Rice gave the event the no-big-deal treatment: "We've known that there's a security problem in Baghdad which is why the President has structured a new strategy. . . . But this is still early in the process and I don't think anybody expected that there would not be counterefforts by the terrorists to undermine the security progress that we're trying to make." However, that served primarily to emphasize that the so-called surge is a long-term, slow-moving escalation, and to remind everyone that the new strategy was made necessary by four years of failure.

The President made brief remarks about the event. Apart from condemning it, and hinting that the perpetrators might target us next, his comments are notable for the attempt to push responsibility for progress onto the Iraqis: "My message to the Iraqi government is we stand with you as you take the steps necessary to. . . put a security force in place that is able to deal with these kinds of people."

Twice in the past few days President Bush has accused Congress, in asking for an end to the war, of acting to "undercut the troops." Senator McCain joined the chorus on Wednesday, expressing dismay that "the House of Representatives voted to deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission." Hiding behind supposed lack of support for the troops is ample evidence that the administration and its chorus have no legitimate, persuasive reason for prolonging the suffering.


April 17, 2007

The role of people such as Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson in the firing of U.S. Attorneys has focused attention on the staffing and mindset of the Bush administration as few other issues have, making clear, if it was not before, that we have an authoritarian government run, in no small measure, by adolescent ideologues. Not surprisingly, assigning policy positions to people with little experience of the world, and less in government, and often with an ideology hostile to their employing agency's mission, creates a colossal mess. As Robert Kuttner put it, with reference to the Bush foreign-policy apparatus, the hallmark has been "a naive radicalism married to an operational incompetence." 1

However, the actual or potential involvement of the Justice Department in politics is not a new problem. Conflicts unavoidably result from the dual role of the Attorney General: chief law enforcement officer, but also Cabinet member, politician, advisor to and, frequently, crony of the president.

One such conflict concerns investigations of an administration. Since the AG often cannot be counted on to be objective or, if objective, is placed in an untenable position, we have resorted to special prosecutors or independent counsel, with mixed results. That led Alan Dershowitz, during the Clinton follies, to recommend separating the two functions.2 He has repeated his proposal in the context of the firing of the U.S. Attorneys.

The current fiasco at the department of Justice is only one of many examples of partisanship in the administration of justice. It should push us to follow the lead of other democracies in creating two separate positions. The cabinet job, which can retain the constitutional title Attorney General, can be a political and policy position. There would be no danger if the President appointed a political crony, since the Attorney General would not decide whom to investigate or prosecute. That responsibility would be exclusively in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions, who would be selected on a non-partisan basis by a panel of judges or others outside the political process.

The time has come to recognize that the framers of our Constitution made a serious mistake by creating the single office of Attorney General to serve two conflicting functions. We should break these two functions into two discreet ofices, the way most of the rest of the democratic world has done. We can begin without tinkering with the constitution, by simply having Congress create an Independent Office of Public Prosecution within the Justice Department. The director of that office would be a civil servant appointed for a fixed term by the President with the consent of the Senate. . . . He or she would not be answerable to the Attorney General on issues of prosecutorial policy or on specific cases. . . . He or she would decide which United States attorney to appoint and sack based exclusively on professional criteria.3

This is almost identical to the corresponding passage in Sexual McCarthyism, even to repeating the mistaken references to "the constitutional title Attorney General" and the framers' creation of that office, and the misspelling of "discrete." This suggests that Dershowitz has not given his proposal any additional thought, which it needs.

He has raised an important issue, one made more urgent by this administration's mania for bending and breaking the law. However, lack of prosecutorial independence is not the only problem, nor is complete independence necessarily a good idea, as it would tend to create another headless fourth branch and might, as Dershowitz concedes, conflict with the provision in Article II which grants to the President the responsibility to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed"

The Attorney General, whatever his title under a new scheme, still would be the legal advisor to the president. If he were a crony, a collaborator or a sycophant, he wouldn't tell the president that actions being considered or policies being debated are legally unsound, morally wrong or dangerous. Part of the cure for that problem is more careful review of nominations. Alberto Gonzales is Attorney General because the Senate allowed him to take office. It did so knowing that he was part of the presidential-power cabal, that he was not much of a lawyer and that he was a Bush toady. We have seen the results. Reducing the chances of another Gonzales can be accomplished by using the Constitution as it stands.

1. "A Foreign-Policy Emergency," The American Prospect 11/1/03
2. Sexual McCarthyism (1998) pp. 10-12, 76-79
3. March 16, 2007;

April 24, 2007

Dan Froomkin captioned his column on the Attorney General's testimony "The Gonzales Clown Show," which is harsh but accurate. Gonzales' performance was so inept, so pathetic that I almost felt sorry for him. He is in way over his head, and has been at least since going to Washington. He has done what he has done out of loyalty to George W. Bush, and has been a largely passive player, endorsing the ideas, policies and actions of others. All this might suggest that sympathy or at least restrained criticism is in order.

However, Gonzales has lent the authority of his office, as White House Counsel and as Attorney General, to policies and practices which erode the foundations of liberty, morality and democracy. Considering the policies he has signed off on, including torture and domestic spying, a more severe judgment is unavoidable. Gonzales should not have been confirmed and, by any objective standard, should go now. Whether he does probably depends on this calculation by the White House: is he still useful in deflecting attention from Rove and other Bushies? Would his continued presence damage the ticket in 2008; how much pressure will that consideration bring from Republicans in Congress? Could Bush get an equally compliant AG candidate confirmed by the Democratic Senate?

April 27, 2007

The recurring failure of our President to assemble words into meaningful statements isn't due entirely to his intellectual limitations; faux sentences seem to have become a accepted mode of communication.

Consider the standard art review, which features baffling statements not because of the complexity of the subject but because of the pretensions of the writer and the desire to impart substance and importance to objects notably lacking in both. Examples are provided by a review from The New York Times last Saturday which describes an exhibition of the work of one Sol LeWitt.

Apparently Mr. LeWitt produced art of various sorts, but the review is devoted to lines drawn on walls. The lines are drawn with pencil or crayon; they are straight or curvy, continuous or interrupted, horizontal, vertical or diagonal. Some show a pattern, some do not. The lines in this exhibition were drawn by others, following directions he gave; some of the directions are written on the wall. The artist is described as "someone whose work is by definition ephemeral; this exhibition, like his others, will eventually be painted over." All of this doesn't sound like much, and the pictures accompanying the article confirm that. The reviewer obviously was aware of the possibility of such a reaction, and said, defensively, "If this show doesn't persuade you of his accomplishment, it is your loss."

However, for those of us who won't see the exhibition, she provided instruction. LeWitt, she said, "rediscovered the wall, an artistic working surface since the time of cave paintings . . . . In other words, something that was there all along, but greatly underutilized by contemporary artists." Walking through most European cities would disabuse her of the notion that wall drawing has been neglected.

"LeWitt gave modern drawing the scale of painting and the immateriality of pure thought, and made it a partner of architecture and real space." The drawings appear insignificant, though not, obviously, immaterial; what does the rest of that mean?

LeWitt's drawings brim with the fineness and foibles of the human condition. With their generating instructions written into their titles, they compress the inspiration, physical labor and implicit gamble of art-making into a single yet dissectible experience - reducing the path from idea to artwork into a short, fully exposed line. Yet their crisp geometries, accumulating marks and radiating patterns force us to mind the gap between artistic thought and artistic action, to accept the inability of language to predict visual outcome.

Where does one start with such an inane statement? How do these doodles reflect the human condition, including its "fineness?" What is the mysterious fully-exposed line from idea to artwork? In what sense are the marks "accumulating?" How do geometries, marks and patterns, whether or not crisp, accumulating and radiating, force us to "mind the gap" (cute) between thought and action and what does that have to do with the inability of language to predict visual outcomes, whatever that might mean? This review is all too typical of the field: it throws important-sounding words around in a fashion which is (usually) grammatically correct but meaningless.

LeWitt's drawings

were the intellectual staples of plane geometry - grids, arcs, straight lines, squares, circles - whose many applications could be adjusted in a twinkling and rendered with the sweep of a hand holding a bit of graphite, colored pencil, chalk or crayons (and possibly a straight edge).

You couldn't get more basic. The delegation of responsibility eliminated the preciousness of the artist's hand, yet glorified human touch.

They are indeed basic. The rest of the comment is a rhetorical flourish designed to obscure the inconsequential nature of the work, to persuade us that contemporary art is conceptually deep.

Literary criticism has spawned even more opaque language, not because of a lack of substance in the material under review but because of the artificiality of the theories applied to it. Recently I read a critique of literary theory by Antoine Compagnon.1 He made a serious attempt to explain his arcane subject to the non-specialist, no easy task given the jargon. For example, Compagnon offers this quote from Roland Barthes:

The function of narrative is not to "represent," it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a mimetic order . . . "What takes place" in the narrative is from the referential (reality) point of view, literally nothing; "what happens" is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming.2

It is tempting to conclude that Barthes was describing his own writing and that of other theorists, rather than whatever work he was discussing, the author of which, poor unenlightened soul, thought meant something. Or consider this: "The life of a literary work in history is unthinkable without the active participation mediation that the work enters into the changing horizon-of-experience of a continuity in which the perpetual inversion occurs." 3 Of course.

Sometimes the jargon overwhelms the attempt to explain it; Compagnon was guilty of this:

Without denying that style depends on a relation in absentia (synonymy or substitution), Riffaterre maintains that this relation is designated (underscored) by a relation in praesentia (what he will later call agrammaticality). A linear deviation (contextual or "co-textual" agrammaticality) designates a parallel deviation (a feature of style in the traditional sense). . . .

There follows a passage from Riffaterre which is clearer than the explanation. 4

Compagnon ends his book with a summary of his undertaking: ". . .I have not pleaded the case for one theory among others, or for common sense, but for the criticism of all theories, including that of common sense. Perplexity is the only literary morality." Nonsense. Perplexity is not a state to be sought out; enough occurs unavoidably. Perplexity in reading literature is neither a sensible goal nor an inevitable result - unless one has been confused by theory.

None of this is new; in 1946, George Orwell described writing in these fields: "In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning." 5 However, the examples he gave were rather mild; it's become worse, and the problem is by no means limited to criticism. Academic writing is another source of frustration or amusement, depending on whether one really wants to know what, if anything, is being said. Here's one academic describing the work of another:

Its most important move is to argue that the only acceptable political notion of the universal--and therefore of the organizational imperative--is that of the empty signifier, not a present, given, or essential fullness waiting for troops but an impossible ideal whose very emptiness and lack create a pluralized, difference- based competition on the part of various particularisms in a democratic social- symbolic field to assume the position of the universal organization.

A book review offered that, appropriately, as an example of scholarly blather. 6 Oddly enough, I think that I know what it means, more or less, but its dubious logic would be more obvious in simple English which, no doubt, is why it was expressed this way. There is nothing like directness and concreteness to expose flaws.

Statements by public figures or their spokesmen present abundant examples of evasive language. Whenever one of them is required to admit error, explain a blunder or defend a failed policy, meaningless or misleading terminology becomes prominent. This too is not a new development - Watergate gave us the non-denial denial - but it has become so nearly unvarying a practice that the occasional bit of straight talk is cause for celebration.

Orwell's theory was that the decline of good usage and clear thinking was a downward spiral: "It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Specifically, he thought that "the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes. . . ." I'm not sure about his theory of causation, but certainly meaningless rhetoric, misleading statements or fraudulent assertions can have serious political or economic effects: consider the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts.

The point of linking such disparate topics as the war and the Times' art review is that we have become inured to sloppy language, and no longer insist that people make sense. In each case, loose language serves to mask the underlying reality. Orwell seemed to think that if we simply abandoned trite expressions and pretentious words, all would be well. He went so far as to claim that English didn't need all those words borrowed from foreign languages, and that we could do quite nicely with the Anglo-Saxon variety. That was silly, and the focus on purging certain words and phrases misses the point: although pretentious language is one way to mask meaning, it is not the only one. Certainly George Bush cannot be accused of having a large or elegant vocabulary, but he is the champion misleader. The problem is more general: lack of clarity and meaning. The cure is to ask, frequently enough to be adjudged rude, "what does that mean?"

Using the selling of the war as our reference, we can identify several misleading forms. One step from the faux sentence is the statement that we are acting from the noblest of motives, such as "We must stand up for our security and for the permanent rights and the hopes of mankind." (Bush at the UN) Again, one could ask "what does that mean?" or "explain how what we are about to do advances those aims" or, bolder yet, "is that really what we are up to?"

The use of hints and implications to mislead is another form, for example in discussing 9-11 and Iraq in the same breath, implying without stating that Saddam had something to do with the attacks. Many listeners were not astute enough to see through that device; the media failed them by not pointing out the ruse. There are statements, in whatever form, which claim to convey certain facts, such as: aluminum tubes ordered by Iraq will be used to build centrifuges to process uranium for bombs. The response should have been "what evidence do you have?"

Finally, blatantly false statements also were allowed to stand, such as

"We seek peace. We strive for peace." (State of the Union, 1/28/03)

"The safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat" (Bush press conference 2/26/03)

"I've not made up our mind about military action. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully." (Bush press conference 3/6/03).

The response should have been "how can you say something so outrageous?" Events might have been entirely different if the media had asked such questions.

1. Compagnon, Literature, Theory and Common Sense (1998, English ed. 2004), part of Princeton's New French Thought series
2. Compagnon p. 72, quoting Roland Barthes
3. Compagnon, p. 158, quoting Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception
4. Compagnon, p. 137
5. "Politics and the English Language"
6. Russell Jacoby, The Nation, 4/10/06;

May 3, 2007

The "surge" plan seems so illogical that it's easy to conclude that the White House simply means to hold on until January, 2009, and dump the problem onto someone else.

According to a White House "fact sheet," the current, official rationale is the following:

The New Strategy Recognizes That Our Top Priority Must Be To Help Iraq's Leaders Secure Their Population, Especially In Baghdad. Until the Iraqi people have a basic measure of security, they will not be able to make political and economic progress.1

This is a peculiar sort of "new" strategy, given the history of the occupation. Until mid-2006, the administration conveyed no sense of urgency about security in Baghdad. The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, issued in November, 2005, made no mention of any such problem. In January, 2006, President Bush announced that, as Iraqi forces were doing so well, the U.S. troop level could be reduced. That was done, dropping the total to about 127,000 in June, 2006.

At that point, with the force level at the lowest since March, 2004, Operation Together Forward, a program to deal with violence in Baghdad, was announced. Operation Together Forward II followed in August. The force level increased to 138,000 in August and 144,000 in September, but then dropped to 140,000 in November and 132,000 in January, at which time the "surge" was announced, and the flow reversed again.2 If there is a strategy in all that, it is well hidden. In vetoing the appropriations bill, Mr. Bush said of its timetable for withdrawal, "This is a prescription for chaos and confusion, and we must not impose it on our troops." However, they are facing both already: the former in Iraq, the latter in the White House.

Whatever the goal, describing the buildup as a "surge" was a blunder by the White House. The meaning of "surge" that came to mind was "a sudden large temporary increase," as the OED puts it, or "any sudden, strong increase," according to my Webster's New World. The Iraq-forces increase has been anything but sudden (and threatens not to be temporary). Labeling it a surge has invited people to see failure already, necessitating repeated reminders that not all of the additional troops have arrived, that the project will take time, etc. The administration's only skill to date has been PR, and it seems to have lost that.

The reason for the administration's blunder isn't difficult to find. For six years it had a compliant Congress and a fawning media. Congress has roused itself to some degree, and the media have made tentative moves away from the administration line. However, even timid criticism is shocking to an administration which believes it can do whatever it wants, and can exaggerate, distort and lie as needed, all with the expectation that no one will complain.

Whatever the purpose of the plan, the cost is high. The surge has extended, and to some degree worsened, a trend toward consistently high casualty rates. American military deaths reached 104 for April, setting new fatality records for five, seven, eight and nine-month periods, tieing the highest total for twelve months, and missing the six-month record by two. April marked five consecutive months of eighty or more; there never were more than two such months in a row previously. At the present pace, 2007 would see more than a thousand die.

1. "Fact Sheet: Update on the New Iraq Strategy," 4/20/07; [12/22/07: apparently this is no longer on the White House wseb site]
2. Reports of troop levels vary from one report to another, but the pattern is the same. The numbers used are from a report by The Brookings Institution, 4/30/07:

May 12, 2007

On April 13, the State Department issued its annual report on terrorism. 1 The Department prepares the narrative report, but the significant numbers are supplied by the National Counterterrorism Center.

The New Deal was criticized for its alphabet-soup bureaucracy, but note this lineup: The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) serves as the head of the Intelligence Community (IC). The DNI also acts as the principal advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC). The Director is assisted by a Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence (PDDNI), or would be if the office weren't vacant. Also reporting to the ODNI are the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX) and the Program Manager (PM) of the Information Sharing Environment (ISE). (All of the abbreviations are from the ODNI web site2).

The new model incorporates business jargon as well: the NCTC refers to its "products," which include "daily analytic products for senior USG officials and the broader CT Community." (In English, that's United States Government and counterterrorism organizations). Similarly, the NIC takes the lead in preparing National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) "and other NIC products."

The State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism" function in part as a repository for the administration's tired, lame, deceitful excuses for the disaster created in Iraq. In this year's report, covering 2006, Condi & Co. tell us that "International intervention in Iraq has brought measurable benefits. It has removed an abusive totalitarian regime with a history of sponsoring and supporting regional terrorism and has allowed a new democratic political process to emerge." But, and they're reluctant to mention this, the "international intervention" also "has been used by terrorists as a rallying cry for radicalization and extremist activity that has contributed to instability in neighboring countries." Or, to be a bit more candid, our invasion and occupation have created chaos, attracted and inspired jihadists, and multiplied terrorist attacks, not in neighboring countries but in Iraq, locus of those "measurable benefits." But we must stay the course, because, last year, "Iraq remained at the center of the War on Terror . . . ." (That term is used thirty-six times).

In the Appendix, we are given the numbers for 2006. Because of changes in the methodology and form of the report, it isn't possible (or, at least, easy) to compare it to those for years prior to 2005. However, after the 2004 report was issued, the NCTC announced that there had been 866 terrorist attacks that year; subsequent reports show sharp increases:

2005... 3,474 (31% of world total)... 8,300 fatalities (55% of world total)

2006... 6,630 (45%)...........................13,000 (65%)

Iraq has become, not the central front in the "war on terror," but the world's principal perpetrator and victim of terrorism, thanks to G. Bush.

The National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism reports different numbers which, however, reveal the same pattern, and take us back to the time before the invasion.

2002...... 14 terrorist attacks...... 3 fatalities

2003..... 147............................... 539

2004..... 849............................ 2,471

2005... 2,344.......................... 6,246

2006... 3,966.......................... 9,4973

These numbers are useful for establishing a trend, but they seem too low, possibly because of the definition of "terrorist attack." Total Iraqi violent deaths are much higher than those in either report.

Last year, the financial cost of the war was about $6.4 billion per month, which we couldn't afford. This year the monthly average is estimated at $7.4 billion. The human cost also has continued to rise: US military deaths in 2003 through 2006 averaged 52, 71, 71 and 69 per month; this year, through April, they average 87.


May 25, 2007

When I read Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media, I thought that he was unnecessarily harsh to David Broder, but recent critiques have made Alterman's appraisal seem measured, and a review of Broder's columns has led me to accept Alterman's view. Some of the recent criticism of Broder has been prompted by his attack on Senator Reid for saying that the Iraq war is lost.

Of the recent critics, Glenn Greenwald, now writing for Salon, has been the most persistent. The passages he has quoted from Broder's columns and interviews are pertinent and his claim that Broder has been an enabler for Bush is valid, but some of his commentary has been over the top, as when he captioned a column "David Broder, Poster Child for the sickness of American journalism." The crux of Greenwald's complaint in that column was that Broder has a double standard. Broder thought that President Clinton should have resigned because of lies about Monica Lewinsky. He reiterated that position last year: "When a president loses his credibility, he loses an important tool for governing - and that is why I thought he should step down." Greenwald noted that no such test has been applied to President Bush.

In another column, Greenwald made this claim:

Because the David Broders of the world propped up the Bush presidency for so long, they are deeply invested in finding a way to salvage it. They do this exactly the same way -- driven by the same motives and using the same methods -- that they refuse to accept the reality that the Iraq war which they cheered on and enabled is a profound failure, and are therefore intent on finding a way to salvage at least the appearance of success, if not the reality.

That would be a fair criticism of some pundits, but it's exaggerated as to Broder. His columns are so bland, so resolutely centrist and so frequently noncommittal that it's difficult to describe him as one who cheered on the war. As Greenwald concedes elsewhere, "Broder's reverence for all things diluted, unprincipled and ambivalent - what he calls "bipartisanship" - means that he rarely makes any points stridently or emphatically. One searches in vain, for instance, for any clear statement - at any point - whether Broder favored or opposed the invasion of Iraq." "Unprincipled" is unfair, but otherwise that's accurate. In that same passage, Greenwald offered these concessions: ". . . Broder has been critical of specific Bush policies, particularly his propensity to cut taxes in the face of large deficits and his failure to reform domestic programs." Also, he has "made some good points in some of his columns, including protesting the analogy between the 9/11 attacks and Pearl Harbor, and warning - even in 2002 - that the occupation of Iraq would likely be far lengthier and costlier than was being suggested."

Why then pick on Broder? There are more appropriate targets. It seems that it's because of his reputation and influence. As Alterman put it, "The veteran of nearly a half century of political reporting and punditry, Broder is not simply the most admired print reporter in America, a position he has occupied for more than thirty years; after Walter Lippmann, and perhaps James Reston, he is almost certainly the most widely admired political reporter of the century."

To me , the proper criticism of Mr. Broder is as an exemplar of the tendency of much of the media to enable the Bush program by failing to examine its claims, by allowing it to define the terms of the debate, by taking its statements at face value. In following that path, Broder has abandoned his own theory of journalism, which he described as follows: "Government is supposed to make policy and solve problems. From my point view, the basic job of the press is to try to hold that government, an the people in it, accountable for the way in which they're doing their jobs." He hasn't lived up to that standard with respect to the present administration. Like much of the media, Broder's principal failing has been his habit of reciting administration formulas without pointing out their flaws, even where such flaws were glaring. This has aided Bush's sales program, especially given Broder's reputation for objectivity.

In March, 2003, a week before the invasion, Broder described Bush's rationale for war.

It appears that the president chose to hold a news conference, a rarity in his tenure, in order to show the American people and the world the logic that has led him to the brink of war. Whatever he was asked, Bush reiterated the almost formulaic set of propositions that leave him convinced, as he put it, that if Saddam Hussein "should be disarmed, and he's not going to disarm, there's only one way to disarm him" -- war.

The antecedents of that simple, three-step syllogism are almost as bare-bones as the proposition itself. The United States was a victim of a devastating terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. He, George Bush, has sworn an oath to protect his country from another such attack. Saddam Hussein, if left unchecked, could execute or facilitate an even more damaging assault with weapons of mass destruction. Saddam has defied repeated United Nations calls to disarm. His continued defiance is unacceptable. If the United Nations balks at removing him, the United States, for its own security, must do so.

The logical force of that argument is so compelling that it is no wonder Bush is described by everyone who deals with him as being completely convinced of the rightness of his own position.

Broder criticized Bush's comments as formulaic, which they certainly were, and noted that complications were brushed aside. Still, he found the logical force of Bush's argument compelling, despite its assumption, contrary to mounting evidence, that Saddam had illegal arms. Two weeks later, he said "I am unaware of any efforts by the administration to link Iraq to 9/11," even though it implied that connection repeatedly.

Broder has demonstrated a willingness to accept Bush and his programs as presented. In commenting on the second inaugural address, Broder found Bush's pastiche of cliches "eloquent," and twice described the occupation of Iraq as a "liberation," even though Mr. Bush had not, on that occasion, referred either to liberation or to Iraq, at least by name. (The New York Times editorial page also managed to praise the speech; see my {note} of January 22, 2005). Broder elsewhere referred to Bush's "sterling performance after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," thereby reenforcing a manufactured image.

A recent example of the Broder style, combining some criticism with acceptance of the official line, is his comment on the Bush-Blair press conference on May 17. Bush made this pompous claim: "And so I -- we filled a lot of space together. We have had a unique ability to speak in terms that help design common strategies and tactics to achieve big objectives." Broder's response was dismissive: "The fragile structure of his administration makes Bush's bragging sound delusional." Broder predicted: "History will record that both of them saw the threat to the West posed by terrorism and responded courageously. The wisdom of their policy and the conduct of their governments are not likely to be judged as highly." Here we have a half-way position. The threat of terrorism is the administration's all-purpose excuse, which Broder recited uncritically, but the second sentence contains a criticism, however mild and hedged. Finally, Broder set out a long excerpt from Blair's justification for militarism, and not only failed to point out its obvious flaws, but offered an approving introduction:

The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and the 7/7 London subway and bus bombings shook both Bush and Blair from any sense of complacency and armed both men with a conviction that their preeminent mission was to combat the forces behind those assaults. Both men now believe -- no, are passionately and permanently convinced -- that the terrorist threat from radical Islamists is one that must be resisted at all costs.

As usual, it was Blair who put the proposition best. "The reason why it's important that Britain holds steadfast to the course of fighting alongside America in this battle against terrorism," he said, is that "the forces that we are fighting in Iraq -- al-Qaeda on the one hand, Iranian-backed elements on the other -- are the same forces we're fighting everywhere. . . . There is no alternative for us but to fight [extremism] wherever it exists. And that is true whether it's in our own countries -- which have both suffered from terrorism -- or in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"It's not about us remaining true to the course that we've set out because of the alliance with America. It is about us remaining steadfast because what we are fighting, the enemy that we are fighting, is an enemy that is aiming its destruction at our way of life and anybody who wants that way of life. . . ."

Blair's implied claim that the forces we're fighting in Iraq are only al Qaeda and Iran is tired deceit. The forces of extremism at work in Iraq are there because we tore the country apart. The line about our way of life is chauvinistic nonsense. Instead of pointing that out, Broder introduced Blair's comments not merely with approval but with nonsense of his own; if Bush and Blair were shaken from complacency, the London bombing in 2005 had nothing to do with it, and invading Iraq had nothing to do with combatting the forces behind 9-11.

So, what accounts for this sometimes active, sometimes passive support? Is it the echo of 9-11, the need to rally around, the desire of the fearful for a protector? Or does all of this proceed, as Greenwald seems to think, from Broder's status as the ultimate insider, the spokesman for the Washington elite? He quotes Broder's comment about Clinton, reported in 1998 by Sally Quinn : "He came in here and he trashed the place, . . . and it's not his place." Greenwald offered this as proof of Broder's belief that "The Beltway belongs not to the American people but to its permanent ruling class. It belongs to David Broder." I'm not sure where that takes us, unless we assume that Bush is an anointed member - apparently junior to Broder - of the ruling class. Greenwald proposed an alternative theory in a passage discussing the argument that the Democrats, by demanding deadlines, are endangering the troops:

It is the right-wing demonizers who concoct these debate-killing slogans, but it is the David Broders who embrace and perpetuate them, who convert completely irrational premises into unquestioned and unchallengable political orthodoxies, thereby rendering our political debates toxic and worthless. And that is, more or less, the core job description of Beltway pundits.

This would cast Broder as a journalistic assistant to the President, which is going too far.

Alterman painted a more complex picture.

. . . Broder is a man of the floating center. His deepest beliefs are process-related. . . . He believes the trains should be made to run on time, almost without regard of in which direction they happen to move. And Broder also believes in taking almost all politicians at their words. He goes so far as to admit that in recent years, he has tended purposely to shy away, "maybe more than is justified, from writing stories that I know will add to the depth of an already deep public cynicism about what's going on in this country."

Alterman didn't describe Broder as a political conservative, although his review of Broder's positions, favoring Reagan and both Bushes, disenchanted with Carter and Clinton, suggests that he is (and elsewhere Alterman referred to him as a "conservative pundit"). Instead Alterman focused on the acceptance of conservative formulas by a wide swath of the media:

Broder's embrace of a host of unproven conservative assertions under the guise of anti-ideological, sensible centrism is hardly an isolated story. It is, in fact, the norm rather than the exception, and it affects "liberals" just as much as conservatives. . . .

This is an important point, but the question remains: why? The Quinn article emphasized that there is indeed a beltway mentality, and that the Washington elite were more offended by Clinton's behavior that the country at large, partly because of the rules of the club. One of those rules, as stated by Ms. Quinn, is that the "establishment reveres the office of the presidency." That can lead to excessive deference, as we have seen in the case of Mr. Bush, or disgust if the office is seen to have been sullied. Why don't the insiders see that effect of the Bush presidency? Apparently it has to do with seeming "presidential." Applying that theory, the Lewinsky scandal was worse than Watergate. Of the former, one of the club told Sally Quinn "Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn't quite as sordid as this." Similarly, Broder thought Clinton's behavior worse than Nixon's:

In all those respects, Clinton's behavior is truly Nixonian. And it is worse in one way. Nixon's actions, however neurotic and criminal, were motivated by and connected to the exercise of presidential power. He knew the place he occupied, and he was determined not to give it up to those he regarded as "enemies."

Clinton acted -- and still, even in his supposed mea culpa, acts -- as if he does not recognize what it means to be president of the United States.


Like Nixon, he has done things of importance for the country. But in every important way he has diminished the stature and reduced the authority of the presidency.

So are sins excusable if related to the office, even if to a misuse of the office? Apparently so, which gives Bush a pass. He has, in a limited sense, restored dignity and honor, i.e., no skirt-chasing, and certainly has expanded "the authority of the presidency." Authoritarian rule is OK, fooling around is bad; even the nonideological center, even conservatives ought to see the flaws in that formula.

Meanwhile, Thomas Friedman, one of the major enablers, has reiterated his belief that it is time to get out of Iraq: "Here's the sad truth: 9/11, and the failing Iraq war, have sucked up almost all the oxygen in this country - oxygen needed to discuss seriously education, health care, climate change and competitiveness . . . . Which is why we've got to bring our occupation of Iraq to an end in the quickest, least bad way possible - otherwise we are going to lose Iraq and America. It's coming down to that choice." Maybe Mr. Broder and his circle can be persuaded that losing this country isn't presidential.

1. See comments by Paul Begala Scott Horton and Joshua Micah Marshall (
6. What Liberal Media? pp. 46-47
7. Interview, July 11, 1996:
8. The Washington Post 3/11/03
9. Washington Post Live Online discussion 3/25/03
10. The Washington Post 1/21/05
11. The Washington Post 11/07/02
16. What Liberal Media? p. 48
17. Id. at 52
19. The Washington Post 8/19/98
20. The New York Times 5/23/07

May 27, 2007

The New York Times reported yesterday that the administration is considering reducing the force level in Iraq next year.

The Bush administration is developing what are described as concepts for reducing American combat forces in Iraq by as much as half next year, according to senior administration officials in the midst of the internal debate.


The concepts call for a reduction in forces that could lower troop levels by the midst of the 2008 presidential election to roughly 100,000, from about 146,000, the latest available figure, which the military reported on May 1. They would also greatly scale back the mission that President Bush set for the American military when he ordered it in January to win back control of Baghdad and Anbar Province.

The mission would instead focus on the training of Iraqi troops and fighting Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, while removing Americans from many of the counterinsurgency efforts inside Baghdad.

President Bush has given no indication that he has signed on, and he may not do so. It would not be the first time that a drawdown or exit strategy has been leaked, only to be ignored. The closest Mr. Bush came to endorsing any such concept in his press conference on Thursday is this:

I would like to see us in a different configuration at some point in time in Iraq. However, it's going to require taking control of the capital. . . . As I have constantly made clear, the recommendations of Baker-Hamilton appeal to me, and that is to be embedded and to train and to guard the territorial integrity of the country, and to have Special Forces to chase down al Qaeda. But I didn't think we could get there unless we increased the troop levels to secure the capital. . . . 1

Perhaps "different configuration" means fewer troops, but even if so, conditioning a reduction on "taking control of the capital" might defer any withdrawal indefinitely. The reference to the Iraq Study Group report may be significant, especially as Mr. Bush has not previously "made clear [that] the recommendations of Baker-Hamilton appeal" to him.

Today, The Washington Post interpreted various comments, including the President's, as indicating a more definite shift toward withdrawal, although that seemingly important news was relegated to page 5. Among the signals,

Senior U.S. commanders in Iraq . . . said troop levels are likely to come down next year, whatever scenario plays out on the ground. The purpose of the current troop increase is to give the Iraqi government time to make political accommodations that could reduce sectarian violence. If that happens, they say, the United States could begin cutting forces by March 2008, when the stress on U.S. troops would reach a critical point.

And if the troop increase does not lead to political progress . . . then by early next year there will be little reason to maintain the current level of forces. So, although the White House remains far from a final decision, military planners anticipate that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq could be reduced in 2008.

If the generals believe that, and if Mr. Bush defers to his commanders' judgment, as he claims to do, the result will look a whole lot like the first stage of the reviled liberal timetable for withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the principal effect of the surge continues to be increased American fatalities. The toll for May already has passed the 100 mark, making April and May the first 100-plus months in succession during the war.


June 6, 2007

The Iraq-troop-level dance continues. Last week a "concept" of troop reduction was leaked. The President spoke vaguely about a "new configuration," which might have referred to a drawdown. Now we hear suggestions that we might follow the Korean model: American troops in Iraq for many years. These are not necessarily inconsistent views, but there is a definite change in emphasis, from disengagement to permanent presence.

The possibility of permanent bases in Iraq has been part of the mix from the start, although the administration has avoided any official acknowledgement of that. Only a month after the invasion, The New York Times reported that the

United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region . . . . American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future. . . .

The concept was vague, but it was clear that this was a goal unrelated to military control of Iraq:

"There will be some kind of a long-term defense relationship with a new Iraq, similar to Afghanistan," said one senior administration official. "The scope of that has yet to be defined - whether it will be full-up operational bases, smaller forward operating bases or just plain access." These goals do not contradict the administration's official policy of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, officials say. 1

In 2004, the supposed plan expanded:

. . .U.S. engineers are focusing on constructing 14 "enduring bases," long-term encampments for the thousands of American troops expected to serve in Iraq for at least two years. . . .

As the U.S. scales back its military presence in Saudi Arabia, Iraq provides an option for an administration eager to maintain a robust military presence in the Middle East and intent on a muscular approach to seeding democracy in the region.

There was some fudging on the term "enduring," but permanency was an option:

"Is this a swap for the Saudi bases?" asked Army Brig. Gen. Robert Pollman, chief engineer for base construction in Iraq. "I don't know. ... When we talk about enduring bases here, we're talking about the present operation, not in terms of America's global strategic base. But this makes sense. It makes a lot of logical sense." 2

A year later, the story was the same:

The omnipresence of the giant defense contractor KBR . . , the shipments of concrete and other construction materials, and the transformation of decrepit Iraqi military bases into fortified American enclaves - complete with Pizza Huts and DVD stores - are just the most obvious signs that the United States has been digging in for the long haul. It's a far cry from administration assurances after the invasion that the troops could start withdrawing from Iraq as early as the fall of 2003. . . .

Such a heavy footprint seems counterproductive, given the growing antipathy felt by most Iraqis toward the U.S. military occupation. Yet Camp Victory North appears to be a harbinger of America's future in Iraq. Over the past year, the Pentagon has reportedly been building up to 14 "enduring" bases across the country - long-term encampments that could house as many as 100,000 troops indefinitely. . . .3

Later articles returned to the four-base formula. The Washington Post reported on May 22, 2005, that forces would be consolidated into four "enduring bases," but the military still denied an intent to remain permanently.

If permanent bases indeed are the aim, another confrontation with Congress is in the offing. As pointed out by the LiberalOasis blog,4 funding of such bases was forbidden by the recent supplemental appropriations bill. HR 2206 provides in relevant part as follows:

SEC. 3301. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this or any other Act shall be obligated or expended by the United States Government for a purpose as follows:

(1) To establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq.

(2) To exercise United States control over any oil resource of Iraq.
(emphasis added)

How will the White House avoid that: by another signing statement or by merely ignoring the ban and defying Congress to enforce it?

The massive, fortified "embassy" in Baghdad is another indication that we are there to stay, and that Iraqi "sovereignty" may not have any more substance in the future than it has now. So, possibly, is the administration's insistence that Iraq adopt a new oil law. Although this is promoted as a vehicle for political reconciliation, through an equitable sharing of oil revenues, it may have a different, and less noble significance: controlling, or at least ensuring privileged access to, Iraqi oil.

The President's claim last week that the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (Baker-Hamilton) report "appeal to" him was puzzling, and becomes more so if we assume that the administration plans to occupy permanent bases and control Iraq's oil. The ISG report includes the following:

RECOMMENDATION 22: The President should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq. If the Iraqi government were to request a temporary base or bases, then the U.S. government could consider that request as it would in the case of any other government.

RECOMMENDATION 23: The President should restate that the United States does not seek to control Iraq's oil.

While the administration tries to decide what its plan is or whether to reveal it, the human cost of the occupation continues to mount. April and May had the highest number of American military fatalities of the war, and May 31 brought to a close the worst twelve-month period of the war: 1,003 deaths, shattering the former record of 947.5

1. "Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq" 4/20/03
3. html?welcome=true
5. May also ended the worst four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven-month periods. Numbers from

June 10, 2007

Keep him! He's yours.

George Bush finally has found a country which likes him, Albania. In the words of today's Washington Post,

in this former communist nation, Bush was accorded a hero's welcome. He was awarded the Order of the Flag medal, the nation's highest honor. His visage is on a new line of commemorative postage stamps, and the street in front of the parliament building has been renamed in his honor.1

Back home, Mr. Bush's job-approval/disapproval ratings so far this month are 35-62, 29-61, 32-62, 32-66 and 34-57,2 so he might be tempted to stay in Albania, which would make all parties happy.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon might not last, as the President's popularity in Albania has less to do with his merit than with symbolism. An article in The New York Times3 described the history: "Every school child in Albania can tell you that President Woodrow Wilson saved Albania from being split up among its neighbors after World War I, and nearly every adult repeats the story when asked why Albanians are so infatuated with the United States." More recent events contribute: "Thousands of young Albanians have been named Bill or Hillary thanks to the Clinton administration's role in rescuing ethnic Albanians from the Kosovo war." And the connection extends to the present and future: "Mr. Bush will be the first sitting American president to visit the country, and his arrival could not come on a more auspicious day: the eighth anniversary of the start of Serbian troop withdrawals from Kosovo and ratification by the United Nations Security Council of the American- brokered peace accord that ended the fighting. Mr. Bush is pushing the Security Council to approve a plan that would lead to qualified Kosovo independence."

In showing their gratitude and support, the Albanians may have borrowed a trait from this administration which does neither credit. Several prisoners have been approved for release from Guantanamo only to find they have nowhere to go, at least nowhere safe. Among them are Chinese Uighars, considered by the Chinese government to be terrorists. Albania agreed to admit several of them, but has dumped them into a refugee camp and seems to be trying to forget them. 4 If the Bush administration can brag about liberating the Iraqis but refuse to take in the refugees it created, surely Albania can settle for gestures with no real humanitarian substance.

Elsewhere, the symbolism no longer resonates. The Post also carried a commentary5 today on "the centerpiece speech of his European tour," an address by Mr. Bush in Prague on June 5 to an International Conference on Democracy and Security. He pledged to "dissidents from 17 countries" that "We will never excuse your oppressors. We will always stand for your freedom." Apparently the administration or the sponsors of the conference had to search for democratic dissidents; according to the Post, the participants at the conference

included Reza Pahlavi, a son of Iran's autocratic shah who was listed as an "opposition leader to the clerical regime of Iran," and Farid Ghadry, often referred to as Syria's Ahmed Chalabi. Many other invitees, including Richard N. Perle, were leading U.S. neoconservatives and Iraq war advocates.

The White House transcript6 of the speech notes numerous instances of applause, which must have come from Perle and company. It's difficult to imagine that anything would prompt real democratic dissidents to applaud this claptrap:

. . .the United States is committed to the advance of freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism. And we have a historic objective in view. In my second inaugural address, I pledged America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. Some have said that qualifies me as a "dissident president." If standing for liberty in the world makes me a dissident, I wear that title with pride.

Another of today's stories reflects on the actual image of the U.S., not Mr. Bush's fantasy. On "Meet the Press," Colin Powell had this to say:

. . . Guantánamo has become a major, a major problem for America's perception - as it's seen, the way the world perceives America. And if it was up to me, I would close Guantanamo - not tomorrow, this afternoon. I'd close it. And I'd not let any of those people go. I would simply move them to the United States and put them into our federal legal system. The concern was, well, then they'll have access to lawyers, then they'll have access to writs of habeas corpus. So what? Let them. Isn't that what our system's all about?

. . . And so I would get rid of Guantánamo and I'd get rid of the military commissions system, and use established procedures in federal law or in the manual for courts martial. I would do that because it's more equatable and it's more understandable in constitutional terms. But I'd also do it because every morning I pick up a paper and some authoritarian figure, some person somewhere, is using Guantánamo to hide their own misdeeds. . . .7

June 20, 2007

A column from The Economist carried in today's P-I offered us a bit of pro-business propaganda disguised as a commentary on electoral politics. Under the caption "Politicians give the idiots what they want," it summarizes the findings of a book entitled The Myth of the Rational Voter by one Bryan Caplan, identified as "an economics professor at George Mason University," or, to be more precise, a 36-year-old associate professor. He and The Economist's anonymous columnist are trying to sell us a reactionary bill of goods.

The Economist summarizes the general argument:

The world is a complex place. Most people are ignorant about most things, which is why TV shows such as "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" are funny. Politics is no exception. Only 15 percent of Americans know who Harry Reid (Senate majority leader) is, for example.

Many political scientists think that does not matter because of a phenomenon called the "miracle of aggregation" or, more poetically, the "wisdom of crowds." If ignorant voters vote randomly, the candidate who wins a majority of well-informed voters will win.

The principle yields good results in other fields. . . . But Caplan says politics is different because ignorant voters do not vote randomly.

Instead, he identifies four biases that prompt voters systematically to demand policies that make them worse off.1

There is no doubt that voters are ill-informed, although this seems to overstate the case. Polls I've found indicate that one-quarter to one-third of respondents don't know who Reid is.2 However, the point of the argument is not the level of ignorance but the biases voters substitute for rational choice. Here's Caplan's theory:

. . . People do not understand the "invisible hand" of the market, its ability to harmonize private greed and the public interest. I call this the antimarket bias. People underestimate the benefits of interaction with foreigners. I call this the antiforeign bias. People equate prosperity not with production but with employment. I call this the make-work bias. Lastly, people are overly prone to think that economic conditions are bad and getting worse. I call this the pessimistic bias.3

Caplan has a rather strange website which contains, among other self-centered offerings, an "intellectual biography," which reveals him to be a libertarian and an antistatist. He acknowledges that the "underlying goal of my research on voter irrationality, in brief, is to resurrect the 1970's Chicago 'markets good, government bad' consensus." This is regressive enough, but his praise for the invisible hand suggests that his focus is two centuries further back. In any case, it has an antidemocratic as well as an antistatist basis; consider these comments:

[Ayn] Rand's politics was also largely on target: laissez-faire capitalism is indeed the only just social system, socialism is institutionalized slavery, and the welfare state's attempt to reconcile these poles is a travesty.

. . . people are smart as consumers but stupid as voters.

The problem with government policy is not that the majority is right and ignored, but that it is wrong and heeded.4

The Economist's comments indicate that Caplan is not only reactionary but simplistic. Apparently describing the alleged antimarket bias, it says,

Caplan gives a sense of how strong these biases are by comparing the general public's views on economic questions with those of economists and with those of highly educated non-economists. For example, asked why gas prices have risen, the public mostly blames the greed of oil firms. Economists nearly all blame the law of supply and demand.

Caplan seems to believe that the "law" of supply and demand is like the law of gravity: it operates without human intervention. Prices rise automatically with increased demand: no one decides to raise them; the desire and opportunity for increased profits are not relevant.

As to the second, antiforeign, bias, "Most Americans think the economy is seriously damaged by companies sending jobs overseas. Few economists do." I don't know what most Americans conclude about the effect of outsourcing on "the economy," but they know that sending jobs overseas eliminates jobs here. The Economist doesn't discuss the third bias, but probably, in Caplan's view, people think as they do about outsourcing in part because of that "make-work" bias: because, simple souls that they are, they "equate prosperity not with production but with employment."

Their tendency toward the pessimistic bias may have something to do with rising prices and lost jobs, along with stagnant wages, increasing economic inequality and the role of money in politics.

I doubt that Bryan Caplan is or will become force in economics or politics, but The Economist is influential, so its sponsorship of this silly, marginal conservative is unfortunate, as is the involvement of the P-I and The New York Times, which distributed the column.

1. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the Economist column.
2. Three polls taken last fall produced "never heard of" responses of 24, 33 and 36%.
3. The Myth of the Rational Voter, p.10
4. "The Intellectual Biography of Bryan Caplan"

June 26, 2007

Since becoming president, George Bush has demonstrated a childlike reaction to that status, at times acting naively smug. In that mode he described his job to an audience in April: "My job is a job to make decisions. I'm a decision -- if the job description were, what do you do -- it's decision-maker." 1 That self-definition is not a new line. Mr. Bush had used it at least twice before, in a February, 2005 appearance in Germany with Chancellor Schroeder:

One of the interesting things about being with a Chancellor, or in Putin's case, a President, is that we share something: We make decisions. And I like to learn from people how they make decisions. They say to me, what's the President like, give me a job description. The job description is, decision-maker. . . .2

and again in a speech at Kansas State in January, 2006:

. . . [I]f I had to give you a job description, it would be a decision- maker. I make a lot of decisions. I make some that you see that obviously affect people's lives, not only here but around the world. I make a lot of small ones you never see but have got consequence. Decision- maker is the job description. 3

One two of the occasions, he told a self-deprecating story about his first decision in office having been the color of the rug in the Oval Office. However, clearly he's fascinated with his authority to make decisions, and no doubt exaggerates his role in doing so. This shows in the number of times he refers to making decisions, thirty-four in the April appearance.

Sometimes his insistence that he makes decisions is defensive, which showed in his refusal to remove Donald Rumsfeld: ". . . I'm the decider, and I decide what is best." It can be embarrassingly foolish, as when he told reporters in December, 2002, "You said we're headed to war in Iraq -- I don't know why you say that. . . . I'm the person who gets to decide, not you."

Mr. Bush often refers to "my government." It is one thing to use that phrase or "my nation" when addressing the UN or in some other formal international context, but to use "my government" in press conferences, in which he is otherwise very informal, is pompous or, perhaps more accurately, childishly possessive.

Certainly Mr. Bush sometimes is pompous, especially when he thinks of himself as a commander. According to Bob Woodward, in 2001 the President wanted to be "provocative" toward his "war cabinet." When Woodward asked him whether he revealed that he was "testing, planning on being provocative," Mr. Bush answered:

Of course not. I am the commander - see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." 4

As that indicates, Mr. Bush is fond of his position as commander-in chief. His tame lawyers have wrung all they can from that title, often ignoring, as does the President, that he is not a military dictator, but merely "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States . . . ." Politics or power aside, Mr. Bush also has a boy-in-a-toy-store fascination for the role, exemplified by the infamous carrier landing and the military-base rallies in which he appears in a jacket with the magic phrase stitched on it.

On September 26, 2001, he claimed the role in especially ludicrous circumstances. He opened a meeting with CIA personnel, fifteen days after 9-11, with his customarily inane, and here bizarrely inappropriate, attempt at humor. He then briefly remembered what had happened and, in a fog of bluster, mangled syntax and invented words, appropriated the title:
But those of us on the front lines of this war must never forget September 11th. And that includes the men and women of the CIA. We must never forget that this is a long struggle, that there are evil people in the world who hate America. And we won't relent. The folks who conducted to act on our country on September 11th made a big mistake. They underestimated America. They underestimated our resolve, our determination, our love for freedom. They misunderestimated the fact that we love a neighbor in need. They misunderestimated the compassion of our country. I think they misunderestimated the will and determination of the Commander-in-Chief, too.5

If Mr. Bush were less mesmerized by his roles as commander and decider, he might be able to end the failed venture in Iraq. However, "The prospect of defeat under 'my' command pleases no ruler, and rather than face it, George tried obstinately to prolong the war long after it held any hope of success." 6 The subject was King George III of the UK, but it fits.

4. Woodward, Bush at War pp. 145-46
6. Tuchman, The March of Folly p. 218

June 29, 2007

This week, two Republican Senators edged away from the administration's policy for Iraq.

There was nothing substantively new in Senator Lugar's speech; its proposals have been out there for some time, including his proposal that American forces withdraw to Kuwait, the Kurdish area or secure bases elsewhere in Iraq. His recitation of our interests in the Middle East is ironic:

First, we have an interest in preventing Iraq or any piece of its territory from being used as a safe haven or training ground for terrorists or as a repository or assembly point for weapons of mass destruction.

Second, we have an interest in preventing the disorder and sectarian violence in Iraq from upsetting wider regional stability. . . .

Third, we have an interest in preventing Iranian domination of the region. The fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni government opened up opportunities for Iran to seek much greater influence in Iraq and in the broader Middle East. . . .

Fourth, we have an interest in limiting the loss of U.S. credibility in the region and throughout the world as a result of our Iraq mission. . . . 1

All of those goals were undermined by the invasion of Iraq for which Senator Lugar in effect voted. I would have taken his speech more seriously if he had prefaced it by saying "I was wrong; now help me undo the damage." He did nod in that direction in his statement of the third and fourth goals.

The Senator's plea for bipartisan cooperation was undercut by his criticism of the arguments Democrats have made, and his proposal for a new way apparently was less the result of reanalysis than of the political calendar. The only real significance of his speech is that it proposed prompt abandonment of the "surge," and thereby repudiated the President's position.

Senator Voinovich, who also voted for the war resolution, sent Mr. Bush a letter and "position paper" which, far from repudiating that vote, stated that we "must not abandon our mission" and that the "commitment of the United States to the principles of democracy and freedom will not falter." However, he too wants to abandon the surge.

Military disengagement is the only way to force Iraq's leaders and neighboring countries to make the difficult decisions needed to create stability and prevent a catastrophe in the region. Only by initiating such a strategy can we hope to achieve all of the following goals:

Compel Iraq's leaders and neighbors to take actions that will support stability in Iraq and prevent chaos in the region;

Make al Qaeda's mission to drive out U.S. forces obsolete, so Iraqi tolerance for al Qaeda decreases;

Stop terrorist networks from using Iraq's perceived occupation as a recruitment tool;

Develop a plan for Iraq that can be endorsed by all of Iraq's neighbors and key international organizations;

Agree on a timeline for disengagement that is acceptable to the people of Iraq, blessed by the international community, and easier to implement because it has their support;

Protect key American alliances in the region by working with them to develop our exit strategy and working to address their fears and concerns;

Preserve American credibility by staying involved in Iraq and focusing more energy on refugee assistance, humanitarian aid, and reconstruction aid;

Focus our resources on other fronts in the war on terrorism; and

Rest and repair our military forces for potential future conflicts.2

As his goals are more directly related to the effects of removing troops, his list doesn't present the level of same inconsistency with his vote for the war as Senator Lugar's, although "preserving" credibility is disingenuous. Again, there is nothing here that hasn't been suggested before, but the increasing dissent is significant.

Congress' hesitant, uncertain, painfully slow movement away from Iraq resembles the changes on public opinion Look at three polls from this month. 3

Gallup asked "in view of the developments since we first sent out troops to Iraq, do you think that the U.S, made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq?" Mistake won 56-40, but the margin was 58-40 last month and 59-39 in March. However, in July, 2003, only 27% voted for "mistake," and in March, 2003, 23%.

The ABC-Washington Post poll asked whether, considering "costs" and "benefits," the war in Iraq "was worth fighting," which produced a response of 37 yes, 61 no. Last month it was 33-66, but in June, 2003 it was 64-33 and in April of that year 70-27. On the question whether the war "has . . . contributed to the long-term security of the United States," the response was 44% yes, 53% no, the most negative result thus far.

CNN asked whether respondents "favor or oppose the U.S. war in Iraq," which produced a vote of 30-67, the lowest favorable response in a year, and probably at any point. In the same poll, "do you think the U.S. action in Iraq is morally justified?" got a 42-54 vote, down from 45-47 a year ago.

These results are a little erratic, but their trend reveals a growing belief that the war is a disaster, and the ups and downs probably reflect a reluctance to come to that conclusion; Americans do not want to believe that their military ventures are either wrong or unnecessary.

Many were, in the early stages, as unaware of or indifferent to the costs, human and otherwise, as our leader. They stuck "support the troops" ribbons on their vehicles with little thought to what that meant. A Hummer was the ideal place for the ribbon; it was a patriotic emblem, the symbol of vicarious heroism. An article in April 2003 entitled "In Their Hummers, Right Beside Uncle Sam," described the mindset: "When I turn on the TV, I see wall-to-wall Humvees, and I'm proud," said a Hummer owner. "I'm proud of my country, and I'm proud to be driving a product that is making a significant contribution." Another declared that "the H2 is an American icon. . . . "Those who deface a Hummer in words or deed deface the American flag and what it stands for." 4 This safe, witless chauvinism has been the mainstay of the Bush imperial project. It's tragic that it has taken so many lives and limbs to discredit it.


July 1, 2007

Republicans in Congress may be getting restless, but President Bush is staying the course, at least rhetorically. In a speech Thursday at the Naval War College, he returned to a familiar theme: we're in Iraq to fight those who attacked us on 9-11: "Now we're in a new and unprecedented war against violent Islamic extremists. . . These are the people that attacked us on September the 11th and killed nearly 3,000 people. . . . The major battleground in this war is Iraq." 1

To be sure the message wasn't missed, the President repeated it: "Al Qaeda is responsible for the most sensational killings in Iraq. They're responsible for the sensational killing on U.S. soil, and they're responsible for the sensational killings in Iraq." (He referred to al Qaeda twenty-five times). Later, he warned that they will attack us again if we leave:

. . . And what makes the war even more significant is that what happens overseas matters to the security in the United States of America, as we learned on September the 11th, when killers were able to use a failed state to plot the deadly attack. And so if we withdraw before the Iraqi government can defend itself, we would yield the future of Iraq to terrorists like al Qaeda -- and we would give a green light to extremists all throughout a troubled region.

. . . . We would soon face a Middle East dominated by Islamic extremists who would pursue nuclear weapons, who would use their control of oil for economic blackmail, and who would be in a position to launch new attacks on the United States of America. September the 11th, we saw how a failed state, like I'd just told you, can affect the security at home. . .

Mr. Bush also repeated the claim that Americans are dying in Iraq to bring it freedom. The goal of the surge, he said, "is to help the Iraqis make progress toward reconciliation -- to build a free nation. . . ." He continued in that vein in his radio address on Saturday, linking the war to "the spirit of liberty that led men from 13 different colonies to gather in Philadelphia and pen the Declaration of Independence." He said that, on this fourth of July, " we remember . . . all the men and women in uniform who have given their lives in this struggle. They've helped bring freedom to the Iraqi people." 2

All of this is devious nonsense, but what else could he say? I've run out of new excuses, so I have to use the old ones? We're blundering on because we don't know what else to do? We're running out the clock to January, 2009? We're trying to establish enough control to allow oil companies to feel safe?

Meanwhile, casualties continue to mount in record numbers. In June, 101 American service personnel died in Iraq, the first time the count has exceeded one hundred three months in succession. The total for the past twelve months is 1,043; no twelve-month period had exceeded 900 until March. On Thursday, the President trotted out a cynical cliche to justify those and still more losses: "We resolve to honor their sacrifice by finishing the work they have begun."

At times, George W. Bush has fatuously referred to himself as "a product of the Vietnam era," meaning that he learned lessons from that war.3 He did not learn one, a lesson in honesty as well as policy, expressed by a Congressman as he reflected on the agony of a family who had lost a son: "There was no way I could say that what happened was in their interest or in the national interest or in anyone's interest." 4

3. See Woodward and Balz, "Combating Terrorism: 'It Starts Today' ", The Washington Post 2/1/02
4. Diary of Rep. Donald Riegle, 4/20/71, quoted in Tuchman, The March of Folly,, p.377

July 10, 2007

The decision to cancel Mr. Libby's prison term but not pardon him has brought derisive responses from each side. Robert Novak, in his column on July 4, said that "George W. Bush performed Monday as he had from the start in the CIA leak case. He sought to keep his distance from an incident that excited intense political emotions, making no value judgment other than that the jail sentence was unjustified." (Mr. Novak's column is notable for the degree to which he too keeps his distance from the Wilson-Plame-Libby mess and his role in creating it. Novak's description of "Bush again standing aloof from the passion he has stirred" applies as well to him.) Novak summarized his view of Mr. Bush's performance as follows: "By staying aloof from the proceedings for three years, the president had triggered a chain of events that led to the federal conviction of Scooter Libby -- a conviction he still could not bring himself to publicly deplore when he commuted the sentence." 1

The Wall Street Journal has managed to believe that Joseph Wilson's revelation was a "false accusation about pre-war intelligence" and that "it fell to Mr. Libby to defend the Administration against Mr. Wilson's original charge." He had the task because others, such as Rice, Powell and Hadley, didn't help, a failure the Journal describes as "profiles in non-courage." Because of Mr. Libby's patriotic service, he should have been pardoned; mere commutation "is another profile in non-courage." 2

From the other side of the spectrum, Frank Rich offered an even less flattering appraisal:

There was never any question that President Bush would grant amnesty to Scooter Libby, the man who knows too much about the lies told to sell the war in Iraq. The only questions were when, and how, Mr. Bush would buy Mr. Libby's silence. Now we have the answers, and they're at least as incriminating as the act itself. They reveal the continued ferocity of a White House cover-up and expose the true character of a commander in chief whose tough-guy shtick can no longer camouflage his fundamental cowardice.3

As to why Bush acted now, Mr. Rich rejected the theory that he had to placate his base: "if those die-hards haven't deserted him by now, why would Mr. Libby's incarceration be the final straw?" Besides, if "the president wanted to placate the Weekly Standard crowd, he would have given Mr. Libby a full pardon." In Rich's judgment, Libby received commutation rather than pardon in order to allow him to plead the Fifth in any future Congressional hearing (assuming that he continues to prosecute his appeal). Liberal bloggers agree and, apparently, so does Senator Leahy. "Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said 'it would do no good'' to ask Libby to testify before Congress. 'His silence has been bought and paid for and he would just take the Fifth.' '' 4

The first President Bush, as he left office, pardoned Casper Weinberger and others charged with crimes in connection with the Iran-Contra scandal. Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor, reacted by saying that "the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed." The same might be said of the Libby commutation.

Walsh also issued a formal statement which summarized the matter in more measured but no less applicable language: "President Bush's pardon of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran-contra defendants undermines the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office -- deliberately abusing the public trust without consequence." 5


July 15, 2007

Someone remarked, I seem to recall, that the Bush administration had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fox News. The connection was affirmed on Thursday when Mr. Bush referred to his commutation of Scooter Libby's prison term as "a fair and balanced decision." (However, he won't adopt "we report, you decide," he being the decider).

In Thursday's press conference he also repeated his plea to stay the course, an appeal he has been making since 2003. Here's the current version:

. . .The real debate over Iraq is between those who think the fight is lost or not worth the cost, and those that believe the fight can be won and that, as difficult as the fight is, the cost of defeat would be far higher.

I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must. . . .1

His view presupposes that we have both a goal and a vital national interest which are served by prolonging the war in Iraq. The President made a half-hearted attempt to articulate such a goal or interest: we are trying to create a stable Iraqi government and to defeat al Qaeda. A stable government which could manage its own security would be good, but is it such a vital issue to us that it justifies wasting more lives? Does our presence hasten the day when such a government will appear?

Mr. Bush continued the pretense that al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which arose only after the invasion, is the same as bin Laden's al Qaeda: "The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th, and that's why what happens in Iraq matters to the security here at home." Resort to this deceit demonstrates that he cannot make a legitimate link between the war in Iraq and our domestic security.

The dissident Republican Senators have received much attention, and rightly so, but their difference with the President is not radical. Senator Snowe recently declared that "we're at the crossroads of hope and reality, and now I think we have to address the reality, and that includes the president." 2 That does not challenge the notion that there is an important interest at stake: the Senator added that " we are . . . not abandoning the mission in Iraq" but did not specify which mission she had in mind, of many that have been asserted over the past five years.

Senators Warner and Lugar, in the bill they have drafted, are more explicit but not always clear. Their bill, which would nudge the administration in the direction of disengagement, opens with a long list of interests which serve mostly to validate our presence there:

These vital interests include the prevention of Iraq or any piece of its territory from being used as a safe haven or training ground for terrorists or as a repository or assembly point for weapons of mass destruction; the prevention of acts of violence and disorder that upset wider regional stability, undermining friendly governments, expanding refugee flows, impairing the international shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf, or destroying key oil production or transportation facilities; the prevention of Iranian domination of or aggression toward nations or areas of the Middle East, which would have potentially serious consequences for weapons proliferation, terrorism, the security of Israel, and the stability of friendly governments; and the protection of U.S. credibility in the region and throughout the world.3

Later, the authors are more focused:

Some level of American military presence in or near Iraq would improve prospects that the United States could respond to terrorist threats, protect petroleum flows, help deter a regional war, and reassure friendly governments of America's commitment to Middle East security.

Here we have a relatively candid statement of aims: protect our access to Iraqi oil and keep things quiet in the Middle East.

The bill refers to the "benchmarks" set out by Congress and the administration's interim evaluation of progress toward them. The President's press conference was devoted in part to a discussion of that evaluation. Even though it finds "satisfactory" progress toward only eight of eighteen benchmarks, it has been dismissed as far too optimistic. While this is useful criticism, showing that Bush & Co. continue to bend the truth, the more basic question is: why is Congress making our withdrawal from Iraq dependent on these tests? More specifically: Why are the Democrats in Congress playing the benchmark game?

Conditioning withdrawal on the achievement of certain measures of progress by the Iraqis aids the Bush administration in three ways. The first is to permit the White House to push the date for withdrawal further back with each review: there is progress, but there is much left to do. The second is to support its contention that the lack of a stable government which can provide security is the Iraqis' fault, not the inevitable result of destroying the previous regime, imposing an authoritarian occupation and dictating conditions for any Iraqi-run government. The last, and related, benefit is that tying withdrawal to progress by the Iraqis obscures the question of whether we ever should have been there; by setting benchmarks Congress validates the administration's argument that we are in Iraq for noble, or at least legitimate, reasons.

However, the President's formula will carry the day: the decision to stay of go will depend on a calculus of whether carrying on is "worth the cost," which for many will come down to a judgment whether "the fight can be won." Movement toward withdrawal will come when a few more reach Senator Snowe's "crossroads of hope [or fantasy] and reality," and choose reality.


July 19, 2007

President Bush has threatened to veto a bill aimed at expanding health care coverage for children. If exercised, it would be his fourth veto; he has used two to obstruct medical research and one to resist ending the bloodshed in Iraq: quite a legacy.

Mr. Bush made clear in a press conference on Wednesday that his objections are ideological; he worries that the plan "would cause people to drop their private insurance in order to be involved with a government insurance plan." In other words, we must protect insurance companies. He tried to pretend that there are other principles involved, such as quality of care: "I believe government cannot provide affordable health care. I believe it would cause -- it would cause the quality of care to diminish. . . . I really do believe that government involvement in health care will lead to less quality care and rationing over time."

The faceless government clerk provided another red herring: "I want patients making decisions, not bureaucrats in Washington, D.C." He even pretended not to be protecting insurers: "I want the system to benefit the individual, the small business owner, not large insurance companies." 1

Paul Krugman has written a number of columns exposing the myths which support the administration/insurance industry view of health-care issues. On Monday, he pointed out that the President is so unconcerned or clueless that he thinks that an emergency room equates to a health-care system. Mr. Bush's comment came during a speech on July 10 which also demonstrates his pro-insurance industry, anti-government bias.

The immediate goal is to make sure there are more people on private insurance plans. I mean, people have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room. The question is, will we be wise about how we pay for health care. I believe the best way to do so is to enable more people to have private insurance. And the reason I emphasize private insurance, the best health care plan -- the best health care policy is one that emphasizes private health. In other words, the opposite of that would be government control of health care. 2

His speech was littered with reactionary health-care ideas.

But I strongly object to the government providing incentives for people to leave private medicine, private health care to the public sector. And I think it's wrong and I think it's a mistake. And therefore, . . I'll resist Congress's attempt to federalize medicine.

The whole point I'm trying to make is there's an alternative to federalization of health care. . . .

At least he doesn't call it socialized medicine. He offered up one of the golden oldies, dear to the insurance industry and to physicians: medical costs are high because of runaway, irresponsible malpractice litigation:

I'm a strong believer in medical liability reform. We've got a legal system which is driving up the costs of medicine, because docs are practicing defensive medicine and driving good doctors out of practice. And it makes no sense to have a legal system that punishes good medicine. And therefore, I strongly believe that the Congress ought to pass federal medical liability insurance for our doctors and our providers.

More insurance for children is bad but more insurance for doctors is good policy.

Mr. Bush also referred, somewhat obliquely, to the myth that the US has the world's best health-care system: "There's just more we can do to make sure we continue to be the leader, without wrecking the health care system." We aren't the leader, whether measured by life expectancy, infant mortality or cost. We pay more for less than most advanced nations, and will continue to do so as long as the myth prevents people from thinking about alternatives.


July 23, 2007

Gregory Mankiw, former Chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisors (and currently advisor to the Romney campaign) wrote an article 1 for The New York Times in which he argued, in effect, that the rich pay enough in federal taxes. He noted Warren Buffett's comment that he pays a lower tax rate than his receptionist, and also noted complaints that the tax structure no longer is progressive. However, Dr. Mankiw thinks that such populist claims "don't hold up under close examination." As evidence, he offered a chart showing this distribution:

Income group..... Average pretax income.......Effective federal tax rate
Lowest 20%............... $15,400.............................. 4.5%
Second 20..................... 36,300............................ 10.0
Middle 20..................... 56,200............................. 13.9
Fourth 20..................... 81,700.............................. 17.2
Highest 20................. 207,200.............................. 25.1
Top 1........................ 1,259,700.............................. 31.1

That doesn't really support his argument that we have "a highly progressive system," but it is more progressive than I would have guessed.

However, tucked away in the thirteenth paragraph of his article is the catch: the table includes as part of taxpayers' individual tax burden "the taxes that corporations have paid on their behalf." Of the 31.1% "paid" in tax by those in the top bracket, 9.3% is the corporate allocation. In other words, the actual tax rate on their million-dollar incomes is 21.8%, which sounds a tad less socialist.

There is a respectable source for Mankiw's pass-through tax-burden theory. The Congressional Budget Office issued a report in December, 2006, dealing with distribution of the tax burden in 2003 and 2004, which employs that device and produces the numbers used in the Mankiw article.2 The report attributes some corporate tax to each income level; subtracting that out, the net rates for the other levels of the table become 4.2, 9.6, 13.3, 16.4 and 21.0. Therefore, the highest quintile is only 4.6 points above the fourth rather than 7.9, and the top 1% is only .8 of a point above the highest quintile rather than 6 points.

The CBO report does not contradict Mr. Buffett's comment which, as Mankiw concedes, was based on tax rates applied to taxable income.3 The CBO report instead combined information from the IRS and from the Current Population Survey produced by the Census Bureau into something called "adjusted pretax comprehensive income."

That measure includes all cash income (both taxable and tax-exempt), taxes paid
by businesses (which are imputed to households, as noted above), employees'
contributions to 401(k) retirement plans, and the value of income received
in-kind from various sources (such as employer-paid health insurance premiums,
Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and food stamps). The calculations use the
Census Bureau's fungible value measure to determine the cash equivalent of
in-kind government transfer payments.

Other adjustments and estimates are made. In the end, the relationship between the income figures of the CBO report and those on anyone's 1040 is remote.

As to the pass-through, "CBO assumes that corporate income taxes are borne by owners of capital in proportion to their income from interest, dividends, capital gains, and rents." That seems overly generous; apart from dividends, I don't see the connection between those categories and corporate taxes.

More to the point, the pass-through is a fraudulent device: corporations pay taxes on their own behalf, not for shareholders. Corporations are separate legal persons and separate taxpayers. I doubt that Dr. Mankiw would advocate attributing to a shareholder his portion of the income of the corporation, but that would make as much sense.

However, the article wasn't intended to discuss economic theory, but to make a political argument. Mankiw acknowledged this: "None of these calculations, however, say whether the rich are paying their fair share. Fairness is not an economic concept. If you want to talk fairness, you have to leave the department of economics and head over to philosophy." At the philosophy department, he selected the views of John Rawls and Robert Nozick as competing models. It is a revealing choice. Rawls was hardly a left-winger; he did not, contrary to many interpretations, argue for the welfare state.4 However, Rawls' A Theory of Justice was very much concerned with fairness; indeed his core concept was "justice as fairness," and his system aimed for a fair allocation of resources. Nozick was a libertarian who argued in favor of the minimal state, rejected the concept of fairness and entertained the notion that "taxation on earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor." 5 Mankiw acknowledged that, to "libertarians like Professor Nozick, requiring the rich to pay more just because they are rich is little more than officially sanctioned theft." In the context of his discussion, Mankiw's choice was between the center-left and the hard right.

He closed by saying that there "is no easy way to bridge this philosophical divide." But there is no need to bridge it for people who have some sense of fairness, and who are not hiding behind the myth that they deserve every advantage they have been fortunate enough to acquire and the convenient belief that they have no obligations.

3.Buffet's comment is at
4. See pp. xiv-xv of the revised edition (1999) of A Theory of Justice.
5. Anarchy, State and Utopia, pp. 333, 90-95, 169

July 28, 2007

Eugene Robinson, in his Washington Post column on Friday ("Bedtime for Gonzo"), had this comment on the AG's latest exercise in dissembling: "At this point, every day Alberto Gonzales continues as attorney general means more dishonor for the office and the nation -- and higher blood pressure for Senate Judiciary Committee members trying desperately to get a straight answer out of the man." The Republicans on the committee have no one but themselves to blame: Gonzales was hardly an unknown quantity when he was nominated as attorney general and all of them voted for confirmation.

Robinson found one part of Gonzales' testimony to be a metaphor for the administration he so loyally serves:

. . . Anyone tempted to feel sympathy for Gonzo should check out his weaselly explanation for why he would think it appropriate to buttonhole a sick man in his hospital room, regardless of the issue.

"There are no rules governing whether or not General Ashcroft can decide 'I'm feeling well enough to make this decision,' " Gonzo said. When [Senator] Specter pointed out that Ashcroft had already turned his powers over to [Deputy AG] Comey, Gonzo replied, "And he could always reclaim it. There are no rules."

"While he was in the hospital under sedation?" Specter interrupted, before giving up on getting a straight answer.

Gonzo answered the question, all right -- inadvertently, of course: "There are no rules."

That's the guiding philosophy of this administration. As far as these people are concerned, there are no rules of common decency. There are no rules of customary practice. There are no rules governing respect for the truth, or even respect for the privacy and health of an ailing colleague.

President Bush may have kept Gonzales on the team out of appreciation for his unstinting loyalty, but more likely because confirmation hearings on a successor would lead to still further probing and would install someone less likely to accept Gonzales' assigned role: support every administration policy and provide cover for Bush.

However, Gonzales' pathetic performances may force a change; he has reached the point where he isn't providing effective cover, but instead has become the symbol of the administration's dishonesty and incompetence. Worse, from Mr. Bush's standpoint, he is inviting further challenges from Congress.

Poor Fredo's reputation as the administration's chief liar is ironic. What distinguishes him from the others isn't his level of dishonesty but his inability to cover up the lies by spin, obfuscation or bluff. Perhaps lying does not come to him as naturally as to some one could name.

July 31, 2007

The administration's pitch for the war in Iraq - the surge has only started, the September report will be preliminary, we must plan to muddle on into 2008 or beyond- got a boost Monday in an op-ed in The New York Times by Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack.1 They think that "the administration's critics . . . seem unaware of the significant changes taking place. Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms."

That view is the result, they tell us, of their recent visit to Iraq, which showed them that things are looking up all over the country. Here are some of their claims:

Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services - electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation - to the people." Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. . . .

This is odd. The purpose of the surge supposedly was military, and the authors stress that the progress they see is military. How do we square that with the notion that Army and Marine units are assigned to "creating new political and economic arrangements . . . and providing basic services?" And where are they providing those basic services? No one seems to be able to find them, including Mr. O'Hanlon, who said this on July 13:

In addition to reducing unemployment, it is important to improve utility performance - electricity, housing fuels, availability of gasoline for cars, water and sewer, and telephone systems. Of these, only telephone and gasoline trends have shown any real improvement in Iraq over the years. . . . 2


. . . As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began - though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.

This follows immediately after the first quote, as part of the same paragraph. Presumably "as a result" refers to the security operations. The authors certainly are correct in stating that civilian fatality rates are high, but their claim of a significant decline is suspect. Again, Mr O'Hanlon had a different opinion on July 13:

. . . The recent Iraqi government claim that Iraqi civilian fatalities in June declined 36% relative to the previous baseline is suspect. . . .

. . . So far, the bottom line in Iraq this year is not very encouraging - the overall reduction of some 10% in civilian fatalities nationwide, by our estimates, leaves things still substantially worse than they were in 2003 through 2005.
Unfortunately, we probably cannot hope for much progress in the Iraqi economy by September. There is just too much violence. . . .


In Baghdad's Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers.

This is reminiscent of John McCain's foolish pronouncement. An article in the same edition of the Times provided an illustration of the lack of safety in Baghdad: "In a city plagued by suicide bombers and renegade militias, the Americans and the Iraqi government have turned to an unusual measure to help implant the rule of law: they have erected a legal Green Zone, a heavily fortified compound to shelter judges and their families and secure the trials of some of the most dangerous suspects." 3 Even the original Green Zone isn't safe.


We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. . . . American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside.

The description of the happy condition of these two cities doesn't square with the comment which followed immediately: "A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. All across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark." However, the next comment, about the army, was "But for now, things look much better than before." It's a bit difficult to make much sense of these contradictory statements, much less transform them into an optimistic assessment.

In any case, those two cities aren't as peaceful as the authors imply. In March of this year, Tal Afar suffered the worst suicide bombing of the occupation, and a retaliatory attack resulted in still more deaths.4 Violence has been reported in Mosul as recently as July 22.5


. . . [I]n the last six months Iraqis have begun to turn on the extremists and turn to the Americans for security and help. The most important and best-known example of this is in Anbar Province, which in less than six months has gone from the worst part of Iraq to the best (outside the Kurdish areas). Today the Sunni sheiks there are close to crippling Al Qaeda and its Salafist allies. Just a few months ago, American marines were fighting for every yard of Ramadi; last week we strolled down its streets without body armor.

Perhaps all that is so - other reports have made some of the same points - but several of the sheiks were assassinated and several others narrowly missed the same fate. It may be too early to claim that the insurgency has left Anbar.


Another surprise was how well the coalition's new Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams are working. Wherever we found a fully staffed team, we also found local Iraqi leaders and businessmen cooperating with it to revive the local economy and build new political structures. Although much more needs to be done to create jobs, a new emphasis on microloans and small-scale projects was having some success where the previous aid programs often built white elephants.

This the only favorable report I've seen, other than administration reports. In fact, the subject has been virtually ignored by everyone else, so it's difficult to assess reliability. However, talking about microloans seems irrelevant to the thesis of the column and weirdly inconsequential given circumstances there.

That same paragraph moved to a discussion of contributions by the military, again making one wonder whether those really were combat troops who were dispatched in January:

In some places where we have failed to provide the civilian manpower to fill out the reconstruction teams, the surge has still allowed the military to fashion its own advisory groups from battalion, brigade and division staffs. We talked to dozens of military officers who before the war had known little about governance or business but were now ably immersing themselves in projects to provide the average Iraqi with a decent life.


Outside Baghdad, one of the biggest factors in the progress so far has been the efforts to decentralize power to the provinces and local governments.

The authors apparently see a policy of decentralization where most observers have seen an inability of the central government to govern more than Baghdad, if that.


In the end, the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still face huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation - or at least accommodation - are needed. This cannot continue indefinitely. Otherwise, once we begin to downsize, important communities may not feel committed to the status quo, and Iraqi security forces may splinter along ethnic and religious lines.

How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying to build a new Iraq while Iraqi leaders fail to do their part? And how much longer can we wear down our forces in this mission? These haunting questions underscore the reality that the surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.

All is well with the military; it's the political effort that's lagging. All is well with the American contribution; it's the Iraqis who aren't pulling their weight.

As to conditions, we are offered three-bears reasoning: things are not so bad that it's hopeless, but not so good that we can leave now; they're just right for prolonging our involvement.

How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying? At least into 2008; remember, it's all in a selfless effort to build a new Iraq.


August 7, 2007

Frank Rich's column in Sunday's New York Times was titled "Patriots Who Love the Troops to Death," a perfect encapsulation of the way in which the administration and its comfortable chorus support the troops: casually pushing them into harm' s way, into death and dismemberment in the service of the latest iteration of the excuse for imperial adventurism.

Samuel Johnson claimed that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Mr. Rich offered an update: "hiding behind the troops is the last refuge of this war's sponsors." I'd suggest two modifications. First, there are a number of alternative last resorts in play, including that old favorite: if we don't fight them there, we'll have to fight them here. Also, hiding behind the troops didn't become fashionable only recently; "support the troops" has been used to justify this war since before it began.

Ambrose Bierce made a similar complaint about the original aphorism: "In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. . . . I beg to submit that it is the first." I won't join either Johnson or Bierce, as I regard genuine patriotism as something admirable. However, it is easily transformed into something much worse, by leaders and their cohort for their own, usually disguised, purposes and by the people for various reasons, including ignorance and credulity.

In addition to dissecting the excuses of those who still support the war, Rich described those who, at varying speeds and for varying reasons, have repudiated their earlier support, and referred, as a "particularly eloquent mea culpa," to an article by Michael Ignatieff in the Magazine section of Sunday's Times. It may be eloquent within the limits of the author's viewpoint, but the reassessment of his position on the war is limited.

Dr. Ignatieff, who has left Harvard and returned to Canada, where he has been elected to Parliament, frames his reappraisal in terms of the contrast between the academic's "luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting" and the real-world constraints on the politician. That explains nothing; politicians and intellectuals alike supported the invasion of Iraq. He claims to have acquired a new and fundamentally different viewpoint from his short stint as a politician, but many of us, without that advantage, have been aware all along that "false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources."

Despite his emphasis on the importance of the politician's perception of the real world, most of his discussion is academic and abstract. Apart from a hint in one sentence in the first paragraph, he doesn't disclose his current position on the war until near the end of his article. The transition is made by stating that "measuring good judgment in politics is not easy" and then offering this argument:

We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

This is a remarkably short, and convenient, list of "ideological" objections. Many opposed the invasion because it would kill people, because it was an application of a dangerous policy of preventive war, because it violated international law. Realizing that the war was wrong would seem to be as respectable as anticipating problems in execution.

But no: "The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action." Accurately predicting the consequences is commendable, if less rare than he seems to think, but what were the motives for the war that the good-judgment group rightly evaluated? Ignatieff never quite answers the question, but we can infer from his comments that he thinks that the reason for the war was to bring freedom to Iraqis. Thus he said that "Many of us believed, as an Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country." As to consequences, those with good judgment "didn't suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror."

At the end of his article, Ignatieff added a personal note: "I went to northern Iraq in 1992. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds. From that moment forward, I believed he had to go." Sympathy for an oppressed people is praiseworthy but translating that into foreign policy easily leads to vigilantism, or would if the policy were consistently applied. In practice, we probably would continue to pretend that certain oppressions and atrocities are unacceptable and others are just the way it is.

Ignatieff's attempt to project his view onto the administration can't be taken seriously. If he thinks that its principal motive, or even one of the top few, was to liberate the Iraqi people, he's exceptionally naive.

August 21, 2007

Many Congressional Democrats and several of the presidential contenders have taken a cautious position on withdrawal from Iraq. Senator Biden set the tone by declaring that "If we leave Iraq and we leave it in chaos, there'll be regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation. It'll bring in the Shia, it'll bring in the Saudis, it'll bring in the Iranians, it'll bring in the Turks." 1 It may engulf that region, not a possibility to be ignored, but will it really engulf "us" or is this just the usual we-are-the-world delusion? Senator Obama has adhered to the consensus approach, but recently he added a zinger: "There are only bad options and worse options, and we're going to have to exercise judgment in terms of how we execute this. But the thing I wish had happened was that all the people on this stage had asked these questions before they authorized us getting in." 2 The question is opportunistic, but not irrelevant: the Dems' caution is, I assume, driven by real concerns of the Biden type, and by - in my view miscalculated - fears of being considered soft, but also, as to some of them, by a reluctance to admit that they were wrong at the beginning, that the invasion they facilitated was not only wrong but stupid.

Politicians and pundits routinely declare, after visits to - guided tours of - Iraq, that progress is visible and that we must persevere. A column by Jonathan Finer in Saturday's Washington Post dismissed that ritual as meaningless: "Prescient insights rarely emerge from a few days in-country behind the blast walls." 3 An apparent example is a recent visit by Representative Brian Baird, whose remarks upon returning home adopted the Biden formula.

Baird voted against the war resolution in 2002, and in March of this year voted for a bill which would have required that combat troops be withdrawn by September 1, 2008. However, he did not vote on the resolution adopted by the House in February disapproving the surge and now believes that it must continue "at least into early next year," at which point we could "engage in a gradual redeployment." 4 That in effect endorses the administration position: it wants to prolong the surge but has been told by the commanders that the present troop level it cannot be maintained beyond next Spring, at least not without breaking promises and, possibly, the Army. Rep. Baird did add a note of candor absent from Mr. Bush's statements: "I know it's going to cost hundreds of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars."

What justifies that sacrifice? Baird offered an assessment of the present status followed by a forecast of the effect of leaving too soon: "One, I think we're making real progress. Secondly, I think the consequences of pulling back precipitously would be potentially catastrophic for the Iraqi people themselves, to whom we have a tremendous responsibility ... and in the long run chaotic for the region as a whole and for our own security." The forecast is plausible, but any prediction of the effect of withdrawal is no more than speculation. Even if accurate, the force of the forecast depends on the accuracy of the assessment: the argument for staying is dependent on the notion that progress is being made. Even most supporters of the war would agree to withdrawal if it were clear that the present mess would persist.

So, where is the progress? Last month the administration had to strain to find "satisfactory progress" on eight of eighteen "benchmarks." Political cohesion and cooperation are nowhere to be seen, but without them the surge will not produce a lasting increase in security or stability. As McClatchy reported recently,

Despite U.S. claims that violence is down in the Iraqi capital, U.S. military officers are offering a bleak picture of Iraq's future, saying they've yet to see any signs of reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims despite the drop in violence.

Without reconciliation, the military officers say, any decline in violence will be temporary and bloodshed could return to previous levels as soon as the U.S. military cuts back its campaign against insurgent attacks.5

Even the decrease in violence is largely illusory. Civilian deaths rose in July after a decline and the attack on the Yazidi community in northwest Iraq demonstrates that the repeated boasting about the pacification of Anbar Province is hollow: investing one area will drive the violence to another. There aren't enough American troops to pacify the entire country nor will there ever be.

The White House recognizes that the surge has not accomplished its aims, other than keeping Congress at bay for a few months, and now is reported to be ready to announce yet another "new strategy." It will use the September report to "outline a plan for gradual troop reductions beginning next year that would fall far short of the drawdown demanded by Congressional opponents of the war," but which would "win support for a plan that could keep American involvement in Iraq on 'a sustainable footing' at least through the end of the Bush presidency." 6

How many new strategies add up to a failure? Whatever the number, we've reached it, and it's time to abandon the "progress" excuse for prolonging the agony.

1. Aren't the Shia there already?
2. Biden and Obama quotes from an Iowa debate:
4. From an interview of Rep. Baird by AP, reported in the Seattle P-I 8/17 and Seattle Times 8/18

August 25, 2007

The address1 by the President to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention has received a good deal of attention, although possibly not the kind his handlers had in mind. It's difficult to see how anyone, even such a friendly audience, can take any of his speeches seriously. In addition to substance which only a true, and uninformed, believer could swallow, Bush's delivery varied from bored (much of the speech was boring) to clumsy (as he wrestled with unfamiliar words), to emphatic to manic. The emphasis came at applause lines, not all of which produced any (he was most successful when pandering to the audience). The manic moment was the conclusion of a passage in which he told the veterans that with George W. Bush as your President, troops and veterans would get the best support and care possible. I suppose a lie that blatant did have to be shouted, to prevent reflection.

The President's mangling of history has been the subject of most of the comments, and rightly so, especially regarding his revisionist version of the Vietnam war. Referring to Vietnam at all was an odd move, but once the decision was made to do so, his speechwriters not surprisingly argued that our error was leaving too soon, not becoming involved as France's backup in a colonial war. After all, Mr. Bush does not want attention paid to his disastrous decision to invade Iraq; instead he wants to convince us that we must stay longer.

The speech featured many of his Iraq clichés and a few new bits of hyperbole. We're at war and he is a wartime president (rally around; USA!); the war "has been called a clash of civilizations," but really it is "a struggle for civilization." How? "We fight for a free way of life against a new barbarism . . . ."

As long as he is commander-in-chief, we will fight to win, but he worries that not everyone wants victory: "Will today's generation of Americans resist the allure of retreat. . . ?"

All of our efforts are in pursuit of the most noble goals. "We fight for the possibility that decent men and women across the broader Middle East can realize their destiny -- and raise up societies based on freedom and justice and personal dignity." Sadly, however, his critics doubt the universal appeal of liberty.

"As we saw on September the 11th, a terrorist safe haven on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to the streets of our own cities." But wasn't that a safe haven in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan, one that we've ignored while coddling a repressive Pakistani regime which is less than enthusiastic about helping to find bin Laden? Apparently not; it must have been in Iraq, which is "the central front for the enemy that attacked us and wants to attack us again."

If we were to withdraw, "the terrorists would be emboldened, and use their victory to gain new recruits." They haven't, of course, used our presence for recruiting and training purposes. If we withdraw "before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home," like the bewildered terrorist in Doonesbury.

All of this bullshit - I can't think of an adequate polite synonym - not only appeals to the VFW, but to some degree still resonates with other Americans. We like to think that we're more virtuous than the rest of the world, that we are a chosen people, destined to liberate others, so our wars always are just. Mr. Bush's claims to virtue are so outrageous that he might finally dispel that notion.

In his meandering restatement of history, he quoted an unnamed Senator who said, as to the Korean war, "we will not allow the cloak of national unity to be wrapped around horrible blunders." It's time we applied that standard.


August 26, 2007

Today Prime Minister Maliki executed the concluding steps in this week's dance of the incompetents, criticizing those, including his patron, who have criticized him.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush said that, if Maliki didn't shape up, Iraqis would replace him; the hint was clear that Iraqis might not do the replacing. The Prime Minister responded that Iraq could find friends elsewhere, an especially pointed comment given his recent visits to Iran and Syria. If Maliki formed an alliance with them, Bush would have liberated Iraq into an alliance with his version of the Great Satan.

The next day, the President changed his tune and declared Maliki to be "a good guy" who had his support. As E.J. Dionne put it, with nice irony, "On consecutive days, President Bush was against Maliki before he was for him."

The President, in reversing course, was in part trying to make domestic political points. Senators Levin and Clinton have called for Maliki's ouster, giving Bush the opportunity to be less authoritarian for once: "And it's not up to politicians in Washington, D.C. to say whether he will remain in his position -- that is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy, and not a dictatorship."

On Sunday, Mr. Maliki, borrowing an image from Senator Clinton, said "There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin. They should come to their senses."

If the results weren't death and destruction, the show would be a comic masterpiece.

However, those are the results. On Wednesday, speaking to the VFW, President Bush boasted that "Our troops have killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists every month since January of this year." The administration's loose definition of the enemy made that claim suspect, as do frequent reports of collateral casualties. The Prime Minister gave an example in his remarks today: "Concerning American raids on Shula and Sadr City, there were big mistakes committed in these operations. The terrorist himself should be targeted, not his family."

September 3, 2007

One might expect a lame duck president to attempt to improve his legacy through positive accomplishments. With one strange and scary exception, President Bush instead seems resigned to damage control, to fibbing about what he's done in a desperate attempt to revise the record.

On Iraq, he's more or less run out of new lies, so his address1 to the American Legion in Reno last Tuesday featured the old ones: we "always enter wars reluctantly;" we're engaged in a war between the forces of extremism and the forces of freedom; our national security depends on defeating the extremists in Iraq. On Friday, following a meeting with the Defense Secretary, Mr. Bush, referring to the upcoming report by Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, pompously advised Congress not to form opinions before hearing their report and to forego partisanship and politics: "The stakes in Iraq are too high and the consequences too grave for our security here at home . . . ." 2

Even his trip to Iraq today was part of the pattern: another quick, secret visit in which he posed for the usual photos with the troops. He told them that they are making the streets of America safer and that any decision on troop levels "will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground -- not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media." 3 He met with Iraqi leaders and, after a "frank discussion," spoke of freedom, the dark ideology of the enemy, progress and national security; he pronounced the region safe without leaving the base. 4

On Tuesday the White House issued a statement on income and poverty, 5 which told us that "Census Bureau data released today confirms that more of our citizens are doing better in this economy, with continued rising incomes and more Americans pulling themselves out of poverty." All of this, it said, is due to the Bush low-tax policy and his success in keeping spending in check. Claiming that spending has been restrained requires a high degree of chutzpah given the cost of the war. The argument that administration policy has led to rising incomes is, to be charitable, misleading. While median household income rose from 2005 to 2006 by 0.7%, that was because more family members were working or were working longer hours; median income for full-time workers declined, by 1.2% for men, 1.1% for women, the third consecutive drop.6 As to poverty, the composite rate dropped, but poverty rates "were statistically unchanged for non-Hispanic Whites (8.2 percent), Blacks (24.3 percent), and Asians 10.3 percent) from 2005." For Hispanics, the rate was 20.6, down from 21.8, good news but hardly an excuse for self-congratulation. By age, the improvement was similarly limited: rates were "statistically unchanged" for people under 65. 7

On Wednesday, President Bush visited a school in New Orleans and gave a little speech8 in which he pretended that he cares about the condition of the city and the region two years after his bungled response. He noted that "A lot of people down here probably wondered whether or not those of us in the federal government not from Louisiana would pay attention to Louisiana or Mississippi." Well, yes. "In other words, it's one thing to come and give a speech in Jackson Square; it's another thing to keep paying attention to whether or not progress is being made." Good point. "And I hope people understand we do, we're still paying attention." Please.

The one major new action which has been discussed - "threatened" would be a better term - is military action against Iran. Having created a disaster by starting one war, Mr. Bush apparently thinks it would be a good idea to start another. He not only hasn't learned the lesson of Vietnam, he hasn't even learned the lesson of Iraq. As a bonus, he may let the next war start by accident. In his speech to the Legion the President combined the now-familiar accusation that Iran is supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents with a strange delegation of authority. "The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops. I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities." If that last comment is to be taken at face value, the decision to start a war has been delegated to field commanders, which would be a new level of stupidity for an administration which already has plumbed the depths.

6. Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006, Table 1;
7. Id, at p. 11

September 9, 2007

The "Pottery Barn" warning which Colin Powell reportedly gave to George Bush about Iraq has proved all too accurate. Not only do we own what we broke - in the sense of paying the price - but the policy class, friends and foes of the administration alike, seem to think that we have an obligation to glue it back together, no matter how long that may take and how many lives are lost in the process.

With relatively few exceptions, pundits and politicians right and left believe that Iraq now is ours to manage, manipulate and rule, ours to assign a place in the grand scheme of things. They blame Maliki, and threaten to replace him, for not running "our" country as it should be run, for missing our mandated benchmarks, for failing to reconcile factions which have hated each other for centuries. They decide who are proper allies for Iraq, which Iraqi faction will be favored and armed, how long our troops will remain there. All the reports which have drawn so much attention are addressed to the President or to Congress, not to the Iraqis.

Even the most noble and benign version of the "mission" in Iraq is based on the same assumption. The recent GAO report1 described it as follows: "Over the last 4 years, the United States has provided thousands of troops and obligated nearly $370 billion to help achieve the strategic goal of creating a democratic Iraq that can govern and defend itself and be an ally in the War on Terror." Iraq is our (uncompleted) project, our creation. All of this makes a mockery of the pious talk about sovereignty, including the cute little note passed between Condi and W on June 28, 2004.2

There is, certainly, a moral argument to be made about repairing, insofar as feasible, the damage we have done in Iraq. There also is an argument to be made about its strategic importance. However, such arguments usually are made in the context of our right to rule the country. An example of this imperial mindset is an op-ed by Roger Cohen in The New York Times last Thursday:

The way the United States leaves places matters. Having armed mujahedeen fighters to undo the Soviet empire in Afghanistan, America lost interest in a backwater. Payback came in the form of Afghan-trained holy warriors bent on the destruction of the West. That was careless.

We may have given little attention to Afghanistan after the Soviets left, and ignored the potential threat of the Taliban-Qaeda linkage, but in what sense did we leave a county we didn't enter? Apparently Mr. Cohen thinks that we should have moved from arming the anti-Soviet forces to making Afghanistan a client state.

It is important to be less careless in Baghdad. As reports on Iraq reach Congress this month, it's worth considering that blow-back from an oil-rich country at the heart of the battle for the Middle East could be even more severe than the violent legacy of funding Islam to fight communism in Kabul.

Funding the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan was dangerous, and we should have occupied the country to forestall the consequences. That leads to the conclusion that we must prolong the occupation of Iraq, where the consequences of withdrawal would be even worse. He doesn't specify what they would be, but he offers a five-point strategy and claims that his plan "may just avert the worst: a regional war in which a disintegrating country's neighbors are drawn into carnage that makes current bloodshed pale." I assume that he was trying to say that withdrawal leads to disintegration, which leads to war among the neighbors. Maybe that would happen and maybe not; no one knows, so why prolong the occupation because it might just prevent that hypothetical outcome?

Nothing can undo the American blunders in Iraq that turned the liberated into the lacerated. . . . Nobody in the administration should sleep easy over its ethical responsibility for calamitous mistakes. But what we did matters less today than how we leave Iraq. It's far easier to score backward-looking political points against Bush than serve the forward-looking interests of 27 million Iraqis. Still, the latter is more important than the former.

I think that he, like many others, is mistaken about the relative importance of getting in and getting out. Some details regarding the latter are important, such as whether we retain bases there, and what they are for, and whether they are imposed on the Iraqis. Also, as Mr. Cohen points out, giving safe haven to Iraqis who have collaborated with us is important both morally and in terms of our image.

Other questions about withdrawal are less significant. Whether we begin to leave now or begin two years from now, withdraw relatively quickly or relatively slowly, the outcome may very well be the same. The arguments to the contrary are highly theoretical. There is no doubt that it's easier to form a government when it's safe to walk the streets, but that doesn't necessarily lead to the conclusion that maintaining a large American force in Baghdad and Anbar will lead Iraqis to form a stable government and end sectarian violence; our presence may be an impediment or an irrelevancy.

On the other hand, how we got in is of crucial importance. If pundits and politicians keep babbling about "liberation," if the American people do not learn, and learn well, that this war was wrong, unnecessary, ill-conceived and based on lies, then they will support some equally disastrous adventure later.

2. C: "Iraq is sovereign." W: "Let freedom reign!"

October 11, 2007

We left on vacation just as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were delivering their momentous reports. Apart from some superficial coverage on CNN, caught in snatches at the airport, I wasn't able to hear much about their testimony. I picked up an International Herald Tribune almost every day, but saw little there about their reports or the situation in Iraq generally. (Possibly the IHT would have more space for such issues if it cut back on its fashion pages.) However, based on what I've seen during the few days we've been back, I didn't miss much. Bush continues to prattle, the Democrats continue to backpedal, and the war goes on.

And it's still our war. The supposed transfer of sovereignty to Iraq has been a farce and a fraud from the beginning. An illustration of the illusory character of its sovereignty is offered by the Blackwater scandal: Iraq has no jurisdiction over these mercenaries. The House passed a bill imposing U.S. jurisdiction; that is an improvement over complete immunity, but Iraq still would be powerless.

Ira Chernus wrote recently that the war is really about the image of America:

. . . Since September 11, 2001, [Bush] and his speechwriters have been telling a story whose hero is not, in fact, a president, or a general, or any individual, but "America" -- with all the world, by rights, its stage.

In Bush's story, as long as America is strutting across that stage, playing the lead with a commanding tone, fighting evil at every turn, Americans can feel like winners and heroes. All of this is supposed to be not an American ego trip, but a classic test of character.

Only by defeating evil enemies, in Bush's tale, can you prove you have character. . . .

The Bush administration is dishonest and incompetent, but Republicans have a lock on the real-America image. The Democrats, even though they supposedly were given control of Congress by voters tired of the war, are timid about ending it. Even though polls continue to show that fatigue, they are afraid that next November voters will shout "USA!" rather than "Enough!"

October 15, 2007

On Sunday, The Washington Post house editorial, still trying to justify the war it cheered on, tried to find signs of impending victory in the casualty numbers.1

The first problem with its argument is that its numbers are somewhat selective and, in one case, inaccurate. "In September, Iraqi civilian deaths were down 52 percent from August and 77 percent from September 2006, according to the Web site" That's true, but fatalities among Iraqi security forces were up 26% compared to August. "U.S. soldiers killed in action numbered 43 - down 43 percent from August and 64 percent from May . . . ." Actually, 43 fatalities would represent a decline of 23% August to September. (The September toll has been revised downward to 42, a decline of 25%.) If all U.S. military deaths are included, not just those from "combat," the declines are 23% from August and 48% from May. 2

As to Iraqi civilian fatalities, the comparison between September 2006 and 2007 may not mean much; the total January to September is considerably higher in 2007. The count fell in September, but only after increasing in July and August.

Similarly, American military deaths, "combat" or total, are much higher in 2007 than in 2006. The decline since June is substantial; whether it is significant is another matter. As the Post acknowledges, the numbers could get worse, although it thinks that a real change has occurred: "Sunni tribes in Anbar province that once fueled the insurgency have switched sides and declared war on al-Qaeda." Maybe so, but that doesn't guarantee that they will not do battle with Shiites or with us. "The radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr ordered a cease-fire last month by his Mahdi Army." That could change at any time. "Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top day-to-day commander in Iraq, says al-Qaeda's sanctuaries have been reduced 60 to 70 percent by the surge." Perhaps, but we've heard this sort of optimistic talk for years, and the current spate of stories about the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq may be no more credible; as recently as late September, AQI was blamed for "a wave of bombings and shootings." 3

So far, October's counts also are low, so maybe the Post is right, but its conclusion doesn't follow from the facts it cites.

In addition, it isn't altogether clear that the surge has produced the lower numbers. Any decline in Iraqi civilian fatalities may simply reflect the effectiveness of ethnic cleansing or flight. The Post noted that September's U.S. combat toll was the lowest since July 2006, and the same is true as to all U.S. military deaths. However, in that period the largest month-to-month declines in total U.S. military deaths came between October and November 2006 and between December and January, before the surge began. The largest declines in "combat" deaths came between May and June, and June and July 2007, a little early for the "full-surge" theory.

The Post's argument raises another question: what will constitute "winning the war"? The editorial cautioned that the improved numbers don't "necessarily" mean that "the war is being won," suggesting that they might. Does a reduction in fatalities, implying some undefined lower level of resistance to our occupation and of sectarian violence, equate to victory? Apparently so, as the editorial went on to refer to the goal of a "sustainable" reduction in violence. Victory then is defined as ending the chaos we created, a pretty meaningless standard and a far cry from the supposed goals of 2003.

1. "Better Numbers: The evidence of a drop in violence in Iraq is becoming hard to dispute."
2. The icasualties site ( doesn't refer to "combat" deaths but differentiates between "hostile" and non-hostile."


October 19, 2007

Congress had become so dysfunctional that a study published last year referred to it as The Broken Branch.1 The switch to Democratic control has not produced any signs of repair.

The Senate is in virtually permanent deadlock, the Democrats unable or unwilling to circumvent Republican threats of filibuster. The House isn't much better. It has wasted time and energy in recent days posturing about genocide allegedly perpetrated by Turkey on Armenians. While the acts, if accurately reported, are worthy of condemnation, why now, after seventy years? Why pick this moment to annoy Turkey, which can make the situation in Iraq worse? Is our history, distant or recent, so clean that we can posture credibly? Isn't there more pressing business?

The Bush administration has trashed civil liberties and arrogated power a dictator might envy. Congress done little to reverse or even slow that movement. Secrecy is the order of the day, but Congress has done little to force disclosure. Every vow of principle and opposition, by Democrats and Republicans alike, is followed by capitulation.

Despite occasional claims to want to end the war, Democrats have been intimidated by hints of imperfect patriotism into supporting every spending measure. Senator Clinton, demonstrating that opportunism trumps all, voted for the Iran-as-terrorist resolution, despite its being an echo of the resolution leading to the war in Iraq.

Al Gore summed up the situation recently. He probably was thinking of the Republican-dominated Congress of recent years, but his comment still applies: "It is the pitiful state of our legislative branch that primarily explains the failure of our vaunted system of checks and balances to prevent the dangerous overreach of the executive branch, which now threatens a radical transformation of the American system." 2

1. Mann and Ornstein, The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track
2. The Assault on Reason (2007), p. 236

October 22, 2007

Charles Krauthammer, in his column in today's Seattle Times, addressed the recent House resolution:

There are three relevant questions concerning the Armenian genocide.

(a) Did it happen?
(b) Should the U.S. House of Representatives be expressing itself on this now?
(c) Was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's determination to bring this to a vote, knowing that it risked provoking Turkey into withdrawing crucial assistance to American soldiers in Iraq, a conscious . . . or unconscious . . . attempt to sabotage the U.S. war effort?

His answers:

(a) Yes, unequivocally.
(b) No, unequivocally.
(c) God only knows

I don't know enough about the history to be unequivocal about (a), but I have no reason to disagree. He's right about (b), although I can't go along with his further claim that the reason we shouldn't annoy Turkey is that it's "helping fight the world's foremost war criminals." If he's that deluded about what is happening in Iraq, he needs help from his former profession.

As to motivation, Dr. Krauthammer is content to analyze only the lesser charge:

Is the Armenian resolution her way of unconsciously sabotaging the U.S. war effort? I leave that question to psychiatry. Instead, I fall back on Krauthammer's razor (with apologies to Occam): In explaining any puzzling Washington phenomenon, always choose stupidity over conspiracy, incompetence over cunning. Anything else gives them too much credit.

I like that formula. It can't be carried too far; the Bush administration has been cunning in the sense of deliberately misleading the country and the Congress. However, stupidity and incompetence also are among its prominent characteristics, and much of what has happened in Iraq certainly flows from that source.

October 30, 2007

A march in protest of the war in Iraq was held Saturday in several cities, including Seattle. The report of the local march in The Seattle Times noted that some demonstrators carried a "model of a giant spine [that] sent the message that 'the Democrats need to get a backbone.' " They do, and more marches might help them to find one.

Tom Engelhardt wrote a characteristically insightful column on the march in New York. He was disappointed in the turnout: "with unending war, as well as perpetual death and destruction on the Bush administration menu, with the horizon darkened by the possibility of a strike against Iran, and a population which has turned its back on most of the above, it was . . . clearly underwhelming."

He noted that, compared to Vietnam, there has been a reversal of form: although public opinion turned against the Vietnam war more slowly than with Iraq, protest demonstrations grew with time against the earlier war, but have declined during this one. "[O]ver the years, unlike in the Vietnam era, the demonstrations shrank, and somehow the anxiety, the anger -- though it remained suspended somewhere in the American ether -- stopped manifesting itself so publicly, even as the war went on and on. . . . As another potentially more disastrous war with Iran edges into sight, the response has been limited largely to what might be called the professional demonstrators."

It may be that the presence of those "professional demonstrators" is part of the problem, that the anti-war rallies have been less frequent and less well attended than they might have been because of the Sixties feel of the protest. In Seattle, the president of the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War told the crowd: "This is a racist war of oppression. This is a war for profit." The Times reported that "At his prompting, the crowd raised fists in the air 'in solidarity with the Iraqi people.' " The war may indeed be in part about profit, by way of oil, but the rest of that is tired leftist rhetoric, hardly calculated to rally support for ending the war.

Moral arguments against the war, even more sensible ones, have had little traction. If the occupation had gone well, few people would be much concerned about the violation of international law, the imperialist posture of the United States or even the number of Iraqis killed. There is no draft, and taxes not only haven't been raised to pay for the war, they have been cut, so the war has no cost to most people. We've been told that slapping a "Support the Troops" decal on the SUVs we drive to the mall is the height of patriotism.

Mr. Engelhardt pointed out that protests have little parallel in the corridors of power:

As we all know, the Washington Consensus -- Democrats as well as Republicans, in Congress as in the Oval Office -- has been settling ever deeper into the Iraqi imperial project. As a town, official Washington, it seems, has come to terms with a post-surge occupation strategy . . . . In fact, in Washington, the ongoing war is now such a given that it's hardly being discussed . . . .

This raises the familiar cause-or-effect dilemma: are there fewer and less effective protests because of official indifference or vice versa? Another column posed a similar question, based on the poor newspaper coverage of the Boston and New York marches: "Are the media ignoring rallies against the Iraq war because of their low turnout or is the turnout dampened by the lack of news coverage?"

If anti-war activists want to rally support to the cause, on the streets or elsewhere, they need to convince people that the war is costing them, or will do so. The financial cost and the repercussions from the debt incurred eventually will result in a lowering of living standards, if not for them then for their children. The strain on the military may lead to resumption of the draft or to a decline in national security. Continued acquiescence in the war in Iraq will encourage the administration to attack Iran, making all of the war-related problems even worse.

The other critical fact to be emphasized is the pack of lies told by the President and his cohort about the Iraq war. The administration not only lied about WMD, Iraq's connection to 9-11 and an Iraq-al Qaeda alliance, but has changed its story so many times about why we are there and why we must stay that the only conclusion is that there isn't a good reason. No responsible citizen would tolerate the costs in lives, money and security if he understood that they are being incurred pointlessly.

November 8, 2007

Al Gore, in his recent book, addressed "what has gone wrong in our democracy." Referring to the "persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy," he said "It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse." Frequently quoting Thomas Jefferson on the need for a well-informed citizenry, he concluded that American democracy is in trouble because of the environment in which ideas circulate. One of his culprits is television: he sees its rise, and the corresponding decline of newspapers and other written forms of communication, as primary sources of our increasing concentration on trivia and our inability to distinguish between truth and fiction. Following Jefferson's dictum that "[m]an, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind," Gore entitled his book The Assault on Reason.1

The former Vice President used the public's acceptance of the administration's war propaganda as an example of the deficiency of reason. I'm convinced that the decline - in some areas virtually the abandonment - of clear, transparent speech and writing plays a part in that. The intentional misuse of the language by the Bush administration for political ends is notorious, and the widespread use and acceptance of sloppy, opaque or meaningless language makes its task easier. Perhaps I'm giving too much attention to that trend, especially as so many examples of "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue" involve trivial subjects. However, language is what we think with as well as the vehicle for communication, and therefore the state of the language is worth considering when we consider the health of public discourse.

One of the most common sins is the unnecessary use of jargon. Sometimes this is merely odd, not interfering much with meaning. The author of an otherwise well-written and fascinating book, a description for laymen of Gödel's' theorems, fell in love with the prefix "meta." She's not alone - it's fashionable - but she went to excess. She referred to "metamathematics." apparently a standard term for the theories underlying math. She introduced us to the concept of "metaquestions," such as "how it is possible for [mathematics] to be doing what it is doing," and proceeded to tack "meta" onto everything in sight.

She attempted to justify her repeated use of "meta" by suggesting that it describes a useful analytic stance: "The prefix meta comes from the Greek, and it means 'after,' 'beyond,' suggesting the view from outside, as it were." However, she then referred to the "metaview of a cognitive area" and at this point, it seems to me, obsession with the term replaced any increase in precision. Gödel's theorems, we were told, establish a "metaconclusion." Einstein and Gödel had "metaconvictions" and "[n]ot only were both men centrally interested in the metalevel, but, even more unusually, they also wanted their technical work to shed metalight." By the end, we have been ("metasystematically") exposed to "metasignificance, "metaovertones," "metaconcern," "metapositions," metastatements," "metameaning," "metalanguage," "metaimplications," "metasentences and "metadescriptions." 2

Although this may be mostly a stylistic quirk, rather like putting the unprefixed words in italics, the use of so many unnecessary, pretentious, and usually undefined words suggests that the author has less to say than she claims: this is expertise by verbal intimidation.

Other examples of jargon raise the question whether the author is saying anything at all. Art reviews are the most consistent source of rhetorical nonsense. Here's an extended sampling, from a review3 of an exhibition of Cy Twombly's work:

[T]he signature feature of his work is the scribble, which has an affinity with Pollock's drips. Whereas Johns carefully drew or printed numerals and stencil-like letters, Twombly scrawled lines that were barely legible. Twombly. . . didn't seem to worry much whether his scribbles were read as imitations of scribbling or as the thing itself. . . .

What, pray tell, is an imitation of scribbling?

. . . For all the scrawls and scribbles, the atmosphere of the show is one of gardens, of ruins, fertility, desire, myth and the memory of ancient gods and warm winds from the coast of Africa. The magic of Twombly's art lies in the way he is able to evoke the poetry of his vision by the unlikely means of smudges, smears of paint, scraps of paper, notations, penciled fractions, scatological doodles, lines of writing, crude diagrams, awkward drawings, found bits and pieces from the life world, shreds of nothing.

The first sentence means nothing objectively and serves to disguise the lack of artistic merit disclosed by the second. One of the scrawls

has a feeling of urgency and almost looks as if it were written by a finger dipped in blood. Yet it appears to have been first written tentatively and then painstakingly overwritten, as if to make sure the message got through. Which it barely does: The two layers of writing bleed into each other, obscuring the words and suggesting a nearly hopeless struggle to communicate. . . .

And yet this failure to communicate somehow is significant and admirable: "Twombly has turned hermeticism into a strangely stirring form of expression." Something completely sealed from the outside world is a stirring form of expression; at this point language has ceased to be a tool for conveying information and has become a kind of ritual incantation.

Of two more or less identical paintings, "It remains to be said that the works are extremely beautiful, for all their tentativeness, and that whatever vision they seek to capture on paper--a sea battle or a garden--it must have been powerful, since Twombly tried to get it down twice." Now language has become a vehicle for self-delusion. A reader who would find meaning in any of this easily could regard George W. Bush's prattle as a reliable window on the world.

One force for good is the book review. There is, to be sure, pretension; many a review says little about the book and is largely an essay by the reviewer. There are book reviews which are fawning or opaque, and some find value in trivia or sensationalism, but in general critical judgment and the language have not been sacrificed on the altar of trendiness, and bad writing receives not only negative comment but outright dismissal. Recently a reviewer described a novel as "morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent" and added, "It's beyond comprehension that [the author] can publish a novel pretending to reflect reality that's so severed from reality." 4 Another review discussed an author's work as follows:

In the past [she] has been attacked for her devotion to outré theory in works like "Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety" (1992). . . . Then there were "Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life" (1995) and "Sex and Real Estate" (2000). The last received a scathing review in The New Republic: "so serenely silly so untroubled by any whiff of a serious idea as to invite a kind of awe." 5

Would that similar standards applied to presidential speeches.

Last week a book entitled Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine was reviewed in The New York Times. Writing about wine invariably involves silly, but usually entertaining, descriptions: "a modest little wine, but you will be amused by its presumption." However, in this book the field appears to have been invaded by academic obscurantists. The review noted that the book suffered from an overlay of "academese," such as "the socio-epistemological role of the moral qualities of gentleman status and honor in evaluation truthfulness . . . ." 6

It might be reasonable to expect that the academy would be a refuge of clear thought and writing and would provide guidance for the rest of us when battered by reactionary propaganda. Sadly, not so; instead it produces some of the worst examples of the meaningless assemblage of long words. One such book was described as an example of "tenured vacuity."

Even fields which do, or should, have something to say don't always manage to. Philosophy is not noted for its simplicity and directness of expression; more than one sage is both influential and, even to other philosophers, nearly unreadable. Simon Blackburn said of the ramblings of one such oracle, Martin Heidegger, "the jargon . . . conceals a shocking lack of focus in the original thought."

Analytic philosophy, the school with which most British and American philosophers have been identified for a century, was intended to cure such problems, to eliminate obscurity and cast aside meaningless concepts. Its methodology has been largely the application of logical analysis to language. To say that its accomplishments have been modest would be to overpraise. Many of the more general narratives have been written in clear, nontechnical terms, but when philosophers get down to analyzing thought and speech, ironically they make communication harder.

The analytic project, according to one historian, began in part as an attempt to validate the ordinary person's views of the world: "Although [G.E.] Moore thought that philosophy couldn't contest our most basic commonsense convictions, he did believe that philosophy might be able to provide an analysis of their content an analysis that would make clear how commonsense truths can genuinely be known." 7 However, this led analytic philosophers down the linguistic path and to baffling arguments about meaning and reference. It's difficult, when reading this stuff, not to suggest that everyone get a good dictionary; the English language permits a fair degree of precision along with a good deal of nuance.

Possibly their work is important, but attempts to explain it lead to statements like this by Scott Soames:

[I]f one insists on characterizing determination in terms of a strengthened reduction relation that requires physicalistic formulas that are necessarily coextensive with the predicates used in the theories undergoing reduction, then it is not clear what our attitude should be toward the resulting strengthened versions of physicalism and the underdetermination of translation by physics.8

I can't say that my understanding of anything has been advanced by that.

In the epilogue to his history of analytic philosophy, Soames describes work in a field he considers important, but which essentially is wordplay, fully insulated from the problems afflicting the real world. Among its challenges is a solution to the paradox of the heap: if n grains of sand do not constitute a heap, do n+1? His answer: no. I'm not sure that I see a paradox in that, as "heap" is an imprecise descriptive term unrelated to the number of grains, but subtler minds than mine see one. If it is a paradox, I can live with it, as I have lived with Zeno's.

One of the more recent developments is an attempt to break out of seeming dilemmas in the analytic project by way of an odd sort of (pardon the term) metaphysics, which deals with "necessary truths" or "necessarily true propositions" by considering other possible worlds. This was aptly described by another philosopher:

. . . There seems to be, to put it bluntly, a lot of earnest discussion of questions that strike my ear as frivolous. For example: "I have never crossed the Himalayas, though I might have done. So there is a non-actual (or, if you prefer, a non-actualised) possible world (or possible state of the world) in which someone crosses some mountains. Is that person me, and are those mountains the Himalayas? Or are they (non-actual) individuals different from me and from the Himalayas?" Or: "Water is the stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps. The stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps undeniably contains impurities (bits that are neither hydrogen nor oxygen nor constituents thereof). So how can water be H2O?" But how could it not? Is it that, chemistry having discovered the nature of water, philosophy proposes to undiscover it? In any case, could that really be the sort of thing that philosophy is about? Is that a way for grown-ups to spend their time? . . .9

I don't think that we can look to analytic philosophy for guidance in sorting out the true from the false at the more mundane level of politics.

Much of the careless or intentional assault on the integrity of language can be lumped under the rubric "postmodernism." Blackburn referred to its "hip, glib, parodic style . . . that has fundamentally nothing to say." One field it has invaded is history. A defender of objective history has said that "the postmodernists have developed a new level of specialized knowledge and jargon, borrowed largely from literary theory, which has rendered their work opaque to anyone except other postmodernists." He described two postmodernist historians who

argue that because "within whatever rules historians can articulate, all interpretations are equally valid," it is necessary for historians to "shift the grounds for the assessment of integrity from the absolute or objective truth to the moral and political. That is, they continue, "rather than believe in the absolute truth of what we are writing, we must believe in the moral or political position we are taking with it." 10

If that is the standard, it's no wonder that George Bush's worldview is as powerful as anyone else's.

The prevalence of pomo jargon in certain journals led Alan Sokal to write a spoof article which contained many of the fashionable clichés along with scientific nonsense; it was published by an unsuspecting leftist journal. His parody claimed that

deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of "objectivity''. It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality'', no less than social "reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it . . . .11

And so on.

As much as the blatant misstatements of the Bush administration deserve condemnation, liberals can't do much of a job of criticism if they pretend to understand that nonsense.

Here's a succinct description of what the Bush administration is up to, via an interview with an anonymous "senior advisor":

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. . . .''12

In order to reject such attempts to manipulate reality we need to get a firmer grip on it.

1. Quotes from The Assault on Reason pp. 1, 3, 39
2. Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness, pp. 26-29, passim
3. Arthur C. Danto, "American Graffiti," The Nation, 3/21/05;
4. Lee Siegel, "Mom's in the Freezer," NYTimes 10/21/07, a review of The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold;
5. Dinitia Smith, "A Scholar of the Outré Returns to Shakespearean Basics," NYTimes 1/11/05, a review of Shakespeare After All, by Marjorie Garber;
6. Michael Steinberger, "What Would Bacchus Do?" NYTimes 11/4/07, a review of Barry C. Smith, ed., Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine;
7. Scott Soames, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2, p. xvi
8. Id, at 257
9. Jerry Fodor, "Water's Water Everywhere," London Review of Books, 10/21/04, a review of Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity, by Christopher Hughes;
10. Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History, pp. 172, 188-89
11. "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," published in Social Text (spring/summer 1996)
12. Ron Suskind, "Without a Doubt," The New York Times Magazine 10/17/04;

November 14, 2007

Our new Attorney General refused, during his confirmation hearing, to say whether waterboarding is torture. Did the Dems roll over again? No! Look at the headline in The Seattle Times: "Mukasey confirmed with least support in 55 years." Pow! Bam! Take that, George!

Sadly, that headline gave the Democrats in the Senate about all the praise they deserve: they capitulated less abjectly than usual. On Sunday, a New York Times editorial parodied the Senate's performance by observing that "about all that is left of 'advice and consent' is the 'consent' part," and by captioning the column "Abdicate and Capitulate." It closed by noting that "Democrats have done precious little to avoid the kind of spectacle the world saw last week: the Senate giving the job of attorney general, chief law enforcement officer in the world's oldest democracy, to a man who does not even have the integrity to take a stand against torture." In his Sunday column, Frank Rich added that, when Senators Schumer and Feinstein "argued that Mr. Mukasey should be confirmed because he's not as horrifying as Mr. Gonzales or as the acting attorney general who might get the job otherwise, they sounded whipped."

They have been whipped since President Bush turned his response to 9-11 into a test of patriotism. On any issue with a whiff of "national security," nothing can spur them to any courage or determination, not the absurdity of the portrayal of Bush as our protector, not his willful ignorance of the al Qaeda threat, not the illogic of his response to 9-11 (invading a country which had nothing to do with it), not the lies that led us into that war, not the failure to make the "homeland" secure, not the Democrats' majority, which was the result of the voters' rejection of the Bush program, not the President's low approval ratings, not his incomparable foolishness. No: he frowns - or, more likely, smirks - and they panic and fold.

I have no doubt that Mr. Mukasey will be a better AG that Alberto Gonzales, but that is saying next to nothing. He is, like his predecessor, committed to protecting the President's arrogation and misuse of power. How else to interpret his dodging and weaving on the torture issue? He first declined to state whether waterboarding is torture because it would be inappropriate to offer an opinion on a hypothetical question: "legal questions must be answered based solely on the actual facts, circumstances, and legal standards presented" 1 What "facts and circumstances" does he need to know? If he were asked whether it would be lawful to line up all the prisoners at Guantánamo tomorrow and shoot them, would he have to know the time of day or the caliber of the bullets? He proceeded to a discussion of legal standards, but drew no conclusions from them. Instead, he declared his commitment to relativism by observing that "any discussion of coercive interrogation techniques necessarily involves a discussion of and a choice among bad alternatives." Then he set out three reasons for not making a choice.

First, to repeat, I have not been made aware of the details of any interrogation program to the extent that any such program may be classified, and thus do not know what techniques may be involved in any such program that some may find analogous or comparable to the coercive techniques presented to me at the hearing and in your letter.

However, he wasn't asked whether waterboarding is being used, and whether it is in use has nothing to do with whether it should be considered torture.

Second, I would not want any uninformed statement of mine made during a confirmation process to present our own professional interrogators in the field, who must perform their duty under the most stressful conditions, or those charged with reviewing their conduct, with a perceived threat that any conduct of theirs, past or present, that was based on authorizations supported by the Department of Justice could place them in personal legal jeopardy.

In other words, he wants to give interrogators and their superiors immunity and to signal that it will be business as usual.

Third, for the reasons that I believe our intelligence community has explained in detail, I would not want any statement of mine to provide our enemies with a window into the limits or contours of any interrogation program we may have in place and thereby assist them in training to resist the techniques we actually may use.

This is just plain dumb. Even if we don't torture, he wants everyone to think that we do. Possibly that would soften up some prisoners, but it also will discourage surrender; it will, as Senator Leahy pointed out, increase the risk that Americans will be tortured; and it will further the decline of America's image, one result of which is to aid recruiting against the Great Satan.

Mr. Mukasey promised that "any legal opinions I offer will reflect that I appreciate the need for the United States to remain a nation of laws and to set the highest standards," but that he would "be mindful also of our shared obligation to ensure that our Nation has the tools it needs, within the law, to protect the American people." The latter is, of course, the administration's all-purpose excuse for its abandonment of those standards.

1. Mukasey quotes, including italics, from his letter to the Judiciary Committee, 10/30/07;

November 21, 2007

On November 8, the state Supreme Court struck down a Tim Eyman initiative, not for the first time. This one, I-747, was another attempt to restrict increases in property taxes. It followed, overlapped with and became hopelessly entangled with a similar Eyman measure, I-722.

Eyman succeeded in putting Initiative 722 on the ballot in 2000. Washington law at that time allowed taxing districts to increase the taxes levied by the district by as much as 6% without a vote of the people. In the language of the statute, a "limit factor" for levies was 106% of the highest amount levied in the three preceding years. I-722 would have reduced that to 102%. It passed in November 2000, but never went into effect. It was challenged immediately, leading to a Superior Court decision in February 2001 declaring it unconstitutional. That decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court in September, 2001.

In January, 2001, Eyman filed I-747, and qualified it for the November, 2001 ballot. I-747 would have lowered the permissible annual increase to 1%. I-747 stated that it was amending I-722, but the risk of 722's invalidation was obvious, even at the time 747 was filed; it was blocked by a temporary injunction issued in November 2000. A permanent injunction was issued with the Superior Court decision in February 2001. However, the text of the initiative set out the "existing" law as it would have been if 722 had gone into effect. Specifically, it contained four sections altering "one hundred two percent" to "one hundred one percent."

I-747 was approved by the voters; the question before the Court was whether its ambiguity rendered that approval invalid. In June 2006, the King County Superior Court declared 747 unconstitutional because of the erroneous reference to an existing 102% limit. The Supreme Court now has affirmed, in a 5 to 4 decision. Most reaction has been negative.

As shown by the split on the Court, this is case which easily could have gone either way, but the majority got it right. The claim to be amending I-722 and the reference to an existing 102% limit were erroneous and potentially misleading. The majority held that this violated a provision in the state Constitution which requires amendatory legislation to set forth in full the sections it seeks to amend. The initiative failed to do that, or to do it accurately.

The State, saddled with defending 747, argued that the errors were cured by other statements, in the initiative and in the Voters' Pamphlet, which referred to a 106% limit or to the challenge to 722. However, none of those comments set out the exact amendment, and in any case, the contradictory statements may have caused still more confusion. As the majority opinion put it, "the aggregate information provided in the pamphlet for I-747 is ambiguous."

In addition to pointing out the references to 106% and the status of 722, the dissent argued that "[w]hether the former tax cap was six percent or two percent, the voters understood the effect of this law was to reduce the tax, and this is what they voted to approve." However, it makes a difference whether the cut is .98% (1 ÷ 102) or 4.7% (5 ÷ 106). Voters are entitled to a clear statement of the size of the cut.

The real cause of the confusion, the litigation, and the invalidation of 747 was, as usual, Tim Eyman. He really ought to have learned, after having Initiative 695 ruled unconstitutional, and a strong hint dropped that 722 might suffer the same fate, that any potentially misleading language would get his next effort tossed out also. However, Eyman's ego got in the way, as it had before. That has led to sloppy draftsmanship, but here it also affected timing. If Eyman had waited until 722 was upheld or invalidated, a clean "747" could have been filed. Of course, this assumes that there was some logic in reducing the limit to 1% immediately after reducing it to 2%. Filing 747 likely was an act of defiance, a desire to show the "politicians" that they couldn't mess with his proposals. Impulsiveness is his style, as shown by the number of initiatives he has filed, discussed below.

The Governor and several legislators have suggested that the I-747 limitation should be adopted by the legislature. If a change in the law is good policy, by all means, change it. However, they should not be intimidated by Eyman's threat of an even more drastic initiative. His record of success isn't all that good, and he does not speak for most of the people.

Eyman seems to think that the number of initiatives he files, and the speed with which he files them after he's been annoyed, should impress voters and legislators. However, his record is primarily that of a pest. He has filed numerous initiatives only to withdraw them and has filed some that apparently never were pursued. Others failed to attract the necessary signatures to qualify for the ballot, and most of those probably were not even circulated. My tally of measures listed on the web page of the Secretary of State shows that, from 1996 through 2007, Eyman filed 49 initiatives to the people, 87 initiatives to the legislature and 4 referenda.

Of the 49 initiatives to the people, 41 received numbers (the others are shown as "inactive"). Of the 41, 2 were approved by the voters and went into effect; 3 were approved but were declared unconstitutional, 2 were rejected by the voters, 15 failed to garner enough signatures to go on the ballot, 16 were withdrawn by Eyman, and 3 are pending.

Of the 87 initiatives to the legislature, 82 received numbers. Of those, 1 was submitted to the people and approved, 23 failed to garner enough signatures, 33 were withdrawn by Eyman, 1 was refused a ballot title by the Attorney General, 2 were filed late, and 22 (filed in 2006 or 2007) show no status.

His four referenda were filed in 2006, all concerned with the same issue; two were withdrawn, no signatures were submitted for one, and the other was rejected by the voters.

That history shouldn't intimidate anyone.

The governor and the legislature also should consider where Eyman is coming from. His people's-tribune pose can't be taken seriously; he is in fact a spokesman for a conservative-to-reactionary position. This is shown not only by his repeated attempts to limit or lower taxes but by certain of his other filings, which include attempts to repeal ergonomic regulations, abolish administrative rule-making and repeal a gay-rights law.

December 4, 2007

Supporters of President Bush's policies sometimes strain credulity, and the language, in declaring victory or success. An op-ed column by Charles Krauthammer offers an example. Recently two teams of scientists announced progress in creating stem cells from non-embryonic tissue. Krauthammer used that to praise President Bush's policy limiting federal funding for embryonic research.

First, Krauthammer who, as an M.D., ought to know better, declared that the "embryonic stem cell debate is over," that the "Holy Grail" of producing stem cells from non-embryonic sources "has now been achieved." James Thompson, one of the scientists who developed the new technique, promptly co-authored an op-ed piece criticizing Krauthammer's rush to judgment, pointing out that "we're at square one, uncertain at this early stage whether souped-up skin cells hold the same promise as their embryonic cousins do."

However, having determined that the scientific issue in the stem cell dispute is moot, Krauthammer moved to praising the President's position on the moral issue. He began by quoting Dr. Thompson, "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough," and, citing the President's discomfort, concluded, "The verdict is clear: Rarely has a president -- so vilified for a moral stance -- been so thoroughly vindicated." The vindication consists in part in the supposed push Mr. Bush gave the scientists toward more ethical research. In other words, by taking a moral stance against the use of embryos, Bush forced scientists to look for a non-embryonic source: "the moral disquiet that James Thompson always felt -- and that George Bush forced the country to confront -- helped lead him and others to find some ethically neutral way to produce stem cells." This is nonsense, as Thompson pointed out; the new approach grew out of embryonic research, which continues despite the Bush doctrine. The praise for Bush's stance isn't even consistent with Krauthammer's opinion that research ought to have been permitted on "doomed and discarded fertility-clinic embryos created originally for reproduction," for which Bush would not allow federal funding.

Never mind; Krauthammer believes Bush was "vindicated" merely by taking a moral position, by drawing a moral line, even if in the wrong place: "what Bush got right was to insist, in the face of enormous popular and scientific opposition, on drawing a line at all, on requiring that scientific imperative be balanced by moral considerations."

Leave aside the President's hypocrisy on life-and-death issues or on moral questions generally. Leave aside whether people other than George W. Bush have moral principles. The line he drew in 2001 was faint, to say the least. It did not prohibit, or even denounce, research on human embryos, but only prohibited federal funding of that research. It didn't prohibit all federal funding, but only any which might be applied to embryos destroyed after the date of the order. Even though such destruction is, in Mr. Bush's view, immoral, he approved funding for research on those already destroyed.

I think that we can dispense with praise for Bush the moralist.

December 17, 2007

Al Gore's choice of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate for 2000 seemed odd at the time, as Lieberman had been an outspoken critic of President Clinton's behavior. The choice has become stranger in retrospect, as Lieberman has drifted toward the GOP. He took another step in that direction today by endorsing John McCain.

On most domestic issues, Lieberman has voted with the Democrats, but he has been a reliable vote for the Bush-Cheney militarist posture, including sponsoring the resolution calling for a declaration that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard of Iran is a "foreign terrorist organization," and voting for the military commissions bill.

When Lieberman was defeated in the 2006 Connecticut primary, Republicans rushed to praise him, recognizing one of their own. William Kristol wrote,

There is a political opportunity for the Bush administration if the Democrats reject Lieberman. If he's then unable to win as an independent in November, he would make a fine secretary of defense for the remainder of the Bush years. If his independent candidacy succeeds, it will be a message to Bush that he should forge ahead toward victory in Iraq and elsewhere. . . .

In a comment which seemed silly at the time but now seems prescient, Kristol looked forward to the next election: "Is it too fanciful to speculate about a 2008 GOP ticket of McCain-Lieberman, . . .?" 1

Even The Boss got into the act. Vice President Cheney, holding a telephone press conference for the express purpose of commenting on the primary, said this in his introductory remarks:

. . . And as I look at what happened yesterday, it strikes me that it's a perhaps unfortunate and significant development from the standpoint of the Democratic Party, that what it says about the direction the party appears to be heading in when they, in effect, purge a man like Joe Lieberman . . . especially over the issue of Joe's support with respect to national efforts in the global war on terror.


So it's an unfortunate development, I think, from the standpoint of the Democratic Party to see a man like Lieberman pushed aside because of his willingness to support an aggressive posture in terms of our national security strategy. 2

There are only 49 Democrats in the Senate. They were able to organize it with the help of the votes of the two independents, Lieberman and Bernard Sanders. The latter presumably is a reliable vote for the next round, but Lieberman may take the next step in January 2009, so the Dems had better pick up at least one more seat.

1. "Anti-war, Anti-Israel, Anti-Joe: The New Democrats," 8/14/2006.
2. Vice President Cheney:

December 19, 2007

I have difficulty becoming excited about any of the Democratic presidential candidates, but compared to the Republican stable, they are all winners. Even though George W. Bush is thoroughly discredited, mired in the 30s in approval polls, and even though the GOP candidates avoid talking about him, they advocate much of the same regressive agenda. This should give the Democrats an open field; voters want change.

The front-runner may have committed a serious error on that point. I never have understood why Hillary Clinton was considered the inevitable nominee, nor even where the notion came from. Perhaps she planted the idea; certainly she has pushed it, to the point that her sense of entitlement has become both a joke and a source of irritation. She has positioned herself as a centrist, presumably on the assumption that the nomination was in the bag, to convince independents that she isn't the flaming liberal of right-wing fantasy. Another part of that positioning for the final election was the emphasis on experience. To be sure, experience could be a selling point for primary voters as well, but the combination of the emphasis on experience
and her establishment orientation is beginning to make some Democrats wonder whether a Clinton II administration would look too much like Bush II.

Experience is hardly an irrelevant consideration. Senator Obama, at whom the argument is directed, has little, and even though Senator Clinton's is exaggerated, it is greater than his. Based entirely on that issue, The Des Moines Register endorsed her,

The choice, then, comes down to preparedness: Who is best prepared to confront the enormous challenges the nation faces, from ending the Iraq war to shoring up America's middle class to confronting global climate change?

The job requires a president who not only understands the changes needed to move the country forward but also possesses the discipline and skill to navigate the reality of the resistant Washington power structure to get things done.

That provides a huge boost, perhaps enough to put her back in first place in Iowa.

The editorial erased the connection between experience and establishment centrism by referring to her ability to manage change; the Clinton campaign hardly could have asked for more. However, some of the impact was removed by the editorial's explanation for its refusal to back John Edwards, as it did in 2004:

We too seldom saw the positive, optimistic campaign we found appealing in 2004. His harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change.

What the Democratic Party needs, almost more than anything else, is emancipation from the "business community," something Iowa Democrats may recognize. The comment about Edwards and the praise the editorial offered for Clinton's working with Republicans in the Senate may convince Iowans that the Register doesn't speak for them, that Democrats have been accommodating for too long, that if they really want change, Senator Clinton isn't the best choice.

December 22, 2007

Footnotes are a nuisance on blogs. Unlike word processing programs, which create footnotes, blogging programs require that they be posted separately. When someone mentioned that problem in a help group for bloggers, one of the replies was, in effect, get with it: we use links now. One reply is that not everything is on the web, but it's true that, for some of us, using footnotes is a habit of long standing.

It isn't only on blogs that footnotes have fallen from favor. In most books, they now appear, if at all, as endnotes. This is not a problem if there is some easy way to find them, but in many books they are organized only by chapter, requiring that the reader go back to the beginning of the chapter to find its title or number, then search the notes for that caption and then, assuming that he hasn't by then forgotten the note number, look it up.

In an essay entitled "Where have all the footnotes gone?" Gertrude Himmelfarb lamented that "A historian brought up in the old school of footnoting is struck by the growing number of scholarly books that have no notes at all, that even pride themselves on their lack of notes." 1 Although her opinion has been criticized as old-fashioned and impractical, I agree that source notes of one sort or the other are important; a serious nonfiction book without them is annoying.

Not long ago, I read Tony Judt's Postwar, a fascinating book, and an excellent one except that it has no source notes. There are footnotes scattered throughout, but they are what Professor Judt calls "traditional," i.e., discursive notes. He doesn't express pride in the absence of source notes, but is quite dismissive:

To avoid adding to what is an already very long book addressed to a general readership, a full apparatus of references is not provided here. Instead, the sources for Postwar, together with a full bibliography, will in due course be available for consultation on the Remarque Institute website ( remarque/)

The book is indeed long (831 pages of small type), but the claim that notes are unnecessary for the general reader is one that this general reader finds patronizing. Book reviews which Professor Judt publishes in The New York Review of Books include footnotes, some of them source notes, and surely his audience there is made up of general readers, however sophisticated.

The problem then must be bulk. I would have paid for a larger book or two volumes, but those solutions may have been judged impractical; hence the notes-elsewhere scheme. However, the promised notes aren't available anywhere. Although the book was published in 2005, due course seems not to have been run and notes have not appeared. There is a lengthy bibliography on the website, and there is a separate bibliography by chapter, but that isn't a set of source notes.

Oh well, if that's all I have to complain about, life must be good.

1. On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society, p. 122.

December 23, 2007

In A Theory of Justice John Rawls used "the original position" as a device to discover - or validate, or justify - a system which would allocate resources fairly. In the original position, people operated behind "the veil of ignorance": they knew how the world works but did not know their position in society. In those circumstances, he thought, people would make prudent choices as to allocation of advantage. That is, if I don't know whether I come from a privileged background or am a member of a disadvantaged group, I will opt for a system which will give everyone a fair chance. Some critics thought that Rawls shouldn't have assumed that his hypothetical planners would be so cautious; they might instead take a chance on being on top. What ever the merit of either assumption then, the risk and reward inherent in rolling the dice has increased substantially. When A Theory of Justice was published, in 1971, the ratio of CEO income to that of the average worker was about 28 to 1; 1 in 2005 it was 262 to 1. In 1971, the ratio of CEO income to the minimum wage was about 62 to 1; in 2006 it was 821 to 1.2

On Saturday, Bob Herbert wrote that, increasingly, the "American dream," the belief that one could climb the economic ladder, that the kids would do better than their parents, is disappearing. "The fundamental problem, the problem that is destroying the dream, is the extreme inequality pounded into the system by the corporate crowd and its handmaidens in government." And it isn't just those left behind who pay for the inequality. "When such an overwhelming portion of the economic benefits are skewed toward a tiny portion of the population - as has happened in the U.S. over the past few decades - it's impossible for the society as a whole not to suffer." 3


3. "Nightmare Before Christmas," The New York Times 12/22/07

December 28, 2007

As I grow (much) older, one of my main functions (when I'm not merely tiresome) is to (inadvertently) provide amusement for my children. One of the running jokes is my going to only one movie a year. There are, however reasons for that. One, of course, is that few contemporary movies appeal to me. Another is having to sit through endless previews of movies I don't want to see, presented with a sound track consisting mostly of meaningless noise at a volume which melts brain cells. I see one movie a year because it take that long for my hearing to return.

December 30, 2007

The New York Times gave us all a late Christmas present in the form of one of the world's most discredited pundits. Beginning next month, William Kristol will write an op-ed for the Times, joining his former Weekly Standardcolleague David Brooks. The Times has been short one columnist since the departure of John Tierney, and the op-ed page has had a good deal of filler of late, but how desperate for content can they be? Assuming that some sort of numerical balance is required, the page also has been short one conservative columnist without Tierney, but surely they could have found a genuine conservative, not another neocon from the Murdoch stable.

The Times apparently wanted to sneak this one by its readers, burying the announcement on page 17 of today's paper. I spotted it first on

I'm usually realistic enough not to cancel a subscription over something like this, but the Times has been weak enough on the Iraq war, and adding one of its cheerleaders is too much.

January 2, 2008

A year or so back, David Brooks attempted to explain away the increasing income gap between those at the top and everyone else. His argument was that disparities were the result of merit: "In other words, the market isn't broken; the meritocracy is working almost too well. It's rewarding people based on individual talents." It's a little difficult to take that theory of success seriously, whether measured by income, professional advancement or celebrity.

Leaving aside trivial examples of rewarded incompetence, such as football commentators or "musicians" who perform at halftime, the past few days have provided two clear examples of success by failure. One is the announcement that William Kristol will appear on the New York Times' op-ed page, a reward for consistently being wrong. The other is an article in Parade allegedly written by President Bush. It was entitled "What Made My Year Special," which would be inane under any circumstances, but incredibly foolish considering all of the disasters Mr. Bush created or ignored last year. It served primarily as a reminder that his presidency is a spectacular instance of incompetence rising to the top.

January 4, 2008

I said a few days ago that Democratic presidential field, although vastly superior to the Republican, didn't inspire me. Now that it has shrunk, following the Iowa results, it is still less impressive. The withdrawal of Senators Biden and Dodd, and ABC's exclusion of Rep. Kucinich from the next debate both narrow the choices and deprive voters of voices other than the leading four, who no doubt will be three before long.

I have found it difficult to take Kucinich seriously, but he serves a useful role in providing a critique from the left. However, as Ryan Blethen put it, "ABC journalists have decided that the nation and New Hampshire will hear only from Iowa's favorite politicians." 1 Of all the criticisms of the Iowa caucuses and of the nomination procedure in general, the most cogent is the elimination of experienced, substantial men like these so early on, and by so few, so unrepresentative voters. Biden and Dodd might never have been nominated, but they deserved a longer look.

According to an AP report, ABC "set up benchmarks to narrow the field." It's bad enough that the party's nomination process does that without turning over the task to a commercial network.


1. ?document_id= 2004106201&zsection_id=268883724&slug=ryan04&date= 20080104

January 5, 2008

A distinguished group of self-described centrists will convene on January 7 to discuss ways to influence national politics, including the possibility of sponsoring an independent in the presidential election. The putative candidate, Mayor Bloomberg, will join former Senators David Boren (the host), Sam Nunn, John Danforth and Gary Hart, Senator Chuck Hagel, former Governor and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, former Senator and Defense Secretary William Cohen and former Congressman Jim Leach. To this centrist group, partisanship is what ails American politics. An Associated Press report described their thinking:

The meeting will serve as a form of "shock therapy" to the major-party candidates to stop bickering and provide Americans with a blueprint for bipartisanship in Washington. . . .

"We used to work together across party lines and we used to cooperate with each other," Boren said of his relationships with current and former senators who plan to attend. "It is a message to the two parties: Please rise to the occasion. If you don't, there is always a possibility out there of an independent."


"We need statesmanship, not politics," Boren said. . . .

A Dec. 18 letter from Boren and Nunn to participants asserts that the political system is "at the least, badly bent and many are concluding that it is broken at a time where America must lead boldly at home and abroad. Partisan polarization is preventing us from uniting to meet the challenges that we must face if we are to prevent further erosion of America's power of leadership and example."

"As the letter says, we've literally become a house divided," Boren said. "We really need a government of national unity." 2

The Nation responded, emphatically if inelegantly:
That's crap. What this nation needs now - as we live through a second Gilded Age - is more partisanship. Intelligent, honest and passionate partisanship that addresses how America is drifting apart along class lines. A partisanship that fights for universal health care and a living wage and labor rights as a countervailing force to unprecedented corporate power. A partisanship that contests the unbridled militarism depleting our strength and spirit.3

That's a little off the mark. We don't need partisanship, in the sense of an insistence on tailoring policies to a party line or ideology. Certainly we need action toward the goals The Nation lists. At times, that may require more party discipline on the part of the Democrats, and it requires more backbone in opponents of the Bush agenda, but what it needs more than anything else is people in government - Democratic, Republican or Independent - who believe in those goals and are willing to work for them.

Although its solution was misconceived, The Nation saw the basic problem with the Boren approach: to the extent that there is a partisan divide, it exists because the Republicans have moved so far to the right.

If Boren, Bloomberg & Co. want to be taken seriously, by the parties or by the voters, they need to tell us what they will do about Iraq, militarism, an imperial presidency, the economy, the tax structure, government for and virtually by corporations, poverty, health care, civil liberties, the environment, global warming and religion in politics.


2. 12/30/AR2007123001759.html


January 11, 2008

President Bush, instead of doing the hard work of mediation, has instructed Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement. In a speech Thursday in Jerusalem he also told them some of the terms an agreement should contain; he is, after all, the emperor. However, he could have announced his instructions from the White House; doing it from the scene doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than to serve as a visual statement that he's in charge.

To create some interest in his trip, the President gave three interviews last week. The reporter from Al Arabiya TV asked whether he regretted "not being involved earlier in the peace process, seven years ago." Mr. Bush first claimed that he had been "very much involved in the peace process," then gave excuses for not moving earlier: "attitudinal changes don't happen overnight;" "the two-state solution wasn't accepted for the first . . . couple of years of my administration;" "the intifada . . . made it awfully hard to discuss peace . . . ." Then he made an odd admission: "the Iraq invasion . . . created the conditions that made it more difficult to get people's minds in the right place to begin the process."

However, late or not, his participation is crucial: "One thing is, is that they know that they've got a good partner in peace in me. They also know that I'm not going to be in office a year from now, so there's a certain urgency to get this [Palestinian] state defined." 4

In an interview by Israeli Channel 2, Mr. Bush said that he doesn't "spend a lot of time looking in the mirror." However, it's apparent from his other comments that he does, and that he likes what he sees. Immediately after that comment he offered this self-appraisal:

. . .I can predict that the historians will say that George W. Bush recognized the threats of the 21st century, clearly defined them, and had great faith in the capacity of liberty to transform hopelessness to hope, and laid the foundation for peace by making some awfully difficult decisions.5

Actually, he exaggerated threats, misrepresented the facts, put his faith - except in rhetoric - in military operations, and set the cause of peace back some years.

He presented this variation to Al Arabiya:

I would hope, at least, at the very minimum, people would say that George W. Bush respected my religion, and has great concern for the human condition; that he hurts when he sees poverty and hopelessness; that he's a realistic guy, because he understands that the only way that these extremists who murder the innocent can recruit is when you find -- when they find hopeless situations -- they have no vision that's positive; and that he helped present an alternative, and that was one based upon liberty and the rights of men and women in a just and free society. That's how I hope you remember me.

His concern for the human condition is invisible, and his pain is difficult to credit. His only even self-described project to offer an alternative based on liberty, etc., was the invasion, occupation and oppression of another nation.

Al Hurra TV was favored with this extended version:

I hope they remember me as the guy who was willing to fight extremists who murdered the innocent to achieve political objectives, and at the same time, had great faith in the people, the average citizen of the Middle East, to self-govern; that the Middle East has got a fantastic future and that I admire the great traditions of the Middle East and believe that the average man can succeed mightily; that societies are best served when they respond to the will of people, and that we must reject the extremists who have a different view of that, the people that only prey on hopelessness. That's what I would hope.6

His method of fighting extremists who murder has resulted in killing a lot of people. His faith in self-government has not led to ending the occupation. He went on:
I would hope that they would say President Bush respects my religion and has great love for the human -- human being, and believes in human dignity. I know my image can be different at times, but I had to make some tough choices on war and peace. On the other hand, I hope people are now beginning to see the emergence of a free Iraq, based upon a modern constitution, is part of my vision for achieving peace that we all want.

The choice he made between war or peace for Iraq was not a difficult one, merely a tragically wrong one.

Each of those statements was in response to a question asking how he hopes to be remembered, so the form of the answer, if not the content, could be forgiven. However, he gave this answer when asked whether the U.S. could act as an honest broker in Palestine:

I would hope that my record, one of liberation and -- liberation, by the way, not only from dictatorship, but from disease around the world, like HIV/AIDS or malaria -- is one that will say to people, he cares about the human condition; that he cares about each individual; that my religion teaches me to love your neighbor.

The significant aspect of that bit of biography is the last phrase. When it comes to religion, George Bush talks a good game. He made a stunning claim during a candidates' debate in 1999: that his favorite political philosopher is Christ, "because he changed my heart." It would not be right to challenge that as a statement of religious belief. However, it is difficult to see how Christianity, as usually understood outside the confines of the religio-political right, has guided his policies, foreign or domestic.

All of his claims reveal a high level of self-deception or dishonesty or both.





January 16, 2008

A picture in yesterday's P-I encapsulated our bizarre response to 9-11. We invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with it, but our President holds hands with the ruler of the country which gave us 15 of the 19 hijackers. Saudi Arabia also produced Osama bin Laden, a fundamentalist strain of Islam and, according to most reports, a significant number of the suicide bombers in Iraq. Never mind: we're in the process of selling the Saudis still more arms.

All of this seems irrational, but if we consider oil supplies, perhaps it isn't. We have been able to bribe Saudi Arabia into maintaining our supply, but Iraq needed more direct measures. It will be the final irony, and the crowning example of Bush-administration ineptitude, if, after all the lives lost, we do not end up with priority access to Iraqi oil.

Rhetorically, the visit to the Middle East was enveloped in the same fog that covers the White House. Mr. Bush tried to convince the Gulf states that they should be afraid of Iran. True, it is a potentially destabilizing force, especially as it is governed by people as wedded to ideology and as inclined toward cowboy postures as we are. However, Iran is not the menace it is made out to be, and Iraq was still less so. It never ceases to amaze me that Republicans are considered tough when one of their salient characteristics is the fearful exaggeration of threats: Rambo as Chicken Little.

After years of ignoring the Palestinian question, the President instructed Israelis and Palestinians (but with his usual tilt toward the former) to get serious about solving their problems. He lectured his Gulf-state hosts on the virtues of equality, dignity, democracy, freedom, justice and accountability, concepts which do not seem to have influenced his behavior.

However, he made one valid point: "[I]n a free and just society, individuals can rise as far as their talents and hard work will take them." 7 Or even much further, as his career attests.



January 19, 2008

Yesterday the Washington Post web site carried a link to a blog by Jacques Berlinerblau, an associate professor at Georgetown University, which began: "This past Monday, as most of America now knows, Mike Huckabee effectively told
the Constitution that it had better get right with God." Unlike most of America, I had no idea what he meant. I discovered that he referred to this statement in an otherwise obscure campaign speech by Governor Huckabee:

I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that's what we need to do - is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standard so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.8

Although I do not hang on every word uttered by the candidates, that was something I would have noticed. How had I missed a proposal to amend the Constitution to conform to the Bible? Apparently because it wasn't reported in the MSM. When I googled "huckabee bible constitution" I found scads of blogs, but no newspaper or TV references. The source is a {video}.9

The speech raises again the difficult question of whether and to what extent statements of religious belief should enter into political discourse. Peter Wehner, a former aide to President Bush and a self-described political conservative and evangelical Christian, expressed concern over Huckabee's continuing resort to religion to define his political beliefs. Mr Wehner described the issue well:

Invoking one's faith is not unprecedented in American politics and is not, by itself, disconcerting. It can even be reassuring. But it is also fraught with danger. If certain lines -- inherently ambiguous lines -- are crossed and faith becomes a tool in a political campaign, it can damage our civic comity and our politics and demean our faith.

Religious beliefs should play a role in our public life, especially when it comes to great moral questions, as they have from the abolition movement to the civil rights movement to efforts to advance a culture of life. For the most part, America has achieved the right balance -- one that recognizes the importance of faith in our common life while resisting the use of politics to advance sectarian purposes. . . . 10

He should have added a warning against using religion to advance political agendas.

In an interview, Huckabee claimed that he meant only to amend the Constitution to deal with certain issues. He also seemed to back down from his theocratic position:

I think that whether someone is a Christian or not, the idea that a human life has dignity and intrinsic worth should be clear enough. I don't think a person has to be a person of faith to say that once you redefine a human life and say there is a life not worth living, and that we have a right to terminate a human life because of its inconvenience to others in the society. . . . It's not just about being against abortion. It's really about, Is there is a point at which a human life, because it's become a burden or inconvenience to others, is an expendable life. And once we've made a decision that there is such a time - whether it's the termination of an unborn child in the womb or whether it's the termination of an 80-year-old comatose patient - we've already crossed that line. . . .

And the same thing would be true of marriage. Marriage has historically, as long as there's been human history, meant a man and a woman in a relationship for life. Once we change that definition, then where does it go from there? 11

If he stayed with that secular expression of his philosophy, he would make a legitimate political argument: one, in his case, based on religious belief, but presented in secular terms for evaluation in secular terms. However, this restatement doesn't represent his true position. Consider a statement which Wehner quotes: "When asked to explain his surge in the polls, [Huckabee] answered, 'There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people.' " In other words, he declared that God is helping his campaign.

Mr. Wehner concluded that Huckabee "may not have crossed any bright lines yet -- but he's edging close to them." The lines are, as he said earlier, "ambiguous," but declaring that God has pushed one up in the polls is past any line I can visualize.12

Governor Huckabee's argument that the Constitution should be amended is more honest than the usual religious-right stance, which claims that the Constitution is a Christian document written by Christian Founders. Huckabee's determination to turn it into an extension of the Bible at least admits the contrary fact. However, his plan runs counter to the fundamental, and effective, thrust of most political Christianity, which is the melding of the faith and American nationalism. As Professor Berlinerblau put it:

I have had Evangelical students who can recite the Constitution chapter and verse, so to speak. Like many of their co-religionists they are patriotic in very conventional, mainstream American ways. They have no more interest in setting the Scriptures in competition with the Constitution than Jews have in exploring the possibility that the teachings of the great Rabbinic sages supersede the rulings of the Supreme Court.

Had Huckabee simply ranted about all of those "activist judges" who have misinterpreted what some scholars call "The American Scriptures," he would have been on far safer rhetorical ground.

Huckabee wowed Iowa's evangelicals and forced Mitt Romney to play on his field, but if he becomes the nominee, he'll be more frightening to independent voters than the usual GOP religionist.


8. georgetown/2008/01/huck_to_the_constitution_get_r.html#more


10. article/2007/12/23/AR2007122302071.html


12.My attempt to locate the line is here; the most relevant part begins with "Professor Carter's final issue. . . ."

January 21, 2008

There is a conspiracy to inflict William Kristol on me - well, let's not be totally self-centered - on the non-Murdoch public. I registered my dismay at The New York Times' hiring him by cancelling my subscription - that'll bring them to their knees! - but the next day The Seattle Times announced that it would begin carrying material from its New York namesake; Kristol's first column showed up on the 15th. The Seattle Times isn't a paragon of editorial judgment, but I thought that the NYTimes had more sense. I suppose, given that we elected George Bush in 2004, I shouldn't be surprised that failure succeeds.

Clark Hoyt, the NYTimes' "Public Editor," in a column apologetically captioned "He May Be Unwelcome, but We'll Survive," noted that all but one of 700 e-mails to him on Kristol's hiring have been negative, and some to the editorial-page editor have been, in Hoyt's phrase, "particularly rough." While I don't condone the language he quoted, I find it odd that he thinks that the writers abandoned liberal principles in opposing the addition of an ideological neoconservative, but fails to see any abandonment of those principles by a supposedly liberal paper in giving a platform to a warmonger.

However, Mr. Hoyt noted that Kristol wouldn't have been his choice, and gave several reasons to oppose it. He mentioned only one in favor, the balance argument, for which he quoted the publisher: "Sulzberger said The Times wanted 'a columnist who brought to our pages a deeply held and well articulated point of view in line with what you might call the conservative Republican movement. . . Our Op-Ed page is a marketplace of ideas. He'll strengthen the discussion.' "

About two years ago, columnist Froma Harrop criticized the "balanced" theory of reporting, with reference to an issue on one side of which we find "the conservative Republican movement": "Fair and balanced reporting doesn't mean simply quoting one expert who says that global warming is an urgent problem and another who says it's not. That's ignorant reporting." It may be that the makeup of an op-ed page should be governed by a different standard, but sound judgment still ought to be part of the mix. If William Kristol is representative of the conservative Republican viewpoint, it doesn't deserve space in the Times.

January 27, 2008

In his radio chat on Saturday, President Bush promised that, in the State of the Union address this evening, he will "report that over the last seven years, we've made great progress on important issues at home and abroad." What can he claim? That the invasion of Iraq has accomplished any of its supposed goals? That the war has been managed well? That terrorism has been suppressed? That nuclear proliferation has been slowed? That peace has come to Palestine? That we are safer from attack or sabotage? That he has made us more free? That the United States is more respected abroad? That the dollar is firmly entrenched as the international currency? That we have an efficient and humane health-care system? That wages have risen? That the poor are cared for? That Social Security is better funded? That the national debt has been reduced? That the environment is better protected? That the damage wrought by Katrina has been repaired? That we are more united, optimistic or prosperous?

What can he claim? Is there any respect in which the country better off than it was in January 2001?

February 4, 2008

An e-mail is circulating which is designed to justify the war in Iraq through some very strange arguments. (The full text, with its poetic format and odd punctuation, but minus its photographs and dramatic fonts, is reproduced below). It opens, awkwardly, with this:

John Glenn said...

This should make you think a little:

There were 39 combat related killings in Iraq in January. In the fair city of
Detroit there were 35 murders in the month of January. That's just one
American city, about as deadly as the entire war-torn country of

This has been posted uncritically on various web sites, but it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. For openers, John Glenn didn't say that, which is typical of the reliability of this screed.13

Leaving aside authorship, are the numbers accurate? There weren't 39 combat deaths in January 2008, but there were in January 2004,14 which probably is the reference; the e-mail apparently is that old. Is the number for Detroit accurate? Who knows? More importantly, what does the number of murders in Detroit have to do with whether we should have invaded Iraq? Did those victims in Detroit die because Bush lied about WMD? Is any unprovoked war OK if American casualties stay below the domestic murder rate? The author doesn't mention the thousands of dead Iraqis, but hell, who cares about them?

The e-mail continues with a comparison to World War II, as to which it claims that

a. FDR led us into war.

b. Germany never attacked us ; Japan did.

The point seems to be that we declared war on Germany, even though Japan attacked us, thereby somehow justifying Bush's invasion of Iraq, even though it didn't attack us. Leaving aside the weakness of that argument, the list of facts is misleading at best. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; on December 8, at Roosevelt's request, Congress declared war on Japan. Germany declared war on us on December 11, 1941; in response, Roosevelt asked Congress to recognize a state of war with Germany, which it did.

The narrative continues with references to Korea, Vietnam and Bosnia, in each case pointing out that we waged war on a country which had not attacked us. What do the comparisons establish? Does the writer disapprove of our role in WWII, Korea and Vietnam? I doubt it. If I were to argue that Vietnam was a blunder and an unjust war, this sort of flag-waver would leap to its defense. Pretending that the Vietnam war was noble and necessary, and that it was lost because of opposition at home, has become part of the neocon pro-Iraq war mantra. If the anonymous e-mailer wants to justify Iraq, he should do that on its merits, if any.

He tells us that "It took less time to take Iraq than it took Janet Reno to take the Branch Davidian compound. That was a 51-day operation.." This is followed by other equally silly comparisons. It's true that it took less than 51 days for Mr. Bush to don a flight suit, strut down the deck of a carrier and announce that we had "prevailed" in Iraq. However, we're still there, still suffering casualties, and he seems determined to keep us there indefinitely. Here's a better time comparison: the Iraq fiasco has lasted longer than our involvement in WWII.

We're asked to believe that "President Bush has liberated two countries, crushed the Taliban, crippled al-Qaida," and "put nuclear inspectors in Libya, Iran, and North Korea." The "liberation" consists of invasions and unsuccessful attempts to restore order; not everyone would wish for such liberation. The Taliban haven't been crushed; al Qaeda and other terrorist groups aren't crippled. The President's support for nuclear inspectors is best exemplified by his refusal to let them do their job in Iraq. They interfered with his determination to invade.

The argument is summarized in the claim that "our commander-in-chief is doing a great job." After nearly five years of war with a weak nation, we haven't achieved control. We've killed countless Iraqis and sacrificed close to four thousand Americans, to say nothing of the thousands of wounded, many permanently maimed. We've squandered hundreds of billions of dollars, and the eventual cost will be much higher. That cost, combined with tax cuts, has damaged the financial health of the country, perhaps beyond recovery, and has left us at the mercy of creditor nations, including China. Our international standing has suffered and our "commander-in-chief" is a laughingstock, here and abroad. Our national security is no better and probably worse than it was in September, 2001.

The last part of the e-mail is a reference to John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum which has nothing to do with the Iraq-war theme, but which further illustrates the distance between the message and reality. It claims that an exchange took place on the Senate floor on January 26, 2004. Glenn's part of the supposed exchange apparently is more or less accurate, but he said it in 1974, in a campaign debate with Metzenbaum. The e-mail accuses Metzenbaum of having represented the Communist Party and adds, in shocked large font, "Now he's a Senator!" Well, no, he isn't, and neither is Glenn and neither of them was in 2004. Metzenbaum retired in 1995 and Glenn in 1999.

I don't know whether the author was ignorant of all of that, but it's clear that the people who continue to circulate these claims don't know the facts and don't care, which is scary, because some of them may vote.

[The e-mail:]

John Glenn said...

This should make you think a little:

There were 39 combat related killings in Iraq in January.

In the fair city of Detroit there were 35 murders in the month of January.

That's just one American city,

about as deadly as the entire war-torn country of Iraq.

When some claim that President Bush shouldn't

have started this war, state the following:

a. FDR led us into World War II.

b. Germany never attacked us ; Japan did.

From 1941-1945, 450,000 lives were lost

an average of 112,500 per year.

c. Truman finished that war and started one in Korea

North Korea never attacked us .

From 1950-1953, 55,000 lives were lost .

an average of 18,334 per year.

d. John F. Kennedy started the Vietnam conflict in 1962.

Vietnam never attacked us.

e. Johnson turned Vietnam into a quagmire.

From 1965-1975, 58,000 lives were lost ..

an average of 5,800 per year.

f. Clinton went to war in Bosnia without UN or French consent.

Bosnia never attacked us .

He was offered Osama bin Laden's head on a platter three

times by Sudan and did nothing.

Osama has attacked us on multiple occasions.

g. In the years since terrorists attacked us ,

President Bush has liberated two countries,

crushed the Taliban, crippled al-Qaida,

put nuclear inspectors in Libya , Iran , and, North Korea

without firing a shot, and captured a terrorist who

slaughtered 300,000 of his own people.

The Democrats are complaining

about how long the war is taking.

But Wait

It took less time to take Iraq than it took Janet Reno

to take the Branch Davidian compound.

That was a 51-day operation..

We've been looking for evidence for chemical weapons

in Iraq for less time than it took Hillary Clinton to find

the Rose Law Firm billing records.

It took less time for the 3rd Infantry Division and the

Marines to destroy the Medina Republican Guard

than it took Ted Kennedy to call the police after his

Oldsmobile sank at Chappaquiddick.

It took less time to take Iraq than it took

to count the votes in Florida!!!

Our Commander-In-Chief is doing a GREAT JOB !

The Military morale is high!

The biased media hopes we are too ignorant

to realize the facts

But wait!

There's more!

JOHN GLENN (on the Senate floor - January 26, 2004)

Some people still don't understand why military personnel

do what they do for a living. This exchange between

Senators John Glenn and Senator Howard Metzenbaum

is worth reading. Not only is it a pretty impressive

impromptu speech, but it's also a good example of one

man's explanation of why men and women in the armed

services do what they do for a living.

This IS a typical, though sad, example of what

some who have never served think of the military.

Senator Metzenbaum (speaking to Senator Glenn):

'How can you run for Senate when you've never held a real job?'

Senator Glenn (D-Ohio):

'I served 23 years in the United States Marine Corps.

I served through two wars. I flew 149 missions.

My plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on 12 different

occasion s. I was in the space program. It wasn't my

checkbook, Howard; it was my life on the line. It was

not a nine-to-five job, where I took time off to take the

daily cash receipts to the bank.'

'I ask you to go with me . . as I went the other day...

to a veteran's hospital and look those men ..

with their mangled bodies in the eye, and tell THEM

they didn't hold a job!

You go with me to the Space Program at NASA

and go, as I have gone, to the widows and Orphans

of Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee...

and you look those kids in the eye and tell them

that their DADS didn't hold a job.

You go with me on Memorial Day and you stand in

Arlington National Cemetery, where I have more friends

buried than I'd like to remember, and you watch

those waving flags.

You stand there, and you think about this nation,

and you tell ME that those people didn't have a job?

What about you?'

For those who don't remember

During W.W.II, Howard Metzenbaum was an attorney

representing the Communist Party in the USA .

Now he's a Senator!

If you can read this, thank a teacher.

If you are reading it in English thank a Veteran.

It might not be a bad idea to keep this circulating.

I AM!!! "

[End e-mail]


13. See the urban legend report at

14. See under "Hostile Non Hostile Fatalities by Month."

February 5, 2008

George Orwell was not a fan of a phenomenon he described as "nationalism," especially the British variety. Many of his comments about that subject can be applied with little change to the United States under George W. Bush. (If "nationalism" seems a quaint concept, substitute "American exceptionalism" or "American imperialism").

. . . Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakeably certain of being in the right.

. . . Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.15

That's a nice definition of right-wing foreign policy.

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. . . . Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage—torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians—which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by "our" side. . . .

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. . . .

The attitude of Attorney General Mukasey toward waterboarding - it would be torture if done to him, but as to others he has no opinion - fits that picture. As to the following, Orwell might have had William Kristol in mind:
. . . Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties. . . .

I've just finished reading American Fascism, by Chris Hedges. His account of the religious right is biased, his criticisms have a scattershot quality, and his belief, reflected in the title, that a repressive Christian regime is in the offing, is a bit paranoid. However, he describes, in the religious right, a movement which bears strong and worrisome resemblances to political nationalism. Orwell saw this as well.

. . .I have chosen the word "nationalism", but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation—that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church . . . .

By "nationalism" I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled "good" or "bad". But secondly—and this is much more important—I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. . . .

I don't know what Orwell meant by "placing it beyond good and evil;" his earlier comment that whole blocks of people are labeled good or bad is more to the point. Christianity, or any other religion, when it becomes fearful or resentful, will exaggerate its natural tendency to identify itself with good and The Other with evil, a tendency Hedges emphasized.

Hedges sees a direct threat to democracy in the Christian "dominionist" movement. I find it more troubling that conservative Christians endorse aspects of political conservatism which are distinctly unChristian. I don't see how they reconcile Christian belief with support for unprovoked war or opposition to welfare. Hedges' concern that we will have a totalitarian government run by dominionists is excessive, but an authoritative government run by political conservatives elected with the aid of religious conservatives not is only possible, but is to some extent here.


15. All quotes are from Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" (footnotes omitted), Polemic, October 1945.

February 15, 2008

The Democratic caucuses were well attended but, if ours and others I heard about were representative, chaotic. About two dozen precincts, including ours, were crammed into the lunchroom of an elementary school. It was so crowded that it was difficult even to locate the correct table, let alone get to it. Once there, it was impossible to hear the chairwoman. At one point, several people raised their hands and I had to ask the woman next to me what they had voted on: moving out into a hallway where there might be a little less noise. We did so, but with people strung along a narrow passage, those of us on the outer edge still couldn't hear. I complained to an official that the planning had been bad; he blamed the problems on the large turnout. However, the heavy response had been expected, and bad planning is characteristic of these events.

The vote in our precinct was 35 for Obama, 15 for Clinton; those numbers led to a dilemma. Thirty-five of fifty votes equals 70%. Seventy per cent of the five delegates allotted to our precinct equals 3.5 for Obama; by similar arithmetic, Clinton was entitled to 1.5. The scientific, democratic solution? Flip a coin. I'm not kidding. After all the effort and the self-congratulation about grass-roots participation, one-fifth of our delegation was selected by chance.

I wondered whether anyone had explained why we follow this procedure, rather than using a primary. I found an answer of sorts in an interview of Dwight Pelz, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Pelz said the party chose caucuses because "we believe that this is a very active form of civic participation as opposed to filling in a mail ballot at your kitchen table, which is what we call more passive democracy." He said the grassroots nature of the caucus delegate selection is appealing.16

He's right that it is a more active process, especially as supporters of one candidate can try to convert supporters of another or, more likely, undecideds. Under better conditions, that could be useful. However, Pelz went on to describe the actual conditions: "Rather than control at the top, we have something that can best be described as anarchy or chaos," he said. I don't see why a primary would be "control at the top." If he had some other comparison in mind, it eludes me.

We will, in fact, have a primary, next Tuesday. "Pelz calls the primary a 'beauty pageant' because it will have no effect on the number of Democratic delegates." However, it is a mere beauty pageant because Pelz & C0. have made it so, preferring not only anarchy or chaos, but a three-step process of precinct and legislative district caucuses and a state convention to a direct, understandable, democratic primary election.

The Republicans are marginally less backward - or strange in a different way - choosing half of their delegates by primary, half by caucus.

When the Democratic delegates finally chosen arrive at the national convention, they will find their votes diluted by the superdelegates, people representing no one, answerable to no one, free to vote contrary to the wishes of the Democrats in their respective states. The committed superdelegates from Washington stand at five or six (depending on which news account you credit), for Clinton to three for Obama, even though the precinct caucus delegates split, statewide, 67.5% Obama to 31.2% Clinton. All eight, or nine, uncommitted superdelegates would have to go to Obama to approximate that percentage.

This can't be the best system.


16. All quotes from The (Tacoma) News Tribune, 1/31/08;

February 27, 2008

It hasn't been many years - time flies; many decades - since Seattle was regarded as a cultural backwater; Sir Thomas Beecham called it an "aesthetic dustbin" and Alistair Cooke reportedly described is as ''a rain-soaked fishing village halfway between San Francisco and Alaska." It has been only a few years since Ballard was ridiculed on "Almost Live" as the hick part of Seattle. Both images were revived Wednesday when the Landmarks Preservation Board voted to designate a boarded-up Denny's Restaurant in Ballard a landmark. Here it is, courtesy of The Seattle Times (photo by Dean Rutz):
Originally a Manning's coffee shop, allegedly it is an example of "Googie" architecture. No, I hadn't heard of that either.
In search of enlightenment, I went to the web and found "Googie Architecture Online," which informed me that Googie is a Los Angeles-Disneyland style of the 1950s. "It began as commercial architecture designed to make the most of strip shopping centers and other roadside locations. It fit the needs of the new California 'car culture' and the dreams of the even newer space age." The space-age connection was that "[c]offee shops looked like something in a Jetsons cartoon."
Thus far, nothing shouts "preserve!" Moreover, it turns out that the Manning's-Denny's building may not be real Googie. An architect who was hired by opponents of landmark designation described it as "Scandigooginesian," i.e. a mixture of Scandinavian, Googie and Polynesian elements.
However, its lack of historical significance and artistic merit and its run-down condition apparently don't bother the Board, which designated it for preservation because it is "an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood" and
"contributes to the identity of Ballard." If I lived in Ballard, I wouldn't be excited about having this peculiar structure tabbed as the symbol of my neighborhood; it would seem like another scene from "Almost Live." However, at least some residents are content with the identification; a local writer declared that "Ballardites proudly called it the Taj Mahal of Ballard."
A decision this silly could be expressed properly only in art-speak, which the Chairman did for us: "The building still has enough integrity to convey its distinct visual presence in that urban fabric."

March 11, 2008

There seems to be a growing awareness locally that we are inflicting grievous harm on the English language.

The KING-TV web site carried a story17 a few days ago entitled "Does bad grammar make you (sic)?" It opened with these questions: "Do you cringe when you see a sign on the front of a house proclaiming that "The Johnson's" reside there? Does the phrase "Her and I" make you want to tear your hair out?" Well, yes. The reporter informed us that we can find fellow fusspots on the web page of SPOGG (the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar).

The SPOGG blog (sorry; that's its name) offers numerous examples of questionable usage, some of which are funny, some inventively bad, some (unfortunately) commonplace. It offers corrections, it provides links to related web sites, and it sponsored National Grammar Day (on March 4; I missed it too). I applaud the effort, but there are two odd notes. One is a link to a blog by a copy editor at The Washington Post which, in its web edition, is home to fairly frequent copyediting oversights. Perhaps he has nothing to do with the web page, which has produced these errors, among others, in main-page links to stories:

Aide's duel role under fire

England wins on a own goal

The Down tumbles 120 points

Israel meet fierce resistance

Nokia to by Loudeye

Juan Perón's reburial clashed [The article was captioned "Clashes Mar
Reburial of Juan Peron")

Jobs's reveled reputation

Terrorist networks lure young Morrocan's to Iraq

How Teresa responsed to her own bewilderment...

Despite interest rate cut, U.S. stocks sharply

GOP candidates make take hit

The Clinton's paper trail

(Some were corrected during the day.)

Today, the Post offered this clunker in a summary, on the main page, of an article: "As a Clinton supporter, Spitzer's case could disrupt her campaign's momentum; . . . " Spitzer's case isn't a Clinton supporter.

The other discordant note is that the creator of SPOGG18, judging from her interview by KING, hasn't allowed good grammar to stand in the way of, shall we say, inelegant metaphors, similes and adjectives.

In January, our community newspaper carried a column by Pat Cashman noting that Lake Superior State University had published its annual "List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness." Designated for burial were "perfect storm," "blank is the new blank" and "back in the day." Cashman added a few of his own, including "at the end of the day," 'the reality is," and "what kind of message are we sending?" He also gave an example of rampant misuse: "less" when "fewer" is correct; SPOGG also criticized that.

Suggesting that the language be used correctly is a hazardous undertaking. Apart from seeming "elitist," and inviting scrutiny of one's own writing, anyone who criticizes usage runs into the argument that the language is evolving and what might have been incorrect years ago now is acceptable. The more widespread the error, the more likely it is to be an alternative usage. However, I have my reputation as a curmudgeon to protect, so here are a few suggested additions:

1. Misuse

a. Gerunds frequently appear without possessive pronouns, as in a recent column about Ralph Nader:

When I asked if he understood the dismay he has caused among people who have admired him for many years, he said yes, but that they were all 'factually wrong' about him costing Mr. Gore the White House . . . .

Although authorities condone such usage, to me it grates like fingernails on a blackboard. "Costing" requires a possessive pronoun: "his costing Mr. Gore the White House."

b. As such has been transformed into an all-purpose transitional phrase which has no reference but seems to be used more or less in the sense of "for that reason." Here's an example:

After the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, Rawls (1921-2002) became the most influential moral and political philosopher in the Western world. As such, the issuing of this posthumous volume, carefully edited by Freeman, a former student and teaching assistant from Rawls's courses at Harvard University, is a major event.

The only possible antecedent of "such" is "most influential moral and political philosopher. . ." However, there is nothing in the following sentence which refers to that status. A second sentence properly using the phrase might be "As such, he was in demand as a public speaker."

c. Begs the question rarely is used correctly. Most people who use it seem to think that it means "begs that the question be answered." Sadly, they are the wave of the future. My unabridged dictionary, 19 which was published in 1989 before misuse became fashionable, defines the phrase strictly ("To assume the truth of the very point raised in a question") although too narrowly: one may beg a question in an affirmative statement. The beginning of retreat can be seen in this presumably authoritative definition:

In strict use, ["beg the question" is] the English equivalent of Latin petitio principii, used in logic to mean "the fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself.". . . Gowers (1965) cited as an example, capital punishment is necessary because without it murders would increase.20

Adding the apologetic "strict use" stamps this as a rear-guard action. Also, Gowers, whoever he was, didn't give the best example, because the unproven assumption, that murders would increase, doesn't inhere in the conclusion that capital punishment is necessary. The following is an example of what I take to be the classic form:
Proponents of I-676 argue that mandating trigger locks and safety classes will prevent harm to society by reducing accidental shootings of children. But the law fails to distinguish between matters in which society has a legitimate interest (punishing people who act negligently) and those in which it does not (the manner in which firearms are stored in a private home; the type of safety training one takes).

The second sentence begs the question by assuming the conclusion that society does not have a legitimate interest in the manner in which firearms are stored in a private home or the type of safety training one takes.

A more recent treatment gives the correct definition ("To take for granted or to assume the truth of the matter in question)" but explicitly acknowledges the aberrant usage ("The phrase now is commonly used to mean simply to raise the question, to invite the obvious question. . . .")21 The OED has given in completely, showing as definition 1 "invite a question or point that has not been dealt with," relegating "assume the truth of a proposition without arguing it" to second place. 22 However, OED can be wrong; it is here.

d. Literally has lost its literal meaning, and now is just a form of emphasis.

2. Overuse

a. A television reporter who is located anywhere other than behind the anchor desk tells us that he is reporting from ____, even if the blank is filled by "satellite control" or "the news room," both presumably next door or down the hall. This lends a spurious on-the-scene quality.

Usually the anchor informs us that the reporter is live in ____, which is reassuring, as a story from beyond the grave would be disconcerting. For further emphasis, the correspondent signs off with reporting live from ____. I suppose that the former is intended to say that the story isn't prerecorded, but the latter is meaningless, as it would appear on a tape, or whatever is used these days. Both are examples of silly news jargon.

b. The live reporter sometimes is located on the tarmac. That term has been imported from Britain or from the East by the local news media, and they are determined that the rest of us adopt it. No story involving an airport is without it; the reporter or the plane always are on the tarmac. Are runways made of tarmac? Do reporters know what the word means? It's just more newsbabble. (Even Cashman used it recently).

c. British or faux-British spelling has been fashionable for a long time. Theatre is an example. The first use I can remember of that spelling was by The Seattle Repertory Theatre, founded in 1963. Various things named Harbour Pointe can be found around the country, but the use of that name for a local development is especially silly, as the name of the town in which it is found is Mukilteo, which doesn't have quite the same cachet. 23

d. In a way, Back to the Future belongs in the "misuse" category, as most often it is used to mean, more or less, "forward to the past" or "the past returns." However, it's an artificial phrase that doesn't have any significance except in the context of the movie. It has caught on because it sounds clever, but the time has come to retire it.

3. Mispronunciation

I'm fighting a losing battle over short-(or long-)lived. To me, the correct pronunciation of "lived" is with a long i because the root word is life. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Ed. 2000) recognizes the derivation but declines to insist on the corresponding pronunciation: lived, with the i pronounced as in lie "is etymologically correct since the compound is derived from the noun life, rather than from the verb live." However, pronouncing the i as in sit "is by now so common that it cannot be considered an error." Its advisors go a step further: 43 percent of the Usage Panel preferred the short i, 39 percent the long i and 18 percent found both pronunciations equally acceptable. I realize that, because language changes - or "evolves," to use a term that doesn't suggest degeneration - the proper usage of one era is the oddity of another. However, carried to its logical conclusion that means there is no correct usage, only different predictions of the future.

I could go on, but that's enough to brand me as a closet conservative.


17. 030308LIF_grammar_day_ SW.1c1f0dc4.html

18. She has a book in the works entitled Things That Make Us (sic).

19. Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language

20. New Fowler's Modern English Usage (1998)

21. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2001)

22. Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2000)

23. According to Washington State Place Names, the Indian word Muckl-te-o means "good camping ground."

March 23, 2008

As the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approached, the war party offered new or recycled arguments that it was justified and wise. Some attempted to ignore the first four years of that history by focusing on the surge and claiming that it has "succeeded." A column by Charles Krauthammer 24 is an example of this technique.

His argument depends on the assertion that, as he put it, the "sectarian civil strife that the Democrats insisted was the reason for us to leave dwindles to the point of near disappearance." TV news reports have emphasized the decline, although with more qualifications, and it is interesting that the reporters who describe improved conditions often still wear flack jackets. American fatalities are down sharply, but Iraqi deaths, after showing a similar decline, are rising again.

One supposed purpose of the surge was to provide conditions in which the Iraqi government could make progress toward stability and sectarian reconciliation and assume responsibility for its own security. Little of that has happened. Krauthammer ignored the question of security altogether, but purported to find reconciliation and better governance. General Petreaus, idolized by the right, has a different view: "Petraeus, who is preparing to testify to Congress next month on the Iraq war, said in an interview that 'no one' in the U.S. and Iraqi governments 'feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation,' or in the provision of basic public services." 25

The strangest part of Krauthammer's analysis is his assessment of al Qaeda. On the one hand, it has been crushed: "Captured letters of al-Qaeda leaders reveal despair as they are driven -- mostly by Iraqi Sunnis, their own Arab co-religionists -- to flight and into hiding." On the other, he worries that the Democrats will "abandon Iraq to al-Qaeda and Iran." (Presumably he meant that they would divide the country between them, though he might, like Senator McCain, think that they are allies.) If we attempt to reconcile these views of al Qaeda's strength by assuming that it now is firmly suppressed but has the capacity to roar back, we are left, given the weakness of the Iraqi security forces, with the prospect of indefinite large-scale American military involvement in Iraq. Perhaps Krauthammer, like McCain, is content with that, but few other American are.

President Bush takes a similar view of an al Qaeda resurgence. As someone noted, much of his recent speech could have been delivered five years ago: he is peddling the same be-afraid line.

If we were to allow our enemies to prevail in Iraq, the violence that is now declining would accelerate -- and Iraq would descend into chaos. Al Qaeda would regain its lost sanctuaries and establish new ones -- fomenting violence and terror that could spread beyond Iraq's borders, with serious consequences for the world's economy.

Out of such chaos in Iraq, the terrorist movement could emerge emboldened -- with new recruits, new resources, and an even greater determination to dominate the region and harm America. An emboldened al Qaeda with access to Iraq's oil resources could pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations. . . .

(We might pause here to note that the Kurds and the Shia (backed by Iran) control the developed oil fields and are not likely to surrender them to "al Qaeda," whether the Iraqi version or the bin Laden group with which the President is at such pains to identify it.)
To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September the 11th and make it more likely that America would suffer another attack like the one we experienced that day. . . . The terrorists intend even greater harm to our country. And we have no greater responsibility than to defeat our enemies across the world so that they cannot carry out such an attack.26

We're right back to 2003: Iraq is a menace; it has some connection to 9-11; only a military occupation will protect us from terrorist attacks.

The Weekly Standard, as befits the leading pro-war journal, attempted to justify the invasion. It faced a challenge in the form of a report by the Institute for Defense Analyses (hereinafter "Report") dated November 2007, but recently published. 27 The Report, read fairly, shows little connection between Iraq and al Qaeda and none of the collaboration asserted as an excuse for the invasion. Most of the media described it, accurately, as a negative appraisal of the administration's Saddam-al Qaeda story.

However, William Kristol claimed that the media carelessly relied on the Report's Executive Summary and ignored the text.28

. . . Here's the attention-grabbing sentence from the report's executive summary:"This study found no 'smoking gun' (i.e. direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda.". . .

But here's the truth. The executive summary of the report is extraordinarily misleading. The full report . . . states, for example, on page 42: "Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al Qaeda (such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led at one time by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri) or that generally shared al Qaeda's stated goals and objectives." In fact, as Stephen F. Hayes reports in this issue, the study outlines a startling range of connections between Saddam and various organizations associated with al Qaeda and other terror groups.

How much difference is there between the "misleading" Executive Summary and the body of the Report? Here is the sentence in the Summary immediately following the one criticized by Kristol:
Saddam's interest in, and support for, non-state actors was spread across a variety of revolutionary, liberation, nationalist, and Islamic terrorist organizations.

Here are the two sentences preceding the one Kristol quoted from page 42:
Saddam's interest in, and support for, non-Iraqi non-state actors was spread across a wide variety of revolutionary, liberation, nationalist, and Islamic terrorist organizations. For years, Saddam maintained training camps for foreign "fighters" drawn from these diverse groups. In some cases, particularly for Palestinians, Saddam was also a strong financial supporter.

The first sentence is virtually identical to the corresponding one in the Executive Summary.

The second sentence, which he omitted, doesn't mesh with his al Qaeda fixation, as it refers to diverse groups and emphasizes the Palestinians. The omission serves the major ploy in Kristol's argument, which is pretending that every reference to a terror group is a reference to al Qaeda. This is a familiar device; the administration used it in selling the war, and Stephen Hayes used in an article discussed below. To some degree, the authors of the Report conflated al Qaeda and "other terror groups" although they also carefully pointed out the distinctions.

I'll come back to the reference to Zawahiri in connection with Hayes' article.

The Report describes Iraq's activities in some detail, from which it is clear that Saddam's major concern was preserving his regime: "The predominant targets of Iraqi state terror operations were Iraqi citizens, both inside and outside of Iraq." 29 As stated in the Executive Summary, no direct connection was found between Iraq and al Qaeda, and the Report mentions only two instances of what might, with some exaggeration, be called indirect contact. They too are discussed with reference to the Hayes article.

The administration hasn't taken Kristol's line; he thinks that is due to defeatism:

If you talk to people in the Bush administration, they know the truth about the report. They know that it makes the case convincingly for Saddam's terror connections. But they'll tell you (off the record) it's too hard to try to set the record straight. Any reengagement on the case for war is a loser, they'll say. Furthermore, once the first wave of coverage is bad, you can never catch up: You give the misleading stories more life and your opponents further chances to beat you up in the media. And as for trying to prevent misleading summaries and press leaks in the first place--that's hopeless. Someone will tell the media you're behaving like Scooter Libby, and God knows what might happen next.

The poor innocents; they just don't know anything about influencing public opinion.

Stephen Hayes' article30 also appeared in The Weekly Standard. His argument is longer than Kristol's, but no more convincing. Because the Report contains no reference to Iraqi-al Qaeda collaboration, each writer emphasized communications between Iraq and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the first example of indirect contact. EIJ was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who eventually merged his organization into al Qaeda and became its second-in-command. Hayes referred to an Iraqi document dated March 18, 1993, which describes contacts with several organizations, including Zawahiri's:

Islamic Jihad Organization [Egyptian Islamic Jihad]

In a meeting in the Sudan we agreed to renew our relations with the Islamic Jihad Organization in Egypt. Our information on the group is as follows:

- It was established in 1979.

- Its goal is to apply the Islamic shari' a law and establish Islamic rule.

- It is considered one of the most brutal Egyptian organizations. It carried out numerous successful operations, including the assassination of Sadat.

- We have previously met with the organization's representative and we agreed on a plan to carry out commando operations against the Egyptian regime. 31

Hayes argued that EIJ merged with al Qaeda sometime in 1993, and therefore this document is evidence of Iraqi cooperation with al Qaeda, although al Qaeda is not mentioned. Other sources date the merger to 2001, although there was collaboration between EIJ and al Qaeda earlier. The document at most establishes a willingness on the part of Iraq to deal with an ally of al Qaeda. Also, the purpose of the cooperation with EIJ was to overthrow the Egyptian government in 1993, not attack the United States in 2001 or 2003.

In support of the al Qaeda thesis, Hayes also relied on the only other example of indirect contact found in the Report, which concerns a group known as The Army of Muhammad. Perhaps inadvertently, he described it as having more prominence in the Report than it has: "The third section of the Pentagon study is called 'Iraq and Terrorism: Three Cases.' One of the cases is that of the Army of Muhammad, the al Qaeda affiliate in Bahrain." Actually, the three cases are "The Abu al-Abbas Case," "Attacks on Humanitarian Organizations," and "Destabilzing Saudi Arabia and Kuwait." The reference to The Army of Muhammad is found under the second case, which otherwise deals with attacks in northern Iraq. The Army of Muhammad is described as having "threatened Kuwaiti authorities." What it had to do with humanitarian organizations is not explained. Whatever its significance, its connection to the issue is this: Iraqi documents recite that the group was "under the wing of bin Laden" and that its "objectives are the same as bin Laden. . . ."[sic] The Army of Muhammad sought assistance from Iraq; it isn't clear whether it was given. The Report draws from this episode the following conclusion, which Hayes quotes:
"Captured documents reveal that the regime was willing to co-opt or support organizations it knew to be part of al Qaeda - as long as that organization's near-term goals supported Saddam's longterm vision." That seems to conclude more than is proven, but if we accept it at face value, it doesn't add up to the grand conspiracy alleged by those who called for war, nor does anything in the Report.

Hayes ended his analysis of the Report by quoting selectively from a section captioned "Venture Capitalists for Terrorists." 32 I have set it out in full, with the parts omitted by Hayes in bold; the one italicized word appears in the Report.

Saddam Hussein was demonstrably willing to use terrorism to achieve his goals. Using this tactical method was a strategic choice of Saddam's, often requiring direct and indirect cooperation with movements, organizations, and individuals possessing, in some cases, diametrically opposed long-term goals.

An example of indirect cooperation is the movement led by Osama bin Laden. During the 1990s, both Saddam and bin Laden wanted the West, particularly the United States, out of Muslim lands (or in the view of Saddam, the "Arab nation"). Both wanted to create a single powerful state that would take its place as a global superpower.

But the similarities ended there: bin Laden wanted - and still wants - to restore the Islamic caliphate while Saddam, despite his later Islamic rhetoric, dreamed more narrowly of being the secular ruler of a united Arab nation. These competing visions made any significant long-term compromise between them highly unlikely. After all, to the fundamentalist leadership of al Qaeda, Saddam represented the worst kind of "apostate" regime - a secular police state well practiced in suppressing internal challenges. In pursuit of their own separate but surprisingly "parallel" visions, Saddam and bin Laden often found a common enemy in the United States.

The Saddam regime was very concerned about the internal threat posed by various Islamist movements. Crackdowns, arrests, and monitoring of Islamic radical movements were common in Iraq. However, Saddam's security organizations and bin Laden's terrorist network operated with similar aims, at least for the short tenn. Considerable operational overlap was inevitable when monitoring, contacting, financing, and training the regional groups involved in terrorism. Saddam provided training and motivation to revolutionary pan-Arab nationalists in the region. Osama bin Laden provided training and motivation for violent revolutionary Islamists in the region. They were recruiting within the same demographic, spouting much the same rhetoric, and promoting a common historical narrative that promised a return to a glorious past. That these movements (pan-Arab and pan-Islamic) had many similarities and strategic parallels does not mean they saw themselves in that light. Nevertheless, these similarities created more than just the appearance of cooperation. Common interests, even without common cause, increased the aggregate terror threat.

Nearly all of the material contrary to Hayes' argument was, conveniently, omitted.
Taken as a whole, this section states that the United States was a common enemy, not a target for a combined attack. The "indirect cooperation" between Iraq and al Qaeda consisted of this: Saddam and bin Laden each wanted a superstate, but of different and incompatible types; there was "operational overlap," which apparently means contacts with the same groups; they were "recruiting within the same demographic," in other words competing for followers. The Iraqi contribution to the "aggregate terror threat" was regional; even the reference to Saddam's wanting the U.S. out of the Middle East refers to the 1990s.

The Report is a further refutation of the fear-mongering tales of 2002 and early 2003. Bush, Kristol and Co. misrepresented the facts then and still do.


24. content/article/2008/02/21 /AR2008022102157.html

25. article/2008/03/13/ AR2008031303793.html

26. 20080319-2.html

27. _V1.pdf

28. Articles/000/000/ 014/881yegar.asp

29. Report, page ES1- ES2

30. Articles/000/000/014/ 889pvpxc.asp

31. Report p. 14

32. Report pp. 41-42

March 28, 2008

After seven years as our designated leader, George W. Bush still finds it impossible or inconvenient to tell us the truth. His communications consist mostly of banalities which disguise ignorance, dishonesty or detachment from reality, as the case may be.

That Mr. Bush's comments on the "war on terror" have been laden* with banalities is due in part to his confusion and lack of verbal skills. However, his speeches are written by others, and their recourse to tired, foolish, almost childish expressions reflects the lack of any logical arguments to support his policies and the supposition that Americans can be persuaded by large helpings of patriotic clichés.

Here is classic Bushspeak, delivered as we passed the five-year mark in Iraq and reached 4,000 American military deaths.

. . . I'm fully aware that folks who have worked in the State Department lost their lives and -- in Iraq, along with our military folks.

And on this day of reflection, I offer our deepest sympathies to their families. I hope their families know that the citizens pray for their comfort and strength, whether they were the first one who lost their life in Iraq or recently lost their lives in Iraq -- that every life is precious in our sight. And I guess my one thought I wanted to leave with those who still hurt is that one day people will look back at this moment in history and say, thank God there were courageous people willing to serve, because they laid the foundations for peace for generations to come; that I have vowed in the past, and I will vow so long as I'm President, to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain, that, in fact, there is a outcome that will merit the sacrifice that civilian and military alike have made; that our strategy going forward will be aimed at making sure that we achieve victory and, therefore, America becomes more secure and these young democracies survive, and peace more likely as we head into the 21st century.33

It seems a little late to be heading into the 21st century, but in a sense he never has moved beyond September 11, 2001, so maybe he's not too far off by his reckoning.

His sympathy is as false as his regular-guy pose, and there is not the slightest evidence that the lives of people he doesn't know are precious to him. "Peace" for him is merely a word to use to justify war. The claim that all of this folly and bloodshed had made us more secure is a lie or a delusion, perhaps both. Focusing on those who were willing to serve diverts attention from the assignment he gave them; this is a variation on the "support the troops" ploy. As to an outcome which will merit their sacrifice, and not letting them die in vain, this comment by The [Louisville] Courier-Journal is on target:

Five years and 4,000 American deaths into the war, President Bush has run through pretty much every reason that Dick Cheney could give him for America's military presence in Iraq. None has made much sense.

But Monday, in once again prattling on about his strategy of "making sure that we achieve victory," he invoked his weakest argument for fighting indefinitely: "I will vow so long as I'm president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain."

In other words, the President is fully willing to sacrifice more young Americans in an effort to achieve an after-the-fact justification for casualties in a conflict that was unnecessary.

One of Mr. Bush's characteristically insincere statements took the form of a fantasy. About two weeks ago, a Reuters reporter was allowed to attend a video conference between the President and U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan. The reporter noted this little speech:
"I must say, I'm a little envious," Bush said. "If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed."

"It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks," Bush said. 34

That has been interpreted as a claim that he wishes he were in combat which, given the context, may be too severe. However, even if he were referring to the civilians, and whether that was fantasy or fib, his comment shows that reality doesn't intrude very far into his world.

The White House transcript of the conference omits his ramblings about the front lines along with virtually everything in the Reuters story, including the comment that Mr. Bush "got an earful on Thursday about problems and progress in Afghanistan where a war has dragged on for more than six years but been largely eclipsed by Iraq." Instead, it preserved for posterity another W. cliché: "not only do we have brave and compassionate citizens willing to serve, but we've also got an ideology based upon liberty, which stands in stark contrast to the ideology of the thugs and murderers called the Taliban." 35

On Thursday, The President delivered a speech 36 designed to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. On the latter point, he offered a mix of good news, validating the surge, and the usual threats of dire consequences if we were to leave, requiring our permanent presence. The upbeat part required ignoring what was happening as he spoke. "Over the past year, we have seen significant security gains result from the surge." Isn't there warfare in Basra? Well yes: "Iraqi security forces are waging a tough battle against militia fighters and criminals in Basra -- many of whom have received arms and training and funding from Iran", and the battle "shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge." Never mind that other reports state that Shia factions, including one allied with Prime Minister Maliki, are fighting each other for control of the city, and that Americans now are involved in support - or in place - of those capable security forces.37 The fact that Maliki is on the scene shows leadership, not panic, doubts about the army's resolve, or factional interest. His leadership "demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them." Apparently those joining the mass anti-government demonstration in Baghdad didn't understand that. Mr. Bush referred to "signs of normalcy" but violence has increased; Iraqi fatalities this month already exceed those for any month since September 38, and a dozen rockets landed in the Green Zone Thursday, killing two Americans.

But it's all worth it. The speech ended with the standard flag-waving bromides:

Four thousand of our finest citizens have sacrificed their lives in this mission. . . . [T]he best way to honor the fallen is to complete the mission, and lay the foundation of peace.

All those who serve on the front lines of this struggle, this ideological struggle, this confrontation against those who murder innocent men, women and children to achieve their political objectives, are patriots who are upholding the highest ideals of our country. . . . When the history of this era is written, it will show that . . . the United States of America prevailed, and freedom advanced, and so did peace.

Also on Thursday, the President was interviewed by the [London] Times; its report shows that, in his attempts to describe his private world, Mr. Bush met himself coming back. The battle for Basra " 'was a very positive moment in the development of a sovereign nation that is willing to take on elements that believe they are beyond the law,' the President said." However, "President Bush gave warning yesterday that Iraq's 'fragile situation' required the US to maintain a strong military presence there."
But "he defended the withdrawal of British troops from Basra, the scene of heavy fighting in recent days " and "said that the pullback had been 'based upon success' in quelling violence . . . ." However, "Mr Bush, who had spent the morning being briefed on Iraq by the Pentagon before an imminent announcement on US troop levels, said that despite 'substantial gains' since the US military surge began last year, much work was needed to "maintain the success we've had'."

In that private world, he's still a plain-talkin' rancher; introducing Prime Minister Rudd of Australia, he said "I have found him to be a straightforward fellow. Being from Texas, that's the way I like it."

* Sorry; I didn't notice that pun at first.




April 7, 2008
When General Petraeus testifies tomorrow, no doubt many of the questions will deal with the "success" of the surge.
A month ago, it was alleged, and widely accepted, that there had been great progress because of the sharp decline in attacks and in American and Iraqi fatalities. The permanence of that change was suspect, as was the causal connection to the troop increase, because so much of the improvement was due to the self-interested cooperation of Sunni groups and the suspension of operations by the Mahdi army, either of which could change at any time.
The broader measures of success were to be the ability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain order without American help, and reconciliation between sectarian and ethnic factions. Any hope of the former was dashed by the performance of those forces against the uprising in Basra and, far from reconciling Sunnis and Shia, the surge has not brought peace even between Shia factions.
The diminution in violence in Baghdad was due in part to sectarian cleansing of neighborhoods; the lack of real pacification was revealed by the recent rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone. For these reasons, General Petraeus may have trouble supporting the administration's claim that our efforts have improved the situation.
However, it would be a mistake to concentrate on the effects of the surge or on any other tactical issue. The question which must be asked is "why should we stay there?"
The administration claims that "success" or "victory" or some such pleasant but ill-defined outcome is necessary to our national security. Let's ask the General to explain how that is so. Are Iraqi insurgents anxious and able to attack the United States? Are they more or less likely to if we continue to kill Iraqis, including combatants and bystanders in roughly equal numbers? Is al Qaeda in Iraq really part of the bin Laden organization? Is the perpetuation of operations in Iraq a better defense against another attack by al Qaeda than focusing efforts on the Afghan-Pakistani border? If not, why don't we redirect our efforts in that direction? Is there some other national-security reason for which there is anything resembling evidence?
President Bush has said that we must persevere so that those who have died will not have died in vain or, as a cartoon in today's P-I put it, "We must continue sending troops to die in Iraq in honor of the troops who've died in Iraq." General, is that sound military policy?
The noble fallback is that, if we leave, chaos will follow, and Iraqis will kill each other. Is the situation likely to be worse than it is now? On what evidence? Should American troops be sacrificed to prevent Iraqis from killing each other? If so, how many should we sacrifice, and how long should we wait for an indication that the bloodbath won't follow, and what is the indication we should look for?
Finally, General, are November 4, 2008 and January 20, 2009 significant dates in your planning? If so, why?

April 16, 2008

Although it has been some time since George W. Bush boasted of being a "war president," he still cherishes the title "commander-in-chief." Increasingly, however, he has the title but not the role. Determination of strategy and setting of force levels in Iraq has been handed to General Petraeus.

The President may have hoped that the General also could convince Congress that there is some point to staying the course. However, the General's attempts at justifying the continued occupation were pathetic. Asked by Senator Warner whether all of the sacrifice is "bringing about a more secure America," Petraeus first hedged ("There is no longer a ruthless dictator in Iraq"), then punted, ("Ultimately, it can only be answered by history, once the outcome in Iraq has been determined"). 39 Senator Bayh asked him to give an estimate of when we will be able to "recommence extricating ourselves by withdrawing more troops from Iraq, down to some longer-term level." Petraeus responded that, because "the way forward on reduction should be conditions-based, . . . it is just flat not responsible to try to put down a stake in the ground and say, 'This is when it will be,' or, 'That is when it will be.' " Bayh tried again, but got only this: "the appropriate way . . . is to make reductions when the conditions allow you to do that without unduly risking all that we've fought so hard to achieve." Finally,

Bayh: "And we don't know when that point will be?"

Petraeus: "Senator, when the conditions are met is when that point is." 40

But thank you for asking.

E.J. Dionne's column on April 11 offered an insightful appraisal of the situation. He offered this summary of the attempts to explain what we're doing there: "the current policy . . . [is] the equivalent of constructing an expensive road, under hazardous conditions, without being able to explain where the road will lead. The road becomes an end in itself. The point is to keep building it in the hope that it will eventually arrive at some lovely destination." A cartoon by Tony Auth put it even more succinctly; soldiers marching while singing "we're here because we're here because we're here because we're here."

President Bush's job rating has set a new record, although not one he would have wanted. He has passed Harry Truman with the longest stretch of approval ratings below 50%: 39 months and counting. In fourteen polls taken since March 1, Mr. Bush's approval rating has ranged from 28 to 35, disapproval from 60 to 68. The spread between the two runs from 27 to 40 points.41 This would suggest that parsing his comments no longer is worth the effort, that he is the lamest of lame ducks. In addition, with the possible exception of plans concerning the control of oil, his policy for Iraq simply is to run out the clock to January 20, so his tired rationales for the war would seem to be meaningless.

However, the President's delusions form the core of the Republican attitude toward the war and will be the focus of attacks on the "weak" Democrats between now and November, so they still matter. His speech on April 1042 set out the standard paradox: we're making great progress, so the surge was justified, but if we leave the world will end, so we must continue indefinitely. There still is some pretense of a happy ending, usually along the lines of a stable, democratic Iraq which can be an ally in the war on terror. However, the "lovely destination" of Dionne's description largely has faded, and has been replaced by the dire consequences of withdrawal, which bear an ironic resemblance to the excuses for invasion. We were told then to fear al Qaeda and Saddam's WMD; now it's al Qaeda and Iran's WMD: "Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century -- al Qaeda and Iran." Amazing that we have faced two so similar threats in so short a time, and that the second justifies the same war as the first.






April 24, 2008
An AP story revealed today that the United States is determined to combat piracy: the literal kind, not the violation of copyright. Pirates operate off several coasts, notably Somalia's. The headline of the article was "France, U.S. push for global attack on piracy." That might suggest that we are about to launch a Global War on Piracy (GWOP), which would send prisoners to black sites where they could be waterboarded in the name of national security. However, note the presence of the French who, despite their brutal past now are considered the model of civilization and restraint.
The U.S. and France reportedly are drafting a U.N. resolution that would allow
"countries" to pursue and arrest pirates in territorial waters of other countries. It isn't clear whether this would bestow carte blanche on any aggressive government to pursue "pirates" or whether some restrictions would apply. In any case, it certainly must be a French initiative, as the U.S. hasn't been much concerned about authorization to use force, nor about national boundaries or permission to cross them.

May 4, 2008

Traditional news media - can sixty years create a tradition? - are fading, failing, marching down the road to oblivion. The sixty-year life of television news certainly constitutes a tradition by the standards of current American culture, which is ignorant and frozen in the moment; and in any case newspapers, with a much longer history, are further along on the same path.

The battle for survival between The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times was resolved, for now, by an agreement in which "The Times agrees not to attempt to trigger an escape clause in the [Joint Operating Agreement], which could lead to closure of the P-I, until 2016." Since that agreement was reached last year, both papers have cut back in various ways. They have reduced the number of editorial and op-ed pages per week, and each now depends heavily on The New York Times for the latter. The first section of each paper, which contains most of the news, is less substantial. There is more fluff and trivia. Several sections of the Times look like advertising supplements.

Local television news is worse. It always has been, but it has declined in pace with the newspapers. KOMO no longer has reporters; it now has "people helpers." KING now devotes much of its broadcasts to snippets which are so short and lacking in context that only a mind reader could know what they mean, if anything; certainly the news readers do not seem to know. (Jean Enerson identifies the stories she understands by commenting "umm" at the end.)

National TV news is little better than the local variety. The NBC and ABC early-evening broadcasts now include "human-interest" segments which are so bad that the anchors, who no doubt consider themselves to be serious newsmen, must be embarrassed. Of course, whether they are such is in doubt, as revealed by the recent ABC gotcha circus masquerading as a presidential debate. (I have omitted CBS and its local affiliate because I never watch their news.)

An article in yesterday's Seattle Times said it all: the battle on Sunday's talk shows is not between Obama and Clinton (how boring and conventional), but between Tim Russert ("the more seasoned warrior") and George Stephanopoulos ("the younger upstart"). Trivialization has triumphed.

That article was reprinted from The New York Times, which brings us to the condition of the leading national papers. I have said enough about the decline of the Times, in its news sections and its op-ed pages,43 although its failings until now have been traceable to its blind acceptance of the administration's line rather than to silliness. The Washington Post, at least in its web edition, has offered both for some time.

The Post's op-ed page is dominated by an assembly of the rarely-correct: Will, Krauthammer, Cohen, Ignatius, Hoagland, Diehl. Its house editorials, having called for the war in Iraq, advocate staying the course, whatever that might be. As Greg Mitchell put it last year, "By now, nearly four years into the Iraq War and related controversies, one is tempted to simply disregard the Washington Post editorial page, and some of its regular columnists, on those matters: They have been so wrong on nearly everything for so long." 44

The Post's web front page, in addition to the usual lifestyle fluff, offers us political fluff. On Friday, a column called "The Fix," in which the writer refers to himself in the inanimate third person, listed "The Top Controgaffes of Campaign 08." The neologism refers to controversies or gaffes, and certainly we need more attention to those; discussing health care or war or the deficit might just confuse people or bore them. The top ten included gaffes by Huckabee, Biden, Edwards, Thompson and Romney; why should we care at this point? (I had not heard of, or had forgotten, three.) Number one, of course, was "Obama's association with his controversial former pastor," but the column added nothing in fact or analysis to the spate of reports.

Yesterday's web page included a link to an article about Chelsea Clinton. The link was captioned "Too Goody Goody?" This seemed a weird question, and in fact wasn't asked: the article was headed "Too Solemn for Her Generation?" Apparently the link title was simply a teaser. The article title wasn't altogether accurate either, as the main point was that it's difficult to learn much about Miss Clinton. The reporter, a seasoned 29-year old, tells us that this lack of information fueled his reporter's skepticism, a formula I have difficulty following. In any case, as Chelsea "doesn't give media interviews," he was forced to "get a sense of her bearing the way so many twentysomethings get our news: by watching YouTube clips . . . ." At the end, the writer addressed the question raised by his caption, and concluded that Chelsea is undermining her effectiveness as a campaigner by desiring privacy. His advice: she should "act our age." What a perfect reporter for today's media.


43. See comments of 11/30/03, 6/4/04 and 3/10/07

44. Quoted by Robert Parry:

May 7, 2008

Full disclosure: I never have been an admirer of Hillary Clinton.

I thought that the early enthusiasm for her candidacy was delusional because of all of the baggage, real or imaginary, that she had accumulated over the years of Bill Clinton's presidency. Also, she was visibly arrogant and tone-deaf politically, both of which appeared in her handling of the health-care bill. In retrospect, I didn't take into account the Anita Hill factor: female voters rallying around a woman seen to have been treated shabbily (re Monica), nor the enthusiasm among many women, and some men, for a female president. Even so, the aura of inevitability which grew up around her was baffling.

Now that we have been treated to months of campaigning, I have much greater respect for her political skills, but less for her character. Her arrogance carried over into the campaign, manifesting itself, among other forms, in a sense of entitlement. She has a reputation for brilliance, but that is in part a misreading of her arrogance; people who are loudly confident often are considered to be brilliant, whether or not so. Justice Scalia is a case in point.

Her campaign, early on, emphasized the specificity of her policy proposals, which certainly was a valid argument, especially as Senator Obama often spoke in generalities. It touted her experience which, up to a point, is fair, as Senator Obama has little and President Bush, whose tenure has been such a disaster, had virtually none. However, her involvement in foreign policy or national security has been exaggerated. She did not have security clearance as first lady, and therefore did not attend National Security Council meetings nor read the daily briefings. When asked what part Bill would play in her administration, she in effect admitted her own limited role: "he would play the role that spouses have always played for presidents," with no access to National Security Council meetings. However, she apparently began to believe her own propaganda; how else to explain the strange claim of landing under sniper fire?

The principal characteristic of her campaign has been the creation of a false personality, which was encapsulated in the picture of her holding (did she actually down it?) a shot of whiskey in a Pennsylvania bar. She also became a hunter, a chum of the blue-collar worker and a foe of NAFTA. Her tightly-wound personality was buried in clip after clip of forced smiles and manic laughter.

Her entire pitch looks distressingly like that of George W. Bush in 2004: one of the elite attacking elitism, trying to fool people into accepting her as just folks (but also as their protector against terrorists). Her latest attempt to pose as the friend of the average citizen has been the proposal to suspend the gas tax for the summer. Apparently voters are expected to believe that this will offset the effects of the recession and inflation, but it amounts to about $28 per driver, not enough to buy eight gallons of gas. Even that assumes that oil companies will not simply increase prices.

A few days ago, Dan Froomkin quoted blogger "Atrios": "Watching Bush speak you realize he's a really dumb person who thinks everyone in the room is even dumber than he is." Senator Clinton is an intelligent person who hopes, at least for now, that her audience is equally dumb.


I wrote that yesterday (Tuesday) before there were any results from the Indiana and North Carolina primaries. Those results suggest that it is time for Senator Clinton to withdraw. If the contest had been conducted on a high plane, producing real debate on real issues, there might be some excuse for prolonging it despite the numbers. However, Senator Clinton's campaign has abandoned substance for pandering and attacks; the latter continued today. Her aides returned to the argument that she has been thoroughly "vetted," whereas Obama may have skeletons in his closet; one aide warned of "an October surprise," some devastating but purely hypothetical revelation about him. That certainly is a mark of desperation. It is especially strange for Clinton to brag of having been vetted, when that process has produced many negatives, most of which have been ignored during the primaries but certainly would come out again before November.

A "Clinton adviser" said the situation increasingly was one in which "she cannot be nominated and he can't get elected." If she cannot be nominated, why stay in the race just to ensure that he can't be elected?

May 31, 2008

After being away for two weeks, I looked at the blog yesterday to see where I had left off. That turned out to be my comment May 7 about Hillary Clinton's candidacy, which needs a correction.

The opening sentence was this: "I thought that the early enthusiasm for her candidacy was delusional because of all of the baggage, real or imaginary, that she had accumulated over the years of Bill Clinton's presidency." That is not what I meant to say. I didn't, and don't, regard those who support Senator Clinton as delusional; what I meant to convey is that the expectation that she could be elected was unrealistic given the accusations which would be leveled against her, legitimately or otherwise.

The rest of my comment stands.

June 8, 2008

Random thoughts about recent news:

In a column in yesterday's Seattle Times, Tom Plate, professor and columnist, made fun of Sharon Stone's musing that the earthquake in China might be the result of bad karma flowing from repression in Tibet. Her theory was, if anyone took it seriously, pretty silly, but Plate wasn't content to point that out; he felt compelled to object to opinions by film people as a group, dismissing them as the "Hollywood Squares" and "America's High Pontificators." Has he noticed that he is one of the latter and, considering his residence in Beverly Hills, more or less one of the former? Are opinions valid only if offered by those paid (God knows why, in some cases) to produce them? Is Sharon Stone any nuttier than Ann Coulter?

Tim Russert, one of the professionals, told us a few days ago that being commander-in-chief was the most important role of a president. That might have been an apt observation during the election campaign of 1944, but at present it's ludicrous. It plays into the Bush-Cheney theory of governance, that the president is our protector and as such is above the law.

One of the challenges which will face the new president is to make health care more widely available and more affordable. An article in the June 12 issue of The New York Review of Books discussed a recent book which offers a view of economic policy which the authors call "libertarian paternalism." 45 The reviewer, John Cassidy, noted that the term sounds like an oxymoron, and he criticized the authors' belief that, to produce socially good results, it is enough merely to "nudge" people toward good behavior. As to health care, he worried that Barack Obama has been influenced by this non-authoritarian view, as shown by his refusal to mandate medical insurance, as Hillary Clinton would do:

Obama, as far as I know, doesn't refer to himself as a libertarian, but on occasion he appears to be unduly influenced by the need to preserve choice. Rather than mandating universal health coverage, for example, he has promised to set up a new, subsidized, government-operated insurance plan for people who aren't covered by their employers and who don't qualify for Medicare. . .

Failing to provide coverage for everyone is a serious fault, but Mr. Cassidy is too wedded to the private-insurance model to see that it creates the problem.
. . . But if a young and healthy person, for whatever reason, didn't want to buy health coverage, an Obama administration wouldn't compel that person to do so, despite the strong financial and moral arguments for expanding the risk pool. Just how to compel healthy young people to buy health insurance remains a large question; but it is one that should be addressed.

It is being addressed now, in Massachusetts. Its mandatory-insurance plan is about a year old, and has reduced the number of uninsured substantially. However, it does that by imposing a financial penalty on those able to buy insurance who do not do so. The penalty rose from $219 last year to a maximum of $912 ($1,824 for couples) this year. This seems like a convoluted way to provide universal care.

Oddly, Mr. Cassidy did not consider a medicare-type system, in which a government program would form the core of the plan, with private insurance used to provide additional benefits. That suggestion was provided in a column by Froma Harrop, in Friday's Seattle Times, which also criticized Obama's plan as insufficient:

The best idea is to enroll all Americans in Medicare. This would be much simpler and administratively cheaper than either the McCain or Obama (or Clinton) plan. As it now does for the elderly, Medicare would pick up most of the hospital and physician bills for everybody. An expanded Medicare would free businesses from the burden of providing medical care to employees and their kin.

Maybe I'm missing something, but that sounds like the right idea.


45. "Economics: Which Way for Obama?" by John Cassidy, reviewing Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

June 17, 2008

The political right (as distinguished from real conservatives), the politico-religious right (not to be confused with people who behave like Christians) and the right wing of the Republican Party (which is to say most of it) form a sorry group, one which in a better world we might disdain quietly. However, because of their skill in fooling voters into trusting them, we must take the "movement conservatives" seriously. To prevent their fooling the voters again, it is necessary to point out the massive hypocrisy embedded in their rhetoric and behavior.

One can begin with almost anything said by George W. Bush, such as his self-description as a uniter while practicing the politics of division, his "compassionate conservatism," which has been neither, and his claim to be advancing freedom and democracy by invading another nation and imposing military rule on it. He pretends to believe in human rights but subjects people to indefinite detention without cause. He has denounced the use of torture by Saddam, but we use it while he hides behind the casuistic arguments of his tame lawyers. He advocates personal responsibility but tells us that the use of torture at Abu Ghraib "was the wrongdoing of a few," not including those who authorized it.

Prior to 9-11, the administration showed no concern about terrorism, ignored warnings and was utterly unprepared. Mr. Bush reacted to the news of the attacks by sitting paralyzed, then by flying in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, he postures as the defender of the nation.

Having failed to capture bin Laden, Bush claimed that the real menace was Iraq, even though it had no connection to 9/11 and was no threat to us. He has continued to fawn over Saudi Arabia, which supplied most of the bombers. Although attacking Iraq had been contemplated from the beginning of his presidency, he pretended, until shock and awe began, that war was a last resort. Even though the decision to invade was made months before the event, he told a reporter a few days ago that "we tried to exhaust the diplomacy in Iraq." 46 Having sent forces to Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Bush declared himself a "war president" and played the commander-in-chief role to the hilt but, incredibly, told the same reporter, "I don't like war."

Being brave with other people's lives is not peculiar to this president, but his swagger, macho poses, bellicose rhetoric and callousness toward suffering are distinctive. "Support the troops" has become a tool for diverting criticism of his war policy rather than a goal; failures in medical care demonstrate the insincerity of the slogan.

The hypocrisy is not merely personal. It is embodied in the post-9/11 National Security Strategy, which counseled other nations to "defuse military confrontation" while reserving for us the right of pre-emptive war. This is a manifestation of American exceptionalism, which has become one of the core principles of the right. Another is that liberals are not real Americans. The latter notion leads to a politics of destruction, in which the aim is not to win any intellectual contests - that would require ideas - but to discredit and demonize the opposition. As no one is perfect, not even religious conservatives, that in turn leads to denouncing liberals for the same statements or behavior common on the right.

Take criticism of America as an example. There has been much hyperventilating about the remarks of Jeremiah Wright, but less about the comments of James Hagee, whose support McCain sought and welcomed until recently. McCain was untroubled by Hagee's declaration that the destruction of New Orleans was God's punishment for a proposed gay pride parade. The right might say that he was only denouncing gays (surely no issue there), not all Americans. However, Hagee apparently believes in collective American guilt, since the destruction of a city was, to him, appropriate punishment. Jerry Falwell's theory about 9/11, with which Pat Robertson concurred, was in the same vein: because America is so sinful, God withdrew His protection and allowed the attacks. That sounds a lot like "God damn America."

The right, perhaps because it has a pipeline to heaven, also is selective when it comes to redemption. Currently it is upset that Obama served on the board of a charity with Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, but the right is far more forgiving of its own. Elliot Abrams and Gordon Liddy were convicted of crimes; John Poindexter and Oliver North were convicted of crimes (although reversed on a "technicality": what a nice irony). Abrams and Poindexter were welcomed into the Bush administration; North and Liddy joined the right-wing pundit stable. Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction did not inhibit his lecturing us about drugs nor did William Bennet's gambling addiction interfere with his pose as the nation's conscience. Here is the true elitism: redemption is freely available to the elect.

However, the religious right holds views which suggest that the pipeline to heaven somehow got bent and ended up drawing from GOP headquarters. How else to explain that supposed Christians advocate war, capital punishment and elimination of welfare?

More redemption will be required, as "conservative" beliefs seem to have little effect on moral behavior. We have Abramoff, Reed, DeLay, Ney, Scanlon, Foley, Cunningham and Libby to contemplate, and that doesn't include all of those administration appointees who have run their agencies as tools of business or some other right-wing interest.

Perhaps the most blatant hypocrisy by the right is directed not only toward the nation but toward the voters who keep it in power. Republicans promise social conservatives a new moral order and promise nervous citizens protection from terrorism, but deliver precious little on either score. Instead they serve business. The war in Iraq follows the same pattern: the administration has announced a number of noble reasons for invading, occupying and staying but, apart from jihadists, the only beneficiaries have been favored businesses.

There's more. I hope that someone asks John McCain, who has his own problems with hypocrisy, a few questions along those lines.


46. 06/20080611-1.html

June 26, 2008

The administration suffered another well-deserved setback in the Supreme Court's decision in Boudmediene v. Bush. By a 5-4 margin, the Court held that the Guantánamo prisoners have the constitutional privilege of habeas corpus; they are not barred from seeking the writ or invoking the protections of the Suspension Clause because they have been designated as enemy combatants or because of their presence at Guantánamo. Congress attempted to bar this result in the Military Commissions Act, but the Court held that MCA's suspension of the writ is unconstitutional.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy, is not an impressive effort, but the dissents, by Justices Roberts and Scalia, are worse. Justice Souter offered a brief concurrence in response to the dissents.

The petitioners' status is summarized at the beginning of the majority opinion:

Some of these individuals were apprehended on the battlefield in Afghanistan, others in places as far away from there as Bosnia and Gambia. All are foreign nationals, but none is a citizen of a nation now at war with the United States. Each denies he is a member of the al Qaeda terrorist network that carried out the September 11 attacks or of the Taliban regime that provided sanctuary for al Qaeda. Each petitioner appeared before a separate CSRT; was determined to be an enemy combatant; and has sought a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.


All of the opinions rely on the history of legislation and litigation over the status of Guantánamo prisoners, the short of which is this:

Following 9-11, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force, under which the President is authorized

to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

On February 7, 2002, President Bush "determined" that Taliban detainees were unlawful combatants and that neither Taliban nor al Qaeda detainees qualified to be treated as prisoners of war.47

Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American citizen, was seized by members of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of military groups opposed to the Taliban government, and eventually was turned over to the United States military. He was then a resident of Afghanistan. He was sent to Guantánamo, but transferred to the naval brig in Norfolk, Virginia after his citizenship was determined, then to a brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was held as an enemy combatant. Hamdi's father, acting as next friend, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under Hamdi v. Rumsfeld.

The District Court found that a hearsay declaration by an obscure government employee was not a sufficient basis for detaining the petitioner as an enemy combatant. The Court of Appeals reversed. The case reached the Supreme Court in 2004. No opinion commanded a majority, but six justices concurred in the result, which was to reverse the Court of Appeals and remand for a determination of status which would satisfy due process. The plurality opinion written by Justice O'Conner concluded that detention of an enemy combatant, properly so classified, could continue until the end of hostilities, left undefined.

On the same day, the Supreme Court decided Rasul v. Bush, which held that the courts have jurisdiction, under the habeas corpus statute, to hear petitions from prisoners at Guantánamo.

In response to Hamdi, the Department of Defense (DoD) created Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) to determine whether prisoners at Guantánamo were enemy combatants.

At the end of 2005, Congress passed the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, which contained an amendment known as the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA). The DTA declared that no court shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus or any other action against the United States relating to any aspect of the detention of an alien at Guantánamo who has been determined to have been "properly detained" as an enemy combatant. That determination is to be made by CSRTs, with appeal only to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The appeal is limited to

(i) whether the status determination of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal with regard to such alien was consistent with the standards and procedures specified by the Secretary of Defense for Combatant Status Review Tribunals (including the requirement that the conclusion of the Tribunal be supported by a preponderance of the evidence and allowing a rebuttable presumption in favor of the Government's evidence); and

(ii) to the extent the Constitution and laws of the United States are applicable, whether the use of such standards and procedures to make the determination is consistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.

In 2006, the Supreme Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, held that the removal of jurisdiction in the DTA did not apply to cases pending when it was passed. Hamdan also held that the military commissions set up by the DoD were not authorized by statute and failed to provide the protections required by the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In response, still in 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act (MCA), which declared that the removal of jurisdiction in the DTA applies to all actions pending on the date of the MCA. That leads us to Boumedeine, a proceeding which would have been barred under the MCA.

The majority agreed that the MCA does remove jurisdiction. The question then becomes whether, despite the MCA, the right to habeas corpus is preserved by the Constitution, which provides that "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases or Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

Majority Opinion

The majority embarked on a review of the history of habeas corpus, including such fascinating but barely illuminating questions such as whether Guantánamo resembles Scotland and Hanover, where the English writ did not run, or the Channel Islands, Berwick-on-Tweed, Wales, counties palatine, the Cinque Ports, Ireland or India, to which it did. For what it may be worth, Guantánamo probably is more like Scotland and Hanover, which were not under English sovereignty, than the others, which were; the government so argued and Justice Scalia agreed. The majority found "evidence as to the geographic scope of the writ at common law informative, but . . . not dispositive," partly because it found the historical record to be incomplete. This is a debate the majority should have avoided altogether, as the dissent has the better of it, and recourse to English history played into Scalia's argument based on original meaning, i.e. what habeas corpus law was in the eighteenth century.

The majority also should have stated clearly that the technicalities of sovereignty would not be determinative. The United States has total and potentially unending control over Guantánamo. The "sovereignty" retained by Cuba is a phantom; giving it any analytic significance would be an inexcusable triumph of form over substance. As we'll see, that is what Justice Scalia proposes. The majority instead based its decision on the potential for abuse in arrangements like those at Guantánamo.

. . . The necessary implication of the [government's] argument is that by surrendering formal sovereignty over any unincorporated territory to a third party, while at the same time entering into a lease that grants total control over the territory back to the United States, it would be possible for the political branches to govern without legal constraint."

Our basic charter cannot be contracted away like this. The Constitution grants Congress and the President the power to acquire, dispose of, and govern territory, not the power to decide when and where its terms apply. . . .

Although it did not suggest that Guantánamo was established with Constitutional mischief in mind, the majority feared that separation of powers and its role as arbiter of the law were at stake.
Abstaining from questions involving formal sovereignty and territorial governance is one thing. To hold the political branches have the power to switch the Constitution on or off at will is quite another. The former position reflects this Court's recognition that certain matters requiring political judgments are best left to the political branches. The latter would permit a striking anomaly in our tripartite system of government, leading to a regime in which Congress and the President, not this Court, say "what the law is." . . .

These concerns have particular bearing upon the Suspension Clause question in the cases now before us, for the writ of habeas corpus is itself an indispensable mechanism for monitoring the separation of powers. The test for determining the scope of this provision must not be subject to manipulation by those whose power it is designed to restrain.

The majority did not hold that the CSRT procedures fail to satisfy due process, which allowed the dissenters to argue that the CSRTs provide an adequate substitute for habeas corpus. However, the majority demonstrated otherwise:
. . . [T]he procedural protections afforded to the detainees in the CSRT hearings . . . fall well short of the procedures and adversarial mechanisms that would eliminate the need for habeas corpus review. Although the detainee is assigned a "Personal Representative" to assist him during CSRT proceedings, the Secretary of the Navy's memorandum makes clear that person is not the detainee's lawyer or even his "advocate." . . . The Government's evidence is accorded a presumption of validity . . . . The detainee is allowed to present "reasonably available" evidence, . . . but his ability to rebut the Government's evidence against him is limited by the circumstances of his confinement and his lack of counsel at this stage. And although the detainee can seek review of his status determination in the Court of Appeals, that review process cannot cure all defects in the earlier proceedings. . . .

Petitioners identify what they see as myriad deficiencies in the CSRTs. The most relevant for our purposes are the constraints upon the detainee's ability to rebut the factual basis for the Government's assertion that he is an enemy combatant. As already noted, . . . at the CSRT stage the detainee has limited means to find or present evidence to challenge the Government's case against him. He does not have the assistance of counsel and may not be aware of the most critical allegations that the Government relied upon to order his detention [referring to his lack of access to classified information]. . . . The detainee can confront witnesses that testify during the CSRT proceedings. . . . But given that there are in effect no limits on the admission of hearsay evidence - the only requirement is that the tribunal deem the evidence "relevant and helpful,. . . - the detainee's opportunity to question witnesses is likely to be more theoretical than real.

The majority argued that Congress did not even intend an adequate substitute. "To the extent any doubt remains about Congress' intent, the legislative history confirms what the plain text strongly suggests: In passing the DTA Congress did not intend to create a process that differs from traditional habeas corpus process in name only. It intended to create a more limited procedure."

The "collateral" nature of habeas corpus - the fact that is it provides review by another branch of government - is a critical issue in the "adequacy" debate. As the majority put it, "Habeas corpus is a collateral process that exists, in Justice Holmes' words, to cu[t] through all forms and g[o] to the very tissue of the structure. It comes in from the outside, not in subordination to the proceedings, and although every form may have been preserved opens the inquiry whether they have been more than an empty shell.' "

The Roberts dissent

Chief Justice Roberts opened his dissenting opinion with an odd comment: "One cannot help but think, after surveying the modest practical results of the majority's ambitious opinion, that this decision is not really about the detainees at all, but about control of federal policy regarding enemy combatants." Of course it is in part about the latter, but it is the dissenters who ignore the human element. Justice Souter, in his concurrence, put the matter in context:

. . . [I]n this Court's exercise of responsibility to preserve habeas corpus something much more significant is involved than pulling and hauling between the judicial and political branches. . . [I]t is enough to repeat that some of these petitioners have spent six years behind bars. After six years of sustained executive detentions in Guantanamo, subject to habeas jurisdiction but without any actual habeas scrutiny, today's decision is no judicial victory, but an act of perseverance in trying to make habeas review, and the obligation of the courts to provide it, mean something of value both to prisoners and to the Nation.

Justice Roberts leaned on the usual fearful-patriot reed in criticizing the result: courts, in considering habeas petitions, "will have to reconcile review of the prisoners' detention with the undoubted need to protect the American people from the
terrorist threat . . . ." However, since the aim of the habeas petitions is the modest one of challenging whether the prisoners are "enemy combatants" - the governments' own chosen test for danger - no such dilemma is presented.

At least four times, Justice Roberts professed to be unsure what rights the prisoners have, and criticized the majority for not specifying what they are. However, on the third occasion, he answered his own question and then inadvertently pointed out why habeas relief is required:

The majority strikes down the statute because it is not an "adequate substitute" for habeas review, . . .but fails to show what rights the detainees have that cannot be vindicated by the DTA system.

Because the central purpose of habeas corpus is to test the legality of executive detention, the writ requires most fundamentally an Article III court able to hear the prisoner's claims and, when necessary, order release. . . .

He then stated the issue clearly and invoked the plurality opinion in Hamdi as support for denying habeas:
. . . The only issue in dispute is the process the Guantanamo prisoners are entitled to use to test the legality of their detention. Hamdi concluded that American citizens detained as enemy combatants are entitled to only limited process, and that much of that process could be supplied by a military tribunal, with review to follow in an Article III court. That is precisely the system we have here. . . .

Justice Roberts argued that the appeal which could be taken from CSRTs to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit "provides an Article III court competent to order release." However, the appeal is limited and an appeal is no substitute for a hearing before fair tribunals, which the majority correctly concluded the CSRTs are not.

His argument is dependent on the precedential value of the plurality opinion in Hamdi, which had suggested that military tribunals might be appropriate for the task and that due process might be defined downward. Apparently a non-majority opinion qualifies as precedent, although barely; certainly Hamdi's is a weak one.

In Hamdi, the government was unable - or, more likely, unwilling - to define "enemy combatant," which should have led to rejection of the government's claims. If it could not even define the term it relied upon, which meant that it could not articulate a basis for Hamdi's detention, it should have lost. Instead, the plurality provided a definition:

The threshold question before us is whether the Executive has the authority to detain citizens who qualify as "enemy combatants." There is some debate as to the proper scope of this term, and the Government has never provided any court with the full criteria that it uses in classifying individuals as such. It has made clear, however, that, for purposes of this case, the "enemy combatant" that it is seeking to detain is an individual who, it alleges, was " 'part of or supporting forces hostile to the United States or coalition partners' " in Afghanistan and who " 'engaged in an armed conflict against the United States' " there. . . .. We therefore answer only the narrow question before us: whether the detention of citizens falling within that definition is authorized.

Although, as noted below, the government ignored the definition, it was happy to accept the suggestion regarding military tribunals, after its fashion. It set up CSRTs to determine whether the detainees "are properly classified as enemy combatants and to permit each detainee the opportunity to contest such designation." 48 However, this would not be an original determination. Every prisoner already has been declared or assumed to be an enemy combatant, so the function of the tribunal is to confirm or reject that classification. The Order Establishing Combatant Status Review Tribunal dated July 7, 2004 states that "Each detainee subject to this Order has been determined to be an enemy combatant through multiple levels of review by officers of the Department of Defense." 49 During debate in 2005 on the Graham Amendment (which became the Detainee Treatment Act), Senator Lieberman claimed that the amendment would affect only someone who was "determined to be an enemy combatant in the world war on terrorism." A spokeswoman for Senator Snowe said, "after all, we're talking about enemy combatants." 50

Justice Roberts acknowledged this: "The majority is . . . wrong to characterize the CSRTs as part of [the] initial determination process. They are instead a means for detainees to challenge the Government's determination." He added that the CSRTs are not "a method used by the Executive for determining the prisoners' status. Instead they are "part of the collateral review to test the validity of that determination." His point was that habeas is not required because the CSRT will provide the same level of review, but in the process of making that argument he conceded that the determinations already have been made. The review by a CSRT hardly can be described as "collateral," as it is another part of a well-integrated administration effort. It is so far from being independent that a script for its sessions was provided by the DoD. 51 As the majority pointed out, independent review is especially important here: "Where a person is detained by executive order, rather than, say, after being tried and convicted in a court, the need for collateral review is most pressing."

In at least one respect CSRT procedures do not even satisfy the forgiving standards of Hamdi: the plurality stated that the petitioner "unquestionably has the right to access to counsel in connection with the proceedings on remand." The CSRTs prohibit representation by legal counsel.52 Justice Roberts argued that it is enough that counsel is allowed if and when a case reaches the Court of Appeals.

Not satisfied with the definition offered in Hamdi, the DoD created a new one for the CSRTs:

An "enemy combatant" for purposes of this order shall mean an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or al Qaida forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces.53

That is not so much a definition as a list of undefined terms. What are Taliban or al Qaida forces? They don't wear uniforms or insignia (a fact the government uses to argue against POW status), and they aren't likely to carry ID cards, so how are they identified? What are associated forces? Were the Iraqi Sunnis who supported al Qaeda in Iraq "associated forces?" If so, why did we bribe them rather than imprisoning them? Who are our coalition partners? Does that include every country that was at any time part of the "coalition of the willing?" Or does it include only those countries which had forces in Iraq or Afghanistan when the alleged combatant committed his alleged act? Or are the acts not limited to Iraq and Afghanistan? If someone is suspected of a terrorist act in South Korea, may we pick him up off the street and dump him into Guantánamo? Let's give a pass to "belligerent act," although it's not free from ambiguity. What constitutes direct support? What are enemy armed forces? Were the 9-11 bombers an armed force? This is not a definition but an attempt to disguise a presumption as the result of deliberation.

The almost limitless breadth of the enemy-combatant category, as defined for the CSRTs, is illustrated by an exchange in Rasul, cited in Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power:

Brian Boyle, from the office of the Attorney General, represented the government. Judge Green questioned Boyle about the government's definition of "enemy combatant.". . . What it meant to "support" the Taliban or al-Qaeda was not made clear, and Judge Green posed a series of hypothetical questions to identify the limits of the Administration's position.

What about, she asked, "a little old lady in Switzerland who writes checks to what she thinks is a charity that helps orphans but really is a front to finance al-Qaeda activities. Would she be considered an enemy combatant?" She could be, Boyle answered, noting that the military would not be "disabled" from detaining her even if she did not intend that the money go to terrorism. A "resident of London who collects money from worshippers at mosques to support a hospital in Syria, but entrusts the money for that purpose to someone who is an al-Qaeda member?" She, too, could be legally categorized as an enemy combatant under the Administration's definition, Or "a resident of Dublin ... who teaches English to the son of a person who the CIA knows to be a member of al-Qaeda?" Yes, Boyle said, because unbeknownst to the teacher, the al-Qaeda agent might be learning English as part of his plot to launch an attack.

The author, counsel for Rasul, summarized the situation well: "It became apparent that, in the Administration's view, the power to designate a person an enemy combatant is, as a practical matter, unlimited, bound only by the president's unenforceable promise to exercise it wisely." 54 As the examples show, one can be an "enemy" without knowing or intending it, and "combatant" loses all meaning.

Even if a consistent and meaningful definition of "enemy combatant" were used, the inquiry as to status would be only half complete. According to Ex parte Quirin, the source for the term "enemy combatant," there are two distinct categories of that status:

By universal agreement and practice the law of war draws a distinction between the armed forces and the peaceful populations of belligerent nations and also between those who are lawful and unlawful combatants. Lawful combatants are subject to capture and detention as prisoners of war by opposing military forces. Unlawful combatants are likewise subject to capture and detention, but in addition they are subject to trial and punishment by military tribunals for acts which render their belligerency unlawful. . . .

This requires that the captor decide which combatants are lawful, who must be treated as POWs, and which are unlawful, who may be tried for war crimes. The government does not treat the Guantánamo prisoners as POWs,55 and avoids the issue by referring to them generically as enemy combatants or by assuming the answer
and calling them unlawful combatants.

The Scalia dissent

Justice Scalia was equally untroubled by the defects in the government's procedures, and content to presume that the prisoners all are "enemy combatants." He referred to "aliens held by the United States military as enemy combatants at the base in Guantanamo Bay." Later, he dropped the qualifier and asserted that "the prisoners here are enemy combatants." He also referred to them as "enemy prisoners" and "enemy aliens" (twice each). I suppose that if we assume the result, it clears calendars.

Justice Scalia out-patrioted the Chief Justice: "America is at war with radical Islamists. . . . [O]ne need only walk about buttressed and barricaded Washington, or board a plane anywhere in the country, to know that the threat is a serious one." The decision "will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."

He accused the majority of "bait-and-switch," apparently meaning that the administration, relying on its impression of the law, established the prison at Guantánamo believing it was beyond the reach of habeas corpus:

. . . The President relied on our settled precedent in Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U. S. 763 (1950), when he established the prison at Guantanamo Bay for enemy aliens. Citing that case, the President's Office of Legal Counsel56 advised him "that the great weight of legal authority indicates that a federal district court could not properly exercise habeas jurisdiction over an alien detained at [Guantanamo Bay]." Memorandum from Patrick F. Philbin and John C. Yoo, Deputy Assistant Attorneys General, Office of Legal Counsel, to William J. Haynes II, General Counsel, Dept. of Defense (Dec. 28, 2001). Had the law been otherwise, the military surely would not have transported prisoners there, but would have kept them in Afghanistan, transferred them to another of our foreign military bases, or turned them over to allies for detention. Those other facilities might well have been worse for the detainees themselves.

I have difficulty with the notion that it's unfair to the administration to upset its devious scheme to put its practices beyond scrutiny, whatever it may have relied upon. It's even more difficult where the reliance is in part on the servile opinions of John Yoo. If it had anticipated this decision, the administration might indeed have put the prisoners somewhere else, and they might have been treated even more harshly than at Guantánamo. However, assuming that Scalia really cares about that, they are there, and they aren't likely to be sent to a worse place with the light finally shining; Scalia's accusation that the decision might "reduce the well-being of enemy combatants that the Court ostensibly seeks to protect" is bluster.

Justice Scalia argued that Eisentrager should control the result, so let's look at that. Twenty-one Germans were captured in China after Germany's surrender in World War II, but before Japan's. They were transferred to Landsberg Prison, an American military facility located in the American Zone of occupation in postwar Germany. An American military commission sitting there convicted them of war crimes, i.e. collaborating with the Japanese. The prisoners claimed that their detentions violated the Constitution and international law, and sought a writ of habeas corpus. Although he proceeded to find Eisentrager controlling, Justice Scalia made a strange comment as to status: "The category of prisoner comparable to these [Guantánamo] detainees are not the Eisentrager criminal defendants, but the more than 400,000 prisoners of war detained in the United States alone during World War II." However, the government refuses to grant POW status, and threatens to try some of the Guantánamo detainees as war criminals, as it did the Eisentrager defendants.

In Eisentrager, the District Court dismissed the habeas petition, but was reversed by the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court reversed in turn. It noted that a "resident enemy alien" had a right to challenge "the existence of a state of war and whether he is an alien enemy and so subject to the Alien Enemy Act," but held that "the nonresident enemy alien, especially one who has remained in the service of the enemy, does not have even this qualified access to our courts . . . ."

Justice Scalia claimed that "Eisentrager thus held - held beyond any doubt - that the Constitution does not ensure habeas for aliens held by the United States in areas over which our Government is not sovereign." However, Eisentrager made only passing reference to sovereignty:

We have pointed out that the privilege of litigation has been extended to aliens, whether friendly or enemy, only because permitting their presence in the country implied protection. No such basis can be invoked here, for these prisoners at no relevant time were within any territory over which the United States is sovereign, and the scenes of their offense, their capture, their trial and their punishment were all beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any court of the United States.

The majority argued that the decision was based on several factors and was a prudential result. It quoted another passage in Eisentrager which set out the factors in its decision without reference to sovereignty:
In addition to the practical concerns discussed above, the Eisentrager Court found relevant that each petitioner:

"(a) is an enemy alien; (b) has never been or resided in the United States; (c) was captured outside of our territory and there held in military custody as a prisoner of war; (d) was tried and convicted by a Military Commission sitting outside the United States; (e) for offenses against laws of war committed outside the United States; (f) and is at all times imprisoned outside the United States." 339 U. S., at 777.

Based on this language from Eisentrager, and the reasoning in our other extraterritoriality opinions, we conclude that at least three factors are relevant in determining the reach of the Suspension Clause: (1) the citizenship and status of the detainee and the adequacy of the process through which that status determination was made; (2) the nature of the sites where apprehension and then detention took place; and (3) the practical obstacles inherent in resolving the prisoner's entitlement to the writ.

This is a sensible theory, but it takes some effort to read it into Eisentrager. Scalia has the better of the argument as to the meaning of that decision.

What his argument overlooks is that the concept of sovereignty is meaningless as applied to Guantánamo. The U. S. holds the base under a lease, which the Court described as follows in Rasul:

. . . Under the Agreement, "the United States recognizes the continuance of the ultimate sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba over the [leased areas]," while "the Republic of Cuba consents that during the period of the occupation by the United States ... the United States shall exercise complete jurisdiction and control over and within said areas." In 1934, the parties entered into a treaty providing that, absent an agreement to modify or abrogate the lease, the lease would remain in effect "[s]o long as the United States of America shall not abandon the ... naval station of Guantanamo."

The U.S., therefore, has complete and potentially perpetual jurisdiction and control of the base. Cuba's "sovereignty," under such circumstances, is an illusion. A legal theory ought not to be based on an illusion, nor should men's rights be determined by it.




49. and

50. Anthony Lewis, "Prisoners of the Senate," The New York Times, Nov 15, 2005




54. Joseph Margulies, Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, pp. 205-06, citing the transcript of oral argument in District Court.

55.; see fn. 1 supra.

56. Actually the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel

July 6, 2008

The Supreme Court included in its burst of provocative decisions a repudiation of the handgun ban in Washington, D.C. Heller v. District of Columbia was decided by the 5-4, which-side-is-Kennedy-on, split which will determine most controversial cases for the foreseeable future.

Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, joined predictably by Justices Roberts, Thomas and Alito, and less predictably by Kennedy, who often shies away from doctrinaire rationales such as Scalia offered. Justices Stevens and Breyer wrote dissents, each joined by the other and by Justices Souter and Ginsberg.

It was the Court's task to determine whether the District of Columbia gun-control law runs afoul of the Second Amendment. The relevant sections of the D.C. code were not set out in the Court's opinion, and they are not models of clarity. However, there was no disagreement on the Court as to meaning. The best summary appears in Justice Breyer's dissenting opinion:

The present suit involves challenges to three separate District firearm restrictions. The first requires a license from the District's Chief of Police in order to carry a "pistol," i.e., a handgun, anywhere in the District. . . .

The second District restriction requires that the lawful owner of a firearm keep his weapon "unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device" unless it is kept at his place of business or being used for lawful Recreational purposes. . . .


The third District restriction prohibits (in most cases) the registration of a handgun within the District. . . . Because registration is a prerequisite to firearm possession, . . . the effect of this provision is generally to prevent people in the District from possessing handguns. . . .57

The majority opinion summarized the dispute as follows:
[The plaintiff] applied for a registration certificate for a handgun that he wished to keep at home, but the District refused. He thereafter filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia seeking, on Second Amendment grounds, to enjoin the city from enforcing the bar on the registration of handguns, the licensing requirement insofar as it prohibits the carrying of a firearm in the home without a license, and the trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the use of "functional firearms within the home."

The District Court dismissed the complaint, but the Court of Appeals reversed and the District of Columbia sought this review.

Apparently the first section of the law would have prohibited "carrying" a pistol on one's own property, including within a residence. However, it passed out of the case because the District conceded that, if the ban on possession - the third section of the law - were overturned, the plaintiff could qualify for a license. Apparently this concession was limited to possession within the home. The District also conceded that an exception for self-defense was implied by the second section, but the majority declined to decide the issue on that basis.

The Second Amendment states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." In 1939, the Court decided, in Miller v. United States, that the right to keep and bear arms was limited to providing for a militia. The burden was on the majority in Heller to articulate a convincing reason to reject that holding and to adopt a different interpretation of an ambiguous constitutional provision. However, it did not approach its task in that manner, but instead argued that the Amendment clearly allows possession of guns for defense of the home, an argument advanced in Scalia's characteristically rude, blustering style. The majority opinion is something of a muddle, partly because of the peculiarity of the statute, but mostly because of the lack of amy coherent theory of decision.

The constitutional debate largely has been whether the first part of the Amendment, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," 58 limits the right to keep and bear arms. The Court59 labeled that the "prefatory clause," the rest the "operative clause." Its opinion runs to 64 pages, but the decision in effect was announced on page 4: "a prefatory clause does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause." Therefore, in the Court's judgment, the right to keep and bear arms is not limited to supporting a militia. It reached that conclusion in this way:

Logic demands that there be a link between the stated purpose and the command. The Second Amendment would be nonsensical if it read, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to petition for redress of grievances shall not be infringed." That requirement of logical connection may cause a prefatory clause to resolve an ambiguity in the operative clause. . . . But apart from that clarifying function, a prefatory clause does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause. . . . Therefore, while we will begin our textual analysis with the operative clause, we will return to the prefatory clause to ensure that our reading of the operative clause is consistent with the announced purpose.

This is disingenuous. In the second ellipsis, the Court referred to sources discussing statutes. A statute may indeed go beyond its preamble; it is hardly the same thing to allege that part of a sentence should be ignored in determining its meaning.

The rest of the opinion is a reply to the dissents and an unconvincing attempt to find support for the majority's view. Having disposed of the "preamble," it proceeded to interpret the "operative clause," i.e. "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." There followed a brief discussion of whether the right is collective or individual. Although the language is ambiguous - "the right of the people" - the Court decided that it is individual: "We start therefore with a strong presumption that the Second Amendment right is exercised individually and belongs to all Americans."

The Court turned next to considering the meaning of "keep and bear Arms." It analyzed the words separately and disparaged the argument of Justice Stevens that "bear arms" was a term of art referring to military service. I think that Stevens has the better of this argument, but the majority continued on its course of assuming that its interpretation of an ambiguous clause must be correct.

In order to decide whether the D.C. law offends the Constitution, the Court needed to give some substance to the right to keep arms. First it decided the issue of textual interpretation: "Putting all of these textual elements together, we find that they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation." However, that can't be found in the text. As Justice Stevens put it, "No party or amicus urged this interpretation; the Court appears to have fashioned it out of whole cloth."

The majority then turned to history, primarily to a discussion of the English Bill of Rights, which provided, in the aftermath of alleged persecution of Protestants under James II, that "the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law." According to Justice Scalia's orignalist interpretation, the right embodied in the Second Amendment must have been the right which existed in England at the time of its drafting (or passage by Congress, or ratification, or something). He interpreted the right to run to individuals and, as it extended to "their defense," it wasn't limited to militias; therefore the American version couldn't have been. However, even accepting originalism, invoking a right limited to Protestants and, apparently, effective against the Crown but not against Parliament, and giving a right to arms only "suitable to their conditions" (which probably means rank), seems to raise as many questions as it answers. The Court interpreted the English right to include self-defense, which is plausible, but how does that become "in case of confrontation"? Most confrontations are not life-threatening, which is one reason for laws such as D.C.'s.

At the end of its discussion of the English Bill of Rights, the Court decided that there are limitations:

There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment's right of free speech was not . . . . Thus, we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose. . . .

However, before telling us what the limitations are, the Court devoted 32 pages to defending its decision.

First, it considered "whether the prefatory clause of the Second Amendment comports with our interpretation of the operative clause," which, as noted, meant only finding "a link between the stated purpose and the command." That was accomplished by assuming the dimensions of the right to bear arms, including, in the Court's view, self-defense and hunting, and concluding that all of those rights were protected by the Amendment, even though it does not mention them. About all that can be said for this reading is that the "preamble" does not make it impossible. That is all that the Court attempted or needed.

The opinion went on to discuss state constitutional provisions, some adopted before the Amendment, some after. The former might aid in interpreting the meaning of terms at the time, but the latter seem irrelevant. There followed a discussion of the "drafting history" of the Amendment, which might shed more light on intent, but that subject was given only a brief mention. Next came an extended history of nineteenth century law and commentary, each successive example shedding less light on what the Amendment meant when adopted. Finally the Court considered its prior decisions; it interpreted Miller, unpersuasively, as not holding that the Amendment is limited to militias.

Upon returning to the topic of limitations, the Court held as follows:

. . . From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. . . . Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

What is the basis for these exceptions? Did those limitations exist in the eighteenth century? It gets more confusing. In the next paragraph, the Court said this:
We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those "in common use at the time." . . . We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of "dangerous and unusual weapons." See 4 Blackstone 148-149 (1769) . . . .

However, earlier, it had said this:

Some have made the argument, bordering on the frivolous, that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment. We do not interpret constitutional rights that way. Just as the First Amendment protects modern forms of communications, . . . and the Fourth Amendment applies to modern forms of search, . . . the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.

The handguns in use today were unknown in the eighteenth century. Certainly they would be "dangerous and unusual" by the standards of the time. Are they protected?

Note that "keep and bear arms," arguably a term of limited meaning, has become "keep and carry arms."

At this point, on page 56, the Court turned to the statute in question. It found the ban on possession, the third part of the statute, to be unconstitutional because it interferes with defense of the home:

As the quotations earlier in this opinion demonstrate, the inherent right of self- defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. The handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of "arms" that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for that lawful purpose. The prohibition extends, moreover, to the home, where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute. . . .

In the Court's view, support for militias not only isn't the sole purpose of the Amendment, it isn't even the most important. Somehow, even though it is not mentioned, self-defense in the home has that distinction: "whatever else [the Second Amendment] leaves to future evaluation, it surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home." How do we identify law-abiding, responsible citizens? What laws must they abide? Responsible about what? Why are only they entitled to defend their homes, that defense being a core constitutional principle?

As noted, the Court declined to read into the second section of the statute an exception for self-defense. Therefore it found that section unconstitutional as well:

We must also address the District's requirement (as applied to respondent's handgun) that firearms in the home be rendered and kept inoperable at all times. This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional.

This is dependant on finding an inherent right to self-defense, not today but in the eighteenth century: "Constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them, whether or not future legislatures or (yes) even future judges think that scope too broad."

Here is the Court's summary of its holding: "the District's ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense."

The holding and the opinion tell us little about the fate of any other law. The issue of whether the Second Amendment applies to state laws was not before the Court, and therefore not decided. However, the majority opinion quoted and relied upon a nineteenth-century commentator who so believed. The passage quoted unnecessarily included his reference to states, so perhaps a hint was dropped. More litigation will follow.

We do not know what the right is that the Court has affirmed. Weapons unknown to the eighteenth century may or may not be protected. There are exceptions to the right to have a gun, but what are they? One may carry a gun around in his house, but may he carry it anywhere else? Where do we go, ultimately, to find the substance of this constitutionally protected right?


Justice Stevens looked at the same materials as the majority but reached the opposite result.
The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people of each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia. It was a response to concerns raised during the ratification of the Constitution that the power of Congress to disarm the state militias and create a national standing army posed an intolerable threat to the sovereignty of the several States. Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature's authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.

In placing the burden on the majority, Justice Stevens relied on Miller and also referred to a comment in a 1980 decision: "These legislative restrictions on the use of firearms are neither based upon constitutionally suspect criteria, nor do they entrench upon any constitutionally protected liberties. See United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, 178 (1939) (the Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have 'some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia')." The majority opinion discounted that quote as dictum, but it is evidence that as recently as 1980, the Miller rule was considered to be the law. Justice Stevens continued,
The opinion the Court announces today fails to identify any new evidence supporting the view that the Amendment was intended to limit the power of Congress to regulate civilian uses of weapons. Unable to point to any such evidence, the Court stakes its holding on a strained and unpersuasive reading of the Amendment's text; significantly different provisions in the 1689 English Bill of Rights, and in various 19th-century State Constitutions; postenactment commentary that was available to the Court when it decided Miller; and, ultimately, a feeble attempt to distinguish Miller that places more emphasis on the Court's decisional process than on the reasoning in the opinion itself.

That is a fair summary of the majority opinion.

Justice Stevens also attempted to show, by textual analysis and the "drafting history" that the Miller interpretation is the correct one. Although the text is undeniably ambiguous, he was more successful than the majority. As he pointed out, even assuming that the "preamble" is not limiting, broader language would have been used if Congress intended to protect a more general right to own weapons. As to the historical argument, he conceded that the Court may be correct that the English Bill of Rights protected the right of some English subjects to use arms for personal self-defense. "But that right--adopted in a different historical and political context and framed in markedly different language--tells us little about the meaning of the Second Amendment." As to the majority's original-meaning, "enshrinement" argument, "the right the Court announces was not "enshrined" in the Second Amendment by the Framers; it is the product of today's law-changing decision."


Justice Breyer, in addition to joining Justice Stevens' dissent, argued that
. . . . The Amendment permits government to regulate the interests that it serves. Thus, irrespective of what those interests are--whether they do or do not include an independent interest in self-defense--the majority's view cannot be correct unless it can show that the District's regulation is unreasonable or inappropriate in Second Amendment terms. This the majority cannot do.

It isn't clear what the basis is for the first statement. However, the majority did not assert that the right to possess a gun for self-defense was unlimited. Once that concession is made, the question becomes, as Justice Breyer said, whether the D.C. law was a proper limitation. He argued that it was not necessary to declare the second section of the law - requiring that guns in the home be disabled - unconstitutional because the District conceded a self-defense exception. However, the concession seems to be an illogical one: does the District expect a homeowner to enable the gun at the moment a threat arises, or is it allowing anticipatory enabling, in which case the law seems to have disappeared? That wasn't clarified, but Justice Breyer thought that he had an opening to point out an inconsistency in the majority's approach:
. . . because I see nothing in the District law that would preclude the existence of a background common-law self-defense exception, I would avoid the constitutional question by interpreting the statute to include it. . . .

I am puzzled by the majority's unwillingness to adopt a similar approach. It readily reads unspoken self-defense exceptions into every colonial law, but it refuses to accept the District's concession that this law has one.

More persuasively, Justice Breyer argued that the Court should have dealt with the controversy by balancing interests.
. . .The fact that important interests lie on both sides of the constitutional equation suggests that review of gun-control regulation is not a context in which a court should effectively presume either constitutionality (as in rational-basis review) or unconstitutionality (as in strict scrutiny). Rather, "where a law significantly implicates competing constitutionally protected interests in complex ways," the Court generally asks whether the statute burdens a protected interest in a way or to an extent that is out of proportion to the statute's salutary effects upon other important governmental interests.

Applying the balancing test, he concluded that "the District's statute properly seeks to further the sort of life-preserving and public-safety interests that [another Supreme Court decision] has called 'compelling.' "

Justice Breyer argued that the regulation hardly burdens the Amendment's primary objective - supporting militias - at all. As to the assumed right to possess a gun for self-defense, he conceded a significant burden, but concluded that no alternative measure would serve the District's legitimate purpose adequately. That probably goes too far, especially as the evidence as to the efficacy of gun-control laws is conflicting.
The majority criticized Justice Breyer's approach as "judge-empowering," but its decision, devoid of any consistent rationale and leaving large gaps to be filled, will do even more to leave the final word on various gun-control measures to judges.

I would adopt Justice Stevens' conclusion that the Amendment is most logically interpreted as applying only to militias. That might make it irrelevant, but so is the Third Amendment, which deals with quartering soldiers in homes. However, Justice Breyer's alternative approach certainly is preferable to the Court's discovery of unmentioned, sweeping but ill-defined fundamental rights. The majority once again demonstrated that liberals are not alone in detecting emanations and penumbras.


57. I have omitted footnotes from all quotations from the opinions.
58. The first comma does not divide that clause, but is an oddity of eighteenth century punctuation; another anomalous comma follows "Arms."
59. I'll refer to "the Court" and "the majority" interchangeably, to minimize repetition.

July 22, 2008

Mary Peters, Secretary of Transportation (no, I didn't know that either) wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times. She suggested that the way to reduce congestion and delays at airports would be to auction slots, which presumably would result in charging airlines more to use them during peak hours than at other times. Apparently the current scheme charges them by weight, at the same rate regardless of the hour. How her proposal would alleviate congestion and make service better was not altogether clear to me, but, under different circumstances, I would take the suggestion seriously since I know nothing about the subject.

However, my credulity was impaired by several factors. First, she is an official of the Bush administration which, as far as I can remember, hasn't got anything right yet. Second, she purports to represent consumers, not "special interests," which also would be a first. Third, it isn't obvious why charging higher landing fees would eliminate travel delays or lower fuel costs, as claimed.

Fourth, she is wedded to the notion that markets are always the best mechanism. Fifth, given that most airlines are in or near bankruptcy, increasing their costs doesn't seem shrewd.

Finally, she hasn't learned anything from history. She offered as a horrible example the deregulation of the airlines:

In the 1970s, many of the industry's lobbyists took the position being espoused today - that basic economic principles could not be applied to commercial aviation, that competition would not work and that consumers would be harmed if airlines were given the freedom to design their own networks and to set prices based on market forces.

Perhaps consumers have not been harmed, in the short run, in terms of ticket prices or routes, but the airlines are worse off than they were then, which doesn't serve the public interest. "Basic economic principles," i.e. Econ 101 perfect-market models, may not be the best solution to real-world problems, an elusive concept for the ideologically fixated.

On the subject of the Times op-ed page, since the retirement of Anthony Lewis Bob Herbert has been the best columnist not only at The Times, but anywhere.
(Yes, I abandoned principle and resubscribed; however, I didn't get my paper Monday, which surely is a sign: it's Kristol day).

July 23, 2008

Ruth Marcus, in a column in today's Washington Post, tried to use Senator Obama's upcoming appearance in Berlin to draw a parallel between postwar Berlin and Baghdad, between one American occupation and another. Her focus was on the airlift in 1948-49, which she seems to see as a lesson for the situation in Iraq. She praised Truman's choice of a "narrow path between foolish appeasement and full-scale war." Apparently that is a reference to the invasion of Iraq, as she continues: "Obama can safely argue that Truman's restrained course was wiser than George W. Bush's rush to war," but what does "appeasement" have to do with pre-invasion Iraq?

As to the present situation, she says this:

But there are lessons from the airlift that should be more unsettling for those, like Obama, who want to be done with Iraq. The impulse of many Americans then, just as now, was to be finished with the entire project. . . .

An occupation that looked irretrievably lost by spring 1948 turned paradoxically into success as the blockade continued. . . .


Sixty years later, as Obama arrives in a prosperous, thriving Berlin, it is fair to wonder whether the Cold War might have unfolded differently had Truman decided not to draw the line there against Soviet aggression.

The allure of quick and definite withdrawal from Iraq is evident. The reward of careful perseverance may become visible only in the long arc of history.

Apparently we are to believe that Iraq resembles Berlin in 1948, an isolated outpost of American power in a region dominated by an enemy with massed armies. This is about as hysterical a view of the "global was on terrorism" as I have seen, and one which adopts the Bush-McCain line that Iraq is the front line of that war. Perhaps the "reward of careful perseverance" in Iraq will "become visible . . . in the long arc of history," but it isn't clear now, and her muddled analysis doesn't help to make it so.

The Post house editorial, continuing its pretense that the invasion of Iraq was necessary, joined the chorus. Its principal theme was that the supposed agreement between Obama and Maliki on withdrawal doesn't exist. It went on to present a view of the "global war" as eccentric as Ms. Marcus', with Iraq again as the principal battleground:

[Obama] insists that Afghanistan is "the central front" for the United States, along with the border areas of Pakistan. But there are no known al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and any additional U.S. forces sent there would not be able to operate in the Pakistani territories where Osama bin Laden is headquartered. While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country's strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world's largest oil reserves. If Mr. Obama's antiwar stance has blinded him to those realities, that could prove far more debilitating to him as president than any particular timetable.

Advocates of staying the course in Iraq always have had difficulty explaining to those of us who are less insightful exactly what course we are on. What was the point of the invasion? What is the point of extending the occupation?

Unless one believes the official reasons stated at various times - eliminating WMD, liberating the Iraqi people, bringing democracy to the Middle East - the answer to the first must be geopolitical: oil and/or bases. The answer to the second question may be the same; the Post seems to think that oil is the reason to stay. On the other hand, the Bush administration may simply be running out the clock because it had identified withdrawal with "defeat," and nothing looking like "victory" is in the offing. Or it may be both of those.

On April 10, Representative Wexler of Florida put the second question to General Petraeus, who responded that "what we are fighting for is national interest."

It is interest that as I stated have [sic] to do with Al Qaeda, a sworn enemy of the United States and the free world, has to do with the possible spread of sectarian conflict in Iraq, conflict that had engulfed that country and had it on the brink of Civil War.

It has to do with regional stability, a region that is of critical importance to the global economy, and it has to do with certainly the influence of Iran, another obviously very important element, in that region.

In terms of what it is that we are trying to achieve, I think simply it is a country that is at peace with itself and its neighbors, it is a country that can defend itself, that has a government that is reasonably representative and broadly responsive to its citizens, and a country that is involved in and engaged in, again the global economy.

It is a mark of the ineptitude of the Bush administration that a soldier must explain national policy.

The first paragraph and the comment about Iraq's defending itself refer to problems created by the invasion. The same is true, at least in part, of the comment about Iran. Repairing the damage we caused would be a respectable, if not necessarily persuasive, explanation, but it's never stated that candidly. "Global economy" refers to oil, so to that extent we're still pursuing an original goal. I'm not sure what "at peace with its neighbors" adds; if it refers to the invasion of Kuwait or the war with Iran, it's ancient history and has nothing to do with either question. Representative government can't be taken seriously as a past or present goal, except insofar as it might avoid civil war, which also was our gift to Iraq.

August 2, 2008

Yesterday David Brooks informed us that "We're about to enter our 19th consecutive year of Truman-envy," meaning a wish to be back in the days when we could get things done.60 The Truman era ended fifty-six years ago, so we haven't been pining all that time, but he tells us: "Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, people have looked at the way Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and others created forward-looking global institutions after World War II. . ." The fall of the Berlin wall usually is dated to November 1989, which would mean that we entered the nineteenth year last fall. The "official" dismantling began on June 13, 1990 - in which case the nineteenth year began seven weeks ago - and went on until November 1991. Brooks also claimed that in the good old days, "global power was concentrated." If the opposite condition stems from the collapse of the Soviet Union, that happened in 1991, so depending on the event used to mark the end, we're in the seventeenth or eighteenth year. Never mind. The term "Truman-envy" seems to be Mr. Brooks' invention and probably appeals, in whatever guise, only to neoconservatives.

Brooks admires the ability of the postwar leaders to create global institutions, and wonders, "Why can't we rally that kind of international cooperation to confront terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rest of today's problems?" Could it have anything to do with an administration which disdains international cooperation, doesn't care about or even fully admit the existence of global warming, and has advocated nonproliferation only when it suited its imperial agenda?

No, the problem is that global power is diffused, which somehow has led to less cooperation. Brooks noticed that this theory is counterintuitive, so he supported it by blaming selfish interests which blossom in a multipolar world. However, that doesn't explain why this country won't seek international solutions, which again suggests a look at Bush & Co.

Whatever the cause, there is paralysis. "There is no mechanism to wield authority. . . . We get United Nations resolutions that go unenforced." This distressing passivity led the United States to break through the barrier. "It tried to enforce U.N. resolutions and put the mantle of authority on its own shoulders." Does that refer to Iraq? Well, yes; apparently we were selflessly enforcing resolutions the UN and the rest of the world would not. It didn't work out as Brooks and the other armchair militarists wanted, though: "The results of that enterprise, the Iraq war, suggest that this approach will not be tried again anytime soon." One can only hope.


Last Monday, Mr. Brooks' fraternity brother William Kristol expressed his dismay at the prospect of an Obama presidency.61 A few days earlier he saw (imagine the shock) "not one but two cars - rather nice cars, as it happens - festooned with the Obama campaign bumper sticker 'got hope?' . . . Are my own neighbors' lives so bleak that they place their hopes in Barack Obama?" Obama stickers on nice cars in his neighborhood! Surely they belong only on clunkers on the other side of the tracks. And what is this about hope? "Don't McCain backers also have hope - for an America that wins its wars, protects its unborn children and allows its citizens to keep more of their hard-earned income?" If abortion ever were outlawed, one side benefit would be that twits like Kristol couldn't hide behind it while peddling wars and tax cuts, the latter mostly for people in their neighborhood.




August 10, 2008

At this point we (I) ought to be ignoring George W. Bush rather than hanging on his every, usually infuriating or embarrassing, word. However, one of his comments on the war in Georgia is too much to let pass. To give him proper credit, his concern is legitimate and his opening comments appropriate:

I'm deeply concerned about the situation in Georgia. The United States takes this matter very seriously.

The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia. They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis. The violence is endangering regional peace. Civilian lives have been lost, and others are endangered.

However, he couldn't resist a bit of grandstanding which, given the invasion of Iraq, stands high on the all-time hypocrisy list: "Georgia is a sovereign nation and its territorial integrity must be respected." 62


August 13, 2008
Little Billy Kristol stamped his foot on Monday. Russia's invasion of Georgia must stop, he said. Competing with the President in the hypocrisy sweepstakes, he said it in a column which also celebrated our impending "victory" in Iraq.
Exactly what he wanted to do was unclear. He led off by criticizing the League of Nations for not forcing the USSR to recognize Georgia's sovereignty in 1924. What should the League have done? Kristol didn't say, and contented himself with a bellicose generalization:
Today, the Vladimir Putins and Hu Jintaos and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads of the world . . . are no more likely than were Soviet leaders in 1924 to be swayed by "moral influence." Dictators aren't moved by the claims of justice unarmed; aggressors aren't intimidated by diplomacy absent the credible threat of force; fanatics aren't deterred by the disapproval of men of moderation or refinement.

As to the present situation, he wants to "put real pressure on Russia to stop." (If we don't it will destabilize the entire region; that sounds familiar). What sort of pressure? Again, there's more rhetoric than substance: "The United States, of course, is not without resources and allies to deal with these problems and threats. But at times we seem oddly timid and uncertain." His only suggestion: we should "offer emergency military aid to Georgia." Even on Monday, it seemed a bit late for that, and if it weren't, do we want another proxy war?
A very different view of the conflict, the history of the region and possible solutions was presented by Mikhail Gorbachev, one which claimed that Georgia had violated peacekeeping agreements. Although his column was carried in The Washington Post, the house editorial put the blame entirely on Russia. It noted that Gorbachev "sees the origins of this crisis very differently from how we do." Perhaps Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl are right, but given their record, that would be true by coincidence only.

August 15, 2008

On July 15, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled, in a manner of speaking, on an application for habeas corpus. The case is Al-Marri v. Pucciarelli. Like many decisions over the past four years, it is a partial rebuke to the administration.

Al-Marri is a citizen of Saudi Arabia and of Qatar who entered the U.S. legally on September 10, 2001. He enrolled as a graduate student at Bradley University in Peoria, where had obtained a bachelor's degree in 1991. On December 12, 2001, FBI agents arrested al-Marri as a material witness regarding the September 11th attacks. Instead, he was indicted on charges pertaining to the possession of unauthorized or counterfeit credit card numbers with intent to defraud. However, on June 23, 2003 he was declared by President Bush to be an enemy combatant and was imprisoned in the Naval brig in South Carolina.

In 2004, a petition for habeas corpus was filed on al-Marri's behalf. The government responded by filing a declaration by one Jeffrey N. Rapp, identified as Director of the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism, which is part of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in turn part of the DoD. The Rapp declaration asserted that al-Marri was sent to the U.S. by al Qaeda and that he "engaged in conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism." It set out in detail the facts allegedly supporting that conclusion. However, the declaration was not made on personal knowledge; Mr. Rapp merely stated that he was "familiar with all the matters discussed in this declaration." Initially, the declaration was classified, but later a declassified version, still with redactions, was provided to al-Marri.

Al-Marri was allowed to meet with his lawyer for the first time after the filing of the Rapp declaration, and he subsequently denied its claims but did not present contrary evidence, arguing that the government had the burden of proof and that the declaration was insufficient. The District Court disagreed and dismissed the petition. A panel of the Court of Appeals reversed by a 2-1 decision, but the full court accepted the appeal for en banc review, which produced the decision of July 15.

The nine judges wrote seven individual opinions which cover 211 pages; the result, based on a combination of concurrences, was to overrule the District Court and remand "for further proceedings consistent with the opinions that follow," which will be no small challenge. As one judge put it, "Little doubt exists that this judgment will leave the district court with more questions than answers." The decision was announced in a brief per curiam opinion which summarized the split among the judges as follows:

. . . The parties present two principal issues for our consideration: (1) assuming the Government's allegations about al-Marri are true, whether Congress has empowered the President to detain al-Marri as an enemy combatant; and (2) . . . whether al-Marri has been afforded sufficient process to challenge his designation as an enemy combatant.

Having considered the briefs and arguments of the parties, the en banc court now holds: (1) by a 5 to 4 vote (Chief Judge Williams and Judges Wilkinson, Niemeyer, Traxler, and Duncan voting in the affirmative . . .), that, if the Government's allegations about al-Marri are true, Congress has empowered the President to detain him as an enemy combatant; and (2) by a 5 to 4 vote (Judges Michael, Motz, Traxler, King, and Gregory voting in the affirmative . . .), that, assuming Congress has empowered the President to detain al-Marri as an enemy combatant provided the Government' allegations against him are true, al-Marri has not been afforded sufficient process to challenge his designation as an enemy combatant.

The split is wider than the per curiam opinion indicates. Judges Motz, Gregory, King and Michael concluded that al-Marri is a "civilian" and as such cannot be an enemy combatant; therefore he cannot be imprisoned as one despite the President's order. They would have reversed with instructions to the District Court to issue a writ of habeas corpus directing the Secretary of Defense to release al-Marri from military custody. That wouldn't necessarily lead to his freedom: "Pursuant to this directive, the Government could transfer al-Marri to civilian authorities to face criminal charges, initiate deportation proceedings against him, hold him as a material witness in connection with grand jury proceedings, or detain him for a limited time pursuant to the Patriot Act, but military detention of al-Marri would have to cease."

Judges Williams, Wilkinson, Niemeyer and Duncan would have affirmed the District Court, believing that al-Marri was properly detained as an enemy combatant and that he received "sufficient process." Judge Traxler played the Kennedy role, agreeing with the Williams group that al-Marri's circumstances do not preclude his being an enemy combatant, but with the Motz group as to the lack of due process.
Both issues flow from the declaration, which alleged that al-Marri

(1) is "closely associated with al Qaeda, an international terrorist organization with which the United States is at war";

(2) trained at an al Qaeda terrorist training camp in Afghanistan sometime between 1996 and 1998;

(3) in the summer of 2001, was introduced to Osama Bin Laden by Khalid Shaykh Muhammed;

(4) at that time, volunteered for a "martyr mission" on behalf of al Qaeda;

(5) was ordered to enter the United States sometime before September 11, 2001, to serve as a "sleeper agent" to facilitate terrorist activities and explore disrupting this country's financial system through computer hacking;

(6) in the summer of 2001, met with terrorist financier Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who gave al-Marri money, including funds to buy a laptop;

(7) gathered technical information about poisonous chemicals on his laptop;

(8) undertook efforts to obtain false identification, credit cards, and banking information, including stolen credit card numbers;

(9) communicated with known terrorists, including Khalid Shaykh Muhammed and al-Hawsawi, by phone and e-mail; and

(10) saved information about jihad, the September 11th attacks, and Bin Laden on his laptop computer.63

Two Supreme Court decisions hover over this case, Ex Parte Quirin and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the former as a ghost from the past, the latter as a fog preventing clear vision. Quirin is influential not primarily because of its holding or reasoning, but due to its coining of the term "enemy combatant." The administration has used that term as a vehicle for simultaneously identifying, accusing and imprisoning those it thinks are terrorists as well as those it has captured but does not know what to do with. It's equivalent to an accusation of being a witch or a communist, with results nearer to the former.

Quirin distinguished between lawful enemy combatants, who are entitled to POW status and treatment, and unlawful, who may be tried for war crimes. Despite Qurin and despite the passage of the Military Commissions Act in late 2006, which draws that distinction, the administration and the courts have continued to ignore the difference, with the result that all captives in the "war on terror" are called merely "enemy combatants" but treated as if unlawful enemy combatants.

The administration's refusal to follow the rules applicable to its chosen category has led to absurd results. Seeking to buttress its unilateral designation of enemy combatants, it set up Combatant Status Review Commissions (CSRTs) to make that determination. The CSTRs duly so classified numerous prisoners, and trials were scheduled before military commissions for some who were accused of war crimes. However, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld the Supreme Court ruled that the original military commissions violated the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. To cure that, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act which, however, specifies, in line with Quirin, that only unlawful enemy combatants may be tried before military commissions.

When one of the Guantánamo prisoners, Omar Khadr, was brought before a military commission for trial in 2007, the judge dismissed the charges because Khadr had been found by a Combatant Status Review Commission to be an enemy combatant, but no determination had been made that he was an unlawful enemy combatant. However, the dismissal was overturned by the "Court of Military Commission Review," which held that the judge at the military commission trial could make that determination. That procedure also was followed in the recent trial of Salim Hamdan, bin Laden's driver, after charges against him initially were dismissed because of the same defect. What a farce.

The Judges who would uphold the District Court relied heavily on Hamdi, and even the group which would reverse it deferred to Hamdi. (By my quick count, Hamdi is cited 380 times). Its lead opinion is treated as authoritative64 even though it was signed by only four Justices and was a weak effort which failed to deal with the inherent inconsistencies in the application of the enemy combatant category to terrorism and the administration's misuse of that label.

The Fourth Circuit extracted the following principles from Hamdi: 65
> The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), adopted after 9-11, gave the President authority to designate individuals as enemy combatants.

The Hamdi Court expressly recognized that the AUMF did not explicitly provide for detention. . . . It concluded, however, "in light of" the law-of-war principles applicable to Hamdi's battlefield capture, that this was "of no moment" in the case before it.. . . As the plurality explained, "[b]ecause detention to prevent a combatant's return to the battlefield is a fundamental incident of waging war, in permitting the use of 'necessary and appropriate force,' Congress has clearly and unmistakably authorized detention in the narrow circumstances considered here.". . (emphasis added).

Hamdi's reading of the act is plausible, but not entirely persuasive. This quote, from Judge Motz' opinion, shows, by the added emphasis, an attempt to narrow it.
>The President's designation, through the AUMF, of someone as an enemy combatant is sufficient to justify arrest or capture and imprisonment.
Congress may constitutionally authorize the President to order the military detention, without criminal process, of persons who "qualify as 'enemy combatants,' " that is, fit within that particular "legal category."

Hamdi recognizes that the sole process that the Government need provide in order to initially detain an enemy combatant is a presidential determination that the detention is necessary.

>Habeas corpus is available to U.S. Citizens to challenge a designation as an enemy combatant.
. . . Hamdi also reaffirms that the writ of habeas corpus provides a remedy to challenge collaterally the legality of the ongoing detention. . . .

Other decisions extended that to non-citizens.
>Hearsay evidence, such as the Mobbs and Rapp declarations, may be acceptable as proof.
[A court] is not precluded from accepting the hearsay declaration should it conclude that threats to national security or the war efforts dictate its use. . . .

>Usual standards of due process may not apply, and the burden of proof may shift to the petitioner.
In sum, Hamdi's relaxed evidentiary standard of accepting hearsay evidence and presumption in favor of the government arose from the plurality's recognition that the process warranted in enemy-combatant proceedings may be lessened if the practical obstacles the Executive would confront in providing the procedural protections normally due warrant such a modification.

>The government's interest in detention is as important as the prisoner's interest in freedom.

The individual's interest, of course, is "the most elemental of liberty interests - the interest in being free from physical detention." . . .The government's interests, however, are equally compelling - the interest "in detaining those who actually pose an immediate threat to the national security of the United States during ongoing international conflict," . . . and the interest in "ensuring that those who have in fact fought with the enemy during a war do not return to battle against the United States," . . .

>In reviewing a habeas corpus petition, the court should balance the interests of the government against the petitioner's right to liberty.
To balance those competing interests, the plurality turned to the test articulated by the Court in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), which dictates that the process due in any given instance is determined by weighing "the private interest that will be affected by the official action" against the [g]overnment's asserted interest, "including the function involved" and the burdens the [g]overnment would face in providing greater process. The Mathews calculus then contemplates a judicious balancing of these concerns, through an analysis of "the risk of an erroneous deprivation" of the private interest if the process were reduced and the "probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards."

Mathews v. Eldridge and other cases cited by Hamdi concerned due precess rights but not habeas corpus. I'm not qualified to evaluate this formula in other due process contexts, but here it is simply a surrender to executive authority. The administration always can make a claim of national security. If the courts automatically give that equal status with freedom, and then shift the burden of proof and allow hearsay, no one's liberty is safe.
>The definition of "enemy combatant" is left to lower courts.
Hamdi did not adopt a general definition and instead ruled only on the facts of that case. As to others, it left the definition open.
Of course, the Hamdi plurality noted that "[t]he permissible bounds" of "[t]he legal category of enemy combatant" would "be defined by the lower courts as subsequent cases are presented to them."

This invites inconsistency and, in practice, allows courts to expand the definition to cover every alleged bad guy. The administration intentionally hasn't defined the term because it wants to do just that. Hamdi ducked the issue, first by limiting its decision to Hamdi's circumstances, then by issuing that invitation.
>The law of war is the standard for interpreting the AUMF.
Although the AUMF did not specifically authorize such military detention, the [Hamdi] plurality "conclude[d] that detention of individuals falling into the limited category we are considering, for the duration of the particular conflict in which they were captured, is so fundamental and accepted an incident to war as to be an exercise of the 'necessary and appropriate force' Congress has authorized the President to use."

Both sides in the debate over presidential authority have appealed to the law of war, the administration to enhance the President's power, critics to apply restrictions such as the Geneva Conventions. However, at some point, we must ask whether the war model really applies. Congress did not declare war in 2001 - not that it does anymore, another problem - and a declaration of war against al-Qaeda might not have made sense, but without it, application of wartime rules is questionable. An alternative is to treat terrorism as a law enforcement matter, a proposal which is widely ridiculed but has not been considered adequately. Perhaps some new paradigm is needed. At the least, the courts should require the administration to honor all of the laws of war, not just the convenient ones.

Taken together, these principles extracted from the four-judge opinion in Hamdi stack the deck in the government's favor but do so in a way which leaves large areas of ambiguity. It is not surprising that the Court of Appeals would be divided as to the meaning of Hamdi nor that its decision would be so inconclusive. Here is how the issues, as defined in the per curium opinion, sorted out:

Issue 1: assuming the Government's allegations about al-Marri are true, whether Congress has empowered the President to detain al-Marri as an enemy combatant.

It is surprising, and commendable, that four judges were bold enough to challenge the misuse of "enemy combatant." The principal opinion for this group, on this issue, was written by Judge Motz.66 She did not argue that the Constitution precludes categorizing al-Marri an enemy combatant, nor that the President lacks the authority to so designate, but rather that the grant of power in the AUMF must be interpreted in terms of the law of war, which places "civilians" in a different category than combatants. Therefore, the AUMF, even as generously interpreted by Hamdi, does not authorize detention of people situated like al-Marri. This depends on her view that Hamdi based its decision on a "central teaching from Quirin, i.e., enemy combatant status rests on an individual's affiliation during wartime with the 'military arm of the enemy government.' . . . In Quirin, that enemy government was the German Reich; in Hamdi . . . it was the Taliban government of Afghanistan." That was the circumstance in Quirin, but Hamdi did not adopt the Quirin limitations. Judge Motz attempted, however, to establish that:

As the plurality explained, "[b]ecause detention to prevent a combatant's return to the battlefield is a fundamental incident of waging war, in permitting the use of 'necessary and appropriate force,' Congress has clearly and unmistakably authorized detention in the narrow circumstances considered here." . . . Thus, the Hamdi Court reached the following limited holding: "the AUMF is explicit congressional authorization for the detention of individuals in the narrow category we describe," that is, individuals who were "part of or supporting forces hostile to the United States or coalition partners in Afghanistan and who engaged in an armed conflict against the United States there." . . . (. . .emphasis added). . . .

It's true that Hamdi ruled only on the circumstances of Yaser Hamdi, who allegedly "engaged in an armed conflict against the United States" in Afghanistan. However, although the Hamdi plurality limited its decision to Hamdi's situation, it did not so limit the enemy combatant category; as noted, it left open additional definitions.

Judge Motz' position also is based on Ex Parte Milligan, a Civil-War era decision which prohibited military trials for civilians. This is a better argument, but Hamdi undercuts it; the open-ended definition of "enemy combatant" allows its extension to "civilians."

Judge Motz' best argument is that the reach of the AUMF is limited because of provisions of the Patriot Act, which contemplate criminal process or removal (exclusion or deportation) for "terrorist aliens" and prohibit indefinite detention. The Patriot Act was adopted shortly after the AUMF and is far more explicit; al-Marri, according to the charges in the declaration, would be a terrorist alien under that statue. The Hamdi plurality did not address this issue.67

Judge Motz concluded: "Allegations of criminal activity in association with a terrorist organization . . . do not permit the Government to transform a civilian into an enemy combatant subject to indefinite military detention . . . ."

Each member of the group led by Chief Judge Williams wrote an opinion; the principal ones were by Williams and Judge Wilkinson.68 The Chief Judge agreed that Milligan precluded military detention of civilians, but concluded al-Marri isn't one because Hamdi supports labeling him as an enemy combatant. "As the Court explained, detention of an enemy combatant fell within the range of 'necessary and appropriate force' granted by the AUMF because 'detention to prevent a combatant's return to the battlefield is a fundamental incident of waging war.' " This seems to play into Judge Motz' argument, because to include al-Marri would require an expansive definition of "battlefield." However, Judge Williams invoked Quirin for the proposition that "those who during time of war pass surreptitiously from enemy territory into our own, discarding their uniforms upon entry, for the commission of hostile acts involving destruction of life or property, have the status of unlawful combatants punishable as such by military commission." Quirin referred to soldiers, members of the armed forces of a country with which we were engaged in a declared war, which certainly doesn't fit. Never mind; it dealt with sabotage, which apparently moved the "battlefield," in Williams' view, into the U.S. and eliminated any "civilian" status for al-Marri.

The Patriot Act is a problem for her theory, as it includes sabotage in the definition of "terrorist alien" and mandates a different procedure: removal or criminal prosecution. Judge Williams acknowledged the problem but tried to avoid it by claiming that the AUMF refers to the President's commander-in-chief power, while the Patriot Act refers to his duty to see that the laws are enforced; therefore the statutes, falling under different sections of the Constitution, should not be interpreted to conflict. This is nonsense.

Relying on Hamdi's invitation to think up new definitions, Williams created one, based on her reading of Milligan, Quirin, Hamdi, and a 1946 Ninth Circuit decision:

A distillation of these precedents, I believe, yields a definition of an enemy combatant subject to detention pursuant to Congressional authorizations as an individual who meets two criteria: (1) he attempts or engages in belligerent acts against the United States, either domestically or in a foreign combat zone; (2) on behalf of an enemy force.

In one respect, this is oddly narrow: why does it limit overseas acts to a combat zone? In other ways, it is very broad: it stretches "combatant" to the breaking point, and it requires an expansive definition of "attempt" to cast the net over al-Marri. Given the ambiguity of "enemy force" - could a drug ring be one? - it doesn't draw any distinction between war and law enforcement. Indeed, this is the essence of the difference between the two camps; as Judge Motz stated, Williams et al. "contend that the definition of enemy combatant has somehow expanded to permit a person to be so classified because of his criminal conduct on behalf of a terrorist organization."

Judge Wilkinson offered an alternative definition of "enemy combatant" with little indication of its origin:

In sum, the following three criteria must be met in order for someone to be classified as an enemy combatant: the person must (1) be a member of (2) an organization or nation against whom Congress has declared war or authorized the use of military force, and (3) knowingly plans or engages in conduct that harms or aims to harm persons or property for the purpose of furthering the military goals of the enemy nation or organization.

His criterion (2) hews more closely to the AUMF, but again the formula is not clearly distinguishable from criminal law, and it adds the undefined concept of a terrorist organization's "military goals."

Judge Wilkinson charged that "the plurality comes all too close to holding that no person lawfully in the United States may be seized as an enemy combatant and subjected to military detention, and certainly not subjected to detention of any appreciable length." Well, yes; where is the error in that? Although his opinion runs to 49 pages, there is little in the way of an answer; it waives the flag, approves every action by the administration and declares our moral superiority. "Any sound perspective on al-Marri's detention must start with the magnitude of what brought it on. It bears lasting remembrance that what happened on September 11 was an attack upon the symbols of American freedom and democracy." In other words, forget abstract principle; remember how much we hurt.

Judge Traxler, casting the deciding vote, found that al-Marri, assuming the Rapp declaration to be accepted, would be an enemy combatant. He rejected Judge Motz' claim that Ex Parte Milligan precluded that result, but with neither analysis nor citation of authority, and ignored the Patriot Act. He accepted a broad interpretation of the AUMF:

In my view, limiting the President's authority to militarily detain soldiers or saboteurs as enemy combatants to those who are part of a formal military arm of a foreign nation or enemy government is not compelled by the laws of war, and the AUMF plainly authorizes the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against al Qaeda. I believe this necessarily includes the detention of al Qaeda operatives who associate with the enemy, be that the al Qaeda organization or the Taliban government, "and with its aid, guidance and direction enter this country bent on hostile acts."

I'm not sure that he's right about the law of war, but this is primarily a looser version of the redefinition of "enemy combatant." The "combat" part disappears and being part of an enemy force now requires mere association. Intent apparently is punishable.

Issue 2: whether al-Marri has been afforded sufficient process to challenge his designation as an enemy combatant.

Although Judge Motz set out the allegations of the declaration, she said little about its sufficiency as proof other than to complain that "the Government asks us to defer to the 'multi-agency evaluation process' of government bureaucrats in Washington made eighteen months after al-Marri was taken into custody."

Judge Gregory, in addition to joining the Motz opinion, wrote a separate concurrence which focused on the need for, and possibility of, further disclosure by the government, going behind the conclusory allegations of the Rapp declaration: "If our remand is to be meaningful, the district court must demand evidence supporting the veracity of the Rapp Declaration. . . ." He deferred to the "balancing" notion of the Hamdi plurality: "the Supreme Court's decisions in Mathews and Hamdi provide the appropriate balance that the district court should strike upon reviewing such evidence." However, at one point he noted the shaky claim of Hamdi to precedential authority: "The din of my good colleagues urging an incremental due process approach is problematic because 'the relevant language in Hamdi did not garner a majority of the Court.' " 69

Judges Williams and Wilkinson did advocate that approach. The Chief Judge cited Hamdi's theory of due process: "the Court explained that whatever process is to be utilized, it must be carried out with 'caution,' and be 'both prudent and incremental.' " She found that al-Marri had failed to follow the "incremental" formula by declining to rebut the Rapp declaration; only after doing so could he ask for real evidence.

Judge Wilkinson took the same approach but was more candid in relieving the government of any obligation to disclose:

In proceedings before the magistrate judge, al-Marri sought procedural protections similar to those afforded civilian criminal defendants, such as extensive discovery rights and an opportunity to cross-examine the government's sources, including high-level Department of Defense officials. . . . The magistrate judge refused to provide al-Marri with these extensive protections, however, and instead adopted incremental procedures consistent with the burden- shifting approach outlined in Hamdi.

"Incremental," in this context, appears to mean giving the petitioner information only when unavoidable.

Judge Traxler decided this issue in favor of al-Marri, but his opinion will not go own in the annals of civil liberties. He observed that "it is not irrelevant to the task of weighing the interests at stake and balancing the risks involved to determine what due process protections are due him in his quest to challenge his designation and continued detention by our military." At least due process isn't irrelevant. Apparently he was content with shifting the burden of proof to the petitioner, but less so with hearsay, at least in the context of this case:

. . . Because the detainee must prove a negative - that he is not an enemy combatant - to obtain release and he or someone on his behalf must do it with more persuasive evidence in circumstances where the military may be holding the detainee incommunicado, simple fairness seems to me to require that first-hand evidence from the government should be the norm and the use of hearsay the exception. Add to the mix that . . . the government's evidence could be here in the United States, easily accessible and publicly disclosable, and the need for a check on the government's use of a hearsay affidavit to justify the long-term military detention of a person becomes obvious.

Strangely, no one pointed out that the declaration was not made on personal knowledge, although the opinions of Judges Gregory and Traxler do make clear that better evidence is required. No one took note of the fact that the declaration did not assert that al-Marri is an enemy combatant. It recited that President Bush had so designated him, but offered no explicit support for that decision. True, asserting that al-Marri is an enemy combatant would be conclusory, but it's odd that the government would have only that scruple, especially as the same facts would lead to entirely different conclusions under the Patriot Act.

Until the Supreme Court or Congress move beyond the dithering ambiguity of the Hamdi plurality opinion, confused decisions like Al-Marri will be the norm.


63. This summary is set out in the opinion of Judge Motz.
64. Judge Gregory expressed reservations.
65. These principles and the quotes are taken from the Motz and Traxler opinions. The list probably could be expanded.
66. The other three joined Judge Motz' opinion; Judge Gregory also wrote a separate opinion which focused on the second issue.
67. In Hamdi, the Patriot Act was mentioned only in the opinion by Justice Souter, which noted its inconsistency with the government's interpretation of the AUMF.
68. Judge Duncan joined the Williams opinion; otherwise this group filed solitary opinions.
69. The quote is from Boumediene v. Bush; it hints that, in the Supreme Court's view, Hamdi may not have the precedential status given it by most of the opinions here.

August 24, 2008

Those of us who obsess about the use and misuse of the language take heart from any sign that others have noticed the latter. One such indication is the annual Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest "where www means wretched writers welcome." Entrants are asked to submit "bad opening sentences to imaginary novels." This year's winner:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."

That's good (apparently the manhole reference is authentic) and it may be genuine satire: probably there are contemporary novels which have very similar lines.

The contest is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose novel Paul Clifford (1830) opened with this, the first phrase of which has been immortalized by Snoopy:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Poor Bulwer-Lytton; that doesn't come close to the pretentiousness, prolixity and silliness of much of modern writing, especially in my favorite venue, arts reviews.

The contest could have been named for an author more famous than Bulwer-Lytton. It could be the Joyce contest. Although Finnegans Wake is considered great, the introduction to the Penguin edition begins with this: "There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is 'about' anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, 'readable'."

It could be the Woolf contest. The contest's runner-up entry is reminiscent of To the Lighthouse, although much subdued:

"Hmm . . ." thought Abigail as she gazed languidly from the veranda past the bright white patio to the cerulean sea beyond, where dolphins played and seagulls sang, where splashing surf sounded like the tintinnabulation of a thousand tiny bells, where great gray whales bellowed and the sunlight sparkled off the myriad of sequins on the flyfish's bow ties, "time to get my meds checked."

The original, however, is a challenge to parody. Although To the Lighthouse also is highly regarded, some of its sentences are a paragraph long and many would defy parsing. Here's an example:
The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, "How's that? How's that?" of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, "I am guarding you--I am your support," but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephermal as a rainbow--this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

I know: that's a stream of consciousness, the result of profound introspection. It's also bad writing.

There's another language-related meaning of "www": the website named World Wide Words. Some of the postings are devoted to the use or origins of obscure words, some to inadvertent humor. An example of the latter is a story in the (London) Times which reported: “The gang set up a sophisticated chain to distribute the weapons, converted by a Lithuanian gunsmith to fire 9mm bullets, primarily from the south to the north of England.” Comment: "Pretty good range for a 9mm handgun!" Or, from the (Sarasota) Herald-Tribune, "Simms to get shot tonight". He may get to play, that is.

August 27, 2008

A new National Defense Strategy (NDS)70 was published in June. Although the policy sections have a more moderate tone than earlier effusions from this administration, including the 2005 NDS, the preliminary comments still display a sense of American exceptionalism and a fudging of reality:

. . . Since the terrorist attacks . . . seven years ago, we have been engaged in a conflict unlike those that came before. The United States has worked with its partners to defeat the enemies of freedom and prosperity, assist those in greatest need, and lay the foundation for a better tomorrow.

There also is an unrealistic notion of the role other states are to play.
. . . Russia has leveraged the revenue from, and access to, its energy sources; asserted claims in the Arctic; and has continued to bully its neighbors, all of which are causes for concern. Russia also has begun to take a more active military stance, such as the renewal of long-range bomber flights, and has withdrawn from arms control and force reduction treaties, and even threatened to target countries hosting potential U.S. anti-missile bases. . . .

The mess in Georgia demonstrates that Russia is ready to bully its neighbors, although in this case the bullying didn't appear from the blue. The authors are naive or disingenuous in finding anything remarkable or surprising in Russia's concern and resentment at having missile bases on its borders.

The undefined "rogue state" still figures in the discussion, and the rhetoric about terrorism hasn't changed from that of the Rumsfeld days. The NDS claims to reflect "lessons learned from on-going operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere," but early in the document this seems to be limited to tactics:

U.S. dominance in conventional warfare has given prospective adversaries, particularly non-state actors and their state sponsors, strong motivation to adopt asymmetric methods to counter our advantages. For this reason, we must display a mastery of irregular warfare comparable to that which we possess in conventional combat. . . .

Throughout, there is a concern that laws, regulations and "international norms" may protect bad guys.

Recent policy is asserted to be part of a pattern stretching back to World War II: to pursue its interests, "the U.S. has developed military capabilities and alliances and coalitions, participated in and supported international security and economic institutions, used diplomacy and soft power to shape the behavior of individual states and the international system, and using [sic] force when necessary." That hardly is a fair description of the policies of this administration.

However, once past the introductory generalities, the analysis takes on a different tone. It is less bellicose than its predecessor, and the imperial ambition and hubris of 2005 largely are gone.

It declares that in supporting the National Security Strategy, DoD has five objectives, of which the first is "Defend the Homeland." That would be the likely place to push the military to the fore, but the statement is surprisingly modest:

. . . National security and domestic resources may be at risk, and the Department must help respond to protect lives and national assets. The Department will continue to be both bulwark and active protector in these areas. Yet, in the long run the Department of Defense is neither the best source of resources and capabilities nor the appropriate authority to shoulder these tasks. The comparative advantage, and applicable authorities, for action reside elsewhere in the U.S. Government, at other levels of government, in the private sector, and with partner nations. . . .

The second objective is "Win the Long War," which suggests that we still are trapped in the permanent-war paradigm as to terrorism. We're reminded that we face a global struggle, that Iraq and Afghanistan are the central fronts in the war, that "success" there is crucial to "winning this conflict," and that "extremist ideology" resembles fascism and communism. However, a lesson does seem to have been learned in Iraq:
. . . Although driven by this transnational ideology, our adversaries themselves are, in fact, a collection of regional and local extremist groups. Regional and local grievances help fuel the conflict, and it thrives in ungoverned, under-governed, and mis-governed areas.

. . . The use of force plays a role, yet military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development, as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies. . . .

This shows some movement away from the global-war mindset. The next sentence is this: "For these reasons, arguably the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves." Certainly we have done little good in this area; take Pakistan as an example.

Another lesson possibly learned has to do with out military capabilities: "U.S. predominance in traditional warfare is not unchallenged, but is sustainable for
the medium term given current trends." This certainly is a more cautious assessment than the usual USA! formula. The NDS also contemplates "means to de-escalate crises and reduce demand on forces where possible."

There is a peculiar mix of military and law-enforcement models at the end of this section:

The struggle against violent extremists will not end with a single battle or campaign. Rather, we will defeat them through the patient accumulation of quiet successes and the orchestration of all elements of national and international power. We will succeed by eliminating the ability of extremists to strike globally and catastrophically while also building the capacity and resolve of local governments to defeat them regionally. Victory will include discrediting extremist ideology, creating fissures between and among extremist groups and reducing them to the level of nuisance groups that can be tracked and handled by law enforcement capabilities. (emphasis added)

The notion that we will "defeat" extremists is an impediment to clear thinking, one which flows from the war model. "Extremists" - has anyone defined that term? - will be with us, just as other criminals are. The goal should be to control them to an extent which allows life to go on, the same goal we have, realistically, as to more domestic types of crime. The italicized statement seems to recognize that as a goal, as did a similar passage in the National Strategy for Combatting Terrorism. 71 That document spoke of "terrorism becom[ing] more localized, unorganized and relegated to the criminal domain," while the quote above contemplates "reducing [extremists] to the level of nuisance groups that can be tracked and handled by law enforcement capabilities." However, the law enforcement model, in concept and to some considerable degree in execution, should be adopted long before "extremism" is reduced, if it ever will be, to the nuisance level.

The third objective is "Promote Security." It declares that the "best way to achieve security is to prevent war when possible and to encourage peaceful change within the international system." That, if meant seriously, is a departure from the practice to date. Concern is expressed about the possibility that "a strategic state" could collapse, making WMD available to extremists. Pakistan is a case in point, as it is concerning the goal to "shrink the ungoverned areas of the world and thereby deny extremists and other hostile parties sanctuary." How these goals will be met isn't stated.

The next objective is "Deter Conflict." The National Security Strategy of 2002 criticized the concept of deterrence and advocated pre-emption. Pre-emption is a dangerous, hypocritical policy, and the supposed weakness of a policy of deterrence never was made clear. The NDS attempts to fill the blank: "we must . . . recognize that deterrence has its limits, especially where our interests are ill-defined or the targets of our deterrence are difficult to influence." However, the attitude here is more realistic:

Deterrence is key to preventing conflict and enhancing security. It requires influencing the political and military choices of an adversary, dissuading it from taking an action by making its leaders understand that either the cost of the action is too great, is of no use, or unnecessary. . . .

Even within the deterrence paradigm, this Strategy's policy is restrained:
. . . We must consider which non-lethal actions constitute an attack on our sovereignty, and which may require the use of force in response. We must understand the potential for escalation from non-lethal to lethal confrontation, and learn to calculate and manage the associated risks.

The last objective is "Win our Nation's Wars." The discussion is brief, jargon-laden and meaningless. "Rogue states will remain a threat to U.S. regional interests." We must be able to "defeat enemies employing a combination of capabilities, conventional and irregular, kinetic and non-kinetic . . . ."

Near the end of the document, under the heading "DoD Capabilities and Means," there is this intriguing comment: the Department of Defense "will continue to implement global defense posture realignment, transforming from legacy base structures and forward-garrisoned forces to an expeditionary force, providing greater flexibility to contend with uncertainty in a changing strategic environment." Are bases in Iraq no longer a goal?



71. terrorism_strategy.pdf

August 26, 2008

When L. Paul Bremer left Baghdad in 2004 and turned over some control to Iraqis, Condoleezza Rice slipped W a note reciting "Iraq is sovereign." I don't think that Rice is remotely as smart as she's reputed to be, but she had to know that Iraq wasn't sovereign and that W had no intention that it would be on his watch. The pretense continued, however, and the White House web site still claims that sovereignty was transferred on June 28, 2004.72

Iraqis learned that, especially as to the presence of American forces or responsibility for their actions, "sovereignty" was a flexible concept. In 2005, Iraqi President Talabani proposed withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops by the end of that year, but backed down after being pointed to the Bush dictionary.

This week, discussing the "draft agreement" between the U.S. and Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki suggested that the time had come for a more literal meaning. He told a meeting of tribal Sheikhs that "there would be no security agreement between the United States and Iraq without an unconditional timetable for withdrawal" of American troops; any agreement must be based on "full sovereignty." It will be interesting to see whether Maliki will stick to that position and, if so, whether Bush can refuse the demand without admitting that Iraq does not have real sovereignty. Perhaps he will agree to a fixed timetable but continue to call it an aspirational timeline or a time horizon. The end date, however defined, will be after his return to Crawford, so why should he care?



August 31, 2008
Republicans are worried that Hurricane Gustav will spoil their convention, by creating images of suffering while the faithful party, but also by reminding people of the bungled response to Katrina. The first day's activities have been all but canceled and the President reportedly won't attend the convention because he'll be too busy leading the hurricane response. He apparently wants people to compare Gustav to Rita, which struck a month after Katrina. By then, Mr. Bush had learned that being photographed pretending to play a guitar wasn't the best way to say "message: I care," so when Rita threatened, he decided to be on the scene. He has made the same decision this time, and, as one can express faux concern in only so many ways, he announced his plans in almost the same words. Here's 2005:

I'm going down to San Antonio to see the pre-positioned assets, understand the relationship -- or that the federal government's role is to support state and local governments. 73

Compare 2008:
I'm going to travel down to Texas tomorrow to visit with the Emergency Operations Center in Austin, where coordination among federal, state, and local government officials is occurring. I intend to go down to San Antonio where state and local officials are prepositioning relief materials . . . ." 74

The 2005 visit to San Antonio was scrubbed; maybe he'll actually go there this time, although it's difficult to see any non-political purpose.




September 4, 2008

For weeks I have attempted to record my thoughts about the Obama candidacy. To say that it is disappointing would be an understatement. Change has been replaced by caution, centrism and compromise. However, each time I start to complain, the guys on the other side say something that brings me to his defense. The latest source of partisan carping is, of course, the Republican convention, last night featuring the expert commentary of Sarah Palin.

Although the crowd liked it and some observers thought it helpful, not all Republicans were happy about McCain's choice of a running mate. Peggy Noonan caused a flap by allegedly saying, of the selection of Governor Palin: "It's over." She now has denied that she was referring to McCain's chances. The odd part of the interview, which hasn't, to my knowledge, drawn any attention, is her comment that, in choosing Palin, "they went for this, excuse me, political bullshit about narratives. Every time the Republicans do that, because that's not where they live and that's not what they're good at, they blow it." She's certainly wrong about that. Narratives and images are exactly, and almost exclusively in election years, where Republicans live and where they have had great success. McCain may or may not have blown it in selecting Palin, but his strategy is entirely within the Party's approach to politics.

True, the base must overlook her obvious lack of qualifications, abandon the experience argument (or bend it out of shape as Palin did in her speech), suppress their beliefs about "family values," and perform other mental exercises. However, applying different standards to the faithful is routine.

And Sarah Palin is one of the faithful. For all the talk about change and breaking ceilings, her nomination is another pander to the religious, cultural and economic right. She's anti-abortion, pro-gun and pro-business; she favors the death penalty; she advocates teaching creationism in school; she doubts that people cause global warming, opposes putting polar bears on the endangered list and thinks that we can drill our way out of dependency on foreign oil. Governor Palin's nomination completed Senator McCain's march to the right.

But the narrative, apart from the specious "maverick" theme, is that there is a woman on the ticket, which means, Republicans hope, that Clinton backers will vote McCain-Palin. Although there is anecdotal evidence that disgruntled Hillary supporters are so angry that they might switch, it seems unlikely that many will. The more likely response, as put by Ruth Marcus, is "How dumb do they think women are?"

September 25, 2008

We returned from vacation on the 20th to find in tatters an economy which our leaders kept describing as healthy. A White House "Fact Sheet' dated August 1 noted that jobs declined in July, but added "While these numbers are disappointing, what is most important is the overall direction the economy is headed." It found that to be upward. A Fact Sheet of September 5 noted a further decline in jobs and an increase in the unemployment rate, but stated "While these numbers are disappointing, what is most important is the overall direction the economy is headed." They're consistent, at least. On August 30, the President told us that the "economy is showing that it is resilient."

On August 20, Senator McCain claimed that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong;" he repeated that formula on September 15, as Lehman Brothers went into bankruptcy. On July 20, Treasury Secretary Paulson acknowledged that, although the economy would need months to recover, the banking system remained sound. On September 15, he still thought that: "We're working through a difficult period in our financial markets right now as we work off some of the past excesses. But the American people can remain confident in the soundness and the resilience of our financial system."

Well, no. The administration has proposed giving the Treasury Secretary unlimited and unsupervised power to spend $700 billion to prop up financial markets. The pattern is familiar: as with the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, Congress is expected to adopt a drastic program in a hurry based on trust. Congress learns slowly, but this time it may take a little more time and impose a few conditions. Because of widespread opposition to the plan, President Bush delivered a speech last night designed to convince us, including Congress, to support "his" plan. The speech was delivered robotically, leaving no doubt that the substance, as well as the words, was someone else's.

Numerous changes to the plan have been proposed, including oversight, limits on executive pay, greater regulation and equity positions in exchange for bailout cash. Wall Street just wants the money, along with freedom to profit from the bailout process. The only constant is that no one knows how bad the problem is; the $700 billion figure seems to have been pulled out of the air.

None of this will address underlying problems in that not-very-healthy economy, and the bailout will increase the deficit, the national debt and, probably, our dependance on foreign capital.

October 1, 2008

The financial disaster is a fitting final act for the Bush presidency. For nearly eight years Mr. Bush has tried to convince us that economic down is up. He pretended that tax cuts not only spurred the economy but increased revenue. He boasted about declines in the deficit and gains in employment, but measured both against his worst months, not the beginning of his term.

Now there is no more room for fudging. Bush inherited a surplus, $128.2 billion for fiscal 2001 (ending 9/30/01). He ran deficits , fiscal 2002 through 2007, of 157.8, 377.6, 412.7, 318.3, 248.2 and 160.7 billion. He argued that he deserved credit because those awful numbers declined after 2004. However the estimate for fiscal 2008 is a deficit of 407 billion, and the forecast for fiscal 2009 is minus 438, before any allowance for the proposed Wall Street bailout.75 The deficits have been added to the national debt, which has grown from $5.727 trillion in January 2001 to 10.024 trillion today, an increase of 4.297 trillion, or 75.02%.76

Unemployment rose from 4.2% when Bush took office to 6.3% in 2003, then declined, reaching 4.4% in late 2006 and early 2007. However, any claim based on improvement from his worst numbers is history, as the rate has risen this year and stands at 6.1%. Even that understates the problem. Total employment has declined each month this year; the preliminary number for August is below every month since April 2007. During that time, more than two million people (net) have entered the work force. In all, since January 2001, the work force has grown by eleven million but employment by only five million. Average hourly and weekly earnings have fallen, in constant dollars, for the past year, and now show almost no gain since January 2001, despite an average quarterly increase in productivity of 2.57%.77

The current-account deficit continues to widen, because we import far more in goods than we export.78

Quite a legacy.


75. These numbers are from the Congressional Budget Office.

76. Treasury Dept., Bureau of Public Debt. If we measure the increase from the beginning of President Bush's first fiscal year, 10/1/01, the difference is about the same: an increase of 4.218 trillion, 72.66%.

77. Labor Dept., Bureau of Labor Statistics

78. Commerce Dept., Bureau of Economic Analysis

October 2, 2008

It's difficult not to notice the parallel between John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate and the choice of Dan Quayle by George H.W. Bush. Each was picked to reassure conservatives who did not regard the presidential candidate as one of their own. I looked at my journal for 1988 and found that I reacted to Quayle about as I have to Palin. So, with apologies for quoting myself, here are comments that might apply again:

One J. Danforth Quayle has been selected as the GOP V P candidate. He's young, handsome to the edge of pretty, safely conservative & dangerously unpredictable. At the announcement ceremony, Q came across as an air-headed cheerleader; Bush looked old & uncomfortable. Clearly B was so uncertain of his conservative base that he felt that he had to placate [it] by selecting one of the faithful. . . . (8/17)

Even so, the comparison is not entirely fair to Quayle. When selected in 1988, he had been in Congress for twelve years, and represented a more populous state than Alaska.
. . . The limp rationales were that he would attract young voters (uncertain), attract women because, according to him, he resembles Robert Redford (patronizing) & because he makes Bush look dignified by comparison (pathetic). (8/21)

As others have pointed out, Quayle also projected an ordinary-folks image, although not as well as Palin.
The vice presidential debate showed Sen. Quayle to be the vacuous adolescent nearly everyone knew him to be. However, he managed to get through the ordeal without collapsing, giggling out of context or drooling, so Bush probably will win. (10/7)

Lowered expectations may help Palin to a similar passing grade, but I still have some hope that voters will not be foolish enough to saddle themselves with four more Bush years.

October 2, 2008

We've just watched the matchup of the college professor v. the homecoming queen. Senator Biden, who can be voluble and charming, was serious and restrained. Governor Palin, who can be bubbly and sarcastic, was bubbly and sarcastic. She didn't commit any serious errors, and was well supplied with (frequently irrelevant) talking points, so her fans will be reassured. However, unless the electorate has become even sillier than usual, she won't have helped McCain to victory.

October 4, 2008

Not long ago, water-ice was discovered on Mars. Here on Earth, the search for intelligent life continues.

We are coming to the end of two terms in which we have been led by an ordinary fella, a folksy "rancher' everyone thought was just like us, the opposite of the reviled elite. Unfortunately, he wasn't smart enough or experienced enough to do the job. The result has been a disaster. Eight years on, the oldest presidential candidate in history has named as his running mate an ordinary gal, a folksy "frontier woman" everyone thinks is just like us, who's even more sarcastic toward the elite. Does no one see that, if she succeeded to the presidency the result would be as bad?

Initially, the reaction to her nomination was along the lines of "American Idol": she's a cute unknown we want to shower with success. Then it was a new chapter in political feminism: Sarah Palin as the Republican Hillary, poised to shatter the remnants of the glass ceiling. The first paradigm is still operative: isn't she just so darned perky? However, appeal to women has been replaced by appeal to men, on a somewhat lower intellectual level.

After the debate, an Oliphant cartoon encapsulated one version of the new theme: Sarah vaulting over a bar set at six inches to the cheers of Joe Sixpack. David Brooks lent his prestige as an observer of cultural phenomena: "There she was, resplendent in black, striding out like a power-walker, and greeting Joe Biden like an assertive salesman, first-naming him right off the bat." 79 Was she overmatched on substance? Certainly not: "Was this woman capable of completing an extemporaneous paragraph - a collection of sentences with subjects, verbs, objects and, if possible, an actual meaning? By the end of her opening answers, it was clear she would meet the test." Did her answers relate to the questions or even to the real world? David didn't share his views on that. Never mind.

It took her about 15 seconds to define her persona - the straight-talking mom from regular America - and it was immediately clear that the night would be filled with tales of soccer moms, hockey moms, Joe Sixpacks, main-streeters, "you betchas" and "darn rights." . . . Her perpetual smile served as foil to Biden's senatorial seriousness.

The last comment shows Brooks sliding over into the real appeal of Sarah Palin to male voters: sex. Jay Leno joked that men would rather see Sarah in a bikini than Pamela Anderson. Rich Lowry, unable to sublimate as well as Brooks, gave it all away:
. . . I'm sure I'm not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, "Hey, I think she just winked at me." And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America. This is a quality that can't be learned; it's either something you have or you don't, and man, she's got it.80

Rich, Rich, she won't deliver; flirts and Republicans don't.


79. NYTimes 10/3/8

80. 10/3/08

October 11, 2008

The McCain-Palin campaign, having little but fear and hatred to work with, adopted a strategy of character assassination. This encouraged a few of their fans to shout - at Obama - "traitor," "treason" or "terrorist." Instead of denouncing such outbursts, the candidates let them pass, content that their strategy was working. Ann Coulter must be happy.

Weird Annie didn't stop at calling liberals traitors; she suggested that threatening to kill them is a good idea. One of Palin's more pathological followers took that hint as well, yelling "kill him" at a rally, again unremarked by the candidate. While McCain trades on his bravery, oozes concern for the country and talks about honor, his campaign pursues a cowardly, dishonorable strategy of demonizing the opponent.

Pundits on the right reenforce the strategy by harping on the "character" issue. On Friday, Charles Krauthammer applauded McCain's focus on Ayers, Wright and Rezko, complaining only that McCain should have hammered on them earlier. His excuse for these guilt-by-association attacks is that Obama is "unknown, opaque and self-contained." 81 As Barack and Michelle Obama have pointed out in the past few days, he's been running for president for nearly two years, and has been scrutinized closely. He isn't unknown, so what is the real problem? Is he a terrorist or a criminal or does he hate America? To the red-meat crowd, yes, but Krauthammer knows better: "Do I think Obama is as corrupt as Rezko? Or shares Wright's angry racism or Ayers's unreconstructed 1960s radicalism? No." Instead the issue is character: Obama used these men to advance his career. The evidence for that is thin and few politicians have avoided the taint of bad associations. Krauthammer acknowledged that, but still wouldn't give Obama a pass:

Obama is not the first politician to rise through a corrupt political machine. But he is one of the rare few to then have the audacity to present himself as a transcendent healer, hovering above and bringing redemption to the "old politics" -- of the kind he had enthusiastically embraced in Chicago in the service of his own ambition.

Now, wait. Obama didn't rise through any such machine, and he's not alone in presenting himself as a healer and above politics. McCain, after 26 years in Congress, claims to be a maverick, an outsider, a non-partisan foe of all that Washington stands for. On his website 82 we're told that "John McCain has always put his country's interests before any party, special interest and even his own self-interest. He has always and will always do what is right for our country." Click on "About," then on "Why John McCain" and you'll hear him praised as little less than a saint. So we can ignore the "audacity" ploy.

Krauthammer had another excuse for the attacks:

Second, and even more disturbing than the cynicism, is the window these associations give on Obama's core beliefs. He doesn't share the Rev. Wright's poisonous views of race nor Ayers's views, past and present, about the evil that is American society. But Obama clearly did not consider these views beyond the pale. For many years he swam easily and without protest in that fetid pond. Until now.

This is just a longer and more artful way of saying that Obama is guilty by association. Krauthammer is a bit like McCain. The Senator won't attack Obama to his face, preferring to hide behind ads and friendly crowds. Krauthammer won't say that Obama is a bad man, so he hides behind these devious implications.

Krauthammer parrots the McCain defense of this sordid, desperate tactic: complaints about it reflect liberal media bias: "let the McCain campaign raise the issue, and the mainstream media begin fulminating about dirty campaigning tinged with racism and McCarthyite guilt by association." Certainly it is dirty campaigning. It could be considered racist, in that no similar attack has been made on McCain's association with Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, whose comments were as critical of the United States as Jeremiah Wright's. The implications that Obama is not a real American and that he "pals around with terrorists" are fully McCarthyist.

Senator McCain has, belatedly, recognized one of the dangers of attack politics: your followers may go nuts. Yesterday, at a town-hall rally, he responded to an agitated supporter who told him he was frightened by the prospect of an Obama presidency. McCain said that he didn't want Obama to be president, but "he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States." The crowd booed. An especially confused and hostile woman declared "I don't trust Obama. I have read about him. He's an Arab." McCain interrupted her and said "No, ma'am, he's a decent family man, a citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues." Leaving aside whether an Arab could be a decent family man and a citizen, that and the earlier rebuke are welcome and, to use his term, decent.

Those responses would be more impressive if the McCain campaign were not continuing to run smear ads. The newest starts with an attack on Obama's "blind ambition" and bad judgment. This is what the decent family man did, according to McCain's evil twin: "When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied." The ad then abruptly changes the subject and tells us that Congressional liberals fought for sub-prime loans and against regulation. From a long-time foe of regulation, that requires chutzpah.

All of this does have its comic side. Gail Collins, in her column today, captured the farcical humor of the latest ad:

Remember when McCain's campaign ads were all about his being a prisoner of war? I really miss them. Now they're all about the Evil That Is Obama. The newest one, "Ambition," has a woman, speaking in one of those sinister semiwhispers, saying: "When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied." Then suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, she starts ranting about Congressional liberals and risky subprime loans. Then John McCain pops up to say he approved it. All in 30 seconds! And, of course, McCain would think it's great. For the first time, the Republicans appear to have captured his thought process on tape. 83


81. 2008/10/09/ AR2008100902328.html


83. 11collins.html

October 14, 2008

Apart from the more hysterical members of the audience at his rallies, no Republican seems to think that John McCain is running the right kind of campaign. I don't think that his tactics bother his critics on an ethical level; after all, trashing the opposition has been a standard political technique forever and one especially dear to Republicans of late. The problem is that it isn't working this time.

That has led William Kristol, The New York Times' gift to intelligent discourse, to suggest that McCain fire everyone and start over. "The McCain campaign, once merely problematic, is now close to being out-and-out dysfunctional. Its combination of strategic incoherence and operational incompetence has become toxic." 84 The last sentence is clever, but ironic: it so obviously applies to the record of the Bush administration, especially to its foreign policy, which Kristol has pushed.

Kristol noted that McCain may be doomed whatever changes he makes. "Bush is unpopular. The media is [sic] hostile. . . ." He refers to the hostile "liberal" media, including, of course, The New York Times.

The Times' op-ed page includes another unhappy conservative, David Brooks. Brooks is having second thoughts which go beyond campaign tactics. In a recent column, 85 he argued that "[m]odern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals." Dissident, that is, from liberalism. He cited Russell Kirk among others. Kirk certainly was a man of ideas, but at their core - as shown by his principal work The Conservative Mind - is nostalgia, a wish that society would be governed by tradition, religion, authority, property and class distinction. Brooks claimed that "Ronald Reagan was no intellectual, but he had an earnest faith in ideas and he spent decades working through them." I don't know what that means; Reagan's detachment from policies, facts and complicated concepts is well known.

Leaving aside how much conservatives ever were devoted to heavy and useful thinking, Brooks certainly is right that the GOP is not now a party of ideas, but a party of class resentment. Republican political strategy has depended on persuading people whose economic interests lie with Democrats to vote GOP because its candidates are real folks, not liberal urban elites. In 2000 and 2004 Americans were persuaded to vote for a guy they'd like to have a beer with, even if he couldn't reason his way from the front end of a sentence to the back. (I can't imagine why anyone would want to have a beer with W, but that's just me, and beside the point).

His review of conservative decline brought Brooks to Sarah Palin, the George W. Bush of 2008. "Palin is smart, politically skilled, courageous and likable. Her convention and debate performances were impressive." Well, no, but never mind. "But no American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the 'normal Joe Sixpack American' and the coastal elite. She is another step in the Republican change of personality. . . ." No, she merely represents the continuation of an established pattern.

In a recent interview,86 Brooks went much further in criticizing Palin. He again put his comments in the context of a conservative commitment to ideas. "But there has been a counter, more populist tradition, which is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely. And I'm afraid that Sarah Palin has those prejudices. I think President Bush has those prejudices." He praised Palin's political ability, but said she is "absolutely not" ready to be president or vice president. The final blow: she "represents a fatal cancer to the Republican party."

He summed up in his column: "And so, politically, the G.O.P. is squeezed at both ends. The party is losing the working class by sins of omission - because it has not developed policies to address economic anxiety. It has lost the educated class by sins of commission - by telling members of that class to go away." GOP economic policies never have been populist; the current meltdown has brought those policies into focus, and perhaps voters will realize that Republicans are neither friends of the people nor the party of fiscal responsibility. Republicans have done very nicely, politically, without the educated class; their real problem, and more so the country's problem, is that, by denigrating ideas, by appointing political hacks rather than qualified public servants, they have become unable to govern competently.

This takes us back to Kristol's formula, which was used two months ago in an article 87 entitled "Memo to President-elect McBama": "Historians will long debate whether your predecessor's primary distinction was: (1) strategic incoherence or (2) operational incompetence." Maybe the deficiencies in McCain's campaign have something to do with his being a Republican.


84. 13kristol.html?_r=1&oref= slogin&ref=opinion&pagewanted=print

85. 10brooks.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

86. david-brooks-sarah-palin_ n_133001.html

87. memo_to_ presidentelect_ mcbama.html

October 22, 2008

In a line stretching from Joseph McCarthy to Ann Coulter, Republicans and self-styled conservatives have accused Democrats and liberals of being, at best, less than real Americans and, at worst, traitors. There has been a lot of that this year, some of it merely silly, some ugly. The outright accusations of treason and terrorism have come from McCain-Palin audiences, but the candidates have dropped the appropriate hints.

One way to cast liberals as less than really American is to call them elitist. The elusive definition of "elitist" does not impede its application. Eric Alterman described its slippery character this way:

"[E]litism" has come to be perceived as a legitimate attack word by the right, without anyone really being able to define why. Remember: it's not about where you live, how much money you have, how many security guards you regularly employ, where you summer, what you drive,. . . where you went to school. . . . Conservatives are as one with the people they so disdain on all of those scores. Rather, "elitism" has simply become a contentless cudgel with which to beat back one's opponents without the trouble of engaging their arguments.

He offered an explanation of how the obvious hypocrisy is muted:
[N]o right-wing campaign has been complete without some form of repudiation of what former Vice President Dan Quayle named the liberal "cultural elite," whose avowed purpose is to undermine all that is admirable and virtuous in Middle America . . . . Quayle's addition of the word "cultural" to "elite," . . . was a stroke of genuine genius, as it allowed conservatives to continue to feel themselves oppressed even as they gained control of virtually all of the levers of political power in the United States and much of the news media. . . . 88

The meaning of the term may be elusive, but the aim of its use is not. In part this is a regional strategy, stroking voters in the south. In this spirit, Sarah Palin told an audience in North Carolina that "[w]e believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation. . . ." 89 A warmup speaker for McCain, also in North Carolina, accused Obama of "inciting class warfare" and claimed that "liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God." 90

Not only are some parts of the country better than others, parts of states are as well. One of McCain's campaign advisors declared that Northern Virginia - you know, the part infected by Washington D.C. - is not the real Virginia, which is the "part of the state that is more Southern in nature . . . ." 91

To some degree, this is merely standard nonsense, but it perpetuates divisions in the country which the Republicans have been too successful in creating. A Republican congresswoman, revealing both the comic and ugly aspects, declared that we should investigate - and purge? - Congress : "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America." 92

The anti-elitist stance also is an attempt to convince people of modest means that the party of unregulated business somehow is their natural home, hence the constant bleating about how Democratic polices will destroy jobs, as if sending them overseas didn't. The quadrennial attempt by the GOP to identify with working people was aptly described long ago: "Read the national platform of the Republican party and see if there is in all its bombast a crumb of comfort for labor. The convention that adopted it was a capitalist convention and the only thought it had for labor was how to abstract its vote without waking it up." 93 The speaker, in 1904, was Eugene Debs, so a good Republican would dismiss his critique as the raving of a socialist, which bring us to another point.

One way of accusing Obama of not being a real American is to call him a socialist. To some extent, Obama brought this on himself, by a clumsy reply to "Joe the plumber," in which he spoke of spreading wealth around. McCain jumped on that: "You see, he believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that help us all make more of it. Joe, in his plain-spoken way, said this sounded a lot like socialism." 94 Perfect: Obama is a socialist who doesn't care about Joe the plumber. Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio chimed in: "He is left of Teddy Kennedy. . . With all due respect, the man is a socialist." 95 The more excitable partisans on the right call Obama a Marxist.96 (I keep thinking that the Red Scare is over, but no.)

McCain took the argument a step further, using the support-by-foreigners form of guilt by association: "At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives." His campaign manager went another step, hinting at foreign sources of funding. Referring to donations under $200, which the campaigns apparently are not required to identify, he mused darkly, "I just hope we know every one of those donations came from legitimate U.S.-based sources." 97 Maybe they were from Hamas, which allegedly supports Obama. If so, he's a terrorist.

Most of the "terrorist" slurs have been indirect, usually alleging that Obama is a Muslim; of course, everyone knows that Muslim=terrorist. Some also think that Muslim=Arab, like the poor bewildered woman at the McCain rally, now famous through Saturday Night Live. However, we shouldn't be too critical; McCain can't keep Sunnis and Shiites straight. The only actual connection between Obama and terrorism, however weak and indirect, is through Bill Ayers. That mine has been nearly worked out, and it would be so much better to find a foreign tie. The Sacramento County Republican Party tried to create one; its web site featured pictures of Osama bin Laden and Barack Obama with this clever argument: "The only difference between Obama and Osama is BS." It demanded: "Waterboard Barack Obama." 98

The accusation of insufficient Americanism is an example of the demonization of the Other. It was predicable that race would be a factor in this year's presidential election and, to some, a black is the ultimate Other. We have progressed far enough that overt racism no longer is acceptable, so racial bias usually masquerades as something else. However, in one corner of southern California, the prejudice was undisguised. A newsletter by a Republican women's group included a picture of a $10 bill, but labeled "United States Food Stamps," showing Barack Obama's face on a donkey's body, surrounded by watermelon, ribs and a bucket of fried chicken. Confronted, the group's president claimed that she was satirizing a comment Obama made that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills. It was strictly an attempt to point out the outrageousness of his statement." 100 In other words, when he noted that he was considered different, he became the racist, opening the gates to any sort of demeaning response.

All of this fits into a conservative strategy, and perhaps a belief, that identifies liberals not as the political opposition but as the enemy. That was in place by the eighties, was announced as doctrine in 1992 ("We are America; those other people are not."101) and became a focus of the Gingrich uprising in 1994.

Religion adds the final slander. There is a tendency in any conservative religious organization to draw a fundamental distinction between the elect and the rest. That - and an assortment of political, cultural and psychological factors - has led some on the fringe to go beyond the traditional categories of denunciation and suggest that Obama may be the antichrist. (You can buy t-shirts or coffee mugs emblazoned with an "O" sprouting horns and the slogan "The Anti-Christ.") 102 There are several bits of alleged evidence. My favorite is that the number of one of the beasts in Revelation is 666 and one of the zip codes for Chicago is 60660.

The question was referred to the expert on Christian eschatology, Tim LaHaye, who decided in the negative, barely: "I can see by the language he uses why people think he could be the antichrist, but from my reading of scripture, he doesn't meet the criteria. There is no indication in the Bible that the antichrist will be an American."103 (How could there be? Never mind; it's such a relief that he's not eligible.)

If Barack Obama is elected, perhaps those who fear him will come to see that he is one of us, but I wouldn't bet on it.


88. alterman. Aterman sets out the recent history of the elitism argument; see also Robert S. McElvaine, "America's 40 Years War at an End,"

89. palin_clarifies_her_ pro-americ.html

90. mccains-irreducibles-beg-differ

91. mccain_adviser_suggests _nova_n.html

92. channels-mccarthy_n_ 135735.html

93. Quoted in Page Smith, America Enters the World, p. 59

94. article/2008/10/18/ AR2008101802212.html

95. 20081017/NEWS09/ 810170251


97. compares-obama-sma_n_136191.html?page=13&show_comment_id=17023136#comment_17023136

98. california-removes-waterboard- obama-graphic/

99. PE_News_Local_S_ buck16.3d67d4a.html

100. Rich Bond, Chairman of the Republican Party, at the convention in 1992. See my ...note} of 2/1/06.



October 26, 2008

When the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian Parties challenged Washington's blanket primary, they did it, they said, because that system infringed on the right of the parties to control who represented them in the final election. In other words, to take one example, they thought that the label "Republican" was so valuable that only Republicans should be able to vote for Republican candidates in the primary.

This year, after the judicial execution of the blanket primary and the rejection by the voters of the pick-a-party primary, we have the top-two primary. It sends to the final election the two primary candidates who receive the most votes, regardless of party. Candidates do not identify themselves as - again to take an example - Republicans, but merely state "Prefers Republican Party." That is, most of them do.

According to the voters' pamphlet, 18 candidates for various offices prefer the Republican Party, but 4, including Dino Rossi, running for governor, prefer GOP. Actually, the pamphlet states "Prefers G.O.P. Party." I assume that the redundancy - Grand Old Party Party - is the fault of the pamphlet editors, who established a formula "Prefers _____ Party" and stuck with it, however silly the result. On the other hand, they may have thought that no one knows what "GOP" stands for, even with the helpful periods. That certainly is Rossi's calculation. He is distancing himself, understandably, from the national administration, but also from the state party which thinks that its label is such an advantage.

One candidate for the legislature has gone a step further. His web page features a letter signed by him as "State Representative Dan Kristiansen, 39th district, Republican." His page is headed, more cautiously, "Dan Kristiansen for State Representative, GOP." In the voters' pamphlet he "Prefers R Party." Reform? Radical? Revolutionary? How about "Running for cover"? We know that it isn't "Regulation": his letter praises the "free market" and quotes Reagan that "government is the problem."

The U.S. Supreme Court turned back a challenge, led by the Republicans, to Initiative 872, which established the top-two format. However, that decision merely established that 872 is not unconstitutional on its face. The parties may file another lawsuit alleging that, in practice, it interferes with their rights of non-association. The Supreme Court is so protective of political parties' rights that they might succeed. However, the Republican Party will need to explain how the name "Republican" is so important when even its gubernatorial candidate doesn't want to use it.

October 31, 2008

On Thursday, in a column entitled " Still No. 1," Robert Kagan criticized those who speak of America's decline. All is well, he told us: the economy will rebound, we are still the mightiest military power, we have restored close relations with allies and made a new one in Iraq, and world opinion of us isn't really all that bad. We forget that conditions were even worse in the past.

The danger of today's declinism is not that it is true but that the next president will act as if it is. The good news is that I doubt either nominee really will. And I'm confident the American people would take a dim view if he tried. 103

He may or may not be right in doubting the fact of decline. I have no idea what he means by acting as if it were true. Certainly the presidential candidates have avoided talk of decline, the new president isn't likely to start doing so, and the voters would disapprove if he did.

He's also right that some views of the future are affected by false memories of the past, although that is as likely to lead to unwarranted optimism as to predictions of decline. Where he certainly is wrong is in his rosy view of our present situation, but in this he has lots of company.

According to one historian, Americans "hold to certain extremely fragile notions which we generally denominate 'ideas,' and we hold to these ideas passionately rather than rationally." 104 The dominant idea, at least in recent years, has to do with the nature, or perhaps more accurately, the character of the nation. Most Americans believe, to one degree or another, that this country is unique, that it is noble and, perhaps, that it is chosen by God. That set of beliefs is pandered to, and thereby reinforced, by politicians; this is dangerous, as it is a formula for complacency on some issues and hysteria on others.

It also is an impediment to reform. We fail to do what is necessary to improve or at least maintain our situation because 1) we think that "the American way of life" is a right, so any criticism is unwelcome; 2) we think that America always acts from virtuous motives, so criticism is unpatriotic; and 3) we think that America is a chosen land, so criticism is sacrilegious.

This presidential campaign has been disappointing, in that neither the maverick nor the agent of change has been willing to challenge Americans' perception of the world, their country, and themselves. Barack Obama certainly is more likely to effect desirable change than John McCain and may be able to undo some of the damage of recent years. However, he hasn't departed from the accepted narrative. We may have to do that on our own.

The economic crisis has caused suffering for many and worry for most of the rest of us, but it also may force us to be more realistic about where the country is and where it should go. The Iraq war has been a tragic blunder, but perhaps it will teach us that we are not all-powerful and not always on the side of the angels.


103. content/article/2008/ 10/29/ AR2008102903202.html

104. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age, p. xv

November 8, 2008

President Bush, in valedictory remarks to the White House staff, said of the election and forthcoming inauguration: "This peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy." That might be regarded as a cliché or as a slightly pompous statement by one not given to philosophy. However, it is a cliché because it contains a profound truth: however nasty the campaign, and however short the honeymoon may prove to be, American elections are marked not only by peaceful transfers of power but, usually, by good will and cooperation. Mr Bush added: "And ensuring that this transition is as smooth as possible is a priority for the rest of my presidency." I think that, with some exceptions, he will honor that promise.

Graceful concession is another tradition. John McCain delivered a speech on election night which was gracious and eloquent, although not always appreciated by his supporters.

. . . A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama -- (boos) -- to congratulate him -- (boos) -- please -- to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.

He noted more explicitly the significance of the election of an African-American. President Bush did as well:
. . . Across the country, citizens voted in large numbers. . . . They chose a President whose journey represents a triumph of the American story -- a testament to hard work, optimism, and faith in the enduring promise of our nation.

Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day. This moment is especially uplifting for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights with their own eyes -- and four decades later see a dream fulfilled.


It will be a stirring sight to watch President Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their beautiful girls step through the doors of the White House. I know millions of Americans will be overcome with pride at this inspiring moment that so many have awaited so long.

That had special poignancy for Secretary of State Rice:

. . . I did not want this morning to pass without taking note of the extraordinary election last night. This was an exercise in American democracy, of which Americans across the political spectrum are justifiably proud.

And I just want to close on a personal note. As an African American, I am especially proud because this is a country that's been through a long journey in terms of overcoming wounds and making race not the factor in our lives. That work is not done, but yesterday was obviously an extraordinary step forward. . . .

The remarks displayed the essence, as this campaign did not and most campaigns unhappily do not, of the McCain slogan, "Country First." In that spirit, the Senator said:
. . . I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. . . .

Mr. Bush echoed that sentiment: "A long campaign has now ended, and we move forward as one nation."
This moment will not last, and the election wasn't only about race, but it's reassuring to see our better nature emerge now and then.

November 19, 2008

Are we a center-right nation? Is that an important question? Republicans and self-described conservatives assert that the United States is indeed a nation of the center-right, presumably meaning that Americans' political views are at least moderately "conservative." How do we define that term? Let's look at these questions in the light of the recent election.

Pre-election claims

Although the center-right refrain is being sung with gusto now, to reassure depressed Republicans that the losses are temporary, it is not new, and not confined to post-mortems. In December 2000, after George W. Bush had been elected (or appointed, or something) despite losing the popular vote, Larry Kudlow dismissed talk of generating "bipartisan consensus policies." That was unnecessary, he argued, because "the new right-of-center center that has developed in the past 15 years is still intact" and therefore Bush had broad support. (He described that "center" as having developed over the preceding fifteen years, which is a bit mysterious; 1980 or 1994 would seem to be more logical starting points than 1985. There is a possible explanation infra). In 2004, an article in The New York Times announced that "it is impossible to read President Bush's re-election with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress as anything other than the clearest confirmation yet that this is a center-right country. . . ."

Last year Karl Rove was quoted on the subject: "Our country is a center-right country, and . . . the Republican Party is identified today as the center-right party of the country." In January, Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said "I believe that it is still a center-right country, and I think this election will show that." In February, Rep. James DeMint claimed that most independents "are center right”. Also in February, George Will reviewed possible VP choices for McCain and noted that one, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, "is a center-right politician in a center-right country." In April, he described McCain as "a center-right candidate seeking to lead a center-right country."

In an article in the October 27, 2008 issue of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, who thinks that we are a "right-of-center country," joined Kudlow in finding 1985 to be a turning point. There were two significant events that year, according to Meacham. In November 1985 Al From, founder of the centrist DLC, was told by wavering Democrats in the Carolinas that "we didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left us" and that they wanted to "reconnect the Democratic Party with mainstream America."

In December, apparently at a party celebrating the 30th anniversary of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. toasted President Reagan, saying, "As the final responsible authority, in any hour of great challenge, we depend on you." Buckley noted that he was 19 when America dropped the bomb at Hiroshima, and had just turned 60. "During the interval I have lived a free man in a free and sovereign country, and this only because we have husbanded a nuclear deterrent, and made clear our disposition to use it if necessary." He prayed, he said, that his son, and Reagan's, when they reached 60, would live in a world free from the ugliness of the twentieth century. "Enjoying their freedoms, they will be grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong." In Meacham's imagination, "You can almost hear the trumpets. . . . Buckley's cold-war remarks were primal, reflecting the ancient human urge to protect one's own from gathering dangers."

According to Meacham, "In these two moments from a now distant year . . . lie the roots of our politics." I could see the significance of the From reference, if it were safe to assume that those comments reflected a general rejection of Democratic or liberal ideas, but the Buckley speech is a puzzle. How did the reference to a decades-old policy, even if enthusiastically applied by Reagan during his first term, signal a new day in politics?

In any case, this exercise in self-reassurance continued up to the election. Fred Barnes on October 11, Pat Buchanan on October 16, Peter Wehner on October 27, Joe Scarborough on October 29, Charles Krauthammer on October 31, and Bay Buchanan and Karl Rove on November 5 all declared this to be a center-right country.

Post-election claims

Nor did the election stop the flow. Rich Lowry on November 8: "Republicans are consoling themselves by telling anyone who will listen that we still live in a 'center- right country.' They're right. . . ." Ditto Rush Limbaugh and William Kristol on November 10. Why do they think that?

One explanation is that Obama ran as a conservative. Rush Limbaugh favored that theory: "Tell me the last liberal you ever heard promising a tax cut for 95 percent of the American people." It's true that Obama moved to the right during the campaign, but that isn't persuasive as an explanation of the outcome. Polls showed that voters considered him to be a liberal. McCain tried to paint him as a socialist, Rove called him a Marxist, he was alleged to be a secret Muslim, Palin accused him of palling around with terrorists, his citizenship was questioned: he was portrayed as anything but a conservative "real American."

Another is that McCain and/or Bush ceased to be conservatives, even though the country wanted conservatism. DeMint, who supported McCain in February, turned to blaming him for the defeat; McCain's sins were "campaign finance reform that weakened party organizations," amnesty for illegals, support of cap-and-trade programs "that will put another burden on our economy," support for the bailout, opposition to drilling in ANWR. Bush had committed apostasy by expanding the size of government and engaging in wasteful spending. "Americans do prefer a traditional conservative government. They just did not believe Republicans were going to give it to them."


In order to determine whether there is a center-right orientation, we need to know what that term, or alternatively, "conservative" means.

In his remarks in 2000, Kudlow offered a definition of the former:

The new center-right center does not favor big-government solutions. It does not believe in business bashing or class-warfare rich bashing. It does not believe in regulating, planning, or targeting the major sectors of the economy. The new center-right center will support gradual and sensible reform plans for education, health care, Social Security, and taxation . . . .

The new center-right center in American politics favors equality of opportunity, not equality of results. It believes in personal responsibility and spiritual renewal, not societal victimization and the condoning of destructive behaviors. It believes in free-market entrepreneurship and shareholding ownership, not massive new entitlements or other transfers of wealth from producers to non-producers. . . . 105

This is a coded argument against regulation of business, taxes on the wealthy, redistribution of wealth, and affirmative action. People may agree with him as to the last issue. I doubt that, at any time in recent history, a majority of Americans would have subscribed to the first two; they are ambivalent as to the third.

Other proposed definitions suffer from the same defects. They are less statements of Republican or "conservative" policies or public opinion than political posturing. DeMint listed, as elements of conservatism: permanent tax reform, eliminating earmarks, access to affordable healthcare, withholding dues from the United Nations, perpetuating the present level of military spending and “amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget.” Low taxes always will be part of the conservative program, along with high military spending, whether needed or affordable. Affordable healthcare can't be taken seriously as a conservative priority, the record on earmarks is mixed (think of McCain v. Ted Stevens), and the balanced budget ploy is even more ludicrous now than before Bush. The people want low taxes, but not with the conservative bias toward the rich, and they seem to be more realistic and responsible about the need to pay for government.

George Will, in the course of praising the market, quoted John McCain: "This is the crux of the difference between the two parties -- belief in the competence, responsibility and accountability of individuals." Conservatives do believe in leaving some activities to the discretion of individuals, although wanting to impose rigid rules as to others. The former disposition is limited largely to matters of business and finance, the latter to "values." Although public opinion is sharply divided as to values issues, the majority reject the conservative view as to some, notably abortion.

One approach ignores formal definitions and relies on polls allegedly showing ideological preferences. Peter Wehner supported his claim to a center-right nation in that way: "Twice as many respondents to an October Newsweek poll said they consider themselves to be conservative as said they were liberal (40 percent vs. 20 percent)." Meacham also relied on those numbers. Wehner added: "And a Fox News poll taken at the start of October found that 76 percent of respondents believe lower taxes and smaller government are preferable to higher taxes and larger government." Imagine that! However, when asked somewhat more sophisticated questions, people consistently gave answers inconvenient to the center-right thesis.

Rich Lowry managed to find, as have all the others, that the centre holds. (He even tilted his column "Center holds"). That's based on a poll reporting peoples' self-identification to be: conservative 34%, moderate 44%, liberal 22%. His conclusion: "ideological composition of the electorate was remarkably unchanged from 2004." Therefore, even though he acknowledged that McCain was "trounced in the country's great middle," his center holds. No matter how people vote, they are permanently assigned to political pigeonholes.

Another problem is that polling as to party preference doesn't conform to the conservative-liberal identification. William Kristol conceded that, this year, "self-described Democrats made up 39 percent of the electorate and Republicans 32 percent, in contrast with a 37-37 split in 2004." Nevertheless, he managed, with Lowry, to find the ideological numbers compelling, and comforting, leading to the conclusion - are you ready? - that while 2008 was a good year for Democrats, this is still a center-right country.

Polls asking for views on specific issues produce disconcerting results for the right, so when people describe themselves as conservatives, that tells us very little. Another inconvenient fact: Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the last five presidential elections, losing only in 2004.

"Conservative" clearly is a flexible term. Meacham acknowledged that: "The conservative label is often applied to people of all sorts and conditions: libertarians, evangelical Christians, tax cutters, military hawks." He should have added the business lobby, which isn't adequately covered by the reference to libertarianism. However, he attempted to find a consensus meaning: "in broad strokes I mean 'conservative' in the way most of us have come to use it in recent decades: to describe those who value custom over change, who worry about the erosion of the familiar and the expansion of the state, and who dislike those who appear condescending about matters of faith, patriotism and culture." However, that isn't quite the way the term has been used. His comments about erosion of the familiar and about faith and culture are apt and are, as he implies, traditional conservative concerns. Fretting about the size of the state is almost exclusively an activity of the right-wing political classes and, in any case, the state grew under the conservative hero, Reagan.

The Reagan era also is instructive as to the supposed preference for custom over change. In 1986, William Bennett gave a speech to the temple of right-wing politics, the Heritage Foundation. He entitled it "Completing the Reagan Revolution," which doesn't suggest an aversion to change.

. . . American conservatism has become optimistic - it has become cheerful and high-spirited and enthusiastic and forward-looking - thanks in the main to the leadership, the transforming leadership, of Ronald Reagan. . . .

American conservatism now sets the terms of our national debate. It does so because, without in the least abandoning its principles, it has succeeded in identifying itself with the quintessential American appetite for new challenges and new opportunities. . . .106

That's indistinguishable from Obama's "liberal" call for change. To be sure, Bennett referred to enduring principles, but change was the dominant theme, and he was not the only one to refer to the Reagan program as a revolution. (See Peggy Noonan's What I Saw at the Revolution, the College Republican slogan "Join the Revolution," etc.)

Conservatism has been less a coherent philosophy than the theme song for a political product. A few days ago, Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, comparing this election to the GOP defeat in 1964, referred to an article written that year by Reagan. "His article is striking for what he said -- and didn't say. Reagan spoke of a 'war for freedom,' but he did not mention a single specific conservative policy." Instead he purported to "represent the forgotten American," a "simple soul" who holds a job and otherwise embodies the mythical American values. Reagan, Olsen thinks, established conservatism as a movement dedicated to a principle. "That principle, human freedom, was fixed. But it would be interpreted and applied in light of specific circumstances, and in ways to persuade 'that simple soul' upon whose consent American political success rests." In other words, Reagan didn't really represent the simple soul, but saw him as a persuadable vehicle for political dominance.

The Base and Propaganda

The base for the Republican-conservative agenda consists of 25% or so of Americans who, for various reasons including religion, would never vote for a Democrat. The resentful, uncompromising, crusading nature of this group has made it important beyond its numbers. However, it is far short of a majority, so independents and wavering Democrats must be persuaded to join. It is the periodic success of that effort, including success in persuading people to identify themselves as conservatives, that has led to the illusion of a general rightward orientation.

Every political movement tries to define the terms of the debate. Abortion-rights activists, to take an example from the other side, have shrewdly and successfully framed the issue in terms of women's rights and choice, diverting attention away from the nature and fate of the fetus. Even the use of "fetus" rather than "unborn child" serves the agenda. However, for many years Republicans and conservatives have been much more skillful at this than Democrats and liberals. They have made "conservative" into a respected, real-American category, and have demonized "liberal." Liberals have reacted defensively, fearfully, timidly. They call themselves "progressive," not even daring to use the l-word. Compare book titles: Coulter's Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism v. Dionne's They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives will Dominate the Next Political Era.

Those who claim that we are a center-right country point to the fact that Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama, feel the need to play down liberalism, speak in conservative terms, and even adopt conservative policies. The argument is valid, if overdone. To some degree it does reflect a genuine rightward movement, a movement which has happened largely by default: liberal ideas were perceived to be outdated, so liberals gave in and went along with conservative ones. It also reflects the influence of money, and therefore of business, on elections. In large part, though, this reflects a triumph of right-wing propaganda, of verbal intimidation.

Most voters cast their ballots not based on careful evaluation of issues and platforms, but on the basis of trust, a feeling of affinity and, at best, a general sense of where the candidate wants to go. Republicans and their right-wing publicists know this and, contrary to their protestations, they have little in the way of policies that help most people, so they concentrate on undermining trust in liberals and on painting them as somehow foreign. The latter reached an extreme this year in the slanders against Obama, but it's always there. Wasn't Kerry an elitist? Didn't he look French?

David Green, in 1987, commented on this negative strategy. He quoted Russell Baker: "Conservatism: A philosophical vacuum whose time has come." Green noted that Baker's definition of conservatism "had correctly spotlighted the fact that by itself the conservative label stood for nothing. It symbolized no program of action, only opposition."107

To return to the issues raised at the beginning: Whether we are a "center-right" nation is an important question only to the extent that liberals believe it to be true, and move to the right out of fear or expediency. We are not a center-right nation, although there are many committed conservatives and the right has framed the debate on many issues. There is no neat definition of contemporary American conservatism. It contains numerous elements, including support for business; opposition (sometimes) to government; hostility toward taxation; opposition to welfare; religious belief and a desire to blur the line between church and state; restrictive rules in matters of personal behavior, especially as to sex; harsh penalties for crime; selective respect for tradition and hostility to modernity, including science; resentment toward perceived elites; opposition to immigration and general xenophobia; and a militarist foreign policy. This is an odd assortment, and it has been held together primarily by anti-liberalism.108

Liberals should invest as much energy in persuading people that liberalism is good for them as conservatives have in denouncing it. Conservatism then would have to develop useful substance in order to survive.


105. National Review Online 12/14/00: MGVlN2VkNjQ5MmQ=
106. pr0189revolution.cfm
107. Shaping Political Consciousness, pp. 249, 258. Writing in 1976, Baker was as unkind to liberals.
108. See my note of 2/1/06 on the history of anti-liberalism.

November 20, 2008

There was a brief article in USA Today - today - reporting a survey showing that Americans, including some who had held elective office, know little about civics. There was difficulty, for example, in naming the three branches of government or identifying the electoral college. The article noted that, by contrast, a majority knew that Paula Abdul is a judge of "American Idol."

The article was on an interior page of the "Life" section, the first page of which was devoted to such news as the release of a vampire movie and the latest edition of "Grand Theft Auto." The irony apparently went unnoticed.

December 5, 2008

Lame-duck presidents usually get a bump in the polls. According to Gallup, in the period between the election of the successor and the end of the term, Reagan rose 12%, Bush Sr. 22% and Clinton 9%. Probably there are various reasons for this, and the pattern is not unvarying, but it is at least in part connected to the civilized way in which we change regimes; the rancor of the election is over and it's time to come together. Perhaps that is why Charles Gibson, in his interview109 of George W. Bush this week, thought that deference was the order of the day. On the other hand, it may be merely a continuation of the bafflingly tender treatment Mr. Bush has received during most of his tenure. (Mrs. Bush was present during part of the interview, but the tone was the same throughout).

The President was in classic form: mangling syntax, evading responsibility, finding an array of questions "interesting."

Gibson asked him what he thought "the country's feeling is" about him. Mr. Bush answered that he hopes "they feel that this is a guy that came, didn't sell his soul for politics, had to make some tough decisions, and did so in a principled way." Lots of luck.

Laura Bush commented that people think that "he's somebody that kept them safe for eight years." Gibson didn't comment on that claim even though Bush had made a striking admission earlier. Asked what he had been unprepared for, he said, "Well, I think I was unprepared for war. In other words, I didn't campaign and say, 'Please vote for me, I'll be able to handle an attack.' "

Perhaps picking up on Bush's reference to "a principled way," Gibson lobbed this softball: "Was there a time when you thought, if I do this I will be compromising my principles --?" But of course; people were forever demanding that he abandon principle. Example: if he had agreed to withdraw from Iraq, it would have violated "the principle that when you put kids into harm's way, you go in to win." His need to "win" certainly loomed larger in his field of view than the lives at risk. In any case, prolonging an unlawful, unnecessary war hardly can be classified as a matter of principle.

Does he have any regrets, such as starting that war and wasting all those lives? Well, not that exactly; he regrets circumstances, or others' mistakes, not his own actions. That is, he regrets "the intelligence failure in Iraq." He still claims that many others relied on the same information and reached the same conclusions he did about WMD and the need to "remove" Saddam Hussein.

Gibson followed with an ambiguous question: "If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?" Gibson meant if the intelligence had been factually accurate, i.e. stated that there were no WMD. Bush misunderstood and took it mean if the facts had been as allegedly reported, so replied that if there had been WMD there "would . . . have been a war." The form of the question and the answer imply that the war just sort of happened, that Mr. Bush didn't start it.

As part of his answer Bush alleged, "Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld." Gibson, like newspeople before him, let it pass. Perhaps if a lie has been repeated often enough, its falsity no longer is news.

Gibson explained that he meant to ask what would have happened if Bush had been told there were no WMD. The answer is revealing. If WMD had been the reason for the war, the obvious and automatic answer would be in the negative: if no WMD, then no threat to our safety, and no war. His actual answer: "You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate."

Mr. Bush was candid at one point. Asked what he would miss most, he said, "Well, I'll miss being Commander-in-Chief."



December 6, 2008

A few days ago, Philippe Sands - professor of law, QC, and critic of the Iraq war - offered advice to the President-elect, set forth in five pithy recommendations. 110

"First, he should state that he will not use the phrase 'war on terror' . . . ." Sands' reason for opposing the use of that formula is that it tends to legitimize "the struggle of those who seek to harm us." Another and better reason is that it forces the response to terrorism into a military mode, with all the negative effects which can follow, and largely have followed, from that. It excludes the criminal-law mode, the use of which would go far to solve other problems Sands identifies.

"Second, he should announce that the US will, as a matter of legal obligation, no longer use torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as defined by international law." Sands did not elaborate on this point, nor did he need to.

"Third, he should declare the closure of Guantánamo, with all detainees gone and the interrogation facility permanently shuttered by July 1 2009." Donald Rumsfeld's claim that Guantánamo held the worst of the worst collapsed long ago. Sands apparently thinks that a fraction of those remaining deserve to be prosecuted, as discussed under the next point, but he recommends that the rest be "returned to their home countries, with effective guarantees against ill-treatment." Obtaining such guarantees has been an impediment to releasing some that even the government has acknowledged to be harmless, and that situation may not change. Some probably will need to be released into the United States.

"Fourth, he must address what will happen to the 50 or so detainees who will remain [in custody] in the US, some of whom are now subject to proceedings before military commissions under the Military Commissions Act 2006." Sands urges that all such proceedings be terminated and that the Act be repealed. That certainly would be the right course. He would try any detainee accused of committing crimes against the United States in civilian courts, or by courts martial or military commissions "as provided for in the Uniform Code of Military Justice." The Uniform Code allows the president to prescribe the procedures to be followed by military commissions, so Mr. Obama would have to adopt fairer rules than those now in use. However, military commissions and courts martial aren't necessarily the proper forums. If we abandon the war-on-terror paradigm and treat terrorism as a method of committing crimes, trial in civilian court would be the only appropriate procedure for some prisoners.

"Fifth, he should announce that the US will honour and underscore its historic commitment to international efforts against impunity, so that past detainee abuses will not be forgotten." He proposes an investigation into torture and other abuse. He doesn't specify what would be done with the results, but the reference to impunity seems to imply prosecution.111 That isn't likely to happen, but exposure and condemnation might be enough to prevent repetition.

Mr. Sands summarizes with this comment: "With these five steps, Obama can go far in restoring the global reputation of the US and its ability to lead and to inspire."
Mr. Obama's actions to date do not inspire confidence that he will implement the suggested policies, but he should do so.


110. 2008/dec/04/guantanamo-obama-human-rights

111. Joanne Mariner recently made the same proposal, explicitly including possible prosecution. 20081201.html

December 10, 2008

Some years ago I served on a jury in a criminal case involving drug dealing. The arrest followed a sting operation conducted by the police department of one of our small communities. The attempt by the police to emulate metropolitan departments - or TV shows - was ludicrous, and the jury found that the police were guilty of entrapment. I was reminded of that episode in reading reports of an investigation of alleged terrorism by the Maryland State Police. The Maryland authorities did not entrap anyone nor make any attempt to provoke illegal acts. The similarity is in the amateurism of the operations.

The Keystone Kops exercise in Maryland initially came to light in July through documents obtained in a freedom-of-information suit. A report ("the Review") commissioned by the Governor followed on September 29.112 They revealed that from March 2005 until May 2006, the Maryland State Police (MSP) planted officers in numerous small activist groups. The most active investigator, who went by "Lucy," wasn't overly subtle. As a member of one of the targeted groups put it, "At one demonstration, I remember her showing up with a laptop computer and typing away. We all thought that was odd." He and the others apparently weren't suspicious, paranoid or wracked by guilt feelings, as no one tumbled to Lucy's agenda.

The investigation purportedly arose out of concern that two executions then scheduled might lead to disturbances, even though, as stated in the Review, "nothing about past experience with carrying out the death penalty in Maryland gave reason to believe that violent or disruptive conduct would attend the executions scheduled for 2005." Reports by the covert investigators confirmed the peaceful orientation of the groups. They included observations such as "No intelligence has been gathered at this point that there are any illegal or disruptive actions planned"; "No one advocated any kind of violence or civil disobedience"; "The group was very firm about any protests being silent and non-disruptive". Nonetheless, the operation continued. The Review commented: "As the investigation moved forward, . . it . . . appears to have taken on a life of its own. . . . . As time went on, the operation took on a certain aimless drift."

Although initially directed toward anti-death penalty groups, the surveillance soon spread to anti-war groups. The dangerous organizations infiltrated included the American Friends Service Committee, which was labeled a "security threat group."

Somehow the peaceful, largely ineffectual acts and agendas of these organizations evoked fears of terrorism. The MSP foolishly listed people as terrorists and forwarded information about them to various state and federal agencies. It used a computer program which required entering a "primary crime" in its reports. As the Review noted, this requirement "could, in theory, instill a beneficial discipline in MSP's intelligence- gathering practices: it could have the effect of requiring investigators and supervisory officers to consider whether an investigation does, in fact, have some meaningful nexus with crime prevention . . . ." It had no such effect. If there were a genuine law-enforcement issue, such as a planned disorderly protest, the investigator could enter as the primary crime "something like unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, obstruction of traffic, or trespassing." Instead, without evidence of any potential offense, however minor, MSP assigned such imaginary crimes as "terrorism - anti-war protestors" and "terrorism - anti-govern[ment]." The Review concluded, with some understatement, "MSP appears to have used these 'terrorism' designations indiscriminately."

The fascination with terrorism and the willingness to consider almost anything to fit within that category is a manifestation of the post 9-11 syndrome. The undercover work was carried out by MSP's Homeland Security and Investigation Division (HSID), originally known as Homeland Security and Intelligence Division. Under either guise it was, no doubt, proud to be protecting Maryland from subversion. The Review noted that "HSID was launched on March 19, 2003 and reflected the priorities of Colonel Ed Norris, who intended to reorient the State Police's traditional mission towards one focused primarily on counter- terrorism." What fun.

Later the division's mission was brought partway down to earth: it was redefined to "focus on intelligence-gathering related to organized crime, narcotics enterprises, motorcycle gangs, street gangs, and, most relevantly, 'protest groups.' " All but the last are typical law-enforcement categories. Monitoring protest groups might have been a carryover from the original mindset, or merely a manifestation of the classic conservative view that any critic of the establishment is a threat to public order.

Although the Review was sharply critical of the conduct of these investigations, it found that MSP's monitoring of protest groups generally focuses on organizations that have a history of property crimes or violence. Unless the "Lucy" episode was a bizarre deviation from the norm, that's difficult to believe. The Review also found no intent to suppress peaceful protest, but that's hardly consistent with the continuing surveillance of groups admitted to be peaceful. It included a quote from Justice Brandeis: " The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." Whether these efforts were well-meaning is debatable, but certainly there was, to put it charitably, a lack of understanding.


112. Review of Maryland State Police Covert Surveillance of Anti-Death Penalty and Anti-War Groups from March 2005 to May 2006.
Quotes are from the Review.

December 18, 2008

The economic crisis, we were told in September, was so dire that we had to act immediately. There was no time to carefully craft legislation. Treasury Secretary Paulson had a draft bill, stunning in its simplicity, which he wanted passed now. The program, as gently modified by Congress, has proved to have a few flaws, most notably that it hasn't done anything about credit, liquidity or recovery. However, it has produced two of the top ten quotes of the year.113 Number six on the list is taken directly from the three-page plan submitted by Paulson: "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency." Here we have the Bush administration in its essence: seizure of unchecked power by incompetents based on fear-mongering.

There really was a problem in this case, as contrasted with Iraq, but the hubris, opportunism and incompetence were the same. The latter is shown by the lack of any real plan, which leads us to number four on the top ten, contributed by a Treasury Department spokeswoman, explaining how the $700 billion cost was determined: "It's not based on any particular data point; we just wanted to choose a really large number."

Congress has discovered that banks still aren't lending, and the bill, because of a stealth clause requested by the administration, won't impose much control on executive pay. Having been snookered, Congress now is resisting a bailout for the auto industry, even though the amounts are smaller, more jobs are at stake, and obscene pay is not nearly as prominent.

The fight against the bailout is led by southern senators, mostly Republicans, who, by the merest coincidence, have non-union foreign-car plants in their states. Nationalism, like so many conservative principles, is flexible.


113.Compiled by the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.

December 20, 2008

There are commercials on TV for Chia Pet and The Clapper, and newspaper ads for watches have doubled, so it must be Christmas season.

The first two might fit the economic situation, but watches generally are part of a pattern of wretched excess. Throughout the year, The New York Times carries ads for absurdly expensive watches, jewelry, shoes and handbags. I suppose that it would be unusual if they disappeared in December, but their existence and their persistence during bad economic times demonstrate that there are too many people with way too much money.

One source of that money is the annual avalanche of bonuses by Wall Street firms. An article in The New York Times a few days ago used an executive, head of the fixed-income unit, as a reference point: "While his salary at Merrill Lynch was $350,000, his total compensation [in 2006] was 100 times that - $35 million. The difference between the two amounts was his bonus . . . ." 114 Those at the top did very well, but so did many others. The next in line in the unit received more than $20 million, the next two more than $10 million each. The top 100 averaged $5 million.

The bonuses were based on the "earnings" of their unit. Even assuming the earnings to have been real, the bonuses are staggering. According to the Times, Merrill Lynch reported earnings of 7.5 billion for 2006, and paid out between 5 and $6 billion in bonuses: not a company focused on building capital or returns to the stockholders.115 Worse, we now know, the earnings were illusory, the result of leverage and churning.

Bonuses on Wall Street were almost as large in 2007, despite the beginnings of the slump. They continued this year, although in reduced amounts, even at companies being bailed out by the government.

The bonuses were paid in stock and cash. Assuming the recipients did not sell the stock promptly, they have participated in the company's failure. However, there was plenty of cash: the Merrill executive, for example, was paid a total of $116.6 million in cash and stock from 2001 to 2007; of that, $55 million was in cash. That will buy watches for the whole family, even the ballon bleu de Cartier, starting at $5,925 (NYT p.2, 12/17/08).


114. According to a Merrill Lynch proxy statement, he received $40.2 million in total compensation. executive/compensation/merrill-lynch- co-inc.asp?yr=2007

115. According to the ML website, earnings "from continuing operations" were $7.097 billion in 2006.

December 23, 2008

Some years ago, I noted that, although the New York Times does not carry comics, it makes up for the humor deficit by running arts reviews. It added more unintended comedy this year by running William Kristol's column. Humor isn't banned on the op-ed page, as the columns by Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins demonstrate, but theirs are intentionally satiric, whereas Kristol's are comic because of his ideologic entrapment, which leaves him unaware, I assume, of how funny he is.

Today's contribution is a column on Cheney and Blogojevich, the humor coming in the former segment. "[O]ne might say that Dick Cheney aspires to being a just man," Kristol tells us. "And a thoughtful one . . . ." That's funny enough, but Kristol seems to think that the VP succeeds. The occasion for Kristol's comment was an interview on Fox News. Cheney was asked whether he really had told Senator Leahy to "go fuck yourself." Cheney acknowledged that he had done so and that he had suffered no second thoughts or embarrassment; further, Leahy had "merited it." I can't offhand think of any reaction to Cheney's insult or to his defense of it other than to note how limited his vocabulary and thought processes are: the Vice President of the United States as junior-high school kid. However, Kristol managed to give Cheney's answer an aura of maturity and command: "No spin. No doubletalk. A cogent defense of his action - and one that shows a well-considered sense of justice."

A year ago, the publisher of the Times said, of Kristol's hiring, that the paper wanted "a columnist who brought to our pages a deeply held and well articulated point of view in line with what you might call the conservative Republican movement. . . Our Op-Ed page is a marketplace of ideas. He'll strengthen the discussion." It turns out that this too was part of the comedy routine. Hiring the former chief of staff to the silliest politician in recent years was funny enough, but Kristol had gone on to become the most consistently mistaken pundit in America. His appointment as one of our mentors simply couldn't be treated as anything but a practical joke. Those of us who took it seriously and fumed were the victims.

There is speculation that Kristol's column will not be renewed. I suggest classic Calvin and Hobbes as a replacement: it's even funnier and Calvin's fantasies are shown as such.

December 23, 2008

I have no strong opinion as to the advisability of appointing Caroline Kennedy to the Senate, but I find all of the negative comment to be a bit odd. Is it undemocratic to appoint a replacement, even for a limited term? Perhaps so, but what has that to do with her? Is appointive inheritance worse than elective? Will Ms. Kennedy be a greater threat to the republic than George W. Bush? No, which suggests that democracy is not a cure for the evils of hereditary rule. Perhaps all of the pundits who are upset by this possibility (and do they have better candidates?) should concentrate on changing New York Law (and did any of them think about that before this month?)