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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Monday, 13 March 2006
Starting the week with alarms and chaos...
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Starting the week with alarms and chaos...

Monday, March 13th, two days before "Brutus Day" (the Ides of March, the day when bad thing happen to political leaders), we got the alarm from the president. Well, actually, David Sanger in the New York Times surveyed what the president had been saying in defense of the now moribund (as in dead) Dubai ports deal, and also in reaction to all the polling showing, consistently, that the majority here wonder what we're doing there - wondering just why are we in a war that more and more looks like a civil war where we may have to take sides in what is not our business, in a country in ruins we just cannot reassemble (and the locals aren't helping, what with their more pressing issues over who finally gets to be on top), and where, best case, we'll end up with a fundamentalist theocracy, with ties to Iran, that might or might not be willing to side with us on this or that issue in the future. Somehow that's bit discouraging.

The Alarm? A Bush Alarm: Urging U.S. to Shun Isolationism

Ah, as Sanger opens - "The president who made pre-emption and going it alone the watchwords of his first term is quietly turning in a new direction, warning at every opportunity of the dangers of turning the nation inward and isolationist..."

Quietly? Define that. The idea is we really shouldn't shun deals with foreign governments, especially with the United Arab Emirates (we should reach out co-opt them into helping us even more with thing like the port deal), and we should believe that it really is our business to rip out a pesky government, especially one that had be run by the murderous and destabilizing Saddam Hussein, and get those folks way, way over there to start up the first Jeffersonian free-market flat-tax deregulated democracy in the neighborhood. We should be involved in the world, and engaged. We can't always act alone. That would be wrong. Not prudent. Thus the alarm.

Sanger probably uses the word "quietly" because he is compiling things - there was no one central presidential speech launching a "campaign on isolationism." In the last two weeks or more there seems to have been a major shift in the way the president is talking about the world, and in how the administration chooses now to deal with the world. Sanger is reporting that. Nothing was actually announced. But the shift is blatantly obvious and should be noted.

There's something odd going on here, and it doesn't take rocket scientist to wonder what's up. Matthew Yglesias does the basics for us here, saying that what the president sees as an unfortunate isolationist reaction in Americans these days looks more like unfortunate opposition to the administration's policies -
It's worth saying as clearly as possible that this is entirely bogus. Before George W. Bush took office, zero American presidents launched wars against countries that posed no threat to the United States for the purposes of transforming an entrenched dictatorship into a democracy. After Bush took office, he continued in the noble American tradition of not doing that. Several years into his term, he invaded Iraq because, or so he said, its government was close to building a nuclear bomb that it was likely to give to al-Qaeda. Several months after the invasion, it became clear to everyone that this was false and he started pretending to have done it in order to turn Iraq into a democracy. Today, with Iraq in shambles, people are correctly perceiving that the reason no president has ever tried to do something like that is that it's a fundamentally unsound, unworkable idea.

His effort to paint himself as a free trade martyr is, if anything, more pathetic. The White House has embraced protectionism whenever - as in the case of the steel tariffs, the softwood lumbers tariffs, and the explosion of farm subsidies - the balance of K Street money favors protectionism. The farm bill he signed into law doomed the Doha Round of WTO talks...
And Yglesias goes on about CAFTA and so on, but you get the idea.

And it does seem like name-calling. Suggest that something is a stunningly bad idea and should be reconsidered and you're an "isolationist." As name-calling goes that's pretty good. You get lumped in with the "buy American" folks who want to destroy Toyota and Sony, or with those way back with those who thought we shouldn't have fought in Europe against Hitler (and were glad when FDR said we never would, even as he was working us into the battle).

The problem is that, like all name-calling, it's beside the point. The opposition has, for the last five years, since that historic September, urged that we should engage the world and work out how everyone could join in dealing with "the problem." But no. We'd have none of that - join us in what we've planned and don't ask question, or you're one of "them." Here, suggest security concerns that should be worked out and poof - you're an "isolationist," case closed and you're wrong.

It's the usual. The pattern is clear. Let's talk, as something here seems to need more consideration. No, no point in talking as it's clear that you're just an [insert name here].

You might point out that you were the ones saying we needed to work with the world and the administration was saying that was dangerous and things had to be done unilaterally, without considering the views of wimps, fools, the corrupt and the French. You might, but why bother? You'd just get called another name. Of course, in the fifties you'd be called a communist. The label stops the conversation, as how can you consider the views of someone who's a [insert name here]?

So much for political discourse. But then lots of people use this method to shut down discussions. It probably explains more than a few divorces.

But there was - on the day when folks were discussing "isolationism" (gee, I never knew I was an isolationist but I guess I'll have to rethink things and agree with the administration more now) - the first of the current flurry of presidential speeches on Iraq.

These seem to be semiannual affairs. About twice a year the frustration builds up. This week the war will be four years old, and this milestone is over twenty-three hundred our troops dead, the chaos in the streets of the major Iraqi cities, the low poll numbers. People wonder what we're doing and why, and what we'll get for it in the end.

It's time again. Run out the usual - it may look bad but it's not, we really do have a plan, there was nothing at all wrong with the idea, and if you'll be patient we'll "achieve total victory" (to be defined later), and the media is unfair in reporting all the bad news. Look! Schools repainted!

CNN reported on the first speech in the current series here, the president acknowledging things really aren't going well at the moment. This was the big news, the hook. But of course the president said it was going well, as it's all in how you look at things. Yeah, that Shiite mosque was blown up and there were two weeks of death and destruction and revenge and counter-revenge, worse than any chaos before, but then, Iraq is "turning away from abyss" - they saw the worst so now they know that's not the way to go. The new parliament will finally meet soon - late, but they will meet. It'll all work out.

How does he know? Is there a plan if it doesn't? None needed. It'll work out. CNN - "Hoping to shore up support for the war, President Bush said Iraq was moving toward a democratic future."

We'll see. But don't doubt it. You'll be called a name. And no one will listen to you because you're nothing but a [insert name here].

CBS here reported other aspects of the speech, "Bush Urges Patience on Iraq" and so forth. Of course he did. But CBS led with the message in the speech for Iraqis - "President Bush called on Iraqis Monday to embrace compromise as they negotiate a new unity government.." Yep, they're messing up the whole thing. All democracies work on compromise - you talk and work things our so everyone get something, or understand why what they want must be put off. What's wrong with these people?

As mentioned in these pages long ago (here), the irony is when you think about Henry Clay (1777-1852), the Great Compromiser, this is no longer our model for how governance works best. This president never compromises. That's weak, and it "sends the wrong message." The world needs to see our resolve and all that. The warring sides in Iraq this month know that. "Yeah, George - whatever."

In the two days before the first speech in the series somewhere around seventy died in Sadr City with the car bombs and mortar round and all. The rest of the country was no better. And Knight-Ridder reported here Iraqi officials confirming death squads have been operating from inside the Iraqi government. The soldiers and their commanders have been taking out selected Sunnis and their families. And the day of the first speech in the current series there was this - "Shiite vigilantes seized four men suspected of terrorist attacks, interrogated them, beat them, executed them and left their bodies hanging from lampposts in a Shiite slum today, according to witnesses and government officials."

There's no whiff of compromise in the air there.

And there's no whiff of compromise in the air in Washington.

That's not how things work anymore. Why are we asking the Iraqis to be different from us?

Interestingly a good take on the whole business comes from Bronwen Maddox in the Times of London (UK) here - speech last night was an attempt by the president to show that "he gets it." He really does understand why Americans blame him for the mess in Iraq. That can't hurt as he seems finally to be "acknowledging what the rest of the US is seeing nightly on the television."

As for the rest, the need to "not lose our nerve" and our "comprehensive strategy for victory" (don't ask) seems to Maddox to be piffle, although he doesn't use that word, even if he is writing from London.

And as for the good news -
The first was that the US would pour platoons of experts into combating the threat of roadside bombs, which have killed many US soldiers, and which he called "the No 1 threat to Iraq's future". Perhaps they are, but we are spoilt for choice.

Tackling these bombs may be a useful thing for US forces to do. But the impression is that they do not know where to start. Since the bombing of the Shia al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, militias have been springing out of the shadows and bombs exploding in areas that used to be quiet.

Nor is Bush's second claim credible: that the weeks since the Samarra bombing could have been worse. He argued that many had predicted that the bombing of the shrine would plunge Iraq into civil war. But "most Iraqis haven't turned to violence", he said, adding his voice to the futile wrangle about whether the killings now qualify as "civil war".

Even if you concede the hypothetical point that the bloodshed could have been worse, it is clear that these weeks have changed the war. Before, the US was fighting Sunni militants. Now, Sunnis and Shias are fighting each other, with the US watching impotently.

So his third main claim also looked vulnerable: that the Iraqi security forces, under US guidance, were becoming more representative of Iraqi people. The greater fear, as coalition officials acknowledge, is that the US has equipped the Shias in what may become a civil war.
Other than that things are fine.

An aside - the president didn't say much on the technical points of the advanced research into ways to deal with these bombs. He said he couldn't. That would be tactical knowledge the bad guys could use, immediately. They'd counter somehow, immediately. Some of us do know the details and the specific contractors involved. But as much as we are beyond irritated with this whole business, none of that will appear here. He's right. We've got some good stuff in the pipeline, and people should know we're working on the puzzle - but that's it. The comments here are on policy and geopolitics and political theory. That's all fair game - in a democracy you can question decisions and suggest alternatives. That's the whole point in having one. Involvement, participation, makes things better for everyone. The country is a joint effort, or has been, in concept, so far. But some things are not said, for good reason.

In any event, Maddox is curious that the Democrats seem adrift these days - the low polling numbers and chaos in Iraq should be a gift to them -
But they are afflicted with the same problem as the Tories: how to criticise [sic] the conduct of the War on Terror that they initially supported.

The attempt by Russ Feingold, a Democrat senator from Wisconsin, to win a congressional censure of Bush brings a nasty twist. He wants a resolution to censure Bush for what he thinks has been unlawful wiretapping after September 11, 2001. The White House, noting that Feingold may contest the presidency in 2008, has dismissed this as political. More awkward for Democrats, it has challenged them to say that it "shouldn't be listening to al-Qaeda communications", even though "we are a nation at war".
Yep, Feingold late in the day the "patience" speech was given did introduce the censure resolution. Earlier in the day at a speech in Wisconsin, Vice President Cheney wasn't pleased - without the permission of George Clooney, he channeled the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, who himself threw the words of a witness at the McCarthy hearings back at Joe McCarthy - "Have you no shame, sir?" The irony was delicious.

For those interested, over at the "Crooks and Liars" site you can see a streaming video of Feingold introducing the resolution here - the president authorized an illegal domestic wiretapping program and then misled Congress and the public about its existence and legality, and the resolution is a responsible step for Congress to take in response to the President's undermining of the separation of powers and ignoring the rule of law.

Senator Specter says the law in question was unconstitutional. You can't pass laws the interfere with the president or something. Senator Frist says whatever - warrantless spying on American citizens is constitutional and legal anyway, law or no law. Senator Durbin asks Specter if that's so. Specter says, "I don't know - I don't have any basis for knowing because I don't know what the program does."

This is a Tom Stoppard play. Or a Feydeau farce. Or maybe it's a Monty Python skit. No, it's the Senate.

Feingold tossed in something deadly serious. These guys couldn't handle it. Good theater, but a bad day for the country.

It doesn't matter. There will be no censure. The president's party controls the senate. Were they to let this come to a vote they have the votes to smash it, and the Associated Press here reviews all the Democratic senators who'd never vote for censure - you don't want to appear too radical or too angry or too unwilling to work things out.

What? That would be too much like the guys on the other side of the aisle?

Let's see here. You get criticized for having no plans, no principles, and for those wimpy ideas about being reasonable when the swarthy masses with the odd religion are out to kills us all, and here you decide the right thing is to take no position and to try to appear sweetly reasonable one more time. Because you think you get points for that? Yeah, right. Congress will not change hands.

But what a chance. Note that a few hours after the boilerplate "patience" speech the new USA Today, CNN, Gallup polling hit the wire, with this - the president's approval rating hits a new low, thirty-six percent of those polled say they "approve" of the way Bush is handling his job. A record low. Sixty percent disapprove - matching an all-time worst rating hit last November and again two weeks ago. Fifty-seven percent say sending our troops to Iraq was a mistake - up two points in two weeks, down two points from last October.

Other details - two years ago the number of those polled who said they were certain we'd "win" in Iraq was about eighty percent, and now it's twenty-two percent. Maybe a clear definition of how we'll know when we've won would help. Only one percent two years ago thought it was unlikely or certain we'd win. That's at forty-one percent now. Ambiguity.

Ambiguity is opportunity for those who'd like a change in direction. Or not.

Oh well, these guys are running things well enough, except for what the war we chose has turned into, and the business with FEMA and Hurricane Katrina, and breaking a few laws (or coming up with a whole new view of the constitution about the laws), except for the torture and secret prisons and "disappearing" people, and throwing away respect and influence around the world, and this and that, here and there.

Next up? Avian flu. Via John Aravosis here we learn that the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, at a meeting on such in Wyoming said, March 10th, if or when the big epidemic comes people should not expect the federal government to help. That's not the job of the federal government. You're on your own -
When you go to the store and buy three cans of tuna fish, buy a fourth and put it under the bed . When you go to the store to buy some milk, pick up a box of powdered milk, put it under the bed. When you do that for a period of four to six months, you are going to have a couple of weeks of food. And that's what we're talking about.
Make of that what you will. Who would want the government doing things? Personal responsibility, that's the ticket.

Here's an idea. We all hate big government. Let's get together on our own, work together, pool resources, everyone gets a say, and grow our own food, start our on schools, build roads, some sort of power grid, everyone chips in for the common stuff, and we have... a democratic government collecting taxes for some things a few don't agree with, getting bigger all the time. Oops.

Let's work with the one we have. And no name-calling.

Posted by Alan at 21:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006 06:17 PST home

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