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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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"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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Wednesday, 10 May 2006
Storm Warnings
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Storm Warnings
Some news days are slow news days, where there are no one or two big events, just follow-up on the events of previous days as reporters try to work out context and background (and we get long "thumb suckers" - those background stories that run on and on). Those who do commentary in print, and on the net and on air, try to explain the "what it all means" of whatever it is that has recently happened, but that's ephemeral stuff - things will change again and again, and what it all means is will be decided down the road, with more startling news events figured in, if what it all means will ever be decided.

Tuesday, May 9, was one of those slow news days. No big gun suddenly left office, no one else was shot in the face by the vice president, there were no additional odd nominations to key government posts, and, save for the serious brush fires in Florida and the spring tornados from Tulsa to Memphis, no natural disasters.

But there were storm warnings. With the word getting out that the upcoming hurricane season would be as bad as last year, with its new record of twenty-eight named hurricanes, Reuters was reporting this - "A hurricane with only moderate intensity could wreak havoc in New York City because it has been years since the nation's financial center faced severe weather, government forecasters warned on Tuesday." Even a puny Category Two would be a disaster, and they explain why (it has to do with very tall buildings and fluid dynamics). As for the spring tornados, they've been running at three times the normal number. The administration has long claimed that all this has nothing to do with global warming, and punished any government scientist who said such things, but the data are biased against them, once again.

But this is just weather. You can't blame anyone for the weather. Well, maybe you can.

There actually was a milestone sort of storm warning in the financial world - Gold Prices Hit Highest Level Since 1980. That would be just over seven hundred dollars an ounce. Worrisome? Some sort of ominous indicator? Perhaps. Traditionally in times of trouble, when no one knows what government will do what, and which currency will suddenly turn to toilet paper, and no one knows which market will crash or what anything will eventually cost, you move your capital to something safe, and that's gold. Sell the stocks and bonds, and forget holding cash in any one currency. Gold is safe.

Is there a collective agreement forming here that bad times are coming, or worse times if you'd like? It's either a slow panic gathering momentum, or lemming-like copycat trading (we don't know anything ourselves someone seems to know something). Maybe those are the same thing. Still, it is curious. The "market" is said to have its own accurate forecasting insight, even if no individual investor is making any "the world is ending" proclamations - the "collective wisdom" is far more accurate at predicting the future than any individual.

It's a worry. Warren Buffet and George Soros made their fortunes listening to "the market" and not to individuals, riding the trend, not the immediate data. And too the dollar dropped at the same time - a Euro cost 1.28 as the day ended. When watching Al Gore concede the presidency to George Bush on CNN International on a small television in a Paris hotel room, one of those new Euros cost eighty-five cents and walking across the street to the Flore for overpriced coffee was no big deal. The last six years have been odd. And the trend just got really obvious.

But no one follows such things, or few do. High finance, gold prices and foreign exchange rates are for the top business folks, not a concern for Joe Six-Pack. They're not immediate concerns, until it's too late and they are.

And is it too late for the administration? The storm warnings there were clear.

As mentioned previously, the week before the administration got some good news - the Fox News poll showed a reversal in the low approval ratings. The president moved up from thirty-three percent to thirty-eight percent approval. The man who thinks Bush hung the moon, Fred Barnes, here said things were actually turning around. Just look at the numbers. Then on Monday USA Today / Gallup released their new numbers - a drop in the president's approval rating of three points in one week, down to a record low of thirty-one percent. Which is showing the real trend?

Tuesday, May 9, the CBS / New York Times poll was the tie-breaker with this -
Mr. Bush's overall job approval rating hit another new low, 31 percent, tying the low point of his father, George H. W. Bush, in July 1992, four months before the elder Mr. Bush lost his bid for a second term to Bill Clinton. That is the third lowest approval rating of any president in 50 years; only Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter were viewed less favorably.
Only the core of the ever-sinking core remains. Can this be turned around? Bomb Iran? Build that giant wall across the Mexican border and round up the eleven or twelve million illegal immigrant workers, load them in boxcars and send them back? Dump Cheney for Rice? (That last one does sound like a serving suggestion, of course.)

Bill Montgomery says it really doesn't matter -
The point is, when you get down to 31% approval in a Gallup Poll, and your disapproval rating is trying to poll vault over the record high set by Richard Nixon just before he resigned in disgrace, it means the American people essentially think you're the political equivalent of crab lice. At that point, they're probably going to hate anything and everything you do - even if they actually agree with it - just because you're the one doing it.
There is no recovery. Even doing something really cool won't work. The House and Senate probably will shift and be in the control of the opposition party for the last two years, and there'll be more than a bit of explaining to do. Saying "I'm the decider" and walking away won't cut it. It'll be a return to the old days, where elected leaders explain why they made whatever decisions they made, to the people they serve. The experiment in the new "I don't have to explain a damned thing" leadership theory will be over. Back to how democracy had been understood how to work. You thought you owed nothing to the public by way of keeping them in the loop? Well, it was interesting while it lasted. It'll be like old times.

Of course the business with stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons could be a chance to be the cowboy hero, and change everything around, but the same day the second poll showed that thirty-one percent approval rating the bad guys weren't doing the showdown thing at all. They wanted to "communicate" - as if this all wasn't some street in Dodge City but, instead, a "let's talk" session over latte at a downtown Starbucks. Bummer.

The day was filled with the details of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent personal letter to George Bush, in Persian with a convenient English translation (here in PDF format). It was pretty wacky, and the New York Times discusses it here, but basically it says the world's a mess, Saddam Hussein was a really bad man of course, and Jesus is cool, a fine prophet, but bombing Iran would be counterproductive, and Western-style democracy just isn't for us, and, say, we could get together and work out our differences and maybe make things better everywhere. There are eighteen pages of that.

The tone is rather insulting and it's not well-structured, but it is "the first direct communication between the two countries' leaders since Iranian militants overthrew the shah and took Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in 1979." That's got to count for something. To some it seemed a perfect example of "the medium is the message" the actual contents were clap-trap and boilerplate rants. But the news was that the letter was sent at all. The president has been advised to set this up this Iran business as the usual say-nothing and glower cowboy showdown, which is what he sells us all as how things should be done in this world, and Ahmadinejad sends a damned letter saying "you know, we should talk." Not fair. He wants to appear reasonable and open (with the emphasis on "appear") and it seemed an attempt to make the cowboy thing look just bullheaded and rather stupid. It really doesn't matter what was in the letter. Sending it, and making sure the world knew he sent it, is just damned awkward.

The president ignored it, and Secretary of State Rice said it was a ploy. Our UN ambassador, John "The UN Sucks" Bolton, said "We don't have anything to say to Iran until they give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons." One think tank guy summed it up, saying the prevailing attitude was clear - "Why should we reward Iran's bad behavior by talking to it when we haven't in the past? It would be conferring legitimacy on the regime. And why reward them for things they should be doing anyway?"

So we won't talk to Iran, and even though they've been asking us to, we won't even join in the talks we've asked the Europeans to continue. That's for the "little nations." We don't do that. They say we should just try to talk. What's the problem? What harm could it do now? Even some members of congress are saying that.

The irony is the president is saying, just as he said in the run up to the Iraq war, that he wants a diplomatic solution - war is the last resort and all that. The kicker is the diplomacy will be done by others, while we watch from sidelines, and if it fails, we get to bomb. We don't actually do diplomacy ourselves. We set up the appropriate scapegoats for when we do bomb the snot out of Iran, saying, see, diplomacy doesn't work.

Would it work if we joined in? Who knows? It's not going to happen.

Note this -
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's abrupt dismissal of a letter from Iran's president might only strengthen hardline attitudes and mistrust of America, some Iranians warned Tuesday.

As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a high-profile visit to a key Muslim country, Indonesia, a former top Iranian official said Rice's response will give new justification to those who oppose ties with the U.S.

Iran's former ambassador to France, Sadeq Kharrazi, said the letter the first from an Iranian head of state to an American president in 27 years "could have been a turning point in relations." But he said Rice squandered the opportunity with what he called a "hasty reaction."

"This gives a pretext to those in Iran who oppose re-establishment of ties with America," he said.
The brush-off was not a good tactical response. Ahmadinejad is getting great press.

Should have called his bluff and made him look stupid. Kennedy corresponded with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis Eisenhower corresponded with former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh way back when. When things get hot that is what you used to do.

This is a change. Bush is an unusual president, unique in fact. No administration in our history has ever tried this "we won't talk" kind of approach to the world before - no public communication, no backchannel contacts - no nothing. Let others try that if it makes them happy. Knock yourselves out. We take the moral high ground. People will admire us and respect us for that. It's an interesting theory. And quite mad. Had Bush been in the White House in 1962 we'd all be dead, but be right - the Soviet missiles in Cuba had to go.

Ah well. Here we go again. After Iran, Syria, and so on.

And there were other storm warnings the same day, as in this -
America may be the world's superpower, but its survival rate for newborn babies ranks near the bottom among developed nations.

Among 33 industrialized nations examined in a new report, the United States tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia with a death rate of nearly 5 per 1,000 babies. Only Latvia had higher mortality figures, with 6 per 1,000, according to the report by the U.S.-based Save the Children.

... Researchers noted that the United States is more racially diverse and has a greater degree of economic disparity than many other developed countries, making it more challenging to provide culturally appropriate health care.

... The lack of national health insurance and short maternity leaves in the U.S. can lead to poor health care before and during pregnancy, increasing risks for premature births and low birth weight, which are the leading causes of newborn death in industrialized countries.
We beat Latvia! We tied Malta! And this got a lot of press. The storm warning, of course, is that voters rank healthcare and health insurance as a major issue, and once again the facts are biased, as they say, making the administration's line - keep the government out of healthcare as the market knows best and economic competition always fixes everything - look just stupid. Dead babies have that effect. Ask Jonathan Swift. Trouble ahead.

But at least our military is strong, except for the recruiting problems. But the same day there was another warning sign from Portland this time, where Army recruiters just signed up an autistic eighteen-year-old. The shy and silent lad didn't know there was a war in Iraq until his parents told him about it last fall. The implications are obvious. This is not a good sign.

In that Gallup poll, seventy-three percent of Americans believe that their country is generally headed "off on the wrong track." Could be.

But there are some signs that aren't storm warnings, as in the latest news about our detention facility down Guantánamo way.

The president gave an interview to a German television station. Why not? German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in town. And putting aside his saying his happiest moment in his six years as president was catching a very big bass down at the Texas ranch, from the pond he had built and had stocked (he may not really like his job and that mean Uncle Dick), he said this -
I very much would like to end Guantánamo; I very much would like to get people to a court. And we're waiting for our Supreme Court to give us a decision as to whether the people need to have a fair trial in a civilian court or in a military court.

Dahlia Lithwick, in a long and detailed item in Slate notes this -
His statement was surprising for several reasons, not least because it represents a major reversal from prior policy statements about the camp. While the president has suggested that he was open to rethinking the camp, as recently as January Bush insisted - in response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's demands that he shut the camp down - that "Guantanamo is a necessary part of protecting the American people and so long as the war on terror goes on ... we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm." And only last February Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations, "Every once in a while someone pops up and gets some press for saying 'Oh let's close Guantanamo Bay.' Well, if someone has a better idea, I'd like to hear it." Apparently Bush has a better idea.
Well, the evidence is contradictory, as Kellogg-Brown-Root, the Halliburton subsidiary, is almost finished with the thirty-million-dollar state-of-the-art prison there. It opens in August. On the other hand by then there may only be three hundred or so prisoners left, of the over seven hundred, as we're letting them go in dribs and drabs, as they may not have been "the worst of the worst." Oops. Lithwick has all the details.

But this is big news, as she explains -
The most important aspect of the president's comment isn't just that he acknowledged, at least tacitly, that Gitmo is a disaster and must be closed; or even that he acknowledged that detainees have a basic right to some adjudicatory process. These two concessions are momentous, but they pale next to his admission that he is in any way bound by the decision of the high court - that the court will have the last word on anything to do with the war on terror.

It's been this administration's contention from the start that what happens on Guantanamo is absolutely immunized from court review. That's been the blanket argument from the outset: It's the president's war and the courts and Congress have no role to play - short of lying down very quietly until Armistice Day. The president's newfound acceptance of the authority of the judicial branch may be nothing more than convenient political cover: He can close the camp and say the dumb court forced him to do it, just as the dumb court forced him to release Hamdi and to remove Jose Padilla to civilian court.

Still, with each new concession to the court's ability to constrain his decisions, the president admits that his views alone are not the law of the land.
Now that is news. It's the opposite of a storm warning. Things may get back to normal.

Posted by Alan at 00:31 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 10 May 2006 08:23 PDT home

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