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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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Thursday, 8 June 2006
A Good Death Assessed
Topic: Perspective

A Good Death Assessed

Thursday, June 08, 2006, was a big day in the news. Just think about what happened. The new Iraqi government finally got its act together and became, well, if not a fully functioning government, at least a fully staffed one -
The Iraqi parliament agreed upon candidates to lead the country's three top security ministries Thursday, ending a weeks-long stalemate among the country's largest political factions.

The selection of an interior minister, a defense minister and a national security adviser gives Iraq a complete government for the first time since elections in December 2005 and it provides a key opportunity to promote political reconciliation between members of the country's Sunni Muslim minority and the Shiite-dominated government.
Now that's a milestone. And it took long enough, but maybe now, after six months of dithering, they can get organized and shut down the militias and the death squads, which might be followed by restring services and taking over security matters a bit, thus producing some light at the end of the tunnel for us. But then that tunnel metaphor has its history from the days of our war in Vietnam - the oncoming train and all that. The task of settling things down is not an easy one, and maybe close to impossible. But you have to start somewhere. This is that somewhere. That should have been the big news of the day, but it wasn't.

Congress had other things on their collective mind, such as it is. The day after the Senate killed the attempt to start the process to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage, there was another killing - the Senate blocked the permanent repeal of the estate tax, or death tax, or whatever you wish. Temporarily suspended in the economic mess a few years ago when the financial district in lower Manhattan was coated in ash and body parts, it will return in 2010, just as it had been before, heavily taxing the 1.17 percent of the population with extraordinarily large estates when the holder of the estate dies. The Republicans ranted about how unfair it was to tax these folks, even if it meant losing a trillion dollars in revenue over ten years - fair is fair and all that. They earned what they earned. But two Republicans broke ranks and joined the Democrats thinking this was the wrong time to forgo the revenue, what with the massive and record federal deficit financed by some not so friendly governments buying oodles of treasury bonds and all, and all that had to be cut back in social spending and even the military, the VA and emergency response things. It seemed irresponsible, and maybe immoral, and in addition a bit hard to explain to the voters back home, except for the voters in the choice 1.17 percent group. There are just not enough of them. Yeah, that some group pumps great gobs of money into the campaign coffers, but that's not the same as raw votes. The whole thing is covered here if reading about what won't now happen interest you.

That made the Republicans 0 for 2 for the week - shot down on making sure the gays don't get the same rights as everyone else, and then shot down on protecting the right of the very wealthy to pass every penny of the family fortune on down to the next generations - more than a few pennies will now be surgically removed once again. It'll be just like old times. The remaining issue to be dealt with is of course voting to start the process to amend the constitution to ban flag burning, something no one has done since the late sixties. Some see it as a way to start to carve out exceptions to free speech while others see it as finally a way to tell people there are some things that just have to be respected. It's a little abstract, given that no one much burns flags any more, but it seems important to the Republicans. They've got this victim thing going. No one respects their values and all that, so make them show respect, damn it. This one is closer to passing, but it well could be an 0 for 3 week for them. And if it gets through the Senate and House, three-quarters of the states must agree that there really are certain things you can't do and can't say, beside the classic limitation on shouting fire in a crowded theater. It would be a step in the direction of making things more orderly and decent, or something like that.

But it will probably lose in the Senate, and that may be the plan - part of the victim thing where you get to say we tried to do thing right thing but the nasty and godless liberals who really run everything beat us up, and are you going to stand for that? The Republicans do the patriotic martyr thing very well indeed. It sells out in the heartland.

But they did win one, the legislation regarding Janet Jackson's very erect nipple. As noted here, the fines for the broadcasters who don't block nipples and such will increase tenfold, and they'd better watch the language that gets broadcast. This doesn't pertain to bars serving odd mixed drinks like Sex on the Beach or Coconut Orgasm. That's for later - first the broadcasters, later the printed menus. Making things more orderly and decent has to start somewhere, and this is that somewhere - passed by both houses and signed into law. We all feel safer.

But then almost none of this news got any coverage on the Thursday in question. That was because that day we learned that two F-16's bombed a safe house in the Iraqi town of Hibhib, killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and seven of his aides. Two five hundred pound bombs will do that. President Bush said this guy the "most wanted terrorist in Iraq" and the mastermind behind most all the bombings, beheadings, assassinations, suicide missions, and the Sunni insurgency. British Prime Minister Blair said the "death of al-Zarqawi is a strike against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and therefore a strike against al-Qaeda everywhere."

But they both kept it low key. Bad things will still happen, and they've lost their villain to blame for all that will come - forty more people blown up in various parts Iraq the day of the announcement. Bush and Blair know enough now not to say everything is now fixed and all better. They have a created a new martyr (that's what al-Zarqawi's brother says here. And that University of Michigan professor Middle East matter, Juan Cole, here says al-Zarqawi wasn't linked to the real al Qaeda at all, and basically al-Zarqawi "engaged in grandstanding" when he named his group "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," and that "official US spokesmen have all along over-estimated his importance" -
There is no evidence of operational links between [Zarqawi's] Salafi Jihadis in Iraq and the real al-Qaeda; it was just a sort of branding that suited everyone, including the US. Official US spokesmen have all along over-estimated his importance. Leaders are significant and not always easily replaced. But Zarqawi has in my view has been less important than local Iraqi leaders and groups. I don't expect the guerrilla war to subside any time soon.
But he could be wrong. Cole was up for an appointment to the faculty at Yale but they decided no, after all the pressure from the right, many of whom where alumni. (Not to worry - the University of Michigan has a far better marching band.)

So was the guy a big deal?

Hard to say.

Late in the day the Los Angeles Times ran this -
Reactions Thursday to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi's death reflected the contradictions and conspiracy theories that surrounded the elusive figure in life.

American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called al-Zarqawi the "godfather of sectarian violence in Iraq" during a speech Thursday morning in Baghdad, shortly after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's televised announcement of al-Zarqawi's killing.

But from Iraq's Anbar province, where the insurgency is strongest, to the Palestinian territories, al-Zarqawi was mourned as a martyr whose cause would continue long after his death Wednesday in a U.S. bomb attack.

"He died, but thousands of al-Zarqawis will follow," said Hussein Hashim Falluji, a 54-year-old Sunni merchant in Fallujah.
And they go on with an interesting survey.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at Rand Corporation out this way simply says this - "Zarqawi may be gone, but the conflagration that he set alight continues to burn." It's good we got him, but he may have not been the real problem.

The Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder explains -
What we have in Iraq today - and have had for many, many months - is not a traditional insurgency or even wanton terrorism, but a large-scale sectarian conflict. Much of the killing in Iraq today isn't the result of Zarqawi's men, but of Sunni and Shiite militias engaged in a big fight for control of neighborhoods, towns, cities, and the resources they control. The vast majority of the 1,400 bodies that showed up in the Baghdad morgue last month (that's right: 1,400 bodies - or nearly 50 people each and every day!) were killed by militias of one kind or another. The guys responsible for these deaths are not fighting an existing government (which is what an insurgency implies) but they're fighting to determine who governs Iraq and what spoils will fall to which group of Iraqis.
So it's a small but significant victory, but perhaps irrelevant.

And then there was that NBC News thing from March 2004 (here) with a number of intelligence people going on record saying we had at least three chances to take the guy out before the war, and when asked for permission to pull the trigger, on the F-16 or Hellfire equivalent of a trigger, the White House said no. He was a useful symbol - an al Qaeda guy actually in Iraq. He was our proof of the connection. And that was useful, even if he was in the north where Saddam was not in control at all. No one notices such details.

So now he matters in different way. As the president said - "It's a victory in the global war on terror, and it is an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle."

Note he didn't say this was turning point. It's an "opportunity" for one. And it's not up to us, but to Iraq's new government. Things go bad? Don't blame us.

Of course the acerbic Christopher Hitchens weighs in here -
The latest Atlantic has a brilliantly timed cover story by Mary Anne Weaver, which tends to the view that Zarqawi was essentially an American creation, but seems to undermine its own prominence by suggesting that, in addition to that, Zarqawi wasn't all that important.

Not so fast. Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq's experiment in democratic federalism. He was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism, and the last three-and-a-half years of misery and sabotage. He chose his targets with an almost diabolical cunning, destroying the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad (and murdering the heroic envoy Sérgio Vieira de Melo) almost before it could begin operations, and killing the leading Shiite Ayatollah Hakim outside his place of worship in Najaf. His decision to declare a jihad against the Shiite population in general, in a document of which Weaver (on no evidence) doubts the authenticity, has been the key innovation of the insurgency: applying lethal pressure to the most vulnerable aspect of Iraqi society. And it has had the intended effect, by undermining Grand Ayatollah Sistani and helping empower Iranian-backed Shiite death squads.

Not bad for a semiliterate goon and former jailhouse enforcer from a Bedouin clan in Jordan. There are two important questions concerning the terrible influence that he has been able to exert. The first is: How much state and para-state support did he enjoy? The second is: What was the nature of his relationship with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida?
Okay, was Saddam or some state supporting him, and how did he get along with the tall odd one?

Hitchens does make an odd concession - "The man's power was created only by the coalition's intervention, and his connection to al Qaida was principally opportunistic."

That's what Mary Anne Weaver documents here in an account of the first meeting of the now quite dead bad guy with Osama bin Laden -
As they sat facing each other across the receiving room, a former Israeli intelligence official told me, "it was loathing at first sight."

According to several different accounts of the meeting, bin Laden distrusted and disliked al-Zarqawi immediately. He suspected that the group of Jordanian prisoners with whom al-Zarqawi had been granted amnesty earlier in the year had been infiltrated by Jordanian intelligence; something similar had occurred not long before with a Jordanian jihadist cell that had come to Afghanistan. Bin Laden also disliked al-Zarqawi's swagger and the green tattoos on his left hand, which he reportedly considered un-Islamic. Al-Zarqawi came across to bin Laden as aggressively ambitious, abrasive, and overbearing. His hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive - which, of course, it was.
Green tattoos? The guy knew nothing about job interviews. No tattoos.

Zarqawi made a name for himself with the Sunni insurgency in the first few months after Baghdad fell, but may not have been the central figure and ticked off lots of people - the hotel bombings in Jordan, with the wedding there and all, seemed a tad over the top.

Weaver -
"Even then - and even more so now - Zarqawi was not the main force in the insurgency," the former Jordanian intelligence official, who has studied al-Zarqawi for a decade, told me. "To establish himself, he carried out the Muhammad Hakim operation, and the attack against the UN. Both of them gained a lot of support for him - with the tribes, with Saddam's army and other remnants of his regime. They made Zarqawi the symbol of the resistance in Iraq, but not the leader. And he never has been."

He continued, "The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They've blown Zarqawi so out of proportion that, of course, his prestige has grown. And as a result, sleeper cells from all over Europe are coming to join him now."
So the light at the end of the tunnel may indeed be the oncoming train. No tears for the guy. He was one bad piece of work. But he was a small part of the puzzle.

The question is now what? More tax cuts? Ban flag burning?

Posted by Alan at 23:43 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006 08:02 PDT home

Wednesday, 7 June 2006
The Dog That Didn't Bark
Topic: In these times...

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Things that didn't happen on Wednesday, June 7, 2006 - the Senate didn't vote to start the ball rolling on changing the constitution to ban gay marriage (basic facts here). Yawn. So "banning gay marriage" didn't pass. The House has decided that even though now anything they do on the issue is utterly meaningless they will vote on the issue in a week or so anyway, just to get everyone on the record, for the folks back home, and future attack ads. Double yawn.

And the results of the special elections and primaries the day before were revealed - there was no big political upset presaging big changes in the political landscape of America, as in the special election to replace Republican "Duke" Cunningham, the congressman now in jail for accepting about two and half million in bribes for this and that, the people of the coastal area north of San Diego replaced him with another Republican, a former professional lobbyist, not the Democrat running. Well, she was dull, and dressed in JC Penney pantsuits, and in the district the Republican registration was more than double that of the Democrats. It was a long shot anyway. But the whole thing indicates not much will change in Encinitas, or in America. The whole idea the Republicans are corrupt? That was met with the response that should have surprised no one - "Yeah? So what?"

And too there was the meeting that wasn't. One sees here that the US ambassador to Iraq, that pleasant and smart and sensible Zalmay Khalilzad fellow, was to brief senators on the situation there. The White House abruptly cancelled the meeting, and said they'd send no replacement. No meeting. The Senate Democrats are asking the president why. The Senate Republicans aren't - not their business. They know congress is now not in that game, or any other, and pretty much useless. They're okay with that.

And the woman who is statistically the most likely next Democratic presidential candidate - no, don't expect a Gore-Obama ticket - is rarely mentioning the war at all. The opposition that wasn't, or that isn't. The New York Observer notes here that when Hillary Clinton is forced to talk about the war, she "continues to articulate a plan that is difficult to distinguish from that of the White House." She voted for the use of force. She can't say she was wrong, or she was fooled. Rush Limbaugh would say that's just like a woman, and she'd have no chance. She knows she's trapped. No news here. Move on.

As for what did happen on the day, there was this, the Council of Europe issued a report saying more than a dozen European countries have helped the CIA with the rendition of terrorism suspects - to secret prisons and countries that will do the torture stuff for us. And the report says it seems probable that Romania and Poland operated secret torture prisons for us, in their old Soviet facilities. Big news? All parties deny it all. So this also didn't happen.

On the other hand the Washington Post reports on something that did happen, but since it happened in the fifties it's hardly news, just a curious historical footnote - newly released documents show that the CIA helped hide the location of Adolf Eichmann from everyone looking for him. They knew where he was, but didn't want to embarrass certain West German officials with details of their own Nazi pasts, which would have come out. You protect your allies. Fascinating - but meaningless now. Eichmann was found, and tried, and executed. So?

But the fascinating "it didn't happen" story hit the wires in the last hours of the day, Pacific Time, as Sidney Blumenthal came up with this -
Former President George H.W. Bush waged a secret campaign over several months early this year to remove Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The elder Bush went so far as to recruit Rumsfeld's potential replacement, personally asking a retired four-star general if he would accept the position, a reliable source close to the general told me. But the former president's effort failed, apparently rebuffed by the current president. When seven retired generals who had been commanders in Iraq demanded Rumsfeld's resignation in April, the younger Bush leapt to his defense. "I'm the decider and I decide what's best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain," he said. His endorsement of Rumsfeld was a rebuke not only to the generals but also to his father.
Now that's Freudian. And it may not be true, as Blumenthal is carefully not naming the general, his one source, and may be being played here in some power game. It's hard to tell. And Blumenthal is a Clinton man - assistant and senior adviser to Bill Clinton from August 1997 until January 2001. So think what you will.

But we do get this -
The elder Bush's intervention was an extraordinary attempt to rescue simultaneously his son, the family legacy and the country. The current president had previously rejected entreaties from party establishment figures to revamp his administration with new appointments. There was no one left to approach him except his father. This effort to pluck George W. from his troubles is the latest episode in a recurrent drama - from the drunken young man challenging his father to go "mano a mano" on the front lawn of the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, to the father pulling strings to get the son into the Texas Air National Guard and helping salvage his finances from George W.'s mismanagement of Harken Energy. For the father, parental responsibility never ends. But for the son, rebellion continues. When journalist Bob Woodward asked George W. Bush if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq, he replied, "He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."
Yeah, well, that's famous now. And what Blumenthal is up to here really has little to do with "the scoop" - the father trying to bail out the son with some anyone but Rumsfeld - which may or may not be true. He moves on to a meditation on reality and stubbornness.

That would be this -
The former president, a practitioner of foreign policy realism, was intruding on the president's parallel reality. But the realist was trying to shake the fantasist in vain. "The president believes the talking points he's given and repeats on progress in Iraq," a Bush administration national security official told me. Bush redoubles his efforts, projects his firmness, in the conviction that the critics lack his deeper understanding of Iraq that allows him to see through the fog of war to the Green Zone as a city on a hill.

Just as his father cannot break Bush's enchantment with "victory," so the revelation of the Haditha massacre does not cause him to change his policy. For him, the alleged incident is solely about the individual Marines involved; military justice will deal with them. It's as though the horrific event had nothing to do with the war. Haditha, too, exists in a bubble.
This then is old ground, the Bush Bubble and all that. It's all been said, although some of the reminders are amusing, like the February 2003 paper from the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute (here in PDF format). The administration tossed that aside. It was called "Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario." Ha. Blumenthal mentions it really did mention the likelihood of civil war, sectarian militias, anarchy, suicide bombers and widespread insurgency - if there was a lengthy occupation. There was. There is.

But what Blumenthal points out now was the warning that insurgents could incite violence to provoke repression, forcing U.S. troops into an uncontrollable "action-reaction cycle." And that is what Blumenthal really wants to talk about. That's what the Marines in Haditha got into, or so he sees it. That's worth a read. He explains it, but it's rather obvious.

But this is good, on the broader issues -
The Bush way of war has been ahistorical and apolitical, and therefore warped strategically, putting absolute pressure on the military to provide an outcome it cannot provide - "victory." From the start, Bush has placed the military at a disadvantage, and not only because he put the Army in the field in insufficient numbers, setting it upon a task it could not accomplish. U.S. troops are trained for conventional military operations, not counterinsurgency, which requires the utmost restraint in using force. The doctrinal fetish of counterterrorism substitutes for and frustrates counterinsurgency efforts.

Conventional fighting takes two primary forms: chasing and killing foreign fighters as if they constituted the heart of the Sunni insurgency and seeking battles like Fallujah as if any would be decisive. Where battles don't exist, assaults on civilian populations, often provoked by insurgents, are misconceived as battles. While this is not a version of some video game, it is still an illusion.

Many of the troops are on their third or fourth tour of duty, and 40 percent of them are reservists whose training and discipline are not up to the standards of their full-time counterparts. Trained for combat and gaining and holding territory, equipped with superior firepower and technology, they are unprepared for the disorienting and endless rigors of irregular warfare. The Marines, in particular, are trained for "kinetic" warfare, constantly in motion, and imbued with a warrior culture that sets them apart from the Army. Marines, however well disciplined, are especially susceptible because of their perpetual state of high adrenaline to the inhuman pressures of irregular warfare.

As Bush's approach has stamped failure on the military, he insists ever more intensely on the inevitability of victory if only he stays the course. Ambiguity and flexibility, essential elements of any strategy for counterinsurgency, are his weak points. Bush may imagine a scene in which the insurgency is conclusively defeated, perhaps even a signing ceremony, as on the USS Missouri, or at least an acknowledgment, a scrap of paper, or perhaps the silence of the dead, all of them. But his infatuation with a purely military solution blinds him to how he thwarts his own intentions. Jeffrey Record, a prominent strategist at a U.S. military war college, told me: "Perhaps worse still, conventional wisdom is dangerously narcissistic. It completely ignores the enemy, assuming that what we do determines success or failure. It assumes that only the United States can defeat the United States, an outlook that set the United States up for failure in Vietnam and for surprise in Iraq."
So the conclusion, obviously, is that Haditha is "a symptom of the fallacy of Bush's military solution."

That's a new take. If you dismiss repeated warnings about the appalling pressures on an army of occupation against an insurgency then you get such things. And you send the guys in where they can easily confuse "a population that broadly supports an insurgency" with the real terrorists, and you give them a sense they're there to exact revenge for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon back in 2001, and what do you expect?

Add this of course -
Bush's abrogation of the Geneva Conventions has set an example that in this unique global war on terror, in order to combat those who do not follow the rules of war, we must also abandon those rules. This week a conflict has broken out in the Pentagon over Rumsfeld's proposed revision of the Army Field Manual for interrogation of prisoners, which would excise Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions that forbids "humiliating and degrading treatment." And, this week, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., proposed a bill that would make the administration provide "a full accounting on any clandestine prison or detention facility currently or formerly operated by the United States Government, regardless of location, where detainees in the global war on terrorism are or were being held," the number of detainees, and a "description of the interrogation procedures used or formerly used on detainees at such prison or facility and a determination, in coordination with other appropriate officials, on whether such procedures are or were in compliance with United States obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture." The administration vigorously opposes the bill.
And you want our guys to play nice out there, and want to punish them if they don't? We're talking major mixed messages here.

Reading all that it's hard to avoid the idea that we're losing this thing, and it is, in fact, impossible to win, because there's no way to define winning in any context that makes any sense. What would be the marker, or markers, that would mean we had won? The enemy doesn't fight set battles, and doesn't hold fixed territory. No help there - no D-Day or capture of a capital. We sort of did that kind of thing already, a few years ago. And now we have leveled cities like Fallujah and the bad guys come back, or pop up elsewhere. The new government there is forming slowly, if it's forming at all, and at what point do we say "look - done." Ambiguity and flexibility may be the president's weak points, and that's all the situation offers.

The scoop here is interesting, the president's father trying to force Rumsfeld out, but irrelevant. The political leadership in Washington is trapped. And Blumenthal argues saving Rumsfeld is Bush's way of staying the course when he can understand no other options - and also sends a signal of unaccountability from the top down. He says it's deranged. But he's partisan, and logical.

And that's why nothing is happening. No news here.

__

For a companion piece on what did happen in Haditha, Iraq, last November, see Mark Benjamin here - "You want to shoot them" - Convinced that kids were spying on them, sick of seeing buddies blown apart, the Marines accused of the Haditha massacre cracked.

That's an eye-catching title. Benjamin interview Marines, some in Kilo Company.

There are many anecdotes and this -
Interviews with Crossan and another Marine who earlier served in the same platoon (3rd platoon, Kilo Company), as well as with military experts and psychologists, help provide some of the context for the reputed events at Haditha. The portrait that emerges is of an exhausted and overextended unit that participated in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Iraq war. The unit had fought at Nasiriyah during the initial invasion of Iraq, and in late 2004 engaged in 10 days of house-to-house combat during the battle for control of Fallujah. And last year - in the months before the civilian deaths in Haditha - at least 20 Marines were killed in ambushes and bombings in the town.

None of this, of course, can possibly justify what apparently occurred at Haditha or exonerate any Marine who participated in the barbarities. "The description of the event is called murder," said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-area think tank. "If, due to the stress of the situation, the Marines lost fire discipline and killed people, it is murder or, at least, manslaughter. At the same time, we need to understand why it happened and how it happened."

Dr. Paul Ragan, a former Navy psychiatrist now a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, suspects that the "ambiguity of mission and ambiguity of enemy" played a role at Haditha. He stressed that there is only so far you can push combat troops. "There is a concern that the psychological resources, no matter how well trained, are stretched too thin," Ragan said. "There is a reality here. These are not superheroes or X-men. These are real people on their third tour" of duty in Iraq.

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military in 2003 and 2004, made an analogous point when he told Salon, "What we have right now is a very stressed ground force."
And so on.

The closing -
As prominent Republicans such as John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talk of holding congressional hearings into what happened at Haditha, the underlying question becomes - like the furor over Abu Ghraib - how far up the chain of command responsibility rests.

Clearly, the responsibility for burnt-out Marines serving two and even three tours of duty in Iraq does not stop with Kilo Company. "There is no question in my mind that lapses like Haditha can be traced to a lack of understanding of the nature of this war at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House," declared David R. Segal, the director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, in an e-mail.
Of course. And even if this one day was filed with what didn't happen, what might have happened or should have happened is still in the air.

Posted by Alan at 22:26 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 8 June 2006 06:44 PDT home

Tuesday, 6 June 2006
The Great Divide
Topic: Reality-Based Woes

The Great Divide

Tuesday, June 6, 2006, seemed as good a day as any as to examine how far apart we are on issues these days.

Of course the amusing talk of the day was that the day was 06-06-06, or 666, the mark of the beast or some such thing. See this for the details, involving the Greek text of the Book of Revelations and such - the antichrist will arrive and whatnot. No one took the day's number very seriously, but it was a good day for the wide-release opening of the remake of The Omen, even if the original 1976 film was itself gloriously silly. This one seems just as silly, the antichrist as a nasty toddler one more time.

Some noted it was the sixty-second anniversary of D-Day, the key to the end of the last war everyone agreed was worth fighting, but not that many noted it. The days of "the good war" fought for the right reasons seem so long ago, and seem somehow quaint.

And AIDS turned twenty-five, as it was the anniversary of the day that the CDC reported two deaths from a form of pneumocystis that turned out to be a consequence of HIV. More was said about that. It's a problem here and a crisis in Africa, in real time.

And the day was the anniversary of an event thirty-eight years ago down the hill at the old Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire, now torn down - in 1968 Bobby Kennedy was shot there the night before and on June 6th he died at a nearby hospital, also long gone. Mike Gerber here makes the argument that what was happening then is somehow at the root of where we are today - Bobby's brother was shot in the head, Martin Luther King was shot in the head, then Bobby -
Forty years on, Kennedy-King-Kennedy looks to me like the moment things started going bad, when control really clamped down from above, and apathy really took root below. Our country is headed in the wrong direction, and without a shred of romanticism, I think that direction was set by the assassinations of the 60s - not only by the loss of those people, their ideas and their ability to inspire, but also by our getting used to unsolved public murder as business as usual. That is a coarsening equal to any suffered by the Roman Republic. Is it merely coincidence that we've turned from a country of possibilities to one grinding out the same tragic, hoary imperial script? The country is traumatized, directionless, hurt; and a generation of politicians have risen who are experts at keeping us that way.
Buy that or not, the question is how directionless are we?

The other movie opening this week, on Friday, June 9, is Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, based on the popular and gentle Garrison Keillor radio show. Think of it as the anti-Omen, the darkest thing being Kevin Kline playing the hapless detective Guy Noir.

But Garrison Keillor does have things to say that don't make it onto the radio, and they are mostly about the great divide we find these days, as here where he discusses the latest effort by the Republicans to get their folks out to vote.

The whole thing is a scare tactic. If the Republicans stay way from the polls, being unhappy about this and that, the unthinkable will happen. Nancy Pelosi will become Speaker of the House - a woman, from San Francisco, where there are all those gay people - "Will the podium be repainted in lavender stripes with a disco ball overhead? Will she be borne into the chamber by male dancers with glistening torsos and wearing pink tutus?" That would be cool. But the right hates San Francisco. Last year Bill O'Reilly on Fox News invited the terrorists to destroy the place. They just weren't real Americans there, although his issue had to do with proposed bans on military recruiting, not with men in leather chaps and no pants.

But here's the deal. Keillor suggests we need San Francisco -
People who want to take a swing at San Francisco should think twice. Yes, the Irish coffee at Fisherman's Wharf is overpriced, and the bus tour of Haight-Ashbury is disappointing (where are the hippies?), but the Bay Area is the cradle of the computer and software industry, which continues to create jobs for our children. The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco, Texas. There may be a reason for this. Creative people thrive in a climate of openness and tolerance, since some great ideas start out sounding ridiculous. Creativity is a key to economic progress. Authoritarianism is stifling. I don't believe that Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard were gay, but what's important is: In San Francisco, it doesn't matter so much. When the cultural Sturmbannfuhrers try to marshal everyone into straight lines, it has consequences for the economic future of this country.
Ah, what the heck, the current crew doesn't like science and ideas very much. Global warming is a hoax. Stem-cell research is murder. All that stuff. Creativity is for chumps. Read your Bible.

And that's another divide.

And too, the old Republicans are mostly gone, and the new ones have made a mess of things -
Somewhere in the quiet leafy recesses of the Bush family, somebody is thinking, "Wrong son. Should've tried the smart one." This one's eyes don't quite focus. Five years in office and he doesn't have a grip on it yet. You stand him up next to Tony Blair at a press conference and the comparison is not kind to Our Guy. Historians are starting to place him at or near the bottom of the list. And one of the basic assumptions of American culture is falling apart: the competence of Republicans.

You might not have always liked Republicans, but you could count on them to manage the bank. They might be lousy tippers, act snooty, talk through their noses, wear spats and splash mud on you as they race their Pierce-Arrows through the village, but you knew they could do the math. To see them produce a ninny and then follow him loyally into the swamp for five years is disconcerting, like seeing the Rolling Stones take up lite jazz. So here we are at an uneasy point in our history, mired in a costly war and getting nowhere, a supine Congress granting absolute power to a president who seems to get smaller and dimmer, and the best the Republicans can offer is San Franciscophobia? This is beyond pitiful. This is violently stupid.

It is painful to look at your father and realize the old man should not be allowed to manage his own money anymore. This is the discovery the country has made about the party in power. They are inept. The checkbook needs to be taken away. They will rant, they will screech, they will wave their canes at you and call you all sorts of names, but you have to do what you have to do.
Let's see - they will rant, they will screech, they will wave their canes at you and call you all sorts of names? Cue Ann Coulter.

Ann Coulter, the outspoken political commentator - Chief Justice Steven should be poisoned, the New York Times building should be blown up and all the people there killed, the leaders in the Middle East should be forced to convert to Christianity or be killed - was on the NBC Today Show on Tuesday the 6th, promoting her new book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, and illustrating the great divide. She was all over the widows of the men killed at the World Trade Center almost five years ago. They don't think much of Bush. Coulter's assessment? They're fools, and immoral - "I have never seen people enjoying their husband's deaths so much." She doesn't like them at all.

There's no bridging this gap - the divide is too wide.

You can watch the video here, but the transcript will do. The host, Matt Lauer, has his hands full -
LAUER: Do you believe everything in the book or do you put some things in there just to cater to your base?

ANN: No, of course I believe everything.

LAUER: On the 9-11 widows, an in particular a group that had been critical of the administration: "These self-obsessed women seem genuinely unaware that 9-11 was an attack on our nation and acted like as if the terrorist attack only happened to them. They believe the entire country was required to marinate in their exquisite personal agony. Apparently, denouncing Bush was part of the closure process." And this part is the part I really need to talk to you about: "These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by griefparrazies. I have never seen people enjoying their husband's death so much." Because they dare to speak out?

COULTER: To speak out using the fact they are widows. This is the left's doctrine of infallibility. If they have a point to make about the 9-11 commission, about how to fight the war on terrorism, how about sending in somebody we are allowed to respond to. No. No. No. We have to respond to someone who had a family member die. Because then if we respond, oh you are questioning their authenticity.

LAUER: So grieve but grieve quietly?

COULTER: No, the story is an attack on the nation. That requires a foreign policy response.

LAUER: By the way, they also criticized the Clinton administration.

COULTER: Not the ones I am talking about. No, no, no.

LAUER: Yeah, they have.

COULTER: Oh no, no, no, no, no. They were cutting commercials for Kerry. They were using their grief to make a political point while preventing anyone from responding.

LAUER: So if you lose a husband, you no longer have the right to have a political point of view?

COULTER: No, but don't use the fact that you lost a husband as the basis for being able to talk about, while preventing people from responding. Let Matt Lauer make the point. Let Bill Clinton make the point. Don't put up someone I am not allowed to respond to without questioning the authenticity of their grief.

LAUER: Well apparently you are allowed to respond to them.

COULTER: Yeah, I did.

LAUER: So, in other words.

COULTER: That is the point of liberal infallibility. Of putting up Cindy Sheehan, of putting out these widows, of putting out Joe Wilson. No, no, no. You can't respond. It's their doctrine of infallibility. Have someone else make the argument then.

LAUER: What I'm saying is I don't think they have ever told you, you can't respond.

COULTER: Look, you are getting testy with me.
That's a response? What claim of infallibility? What's Ann's problem?

And Lauer thought Tom "I'm a world-renowned expert on psychiatry and medication and you're not" Cruise was a pain.

So these rich uppity "broads" who happened to lose a husband should just shut up. What gives them the right to criticize anything? They're just show-offs, giddy on being famous. They don't know jack.

Pot. Kettle. One calling the other black.

Okay, then. There are two different worlds here. They don't intersect. They don't even touch.

And on the political front there was another example of a disconnect, the same day, as noted here -
Congress should make Social Security overhaul its top priority next year, while a rewrite of the tax code and revamping the nation's healthcare system probably will wait until at least 2009, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Jim McCrery, R-La., said today. McCrery said it will take the expiration of tax cuts in 2010 to build enough political support for tax reform, even though President Bush and many Republican lawmakers would like to tackle it sooner. "I think the president wants to do tax reform, and I'm certainly ready to help him do tax reform in '07 and '08. ... Looking at the lay of the land politically and substantively, it seems to me the more logical order would be Social Security, then tax reform, then healthcare reform," he told reporters after addressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
What? They tried that. They ran it up the flagpole. No one saluted. The president traveled the country talking it up, and people decided they'd rather have a safe retirement income in a government sponsored insurance plan than be their own investment managers and play the stock market, especially as a transition to the latter would cost the government a few trillion dollars. It made no sense.

The minority leader in the House, that woman from gay San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi, spoke for the other world -
When the House Republican point man on Social Security says that privatizing Social Security will be a top priority next year, it is clear the Republicans once again are not listening to the American people, who resoundingly rejected this risky scheme last year.

This is simply not a priority of the American people, yet Republicans continue their relentless quest to privatize Social Security over the real needs of Americans. The Republican plan to dismantle Social Security, which would slash benefits for the middle class, is a blast from their failed policies of the past.
No, it's not. It's an odd message from another planet.

But then Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly here offers a report on that other planet, noting that last month the Boston Globe reported that Republican leaders in Congress were considering a legislative agenda "in which they would literally give up on passing major policy initiatives and instead focus on divisive bills that they didn't expect to pass."

That's the planet where a legislature exists not to do the people business and work on law that make things run smoothly but to make grand and noble failing gestures.

Benen cites Roll Call -
With only a few months left on the legislative calendar, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has decided to abandon any efforts at bipartisanship in favor of using his chamber to hold a series of highly partisan, mostly symbolic votes on conservative causes, including amendments banning gay marriage and flag burning, and fully repealing the estate tax.

Although Frist has peppered the Senate schedule with a handful of substantive issues - including likely votes this week on a new U.S. trade representative, a Native Hawaiian-rights bill and a new mine-safety czar - the chamber will put off work on major legislation such as the fiscal 2007 Defense authorization bill in order for Frist to pursue items of special interest to his party's conservative base.
Benen -
It's been painfully obvious for a while now, but it's almost comical how unserious congressional Republicans are about matters of state. They're not only failing to govern, they're shirking their duties intentionally as part of an electoral strategy.
Well, that's their world. And it will keep them in power. In the morning's Washington Post E. J. Dionne pointed out that the Republican Party "thinks its base of social conservatives is a nest of dummies who have no memories and respond like bulls whenever red flags are waved in their faces." Yep. (Dionne say much more and that's all here.)

That's whole different world.

And the war rolls on -
Security in the capital has deteriorated precipitously in recent months. Increasingly brazen assassinations torment neighborhoods and no longer seem to follow any obvious patterns. In May, the Baghdad morgue recorded the highest number of bodies received since the beginning of the war: 1,375, approximately double the toll of May 2005.
We're making good progress, and Baghdad is half as secure as it was a year ago. That's also news from another planet. But the number of hapless and harmless civilians we shoot dead at checkpoints has dropped from one a day to one a week, on average. Progress.

There is a great divide. The November election should be interesting. It's not a plebiscite on Bush. It's an election where each voter decided on which planet her or she lives.

Posted by Alan at 23:15 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 7 June 2006 18:06 PDT home

Monday, 5 June 2006
Changing the Subject
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Changing the Subject

What do you do when a week opens with nonsense? What the Marines may or may not have done to civilians in Iraq, particularly women and children, is becoming clearer, and a bit more ominous. With each passing day it only seems to get worse. What do you do with war crimes? Who do you hold responsible, and at what level? And on a merely practical level, how do you explain to the world that we just don't do such things? We say we're the good guys, on God's mission to bring freedom to the world, and that contention needs a little work. Luckily, the mood on the ground in Iraq and around the world is not so much outrage and anger, but more a shrug - "yeah, whatever." We can say such things of course. That's what Americans do. But the rest of the world is treating us the way you treat a loud bore at a party - you politely move on. We can say anything we like. And that's the rock-bottom of our having some sort of influence in the world - what we claim not even worth discussing. Why bother?

And as for the war itself, at the start of the week, Monday, June 5, the chaos continues, fake Iraqi police disappearing fifty-six people, and the usual dead bodies turning up, twenty here and thirty there, tortured. And the Iraqi prime minister cannot seem find anyone to run the army - a Defense Minster - nor anyone to run the police - an Interior Minister. The Kurds and Sunnis and our ambassador want someone somewhat neutral in each slot, while the prime minister's own party demands a hard-line Shiite, friendly to Iran next door. So forming a new unity government seems unlikely. And the whole point is to have one, so we can slowly leave, save for our major military compounds filled with our folks who will "be a presence" in the region. We're told "we're making good progress" (there's bad progress?), but it sure doesn't seem so. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The ties to al Qaeda were bullshit. So we're really there to build a model democracy to impress the socks off of everyone from the Mediterranean to Kashmir. And now we can't even have a government in Baghdad. And the point is? And that tall Osama fellow is out there somewhere, making tapes now and then, and not impressed.

The same day the stock market dropped two hundred points as the new head of the Fed said the economy seemed to be slowing and prices rising, so maybe jacking up the interest rates again seemed to be in order. And there was the usual background noise - real wages dropping for six years straight, CEO and executive compensation at record highs, forty-four million without any health insurance, the public all revved up about the illegal Mexicans and such pouring in and using public services they shouldn't use - so maybe we ought to send them all back and build a giant wall and so on, no matter what it does to our economy based as it is on their cheap labor. And they talk funny anyway. And Iran may one day get nuclear weapons, and even if as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty they have the right to do the research they're doing, we wish they wouldn't and may have to stop them, one way or another, with or without any other nation on the face of the earth joining us. And that's not to mention the rest of the background noise - all the politicians indicted or convicted of this or that.

So congress is getting down to doing something, discussing amending the constitution to make burning the flag a crime beyond the reach of court interpretation (see this). No one here has burned a flag at a political protest since 1968 or so, but making sure it doesn't ever happen again bumped all other legislative business aside, except for the real problem with fags and dykes. It seems some of them want their life-long stable commitment to each other to be legitimized as marriage, where you can share accounts and enter contracts, and when one or the other gets sick, you get the right to visit your partner in the hospital as a real "family member" and do your best to be supportive. And there are tax breaks too. But that's not right -
President Bush reaffirmed his support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage today as the Senate began several days of debate on the measure, which is not expected to be passed.

The president, speaking at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, said an amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman was necessary because too many "activist judges" had tried to overturn efforts by voters in several states to ban marriages or civil unions between same-sex partners.

"I call on the Congress to pass this amendment, send it to the states for ratification, so we can take this issue out of the hands of overreaching judges and put it back where it belongs: in the hands of the American people," the president told a gathering of invited social and religious conservatives.

"Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges," he said.

His remarks today echoed what Mr. Bush said on Saturday in his weekly radio address.

Many Democrats and other critics argue that the president's support of the marriage amendment is a purely political election-year move to mobilize the Republican's social conservative base. Most people on both parties believe the amendment has virtually no chance of becoming reality.
No kidding. The chances of it becoming law are slim, as it would require approval by a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress and then would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. It's a noble losing gesture to play to the base, which seems to have a problem with gay folks, and Mexicans and their like, and uppity black folk, and people from the Arab and Persian world, and Apu at the local Quicky-Mart, and who knows what.

Of course it's a gamble. The last time this values crew tried to make a point - the government should intervene in the matter of one family where the husband claimed he had the right to grant his brain-dead wife's previously explicit wishes and pull the plug, and where the courts at all levels agreed he had the right - it blew up in their faces. Most of the nation didn't agree with the basic premise, that a moral government has the duty to intervene in any citizen's private problems, no matter what the courts say. This gay marriage business is somewhat like that - regulating who should marry whom, as the government knows best. The last of the anti-miscegenation laws was tossed out by the courts in 1967, as stopping black and white folks from marrying became legal everywhere. Here? This is called unnatural too. But who cares?

It will destroy marriage as we know it? They said that about the racial thing. And anyway, with sixty percent of all marriages ending in divorce, a few more stable relationships of any kind would be nice. What the harm?

But it was a diversion, even if many on the right were not amused. They wanted to Hispanics to go away. This gay thing was silly.

And you'd find this comment on the Fox News site of all places -
What we have here is a too obvious political play that unfortunately scapegoats a minority as a means to gather votes. This is unkind, manipulative and divisive. My wife and I are Christians. We are not remotely confused abut our own marriage. Are we supposed to care about this because some other Christians are offended? Does this really threaten traditional marriage? Are there truly couples in traditional marriages who are personally confused and threatened by this? Fear not! We know two women who both earlier had children from a traditional marriage. They later lived with one another. They've also made sure their children have male influences. Why not let them and all their children have health insurance benefits and no extra problems? I say this to President Bush: We as a nation ought not impose particular religious beliefs on strangers doing no harm in the name of gathering votes.
That kind of comment is a bad sign.

And a reader sends Time's Andrew Sullivan this -
Having just watched George Bush speaking in his desultory way about gay marriage, I felt a secret glee rise up within me. I think we just watched the death of the opposition to gay marriage.

When a hugely unpopular President rises and speaks with the megaphone of the Presidency about an issue that most consider to be deeply personal, he drags this issue from the realm of family, morals, and religious tradition, into the crass world of politics. By tying gay marriage to the fading star of contemporary 'conservatism', the President has given many people who may otherwise be uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex relationships the concrete reason they need to change their minds. 'If these guys are so hard against it,' millions of Americans without a direct stake in this debate must be thinking, 'it may be a good thing'.

Just as George Wallace's extremism nailed shut the sarcophagus of Jim Crow, so this George will be trotted out as the personification of the bigotry of an era passed. Sometimes, a man's reputation rings louder then his arguments. George Bush's failed Presidency will drag this issue down as does a drowning man a healthy swimmer.
Maybe. Maybe not. But the Saturday address and Monday big statement might be a real "jump the shark" moment here. The world is more difficult and dangerous than ever before, and we get this as a change of subject? That's also the rock-bottom of our having some sort of influence in the world - what he claims not even worth discussing. Why bother?

It's not important. It isn't even that interesting.

What might be important, or might be something some find interesting, arrived out here with the Monday morning Los Angeles Times. That would be this item -
The Pentagon has decided to omit from new detainee policies a key tenet of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans "humiliating and degrading treatment," according to knowledgeable military officials, a step that would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.

The decision could culminate a lengthy debate within the Defense Department but will not become final until the Pentagon makes new guidelines public, a step that has been delayed. However, the State Department fiercely opposes the military's decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider, the Defense Department officials acknowledged.
And we get the usual players in this game -
The move to restore U.S. adherence to Article 3 was opposed by officials from Vice President Dick Cheney's office and by the Pentagon's intelligence arm, government sources said. David S. Addington, Cheney's chief of staff, and Stephen A. Cambone, Defense undersecretary for intelligence, said it would restrict the United States' ability to question detainees.

The Pentagon tried to satisfy some of the military lawyers' concerns by including some protections of Article 3 in the new policy, most notably a ban on inhumane treatment, but refused to embrace the actual Geneva standard in the directive it planned to issue.

The military lawyers, known as judge advocates general, or JAGs, have concluded that they will have to wait for a new administration before mounting another push to link Pentagon policy to the standards of Geneva.
So this is not a tight exclusion for a handful of CIA officials to torture detainees if they must. This is general policy, for the whole military. And the reasoning is the usual -
But top administration officials contend that after the Sept. 11 attacks, old customs do not apply, especially to a fight against terrorists or insurgents who never play by the rules. "The overall thinking," said the participant familiar with the defense debate, "is that they need the flexibility to apply cruel techniques if military necessity requires it."
Not they ever would.

See Steve Benen, substituting for the vacationing Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly, with this -
I can't help but wonder if Bush administration officials know or care about how this undermines our standing and credibility in the world. It's simply breathtaking. As Kevin put it a while back, "It's simply impossible to persuade the rest of the world that we're the good guys as long as we persist in plainly repugnant behavior."
No kidding.

And Digby over at Hullabaloo suggests we've been punked -
The problem is that they, and I assume many in the Pentagon, believe the exact opposite. They think that "being tough" and "sending the right message" will make the enemy put its tail between its legs and run for the hills. That's the simple truth of it. And that idea is what's permeated into the military ranks in Iraq and elsewhere. When Cheney said "take the gloves off" he meant it. And people believed it. And that led us directly to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and now the horror of Haditha.

... Romans and conservatives are very big on "sending messages." They like to make examples of people; it's one of their favorite authoritarian tactics. And executing children sends a hell of a message, no doubt about it. No gloves anywhere to be seen in that operation. The "humiliating and degrading" treatment at Abu Ghraib, the torture at Bagram and Gitmo and god knows where else, the kidnapping and renditions, and yes, the massacre of civilians including children, is not a matter of incompetence or misunderstanding or the fog of war. It's the plan.

... The vaunted neo-conservative intellectuals have a simplistic, schoolyard view of the world based on what appears to be a very simplistic, schoolyard psychology that very much appealed to the boy-man that had been installed in the white house when bin Laden struck on 9/11. What serendipity! It is this puerile psychological misfire that united them with the feverish one handed typists of the 101st keyboarders - all threats, no matter how small or insignificant at the time, must be met with crude brute force lest someone taunt you about your small cojones. The real threat is the appearance of weakness.

The interesting thing about this, of course, is that very few of these people have ever put any of that into practice in their own lives - this belief exists in an abstract realm of fantasy - a pageant to be performed by others. ... Yet they also need to maintain a sort of religious fiction about themselves as being purveyors of democracy and freedom - concepts that don't ordinarily lend themselves to barbaric message sending.

And that is how we found ourselves invading and occupying (and killing and torturing) to prove we are good and they are evil. And it's why with every failure, every misstep, every hypocrisy and war crime, this brain-dead macho policy makes America far more vulnerable today than we were on 9/11. This mistaken belief that bin Laden attacked us because he thought we were weak - has made us weak. Virtually the entire American political establishment got punked by Osama bin Laden's trash talking and they still don't get it. With every impotent "message" of toughness we send, the more we play into his hands.
Or so it seems. But this is a real discussion about how we as a nation deal with the world. And it has real implications. (And click on the link for all the historic detail and quotes from the war party and its advocates - the "101st Keyboarders" always on the web and in the magazines.) Oddly, here we are asked to look at a basic premise underlying everything - is the real threat "the appearance of weakness," or in proving and reproving we're not weak in anyway at all, that we can be brutal and toss out all our beliefs and values, do we make ourselves fools and targets? The latter seems likely. And questioning the idea underneath it all is odd indeed, and maybe necessary. Something's not working.

What if we tried to be "better" than them, instead of just saying we are, in spite of what we do?

It will be interesting to see how Senator John McCain reacts to all this. He lobbied hard for his legislation banning torture and anything like "humiliating and degrading" treatment as policy, and got it passed. The margin was wide. The thing was veto-proof. And the president signed it into law, but added a signing statement that he really didn't have to follow such a law if it interfered with any decision he might make as commander-in-chief. And now this.

Ah, McCain will say nothing. He wants to be the next president. He cannot appear weak either. Having principles makes you look weak, or so it seems. That is the political assessment, by almost every single politician in each party, of how Americans think. But what if they don't really think that way? Wouldn't it be interesting if they were wrong? That would be a kick in the head.

It should be noted, of course, that Monday, June 5, 2006, the whole government had turned its full attention to more than fags and flags. There was the big push to eliminate the Estate Tax, or Death Tax as the Republicans like to frame it. Renaming is good. Dropping this tax will result in the loss of a trillion dollars in income over the next ten years, and the tax applies to only a few people who are quite wealthy. But it is a "death tax" - and that sounds awful.

Sebastian Mallaby in the Post here -
For most of the past century, the case for the estate tax was regarded as self-evident. People understood that government has to be paid for, and that it makes sense to raise part of the money from a tax on "fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits," as Theodore Roosevelt put it. The United States is supposed to be a country that values individuals for their inherent worth, not for their inherited worth. The estate tax, like a cigarette tax or a carbon tax, is a tool for reducing a socially damaging phenomenon - the emergence of a hereditary upper class - as well as a way of raising money.

But now the House has voted to repeal the estate tax, and the Senate may do the same this week. Republicans are picking up support from renegade Democrats, such as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Max Baucus of Montana. Several more may go over to the dark side if a "compromise" bill, which would achieve nearly everything that abolitionists dream of, is introduced in the Senate. President Bush, who has already muscled a temporary repeal of the estate tax into law, would be delighted to sign a bill making abolition permanent.
Paul Krugman in the New York Times here -
The campaign for estate tax repeal has largely been financed by just 18 powerful business dynasties, including the family that owns Wal-Mart.

You may have heard tales of family farms and small businesses broken up to pay taxes, but those stories are pure propaganda without any basis in fact. In particular, advocates of estate tax repeal have never been able to provide a single real example of a family farm sold to pay estate taxes.

Nonetheless, the estate tax is up for a vote this week. First, Republicans will try to repeal the estate tax altogether. If that fails, they'll offer a compromise that isn't really a compromise, like a plan suggested by Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, that would cost almost as much as full repeal, or a plan suggested by Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, that is only slightly cheaper.

In each case, the crucial vote will be procedural: if 60 senators vote to close off debate, estate tax repeal or something close to it will surely pass. Any senator who votes for cloture but against estate tax repeal - which I'm told is what John McCain may do - is simply a hypocrite, trying to have it both ways.

But will the Senate vote for cloture? The answer depends on two groups of senators: Democrats like Mr. Baucus who habitually stake out "centrist" positions that give Republicans almost everything they want, and moderate Republicans like Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island who consistently cave in to their party's right wing. Will these senators show more spine than they have in the past?

In the interest of stiffening those spines, let me remind senators that this isn't just a fiscal issue, it's also a moral issue. Congress has already declared that the budget deficit is serious enough to warrant depriving children of health care; how can it now say that it's worth enlarging the deficit to give Paris Hilton a tax break?
Now there's a real issue. Let Lars and Spanky get married if they want. And the business with burning the flag? Is that a big deal? The world won't end if some fool burns the flag and shouts stupid things. We got through the sixties, more or less. But this one, a core tax issue about how we keep the joint running, is about a real issue. What do we owe each other, and are we a community or not?

But the legislature will work on the gay marriage crisis and protecting the flag, the symbol and not the substance. Ah heck, the substance may be long gone.

Posted by Alan at 22:47 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 6 June 2006 06:45 PDT home

Sunday, 4 June 2006
Responsibility
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Responsibility

It seems there will be no Just Above Sunset this weekend, as the fancy magazine-format weekly site with all the photographs will have to be put on hold until the main computer is repaired. Posting will be at this site, and at Just Above Sunset Photography, until the wizards in Westwood do their magic. So it will be working from the new laptop, or notebook, as they seem to be called now, purchased Friday night, and working without all the utility files and reference material locked on the old system, and without all the archives and photographs. Ah well.

The weekend was devoted to setting up the new laptop and loading software and testing, but now that all that is pretty much complete, Sunday night, June 4, seemed a good time to turn back to what's going on in the much larger world, and in the ongoing national dialog about what to make of it all, and perhaps, what to do about it all, although no one really has any new ideas, and the old ideas aren't exactly working.

The weekend concluded with the usual chaos in Iraq, with the big occurrence Sunday being this - gunmen dragging twenty passengers off a mini-bus or two an executing them on the spot, including a bunch of kids, students on their way to take their final exams. They had the wrong sort of names. You can tell the Sunni from the Shiite folks that way. Some places it's not wise to be named Omar. Other places it's just the thing. Getting around safely now takes several sets of documents, and knowing which documents to use at which checkpoint maintained by which quasi-governmental troops in uniform, or by which freelance militia in black with hoods.

Some might miss the brutal clarity of the days of Saddam Hussein, where if you weren't a Sunni, with the appropriate first name, you knew you were in trouble. The new ambiguity makes this all more than a bit dicey, but is what you get with an almost-formed unity government, one that some day, theoretically, will protect the rights of all. Now? Each and every side has its death squads. In the theoretical, the Iraqi army, led by the Minister of Defense, would be there to keep things clear - no sectarian civil war, please. And in the theoretical, the police, led by the Minister of the Interior, with twenty dead bodies showing up here and there each day, with signs of torture, or just the heads showing up, would put an end to the tit-for-tat revenge killings. Police are there to stop such nonsense.

Sunday was to have been the big day. The new prime minister had said he would announce just who would be the new Minister of Defense and the new Minister of the Interior, and these would be fair people, not Shiite guys answering to Iran next door, nor unyielding Sunnis like the Sunni Saddam and his sons and buddies. Cool.

But it wasn't to be, as noted late Sunday here -
The Iraqi parliament postponed its Sunday session after the main political blocs failed to agree on candidates for key security posts, the deputy speaker said, as violence surged in the country.

The decision came despite urgent last-minute efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to reach agreement from Iraq's fractious ethnic and sectarian groups on who will head the Defense and Interior ministries.

To break the deadlock, Al-Maliki had promised to present candidates Sunday and let the 275-member parliament decide, but Deputy Speaker Khalid al-Atiya said legislators needed more time. Al-Atiya, a Shiite, said that due to the large number of candidates and the inability to reach any agreement, the political parties decided "to give the prime minister another chance to have more negotiations."
Our new ambassador and the prime minister couldn't pull that off. Not good. Things won't get better for a bit longer, or maybe a lot longer. Now what?

So how did things come to such a pass? Responsibility point one - should those who argued long and hard that we should invade Iraq and remove the government there, and won the argument, be held responsible for the mess there now? Give them a pass on the weapons of mass destruction thing - everyone makes mistakes - and a pass on the ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, as that was what they really did think, even if that Osama fellow had spent many years denouncing Saddam Hussein as an enemy if true Islam. He might have been kidding, after all. You never know. But the war is in its fourth year, and there is more than a bit of chaos there even now, and, after three elections, no unity government. Could these difficulties have been anticipated?

Of course the plan was to have the Iraqi-American Chalabi run the joint - we'd be out in six months. But no one there liked him, and in all the voting there he never got enough votes for even one seat in the new parliament, much less enough votes to form a government. He had that PhD in math for the University of Chicago where he knew both Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, and we paid his band of exiles loads of money for intelligence about the situation on the ground there - the weapons programs and who was important and who not - and Dick Cheney said he was Iraq's true George Washington and all.

So that didn't work out. But there was no Plan B, as that would have been such a negative thing to develop - it would mean you might be wrong. Do we fault the architects of the war for being optimistic? We like that trait, don't we? No ones like a nay-saying defeatist always whining about this or that, of course.

But when we are told not to worry, that "things will be just fine" and to see the wonderful possibilities, and then the result is a mess, do we say, optimism aside (it's a fine thing, generally), that those in charge of what our government does may have incredibly poor judgment? That's not to say those who lead should not be optimistic. It's only to say they should look at all the facts and think things through, and maybe have a contingency plan or two up their sleeves. "But it might have worked" is historically interesting, a curious argument that can be discussed in the hypothetical. The people dying now, every day, and our more than twenty-five hundred dead and tens of thousands maimed, aren't historically interesting - that's a problem now. We removed a brutal dictator, a truly awful man, and in his place said "try democracy" - but assume it would be relatively easy to get going and we could leave as heroes. Shouldn't someone have thought about a few "what if" scenarios, considering the history of the place and who there really knew and liked the University of Chicago PhD fellow? It would have been the responsible thing to do. But then, there is this tension between being responsible and being optimistic. Some can do both - call it tempered optimism - but these guys like to keep it simple. And the president is not a curious fellow.

That lack of curiosity is dangerous. Terry Gross interviews that loser, Al Gore, on NPR's Fresh Air here -
GROSS: You got to see George W. Bush close-up when he was your opponent for the presidency. What surprises you most about how the Bush presidency has turned out?

GORE: I guess what surprises me most is his incuriosity. That's a real mystery to me because he's clearly a smart man. He has a different kind of intelligence, as everybody does. There are so many varieties of intelligence. He's clearly a smart man, but it is a puzzle that he would ask no questions about important matters. When his first secretary of the Treasury came in for their first meeting and spoke for an hour about economic policies of the new administration, he asked not a single question. When he received the briefing in August of 2001 that Osama bin Laden was planning a major attack soon, you know, on the United States, he did not ask a single question. When he was briefed several days before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the weather service people were saying it may mark a return to medieval conditions, he asked not a single question. And that same incuriosity seems to be a factor when he just accepts hook, line and sinker the ExxonMobil view that global warming is not a problem, in no way related to the massive volumes of pollution we're putting into the Earth's atmosphere every hour of every day.

When they tell him that the scientific community is wrong and that they're just lying because they're greedy for more research dollars, he doesn't apparently look under the rug. He doesn't ask questions. And in the American system, the president of the United States is the only person who is charged with representing all of the people in every state in every district and looking after the welfare of the people as a whole. And if the special interest has one view, at least you should ask questions about how the public interest is affected, and I really do not know why he is so incurious.
No one knows, and it may not matter much; that is, the "why" may not matter much. But it here's an idea - it is the leader's responsibility to be curious. Gore seems to think so. But he lost.

Ah well, we'll get right with Iran, making them give up their nuclear weapons program - through threats that won impress them (our forces are stretched a bit thin) and "incentives" they find insulting. Now they threaten a "disruption" to world's oil supply (see this), our fashionable secretary of state, the Rice woman, says it's nothing, they need the oil revenue and they won't do anything - and as the weekend ends the spot price of oil jumps way up (see this). The markets don't function on best-case optimism. Traders look at what's likely and have a Plan B, and Plans C through Z of course. But that's so negative, and ticks off the administration. Being realistic and planning for all the possibilities, not just the "best-case, seem wrong to them. To the rest of us? One supposes we're really supposed to wonder about our unpatriotic realism. Or something.

Responsibility point two? Not our fault, as in this -
Isa Khalaf doesn't want cash from the U.S. troops he says massacred his relatives in a March raid. He wants an explanation he may never get now that a U.S. probe has cleared them of any wrongdoing.

Standing in the rubble that remains of his brother's house that was pulverized in the small town of Ishaqi, Khalaf recalled the young children that were lost as the sound of gunfire and helicopters rattled the village.
"I don't want compensation. I want answers," he said.

The U.S. investigation that cleared soldiers of any misconduct in Ishaqi may have allowed the soldiers to move on with their lives. But the farming town will be haunted by memories of the bloodshed.

The U.S. military said on Friday that soldiers chasing insurgents took direct fire in Ishaqi and up to nine collateral deaths, a military term for civilian casualties, resulted from an engagement.

It denied as "absolutely false" allegations that troops executed a family living in a safe house for "terrorists," and then hid the alleged crimes by directing an air strike.

... Police had different accounts of what happened during the March raid. They said five children, four women and two men were shot dead by troops in a house that was then blown up.
All the victims were shot in the head and the bodies, with hands bound, were dumped in one room before the house was destroyed, police added.

... The Ishaqi findings come amid an investigation into allegations U.S. Marines massacred up to two dozen unarmed civilians in the town of Haditha in November. Several other killings are also under investigation.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has promised Iraqis justice and criticized the American actions.

But judging by the mood in Ishaqi, Iraqis have learned not to expect too much from their new U.S.-backed democracy.
But we say our guys did nothing wrong. They were chasing bad guys, and one ran into the house, so calling in the C-130 gunship that laid down a wall of fifty millimeter high-velocity hot metal for a few hours was a logical decision. Sorry about the dead kids. And your other evidence doesn't matter. It was, unfortunately, necessary.

Of what's necessary, and responsibility, see Andrew Sullivan here -
From the moment George W. Bush exempted U.S. military forces from the Geneva Conventions if "military necessity" demanded it, he sent a message. From the moment George W. Bush refused to accept Donald Rumsfeld's repeated offers to resign after Abu Ghraib, he sent a message. From the moment, George W. Bush appended a signing statement to the McCain Amendment, arguing that as commander-in-chief, he was not subject to the ban on torture and abuse of military prisoners, the president sent a message.

Those messages - in a tense and dangerous war, where bad things will always happen - made a difficult situation one where abuse and war crimes were almost bound to take place. And command responsibility in the military goes upward. The president cannot fill the role of being commander-in-chief in order to declare "Mission Accomplished" and then choose not to fill the role when his troops commit war-crimes and torture and atrocities. In what George W. Bush himself calls a "responsibility society," he has ultimate responsibility for the forces he commands. And there is a direct and obvious line between his decisions to break decades' long adherence to the Geneva Conventions and the pandemic of torture, and now incidents of war crimes, that have plagued this war and stained the honor of this country.

To say this is not to be, as Glenn Reynolds argues, "pathetic and poisonous." It is to face the fact that this president has formally lowered the moral standards for American warfare - in writing, and by his actions. He was given a chance to stop this with the McCain Amendment, and he dodged it. He is now reaping the whirlwind. We all are - not the least the vast majority of great and honorable soldiers whose profession has been stained by a derelict defense secretary and a torture-condoning president. The troops deserve so much better. So does America.
Yeah, well, maybe. He's just not a detail guy. And he likes to keep this positive.

Leave the detail to the Brits, like this long item in the Sunday Observer, containing this -
Some have tried to defend the killings by pointing to the stress that US soldiers - many of whom are on their second or third tour of duty - are under. But it is clear that there are other, deeper problems within the US military that point to a widespread failure of command.

At the heart of the issue is a culture of violence against Iraqi civilians that has been present in large measure since the moment US forces crossed the border into Iraq - an inability and unwillingness to distinguish between civilians and combatants that as three years have passed has been transformed, for some, into something more deliberate.
The point - "It is a lack of discipline that has been commented on with horror by British officers - representing an army that itself has seen its own soldiers seriously mistreat Iraqi civilians." And so since the Haditha thing, witnesses to other civilian killings that haven't come to the surface yet are contacting this British paper, offering information, including witnesses to the killings at the wedding party near the Syrian border, where we just scoffed when such reports first surfaced. The newspaper? "After Haditha, it seems such denials can no longer be taken at face value."

But it's just detail. And people make mistakes. And there are always "bad apples."

And the was the Sunday, June 4, 2006, New York Times lead editorial with this -
The apparent cold-blooded killing last November of 24 Iraqi civilians by United States marines at Haditha will be hard to dispose of with another Washington damage control operation. The Iraqi government has made clear that it will not sit still for one, and neither should the American people. This affair cannot simply be dismissed as the spontaneous cruelty of a few bad men.

This is the nightmare that everyone worried about when the Iraq invasion took place. Critics of the war predicted that American troops would become an occupying force, unable to distinguish between innocent civilians and murderous insurgents, propelled down the same path that led the British to disaster in Northern Ireland and American troops to grief in Vietnam. The Bush administration understood the dangers too, but dismissed them out of its deep, unwarranted confidence that friendly Iraqis would quickly be able to take control of their own government and impose order on their own people.

Now that we have reached the one place we most wanted to avoid, it will not do to focus blame narrowly on the Marine unit suspected of carrying out these killings and ignore the administration officials, from President Bush on down, who made the chances of this sort of disaster so much greater by deliberately blurring the rules governing the conduct of American soldiers in the field. The inquiry also needs to critically examine the behavior of top commanders responsible for ensuring lawful and professional conduct and of midlevel officers who apparently covered up the Haditha incident for months until journalists' inquiries forced a more honest review.

So far, nothing in President Bush's repeated statements on the issue offers any real assurance that the White House and the Pentagon will not once again try to protect the most senior military and political ranks from proper accountability. This is the pattern that this administration has repeatedly followed in the past - in the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib, in the beating deaths of prisoners at Bagram air base in Afghanistan and in the serial abuses of justice and constitutional principle at Guantánamo Bay.

These damage control operations have done a great job of shielding the reputations of top military commanders and high-ranking Pentagon officials. But it has been at the expense of things that are far more precious: America's international reputation and the honor of the United States military. The overwhelming majority of American troops in Iraq are dedicated military professionals, doing their best to behave correctly under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Their good name requires a serious inquiry, not another deflection of blame to the lowest-ranking troops on the scene.
And so on, and it ends with this -
It should not surprise anyone that this war - launched on the basis of false intelligence analysis, managed by a Pentagon exempted from normal standards of command responsibility and still far from achieving minimally acceptable results - is increasingly unpopular with the American people. At the very least, the public is now entitled to straight answers on what went wrong at Haditha and who, besides those at the bottom of the chain of command, will be required to take responsibility for it.
Yeah, right. No one above Staff Sergeant, of course.

In defense of the president there was this -
He knew that Iraq would be rough but in a post 9/11 world it would have been criminal to have allowed Saddam to stay. He had defied the UN 17 times, had not allowed inspectors in which was ordered after he signed the cease fire in 1991, had used WMD's on his own people, had attempted to assassinate Bush Sr, had shot at our planes over the no-fly zones, and most importantly... had ties to Al-Qaeda. Bush had said he supported terrorism and now the Saddam documents bear this fact out. While not involved in 9/11 he sure did support and enable Al-Qaeda to continue on their quest.
Right. Whatever. And there was Mark Steyn in the Chicago Sun-Times, with Events At Haditha Don't Change Need For Victory - "A superpower that wallows in paranoia and glorifies self-loathing cannot endure and doesn't deserve to."

And check out the video of William "Bill" Kristol on Fox News Sunday here discussing recent comments made by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameni - then, in mid-comment, stopping himself and saying "Maybe we should have Supreme Leader Bush. I kind of like the sound of that." Of course it was Kristol's Project for the New American Century that developed the whole plan in the Middle East.

Well, there are different views on responsibility, it seems.

On a minor note, this is the time of year when at college graduations across the nation various famous people give graduation speeches, on that very topic, responsibility. And you can see here that the speaker at Knox College in Galesburg Illinois was the satirist Stephen Colbert. The college was founded by abolitionists so Colbert did say he was coming out against slavery - "I just hope the mainstream media gives me credit for the stand I've taken today."

His persona on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" is that of an arrogant rightwing Bill O'Reilly type, so that fit, but he did add this, out of character - "I don't know if they've told you what's been happening in the world while you've been matriculating. The world is waiting for you people with a club... They are playing for KEEPS out there, folks."

Of course he opened with an explanation - "My name is Stephen Colbert, but I actually play someone on television named Stephen Colbert, who looks like me, and talks like me, but who says things with a straight face he doesn't mean."

Keep them guessing. As in this - "It's time for illegal immigrants to go - right after they finish (building) those walls." People keep saying immigrants built America, "but here's the thing, it's built now. I think it was finished in the '70s sometime. From this point it's only a touch-up and repair job." And as for the border he suggested not just a wall, but "moats, fiery moats and fiery moats with fire-proof crocodiles." And he backed English as the official language of the United States - "God wrote (the Bible) in English for a reason: So it could be taught in our public schools."

But the core -
He closed his speech on an apparently semi-serious note, urging the grads to learn how to say "yes." He noted that saying yes will sometimes get them in trouble or make them look like a fool. But he added: "Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blinder, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.

"Cynics always say no. But saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to knowledge. Yes is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say yes.

"And that's The Word."
Amusing. And his advice isn't bad. And whoever walked into the Oval Office and said to the president, "Boss, this war thing might need some work, because there are a few things that could get us in trouble," might have heard the words, "Yes? Tell me more."

Ah, but that's in an alternative universe. In this universe there are all sorts of rightwing politicians quoting Colbert, no realizing he's making fun of them. You could look it up. Satire is hard these days. And true believers - see Kristol above - just don't deal well with irony. They don't get it

And in the non-alternative universe, see this, the top ten signs of the impending US police state, as compiled by one Allan Uthman.

Here are the headings:

1. The Internet Clampdown
2. "The Long War"
3. The USA PATRIOT Act
4. Prison Camps
5. Touchscreen Voting Machines
6. Signing Statements
7. Warrantless Wiretapping
8. Free Speech Zones
9. High-ranking Whistleblowers
10. The CIA Shakeup

The details are there. But satire is better.

Posted by Alan at 22:56 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 4 June 2006 22:59 PDT home

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