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

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

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

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Friday, 8 September 2006
Odd News and the Long View
Topic: Couldn't be so...
Odd News and the Long View

The odd news always comes on Friday. Friday, September 8, 2006 - the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that there's no evidence that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda or to that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fellow before we invaded Iraq. The Washington Post story is here. One wonders what Christopher Hitchens will say. He scoffed at the doubters. The administration said Zarqawi has been there, and even if in the northern part of Iraq Saddam Hussein didn't control, that was good enough. The war resolution congress passed way back when, the authorization to use force to get the bad guys, justified that we invade Iraq and take over the joint, because they were part of this. The White House pretty much stipulated there was a connection - "pretty much" because it was just assumed by everyone. The Vice President harped on the Zarqawi connection, and Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security advisor at the time, said it was so - there's a neat video on that all here, with all the quotes.

And now this. This "oops" is part of a four-hundred page set of reports - summarized here if you're short on time. No one can get Pat Roberts, the Bush-is-God chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, get off the dime and investigate whether someone was manipulating information - that required report is three years late now - but the basic facts did get released, and Pat isn't happy. Of the two things to be investigated - prewar intelligence and the manipulation of same - we only get the first part. It'll do.

The new report "reveals" - for the first time - that a CIA assessment in October 2005 concluded that Saddam Hussein "did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates." It also seems the CIA had been reporting the guy had all along been a bit afraid of al Qaeda - those mad jihad-types were, as Saddam Hussein saw it, a real threat to his power. Many had argued this, but now we get confirmation. Not that it matters now. When you're scammed, you're scammed. Suck it up. Move on.

The scam? Cheney and Bush repeatedly argued that there really was a linkage between Saddam and Zarqawi. Bush on October 2004 here - "Zarqawi's the best evidence of a connection to al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida." He kept that up through March of this year - six months after the CIA had concluded that Zarqawi had no relationship with Saddam. He didn't get the memo? One can assume the idea was that no one would double-check anything. But they did.

In the Associated Press account here, Senator John Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, says the new report shows how the Bush administration "exploited the deep sense of insecurity among Americans in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, leading a large majority of Americans to believe - contrary to the intelligence assessments at the time - that Iraq had a role in the 9/11 attacks." He doesn't like being the sucker while Cheney and Rove giggle. But it's a bit late now.

As for the committee's Republican chairman, Roberts, he says whatever Rockefeller is saying is "little more than a vehicle to advance election-year political charges." The Democrats are trying "to use the committee to try and rewrite history, insisting that they were deliberately duped into supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime."

This is a very odd concept of what it means to rewrite history. And perhaps it doesn't matter. Suck it up. Move on.

The other odd story of the day concerned John Bolton, our UN ambassador, who the president put in place as a "recess appointment" because the Senate would not confirm him. The thought was that we needed someone up there who would tell all the others they were corrupt fools and probably common thieves, and the whole UN was a joke, and only the United States could save them from any more foolishness. But as a recess appointee, Bolton needs to be confirmed for real, before the new congress convenes early next January. Otherwise, he's out. And that not going well, as reported here, and many other places - the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has postponed a confirmation vote for the guy, as a key senator balked. It's just not going to happen. This is very odd. Will the president defy the Senate and just keep him on? Can he do that? We'll see. That would be a new constitutional crisis.

But wait! There's more! Osama bin Laden!

The CIA very, very quietly disbanded its "find bin Laden" unit last fall. And then there was this - in the Senate Thursday, Democrats pushed through a measure that would re-fund the unit. Democratic Senator Kent Conrad -"What does it say to violent jihadists that a terrorist mastermind remains alive and well five years after killing 3,000 Americans? Our bill tells the terrorists that protecting our nation is the first priority - and that we are going to deliver to bin Laden the justice that a mass murderer deserves." The Republican "bridge to nowhere" guy from Alaska, Ted Stevens, here whined that the measure was an election-year "slam on the intelligence community" - then he encouraged his fellow Republicans to vote for it anyway. Very odd, but it's an election year.

And there's this, regarding wiretaps and warrants - Senator Arlen Specter was forced to call off a committee vote on his bill to expand the president's wiretapping authority. That bill would make the president's following the law his own choice - the president would have the option to disregard the rules, and the option to, if he chose, to inform the Senate that he had. Russ Feingold spoke at length against the whole idea, and a group of senators from both parties called for hearings. Very odd, but it's an election year. There must be rumbling from the folks back home.

And there's this -

The US military hasn't had much success in building the hospitals or health clinics it promised, but the Iraqi government is moving forward on another building project: As the Washington Post reports today, the Iraqi Health Ministry plans to open "two new branch morgues in Baghdad and add doctors and refrigerator units to raise capacity to as many as 250 corpses a day."

There's plainly a need. Officials at the Baghdad morgue say they took in 1,536 victims of violent deaths in August. As the Post notes, their initial tallies for August suggested that they had received only 550 bodies - such a dramatic decrease from the 1,800 deaths in July that US and Iraqi officials began to claim that their security plan for Baghdad was working. As the Post says, the new number appears to "erase" most of that.
It seems you should be careful what you say is the truth. Things do keep coming up. Reality can be such a pain.

But all that is ephemera - detail. The fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks is coming up, and people are looking at the broader issues.

For example, Joan Walsh is working out What We Lost, and, after discussing how the number of American soldiers who have dies is now equal to the dead on that day five years ago - and our 30,000 military casualties and the reported 46,307 dead Iraqi civilians - she's pretty down. And she adds that quick victory in the Afghan war against the Taliban, which everyone here and around the world supported, now seems on the verge being just pointless - every week there's more killing, more repression and the New York Times reported that the Afghan city known as Little America is now the capital of Taliban resurgence and opium production. Add that global sympathy in the wake of what happened five years ago "has turned to global distrust and disdain." It's the usual laundry list.

But she gets personal -
Maybe the loss I regret most was the shimmer of national and international unity we enjoyed after the attack - the warmth I felt from friends and acquaintances and even strangers those first raw days, a seriousness and purpose I felt more broadly in the following weeks. Like most Americans, I didn't vote for this president. To me, December 12, 2000, the day the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount that Al Gore would have won, is another day of infamy in US history. But I was willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt in the weeks after 9/11, let him build on the global support we'd won and do something thoughtful and effective about al Qaeda. His response in those early weeks seemed uncharacteristically measured; he warned against targeting Muslims, he took almost a month before striking Afghanistan.

Since that time, though, we've seen hubris beyond imagination. We've watched an unbridled executive-branch power grab, warrantless wiretaps, the curtailing of privacy rights; a pervasive smog of secrecy descended to obscure our government. Outrage about torture, rendition and secret prisons here and abroad is dismissed with a flippant "We don't torture" from the president. And all of it has been shellacked with an ugly culture of bullying in which dissent equals treason, shamelessly, five years after the attack. Last week it was Donald Rumsfeld comparing war critics to people who appeased Hitler; this week we had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying they're the sort who would have ended the Civil War early and let the South keep its slaves. Their intimidation is meant to say that the very freedoms worth fighting for - the right to dissent, the right to question our government - might have to be abridged while we fight. Politically, that truly is more than we can bear.

Still, we've seen nothing so brazen as the president's "war on terror" victory lap this 9/11 anniversary week, three speeches to tell us he's made us safer though there's still more to be done, and pay no attention to the carnage in Iraq.
Well, yes, that's about it. But not much can be done.

She says that's not true -
… there's reason to believe 2006 will turn out differently from 2002. This time around the midterm elections are looking grim for the GOP, thanks to the war in Iraq, high gas prices and overall gloom about the country's direction. A CBS News/New York Times poll reported Thursday that when asked if the government had done "all it could reasonably be expected to do" to prevent another terror attack, nearly two-thirds of Democrats and Independents said no. Even among Republicans, only 56 percent said yes. Bush's campaign to convince us we're wrong is just beginning, and maybe it will work as it did in 2002 and 2004, but it won't be easy. The great thing about freedom and democracy is we have multiple chances to get things right.
And we don't always screw up? We'll see.

All of what Walsh says is very emotional, perhaps appropriately so. But can one look at all this dispassionately.

That is what Dahlia Lithwick, the legal expert at SLATE.COM, discusses here in her comments on the new book by Richard Posner, Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency. That calls for a bit of disclaimer - a reader who has contributed these pages in the past has argued many a case in front of Judge Posner and has privately commented that the man is devastating brilliant (and fluent in French, of all things), and she preferred dealing with him and not Scalia down in DC at the Supreme Court, who she found just gratuitously mean.

Lithwick is impressed with Posner because in this new book he raises interesting questions that are above emotion, or below it, or beside it.

Here's how she frames it -
The Bush administration is marking the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 this week by launching a charm offensive touting its war on terror. At the less charming end of the spectrum: Donald Rumsfeld's nasty attacks on war critics. More charming: the president's new willingness to empty secret CIA prisons and put the 9/11 ringleaders on trial. But what's missing from all these election-year defenses of the government's actions is the same ingredient that's been missing from the outset: a fair-minded balancing of what's been lost against what's been gained.

Imagine, for instance, if the president had, in his speech this week defending his actions at Guantanamo, confessed that separating real terrorists from unlucky clods is next to impossible; that some detainees may still be there by mistake, but that the risks are worth it. Instead, he offered the preposterous claim that the 450 men who remain there are virtually all dangerous terrorists, even when evidence to the contrary is indisputable.

Like the administration's old rationalizations for the war on terror, the new ones write off the president's critics as "appeasers" or insist that we are foiling terrorist plots through torture (or, to use the most recent euphemism, "alternative interrogation procedures"). The president claims that his every suspension of the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions, and domestic civil liberties is justified because it is necessary, and, invariably, it is necessary because he says so. There is never even token recognition that any important freedoms are lost; that water-boarding a prisoner is more than just "tough, and … safe, and lawful"; or that programs like the warrantless NSA surveillance of citizens come at a price for everyone.

That is why Judge Richard Posner is such a welcome voice in the national conversation about balancing freedom against security. Posner, the brilliant and prolific federal appeals court judge, is renowned - and not always in a good way - for putting a price tag on everything. But whatever quibbles liberals may have with his law-and-economics approach to anything from rape to unwanted babies, they should celebrate the intellectual rigor he brings to the problem of civil liberties in wartime.
And in the new book he does just that, approaching the wartime civil-liberties problem "in precisely the manner the Bush administration will not: with a meticulous, usually dispassionate, weighing of what is gained against what is lost each time the government engages in data-mining, indefinite detentions, or the suppression of free speech."

This of course makes him a hero with the pro-Bush crowd. With every new instance of the president breaking the law we all have our conservative friends who repeat that line that "the constitution is not a suicide pact" and how breaking the law is sometimes the right thing to do (sometimes quoting Thoreau from his jail cell). Of course this causes no end of other problems as that would make him a classic "activist judge" - one who says what the constitution literally means can be useless, as times change. That sort of thing led to the idea we have a right to privacy, and that led to Griswold and saying birth control and private sexual behavior was not the government's business and that Lawrence case where the gay guys in Texas said the state had no right to raid their bedroom and arrest them, and it led to the idea the decision to abort a pregnancy was really not the government's business.

Lithwick points out that a famous hyper-conservative blogger out here in Los Angeles, Glenn Reynolds, got all messed up when he snagged an interview Posner - here getting wrapped around his own axle regarding Posner doing the "living Constitution" thing. That's so BAD, but he likes the idea Bush can break the rules.

But how else do you determine which suspensions of constitutional rights are justifiable in wartime?

Lithwick is impressed because Posner is actually moving the whole issue beyond black and white, beyond all-or-nothing rants from the left or the right. It's far better than the president's simple-mindedness, or the convoluted constitutional theories of his attorneys, however clever. Put the passion and emotion aside. This is a cost-benefit calculation.

Here's the deal -
What Posner offers is the suggestion that careful balancing of liberties lost against security gained is a better alternative than the current regime that recognizes no cost to freedoms lost and no accountability for security achieved. By virtue of this careful balancing, Posner even criticizes a few Bush administration decisions. He questions, for instance, the decision to suspend the right to habeas corpus of US citizens or foreign terrorists captured in the United States because he deems the cost of indefinite detention to exceed the gain in public safety.

It is this exercise that makes Posner's book so important, as we begin the pre-election analysis of which elements of the president's surveillance, detention, and prosecution strategy have made us safer, and which actions have merely made us less free.
And here's the problem (emphases added) -
… if we are really to follow Judge Posner's lead; that is, if we are really going to undertake a sober national conversation on the costs and benefits of suspending civil liberties, we need better information on both. Surely Judge Posner would be the first to agree that a good consumer is an informed consumer. And ultimately, the question becomes whether anyone knows enough to engage in such a cost-benefit analysis. For instance, Posner seems to share Bush's assumption that torture is, broadly speaking, worth it, in that it generally extracts information that can disrupt terror plots. He goes on to argue that even in the face of anti-torture statutes, there is a moral obligation in, say, "ticking time bomb" situations, for state actors to exercise a form of "civil disobedience" and ignore those torture statutes. But without fuller information on who is being tortured, and how, and for how long, and how many false confessions are elicited, it's just not clear to me that a cost-benefit assessment is possible.

I am willing to be persuaded, five years later, that provisions of the Patriot Act really do make us safer. But I am not persuaded by assertion alone. How can I balance the security benefits of so-called national-security letters, or the subpoena of my library records, if the government refuses to disclose how that information is used and why? If I am only weighing the curtailment of my civil liberties against the government's bare assertions that such curtailment makes me safer, then there is no real balancing to be done. And if that information is unknowable, am I not just balancing my own subjective sense of freedom against the president's promise that I am safer?
So doesn't that make the whole thing academic? Posner also argues that our judges don't have the institutional capacity to decide these questions of national security. So who does?

The whole idea that anyone can decide these things seems silly. None of us has the right information, and everyone has an agenda.

But even so Lithwick says this -
The real power of Posner's project is that he is absolutely willing to stand back and measure whether Guantanamo is really worth it; whether wiretapping is really worth it. And even if we don't know enough to really offer final conclusions, the very promise of such a reckoning is a good start. It's proof that often the best cure for overheated partisan shrieking is a good old-fashioned pickup game of cost-benefit analysis. Now if the Bush administration would just follow suit by framing the debate about freedom and war in terms of painful civil-liberties sacrifices and corresponding gains in security (as opposed to cheap attacks on its critics or grandiose claims of unlimited wartime authority), we might begin to undertake the sort of measured, careful debate about this possibly never-ending war on terror - a debate that is long overdue.
Don't hold your breath. The elections are coming - overheated partisan shrieking is the order of the day. That's how we decide things.

And the week ended on a Friday full of the expected posturing.

Posted by Alan at 21:46 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 9 September 2006 06:26 PDT home

Thursday, 7 September 2006
The Last Challenge
Topic: Election Notes
The Last Challenge
Now what? Wednesday, September 6, the president announced he was ordering fourteen "terrorist leaders" transferred from secret CIA prisons overseas to our military prison at Guantánamo Bay.

But we didn't have any secret CIA prisons overseas. We said so, or, when pressed, kind of implied if we did we would never admit it.

No one was supposed to know about them, and when the Washington Post revealed that we really did (here), Bill Bennett and half of the commentators on the right wanted to try Dana Priest, the reporter, and the Post, for treason. Yeah, Priest got the Pulitzer Prize for the story, but that didn't matter. If we didn't have the secret prisons this was unforgivable lying to hurt America, and if we did, no one was supposed to know. (The same crew was calling for the New York Times to be charged with treason for revealing the president had ordered clearly illegal wiretapping of American citizens - saying he needed no warrants as stipulated in the law - and for discussing how we were monitoring international banking transactions, as we had long said we were, but how we were on some shaky legal ground there too.)

So the Bush administration has officially acknowledged the existence of the secret prisons, and certain European countries would now like to know just where they were - to clear up questions from their own people, who'd like to know just what was going on and who approved what. But we're not saying - not our problem.

Why this, and why now? The congressional elections are coming up in November and it looks as if the Republicans will lose the House, and could lose the Senate. If that happens, the president will lose the power to get much done in his last two years in office, becoming the lamest of lame ducks. And all the investigations blocked in the first six years - regarding who knew what, when, and who was lying - could begin. No one is talking impeachment, yet, but just requiring answers to specific questions, under oath, would be deadly. This sudden change - saying that, yes, we did have secret prisons and those we held should now be tried - is seen by most as a bit of political gamesmanship.

The thinking is that Karl Rove has advised the president to jam the Democrats here. At the same time that the president is moving these special detainees to Guantánamo, he's pushing Congress to adopt new rules for trying them once they're there. Of course, earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down the president's plan for military tribunals at Guantánamo (details here) - they held that holding that the tribunals, as the administration envisioned them, would violate the Geneva Conventions and weren't authorized by any act of Congress anyway. So forget it. To work around that ruling, the White House is now asking Congress to authorize the tribunals and to adopt rules governing them that might get around the Geneva conventions. Note here a Republican Senate aide says the rules the White House has in mind would allow the use of evidence "obtained through coercion" - whatever they screamed out when we made them think they were going to die, or when the pain was unbearable, must be true. Yes, this has been thought kind of dumb since the sixteenth century in almost every nation on earth - no one allows such evidence. But 9/11 changed everything, perhaps. And the Senate aide said too that the proposed rules would additionally allow the tribunals to deny detainees access to evidence used against them - if the administration declared the evidence classified.

This would not be like Nuremberg, where we wanted to show the world how our legal systems works - the charges are clear, you get to see the evidence against you, you get to respond to the charges and challenge the evidence, in public, and everyone can see if you're guilty or not. The president is pressing congress here to approve something quite different - these people don't deserve what used be thought of as fairness. And that's the gambit. Anyone who wants to follow the Nuremberg model must be soft on terrorism and want these guys to walk. Oppose this and you get the Max Cleland treatment - as you recall he questioned the new Department of Homeland Security's personnel policies, suggesting some folks shouldn't be forced to quit their unions, and that turned out to be the same as really wanting al Qaeda to take over the world. Bad move on his part. And this is one of those. Oppose the new rules and you must hate America, and you'll be sorry.

There's a lot of talk on the right about how brilliant this is - it could save the House and Senate. For example there's this -
The President just pulled one of the best maneuvers of his entire presidency. By transferring most major Al Qaeda terrorists to Guantanamo, and simultaneously sending Congress a bill to rescue the Military Commissions from the Supreme Court's ruling Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the President spectacularly ambushed the Democrats on terrain they fondly thought their own. Now Democrats who oppose (and who have vociferously opposed) the Military Commissions will in effect be opposing the prosecution of the terrorists who planned and launched the attacks of September 11 for war crimes.

And if that were not enough, the President also frontally attacked the Hamdan ruling's potentially chilling effect on CIA extraordinary interrogation techniques, by arguing that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions is too vague, and asking Congress to define clearly the criminal law limiting the scope of permissible interrogation.

Taken as a whole, the President's maneuver today turned the political tables completely around. He stole the terms of debate from the Democrats, and rewrote them, all in a single speech. It will be delightful to watch in coming days and hours as bewildered Democrats try to understand what just hit them, and then sort through the rubble of their anti-Bush national security strategy to see what, if anything, remains.
No longer operative is what Robert Jackson, the head prosecutor at Nuremberg, said in his closing address before that tribunal. That would be this -
Of one thing we may be sure. The future will never have to ask, with misgiving, what could the Nazis have said in their favor. History will know that whatever could be said, they were allowed to say. They have been given the kind of a trial which they, in the days of their pomp and power, never gave to any man.

There's all this talk that these are the new Nazis. But it seems they're not. They don't get the rights we gave the German guys.

So, will the strategy work, this "Cleland Gambit?"

The Post was reporting here that three Republican senators - John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham - are working on legislation that would ensure detainees the right - which the Sixth Amendment would guarantee them in regular civil courts - to see the evidence against them. The Post reports these three believe that the administrations plan to deny detainees access to the evidence against them would "violate long-standing due-process standards and set a dangerous precedent for trials of captured US military personnel." Well, that's a thought. We'd be outraged if someone did this to our guys. And McCain here says this - "I think it's important that we stand by 200 years of legal precedents concerning classified information because the defendant should have a right to know what evidence is being used."

How quaint, as the Attorney General would say.

By Friday we were getting this -

Brig, Gen. James C. Walker, the top uniformed lawyer for the Marines, said that no civilized country should deny a defendant the right to see the evidence against him and that the United States 'should not be the first.'

Maj. Gen. Scott C. Black, the judge advocate general of the Army, made the same point, and Rear Adm. Bruce E. MacDonald, the judge advocate general of the Navy, said military law provided rules for using classified evidence, whereby a judge could prepare an unclassified version of the evidence to share with the jury and the accused and his lawyer.

Senate Republicans said the proposal to deny the accused the right to see classified evidence was one of the main points of contention remaining between them and the administration.

'It would be unacceptable, legally, in my opinion, to give someone the death penalty in a trial where they never heard the evidence against them,' said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has played a key role in the drafting of alternative legislation as a member of the Armed Services Committee and a military judge. ''Trust us, you’re guilty, we’re going to execute you, but we can’t tell you why'? That's not going to pass muster; that's not necessary.'
Tim Grieve here -
The president and his supporters plainly see it differently. As Bill Frist prepares to push the Bush plan as part of a flurry of terrorism-related measures in the run-up to the November elections, an aide to the Senate majority leader says it's a "dangerous idea that terrorists and those around them automatically receive classified information about the means and methods used in the war on terror."

We wonder what Bush and Frist would think if an American soldier were tried and convicted based on evidence that was obtained through torture - evidence that he was never allowed to challenge or explain away because he was never allowed to see it in the first place. We hope they never have to ponder that sort of injustice. But if they do, they'll have left themselves, and the rest of us, with precious little room to complain.
No kidding. And he adds this -
By moving Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other high-level terrorism suspects to Guantánamo, the president changes the debate from the rights owed to some nameless and not-particularly-scary detainees to the rights owed to one of the alleged masterminds of 9/11.

But will Bush's move have much of an effect on November? That's clearly part of the plan. Just hours after the president's announcement Wednesday, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman was e-mailing supporters about al-Qaida's plot to obtain biological weapons and the ways in which "some Democrats in Washington" have "questioned why our government" needs the tools Bush wants to fight terrorism. It's all standard-issue, Democrats-are-soft-on-terror stuff: "They have questioned the terrorist surveillance program, and bragged about 'killing' the Patriot Act," Mehlman wrote. "The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate even likened America's interrogation practices to those in Nazi or Soviet concentration camps."

Will it work?

… Well, maybe. For better or for worse, the manner in which we try terrorism suspects isn't exactly at the top of most Americans' minds. According to the latest Fox News poll, the economy and Iraq are the top two issues voters say they'll consider as they head to the polls in November. Terrorism, in the general sense, is third; the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo doesn't make the list at all. Worse still for Bush, Americans just aren't that afraid anymore. A New York Times/CBS News poll out today shows that only 22 percent of Americans are "very concerned" about the possibility of a terrorist attack where they live. And, in what the Times calls a "political paradox," the president's approval ratings tend to be lowest in the parts of the country where Americans fear terrorism most.

Now, will jamming Democrats on Guantánamo help raise the profile of terrorism as an issue? Sure it will, and that has been the point of all the fear-and-appeasement talk coming out of the White House and the Pentagon over the last week.

… But we're betting the issue for most Americans will still be Iraq. The president can say what he wants about the attacks five years ago and the attacks that may come again someday. The polls and our own sense of things tell us that Americans care more about the soldiers who are dying every day in a war that shouldn't have begun and has no clear way of ending. Unless the president and his supporters can shift November's battlefield entirely - that is, unless they can move it away from Iraq and toward the war on terrorism more generally - then Bush's announcement about the detainees will prove to be a tactical victory in what is, again, the wrong war.
So we'll see.

Andrew Sullivan here suggests the president knows he and his party are in deep trouble this November. So he needs "a real Hail Mary pass to avoid a crushing defeat." And he adds this -
This is the Rove gambit: make this election a choice between legalizing torture or enabling the murderers of 9/11 to escape justice. The timing is deliberate; the exploitation of 9/11 gob-smacking; the cynicism fathomless. There is only one response: call them on it and vote for their opponents in November. And pray that in the meantime, John McCain won't lose his nerve or his integrity.
Well, McCain wants to be the next president. He has to decide what sort of president he wants to be, fair or ruthless. Which do people want these days?

See John Dickerson here discussing the matter -
After the 9/11 attacks George Bush kept a facebook in his desk drawer. It contained the pictures, where possible, of the key al-Qaida leaders. CIA Director George Tenet gave it to him not long after the attack. When one terrorist would get killed or captured, the president would cross him off. Wednesday, with the five-year anniversary of the attack approaching, the president hauled out the facebook again. In announcing that he was bringing 14 of the world's most dangerous terrorists out of their secret prisons, he reminded the world how many bad guys we've caught.

… The president tries to make the case that he and the Republicans are the only ones who understand the nature of the terrorist threat and how to combat it. In today's speech, he produced the best evidence to date to back up that assertion. While the Democrats complain about inattention and drift, he can say: Here's what we've been up to. And he's given Congress an assignment as well - to codify his proposal for handling detainees—in their few remaining days before members return home to campaign.

It's one thing to say you're on the hunt for terrorists. It's more powerful to offer graphic details. The president went on at some length giving descriptions of the work necessary to capture these men. He offered lots of hard-to-pronounce names that he might normally steer away form because in this context, granularity trumps his normal love of generalizations. He outlined several al-Qaida plots foiled as a result of the secret prisons and countless others quashed in their infancy. At the same time, the White House provided a catalog of the crimes committed by the terrorists in custody.

Bush further explained the lengths to which CIA interrogators go to follow the law, or at least the administration's reading of it. (His assurance that the CIA and Justice Department had vetted the detainee program was a stretch given their penchant for rubber-stamping his requests.) This was an effort to head off protests that his administration used torture in its secret prisons. But it was also part of the larger effort to show how careful, thoughtful, and methodical his administration can be.

… Of course we have to take the president's word for it that all of this happened as he describes it. In the end, whether the president gets political credit for changing his detainee policy will depend largely on whether voters still trust him. The failure to find WMD or connections between Saddam and al-Qaida undermined the president's trustworthiness. As the Iraq war has gotten worse, and the administration's spin has gotten heavier, Bush's credibility has suffered more damage. Katrina compounded this problem. Now Bush is offering lots of extraordinary detail and tales of competency no one can really challenge. Will the public discount this as more spin and exaggeration? Or will it buy his story about how hard his administration has been working to protect the country behind the scenes? I thought the details Bush offered today sounded fairly persuasive. But for him to ask us to simply trust him about anything at this point is a hard sell.
Indeed it is.

And see Mark Benjamin here -
On Wednesday afternoon, President Bush announced the transfer of 14 high-value terrorism suspects to Guantánamo for trials. He said that the suspects had been held outside the country by the CIA, and then admitted they had been detained as part of a secret program that also included specialized interrogation techniques, techniques the president described as "tough." Most observers believe the president was referring to a long-rumored program involving secret CIA prisons, or "black sites," where terrorism suspects have allegedly been sequestered, interrogated and perhaps tortured.

Bush defended those "tough" interrogation tactics, which he described as an "alternative set of procedures" specially approved by the Department of Justice. Bush said the tactics had saved American lives.

… Bush would not provide any specifics about the "tough" tactics, other than to insist improbably that they didn't constitute torture. "I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world. The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it, and I will not authorize it." He did say, however, that the Supreme Court's recent Hamdan decision "has put in question the future of the CIA program," because it effectively bars "outrages upon personal dignity and humiliating and degrading treatment." The Hamdan decision, in other words, bars torture, and forces the United States to observe the Geneva Conventions.

Meanwhile, across the Potomac, an Army general unveiled a new Army interrogations manual designed to fit squarely within the protections of the Geneva Conventions. That new manual specifically bars hooding, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, mock executions and many of the other "tough" techniques allegedly practiced in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and the black sites.

The new manual was presented by Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, the Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence in a press conference that aired live Wednesday morning on the limited-circulation Pentagon Channel. During the press conference, Kimmons expressed a view about the effectiveness of "tough" interrogation techniques utterly different from the president's.

"No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices," Kimmons said. "I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the past five years, hard years, tells us that." He argued that "any piece of intelligence which is obtained under duress through the use of abusive techniques would be of questionable credibility." And Kimmons conceded that bad P.R. about abuse could work against the United States in the war on terror. "It would do more harm than good when it inevitably became known that abusive practices were used," Kimmons said. "We can't afford to go there."

Kimmons added that "our most significant successes on the battlefield - in fact, I would say all of them, almost categorically, all of them" - came from interrogators that stuck to the kinds of humane techniques framed in the new Army manual. "We don't need abusive practices in there," Kimmons said. "Nothing good will come from them."
The "sell" gets harder when your own guys say you're wrong, but the general does say he's just speaking for the military. He has no idea what the CIA and Special Ops folks do. He's just a military guy - "You abide by the Geneva Conventions, and if you don't do that, you are endangering soldiers' lives."

Benjamin notes that after referring to the secret CIA interrogation program, the White House did ask Congress to modify the War Crimes Act of 1996 to shield participants in the program and those who approved it at the Justice Department from liability - should courts now determine that the techniques approved were not just "tough" but also illegal.

But the president said, flat-out, this -
I want to be absolutely clear with our people, and the world: The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it - and I will not authorize it.
And he added this -
I cannot describe the specific methods used - I think you understand why - if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.
You have to trust him on that. Andrew Sullivan, conservative, gay, on the staff at Time Magazine, doesn't -
But we know - and the enemy knows - what the techniques are. They've been listed and documented and debated. We also know what was done to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the case cited specifically by the president in his speech yesterday - because Bush officials told us. The New York Times reported the following: "Senior officials have said Mr. Mohammed was 'waterboarded,' a technique in which his head was pushed under water and he was made to believe that he might drown."

In another case of a detainee, Mohammed al-Qhatani, we actually have a log of what was done to him. He was deprived of sleep for 55 days, subjected to the KGB-perfected "cold cell" hypothermia treatment, and terrorized by unmuzzled dogs. Medics had to administer three bags of medical saline to Qhatani, while he was strapped to a chair, and aggressively treat him for hypothermia in hospital, before returning him to a torture cell. These facts are not disputed. Far, far worse has been done to detainees in less closely monitored "interrogations" in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the secret sites (now admitted) in Eastern Europe. (Yes, Dana, you deserve your Pulitzer.) Dozens of corpses are the result of the president's "safe and lawful" interrogation methods.

If the president wants to argue that all this is necessary, that we need to breach the Geneva Conventions in order to protect the public, then he should say so. He should make the argument, and persuade Americans that torture should now be official policy, and seek explicit legislation amounting to a breach of the Geneva Conventions. That would be an honest position. He would gain the support of much of the Republican base, a large swathe of the conservative intelligentsia, and the contempt of the civilized world. We could then debate this honestly, including the torture techniques he has authorized and supports. Instead he lies.

Am I splitting semantic hairs here with the word "torture"? The definition of the word, in the U.N. declaration to which the U.S. is a signatory is as follows: "[A]ny act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession ... when such pain or suffering is inflicted at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."

In the cases the president cites, he authorized torture as plainly stated in U.S. law and common English. Moreover, he says he has set up an elite group trained specifically for torture, the kind of elite torture-squads once dear to South American dictators. They have, he reassures us, 250 extra hours of torture-training over regular CIA interrogators. The president is asking the Congress to establish this in law. Yes, this is America. It just no longer seems like it.

The item links to all the sources. Sullivan is unhappy, but let us take this one step further. What if the administration was "honest" in the manner Sullivan would like, and the newest version of the Cleland Gambit was reframed? What if the challenge to congress were to dump the Geneva Conventions and make torture official American policy?

To do that you would have to argue that torture is necessary to keep America safe. You could not honestly argue that what is revealed when someone is tortured saves lives - those in excruciating pain and thinking they are about to die will say anything to stop what is happening to them, anything they think their torturer wants to hear. They make up stuff. It's useless. You end up believing foolish threats and having to verify what is said anyway. What's the point? And if something said in all of that is true, how do you know which part that is?

For detail see this -

Besides the 14 prisoners identified on Wednesday, some officials and human rights advocates questioned the fate of dozens of others believed to have moved through the C.I.A. prison network over the past four years.

Human Rights Watch, in response to a request from The New York Times, provided a list of 14 men who the organization believes have been secretly detained since the Sept. 11 attacks and whose whereabouts are still unknown.

One of the men, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, is believed to have given false information about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda after C.I.A. officials transferred him to Egyptian custody in 2002. Mr. al-Libi’s statements were used by the Bush administration as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons.

It emerged later that Mr. al-Libi had fabricated these stories while in captivity to avoid harsh treatment by his Egyptian captors.
No, the argument must be made differently. The argument would have to be that there's a deterrent effect here - the bad guys need to know that if we capture them they will be disappeared, they will face years of incredible pain, mixed with intense humiliation, and maybe they will be beaten to death, and we'll grab their wives and kids too, and sometimes there will be photos of them naked, and so on - and the kicker, we don't really give a damn what they say at any time during the process. We just let them know the true price for opposing us. That would be the argument. It's a statement, or more precisely, a warning.

The challenge to congress would be to make this our official policy, arguing those who oppose such a policy want us to appear weak and just not serious about the threats we really face. That would put people on the spot. And since we've done each of these things, with high-level approval, it would be more honest to argue it in this way. Why kid around? No one is fooled.

This whole business with giving these guys "fair" trials is a charade, given what the new rules will be - can't show you the evidence against you and what you said when you'd been awake for fifty-five hours and we had thinking you were drowning can and will be held against you. Why not get down to brass tacks? To win this thing we have to be the meanest and most unfair people on the planet. We cannot appear too pathetically idealistic to play rough. Agree or disagree. Then let the voters decide whether you should stay in office.

All else is pointless maneuvering.

Posted by Alan at 22:33 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 8 September 2006 09:18 PDT home

Wednesday, 6 September 2006
Cartoons: Hollywood to the Rescue
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Cartoons: Hollywood to the Rescue
There are those who are experts in cartoons. There's Pixar Animation Studios, based up in Emeryville, now a division of the Walt Disney Company, down here in Burbank. On January 24, 2006, Disney agreed to buy Pixar for well over seven billion dollars in an all-stock transaction. The acquisition was completed on May 5, 2006 - Pixar is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Disney. The old-style cartoons, actually drawn, frame by frame, by humans, are pretty much dead. It's all computer-generated now. Bambi and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and Fantasia, are curiosities now - much like silent films. Hardly anyone alive now remembers when silent films were just fine. Things change.

But cartoons aren't dead. Disney knows that. They didn't shell out those billions of dollars for nothing. Kids like cartoons, so do adults - from The Yellow Submarine to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to South Park, not to mention The Simpsons. The impossible is made visual and funny, with a little life lesson, and some tears along with the jokes. Cartoons are a real trip, as they say.

Disney had lost its preeminence in the field, and they simply bought it back. And they could afford it. They are a massive conglomerate, producing live-action films, and with their theme parks, and with their subsidiary ESPN and their cable channels and radio stations. And they have ABC. Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC in 1996. They have a major television network of their very own.

But they still do cartoons. Disney's ABC is about to air the new "documentary" on 9/11 - more than four hours long, spanning two evenings, offered without commercials. It cost them thirty million to produce, and this is, one assumes, Disney's commemorative gift on the anniversary of that day. But it's not the same old stuff. The folks they hired to make this thing have a point of view - an attitude - and the premise here seems to be that no one in the Bush administration at any point at any time in the whole thing did anything wrong, and there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and Saddam himself might have planned the 9/11 attacks. And all those people died that one day because of just one guy - Bill Clinton. He didn't do his job and Bush got stuck with the results. Perhaps this view is a bit biased. It is creating a firestorm.

You can find a complete script review here, with snippets like this -
Clarke tells O'Neill that Clinton won't give the order to get bin Laden in this climate, with Republicans calling for his impeachment. O'Neill says that Clinton wants bin Laden dead - but not if he has to order it. "It's pathetic," he declares.

Back in Afghanistan, the operatives plan for the snatch job anyway, hoping for approval once it's clear they have their man. One night, they call Langley - they are ready to get bin Laden, he is nearby. "Do we have clearance?" they ask. Berger says he doesn't have authority, he would have to check, they're not all on "the same page."

A CIA official tells Berger the president has approved snatches in the past. Berger wonders about the quality of the intelligence. The CIA woman says it's never 100%. With that, Berger punts and asks Tenet if HE wants to offer a recommendation to the president. Tenet asks: Why does the buck always stop with me, like with the Waco disaster?

At that point, Berger simply hangs up - and the operatives abroad pack up and leave. Massoud asks if they are "all cowards in Washington." Again there is an immediate cut to Clinton, parsing sexual terms in his taped testimony on the Lewinsky case - and then a clip of him hugging Monica.

A little later in the film, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi is attacked, with many deaths. A CIA agent in tears yells at Tenet, saying he should have ordered the killing of bin Laden when they had the chance. O'Neill to Clarke: "Clinton has to do SOMETHING."
You get the idea. Every cartoon needs a villain.

All the right wing "pundits" got a pre-release copy. No one else has seen it. ABC refused to provide a copy to Clinton, or Madeline Albright or Sandy Burger - the villain and his crew - or to any mainstream columnist. In the House, John Conyers, John Dingell, Jane Harman, and Louise Slaughter wrote the president of Disney asking what's up with this (their letter is here).

The New York Times covers the controversy here, noting this television event was being criticized as biased and inaccurate by terrorism experts and a member of the September 11 Commission. ABC was advertising the program as a "historic broadcast" that uses the commission's report on the 2001 attacks as its "primary foundation."

A number of commissioners and those who were there at the time find that ludicrous -
In particular, some critics - including Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar - questioned a scene that depicts several American military officers on the ground in Afghanistan. In it, the officers, working with leaders of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan rebel group, move in to capture Osama bin Laden, only to allow him to escape after the mission is canceled by Clinton officials in Washington.

In a posting on, and in a phone interview, Mr. Clarke said no military personnel or CIA agents were ever in position to capture Mr. bin Laden in Afghanistan, nor did the leader of the Northern Alliance get that near to his camp.

"It didn't happen," Mr. Clarke said. "There were no troops in Afghanistan about to snatch bin Laden. There were no CIA personnel about to snatch bin Laden. It's utterly invented."

Mr. Clarke, an on-air consultant to ABC News, said he was particularly shocked by a scene in which it seemed Clinton officials simply hung up the phone on an agent awaiting orders in the field. "It's 180 degrees from what happened," he said. "So, yeah, I think you would have to describe that as deeply flawed."

ABC then issued a statement saying that the miniseries was "a dramatization, not a documentary, drawn from a variety of sources, including the 9/11 commission report, other published materials and from personal interviews." And they said they plan to run a disclaimer with the broadcast, reminding viewers that the movie was not really a documentary. But then they are planning to send out teaching materials to schools so this can be shown in classrooms, for discussion.

It is a bit confusing, and there's confused Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the original commission who saw part of the miniseries last week - "As we were watching, we were trying to think how they could have misinterpreted the 9/11 commission's finding the way that they had. They gave the impression that Clinton had not given the green light to an operation that had been cleared by the CIA to kill bin Laden."

The commission concluded Clinton had. Oh well.

But this is cool -

Mr. Ben-Veniste said he did, however, approve of the casting. "I like Harvey Keitel," he said of the actor who plays John O'Neil, the onetime FBI counterterrorism expert who died in the attacks. "I liked him in 'Mean Streets.' I'm a fan."
That's nice.

Dean Barnett, one the writers at the hyper-pro-Bush Hugh Hewitt blog, is, unlike all the others on the right who got their advance copies, having second thoughts about this whole thing. The short version of what he says comes down to, yes, Clinton was evil, the most evil president ever, but making up stuff may not be the way we want to go here.

Digby on the left side offers this -
The reason this matters so much, and why Democrats are so apoplectic at the way ABC has handled this material, is that popular culture has a way of inculcating certain concepts into people's minds, especially young minds, far more effectively than talking head programs or earnest debates among political bloggers and columnists. This is the kind of thing that could taint the debate for generations if it takes hold.

The right howled mercilessly at Oliver Stone's depictions of JFK and Nixon, claiming that he was rewriting history. He was, and he used very clever techniques to do it - particularly the odd, dreamlike optical montages that feel like memories. But the key is that these films were about events that happened long in the past - they were re-writing history, not writing the first draft while the immediate events were still being debated. Certainly, nobody sent out high school study guides saying they were based on fact or claimed they were based on The Warren Commission Report or Nixon's memoirs. Stone never claimed that he was depicting a factual account but rather always said that he was providing an "alternate history."

"Path to 9/11" is using the sophisticated techniques (if not the talent) of Stone's "alternate history" style to create an alternate reality in real time.

… If this nonsense is allowed to stick, we will be battling these inaccurate demagogic, phantoms for another 50 years - and I don't think the country will survive it. These new right-wingers make the red-baiters of the 50's look like Gandhi. In order for the Republicans to maintain power as often and as much as possible, they must find a way to blame the Democrats for terrorism and ensure that neither party can ever stray from the most hard line they can possibly maintain. It's the same formula that killed over 50,000 Americans in Vietnam and it's going to do far worse this time out if we let it happen again.
But it's too late. Disney is determined.

And who knows what they're up to? They're losing thirty million here, on this freebie. And the Walt Disney Company a few years ago blocked its Miramax division from distributing the documentary by Michael Moore that grossed two hundred million, Fahrenheit 9/11. Then they sold Miramax. One wonders about their agenda.

Note this -
Disney/ABC cancelled the reality show featuring a gay couple, "Welcome To The Neighborhood," ten days before it was to air when James Dobson and the religious right threatened to withdraw their support for the conservative classic "Narnia."

Disney refused to allow its subsidiary Miramax, which specialized in controversial fare, to distribute "Fahrenheit 9/11" allegedly because they felt it was too political.

They made a deal with Mel Gibson, beloved on the religious right for his film "The Passion," to produce a film about the Holocaust even though they knew at the time he held extremely controversial views about the Holocaust and Judaism. They only cancelled the project when he was caught by the police drunkenly saying "all the wars in the world are caused by the Jews."

Now they have produced a blatantly rightwing work of fiction which they are saying is based on the official 9/11 Commission report and they are giving it away without any advertising. They sent out hundreds of screening copies but failed to send any to the Clinton administration officials who are trashed in the film or to liberal columnists….

There's a pattern here folks and it isn't a pattern that shows ABC knuckling under to liberals. There is a huge amount of money at stake in all these decisions, but for some reason Disney seems to be more than willing to throw it away when it benefits the right wing: already produced films and TV shows are either cancelled or allowed to be distributed by others, while hugely expensive, controversial rightwing mini-series' are broadcast with no advertising and allowed to be downloaded for free by I-tunes.

Isn't that something that Disney shareholders should be just a little bit concerned about? If ABC is protecting its "Narnia" franchise, at some point you have to look at whether the price they are paying is too high. If they have thrown this kind of money away to appease the GOP for business reasons then their shareholders have just been taken to the cleaners. The old K Street Project is dead and when Democrats take congress this fall they aren't going to be happy. They are on to it.

If Disney/ABC is giving away free air time for conservative projects and denying distribution to programs that don't favor the Republican Party, then perhaps somebody needs to look at whether this stuff is legal. There are laws regulating corporate giving to campaigns. By not showing advertising it seems to me that it's not impossible to make a case that this latest is a free gift to the Republican Party just weeks before an important election.
Oh heck, when you own your own network you can do anything you'd like. Ask Rupert Murdoch. But if I were a shareholder, I'd begin to wonder what's up here.

And of course, a friend just said he will no longer take his kids to Disneyworld or Disneyland. He sees no point in funding the Cult of Bush. But then his kids will study this in the classroom.

Hollywood does matter, it seems.

Posted by Alan at 21:52 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 7 September 2006 07:31 PDT home

Tuesday, 5 September 2006
The Case for Pessimism
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
The Case for Pessimism
On a hot day in Los Angeles - it hit ninety-nine downtown early in the afternoon - the only thing to do was sit quietly in the office under the big ceiling fan and browse the net on global warming matters. So on Tuesday, September 5, as the asphalt streets here in Hollywood got gooey in the full sun, while reading about peak-oil and the end of civilization as we know it, this comment shimmered on the computer screen - "Global pandemic is considered a certainty by lots of smart people with good credentials in that area. Some other brilliant people think we're in for a religional [sic] clash of civilizations. Other well-qualified people foresee environmental collapse. War seems ever present in its changing nature. Most of the large fish in the ocean are already gone. Oceanic dead zones are on the increase. Tundra is thawing in vast stretches of northern latitudes, releasing methane in a positive feedback loop driving climate change. Human population is supposed to increase by fifty percent in the next couple or three decades while global energy consumption is supposed to double or more. And so on and so on. We live in interesting times. What's a person to do?"

One could choose an alternative life-style, one not so energy dependent, but selling the car and raising chickens on the balcony isn't going to help much. Feeling noble that the air-conditioner in the wall is dead and you don't feel like having someone fix it seems a bit silly. Things are too far gone. Pour another Diet Coke on ice, fill another pipe with that nice Danish pipe tobacco, and let's think about this. One could think about it down by the pool in the courtyard, but that's mad, in the "mad dogs and Englishmen" way - no one is down there, not even the sweet young things who move in and out of the building hoping to become the next Katie Holmes or whatever - the concrete would blister your feet and the pool, in the full sun for months, is a warm blue-green bath smelling of all the extra chlorine needed to kill the bad stuff that wants to grown in there. The cat in the shade next door looks boneless - a poured, fur lump.

It's a day for pessimism of course. That seems to be back in vogue. In fact, Joshua Foa Dienstag, a political science professor at UCLA, has that new book on the matter Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit - Princeton University Press (July 3, 2006) - ISBN: 069112552X. It's hot.

Here's the deal -
Pessimism claims an impressive following - from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse - an accusation of a bad attitude - or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species - who would actually counsel pessimism?

Joshua Foa Dienstag does. In Pessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been - and can again be - an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal - of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism - is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe.
Okay then, pessimism can be liberating, and fortifying. Who would have guessed? Things are as bad as they seem, or maybe worse. That's the way to approach the world.

Thursday, September 14, at seven in the evening, the author will be at Dutton's in Brentwood - the fancy bookstore not far from where Arianna Huffington lives, the woman with the celebrity blog, and not far from the site where OJ didn't murder Nicole - for a reading from the new book. But what's the point in driving all the way over there? What good would it do? On the other hand, that Dutton's is supposed to be a hot pick-up spot for a certain class of literate left-wing singles. But then, who would be interested in the fat old guy from Hollywood? Nope, better to listen to Joshua Foa Dienstag interviewed about pessimism on BBC4 here, from mid-July. It's better for the environment than driving across Los Angeles. Or maybe that's looking at things too pessimistically.

But then, consider that chapters in his book -
CHAPTER ONE: The Anatomy of Pessimism
CHAPTER TWO: "A Philosophy That Is Grievous but True": Cultural Pessimism in Rousseau and Leopardi
CHAPTER THREE: "The Evils of the World Honestly Admitted": Metaphysical Pessimism in Schopenhauer and Freud
CHAPTER FOUR "Consciousness Is a Disease": Existential Pessimism in Camus, Unamuno, and Cioran
CHAPTER FIVE: Nietzsche's Dionysian Pessimism
CHAPTER SIX: Cervantes as Educator: Don Quixote and the Practice of Pessimism
CHAPTER SEVEN: Aphorisms and Pessimisms
CHAPTER EIGHT: Pessimism and Freedom (The Pessimist Speaks)
Let's see - consciousness is a disease which Don Quixote conquers by engaging in pointless battles for the right reasons, and Camus should have read Cervantes more carefully - or maybe Sisyphus could just as easily have tilted at windmills instead of pushing that stone up the hill over and over. Same thing. Got it. Schopenhauer and Freud admit we're all screwed. Fine.

What's the point in reading the book now, anyway? Do authors who write such things not know that true pessimists understand that there no point in even buying the thing?

Of course pessimists are not the target audience. The target audience - those who will buy the book - consists of "angry" pessimists (an odd concept when you think about it logically) who are feeling defensive, and those who these days, after six years of being told we're winning the great war (that would pay for itself, where we'd be greeted at liberators, and where our military would be home in a few months), and that New Orleans would be rebuilt, that this and that would be wonderful, are puzzled. We're told to be optimistic. Our leaders are.

What's up with that? Is there something inherently stupid about optimism? That seems to be the argument here. An audience that might accept this idea is possible.

"This will work out wonderfully if you just trust us." And what did we get?

Immediately you trust your leaders less and less. Joshua Foa Dienstag suggests going deeper. Leaders of any sort in America say they're optimistic about just about everything, save for Jimmy Carter. It's what you do. It's what people expect. But maybe the whole problem is optimism itself. That's about as subversive and un-American an idea you'll find anywhere.

As still, the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, September 3, published Dienstag's op-ed piece, Oh, to Be a Country of Pessimists Again, with the subhead - "Too much optimism can leave us stranded in our rose-colored illusions."

This opens with references to the president's second inaugural address where he said he had "complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom" and "history has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty." Then in August he was saying at a press conference - "Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I'm happy. This is - but war is not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times…. "

The question posed is clear. Are we finally ready for some pessimism? Are we?

The problem is clear -
Americans of all stripes tend to treat pessimism as if it were a psychological impairment or rare tropical illness that inexplicably befalls others. Jimmy Carter was widely criticized when he dared to suggest that there existed a U.S. "crisis of confidence," a mistake Ronald Reagan exploited when he announced "Morning in America." During the presidential race of 2004, the candidates of both parties competed avidly for the title of most optimistic. But Bush's verbal fumbling on a question about the Iraq war indicates that there are some situations - unfortunately, very common ones - for which the language of optimism is not helpful.
It isn't? There's not an election consultant alive who would agree with that contention.

But there is history -
The first modern pessimists were dissenters from the Enlightenment notion that the world would be remade according to reason. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example. He is often remembered as a precursor to the French Revolution, but he was in fact deeply suspicious of what became the revolutionaries' alternative faith: inordinate belief in their own rational powers.

What Rousseau sought to emphasize was simply that we lacked the tools to master history and bring it to heel. "Everything is in continual flux on Earth…." he wrote. "All our plans for felicity in this life are idle fancies." Politics, like personal life, was a place where grand strategies could and often did go awry. We should celebrate the good that happened but not delude ourselves that the overall pattern of the universe is pre-made in our favor.

This doesn't mean that reason is useless. Rousseau had a variety of philosophical inheritors and, though they disagreed on many things, one point they generally had in common was the idea that reason served humans best by divesting them of politically dangerous illusions.
But illusions not grounded in reason, some would argue, are what made America, the land of big dreams, the wonderful place it is. Is it now more useful to think about what is actually possible? That not very inspiring.

But it may be necessary -
The president's claim that he is "rarely surprised" doesn't ring true; it seems like a particularly desperate effort to assert some control over a situation in which every supposed sign of progress in Iraq is undercut by more violence. Optimists, expecting things to go well, are constantly surprised and disappointed when their illusions are punctured. It is the pessimists, expecting little, who are rarely surprised.

It is sometimes claimed that pessimism retards political action, that one must somehow be an optimist in order to get out of bed in the morning. This is not only silly but dangerous. If one looks at the writings of, say, Albert Camus or Vaclav Havel, both philosophers who also were active in resistance against tyranny, it's easy to see that they had no expectations their actions would defeat what seemed like an overwhelming foe. They were as surprised as anyone when the regimes they opposed collapsed. They acted not out of optimism but out of a sense that opposing dictatorship was the only decent thing to do, the only way to live with dignity in dark times.

Camus liked to say that he wasn't interested in the future at all: "He who dedicates himself to … history dedicates himself to nothing and, in his turn, is nothing." Instead, we should engage in "giving all to the present," which meant dealing with the problems that appear on our doorstep rather than trying to vindicate an idealized destiny, the "visible direction" of history. (Perhaps if this administration had paid a little less attention to the tides of history, it might have had more time to deal with the actual floodwaters.)
So Camus and Havel never expected to win. No illusions. No blind faith the best would probably happen and everything fall into place, and thinking otherwise was defeatist. They only did the right thing at the moment. Fine, but can we use a Frenchman and a Czech fan of Frank Zappa as models here?

Not in this country - "Though the Bush administration may be the latest and most extreme version of the compulsory optimism of American politics, matters will not improve if we simply replace it with an equally optimistic administration from the other party. The problem is that the vocabulary of optimism itself distorts our understanding of the world and leaves us lost in illusions."

Why was the president recently reading Camus? It didn't sink in. Next he'll be reading Babbitt and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." It won't help. He's locked in that "optimistic mode" - the slang term is "stuck on stupid" - just like most everyone on the left. That just the way it is, and, ironically enough, there's just no fixing it.

But it can tie you up in some odd logic. That's what happened Tuesday, September 5, with the second in the series of speeches to sell the Iraq war and all related policies on terror, and the need to do something about Iran and North Korea, to the American people in the run-up to the November congressional elections, where the president could lose control of the House if not the Senate and then be dead in the water for his last two years, or worse. And the theme itself was mixed - "America is safer, but we are not yet safe." Everything worked out fine, but it didn't.

The speech, before the Military Officers Association of America, is here and the accompanying twenty-ninepage "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" here. It's all very curious - Iraq is not a big deal any longer, nor is al Qaeda and that Osama fellow. The problem now is Iran, but really everyone who opposes us, or opposes Israel, as they're all in this together. The idea is we now have one giant problem no one but this administration, backed by a Republican congress, can solve.

Here's some compact framing from Dan Froomkin in the Washington Post -
The White House today is battling to control the journalistic narrative in the days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

There are so many ways that journalists could help the public assess the last five years.

We could, for instance, trace the dramatic expansion of executive power in the name of fighting the war on terror.

We could expose the failures that have plagued the administration's initiatives to coordinate homeland security and emergency response.

We could write about Iraq, the most conspicuous, costly, deadly, and arguably counterproductive byproduct of President Bush's post-September 11 mentality.

We could expound on America's dramatic loss of moral authority, prestige and influence on the world stage.

We could reflect upon the administration's continued stoking of Americans' fears for political purposes.

But that's not what the White House wants, of course.

And while the White House can't exactly prevent journalists from writing whatever we want, the president does have a great way of forcing us to take notice of whatever it is that he wants. It's called a "series of major speeches" on the "Global War on Terrorism."
And the Post's account of the speech is here -
President Bush today renewed his pledge to accept nothing less than "complete victory" in the war on terrorism and delivered a strong warning to Iran, which he described as the leader of a strain of Islamic radicalism just as dangerous as that of al-Qaeda.

In a speech in Washington following the release of an updated strategy document on combating terrorism, Bush repeatedly quoted statements by Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to highlight the radical Sunni Muslim group's "totalitarian" aims, which he said recalled the "evil" ambitions Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler. He said the centerpiece of those aims is the transformation of Iraq into the capital of an Islamic caliphate spanning much of the globe.
So this is a big deal. They're trying to take over the world. Lenin! Hitler! Iraq is only part of it. This could be the end of everything.

And there are the anti-American goals to Shiite Muslim "extremists" - leaders of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. (Don't think about the Shiites we have put in power in Iraq.) And then there's the specter of an industrialized world subject to blackmail from nations awash in oil and nuclear weapons "if the radicals achieve their aims." People just aren't scared enough.

And there's this - a captured bin Laden letter, saying al-Qaeda intended to launch a "media campaign to create a wedge between the American people and their government." So if you listen to our own press you're being fooled and manipulated by the bad guys - most American reporters are with the terrorists, doing the terrorists' work. (See one press guy's reaction here - Olbermann was having none of it.)

It went on and on - "History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake. . . . Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen?"

He also called on Americans to "imagine a world in which they were able to control governments; a world awash with oil, and they would use oil resources to punish industrialized nations. And they would use those resources to fuel their radical agenda and pursue and purchase weapons of mass murder. And, armed with nuclear weapons, they would blackmail the free world and spread their ideologies of hate and raise a mortal threat to the American people." He vowed he'd never to allow this.

The Post quotes Wesley Clark -
"What I hear is the beating tom-toms of another military action taking form against Iran. And I think it's time that the American government stepped forward and talked to people we disagree with, before we start dropping bombs on them."

Clark called the invasion of Iraq "a strategic blunder" that has been "counterproductive in winning the war on terror."

As a result of the Bush administration's policies, "we've lost over 2,600 soldiers and Marines in Iraq," Clark said. "We've spent over $300 billion, with maybe $1 trillion or more on the line. We've seriously damaged our armed forces. … We've reduced our diplomatic leverage around the world. And despite all the trumpeting of patriotism by this administration, this administration and the Republican leadership in the Congress have weakened our country and made Americans less safe at home."
John Kerry is more succinct here -
Afghanistan is slipping back into chaos, Pakistan is one coup away from becoming a radical Islamic state with nuclear weapons, Iran is closer to a nuclear arsenal, and Iraq has become a recruitment poster for terror.
Yeah, well, thing are tough all over. And the president was on a roll. The problem is much bigger than ever - he never says why - and he can fix it if everyone would just shut up and let him do it. And stop saying he made the problem worse - that doesn't matter now. What difference does that make?

But people foolishly want to make sense of this all, like Tim Grieve, reading the "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" and noting this -
Iraq isn't exactly at the center of it. The word "Iraq" comes up just nine times in the 29-page report, and at least a couple of those are attempts to minimize the role the Iraq war plays in the president's "global war on terrorism." "Countries that did not participate in coalition efforts in Iraq have not been spared from terror attacks," the report says. "The ongoing fight for freedom in Iraq has been twisted by terrorist propaganda as a rallying cry," the report says.

What about Iraq as the "central front" in the war on terror? Oh, it's in there, too - as in, "Terrorists see Iraq as the central front of their fight against the United States."

So what's the central front in the GWOT now? Well, you might think it would be the hunt for the man who masterminded the attacks against the United States five years ago. But Osama bin Laden gets just a single mention in the report, and even then only as an example used to make a larger point: Arguing that terrorism isn't "an inevitable by-product of poverty," the report notes that "many terrorist leaders, like bin Laden, are from privileged upbringings."

It would all be so surprising if it were surprising at all. The president said long ago that he doesn't spend much time thinking about bin Laden, and the CIA last year quietly disbanded the unit that had been assigned to hunt for him. As for Iraq, the White House has some delicate detangling to do. If the polls are to be believed, the fight against terrorism remains the Republicans' sole strong point with voters. At the same time, a substantial majority of the public disapproves of the way Bush is handling the war in Iraq. Having spent the better part of the past four years linking 9/11 to Iraq and Iraq to the overall war on terrorism, the GOP now must find a way to cash in on voters' fears about future acts of terrorism without tainting the argument with the reality that has already come to pass in Iraq.

So just like that, Iraq becomes the central front in the war on terror only in the twisted minds of terrorists. The real central front? It's in Iran, in Syria, in North Korea, on the Internet and in small, decentralized terror cells. "Terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralized," the report says. "They are more reliant on smaller cells inspired by a common ideology and less directed by a central command structure." Translation: Forget Iraq. Forget bin Laden. The terrorists are everywhere now. And if you want to keep your family safe from them - unless, of course, one of your family members happens to be serving in Iraq - you'd better vote for the Republicans on your ballot in November.
One would think folks might just get tired of it all.

In Newsweek Fareed Zakaria certainly is -
Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall - and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA's wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives' more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA's lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians - most prominently the Cox Commission - doubled the estimates of China's military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons - and because he was a madman, he would use them.
See Kevin Drum here -
It is not quite right to say that "Washington" has a habit of doing this. Zakaria should instead say that "hysterical Republican hawks" have a habit of doing this.

Accuracy is important in these matters. For the record, then: "Team B" was a creation of George H.W. Bush and included such members as Richard Pipes, Paul Wolfowitz, and Edward Teller. The Cox Commission was the brainchild of Congressman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). And Saddam's nuclear bombs were the fantasy product of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, et. al.

This quibble aside, the column is very good. The fever swamp hysteria floating around right-wing circles has become increasingly desperate in recent weeks, and Zakaria does a good job of showing it up for the infantile yowling that it is. Democrats who want to be taken seriously on foreign policy could do worse than have it stapled to their foreheads.
Infantile yowling? That'll do.

And, for a minor digression, see Charles P. Pierce here -
Every now and again I give the president the benefit of the doubt, try to see things from his side, walk a mile or so in his manly brush-clearing workshoes as it were. So, I'm George W. Bush, right? I have launched a war that I have repeatedly said is a critical response to an existential threat to Western civilization that is as serious as were those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet empire. Things have not gone well. And most of the country doesn't trust me when I tell them why I'm doing what I'm doing. (Most of the country doesn't trust me if I tell them the sun rises in the East, but that's a whole 'nother mile in them workshoes.) Nevertheless, the threat is real and it is growing and I can't get the country to see it.

Why, then, do I give all my speeches to captive audiences of people who either already believe what I believe or who get paid to serve under my steady hand as commander-in-chief? Doesn't the seriousness of the threat, and the requirements of my job, mandate that I go out into the most skeptical parts of the country and do my convincing there? After all, when confronting the Depression or the growing threat in Europe, FDR didn't send out the fireside chats by subscription only. When Lyndon Johnson wanted to convince people on the need for civil rights legislation, he didn't bring Hubert Humphrey over from the OEOB for a chat. He brought in George Wallace, and damned near got him, too. Shouldn't I have had Cindy Sheehan in for BBQ? Shouldn't I be making my speeches in those places where the war is the least popular? Shouldn't I be convincing the people who most need convincing? Shouldn't I be speaking in Boston or Berkeley? Shouldn't I be talking to town hall meetings in Vermont and Oregon? Aren't I president of all the United States? These shoes are not comfortable at all.
One assumes he likes speaking to fellow optimists. Who needs the others?

See Thomas DeFrank in the New York Dauly News, quoting his White House sources here -
"We'll lose the House," one of the party's most prominent officials flatly predicted, "and the President will be dead in the water for two years." Even a perennially optimistic senior Bush strategist conceded, "I'm pretty worried about it. The House is not looking good."
Pessimism. And more than three years ago they couldn't imagine anything going wrong - get rid of Saddam, install the convicted embezzler Chalabi, secure the oil, and get out. Now they're pessimistic. How odd. Well, their political survival is on the line. Now it's serious.

But we will have total victory or nothing. How did the pessimism man put it? There are some situations - unfortunately, very common ones - for which the language of optimism is not helpful. Define victory here.

Let's get real. But that's pessimism. No, it's realism. Maybe they're the same thing, but optimism unfettered by any sort of reality has gotten us nothing, or less.

Joshua Foa Dienstag is onto something. But he'll never sell that idea in America.

Posted by Alan at 22:46 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 6 September 2006 08:32 PDT home

Sunday, 3 September 2006
The Pause That Refreshes
Topic: Announcements
The Pause That Refreshes
Commentary will resume late Monday evening or Tuesday. The Labor Day weekend calls for a trip south, down San Diego way, to join the family for some relaxing - away from the computer and all that. It's a small vacation, but it will do.

The from-the-ground-up redesign of the weekly magazine-style Just Above Sunset was exhausting. But that is done, and the new issue has been posted. Time to relax.

Hand-painted sign at a dive on Hollywood Boulevard, near Raymond Chandler Square

Posted by Alan at 08:30 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 3 September 2006 08:32 PDT home

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