Notes on how things seem to me from out here in Hollywood... As seen from Just Above Sunset
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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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Tuesday, 12 September 2006
A Fine Mess
Topic: Couldn't be so...
A Fine Mess

Now What?

The president gave his September 11 speech - and as Bruce Reed says, there was nothing new there. It was "more or less the same speech he has given on many prime-time occasions before. With Michael Gerson's departure to become a syndicated columnist, the quality of Bush's imagery has slipped. Last night, he looked forward to the day 'when the people of the Middle East leave the desert of despotism for the fertile gardens of liberty' - which sounded more like ad copy for a Dubai desalination plant."

This was variations on a theme. After wanting to get him dead or alive, then saying he didn't really think about him much any longer, the president promised to find Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice - one day after the Washington Post reported that our search party "has not received a credible lead in more than two years" and the trail in this particular manhunt has gone "stone cold" (item here). As Reed notes - "Most Americans have heard that speech so many times, they wouldn't be surprised if it bored Bin Laden." One assumes the ratings were low.

He kind of did the "epic struggle" thing - this war will go on for generations, and Iraq is just part of it, but a vital part, even if Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and all that. He gave that up - only Rice and Cheney now say there was a connection. Obviously the hard thing here is to sell the idea that, yes, Iraq didn't have those WMD, and, yes, had nothing to do with 9/11, there was no connection to al Qaeda at all, but the war there really was a fine idea. It's important in some large conceptual sense, or something. The rationales explaining why we had to do this, and why we keep going on, get more and more abstract - tethered to the real world of actual events be the thinnest of strings. It's fascinating to watch, in a morbid, "end of the world" sort of way.

The president's supporters in the House and Senate, up for reelection in November, were no doubt dismayed by this speech, these odd seventeen minutes. Two thirds of the country thinks the war is stupid, and over half think it has nothing to do with whatever "war on terror" we're in, and may be making things worse. They don't want an endless war in Iraq, followed by a succession of more wars. Folks want some sort of resolution. The idea was, however, that there will be no resolution any time soon, maybe not for many decades. Heck, there's Iran next, and Syria, and North Korea - and maybe Cuba or Venezuela as things are going now. When you're running to keep your seat, and your constituents are fed up, piggybacking on this sort of message is impossible.

It was whining, really - we did do the right thing, we did, we did. No one really understands - the country, the world, everyone is fed up with this - but we did do the right thing, we did, we did. Try selling that in Iowa.

But there were suggestions for how to resolve things in Iraq.

Reed mentions the Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has left the White House. The Washington Post announced they've picked him up as a columnist - something about adding another conservative voice to their pages, as conservatives are so outnumbered and underrepresented in America. Right.

And to give this beleaguered minority a further voice, Tuesday, September 12, the Post published a column by the editors of our nation's two biggest conservative magazines, Rich Lowry and Bill Kristol, of the National Review and Weekly Standard respectively. That's here, and they claim the have they real secret of how we can "win" quickly and easily in Iraq.

Yes, things are a mess right now - they admit it - but the solution is stunningly obvious -

The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.

... Administration spokesmen have jettisoned talk of "staying the course" in Iraq in favor of "adapting to win." If those words are to have meaning, the administration can't simply stay the course on current troop levels. We need to adapt to win the battle of Baghdad. We need substantially more troops in Iraq. Sending them would be a courageous act of presidential leadership appropriate to the crisis we face.
The immediate reaction from Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly is here -
I swear, I almost think we should go ahead and agree to let them do this. If it would settle the question once and for all, I think I would.

But it wouldn't, of course. If it didn't work, they'd just write another column blaming the failure on something else. Lack of willpower, maybe. Or the French.

In any case, it's telling that they use the word "surge" and decline to provide an estimate of just how many more troops they think we need. A few thousand? Fifty thousand? Where are they going to come from? And do they really think that a surge would do the job? If they had the courage of their convictions, they'd provide a number, tell us what was needed to get the additional troops (pull them out of Korea? call up more reserves? extend tours of duty? institute a draft?), and admit candidly that these troops would need to be in country for at least several years. But they don't.

On the other hand, they're right about one thing: staying the course is the most irresponsible plan possible. There are arguments for withdrawing and there are arguments for sending more troops, but there's really no plausible argument for doing what Bush is doing. Staying the course is just another name for killing thousands more American soldiers for no reason.
But that's what we'll do. There really are no more troops. Such a courageous act of presidential leadership is not possible. We have what we have. There may be no way out.

But there is the bracing effect of really actually sending in many more theoretical troops. National Review editor Rich Lowry wants a massive escalation - and later on Fox News he reinforces the argument, claiming that if President Bush were to say, "we're going to send two more divisions into the city [Baghdad] and lock it down and secure it… people would actually react favorably to that." The video and transcript of that is here. Lowry seems to think all the polls have got it all wrong about the American people. We really do want thing this to "go big." We all long for it. One supposes this has something to do with who he hangs out with.

The note that accompanies the transcript is this -
First, there is no indication from public polling that there is any US support for increasing troop levels in Iraq. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 17 percent of Americans supported increasing force levels, while 53 percent favored decreasing them.

Second, the argument wrongly suggests that violence in Iraq is constricted to Baghdad. In fact, as the senior Marine intelligence officer in charge of Western Iraq reported, the political and economic security situation there is - like Baghdad - rapidly destabilizing.

Third, escalation is the wrong remedy to the problem because it fails to understand the root cause of the problem. Increasing troop levels feeds the perception that the US is in Iraq to stay, thereby fueling the insurgency. Moreover, the numerous increases in troop levels throughout the occupation have not improved security on the ground.
But that doesn't seem to matter. We are a warrior nation, really. That's an interesting contention, given the facts, in this case the many, many polls. These neoconservatives seem to think that they really understand America. As with the president, everyone else is wrong. There's a bigger truth. The facts are biased, or something.

Glenn Greenwald here -
One of the most depressing aspects of the Iraq debate is to watch the self-styled "experts" who advocated this war, such as National Review Editor (and Sean Hannity substitute) Rich Lowry, thrashing around, constantly grasping for new excuses as to why their war is failing, desperate to embrace any explanation at all other than the only true one sitting right in front of their faces - that the invasion was a bad idea from the beginning, that it was premised on false assumptions, that war advocates were wrong about everything they predicted would happen, and the ongoing occupation has produced incalculable disaster along with virtually no good.

... To Lowry, we're always on the cusp of winning. It's always - as he announced today - the "crucial moment." The "decisive battle at a decisive moment." Everything is always going really swell in Iraq. And all we need for it to get even better, to get to the finish line, is some more Churchillian "stirring rhetoric about the need for victory and for stalwartness in the face of setbacks." Anyone serious can see that that's all we need.

... as always with Iraq and terrorism debates, being endlessly wrong is a sign of profound seriousness, and cheering on wars - no matter how misguided and misinformed the cheering is - renders one a serious foreign policy expert who recognizes the serious threats we face in these very serious times. That's why, when the Washington Post wants to find someone to counsel us on its Op-Ed page as to what to do in Iraq, it turns to two of the Wrongest People in America.

If we had determined our Iraq policy over the last three years by picking proposals out of a hat, we would have been way more right than we were by listening to Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry. But they favor wars and more wars and put on a grave, serious face when they talk about The Terrorists, so they are Serious Foreign Policy Experts and need to be listened to.
Yeah, but who's listening?

Matthew Yglesias here runs down how these two have said such things for years and sums it up this way -
I was going to call this the hawkery of fools, but really knaves is more like it. The wars are all going to be easy before we launch them, and the folks raising piddling questions should be dismissed. When the wars don't work out, it's always because we've been insufficiently warlike. When the wars produce broader strategic problems, we need more wars. And, of course, more troops. Always more troops.
Neither has ever served - that makes the call easier.

All this would be just silliness, but that these two, particularly Kristol, speak for the neoconservative movement. Think of them as the voice of Dick Cheney, the power behind the throne, our boy-king's Richelieu. Something may be up. The critics cited above are mocking these two for what they wrote in the Post, but after the November elections something may have to be done. This is not going well.

So this may be dead wrong -
Both Kristol and Lowry see the writing on the wall. The war in Iraq is a failure and the American public isn't going to tolerate a never-ending engagement. They are betting, probably correctly, that the situation will disintegrate further and they want to be able to distance themselves from that failure. But calling for redeployment or withdrawal is anathema to their followers and they don't want to be known as sell-outs. On the other hand, being on record as supporting Bush's doomed policy (one that really includes no plan) is also not appetizing. So, instead, they pimp a hawkish position that their readers will lap up and they can then lay future claim to the line that if we would've just kicked a lil' more ass, it would not have turned out the way it did. By then, they hope the viability issue of their proposal has long spiraled down the memory hole. And they do this knowing all the while that there is no chance that their proposal will be followed.
Maybe so, but maybe not. After November all bets are off.

Why think that? Well, there is this, the video and transcript of Michael Ware of CNN, on Tuesday, September 12, reporting that US commanders in Iraq have privately expressed the need for an increase of three times the number of troops currently serving in Iraq. Officially, the military continues to say that "we have an appropriate level of force to do what we have to do within the confines of our mission." Off the record (to protect careers) the word is different.

Where we get another 280,000 troops is a good question. But that may not be what's going on. As noted here, the military is clearly letting reporters now know - for their future books - that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are responsible for the inevitable loss of what is supposed to be "the central front in the "War on Terror." It's another sort of career maneuvering.

This all has to do with the Sunni-dominated Anbar province of Iraq - a fifth of the country, west of Baghdad, bordering on Syria and Lebanon. The word is it's gone. That came Monday the 11th in the Washington Post, here, from their Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks, author of the new best-seller Fiasco. He based his reporting on several accounts of a classified intelligence report by Colonel Peter Devlin -chief intelligence officer there - "Prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim. There is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there..." It's the talk of the Pentagon at the moment.

CNN reporter Michael Ware, again, on the show Situation Room, the same day added this -
Wolf, it's absolutely nightmarish and "The Washington Post" story is an old one. US military intelligence has been saying this about Ramadi for a year and a half. I've been going out there since 2003. I've watched the steady decline.

Quite frankly, America is not committed to the fight. It is known - it is a stated fact that this is the headquarters of al Qaeda in Iraq, yet American commanders privately off camera will tell you that we only have a third of the troops there that are needed to even begin to make a dent in al Qaeda.
The next day the New York Times' Michael Gordon here carried the story forward - "The political and security situation in western Iraq is grim and will continue to deteriorate unless the region receives a major infusion of aid and a division is sent to reinforce the American troops operating there, according to the senior Marine intelligence officer in Iraq."

Will that happen? We have 16,000 troops there, but Gordon adds this -
Since the intelligence assessment was prepared in August, however, no reinforcements have been sent. To the contrary, the strain on the American troops in Anbar has increased. An American Stryker unit, which was under the overall Marine command, has been sent from Rawa to Baghdad to help with the operation there. Also, military police who had been earmarked for training the Iraq police in Anbar have also been sent to Baghdad. The Marines have sought to make up the shortfall by using existing troops.

The Iraqi Army has deployed two divisions in the region with a combined authorized strength of some 19,000. But the Iraqi military is under strength. The two Iraqi divisions in Anbar together are some 5,000 troops short of that level, while hundreds more are absent without leave.
The place belongs to al Qaeda and Gordon notes the Devlin report "describes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia as an 'integral part of the social fabric' of Anbar. The organization, which is predominantly made up of fighters who are native Iraqis, is flush with cash, much of it earned from black market or criminal activity."

Now what? There seem to be no answers. Keep on keeping on is what we are given. It may be all we can do, and chunks of Iraq fall away.

But this war in Iraq is keeping us safer, as in this - Al Qaeda Will Nuke US in Late September - "A Pakistani journalist says that his sources in al Qaeda and the Taliban are claiming that nuclear material has already been smuggled across the Mexican border into the U.S. and that an operation bigger than 9/11 will be carried out during Ramadan - which begins later this month."

Don't worry. The source is not the best. So what are we doing in Iraq?

But we can't just leave, or so Lawrence Kaplan at The New Republic explains here -
The truth is that, as the war takes a sectarian turn, the Americans have become more buffer and lifeline than belligerent. Earlier this year at his home near the Syrian border, Abdullah Al Yawar, a Sunni sheik in Nineveh province, warned me that "if the Americans leave, there will be rivers of blood." Hundreds of miles to the east in Baghdad, Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, one of Iraq's most powerful Shia, echoed the fear of his Sunni counterpart: Without the Americans, he said, Baghdad will become another Beirut.

... Withdrawal advocates who wear the position on their sleeves as if it were a badge of heightened moral awareness seem to forget that, as theologian Kenneth Himes wrote in Foreign Policy, "The moral imperative during the occupation is Iraqi well-being, not American interests." Having invoked just-war tradition to oppose the war's cause, they completely disregard its relevance to the war's conduct - namely, the obligation to repair what the United States has smashed.
He says it's just like Vietnam -
Then, as now, responsibility for the war's outcome lay squarely with its architects. But the war's aftermath also bloodied the hands of critics who insisted on walking away without condition and regardless of consequence. The genocide that followed in Cambodia and the spectacle of Vietnam's reeducation camps will not be repeated in Iraq. But ask any American officer there and he will tell you that, absent US forces, Iraq's ditches will fill rapidly as the death toll multiplies tenfold.
Kevin Drum comments here -
There is, at this point, not much question that an American withdrawal from Iraq would lead to massive bloodshed, a Shiite theocracy, and considerably enhanced influence for Iran in the Middle East. It would be a debacle almost without parallel.

And yet, like most other critics, Kaplan offers no better answer. In fact, he gives the game away with a comparison to Vietnam (something that's apparently OK for conservatives).

But this is exactly the problem, isn't it? We stayed in force in Vietnam for nearly a decade, and we still couldn't accomplish our goals. Should we have stayed another decade?

Anyone who advocates withdrawal needs to understand just what the consequences would be. But, as Kaplan admits, responsibility nonetheless lies squarely with the war's architects. In Iraq, if anything, we are having even less success than we did in Vietnam, and there's hardly even a colorable argument left that we have any hope of turning this around. Withdrawing may be an appalling and grisly option, but would it be better to kill a few hundred thousand more people and then leave? Those like Kaplan who oppose withdrawal have a question of their own to face up to.
There are no good answers.

From out here in Hollywood one thinks of Laurel and Hardy - Oliver Hardy's catchphrase is often misquoted as "Well, there's another fine mess you've gotten me into." The actual quote is "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." Another Fine Mess was the title of one of their short films from the thirties. Not that that helps very much. This is not funny.

On a cheerier note there's this -
Nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should be used on American citizens in crowd-control situations before being used on the battlefield, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday.

The object is basically public relations. Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions from others about possible safety considerations, said Secretary Michael Wynne.

"If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation," said Wynne. "(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."
The fun never ends.


Posted by Alan at 22:28 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006 06:55 PDT home

Monday, 11 September 2006
September 11 - Five Years On
Topic: Perspective
September 11 - Five Years On
It's been five years.

The high-powered Wall Street Attorney who sometimes contributes to these pages (see here and here), called from Manhattan on September 11. His office is thirty-four floors above the hole where the World Trade Center once stood. He said it was crazy there that day - the ceremonies and the media jammed the streets. He got in early, just after six in the morning, and left early - he called from the car, stuck in traffic at the Holland Tunnel. He was angry. But it wasn't the traffic.

It's what has happened, and what had not happened, in the last five years. He lost friends on that day. Now, when he has a spare moment from securities law, he does pro bono work for one of the businesses in the long-gone buildings, struggling to get going again. You want to fix things. But there's that hole in the ground.

And there's the state of the nation these days - he studied constitutional law under Peter Rodino, the Watergate guy, so such things bother him. There's some odd constitutional stuff going down these days, of course. How the law is supposed to work, and who is really supposed to follow it, is changing in ways that just don't make sense, and seem to be very dangerous.

When I was visiting there more than a year ago and taking photographs (album here), he asked me why I wasn't photographing the World Trade Center site. Well, it was hard to get a good angle on anything. Framing was difficult. I told him I finally figured out that it was really hard to take a series of shots documenting the absence of objects. What do you shoot? How can you draw the viewer's eye to what's not there? The few shots I took were crap. Look, there's nothing there?

There's still nothing there. Years before, sitting in the courtyard at the foot of the south tower, you could hurt your neck looking up, trying to get a sense of one hundred ten stories of pure mass. The towers defeated the eye. They still do now, just in a different way.

Too, by then the site had been appropriated. You half expected to find signs rimming the sixteen acre ruins saying keep out, unless you're a registered Republican, a born-again evangelical, or a NASCAR fan. The city may have voted nine to one against George Bush in the last presidential election, but that part of the city was and is his. The Republicans claimed it when they had their presidential nominating convention in Manhattan the year before. Democrats, progressives, skeptics and lefties - and those of us who had visited France regularly and actually liked it - were not welcome. And if you're from Hollywood? Horrors!

Fine. Lower Manhattan elsewhere was a trip. The Lower East Side and mid-town - the Village, Times Square to Grand Central, Bryant Park and the library - felt like home. You fell into the rhythm of things and got loose. You were in the intense center of your country - things were getting done and you were a small part of the essential bustle. Los Angeles and Hollywood suddenly seemed like hick towns at the edge of nowhere. Manhattan is not intimidating. It wakes you up.

Still, some of us feel no small anger about that hole in the ground, for all sorts of reasons.

So, for our friend in Manhattan, and for those of us stuck elsewhere but feel we should be there, here's an array of comments that get at the issues. We're not alone.

Greg Saunders -
To me it's impossible to separate 9/11 from Hurricane Katrina. For four years we'd been promised that the leadership of George Bush and the Republican Party could keep us safe, yet the aftermath of a natural disaster showed us that the federal government can't even protect us from a threat they have a week to prepare for. How could we expect them to respond to a dirty bomb attack, on electromagnetic pulse, a nuclear bomb smuggled in a shipping container, another anthrax attack, a few trucks filled with fertilizer explosives surrounding a sports arena, or more airliners hijacked with terrorists using ceramic or plastic blades and crashing them into chemical plants, the New York Stock Exchange, or the Capitol building during the State of the Union? These are the scenarios that keep me up at night and, al Qaeda's motives aside, there are still plenty of crazy people out there who'd love to kill as many Americans as possible.

So, where does that leave us? Well, the presidential administration we're stuck with for the next two years is a deadly combination of arrogance, stubbornness, and being-wrong-about-everything-ness. But it is an election year (which you may have guessed from the President's suddenly sparked interest in Osama Bin Laden), so there's still an opportunity to change course. Who's holding the President's feet to the fire to ensure that Russia's missing nuclear weapons are tracked down? Or that shipping containers entering the United States are searched? Or that people entering this country aren't here under falsified documents? Or that the FBI and CIA are sharing information? Or that our intelligence agencies have enough people to translate the mountain of data they're receiving?

Right now the Legislative branch is controlled by people who have bent over backwards to protect the President, despite his string of failures. They excused his stonewalling of the 9/11 Commission, dragged their feet on investigating Iraq's many scandals (torture, WMD's, no-bid-contracts), ignored his extra-constitutional dalliances (imperial presidency, signing statements), and they've made the extraordinary choice of working to change the laws that the President has been willfully breaking rather than insist that he follow the laws like the rest of us. That's your Republican Party in action.

So on this fifth anniversary of the worst day of my life, I'm tired of watching the country be crippled by its grief and fear. We're in danger, things aren't getting better, and we need to keep asking the same goddamn questions until we get answers. Who's keeping us safe? Well, I know who isn't.
Digby at Hullabaloo with this -
I knew that our government and media would react to this event in exactly the way bin Laden hoped and that we would do to ourselves what the Islamic extremists could only dream of doing: turn the country into a permanent state of faux crisis - and enable the authoritarian right wing of this country, which was unfortunately in power at the time, to pursue a doomed military empire, create a powerful imperial presidency and build the American style police state they had longed for, for decades. I knew that they would run with this "opportunity" and run with it they did.

It became a cliché and then a joke when people would say "the terrorists have won" but there is little doubt in my mind that they have achieved much of what they set out to do. Rather than being the object of sympathy and solidarity we were in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the world now sees the United States as the terrorists do - a rogue superpower, untrustworthy and unpredictable. The irrational invasion of Iraq cemented an image in the minds of Muslims and others that the US intends to steal valuable mid-east resources and wants a permanent presence in the region in order to subjugate its people.

The next generation of Americans is going to be left with a crippling economic burden from the twin effects of runaway spending on Iraq and an insane fiscal policy. Our society is being trained to believe we live in a perpetually fearful state of suspended animation, waiting for the ax to fall and increasingly sure that we must be willing to allow the government to do anything to maintain our precarious safety. (As long as we can keep shopping, of course.)

… Good work Osama. If you wanted to create terror, you seem to have succeeded. Or someone has on your behalf. There are those who seem intent upon wallowing in this "fear," immersing themselves in it, rubbing it all over them and everybody else. And there's no question why they want to do that. After all, terror doesn't just benefit al Qaeda, does it?
Then he points to this -
The conservative Center for Security Policy will begin airing a new television commercial criticizing those who might oppose [Bush's proposed legislation on show trials for terror detainees].

Some in Congress think "that if we retreat our terrorist enemies will leave us alone," says the ad that will run in Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont and New York. "They say we should close Guantanamo, where captured foes are kept from waging war against us. ... They seem to think we'll be safer if we cut and run."

With menacing music in the background, the commercial ends with an admonition: "Vote as if your life depended on it. Because it does."
To which Digby says -
And the Democrats, a day late and a dollar short when it comes to national security, have no choice but to feed into that sense of existential fear by nattering on about failed homeland security and accusing the president of feeble leadership because he hasn't caught Osama bin Laden, thus reinforcing the notion that we are under siege. Not that they have any choice really. To do otherwise would be, as Tom Kean said yesterday on This Week, "heresy."

… The problem is that this country simply cannot take an endless ginned-up "war" designed to benefit the Republican Party and Islamic terrorists and neither can the rest of the world. We have big problems to face and we need allies and cooperation to deal with them. Right now we are actively making things worse by allowing our government to pursue terrorism policies that create more of it.

This week the administration is planning to force the congress to rubber stamp its heretofore illegal torture and detention regime. They are going to use some of the 9/11 families to demagogue this legislation as the only proper response to the WTC attacks and they are going to try to trap Democratic politicians into voting for it or risk being "Clelanded" in the coming campaign.

… This torture and detention regime is making our country less safe and less free by creating more terrorists and degrading the US Constitution, but rather than dismantling it the Republicans are going to institutionalize it. It is only the latest of many such foolish actions our government undertook since 9/11. The question is whether we will continue to allow them to do Osama bin Laden's dirty work or if people of good sense will be able to resist their irrational warmongering and confront terrorists intelligently instead of giving them exactly what they want.

I'm not a big fan of Islamic fundamentalists myself. Like most fundamentalist religious fanatics, they are delusional, repressive, authoritarian tyrants and I have no desire for them to succeed in any way. I'm a liberal, after all. I'd really like to see the US government stop empowering them.

The fact that it is doing so makes me angry, I admit. On this day, of all days, especially.
Bill Montgomery -
If you had told me, five years ago, that on the fifth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in history Ground Zero would still be nothing but an enormous hole in the ground, I wouldn't have believed you - just as I wouldn't have believed that a major American city could be thoroughly trashed by a Category 4 hurricane and then left to molder in the mud for a year while various federal, state and local bureaucrats and hack politicians tried to make up their minds what to do.

I would have said that while those kinds of things can and do happen in Third World kleptocracies or decaying Stalinist police states, they're simply not possible in the richest and most powerful nation in history. Even if the voters could somehow be bamboozled into accepting such incompetence, the wealthy elites and corporate technocrats who own and operate the world's only remaining superpower would never stand for it. You can learn a lot about a country in five years.

What I've learned (from 9/11, the corporate scandals, the fiasco in Iraq, Katrina, the Cheney Administration's insane economic and environmental policies and the relentless dumbing down of the corporate media - plus the repeated electoral triumphs of the Rovian brand of "reality management") is that the United States is moving down the curve of imperial decay at an amazingly rapid clip. If anything, the speed of our descent appears to be accelerating.

The physical symptoms - a lost war, a derelict city, a Potemkin memorial hastily erected in a vacant lot - aren't nearly as alarming as the moral and intellectual paralysis that seems to have taken hold of the system. The old feedback mechanisms are broken or in deep disrepair, leaving America with an opposition party that doesn't know how (or what) to oppose, a military run by uniformed yes men, intelligence czars who couldn't find their way through a garden gate with a GPS locator, TV networks that don't even pretend to cover the news unless there's a missing white woman or a suspected child rapist involved, and talk radio hosts who think nuking Mecca is the solution to all our problems in the Middle East. We've got think tanks that can't think, security agencies that can't secure and accounting firms that can't count (except when their clients ask them to make 2+2=5). Our churches are either annexes to shopping malls, halfway homes for pederasts, or GOP precinct headquarters in disguise. Our economy is based on asset bubbles, defense contracts and an open-ended line of credit from the People's Bank of China, and we still can't push the poverty rate down or the median wage up.

I could happily go on, but I imagine you get my point. It's hard to think of a major American institution, tradition or cultural value that has not, at some point over the past five years, been shown to be a.) totally out of touch, b.) criminally negligent, c.) hopelessly corrupt, d.) insanely hypocritical or e.) all of the above.

It's getting hard to see how these trends can be reversed.

… The jihadis in Afghanistan didn't really take down the Soviet empire - they just delivered a very hard punch to a giant that was already falling. Looking at the state of America five years after 9/11, it no longer seems completely implausible that the same thing might one day be said of us.

This is not, I know, the most inspiring way to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the event that essentially kicked off the new American century - which at this point seems unlikely to last even a decade. If you want the standard patriotic rhetoric (hallowed ground, blessings of democracy, forward strategy for freedom, etc.) you'll have no trouble finding it elsewhere. There's no shortage of the stuff today (whitehouse.gov is a good place to start). But I personally don't think the record of the past half decade (or the current condition of Ground Zero) really justifies that kind of self-serving, self-justifying pablum.

Do you?
Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly here -
My biggest disappointment of the past five years - the biggest by a very long way - has been the way that George Bush transformed 9/11 from an opportunity to bring the country together into a cynical and partisan cudgel useful primarily for winning a few more votes in national elections.

Compare and contrast: FDR was surely one of the most partisan presidents of the 20th century, but after Pearl Harbor he announced that "Dr. New Deal has been replaced by Dr. Win the War." And he made good on that. World War II was largely a bipartisan war and FDR largely governed as a bipartisan commander-in-chief.

And Bush? Within a few months of 9/11 Karl Rove was telling party members what a great issue terrorism would be for Republicans. Andy Card was busily working on the marketing campaign for Iraq, timed for maximum impact on the midterm elections in 2002. Joe Lieberman's DHS bill was hijacked and deliberately loaded with anti-union features in order to draw Democratic complaints and hand Bush a campaign issue. The UN resolution on WMD inspections in Iraq was kept on fire until literally the day after the midterms, at which point the version acceptable to the rest of the world was suddenly agreeable to Bush as well. Democrats who supported Bush on the war were treated to the same scorched-earth campaigning as everyone else. Bipartisanship bought them nothing.

What else? Bush never engaged with Democrats in any way. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were both hawkish Dems who could have been co-opted early if Bush had had any intention of treating the war seriously. He didn't even try. He continued pushing divisive domestic issues like tax cuts and culture war amendments. ("Dr. Tax Cuts has been replaced by Dr. Win the War" would have been more appropriate.) He showed little interest in funding anti-proliferation efforts or working with serious Democratic proposals to improve domestic security at ports and chemical plants. The national security rhetoric from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the administration was relentlessly inflammatory and divisive.

I think this is a complaint that most conservatives don't accept - even conservatives who have soured on Bush over the past couple of years. But believe me: on the Democratic side of the aisle, Bush's intensely and gratuitously partisan approach to 9/11 and the war on terror is keenly felt. Sunday's Republican Party photo-op at Ground Zero was just more of the same.
And to cap it off for our Manhattan friend, broadcasting from in front of the sixteen-acre hole in lower Manhattan, Monday, September 11, 2006, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC has the final word. The video of his eight minute comment is here (Windows Media Player) or here (QuickTime).

If you don't have a fast connection to watch, the transcript is here -
And lastly tonight a Special Comment on why we are here.

Half a lifetime ago, I worked in this now-empty space.

And for 40 days after the attacks, I worked here again, trying to make sense of what happened, and was yet to happen, as a reporter.

And all the time, I knew that the very air I breathed contained the remains of thousands of people, including four of my friends, two in the planes and - as I discovered from those "missing posters" seared still into my soul - two more in the Towers.

And I knew too, that this was the pyre for hundreds of New York policemen and firemen, of whom my family can claim half a dozen or more, as our ancestors.

I belabor this to emphasize that, for me… this was, and is, and always shall be, personal.

And anyone who claims that I and others like me are "soft" - or have "forgotten" the lessons of what happened here - is at best a grasping, opportunistic, dilettante - and at worst, an idiot - whether he is a commentator, or a Vice President, or a President.

However. Of all the things those of us who were here five years ago could have forecast - of all the nightmares that unfolded before our eyes, and the others that unfolded only in our minds… none of us could have predicted… this.

Five years later this space… is still empty.

Five years later there is no Memorial to the dead.

Five years later there is no building rising to show with proud defiance that we would not have our America wrung from us, by cowards and criminals.

Five years later this country's wound is still open.

Five years later this country's mass grave is still unmarked.

Five years later… this is still… just a background for a photo-op.

It is beyond shameful.

At the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial - barely four months after the last soldier staggered from another Pennsylvania field, Mr. Lincoln said "we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

Lincoln used those words to immortalize their sacrifice.

Today our leaders could use those same words to rationalize their reprehensible inaction. "We cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow - this ground." So we won't.

Instead they bicker and buck-pass. They thwart private efforts, and jostle to claim credit for initiatives that go nowhere. They spend the money on irrelevant wars, and elaborate self-congratulations, and buying off columnists to write how good a job they're doing - instead of doing any job at all.

Five years later, Mr. Bush… we are still fighting the terrorists on these streets. And look carefully, sir - on these 16 empty acres, the terrorists are clearly, still winning.

And, in a crime against every victim here and every patriotic sentiment you mouthed but did not enact, you have done nothing about it.

And there is something worse still than this vast gaping hole in this city, and in the fabric of our nation.

There is, its symbolism - of the promise unfulfilled - the urgent oath, reduced to lazy execution.

The only positive on 9/11 and the days and weeks that so slowly and painfully followed it was the unanimous humanity, here, and throughout the country. The government, the President in particular, was given every possible measure of support.

Those who did not belong to his party - tabled that.

Those who doubted the mechanics of his election - ignored that.

Those who wondered of his qualifications - forgot that.

History teaches us that nearly unanimous support of a government cannot be taken away from that government by its critics.

It can only be squandered by those who use it not to heal a nation's wounds, but to take political advantage.

Terrorists did not come and steal our newly-regained sense of being American first, and political, fiftieth. Nor did the Democrats. Nor did the media. Nor did the people.

The President - and those around him - did that.

They promised bi-partisanship, and then showed that to them, "bi-partisanship" meant that their party would rule and the rest would have to follow, or be branded, with ever-escalating hysteria, as morally or intellectually confused; as appeasers; as those who, in the Vice President's words yesterday, "validate the strategy of the terrorists."

They promised protection, and then showed that to them "protection" meant going to war against a despot whose hand they had once shaken - a despot who we now learn from our own Senate Intelligence Committee, hated Al-Qaeda as much as we did.

The polite phrase for how so many of us were duped into supporting a war, on the false premise that it had "something to do" with 9/11, is "lying by implication."

The impolite phrase is "impeachable offense."

Not once in now five years has this President ever offered to assume responsibility for the failures that led to this empty space… and to this, the current, curdled, version of our beloved country.

Still, there is a last snapping flame from a final candle of respect and fairness: even his most virulent critics have never suggested he alone bears the full brunt of the blame for 9/11.

Half the time, in fact, this President has been so gently treated, that he has seemed not even to be the man most responsible - for anything - in his own administration.

Yet what is happening this very night?

A mini-series, created, influenced - possibly financed by - the most radical and cold of domestic political Machiavellis, continues to be televised into our homes.

The documented truths of the last fifteen years are replaced by bald-faced lies; the talking points of the current regime parroted; the whole sorry story blurred, by spin, to make the party out of office seem vacillating and impotent, and the party in office, seem like the only option.

How dare you, Mr. President, after taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love, and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death… after monstrously transforming it into fear and suspicion and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections… how dare you or those around you… ever "spin" 9/11.

Just as the terrorists have succeeded - are still succeeding - as long as there is no memorial and no construction here at Ground Zero.

So too have they succeeded, and are still succeeding - as long as this government uses 9/11 as a wedge to pit Americans against Americans.

This is an odd point to cite a television program, especially one from March of 1960. But as Disney's continuing sell-out of the truth (and this country) suggests, even television programs can be powerful things.

And long ago, a series called "The Twilight Zone" broadcast a riveting episode entitled "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street."

In brief: a meteor sparks rumors of an invasion by extra-terrestrials disguised as humans. The electricity goes out. A neighbor pleads for calm.

Suddenly his car - and only his car - starts. Someone suggests he must be the alien. Then another man's lights go on.

As charges and suspicion and panic overtake the street, guns are inevitably produced.

An "alien" is shot - but he turns out to be just another neighbor, returning from going for help.

The camera pulls back to a near-by hill, where two extra-terrestrials are seen, manipulating a small device that can jam electricity. The veteran tells his novice that there's no need to actually attack, that you just turn off a few of the human machines and then, "they pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it's themselves."

And then, in perhaps his finest piece of writing, Rod Serling sums it up with words of remarkable prescience, given where we find ourselves tonight.

"The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices - to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own - for the children, and the children yet unborn."

When those who dissent are told time and time again - as we will be, if not tonight by the President, then tomorrow by his portable public chorus - that he is preserving our freedom, but that if we use any of it, we are somehow un-American…

When we are scolded, that if we merely question, we have "forgotten the lessons of 9/11"… look into this empty space behind me and the bi-partisanship upon which this administration also did not build, and tell me:

Who has left this hole in the ground?

We have not forgotten, Mr. President.

You have.

May this country forgive you.
The guy thinks he's Edward R. Murrow. Well, someone has to be these days. He'll do.

So maybe all this will help our attorney friend feel he's not so alone. And, after all, he should be proud that, on his mother's side of the family, he is related to Rod Serling.

Posted by Alan at 22:08 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006 22:28 PDT home

Sunday, 10 September 2006
Stuck on Stupid - No One Seems to Know Much
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Stuck on Stupid - No One Seems to Know Much
Slavoj Zizek is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. That would be these people from the University of London, and in the September 11 issue of The Guardian (UK), Zizek has some interesting thoughts on the 9/11 anniversary.

The idea is rather startling. It's that five years on we're still stuck on the big lesson we learned when the Berlin Wall fell. All this talk about how 9/11 changed everything is silly. Those who claim that, to justify whatever they wish to do - change the rules for just about anything - don't realize they're stuck on something that just isn't so any longer.

The core of the argument is here -
What, then, is the historical meaning of 9/11? Twelve years earlier, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall fell. The collapse of communism was perceived as the collapse of political utopias. Today, we live in a post-utopian period of pragmatic administration, since we have learned the hard lesson of how noble political utopias can end in totalitarian terror. But this collapse of utopias was followed by 10 years of the big utopia of global capitalist liberal democracy. November 9 thus announced the "happy 90s", the Francis Fukuyama dream of the "end of history", the belief that liberal democracy had, in principle, won, that the search was over, that the advent of a global, liberal community was around the corner, that the obstacles to this Hollywood happy ending are merely local pockets of resistance where the leaders have not yet grasped that their time is over.

September 11 is the symbol of the end of this utopia, a return to real history. A new era is here with new walls everywhere, between Israel and Palestine, around the EU, on the US-Mexico and Spain-Morocco borders. It is an era with new forms of apartheid and legalized torture. As President Bush said after September 11, America is in a state of war. But the problem is that the US is not in a state of war. For the large majority, daily life goes on and war remains the business of state agencies. The distinction between the state of war and peace is blurred. We are entering a time in which a state of peace itself can be at the same time a state of emergency.

When Bush celebrated the thirst for freedom in post-communist countries as a "fire in the minds of men", the unintended irony was that he used a phrase from Dostoevsky's The Possessed, where it designates the ruthless activity of radical anarchists who burned a village: "The fire is in the minds of men, not on the roofs of houses." What Bush didn't grasp is that on September 11, five years ago, New Yorkers saw and smelled the smoke from this fire.
So it seems we're stuck on this idea of "the big utopia of global capitalist liberal democracy" - what the Republicans say was Ronald Reagan's gift to the world. Our system works, and it's the best, and everyone should adopt it. The attacks five years ago were a resounding "no" to that, but are being used to say we should all think real hard about the lessons of November 9, 1989, in spite of the dead of 201 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Things have changed since 1989, dramatically, but that seems too hard to grasp. So who are the reactionaries here, clinging to what may no longer be significant, say "no, no, no" to what's really going on?

But it is a given these days - an axiom, like in mathematics but here accepted as true as the base of working out any geopolitical proof - that our system works, and it's the best, and everyone should adopt it. You cannot find a politician in the United States, from the far left to the far right, who does not build his or her position on this "indisputable" given. All else that follows is detail - the best way to follow up on what was demonstrated decisively in 1989 - no matter what happened five years ago.

Looking at things a new way, when events warrant reconsideration, is not something anyone likes to do. Who has time to question the really basic assumptions? And who thinks about such things at all?

These high-level and abstract sorts of things just elicit yawns, or derision. Where we're going, what we do, and who leads us, doesn't concern most people. They don't make decisions on who they will vote for, or whether they will vote at all, in that realm. And smart politicians know that. That's why you see things like this - In a Pivotal Year, GOP Plans to Get Personal - Millions to Go to Digging Up Dirt on Democrats - "The National Republican Congressional Committee, which this year dispatched a half-dozen operatives to comb through tax, court and other records looking for damaging information on Democratic candidates, plans to spend more than 90 percent of its $50 million-plus advertising budget on what officials described as negative ads."

People respond to the juicy stuff the opposition digs up. It works. It's not "deep thinking," but it will do just fine.

Reacting to that news item, Bill Montgomery says this -
I think it was P.T. Barnum who said that nobody ever went broke underestimating (or in Shrub's case, misunderestimating) the intelligence of the American people. That's not entirely fair: Americans can be very smart, even brilliant, about some things, particularly if those things involve gadgets and especially if those gadgets can be used to make money or kill people. We're a positivist wet dream - the most relentlessly practical people since the Romans. But our culture and economic incentives all tend to channel our intellectual energies away from subjects that have no immediate utilitarian value. And for most Americans, most of the time, that means away from politics and current affairs, which only rarely have any direct impact on or relevance to our daily lives.

… All this helps create the sea of political ignorance and apathy on which Rovian admirals (and their less competent Democratic opponents) launch their attack vessels, armed with sales techniques borrowed from the advertising industry and the social psychology departments of the major research universities.
It's not at all about thinking about things but more a crude sort of marketing, as in this, which was allegedly written by an anonymous Madison Avenue executive -
Understand that you are dealing with a target audience that doesn't care enough, or simply refuses to devote the time to learn the real facts regarding the real issues. Instead, their perception has BECOME the facts!

… Do not try to change this reality. Work with it. The perception you create IS the reality! Take heart! If they perceive something despite obvious evidence to the contrary, you will be able to make them perceive any number of things!
That sounds like a line from an early sixties Hollywood comedy about the advertising industry - something Rock Hudson or Tony Randall would say (with Doris Day in the background looking shocked). Maybe it is. But it is disturbingly close to something that has been quoted in these pages any number of times, that an anonymous White House official, before the 2004 elections telling Ron Suskind this -
We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. While you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.
Yep, these guys create their own reality, to which Montgomery says this -
There are many things you can call that point of view and the style of politics it supports. Democracy isn't one of them. If perception really is everything, and managing mass perceptions is the be-all and end-all of the political process, then Spengler was right - what we call "democracy" is really just a disguise for plutocracy.

Or worse. If all that matters is the science of perceptual manipulation, then the technicians pushing the media buttons can make the machine work for anybody - capitalists, Christian theocrats, little green men from Mars. It doesn't matter what ideological brand of soap you're selling, as long as you control the means of mass communication.

… But if perception management actually was all that mattered - if the Rovians really could "create their own reality" - they wouldn't be gearing up for the biggest negative campaign in the history of off-year congressional elections. They wouldn't have to, since media consumers would be cheerfully confident that the war in Iraq is being won, that the Cheney tax cuts are delivering prosperity for all, and that the GOP is a model of modern public administration.
So folks really are paying attention? They're certainly not reading Spengler's The Decline of the West. No one does.

Montgomery argues the Republicans are going negative - using ninety percent of their media budget - because reality still actually matters -
Voters are influenced not just by the chaotic scenes from Iraq they see on TV or the steady drip of US casualties they read about in the obituary sections of their local newspapers, but also by their own finances, their job prospects, the price of gas, the value of their homes, etc. These perceptions aren't so easy to manipulate with propaganda trickery - unlike claims of "victory" in an invisible war against terrorism or 30-second spots about the personal or political foibles of a little-known Democratic congressional candidate.

What's worse (from a Rovian point of view), the American people may still be capable of learning from reality, despite their distaste for anything that smells like a political debate.
The evidence of that is from the recent Pew Research polling, with results like this, on our current approach to the world - threaten the pesky, then go for regime change, with invasion and occupation and setting up a government we want -
An increasing number of Americans see nonmilitary approaches - such as decreasing US dependence on Middle East oil and avoiding involvement with the problems of other countries - as effective in this regard. Fully two-thirds (67%) say that decreasing America's dependence on oil from the Middle East is a very important step in preventing terrorism - the highest percentage for any option tested.
Not war? What this - pragmatism? Montgomery calls it "a pretty impressive outbreak of popular common sense?" And it's so dangerous the administration is doing all that Hitler and "Islamofascist" stuff. Common sense is the enemy too.

So it's showdown time -
The Rovian propaganda-based reality versus the rest of the world's reality-based reality, with the voters as the judges and the corporate media elites as the referees-on-the-take. The last few rounds should be bloody, and most likely downright vicious, in the Mike Tyson, bite-off-your-opponent's-ear sense of the word.

… Personally, I tend to believe it will take a rather massive eruption of reality - and probably a catastrophic one - to produce fundamental political change in America, of the kind that might allow a progressive left-wing movement to smash the Rovian machine, break the political stranglehold of private wealth and bring the corporations, including the corporate media, back under some kind of check and balance.

… Call me a wild-eyed radical, but I'm hoping for a 1932, or at least a 1980 in reverse, not a 1994 in reverse - although we all could certainly do without a repeat of the Great Depression or the stagflationary '70s.

We're obviously not looking at a realignment election yet. We're probably not even close (although I wouldn't put money on that proposition.) But it's getting hard to see how an economic and/or foreign policy train wreck can be avoided, one that will eventually force large numbers of voters to fundamentally reassess their existing political loyalties.

… I still believe (call it an article of faith) that a majority of the voters will eventually figure out they've been had - sold not just a bill of goods but a counterfeit reality, one that is crumbling in front of their eyes. When that happens, they're going to be enraged, in a way that makes this year's discontent look like the passing tantrum of a grumpy two-year old. We can only pray they'll be angry at the right people.
That last warning is important. The Disney-ABC 9/11 movie seems to have a clear subtext - sure, 9/11 was awful, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq a god-awful mess now, but that's all because of Bill Clinton. When that's the official position of one of the largest media organizations in the world, and a major television network, and soon ABC News itself no doubt - based on evidence they, frankly, just made up on the spot - then all bets are off. Heck, everyone knows it's all the fault of someone else - John Lennon. That miniseries is no doubt in production in Burbank right now.

Turning away from what's just "not reality" doesn't necessarily mean you turn to anything else more real. People are funny that way.

And the spin goes on to work on all sorts of realities. See Andrew Sullivan in the Times of London here on that speech Bush gave the week before, saying he was pulling the bad guys from our secret overseas prisons and think they should be tried in a special kind of court where they cannot defend themselves or hear the evidence against them (the Bush speech was cover in these pages here). The president also said we learned a lot from these bad guys because we sort of maybe tortured it out of them. So he wants the odd trials approved by congress, and the "techniques" used on these guys approved too.

Sullivan -
Without describing them, Bush's speech essentially said that without these interrogation techniques thousands of Americans would have been murdered, and so they have to be retained as options by the CIA. Wouldn't this violate the Geneva conventions and American law, as the Supreme Court found? Under any rational interpretation, yes. But Bush has asserted that these techniques are not "torture" as he defines it and if Congress goes along with this, such techniques become legal with the president's signature.

The push for passage in the months before the election is intense. Last Thursday Bill Frist, the Republican leader of the Senate, even threatened to bypass a committee of three resistant, constitutionalist Republican senators (John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham) to get the measure to the Senate floor and force the Democrats to "side with the terrorists".

The rationale is clear. In the week of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 the president wants to change the debate from Iraq, from Iran, from the past and position himself once again as the indispensable protector. It's territory he knows and feels secure on: goading the opposition as appeasers and terror lovers.

But Bush had one more ace to play. Here's the critical quote from the speech: "We're now approaching the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks - and the families of those murdered that day have waited patiently for justice. They should have to wait no longer. So I'm announcing today that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and 11 other terrorists in CIA custody have been transferred to Guantanamo Bay … As soon as Congress acts to authorize the military commissions I have proposed, the men our intelligence officials believe orchestrated the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans can face justice."

So any congressional resistance to Bush's war crimes and military tribunal bill will be depicted as delaying justice for the perpetrators of 9/11. The choice in the November elections will be described as being between breaching the Geneva conventions or backing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

… It is, of course, a phony choice. In reality the detention policies pursued by Bush have made prosecution of many of the 9/11 perpetrators much more difficult.

Evidence procured by torture cannot be permitted in a trial without destroying centuries of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. Moreover, most American military lawyers believe the long-established procedures under the code of military justice are far preferable to the kangaroo courts devised by Bush.

As for the torture techniques, the army deputy chief of staff for intelligence testified last week that "no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that". Who are we to believe? The president or the army? It's also clear Bush's policy is a PR disaster. The trial of monsters like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed could be a great propaganda weapon for the West. But only if the trials are seen to be fair and open and in line with Anglo-American justice. If the trials violate the Geneva conventions then the PR victory goes to Al-Qaeda.

Surely the president knows this. The most generous interpretation is that he believes that torture has worked in getting intelligence from suspected terrorists; and that interrogation techniques perfected by Stalin's secret police are not violations of the Geneva conventions. He may simply have persuaded himself that he hasn't authorized what he has plainly authorized. I'm not sure what level of psychological denial this amounts to; but it is unnerving in a president of the most powerful country on earth.

The more realistic interpretation is more depressing. It is that Bush knows exactly what he's doing, believes torture works, wants to cement it in law and simultaneously wants to declare the US is still in compliance with Geneva. Squaring this circle requires that his semantic distinction between "coercive interrogation techniques" and "torture" will become conventional wisdom.

For good measure, he must also see this as a political gamble. He has seen the polls - and they are grim for the Republicans. The only way to turn this around is a striking initiative - and returning to the prosecution of the 9/11 criminals is about as good as it gets.

The stakes are high. If the Democrats gain the House or Senate in November, congressional investigations into the torture policy could begin, and no one knows where that might lead. So Bush's war crimes bill is designed to do two things: recast the campaign as one in which only the Republicans are serious about terrorism, and pass legislation that can retroactively protect Bush officials from any future war crime prosecutions.

In the next two months the president is fighting for what remains of his political life. This much we now know: he is not going down without a struggle.
Ah, but will reality win?

Then there's this -
Next week, I'm informed via troubled White House sources, will see the full unveiling of Karl Rove's fall election strategy. He's intending to line up 9/11 families to accuse McCain, Warner and Graham of delaying justice for the perpetrators of that atrocity, because they want to uphold the ancient judicial traditions of the US military and abide by the Constitution. He will use the families as an argument for legalizing torture, setting up kangaroo courts for military prisoners, and giving war crime impunity for his own aides and cronies. This is his "Hail Mary" move for November; it's brutally exploitative of 9/11; it's pure partisanship; and it's designed to enable an untrammeled executive. Decent Republicans, Independents and Democrats must do all they can to expose and resist this latest descent into political thuggery. If you need proof that this administration's first priority is not a humane and effective counter-terror strategy, but a brutal, exploitative path to retaining power at any price, you just got it.
That's Sullivan too. He must hate America. And he's afraid of clever marketing.

And there's this from Sunday, September 10 -
Vice President Cheney said today that the ongoing national debate over the war in Iraq is emboldening adversaries to believe they can undermine the resolve of the American people to complete the U.S. mission in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They can't beat us in a stand-up fight, they never have, but they're absolutely convinced they can break our will [and that] the American people don't have the stomach for the fight, " Cheney said on NBC's Meet the Press.

The vice president said US allies in Afghanistan and Iraq "have doubts" America will finish the job there. "And those doubts are encouraged, obviously, when they see the kind of debate that we've had in the United States," Cheney said. "Suggestions, for example, that we should withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq simply feed into that whole notion, validates the strategy of the terrorists."
Enough of talking about reality and trying, in fits and starts, to use common sense. People just need to shut the hell up. What the government does is not open for discussion. We cannot afford that sort of thing any longer.

And people know nothing, it seems.

But people have a way of figuring things out, one way or another, as in this, an open letter to George W. Bush from Bill Clinton's penis -
Well, George, I gotta say - even though I only have one eye, I should have seen this coming. I mean, I'd heard in various executive washrooms that you and your people harbored a massive grudge against me for being so irresistible, but to invade a sovereign nation, empty America's coffers, destroy the United States' reputation in the world, and make this planet much less safe because you wanted to show that yours is, at least metaphorically, bigger, wider, more powerful? That's just sick, man. What the hell is wrong with you? Tell me, when you were a kid, did that wire monkey that passes for your mama point at you "down there" and laugh because you were even less endowed than your sister, Doro? Did all those hours with your childhood imaginary friend blasting all those defenseless frogs to smithereens anesthetize you to the CIA torture rooms you reluctantly admitted really do exist? See, I want to understand why you spend so much time trying to prove your manhood to your dad and anyone marginally more popular than you are.

And now because your little Iraq adventure failed to make you BMOC in the Middle East (or anywhere else, for that matter), I hear that some of your right-wing, Bible-humping fans have scripted a "docudrama" blaming my boy for letting 9/11 happen, despite the fact that according to every Gregorian calendar I'm aware of, September 11, 2001 was officially on your watch. The HELL? It's Bill's fault that you didn't sit up and take notice when Harriet Miers handed you that Aug. 6 PDB because you were too busy trying to peer down her Dress Barn "cowboy style" blouse? I know, it was her smoky, kohl-lined eyes that distracted you from capturing Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora when you had the chance? Jeez, man, it's always anyone else's fault but yours, eh? Oh, and by the way, I hear this "docudrama" is so loosely based on the official 9/11 Commission Report that it might as well have been plagiarized from "Mildred Pierce." Whatever you're holding over Gloved Mouse, Inc. and its subsidiaries to guarantee they air this potentially libelous piece of revisionist crap must be something tasty, indeed.

Face it, George: you're already going down in history as the worst President this country's ever had. You really need to get a grip on something other than that fun-sized roll of Life Savers in your pocket.

Your nemesis, Li'l Bill
It's a true about what's happened as anything else. Figuring out what's really going on isn't that very hard.

Posted by Alan at 22:43 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006 06:44 PDT home

Hot Off the Virtual Press
Topic: Announcements
Hot Off the Virtual Press
The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log, is now online. This is Volume 4, Number 37 for the week of September 10, 2006.Click here to go there...

Commentary will resume here tomorrow, or sooner.

As for this week's issue, I was out of town for a few days so this issue has only four of the usual long commentaries on current events, but they do dive deep into the issues. They are explained below. On the other hand, there are ten pages of photographs, and you may find some of them rather amazing. Some of that is the subject matter, and some of it technical - I may have actually figured out the Nikon D70. There's a deep array of nature shots, which is a something new. But there is Hollywood too, and there are fantastic cars, and the botanical close-ups get better.

And there are the weekly diversions - quotes on the nature of history, as that Disney-ABC 9/11 movie seems to be the big issue of the day, and the weekly dose of the weird from our friend in Texas.

Direct links to specific pages -

Extended Observations on Current Events ______________________________

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Posted by Alan at 19:40 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
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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

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