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Consider:

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

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

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

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Thursday, 26 October 2006
Stepping Back - Short Notes on a Slow News Day
Topic: Perspective
Stepping Back - Short Notes on a Slow News Day
The slow news day in question would be Thursday, October 26 - twelve days before the midterm elections. The war continued apace - we lost another five of our guys in Iraq, bringing the total to ninety-six for the month. But that wasn't front page for long. We lost four firefighters the same day as the wildfires fire edged its way toward Palm Springs out here, and there was talk of murder charges if someone or other is ever caught. Those deaths got more play. No one expected that. It was big news - folks are numb to the Iraq business and this was new. There seems to be a new variation on the cynical news saying, "if it bleeds, it leads." It now has to be unexpected blood. People are jaded, or perhaps looking for something they don't expect. And no one expects anything different now with Iraq.

The day was filled with commentary on the political ad - never so nasty and full of fury. There was a new classic, although that was one of many. The Michael J. Fox ad was still the buzz that day, with Matt Lauer on the NBC Today Show, chatting with Susan Estrich, saying this - "And you brought up Michael J. Fox. Let me just ask you: You know, Rush Limbaugh started a lot of controversy when he said perhaps Michael J. Fox was exaggerating or faking these effects of Parkinson's disease in that ad promoting stem cell research. Didn't Rush Limbaugh just say what a lot of people were privately thinking?"

No Matt, only idiots were thinking that - but you have to generate some buzz, so you see what Lauer was up to, playing a moronic gadfly for ratings. There's no issue left. Rush Limbaugh is who he is, and those who hang on his every word - those who call themselves the "ditto-heads" - needed someone to tell them that what they were proposing - ending stem cell research because it killed the cell clumps that would never become children but should be considered as if they were real children in some religious and political power calculation - was okay because the man in favor of such research was really faking his disease to get the godless Democrats elected. The story was over. Lauer couldn't really revive it. And they jumped to the Palm Springs fire anyway - so it hardly matters.

Others stepped back, sensing it was a day for introspection and dealing with the new malaise, or whatever you wished to call it - that sense that anything different now with Iraq is out of the question.

John Dickerson, the Chief Political Correspondent (cool title) for SLATE, stepped back -
There is a reason conservatives used to be against nation building. It can turn into baby-sitting. That's what this war feels like it has become: a tense exercise in which the United States tries to balance an uncomfortable mix of threats and pleas without being able to use ultimate force. If the al-Maliki government doesn't do what the Bush administration wants, Iraq will become an even greater nightmare. But if the United States gets fed up and leaves, Iraq will become an enduring nightmare. In baby-sitting, this lack of true force is usually resolved when the parents come home. No such luck here.

The president said that he won't put any more pressure on the Iraqi political system than it can bear, but how can he know what the Iraqi government can bear? He doesn't even know what the American government can handle. President Bush outlined two goals for his second term - comprehensive immigration reform and Social Security reform. Neither worked out. It's quite a stretch to think he'll be more successful at evaluating, from half a world away, what the Iraqis are capable of and whether they've achieved that. It's like trying to do brain surgery while wearing oven mitts.

The president used to rely on what he believed was the Iraqi people's innate yearning for freedom. He could refer to their courageous turnout on Election Day and hope that spirit would ultimately move their political leaders in the right direction. That hasn't happened. Now he's making an even longer-odds bet: that he can influence Iraqi politicians to do the right thing without making them bristle. This seems far harder than merely securing the streets and turning on the lights. As a political matter at home, this strategy seems likely to build pressure for American withdrawal because it focuses all of our eyes on the behavior of Prime Minister al-Maliki. If his government misses a bench mark, it looks incompetent. If al-Maliki asserts his independence by telling Bush to back off, he looks ungrateful. Both will feed the growing sentiment among Bush's conservative allies that Iraqis cannot handle this freedom that has been given to them no matter what the United States tries or how many troops fill the streets. And if the Iraqis can't handle it, then why should Americans keep dying to help them? This, of course, is not the conclusion the president wants people to reach, but his welcome candor about the state of affairs in Iraq also pointed out how few options he has left.
Baby-sitting. That seems about right. And that explains why the news from Iraq is no longer news, or at least not new news. Old news goes to the back of the queue. Tales of baby-sitting are tedious.

And the sense of no good options, or maybe no options at all, later the same day led to this -
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday that anyone demanding deadlines for progress in Iraq should "just back off," because it is too difficult to predict when Iraqis will resume control of their country.

During an often-combative Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said that while benchmarks for security, political and economic progress are valuable, "it's difficult. We're looking out into the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty."

He said the goals have no specific deadlines or consequences if they are not met by specific dates.

"You're looking for some sort of a guillotine to come falling down if some date isn't met," Rumsfeld told reporters. "That is not what this is about."
Okay, Don, then what is it about? Three-quarters of America would like to know. Our guys are getting killed - and a whole lot of Iraqis are dying.

He didn't say what it was about. He was too stuck in his anger at the reporters. In response to one question about reducing troop levels - asking when if ever that would happen - he shot back, "That's a rather accusatory way to put it." This was an exercise is disabusing everyone trying to find out where all this is going of their stupid assumptions about what we were up to. It wasn't about what we were actually up to.

But people were trying to put two and two together. This was less than two weeks before the big election for control of Congress, and everyone knows the Bush administration's conduct of the war has become perhaps the defining issue. And it was two days after a timeline was first announced by our ambassador and General Casey in Baghdad - with no Iraqi official anywhere to be seen. They said that they and Iraqi leaders had agreed to "craft guidelines" toward progress in the country. The next day, Iraq's president said that wasn't so - these benchmarks just reflected the campaign season pressures in the United States, and had little to do with them at all.

Rumsfeld said it was all really nothing - critics and the media were just trying to "make a little mischief" by trying to "find a little daylight between what the Iraqis say or someone in the United States says." And he was having none of it. So everyone should just back off. There was no problem. He doesn't like it when people don't trust him and look at the events and try to figure things out. Who do they think they are?

This was not a successful press briefing. No one was satisfied, on either side.

Yes, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced in Baghdad on Tuesday that Iraqi leaders had agreed that by the end of the year that they really will have a plan that lays out the times by which they want certain things accomplished. This was a very big deal. It was real progress. And yes, the next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected Khalilzad's claim and said "his" government had not agreed to anything. President Bush then said that al-Maliki was correct in saying mandates could not be imposed on Iraq, but then said the United States would not have unlimited patience.

So what's up with all this? Folks just want to know.

That's the problem. It's not their business. Rumsfeld - "You ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it's complicated, it's difficult. Honorable people are working on these things together. There isn't any daylight between them."

So what you saw was not what you saw.

This was not a successful press briefing. No one was satisfied, on either side.

But the president did explain it all. The goal here is victory -
I want to remind you, victory is a government that can sustain itself, govern itself - a country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, and serves as an ally in the war on terror.
That sounds good, until you actually think about it, and that's what "Alex" at Martini Republic does here -
The problem is its practicality. First, getting a central government in Iraq which can sustain itself has proven immensely difficult. After three and a half years of training Iraqis, we've come to find that the new security forces are in many cases themselves contributors to the cycle of violence. Increasingly, experts are questioning the viability of a unified Iraq governed by a central authority. Whether this is a "practical" goal is open to serious doubt.

Putting aside that issue, an even more intractable problem is creating a government which "serves as an ally in the war on terror." The current Iraqi government hasn't demonstrated any propensity to become that ally. The most powerful faction of the Shiite-dominated government has close ties with Iran, one "axis of evil" it's party leadership having been sheltered by the Tehran regime for years. The other powerful faction in the current Iraqi government is the Sadrists. Moqtada al Sadr has never renounced violence against US forces, and his Mehdi Army just recently routed government forces in Amarah.

Maliki himself spoke in condemnation of Israel and in support of Hezbollah during the fighting in Lebanon, even as a 100,000 people, including five members of Parliament, rallied in Baghdad in support of Hezbollah, chanting "Death to Israel, Death to America."

Recently, Prime Minister al Maliki pressured the US to release a Mahdi Army commander believed to be involved in death squad activity ravaging the Iraqi capital. Just yesterday, al Maliki rejected US "benchmarks" for curbing Shiite militias and achieving political reconciliation with Sunni dissidents, and criticized the US for a raid in Sadr City aimed at arresting another Sadrist death squad leader.

The practical reality of Iraq is that any representative government will necessarily be dominated by the Shiites who comprise a majority of the people. And that government will be more inclined to lean towards its Shiite neighbor, Iran, than become our steadfast ally in the war on terror.
What would Rumsfeld say to that? He could do a Ronald Reagan - "There he goes again," looking at what everyone just sees. He doesn't seem satisfied that "honorable people" are working on these things together.

That last bit is cute - you look at the facts on the ground, and at the events that have actually occurred, and you put two and two together, and then you get accused of "questioning the honor" of those who got us into this mess.

Of course that's the classic defense of the indefensible. When you have no answers, when you're sort of caught red-handed having done something extraordinarily bone-headed, when all the really unpleasant evidence and facts are sitting out there, streaming and stinking - you change the subject. "Are you impugning my honor, sir?" That wasn't exactly the issue, but you have to discuss that, and say you're not really doing that. Those with pre-teen kids know the variation - "Are you calling me a liar?" That's usually followed by tears of hurt - how could you think that? You then say pleasant things to your kid, so he or she doesn't feel so hurt. Works every time, except when you say, no, you're not a liar, but in this case you're lying, so stop it.

Maybe that's how reporters should deal with Rumsfeld and the rest. Of course you're all honorable men, but it seems the evidence suggests you're wrong. That will never happen, but it would be fun.

Stepping back, could this foreshadow the way the administration and its party will approach the final days before the election, saying anyone who questions them about facts and evidence and events, and where we are in all this sorry mess, is hurtfully questioning their honor, and their noble intentions, and that's just not fair? That does neatly shift the ground.

Actually, it's hardly new. But now it may be the only thing left.

But you have to deal with this - Cheney Calls 'Water-Boarding' A Valuable Interrogation Tool - "The vice president confirmed that an interrogation technique that simulates drowning and has been called 'cruel and inhumane' was used on al Qaeda suspects."

It was in a rightwing AM radio interview Tuesday, and folks only noticed two days later. Vice President Cheney confirmed that detainees were subjected to water-boarding, and that's the first such admission by a Bush administration official. It may be war crimes territory, but he said - "It's a no-brainer for me." Even we used to define that as torture - and the president suggests with all his new authority to redefine what this nation thinks the Geneva Conventions really mean, that would be a no-no. Now this.

Okay - they got their wires crossed here. And as for honor, the argument has long been the smoking gun thing. That is this - torture is the moral and honorable thing to do, if it means there's a slim chance the subject won't just say anything to stop the pain and might, by luck, actually know something, and by even greater luck, reveal a plot that could kill us all. He might, and he might not know anything, or he might even be the wrong guy entirely - but the moral and honorable thing to do is get him to say something or other. It's obviously the right thing to do.

So they now will run on this definition of honorable? Why not? Most people agree. They've been told the tales of all the bad guys out to get us. No point in being all finicky about such things.

Some disagree of course. The November vote will, among other things, reveal this issue of what is honorable. People need to step back and decide.

RJ Eskow has another step back and think item here -
Any American who honors our military heroes - and I hope that's all Americans - should be outraged at the GOP's mistreatment of our troops. The practice of forcing psychologically scarred soldiers back into battle is yet another example of the way Republicans treat our fighting men and women like used parts. Oh, and one other thing - it's a lousy way to run a war, too.

Let's make one thing clear from the start: There's a word for soldiers who return from battle with post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological problems. That word is - hero.

The stigma associated with mental disorders should become a thing of the past. Even the strongest body may react to intense stress and shock by changing biochemically, and the bravest personality may react to trauma in unexpected ways.

These soldiers, just like those who have suffered physical injury, have made a sacrifice on behalf of their country. They should be honored and respected, not denigrated. They deserve all the medical care they require, and should receive a hero's welcome when they come home.
Whatever set off Eskow? That would be this CBS report on what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (General Patton had another word for it), and the soldier is one Bryce Syverson -
"It ended up they just took his weapon away from him and said he was non-deployable and couldn't have a weapon," says his father, Larry Syverson. "He was on suicide watch in a lockdown."

… That was last August. This August, he was deployed to Ramadi, in the heart of the Sunni triangle - and he had a weapon.

Under pressure to maintain troop levels, military doctors tell CBS News it's become a "common practice" to recycle soldiers with mental disorders back into combat. The military's actions were first reported by the Hartford Courant newspaper.

"It's flat-out not a good idea," says Dr. John Wilson, an expert in combat trauma.
Eskow -
Dr. Wilson is undoubtedly a good man to have in your corner if you're experiencing a wave of panic, given his gift for understatement.

These soldiers risk being scarred for life by this re-exposure to the trauma that wounded them in the first place. They're also a danger to their fellow soldiers, and to innocent civilians.

They're only there because the Republicans failed to plan adequately for this war. Rather than admit their failure, the Administration recycles these casualties to conceal their own mistakes.
That may be a bit over the top. We're just a bit short of combat troops. And there's probably not any member of the administration who didn't like that movie about Patton.

There is the other matter. This stressed out hero (Eskow) or total loser (Cheney-Rumsfeld-Patton) "isn't what you'd want to find in the person riding point or covering your back, if you're a soldier ... or doing a door-to-door search of your neighborhood if you're a civilian. In fact, the only person who benefits from having troops on the ground with this disorder is the insurgent. He's facing an enemy who's exhausted, jumpy, and unfocused."

But as Rumsfeld said, you don't go to war with the army you want, you go with the army you have.

So you decide who's honorable here. Then you vote.

This last item - sending traumatized and clearly mentally ill soldiers back into battle - may seem on odd issue to arise now - but it was a day for stepping back and looking at things. It was that kind of day, with many people trying to put things in perspective. That happens when the news is slow, or more of the same, and when there's an election twelve days away. We're supposed to decide whether we keep this crew.

Posted by Alan at 22:27 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 27 October 2006 08:00 PDT home

Wednesday, 25 October 2006
Reassurance Offered - Explaining Things Will Be Fine
Topic: Iraq
Reassurance Offered - Explaining Things Will Be Fine
It's all in the sequencing - thing have to happen in the right order, and sometimes they don't.

Associated Press, Tuesday, 24 October - "U.S. officials said Tuesday Iraqi leaders have agreed to develop a timeline by the end of the year for progress in stabilizing Iraq, and Iraqi forces should be able to take full control of security in the country in the next 12 to 18 months with 'some level' of American support."

Our ambassador and General Casey were there, saying this. No Iraqi leaders were present. And the power cut out at an awkward moment. Baghdad is like that these days.

Associated Press, Wednesday, 25 October - "A defiant Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki slammed the top U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Iraq for saying Iraq needed to set a timetable to curb violence ravaging the country. 'I affirm that this government represents the will of the people, and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it,' al-Maliki said.'"

A presidential press conference, hastily called (the reporters had only an hour's notice) - to say yep, things weren't going well, and he was no dummy, so he "got it." People should get off his back about that. And there was no timeline, really, just benchmarks that would assure victory, which is something else entirely.

With less than two weeks before the elections that could sweep his party from power, he had to say something. The Republican congressmen and senators running to keep their seats had been getting hammered on the war issue, so this was an effort to take the pressure off them. The president had their back. This was going to work out. He said so.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pointed out he was no dummy, and saw what was happening - "The Americans have the right to review their policies, but we do not believe in a timetables." It was all grandstanding and not particularly logical - "the result of elections taking place right now that do not involve us."

It doesn't. The timing of all this sudden enthusiasm for "blueprints" and "adjusting tactics" is no coincidence. And that is not to say Nouri al-Maliki is cynical. He's just realistic - and a bit annoyed.

How annoyed? He's this annoyed -
An angry Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disavowed a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in the capital's Sadr City slum Wednesday, and criticized the top U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Iraq for saying his government needs to set a timetable to curb violence in the country.

… Al-Maliki complained that he was not consulted beforehand about the Sadr City offensive. The raid was conducted by Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. advisers and was aimed at capturing a top militia commander wanted for running a Shiite death squad.

"We will ask for clarification to what has happened," al-Maliki said. "We will review this issue with the Multinational Forces so that it will not be repeated."
The man is in a tough spot. That anti-American cleric, Muqtada's al-Sadr, with his own private army, the Mahdi Army that he tries to control, is the reason Nouri al-Maliki is able to do the little ruling he can actually do. Muqtada's al-Sadr has his back, as does the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, the SCIRI, which operates the Badr Brigades. Things are a bit tenuous there, of course. The coalitions are complex, and the players not very nice.

Enter one Mouwafak al-Rubaie, the national security adviser, telling Associated Press that it was all a misunderstanding that had been cleared up with General Casey - so everyone saves some face. And when asked about it at the press conference President Bush said this - "We need coordinate with him. That makes sense to me. And there are a lot of operations taking place which means sometimes communications are not as good as they should be. And we'll continue to work very closely with the government to make sure communications are solid."

It's a bit chaotic - in spite of everything the president said at the press conference. Until Wednesday, our guys and the Iraqi forces had pretty much avoided the part pf Baghdad known as Sard City, with its two and a half million Shiites. Named for his late, martyred father, that's Muqtada's al-Sadr's country within a country, so to speak. And he backs the prime minister, so let it be.

But we didn't. We went after one really bad guy, and the Mahdi Army militiamen fought back, and we called in an air strike and cordoned off the place. And we got ten guys - but the unidentified primary target got away. And the prime minister's fragile coalition was in trouble, so he had to protest. It's complicated, and add that we also raided a mosque in Sadr City looking for a missing United States soldier and his kidnappers. We didn't find him - "but three suspects were detained."

None of this is going well. We want to stop the madness, but we cannot undermine the elected prime minister - our only evidence we did what we said we'd do there, build a representative democracy.

But you get this -
Crowds of Shiite men, some carrying pistols and others hoisting giant posters of al-Sadr, swarmed onto the district's streets Wednesday morning, chanting, "America has insulted us."

Throughout the day and into the night, U.S. F-16 jet fighters growled across the Baghdad sky, and at one point the report of tank cannon fire echoed across the city five times in quick succession.

Streets were empty and shops closed, although the district still had electricity from the national power grid.

Well after nightfall, residents said all roads into the slum remained blocked by U.S. and Iraqi forces. U.S. soldiers were searching all cars.

A frustrated motorist waiting at one checkpoint jumped out of his car and called for al-Maliki to resign.

"Where is al-Maliki? It would be more honorable for him to resign. Why is he letting the Americans do this to us," the driver could be heard to scream.

Falah Hassan Shanshal, a lawmaker from al-Sadr's political bloc, said women and children had been killed, although videotape pictures of the bodies from the neighborhood taken at the local morgue showed only male victims.

"If there was an arrest operation, it should have been carried out by the Iraqi authorities, and not like this where air cover is used as if we were in a war zone," Shanshal said in an interview with the government's al-Iraqiya television station.
But it is a war zone, isn't it?

And what of this press conference to make it clear we were changing and adapting and making things better?

Dan Froomkin's summary in the Washington Post will do -
"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq," Bush said, 13 days before a mid-term election that will in large part be a referendum on the war. "I'm not satisfied either."

"I think I owe an explanation to the American people," he said.

But Bush didn't have much new to say today, other than endorsing yesterday's already largely debunked announcement in Baghdad of a "new plan" that sounds very much like the old plan.

And after an hour of familiar sound bites, the public would be forgiven for feeling it still hasn't gotten that explanation he promised.

Among the things that remain unexplained:
  • Why does Bush believe that staying in Iraq will make things better, when the evidence suggests that it keeps making things worse?
  • Why does he believe that progress is being made, when the evidence suggests that Iraq is sliding deeper and deeper into civil war?
  • Why does he remain confident in Iraq's central government, when the evidence suggests that the center is not holding?
  • Why hasn't anyone in his administration been held accountable for all the things that have gone wrong?
The Washington Post's Peter Baker asked that last question, and after initially responding with a strong endorsement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush had this to say:

"The ultimate accountability, Peter, rests with me. That's the ultimate - you're asking about accountability - that's - that's - it rests right here. It's what the 2004 campaign was about. You know, people want to - if people are unhappy about it, look right to the president."
And so they do. Those Republican candidates running for their seats who might have looked forward to "some help here" were no doubt a tad depressed by all this.

There was an incident a few years ago in Paris at a press conference on May 26, 2002, noted here, where George Bush and Jacques Chirac were answering questions from all sorts of reporters. President Bush got really testy and kind exploded when NBC reporter David Gregory decided to switch to French to ask Chirac a question. And his French wasn't bad. Bush stopped everything and sneered - "The guy memorizes four words and he plays like he's intercontinental!" Well, maybe it was a calculated insult on the part of the reporter. Or maybe Bush was having a bad moment. There are more details here, suggesting David Gregory would probably loss his job - Karl Rove would make a phone call.

Well, David Gregory is still working and more successful than ever, and just as cheeky, with this question at the Wednesday, October 25 news conference -
Mr. President, for several years you have been saying that America will "stay the course" in Iraq. You were committed to the policy. And now you say that no, you're not saying "stay the course," that you're adapting to win, that you're showing flexibility. And as you mention, out of Baghdad we're now hearing about benchmarks and timetables from the Iraqi government, as relayed by American officials, to stop the sectarian violence.

In the past, Democrats and other critics of the war who talked about benchmarks and timetables were labeled as "defeatists," "Defeat- o-crats," or people who wanted to "cut and run."

So why shouldn't the American people conclude that this is nothing from you other than semantic, rhetorical games and all politics two weeks before an election?
Gregory likes being provocative it seems. But he didn't ask the question in French, and the president didn't explode with his Texas bar-fight sarcasm.

The president carefully explained that you really have to distinguish between "mutually agreed-upon benchmarks" and "a fixed timetable for withdrawal." You see, they're quite different. He didn't mention the "mutually agreed-upon" thing had been blown up an hour before the press conference with angry words from Baghdad. After all, that can be worked out, maybe. And no one pointed out he had previously opposed even benchmarks. The follow-up was how he planned to measure success toward the benchmarks - and what he would do if the benchmarks weren't met. He didn't exactly answer that.

But the killer question (in so many ways) was about whether we'd be there forever, and he would not renounce the goal of establishing permanent military bases in Iraq. This sort of thing makes the Iraqi public very angry - not that they matter any more.

And the idea that we'd have our few permanent bases, hang out there, and that the Iraqi security forces could be largely self-sufficient within twelve to eighteen months seemed a bit far-fetched to many people. But that's what is supposed to happen. You have to trust him. And that's hard when you see things like this - "The top American commander in Iraq said Tuesday that he may call for more troops to be sent to Baghdad, possibly by increasing the overall U.S. presence in Iraq, as rising bloodshed pushes Iraqi and American deaths to some of their highest levels of the war."

Michael R. Gordon in the New York Times says this of the "we'll send a few more troops into Baghdad and in a year or a year and half we'll be gone" - "Given the rise in sectarian killings, a Sunni-based insurgency that appears to be as potent as ever and an Iraqi security establishment that continues to have difficulties deploying sufficient numbers of motivated and proficient forces in Baghdad, General Casey's target seems to be an increasingly heroic assumption."

But this is the administration of heroic assumptions, is it not?

And things are different now. There's none of the "stay the course" business. Now we have this distinction between "tactics," which the president is willing to change, and "strategy," which he isn't. And the White House will only talk about "milestones" and "benchmarks" for getting the useless Iraqis to get it together, but there are no "deadlines" or "ultimatums" or penalties if they don't.

Impressed? Over at SLATE John Dickerson isn't -
What's being lost in the semantic game over "stay the course" is the new set of choices that really confront the administration. They are not tactical. They are strategic and they are all painful: partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous regions, changing the Al-Maliki government, asking for diplomatic cooperation from neighboring countries like Syria and Iran, or adding more U.S. troops. If the administration were as flexible as it has been proclaiming recently, it would be talking about these options. It has either refused to consider them or stayed mum. If the White House is doing away with the old slogan, perhaps it should mint a new one: "All options are ugly."
But the press conference seemed to be held to say that it may seem as if all options are ugly, but they're not. You just have to believe in what seems impossible - and you have to be optimistic. Being coldly realistic is wrong. If you don't clap loud enough, Tinkerbelle will die.

One of those coldly realistic folks is Frederick W. Kagan, with this -
The U.S. military destroyed Iraq's government and all institutions able to keep civil order. It designated itself an "occupying force," thereby accepting the responsibility to restore and maintain such order.

… By allowing violence and disorder to spread throughout the country, the Bush administration has broken faith with the Iraqi people and ignored its responsibilities. It has placed U.S. security in jeopardy by creating the preconditions for the sort of terrorist safe haven the president repeatedly warns about and by demonstrating that no ally can rely on America to be there when it counts.
But other than that we're doing fine.

Froomkin in the Post also give us this, regarding the president's chief spokesman, Tony Snow, the White House Press Secretary -
Back on October 16, Snow was asked: "Just the simple question: Are we winning?"

His response: "We're making progress. I don't know. How do you define 'winning'?"

On MSNBC's Hardball, yesterday, Chris Matthews asked the question again:

MATTHEWS: Are we winning the war in Iraq?

SNOW: Yes.

MATTHEWS: If this is victory, if this is winning what we're doing now, what would losing look like? I mean that seriously. What would have to happen for the president to decide that he did make a mistake, we can't set up a democracy in Iraq given those factional rivalries in that country, it can't be done?

SNOW: Wait a minute. You're making an assumption that I can't buy into for the simple reason that you have 12 million Iraqis who voted. Furthermore, you've got a unity government that includes Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurds. There was a summit over the weekend in Saudi Arabia that brought together Shi'a and Sunni leaders.

MATTHEWS: But over 3,000 people are getting killed in what is basically sectarian fighting here. How can you call that a winning success story here?

SNOW: Well, wait. You asked me if we're winning.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SNOW: We haven't won, there's a big difference.

MATTHEWS: When do you think we will stop having this national argument over Iraq, that it will be clear that your argument will prevail, when people will say, you know, damn it, I didn't like it, but Bush was right. We could establish a stable democracy in Iraq. When are people going to say? Next year, the year after, three years from now, five years from now? When will people generally say, damn it, he was right? We have a stable democracy. When is that going to come?

SNOW: I don't know, but if somebody had asked that question in 1776, the answer would have been 13 years.

MATTHEWS: But that's a long haul to fight a foreign war, isn't it?

SNOW: I'm not saying we're going to fight a foreign war for 13 years. I was engaging in a debating point.

No wonder folks are a bit unhappy with all this.

But James Baker and his Iraq Study Group will ride in to save the day after the election. Matthews will calm down.

Sidney Blumenthal thinks not -

On Wednesday, Bush held a press conference that can only be interpreted as a preemptive repudiation of Baker. Of course, other motives underlay the press conference as well. It was an effort to repackage Bush's unpopular Iraq policy on the eve of the elections and to demonstrate that he is in charge of circumstances that have careened out of control.

In his remarks, Bush digressed at length to give rote explanations that were elementary, irrelevant or misleading. His supposed admissions of error were attempts at deflecting responsibility. Rather than stating the facts that his Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq had forced the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the civil service (by banning those with Baathist Party membership, which included nearly every bureaucrat), he passively said, "We overestimated the capability of the civil service in Iraq to continue to provide essential services to the Iraqi people." And: "We did not expect the Iraqi army, including the Republican Guard, to melt away in the way that it did in the face of advancing coalition forces."

Sticking to his Karl Rove-inspired script before the elections, Bush said the word "victory" as often as possible and even explained that if he didn't do that, public opinion would falter: "I fully understand that if the people think we don't have a plan for victory, that they're not going to support the effort." Having given "victory" a cynical signature, he brought up the Baker commission, setting terms for his acceptance of its proposals. "My administration will carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory." As far as can be determined, this "victory" consists of yet to be determined "benchmarks" to be negotiated with the Iraqi government, whose prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, hours before Bush's press conference, denounced the idea of benchmarks or "timetables."

When Bush was asked if he supported Baker's suggestion of negotiations with Iran, he knocked it down, putting the onus entirely on the Iranians and making any negotiations dependent on their acceptance of U.S.-European demands not to develop nuclear weapons. Baker's idea is not tied to those conditions. On Syria, Bush reiterated his old position and said, "They know our position, as well." Since they already know it, there is no need for the diplomatic initiative Baker proposes.

While giving the back of his hand to Baker, Bush went out of his way to lavish praise on his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. "And I'm satisfied of how he's done all his jobs," said Bush. "He is a smart, tough, capable administrator." Once again, Bush was deciding in favor of Rumsfeld.

On Tuesday, the day before the press conference, Rumsfeld acted as the blunt truth teller. On Sunday, Bush had said, "We've never been 'stay the course.'" But Rumsfeld called reports about any Bush plan to reverse course as "nonsense," adding that "of course" Bush was "not backing away from 'stay the course.'"

Now it's Baker's move.
Baker won't change the man's mind.

The elections should be interesting.

But Bush may be bulletproof, as Tim Noah explains -
Ever since the resignation of Richard Nixon, a very smart man who got caught abusing his executive power, the GOP has deliberately avoided nominating conspicuously intelligent people for president. Gerald Ford was smarter than he looked, but he was unable to dispel his buffoonish image. Ronald Reagan was famously checked out and ill-informed. George H.W. Bush, though clearly smarter than Dubya, is not exactly imposing in the brains department, and he's demonstrated almost as much difficulty as his son in formulating a coherent sentence. And George W. Bush? Let's just say the guy is either mentally lazy, not very bright, or some combination of these two. I've never felt it necessary to refine that diagnosis; the term I favor is "functionally dumb."

Two things must be said about my assertions in the previous paragraph. One is that they are all unmistakably true. The other is that whenever a liberal repeats any one of them out loud, that liberal - and contemporary liberalism generally - come under attack, along with the Democratic party, the New York Times, Harvard, the AFL-CIO, the Council on Foreign Relations, the three major TV networks, and the Sierra Club. If a liberal is deciding whom to hire to answer phones and return papers neatly to a metal filing cabinet, it's considered legitimate for that liberal to formulate a judgment as to the candidates' intelligence. If a liberal is deciding whom to vote for in a presidential election, it is not. Merely to raise the issue is seen as conclusive evidence that one is snobbish and effete, and that the subject of one's skeptical inquiry is an authentic man of the people.
We'll see if that's still true.

Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial, may have screwed the pooch, or whatever the term is.

From Martin Amis' review in the Times of London, this -
George W. Bush has prevailed in two general elections because, very broadly, male voters feel that he's the kind of guy "you can have a beer with". Whereas in fact George W. Bush is the kind of guy you can't have a beer with, under any circumstances: as they say at AA, he has come to treasure his sobriety. You can have a beer with John Kerry and Al Gore; and you can have a beer with Bush Sr and Bill Clinton (and pretty well all the others, including George Washington). But you can't have a beer with Bush Jr.

… One of the many deranging consequences of September 11 was the reification of American power. Until that date, "US hegemony" was largely a matter of facts and figures, of graphs and pie-charts. Thereafter it became a matter of options and capabilities, of war plans cracked out on the President's desk. We can understand the afflatus, the rush of blood, in the White House: overnight, demonstrably and palpably, a tax-cutting dry drunk from West Texas became the most powerful man in human history. One wonders, nowadays, how it goes with Bush, in his glands and sinews. Post-September 11, he had the body language of the man in the bar who isn't going anywhere till he has had his fistfight. Now he looks washed, rinsed, bleached, his flat smile an awful rictus; that upper lip has lost all its lift.

Students of history are aware that illusion - or, if you prefer psychopathology - plays a part in shaping world events. It is always a heavy call on human fortitude to acknowledge that such a thing is happening before our eyes, in broad daylight and full consciousness. On the opposing side we see illusion in its rawest form: murderous fanaticism. On ours, we see a vertiginous power-rush followed by a vacuum, and then a drift into helplessness and self-hypnosis. That vacuum was itself reified after the fall of Baghdad, when the plunder began and the soldiers stood and watched, and it slowly emerged that there was no policy for the peace. Then came a dual disintegration, like that of the twin towers: the collapse of the authority of the state, and the collapse of the value of human life.

… we get a pretty fair idea of how it all happened. The dynamic was unanimity of belief: the establishment, by ideological filtration, of a yes-man's land. Talented experts with dissenting views were sidelined: "Rumsfeld said that they needed people who were truly committed and who had not written or said things that were not supportive." And so on, system-wide, in an atmosphere of feud and grudge, of tantrums and bollockings.

… Two misleadingly comical anecdotes reveal the abysmal depths of coalition unpreparedness. Having allowed the dispersed Iraqi army to stay dispersed, the American viceroy started building a new one, catchily called the NIC (or New Iraqi Corps). It was pointed out, after a while, that this was the Arabic equivalent of calling it the FUQ. Similarly, when Frank Miller of the National Security Council joined a Humvee patrol in Baghdad (March 2004) he was heartened to see that all the Iraqi children were giving him the thumbs-up sign, unaware that in Iraq the thumb (shorter yet chunkier) does duty for the middle digit.

But it may be that the Bush miscalculation was more chronological than geographical. In his sternly compelling book, The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr suggests that the most momentous consequence of the Iraq adventure is the ignition of the Muslim civil war. Not the one between moderate and extreme Islam, which is already over, but the one between the Sunni and the Shia, which has been marinating for a millennium. We can say, with the facetiousness of despair, that it's just as well to get this out of the way; and let us hope it is merely a Thirty Years' War, and not a Hundred Years' War. After that, we can look forward to a Reformation, followed, in due course, by an Enlightenment. Democracy may then come to the Middle East, with Iraq, in the words of one staffer (a month into the invasion), as the region's "cherished model".
So take the long view. In the broad scope of history, this press conference didn't mean a whole lot. And the sequence of events, and the main player, are both insignificant. We're screwed.

Posted by Alan at 22:01 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006 07:49 PDT home

Tuesday, 24 October 2006
Political Strategy - Going on the Offensive
Topic: Election Notes
Political Strategy - Going on the Offensive
"I knew the Republicans would react like animals if they ever found themselves on the losing end of an election," or so says Digby at Hullabaloo here. But whatever is he talking about?

It might be the Michael J. Fox political ad that everyone is buzzing about - the one Rush Limbaugh attacked, saying Fox is faking it. You can watch that here.

The Limbaugh attack sort of matches with what happened in Illinois where a Democratic house candidate, Tammy Duckworth, the Army helicopter pilot who while fighting in Iraq lost both her legs when she was shot down and now wants to wind this war down, was attacked by her opponent as someone who wants to "cut and run." She pointed to her aluminum legs and smiled. You can read about that here in the Chicago Sun Times -
Calling it "crude" and "offensive," Democrat Tammy Duckworth's campaign team is accusing Republican congressional rival Peter Roskam of tarring the war veteran who lost her legs in combat with advocating a "cut-and-run" strategy in Iraq.

But Roskam's camp fired back that the GOP state senator was being "misquoted" and "misrepresented" and Duckworth's campaign was lying.
It is getting nasty out there.

As for Limbaugh, David Montgomery, of the Washington Postgives the basics here -
Possibly worse than making fun of someone's disability is saying that it's imaginary. That is not to mock someone's body, but to challenge a person's guts, integrity, sanity.

To Rush Limbaugh on Monday, Michael J. Fox looked like a faker. The actor, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has done a series of political ads supporting candidates who favor stem cell research, including Democrat Ben Cardin, who is running against Republican Michael Steele in a Maryland U.S. Senate race.

"He is exaggerating the effects of the disease," Limbaugh told listeners. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act.... This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting."

Limbaugh was reacting to Fox's appearance in another one of the spots, one for Democratic Missouri Senate candidate Claire McCaskill against Republican James M. Talent.

But the Cardin ad is similar. It is hard to watch, unless, for some reason, you don't believe it. As he speaks, Fox's restless torso weaves and writhes in a private dance. His head bobs from side to side, almost leaving the picture frame.

"This is the only time I've ever seen Michael J. Fox portray any of the symptoms of the disease he has," Limbaugh said. "He can barely control himself."

Later Monday, still on the air, Limbaugh would apologize, but reaction to his statements from Parkinson's experts and Fox's supporters was swift and angry.
No kidding. The Post provides a roundup off all that, but Michael Fox himself was silent. Fox was campaigning for Tammy Duckworth, oddly enough, and his spokesman said Fox had no public comment. Perhaps Rush Limbaugh will start cracking jokes about the lame and the halt sticking together - losers that they are. He's one piece of work.

But of course he made some adjustments - ""Now people are telling me they have seen Michael J. Fox in interviews and he does appear the same way in the interviews as he does in this commercial. All right then, I stand corrected. So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."

Then came the classic pivot, as something else must be going on - "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democratic politician."

Then he really is as sick as he appears, and those nasty Democrats are using him and exploiting him, so you have to feel sorry for the poor guy, and angry with the Democrats for somehow tricking him into the whole thing. If they hadn't clouded his mind with their evil powers he'd remember stem cell research involves the murder of actual children, or close enough. Yep, that must be it.

The same ground is covered by the Associated Press here, but as the story is from the entertainment desk, you get different details -
Celebrities have a long history of supporting political candidates. But there's no question that Fox, who campaigned for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race, is uniquely suited as a spokesman for embryonic stem cell research, which some scientists believe could aid in discovering treatments or cures to Parkinson's and other diseases.

"The reason that he's powerful is that he's comparatively young," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "As a result, a lot of people in that age range can look at him and say, `If that can happen to him, it can happen to me.'"

Jamieson notes that the issue of stem cell research has the potential to be an advantage to Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections since polls have shown the majority of Americans favor some form of stem cell research. The risk, she adds, is that the ads could appear as using Fox's hopes for a cure for political gain, as some claimed was the case when the paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve lobbied for stem cell research before his death in 2004.

Parkinson's disease is a chronic, progressive disorder of the central nervous system that leaves patients increasingly unable to control their movements. In his ads, Fox shows a remarkable nakedness that recalls Dick Clark's appearance last Dec. 31 on ABC's "New Year's Rockin' Eve," displaying the effects of his debilitating stroke a year prior.

Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991 and revealed his condition publicly in 1998. In 2000, the "Spin City" and "Back to the Future" star quit full-time acting because of his symptoms and founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which has raised millions of dollars.

So that put things in celebrity context, for what that's worth.

The AP notes only one other bit of context, from John Boockvar, a neurosurgeon and assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical Center at New York's Presbyterian Hospital, who calls Limbaugh's claim that Fox was acting "ludicrous." It was the evil mind-control rays from the Democrats - "If there is one single disease that has the highest potential for benefit from stem cell research it's Parkinson's." And as for worrying about all the dead children - small clumps of sixteen cells that would be discarded anyway don't seem to be children.

But this was a political move by Rush - he's just supporting the side he thinks is right, and attacking those who question them.

It's standard stuff. You might remember the 2002 attacks on Max Cleland, as in this video. He was a highly-decorated Vietnam War guy, a triple amputee who fell on a grenade to save his buddies. He wanted changes in the original Patriot Act to preserve the bargaining rights of the few unionized federal employees - so he was unpatriotic and on the side of the terrorists. That cost him his senate seat. And note here that two years later, Ann Coulter claimed Cleland had actually wounded himself in combat - he cleverly transformed his bumbling carelessness in some sort of false heroic myth. That was about the time such folks were saying John Kerry did the same thing in Vietnam, to get his purple hearts - and delegates at that summer's Republican convention all wore purple band-aids to mock him, and support the real hero, George Bush. Some things never change.

It's just politics.

But Bill Montgomery notes it's not very good politics -

If you're Claire McCaskill (Missouri) or Ben Cardin (Maryland) this is the best thing since the invention of the teleprompter. Both are running against anti-abortion, anti-stem cell Republicans; both badly need a big turnout among pro-choice, pro-stem cell voters to win. But both are also running in Border South states with large Catholic voting blocks - i.e. states where the anti-abortion movement is strong and a pro-choice stand can alienate a lot of voters who might otherwise be willing to pull the Democratic lever.

But Rush, in his infinite wisdom, has now ensured that the issue isn't abortion. It isn't even stem cells. Now it's all about Michael J. Fox and his battle with Parkinson's Disease - which is exactly how you don't want it framed if you're the GOP candidates in those races (or a supporter of Missouri's proposed constitutional ban on stem cell research.)

I don't know where Limbaugh got the idea that telling scurrilous lies about one of America's favorite celebrities - and someone who enjoys a huge amount of public sympathy to boot - was a shrewd political move. But the Dems should be damned glad he did. Considering how razor-close the Missouri race appears to be, Rush may have just single-handedly booted away a Republican Senate seat.

Go Rush! Go!
Yep, sometimes firing up the base can backfire. As we know out here in Hollywood, a select few celebrities are just plain off limits - you just don't rag on them. Others - Tom Cruise, Barbara Streisand, Paris Hilton - no problem. Rush did not just make a reprehensible moral mistake, and a major political blunder - he attacked a pop icon. Bad move.

But something is going on here. In the absence of being able to defend the war, the economy (at least as it seems by the eighty-eight percent of us for whom it's worse than ever), Medicare Plan D, the deficits, the way the government handles domestic emergencies like big hurricanes, the healthcare system and so on and so forth, dealing with these "challenges" has taken some strange twists.

You get your basic lying, as in this -
A Democratic congressional candidate accused in a political ad of billing taxpayers for a call to a phone-sex line suggested he may have misdialed the number while trying to reach a state agency.

The ad that began airing Friday shows Democrat Michael Arcuri leering at the silhouette of a dancing woman who says, "Hi, sexy. You've reached the live, one-on-one fantasy line."

But Arcuri's campaign released records showing the call two years ago from his New York City hotel room to the 800-number sex line was followed the next minute by a call to the state Department of Criminal Justice Services. The last seven digits of the two numbers are the same.

Arcuri, the district attorney in Oneida County, said the ad was "clearly libelous" and threatened to file a lawsuit. His GOP opponent, state Sen. Ray Meier, described it as "way over the line."

At least seven television stations in Syracuse, Utica and Binghamton refused to run the ad, Arcuri said.

The ad's sponsor, the National Republican Congressional Committee, stood by the 30-second message. Spokesman Ed Patru insisted it was "totally true" and said Meier was not consulted.
Wait, wait, wait - the Republican candidate said it wasn't true and way out of line and the National Republican Congressional Committee said they'd keep running it anyway, as they didn't particularly care what their own candidate thought and that various media outlets wouldn't show it as it was clearly not factual and they the have their rules about such things? That couldn't be so. But it is.

And the same thing happened in Tennessee with this television ad, which prompted this exchange on CNN's Situation Room between William Cohen, the former Clinton administration Defense Secretary and once Republican senator from Maine -
COHEN: I think the Republicans have to be careful, also, in terms of not engaging in conduct. And I was watching the - the Tennessee race, specifically. It reminded me of what happened in North Carolina with Harvey Gantt, a purely overt racist approach.

BLITZER: You are talking about the new RNC ad which has this white woman talking about Playboy and the - the African-American candidate, Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic candidate.

COHEN: It's - to me, at least as I watch that, is a very serious appeal to a racist sentiment. And when the question is always asked, why - he would be the first African-American since Reconstruction elected to the Senate, you say, well, why is that the case? So, why is the South different? Why would they not elect someone...

BLITZER: So, you're a former Republican senator. Is the RNC playing the racial card against Harold Ford in Tennessee right now?

COHEN: I think they are coming very close to it, if not doing it exactly. And I think they ought to stop it. I think that they have a candidate, and discuss the - the issues on the merits, and not get into that kind of personal type of an attack.
You have to watch the video to see what he's getting at - the center of the ad is basically reminding folks that these oversexed black men want our white women folk, and they must be stopped.

And of course, as they say in the infomercials - But wait! There's more? That would be a web site called FancyFord.com created by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to mock what they're trying to establish as Ford's high living ways - and that used to have a photo of a few nubile white women on the home page, but they removed that image.

The item linked here does, by the way, explain the Harvey Gantt ad to which Cohen referred - that was the 1994 North Carolina Senate race with Jesse Helms. The ad showed a white man's hands tearing up an employment rejection letter as the narrator mournfully intones that the job had to be given to a minority because of racial quotas. Gantt was one of those, an African American, as they say. It worked. Helms was reelected.

But as in New York, so in Tennessee - Bob Corker, Ford's opponent for the Senate seat, has asked the Republican National Committee to pull the ad. He says it's tacky, and way over the line. The Republican National Committee says they won't, and in fact they can't. Maybe they remember Tennessee was where the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866, and will ride this out, no matter what their own candidate says.

And here's the video, Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican National Committee, telling Tim Russert on national television that the ad stays on air -
RUSSERT: Ken Mehlman, the Republican candidate in Tennessee has asked that you take that ad off the air, that it is over the top. Former Republican Senator William Cohen says it's, quote, "overt racist appeal." Will you take that ad down?

MEHLMAN: Tim, I don't have the authority to take it down or put it up. It's what called an independent expenditure. The way that process works under the campaign reform laws is I write a check to an independent individual. And that person's responsible for spending money in certain states. Tennessee is one of them. I'll tell you this, though. After the comments by Mr. Corker and by former Senator Cohen, I looked at the ad. I don't agree with that characterization of it. But it's not an ad that I have authority over. I saw it for the first time the same time that they did.

RUSSERT: Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP has criticized this ad. And he said, Ken Mehlman, that you went down to the NAACP in July of 2005 and apologized for the southern strategy of Republican candidates under Richard Nixon and using race as a wedge issue and that this ad does exactly that.

MEHLMAN: I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Shelton. I don't believe that ad does that. I will tell you this: I'm very proud of that speech I made. I think that there is nothing more repugnant in our society than people who try to divide Americans along racial lines. And I would denounce any ad that I felt did. I happen not to believe that ad does, but as I said before, I don't have the legal authority to take the ad down. It's an independent expenditure. I looked at it. I just disagree with what Mr. Shelton said about it.

RUSSERT: Well, it's not only Mr. Shelton. Former Senator Cohen, Vanderbilt professor John Green says it makes the Willie Horton ad look tame, that it's filled with racial polarization.

MEHLMAN: Again, I just don't agree with that at all. I showed it to a number of people when the complaints came out about it after it was put up - African-American folks, Hispanic folks and myself. We all looked at it. All of us, I think, are very sensitive to that. And we did not have that same reaction to it. So I just think there's a disagreement about it.

RUSSERT: The whole idea of having a blond white woman winking at a black congressman, the notion of interracial sex is not in your mind racist?

MEHLMAN: I think that that ad talks about a number of people on the street talking about things that Mr. Ford allegedly has either done or a proposal he has for the future. I think it's a fair ad. As I said, we didn't have anything to do with creating it. I just think those criticisms of it are wrong.

RUSSERT: And so the NAACP Washington director, an organization that you tried to court, is denouncing the ad - and it doesn't seem to phase you.

MEHLMAN: Well, the Washington director of the NAACP and I happen to disagree about this. I was proud of that speech I made. I took some heat for saying it. It was the right thing to say. I'm proud of the fact that our party under this president and under my leadership has made an incredibly aggressive effort to reach out to African-Americans. I'm proud of the increased number of African-Americans who are running. I believe there is nothing more important we can do than bring people together. I just happen to disagree about the characterization of this ad. And more importantly, there's nothing I can do about it, because it's not an ad over which I have authority or control. This is an independent expenditure.

Make of all that what you will.

Everyone knows the ad is racist - one of those "they're after our white women" things. It's a bit obvious. Even the candidate it's supposed to benefit is appalled and wants it pulled. And it carries the tag line - "This message was paid for and approved by the Republican National Committee" - but they have no power to pull it, and won't anyway. They said they were sorry for that Southern Strategy - pulling in formerly Democratic voters by opposing all civil rights legislation way back when. But this is politics, after all. And there is a precedent Mehlman is counting on - McCain forgave Rove and Bush for that business in the 2000 South Carolina where the Rove guys spread the word that McCain a fathered a mixed-race love child with a black crack addict. McCain got clobbered and Bush was then assured the nomination, and later Bush apologized, explaining it was only politics.  McCain was okay with that.  Surely the black folk will be as understanding.

We'll see about that.

So it's nasty out there - or sometimes it's just silly -

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn't fazed by a report that her Republican challenger John Spencer said she was unattractive in her youth and must have had "millions of dollars" of plastic surgery.

"My high school picture was cute," Clinton joked with reporters during a campaign stop Monday, the same day Spencer's alleged comments were reported in the New York Daily News.

Spencer, in an interview with The Associated Press, denied making the comments to a reporter-columnist during a flight Friday from New York City to Rochester for the first of two weekend debates between the Senate contenders.

"It's a fabrication. I would never call Hillary Clinton ugly," the former mayor of Yonkers told the AP. "That's outrageous. I didn't do it."

Clinton said comments about her appearance strayed from the issues of the campaign.

"It's unfortunate that when you don't have anything positive to say about the issues that we can get off in some pretty swampy territory," Clinton said during the stop at a senior citizens' center in Watervliet just north of Albany.

Spencer did acknowledge talking to reporter Ben Smith on the flight.
So Spencer is backing off the "vote for me because the woman running against me was a butt-ugly teenager" ploy. Well, it was worth a try. The problem is people just laughed at him. Time to shift gears.

And it's not really nasty, like this - the Republican congresswoman who now holds Cheney's old seat in Wyoming and wants to hold onto it says to her opponent, a wheelchair-bound MS sufferer, "If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you across the face."

Now that's a classic. Such things happen when you listen to too much Rush Limbaugh.

There's detailed rundown of the incident here, in everyone's favorite paper, the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Start Tribune, but it's a bit convoluted. You might try this summary -
OK, let's go to instant replay: Asked to comment on the political sewer that is the Republican Congress, the Democratic candidate starts babbling about giving away taxpayer dollars to finance the kind of sleazy shit we're all seeing on the tube these days - in Wyoming! The Libertarian candidate, on the other hand, deftly plants the Abramoff shiv directly between the GOP candidate's bony shoulders, causing her to go completely ballistic and threaten to slap a person in a wheelchair.
Well, they don't call it the wild west for nothing.

What to make of the five incidents? It's a bit like that old saw about how lawyers sometimes have to win a case in court - if you don't have the facts on your side, pound the law, and if you don't have the law on your side, pound the table. The idea is that you'd better pound something.

The problem is that for the incumbents, there's nothing handy.

Posted by Alan at 22:54 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 25 October 2006 08:00 PDT home

Monday, 23 October 2006
Stuck on Stupid
Topic: Couldn't be so...
Stuck on Stupid
"Stuck on stupid" somehow moved from ghetto slang into general parlance. Take yourself back to September 20, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina had done its damage and Rita was on the way, heading for Galveston and cities inland. Susan Olasky notes this from one of the press conferences -
Lt. General Russell Honore, in charge of the National Guard in New Orleans, is trying to get reporters there to focus on getting out evacuation instructions for Hurricane Rita: "Let's not get stuck on the last storm. You're asking last storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward. And don't confuse the people, please."

When a reporter persisted - "General, a little bit more about why that's happening this time, though, and we did not have that last time..." - Honore responded, "You are stuck on stupid. I'm not going to answer that question. We are going to deal with Rita. This is public information that people are depending on the government to put out. We can have a conversation on the side about the past, in a couple of months."
You can find the full transcript and audio here. The general is more than frustrated. The reporters keep pressing him on why he thinks things will go fine this time, when they didn't go fine last time and New Orleans was lost. Then he explodes and blurts out the real classic - "Wait a minute. It didn't work the first time. THIS AIN'T THE FIRST TIME!"

If something didn't work the first time, you keep doing it. It'll work the second time, maybe. It really should. And if it doesn't, you try it the third time. You stick with what you think should work. Evidence that it doesn't work is being stuck in the past - you always have to look to the future, and do whatever it is again and again. To the reporters that seemed like being stuck on stupid but didn't use those words, and it worried them, but the general thought they were stuck on stupid, stuck on what happened in the past, and he kept hammering them with those three words. But there was no test of who was stuck - Rita veered away and missed the cities.

Fast forward one year, one month and three days to Monday, October 23, 2006, where the Associated Press reports here - "Under election-year pressure to change course in Iraq, the Bush administration said Monday there are no plans for dramatic shifts in policy or for ultimatums to Baghdad to force progress."

So two weeks before the midterm elections where the Republicans may lose control of at least one house in congress, the White House tried to calm folks down about the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq - what seems like chaos no one can contain. And both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are calling on the president to change his war plan. It's that "stuck on stupid" thing again - and the question is just who is stuck. Is it the administration, persisting in doing what clearly doesn't work in the hope it might work if we just try harder or adjust some details? Or is it the growing opposition - stuck on the idea it won't work, not realizing this is not early March 2003 - Saddam is now gone, so are his incredibly nasty sons, there have been a series of elections and an actual government has been put in place, however hapless, and the conditions are really quite promising now? Take your choice.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, doesn't much care - "We're on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working." He told the Associated Press that United States and Iraqi officials really should be "held accountable for the lack of progress." Heads should roll and all that. So they asked him who he had in mind. Would that be Rumsfeld or the generals leading the war? Graham said - "All of them. It's their job to come up with a game plan." Note he did not name the president. Having a plan, a new one that might work, does not seem to be the commander-in-chief's job. It must be like professional football - the coach and his assistants come up with what should be a winning game plan, while the owner sits above it all in his air-conditioned skybox, sipping bourbon, chatting with his friends, and waiting to see how the plan works out. The grunts on steroids and amphetamines, mostly minority freaks, slamming into each other for sixty minutes are a minor matter. And if it looks like you're losing, or do lose, the coach can explain that all in the post game interviews. Maybe it's not exactly like that. But Lindsey Graham did exclude the president for some reason. In any event, he thinks someone is defiantly stuck on stupid.

The president says it's not him. The same day he appeared on the business network CNBC - this is the week he is scheduled to talk up how well the economy is doing and that all the middle class folks who don't think so should be just be a little more patient. He gave CNBC an exclusive interview - with the sultry and smoldering money-babe Maria Bartiromo (video here) - and said he's not stuck. That went like this - "Well, I've been talking about a change in tactics ever since I - ever since we went in, because the role of the commander in chief is to say to our generals, 'You adjust to the enemy on the battlefield.'"

Maybe the professional football analogy was fine - owners don't lose games, coaches do. You tell them to come up with a good game plan, you tell them to be flexible, but sometimes they screw up. What are you going to do?

And the head couch was working on things. Rumsfeld, in simultaneous remarks at the Pentagon, said we're now working with Iraq to set "broad time frames" for when Iraqis can take over sixteen provinces that are under our control - and no one was talking about penalizing the Iraqis if they don't hit certain benchmarks. Heck, they already have taken control in two provinces - nothing anywhere near Baghdad of course, but there was a plan. And earlier in the day Rumsfeld had visited the White House with General Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a chat about when the Iraqis might move a bit closer to setting up a reconciliation process to help things between Sunnis and Shiites. See? There's some sort of game plan. There just won't be a change in policy - no force drawdown, not talks with Iran or Syria or any other nation in that neighborhood, no choosing other cities for attention, no negotiations or diplomacy of any kind. Nothing like that. Whack-a-mole is the policy. When the locals can whack their own moles, we'll move on.

The more dignified and official way of putting that is this - "Our policy is stand up/stand down; as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down."

That's it, all of it.

Still AP notes that Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said two Republicans have told him they will demand a new policy in Iraq after the election. They're fed up with stand up/stand down and tinkering around the edges - but Biden wouldn't say who the two were. He said both knew the Rove Rule that went out to all Republicans - don't make waves before the election because it could cost the party seats. You don't cross Rove.

Our kids are dying, but there are the midterm elections to think about. It's a matter of priorities, and everyone has them -
Showing progress in Iraq is critical with the approaching elections, which are widely viewed as a referendum on public support of the war. In Baghdad on Tuesday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander there, are scheduled to hold a rare joint news conference.

Facing growing impatience with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's failure to stem the carnage, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said international forces must not abandon Iraq while the situation there remains volatile.

"I do believe there is no option for the international community to cut and run," he told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair in London. He said Iraqis and the international community need to be realistic, "but not defeatist."

"We need to understand that there is a need of utmost urgency to deal with many of the problems of Iraq but we must not give in to panic," he said.
Nope, panic is bad. As you recall the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has just two words on the cover - "Don't Panic" - and recommended you should always have a dry towel handy. You could look it up.

So make sure you have a towel and don't panic, even when the same day you see things this -
Shiite militiamen loyal to a fiery anti-American Shiite cleric re-emerged in the troubled southern city of Amarah on Monday, dragging four policemen aligned with a rival Shiite militia from their homes and killing them.

Witnesses said the Iraqi army, camped on the edge of the city, was doing nothing to stop the resurgence of Shiite-on-Shiite violence. Iraq's leaders sent a force of about 500 soldiers to the city late last week after Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen stormed the city and attacked police stations, manned primarily by loyalists of the rival Badr Brigades, also a Shiite militia.

… In Amarah, gunmen dragged police Lt. Sarmad Majid al-Shatti from his home before dawn, then dumped his bullet-riddled body at a farm on the city's outskirts, said Ali Chaloub of Sadr General Hospital. Another policeman, Lt. Alaa al-Kabi was shot to death outside his home, Chaloub said.

At about the same time, provincial policemen Hamid Majeed and Hassan Abdullah were kidnapped from their homes, and their bodies were later found dumped outside the city, Chaloub said.

Badr fighters took revenge, killing and beheading the teenage brother of the local Mahdi Army commander. The Mahdi commander was killed Thursday, setting in motion the Amarah violence.
The Washington Post here notes that this isn't the Sunni-Shiite violence - it's fighting between rival Shiite militias operated by factions actually within the ruling coalition. That renders the "we stand down when they stand up" thing a bit absurd. They're not standing up in any sense we expect - they have other issues. And our role is what, exactly?

But there was an adjustment - over the weekend the president said "staying the course" was never his strategy. (See this and this.) But what is our strategy? What are the new options?

Dan Froomkin in the Post has this -
Said Bush: "Well, listen, we've never been stay the course, George. We have been - we will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we're constantly adjusting the tactics, constantly."

… So it would be big news if Bush were finally considering a change in strategy - not just tactics. And that's precisely what David S. Cloud reported in the Sunday New York Times.

Cloud wrote: "The Bush administration is drafting a timetable for the Iraqi government to address sectarian divisions and assume a larger role in securing the country, senior American officials said.

… "[F]or the first time Iraq was likely to be asked to agree to a schedule of specific milestones, like disarming sectarian militias, and to a broad set of other political, economic and military benchmarks intended to stabilize the country.
Bill Montgomery deals with that here -
None of this babbling makes any sense, in other words. Nor is it remotely in scale with the size of the Cheney administration's failure in Iraq. Part of me thinks it's all being driven by the need of beltway journalists and think tankers alike to have something new to say about Iraq, something that isn't a variation on: "Yep. We're still fucked." But there's obviously a hard edge of real desperation - if not despair - behind this. America's ruling elites have had things largely their own way for the past couple of decades. But now they're looking at a bottomless quagmire that may have a much bigger disaster (like loss of access to Persian Gulf oil) hidden somewhere in the mud. And they don't have a clue about what to do. They've lost control, which is the last thing any ruling elite can afford to admit.

Small wonder then, that the policy "debate" has now crossed the line into complete fantasy - like a long piece of dialogue pulled from Waiting for Godot. The realists have turned into surrealists. Baker now sounds almost as naive and deluded as Bush.
And they cannot even keep their story straight. Note Alex at Martini Republic here -
After all, what real choices are we left with, after nearly four years of bungling? How does "stability first" or "stand up/stand down" differ from "stay the course," except for semantics? And how are we going to get an Iraqi government to "stand up" and achieve "stability first" when militias allied with the two strongest factions of the ruling Shiite coalition are executing each other's people in the street in front of their homes?
Good question, and the answer is not - "Wait a minute. It didn't work the first time. THIS AIN'T THE FIRST TIME!"

No, things are different now. And before the Tribune Corporation disassembles the Los Angeles Times and turns it into a shopping guide with movie reviews, they still offer the background only a good newspaper can with, Monday, October 23, Into the Abyss of Baghdad -
I keep seeing his face. He appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity to come. Perhaps he is set to marry, or enroll in graduate school, or launch a business - all of these flights of ambition seem possible.

In the next few images he is encased in plastic: His face is frozen in a ghoulish grimace. Blackened lesions blemish his neck.

"Drill holes," says Col. Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi commander who is showing me the set of photographs.

He preserves the snapshots in a drawer, the image of the young man brimming with expectations always on top. There is no name, no identification, just a series of photos that documents the transformation of some mother's son into a slab of meat on a bloody table in a morgue.

"Please, please, I must show these photographs to President Bush," Rasheed pleads in desperation, as we sit in a bombed-out palace along the Tigris, once the elegant domain of Saddam Hussein's wife, now the command center for an Iraqi army battalion. "President Bush must know what is happening in Baghdad!"
Like he would care? He listens to the vice president who thinks people literally getting holes drilled in the head is an Iraqi tactic to deny them a Republican majority, as in this -
On Oct. 17, Cheney told Limbaugh: 'I was reading something today that a writer - I don't remember who - was speculating on increased terrorist attacks in Iraq attempting to demoralize the American people as we get up to the election. And when I read that, it made sense to me. And I interpreted this as that the terrorists are actually involved and want to involve themselves in our electoral process, which must mean they want a change.

… [The] show was not the first time Cheney has suggested terrorists have picked favorites in the upcoming election.

In August, Cheney told wire service reporters that 'al-Qaeda types' were looking to break the will of the American people to stay and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. He linked that al-Qaeda effort to the Connecticut Democratic primary rejection of Iraq war supporter Sen. Joe Lieberman.
As Digby at Hullabaloo points out, It's all about them, you see. And so it is.

More from the Times -
Every day the corpses pile up in the capital like discarded furniture - at curbside, in lots, in waterways and sewer lines; every day the executioners return. A city in which it was long taboo to ask, "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics.

Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become communal killing grounds. Residents of one sect or the other must clear out or face the whim of fanatics with power drills.

… People are here one day, gone the next. Those who do go out often venture no farther than familiar streets. In the sinister evenings, when death squads roam, people block off their lanes with barbed wire, logs, bricks to ward off the killers.

Many residents remain in their homes - paralyzed, going slowly crazy.

"My children are imprisoned at home," says a cook, Daniel, a Christian whom I knew from better times, now planning to join the exodus from Iraq. "They are nervous and sad all the time. Baghdad is a big prison, and their home is a small one. I forced my son to leave school. It's more important that he be alive than educated."

But homes offer only an illusion of safety. Recently, insurgents rented apartments in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, filled the flats with explosives and blew them up after Friday prayers. Dozens perished.

Even gathering the bodies of loved ones is an exercise fraught with hazards. A Shiite Muslim religious party controls the main morgue near downtown; its militiamen guard the entrance, keen to snatch kin of the dead, many of them Sunni Muslim Arabs. Unclaimed Sunni corpses pile up.

… On a recent patrol in Adamiya, one of the capital's oldest sections, U.S. soldiers went door to door speaking with merchants and residents, trying to earn their confidence. Everyone seemed cordial as people spoke of their terror of Shiite militiamen. Then a shot rang out and a soldier fell 10 yards from where I stood with the platoon captain; a sniper, probably Sunni, had taken aim at this 21-year-old private from Florida ostensibly there to protect Sunnis against Shiite depredations. The GI survived.

Coursing through the deserted cityscape in an Army Humvee after curfew empties the streets is an experience laced with foreboding. U.S. vehicles, among the few on the road, offer an inviting target for an unseen enemy. Piles of long-uncollected trash may conceal laser-guided explosives. Russian roulette is the oft-repeated analogy.

"Everyone's thinking the same thing," a tense sergeant tells me. "IEDs," he adds, using the shorthand for roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices.

One evening, I accompanied a three-Humvee convoy of MPs through largely Shiite east Baghdad. Before leaving the base, the commander performed an unsettling ritual: He anointed the Humvees with clear oil, performing something akin to last rites.

… At this point, anything seems possible here, a descent of any depth into the abyss. Militiamen and residents are already sealing off neighborhoods by sect. Some have suggested district-to-district ID cards. Word broke recently of a plan to build barriers around this metropolis of 6 million and block the city's entrances with checkpoints. The "terror trench," as some immediately dubbed it, seemed to have a fundamental flaw: The killers already are in Baghdad.
They do not seem to be thinking about our elections. And Digby is reduced to sarcasm -
Sure, it's a little "untidy" and all, but they should be a lot more grateful to the liberators who freed them and created this wonderful Democratic paradise. Interfering with the Republicans' ability to do more of this good work in their country is drilling through their faces to spite their noses.
What? That needs some work. But this is all absurd after all, or surreal - or something like that.

Josh Marshall here tries to work out what the current problem really is -
… it's worth remembering why President Bush, short of being forced kicking and screaming, will never and can never withdraw American forces from Iraq.

Fundamentally, it doesn't have to do with military strategy or ideology. It has to do with coming to grips with the monumental failure he has wrought, which of course he can never do.

Setting aside the vast costs in human life, national treasure and regional stability, I see President Bush's adventure as a failed business venture, a start-up that went bad - an analogy that, come to think of it, he could probably relate to.

A failed company can lose money for a very long time before it makes money and becomes a success. It only really fails when the investors decide that the problems aren't transient but terminal. They decide to stop throwing good money after bad. And then that's it.

If we look at the matter in those icy terms, that moment of reckoning came at least two years ago, certainly before the 2004 election. By then it was depressingly clear the whole matter was never going to come to a good end. But President Bush got the country to reinvest and the country has kept on doing so since then with some factor of lives, money and time.

As long as that's the case President Bush and his supporters can keep up the increasingly ludicrous pretense that Iraq isn't a horrendous failure but simply a work in progress that hasn't been given the necessary time to work.

In fact, I think if you look back over the last two years, President Bush has been engaged in what amounts to a cynical game of chicken with his fellow Americans.

Think of the president as a failed or deadbeat entrepreneur (again, not such a stretch) who's already lost his investors a ton of money. He goes back to them and says, 'Okay, fine. You think I'm a moron and a screw-up who lost you guys a ton of money. Fine. But do you really want to finally, totally, conclusively kiss that $300 billion goodbye. You wanna just totally call it quits? Admit it's a total loss? What about giving me just another $10 billion and maybe somehow I'll actually pull this off? Or, since that's just not gonna happen, a mere $10 billion to put off for six months having to write the whole thing off as a loss, having to come to grips once and for all with the fact that all the money's gone and the whole thing's a bust?'

That's really what this is about. And I think we all know it pretty much across the political spectrum. In this way, paradoxically, the very magnitude of the president's failure has become his tacit ally. It's just such a big thing to come to grips with. And reinvesting in the president's folly, even after any hope of recouping the money is gone, carries the critical fringe benefit of sustaining our own collective and increasingly threadbare denial.

But President Bush's interests are not the same as the country's. He's maxed out, in for 100%. If Iraq is a failure, a mistake, then the same words will be written right after his name in the history books. A country, though, can take missteps and mistakes, course corrections and dead ends, and move on. We've done it before and we'll do it again.

But President Bush can't and won't withdraw from Iraq because when he does, under the current conditions, he'll sign the epitaph, the historical death warrant for his presidency. Unlike in the past there are no family friends to pawn the failure off on and let them take the loss. It's all his. So he'll keep kicking the can down the road forever.
And that may be the classic definition of stuck on stupid. And if you use the metaphor here, his venture capitalists, those who provide the funding - that would be us - are pulling out and investing elsewhere. Some things are just bad ideas.

Over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, now part of Time Magazine, Monday, October 23, was also the day there was an open discussion of the whole idea of this Iraq adventure. Sullivan, once all for it, is now saying it was a fine idea but bungled badly by some real fools. After World War II we got a great Germany and Japan - open, democratic and vital - and "reverse domino theory" does work - when the Soviet Union fell all the eastern block nations woke up and became modern democracies and all that. The idea wasn't bad - just the execution.

A reader here -
The theory in Iraq was that we would not need to occupy the nation, not need to impose martial law, not need to do the things that we did in both Germany and Japan because it wouldn't be necessary. Iraqis were going to do by themselves and for themselves what Germans and Japanese did guided by the firm hand of occupation forces which dominated every aspect of their post-war civil life.

If you wish to cite Germany and Japan as the examples, you'll have to explain why our leaders believed, and repeatedly affirmed, that the aftermath of Iraq would require so much less time, effort and manpower than our occupations of those Axis powers. America and its coalition partners never lacked the competence to occupy Iraq, we embraced a theory that said occupation would be unnecessary.

As for the Soviet Union are you seriously suggesting that toppling Saddam could possibly have the same effect on his neighbors, some of whom were sworn enemies, that the collapse of the Soviet Union had on its component and client states? The similarities between the two are limited to the term "change of government." You're better than this sophist argument.

The point still stands. The philosophy behind our effort Iraq doomed it, not an incompetent implementation of that philosophy.

It was conservative members of the US government who predicted that Iraq would take longer, cost more, and require hundreds of thousands more troops to turn out the way Germany and Japan turned out. Their opinions were dismissed out-of-hand as "old thinking." Neo-conservatives predicted that we'd be pretty much done militarily in Iraq within a few months, that our efforts would cost next-to-nothing, and that the entire region would then change for the better.

You say that we were just being over-optimistic. Optimistic thinking would be that it would only take three years, 300,000 troops and $300 billion dollars to succeed. The pre-war predictions of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz weren't "over-optimistic," they were magical thinking enshrined as policy. Our nation acted upon those sunny predictions as if they bore any relationship with reality, and reality is now kicking our behinds.
That's another way of saying stuck on stupid, shifting the emphasis to the second element. Using the Josh Marshall business metaphor, we were asked to invest in a venture to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but there were none. We were asked to invest in the same venture, but to rid the world of one of the main supporters of al Qaeda and perhaps one element of the 9/11 plot - but it turns out that wasn't the case. So we were asked to invest in the same venture, but to set up a model democracy that would inspire other nations in the region to change everything about how the thought nations should be run. And that's not going well.

Just why did we keep investing in this venture? Another of Sullivan's readers here -
The project was always doomed because our strategy was the result of philosophical hogwash.

Back before the war there were many of us who asked a simple question: When in recorded history have human beings reacted to the sudden toppling of their systems of governance the way Iraqis are supposed to react after we topple Saddam, by peacefully and immediately creating an entirely different system of governance?

The answer: Never

We asked a second question: When in recorded history has a change of government in one nation led to a peaceful and spontaneous change of governments in neighboring nations?

The answer: Never.

The operating assumption of the Bush administration was that Iraqis would not act in historically predictable ways because our motives were pure. The notion other human beings will defy human nature if our hearts are pure must be called what it is: new-agey poppycock.

Our motives were pure; we were going to liberate Iraqis from an awful dictator, period. The people of Iraq, upon experiencing this act of selflessness on the part of "good guy" America, would then be guided by peace and love and immediately start rebuilding their society in our image, or something close enough that we could be proud of it. Their neighbors, seeing how the Age of Aquarius had broken out next door, would then rush to join the love-in... and the world would live as one. Thus we would be able to bring most of our troops home very quickly after toppling Saddam, leaving behind only enough to protect Iraq from its evil neighbors until they, too, saw the light.

The effort was doomed from the start because it was based upon magical thinking.
It is odd that so many invested in this venture for so long - but maybe we wanted to believe in magic after the 9/11 attacks. But as entertaining as magic can be, it's quite stupid stuff. The whole premise of it is odd. You're amazed that you could be fooled, and admire the skill used to fool you, and you pay to participate in being fooled. Magicians like to be called illusionists, and the more effectively they make their audiences feel stupid, the better the illusion. It seems we're no longer stuck on that particular kind of stupid.

So the magicians stand on stage, working the cards and scarves and rabbits in the hats, while the audience shuffles up the shadowy aisles, through the lobby smelling of stale popcorn, and out into the unexpected and very bright sunlight and fresh air. Show's over, folks.

Posted by Alan at 23:03 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006 08:40 PDT home

Sunday, 22 October 2006
Notes on Leadership as Pathology
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
Notes on Leadership as Pathology
As things fall apart for those in power, the president and his party, people do muse on the issue of leadership. Just what is it?

Iraq is a train wreck, our elective war there perhaps the most counterproductive decision the nation has ever made. No one wants us to lose and withdraw from Iraq in shame, but no good alternatives seem available. And the nation might have hung on and agreed with the president's "stay the course" approach - even if now he says he just never said those words at all - but for what we all saw in the administration's absurd response to Hurricane Katrina more that a year ago.

That seems to have been a turning point. Other things then appeared in relief - the attempt to get his less than prepossessing personal attorney a seat on the Supreme Court that had even his own party in revolt, a look back at the Terri Schiavo business where he cut short a vacation to sign legislation to keep the body of one brain-dead woman functioning against the wishes of her husband and what appeared to be her own wishes, and was shot down in every court where the matter was considered. There was stumping the country for changes in the Social Security program, for changing it from an insurance program with defined benefits to a federal program offering investment advice. No one wanted that, yet he persisted. And he claims this is leadership. He didn't care if more than half the country despised him for his actions and positions - leaders are visionaries, or something.

Over in the UK Tony Blair has the same problem -

Over the course of little more than a week, we have learned that civilian casualties so far in the Iraq war may be more than 600,000; that Britain's Chief of the General Staff believes the conflict could break the army apart; that a federal solution to the growing chaos involving the effective dismemberment of the country is being openly discussed in America; that the US Iraq Study Group, headed by Republican grandee James Baker, is recommending that the US military withdraws to bases outside Iraq and seeks Iranian and Syrian help; and that Britain is now the number one al-Qaeda target, partly, it seems clear, as a consequence of events in Iraq.

There should be at least one universal response to this in Britain. Why is Tony Blair still Prime Minister after leading his country into such a disastrous war? Any large company would by now have got rid of a managing director guilty of a mistake on that scale. Any institution you care to name would have done the same. Why is Blair immune from the normal requirements of high office?

Why, instead of being allowed by the cabinet to establish six new policy committees designed to entrench his legacy, has he not been impeached and thrown out of office? Even if his Iraq policy was formed in good faith, the scale of the error surely requires us to ask him and all those concerned with this disaster to leave.
It seems someone - Henry Porter in the case - is most unhappy, but there they have a mechanism for taking care of such things. A vote of no confidence would force new elections - but that won't happen. Barely enough people are mesmerized by Blair's sincerity and consistency (or resolve, if you will), and his stunning articulateness, that, even if he was wrong, is wrong, and will be wrong the future on so many critical issues, at least he is a leader.

So it is with President Bush - save for the stunning articulateness. We only get the stunning gaffs. But two out of three isn't bad. We think Bush, as disastrous as his decisions have been, is still a leader.

Frank Rich of the New York Times, of all people, seems to hold this view, in spite of how much he hates what has happened here. On Sunday, October 22, he writes this -
Call him arrogant or misguided or foolish, this president has been a leader. He had a controversial agenda - enacting big tax cuts, privatizing Social Security, waging "pre-emptive" war, packing the courts with judges who support his elisions of constitutional rights - and he didn't fudge it. He didn't care if half the country despised him along the way.
No, he didn't. But is that leadership

Richard Einhorn doesn't think so -
Say whatever you want about George W. Bush, but he is a leader only in the same way that the 9/11 hijackers were brave.

When the term is used in modern American political discourse, "leader" does not have the standard generalized meaning of "a person in authority" regardless of whether they are good or bad. When Americans use the term "leader" in reference to their own politics, they are not talking about Kim Jong Il or Vladimir Lenin. Americans are invoking the imagery of great American political and cultural leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Coltrane.

First and foremost, a leader persuades others, by proposing sensible ideas in an honest and convincing rhetorical voice.

A leader is NOT someone who doesn't care "if half the country despised him along the way." A leader is NOT someone who hides a tyrannical agenda under the skirts of priests and behind cheesy bromides like "compassionate conservatism." A leader is NOT someone who does exactly as s/he pleases.

Bush does not persuade, he does what he wants, and if anybody stands in the way, he ignores or blackmails them. His ideas are not sensible, but nuts. He is thoroughly dishonest and his inability to articulate even the simplest ideas is a national embarrassment.

In addition, a leader recognizes when a given course of action, especially one that he himself endorsed, is failing. A leader takes responsibility for failures as well as successes. Bush, of course, is notorious both for following his delusions until they lead into total fiasco and for simply refusing to recognize that he ever made a single mistake.

In American public discourse, rightly or wrongly, words like "leader" and "brave" are typically descriptive of people with positive virtues. Mahatma Gandhi was a leader. Idi Amin was not. The students in Tiananmen Square were brave, the man who assassinated Rabin was not.

By drawing a direct comparison between Bush and the 9/11 hijackers, am I saying that Bush is a religious fanatic in the grip of dangerous narcissistic delusions of grandeur and who has no regard for the death of innocents?

You bet I am. And that is not what Americans mean by a leader, Mr. Rich.
Note - you can click on the link and find out how the late John Coltrane got on the leader list, remembering of course that Einhorn is also a noted composer. But this all is curious.

What to make of it? What do we expect our leaders to be?

The widely read Duncan Black ("Atrios") here argues that eagerness to support military adventure is often confused with gravitas. If you don't want to go to war, you're just not a serious leader. One "Winston Smith" here denounces Duncan Black as a weak fool, and a bad writer, and a few other things - sometimes war is necessary and the only alternative we have. No one really wants war, but what are you going to do?

Professor Mark Kleiman of UCLA tries to sort it all out -
Atrios is complaining that eagerness to support military adventure is often confused with gravitas. That complaint has considerable merit. Conservatives have convinced many voters that aversion to warfare as a means of policy displays cowardice: real men, they say, are hawks. Atrios is right to say that a preference for violence reflects a character disorder, though he's mostly wrong to call it sociopathy; it has much more to do with sadism and narcissism.

Winston is right to say that no sane person actually prefers warfare to other means of achieving the same ends, if those ends are in fact achievable without warfare. But he's wrong, I think, to say that the relevant kind of insanity is rare enough to ignore. And the political process tends to select for that kind of insanity.
Now there's a thought - the political process tends to self-select pretty awful people. Those that survive and rise are quite mad. Cool.

Kleiman turns to Machiavelli -
Good people, he [Machiavelli] points out, don't like to hurt others; they prefer generosity to stinginess and mercy to cruelty. But stinginess and cruelty are necessary elements of statecraft, because a public policy of immoderate generosity and mercy boomerangs: generosity winds up by taking money from many to give it to few, and mercy winds up cruelly exposing victims to the violence of undeterred domestic predators and foreign aggressors.

So for good people - generous, merciful, compassionate people - to rule successfully from the viewpoint of those they rule, they need to learn to be able not to be good: to restrain their impulses toward generosity and mercy when it is necessary to be stingy and cruel. When it's necessary to bomb Serbia, killing lots of innocent Serbs, to stop the Serbian government from committing genocide, good rulers go ahead and order the bombing, without enthusiasm but not without resolution. They try to minimize the amount of blood they shed (as Sheldon Wolin says, they economize on the use of violence) but they don't shrink from inflicting some violence to avoid more violence. They aim at the Aristotelian mean.
They do, but it can destroy them -
It's easier for people with a cruel streak to use cruelty than it is for compassionate people to use cruelty, even in a good cause. (As Miss Hardcastle, the head of the secret police, says in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, the people who volunteer to do that sort of job are mostly the ones who get a kick out of it.)

So good, compassionate people - liberals - naturally tend to use too little violence. Everyone more or less knows that; the fact that John Wayne is a standing joke among liberals is not lost on our fellow-citizens. So there's a reasonable and natural tendency to want your rulers not to be too good. And that's how a tendency that everyone will admit is pathological gets to be valued in office-seekers, while a tendency that everyone will agree is sane gets to be viewed with distrust. Currently, that's the basic political tactic of the American right: convince the public that liberals are too nice to be entrusted with the national security (and too generous to trust with the public purse). They did it to Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry.
So we want pathological leaders, not sane ones, as we know they get the job done. That explains a great deal. Maybe Frank Rich was right.

But let's assume you think that having a pathological nut case running the most powerful nation on earth isn't a fine idea, given the state of things now. What would you want?

Here's want Kleiman would have -
I'd try to find liberal leaders (e.g., Wesley Clark) who have fully absorbed both halves of the Machiavellian lesson, and who are willing but not eager to suppress their goodness when its suppression is a public necessity.

And I'd have those leaders appeal to the true andreia of the John Wayne character against the defective andreia of the Clint Eastwood character. Defending yourself and others against real threats is manly. Picking fights just for the hell of it is juvenile. Bullies are cowards. Only perverts like hurting people. Torture is for girly-men. Real Americans are above all that.
Andreia, by the way, is the ancient Greek word for manliness and represented the virtue of the warrior - bravery or courage. You can tell Kleiman, using this word, teaches at a major university - UCLA - and one that is just a few miles west of Hollywood, thus references to the celluloid warriors John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

So, of Bush's leadership, are we dealing with a pervert, coward and "girly-man?" That's possible.

Steve Gilliard suggests a different pathology -
George Bush has never explained Iraq in terms which a logical person could understand. Iraq has been an emotional appeal from the first day going after Saddam was raised. It was never about any actual threat, but an emotional desire to prove we could dominate anyone who opposed us.

For Bush, who has failed at every task ever put before him, from work, to the military to school, this was going to be his vindication. He so desperately wanted to be a hero and Iraq was going to solve all of his issues. He would defeat an enemy, prove himself worthy and gain the respect from his family he so desperately wanted.

Which is why he chose men his father kept at arms length. Bush never wanted advice, he wanted confirmation of his beliefs. His narrow world view, shaped by the dust dry plains of Midland as much as any movie, this idea that a man didn't need or want questions, he just did.

Which is how he approached the American people, not with facts, but an emotional appeal. He's out there, he's guilty, let's get him first. That was the goal, get them first, show them who is boss, Those who don't get that are weak, even if they are in uniform. We will show the world they better not fuck with us again. Iraq will be first, and the rest will bend to our will. We will show them what a superpower does.

This was never a logical argument, it was never a reasoned one, it was pure emotion, which the anti-war movement never got. Iraq was a challenge to us, our manhood, our power and anyone in the way just didn't care.

It wasn't anything to do with concrete facts. It wasn't just fear, but emasculation which Bush sold and that worked on women like a charm. People wanted to believe that the US could run down Iraq and then all manner of miracle would follow, not because of what people wanted but because people feared the US. It wasn't democracy, but control, to finally make Iraq like Israel, a Westernish country loyal to the US. It wasn't anything about what the Iraqis wanted, although the exiles fed into those delusions, which fell into their own delusions, that Iraq was just waiting for their leadership.
So this is why so many people believed in Bush for so long - it was all emotional, and only now reality is messing that up. The Iraq War psychological payback for 9/11 and all that - even if he was the wrong guy who had pretty much left us alone. He'd do.

But nothing worked out and now all we have is the sad pathology we as a nation selected (if Kleiman is right) -
Bush is a bully and a coward at heart. Iraq was chosen because Iraq would be easy, and then the rest of the Middle East would follow. It was the easy way to solve our problems, not our real problems, but our emotional pain, the unresolved conflict over being attacked. And Bush would resolve his lifelong lack of success.

Bush will not leave Iraq, not because he thinks we can win, or he thinks it's part of the war on terror. But because he cannot face another failure. Which is why Scowcroft and Baker have had no influence on him. They are his father's men, veterans, despite their politics, realists. Bush is not and never has been. When he wasn't hiding from his failure with booze and coke, he hid from it with Jesus. Now he has Henry Kissinger whispering in his ear, telling him what he wants to hear. He doesn't want advice, he wants support and only support. Those who do not support him, are diminished, then banished.

This is a man who has never honestly looked himself in the face and said I have failed. He has always been protected from failure.

Which is why Rumsfeld keeps his job. To admit he was incompetent, and some days he seems positively addled, would reflect poorly on Bush.

When people look to understand Iraq, they look at the facts and see failure, but that isn't what Bush sees. He sees one more chance for personal glory and he will not quit until he is forced to.
Gilliard argues many Republicans have no idea that they have bought into this odd psychodrama. The man "seeks redemption as desperately as he drank - and his redemption is in Iraq." He's just dragging us all along with him, and now people want out. It's too late for that. This is not the UK - there isn't any "no confidence" vote. The midterm election may hobble him, should the Democrats gain the House or Senate, or both. But that won't change much. Now he can use the veto he never used before. He'll just dig in - they call it "hunkering down." Maybe thing will slowly begin to change after mid-January 2009 as someone else is sworn in. Or maybe not. Perhaps the system does self-select nasty people.

Until then? This -
As bad as Saddam was, you could walk the streets without being kidnapped by criminals or having your daughters raped on the way to school. We have created a charnel house in Iraq because of Bush and his refusal to listen to advice he didn't want to hear.

Phased withdrawal is bullshit. Once you start withdrawing troops from Iraq, the demand to do it quicker will mount. Because Iraq is a house of cards, once it goes, it goes quickly. Anyone who would serve in an occupation government isn't strong enough to lead a real government and Maliki is doomed to join Kerensky as the leader of a failed state.

Iraq is only now become fact, not emotion, and we have to find a way out of it. George Bush's psychodrama is going to end badly.
Ah, but will it end? Is there any way out?

The administration is talking about creating a "blueprint" for making progress in Iraq, and it goes like this -
Details of the blueprint, which is to be presented to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki before the end of the year and would be carried out over the next year and beyond, are still being devised. But the officials said that for the first time Iraq was likely to be asked to agree to a schedule of specific milestones, like disarming sectarian militias, and to a broad set of other political, economic and military benchmarks intended to stabilize the country.

... A senior Pentagon official involved in drafting the blueprint said that Iraqi officials were being consulted as the plan evolved and would be invited to sign off on the milestones before the end of the year. But he added, "If the Iraqis fail to come back to us on this, we would have to conduct a reassessment" of the American strategy in Iraq.

... "We're trying to come up with ways to get the Iraqis to step up to the plate, to push them along, because the time is coming," a senior Bush administration official said. "We can't be there forever."
But when the New York Times reported all this on Sunday, October 22, the White House was all over the media saying this was not a "timetable" thing - timetables are evil, they encourage the enemy to hang on and wait us out, and we'll never set timetables. We'll set milestones - it's a different thing entirely.

Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly is exasperated -
Take your pick: (a) They're serious about this. (b) They're trying to put together a plan - any plan - in order to prevent James Baker's forthcoming recommendations from becoming the default "sensible" middle course accepted by everyone in the DC punditocracy. (c) It's meaningless except as political theater. Bush just wants the country to think he's busily working on something, and this is the something.

I actually don't know which of the three it is. Maybe all of them to some degree. But while we're on the subject, note that this is all coming in the same week that the former head of the British armed forces gave his considered opinion about how we're doing in our various wars: "I don't believe we have a clear strategy in either Afghanistan or Iraq. I sense we've lost the ability to think strategically." He was talking about Britain, but obviously his remarks were aimed at the United States as well. After all, we're the ones primarily setting the strategy.

I wonder how long it will take America to recover from George Bush's uniquely blinkered and self-righteous brand of ineptitude. In the past five years he's demonstrated to the world that we don't know how to win a modern guerrilla war. He's demonstrated that we don't understand even the basics of waging a propaganda war. He's demonstrated that other countries don't need to pay any attention to our threats. He's demonstrated that we're good at talking tough and sending troops into battle, but otherwise clueless about using the levers of statecraft in the service of our own interests. If he had set out to willfully and deliberately expose our weaknesses to the world and undermine our strengths, he couldn't have done more to cripple America's power and influence in the world. Beneath the bluster, he's done more to weaken our national security than any president since World War II.

So how long will it take - after George Bush has left office - for our power and influence on the world stage to return to the level it was at in 2001? When I'm in a good mood, I figure five years. Realistically, ten years is probably more like it. And when I'm in a bad mood? Don't ask. It's really all very depressing.
Of course it is. There's no way out, and (c) is most likely - it's meaningless except as political theater, the administration wanting the country to think they're busily working on something, and this is the something. One thing sounds as good as another. Consider it an appeal to the emotions. That's what leadership comes down to these days - not doing much of anything, but creating the right attitude in the general population, one that keeps you in office.

And they know all of it is show. Take the case of Alberto Fernandez, our director of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the state department -a special appointment by Condoleezza Rice herself, a long and distinguished career, and dead-flat fluent in Arabic. Sunday, October 22, we get this -
A senior U.S. State Department diplomat told Arab satellite network Al Jazeera that there is a strong possibility history will show the United States displayed "arrogance" and "stupidity" in its handling of the Iraq war.

Alberto Fernandez, director of the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of Near East Affairs, made his comments on Saturday to the Qatar-based network.

"History will decide what role the United States played," he told Al Jazeera in Arabic, based on CNN translations. "And God willing, we tried to do our best in Iraq."

"But I think there is a big possibility ... for extreme criticism and because undoubtedly there was arrogance and stupidity from the United States in Iraq," the diplomat told Al Jazeera.

… "I can only assume his remarks must have been mistranslated. Those comments obviously don't reflect our policy," a senior Bush administration official said.

Fernandez told CNN that he was "not dissing U.S. policy."

"I know what the policy is and what the red lines are, and nothing I said hasn't been said before by senior officials."
In short, everyone knows we've been extraordinarily arrogant and quite stupid in myriad ways. What Fernandez is saying is that it hardly matters. Leadership is doing what we do, whatever it is, and often it is nearly insane. But it's leadership. History, which will judge all this, is for later. Leadership is for now. It was a big shrug. What are you going to do? We did what we did.

What it comes down to, what Frank Rich was reflecting, is that we now seem to define leadership as "doing" - and it hardly matters if what's being done is stupid, or if it doesn't work, or even if it does the opposite what the leader says it will do (like make us all safer). And even if this "doing" is generated from some very odd pathology, it's still doing something. So we go along, as it's emotionally satisfying to do so.

Things have to get really bad for people to withdraw support from a leader who is "doing things." We may be there. We can live with the pathologies - we've done so before (Nixon and others of your choice). But now it's what has actually been done. Breaking everything is not leadership, even if it is doing something.


Posted by Alan at 20:28 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006 07:23 PDT home

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