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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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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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Sunday, 17 December 2006
Relaxing
Topic: Announcements

Relaxing

There no Sunday evening column. Things got backed up by a day. There was this family birthday party down in San Diego on Saturday - Nicholas turned three. That meant the weekend edition of Just Above Sunset, the magazine-format parent to this website, had to be assembled and posted on Sunday, not Saturday. And that takes time.

Check it out. This week, six extended observations on current events, one quite alarming, and one having little to do with politics as it has to do with malls and surrealism and such (it is Christmas shopping time) and includes reader comments - eleven pages of astonishing Southern California photography, five of them botanical in nature and the others… well, you'll see. What about that scientologist Santa on Hollywood Boulevard? And those birds are a bit scary. Note also the page "Glow" is highly recommended - better than Hallmark, or something.

There are the weekly diversions - handy (and cynical) quotes on listening (this was the week for that, as that is what the president says he is doing), and the weekly dose of the weird from our friend in Texas.

And there are some amusing hidden photographs here and there, if you look around.

Some of the material appeared here first, but it has been revised and expanded. Much is new.

Now it's time to relax.

Homer Simpson phone for sale on Hollywood Boulevard


Posted by Alan at 20:41 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Saturday, 16 December 2006
On Listening
Topic: Perspective

On Listening

"Most people need a good listening to." - Maria Galenza

"I can't help thinking that this would be a better world if everyone would listen to me." - Lucy Van Pelt, Peanuts (Charles Shultz)

"Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering." - Winnie the Pooh (Alan Alexander Milne)

"If A equals success, then the formula is A equals X plus Y and Z, with X being work, Y play, and Z keeping your mouth shut." - Albert Einstein

"Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again." - Andre Gide

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." - Ernest Hemingway

"A good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with." - Kenneth A. Wells

"It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

"To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also." - Igor Stravinsky

"No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while you'll see why." - Mignon McLaughlin

"Listening is the only way to entertain some folks." - Kin Hubbard

"There are people who, instead of listening to what is being said to them, are already listening to what they are going to say themselves." - Albert Guinon

"I'll not listen to reason. Reason always means what someone else has to say." - Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

"Lenin could listen so intently that he exhausted the speaker." - Isaiah Berlin

"No man ever listened himself out of a job." - Calvin Coolidge

"Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening." - Dorothy Sarnoff

"Listen. Do not have an opinion while you listen because frankly, your opinion doesn’t hold much water outside of Your Universe. Just listen. Listen until their brain has been twisted like a dripping towel and what they have to say is all over the floor." - Hugh Elliott

"A good listener is a good talker with a sore throat." - Katharine Whitehorn

"A good listener is usually thinking about something else." - Kin Hubbard

"Everybody lies, but it doesn't matter because nobody listens." - Nick Diamos

"Heaven, n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

"Don't LOOK at anything in a physics lab. Don't TASTE anything in a chemistry lab. Don't SMELL anything in a biology lab. Don't TOUCH anything in a medical lab. And, most importantly, don't LISTEN to anything in a philosophy department." - Bill Lye

"Women like silent men. They think they're listening." - Marcel Archard

Posted by Alan at 09:46 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Friday, 15 December 2006
Forcing Change - Dealing With the Self-Righteous
Topic: NOW WHAT?

Forcing Change - Dealing With the Self-Righteous

The news that was not news was that there would be no news. Friday, December 15, we were told she said it again -
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday rejected a bipartisan panel's recommendation that the United States seek the help of Syria and Iran in Iraq, saying the "compensation" required by any deal might be too high. She argued that neither country should need incentives to foster stability in Iraq.

"If they have an interest in a stable Iraq, they will do it anyway," Rice said in a wide-ranging interview with Washington Post reporters and editors.
Nothing new here. In late summer, regarding talking to Syria about the short Israel-Hezbollah war that had devastated Lebanon, she had said then that there was no point in talking with them about the issues in the region, as "they know what they must do," slamming that door shut. We don't talk. Others know what they should do.

It's just passive-aggressive nastiness. Any man who has been married knows all about the tactic. Anyone who had a guilt-inducing Jewish or Catholic martyr-mother knows too. You can ask what you did wrong, what you're supposed to do, but your receive silence - until you do whatever it is you should, or stop doing whatever it is you shouldn't. You have to guess a lot. It's supposed to be educational, one presumes. If you finally figure out what's going on, without being told what the problem is at all, or, if you luckily do guess the problem, and actually figure out why it matters, and then do what you were too stupid to know you should have done - the "right thing" you just didn't understand - you get a pat on the head, maybe.

Sometimes you just say "screw it" and walk away. It's both insulting and frustrating, and once you get over your anger, somehow comic. Why did you even buy into it, if you did?

Those who follow "the new American diplomacy" - we don't talk - shake their heads at this official stance. For example, Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly notes that Rice's statement isn't really anything new, but he's still freshly astounded whenever he hears it again -
This is, basically, an argument for never negotiating with anyone. After all, why bother if states will simply do what they want to do regardless? (cf. President Bush's belief that Syria already "knows my position.")

Conservatives often accuse liberals of elevating negotiation into an end in itself. It's a fatuous charge, but its mirror image isn't: as a matter of principle, contemporary conservatives really do seem to have broadly rejected even the concept of negotiating with our enemies. I guess you could armchair psychoanalyze this belief forever, but I imagine it's mostly caused by a fear that they might actually succeed. Take a look at Iraq: in the end, it acquiesced to every American demand in 2002 and 2003, and that just made it harder to gain support for the invasion we wanted.

It's no wonder Bush hates the idea. He's probably afraid the same thing might happen with Syria.
Matthew Yglesias agrees that may be true - we're afraid negotiation might work and then we'd really be in a bind - but says he would press further -
Conservatives combine this with an oddly expansive view of who "our enemies" are. Iran is plausibly characterized as an enemy who liberals think we should negotiate with. Our lack of diplomatic relations dates back to the hostage crisis in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, and the Revolution was loaded with anti-American rhetoric and ideology from the get-go. It's a bona fide enemy, and we should negotiate with them.

But in what sense is Syria "our enemy" except in the sense that the Bush administration won't conduct diplomacy with the Syrian government? Syria isn't pushing for regime change in the United States. Syria isn't trying to conquer Mexico as part of a first step to restructure the politics of North America. Syria was part of our coalition during the first Gulf War. Throughout the Clinton administration there were frequent US-Syrian diplomatic talks running parallel to US-Israeli diplomatic talks aimed (unsuccessfully) at resolving the dispute over the Golan Heights and normalizing relations between Syria and Israel. After Operation Grapes of Wrath the US and Syria worked together on the Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Agreement. After 9/11, Syria offered intelligence cooperation against al-Qaeda.

Syria's not an ally of the United States. But it's not our enemy in any meaningful sense. It's just a country the administration more-or-less severed diplomacy with unilaterally for no real reason.
"After 9/11, Syria offered intelligence cooperation against al-Qaeda." They did. Yep, we sent that Canadian fellow we grabbed at the Newark Airport to Syria for a year. They tortured him for us, to get him to confess he was an al Qaeda operative and to get him to tell us what the big plan was and where the top bad guys were hiding. Yes, he turned out to be just a completely innocent electrical engineer returning from vacation, just as the Canadians had warned us, and he couldn't tell us "the big plan" - he didn't know what we were talking about - and he knew no one and nothing useful at all, but that wasn't exactly the Syrians' fault. As for Operation Grapes of Wrath, that was the Israeli Defense Forces' code-name for a sixteen-day military blitz against Lebanon in 1996 in an attempt to end shelling of Northern Israel by Hezbollah. Hezbollah called it the April War. Israel names things better. Israel did a lot of airstrikes and shelling, just like last summer - and a UN installation was hit causing the death of one hundred eighteen Lebanese civilians. Hezbollah's cross-border rocket attacks targeted civilian northern Israel, which was equally nasty. But they also fought directly with Israeli and South Lebanon Army forces. The conflict was "de-escalated" on 27 April of that year with the agreement mentioned - all parties agreed to stop with the killing civilians stuff. Syria brokered it. They have been helpful.

Syria may be assisting the insurgents in Iraq now, which is what we claim. We say that's obvious, and they say they're doing no such thing. Both are probably lies. But really, we just don't like their attitude - they openly say our war is wrong-headed and destabilizing the region. That is insulting. You don't just come out and say the President of the United States made a monumentally bone-headed decision. That makes George and Dick and Donald resentful. Of course the Syrians also have to deal with wave after wave of Iraqi refuges from the chaos in Baghdad flooding Damascus and overwhelming the infrastructure there, which, in turn, seems to make them grumpy. There may be much to talk about, when you think about it. But we won't talk, until they stop doing what they say they're not doing, and maybe not even then.

So enter the freelancers -
The White House said Thursday that a Democratic senator's meeting with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was inappropriate and undermined democracy in the region, while three more senators, including a Republican, made plans to visit Damascus in defiance of President Bush.

The visits are troublesome for the Bush administration because they come in the wake of the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which has called for the United States to engage in direct talks with Iran and Syria. Mr. Bush has steadfastly resisted such talks, and the visits by the senators could add to public pressure on the White House to change that policy.

Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, was in Damascus on Wednesday to meet with Mr. Assad; he later told reporters that he saw a "crack in the door" for the United States to cooperate with Syria on Iraq. Senators Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut; John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; and Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, all plan to visit Syria in the coming weeks.
That is rather extraordinary. The administration says no jaw-jaw in this case - we will not talk with these insulting troublemakers. And senators from both parties say "screw that" - as that makes no sense - and fly over for a chat. They just took our foreign policy out of the hands of our passive-aggressive leaders, preferring more "direct" communications. The words "lame duck" come to mind.

Kerry - "The bottom line is we have a very clear and distinct responsibility to ask questions. A lot of Americans wish a lot more questions, a lot tougher questions, had been asked before we got into the mess we're in over here."

Dodd - "Members need to go to hot spots, not just garden spots."

Specter, the "moderate" Republican, had already said in a statement on the Senate floor that he had "long advocated" negotiating with Syria - "We need to keep our friends close and our enemies closer." Not original, but a power play. When the State Department and administration won't do their job, someone has to.

And it got hot. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary - "We think it's inappropriate. The concern here, among other things, is that this does not strengthen the hand of democracy in the region."

Who knows what that means, logically? The White House says that Syria is helping to fuel the insurgency in Iraq, and is "particularly incensed" at Syria for supporting Hezbollah and for trying to destabilize the Lebanese government. You don't talk to people who do such things. One has to assume then that the Syrians are fighting the big "democracy plan" we have for the region, and we don't much care about their parochial and local or politically pragmatic motives. They're messing with George's plan. That's unforgivable. And Snow warned that these visits "may cost some people their credibility" - Nelson from Florida will be on Rove's hit list now, or something. There will be some sort of smear - Snow pretty much promised that.

Nelson contends he did the right thing, and he may have. Later he was in Lebanon with its prime minister -
"I told Prime Minister Siniora that I told Assad to keep his hands off Lebanon," the senator said. He said he approached his meetings in Syria with "realism, not optimism," and added of Mr. Assad, "I don't trust him at all."

Despite the harsh words from the White House, the Bush administration does have diplomatic ties with Syria, and Mr. Nelson said American Embassy officials have been "just ecstatic" to receive reports from his visits, "because so often they don't have access to a highly controversial leader in the country until somebody like a senator comes along."

Mr. Nelson said he had already briefed R. Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third ranking official, about his meeting with Mr. Assad.
He's just doing the job the administration won't do. It's almost a coup, when you think about it.

And even the press is getting into the act. David Ignatius of the Post is, with this column -
DAMASCUS, Syria -- What positions would Syria take if it entered a dialogue with the United States about Iraq and other Middle East issues? I put that question Thursday to Walid Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, and he offered surprisingly strong support for the recommendations made last week in the Baker-Hamilton report.
And note this assessment from Yglesias -
There's good and there's bad in David Ignatius column on diplomacy with Syria but the genuinely absurd part of the column is not-at-all something Ignatius can be blamed for.

… Note the dateline: Damascus. Note the interviewee: Syria's foreign minister. It's not that hard. I don't have the budget for a trip to Damascus, and I bet I lack the clout for an interview with the foreign minister. But the State Department can surely swing the trip. Exploring the possibility of diplomacy requires, quite simply, nothing more than for Rice or Robert Zoellick or David Welch to, you know, go to Syria and ask what's up. It's lazy, insane, or just insane laziness not to do it. But no. Top officials will meet with the Syrian opposition but not the Syrian government. Because, I guess, if we close our eyes and wish hard enough, the Syrian government will just go away and the opposition will take over?

At any rate, here's Ignatius' complete interview with the Foreign Minister, and good for him for making the trip.
Yes, the senators and press meet with the Syrian government, to see what the lay of the land is and what can be worked out, if anything, and our administration will only meet with the wild-eyed rebels, to provide them funds to somehow get their act together and overthrow the government there. We, officially, don't do diplomacy. We only do regime change. The traditionalists, who still believe in classic diplomacy - hard nosed negotiations where you say what you won't give up and what is on the table, and ask the other side to do the same, and see what can be worked out - are doing what they can. The administration would prefer the twenty-year-olds with their AK-47's to take over that Syrian joint. Dealing with them is a whole lot easier than dealing actual adults who have their own issues and ideas, and concerns you may not realize, and want to know what you think, and may or may not want to see if everyone can get at least part of what they want. Dealing with the children is easier. It's a matter of courage. The administration may just be afraid. That would make them cowards, putting us all at risk. That couldn't be, could it?

Well, at least we'll have a "new way forward" and all that. That Iraq Study Group report shook things up. At the end of the week the best rundown on that came from an item from the McClatchy newspapers (formerly of Knight-Ridder), the crew that was alone in getting things exactly right before the war.

The baseline -
The president signaled Wednesday that neither the study group's pessimistic assessment nor the bleak situation in Iraq nor the results of the midterm elections have shaken his belief that victory in Iraq is possible.

"We're not going to give up," said Bush, who plans to announce his new strategy early next year.

While some key decisions haven't been made yet, the senior officials said the emerging strategy includes:

- A shift in the primary U.S. military mission in Iraq from combat to training an expanded Iraqi army, generally in line with the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.
That sounds a lot like "as they stand up, we stand down. The new way forward will be more of the same. And victory is possible, even if no one can precisely define it in this case.

There is some additional filigree of course - "A revised Iraq political strategy aimed at forging a 'moderate center' of Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish politicians that would bolster embattled Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The goal would be to marginalize radical Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents."

Isn't it pretty to think so? We just get them, as John McCain has put it, to stop this bullshit. We tell them, simply, to stop thinking about religion so much, and just stop blowing things up. And they will. It's a fine idea. Of course they'll do that. And pigs will fly.

And this - "More money to combat rampant unemployment among Iraqi youths and to advance reconstruction, much of it funneled to groups, areas and leaders who support Maliki and oppose the radicals."

That's not a bad idea. Who will be in charge of distribution? Do we send Paul Bremmer back? Will Halliburton handle this? The missing eight billion dollars, cash, from the first year or so of this war raises questions. Will someone keep any sort of books this time? There were no books before - not even an Excel spreadsheet. "We just don't know where the money went" may not fly this time. Ah, maybe they learned their lesson.

And this - "Rejection of the study group's call for an urgent, broad new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reach out to Iran and Syria. Instead, the administration is considering convening a conference of Iraq and neighboring countries - excluding Iran and Syria - as part of an effort to pressure the two countries to stop interfering in Iraq."

Huh? See above, and Josh Marshall - "Okay, so it'll be us, 'Iraq,' Jordan and the Saudis holding a conference to get the Syrians and Iranians to stop messing around in Iraq. Why didn't we think of this before?"

Actually, that parallels our efforts with North Korea - we won't talk directly with North Korea but think we can get other nations, China and Japan, to talk them into what we want them to do, not go nuclear, without us having to actually face them ourselves and say things and listen to things. And how did that work out?

And as for John McCain's "send in twenty-thousand" plan - "A possible short-term surge of as many as 40,000 more American troops to try to secure Baghdad, along with a permanent increase in the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps, which are badly strained by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan."

So who's got the bigger dick now? McCain gets neutered. The president calls and raises, a double-down bet. He's the man. But see John Burns in the New York Times - Military Considers Sending as Many as 35,000 More U.S. Troops to Iraq, McCain Says - "Senator John McCain said Thursday that American military commanders were discussing the possibility of adding as many as 10 more combat brigades - a maximum of about 35,000 troops…" Did I say twenty thousand? The military wants more than double that, and I agree, and it wasn't George's idea, it was their idea, not his. So my dick is bigger. And so on.

Basically the Baker-Hamilton report backfired - "Bush appears to have been emboldened by criticism of its proposals as defeatist by members of the Republican Party's conservative wing and their allies on the Internet, the radio and cable TV."

They said his daddy's man was wrong. Bill Kristol said so. So did Rush Limbaugh - "This is cut and run, surrender without the words."

So who's do you turn to, if daddy's man tells you to surrender? That's obvious - "According to a senior State Department official, the president is listening closely to a former Republican secretary of state, but it isn't Baker. Henry Kissinger, a frequent White House visitor, has been to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a half-dozen times, he said."

Nixon. One more time. And how did that work out?

There is no forcing change in the case. The self-righteous are doing just fine, thank you.

Posted by Alan at 22:33 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006 22:54 PST home

Thursday, 14 December 2006
On Losing: What Is Acceptable and What Is Not
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

On Losing: What Is Acceptable and What Is Not

Kevin Drum, at the Washington Monthly wonders what happened -
Question: has a hotly anticipated blue ribbon report ever fallen into irrelevance so quickly? The Baker-Hamilton report was released only a week ago, and as near as I can tell it's now a dead letter. Within days, both left and right slagged it viciously, President Bush made it clear that he didn't think much of it, and virtually no one other than David Broder had anything nice to say about it.

(I mean that literally. Has anyone stood up for the report? I can't really think of anyone who's had any sustained praise for it.)

And now? The worst fate of all: it's completely off the radar screen. Its language was so vague as to be meaningless, and within a few days its insignificance was so obvious that no one was even giving it the dignity of arguing about how misguided it was. Chattering classes-wise, it's disappeared down a black hole.

Sic transit gloria mundi.
People did have high hopes this would be a big turning point. Policy would change, or our strategy, or at least our tactics. But it turned out there were two parts to the report - an assessment of where we stand and recommendations as to what we should now do, seventy-nine of them. The first part was devastating assessment - we are not winning and cannot win, or even define what winning is, if we continue doing what we're doing. The second part was suggested actions, many of which were "it would be nice if" speculations that had little to do with what other nations might actually be willing to do, and many of which the president flat-out says he will not do (like agree to talks with Syria, much less any talks about anything with Iran). The report wasn't exactly dead on arrival - it just expired in the emergency room. No one wanted it to live. The problem is that neither the brutal assessment nor the pie-in-the-sky recommendations served anyone's interests. It was designed to please no one, and there was no "saving face" anywhere in it. We may have a big problem, but no party saw anything in it for them. Maybe it had to be that way.

So the president, who was apparently going to announce a major change in our approach in an address to the American people before Christmas, decided January would do. He doesn't want to be rushed, and he began a "listening tour" - meetings at the Pentagon, at the State Department, with retired generals, with "experts." He was looking for someone to agree with him - winning it all was the only alternative - and has been swamped with views as to how to define winning and how to get there. Of course, more and more it appears he will opt for a big bump in troop levels, to get things in Baghdad under control. But that too may just be buying time. One way or another we will leave, sooner or later.

Richard Cohen at the Post puts it bluntly -
[T]he ending is inevitable. We will get out, and the only question that remains is whether we get out with 3,000 dead or 4,000 or 5,000. At some point the American people will not countenance, and Congress will not support, a war that cannot be won. Just how many lives will be wasted in what we all know is a wasted effort is about the only question still left on the table.
And maybe that is why the Baker-Hamilton report slipped into irrelevancy so quickly. It really didn't matter much. What's done is done.

Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle sees it this way -
The good news is, we're all back in harmony. All back on the same page. No more divisiveness and no more silly bickering and no more nasty and indignant red state/blue state rock throwing because we're finally all back in cozy let's-hug-it-out agreement: The "war" in Iraq is over. And what's more, we lost. Very, very badly.

Sure, you sort of sensed from the beginning that we couldn't possibly win a bogus war launched by a nasty slew of corrupt pseudo cowboys against both a bitterly contorted Islamic nation and a vague and ill-defined concept that has no center and no boundaries and that feeds on the very thing that tries to destroy it. It was sort of obvious, even if half the nation was terrifically blinded by Bush administration lies and false shrieks of impending terror.

But now it's official. Or rather, more official. Now it's pretty much agreed upon on both sides of the aisle and in every Iraq Study Group and by every top-ranking general and newly minted defense secretary-designate and in every facet of American culture save some of the gun-totin' flag-lickin' South. We lost. And what's more, we have no real clue what to do about it.
We're not supposed to lose. We cannot accept that. That's not how things are supposed to be. We are strong, and righteous, and good. And no one can question our intentions - rid the Middle East of a brutal dictator and introduce the only system of government that really works - a secular free-market democracy - and see it spread an the dominos fall (the dominos being the autorotation governments in all the nations in the region). Of course these were not precisely what we had originally said were the reasons we chose to wage this particular war. But when, in the end, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and no connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, they would do.

And who could question the second wave of reasons for what we did and what we are doing, whatever it is? Ask what we are doing and you know what you'll have thrown back in you face. So you think Saddam was a good man, do you? So tell me, why do you hate democracy so much? There's not much to say to that.

But something went wrong. Morford works on that -
It's not like we were overpowered. We weren't outmanned or outgunned or outstrategized, hence we weren't defeated in any "traditional," kick-ass, take-names, sign-the-peace-accord way.

It wasn't because our can't-lose military didn't have the latest and greatest killing tools of all time, the biggest budget, the most heroic of baffled and misled young soldiers sort of but not really willing to go off and fight and die for a cause no one could adequately explain or justify to them.

We still have the coolest, fastest planes. We still have the meanest billion-dollar technology. We still have the most imposing tanks and the most incredible weaponry and the badass night-vision goggles with the laser sights and the thermal heat-seeking readouts and the ability to track targets from 2 miles away in a dust storm.
It doesn't matter, really, as the contention here is we no longer have any idea what we're doing on the global stage, as they say. We lost this "war" before we even began. We went in "for all the wrong reasons and with all the wrong planning and with all the wrong leadership who had all the wrong motives based on all the wrong greedy self-serving insular faux cowboy BS that your kids and your grandkids will be paying for until about the year 2056."

Yeah. This is a left-wing rant, but it has its moments -
Maybe you don't agree. Maybe you say, "Wait, wait, wait, it's not over at all, and we haven't lost yet. Isn't the fighting still raging? Can't we still 'win' even though we're still losing soldiers by the truckload and thousands of innocent Iraqis are being brutally slaughtered every month and isn't Dubya still standing there, brow scrunched and confounded as a monkey clinging onto a shiny razor blade, refusing to let go and free us from the deadly trap, ignoring the Iraq Study Group and trying to figure out a way to stay the course and never give in and "mission accomplished" even as every single human around him, from the top generals to crusty old James Baker to the new and shockingly honest secretary of defense, says we are royally screwed and Iraq is now a vicious and chaotic civil war and it's officially one of the worst disasters in American history?" Oh wait, you just answered your own question.

Yes, technically, the war is still on. The fighting is not over.

… But the nasty us-versus-them, good-versus-evil ideology is over. Ditto the numb sense of Bush's brutally simpleminded American "justice." Any lingering hint of anything resembling a truly valid and lucid and deeply patriotic reason for wasting a trillion dollars and thousands of lives and roughly an entire generation's worth of international respect? Gone.

What's left is one lingering, looming question: How do we accept defeat? How do we deal with the awkward, identity-mauling, ego-stomping idea that, once again, America didn't "win" a war it really had no right to launch in the first place? After all, isn't this the American slogan: "We may not always be right, but we are never wrong"?

It's still our most favorite idea, the thing our own childlike president loves to talk most about, burned into our national consciousness like a bad tattoo: We always win. We're the good guys. We're the chosen ones. We're the goddamn cavalry, flying the flag of truth, wrapped in strip malls and Ford pickups and McDonald's franchises. Right?

Wrong. If Vietnam's aftermath proved anything, it's that we are incredibly crappy losers.
There's more of this, but you get the idea. It's not exactly measured analysis. But we are crappy losers.

So we won't lose. In January the president is set to announce "The New Way Forward" - which may be the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" with a new cover, the National Strategy from November 30, 2005, the day the president explained it all at Naval Academy in Annapolis. At least the new name has been chosen, even if it sounds a bit like a name Mao would have chosen. And it will surely be a double-down. We send in fifty thousand more troops. We give it one last shot (before the next "one last shot" and the one after that). We have to try. We will not accept defeat. No desperate scenes of helicopters on the rooftops this time, ferrying our last folks out and kicking the locals off the skids.

The problem, as Glenn Greenwald points out, is the usual. The devil is in the details -
The only specific plan one ever hears from them is that we can go and kill Moqtada al-Sadr, but that is certainly something we can accomplish without more troops. Independently, is killing one of the most popular and powerful Shiite leaders really going to help stabilize Iraq and help us achieve our goals? While that would be very emotionally and psychologically fulfilling to some, doesn't that choice seem far more likely to have the opposite effect - which is almost certainly the reason we haven't done it since 2003?

The problem with fighting insurgencies, of course, is that they are blended into the population itself. They aren't sitting in a field somewhere waiting to be engaged by more brigades. The problem we've had isn't a lack of desire and attempt to kill insurgents. That's what our soldiers have been doing in Iraq for almost four years now. The problem is that you can't actually end insurgencies using military force without using extremely indiscriminate force that slaughters enormous numbers of civilians, and flattening whole neighborhoods wholesale is one of the few things we haven't done during the Bush presidency.

Isn't all this talk about "more resolve" and "doing what needs to be done" - while it is masquerading around as a strategic call for "more troops" - really about demanding that we step up the indiscriminate bombing, violence and killing, including - especially - of civilians, based on the theory, as immoral as it is misguided, that that is the real way we will "win the war" and drive "our enemies into submission"?

As bad as this war is being managed now, the only thing that's certain is that whatever "new way forward" the President is about to embrace is only going to make things much, much worse.
But then that is not losing. And that seems to be the new definition of winning. It will have to do. The president has bet everything he is on this war. And he's about to ask for one hundred twenty billion dollars - extra, supplemental, off-budget - to continue. There's no way congress can turn this down. Our kids are over there, fighting, and we cannot abandon them. And if you don't agree to fighting, you agree to losing. That's the simple-minded dialectic. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group tried to uncouple that dialectic, suggesting third or fourth or fifth alternatives. But the thing cannot be uncoupled - if you're not fighting you accept losing. Said over and over again, it is a bit hypnotic. We don't like complexity. Keep it simple.

So we must keep on fighting. If we don't, we accept losing. Heck, it worked in Vietnam.

No, wait, it didn't. Could there be a basic logical fallacy here? Not many Americans studied symbolic logic in college, and few who did enjoyed it. But sometimes the oddest of subjects is surprisingly useful. A is not necessarily the opposite of B, even if the words for each seem to imply that. You have to think these things through. The opposite of "fighting" is not necessarily "losing." Many other words could be the opposite of "fighting" - peace, cooperation, even scheming and trickery. One link is as valid as any other. You'd be a fool to not see you're being duped when you're told the "one alternative" is the only alternative.

But the president has bet everything he is on this war, and now on this limited dialectic. We're just along for the ride, and no one is going to impeach him for getting us into this mess, and for our twenty-five thousand casualties, including nearly three thousand dead, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead (depending on who is keeping count). So we bear no responsibility, or, perhaps we do -
What should we say about the political system? Does America have a collective conscience, or are we absolved, as individuals, of any responsibility as long as we can say we didn't vote for George W. Bush? I'll call the question one more time: If he as the head of our national entity committed crimes against the nation and humanity, and the crimes become known, is he allowed to ride out his term in office, or do we act to remove him? … the founders put a safeguard in the Constitution to protect against elected "despots and tyrants." The safeguard, mentioned six times, is the impeachment option.

As to the question of a collective national conscience, I received an email from a reader who I think eloquently expresses the importance of collective responsibility for Iraq, but who perhaps disagrees with me about the need to impeach.

"… Everyone focuses on Bush's refusal to accept responsibility for what he's done, and that's really important. But the same thing is necessary for the country as a whole.

"This isn't some abstract thing, or just a desire to see the nation do penance for its crimes. It affects the way we see the conflict now and our options.

"This whole mess was caused by problems over here, in this country - our own inability to understand other culture, things that are broken in our political system, problems with our own press, the ease with which such an ugly war was sold to the public as a whole, etc.

"But when we talk about what to do next, we take this patronizing attitude - the Iraqis have to learn this, or isn't it unfortunate that they didn't go through the enlightenment, or the Iraqi government has to learn that we can't do it forever, they'll have to step up and 'take responsibility.' Like a suburban dad teaching a kid how to ride a bike, we'll have to take off the training wheels.

"As far as I'm concerned, we need to do two things. We need to internalize the reality of what's happened - that our aggression caused these deaths, and that it caused the ongoing chaos.

"And we need to take our obligation to our victims seriously. Right now, that means trying to structure policies so that as few Iraqis die every day as possible. The civilian death toll has to be the dominant metric.

"A while back, I was thinking about whether or not Bush lied to get us in to this war, or if he was just spinning very hard and went right up to the line. I think he lied, but I decided that it doesn't really matter.

"When 665,000+ people have been killed, what difference does a lie make, one way or another? To put it another way, if he didn't lie, would things be better? The body count dwarfs conventional morality, and the ideas we have about right and wrong in our personal spheres don't necessarily make much sense on the level where Bush is operating.

"When this is over, Bush will probably have been responsible for more than a million deaths. Probably a lot more than a million. Does it matter if he lied, or if he's censured or impeached? If he's forced out of office six months early, and Cheney runs out the clock, will the dead come back? It would be a farce to say that justice had been done - what kind of justice can balance the books on a million deaths?

"It doesn't address the core problems - one of which is that people are still dying. The other core problem is that we are a paranoid, warlike country, and our public was willing to follow Bush down this path.

"If you listen to the populist right on talk radio now, you'll hear that they're defiant, unbowed, totally delusional, and filled with hatred. And many millions of our fellow citizens listen every day, nod their heads, and say, 'damn straight.' That's what we have to try to fix, although I have to confess I have no idea of how to do it.

"Listen to the debate about what to do now - there is absolutely no sense of shame in any of it. That's what we have to fix. Our actions have lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and we are not ashamed."
Fix that? Fat chance. And, as before, we're not supposed to lose. We cannot accept that. That's not how things are supposed to be. And we certainly don't accept shame. We, it is said, have nothing to be ashamed of, or for, or whatever preposition you'd like. That sort of thing, shame, is for the "hate America" crowd. And the Baker-Hamilton report stank of it. Logic and chauvinistic patriotism seldom meet, of course. Non-chauvinistic patriotism - we can do better - is another matter. But then that is ridiculed these days. Take that off the table, with the logic.

Still, things are as they are. And it all may be just a global clash of emotions, or so says Dominique Moïsi, a senior adviser at the French Institute of International Relations. The link here is to an article in the December 15 issue of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, a cut-down version of what will appear in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.

The thesis is up front - "The Western world displays a culture of fear, the Arab and Muslim worlds are trapped in a culture of humiliation, and much of Asia displays a culture of hope." The rest is detail.

Some of the detail -
The United States and Europe are divided by a common culture of fear. On both sides, one encounters, in varying degrees, a fear of the other, a fear of the future and a fundamental anxiety about the loss of identity and control over one's destiny in an increasingly complex world.

In the case of Europe, there is the fear of being invaded by the poor, primarily from the south. Europeans also fear being blown up by radical Islamists or being demographically conquered by them as their continent becomes a "Eurabia." Then there is the fear of being left behind economically. Finally, there is the fear of being ruled by an outside power, even a friendly one (such as the United States) or a faceless one (such as the European Commission).

Some of the same sense of loss of control is present in the United States. Demographic fears are mitigated, but they are clearly present. Americans do not fear economic decay the way Europeans do (although they worry about outsourcing). Yet they, too, are thinking of decline - in their bodies, with the plague of obesity; in their budgets, with the huge deficits; and in their spirit, with the loss of appetite for foreign adventures and a growing questioning of national purpose. And of course after 9/11, Americans are obsessed with security.

Whereas Europeans try to protect themselves from the world through a combination of escapism and appeasement, Americans try to do so by dealing with the problem at its source abroad. But behind the Bush administration's forceful and optimistic rhetoric lies the somber reality that the U.S. response to 9/11 has made the United States more unpopular than ever. The U.S. intervention in Iraq, for example, has generated more problems than it has solved.

The Muslim world, meanwhile, has been obsessed with decay for centuries. When Europe was in its Middle Ages, Islam was at its apogee, but when the Western Renaissance started, Islam began its inexorable fall.
And so it goes. It's a new way of looking at things. It may be useful.

There's far more detail. It's an interesting read, but the conclusion is key -
Given the global clash of emotions, the first priority for the West must be to recognize the nature of the threat that the Muslim world's culture of humiliation poses to Europe and the United States. Neither appeasement nor force alone will suffice. The war that is unfolding is one that the culture of humiliation cannot win, but it is a war nonetheless and one that the West can lose by continuing to be divided or by betraying its liberal values and its respect for law and the individual. The challenge is not figuring out how to play moderate Islam against the forces of radicalism. It is figuring out how to encourage a sufficient sense of hope and progress in Muslim societies so that despair and anger do not send the masses into the radicals' arms.

In that regard, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears more than ever as a microcosm of what the world is becoming. Israel is the West, surrounded by the culture of humiliation and dreaming of escape from a dangerous region and of re-entry into a culture of hope. But it must find a solution to the Palestinian problem first, or else the escape will not be possible. So, too, Europe and America seek to permanently banish their fears but will be able to do so only by finding a way to help the Muslim world solve its problems.
So maybe the opposite of "fighting" is not necessarily "losing," nor is it peace, cooperation or even scheming and trickery. Maybe it's helping (if you can do that without being a patronizing asshole with an agenda) - unless "helping" is really "losing." It gets confusing when absolutely everything else is "losing."

Logic traps can be really irritating. But sometimes losing can be winning. Refusing to be goaded into a fight, and then applying logic, and then humor and compassion, and thus gaining a grudging ally, if not a friend, we are told is really losing. And we bought into that for five years? What were we thinking? What are we still thinking?

Posted by Alan at 22:55 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006 07:09 PST home

Wednesday, 13 December 2006
Another Skirmish in the Losing Battle
Topic: God and US

Another Skirmish in the Losing Battle

It just never ends. Back on April 24, 2005, you could read Who is YOUR Copilot?, a discussion of the news items regarding complaints by Air Force cadets of religious intolerance at our Air Force Academy out in Colorado. Some Jewish cadets were not happy with being told, over and over, that they, or their people, had killed Jesus, and with taking crap, and getting hassled, and getting crap assignments. The place was evangelical - and "others" just weren't wanted. The Air Force Academy was Jesus' place.

The news item cited at the time is no longer available on the web, but it opened with this -
Less than two years after it was plunged into a rape scandal, the Air Force Academy is scrambling to address complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

There have been 55 complaints of religious discrimination at the academy in the past four years, including cases in which a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.
The Air Force promised to address this, and some chaplains were reassigned, but the story sank into oblivion.

And the matter of Lieutenant General William Boykin, now deputy under-secretary of defense for intelligence, touring the country telling Christian groups, while in uniform, that radical Muslims hate America, "because we're a Christian nation and the enemy is a guy named Satan," has been floating around since 2003. There's a profile of that guy here, with the classics - on hunting down Osman Atto in Mogadishu - "He went on CNN and he laughed at us, and he said, 'They'll never get me because Allah will protect me. Allah will protect me.' Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." Boykin apologized. A ten month investigation carried out by the Defense Department later concluded, in August 2004, that Boykin had broken at least three rules in giving the speeches - not clarifying that he gave the remarks in a private capacity, and he hadn't received clearance for making the remarks, and he hadn't declared the reimbursement of travel funds by one of the religious groups hosting the speaking events. But the report made no comment on the actual remarks he made, and no action was taken. It was a freedom of speech thing - and he got the job as deputy under-secretary of defense for intelligence. The New York Times reported on March 18, 2006 that, when asked by Undersecretary of Defense Stephen Cambone to "get to the bottom" of abuses committed by an elite counterinsurgency task force - torture and homicide and all that - Boykin found no pattern of any such thing, despite the ample evidence that there was. Jesus' soldiers don't do such things. This is the man who pretty determines much of how we deal with the bad guys - he assesses their motives and tactics and all, to shape our righteous response. Oh well. He also has claimed, at various times, God made George Bush, the younger, president - guiding the Supreme Court the first time and the voters the second time. This god is obviously a jokester.

And now this business has come up again. On December 10, the Washington Post gave us the latest -
A military watchdog group is asking the Defense Department to investigate whether seven Army and Air Force officers violated regulations by appearing in uniform in a promotional video for an evangelical Christian organization. In the video, much of which was filmed inside the Pentagon, four generals and three colonels praise the Christian Embassy, a group that evangelizes among military leaders, politicians and diplomats in Washington. Some of the officers are in the video. They describe their efforts to spread their faith within the military.
Actually, a Republican congressman, J. D. Hayworth of Arizona, a number of Bush appointees, and various high-ranking Army officers and Pentagon civilians appear in this ten-minute promotional video. So they're enthusiastic. No problem, but the Post item seems to imply that the word in the Pentagon is that your career is over unless you get with their take on Jesus. Get born again, or get out.

You can watch the video on YouTube here and here, or see it using Windows Media Player or QuickTime. It's a bit odd, or if you're a born again person, maybe it isn't.

Bonnie Goldstein at SLATE does the background work. The video was made for the evangelical organization Christian Embassy. Their mission is clear. This is a non-profit organization that "comes alongside presidential appointees in the White House and federal agencies to help direct their focus on Jesus Christ." They buck up souls at the sub-cabinet level. The organization was founded by the late Reverend Bill Bright. The man who also founded the Campus Crusade for Christ International. The aim is that everyone should become an evangelical Christian, damn it!

Goldstein notes that most of the government officials who appear in the promotional video probably violated a particular federal prohibition against proselytizing in the workplace. So there is a law in this matter. And there's the additional problem - the video puts special emphasis on the ministry's presence at the Pentagon and military personnel appear in uniform as they say how wonderful and awesome Christian Embassy is, and both military and civilian Pentagon employees are shown in their Pentagon offices. That almost certainly violates a Defense Department directive forbidding "use of official position" to promote "non-federal entities."

Oops. On December 11, the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group that polices separation of church and state in the United States military, sent a letter about the video to the defense department's acting inspector general. If you click on the Goldstein item you can see all five pages of that. The letter, by Ezra Reese, counsel to the foundation, enumerates a long list of regulations that the video appears to violate - and it points out that the video further appears to violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. It basically asks the inspector general to find out who approved the taping at the Pentagon.

But you know nothing will happen. The battle to keep the military, and the nation, from becoming a de facto evangelical theocracy was lost long ago. What are left are the skirmishes. And de facto trumps de jure, as they say. And Bonnie Goldstein is a Jewish name, isn't it?

The Post item offers an interesting quote that illustrates that point -
"I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the joint staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate," Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. says in the video. "And I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is, and I start with the fact that I'm an old-fashioned American, and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family and then country. I share my faith because it describes who I am."
Everyone in the military swears an oath to defend and uphold the constitution. This is DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers. These guys just make the constitution third in their list of priorities.

The blogger Lambert seems upset -
So, which is it, General Catton? Is supporting the Constitution first one your list, or third?

I believe AA has the right take on "God" (or a higher power, or The God of Your Choice, if any). They always add the qualifier "God, as we understand God."

What if, for example, the God of General Catton's understanding told him to heave a nuke at the Satanic regime in Iran? Would he do it? By his own confession of faith, yes.

And this is not farfetched scenario: the Air Force academy has been heavily infiltrated by Christianists.

Can a Christianist ever be loyal to the United States?

If we take General Catton's words seriously- as we've learned over and over again, with the right, that we should do -the clear answer can only be:

No.
But this is a losing battle. One of the litigants in the Air Force Academy matter, Mike Weinstein, was interviewed on this matter and said these guys should be court-martialed. But then he sees what is going on -
I was in Topeka, on a book tour, and the local Episcopal priest came out to support me and five hours later his church was burned down. And the local synagogue in Topeka, where I was to speak that night, was desecrated with spray paint saying, "F**k you, Jews" and "KKK," all that stuff.
Speak about the separation of church and state and bad things happen. These guys play rough. Note that in late November an Episcopal church was burnt down near Sarasota, New York - wrong theology.

The guys at the Pentagon may be relatively harmless.

On the other hand, they must investigate the death of Pat Tillman from friendly fire, and they're finding that hard to do -
[Lt. Col. Ralph] Kauzlarich, [formerly the Army officer who directed the first official inquiry,] now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.

In an interview with ESPN.com, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more - that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

Asked by ESPN.com whether the Tillmans' religious beliefs are a factor in the ongoing investigation, Kauzlarich said, "I think so. There is not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system [by the Tillmans]. So that is my personal opinion, knowing what I know...

[T]here [have] been numerous unfortunate cases of fratricide, and the parents have basically said, 'OK, it was an unfortunate accident.' And they let it go. So this is - I don't know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs."
No, they're just pissed. Tillman's brother, an atheist and patriot, like Tillman, did write this -
Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.

Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.

Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.

Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.

Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.

Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.

Somehow torture is tolerated.

Somehow lying is tolerated.

Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.

Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.

Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.

Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.

Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.

Somehow this is tolerated.

Somehow nobody is accountable for this.
But our leaders are born again men of Jesus. How could this be?

This battle has been lost. And anyway, maybe the surviving Tillman brother probably just ate too much tofu. This "devil food is turning our kids into homosexuals." That's the word on the evangelical website WorldNet Daily. You will find more analysis here. It's the soy! Did you know it reduces the size of your penis too?

And these guys are in charge.

But then, an unlikely soldier has joined the losing battle. You might want to skim this discussion of the latest from the new German pope. Benedict seems to argue that torture, or anything like it, is never, ever acceptable. You can say it saves lives, but that is an immoral argument - it's just rationalizing and pure crap, or whatever the Latin for crap is. And waging war in the name of God is, it seems, a no-no in the pope's eyes. He's not with George on this at all. Things have changed since the Crusades.

The item ends with two quotes -

"This is a point which must be clearly reaffirmed: war in God's name is never acceptable!" - Pope Benedict XVI

"I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job." - George W. Bush

Now what? Of course, Roman Catholicism - the Cult of Mary - was always suspicious. Kennedy had to say his country came first to get elected back in 1960 - and the KKK way back when wanted to rid the South of blacks, Jews… and Catholics. Now the Catholics are at it again. They say George isn't God's voice on earth. And we put seven Jesuit-educated Catholic justices on the Supreme Court. Ingrates!

And we wonder why the rest of the world is troubled with us.

Posted by Alan at 22:02 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006 07:09 PST home

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