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

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

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

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 25 September 2006
Reality Takes a Holiday
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Reality Takes a Holiday
"People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest." - Hermann Hesse
"In politics, absurdity is not a handicap." - Napoleon Bonaparte

It just keeps getting better. As mentioned at the weekly site here, Saturday, September 23, the New York Times dropped a political bombshell - sources had leaked to them the results of the long-delayed National Intelligence Estimate ("Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States"), and the same sources had informed the Washington Post of what was in the April estimate, the first full one since before we dropped into Baghdad and changed things. (For reference, the Times item is here.) The less than useful information for the administration was that the "sources" were saying a key conclusion of the estimate was "that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse." The NIE, as it's called, a secret document, wasn't entirely secret any longer, and suddenly a problem for the administration.

That would be because of what you see in this video clip from August 21st - the president forcefully saying this - "You know, I've heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of 'we're going to stir up the hornet's nest' theory. It just doesn't hold water, as far as I'm concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East."

Now the president's timeline seems somewhat irrelevant - things actually were bad back in September 2001, of course, but what does that have to do with right now?

Be the rationale remains. The war is making us safer, curbing terrorism and all that. We're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here. That's the whole point. Whoever says that's not so is just wrong.

So who is wrong here?

Josh Marshall explains here -
An NIE isn't some random government white paper. It represents the consensus judgment of the entire US intelligence community, with input from all the different agencies, from CIA and DIA to INR and FBI and all the others. [See this.] In other words, this is the collaborative judgment of the people actually fighting the War on Terror.

For the last six weeks and, in fact, the last six months, the White House and the president have been engaged in a coordinated campaign to convince the public that despite the setbacks and mistakes, the war in Iraq is a critical component of fighting the War on Terror. Making that argument is their plan for the next six weeks until the election. All the while, they've been sitting on a report that says that's flat wrong, a lie and that precisely the opposite is the case.

That's a cover-up in every meaningful sense of the word, a calculated effort to hide information from and deceive the public. And it's actually a replay of what happened in late 2002, when the White House kept the Iraq WMD NIE's doubts about Iraqi weapons programs away from the public. [See this.]

The president has made very clear he wants the next six weeks to be about Iraq and the War on Terror. By all means, let's do it. But first the president has to come clean about what he's keeping hidden from the public - the fact that the people he has fighting the War on Terror are telling him that what he's telling the public about Iraq and the War on Terror flat isn't true.

Late word from the White House is that the Times report is "not representative of the complete document." Well, then, by all means, let's get a look at the whole thing so the public can get the big picture and find out who's telling the truth.
And then Marshall at his site Talking Points Memo urged all his readers, and he has many, to call their senators and representatives and suggest that if the White House was saying the estimate was saying something other than what it seemed, they should call on the White House to release the damned thing and prove it. If you visit the site you see all sorts of them did, even the very careful Hillary Clinton. The kicker was Senator Pat Roberts, who has carefully blocked anything that might make the president look bad - his committee report on the manipulation of pre-war intelligence is more than two years late - jumped on board. Release it.

This is very odd. People seem to want to know what going on, and even the Bush people seem to have noticed that. "No one has the right to know such assessments" may not fly here.

And as noted here, by our own government's count, there were 208 terrorist attacks in 2003, and two years later, in 2005, there were over 11,000 similar terror attacks. That's a fifty-fold increase (see CNN here).

Like people wouldn't wonder about that? They might not want to know why that's so? The writer in this case, "Alex" at Martini Republic, notes that the conclusion is obvious - "Invade a Muslim country on a shallow pretext, occupy it for a few years, torture some prisoners in that country's most notorious prison while taking pictures, and voila! You have terrorism times fifty."

And he notes what those who follow such things remember - in September, 2004, we were told that Iraq strategy was succeeding at the same time an earlier NIE concluded that Iraq was pretty much starting to disintegrate - there were "trend lines that would point to a civil war." That was when the president publicly dismissed that particular intelligence estimate - they "were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like." He said it was only "an estimate." And that's the same thing as "a guess," or so he said. It was interesting, but not important. Then there was the one is 2005, estimating "that Iraq had become the primary training ground for the next generation of terrorists" and the CIA was especially concerned about the how many of the bad guys were learning up-to-the-minute bomb-making skills, what with all the new variations those of those IED things. The CIA may be, if you believe what's said on the far right, a leftist anti-American organization out to ruin the president (that actually has been suggested), but they did point out the obvious - the bad guys are getting a lot of practice, and practical experience. As early as 2004 they were noting what was happing in Iraq was creating "perfect conditions" for training terrorists. Of course that's why the Vice President hates the CIA so much and with Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence gathering organizations - the old Office for Special Plans for the Iraq War and the new one for Iran. He doesn't like defeatists. It's a matter of having the right attitude - forcefully maintaining what you know must be true. That's what "real men" do.

All this was covered in these pages, and everywhere on the left, before, but with the implicit assumption that there was not much to be done about this "courageous" refusal to be hobbled by reality. The American people did not at all want to hear that the effort of three years, the more than twenty-seven hundred dead troops, the twenty-thousand maimed and brain-damaged, the half a trillion dollars spent (off-budget), the loss of almost all our allies in the world and the scorn of all other nations, was a rather large mistake. We're an idealistic people, and hopeful. And now there's this. Those who remain idealistic - this is all making us safer and better - are becoming and even more dwindling minority.

Of course the president is now saying you have to take the long view of these matters. On CNN there was this exchange with Wolf Blitzer -
BLITZER: Let's move on and talk a little bit about Iraq. Because this is a huge, huge issue, as you know, for the American public, a lot of concern that perhaps they are on the verge of a civil war - if not already a civil war. We see these horrible bodies showing up, tortured, mutilation. The Shi'a and the Sunni, the Iranians apparently having a negative role. Of course, al Qaeda in Iraq is still operating.

BUSH: Yes, you see - you see it on TV, and that's the power of an enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. But there's also an unbelievable will and resiliency by the Iraqi people… Admittedly, it seems like a decade ago. I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is - my point is, there's a strong will for democracy.

So it's all just "a comma" - a hundred years from now all this will seem insignificant. Now THAT is an idealist.

For a reaction to that watch another CNN fellow, Jack Cafferty on the topic of "sometimes politicians say the dumbest things" (Windows Media here or QuickTime here) - "I wonder how the families of the 2,700 soldiers lost in Iraq feel about their sacrifices being reduced to a portion of a 'comma' according to the Commander-in-Chief?" And he says more.

There's obvious too much reality going around these days, and the White House is running out ways to reframe it. Now it's just a comma? That's new.

And the hits just keep on coming.

Monday, September 25, the Los Angeles Times landed with a thump at the front door here in Hollywood and on this front page there was this - the Army Chief of Staff, General Peter Schoomaker, is refusing to submit a budget because the money allocated to support the army is ridiculously inadequate to maintain its current force structure, or to replace or repair the equipment lost or damaged in Iraq. He's defying the Secretary of Defense, and for those of you who don't have a serving Army officer in the family and a former father-in-law who was an assistant secretary of defense, you might note the odd politics here. Schoomaker was Rumsfeld's hand-picked choice for the job - brought out of retirement and shoved in there, bypassing all the career officers about the rank of Leutentent General in line for the position. The resentment was intense, but Rumsfeld got his way. Schoomaker is a special-ops guy. The regular Army career officers were being told, rather bluntly, that traditional force structures were a thing of the past. Rumsfeld was remaking things and they were dinosaurs who ought to face facts and just fade away. This didn't exactly boost morale, but it was pretty direct. No one whined, publicly. There was, no doubt, a lot of private seething.

But Schoomaker is no fool, and he's no wimp -

The Army's top officer withheld a required 2008 budget plan from Pentagon leaders last month after protesting to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the service could not maintain its current level of activity in Iraq plus its other global commitments without billions in additional funding.

The decision by Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, is believed to be unprecedented and signals a widespread belief within the Army that in the absence of significant troop withdrawals from Iraq, funding assumptions must be completely reworked, say current and former Pentagon officials.

… Schoomaker failed to submit the budget plan by an Aug. 15 deadline. The protest followed a series of cuts in the service's funding requests by both the White House and Congress over the last four months.

… Schoomaker first raised alarms with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in June after he received new Army budget outlines from Rumsfeld's office. Those outlines called for an Army budget of about $114 billion, a $2-billion cut from previous guidelines. The cuts would grow to $7 billion a year after six years, the senior Army official said.

After Schoomaker confronted Rumsfeld with the Army's own estimates for maintaining the current size and commitments - and the steps that would have to be taken to meet the lower figure, which included cutting four combat brigades and an entire division headquarters unit - Rumsfeld agreed to set up a task force to investigate Army funding.
This is hardball. The message is clear - if this is my budget I'll make the Army fit it, cutting four combat brigades and a division headquarters. Is that what you want? It's that reality thing again -
The decision by Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, is believed to be unprecedented and signals a widespread belief within the Army that in the absence of significant troop withdrawals from Iraq, funding assumptions must be completely reworked, say current and former Pentagon officials.

"This is unusual, but hell, we're in unusual times," said a senior Pentagon official involved in the budget discussions.

… According to a senior Army official involved in budget talks, Schoomaker is now seeking $138.8 billion in 2008, nearly $25 billion above budget limits originally set by Rumsfeld. The Army's budget this year is $98.2 billion, making Schoomaker's request a 41% increase over current levels."
You cannot fight World War III on the cheap. Reality matters. If we're facing the gravest threat to civilization since Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and that's the reality you assert, then get real.

Kevin Drum has an interesting take on it here -
Army budgeting, like pretty much all federal budgeting, is an arcane science that one is well advised to approach carefully. To the extent that Schoomaker is just playing hardball because expensive new weapons systems have turned out to be more expensive than anticipated (surprise!), this is little more than an age-old wrestling match playing out between adversaries who are both well versed in bureaucratic warfare.

However, the bigger part of the problem is that the Bush administration, in its usual political approach to policy issues, has decided to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars almost entirely via emergency appropriations. This makes life easier for Bush, who gets to imply that these expenses are temporary without actually having to defend that belief, but the problem is that these wars also have a significant effect on day-to-day Army affairs. Unfortunately, the day-to-day Army isn't getting any money to deal with them.

This will be an interesting fight to watch. It might play out entirely in the shadows, but eventually I suspect it's going to have to become more public.
That won't be pretty. But it's reality, even if Americans don't like it.

Put it all together. Alex at Martini Republic - "In one fell swoop - or rather one misguided experiment in nation building - Bush has managed to fuel Islamic radicalism, and bring dissent in the Army to a boiling point."

Other than that, things are going fine.

Except the Senate Democrats decided to have a hearing on Monday, September 25, previewed here -
Retired military officers on Monday are expected to bluntly accuse Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of bungling the war in Iraq, saying US troops were sent to fight without the best equipment and that critical facts were hidden from the public.

"I believe that Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq," retired Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste said in remarks prepared for a hearing by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

A second witness, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, is expected to assess Rumsfeld as "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically…"

"Mr. Rumsfeld and his immediate team must be replaced or we will see two more years of extraordinarily bad decision-making," said his testimony prepared for the hearing, to be held six weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which the war is a central issue.

The conflict, now in its fourth year, has claimed the lives of more than 2,600 American troops and cost more than $300 billion.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the committee chairman, told reporters last week that he hoped the hearing would shed light on the planning and conduct of the war. He said majority Republicans had failed to conduct hearings on the issue, adding, "if they won't we will."
So they did, with Major General John R. S. Batiste, who commanded the entire First Infantry (Big Red) over there, and who retired last year "on principle," had this to say -
Donald Rumsfeld is not a competent wartime leader. He knows everything, except "how to win." He surrounds himself with like-minded and compliant subordinates who do not grasp the importance of the principles of war, the complexities of Iraq, or the human dimension of warfare.

Secretary Rumsfeld ignored 12 years of US Central Command deliberate planning and strategy, dismissed honest dissent, and browbeat subordinates to build "his plan," which did not address the hard work to crush the insurgency, secure a post-Saddam Iraq, build the peace, and set Iraq up for self-reliance. He refused to acknowledge and even ignored the potential for the insurgency, which was an absolute certainty. Bottom line, his plan allowed the insurgency to take root and metastasize to where it is today.

Our great military lost a critical window of opportunity to secure Iraq because of inadequate troop levels and capability required to impose security, crush a budding insurgency, and set the conditions for the rule of law in Iraq. We were undermanned from the beginning, lost an early opportunity to secure the country, and have yet to regain the initiative. To compensate for the shortage of troops, commanders are routinely forced to manage shortages and shift coalition and Iraqi security forces from one contentious area to another in places like Baghdad, An Najaf, Tal Afar, Samarra, Ramadi, Fallujah, and many others. This shifting of forces is generally successful in the short term, but the minute a mission is complete and troops are redeployed back to the region where they came from, insurgents reoccupy the vacuum and the cycle repeats itself. Troops returning to familiar territory find themselves fighting to reoccupy ground which was once secure. We are all witnessing this in Baghdad and the Al Anbar Province today. I am reminded of the myth of Sisyphus. This is no way to fight a counterinsurgency. Secretary Rumsfeld's plan did not set our military up for success.
But it wasn't all complaints. There was a reality-based six-point plan -
Our country has yet to mobilize for a protracted, long war. I believe that Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the Administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq. Secretary Rumsfeld failed to address the full range of requirements for this effort, and the result is one percent of the population shouldering the burdens, continued hemorrhaging of our national treasure in terms of blood and dollars, an Army and Marine Corps that will require tens of billions of dollars to reset after we withdraw from Iraq, the majority of our National Guard brigades no longer combat-ready, a Veterans Administration which is underfunded by over $3 billion, and America arguably less safe now than it was on September 11, 2001.

If we had seriously laid out and considered the full range of requirements for the war in Iraq, we would likely have taken a different course of action that would have maintained a clear focus on our main effort in Afghanistan, not fueled Islamic fundamentalism across the globe, and not created more enemies than there were insurgents.

What do we do now?

We are where we are, plagued by the mistakes of the past. Thankfully, we are Americans and with the right leadership, we can do anything.

First, the American people need to take charge through their elected officials. Secretary Rumsfeld and the Administration are fighting a war in secret that threatens our democratic values. This needs to stop right now, today.

Second, we must replace Secretary Rumsfeld and his entire inner circle. We deserve leaders whose judgment and instinct we can all trust.

Third, we must mobilize our country for a protracted challenge, which must include conveying the "what, why, and how long" to every American, rationing to finance the totality of what we are doing, and gearing up our industrial base in a serious manner. Mortgaging our future at the rate of $1.5 billion a week and financing our great Army and Marine Corps with supplemental legislation must stop. Americans will rally behind this important cause when the rationale is properly laid out.

Fourth, we must rethink our Iraq strategy. "More of the same" is not a strategy, nor is it working. This new strategy must include serious consideration of federalizing the country, other forms of Iraqi national conscription and incentives to modify behavior, and a clear focus on training and equipping the Iraqi security forces as "America's main effort."

Fifth, we must fix our inter-agency process to completely engage and synchronize all elements of America's national power. Unity of effort is fundamental and we need one person in charge in Iraq who pulls the levers with all US Government agencies responding with 110 percent effort.

Finally, we need to get serious about mending our relationships with allies and getting closer to our friends and enemies. America can not go this alone. All of this is possible, but we need leadership and responsible congressional oversight to pull this off.
Oops - we have another idealist on our hands. Real leadership, truth telling and responsible congressional oversight? Expecting that is as mad as, say, invading a Muslim country on a shallow pretext, occupying it for a few years, torturing some prisoners in that country's most notorious prison while taking pictures, kidnapping folks and holding them in secret prisons, committing what seems like torture to the rest of the world then redefining it to say it's not and letting the gleeful guys with the electrodes off the hook - and expecting praise and respect. The general expects a lot that reality might not be able to provide. As he says, we are where we are.

Reality - can't live with it, can't live without it.

Posted by Alan at 22:48 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 26 September 2006 10:49 PDT home

Sunday, 24 September 2006
Hot Off the Virtual Press
Topic: Announcements
Hot Off the Virtual Press
No commentary today. Production of the weekly ran late. So it was lots of black coffee and plowing through the Sunday Los Angeles Times, run a few errands, and then walk down the hill for a little photo adventure. You can read about that, and consider five photographs, here. But the new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log, is now online. This is Volume 4, Number 39 for the week of September 24, 2006.Click here to go there...

This week it's six extended essays on current events - in detail and in depth and explained below - and seven pages of startling Southern California photography, Hollywood to Venice Beach and back to Los Angeles' Thai Town (and the weekly botanicals, and a link to the shots the Washington Post liked) - AND guest photography from Bill Hitzel, for car nuts, seven pages of the best of Watkins Glen - there's a lot here.

And there are the weekly diversions - quotes on insults and diplomacy (for Hugo Chavez), and the weekly dose of the weird from our friend in Texas.

Direct links to specific pages -

Extended Observations on Current Events ______________________________

What people do when they’re unhappy with their government - there's The Hungarian Option and there's The Thai Solution.

Voices - One tries to keep up on things, browsing who's saying what. It's just that listening to all the voices can spook you. What to make of it all? We're in for it.

Decorum - Maybe New Yorkers are just direct. Your read the tour books and decide how you will to deal with this legendary trait. In Paris you're formal and polite - you're quiet and you don't grin - and you soon figure out that courtesy and addressing people properly works wonders. In Los Angeles you do your best to be cool. The American South is harder for outsiders. But in New York "blunt" works. That seems to be the advice someone gave Hugo Chavez, the man who leads Venezuela, before his recent visit.

Torture Codified - Because They Think We Are Weak
Quick Hits - Notes on Late-Breaking News

Guest Photography - Watkins Glen ______________________________

As noted last week, Just Above Sunset sent photographer Bill Hitzel on assignment, in a manner of speaking. He's back from the Zippo US Vintage Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, New York. We were able to obtain a press pass for him - full access to the pits and everything. All the photographs arrived this week. The comments are minimal here. The photographs speak for themselves. For those of us who are car nuts, this is heaven. Southern California Photography ______________________________

Walls - Intense Brickwork
Intense Eccentricity - The Oddest Building in Venice Beach
Trompe-l'œil - Additional Venice Beach Murals, the Surreal Ones
Beach Studies - Every Picture Tells a Story
Thai Town - Given Current Events, It Was Time to Visit Ours
Hollywood Reflections - Shooting Odd Things through Glass
Botanicals - Real and Better Than Real

Diversions ______________________________

Quotes for the Week: Insults, Diplomacy, and Visiting Foreign Lands (for Hugo Chavez)
Weird, Bizarre and Unusual: More from Our Friend in Texas

Posted by Alan at 21:30 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 23 September 2006
Topic: Breaking News
It seems each Saturday will be devoted to putting together the weekly edition of Just Above Sunset, the magazine-format parent to this web log. What's to say today? Just some brief notes before it's back to work -

The New York Times has the big Saturday story. It's a "well, duh" thing, and it goes like this -
The classified National Intelligence Estimate attributes a more direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism than that presented either in recent White House documents or in a report released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, according to several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document.

... The report "says that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse," said one American intelligence official.
So the long-awaited National Intelligence Estimate is finally done, and it says we managed to do the opposite of what we intended. We screwed up - all the intelligence agencies agree.

As Kevin Drum put it succinctly here - "The point of an anti-terror policy is not to look tough. The point of an anti-terror policy is to reduce terror. Republicans pretty clearly don't get this."

Perhaps this will be discussed all over the place next week. The spin will be interesting. No doubt the Democrats will decide not to discuss this - John Negroponte, the head of national intelligence, signs off on a document that concludes that what we've been doing for the last three or four years has made things worse, not better. Democrats don't want to be divisive. They'll let it go.

See Glen Greenwald here -
So, a recap of the Iraq war: there were never any WMDs. The proliferation of government death squads and militias in Iraq means that, compared to the Saddam era, human rights have worsened and torture has increased to record levels. Iranian influence has massively increased, as a result of a Shiite fundamentalist government loyal to Tehran replacing the former anti-Iranian regime. We've squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. And we have - according to the consensus of our own intelligence community - directly worsened the terrorist problem with our invasion, and continue to worsen it with our ongoing occupation.

How can anyone claim with a straight face that this war was a good idea? There are no even theoretical justifications left for it. And all of the Republican election-driven fear-mongering over terrorism ought to be met with this clear, straightforward report documenting that that threat has worsened under this administration directly as a result of its policies and, in particular, as a result of its signature policy - the war in Iraq.

But of course they will claim, with a straight face, the war WAS a good idea. It's just that good things take time, lots of time.

It should be noted too that a French newspaper is reporting that they're in possession of a document with the assessment that Osama bin Laden is dead - see this, where l'Est Republicain cites a memo they claim was obtained from the French counter-espionage agency, the Direction Générale des Services Extérieurs, or the DGSE. The memo says the Saudis are pretty sure Osama bin Laden died in August, from typhus or something. The Saudis say he probably is dead, but they cannot confirm this. No one really knows. It's on all the wires, of course. The word came at dawn on Saturday here in Hollywood with some emails from Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis - some in French. Time Magazine is on it now. But no one is sure of anything.

If this is true it's going to be a bit hard to say we brought him to justice. But we can say God did it - and this proves God is on our side, or something.

Next week the spin will be amazing.

A caged and distressed elephant in a curio shop on La Brea, just south of Hollywood

Posted by Alan at 17:47 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Friday, 22 September 2006
Because They Think We Are Weak
Topic: Couldn't be so...
Because They Think We Are Weak
It seems to be a given that the presidency of George Bush, the younger, has been, in all matters international, a grand experiment in testing the theories of those folks called the neoconservatives - that is, putting the precepts of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) into action.

You know the cast of characters. The chairman is William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a regular contributor to on Fox News. Others project members moved into administration slots - Elliott Abrams, pardoned for the Iran-Contra business, is now our National Security Council Representative for Middle Eastern Affairs; Richard Armitage was Deputy Secretary of State (2001-2005); John Bolton is now our UN ambassador after being Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs; Cheney is Vice President and one of the founders. And there was Francis "the end of history" Fukuyama, once on the President's Council on Bioethics Council but now fed up with the whole business. Another PNAC big gun was Zalmay Khalilzad - now our ambassador to Iraq and previously our ambassador to Afghanistan. Add to the PNAC list Scooter Libby and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and all the others - Jeb Bush, Steve Forbes, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Dan Quayle, and so on and so forth. It's quite a crew.

The group was established in 1997 with the aim, it seems, of establishing military and economic, space, cyberspace, and global domination by the United States, to establish - or maintain - American dominance in world affairs, claiming it is our moral duty to do so, as history shows that free-market capitalism and western-style democracy are the only systems that really work well in this world to make things just fine for everyone concerned. And besides, there's no one else who can fix the world - we're the only superpower left standing. The implication is that occurred because how we run things just works - nothing else does.

What was an interesting theory in 1997 got a chance for a test-run with the Supreme Court in 2000 declaring Bush, not Kerry, should be president. Cheney, one of the founding members, would guide the new incurious and shallow president in the details of implementation. And the attacks of September 2001 suddenly provided an opening to really put the theories into operation. So after a feint at Afghanistan we were off to remake the Middle East by changing the nature of Iraq, and to work on regime change anywhere we were opposed. We defined the Axis of Evil and declared our now "forward leaning" approach to world affairs - preventative war, disguised under the term preemptive war. The first is illegal under international law, the second allowed in extraordinary circumstances, like imminent attack. We talked about WMD and all that in Iraq, but decided, after that didn't pan out, to fudge the difference. They're just words. Who cares, and anyway, who's going to stop us?

Insofar as "9/11 changed everything" is concerned, it did. The folks who were considered jingoistic, messianic nutcases in 1997, and were tentatively fiddling with their new boy-toy president in 2000, in 2001 took control. The grand plan was underway. And they're still working on working out the details of implementation - the Iraq experiment didn't go as planned, and Iran and North Korea aren't cowering in fear and changing their ways. We're now told this will take some time, and maybe another war or two. On Friday, September 22, 2006, the number of troops we've lost in the current war exactly matched the number killed here on September 11, 2001 - adding a curious detail that might raise some eyebrows regarding the wisdom of the grand plan. Just what are we doing?

Those who object to this "forward leaning" approach to world affairs - do things our way or die - are told that the simply misunderstood how things work in this world. They are told, with condescending patience, that others oppose us, and in particular terrorists attack us, because they perceive that we are "weak." Vice President Cheney most often articulated this view, presenting it as an axiom, a given no one could dispute. It was a simple if-then argument - if those who don't think much of our policies or our freedoms or even our haircuts think we're weak they attack, and if they think we're strong, then they simply don't. Thus the key to everything, and especially to our safety, is never to appear weak in any way at all. Others have to see we are not hobbled by any rules or laws the bad guys thought we'd follow, not limited by our traditions of fairness and tolerance, and not constrained by pesky western moral scruples. A scruple is a moral or ethical consideration inhibiting action, or, alternatively, a jeweler's measure of weight - 6.479891 carats to be exact. The first meaning now doesn't matter much, and the second is esoteric trivia. Forget both. We must have a "muscular approach" to things and keep the bad guys off balance. They think they'll take advantage of us being nice. They've got another thing coming.

All of that is, of course, context for seeing how we're dealing with the two issues of the day. Those are, first, the upcoming war with Iran, where we bomb away all their capability to enrich uranium, a necessary step to producing nuclear weapons, and also the cover story for the September 25 issue of Time Magazine, and second, the compromise reached between the White House and some feisty senators that now allows the CIA to continue what the rest of the world sees as torture. Both are important statements to the bad guys - we're not the wimps you think we are, so back off.

Regarding the Iran business, Bill Montgomery here provides a lengthy analysis of the game of chicken underway, and who has which possible motivations, and what the next most likely moves are on each side. He sees Iran having the advantage now - time and the knowledge we have resource constraints - so he concludes this -
There is only one US move I can think of that could possibly offset Iran's natural advantages in this game of geopolitical chess - the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The objective of such a strike would not only be to destroy Iran's nuclear plants more completely, but to demonstrate to Tehran that the old rules don't apply, that America is prepared to commit even barbarous war crimes if that's what it takes to deter hostile powers from acquiring, or even trying to acquire, nuclear weapons.

It would, in other words, take the logic of preventative war - and Cheney's one percent doctrine - to their ultimate conclusion.

Perhaps saturation bombing - the indiscriminate destruction of Iran's civilian infrastructure and economic resources - could accomplish the same goal. It would, however, take longer, be messier (from the Pentagon's point of view) and wouldn't have the same psychological shock value as the deliberate first use of tactical nuclear weapons. A certain kind of mind (that is, one resembling a vacant lot) might even convince itself that a nuclear strike is actually the more humane option, or that it's what Harry Truman would have done, or some other piece of sophism.

The consequences, of course, would be appalling - for the Iranian people, for the world, for Americans who prefer not to be regarded as the direct, linear heirs of the Nazi Party. But if the overriding objective is to stop Iran from building a bomb - or rather, to make absolutely sure they can't or won't build one - and military force is held to be the only option left on the table, then a tactical nuclear strike, or even multiple strikes, may be the only way to do it.

Matt Yglesias has reported chatter in Washington that the Cheneyites might order such a strike and then deny it, relying on the chaotic aftermath and the residual traces of Iran's own nuclear materials to cover their traces. This sounds absurd to me - I'm reasonably sure it would be technically impossible to hide the tell tale signs of a nuclear detonation. But the fact that it's being talked about - even if just as a cocktail party rumor - is a bad sign. It means the idea is being normalized, injected into the debate, made thinkable. I can already imagine the boys at Fox News awarding Shrub brownie points because he doesn't deny ordering the first use of nuclear weapons.

It's getting very dark in here - the little bit of light left is primarily the result of me trying to convince myself the signs we saw in the run up to the Iraq invasion don't have the same significance this time around. Who knows? Maybe doing the same things and expecting different results isn't crazy after all.
Yes, the famous definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting, somehow, different results, or as Doctor Johnson once put it, the triumph of hope over experience. But maybe the "muscular approach" will work this time - we'll be made safe by our being unexpectedly brutal, and everyone will, if not admire us, at least never think of messing with us or opposing us.

In a parallel way, the administration, in response to the Supreme Court pointing out that the Geneva Conventions actually do apply to the terrorists we've captured - we ratified and are party to the treaty so it actually is the law for us - is invested heavily in going on record publicly that we will continue to treat prisoners in ways all other nations consider torture. We will not be hobbled by any scruples in this matter - we will define what we do as not really torture, but close enough that no one will ever consider us wimps and think we won't fight back. Much of this is for domestic consumption - a political move to paint any Democrats who object as unworthy of office - they won't go the extra mile to keep America safe. But it has its international component - we're not the "nice guy" losers the bad guys seem to assume we are. Nice guys finish last, or in this case, we're told they die as cowards.

Of course pulling this off is tricky. We cannot say "screw the rules" and have any allies at all. We have to say we are clarifying how we interpret the rules, out of necessity, and for practical purposes - but they're fine rules and everyone should follow them.

This leads to a curious headline in the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, the New York Times' newspaper there. They run the Associated Press account of the compromise on torture policy under the headline President to Define Geneva Standards. And that's the "out" here.

The basic are clear. The compromise deal, if passed next week by Congress as planned, would end "a two-week stretch of headlines on Republican infighting." So that helps the Republicans. And it also would allow us to go back to full-on CIA interrogations, as nasty as before. And it would permit the administration to begin prosecuting terrorists linked to the 9/11 attacks in new tribunals.

But the devil is the details - the compromise plan explicitly states that the president can, on his own, "interpret the meaning and application" of the Geneva Convention standards. That's his call - no one else's. But it also enumerates acts that constitute a war crime - torture, rape, biological experiments, and cruel and inhuman treatment. They kept the list short. He needs leeway.

As for the military tribunals the Supreme Court shot down - no one authorized those - there is now authorization. During those trials "coerced testimony" would be admissible - if a judge allows and if it was obtained before cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment was forbidden by a 2005 law. So we become the first modern nation beside Stalinist Russia to allow that. The three "rebel" Republican senators - John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - had wanted to exclude it. They folded. They decided that didn't matter much. They were concerned with our obligations under the Geneva Conventions, and they got a gentlemen's agreement that the president would meet those obligations, as he alone defines those obligations. They trust him.

And there are other minor details -
The agreement contains concessions by both sides, although the White House yielded ground on two of the most contentious issues: It agreed to drop one provision that would have narrowly interpreted international standards of prisoner treatment and another allowing defendants to be convicted on evidence they never see.

One potential issue that lingers and could be a problem for House-Senate conferees on the final version of the bill is the question of how to protect classified information which might be brought into evidence in a military tribunal.

Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said he felt "very confident" that the issue could be ironed out in negotiations still to come.
We'll see how that works out. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined Democrats in insisting that all suspects have a right to challenge their detention in a US court. The agreement reached Thursday strips those at Guantánamo Bay of those habeas corpus rights. It's the tribunals or nothing. Most Democratic senators said they would carefully review the deal but AP says they appeared unlikely to oppose it.

So that's that.

If you're one of those conservatives who think the AP is left wing, hopeless bleeding-heart liberal and hates America, and hates George Bush, and wants the terrorist to win, you can read the actual compromise document here. Just know that, as with most legal documents, every comma matters, and it's not lively prose. Knock yourself out.

And don't pay attention to Vladimir Bukovsky, the fellow who spent nearly twelve years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals - one of those pesky nonviolent human rights protesters who has written a few books on such matters. He's sixty-three now and has lived Cambridge, England, since the mid-seventies. He's not in the game, but he says this -
I have seen what happens to a society that becomes enamored of such methods in its quest for greater security; it takes more than words and political compromise to beat back the impulse.

This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.

Apart from sheer frustration and other adrenaline-related emotions, investigators and detectives in hot pursuit have enormous temptation to use force to break the will of their prey because they believe that, metaphorically speaking, they have a "ticking bomb" case on their hands. But, much as a good hunter trains his hounds to bring the game to him rather than eating it, a good ruler has to restrain his henchmen from devouring the prey lest he be left empty-handed. Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources.

When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin's notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD against itself; he ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria's predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to "improve intelligence-gathering capability" by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders? I have no answer to these questions, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some "cruel, inhumane or degrading" treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already.
But we're not doing torture from here on out. It just looks like it. And it's supposed to. That the message.

And there's the "gentlemen's agreement" - but you can see that, as Andrew Sullivan does, this way -
The major step forward in this bill, however, seems to me to be the idea that the president specify in the Federal Register the torture methods he has actually approved. What I don't understand - and what even now good lawyers tell me they don't understand - is why these techniques aren't already published before the bill is passed; or whether they will be published ahead of a torture session or after it; or whether the president can simply withhold this information as he sees fit. Some lawyers say that the president will not be required to issue such regulations and facts; merely permitted to do so. If that's true, it's meaningless. My fear is that this is a ruse; my hope is that it is a window for transparency. It is critical that the president tell the American people and the world what techniques he is using and what standards are being applied in the name of the United States. Sources tell me that there is a gentleman's agreement that waterboarding is now off the table, that sleep deprivation will be restricted to 48 hours (as opposed to 48 days in one case), and that other barbaric practices like hypothermia will cease.

The trouble is: Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld and Addington are not gentlemen. If we have learned anything these past few years, it is that they are not to be trusted on the torture question, that they have lied repeatedly and knowingly and insistently, that their use of the English language is designed to obfuscate and obscure the reality they are advancing, and the constitutional freedoms they are bent on dismantling. In so far as this bill grants this president discretion in enforcing Geneva, it means that the standards of Geneva will not apply under this president - although they might under a more civilized and competent one.

I should add that it is essential to the integrity of language and law that the word torture not be defined out of existence. Waterboarding, hypothermia, long-time-standing, and various forms of stress positions are torture, have always been torture and always will be torture. What we must do is what Orwell demanded: speak plain English before it evaporates from our discourse, refuse to acquiesce to the corruption of language and decency. In that respect, the press must continue to ask both McCain and all administration representatives whether passing this bill means that waterboarding, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, long-time-standing or stress positions are now illegal and unavailable to the CIA. They must not be allowed to get away with the answer that they will not mention specific techniques. The specifics are everything. And we must not be snowed by abuse of English into saying something is true when it isn't. Until they are completely forthcoming on these critical details, this bill should not be passed.
Sullivan is not a trusting sort. And the bill is a done deal.

And as for clarity, see Marty Lederman here -
More important is the bill's definition of "serious physical pain or suffering." One would think that, on any reasonable understanding of ordinary language, the "alternative" CIA techniques do, indeed, result in serious physical suffering, at the very least. Indeed, such serious suffering - and the prospect of ending such suffering by telling one's interrogators what they wish to hear - is the whole point of using such techniques in the first place. But remarkably - and not accidentally - the bill's definition would not cover all such actual "serious physical suffering."

The definition would require, for one thing, a "bodily injury" - something that would not necessarily result from use of the CIA techniques - even though one can of course be subject to great physical suffering without any "physical injury."

What's worse, such physical injury would also have to "involve" at least one of the following:
(1) a substantial risk of death;
(2) extreme physical pain;
(3) a burn or physical disfigurement of a serious nature, not to include cuts, abrasions, or bruises; or
(4) significant loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.
As you can see, this definition simply does not cover many categories of actual serious physical suffering, including, naturally, the physical suffering that ordinarily results from the CIA techniques that have been reported.

The result, unfortunately, is a very constrained conception of what constitutes "cruel treatment" - a much narrower conception than a fair or reasonable interpretation of Geneva Article 3(1)(a) would provide.

And therefore the bill would appear to exclude from the definition of "cruel treatment" many cases of actual cruel treatment prohibited by Common Article 3. And when that occurs, it is likely the Executive will construe the statute - and Common Article 3, as well - to permit some forms of cruel treatment that Geneva in fact proscribes, i.e., the "alternative" CIA techniques. Indeed, it's happened already: The ink was hardly dry on the draft when numerous Administration spokespersons were gleefully informing the press that the bill is a green light to the CIA to reinstitute the "alternative" techniques that Hamdan had effectively interdicted.

Byron York has gone so far as to relate that "both sides appear to believe that the agreement permits the CIA to continue to use sleep deprivation, cold rooms, and other such techniques," even though such techniques do, in fact, constitute a breach of our Geneva obligations.
As Sullivan notes, we "formally" leave Geneva alone, but grant the executive branch complete discretion in determining what "cruel" means; and the language of the bill certainly can be construed to allow waterboarding, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and long-time standing. It even allows for a person to be beaten, cut, or near-drowned. What was the point of all this again?

The Washington Post is exasperated here -
The bad news is that Mr. Bush, as he made clear yesterday, intends to continue using the CIA to secretly detain and abuse certain terrorist suspects. He will do so by issuing his own interpretation of the Geneva Conventions in an executive order and by relying on questionable Justice Department opinions that authorize such practices as exposing prisoners to hypothermia and prolonged sleep deprivation.

Under the compromise agreed to yesterday, Congress would recognize his authority to take these steps and prevent prisoners from appealing them to US courts. The bill would also immunize CIA personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses and protect those who in the past violated US law against war crimes.
So is the New York Times here -
About the only thing that Senators John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham had to show for their defiance was Mr. Bush's agreement to drop his insistence on allowing prosecutors of suspected terrorists to introduce classified evidence kept secret from the defendant.

... On other issues, the three rebel senators achieved only modest improvements on the White House's original positions. They wanted to bar evidence obtained through coercion. Now, they have agreed to allow it if a judge finds it reliable (which coerced evidence hardly can be) and relevant to guilt or innocence. The way coercion is measured in the bill, even those protections would not apply to the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.
Yep, they caved.

Of course the Democrats weren't even around, and Charles Pierce notes here -
The New York Times has the right of it here, limning the pathetic gullibility at the heart of the "compromise." There is nothing in this bill that President Thumbscrews can't ignore. There is nothing in this bill that reins in his feckless and dangerous reinterpretation of the powers of his office. There is nothing in this bill that requires him to take it - or its congressional authors - seriously. Two weeks ago, John Yoo set down in The New York Times the precise philosophical basis on which the administration will sign this bill and then ignore it. The president will decide what a "lesser breach" of the Geneva Conventions is? How can anyone over the age of five give this president that power? And wait until you see the atrocity that I guarantee you is coming down the tracks concerning the fact that the president committed at least 40 impeachable offenses with regard to illegal wiretapping.

And the Democratic Party was nowhere in this debate. It contributed nothing. On the question of whether or not the United States will reconfigure itself as a nation which tortures its purported enemies and then grants itself absolution through adjectives - "Aggressive interrogation techniques" - the Democratic Party had… no opinion. On the issue of allowing a demonstrably incompetent president as many of the de facto powers of a despot that you could wedge into a bill without having the Constitution spontaneously combust in the Archives, well, the Democratic Party was more pissed off at Hugo Chavez.

This was as tactically idiotic as it was morally blind. On the subject of what kind of a nation we are, and to what extent we will live up to the best of our ideals, the Democratic Party was as mute and neutral as a stone. Human rights no longer have a viable political constituency in the United States of America. Be enough of a coward, though, and cable news will fit you for a toga.
Yeah, well, the Democrats didn't even oppose other details - past violations of the Geneva would not result in criminal or civil legal action (the get out of jail free card), but the agreement prohibits detainees from using the Geneva Conventions to challenge their imprisonment or seek civil damages for mistreatment, as the administration wanted al along (no get out of jail card there). And this - "A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview that Bush essentially got what he asked for in a different formulation that allows both sides to maintain that their concerns were addressed. 'We kind of take the scenic route, but we get there,' the official said."

And the political analysis from Digby at Hullabaloo here -
McCain, the Republican rebel maverick, showed that Republicans are moral and look out for their troops.

Bush, the Republican statesman and leader, showed that he is committed to protecting Americans but that he is willing to listen and compromise when people of good faith express reservations about tactics.

The Democrats showed they are ciphers who don't have the stones to even say a word when the most important moral issue confronting the government is being debated.

… I honestly think it would have been much, much better if they'd have forced their way into the debate and taken a firm stand -- if only to show they give a damn. This is a turn-out election and I have a feeling many a Democrat's stomach will turn as they see this triumph of GOP "leadership" in action. Why bother to vote when the Democrats don't bother to show up?

Political winners, assuming the detainee deal is drafted and goes to a floor vote in the House and Senate:

- Bush: In return for making some concessions, he gets clear guidance for CIA interrogators on what they can and can't do to detainees and he ends an intra-party impasse.

- McCain: Conservative commentators had attacked him for blocking Bush on the detainee tribunals but now he can resume his courtship of the GOP rank and file as he looks to the 2008 presidential nomination.

Probable losers: Civil libertarians who may still object to the tribunals and Democrats who have been laying low on the issue, apparently assuming that McCain-Bush impasse would prevent any deal. "They painted themselves into a corner," said GOP Senate aide Don Stewart. "They said, 'I'm with McCain,' and now McCain has reached an agreement."
So it was all good politics, and the bad guys know we don't mess around.

Still Richard Einhorn is unhappy -
So tell me, my fellow Americans:

How does it feel knowing that your government will pass laws permitting the violation of the Geneva Conventions against torture?

How does it feel knowing the taxes you pay from money you earned are going towards the salary of legally sanctioned torturers?

How does it feel knowing that the only political party with an organization large enough to stand in opposition to the American fascists in charge of this country's legislature and executive were actually boasting that they were not going to get involved in one of the most important moral debates of our time?

And how does it feel to have George W. Bush, that paragon of moral probity, mental stability, and well-informed intelligence, granted the legal right to determine what is and isn't torture?

I'll tell you how I feel. I am outraged and ashamed.

Shame, shame, shame on the cowards in both parties that permitted this disgracefully grotesque farce to happen. This is as inexcusable a stupidity as the neglect that permitted the 9/11 attacks, the idiotic reasoning and intellectual blindness that advocated and executed the Bush/Iraq war, and the failure to prepare for Katrina.

What the hell is going on, that a country that prides itself on its heritage of freedom and liberty, that fought such an awful war over the degrading enslavement of human beings - that such a country would vote to permit some of the most repulsive and evil practices human beings are capable of and place the power to do so directly in the hands of a moral midget?
What can you say? It seems 9/11 changed everything.

And anyway, it kept people from thinking about the war for a few weeks.

Maybe Robert Dreyfuss is correct here -
What's happening in Washington now is that the establishment political class - and that includes the military, moderate Republican and Democratic members of Congress, the jabbering pundits and op-ed writers, and the bulk of the think tank denizens - are coming to grips with the stark fact that the war in Iraq is over. And that the United States has lost. It's beginning to sink in, but it won't be confronted directly by the political class until after the November elections. After that, all hell is going to break loose. If the Democrats win back Congress, it will happen faster - but even if the Republicans hang on, the gusting winds on Iraq now buffeting the White House will gather strength to become a full-fledged, Category 5 hurricane.
And why are more and more people quoting Mark Twain from 1906 on the war in the Philippines where in his "Glances at History" - notes on a book he never got around to writing - where he wrote this -
I pray you to pause and consider. Against our traditions we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war, a war against a helpless people, and for a base object - robbery. At first our citizens spoke out against this thing, by an impulse natural to their training. Today they have turned, and their voice is the other way. What caused the change? Merely a politician's trick - a high-sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads: "Our Country, right or wrong!" An empty phrase, a silly phrase. It was shouted by every newspaper, it was thundered from the pulpit, the Superintendent of Public Instruction placarded it in every schoolhouse in the land, the War Department inscribed it upon the flag. And every man who failed to shout it or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor - none but those others were patriots. To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, "Our Country, right or wrong," and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?

For in a republic, who is "the Country?" Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant - merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Who, then, is "the Country?"?Is it the newspaper? Is it the pulpit? Is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn't.

The nation has sold its honor for a phrase. It has swung itself loose from its safe anchorage and is drifting, its helm is in pirate hands. The stupid phrase needed help, and it got another one: "Even if the war be wrong we are in it and must fight it out: we cannot retire from it without dishonor." Why, not even a burglar could have said it better. We cannot withdraw from this sordid raid because to grant peace to those little people on their terms - independence - would dishonor us. You have flung away Adam's phrase - you should take it up and examine it again. He said, "An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war."

You have planted a seed, and it will grow.
It grew.

Posted by Alan at 22:30 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 22 September 2006 22:45 PDT home

Thursday, 21 September 2006
Topic: Perspective
When you go to New York you try to fit in, as in the old joke - a tourist goes up to a native New Yorker - "Excuse me, sir, could you please tell me where the Empire State Building is, or should I just go screw myself?"

Maybe New Yorkers are just direct. You read the tour books and decide how you will to deal with this legendary trait. In Paris you're formal and polite - you're quiet and you don't grin - and you soon figure out that courtesy and addressing people properly works wonders. In Los Angeles you do your best to be cool. The American South is harder for outsiders. But in New York "blunt" works.

That seems to be the advice someone gave Hugo Chavez, the man who leads Venezuela, before his recent visit. You can read all about it in the CNN account here, but the basics of his approach are now well known.

Wednesday, September 20, he addressed the UN General Assembly - Turtle Bay, midtown East, Manhattan. The problem was his audience wasn't the locals.

But he dove in with "the blunt" - noting that president Bush had addressed the General Assembly the day before - "The devil came here yesterday and it smells of sulfur still today." Chavez also accused Bush of having spoken "as if he owned the world." Add this - "As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world. An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: 'The Devil's Recipe.'"

Oh my. And Chavez also alleged during the UN speech that the United States is planning, financing and setting in motion a coup to overthrow him. He always says that. And we did try once, but it didn't work out. He won't let it go.

As he was exiting the UN building Chavez told reporters that Bush is not a legitimate president because he "stole the elections." And then the zinger - "He is, therefore, a dictator." (The CNN item has a links to video clips of all this if you're interested.)

This was direct, colorful, and very New York - except it shocked the diplomats and other observers "accustomed to the staid verbiage of international diplomacy." The UN compound is in New York, but not of New York. He needed to take it outside.

So he did. Thursday, September 21, he took a stroll trough Harlem. Other world leaders visit Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood, or visit Wall Street, or drop by the major news studios, from Fox across the street from Radio City Music Hall and NBC at Rockefeller Center, up to CNN, now high over Columbus Circle. No, Chavez goes to Harlem - and said he was expanding his heating-oil program to help low-income Americans, as Bush's own government couldn't seem to get around to doing that. CITGO can - that's him - in September, 1986, Southland Oil sold a fifty percent interest in CITGO to Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the national oil company of Venezuela. PDVSA acquired the remaining half of CITGO in January, 1990. So that's that.

But then he dumped yet another load of "blunt" - calling the president "a sick man" who is unqualified for the job. It's that business of Bush being an alcoholic until he was forty, and failing at every business that was handed to him, before he was rendered relatively harmless as governor of Texas. There, except for the record number of executions, he couldn't do much harm. Chavez was on a roll. Chavez said he had no quarrel with the American people - "We are friends of yours, and you are our friends." He has a problem with George. He thinks we should too.

Why? "He walks like this cowboy John Wayne. He doesn't have the slightest idea of politics. He got where he is because he is the son of his father. He was an alcoholic, an ex-alcoholic. He's a sick man, full of complexes, but very dangerous now because he has a lot of power." And he's a "menace" and a "threat against life on the planet." Add to that it seems to Chavez that in America rich people are getting richer, and poor people are getting poorer - "That's not a democracy; that's a tyranny."

So he has a problem with George and thinks we should too.

Maybe so, but watching the news one could see this backfired. Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, a rather blunt man himself, said this - "You don't come into my country; you don't come into my congressional district and you don't condemn my president." Rangel said we can do that fine ourselves, thank you very much - "I just want to make it abundantly clear to Hugo Chavez or any other president: Don't come to the United States and think, because we have problems with our president, that any foreigner can come to our country and not think that Americans do not feel offended when you offend our chief of state." And his new rule - "If there's any criticism of President Bush, it should be restricted to Americans, whether they voted for him or not."

One wonders whether the rest of the world will follow that rule. Rangel of course meant it for visiting leaders only. Tourists may be exempt. And back home in your own country you can say what you want.

And then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, from "the land of the gay and the left," San Francisco, said she too was miffed - "He is an everyday thug." And this - "Hugo Chavez abused the privilege that he had speaking at the United Nations - in doing so, in the manner which he characterized the president, he demeaned himself and demeaned Venezuela."

For Pelosi it was a matter of decorum. For Rangel it was a New York thing - you want a piece of him you've got to go through me, buddy.

And these were Democrats. Bush administration officials dismissed the whole thing. What's to say? State Department spokesman Gonzo Gallegos - "As a matter of policy, there are no restrictions on President Chavez or anyone else wanting to speak their mind in the United States." Yes, CNN reports the name as Gonzo. John Bolton, our acerbic ambassador to the UN - "We're not going to address that sort of comic-strip approach to international affairs." (Yeah, he's one to speak on that issue.)

In any event, Chavez got the "New York Rude" thing all wrong. Not that it matters very much. He caught a flight home after the Harlem stroll.

See also John Dickerson - He's Our Jerk - The New Standard for Foreign-Policy Bipartisanship. That popped up here in Hollywood as a private email - one makes odd acquaintances on the net and we've traded a few emails before - and later appeared in SLATE. Dickerson is the son of the pioneering newswoman Nancy Dickerson - his book about his mother is On Her Trail. He's the chief political correspondent for SLATE, the online magazine that's part of the Washington Post group, so he is attuned to the fallout of all this.

His points -
Republicans may wish they had waited a day to start the attack ads they've aimed at the foreign-policy credentials of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders.

… Since the Cold War, American politicians have roughly hewed to Sen. Arthur Vandenberg's principle that "politics should stop at the water's edge." As the parties have become more partisan and contentious in recent years, that rule has mostly been invoked by members of the president's party to criticize their opponents for slights both real and imaginary. Now Charlie Rangel has offered a Vandenberg corollary, one most often associated with the rules that define ethnic humor: Catholics can joke about Catholics. Jews can joke about Jews, etc. (Sen. George Allen, however, should still just stay silent). When it comes to criticizing the president on American soil, only US citizens can participate.

Defending the president may be the patriotic thing to do. But it's also good politics for Democrats as the president's party gears up for a campaign designed to drive home that giving the minority party control of Congress would be only a slight improvement over installing Chavez himself. Hillary Clinton last week railed against a film that features a staged assassination of President Bush in 2007. "I think it's despicable," she said. "I think it's absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick." Of course, the former first lady has plenty of personal reasons both past and possibly future to be outraged at films that depict the shooting of a president.

It's not just the Democrats who are bashing foreign leaders to improve their statesman credentials. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has an impressive résumé, but it's a little light on the foreign-policy front. So, when former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami spoke at Harvard University on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Romney denounced him and the school. "State taxpayers should not be providing special treatment to an individual who supports violent jihad and the destruction of Israel," Romney said in a written statement, calling Khatami's visit a "disgrace."
But Dickerson predicts this "moment of showy bipartisan outrage" won't last. The idea is that ragging on Chavez for ragging on Bush implicitly establishes that Bush needs someone to defend him, even Democrats of all people. That's real weakness - because the observations all may be based on accurate observation. Hey, we KNOW we have a problem here - or something like that.

Consider, for example, this, from Alex at Martini Republic ("Lead, follow, or have a drink…") -
Face facts: Hugo Chavez is a buffoon. But what's with all the outrage over the buffoonish comments?

Liberals and true Conservatives (as apart from Bush cultists) should be truly outraged by the fact that the President, the "leader of the free world," has done so much to lower the respect, integrity and gravitas of that position in the eyes of the world.

The fact that Bush has denigrated his office does not excuse Chavez's buffoonery; but by the same token, the fact that Chavez is a clown and a small-town bully does not alter the fact that Bush's degradation of his office has so lowered the esteem with which that office is viewed and thus extended a sliver of credibility to an otherwise incredible Chavez.

Chavez's farcical performance at the United Nations doesn't make Bush any less of a failure as a President.
What's true is true, even if one particular messenger is a clown.

We know what we're dealing with, as Daniel Froomkin points out in his online column in the Post with this -
On the dominant issue of our time, the president is in denial.

By most reliable accounts, three and a half years into the U.S. occupation, Iraq is in chaos - if not in a state of civil war, then awfully close. But President Bush insists it's not so.

He says the people he talks to assure him that the press coverage about how bad things are in Iraq is not to be trusted.

You might think that the enormous gulf between Bush's perceptions and reality on such a life-and-death topic would be, well, newsworthy. But if members of the Washington press corps consider it news at all, apparently it's old news. They report Bush's assertions about Iraq without noting that his fundamental assessment of the situation is dramatically contradicted by the reporting from their own colleagues on the ground.

And in the rare circumstances when they directly confront the president with observations that conflict with his own, they let it drop too quickly.
And this is what Froomkin is talking about, Wolf Blitzer interviewing the president on CNN's situation room (transcript here and video here) -
BLITZER: I'll read to you what Kofi Annan said on Monday. He said, 'If current patterns of alienation and violence persist much further, there is a grave danger the Iraqi state will break down, possibly in the midst of a full-scale civil war.' Is this what the American people bought into?

BUSH: You know, it's interesting you quoted Kofi. I'd rather quote the people on the ground who are very close to the situation, and who live it day by day, our ambassador [Zalmay Khalizad] or General [George] Casey [the top U.S. military official in Iraq]. I ask this question all the time, tell me what it's like there, and this notion that we're in civil war is just not true according to them. These are the people that live the issue.

… "The Iraqi government and the Iraqi military is committed to keeping this country together. And so therefore, I reject the notion that this country is in civil war based upon experts, not based upon people who are speculating. . . .

"That's how I learn it. I can't learn it - I can't - frankly, can't learn it from your newscasts. What I have got to learn it from is people who are there on the ground.
And Blitzer lets the issue drop. Maybe that's a matter of decorum too. You don't tell the president he's wrong, even if he is.

Way back in July of 2003 that business came up in these pages here, regarding Bush saying this -
The fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region. I firmly believe the decisions we made will make America more secure and the world more peaceful.
Of course we all watched that stuff from the UN, about how the Blix fellow and his team were in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction and coming back to New York every few weeks to talk about what they had and had not found. Now it seems that never happened. No UN inspectors ever went to Iraq. They were never allowed in. So the press has been irresponsible. Why did CNN and the rest fabricate this whole thing? Our government went to war precisely because Blix never made those trips CNN and the rest was reporting. He wasn't ever allowed in. Damn.

There wee lots of links to folks saying this was madness and the press should have called him on it - it just wasn't so - but at the time, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, one of the people who got CNN up and running back in 1980, added this -
Was this a Bush "lie" or a Bush "goof"? An argument can be made for both sides. Technically, he's obviously wrong, UN inspectors did obviously go in and then leave shortly before the bombing started. On the other hand, he was probably thinking of that time before the UN resolution when Iraq actually was refusing to allow the inspectors in, at least unconditionally.

As for the question of what the media is to do about Bush's comments… Nothing much.

Although people think journalists are always there, ready to jump all over slips like this, that's pretty much a misconception. Think about it. Although you may think you do, you actually rarely see news media, on their own authority, running around pointing out the lies of public officials. What you actually see is news media running around reporting on some political opponents' claims about the other guy's lies. Try as it might, objective journalism has yet to find a way to independently expose what may or may not be "lies" and even just "goofs" without appearing, maybe with some justification, like they're just pimping for some special interest or political ideology.

But until they can figure out how to do that, the bottom line right now is this: You want to get on someone's case about Bush not being outted on this? Get on Howard Dean and John Kerry. If those two make a case out of this, you can bet your bottom buck that reporters will let the rest of us know about it.
So now, three years later, it's still not Blitzer's job. Maybe so.

And you could line up lots of things similarly.

Bush in 2003 with this -
The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, ratified by the United States and more than 130 other countries since 1984, forbids governments from deliberately inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering on those within their custody or control. Yet torture continues to be practiced around the world by rogue regimes whose cruel methods match their determination to crush the human spirit.

Then of course, as Andrew Sullivan points out here, in the same speech Bush then demands his own prosecution, by an international tribunal if necessary - "I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture."

Then if you consider what the president says in another speech (see this), he calls himself a war criminal - "the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals."

But that's not on the news - that's from UCLA's Mark Kleiman here. The news folks will report it if some bigger fish make the case, or the official opposition. Until then, it's not important, or not "news." And Hugo Chavez doesn't count. Visiting thuggish clowns are not to be taken seriously.

There are rules - save when Anderson cooper lost it in New Orleans, got angry, and became a star. There is decorum.


Footnote on Decorum:

What's coming up on the CBS show "60 Minutes" this Sunday - September 25 - is an interesting study in decorum, as Associated Press reports here -

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan says the United States threatened to bomb his country back to the Stone Age after the 9-11 attacks if he did not help America's war on terror.

Musharraf says the threat was delivered by Richard Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, to Musharraf's intelligence director, the Pakistani leader told CBS-TV's 60 Minutes.

"The intelligence director told me that (Armitage) said, 'Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,'" Musharraf said in the interview to be shown Sunday on the CBS television network. It was insulting, Musharraf said. "I think it was a very rude remark," he told reporter Steve Kroft.

But, Musharraf said he reacted responsibly. "One has to think and take actions in the interests of the nation and that is what I did," he said.
Armitage on "60 Minutes" will dispute the language attributed to him - but not deny the message was a strong one. AP tried Friday to reach him at his home and his office. No go.

But it gets better - Musharraf told the CBS folks that Armitage demanded that Musharraf turn over Pakistan's border posts and its military bases to the US military to use - and demanded the "ludicrous," that Musharraf suppress any domestic expression of support for terrorism against the United States. Musharraf - "If somebody is expressing views, we cannot curb the expression of views." Right. We do it here a bit, of course.

The State Department now declines to comment on this conversation between Armitage and the Pakistani official - "We are referring all questions to Mr. Armitage." His problem. Pakistan is our ally now, however it happened. The White House also declined to comment on the record on any of this.

No one plays nice anymore. Decorum is for Chavez - to learn.

Posted by Alan at 22:43 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 22 September 2006 07:02 PDT home

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