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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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Wednesday, 23 August 2006
Waking Up
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Waking Up
You read it here first, from infrequent contributor Rick the "News Guy in Atlanta" (he's called that because he's one of the guys who got CNN up and running back in the early eighties, knows all the key players there, and his wife is still there, a key executive). See November 7, 2004 - Listen up! There IS no War on Terror! - where after some prefatory matters and before reactions from others, he says this (and remember it was election time) -
Okay, I'm confused and need some help. Is it just me, or has anyone else in this country noticed that there is no "War on Terror"?

Polls show Americans trust Bush more than Kerry on the issue of protecting the country from terrorism. Really! (They obviously ignore the fact that Kerry has actually killed someone face-to-face, while the closest Bush got to doing that was when he giggled it up as some born-again Christian woman was on the way to one of his Texas execution chambers.)

But other than that, when you think about it, what has Bush done in this so-called "War on Terror"?

He attacked Afghanistan? Big deal! Hell, if 9/11 had happened on Calvin Coolidge's watch, he'd have invaded Afghanistan during a break in one of his famous afternoon naps!

Bush invaded Iraq? Okay, if you insist on considering Iraq part of the "War on Terror," then you must admit to it being one hugely-botched battle at best, with terrorists now operating out of that country and doing things Saddam Hussein would never have allowed them to do. But in fact, Iraq, as has now been demonstrated, originally had nothing to do with the war on terror anyway, although probably now it does. Which leaves us with Afghanistan, where the Taliban still lives, and as Osama bin Laden possibly does, too.

(Okay, looking on the bright side, isn't it nice that Saddam was removed from power? Yes, but considering the subsequent blowback, celebrating Saddam's being gone is like calling the glass ten-percent full instead of ninety-percent empty. One can understand some Iraqis being happy about this, but it has certainly not made the world safer.)

Is this war just a metaphor, like the "War on Poverty"? Apparently Bush doesn't think so, charging that anyone (i.e., Kerry) who thinks this war is just a metaphor is not fit to be president. (Lots of Bush's fellow Republicans have called it a metaphor, but that's okay, they're not candidates for the job.)

Can this war be won? Apparently Bush doesn't think it can be, not in the classic sense (although he had to later clarify that argument by inserting some flip-floppy ambiguity into it.)

Is it a law-enforcement matter? Bush says no, that's just "September 10th thinking," the sort of thing his opponent is guilty of. (You know, it seems this business of hunting down this war is like Twenty Questions, with no end in sight.)

But in truth, if it's not a metaphor; and it can't really be won in the usual sense; and it's not a law-enforcement thing; and if even Tommy Franks has told people Afghanistan is really more of a man-hunt than a war - and as has been pointed out before, shortly after our invading Afghanistan, there were more American soldiers in Salt Lake City, protecting the Winter Olympics, than there were fighting our so-called war in Afghanistan - then where is this war everyone's talking about?

Even Bush and his people admit that this "war" has produced absolutely no actual "war prisoners" as such that fall under Geneva Convention protections. Shouldn't that alone tell us something?

Look, I have ideas of war in my head. Take WWII; now that was a proper war! So was WWI and the Civil War and the War of 1812 and the War for Independence! Real wars you can see and smell, and run to join up with, or maybe run away from. Korea and Vietnam were called "police actions," but whatever you called them, they walked and talked like wars to me.

So if anyone tries to tell you that this is a war unlike others and it isn't between nations and that it doesn't take place in any one chunk of geography, but is in fact taking place in the slums of Hamburg and the jungles of Indonesia, and hundreds of other secret places where these vermin try to hide, and that it won't end with someone signing a peace treaty, and may not /ever/ end in the conventional sense, and is not fought only by soldiers with guns but also by prosecutors with subpoenas ... you see where this is going?

Tell them what they're describing is only "metaphorically" a war, but is really mostly just a law-enforcement issue that, like crime itself, will probably never end -- and certainly not the sort of thing to allow a president to lay claim to being a "wartime president". I'm sure future historians will someday compare the mass hysteria rampant in early 21st century America, as it fought its imaginary war, to the Salem witch burnings and communist-hunts during the McCarthy era.

It seems like such a classic case of emperor-wearing-no-clothes, and it seems that nobody wants to bring this up, so let me do it now:

I need everyone's undivided attention! Listen up! There IS no War on Terror!

I repeat: There IS no War on Terror! None! We have all been conned!

Anyone? Please feel free to convince me otherwise.
Well, it took two years, but the London "liquid bomb" plot that was foiled - as in "Rats! Foiled again!" - seems to be not a victory in the war on terror by the only means we say works (send in the smart bombs), but a matter of law enforcement. Kerry was right. Even hyper-conservative George Will says so here - he notes in a candidates' debate in South Carolina (January 29, 2004), Kerry said that although the war on terror will be "occasionally military," it is "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world," and so it seems to be so. Oops. We must have misjudged the man. Will is miffed with Bush these days.

It took enough time for people to start coming around, didn't it?

And now people are saying all sorts of things, like John Mueller in the oh-so-serious journal Foreign Affairs (published by The Council on Foreign Relations) with this -
Summary: Despite all the ominous warnings of wily terrorists and imminent attacks, there has been neither a successful strike nor a close call in the United States since 9/11. The reasonable - but rarely heard - explanation is that there are no terrorists within the United States, and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad.
He's not exactly saying the whole thing is a hoax, but wonders how much we should worry about it. Is the threat posed by al Qaeda terrorists equivalent to that of fascists back in the thirties? Well, no -
Although it remains heretical to say so, the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist - reminiscent of those inspired by images of the 20-foot-tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the 20-foot-tall Communists at various points in the Cold War (particularly after Sputnik) - may have been overblown, the threat presented within the United States by al Qaeda greatly exaggerated. The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.
And he has evidence, and reasons from it. But it is quite long and no one will have the patience to read it. And it is heretical to say such things - everyone knows the bad guys want to kill us all, and are working on that tirelessly. They don't actually seem to be, but never mind.

In lieu of that some might want to read Ronald Bailey's Don't Be Terrorized, where there's a statistical look at things - you're more likely to die of a car accident, drowning, fire, or murder, than be a victim of terrorism. But of course it doesn't feel that way. Terrorism hysteria is the order of the day, even if you read careful analysis like this from David Weigel, about the triumph of us busting up the terror plot in Miami in June, which wasn't much of a plot, and the forces in play to make us believe it was something, when the guys were pretty much hapless jerks.

Something is up. As Rick said, it seems like such a classic case of emperor-wearing-no-clothes, and nobody wanted to bring it up - but the war on terror is a farce, and the threat hardly existential. It's a problem. You solve it.

But now that Iran wants to discuss its nuclear program, but won't stop research as a precondition to the talks, we all no war is coming. The Chinese and Russians say cool, let's have the talks. We say no. No talks unless and until they stop all research and promise not resume it, ever - then we'll talk about things. We have to stop them, and the sole condition for talking is clear. So if the world won't agree to sanctions, you know what's coming next. We know what will happen if they continue.

But a House committee on Wednesday, August 23, said we don't -
Noting "significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the various areas of concern about Iran," the House Intelligence Committee staff report questioned whether the United States could even effectively engage in talks with Tehran on ways to diffuse tensions.
In the Republican-controlled House we have a Republican-controlled committee saying it's not just that we don't really know anything about their nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons programs, we don't even know enough to talk to them intelligently.

It may be safe to assume even the pro-Bush folks are wising up. No one wants to get hung out to dry again. The White House, in response, says that they are "taking steps" to do better. Somehow that's not reassuring.

But there are the bad guys, now being called the "Islamofascists" in the pro-Bush media - which Matthew Yglesias here says he can "only understand as a sign of increasing desperation" - and the president himself has adopted the "slightly-less-absurd" formulation "Islamic fascists." It just isn't helpful.

There's a lot of talk about Spencer Ackerman here making a basic pragmatic argument - Muslims everywhere really don't appreciate this terminology at all. Not even in Detroit, or especially in Detroit, with its large Muslim, and pro-American, population. It just pisses them off.

Yglesias notes too it's worth calling attention to the function of this rhetoric -
"Fascist," in this context, just roughly means "bad." Add in the "Islamic" and what you come to is the conclusion that we're in a war and that the enemy in this war is Muslims who subscribe to bad ideologies. This has the consequence of taking a set of institutionally and ideologically distinct actors - Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, Iraq, Iran, Syria, al-Qaeda, the Mahdi Army, Iraqi insurgents, etc. - and treating them as a single phenomenon. To do so would be a serious mistake. And to call it a mistake is not to deny the obvious fact that these are groups that are to some degree interrelated. There's some ideological overlap. Some of these groups are allied with each other at the moment. Some have been allied in the past. Some might ally in the future.

Nevertheless, they are different things. And the essence of sound strategy has long been to look at potentially hostile actors and try to divide them. To decide what your top priority is and focus on it. The "Islamofascism" rhetoric is part of a continuing campaign to do the reverse.
But it does keep the hysteria up. They're all alike. They all want to kill us. And we have to stay in Iraq because there sure are a lot of them there, and if we leave they'll just come here, or whatever.

That may be nonsense, but it is important nonsense. See the Washington Post here interviewing an anonymous "top GOP strategist" - most likely Karl Rove -
The strategist, who is involved in GOP efforts to capitalize on the issue of national security, said one of the big challenges in the months ahead will be "making sure the terrorism issue sticks to Iraq." With some GOP candidates distancing themselves from Bush's Iraq policy, the strategist said, it has been difficult marrying the issues of terrorism and Iraq. This is disturbing to top GOP officials because support for the war is low, and dropping, and Iraq is a bigger issue in many of the campaigns than the less-defined effort against terrorism, the strategist said.
But it's just not sticking, as shown in the New York Times poll here -
Americans increasingly see the war in Iraq as distinct from the fight against terrorism, and nearly half believe President Bush has focused too much on Iraq to the exclusion of other threats, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. The poll found that 51 percent of those surveyed saw no link between the war in Iraq and the broader anti-terror effort, a jump of 10 percentage points since June.
And there's the CNN USA Today poll here -
Most Americans, according to the poll, seem to have separate opinions about the war in Iraq and terrorism, with more than half (52 percent) saying the war in Iraq is a distraction from the U.S. efforts against terrorists who want to attack targets inside the United States.

A smaller percentage, 44 percent, said the war in Iraq "is an essential part" of U.S. efforts against terrorists who want to attack targets inside the United States.
People are catching up to Rick in Atlanta, even the "security moms" as the Post noted here, providing much fodder for the political talk shows -
Married mothers said in interviews here that they remain concerned about national security and the ability of Democrats to keep them safe from terrorist strikes. But surveys indicate Republicans are not benefiting from this phenomenon as they have before.

... Jean Thomas, a married mother of one, said she still feels a pang of fear every time she boards an airplane for work travel around the Midwest. "Terrorism," she said, "is the biggest concern on a daily basis." But she said she is "pretty frustrated with politics driving decisions" in Washington. That is why she said she is strongly considering abandoning her support of Republicans to vote for the Democrats challenging Rep. Deborah Pryce and Sen. Mike DeWine on Nov. 7.

… Jo Ann Smith, a divorced mother in Upper Arlington, said she voted for Pryce last time but certainly will not this fall because of the war issue alone. "I am just totally disgusted with this war," Smith said. "I understand terrorism and the threat, but I am sick of hearing about it." Smith said she will vote for Democrats across the board, mostly because she considers Republicans the "worst of two evils."

… Marylee McCallister, a mother of three who was a Republican for 42 years until this April …. voted for Bush because she believed his warnings that the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), would weaken the nation. "I was dumb," she said. "Now, granted, they came here and rammed bombs into us, but I am afraid we have gotten into something full scale which perhaps did not have to be."
This comment at Firedoglake sums it up nicely -
The themes are clear - like the rest of us, these Bush voters feel like terrorism has been used as a political sledgehammer, and they know that Dubya is in way over his head in Iraq. But they also know that September 11th wasn't just a movie, and they're personally frightened of it happening again.

They should have listened to Rick in Atlanta. The policy was wrong say what you will about specific tactics, or on a larger scale, general strategies - some have been boneheaded and some have been fine - at the highest level is policy. That was the problem. The policy - we will fight terror with war, regime change and occupation - made things worse.

And the fourth part of that policy was disdain for diplomacy and alliances (listening to advice).

See John Judis here on the history and track record of "conservatives' odd aversion to diplomacy and liberals' tragic failure to adequately resist it."

As Matthew Yglesias, again, notes here -

The upshot is that, specific issues and countries aside, the whole assumption that there's anything to be gained by either de facto or de jure denying diplomatic recognition to other countries is wrong. Having ambassadors in each others' countries and regular talks between officials about matters of common concern is just what countries that aren't actively at war with each other do. The idea that talking to Syria - not necessarily agreeing with Syria about anything, but just talking so as to explore the possibility of agreement or at least understand what we're disagreeing about - would meaningfully set back the cause of Middle Eastern democracy is daft.
Daft? No one uses that word much these days. But it fits.

Ah, they called Howard Dean daft. When he said, more than a year ago, that the war is Iraq was worse than pointless, it was counterproductive, even most Democrats ran away from him. You just don’t say things like that. And now more than half the country agrees with him. That's very odd.

Watch him on MSNBC and CNN here (full video clips) wher he comments on what he sees now, and most folks agree.

On George Allen - "I served with George Allen when he was Governor. I don't think he belongs in public service. There are Republicans who are capable and smart, thoughtful people, and he's not one of them. "

On Joe Lieberman - "Ned Lamont is a Democrat. But Joe is the past and I think we need a new direction in this country and it's not just the Lieberman Lamont race. It's all over the country. People are looking for a new direction for the country. "

On John McCain - "You know how everybody leaves the ship once it heads in the wrong direction. McCain was a huge booster of the war until now I guess things are getting hot in the kitchen, so he decided to get out. "

On the Bush press conference August 21 - "You don't make a permanent commitment to a failed policy."

On Hurricane Katrina -
I think Katrina - the response to Katrina was effectively the end to the President's presidency in the sense that people all of a sudden saw the small man behind the curtain.

People in America and throughout the rest of the world for a long time have believed that Americans can fix anything - that we're better organized and better managed - managed better than anybody, and that if something really awful happens, call on the Americans.

And for the first time in our lifetime and in the world's lifetime, since World War II - since before World War II - we suddenly saw an American president just descend into failure.

And I don't think he's ever recovered from that.
On Iraq and Vietnam and Bush and Nixon (CNN with Wolf Blitzer) -
DEAN: This is exactly what was going on in Vietnam. And the president and the vice president are saying exactly what Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew said again and again and again. It resulted in 25,000 more Americans being killed in Vietnam, and the result was the same as it would have been had we left earlier.

This is wishful thinking on the part of the president. They never thought this out.

I can remember the secretary of defense saying the whole world would be paid for by Iraqi oil. The vice president was saying we'd be greeted as liberators.

These folks are fundamentally out of touch with what's going on in Iraq and they're fundamentally out of touch with the needs of the American people. And we need a new direction in this country, Wolf, and we're going to have a new direction after November.

BLITZER: But as you know, a lot of Democrats, especially Democratic senators, are also saying the U.S. should try to finish the job and not set an artificial deadline for getting out.

DEAN: Finishing the job? The job was finished. We went in there to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We got rid of him. Then we decided we were going to occupy the country, and then we decided that we would try to mitigate a civil war, which we're now in.

The problem is the job, as far as the president keeps defining it, is a moving target. He doesn't know what the job is. He doesn't know what the end point is.

The idea that we're going to have a democracy that looks like America was a ridiculous right wing neo-con idea from the beginning.

They're out of touch.

Most of them have never served in the army and the ones that have rarely served abroad defending the country.
On where this leads -
The country fundamentally wants a different direction. The Republicans are just going to give us more of the same.

We want a new direction in the economy, we want a new direction in health care, we want a new direction in foreign policy, we want a new direction in Iraq, we want a new direction for gas prices. We need a new direction. You can't get that by voting for Republicans.
So now he's become mainstream? Who'd have guessed? Well, Rick in Atlanta might have guessed.

On the other hand, counterbalancing this is an analysis by Scott Winship here on the data that show substantial numbers of people in America basically have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to politics, and that the deeply ignorant are also much more persuadable than the well-informed.

There are further comments here on The Mushy Middle -
My favorite term for undecided voters often gets a lot of complaints. But I think it's important to understand that "centrist voters" - which conform to some Beltway Pundit view of centrism - and "swing voters" are almost entirely different animals. Centrist voters who conform to the rough Washington Post editorial board center-right position do exist, but most of what we think of as "swing voters" are either completely clueless or they're more in the Ross Perot/Pat Buchanan/Reform Party mold (not mutually exclusive categories) for which there is no clear party.

You reach clueless voters by leading, not pandering, because their cluelessness makes them somewhat difficult to pander to.

And, no, saying people are clueless about politics is not necessarily insulting them. I pay attention to politics. A lot of people don't. They may be smart about many things but not so smart about politics.
And there's an extended discussion here -
Certainly, the Republicans, for whatever reason, seem to better understand heuristics and are willing to demagogue wherever necessary. These last few years have taught us nothing if they haven't taught us how far you can go even when you make no sense whatsoever.

But the fact remains that this is not good for the country. We simply cannot adequately govern ourselves if a large number of us are dumb as posts and vote for reasons that make no sense.
Ah but things are changing. To modify Abraham Lincoln's famous dictum - you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can only fool thirty-eight percent of the people all that time. And you can't fool Rick in Atlanta.

Posted by Alan at 22:01 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006 07:17 PDT home

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