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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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Thursday, 12 October 2006
Explaining Things
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Explaining Things
It's kind of like the 1951 season of I Love Lucy. Ricky Ricardo: "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do."

But it wasn't 1951 out here in Hollywood - it was Wednesday, October 11, 2006, in DC, and it was a presidential press conference everyone knew was coming. Sunday evening the North Koreans has announced they had tested a nuclear weapon, and maybe they had. The president had vowed that would never happen and he had said he knew how to keep it from happening, as no one before him had a clue. But somehow they did it. And the war after the Iraq War was spinning out of control, our casualties mounting, the Iraq forces useless or corrupt, some dispute about how many Iraqi civilians had died so far - thirty thousand or twenty times that number - and no political settlement among the sectarian parties and their respective death squads at all possible, as far as anyone could tell. The House scandal still raged, with it becoming clear the Speaker of the House had either ignored all the warnings that a gay house member had been messing with the sixteen-year old pages for years, so he could keep that seat Republican, or the Speaker was dumb as a post - with other House members scrambling to say they knew and had known and did say something and someone else had dropped the ball, so it wasn't their fault. And the polls were showing the evangelical Christian right was rapidly bailing on the Republicans, and the majority of the country on the war - not buying the latest central rationale at all, that we were fighting them there so we would not have to fight them here, as it goes now.

There was certainly "some 'splainin' to do."

The official transcript of the press conference is here, but it doesn't capture the president practically shouting at the reporters, or his curt dismissal of the civilian casualty study. It was cleaned up considerable, for clarity. And the event was discussed for several days.

It was even discussed out here in this silly town, in the Los Angeles Times, where you got this the next day - the lead editorial suggesting the man was insulting our intelligence -
At his news conference Wednesday, President Bush expressed not once but three times his view that if the U.S. does not defeat the terrorists "over there" in Iraq, it will have to fight them here in the United States. This crude formulation is tiresome and insulting to Americans' intelligence.

"I firmly believe that the American people understand that this is different from other wars because in this war, if we were to leave early, before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here," Bush said. This conjures up improbable images of Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents stuffing bomb-making manuals into their backpacks and booking flights to LAX while U.S. troops march out of Baghdad.

There are good reasons not to withdraw from Iraq hastily. But Bush's assertion about a good offense being the best defense undermines his own credibility.

… Bush is right to say that Al Qaeda would crow at an American "defeat" in Iraq. Indeed, anti-American elements around the world would surely take great satisfaction in any U.S. humiliation. But his equation of withdrawal with defeat, of leaving the Iraqis to manage their own affairs with handing a victory to terrorists, is simplistic in the extreme. Sooner or later, the U.S. military will leave Iraq. A sober and thoughtful national debate could illuminate how best to accomplish that.

The deliberate repetition of a shameless canard just before an election does not contribute to this thoughtful debate. Indeed, Bush's formulation could lead to a false sense of complacency. Fighting the terrorists "over there" does not necessarily make us safer "over here." This is not to say that there is no relation at all between Iraq's fate and the threat of terrorism to the U.S. But the relationship is not as simplistic as the president describes it. Pretending these two issues are part of the same problem trivializes them both.
Of course this is not exactly a brave editorial stance to take - it's a bit mainstream now. Still such thing need be said, just to remind people there are other ways to look at things.

But the bulk of the news conference concerned North Korea, not Iraq. And here we were asked to look at things a new way. Perhaps the policy toward North Korea's nuclear development work - don't talk directly with them and make a lot of threats - had no worked, but it was a really good policy, and what happened wasn't the fault of the policy. It was classic "not my fault" as explained in the Washington Post here -
President Bush asserted yesterday that the administration's strategy on North Korea is superior to the one pursued by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, because Clinton reached a bilateral agreement that failed, while the current administration is trying to end North Korea's nuclear programs through multi-nation talks.

Robert L. Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the accord and now dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said it is a "ludicrous thing" to say that the Clinton agreement failed. For eight years, the Agreed Framework kept North Korea's five-megawatt plutonium reactor frozen and under international inspection, while North Korea did not build planned 50- and 200-megawatt reactors. If those reactors had been built and running, he said, North Korea would now have enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear weapons.

By Gallucci's account, North Korea may have produced a small amount of plutonium for one or two weapons before Clinton came into office - during the administration of Bush's father - but "no more material was created on his watch." When Clinton left office, officials saw signs that North Korea may have been attempting to create a clandestine uranium enrichment program, but nothing was definitive.

Such a program would violate the Agreed Framework. When the Bush administration decided it had conclusive proof of that enrichment in July 2002, it confronted North Korea and terminated fuel oil deliveries promised under the Agreed Framework. In response, North Korea evicted the inspectors, restarted the reactor and retrieved weapons-grade plutonium from 8,000 fuel rods that had been kept in a cooling pond. Intelligence analysts now think that, before Monday's apparent nuclear test, North Korea had enough plutonium for as many as a dozen weapons.
But he really did say this - "One has a stronger hand when there's more people playing your same cards." That was the better policy. He won't be appearing on Celebrity Poker anytime soon.

And you could say Bush "basically played into Kim's hands, substituting empty tough talk, no agreement and unfettered nuclear programs by North Korea for a somewhat flawed agreement which impeded North Korean proliferation efforts for eight years." But that would be unkind.

Former Defense Secretary William Perry was unkind -
The Agreed Framework did not end North Korea's aspirations for nuclear weapons, but it did result in a major delay. For more than eight years, under the Agreed Framework, the spent fuel was kept in a storage pond under international supervision.

… While this test is the culmination of North Korea's long-held aspiration to become a nuclear power, it also demonstrates the total failure of the Bush administration's policy toward that country. For almost six years this policy has been a strange combination of harsh rhetoric and inaction.
But it is supposed to work better than just putting things off for eight years

Digby at Hullabaloo offers an interesting comment -
That is just one very bizarre aspect of their black and white thinking that leads to such things as their ridiculous posturing on North Korea in which no interim agreement (like that achieved by Clinton with the Agreed Framework) is countenanced because they will only accept a permanent solution. I suppose one could say that this might be a useful way to run a kindergarten, but real violence in the real world is something that should always be punted if at all possible. This is not because of a general moral revulsion toward violence, although that should certainly be a factor. Nor is it simply that to delay would save lives "in the short term." It's because we cannot tell the future. Kim Jong Il could die from a heart attack. A short term cease fire in Lebanon could have given everyone a chance to catch their breath and perhaps recognize that escalating the war was indefensible. Anything can happen. A break from violence creates a possibility that it won't start up again. A crazy dictator delaying the development of a nuclear bomb opens up the possibility that he won't develop one.

I realize that Bush and his pals think that their "enemies" are nihilistic at best and animals at worst. But they are humans and humans are always subject to change from within or without. The idea that it is "useless" to put off something like a war or a nuclear showdown until tomorrow when you can have one today (or put off a ceasefire 'til tomorrow when you can have one today) is beyond stupid or irresponsible. It's sick.
Maybe so, but we are told again and again stability in and of itself is dangerous, really. It's never permanent, and these guys go for permanent fixes, even when you get neither a temporary nor a permanent fix. It seems to be the principle of the thing. It must have something to do with "thinking big." Too bad it doesn't work.

But what happened, or didn't, in North Korea may be a good thing, as Mark Kleiman suggests here -
I had a conversation with two foreign policy heavyweights, both of whom had opposed the invasion of Iraq, just after the North Korean test. They agreed that, if the U.S. weren't so completely tied down in Iraq, the Bush Administration might well be moving toward a military confrontation with the North Koreans, which they thought would likely have catastrophic consequences. As it is, the project is almost transparently impossible, and the generals and admirals are undoubtedly more willing to speak up than they were three years ago.

It suddenly struck me that those of us who supported the War in Iraq have finally found our alibi! By keeping the Bush Administration tied down in Iraq, we helped prevent war in Korea. Think of it as the "flypaper strategy."

Convincing? Maybe not. (After all, if we weren't tied down in Iraq, the North Koreans might have been deterred from testing their bomb.) But that's our story, and we're sticking to it.
It's a joke, folks - maybe. It is, if anything, an odd sort of silver lining.

And everyone needs a joke. At the news conference the president did his quip and jab at the reporters and what they were wearing that day, and in the Post Dana Milbank comments -
It was about the only fun Bush had all morning. North Korea is exploding, Iraq is imploding, and congressional Republicans are self-destructing. Reporters weren't about to let the president forget about that, even if he looked natty in his gray suit and dark-blue tie.
In fact, one reporter, ignoring the natty gray suit and dark-blue tie asked a killer question - "Do you ever feel like the walls are closing in on you?"

Not nice. No wonder the man seemed angry and a tad incoherent. Think cornered animal, or something.

And people noticed, like Michael O'Hare here -
This morning's press conference was one of the scariest public events of the last few years. Bush appears to be crumbling before our eyes; I can't believe they let him out in the condition he displayed. His responses were rambling and unfocused, stringing together irrelevant bromides and half-thoughts, the discourse of someone not getting any sleep. His response styles were even more alarming, bouncing from whining about all the hard decisions he has to make; to a sort of sneering impatient condescension, with which he explained simple falsehoods as though to children and as though they were obviously true; to the recital of incompletely rehearsed talking points, cut up into phrases and reassembled at random; to his familiar fake-macho pronouncing style. There was a round of joking about reporters' clothes that just made him appear clueless about the importance of the North Korean bomb and the collapse of his party's electoral prospects, completely tin-eared in the context of the event. One response after another headlined a simple unexplained and unembroidered refusal to hear facts, from poll results to the new estimates of Iraqi deaths. And the word unacceptable apparently means "if it continues, I will say it's unacceptable, but louder, so watch out!"

Bush has always been a man who knows a few simple things, to assert if not to act on coherently, and who is not in the business of increasing this stock. Now those are one-by-one turning out to be silly, bad guidance, or just vacuous, and his handlers are coming up empty giving him lines and tricks to get through the week. The man is not only in desperate straits but, what is new for him, beginning to recognize it. It was a really chilling spectacle; we're all in a bad situation here. It's not good for anyone that the president becomes a humiliating occasion for ridicule, a midget drum major prancing on the sidelines, beating out a rhythm no-one else is keeping, while the band breaks up into chaos on the field.
Remove the marching band metaphor and you get Josh Marshall here -
Just listening to this press conference, I'm really surprised his handlers had him hold this sort of appearance. His statement was a long meandering catalog of his policies - a bit confused, with various defenses, none that great. Just in terms of effective communication, I would have thought they would have had him hit a few basic points - international threats, make tax cuts permanent, etc. But my gut tells me anybody on the fence at this point would not feel reassured or heartened by what the president is saying.

On North Korea, needless to say, he fibbed about the basic issue, elided the key points. We'll see if the press teases out what he ignored and misstated. He let the Agreed Framework lapse. The excuse is alleged (and probably true) uranium enrichment research, which wouldn't have come to fruition for many, many years. The result was ramping back plutonium production which has now already created a bomb. The president's boast is that his failed negotiations have more participants around the table.

Wow, indeed. And most the startling thing was what he said about the new study that civilian Iraqi casualties were far higher than anyone had guessed, which would be this - "I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to - you know, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate." It's seems we're testing their limit for such tolerance, and they're handling it fine - pretty much. We're asked to be amazed at how much death these odd foreign folks can tolerate. He finds it very curious. Who'd have guessed? And we're told they can take it. They're funny that way. And then someone blows up another of our Hummers.

And looking at the video, and not reading the transcript, one senses that the president's performances are becoming more incoherent and more hostile -
… as if he's at war with the world and the facts that come with it.

He has difficulty completing a sentence without interrupting it himself. He speaks in bursts, blurting out short sentences. He stammers, struggling to get words out, or repeating syllables, although this doesn't show up in the transcript."
Examples -

"And my point - and then I - as I mentioned in my opening statement, we, once again, had North Korea at the table - this time with other parties at the table l and they agreed once again…"

"And I appreciate Jimmy Baker willingness to - he and Lee Hamilton are putting this - have got a group they put together that I think was Congressman Wolf's suggestion - or passing the law."

"Terry. I mean - you're not Terry. You're Steve."

In this comment we're told to watch the video where "he shouts at reporters asking about the level of violence and waning support for his policies." It is a bit painful to watch - "Bush looks like a guy ready to jump out of his own skin at times."

But will people let it slide? Maybe they will, but here the Middle East scholar Juan Cole wonders if, as Iraqi civilian casualties climb, the we makes plans to keep 140,000 troops in Iraq until 2010, will the public in either country permit it?

That's an interesting question, which presumes anyone has any choice in the matter at all. But let us assume they do. What are the facts at hand?

There's that new study published in the Lancet - done by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and published on Wednesday, This one estimates that "excess deaths from political violence" after our 2003 invasion fall somewhere between 420,000 and 790,000. The president a year ago said he'd heard some estimated the number of Iraqis killed since his invasion at 30,000, and dismissed these new findings as "not credible." Other public health researchers in the field, however, said there was nothing wrong with the methodology, and this might be so. United Nations estimates of three thousand deaths every month from political violence, and the Pentagon gives much lower figures, not counting certain events, like suicide bombings and mortar fire. It all depends on how you're counting. But Cole notes there is some agreement - "More Iraqis than ever before are killing one another in the midnight 'war of the corpses' that leaves the capital and some other cities littered with cadavers in the morning." The argument about the actual figures may be pointless. None of it is good.

And there was that Reuters report - Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker said Wednesday that as he projected the needs of the armed services, he had to plan on there being 141,000 of our troops in Iraq through 2010. He was very careful to say that he was making no predictions about what might happen in Iraq, and that keeping fifteen full combat brigades there for so long "was not a foregone conclusion." But he had to plan for that. It was just the prudent thing to do, given the circumstances.

We do have to fight them there so we don't fight them here, but Cole differs. Other matters are more important -
The U.S. military in Iraq is trying to hold the country together by main force, as though it were putting tape on a patient who had been eviscerated. But every day the country loses more of its structural integrity, as sectarian killings pile up and car bombs and assassinations by Sunni Arabs provoke vicious reprisals by Shiites or Kurds, depending on their original target.

Over the past week, Shiite-Sunni tension escalated further. The assassination on Monday of the brother of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni fundamentalist, was widely seen as a blow against the process of sectarian reconciliation promoted by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sunni Arabs, already chafing under U.S. patrols and search-and-seizure missions, were further angered on Wednesday when a quorum of 140 members of the Iraqi Parliament passed a law allowing the formation of provincial confederacies, a move the Sunni Arabs had opposed. The law is a step toward a unified Shiite megaprovince in the south. The willingness of Shiite politician and cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiite bloc in Parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, to pass the law in the absence of the Sunni Arab delegates telegraphed the contempt in which Sunnis are held by the new national elite.

Politically speaking, with the bloodshed mounting, can the U.S. military stay in Iraq at its present levels for an additional four years? More than half the American public now considers the invasion a mistake. And some 80 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. to leave - some 120 parliamentarians signed a motion to that effect. What will happen if crowds come out in the tens of thousands across Iraq to demonstrate against further American occupation? At what point will Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual guide of the Iraqi Shiites, issue a decree or fatwa demanding an American departure?

The car bombings and other violence in Iraq are often blamed on the United States by angry Iraqi mobs. They view the growing sectarian violence as the result of an American attempt to divide and rule. Given what polls in Iraq are telling us about the unpopularity of U.S. troops in the country, given what public health experts are telling us about the inability of those troops to stem the growing tide of sectarian killings, and given the waning support for the whole Iraq enterprise among the American public, the rationale for keeping so many ground troops in Iraq has come increasingly into question. Whether they will remain in such numbers until 2010 is no longer a military decision. It is a political decision that will jointly be made by the United States and Iraq.
Nothing is easy here. We've stirred up a hornets nest. It was supposed to be easy - install Paul Wolfowitz's college buddy from the University of Chicago to create a pro-Western, pro-Israel Arab democracy and come on home. It turned out to be more complicated. There is certainly "some 'splainin' to do."

And now Brits want to bail. Britain's new Chief of the General Staff says it's time to leave Iraq, embarrassing Tony Blair no end, and he's not even retired, like our disgruntled generals. He's the equivalent of our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and we get this -
"Let's face it, the military campaign we fought in 2003, effectively kicked the door in." Sir Richard Dannatt added that any initial tolerance "has largely turned to intolerance. That is a fact."

Sir Richard, who took on his role in August, also said planning for what happened after the initial successful war military offensive was "poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."
Tony cannot keep his guys in line. Everything seems to be going in the weeds. Explaining it all away is going to be hard.

And the third element in the news, the evangelical Christian right rapidly bailing on the Republicans, is going to call for some really fine tap-dancing. Lucille Ball could do that when asked. Politicians should be able to do the equivalent, and the times are calling for that on this front too.

The devout folks won't read Steve Paulson's new interview with Richard Dawkins - The Flying Spaghetti Monster - "Why are we here on earth? To Richard Dawkins, that's a remarkably stupid question. In a heated interview, the famous biologist insists that religion is evil and God might as well be a children's fantasy."

They don't care about such things. (See this in these pages from August 2005 on this monster, with an illustration.)

They might care more about the new book by David Kuo, the man who worked as second in command in the president's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, documenting that Bush administration officials pretty much shined on the faithful for political gain, and behind their back called them "ridiculous," and "out of control" and just plain "goofy."

This has been covered on MSNBC, on the Keith Olbermann show "Countdown" of course. The producer, Jonathan Larsen, explains here, and you can watch the Olbermann segments if you wish, Wednesday, October 11 here and Thursday, October 12 here.

Andrew Sullivan here -
The use and abuse of religion is at the core of the corruption of the current Republican party. I know I've been saying this for a while now, but here's someone who knows it from the inside. David Kuo worked for the Bush administration's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives from 2001 to 2003. Like John DiIulio, he realized eventually that it was all about politics and using the faith of evangelicals to maintain the political power of Republicans.
Jonathan Larsen -
More seriously, Kuo alleges that then-White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman knowingly participated in a scheme to use the office, and taxpayer funds, to mount ostensibly 'nonpartisan' events that were, in reality, designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted races.

According to Kuo, "Ken loved the idea and gave us our marching orders." Among those marching orders, Kuo says, was Mehlman's mandate to conceal the true nature of the events.

Kuo quotes Mehlman as saying, "... [I]t can't come from the campaigns. That would make it look too political. It needs to come from the congressional offices. We'll take care of that by having our guys call the office [of faith-based initiatives] to request the visit."
Sullivan -
Memo to faithful evangelicals: you get entangled with Caesar and you'll regret it. Conflate politics with religion and you do mortal damage to both.
Digby says that's wrong. The whole thing us about money and power -
The glue that holds it together is the business of evangelism. Those followers who give their money to these churches and organizations that sell Republicanism as a religious brand might as well spend their money at WalMart. They're buying the same thing. It's tribal identity but it isn't religious and it isn't moral.

It's time everybody recognized that so we can deal with it honestly. These so-called religious leaders (and it's not just the national leadership, it's the whole hierarchy) are not dupes. Sure Rove and the rest call them nuts. But the leadership and the party know they are essential to each others' continued status, even if they spar over who's their daddy. The truth is that they are all elites who have the same goals - power.

The big losers are the followers who are being sold a cheap bill of goods by both the Christian Right leadership and the Republican Party. Maybe some day they'll wise up but it's a tall order. It means they have to lose faith in both their church and their party and I wonder how many of them have that in them. It would be a terrible disillusionment.

There's a vacuum to be filled in the evangelical leadership by preachers and leaders who eschew worldly, political power for its own sake. It remains to be seen if anyone steps up to claim it - and whether the sincere believers are not just "red team members" but true Christians who will reject the Elmer Gantrys who have been playing them for fools.
And this won't help - Karl Rove personally threatened Mark Foley, the congressman who likes sixteen-year-old teenage boys so much, when he tried to retire last year. He wanted out. They needed the seat. He stayed in.

But the Republicans want and need their religious base. And the religious base wants in on politics, which leads to this question, Damon Linker debating Ross Douthat on the matter -
Why is it not enough that the United States be a good and decent country among good and decent countries? Why is it not enough for you and other pious Christians to enjoy the freedom to worship and pray and proselytize in peace? Why, despite your own better judgment, do you so steadfastly resist seeking your salvation outside of politics? Why do you insist on identifying the fate of your soul with the fate of your country?

You may well be right that, at least at this moment in our nation's history, you have more of our fellow citizens on your side of this dispute than I have on mine. But that is precisely the problem - for American religion no less than America's politics.
They don't see it as a problem, and anyway, they hate them gay folks. And their guys in Washington, up until now, were on their side. Now it's all confused.

And the gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan sees the confusion -
The creepy predations of the closet-case Mark Foley may have some silver lining. They may force into the open a simple fact, reiterated by Tucker Carlson. Most Washington Republicans have no problems with openly gay people. Many of them have sons and daughters who are gay, including the epitome of conservative Republicanism, Dick Cheney. Dennis Hastert has gay staff. Rick Santorum had an openly gay staffer. They have no problems with gay people. And yet their party platform is vehemently opposed to treating gay people as equal citizens or as full members of their own families. This cognitive dissonance is only kept afloat by the closet, and the lies, euphemisms, and avoidance mechanisms that keep Republicans from facing this issue honestly. Maybe the revelation that Republican Capitol Hill is full of gay people may finally force them into a reckoning. The GOP has to respect gay people and grant us full equality, or they have to join the forces that regard us as anathema to stable society, a threat to the family and all potential child molesters. They cannot continue to have it both ways.

I know no better illustration of the contortions of the right than Jon Stewart's recent interview with Bill Bennett. I've always had civil relations with Bennett; and he has never shown any personal animus. But when I read his writing, it is filled with fear and loathing of gay people as an alleged threat to the very families we love and belong to. So which is it, Bill? The same goes with someone like Pat Buchanan, who has always treated me with great affection and respect. And yet, in print, he regards my commitment and love for my fiancé as a danger to civilization. At some point, these people are going to have to decide. And now is as good a time as any.
Yep, there's some 'splainin' to do" - on so many fronts.

Posted by Alan at 22:56 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006 06:32 PDT home

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