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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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Sunday, 29 October 2006
Hot Off the Virtual Press
Topic: Announcements
Hot Off the Virtual Press
Commentary will resume Monday. There's no Sunday night column. The world is much as it was Saturday, a day devoted to assembling the new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log. That is now online, and it seems to be Volume 4, Number 44 for the week of October 29, 2006. Click here to go there...

This week, SIX extended essays on current events - in detail and in depth - and a BONUS ITEM - a readers dialog on some current issues (and walls and bears and beer) with a cartoon from Ric Erickson, Our Man in Paris. SIX pages of startling Southern California photography, with two pages of Halloween shots (including some very odd graves of famous stars) - and the other pages are very arty, or something.

Ric Erickson, our man in Paris, sends photos and words - regarding that full-size Russian submarine sitting in the round pond at the Tuileries gardens - really, there's photographic proof! And there are the weekly diversions - handy (and cynical) quotes on how things really work, and the weekly dose of the weird from our friend in Texas.

Direct links to specific pages -

Extended Observations on Current Events ______________________________

Being in Charge - Leadership as Pathology
Stuck on Stupid (… sometimes slang terms actually do explain things)
Political Strategy - Going on the Offensive (… five political ploys)
Reassurance Offered - Explaining That Things Will Be Fine (… the presidential press conference, and much more)
Stepping Back - Notes on a Slow News Day (… trying to gain perspective)
Guessing the Future (… just what will be the surprise?)

A Diversion- An International Dialog Regarding Walls and Canadians and More

Southern California Photography ______________________________

A Feel for the Place - Graphic Design and More
Color Studies
Looking Rich - In the Land of Not Quite What It Seems
Halloween Images

Botanicals -
Halloween Blooms (at the graves of dead celebrities)
Dark Flowers (not exactly Baudelaire, but something of the sort)
The International Desk ______________________________

Our Man in Paris - Enough Foolishness (and what is that Russian submarine doing in the middle of Paris?)

Diversions ______________________________

Quotes for the Week: How Things Work
Weird, Bizarre and Unusual: Even More from Our Friend in Texas

Posted by Alan at 18:59 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 28 October 2006
Guessing the Future
Topic: The Media
Guessing the Future
October is just about over and there has been no October Surprise that would change the political equation regarding the upcoming midterm elections. This looks bad for the Republicans, although they do have a marvelous "get out the vote" operation, and there's this -
The races in Michigan exemplify the power of political and racial gerrymandering, which can make some incumbents feel safe even in a campaign year soured by the Iraq war, corruption scandals and pockets of economic misery. The contests show how drawing congressional district lines to protect incumbents makes it even harder for Democrats to pick up the 15 seats they need to capture control of the House.

"It is in doubt because state and national polls assume that Democrats are spread evenly among congressional districts instead of being packed into a few districts," said pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC-MRA in Lansing, Mich.

Republicans controlled the process of drawing new congressional lines in most states following the 2000 census, and they did a good packing Democrats into as few districts as possible, Sarpolus said. The GOP refers to it as their "firewall" against losing the majority.

"Everyone assumes that the number of seats available are the same as in 1994," said Sarpolus, referring to the election in which Republicans gained 52 seats, taking control of the House.

States are required to redraw the boundaries of congressional districts after every 10-year census to account for population changes. Some states, including Texas and Georgia, have done it mid-decade to capitalize on Republican takeovers of the state legislature.

Gerrymandering - the art of drawing odd-shaped legislative districts to favor the political party in power - has been around since the early 1800s, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry drew a politically friendly district that looked like a salamander.

Both parties do it in states where they control the line-drawing. When the parties share power, they sometimes get together to protect incumbents. But today's practitioners say new computer technology helps them draw favorable districts better than ever.

"It's more exact," said Kimball Brace of Election Data Services, a Washington company that specializes in drawing political boundaries.

As recently as 1970, district maps were drawn on paper. In the 1980s, Brace said he could use computers to generate about 10 different district scenarios for a state. After the 2000 census, he could generate 1,000 of them, using detailed socio-economic data and results from hundreds of elections in every precinct.
Isn't technology wonderful? And there are the new and easily hacked touch-screen voting machines being used almost everywhere for the first time now, that offer no paper trail and no way at all to audit results. So maybe an October Surprise wasn't really necessary.

There have been a few oddball reports floating around that various administration folks we happy when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon - that scares people good and, if you think about it, leaves no alternative but war for regime change. But North Korea messed up - the test seems to be a failure. Maybe there will be an early November Surprise - they get it right. That would be a help, as people vote Republican when they're frightened. The other possible surprise would be an all-out war to take out Iran's nuclear sites, and the infrastructure that supports the - road and bridges and all communication lines and such. But although we've moved two attack carrier groups off their coast for "exercises," launching the blitzkrieg with nuclear bunker-busters and all might prove counterproductive. No votes there.

So what can we expect? Perhaps this - The news cycle for Monday, Nov. 6th, the day before Election Day, will include the delivery of the verdict in Saddam Hussein's trial, originally set for October 16th. It was posted of course - the Sunday before the vote on Tuesday, November 7th.

As Bob Harris notes -
Which means the news cycle on Monday, November 6th, the day before the elections, will be filled with reports about the conviction of Saddam Hussein.

Of course, this can be dismissed as a complete coincidence. If you are a complete idiot.

The day before the nation goes to vote, the TV news reports are already baked in: Saddam found guilty! Which of course brings up the talking point: Hail Bush, vanquisher of evildoers! Because, y'know, we have such a free, independent, liberal media and all.

Not sure if it's gonna have all that much effect, given that Iraq isn't quite the winning issue it used to be. But still, seeing the "news" being manipulated like this so far in advance - wouldn't you think that would be the story, and not just the results of the manipulation?

I mean, the American media ain't the greatest adversarial force on the planet, but it's still the 53rd-most free press in the world, right there with Tonga, Croatia, and Botswana. Somebody at CNN must own a calendar.
That study is discussed here - we do rank fifty-third.

But why is that? Bill Montgomery, who made his reporting career covering economics, explains -
Forgive me for belaboring the obvious here. I'm obviously not the first guy to make the point that ignoring the truth is not the same thing as telling the truth (genuflects before pictures of Paul Krugman and Stephen Colbert) but where I might go beyond most liberal critics is in arguing that the "objectivity" convention itself is primarily a commercial arrangement, not a political one. And, like all arrangements in a dynamic capitalist economy, it has a finite lifecycle, one which may be nearing its end.

The mass media - the TV networks, the news weeklies, the large, national circulation newspapers like the New York Times - have been under enormous economic pressures for over a decade now, and those pressures are only getting worse. The mass market itself is being torn apart, into smaller and smaller niches. For most old media, the networks in particular, it's become a zero sum game. Just trying to hold the audiences they have is a losing battle. This loss of market power is one of the forces driving the trend towards consolidation (oligopoly). It's a defensive reaction in an industry that is getting more competitive, not less.

In this kind of environment, the old journalistic tradition - balancing partisan viewpoints across a relatively narrow, centrist ideological spectrum - becomes more and more problematic. So does the old "liberal bias," which could more accurately be described as a kind of cool, technocratic disdain for populist passions, which in this country since about the 1950s, has meant the populist right. The market for that kind of centrist pabulum is receding almost as quickly as David Broder's hairline.

Combine those commercial realities with the progressive polarization of the electorate (and the conservative reach for hegemonic power) and the old media have a serious problem: That which appeals to some bits and piece of the old mass audience may drive away other bits and pieces.

One strategy for dealing with this dilemma is simply to avoid controversy whenever possible, and try to persuade your loudest critics -- which again usually means the populist right -- that you're bending over backwards to be "balanced." That was the initial corporate reaction in the '80s and early '90s; in fact, you often got the feeling the networks wouldn't have minded getting out of the news business entirely, if their licenses would have allowed it.

But instead the rise of cable and its insatiable appetite for programming turned news into a profit center. It's cheap to produce, the scripts essentially write themselves and there are plenty of cross-selling opportunities (as ABC, Disney and Rush Limbaugh are busy proving). When it comes to filling air time, it's as cost effective as the reality shows, if not more so. If only the audiences didn't keep getting smaller, and older…

What finally appears to have dawned on old media is that trying to please everyone not only doesn't keep the critics off their backs, it doesn't help them hold their existing audience or build new ones. The geezers depart for Fox News, the 18-to-35 year olds get their news from the Daily Show. So hard choices have to be made: Which slices of the old mass audience should they try to hold, and which ones can they afford to alienate if that's the price for keeping the ones they want?

It's a triage operation, in other words - and to me it looks as if a conscious, corporate decision has been made to try to hold (or win back) the conservative "red state" audience even if it means losing the liberal "blue state" audience. Whether this is because the conservative audience is larger and more affluent, or because the strategists at Viacom, Disney, GE and Time Warner have decided that liberals are less likely to change channels when their ideological beliefs are offended, or because the more demographically desirable blue state audiences have long since "self selected" their way out of old media's reach all together, I don't know. But when Mark Halperin promises Bill O'Reilly he will feel his pain, or the CBS Evening News gives every conservative nut job in America a spot on "Free Speech," or NBC refuses to accept an ad for the Dixie Chicks because it disrepects Shrub, or Time puts Ann Coulter on the cover, I think they're making economic statements as much as journalistic ones.

You could say: To hell with old media, they're just a bunch of senile dinosaurs anyway, who cares who they pander to? But old media, for better or worse, still set the news agenda, and still dominate the political process. And they're doing an energetic, if not yet totally successful, job of sucking up new media and sticking them in the same corporate straight jacket. If they decide, as matter of cold capitalist calculation, that one-party Republican rule is the smart way to bet, that could also be come a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Maybe I'm wrong - I hope I am. But if I'm right, then there may come a time when progressives look back and sigh for the good old days when journalistic "objectivity" still encouraged the corporate media to give the truth and conservative propaganda equal weight, instead of simply repeating the latter.
In short, there's no economic advantage is reporting that the timing of the Saddam Hussein verdict looks a little suspicious. There's no market-segment for such reporting. Doing that hits no demographic with lots of disposable income. Oh well.

The vice president may have offered a late October Surprise, but that didn't work out that well -
WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House said Friday that Vice President Dick Cheney was not talking about a torture technique known as "water boarding" when he said dunking terrorism suspects in water during questioning was a "no-brainer."

Human rights groups complained that Cheney's comments amounted to an endorsement of water boarding, in which the victim believes he is about to drown.

President Bush, asked about Cheney's comments, said, "This country doesn't torture. We're not going to torture." He spoke at an Oval Office meeting Friday with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Earlier, White House press secretary Tony Snow denied that Cheney had endorsed water boarding.

"You know as a matter of common sense that the vice president of the United States is not going to be talking about water boarding. Never would, never does, never will," Snow said. "You think Dick Cheney's going to slip up on something like this? No, come on."

In an interview Tuesday with WDAY of Fargo, North Dakota, Cheney was asked if "a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives."

The vice president replied, "Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."
The political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow says this - "He was just talking about bobbing for apples. Damned liberals misinterpret everything."

This was not the October Surprise that helped at all. You can go to this video and watch White House Press Secretary Tony Snow tap-dance -
Q How can you really make that argument?

MR. SNOW: I'll tell you what he said. He was asked the question, "You dunk somebody's head in the water to save a life, is it a no-brainer?" And also, if you read the rest of the answer, he also - the Vice President, who earlier had also been asked about torture, he said, "We don't torture." Let me give you the no-brainers here. No-brainer number one is, we don't torture. No-brainer number two: We don't break the law, our own or international law. No-brainer number three: The Vice President doesn't give away questioning techniques. And number four, the administration does believe in legal questioning techniques of known killers whose questioning can, in fact, be used to save American lives. The Vice President says he was talking in general terms about a questioning program that is legal to save American lives, and he was not referring to water boarding.

Q Then how can you say that he's not referring to water boarding, when it was very clear, when you look at the whole context, not only that specific question -

MR. SNOW: Does the word -

Q - but the one before?

MR. SNOW: Did the word "water boarding" appear?

Q It came up in the context of talking about interrogation techniques and the entire debate that has been conducted in this country.

MR. SNOW: I understand that. I'll tell you what the Vice President said. You can push all you want, [he] wasn't referring to water boarding and would not talk about techniques.
Who need such things a week before the election?

And you can got to this video - Lynne Cheney on CNN's Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer ranting about liberal bias, and not actually answering any questions -
BLITZER: It made it sound - and there's been interpretation to this effect - that he was in effect confirming that the United States used this waterboarding, this technique that has been rejected by the international community that simulates a prisoner being drowned, if you will, and he was in effect, supposedly, confirming that the United States has been using that.

CHENEY: No, Wolf - that is a mighty house you're building on top of that mole hill there, a mighty mountain. This is complete distortion; he didn't say anything of the kind.

BLITZER: Because of the dunking of - you know, using the water and the dunking.

CHENEY: Well, you know, I understand your point. It's kind of the point of a lot of people right now, to try to distort the administration's position, and if you really want to talk about that, I watched the program on CNN last night, which I though - it's your 2006 voter program, which I thought was a terrible distortion of both the president and the vice president's position on many issues. It seemed almost straight out of Democratic talking points using phrasing like "domestic surveillance" when it's not domestic surveillance that anyone has talked about or ever done. It's surveillance of terrorists. It's people who have al Qaeda connections calling into the United States. So I think we're in the season of distortion, and this is just one more.

BLITZER: But there have been some cases where innocent people have been picked up, interrogated, held for long periods of time then simply said never mind, let go - they're let go.

CHENEY: Well, are you sure these people are innocent?
It goes on. She ends up sneering that CNN wants the United States to lose this war, and that's the real issue, not anything her husband said. Sigh. She must think that "53rd" ranking is far too high. Well, maybe the press should be one more weapon in the Great War. It would help with those ratings.

Reader "DK" over at Talking Pints Memo offers this -
We're darn near six years into this nonsense, but still the White House can beat the press corps like a drum. I'm referring to Cheney's comment that waterboarding detainees was a "no brainer," which the White House has managed to turn into a story about what Cheney really said or what he really meant by what he said.

There's no legitimate doubt about what Cheney said and what he meant. Cheney knows it. The President knows it. So do Tony Snow and the whole White House press corps. Yet we have this spectacularly silly dance - clever people being too clever by half: Snow and Cheney's staff cleverly parsing the interview, and the press cleverly trying to trip up the parsers.

The whole episode has been converted from a story about torture to another in the endless series of stories about the strange relationship between the press and this White House.

The Vice President's comments came in a radio interview on Tuesday. Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers was the first to report its significance in a story late Wednesday that was straightforward and direct, unburdened by the clever word games that would come later.

The Washington Post didn't run its first story on the interview until its Friday edition. Its follow-up piece today is headlined "Cheney Defends 'Dunk the Water' Comment." I don't know how denying he meant what he said constitutes defending his own comment, unless running fast and far in the opposite direction no longer constitutes a retreat. The story also describes what it calls "ambiguities in the waterboarding debate." The "debate" referred to is not about whether torture is moral or lawful, but whether Cheney actually meant waterboarding or merely a "dunk in the water."

The New York Times' first report on the interview didn't appear until today, in a story that deals almost exclusively with Snow's Friday press conference and the fallout associated with Cheney's remarks. It's a story about the White House "fending off" questions, as if the center of gravity in this historic departure from democratic norms were the White House press room instead of the dank corners of secret prisons or the solemn enclaves of our courts.

No thinking person believes Cheney was referring to anything other than waterboarding. The White House is unable to explain what else Cheney could have been referring to. Yet the leading papers are unable to cut through the malarkey.

I suppose the only thing we work harder at being in denial about than Cheney's comments is the fact that we have used waterboarding and other forms of torture. Every thinking person knows that to be true, too, and it shouldn't take Cheney's slip of the tongue to convince us.
In short - the press, as dysfunctional as it is, will keep the October surprises pro-Republican. Lynn Cheney really has no gripe. No one wants to rock the boat.

Oh, and on a minor note, there will be no report on the Mark Foley business before the election, even though all witnesses have now testified before the House Ethics Committee. The press gets of the hook on that one. They can report on the results - on just who ignored the odd fifty-two year old man hitting on sixteen-year-old male House pages so his seat would be safe - when no one can accuse them of being out to get the Republicans. That was a close call for the senior editors, who report to the bean counters. And December Surprises are meaningless, the kind of story the corporations who own the news services rather like.

And no one likes reporting on the war, in a broad way. As we see here, two critics warn that withdrawing from Iraq would "play into the hands of the jihadist terrorists" (Peter Bergen) and cause al-Qaeda to "rejoice" (Michael Scheuer).

You could report that. Or you could be even more logical, as Kevin Drim at the Washington Monthly is here -
That may be true. But what's missing here is what happens if we stay in Iraq: it will play into the hands of the jihadist terrorists and cause al-Qaeda to rejoice. This is the position that George Bush's blinkered view of national security has gotten us into: al-Qaeda improves its position no matter what happens. If we stay in Iraq, it's a substantive win because it helps recruiting and provides a cause for militant jihadists to rally around. If we leave, Osama & Co. will claim that they caused the mighty United States to leave with its tail between its legs.

So which is worse? A substantive victory for al-Qaeda or a round of theatrical, breast-beating propaganda videos on al-Jazeera? That's actually a harder question to answer than it seems, but it's still not that hard. If our foreign policy is focused primarily on the fear of what our enemies might say about us rather than on the substance of what's really happening, we're helpless. Al-Qaeda will always claim victory, after all.
No news outlet will report that, logically, we "lose" no matter which we do. That's a killer story, in the bad sense.

Ah well, the upcoming very late October Surprise, or early November Surprise, will probably be something else entirely. It wouldn't be a surprise otherwise.

Posted by Alan at 15:00 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 28 October 2006 15:03 PDT home

Friday, 27 October 2006
A Diversion - An International Dialog Regarding Walls and Canadians and More
Topic: Perspective
A Diversion - An International Dialog Regarding Walls and Canadians and More
Friday, October 27, 2006 - the site's email group has at it.

Apologies - I haven't read postings in more than a few days, so the two comments here are totally from left field - or redundancy dundancy, dept of redundancy dept dept...

ITEM ONE Yesterdays BIG signing on THE WALL - and I can't help but wonder - except for the very obvious (literal)... HOW is our wall different than the Berlin Wall? Haven't we spent my ENTIRE lifetime diametrically opposed to governments - on several continents - who made practice and policy of building walls? And wasn't the most recent removal of a national wall the crowning symbol of the largest larger-than-life Republican of the 20th Century? WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THIS COUNTRY? Election Day couldn't be closer!

ITEM TWO A real quickie - top of today's Wall Street Journal - top (center of 3) banner above the mast - nice color shot (biz news isn't drab anymore!) of Dub-ya draped in blue star fields behind each shoulder - his white shirt and red tie gloriously framing his most serious scowl of concern... with the large print quote... "If We Leave, They Will Follow Us Here?" I can only ask - "AND whose fault is THAT?"

Have a good Friday.
And you're in marketing?

As the camera slowly pans along the wall following the Minutemen, sort of like following Sara Hughes across the ice our wall, will have sponsors - Halliburton - Bechtel - General Dynamics - Lockheed.

Sure, they aren't as familiar as Pepsi and STP - but they are probably a better return on your investment
They aren't as familiar as Pepsi and STP but they are probably a better return on your investment?

Depends on how you define return - and if you factor in all the long term costs of your short term profiteering... eh? I may be in marketing, but I'm also into healthy economics!
But that wall business - my guess is the difference between the Berlin Wall and the Mexico wall is the Mexico wall is to keep people out of here and the Berlin wall was to keep people from getting out of East Germany. Western Germany didn't put up the wall to keep people from fleeing into West Germany, but the Russians put up the wall so they wouldn't lose their valued citizens desperate to leave. That's the way I remember it.
And that's what I mean by... besides the obvious... The REAL issue centers on governments that construct Walls... for ANY reason! List a good one - please!
A good one? The Vietnam War memorial in DC comes to mind.
I honor you sir with a GOOD reply! The noblest of causes...
The REAL issue centers on governments that construct Walls... for ANY reason? Like to keep Canadian bears out of the good old USA? What they got under all that fur, eh?
Canadian Bears - danger!
Rhymes with Canadian Beer? - Danger!
People who want better lives in the SW? - Danger!
Oh I forgot... that's how all of the shoulder fired weapons we sell get back in the country!

Let's see... When did France last build a wall?

Stop those Canadian Bears!
Yeah - but they play great hockey.
So THAT explains why I haven't seen any Canadian bears around Atlanta recently! Now I'm REALLY pissed! (Just another reason to vote Democratic on November 7th!)

And when did France last build a wall? That's right! The Maginot Line! To keep out the Nazis? (How'd that work out, by the way?)
It did keep out the Canadian bears.
Stop the walls!
Stop the bears!
Rhyme with beer!
We're either writing a new anthem... or fulfilling Arlo Guthrie's old line… Why three? Three's a whole damned conspiracy!

Rhymes with tree...

I like the anthem option!
Wave your freak flag high!

And all this on the 50th anniversary of the release of Alan Ginsberg's Howl. I too have seen "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." The other minds were destroyed by Canadian beer and Wal-Mart. Now back to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...
Bears, bears, bears
Comin' over the Wall
Beers, beers, beers
Up on the dang Wall
Lookit them bears
Drank that damn beer!
Up on the wall, wall, wall
Phooey! Shit! Akkah-cak!
Them beers, beers, beers
Ain't no good a-tall
Bears, bears, bears
Goin' back
Over the Wall
Them bears
Ain't coming here a-tall

Sy Louis Stevenson (d. 1857)
Do you think there is a reason none has ever heard of this guy?
"Canadian bear in search of beer about to be deported by starlight after crossing Wall on account of illegally lit French cigarette, banned in the United States because they don't contain any fire-retarding chemicals."

Actually this is not quite true. Canadians bears know perfectly well how to search for Canadian beers in Canada, where there are also nubile lady bears to guzzle with.

It is true that French cigarettes, the stinky ones, do not have fire-retarding chemicals in them. It makes them easier to smoke!
Canadian bear in search of beer about to be deported by starlight after crossing Wall on account of illegally lit French cigarette, banned in the United States because they don't contain any fire-retarding chemicals - cartoon by Ric Erikson, MetropoleParis












Illustration, Copyright © 2006 - Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

How times change. When I was on a canoe vacation in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, in 1958 and again in 1968, I was told we were not allowed to bring in American cigarettes because they used paper that was not flame retardant, as was required in the woods. We were, on the other hand, allowed to buy Canadian rolling papers that were soaked in the stuff, assuming we were willing to roll our own. It didn't matter so much to me, since I was not smoking on either of those trips.
What were we talking about?

Posted by Alan at 21:04 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 27 October 2006 21:18 PDT home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what you saw was not what you saw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MATTHEWS: Are we winning the war in Iraq?

SNOW: Yes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

No wonder folks are a bit unhappy with all this.

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

Sidney Blumenthal thinks not -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elections should be interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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