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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, 21 December 2006
The Voice of God
Topic: God and US

The Voice of God

For those of us who face Christmas in America with dread, or on a good day, when the shopping went well, with ironic skepticism, certain Christmas songs murmuring on the radio are appropriately dreadful. One of those is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Yeah, Judy Garland singing that in her husband's Meet Me in St Louis, from 1944. There was a war on and no one was coming home - unless in a box, or maimed, or mad. The song is one of hopeless hope, one of those "you'll never get what you want" things. It's about "muddling through somehow." What else are you going to do? It's a downer.

The other Christmas song that isn't exactly a downer, but similar, is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, from another war. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote the words and they were published in 1864. It was put to music shortly after. Each of these items were written, then, at the worst time in a long war. The "World of Christmas" link here tells us this of the Bells piece - "This hymn is full of despair as it was written during the stressful times of American civil war. One can sense it clearly in the next to last stanza. Stanzas 4 and 5 mention the battle times and are hence, often omitted from hymnals."

Of course those stanzas are dropped. Here's the full thing -
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll'd along th' unbroken song
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair, I bow'd my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song,
Of Peace on earth, good will to men."

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace on earth, good will to men."
Done right, even done by Frank Sinatra, that might bring tears to your eyes. We here on earth may have screwed up big time, but God is not dead, and he's not dozing off. The good guys will win and the Man in the Sky will make sure of that.

"The wrong shall fail, the right prevail" - but then what if His idea of just who is wrong and right doesn't match what we deeply believe? You have to have pretty big brass balls to tell everyone that you know for certain what God thinks about just who's right and who's wrong. The received text - the Bible - is ambiguous (all those slightly different versions of the creation, and only two somewhat contradictory accounts of the birth of Jesus). Some view the Bible as extraordinarily useful myth, others as the literal word of God - but the latter requires some fancy tap-dancing. Bishop Usher read the text carefully in the late nineteenth century. The world is no more than six thousand years old, and that's that. Take THAT, Charles Darwin and all you geologists. Nowhere is there any mention of gay marriage, nor is there anything much that would help with what to do about Saddam Hussein or the Social Security System. All that calls for a lot of inference.

But that never stopped the fire and brimstone crowd, or perhaps these days the "red state" crowd. We are God's people and the president has said he's doing God's work, as he believes God Speaks through him - "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."

This sort of thing - "I know what God thinks so what I do is right" - irritates some people no end. One of them is Eric Alterman, the NYU journalism professor and author, who offers this -
I was walking across Central Park on my way to Bible-study class around 8:30 Saturday morning - take that, Red States - thinking about God's role in history. Long story short: I think it's zip, nada, null set, etc. Why? Look at Ahmet Ertegun. What kind of God would have killed him BEFORE the Stones show at the Beacon, rather than after? OK, look at the Holocaust, Cambodia, AIDS in Africa, honor killings for Islamic homosexuals, George W. Bush being the leader of the most powerful nation in human history, half the world living on less than $2 a day ... etc. Is there any justice on this earth? The only possible answer can be: Not that any of us can figure out. And if God is just (and merciful) then clearly, he's not around, or not interested, or non-existent. I don't profess to know whether God exists - personally I think so, because I believe in a kind of intelligent design as the source of the order of the universe - but that is, I think, as far as it goes. What's the upshot of all this deep thinking? Just this: If someone, say, George W. Bush, tells me that he is doing something or has done something because God willed it, I'd tell him to fuck off. Nobody knows God's will or can explain why the universe operates the way it does if the spirit they follow is, in fact, a benevolent one. (And if it's not, well, then it should be resisted as forcefully as possible.) In any case, most of the people throughout history who claim to know God's will have tended to get a lot of the rest of us killed, burnt, raped, tortured, pillaged, thrown out of planes and the like. The crucial distinction in political culture in the world today is between God and the Enlightenment; that is imposed theology or reason. Bush, Osama, Pat Robertson, and Fidel Castro are all on one side of this argument. (Marxism/Leninism is an ideological form of "God.") Those of us who think for ourselves are on the other. I'm all in favor of "religion in politics." This is after all, a religious country, and the most popular religion - Christianity - happens to be on my side in most things. Just don't tell me you know what "God" thinks about anything. You don't. For all you know, he thinks you should go to hell.
Just a note - Alterman is not a Deist, he's proudly Jewish. He's just fed up with the "we know what God really thinks" people. They'd probably say it's resentful envy on his part. God just didn't choose to speak to him. He doesn't talk to New Yorkers, you know. God doesn't think much of that place, as we've all been told, repeatedly. (New York, and specifically central Manhattan, isn't mentioned in the Bible, but no matter.)

Alterman's readers elsewhere aren't hearing much from God either, or so notes Dave Richie in Birmingham, Alabama. Richie also heard no divine word -
Thanks so much for sharing your religious views. My, in such mine fields you choose to tread!

But, no, I don't believe He gives a flying whatever about our "history" nor does He play a significant role. He does not come down here (I think, down) and visit miracles upon us in violation of His own natural laws. The maladies we suffer we bring entirely upon ourselves, i.e., the election of Mr. Bush or the selection of John Kerry.

For Him to interject Himself in these processes would undermine the concepts of intellect and free will. We can neither blame Him for our predicaments nor credit Him with the solutions. It is for us to use His gifts to figure it out for ourselves.

The unholy right wing in this country has chosen to inject God into our public debate from time to time and it has cost them votes, including mine. I have had many of my friends come to call themselves "conservative democrats until these idiots get out of my bedroom!"

I believe you have nailed the lunatic right wing in this country. But, be careful. On the same page you claim "moral superiority." Too tempting to go there, was it not?

Appreciate your courage.

From the ever shrinking Red States, DR
So from deep in God's state this guys thinks God isn't dead, or sleeping - he's just expects us to grow up, and start thinking. Funny, that used to be the mainstream view - God gave us free will and moderately efficient minds. Perhaps, by default, He must have meant for us to use them. Why else would He set things up that way? Times have, obviously changed.

Another reader, Bill Dunlap, from Oswego, Oregon, notices something quite curious -
Speaking of God, Eric, isn't it telling that no one who claims to know God's will or hear God's voice ever hears the Almighty say, "No, no, no don't do that. For My sake, please don't do that."
That is a funny thing, and very convenient. God doesn't say such things? You'd think He might, now and then.

But a brief tangent is called for. Alterman mentions Ahmet Ertegun, and the reference may merit some explanation. Ertegun was the European-educated son of a Turkish diplomat and grew up in Washington. Ertegun died after being injured in a fall backstage before a Rolling Stones concert on October 29, just some weeks ago.

That may seem odd, but Jon Pareles explains it all in the International Herald Tribune with his appreciation, How Ertegun Shaped American Pop Scene -
The sheer improbability of Ahmet Ertegun's career makes it an all-American success story: the tale of an outsider, from Turkey no less, who loved African American music so much that he became a major force in pop history. Points of friction in American culture - class, ethnicity, race, religion - mostly provided him with sparks.

Ertegun, who died on Dec. 14 at 83, was an old-school music mogul, a self-invented character with the urge to start a record company. He was, by all accounts, a charmer: a man of wealth and taste who had stories to tell, a shrewd business sense and a keen appreciation of all sorts of pleasure. He wasn't a musician, but he had an ear for a hit, one that served him for half a century.

When Ertegun and a partner floated Atlantic Records in 1947 with a $10,000 loan from a dentist, it was one among many small independent labels trying to serve the taste of postwar America. But while the others had their handfuls of hit singles and disappeared, Atlantic kept growing. With Ertegun as chairman, the job he held until his death, it was a major label by the 1960s, the home of multimillion sellers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones in the 1970s and the core of the Warner Music conglomerate that continues to survive in the currently embattled recording business.

David Geffen, an entertainment mogul, said Friday that he had once asked Ertegun how to make money in the music business. Ertegun said he would demonstrate, got up from his chair, hunched over and shuffled slowly across the room. Geffen didn't understand, so Ertegun did it twice more. Finally he explained: "'If you're lucky, you bump into a genius, and a genius will make you rich in the music business,'" Geffen recalled. "Ahmet bumped into an awful lot of geniuses."
So Ertegun, who was born a Muslim, got down with black gospel and gave us Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, the Coasters, and Aretha Franklin, and then the Stones. He discovered and popularized them all. God works in very mysterious ways. And Ahmet Ertegun missed that last Stones concert at the Beacon. Go figure.

Well, we may never know what God is up to - we're just along for the ride, assuming He expects us to do our best to be decent to each other and as reasonable as we can manage, with the reason He nicely supplied us all, or supplied to most of us. But then, that is a very secular thing to say.

And secularism is bad - Bill O'Reilly says so all the time on Fox News in his rants about the "secular progressives" (he's taken to calling them the SP's) and their war on Christmas that, as far as anyone can tell, O'Reilly made up to keep his ratings high. No one has a big problem with Christmas. They just don't like to be shoved around by the God Squad telling them what to say and how to act. It's free country, damn it. If someone wants to say Happy Holidays to a Jewish friend, why is Bill O'Reilly on that person's case? What the big deal? And his ratings, while slipping, are just fine.

On a more scholarly note, Phillip Blond and Adrian Pabst sort of side with O'Reilly in their column The Problem with Secularism. You know it's scholarly because Phillip Blond is a senior lecturer in religion and philosophy at St. Martin's College, Lancaster (UK), and Adrian Pabst is a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies. This is not Fox News, people.

And what they're up to is this -
Geopolitically, the resurgence of religion is dangerous and spreading. From Islamic fundamentalism, American evangelism to Hindu nationalism, each creed demands total conformity and absolute submission to their own particular variant of God's revelation.

Common to virtually all versions of contemporary religious fanaticism is a claim to know divine intention directly, absolutely and unquestionably. As a result, many people demand a fresh liberal resistance to religious totalitarianism.

But it is important to realize that this reduction of a transcendent religion to confirmation of one's own personal beliefs represents an ersatz copy of liberal humanism. Long before religious fundamentalism, secular humanists reduced all objective codes to subjective assertion by making man the measure of all things and erasing God from nature.

This was a profoundly secular move: It simply denied natural knowledge of God and thereby eliminated theology from the sciences. Religion, stripped of rationality, became associated with a blind unmediated faith - precisely the mark of fanaticism. Thus religious fundamentalism constitutes an absence of religion that only true religion can correct.
Got it? Secular humanism is bad. It created fundamentalism, somehow or other. And fundamentalism is not really religion. It's a perversion of religion. What we need is to get religion back in the sciences, to mix them up again. Then everything will be just fine - that will cut the legs out from under both the nutty fundamentalists and arrogant scientists.

It's an interesting idea. And they back it up with this -
Darwinism is close to being completely rewritten. Hitherto, it had been assumed that forms of life are the product of essentially arbitrary processes, such that (as Stephen Jay Gould put it) if we ran evolution again life would look very different. However, evolution shows biological convergence. As Simon Conway Morris, a professor of biology at Cambridge University, has argued, evolution is not arbitrary: If it ran again, the world would look much as it already does.

Nor is natural selection now thought to be the main driver of biological change. Rather, life displays certain inherency, such that the beings that come about are a product of their own integral insistence. All of which means that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and theology. Indeed, evolution is no more arbitrary than God is deterministic. Similarly, in cosmology and physics the idea that the world was produced by chance has long been dismissed. The extreme precision of the gravitational constant that allows a universe like ours to exist requires an explanation. Rather than envisioning the world as an intended creation, secular physics posits infinite numbers of multiverses existing alongside our own. Thus, the sheer uniqueness of our universe is qualified by the existence of all other possible universes.

The trouble is that this supposition sounds more bizarre than religion. Moreover, to posit this paradigm leads to the Matrix hypothesis that we are actually only a virtual simulation run by other universes more powerful and real. So religion finds itself in the strange position of defending the real world against those who would make us merely virtual phenomena.

Philosophically, if one wants to defend the idea of objective moral truths, it appears ineluctably to require some sort of engagement with theology. For if there are universals out there, we need to explain why they care about us or indeed how we can know them at all. And if human beings do not make these truths, then it seems an account of the relationship between ultimate truths and human life can only be religious.
You can of course think long and hard about that passage. It comes down to "there's stuff we don't know and patterns we can't yet explain, so there must be a God." But here it is put in thick and academic terms, so it sounds quite impressive. This is quite impressive lipstick on the usual pig.

Their take-away - "In the new, post-secular world, religion cannot be eliminated and, properly figured, is in fact our best hope for a genuine alternative to the prevailing extremes."

In sports betting that is know as covering the spread. In the world of insurance you'd say they're inserting a "properly figured" stop-loss clause. But the "God people" won't like this and the scientists will shrug. No one is going there, this odd middle. But it certainly sounds impressive.

On the other hand, there is the operational. Mark C. Taylor, a religion and humanities professor at Williams College - the Cluett Professor of Humanities there and the author of Mystic Bones - has a few things to say. It's different in the pits - when you're teaching about religion. On the other hand, he was a close personal friend of Jacques Derrida. When Derrida died on October 8, 2004, the New York Times published a snarky obituary of that odd philosopher, and Taylor, outraged by it, and proceeded to write a "correct" obituary to the Times, which they published a few days later. He gets grumpy.

His matching column - both appear in the International Herald Tribune on December 21 - is about what happens when you even talk about all this -
More American college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching.

At first glance, the flourishing of religion on campuses seems to reverse trends long criticized by conservatives under the rubric of "political correctness." But, in truth, something else is occurring. Once again, right and left have become mirror images of each other; religious correctness is simply the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.

The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsche's analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)

My experience was not unique. Today, professors invite harassment or worse by including "unacceptable" books on their syllabuses or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students.

Distinguished scholars at several major U.S. universities have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.
And he tells his tales -
For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.
No one does doubt any more. It seems that doubt has become politically incorrect. The distinction between the study and the practice of religion gets all muddled. You now cannot talk about what it "is" or what roles it has and does play in cultures. You get in trouble.

Here's what he'd like -
Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life's unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.

The warning signs are clear: Unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.
Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not… Isn't that what Alterman was saying he had concluded walking across Central Park last Saturday?

What would God say about that? We're waiting for his word on the matter, so we can doubt it, as He would like.

Posted by Alan at 20:57 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006 06:16 PST home

Wednesday, 20 December 2006
Rethinking It All - Feckless Reassessments Portending Little Change
Topic: For policy wonks...

Rethinking It All - Feckless Reassessments Portending Little Change

Something is afoot - as Sherlock Holmes would say, "Come, Watson, the game is afoot."

Wednesday, December 20, brought the new issue of the National Review, one of the two journals where one goes to find what Cheney and the neoconservatives think we should think, and what this country really ought to be doing. The other journal is the Weekly Standard, but after Jon Stewart neatly eviscerated its editor, William Kristol, on The Daily Show, those folks may lie low for a bit. Its just no fun to be hung by the absurdity of what you've said is so turning out to be well beyond foolish. Reality and logic do seem to matter after all. They laughed at him. That's no fun.

National Review editor Rich Lowry knows better than to face the guys at Comedy Central. In fact, in a stunning about face from the smug and condescending "we're winning big in Iraq and everyone else is wrong" columns the one always finds in his journal, the new issue brings us this - "Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right - that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war."

What's gotten into Rich Lowry? This is very odd. These folks never say such things. The "pessimistic press" may have been right all along?

On the other hand, the National Review has a website, The Corner, where there's a running stream of analysis from their array of writers. One of them is Stanley Kurtz. He explains the real problem. They were duped. The mainstream media faked them out -
Conservative distrust of the media's very real bias has inclined us to dismiss reports about problems in Iraq that are real.

In the end, I think the media bears fundamental responsibility for this. Had they been less biased - had they reported acts of heroism and the many good things we have done in Iraq - I think conservatives would actually have taken their reporting of the problems in Iraq more seriously. In effect, the media's consistent liberal bias discredits even its valid reports.

... It's a terrible shame that we've come to the point where our ability to believe news reports hinges on a those rare cases where the record shows freedom from liberal bias. The media has discredited themselves, making it tough to take them seriously even when they are right, and that has hurt us all.
Stanley Kurtz should turn down all offers to appear on The Daily Show. His position - that the media's ridiculous and perhaps treasonous refusal to pay more attention to repainted schoolhouses and such things, and its single-minded focus on insurgent attacks, ethnic rivalries, collapsing infrastructure, ineffective government, and corrupt police forces - was the real problem. That single-minded focus on the bad stuff made us ignore them, so we missed the bad stuff, and how were we to know bad stuff was really happening? As "not our fault" arguments go, this one may be beyond parody, actually. Jon Stewart might have trouble with it. What can you say? Sometime the jokes just write themselves, but that doesn't make them good jokes.

And the spin continues. Robert Farley notes here a sudden flurry of conservative arguments that the real problem in Iraq is that our troops have been hamstrung by rules of engagement that are too strict - they have to worry about not killing civilians, particularly women and children, and its driving them crazy and means we'll lose this thing -
Why is this suddenly so popular? The argument carries a lot of wingnut water. First, it emphasizes that the problem in Iraq is that we've been too soft, and suggests that a more hard-line, brutal approach would put the natives in line. Second, it places implicit blame for the problem not on the people who actually designed the rules (the Army, Marine Corps, DOD, and the Bush Administration), but on those who we already know are soft and weak and don't care about American soldiers. Thus, the problem is defined as "Politically Correct Rules of Engagement", suggesting that the villains are likely liberals, Clintonistas, UN-niks, etc. Third, it allows wingnuts to express concern for the well being of the troops in the field, while ignoring the fact that the troops would be much, much safer if they weren't in Iraq, regardless of the ROE.
Where to begin? Brutality is best in dealing with angry insurgency is an approach that doesn't even rise to the level of needing a refutation. The appeal of such an approach is only visceral - it's lizard-brain stuff. But they just throw it out there. As Kevin Drum notes - "One way or another, conservatives are going to find a way to blame the Iraq disaster on liberals. I imagine they'll keep floating one theory after another until they finally find one that sticks." This one may not.

But the president has some ideas. Wednesday, December 20, he held a press conference to let us know what he'd been thinking about - a massive increase in the size of the military, which would take time, and perhaps sending thirty thousand more troop into Iraq, which wouldn't, as we'd keep folks there beyond their return rotation dates (many in their third rotation) and shuffle others around and speed up those in the pipeline. And by the way, "we're not winning" the war in Iraq. On the other hand, we're not losing either. So expect rough times and lots of casualties and he'll get back to us next month with the actual plan to assure victory, and he might even explain what victory in this case means.

The big news was his saying "we're not winning." A month ago he said we were, we surely were.

This may be a grammatical issue -
President Bush's tortured grasp of the English language is legendary, but I submit that during this morning's presser he actually provided an important clue to understanding what it is he's been saying about Iraq. He is speaking in a new tense that the rest of us have thus far failed to note the existence of: the fantasy tense.
The actual exchange went like this -
Q - Mr. President, less than two months ago at the end of one of the bloodiest months in the war, you said, "Absolutely we're winning." Yesterday you said, "We're not winning, we're not losing." Why did you drop your confident assertion about winning?

THE PRESIDENT: My comments - the first comment was done in this spirit: I believe that we're going to win; I believe that - and by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you got to know. We're going to succeed. My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted when I said it at the time, and that conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.
Ah. Garance Franke-Ruta explains this -
Bush could easily have used the future tense and said, "we will win." Or he could have used an imperative construction: "we must win." But he didn't. He used the present tense and now says that his use of the present tense should merely be understood to mean what "I wanted" and what "I believe that we're going to."

Thus, the present tense when used by Bush lacks its traditional meaning and should be understood, according to the president himself, only as an expression of his desires and beliefs. In short, he is speaking in something that must be understood as "the fantasy tense." The "I believe/I want/I hope this happens" aspect just happens to be implicit, making the tense sometimes hard to recognize.
Is that clear? It isn't? That may be the point.

And there's that other confusion about the recent midterm elections. The president said everyone was wrong about the results of that election. Sure, the Democrats won control of both the House and Senate, but that wasn't a rejection of the war at all - people were really saying they expected a victory, and wanted a change in policy that would give us that. They liked this war lots - they just thought the strategy should be adjusted a little, here and there. The press just foolishly read it the other way.

Steven Benan doesn't agree - "[T]he electorate just isn't where he thinks it is. 70% of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, not because people want a different strategy, but because Bush rejects the one strategy with majority support - get the troops out of Iraq." But he's not the president, is he?

And we have our clear objectives -
  • "We began the year with optimism after watching nearly 12 million Iraqis go to the polls to vote for a unity government and a free future. The enemies of liberty responded fiercely to this advance of freedom."
  • "And I want the enemy to understand that this is a tough task, but they can't run us out of the Middle East; that they can't intimidate America."
  • "What is going to happen is we're going to develop a strategy that helps the Iraqis achieve the objective that the 12 million people want them to achieve, which is a government that can - a country that can sustain itself, govern itself, defend itself."
  • "A free country that will serve as an ally in this war against extremists and radicals."
Or as Matthew Yglesias parses it -
  • We're in Iraq to build a democracy.
  • No, we're in Iraq to find a permanent base for US military forces in the Middle East or, at a minimum, to demonstrate resolve detached from specific policy goals.
  • No, we're in Iraq to build an internally stable government.
  • No, we're in Iraq to create a government that will take America's side in regional disputes.
And his conclusion -
Needless to say these are different and, in some ways, contradictory goals. This is why we're not winning in Iraq and never will. We don't have coherent objectives we're pursuing. And there is no set of objectives such that the objectives are both achievable and worth the cost of achieving them. The sane thing to do at this point is to set a goal of removing American troops from the killing zone quickly and then to start thinking and arguing about how, exactly, this can be done in a way that minimizes risks to the troops and the rest of the region.
But that wouldn't be winning, would it? No one has sufficiently defined what winning exactly is in this case. But we know what it isn't. Perhaps that will have to do.

John Dickerson, the political editor at SLATE, was bothered by something else that occurred to him regarding this press conference - What Has Bush Learned From His Mistakes? His answer is nothing -
At his press conference Wednesday, the president was asked what lessons he's learned after five years of war. He's been asked a version of this question many times since he had such trouble answering it in April 2004. He has tried various responses over the years and none has been satisfying. This morning's answer also fell short: "It is important for us to be successful going forward is to analyze that which went wrong, and clearly, one aspect of this war that has not gone right is the sectarian violence inside Baghdad." [Yes, the sentence structure is odd - AMP]

It is progress of a kind for the president to talk about the need to examine past failures - there was a time when he didn't even admit them - but the answer still failed. First, Bush didn't actually answer the question. He talked about what went wrong, but not what he learned. Second, Bush seemed to suggest that the sectarian violence in Iraq was unforeseen - not so much something that went wrong, but a surprise they didn't anticipate. But war planners did know the sectarian violence was coming. The State Department, Army War College, and CIA analysts all predicted that the Shi'a and Sunnis would go after each other (apparently they've been at it for a while). The president and his team ignored or discounted these assessments.

It's hardly surprising that the president didn't answer a question at a press conference. Bush regularly answers the wrong question at length to give the appearance of answering without actually doing so. He gives a response when what we want is an answer.
And we didn't get one. This is no surprise. He's a politician. What puzzles Dickerson is "why Bush is keeping up this avoidance act while at the same time trying to rebuild his trust with the country." By not answering this specific question, Dickerson says he is trading away "perhaps his only chance to get people to listen to him again."

And he shouldn't do that -
People don't trust the president on the war, and they don't approve of the job he's doing. They haven't for a long time. They think he's either lying to them or that he's out of it. The tricks he has offered to win them back to his strategy - from scaring the public about Democrats and their proposals, to hyping the consequences of not following his policies, to poking his finger in the air - have not worked. This is a problem for him, because in January he will give yet another Big Speech on Iraq. In it he will offer his new strategy for completing the mission.

But why will anyone listen to Bush's new approach?
Yep "fool me once"… no, watch the president saying it himself - "There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again."

Close enough, or as they say, close enough for government work.

But we are getting a double dose of spin so we let our guard down -
First, Bush's people are trying to show that the president is working really hard to find the new answer. He has ordered reviews at the State Department and Pentagon and held repeated meetings with military officials. He's also studying the Iraq Study Group plan (even though he has pretty much trashed its major recommendations). Second, the president and his aides are trying to show that he actually understands how grave the situation is in Iraq. On Tuesday, he told the Washington Post that America is not winning in Iraq, matching the candor for which his incoming secretary of defense was praised during his confirmation hearings.
But that is clearly not enough to turn things around. At best that is "only enough to keep people from thinking he's not delusional." It's not a plan. It's looking busy.

The recommendation -
To get people to buy into his solutions, the president has to put candor into his policy review. He has to prove that the new solutions weren't cooked up with the same broken process that cooked up the first batch of bad solutions. Which brings us back to the question of what lessons he's learned. He's been accused to living in a bubble, so who told him things during this round of meetings that he didn't want to hear? Whom did he seek out at the State Department that he would not have in the past? Who yelled at him? Who talked him out of a bad idea? What gut instinct that he trusted in the past has he learned to think twice about? He should answer the question about what he's learned from his mistakes, how he incorporated those lessons into his new policy process, and how the strategy he's put forward is the fruit of that new way of operating. That might - might - persuade some Americans to give him one more chance.
And pigs might - might - fly. Dickerson rightly points out that White House officials and Bush supporters "have always thought questions about mistakes and lessons learned are merely press attempts to make Bush whip himself in public." And they should get over it. That's unlikely. The January "new way forward" speech will just be another speech.

The game is not afoot, really.

Fred Kaplan offers an analysis of what is afoot. That would be "the hottest briefing in Washington these days," a fifty-six-page PowerPoint presentation, Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq. This is by Frederick Kagan, the military analyst of the American Enterprise Institute. The president thinks it's wonderful.

Fred Kaplan does not and explains why in The Urge to Surge -
It proposes "surging" 20,000 extra troops to secure Baghdad as a necessary and sufficient first step to securing and rebuilding the whole country.

It's being taken very seriously in White House and congressional quarters. I don't understand why, because it's not really a serious study. Numbers are grabbed out of thin air. Crucial points are asserted, not argued. Assumptions are based on crossed fingers, not evidence or analysis.

The upshot is that Kagan's surge involves more troops than the United States can readily mobilize and fewer troops than it needs for the kind of victory he has in mind.

He proposes a classic "clear and hold" method to secure the capital. Troops sweep into Baghdad's nastier neighborhoods and clear them of insurgents and other bad guys. Some troops stay behind to maintain security, while others move on to clear the next set of neighborhoods; some of those stay behind, while others move on; and so forth. Once Baghdad is stabilized, still more troops will pour into other troubled cities. Meanwhile, security allows reconstruction to proceed.
This is followed by a detailed analysis of why the numbers just don't work. They don't.

Consider this -
However they're counted, a lot of extra troops are necessary, because not only do they have to "clear" a neighborhood of bad guys, some have to stay there ("hold" the area) while others move on to clear the next neighborhood. (This was the problem at Tal Afar. The city was cleared, but then the troops were called to Baghdad, and the insurgents returned.)

In Kagan's plan, after Baghdad is secure, we have to go clear and hold the rest of Iraq. This means still more troops will be needed, beyond the initial surge, because the troops in Baghdad have to stay there.

Where will these troops come from? Kagan says that the Pentagon will have to expand the size of the Army and Marines by at least 30,000 a year over the next two years. However, according to some very high-ranking officers who deal firsthand with these sorts of issues, the Army can recruit, train, and equip only about 7,000 combat troops a year. This is a physical limit, constrained by the number of bases, trainers, supplies, and other elements of infrastructure.

Kagan writes, "The President must call for young Americans to volunteer to defend the nation in a time of crisis." Given the unpopularity of the president, and of this war, this seems unlikely. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when Bush was at peak popularity, and when the country was experiencing a surge of patriotism, Congress passed a bill expanding the size of the Army by 30,000 troops. Five years later, the Army has actually expanded by just 23,000 troops. It's still 7,000 troops short of that target. How does Kagan expect to attract 30,000 more in just one year, much less to do so two years in a row?

… if Kagan's advice is followed, the surged troops will have plenty on their hands. Kagan writes that they will have to fight the bad guys - and provide food, water, electricity, and other essential services. It's not as if they haven't been trying to do all that for the past three and a half years.

How long will the surged troops have to stay? Kagan writes that "the security situation" "improves within 18-24 months and we can begin going home." But given the way the numbers add up, this seems extremely unlikely. For one thing, they'll have to be replaced by Iraqi soldiers, but if all the American troops are engaged in counterinsurgency, who's training the Iraqis? Current administration policy calls for embedding U.S. advisers within Iraqi units. Kagan is opposed to that policy. He favors expanding U.S. units and having some Iraqi units tag along. He claims that those Iraqis will be trained "much more effectively" his way, "because they will be partnered with and fighting with our excellent soldiers."

This is simply wrongheaded. Indigenous soldiers are best trained by taking the lead in military operations. They gain most legitimacy in a counterinsurgency campaign if the local population sees them as being in charge, not as sitting quietly in the occupier's back seat.

One reassuring moment in President Bush's press conference today came when he said that if he did decide to surge more troops to Iraq, he would do so only if there were "a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops." Kagan's briefing doesn't spell out that mission, doesn't show it can be accomplished with more troops, at least not with the number of extra troops that are remotely available.
But this seems to be the plan. This is what we'll be told is January is just what we'll do. And that's what is really afoot.

Actually what's really afoot - enlarging our military, already larger than the next twenty militaries in the world, combined - is getting the empire thing right. Getting the number of Imperial Storm Troopers right, and in the right places at the right time, to fight the Rebel Alliance, is hard work when you have to operate in a pseudo-democracy with a somewhat free press and elections at awkward times and all the rest. No, wait. That was Star Wars, where the Rebel Alliance was the good guys - Luke Skywalker and Yoda and all. Things got switched around. How did that happen?

Posted by Alan at 22:03 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 20 December 2006 22:20 PST home

Tuesday, 19 December 2006
Surfing the Big Surge
Topic: Iraq

Surfing the Big Surge

When Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff became rich and famous did his friends start calling him Big Serge? Maybe so.

Be that as it may, we're in for the Big Surge. Tuesday, December 19, that became clear. As it was in Vietnam when things didn't go well, so it will be in Iraq. We will throw more troops at the problem. That seems certain in spite of the news that morning from the Washington Post. It seems the leadership of the military isn't okay with that -
The Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military.

... The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.

… Even the announcement of a time frame and mission - such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad - could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.
So the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously say don't do that. The idea of "surging" fifteen to thirty thousand additional troops into Iraq in a last ditch effort to stabilize the country just makes no sense. Kevin Drum here says the Joint Chiefs know that the White House is "just casting around for plausible-sounding ideas and has no real plan for how to use the additional soldiers." But that's wrong. There is a plan for how to use these soldiers. Their mission is saving face.

The Post item indicates the military's caution on shipping thousands of additional troops "temporarily" to Iraq is based on the obvious case that such a move could be useless without new political and economic steps - basically they question whether sending more troops to Iraq would feed a perception that the mess in Iraq is mainly a military problem. It isn't. They seem to be saying that in their view the mess in Iraq is largely political, fed by economic distress, among other issues. Fixing that sort of thing is not what they do. The president must have them confused with State, or economic development people.

But that's not the point. The war is a disaster - sold to a reluctant public on claims that to some were dubious and in the end turned out to be completely bogus. Then it stretched on, and Iraq seemed to skip the civil war thing and go straight to general anarchy - one almost expects one of the many militias there to be led by a blustering, mustachioed General Anarchy. This year, in a joint report, all nineteen of our intelligence agencies concluded the war had fueled terrorism around the world, not tamped it down, and rather than making us safer had done the opposite. Training the new Iraqi army and police to rise above sectarian and religious concerns and work together - Shi'a, Sunni and Kurd, side by side and smiling, building a new and inclusive and tolerant Iraq - might never really have been possible. Now it is just laughable. And we were told that happening was the only way we would ever leave - when they stand up, we stand down. That's clearly not going to happen, in the real world. Then the midterm elections seemed to be a slap in the face to the president and the administration on the whole matter. Both houses of congress changed hands - and those who control the fund and chair the committees are now going to ask a whole lot of questions. The Iraq Study Group said things are "dire" and things must change. Approval for the president's handing of the war is at twenty-one percent. The percent who think sending more troops is a good idea? That would be eleven percent.

The real point here is the president proving he was not wrong, and he'll show everyone he was not. He'll send tens of thousands more of our guys into the fight to show us all we can win this thing, and we're all dead wrong. He will not be told he's wrong. Of course there was the effort, announced with great fanfare last summer, Operation Together Forward II, to pour more troops into Baghdad, to stop all the nonsense there. That worked for a few weeks - then things got even worse. But it will work this time. He will not be told he's wrong. So he'll try again.

See Tariq Ali in the Guardian (UK) with The War is Already Lost -
Once a war goes badly wrong and its justifications are shown to be lies, to insist that a "democratic" Iraq is visible on the horizon and that "we must stay the course" becomes a total fantasy. What is to be done?

In the US a group of Foggy Bottom elders was wheeled in to prepare a report. This admitted what the whole world (Downing Street excepted) already knew: the occupation is a disaster and the situation gets more hellish every day. After US citizens voted accordingly in the mid-term elections, the White House sacrificed the Pentagon warlord, Donald Rumsfeld.

… the old men in Washington recognize the scale of the disaster. Their descriptions are strong, their prescriptions weak and pathetic: "We agree with the goal of US policy in Iraq, as stated by the president: an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself." Elsewhere they recommend a deal with Tehran and Damascus to preserve post-withdrawal stability, implying that Baghdad can never be independent again. It was left to a military realist, Lieutenant-General William Odom, to demand a complete withdrawal in the next few months, a view backed by Iraqis (Shi'a and Sunni) in successive polls. The occupation, Kofi Annan informs us, has created a much worse situation than under Saddam.

… None of the scenarios being canvassed in Washington, including by the Democrats, envisage a total US withdrawal. That is a defeat too unbearable to contemplate, but the war has already been lost, together with half a million Iraqi lives. Trying to delay the defeat (as in Vietnam) by sending in a "surge" of troops is unlikely to work.
But we're going that route. As for the views of the Joint Chiefs, Drum points out the obvious -
If the Chiefs stand their ground, it will be very difficult for Bush to buck them. But if he gives up on the surge, what possible alternative can he offer that even remotely seems like a serious change of direction? Rock, meet hard place.
But then reader DK at Talking Points Memo has it all figured out -
It hit me the other day that what the surge is going to accomplish for Bush and Cheney is to take them through these next two years. By the time they can claim to have the extra troops in Baghdad it's gonna be May or June. They'll be there a few months till everyone has to admit that it isn't working (though in the interim I would predict the first really horrendous event in which our troops suffer a big loss, like 200 men in one blast), then it will be the end of 2007 and the argument will be about whether we should remove some of the surge troops. That will take a few months, at least, and we'll be in the throes of a presidential election. Bush won't want to do anything too "political" at that point, of course, so he'll happily leave it to the new prez to make shitcakes out of shit. And Bush and Cheney will spin it for all it's worth for the rest of their lives...
Maybe so, and if so, what do the Joints Chief matter here?

The president's press secretary, Tony Snow, late of Fox News, later in the day said there really was no disagreement with the Joint Chiefs anyway - "The president has not made a decision on the way forward, and he has asked military commanders to consider a range of options and they are doing so." So everyone should relax.

And someone had been watching Fox News -
Fred Barnes just said that it's not true that the joint chiefs unanimously oppose an escalation of the war - it's that they are afraid Bush won't send enough troops to get the job done and that if it's a temporary escalation, the whole place will fall apart after we pull those troops back out.

He didn't think those were important differences of opinion, naturally, because he has once again cast his lot with Junior, but really, these are huge and serious concerns.

It's clear that Bush is listening to these armchair Napoleons because they are saying that he can "win" if he just sends in a few more troops for a few months and claps louder. And his generals are all saying that the only way he can "win" is with a massive new army that stays in Iraq forever. That is the reality based choice for "winning." Period. And it isn't going to happen because 70% of the country have wised up to the fact that this pony hunt is making the country less safe and it's costing us our future.
Well, it actually is -
The Defense Department has requested $99.7 billion more in emergency funding for Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism that, if approved, would bring war spending in fiscal 2007 to a record $170 billion.

The request is in a 17-page memo approved Dec. 7 by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England that is under review at the White House. About half the new money - $48 billion - would go to the Army, which says its costs have risen sharply as fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan drags on and more equipment is destroyed or damaged.

The request, added to the $70 billion that Congress approved in September, is 45 percent higher than the $117 billion in supplemental funding approved last year. It reflects an earlier England memo telling the services they could include expenses they considered related to the global war on terror even if not strictly to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Saving face is expensive. Lots of other things won't get funded - and big tax cuts for the wealthy don't help much either. But it's what we signed up for. The message to us is pretty much screw the Joints Chiefs, and screw public opinion, and screw the new congress that actually thinks they matter - the vote in 2004 was what it was. If you want change you'll have another shot at that in a few years. Until then the decider will decide - and you'll like it and shut up.

And at the end of the same day the Washington Post posted an item on their exclusive interview with the president - "President Bush said today that he plans to expand the size of the U.S. military to meet the challenges of a long-term global war against terrorists, a response to warnings that sustained deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the armed forces to near the breaking point."

This was just days after the Army's top general, Peter Schoomaker, warned that the service would "break" without more troops. So we'll fix that. The military commanders worry that the already "stretched" Army and Marine Corps would be even thinner once the now inevitable "short-term" surge ended? This has nothing to do with that. It will take years to add substantially to the size of the military. But you have to start somewhere. And Rumsfeld is really gone - he had laughed at any call to increase the size of the military, arguing that "technological advances and organizational changes" could give the Army and Marine Corps the extra capability it needed, when it needed that. That was his "transformation" crusade - technology-based "just in time" inventory control applied to the military. Oops. Maybe later.

Robert Burns, the Associated Press military writer, not the dead Scottish poet who messed up everyone's New Years Eve with that incomprehensible ditty, had a good roundup of this all, with these nuggets -
Rep. Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat who will become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee next month, echoed those sentiments Tuesday. "I'm convinced the Army and the Marines are near the breaking point," Skelton said, while expressing skepticism that a big troop surge would be worth the trouble.

… Even the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which advocated removing most combat troops by early 2008, said it could support a temporary increase if U.S. commanders believe it would be effective. Roughly one-third of the 140,000 American troops in Iraq are combat forces.

… The Army announced on Tuesday evening that it will accelerate the planned creation of two additional combat brigades as a means of relieving some of the strain on troops caused by repeated and increasingly frequent deployments to Iraq. Both brigades will be ready to join the rotations to Iraq by next April, 11 months ahead of schedule in the case of one brigade while 17 months ahead for the other.

… The American Enterprise Institute issued a report last week recommending a surge of seven Army brigades and Marine regiments starting next spring. A contributor to that report was retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who was the vice chief of staff at the time the Iraq war was launched in 2003.

… Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said Saturday that one option under consideration by the president is sending five or more additional combat brigades, which equates to roughly 20,000 or more troops. Conway did not say he opposes that proposal, but he emphasized the potential drawbacks.

"We would fully support, I think, as the Joint Chiefs, the idea of putting more troops into Iraq if there is a solid military reason for doing that, if there is something to be gained," he said. "We do not believe that just adding numbers for the sake of adding numbers - just thickening the mix - is necessarily the way to go."

The five or more extra brigades would, he said, be units already scheduled to go to Iraq in a later rotation. But he added that using those troops now would mean "a lesser capable" force in the future.

"You better make sure your timing is right," he said. "Because if you commit the reserve for something other than a decisive win or to stave off defeat, then you have essentially shot your bolt."

The Army's Schoomaker told reporters last week that a surge would make sense only under certain conditions. "We would not surge without a purpose," Schoomaker said. "And that purpose should be measurable."
But how do you measure the president regaining the respect of the nation and the world? That's what this seems to be about.

Oh, and add this to the mix - "The Defense Department is thinking about a major buildup of U.S. Navy forces in the Gulf as a show of force against Iran, a senior defense official said Tuesday."

More of the same - the world WILL respect us. The next two years are laid out for all to see.

But what about the midterm elections? Didn't they change things?

E. J. Dionne in the Post argues they changed the fundamentals -
It wasn't all that long ago that Democrats and liberals were said to be out of touch with "the real America," which was defined as encompassing the states that voted for President Bush in 2004, including the entire South. Democrats seemed to accept this definition of reality, and they struggled - often looking ridiculous in the process - to become fluent in NASCAR talk and to discuss religion with the inflections of a white Southern evangelicalism foreign to so many of them.

Now the conventional wisdom sees Republicans in danger of becoming merely a Southern regional party. Isn't it amazing how quickly the supposedly "real America" was transformed into a besieged conservative enclave out of touch with the rest of the country? Now religious moderates and liberals are speaking in their own tongues, and the free-thinking, down-to-earth citizens in the Rocky Mountain states are, in large numbers, fed up with right-wing ideology.

Only a few months ago, it was widely thought that accusing opponents of wanting to "cut and run" in Iraq would be enough to cast political enemies into an unpatriotic netherworld of wimps and "defeatocrats." Now the burden of proof is on those who claim that fighting in Iraq was a good idea and that the situation can be turned around.
Maybe the tables have turned. It's not just the Joint Chiefs. There's something in the air.

It may be the kids -
In 1984 three exit polls pegged Ronald Reagan's share of the ballots cast by Americans under 30 at between 57 and 60 percent. Reagan-style conservatism seemed fresh, optimistic and innovative. In 2006 voters under 30 gave 60 percent of their votes to Democratic House candidates, according to the shared media exit poll. Conservatism now looks old, tired and ineffectual.
Also note this -
Speaking as a political scientist.... Generally speaking, the "you get more conservative as you get older" myth really is a myth. People's ideological/partisan identification doesn't change much after the age of 30. If someone votes for the same party three times in a row, they're hooked for life. It takes some earth-shattering to change after that.

People don't get more conservative as they get older, but they do get more rigid. What happens is that ideology acts as an informational screen - people shield out stuff that is inconsistent with their predispositions (which is why FOX News works). So as we get older, our attitudes get reinforced.

So liberals should NOT get happy if people who are under 30 are on the left, because the young are very volatile. But after thirty, it's smooth sailing.
Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the ridiculously influential "Kos," adds it up -
The youth vote turned out heavily in favor of Kerry and Democrats this year. If we can hold them in 2008 - and it's critical that the Democratic Congress and our 2008 nominee speak to this demographic - then we've got ourselves a massive demographic advantage over the coming decades.

Couple that with the fact that Darwinian capitalism is under attack, the war is a mess, people are tiring of having Christian fundamentalist morality shoved down their throats, and conservatism is nothing but a cesspool of corruption, and we're seeing the seeds of a solid governing progressive majority emerging in the next few election cycles.
And Kevin Drum chimes in - "Preach it, brother. If the 2006 election did nothing else, I hope it convinced the chattering classes that Iowa is no more the 'real America' than California is. We'll see."

In the meantime, there's a war to escalate. There seems no way to stop that.

Posted by Alan at 21:42 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 20 December 2006 07:02 PST home

Monday, 18 December 2006
Dissent - Some Voices, Not Many
Topic: Dissent

Dissent - Some Voices, Not Many

Those of a certain age remember the antiwar protests of the late sixties and early seventies. The great unwashed took to the streets, and perhaps prolonged the war by offending a whole lot of people. Many might not have thought much of the mess in Vietnam, but they also weren't shaggy free-love peace-and-dope hippies, burning draft cards and bras and whatnot. The "vast silent majority" that Nixon claimed implicitly supported his policies - something about bombing the bad guys into submission, pouring in more troops, even into Cambodia, while secretly negotiating a winless exit in the Paris talks - were, as he said silent. Perhaps he misunderstood them. Perhaps the pushy young folk put them off, so they said nothing. Withholding comment is, however, not approval. Silence regarding the government's actions is not, necessarily, endorsement of those actions, or of the policies behind them. It's just silence.

Now, with the approval of the president's handling of the war at twenty-one percent, lower than any comparable time in the Vietnam days, we have the silence again. No one is in the streets, save for a few coalescing around the well-marginalized Cindy Sheehan. We all support the troops now, and have our won't-mar-the-paint magnets on our SUV's that say so. We have no problem with the guys who put it on the line for us, even if we think they're being used for a useless cause. The prospect of a super-stable and friendly secular free-market Iraqi democracy we've wedged by force of arms into the Middle East seems unlikely. We'll get something less than that, at best. That's not what we were originally told we were doing over there, and as it became the last plausible reason for whatever it is we're doing, the idea that this was ever considered a sensible and achievable goal has many rubbing their eyes. That was the plan? You guys thought you could do that, and also thought it would be cakewalk-easy and pay-for-itself cheap? Just who is smoking good shit these days? Radical, man!

But we have no protests. Only a few words of the old song apply - "There's something happening here - what it is ain't exactly clear." Forget the rest of the words. And anyway, the song was actually about the small Riot on Sunset Strip - Sunset and Laurel Canyon, just down the block - back in November 1966. Those days are long gone - Pandora's Box is now a bus stop.

Perhaps we're now into a different way of getting things changed. The midterm elections changed Congress. The Republicans who rubber-stamped anything the administration chose to do - for whatever reason or for no reason at all - were tossed out. The House is now firmly in the hands of the opposition, and the Senate barely so, with a key opposition senator in hospital recovering from brain surgery. Changing the lawmakers is probably more effective than thousands forming a circle around the Pentagon and trying to levitate it (October 21, 1967) - no chanting involved. And Rumsfeld is gone, so what's the urgency? And then too, a panel of "wise old men" (well, they were old), the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, commissioned by congress with administration approval, has declared the Iraq War is just not working - we need to change policy, strategy and tactics if we're to have any good come of it, and even if we do, it's an iffy proposition anyway. Better musty old James Baker says such things than some Abbie Hoffman. Levitating the Pentagon was Hoffman's idea, and those crazy days of long ago seem quaint, so to speak, like the Geneva Conventions, perhaps. We are more serious now, even if we are less whimsical.

But it is clear the president is doing everything he can to justify ignoring the seventy-nine recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. It's clear we're in for a major escalation - one last push, or surge, with twenty to fifty thousand more troops on the ground. This will be the "new way forward" - more of the same, with a new name. We don't have more troops, of course, so that means extending tours and accelerated deployment of troops now in the pipeline. Key generals are saying the military is just about broken, and even Colin Powell agrees, adding that it might also be nice if the "new" troops knew what their mission will be, as that is not clear at all.

Peter Baker in the Washington Post captures the dilemma, that "as Bush rethinks his strategy in Iraq and approaches one of the most fateful moments of his presidency, he confronts difficult questions: At what point does determination to a cause become self-defeating folly? Can he change direction in a meaningful way without sacrificing principle?"

Probably not. We "go big." That's how he thinks. We understand. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that sixty-six percent of Americans do not think Bush is willing to change his policies in Iraq. We all know that. Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Powell in Bush's first term - "I just don't believe that this president, with this vice president whispering in his ear every moment, is oriented to change. And even if he were, I don't believe his administration is capable of implementing change." Won't change, and even if these guys decided they would change, they can't. Done - game, set, match.

And there was what the president said in his year-end interview with People magazine -
I think it's been a very difficult year in Iraq - for our troops, for the families of the troops, for the Iraqi people. And it's been difficult for the American people, because success in Iraq has been slower coming than any of us would like. And so the task at hand now is to come up with a new way forward. I think most Americans fully understand the importance of success; they're wondering whether we have a plan to succeed. It's my job to listen to a lot of opinions and come up with a strategy that says we have a plan.
What? Yes, he said the real problem he faces is how, in the absence of a plan, to convince us all he has a plan. Admittedly, he is not good with words. He may have meant something else. But he literally said his job is to fool us all, to fake us out and make us believe there is a plan. Maybe he just means that there really is a plan, and he doesn't quite understand it, but knows it's his job to point to it when asked. In the same interview he's asked whether all the problems he faces bother him, and says you'd think he couldn't sleep at night with all that's going on, but he's been sleeping surprisingly well. He's cool.

Surreal and mind-bending protests in the streets are unnecessary. How to you top the president?

Still, people are uneasy with him. Christopher Caldwell, in the New York Times Magazine speaks to that -
Why have few such people risen to the defense of George Bush?

Here is a guess. The recent election feels like something more intimate than a personnel change. It feels like the beginnings of an escape from a twisted relationship.

… Why are opinions so personal when it comes to President Bush? Because he has frequently sought, like the child of the 1960s that he is, to blur the line between the personal and the political. Posing as an amiable guy rather than a partisan politician has great advantages in democratic power politics. Even if not all of them vote for you, most Americans want to believe that their president is a jolly good fellow. But when a politician makes likeability a substitute for authority, his opponents make hatred a substitute for opposition.
Hatred? Maybe so. Or perhaps there's monumental frustration with the man-child, the incurious "C+ Augustus" as some call him. He's going to massively escalate the war, but in a likeable way. This is Douglas Adams territory. How did it come to this?

Under the penname Pachacutec you'll find this -
Let me say this slowly. It's something I've never said before.

Bush is unfit for office. He's not my president.

Now, I've called him nuts, crazy, dangerous, said he should be censured over warrantless wiretapping, and so on. I've said he's paranoid and craven and callow and cowardly. I've said his 2000 election was undemocratic and probably illegitimate, in some fashion. Selected, then elected. And even with all that, I still mentally sustained a degree of deference to him, in some corner of my mind, as President of the United States.

I've never called for impeachment and I'm still not. I'm not raving or slamming my fingers down on my keyboard. I'm feeling very calm. I'm not trying to be funny, snarky, witty or anything else. I'm just grappling with the incredible hubris… words fail. "Irresponsibility" is too thin. What's the word? How does one characterize the absolute contempt this man has for human life, for the expressed will of the American people, who have completely repudiated his failed occupation of Iraq, now that he's indulging his fantasies of an escalation?

I think a lot of people in the mythical middle who thought he was basically a good guy who's been stubborn and wrong are coming to the realization that he's dangerous, almost to an inhuman degree. He's pissed all over the Baker-Hamilton charade which, for all its flaws, still helped cement the notion in the popular mind that to continue is to fail. And his response is to go in exactly the opposite direction all the world, including the American public, wants him to go? I knew he would do it; I'm not saying I was surprised. But the blunt reality of it staggers.

I know we all know this stuff, and I can't account for why this is hitting me the way it's hitting me now, for as long as I've been hammering at this worst president ever. But it is.
Note there's no "let's take it to the streets" talk here. This is resignation, not protest. In fact, the call is for something else entirely -
I'm not arguing for impeachment, not because I don't think he's been criminal, or even because he doesn't deserve it. I believe he does. But I want the Democrats during these next two years to begin to change things, pass some good legislation. They can't pursue impeachment and do all that stuff at once. Our home, our world, is on fire. Put out the fire first. We don't have time to impeach this horrible man.

I do want vigorous investigations, and I'm a real Waxman kind of guy. Leahy, Dorgan, Conyers, the whole gang. More, more, more. Why? Because we need to educate the public and find out just how much damage has been done to the Constitution so we can set about putting things right again.
So let's be practical. This isn't the sixties, after all.

At the same site you'll find Scarecrow -
The day that the Iraq Study Group released its much anticipated report detailing the "grave and deteriorating" conditions in Iraq and recommending the President change his course, the official barometer of public moods, NBC's Tim Russert, passionately sounded the alarms as the Baker/Hamilton/O'Connor intervention unfolded before the public, press, and Congress. It was as though the catastrophe of Iraq and the need for an extraordinary intervention had been revealed to us for the first time. It was another Walter Cronkite Viet Nam moment.

Over the next week, the media zeroed in on what they assumed was the relevant question: "Will the President listen?" It was an interesting question, revealing more about how far the centrist media lags behind than it was asking about the President. Initial analyses wondered how a President so desperately in need of a "graceful exit" could possibly ignore so clear a message from such a distinguished, centrist and bipartisan group of Americans.

The wrong question stayed on the media's minds for about a week, while many of us waited impatiently for that inevitable epiphany, best exemplified by ISG member Leon Panetta. Barely a week after the report's release, he expressed total surprise that the President didn't seem to be listening at all and never had any intention of changing his fundamental policies or the way he pursued them.

… What does it mean when a savvy and experienced Washington hand like Panetta, along with most of the media, is still surprised by all this? … At least now even the Beltway knows the answer to the wrong question, so perhaps it's time the media got to the more difficult and important question: "What should the country do when the President and his men continue to drive the bus into the Iraq ditch, but they ignore both the ISG report and the electorate's resounding message to start disengaging from Iraq?
That's a good question. But the press is consumed with the "when" of the matter. When will we hear what we all know will be more of the same - much more? The idea is that a better question is, since everyone knows what will be announced as our "new" policy, just what to do about it?

And the "it" is multifaceted -
The President's men are going to prosecute this war to the bitter end no matter what the cost in lives and treasure, no matter what the American people said in November and no matter what the media think or what the family intervention wants. Reality-based thinking needs to start from that premise.

This is not just about sending more troops to Iraq to be shot at by everyone the President's policies and macho posturing are antagonizing, which is getting to be just about everyone. As the New York Times Sunday editorial, Unfinished Business reminds us, this Administration is hell bent to continue staining America's honor through every egregious violation of the rule of law - warrantless spying, renditions, indefinite detention, denial of counsel and legal recourse, torture, phony Iraq trials - brought to light in the last three years, not to mention those we don't yet know about but are undoubtedly occurring. And it's not just Middle Eastern "unlawful combatants" who are subject to the most serious crimes, now sanctioned by the Military Commission's Act. Immigrants and US citizens and whistleblowers and relief agencies are also victims or targets.

This regime does not believe in America. They don't accept the principle that the authority of government flows from the consent of the people. They don't believe in America's core ideas of democracy, or the rule of law, checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, individual human dignity, or such quaint notions as pursuing negotiations instead of war. They are putting the security of everyone in the Middle East, friends and foe alike, in danger, and they're starting to bring the war home.

So what do we do now? Nothing is going to stop these people from continuing what they're doing, and more of it, except removing them from office (or seriously threatening to do so). We need to begin asking questions about how we bring that about.
That's a little more like to old days. It's not a call for impeachment, exactly, but a call to start thinking about how to do it. We live in an age when being practical matters. Everyone knows you cannot levitate the Pentagon. You do what you can - although impeachment may be nearly as impossible. But it is, at least, theoretically possible.

But why do it? Christy Hardin Smith has her reasons -
The Bush Administration has managed to do in six short years what more than two hundred years of our nation's history had not done: un-do the notion of American commitment to human rights, the rule of law, and to freedom and justice. All with a series of decisions, one piling up on top of the other - with no check, no balance, no oversight, simply one rubber stamp after another for the last six years from the Republicans in Congress who cared more about their hold on personal power than they did about their oath to uphold and protect the Constitution.
And what set her off, in this case, is this -
Detainee 200343 was among thousands of people who have been held and released by the American military in Iraq, and his account of his ordeal has provided one of the few detailed views of the Pentagon's detention operations since the abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib. Yet in many respects his case is unusual.

The detainee was Donald Vance, a 29-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago who went to Iraq as a security contractor. He wound up as a whistle-blower, passing information to the FBI about suspicious activities at the Iraqi security firm where he worked, including what he said was possible illegal weapons trading.

But when American soldiers raided the company at his urging, Mr. Vance and another American who worked there were detained as suspects by the military, which was unaware that Mr. Vance was an informer, according to officials and military documents.

At Camp Cropper, he took notes on his imprisonment and smuggled them out in a Bible.

… Nathan Ertel, the American held with Mr. Vance, brought away military records that shed further light on the detention camp and its secretive tribunals. Those records include a legal memorandum explicitly denying detainees the right to a lawyer at detention hearings to determine whether they should be released or held indefinitely, perhaps for prosecution.

The story told through those records and interviews illuminates the haphazard system of detention and prosecution that has evolved in Iraq, where detainees are often held for long periods without charges or legal representation, and where the authorities struggle to sort through the endless stream of detainees to identify those who pose real threats.
Vance continued to be held, badly treated, and denied access to a lawyer for more than two months after the FBI had already told the military that he was the whistleblower in the case. He was one of the good guys. But there's a kind of momentum here.

Before his release, his "captors" seemed quite interested in whether he intended to complain afterwards. He's suing. The Pentagon continues to deny that it did anything wrong. Of course the Justice Department will press for his lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld to be dismissed, and will probably prevail. Rumsfeld is gone.

Should people rise up in protest when a citizen, and Navy veteran, is held, under the terms of a legal memorandum explicitly denying him the right to a lawyer at detention hearings to determine whether he should be released or held indefinitely? Maybe so, but this story will sink with all the rest. The days of protest are over.

Just a reminder of the days of protest - Jon Wiener is author of Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, University of California Press, January 21, 2000, and served as historical consultant on the 2006 documentary The US v John Lennon. In the Tuesday, December 19, Guardian (UK), he offers some perspective -
When the Dixie Chicks told an audience in London in 2003 that "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas", they set off a political storm in the US that echoed the treatment meted out to John Lennon 30 years earlier. They were talking about the Iraq war, while Lennon had been campaigning against the Vietnam War.

The Dixie Chicks got in trouble with rightwing talk radio. Boycotts followed, and lead singer Natalie Maines ended up publicly apologizing to President Bush.

What happened to Lennon was of course worse. The turning point for the Beatles came with their 1966 US tour, when they first publicly criticized the war in Vietnam. As the decade wore on, Lennon was the target of increasingly aggressive media ridicule, especially when he began experimenting with new forms of political protest - such as declaring his honeymoon with Yoko Ono a "bed-in for peace."

In the next couple of years, establishment hostility turned nastier on both sides of the Atlantic, as the former Beatle embraced more serious radicalism, making common cause with Tariq Ali (then editor of the Marxist Red Mole). In 1971, Lennon joined a march in London against internment without trial in Northern Ireland and helped fund the republican cause. By the time he left for New York that autumn, the knives were out.
So in the late sixties Lennon had been busted for cannabis possession, claimed it had been planted by the police, but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. Within months of his joining the anti-war movement here and publicly attacking President Nixon, the administration responded with deportation proceedings. That was in the courts for years.

The context -
What exactly had Lennon done? It wasn't just singing Give Peace a Chance - it was when and where he sang it; 1972 was an election year, Nixon was running for re-election and the Vietnam War was the key issue. Lennon was talking to anti-war leaders about doing a tour that would combine rock music with anti-war organizing and voter registration. That was the key, because it was the first year 18-year-olds had been given the right to vote. Young voters were assumed to be anti-war, but also known to be the least likely of all age groups to vote. Lennon and his friends hoped to do something about that. Nixon found out about the former Beatle's plans, and the deportation order followed.

The threat was effective. Lennon's lawyers told him to cool it and the tour never took place. Nixon won in a landslide, and the war in Vietnam went on for three more blood-soaked years. Lennon spent the next couple of years facing a 60-day order to leave the country, which his lawyers kept getting postponed.
Ah, those were the days.

And this assessment -
In some ways Lennon was naive. When he moved to New York, he thought he was coming to the land of the free. He had little idea of the power of the state to come down on those it regarded as enemies. His claim that the FBI had him under surveillance was rejected as the fantasy of an egomaniac, but 300 pages of FBI files, released under freedom of information after his murder, show he was right. The FBI is still withholding 10 documents - which we hope will finally be released today - on the grounds that they contain "national security information provided by a foreign government": almost certainly MI5 documents on Lennon's radical days in London.

Lennon never apologized to the president. He fought back in court to overturn the deportation order. But in the year after Nixon's re-election, Lennon's personal life fell apart and his music deteriorated. In the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace after Watergate, and Lennon stayed in the US.
And then he was shot dead. On the other hand, in 2004 a group of activist musicians organized an election-year concert tour of battleground states "with a strategy very much like Lennon's." Headlining the Vote for Change tour were the Dixie Chicks.

What were they thinking? The days of protest are over. We live in different times. Time magazine's annual "Person of the Year" issue hit newsstands Monday, December 18, with its odd choice - YOU. But the "you" in this case is any content creator on the Internet. That must be where the protest is these days - along with the personal silliness of MySpace and all the blogs about cooking and old trains and breeding cocker spaniels. Everything got all personal, and diffused.

Well, you use the forum you have. Or you got to war with the medium you have, not the one you want. Who wants to levitate the Pentagon anyway?

Posted by Alan at 22:30 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 19 December 2006 07:30 PST home

Sunday, 17 December 2006
Topic: Announcements


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

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

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

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

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

Now it's time to relax.

Homer Simpson phone for sale on Hollywood Boulevard

Posted by Alan at 20:41 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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