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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, 28 December 2006
From Beyond the Grave - No More Mister Nice Guy
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

From Beyond the Grave - No More Mister Nice Guy

Bob Woodward is a wonder - the ultimate insider journalist, keeping secrets, even from his bosses at the Washington Post where he is one of the assistant managing editors. And he knows how to promote himself - holding the identity of his famous Watergate source, Deep Throat, close all those years, creating a minor "guessing" industry that kept his own name out there. And he was the first to know who spilled the beans in the CIA leak case - it was Richard Armitage who spoke to him first, and Woodward knew it all along. And he breaks stories in the Post not when they have news value, but only as his latest book is about to be released. That has, reportedly, irritated the top folks at the Post, but what can you do with the ultimate insider? You really wouldn't fire him. He's the franchise, as they say in the sports world. You don't dump Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle - you just get a new manager.

And the Wednesday after Christmas, Woodward was at it again - being the star. Just a few days after the death of Gerald Ford, in the midst of all the nice things people were saying about the former president, Woodward dropped the bomb. He had interviewed Ford in 2004 and has that on tape, and has notes from the subsequent long one-on-one discussion with Ford that followed the interview - notes for his new book. His write-up of all that is here, and you can listen to the key parts of the interview here.

The bomb, so to speak, is that Ford disagreed with the Iraq War thing entirely - he would have never gone to war but done what the French had suggested, continued inspections, revamped the sanctions and just contained that Saddam guy, as that was working just fine - and Ford thought the "WMD justification" used to make the case for war was just a dumb idea. And even worse was the fall-back "spreading democracy through military action" justification. The guys who worked for him - Cheney and Rumsfeld - had somehow gone off some deep end or other.

Of course the deal was that Woodward had to promise not to release any of this until Ford had died, and you also have to understand Ford never did the retired and wise politician thing, never offering any opinions on much of anything at all. He did the retired Republican nobody-special golfer thing instead. He had walked away from all that political stuff, unlike Nixon and Carter and Clinton. He had nothing to say.

But it seems he did think about things, and Woodward got him to open up -
"Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction," Ford said. "And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do."

… "Well, I can understand the theory of wanting to free people," Ford said, referring to Bush's assertion that the United States has a "duty to free people." But the former president said he was skeptical "whether you can detach that from the obligation number one, of what's in our national interest." He added: "And I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security."
Ah, sensible to the last… but of course that drew the wrath of the defenders of the current president. They had said all these nice things about the now quite dead Gerald Ford, and Ford stabbed them all in the back from beyond the grave. No fair! Just as you should never get involved with a widow - there's no competing with the dead husband who is progressively more of a prince and hunk and the years go by - how do you attack a dead president, especially one who most everyone saw as a sensible nice guy who calmed things down and made things better?

William "Bill" Bennett, the man who says his massive gambling habit is none your business and you have to read his Book of Virtues and shape up yourself, gives it a try -
Since "decency" seems to be the watchword of the day and the consensus modifier for Jerry Ford (a view with which I generally concur), may I nevertheless be permitted to ask this: just how decent, how courageous, is what Jerry Ford did with Bob Woodward? He slams Bush and Cheney to Woodward in 2004, but asks Woodward not to print the interview until he's dead. If he felt so strongly about his words having a derogatory affect, how about telling Woodward not to run the interview until after Bush and Cheney are out of office?

The effect of what Ford did is to protect himself, ensuring he can't be asked by others about his critiques, ensuring that there can be no dialogue. The way Ford does it with Woodward, he doesn't have to defend himself... he simply drops it into Bob Woodward's tape recorder and let's the bomb go off when fully out of range, himself. This is not courage, this is not decent.
So in the end, Ford was just a coward. He wasn't a real man, a manly man.

But here's another view -
I have a problem with an embargo of this type, but I don't think this is an issue of Ford's cowardice. Rather, this simply raises once again the question of Bob Woodward's ethics. While listed in the byline of the piece Bennett describes as a "Washington Post Staff Writer," Woodward is, in fact, an assistant managing editor at the newspaper. If Woodward agreed to keep something from his paper for the purposes of a future book, then what good is he to the Post any longer? Shouldn't the paper use his salary to hire three young go-getters to find the next Watergate scandal and let Woodward write his books full time?
But at Daily Kos you'll find the real issue -
Here's the thing: Bennett's beef is that Ford's embargo means there can now be no "dialogue" regarding his views on the war.

I beg your pardon, but I think that was a problem long before Ford's comments became known. In fact, Ford's comments were embargoed precisely because it was already impossible to have an honest dialogue about opposition to the war in this country before he ever made them.

What does it say about the American political climate when a Republican ex-president - a 90+ year old man, by the way, who hasn't been moving in DC circles for years - feels intimidated in expressing his views on the biggest and most important issue of the day?

Yes, there's a tradition of ex-presidents holding their tongues. And yes, Bennett is astute enough to recognize that the terms of Ford's embargo are very pointedly not aimed at preserving that tradition. But if that wasn't the point of the embargo, then what was it? Clearly if it wasn't just outright fear, it was at least Ford's anticipation - and one that's obviously quite correct given this "administration's" track record - of the headache of harassment and smearing he'd be in for, for daring to express his doubts and opposition.

Besides, when has the lack of genuine dialogue ever stopped Gamblin' Bill (or any of the rest of his gang of bullies) from simply putting words in the mouths of their opposition - living or dead - and then stomping on that strawman?

So please, let's not bemoan the lack of dialogue now that you've beaten even our leading citizens into submission.

Have you no decency?
Some questions just answer themselves, don't they? And sometimes it is better to just play another eighteen holes of golf, rather than have the Swift Boat guys, on instructions from Karl Rove, go after you and your family. Ford wasn't "beaten into submission" as much as he was just being realistic. Who needs that grief? There's more to life than smash-mouth politics. It's too bad that Max Cleland can't play golf, for obvious reasons.

Former arch-conservative John Cole sums it up - "The reason Ford did not speak out is because all of the aforementioned blowhards would have savaged him for not keeping his opinions to himself, as former President's are 'supposed to do.' I think we can all agree that had Ford come out against the war, these same knuckleheads would have called him Jimmy Carter Ford or the like."

The best way to deal with knuckleheads is to ignore them - then get them good when their fighting back just makes them look like whining idiots.

But the knuckleheads were not that concerned with the words of the dead man. Thursday, December 28, the president - the "decider" as his calls himself - met with all sorts of folks down at the Crawford ranch for a "non-decisional" meeting on this "new way forward" in Iraq. "Non-decisional" meetings may be a Texas thing, but the nature of the meeting was given us all in the previous day's press briefing -
In terms of the decision-making process, as we've indicated before, this is a time for the President to be talking with his advisors about all the potential options, making sure that due consideration is given to the next steps, making sure that we're thinking through the new way forward in Iraq, to take into account all of the differing views.
Oh. It's not exactly fiddling while Rome burns. It's just being very, very careful - but isn't that an implicit admission not much of this was done before we invaded Iraq? Are they telling us better late than never? The adage for carpenters and woodworkers is measure twice, cut once - otherwise you mess up and waste your resources. They never heard of that old saying? Everyone has heard that. But then that's not a "bold" way of building anything.

But now we have these "non-decisional" meetings - measuring things that should have been measured four years ago - pretending that we haven't already decided to escalate this war. What other option is there?

Matthew Yglesias puts it nicely -
Roughly speaking, the fixed point of the president's thinking is an unwillingness to admit that the venture has failed. For a long time the best way to do that was to simply deny that there was a problem. Political strategy for the midterms, however, dictated that the president had to acknowledge the public's concerns about the war and concede that things weren't going well. At that point, simply staying the course doesn't work anymore. But de-escalating would be an admission of failure, so the only option is to choose escalation. Thus, the idea of an escalation starts getting pushed and we start reading things in the paper like "Top military officials have said that they are open to sending more U.S. troops to Iraq if there is a specific strategic mission for them." Consider the process here. It's not that the president has some policy initiative in mind whose operational requirements dictate a surge in force levels. Rather, locked in the prison of his own denial he came to the conclusion that he should back an escalation, prompting the current search for a mission.
So we can expect a "new mission" - as if we want to hear a new justification for it all. We're preventing gay marriages in Iraq? Who knows what it will be?

Josh Marshall adds this -
This is also a good example of how paradoxical or even bizarre "answers" often emerge from political problems. No actual policy or strategic imperative is driving the move to escalate the conflict in Iraq. The real causes are political and psychological.

To put it simply, the presidential is neither psychologically nor politically capable of leaving Iraq. The 2006 election made it clear the current course can't be sustained politically. Even his own party won't back it. That leaves escalation as the only alternative. All that's left is a rationale for doing so. And that's what the president is now working on.

That doesn't mean that in theory there couldn't be a good argument for escalation, only that whatever it is, it has nothing to do with why the president is in favor of escalation. Because if it did he would have called for it at some point over the last three years. And he didn't. All that's changed is that option two of three - stasis - was removed from the list of options. End of story.
So that's the big question. Why now? You escalate now because you don't want to look like a loser - better late than never. It's a legacy thing, and a matter of personal pride, or at least a matter of avoiding crushing shame. Others will simply have to die to avoid that. That may trouble the president deeply, actually, but he no doubt sees no other option.

But who really opposes adding fifty to a hundred thousand more troops for two years or more, as the current thinking seems to be running, as half-measures do more harm than good? Well, there's the public, and there's the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and reports the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates has real concerns about the idea. Gates did go to Iraq and find soldiers on the ground who said they'd like reinforcements. That might mean something. On the other hand, the Associated Press kind of called Gates on that and did their own interviews -
Many of the American soldiers trying to quell sectarian killings in Baghdad don't appear to be looking for reinforcements. They say the temporary surge in troop levels some people are calling for is a bad idea.

President Bush is considering increasing the number of troops in Iraq and embedding more U.S. advisers in Iraqi units. White House advisers have indicated Bush will announce his new plan for the war before his State of the Union address Jan. 23.

In dozens of interviews with soldiers of the Army's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment as they patrolled the streets of eastern Baghdad, many said the Iraqi capital is embroiled in civil warfare between majority Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs that no number of American troops can stop.
Spc. Don Roberts told AP, "I don't know what could help at this point. ... What would more guys do? We can't pick sides. It's almost like we have to watch them kill each other, then ask questions."

Sgt. Josh Keim, who is on his second tour in Iraq, said, "Nothing's going to help. It's a religious war, and we're caught in the middle of it. It's hard to be somewhere where there's no mission and we just drive around."

Sgt. Justin Thompson added that a troop surge is "not going to stop the hatred between Shia and Sunni." Thompson, whose four-year contract was involuntarily extended in June, added, "This is a civil war, and we're just making things worse. We're losing. I'm not afraid to say it."

Steve Benen puts this in perspective -
Now, these are comments from one battalion, not a poll with a random sample, so it's difficult to say with any certainty that "the troops are against escalation plans."

That said, two quick points. One, kudos to the AP for going straight to the source and getting so many soldiers' perspective. Two, how, exactly, do supporters of the war dismiss the opinions of the Army's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, patrolling the streets of Baghdad? Cut-and-runners? Defeatocrats? Surrender monkeys?
Just call them tired. Gates and the Associated Press should leave them be. They've got work to do. There may be no clear mission and they're just driving around, but they do their job. And soon we'll have double the numbers, with no clear mission, just driving around.

And Gerald Ford is on the big golf course in the sky, working out the next wedge shot to the green, a little sad, but finally away from it all.

Posted by Alan at 21:29 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 28 December 2006 21:41 PST home

Wednesday, 27 December 2006
Noted in Passing
Topic: Perspective

Noted in Passing

It's time for another assessment. Over Christmas weekend former president Gerald Ford passed away, at his home out here in Rancho Mirage, the wealthy golf course enclave next to Palm Springs. He was ninety-three and he did like golf. Those of us old enough to remember the day-to-day of his tenure in the White House recall the only appointed president - he replaced the crook Spiro Agnew, the man who pled no contest on some bribery matters and faded way to his place on the hill in Saint Croix in the Virgin Island overlooking Cane Bay. Ford became president when Nixon resigned, and lost the office to Jimmy Carter in the next election. So he was the only president in our history who was never elected at all. The obituaries are all over the media, many of them showing him puffing on his pipe - he had fine collection of more than fifty of them. Those of us who smoke pipes note such things. And there was his outspoken feminist wife, Betty, who was a real kick - and he obviously both liked and respected her tremendously. He had been an All-American football star at University of Michigan, a center (those of us who have played that position in high school know that's a solid no-glory spot), and decided not to sign with the Detroit Lions but go to law school instead. And the rest is history.

So the man is remembered for cleaning up after Richard Nixon, pardoning him of all possible crimes so, as he seemed to hope, the nation could move on and attend to more immediate matters at hand. On his watch the Vietnam War ended, with the images of the last helicopters lifting off from our embassy in Saigon and a few locals being kicked off the skids. The economy was a mess and some of us remember the lame little WIN buttons - Whip Inflation Now. The runaway inflation eased eventually in his tenure, but it probably wasn't the buttons that did it. But all in all, he seemed both earnest and possessed of a good sense of humor, and a bit dull - and that may have been what the country needed.

Of course seeds were sown - his chief-of staff at the White House was, initially, the young Donald Rumsfeld, an interesting choice at the time. Then he moved Rumsfeld over to become Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld's first try at the job. The new chief-of staff replacing Rumsfeld was a young congressman from Wyoming - Dick Cheney. He kept Henry Kissinger on as his foreign policy advisor. In his last years Ford may have wondered what he had started with all that. None of them retired to play golf in the desert.

But people are generally ignoring those three. Most obituaries treat his pardon of Richard Nixon as the defining moment of Ford's presidency, and most have been overwhelmingly kind about that.

Over at the ultra right site Hot Air "Allah Pundit" calls Ford the "best president of the 1970's" - and adds this - "By all accounts he was a decent and genuine man. He survived two assassination attempts and relentless mocking by Chevy Chase, who portrayed him as hopelessly clumsy (even though he was quite athletic and a college football star). … His was a thankless job, cleaning up after Nixon and then inevitably turning over the country to the tender mercies of Carter. He did it well, and we thank him for it. RIP."

Jonathan Singer on the left grudgingly agrees - "In hindsight, his decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, appears to have been the right one, even if at the time it cost him politically. And although he was thoroughly a conservative, he seems to have been someone who treated his political adversaries with respect and genuinely fought to better America."

On the other hand, conservative Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters believes the Nixon pardon was a terrible mistake - "Ford had good and understandable reasons for his decision, but it did short-circuit the one quality about America that had always made us different from other nations: our leaders were not above the law. … [W]e lost that sense of ourselves as a nation bound by its dedication to the Constitution and the rule of law. At that time, we needed a way to bind ourselves back to that to restore a national identity in which all could share."

Yeah, but the "Trial of Nixon" might have torn apart the nation. It hardly matters now - Ford issued a blanket pardon and that was that.

Peter Howard, a professor at American University, remembers what might not be a minor thing - the Ford presidency notably "began the era of intelligence oversight by issuing Executive Order 11905. The order is perhaps most famous for its ban on assassination by US government agencies. Since their founding in the early years of the Cold War, the US intelligence agencies, notably the CIA and NSA, gave themselves a wide mandated to fight the Cold War." Ford put an end to that - the business in Chile on another September 11, in the seventies, was an embarrassment.

The standard obituary in the Washington Post is here, and the schlock gossip guy, Matt Drudge, made a big deal about the byline - the piece was written by J. Y. Smith, who died almost a year before Gerald Ford. How did Joe Smith do that? That's spooky.

But it's not - obituaries are on file in the media on every public figure, particularly on anyone older than fifty. It pays to be prepared. Some papers have writers who specialize in summing up a famous life in the format required - some newspaper guys start their career doing those, and some, the unlucky or offensive, end their careers doing those. But basically, you just keep a file, a directory of pre-written obituaries, and assign some otherwise useless copy editor to update them now and then. For somebody like Ronald Reagan, who didn't do anything at all for the last fifteen years of his life, for obvious reasons, newspapers had the luxury of producing elaborate ready-to-print "Special Section" tributes - with some digging you could find the inserts on public websites long before he died, if you were sufficiently morbid. Drudge is a pain. This was no big deal.

A friend, an attorney up in the Finger Lakes of New York, did notice what was really odd - "..but didn't Ronald Reagan die at the same time as Ray Charles. Now Jerry Ford and James Brown. What next George Bush (41) and Little Richard? Jimmy Carter and BB King? Hilary Clinton and Aretha Franklin? Barak Obama and Jerry Lee Lewis? When will it stop?"

Yep, the coincidences are odd, as noted in the hyper-sarcastic site Wonkette -
The Godfather of Soul and the Temp President did have a warm friendship that spanned generations, but there's no clear evidence that Brown's coke-crazed soul burst free from the ether for long enough to strangle Ford.

But there is circumstantial evidence that suggests the Sinister Aryan Cabal that actually runs the government had Ford "taken out" to cut short America's mourning for James Brown, who was best known for being a psychotic dope fiend and starring as "Apollo Creed" in one of the "Rocky" movies about 25 years ago.

The proof? The same thing sort of happened way back in June of 2004, when Ray Charles tragically died. America came to a standstill. Truly, we were a Nation Challenged.

But within 24 hours, an elaborate "state funeral" for Ronald Reagan was launched, and there was nothing else on the teevee for the week. By the time it was over, Americans had tragically forgotten all about soul/R&B/country legend Ray Charles.

Skeptics say this theory makes no sense, because Reagan actually expired on June 4 and Charles died six days later, on June 10. And we say, Duh, time machine!
Whatever. But on a more serious note, see the widely-read and highly-regarded Digby at Hullabaloo with this -
The first vote I ever cast was for Jerry Brown for governor. The first vote I ever cast for president was for Gerald Ford. (That was the last time I ever voted for a Republican, by the way.) I have become a little bit more coherent since then.

I was not, at the time, a fan of Jimmy Carter; I thought he was sanctimonious. I was twenty. (Little could I have imagined what was to come.) And I thought Ford had done the right thing by pardoning Nixon. Yes I really did.

I did not understand the zombie nature of Republicanism and had no way of knowing that unless you drive a metaphorical stake through the heart of GOP crooks and liars, they will be back, refreshed and ready to screw up the country in almost exactly the same way, within just a few years. In those days, I couldn't imagine that the Republicans would ever elect someone worse than Nixon. I thought we had gone back to "normal" where nice moderate guys like Jerry and Ike would keep the seat warm until the real leaders would return. Live and learn.

The thing I remember most about Ford, though, was his family. They were great - a bunch of handsome baby boomers frolicking on the lawn, rumored to have smoked pot in the white house, fresh and cool and so much less uptight than Nixon and the girls. As a young person of the same age, it was a powerful image that meant something to me.

And Betty remains my favorite first lady of all time. She was funny and human and normal. I'll never forget watching her hosting a Bolshoi ballet on television when she was obviously under the influence of something or other. I thought to myself, this is a real woman of her time. And of course, she went on to be one of the first famous women to announce that she was fighting breast cancer and founded the Betty Ford clinic not long after. She has done a world of good for the recovery movement.

Ford was an old school GOP moderate, the kind that isn't around anymore. But he bears some responsibility for what came after. After all, his administration spawned the two most twisted leaders of the Bush administration - Cheney and Rumsfeld. From what I know of Jerry Ford, he wouldn't have been proud of that particular accomplishment. He was not given to megalomania and grandiose schemes.

He bound the nation's wounds for a moment, but in doing so he created an infection that has festered for the last thirty years. His heart was in the right place, I think. But it was a mistake I hope this nation never makes again.

He was a decent man who had a good sense of humor. RIP.
And so he was, as Timothy Noah explains in The very discreet charms (and substantial drawbacks) of Richard Nixon's successor -
During the 25 years that I've lived in Washington, I have never once heard a negative word spoken here about former President Gerald Ford, who died at 93 on Dec. 26. Within the narrow confines of Permanent Washington - the journalists, lobbyists, and congressional lifers who are the city's avatars of centrism and continuity - Ford is considered the beau ideal of American leadership. "By the time he finished his short tenure, he had put together one of the most talented administrations, at least of those that I've covered in fifty years here," the Washington Post's David Broder recalled after Ford's death. "People who served in the Ford administration will tell you even now, the survivors of that administration, that it was the best experience they ever had in government."

Washington's Gerald Ford cult differs from, say, its John F. Kennedy cult or its Ronald Reagan cult in that no branches can be found outside the nation's capital. It is possible to say, "America loves JFK," or "America loves Reagan," but no one in his right mind would ever say, "America loves Ford." (If attempted, the statement would surely be mistaken for an advertising slogan touting the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto manufacturer.) America has not given Gerald Ford a lot of thought. To the extent it has, it's pegged Ford as a dimwitted klutz who, though certainly decent enough, extended unwarranted favoritism to his fellow Republican Richard Nixon by granting the former president a blanket pardon. The latter gesture probably cost Ford the 1976 election.

The American electorate got Ford more right than the Washington mandarins. Permanent Washington believes the Nixon pardon was an act of martyrdom, a necessary gesture allowing the country to move on - even Bob Woodward thinks so - but, in fact, the American system of government was sturdy enough to withstand any prosecution of Richard Nixon. (I have my doubts there would have been any.) Ford would have done far better, both politically and in serving justice, to leave well enough alone. The mandarins are right to say that Gerald Ford was certainly smarter than the caricature invented by Lyndon Johnson ("can't fart and chew at the same time," with "fart" subsequently softened to "chew") and later refined by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, but he was no genius, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Because of Ford's weakness in this area, the White House became a free-fire zone between the pro-détente Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the anti-détente tag team of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Ford's successive chiefs of staff. (Maybe veterans of the Ford administration think it "the best experience they ever had in government" because they experienced little supervision from the boss.) Rumsfeld/Cheney ultimately prevailed (as later they would under President George W. Bush), but the experience left Ford sufficiently addled that when, in a 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, he got asked about the 1975 Helsinki accords - which contained vague mollifying language recognizing Soviet domination of Eastern Europe - Ford babbled, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." Carter responded incredulously ("Did I understand you to say, sir … "), prompting a second nonsensical gusher from Ford: "I don't believe … the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: it has its own territorial integrity …"
Oops. But he meant well. Ford "meant to deny not the fact of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, but merely United States acquiescence in that domination." It just didn't come out that way. Noah says - "These comments about Eastern Europe remain, I believe, the single dumbest thing ever said by a sitting president during my lifetime, heavy competition from the present incumbent notwithstanding."

But Ford did some good - inflation dropped from double digits to below five percent. And Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, who has since become a moderating influence on the madmen there.

The conclusion -
Ford was not an ideologue, and during his presidency the country was not ideological. We remember those years as tumultuous, and they were - it was the Watergate scandal that made Ford president in the first place, and it was during Ford's presidency that the Vietnam War came to its ignominious end. But Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman did some number-crunching a couple of years ago, and concluded that geographic self-segregation at the county level by party affiliation reached its nadir in 1975, when Gerald Ford was president. Conservatives and liberals lived in closer proximity than before or since, and that minimized partisan enmity in both the country and in Washington. As I wrote at the time: "The 1970s, which most of us remember as an era of high inflation, long gas lines, and malaise, were, in short, the Golden Age of Bipartisanship. Gerald Ford, the most boring man in modern memory to occupy the Oval Office, was its high priest."

That is why Washington loves Gerald Ford. Comity and bipartisanship are easy to overrate, and Permanent Washington can always be counted on to overrate them. At the moment, though, it does seem we could use a bit more.
Yeah, we could. But dull and pleasant leaders don't come along every day. And too, the man was appointed. You cannot win any office by claiming you're agreeable and mostly harmless. What kind of platform is that? And no one would vote for a smoker theses days, particularly a pipe smoker. The man was a wonder, without being wonderful, for which the nation is now grateful.

Posted by Alan at 20:30 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 28 December 2006 07:57 PST home

Tuesday, 26 December 2006
Late Christmas Presents
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Late Christmas Presents

The week between Christmas and New Years is supposed to be a slow news week. And the day after Christmas we got two conflicting milestones and a new war, or a new proxy war, as we are a bit short on war resources. Maybe people won't notice.

The first was the surprise news that Saddam Hussein will hang soon -
Iraq’s highest appeals court on Tuesday upheld Saddam Hussein’s death sentence and said he must be hanged within 30 days for the killing of 148 Shiites in the central city of Dujail.

The sentence "must be implemented within 30 days," chief judge Aref Shahin said. "From tomorrow, any day could be the day of implementation."
This appeal was, we were told, going to take some time. This is a surprise. It's a bit like the original death sentence, announced a day and a half before the midterm elections across America. These Iraqi judges are quite cooperative. The actually hanging, which will be televised locally (in Iraq of course), might just take place as the president announces his "new way forward," scheduled, tentatively, for sometime in January. Or it could take place during the president's State of the Union speech next month. Either would be fine, the hanging providing great visuals of the "see, I got the bad guy" sort - and we can watch Saddam Hussein's eyes bug out and his neck snap as the president - split screen - tells us all we're winning, and have really won, while the other man jerks about and chokes to death. The calculation would be that Americans would cheer and all the mess-ups - the chaos in Iraq, the unsaved New Orleans, the business with the vice president shooting his good friend in the face with a shotgun and all the rest - would be forgotten. The lifeless body swinging slowly from the rope would rally us all. It's an interesting ploy, a bookend to the "Mission Accomplished" address on the aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego - this time getting it right.

Of course the propitiously announced Saddam Hussein death sentence didn't save Republican control of the House and Senate. But that doesn't mean the concept isn't workable. It just wasn't dramatic enough. The president's political advisor, Karl "Bush's Brian" Rove, is said to be a genius on such matters. This sound like something he has arranged, judging what would sate the blood lust of the American people. He may be right, or he may be surprised that good numbers of people actually can and actually do differentiate between Saddam Hussein, who finally didn't have any weapons of mass destruction and both feared and hated al Qaeda (and the feeling was mutual), and Osama bin Laden, who we all saw on videotape saying he was glad his very own 9/11 plan worked. Early on the president said "you can't really differentiate between the two," but he was only saying you "shouldn't." It seems people did anyway, in spite of the effort to conflate the two. When Saddam Hussein swings, more than a few American's will wonder what's going on here - the major bad guy was never found and this looks like cheap theatrics regarding a secondary problem with a brutal thug, a secondary murdering fraud. He may deserve his punishment, but it's rather beside the point now, isn’t it? Rove may just have to hope folks don’t think this through too carefully.

And as for the blood lust of the American people, that is hard to gauge. We are one of the very few nations in this world who still eagerly practice capital punishment - and it's not just the western nations who have walked away from that. We're pretty much alone. But is the Rove calculation right, that we would all cheer and another man's painful death? That may depend on how much visual and auditory detail we get. It may be that we like the concept of capital punishment in the abstract, without the details, like the criminal's bowels suddenly discharging and that sort of thing. But who knows? It may also be that we have moved on, want to close the book on this war and deal with healthcare and jobs and education and who pays whatever is a fair share in taxes, and with what the government can actually do to fix things and make things fair for everyone. In short, a public execution might be of far less than secondary interest. Fine, hang the man, but what about what we all face in the day-to-day, in the here-and-now? Pointing to the lifeless body swinging at the end of the rope might be counterproductive, or even worse, just beside the point. The public death of Saddam Hussein is a PR gamble. We'll see how that goes.

Of course we'll be told is will be the real turning point in Iraq, bringing closure (a quite useless concept, but quite popular these days). Things will settle down, unless they don't. Sorry about all the other turning points that turned out not to be turning points at all - but this one is the real deal, as is obvious. And the Sunnis, feeling cut out of the current government and in open rebellion, in spite of not having particularly fond memories of Saddam and his sons leading them, will react with shrug and a big "whatever" - or go full out to mess everything up until they get at least a little power back, and the Saudis and Egyptians and Jordanians will fund and supply them. Which is more likely? Your answer depends on how optimistic you are. One should have a positive attitude. One should also prepare of alternative outcomes. Unfortunately preparing for alternative outcomes is considered a sign of weak will and insufficient manliness with the people who have run our country for the last six years. This could be a bumpy ride.

The other day after Christmas surprise was a bit artificial, a curious milestone -
At least 36 Iraqis died Tuesday in bombings, officials said, including a coordinated strike that killed 25 in western Baghdad. Separately, the deaths of six U.S. soldiers pushed the American toll beyond the number of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
So the military deaths, rising steadily in the last three months, now officially exceed the number killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington. One would guess this is something some who think the Iraq war was a useless and almost criminal diversion from the real task at hand - dealing with fanatical terrorists who want to make their points with mass killings of our citizens - finds telling. We doubled the number of dead and what do we have to show for it all? And that doesn't even account for the nearly twenty-thousand of our troops maimed - limbless or brain-damaged. But the matching figures mean little in and of themselves. It's just a bit of statistical ammunition for those who ask what we think we're accomplishing. Within a week or so we will be at three thousand combat deaths. That too is just a number, and will be used to ask the same question. What are we accomplishing? It's a morbid cost-benefit thing.

That's exactly how Condoleezza Rice sees it -
This is a country that is worth the investment because once it emerges as a country that is a stabilizing factor, you'll have a very different kind of Middle East. And I know that from the point of view of not just monetary costs, but the sacrifice of American lives, a lot has been sacrificed for Iraq, a lot has been invested in Iraq.
That's from an Associated Press interview, December 21, 2006. And Merry Christmas to you too, Ms Rice.

Bill Montgomery comments -
I once made the analogy that in the imperialism business troops equal money, so perhaps I'm not in the best position to criticize. But I was trying to sound cruel and heartless for sarcastic effect, while Condi appears to have been utterly sincere - every bit as sincere as when she described Israel's air assault on Lebanon as the "birth pangs" of the new Middle East. (How's the baby doing, Condi?)

Maybe the simplest explanation is also the most accurate. Maybe Condi is just a cold, heartless bitch - as morally numb and sociopathic as her office husband. But these kinds of comments could also simply reflect the incredibly sheltered life Madame Supertanker appears to have led, especially since she entered the pampered, intersecting worlds of the academic, national security and corporate elites.

There's a story from her childhood of young Condi practicing the piano in her comfortable middle-class home in Birmingham's "black bourgeois" neighborhood as her father - himself no great friend of the civil rights movement - stood guard over the house with a shotgun while Bull Connors' men blasted the demonstrators with fire hoses downtown. I have no idea whether the story is true or not, but it certainly resonates with Condi's current public persona, which is - not to put too fine a point on it - detached to the point of catatonia.

Does Condi understand how many deaths, mutilations and wrecked lives lie behind her "investments" and "birth pangs"? Undoubtedly. Does she care? I don't know. But, from a public diplomacy point of view, it would behoove her to show some sign that she has an emotional connection to the rest of the human race - or, if she doesn't, to at least pretend that she does.
Well, she's not even pretending. And you might want to check out that noted Middle East scholar, Juan Cole on The Top Ten Myths About Iraq in 2006. It's not a pretty list.

Here are a few -
1. Myth number one is that the United States "can still win" in Iraq. Of course, the truth of this statement, frequently still made by William Kristol and other Neoconservatives, depends on what "winning" means. But if it means the establishment of a stable, pro-American, anti-Iranian government with an effective and even-handed army and police force in the near or even medium term, then the assertion is frankly ridiculous. The Iraqi "government" is barely functioning. The parliament was not able to meet in December because it could not attain a quorum. Many key Iraqi politicians live most of the time in London, and much of parliament is frequently abroad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki does not control large swathes of the country, and could give few orders that had any chance of being obeyed. The US military cannot shore up this government, even with an extra division, because the government is divided against itself. Most of the major parties trying to craft legislation are also linked to militias on the streets who are killing one another. It is over with. Iraq is in for years of heavy political violence of a sort that no foreign military force can hope to stop.

The United States cannot "win" in the sense defined above. It cannot. And the blindly arrogant assumption that it can win is calculated to get more tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and more thousands of American soldiers and Marines badly wounded or killed. Moreover, since Iraq is coming apart at the seams under the impact of our presence there, there is a real danger that we will radically destabilize it and the whole oil-producing Gulf if we try to stay longer.

2. "US military sweeps of neighborhoods can drive the guerrillas out." The US put an extra 15,000 men into Baghdad this past summer, aiming to crush the guerrillas and stop the violence in the capital, and the number of attacks actually increased. This result comes about in part because the guerrillas are not outsiders who come in and then are forced out. The Sunni Arabs of Ghazaliya and Dora districts in the capital are the "insurgents." The US military cannot defeat the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement or "insurgency" with less than 500,000 troops, based on what we have seen in the Balkans and other such conflict situations. The US destroyed Falluja, and even it and other cities of al-Anbar province are not now safe! The US military leaders on the ground have spoken of the desirability of just withdrawing from al-Anbar to Baghdad and giving up on it. In 2003, 14 percent of Sunni Arabs thought it legitimate to attack US personnel and facilities. In August, 2006, over 70 percent did. How long before it is 100%? Winning guerrilla wars requires two victories, a military victory over the guerrillas and a winning of the hearts and minds of the general public, thus denying the guerrillas support. The US has not and is unlikely to be able to repress the guerrillas, and it is losing hearts and minds at an increasing and alarming rate. They hate us, folks. They don't want us there.

… 8. "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." From the beginning of history until 2003 there had never been a suicide bombing in Iraq. There was no al-Qaeda in Baath-ruled Iraq. When Baath intelligence heard that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi might have entered Iraq, they grew alarmed at such an "al-Qaeda" presence and put out an APB on him! Zarqawi's so-called "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" was never "central" in Iraq and was never responsible for more than a fraction of the violent attacks. This assertion is supported by the outcome of a US-Jordanian operation that killed Zarqawi this year. His death had no impact whatsoever on the level of violence. There are probably only about 1,000 foreign fighters even in Iraq, and most of them are first-time volunteers, not old-time terrorists. The 50 major guerrilla cells in Sunni Arab Iraq are mostly made up of Iraqis, and are mainly: 1) Baathist or neo-Baathist, 2) Sunni revivalist or Salafi, 3) tribally-based, or 4) based in city quarters. Al-Qaeda is mainly a boogey man, invoked in Iraq on all sides, but possessing little real power or presence there. This is not to deny that radical Sunni Arab volunteers come to Iraq to blow things (and often themselves) up. They just are not more than an auxiliary to the big movements, which are Iraqi.

9. "The Sunni Arab guerrillas in places like Ramadi will follow the US home to the American mainland and commit terrorism if we leave Iraq." This assertion is just a variation on the invalid domino theory. People in Ramadi only have one beef with the United States. Its troops are going through their wives' underwear in the course of house searches every day. They don't want the US troops in their town or their homes, dictating to them that they must live under a government of Shiite clerics and Kurdish warlords (as they think of them). If the US withdrew and let the Iraqis work out a way to live with one another, people in Ramadi will be happy. They are not going to start taking flight lessons and trying to get visas to the US. This argument about following us, if it were true, would have prevented us from ever withdrawing from anyplace once we entered a war there. We'd be forever stuck in the Philippines for fear that Filipino terrorists would follow us back home. Or Korea (we moved 15,000 US troops out of South Korea not so long ago. Was that unwise? Are the thereby liberated Koreans now gunning for us?) Or how about the Dominican Republic? Haiti? Grenada? France? The argument is a crock.
Click on the link for the other six. It won't make you happy.

But then, the third item from the news the day after Christmas was that, using our advisors, combat aircraft we provided, munitions we provided, the Ethiopian government suddenly bombed the crap out of Somalia in what looked like an all-out proxy war for us - just one more effort by our government to teach us the geography of obscure places. Was this a minor matter? Maybe.

Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times opens with this - "Islamist forces in Somalia beat a hasty retreat today to their stronghold in Mogadishu, Somalia's battle-scared capital, crumbling faster than anyone expected after a week of attacks by Ethiopian forces."

We are fighting Islamist forces everywhere, even when we're not. And the UN, again, isn't pleased -
The top U.N. envoy in Somalia urged the U.N. Security Council to call for an immediate cease-fire between Ethiopian forces backing Somalia's weak government and the powerful Islamic militia that controls most of the country, saying talks are the only way to solve the conflict.

Qatar, which holds the council presidency, circulated a draft presidential statement calling for an immediate cease-fire and the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces, specifying Ethiopian troops.

But other council members - including the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and African members Ghana and Tanzania - objected to singling out Ethiopia and calling for an immediate withdrawal, saying an urgent resumption of talks between the parties and a political agreement are essential to achieve stability before foreign forces withdraw.
In short, it's a mess. We used Ethiopia to clean out the bad guys, but the Ethiopians were only doing what they should do, or something like that. It's war, everywhere.

Via a good discussion of this by Matthew Yglesias, relying heavily on the Washington Post coverage of the new Somalia-Ethiopia war, much of this can be untangled. It has to do with the premises of our policy in the Horn of Africa -
… Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia "along with the United States, has accused the [Islamic Courts] movement of harboring terrorists" but this is "an allegation it has denied." Neither Ethiopia nor the United States is prepared to provide names of any terrorists who are being harbored. Meanwhile, "Opposition groups inside Ethiopia say that Meles, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has shrewdly played up the terrorism charges to win U.S. support." We're going along with this because "based in part on intelligence out of Ethiopia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer has asserted that the Islamic movement is now under the control of an al-Qaeda cell, a claim that regional analysts believe is exaggerated."

… In other words, we're backing Ethiopia's war against Somalia because intelligence provided by the Ethiopian government suggests we should back Ethiopia. But what else would the intelligence say? The US government's conflict with the Islamic Courts began because "the United States financed warlords in Somalia who described themselves as an 'anti-terrorism coalition' but who mostly terrorized local Somalis, who came to despise them." This "anti-terrorism coalition" was nothing other than the exact same warlords who ruined the country in the 1990s renaming themselves for the post-9/11 era.

… Can someone ask Tony Snow or George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice or Steven Hadley to name the terrorists the Islamic Courts are harboring? To explain what we've tried to do to secure their custody short of backing a full-scale Ethiopian invasion of Somalia?
There's also the State Department's counterterrorism country report on Somalia, which doesn't make things sound "al Qaeda dire" all that -
Somalia’s lack of a functioning central government, protracted state of violent instability, long unguarded coastline, porous borders, and proximity to the Arabian Peninsula made it a potential location for international terrorists seeking a transit or launching point to conduct operations elsewhere.

Regional efforts to bring about national reconciliation and establish peace and stability in Somalia are ongoing. Although the ability of Somali local and regional authorities to carry out counterterrorism activities is constrained, some have taken limited actions in this direction.

While numerous Islamist groups engaged in a broad range of activities operate inside Somalia, few of these organizations have any known links to terrorist activities. Movements such as Harakat al-Islah (al-Islah), Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (ASWJ), and Majma Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya (Majma') sought power by political rather than violent means and pursued political action via missionary or charity work. Missionary Islamists, such as followers of the Tablighi sect and the "New Salafis" generally renounce explicit political activism. Other Islamist organizations became providers of basic health, education, and commercial services, and were perceived by some as pursuing a strategy to take political power.

In the 1990s, members of the Somalia-based al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) periodically committed terrorist acts, primarily in Ethiopia. AIAI rose to prominence following the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991, with the goal of creating a pan-Somali Islamic state in the Horn of Africa. In recent years the existence of a coherent entity operating as AIAI has become difficult to prove. At most, AIAI was highly factionalized and diffuse, and its membership difficult to define. Some elements associated with the former AIAI are sympathetic to al-Qaida and maintained ties with it, and may continue to pose a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region.

Other shadowy groups that have appeared in Somalia are suspected of having committed terrorist acts against Western interests in the region, or considered capable of doing so. Very little is known about movements such as al-Takfir wal-Hijra (al-Takfir), but the extremist ideology and violent character of takfiri groups elsewhere suggest that the movement merits close monitoring.
These are local bad guys. We've decided they're in league with the top bad guys and must be taken out, but the wimpy State Department says they're really not that organized or even connected to anything much.

Yglesias -
So to be clear, unless I'm reading this wrong the number of individuals who've organized, planned, or committed terrorist attacks against the United States of America now being sheltered in Somalia is… zero.

There are Somali groups who've carried out attacks against Ethiopia. And "some elements associated with the former AIAI are sympathetic to al-Qaida and maintained ties with it, and may continue to pose a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region."

Now ask yourself how many Somali Islamists are going to sympathize with al-Qaeda once US-backed Ethiopian forces have shattered the closest thing to an effective government that country has had since 1991.
We like to make enemies, don't we?

And there's Major Kelley Thibodeau, spokeswoman for the task force of American military personnel based in nearby in Djibouti protesting we didn't do anything, really - "Officially, we haven’t put anybody in Somalia. The Americans don’t go forward with the Ethiopians. They are training Ethiopians in Ethiopia."

One is reminded of Kennedy sending "advisors" into Vietnam. They were just advisors. The rest is history.

See Salim Lone, who was the spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq in 2003, now a columnist for The Daily Nation in Kenya, in the International Herald Tribune with In Somalia, A Reckless US Proxy War -
Undeterred by the horrors and setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the Bush administration has opened another battlefront in the Muslim world. With full U.S. backing and military training, at least 15,000 Ethiopian troops have entered Somalia in an illegal war of aggression against the Union of Islamic Courts, which controls almost the entire south of the country.

As with Iraq in 2003, the United States has cast this as a war to curtail terrorism, but its real goal is to obtain a direct foothold in a highly strategic region by establishing a client regime there. The Horn of Africa is newly oil-rich, and lies just miles from Saudi Arabia, overlooking the daily passage of large numbers of oil tankers and warships through the Red Sea. General John Abizaid, the current U.S. military chief of the Iraq war, was in Ethiopia this month, and President Hu Jintao of China visited Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia earlier this year to pursue oil and trade agreements.

The U.S. instigation of war between Ethiopia and Somalia, two of world's poorest countries already struggling with massive humanitarian disasters, is reckless in the extreme. Unlike in the run-up to Iraq, independent experts, including from the European Union, were united in warning that this war could destabilize the whole region even if America succeeds in its goal of toppling the Islamic Courts.

An insurgency by Somalis, millions of whom live in Kenya and Ethiopia, will surely ensue, and attract thousands of new anti-US militants and terrorists.
He goes on, unhappy, but we have our foreign policy - stir things up everywhere. And this may not even be good for the home team - "Ethiopia is at even greater risk, as a dictatorship with little popular support and beset also by two large internal revolts, by the Ogadenis and Oromos. It is also mired in a conflict with Eritrea, which has denied it secure access to seaports."

One wonders how much of the world we wish to throw into turmoil, with new raging regional wars. That cannot be the plan. But there you have it.

And it was to be a slow news week.


Readers here might note that Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the base of our new Ethiopian effort, has come up before in these pages - July 11, 2004, Djibouti and the July Surprise. It has come around again. See Stanley A. Weiss, the founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, with After Iraq, A New U.S. Military Model, 26 December 2006, in the International Herald Tribune. This is a discussion of how Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the brainchild of General John Abizaid, is the new model of "light footprint" US military operations - no massive bases to offend the locals, just "lily pads" for quick operations. Abizaid knows his stuff, and he knows how to work with local cultures. The item was written before Abizaid resigned, as he was one of those generals who opposed the upcoming big surge of tens of thousands of more troops into Iraq right now, as he thought, and said, that would make things worse. There was no longer room for him in the Army as the president saw its role - overwhelming force and swaggering intimidation to get folks to do what we want. Abizaid will be fine on the lecture circuit.

Posted by Alan at 21:58 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 26 December 2006 22:02 PST home

Sunday, 24 December 2006
Christmas Break
Topic: Announcements

Christmas Break

There will be no posting here until Tuesday - it's off down the coast for the big family Christmas. If one is to believe the folks who do the window displays at Neiman-Marcus on Wilshire in Beverly Hills, it's all about "finding the surprises."

Christmas window display, Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills

Posted by Alan at 00:01 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 24 December 2006 08:01 PST home

Saturday, 23 December 2006
Topic: Perspective


It's Christmas weekend. Be nice. Be kind.

"It's not true that nice guys finish last. Nice guys are winners before the game even starts." - Addison Walker

"If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." - Alice Roosevelt Longworth

"We all like stories that make us cry. It's so nice to feel sad when you've nothing in particular to feel sad about." - Anne Sullivan

"One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people are. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be." - Anthony Dymoke Powell

"The only nice thing about being imperfect is the joy it brings to others." - Doug Larson

"It's amazing how nice people are to you when they know you're going away." - Michael Arlen

"When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people." - Abraham Joshua Heschel

"Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind." - Henry James

"In this world, there is nothing softer or thinner than water. But to compel the hard and unyielding, it has no equal. That the weak overcomes the strong, that the hard gives way to the gentle - this everyone knows. Yet no one asks accordingly." - Lao-Tse

"Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Be kind to unkind people - they need it the most." - Ashleigh Brilliant

"It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'try to be a little kinder.'" - Aldous Huxley

"Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true." - Robert Brault

"I always prefer to believe the best of everybody, it saves so much trouble." - Rudyard Kipling

"Don't be yourself - be someone a little nicer." - Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic's Notebook, 1966

"Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not." - Samuel Johnson

"If we cannot be clever, we can always be kind." - Alfred Fripp

"If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl." - H.L. Mencken

"If you step on people in this life, you're going to come back as a cockroach." - Willie Davis

"I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that truly makes living worth while?" Death thought about it. "Cats," he said eventually, "Cats are nice." - Terry Pratchett, Sorcery

Posted by Alan at 10:58 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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