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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Sunday, 31 December 2006
Happy New Year and All That
Topic: Announcements

Happy New Year and All That

Light posting, if at all - New Years Eve - got to get out of Hollywood. On the other hand, the new issue of Just Above Sunset is now online, with new material, and ten pages of photographs, from the Catskills to Santa Monica. Take a look.

New Years Eve won't be like this -

Manikin, Neiman-Marcus window, Beverly Hills, Christmas week, 2006

Posted by Alan at 10:57 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 30 December 2006
For the New Year
Topic: Perspective

For the New Year

"An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves." - Bill Vaughan

"New Year's Day is every man's birthday. - Charles Lamb"

"New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions." - Mark Twain

"New Year's Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual." - Mark Twain

"The new year begins in a snow-storm of white vows." - George William Curtis

"Now there are more overweight people in America than average-weight people. So overweight people are now average… which means, you have met your New Year's resolution." - Jay Leno

"Happiness is too many things these days for anyone to wish it on anyone lightly. So let's just wish each other a bileless New Year and leave it at that" - Judith Crist

"New Year's Resolution: To tolerate fools more gladly, provided this does not encourage them to take up more of my time." - James Agate

"It wouldn't be New Year's if I didn't have regrets." - William Thomas

"The only way to spend New Year's Eve is either quietly with friends or in a brothel. Otherwise when the evening ends and people pair off, someone is bound to be left in tears." - W.H. Auden

The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk. This drunkenness culminates on New Year's Eve, when you get so drunk you kiss the person you're married to. - P.J. O'Rourke

"We did not change as we grew older; we just became more clearly ourselves." - Lynn Hall, Where Have All the Tigers Gone?, 1989

EXPERIENCE, n. The wisdom that enables us to recognize as an undesirable old acquaintance the folly that we have already embraced. - Ambrose Bierce

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." - Douglas Adams

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." - Oscar Wilde

"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." - Dan Stanford

"Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn." - C. S. Lewis

"The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance." - Alan Watts

"Arrange whatever pieces come your way." - Virginia Woolf

"All human wisdom is summed up in two words - wait and hope." - Alexandre Dumas

"Be infinitely flexible and constantly amazed." - Jason Kravitz

Posted by Alan at 17:45 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Friday, 29 December 2006
Notes on the Farce - The Man Who Hardly Matters Now is Gone
Topic: Breaking News

Notes on the Farce - The Man Who Hardly Matters Now is Gone

Friday, December 29, at seven in the evening here in Los Angeles, but six the morning Saturday the 30th in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein was executed, for one of his lesser crimes - the killing of one hundred twenty-eight men and boys he said had plotted to overthrow his government. All the trails on even more gruesome matters are now beside the point - the one hundred thousand Kurds gassed with what might have been our tacit approval, as at the time Saddam Hussein was also fighting the theocratic madmen in Iran who had held our citizens hostage at the embassy in Tehran and we thought needed taken out. What was Rumsfeld doing over there at the time, shaking his hand and smiling? We'll never know, and perhaps that's best. We dodged a bullet there.

The execution may make the next several months in Iraq dicey - but perhaps not much different. Saddam Hussein had been in our custody for the last several years, and no one was any longer fighting for him or his party. As he was a Sunni, the majority Shi'a had always considered him an apostate, as did the extreme Shiite al Qaeda. But that wasn't because he was a devout Sunni - it was because he wasn't much more than a brutal thug from Tikrit who ran a secular government, ruling by intimidation and torture and murder and all the rest, and making his family and friends rich in the process. He got religion in the last few years - it was useful to claim he was a martyr of Islam. He had never claimed that before, but times change. It was just another lever of power - something you grab when you're falling. The Sunnis now, it seems, consider him irrelevant, and do remember his apostasy - letting women go to school and have "western" rights, and his not shutting down all cultural stuff from the west, the music and the movies and all.

No one is fighting for him now, or against him. They've moved on to other matters. The Shi'a are clearing the south of Baghdad of all Sunnis to have an open line to the heavily Shi'a south. The neighborhoods everywhere are being cleansed. The Sunnis, now out of power, are doing everything they can not to be overwhelmed and rendered totally powerless - and the "everything they can" is pretty nasty, with a lot of car bombs. And they've got the west, Anbar Province, where any number of our troops are killed each week, trying to keep things there under control. The Kurds in the north - Sunni but not Arab - are watching it all warily, dreaming of a separate nation, or at least a separate peace. And anyone with a degree or set of useful skills is leaving - they are now in Amman or Cairo, or soon will be.

So the execution will please the Shi'a, in an offhand kind of way. The dead man is so last decade after all. Those who lost all to his vicious rule are no doubt glad to see him gone, of course. The Sunnis are rid of an embarrassment. The whole world is rid this really nasty piece of work. Fine, but the whole business looks like a show of some sort - a bit of proving something or other, and not the least what our administration would like to prove to us here, and to the rest of the world, that we finally got something right. It's too late for that, but could be worth a try. The approval ratings here, and certainly around the globe, could use a bump.

But this isn't it -
Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House, London -

It's tawdry. It's not going to achieve anything because of the way the trial was conducted and the way the occupation was conducted. Life in Iraq has become so precarious that many people are saying it was safer under Saddam Hussein - it makes the whole thing look like a poke in the eye as opposed to closure or some kind of contribution to the future of Iraq. The purpose should have been to see justice done in a transparent manner ... the trial was gruesome, occasionally farcical, and failed to fulfill its promise of giving satisfaction.

Kamil Mahdi, Iraqi expatriate, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University -

Quite honestly, I don't think much of it any more, given what's happening in Iraq. It will be taken as an American decision. The worst thing is that it's an issue which, in an ideal situation, should have unified Iraq but the Americans have succeeded in dividing the Iraqis.

Toby Dodge, expert on Iraq at Queen Mary College, London University -

The new elite were bound to go ahead with the execution because they suffered at his hands. In the long term, though, this means very little in terms of drawing a line under the last four years of occupation or creating a new Iraq. In choosing to kill him, the current government of Iraq have simply reproduced Iraqi history instead of stepping away from the past ... it completes the Islamicisation of the insurgency.

Chris Doyle, director, Council for Arab-British Understanding -

For Bush, Blair and their diminishing brotherhood of diehard supporters, Saddam's demise is their sole concrete victory in Iraq in almost four years. This should have been the crowning glory of their efforts, but instead it may pose yet another risk to their demoralized troops. For Iraqis, some will see it as a symbol of the death of the ancien regime. For some Sunnis, Saddam's death represents the final nail in the coffin of their fall from power. But Iraqis may also see this as the humiliation of Iraq as a whole, that their president, however odious, was toppled by outside powers, and is executed effectively at others' instigation.
Yeah we kind of stage-managed the thing - from advising the new Iraqi government on how to set up a court system to American legal experts training the judges and all. And we nixed the idea of this going to that international tribunal in The Hague. This was a demonstration to show everyone that the locals could handle this just fine - no need for an international war crimes extravaganza in Western Europe. It was a "look at the wonderful new government acting all grown up" showpiece. Everyone was to be quite impressed. No one was.

Josh Marshall nails it -
Convention dictates that we precede any discussion of this execution with the obligatory nod to Saddam's treachery, bloodthirsty rule and tyranny. But enough of the cowardly chatter. This thing is a sham, of a piece with the whole corrupt, disastrous sham that the war and occupation have been. Bush administration officials are the ones who leak the news about the time of the execution. One key reason we know Saddam's about to be executed is that he's about to be transferred from US to Iraqi custody, which tells you a lot. And, of course, the verdict in his trial gets timed to coincide with the US elections.

This whole endeavor, from the very start, has been about taking tawdry, cheap acts and dressing them up in a papier-mache grandeur - phony victory celebrations, ersatz democratization, reconstruction headed up by toadies, con artists and grifters. And this is no different. Hanging Saddam is easy. It's a job, for once, that these folks can actually see through to completion. So this execution, ironically and pathetically, becomes a stand-in for the failures, incompetence and general betrayal of country on every other front that President Bush has brought us.

Try to dress this up as an Iraqi trial and it doesn't come close to cutting it - the Iraqis only take possession of him for the final act, sort of like the Church always left execution itself to the "secular arm." Try pretending it's a war crimes trial but it's just more of the pretend mumbo-jumbo that makes this out to be World War IX or whatever number it is they're up to now.

The Iraq War has been many things, but for its prime promoters and cheerleaders and now-dwindling body of defenders, the war and all its ideological and literary trappings have always been an exercise in moral-historical dress-up for a crew of folks whose times aren't grand enough to live up to their own self-regard and whose imaginations are great enough to make up the difference. This is just more play-acting.

These jokers are being dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that the whole thing's a mess and that they're going to be remembered for it - defined by it - for decades and centuries. But before we go, we can hang Saddam. Quite a bit of this was about the president's issues with his dad and the hang-ups he had about finishing Saddam off - so before we go, we can hang the guy as some big cosmic "So There!"

Marx might say that this was not tragedy but farce. But I think we need to get way beyond options one and two even to get close to this one - claptrap justice meted out to the former dictator in some puffed-up act of self-justification as the country itself collapses in the hands of the occupying army.

Marty Peretz, with some sort of projection, calls any attempt to rain on this parade "prissy and finicky." [See Peretz in the National Review here.] Myself, I just find it embarrassing. This is what we're reduced to, what the president has reduced us to. This is the best we can do. Hang Saddam Hussein because there's nothing else this president can get right.
Well, something is better than nothing.

And we did try to do it right -
The physical transfer of Saddam from U.S. to Iraqi authorities was believed to be one of the last steps before he was to be hanged.

"We have agreed with the Americans that the handover will take place only a few minutes before he is executed," a senior Iraqi government official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

…"The Americans want him to be hanged respectfully," [Najeeb al-Nueimi, a member of Saddam's legal team] said. If Saddam is humiliated publicly or his corpse ill-treated "that could cause an uprising and the Americans would be blamed," he said.
And to that Ezra Klein adds -
And the last thing we'd want is to be blamed for causing trouble in the Middle East.

The Odd Quote Award goes to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: "Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him, and there will be no review or delay in carrying out the sentence."

Technically, one might argue that a respect for human rights requires only preventing him from perpetrating further human rights abuses, and that executing him is only the most drastic way of doing so. I get what he's saying, obviously, but it's still, well, odd, in a making-fun-of-a-mullet-while-wearing-a-Members-Only-jacket kind of way.

Meanwhile, American television networks are planning "tasteful coverage" of the execution, which has made me realize that the only thing more worrying than everything George Orwell said coming true is when everything George Carlin said starts coming true.
Yep, George Carlin could spin "the Americans want him to be hanged respectfully" into a fine four minutes of whatever it is he does.

But it was a good day for a hanging. We like those - this one made Jesus smile.

And anyway, Fred Hiatt, who writes the editorials for the Washington Post, said the trial that ended in the "hang him high" verdict, while not very impressive, was fair enough -
… his trial was in no sense the model of civilized justice that would have showcased a new, democratic Iraq - in large measure because that new Iraq has yet to materialize. Several defense lawyers were murdered; judges had to be replaced. Political interference was evident. Even this week, the appeals tribunal sent back one life sentence as insufficiently tough, in effect demanding death for one of the co-defendants. Still, there is something unreal about the cries of foul from human rights groups demanding perfect procedural justice from a country struggling with civil war, daily bombings and death-squad killings. The reality is that by the trial's end, there was no significant factual dispute between prosecution and defense: Saddam Hussein acknowledged on national television that he had signed the death warrants after only the most cursory look at the evidence against his victims. That, he testified proudly, "is the right of the head of state." Exactly what would a perfect trial be capable of discovering?
Due process thus is a sham, or a luxury and quite unnecessary. Of course we have due process rules in part because there are things that we might not know without those rules. But this is Saddam Hussein, so they don't matter.

Matthew Yglesias responds -
The Washington Post editorial page is mad at human rights groups for complaining about procedural flaws in Saddam Hussein's trial since, after all, we all know Saddam is guilty. Martin Peretz is upset that death penalty opponents oppose executing Saddam Hussein since, after all, we all know Saddam's a really bad guy.

Do these guys not understand the concept of principles? The point of the belief that all people are entitled to fair trials before receiving criminal sentences is that all people are entitled to fair trials. The point of the belief that capital punishment is immoral (not a belief I share, incidentally) is that it's always immoral. It's not as if Amnesty International is confused and doesn't understand that Saddam isn't a very sympathetic case. Rather, the point is that organizations committed to principles of human rights - fair trials, no executions - need to uphold those principles even when violating them sounds appealing. If they didn't, the groups wouldn't be standing for anything.
Do these guys not understand the concept of principles? That's easy. No.

Even the new German pope gets it - a "top Vatican official condemned the death sentence against Saddam Hussein in a newspaper interview published Thursday, saying capital punishment goes against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church." Cardinal Renato Martino reportedly said in reference to Saddam's pending execution that "no one can give death, not even the State." It's just the principle of the thing.

That's all just western reaction anyway. What about on the ground in Iraq? Try the famous Iraqi blogger Riverbend -
A day in the life of the average Iraqi has been reduced to identifying corpses, avoiding car bombs and attempting to keep track of which family members have been detained, which ones have been exiled and which ones have been abducted.

… Why make things worse by insisting on Saddam's execution now? Who gains if they hang Saddam? Iran, naturally, but who else? There is a real fear that this execution will be the final blow that will shatter Iraq. Some Sunni and Shi'a tribes have threatened to arm their members against the Americans if Saddam is executed. Iraqis in general are watching closely to see what happens next, and quietly preparing for the worst.

This is because now, Saddam no longer represents himself or his regime. Through the constant insistence of American war propaganda, Saddam is now representative of all Sunni Arabs (never mind most of his government were Shi'a). The Americans, through their speeches and news articles and Iraqi Puppets, have made it very clear that they consider him to personify Sunni Arab resistance to the occupation. Basically, with this execution, what the Americans are saying is "Look - Sunni Arabs - this is your man, we all know this. We're hanging him - he symbolizes you." And make no mistake about it, this trial and verdict and execution are 100% American. Some of the actors were Iraqi enough, but the production, direction and montage was pure Hollywood (though low-budget, if you ask me).

That is, of course, why Talbani doesn't want to sign his death penalty - not because the mob man suddenly grew a conscience, but because he doesn't want to be the one who does the hanging - he won't be able to travel far away enough if he does that.
Does that mean trouble is on the way? Heck, it was on the way no matter what. This just makes things a bit worse. Dick Cheney, speaking in 1992, put it well, asking a simple question in defense of not rolling on into Baghdad at the time and toppling Saddam Hussein - "And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth?"

Darn! The question has come up again. But it's too late now. Here we go. We can only hope all sides in conflict note the guy is dead and shrug.

Posted by Alan at 21:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 30 December 2006 05:21 PST home

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

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