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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, 8 December 2005

Topic: Photos

A Pause…

Political commentary will follow in a bit. Thursdays are devoted to the "photo shoot" for the upcoming issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-style parent to this daily web log.

Today was a trek to the land of the obscenely wealthy - Rodeo Drive and the center of Beverly Hills.

These will be the Christmas photos - what's on display in the windows of Saxs Fifth Avenue and Barney's and Neiman-Marcus - and what's on the streets. The one hundred and thirty-four photos have been winnowed down to the sixty-two that are pretty cool, and those need further work, editing them to web format from their original gigantic size, so no one's computer seizes.

That is in progress. And here's one of the shots - what you see in the window of one of the major stores this holiday season -

The venue -

Posted by Alan at 18:09 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 8 December 2005 18:13 PST home

Wednesday, 7 December 2005

Topic: Breaking News

Midweek News Explosion: More Grist for the Mill

Big news stories come in fits and starts. Important stories break in flurries of "We did what?" and "He (or she) claimed that?" Then there's a lull as the cable television "talking-heads" shows, and the print and web media, are filled with grave or sarcastic voices of reason, or emotion, explaining "what it all means." A day later the comics jump in, from the pedestrian Jay Leno to the sly and multi-leveled satire pieces from Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Then we begin again.

Some of the previous "big stories" do, of course, get a bit of filigree. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the middle of her diplomatic mission to Europe to lay down the law to them, and defend whatever the heck it is we're doing with "disappearing" people to secret prisons and practicing what some call torture, and we call "enhanced interrogation." Rice met with the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and they had a nice chat, then Merkel said Rice admitted we made a mistake in detaining and doing some very nasty things to a German citizen who turned out to be a nobody - and then our government said Angela had it all wrong and Rice said no such thing. Our official comment on Angela was - "We are not quite sure what was in her head." We don't make mistakes, it seems.

Merkel was supposed to make nice with the Americans and fix everything in our mutual diplomatic relations, but she ran into the Bush team. Now she knows better. The basic story is here, just one of many accounts. Well, the fellow is suing us, so it will all be sorted out.

Then Howard Dean went and said this Iraq thing was a lot like Vietnam and we were NOT going to be "victorious" in any meaningful way - we should just do what we can by getting out and setting up strike teams to take care of acute situations there, not the chronic ones. The president quickly said we would be totally victorious, and we were staying, but he still doesn't have a good definition of exactly what total victory would look like. There are thousands of comments, and the basic story is here. One of Reagan's sons, Michael, the conservative one, said Dean should be hung for treason. Whatever.

Of course there's this new poll - forty percent of Americans want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, another four percent want us out in six months, and ten percent want out within a year. That adds up to fifty-four percent. Then there's five percent who want us out within two or three years. Thirty-four percent agree with the president.

Don't get all excited. We're arguing the best way to back out without the region exploding. The concept is a given, the details are not. Sooner or later someone will clue in the president.

The big mid-week event was, of course, the president's second of four speeches telling is we really do have a plan for total victory in Iraq - we have SVIC ("The Strategy for Victory in Iraq," in thirty-five nicely bound pages of bullet points).

As you recall, the first speech, the one in front of the midshipmen at Annapolis, was about nation building - when they stand up we stand down - and posited that victory was when everyone can see they don't need us any more, and all the mayhem stops.

There's a Boolean disconnect here. Which Boolean operator is he using? Is "total victory" when we get the first (self-sufficiency) AND the second (all the bad guys dead or turned nice), or is it the first OR the second? In either case it's our duty to get them "there." The "there" is a bit ambiguous. But we're staying - and we're training them - and that's going well, so the president said - and others said not so.

The venue for the Wednesday, December 7th speech, on the sixty-fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, was the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington (the dudes in pinstripes), and as mentioned, these folks broke their tradition and granted the White House's special request - no questions. The president speaks and the president leaves - a first for any speaker at the Council on Foreign Relations. Make of that what you will.

The second speech had a new theme, the economy and infrastructure in Iraq. All these folks say the place is a mess, but not so - it's getting better all the time, and we cannot pull now that we've "turned the corner." There's a light at the end of the tunnel? That was the idea. (Don't you wish the sixties wouldn't repeat on you like last night's pepperoni pizza on a bad morning?)

The text of the speech is here and you'll find an interesting analysis from Fred Kaplan here.

As Kaplan notes, and many can see, the administration is walking a fine line here. You have to establish that we're making real progress on getting Iraq up and running again, when the news is pretty dismal, while letting everyone know it's really not going that well. If it were, we could leave. So it's going well but we can't leave because it's not going that well. But is really is going well. No questions, please.

Yes, we got good statistics. There's that twenty-one billion in loans to thirty thousand new small businesses (way better than the Small Business Administration has done in New Orleans, by the way, but unsaid). There are those three thousand new schools (no mention of FEMA and the New Orleans schools). You have your new sewage lines and new electrical substations. Not bad.

But what about the big picture? Of course, critic Kaplan won't cut Bush any slack on this and turns to the State Department's November 30th "Iraq Weekly Status Report" (here).

What's there? Try this -
Iraq's electrical power grid appears as dim as ever, or dimmer. Average daily supply - about 80,000 megawatts - falls 55,000 megawatts short of daily demand. It's 30,000 megawatts below the target that planners tried to hit last summer. And it's 15,000 megawatts below the average pre-war level. (A new power plant turbine in Kirkuk, which is about to fire up, will add just 260 megawatts to this total, according to the report. Two new substations, which Bush heralded in his speech, will service a mere 2,500 - out of roughly 1 million - homes in Baghdad.)

Baghdad, a capital city of roughly 6 million people, has only 6.1 hours of electrical power a day; nationwide, the average is 11.9 hours a day. The situation is, if anything, worsening; in the previous week's report, the respective figures were 8.7 and 12.6 hours.

Crude oil output - which Paul Wolfowitz once told us would pay for the war within months of Saddam's toppling - is stagnant, at 2 million barrels a day, well below the official goal of 2.5 million.
One more instance where the facts are biased?

Kaplan also points out that the president pointed to Najaf and Mosul as model cities - "sites of intense, chaotic violence not long ago, now bastions of relative calm with Iraqi security forces in charge." Yep, they are calm, "but many, if not most, security forces in Najaf are avowed members of Muqtada Sadr's militia." And that was where, a few days ago, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's campaign office was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, the province's ex-governor kidnapped, and the provincial council threaten to break ties with Americans after reports that one of our soldier stabbed a young fellow during a house raid. Kaplan links to the news wires on that, as he doesn't seem to want to be accused of making up things.

And there's the daily news of bombings and kidnappings.

Kaplan concludes -
Bush might argue, in the face of all this, that the strategy needs more time; improvements will build on improvements, successes will generate popular support, which will yield more successes. Missing from this assurance, though, is any recognition of the dynamics set in motion by America's occupation - that the large-scale presence of U.S. troops bolsters security and stability, but it also foments resentment and hatred and swells the ranks of the insurgency, which wreaks further fear and chaos. Simply keeping the troops there longer won't necessarily improve the situation.

The president still hasn't painted a complete picture; he still hasn't spelled out a strategy.
Well, it's a work in progress. Sometimes that's known as making it up as you go along.

That's getting harder to sell all the time, as you see in this exchange.

First up, Senator Joe Lieberman, just back from Iraq and having just written in the Wall Street Journal things are fine there and the news was all wrong and people had cell phones and were safe and happy and all the rest, now saying this: "It is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be commander in chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."

Next up, Jack Murtha, the congressman and ex-Marine who said it was time to wind this down and caused all that fuss a few Friday nights ago on the hill, with all that name-calling, saying this: "Undermining his credibility? What has he said that would give him credibility?"

No one is budging an inch here. Speeches aren't policy and they aren't action. They've just spin.

Well, two speeches down, and two to go for the president.

In any event, in other news, the cost of all this is going way up if this is so - 270 billion spent, a 50 billion supplemental pending, and a request coming next year for another 100 billion supplemental. These "supplementals" are not part of any part of the federal budget. They are funds we spend outside what we planned to spend. Where we get the money? We're talking more than a few bake sales and car washes here. More major debt. No one discusses this much.

Other news floating around midweek?

There's this -
Israel told the United States it fears the outcome of regime change in Syria.

At a strategic-dialogue meeting this week among senior officials, Israel laid out for the United States three scenarios if Bashar Assad is toppled: chaos, an Islamist regime or another strongman from Assad's minority Alawite sect. Israel fears all those options, saying Assad provides a measure of stability.

U.S. officials told their Israeli counterparts that toppling Assad could be "transformative" and dismissed concerns about an Islamist regime taking his place.
Okay, our foreign policy is transformation. Whack the hornet's nest and see what happens. Who knows, something good might happen. Hey, something good could come of the Iraq war. You never know. It might. Shake things up and see.

Even our good friends the Israelis think we're crazy.

Also recommended, and somewhat related, is Jacob Weisberg's Beyond Spin, a discussion of the "propaganda presidency of George W. Bush."

The difference? This -
Though propaganda and spin exist on a continuum, they are different in essence. To spin is to offer a contention, usually specious, in response to a critical argument or a negative news story. It does not necessarily involve lying or misleading anyone about factual matters. Habitual spin is irksome, especially to the journalists upon whom it is practiced, but it does not threaten democracy. Propaganda is far more malignant. A calculated and systematic effort to manage public opinion, it transcends mere lying and routine political dishonesty. When the Bush administration manufactures fake "news," suppresses real news, disguises the former as the latter, and challenges the legitimacy of the independent press, it corrodes trust in leaders, institutions, and, to the rest of the world, the United States as a whole.
And Christopher Hitchens ? who thinks this war is fine and has publicly said we should never leave (establish bases and make Iraq ours) - who often argues George Bush is a wonderful man who is subtle, insightful and even visionary - is on fire about that here.

Weisberg is saying this -
Propaganda is the only word for the Pentagon's recently exposed secret efforts to plant positive stories in the Iraqi press. There is, to be sure, precedent for the U.S. funding democratically-minded foreign journalists, both clandestinely through the CIA and openly through agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Covert funding is both ethically indefensible and, in most cases, practically counterproductive. In the Cold War context, however, such efforts were often aboveboard and directed toward supporting courageous independent media and opposition voices in repressive countries.

In the Iraq cash-for-flacks scheme, on the other hand, the Pentagon did something simply stupid and wrong by hiring a propaganda-making firm called the Lincoln Group to cultivate an impression of grass-roots support for the American occupation. In this greenhouse, the gardeners did not just water and fertilize the seedlings; they handed out plastic flowers and hoped no one would notice they weren't real. American operatives paid Iraqi journalistic mercenaries to publish a farrago of puffery and outright misrepresentation. Here's my favorite quote from the Nov. 30 Los Angeles Times piece that exposed this operation: "Zaki [an Iraqi newspaper editor] said that if his cash-strapped paper had known that these stories were from the U.S. government, he would have 'charged much, much more' to publish them."
Well, that story has legs.

And there's this -
The administration's need to outsource its propaganda work - for reasons of deniability, not efficiency - has promoted the emergence of a new kind of PR-industrial complex in the nation's capital. Outfits like the Ketchum's Washington Group, the shadowy Lincoln Group, and the even more flourishing, even more shadowy Rendon Group are the parasitic fruit not just of unchecked self-puffery but of a lucrative new patronage network.

In a way, what's most troubling about the Bush's administration's information war is not its cynicism but its naiveté. At phony town hall meetings, Bush's audiences are hand-picked to prevent any possibility of spontaneous challenge. At fake forums, invited guests ask the president to pursue his previously announced policies. New initiatives are unveiled on platforms festooned with meaningless slogans, mindlessly repeated ("Plan for Victory"). Anyone on the inside who doubts the party line is shown the door. In this environment, where the truth is not spoken privately or publicly, the suspicion grows that Bush, in his righteous cocoon, has committed the final, fatal sin of the propagandist. He is not just spreading BS but has come to believe it himself.
Ah, that explains the Wednesday speech.

This shadowy Rendon Group, as explained in the Rolling Stone article, has been mentioned before in these pages - Bob Patterson last weekend here and in the editor's The Sunday Funnies Featuring Curveball on November 27th - but the best explanation of such outfits is in Newsweek from Jonathan Alter here -
We got into the war with the help of something called the Rendon Group, a secretive firm that won a huge government contract to "create the conditions for the removal of [Saddam] Hussein from power." (According to an article by James Bamford in last week's Rolling Stone, Rendon invented the "Iraqi National Congress" and put Judith Miller and other reporters in touch with their bum sources on WMD.) Now the PR pork scandal is moving to a different level. This year, the Pentagon granted three contractors $300 million over five years to offer "creative ideas" for psychological operations aimed at what the PR experts call "international perception management." That $300 million will buy a lot of Arabic press releases, but it's unavailable for, say, body armor.

The contractor implicated in the planted Iraqi press story is the Lincoln Group, formerly Iraqex, which boasts to prospective clients that it provides services ranging from "political campaign intelligence" (dirt on your opponents in American elections) to "commercial real estate in Iraq" (so you can buy the choicest properties and tick off the Iraqis even more). It's run by one Christian Bailey, a 30-year-old Oxford-educated fop who helped run the 2004 Republican National Convention, and once cohosted parties in New York limited to those who had graduated from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale (Princeton was apparently beneath them). I tried to learn whether Bailey's British accent reflected British citizenship or more "perception management," but no one from the Lincoln Group would call me back. Other reporters were told that everything about the firm's operations was "classified." Bailey has put a bunch of Bush campaign hacks on the gravy train, finagled security clearances, then assigned them to corrupt the Iraqi media. Democracy in action!
So now you know.

The president has famously said he doesn't read newspapers, or watch the news. And he explained why - those around him, who are the players in the big game, tell him what's really going on, not those who kibbutz from the bleachers. Well, not his exact words, but that was the substance of what he said.

Could it be the PR firm that "invented" the Iraqi National Congress - Chalabi and his noble compatriots in exile who wanted "their Iraq" back ? and these other firms creating "good news," are the players in the big game who inform the president? That'd be a hoot, except for all the dead American soldiers. But that would explain the mid-week speech.


Local Note:

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the very odd governor of this state, has ticked off everyone. There was that special election last month with all its referendums. After months of telling us the police, nurses and firefighters were greedy bastards and he needed this new power or that to override the legislature (he called them girly-men) and the courts to get things done, every item he proposed was defeated. Now he's named a left-wing Democrat and a woman as his Chief of Staff. He's a strange man.

Mid-week the dam burst -
With segments of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political base rising in revolt, directors of the California Republican Party have demanded a private meeting with the governor to complain about the hiring of a Democratic operative as his chief of staff.

The request comes as Schwarzenegger faces a sustained wave of opposition from both moderate and conservative Republicans over the choice of Susan P. Kennedy. Before serving as a state public utility commissioner, Kennedy was Cabinet secretary to former Gov. Gray Davis. She also was an abortion-rights activist and former Democratic Party executive.

In appointing Kennedy last week, the governor praised her as an effective administrator who could "implement my vision" and work cooperatively with Democrats who control the Legislature.

But Republican operatives said grass-roots volunteers are so disturbed by the appointment that they are threatening to abandon Schwarzenegger during his re-election bid next year. Others said Schwarzenegger is risking a nasty fight that could cause the party to rescind its endorsement during February's convention in San Jose.
The man is mad.

And of course this has led to a campaign to draft Mel Gibson to run against Schwarzenegger in the Republican primary next year. The idea is the success of Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," could help his chances among religious conservatives. And sadists? And anti-Semites?

California is a crazy place. Some Democrats wanted Rob Reiner - "When Harry Met Sally" and such films - to run against Arnold. But Meathead from "All in the Family" said no. They're still working on talking Warren Beatty - "Shampoo" and "Reds" and "Dick Tracey" - into running.


Of course Gibson has a new movie in the works, about the holocaust. He and his father belong to a splinter Catholic sect that claims the holocaust was no big deal - not that it didn't happen, just that it wasn't so bad and not that many people died. Should be an interesting film. It's somewhere between concept and pre-production at the moment.

Of course readers outside California will think all this is something invented for these pages. This site comes to you from the center of Hollywood, where the "dream factories" are, where nothing is what it seems. It couldn't be so.

But you can use Google or Yahoo or whatever and see that it's all true - it's really, really true.

There are dream factories on each coast, DC and Hollywood, where what is real and what isn't gets all mixed up.

Posted by Alan at 21:54 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2005 21:59 PST home

Topic: World View

Our Man in Paris: Howling Sirens
If it's Wednesday it must be Paris, and here, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, reports on the scene, politically (fallout from the riots, which we're really riots) and culturally (cool photos).

Howling Sirens

PARIS - Wednesday, December 7 -

I could tell it was the first Wednesday in the month and it was noon because the air raid sirens were howling. Twelve months a year, and next spring will make 30 years, which adds up to 720 times - because they hoot them twice to make sure. In my next life I will live through the Blitz to get it over with quickly.

Then radio France-Info polluted my breakfast air with updates to old news. It told me that Nicolas Sarkozy, France's short minister of civic troubles, had canceled a trip to Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Another bulletin, somewhat related, said that France's spooks of the interior have composed a confidential report that concluded the urban riots that Sarkozy set off were not caused by nefarious troublemakers, organized bad guys, the CIA, or religious fanatics trying to start a holy war. The kids were insulted by Sarkozy, although the report does not say so - Sarkozy is not a foreign terrorist group after all - they simply rioted for three weeks on their own steam until they got tired.

Then there was another report which I probably garbled on account of eating too loudly, about the CIA flights that landed at Bourget and some other airfield, flights from Iceland and Oslo - both unnotorious Islamic terrorist hotbeds. France denies these happened, or if it does not, wants to ask the CIA a couple of questions.

After breakfast I felt much better. So much so that it occurred to me that nobody wants to read about our exceptional riots or read one more word about Sarkozy, and it's all old news anyway.
Naw! Instead I decided to take myself out and trot down to Sèvres-Babylon to the Bon Marché, the Left Bank's only department store, and capture its Christmas lights. On the way, after stopping in Montparnasse to watch them smooth the ice on the rink for the fast kids on blades, it occurred to me that the Bon March?'s lights are never lit when I go there.

They weren't for the past two years, and both times it was really cold. Today it was not, so I kept on my guided path. And for those of little faith, let me say that perseverance pays off - with just enough skylight to mix with the store's lights, and enough sunset to give the camera problems.

With that little chore in the digital film can I took up my customary position in front of the TV for tonight's news, first on France-3, and who do I see immediately, but Sarkozy. Looking in the camera lens so sincerely, with so much white below his ball-bearing eyeballs that they looked like gull's eggs with black yolks.

He says he's not going to Guadeloupe and Martinique and it has noting to do with the stink he caused by saying Napoléon is wonderful - last week on the anniversary of Austerlitz, but also the anniversary of Napoléon reintroducing slavery. "Which 'official' history does France want to have?" he wants to know.

Well, in the islands, they are the descendants of the free people Napoléon decided were slaves, so there are all on strike and they are organized and waiting for the minister of the interior to show up, and now he's decided not to go, but that's not the reason. He did go to Corsica, didn't he? "I don't want to give the extreme left a reason to protest," he says on TV. The last French politician the folks in the Antilles didn't want to see was Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Then the very brown newslady went on to the 'confidential' report put together by the Renseignements généraux - spooks of the interior - which concluded that the disturbances were a form of 'unorganized insurrection, a kind of popular revolt, without a leader or a program.'

She didn't get a chance to say all this because Sarkozy persisted - and 'signed' - with his own interpretation. "I call hooligans hooligans when they are hooligans," with the whites under his eyeballs increasing, "we were facing organized bands - what about the 800 we arrested? Hooligans and delinquents create terror," he added, running on about domination of the suburbs by 'mafias' and 'drug dealers.' But never saying why his guys don't catch them, because nobody asks.

Besides being uninvited to the Antilles the short minister took another blow today when a court commission in Pontoise recommended against deporting a young rioter. He has lived in France since he was three, has correct papers, and no previous offenses on record. The commission was also skeptical about the facts of the case. Another court at Bobigny, at the very center of the disturbances, noted that few of the arrested had police records. Hardly the stuff mafias are made of.

It must not be forgotten that the minister of the interior is a busy man, as president of the wealthy Hauts-de-Seine department and president of the UMP, as well as self-proclaimed candidate for president of France. The UMP had a congress or meeting of some sort last week, when they gathered to decide to either hold a primary to chose a candidate, or decided not to.

As it is, Sarkozy is high in the polls, but Jacques Chirac's man, the prime minister Dominique de Villepin, is rising fast. Nobody can figure out who the polling people talk to, giving Sarkozy high scores. Socialists don't like him, the right wing UDFs don't trust him, the Communists, Verts and Anarchists can't stand him, he's got no friends in the Radical Left, and even some members of the UMP think he's a bit hairy.

It leaves a core of support within the right-right of the UMP, and the usual 10 percent of the ultra retros in the Front National. Does Nicolas Sarkozy want Jean-Marie Le Pen's job? The other way around is hardly credible.



Down by Sèvres-Babylon, the Bon Marché - one of the Hollywood editor's favorite places to buy stuffed toys at Christmas to haul back to the tykes out here in Southern California -

Shall we meet "At the Smoking Dog" with its cool neon sign? Note in the lower right, a Mini Cooper twin of the white Just Above Sunset staff car out here in Hollywood, next to a svelte Twingo (none of those out here) -

A classic Paris dive -

In lieu of a Los Angeles 7-11, this Paris "Superette" -

Text and Photos, Copyright © 2005 - Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

Posted by Alan at 17:40 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2005 17:51 PST home

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

Topic: Making Use of History

The Passing Parade and the Big Stuff

So, it seems, in terms of things that spark the national dialog, about who we are and what we're doing and just why were doing this or that, Sunday is the big news day - you get your scoops from the Washington Post and the other major media. And by Tuesday you find out what "sticks to the wall" or "has legs" - choose your cliché.

Tuesday, December 6th, was a "small news" day. There was none of that big news, just attempts to come to terms with what had been put in motion.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the middle of her diplomatic mission to Europe to lay down the law to them, and defend whatever the heck it is we're doing with "disappearing" people to secret prisons and practicing what some call torture, and we call "enhanced interrogation." Everyone had something to say, like this -
Human rights lawyers said some of the cases which have come to light amounted to "disappearing people," a practice recognized as illegal for decades since its widespread use by Latin American governments in the 1970s. "If we're actually taking people, abducting them and then placing them in incommunicado detention, which appears to be the case, we would be actually guilty then of a disappearance under international law, in addition to a rendition," said Meg Satterthwaite of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law.
NYU? They don’t count. So Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights outlaws arbitrary arrest or detention and says an arrested person has the right to be told why he or she is being held and brought before a judge. Like we care?

According to Human Rights Watch here, the we're holding twenty-six folks in foreign prisons, incommunicado, without legal rights or access to counsel. No one can prove anything.

And an interesting comment here -
... there have been many other innocent people who have been rendered to countries and tortured, sent to Guantanamo or were wrongly imprisoned in Iraq since we began this practice. And the practice has led to more innocent people being imprisoned and tortured because those who are tortured tend to say anything they think you want to hear to make it stop. It builds on itself.

Saddam used this practice to terrorize the population to keep it in line. That is the only rational (if evil) purpose for such practices. I can't figure out why in the hell we are doing it.
But Digby here answers his own question. Someone who knows nothing throws out a name to stop the pain, and that person may be his dentist for all we know, so we grab the dentist, who throws out another random name to stop the pain, so we grab that third person who throws out another random, fourth name. We grab him or her. And on and on it goes. Yeah, we get no useful information about bad things being planned, but this has its usefulness. Folks know no one messes with us. Such a cascade of random pain probably does keep people in line. Unless someone gets angry. This is no doubt what Rice is explaining. It's useful.

Another comment? Try this -
And if, perhaps, this was two years ago, Europe would have cowered under Rice's mighty buck teeth of justice. But it ain't. Now, thanks to Rice and her White House, facing the United States is like facing off against a pissed off rhino that's been shot with half a dozen tranquilizer darts. It staggers, falls, gets up, charges at you for a moment or two, but you know if you dodge enough, it's gonna collapse soon. So many Europeans kinda don't give a fuck what Rice has to say.
Of course that German fellow we admitted we held for five months by mistake, and seemed to have tortured (or something like it), is now suing. He's got the ACLU on his side - see ACLU Suing Over Detention of German Citizen. That dreaded ACLU, the same folks who funded Thurgood Marshall and his team in the Brown case in the mid-fifties that made us desegregate public schools, is at it again, messing things up - suing the CIA and the companies with the fancy small jets they hired for transportation. But at least the German fellow cannot testify. His name is still on the "no fly list" and he cannot enter the United States, just like Cat Stevens - a useful bureaucratic delay. Ha, ha. Case closed.

Not that it matters. Bush and Rice have already won the argument - "Most Americans and a majority of people in Britain, France and South Korea say torturing terrorism suspects is justified at least in rare instances, according to AP-Ipsos polling."

Canada, Mexico and Germany disagree, and this would appear to be a cultural thing. What does Canada matter? Mexico? The French remember that Battle of Algiers, where torture worked well enough, but the Germans haven't gotten over Hitler yet. He's still an embarrassment and hasn't been rehabilitated. The Brits have lightened up about him, as Prince Harry likes wearing a Nazi uniform, as you recall. So times have changed.

But what's a rare instance? The dispute will be over that. The consensus now it that torture is just fine.

Ah well, the issue will play out in the coming months.

The other passing news on Tuesday, December 5th, was this this - we kind of lied to the Italians way back when. They were looking for a terror suspect and we told them the dude "had fled to the Balkans" -
In fact, according to Italian court documents and interviews with investigators, the CIA's tip was a deliberate lie, part of a ruse designed to stymie efforts by the Italian anti-terrorism police to track down the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian refugee known as Abu Omar.

The strategy worked for more than a year until Italian investigators learned that Nasr had not gone to the Balkans after all. Instead, prosecutors here have charged, he was abducted off a street in Milan by a team of CIA operatives who took him to two U.S. military bases in succession and then flew him to Egypt, where he was interrogated and allegedly tortured by Egyptian security agents before being released to house arrest.
Now they've issued warrants for twenty-two of our CIA guys. More work for Condi Rice. And a curious side note - the lead attorney defending Scooter Libby at the moment, was our ambassador to Italy at the time. Just a coincidence. Libby is charged with obstructing the investigating into who leaked the identity of a key CIA agent who husband debunked the forged Niger documents, which came from Italy at the same time. That's odd.

But this story has no legs. Everybody lies to the Italians and works around them. They may be a key partner in all this - but they're the Rodney Dangerfield of Europe. And we do what we want. Makes one wonder why Rice is explaining anything at all - to anyone.

Other ephemeral Tuesday news? The vice president gave the usual speech, this time up at Fort Drum (far upper right corner of New York, the state, and just south of Montreal, not far from Potsdam with its university). The idea? Cheney Urges Steadfast Approach to Iraq. The usual - we need to stay, and anyone who says differently is a traitor or fool or both, or some such thing.

But one should note this -
Watching these mini Nuremberg rallies with the president, and now the vice-president, using the troops to make political points I'm uncomfortably reminded that going back to Rome (and probably earlier) the point of having the troops assembled before the leadership was to make it clear that the military backed the leadership against all comers. Today this is slightly more subtly accomplished, but the motivation is the same. It is shamelessly done not just to convey the point that the military will follow the orders of the administration (which it is constitutionally required to do) but that it also politically backs the administration against its critics. These are political speeches done for the purpose of answering political critics.

If I didn't know better and were to watch the majority of speeches from afar for the last six months, I would assume that the United States is a military dictatorship, so many uniforms have been present. Even the speech that Bush gave the other day on the economy featured a bunch of people dressed in the same clothes in the standard tableau behind him.

This is becoming a bit disturbing. The administration is giving the appearance of having control of the military in an inappropriate political way and they are doing it more and more. My only consolation is that, if press reports are true, the military brass does not seem to be as enthralled by Republican leadership as they once were. A badly conceived and executed war by fanatics will do that to you.
That is odd.

But then Bush gives a speech that is not in front of the military at all, but to the Council on Foreign Relations. No uniforms. On the other hand, it is as tightly controlled -
In a sharp break with the council's own traditions, Bush is being allowed to speak - for 50 minutes - then leave without taking any questions.

"Obviously, we strongly suggested - certainly made the case - that it would be in the interest of the president and in the interest of our membership that the president take questions," council vice president for communications Lisa Shields told me this morning.

"But true to his format, they declined."
Well, these folks aren't military.

There was much other news - a bomb taking out forty-three police cadets in Baghdad, and the old 9/11 Commission crew giving those in charge failing grades for protecting America, all D's and F's on such things as transportation security and planning for the worst. But all the wags out there point out Bush got all D's and F's at Yale and became president, so what's the problem?

And there was the odd story of the day from Kansas, this - "A professor whose planned course on creationism and intelligent design was canceled after he sent e-mails deriding Christian conservatives was hospitalized Monday after what appeared to be a roadside beating." The oppressed minority Christians in America are fighting back. We have our own anti-Darwin insurgency for Jesus? Do we get roadside bombs next?

Ah well, how does one put this all in perspective?

At least in term of who leads us and how they think, and this war, and what could happen, there is some historical perspective from the old Kennedy folks.

Theodore "Ted" Sorensen was special counsel to Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was his special assistant. You know, old guys with lots of experience who write books.

They offer Iraq: What would JFK have done?

Now that's an interesting question. Idle, but interesting.

This appeared in the New York Times on the weekend of December 3-4 and was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune on the 5th - starting off with some notes on what was presented to us all in the big speech at Annapolis - the Plan for Victory in Iraq -
What did we Americans not hear from President George W. Bush when he spoke last week at the U.S. Naval Academy about his strategy for victory in Iraq?

We did not hear that the war in Iraq, already one of the costliest in American history, is a running sore. We did not hear that it has taken more than 2,000 precious American lives and countless - because we do not count them - Iraqi civilian lives.

America can't take that kind of endless and remorseless drain for a vaguely defined military and political mission. If we leave early, the president said, catastrophe might follow. But what of the catastrophe that we are prolonging and worsening by our continued presence, including our continued, unforgivable mistreatment of detainees?

The president says we should support our troops by staying the course; but who is truly willing to support our troops by bringing them safely home?
Kennedy would have done differently? These two say as they listened to Bush's speech, "our thoughts raced back four decades to another president, John F. Kennedy. In 1963, the last year of his life, we watched from front-row seats as Kennedy tried to figure out how best to extricate American military advisers and instructors from Vietnam."

That's curious. Is this like Vietnam, the early days? Could be.

These two say Kennedy would lean back in his rocking chair and "tick off all his options" and then critique them. Okay, some folks like to think there are alternatives. Our new gut doesn't, but assume some folks do.

What were Kennedy's choices?
Renege on the previous Eisenhower commitment, which Kennedy had initially reinforced, to help the beleaguered government of South Vietnam with American military instructors and advisers?

No, he knew that the American people would not permit him to do that.

Americanize the Vietnam civil war, as the military recommended and as his successor Lyndon Johnson sought ultimately to do, by sending in American combat units?

No, having learned from his experiences with Cuba and elsewhere that conflicts essentially political in nature did not lend themselves to a military solution, Kennedy knew that the United States could not prevail in a struggle against a Vietnamese people determined to oust, at last, all foreign troops from their country.

Declare "victory and get out," as George Aiken, the Republican senator from Vermont, would famously suggest years later?

No, in 1963 in Vietnam, despite assurances from field commanders, there was no more semblance of "victory" than there was in 2004 in Iraq when the president gave his "mission accomplished" speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Explore, as was always his preference, a negotiated solution?

No, he was unable to identify in the ranks of the disorganized Vietcong a leader capable of negotiating enforceable and mutually agreeable terms of withdrawal.
So what was the solution? They say Kennedy knew withdrawal was the only real option, and, in the spring of 1963, he was working on that - a three-part exit strategy. But then he got shot, and the rest is history.

But these two say Bush could us the plan.

First, make it clear that we're going to get out. At a press conference on Nov. 14, 1963 - "That is our object, to bring Americans home."

Second, request an invitation to leave. And a May 1963 press conference, Kennedy declared that if the South Vietnamese government suggested it, "we would have some troops on their way home" the next day. (This could work. Any Iraqi leader who requested that would be a hero there. It's a win-win.)

Third, bring the troops home gradually.

These two offer this: "Kennedy had no guarantee that any of these three components would succeed; but an exit plan without guarantees is better than none at all."

And this: "Once American troops are out of Iraq, people around the world will rejoice that we have recovered our senses. What's more, the killing of Americans and the global loss of American credibility will diminish."

Yes, this is idle speculation. It's a bit hard to imagine this president sitting around with his advisors spinning out alternatives to a tight situation.

First you'd have to concede that things aren't going as planned, that the public has turned, and the generals are grumbling, and your few allies around the world are dismayed, and the rest of the world well beyond dismayed. And how would you know, when you whole staff is too habitually frightened to give you bad news? It was, after all, four days after Hurricane Katrina before anyone on the staff got up the nerve to burn you a CD of the news shows about what was happening down there. They know your temper. You don't want to hear bad news, much less news that what you thought was or is so just isn't so. You've got them trained. You don't tolerate dissent.

Then you'd have to assume, if you admit that all that just may be true, that you really care at all if any bit of it is so. So what? You're steadfast - solid as a rock. You don't flip-flop. God, perhaps, has given you your mandate. (Recent reporting is that the man feels this way.) So the whole idea of a change in course, based on a change in what's happening, is moot.

Sorensen and Schlesinger may be onto something here in terms of strategy, but they've got the wrong guy. And strategy is, it seems, a function of personality.

And that's the big news under the passing parade of small events, the news stories of this and that. Rice argues with the Europeans, folks weigh in on this and that, speeches are made, people die, folks are mugged in Kansas for not accepting Jesus as their personal savior and accepting Darwin in science class ? and nothing changes.



Sorensen and Schlesinger offer a curious comment to the Bush supporters demanding that the other side, if they're so damned smart, come up with some better plan for this war -
The responsibility for devising an exit plan rests primarily not with the war's opponents, but with the president who hastily mounted an invasion without enough troops to secure Iraq's borders and arsenals, without enough armor to protect our forces, without enough allied support and without adequate plans for either a secure occupation or a timely exit.
This seems to be a variation on the famous "Pottery Barn Rule."

Posted by Alan at 23:13 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 6 December 2005 23:16 PST home

Monday, 5 December 2005

Topic: Breaking News

Diplomacy: What's the Message and Who Do You Trust?
Some stories have legs, it seems. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic mission to Europe seems to be one of them, covered under the title "Dominatrix Diplomacy" in these pages here on December 2nd and here two days later with a few more details.

She's there to discuss all the issues that have come up with our secret prisons in eastern Europe, old soviet jails where we have "disappeared" folks we've grabbed off the streets of Rome and other places, without telling anyone, and who we may be torturing, or as we claim, just using "enhanced interrogation techniques." The Europeans, it seems, don't want any part in all this "disappearing" and possible torture. They're squeamish or something - and are even upset we fly these "non-persons" to places that don't exist, where bad things happen to them, using their airports and airspace. The initial reports were that the line that Rice was going to take was to tell these effete fussbudget European wimps to just "back off." Rice was going to remind these "allies" they themselves have been cooperating in our anti-terror operations - and they should simply "do more to win over their publics." In short, they should get their press and public and various legislatures and commissions under control - and get them to just shut up.

But as Joel Brinkley for the New York Times and Brian Knowlton for the International Herald Tribune report here, Rice is not being that crude, although, as she left for the trip and chatted with reporters, she is being a bit blunt. The public message? Europeans should not complain too loudly about undercover intelligence actions that had helped "save European lives."

This seems to be a variation on the old, "We saved your butt in two world wars, so shut the hell up." The point is we're doing it again now, so be grateful and don't complain.

Of course she again denied that the United States engaged in torture, ever - and said we had violated none of our laws and no international treaties. It's just that "extraordinary rendition," as it is called (some call it kidnapping), is just necessary. And she kind of hinted that "some European governments" knew more about what was going on than they were willing to admit in public. This item quotes her saying this - "It is up to those governments and their citizens to decide if they wish to work with us to prevent terrorist attacks against their own country or other countries, and decide how much sensitive information they can make public."

And she winked? No, not really.

Brinkley and Knowlton do point out that all this "could complicate" the meeting Tuesday with the new German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. That was all about new warm ties between German and the United States. But it seems a German official confirmed Monday that Germany had a list of more than four hundred over-flights and landings in the past few years by planes probably used by the CIA for this work. Der Spiegel was on that - data from German air traffic controllers - 437 flights or landings in Germany by CIA planes, including 137 by one plane and 146 by another. Well, that's something to chat about. In DC on the way out Rice said this - "The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture. The United States does not use the airspace or the airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured."

That's a non-denial trick, admitting the flights but saying we don't do torture. What we do is really special, but it's not exactly torture. And her endeavor is to say that whatever it is we do, well, it works, and makes you Europeans safe - so cut us some slack here and shut up and be appropriately grateful.

But then late Monday, December 5th, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito hit the wires with an ABC "exclusive" - here, opening with this -
Two CIA secret prisons were operating in Eastern Europe until last month when they were shut down following Human Rights Watch reports of their existence in Poland and Romania.

Current and former CIA officers speaking to ABC News on the condition of confidentiality say the United States scrambled to get all the suspects off European soil before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived there today. The officers say 11 top al Qaeda suspects have now been moved to a new CIA facility in the North African desert.

CIA officials asked ABC News not the name the specific countries where the prisons were located, citing security concerns.

The CIA declines to comment, but current and former intelligence officials tell ABC News that 11 top al Qaeda figures were all held at one point on a former Soviet air base in one Eastern European country. Several of them were later moved to a second Eastern European country.
The Polish and Romanian secret prisons were, then, quite real. And we cleared them real fast before Rice got to Europe.

Cool. And what happens in North Africa stays in North Africa.

And there's this -
All but one of these 11 high-value al Qaeda prisoners were subjected to the harshest interrogation techniques in the CIA's secret arsenal, the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" authorized for use by about 14 CIA officers and first reported by ABC News on Nov. 18.

... These same sources also tell ABC News that U.S. intelligence also ships some "unlawful combatants" to countries that use interrogation techniques harsher than any authorized for use by U.S. intelligence officers. They say that Jordan, Syria, Morocco and Egypt were among the nations used in order to extract confessions quickly using techniques harsher than those authorized for use by U.S. intelligence officers. These prisoners were not necessarily citizens of those nations.

According to sources directly involved in setting up the CIA secret prison system, it began with the capture of Abu Zabayda in Pakistan. After treatment there for gunshot wounds, he was whisked by the CIA to Thailand where he was housed in a small disused warehouse on an active airbase. There, his cell was kept under 24-hour closed circuit TV surveillance and his life-threatening wounds were tended to by a CIA doctor especially sent from Langley headquarters to assure Abu Zubaydah was given proper care, sources said. Once healthy, he was slapped, grabbed, made to stand long hours in a cold cell and finally handcuffed and strapped feet up to a water board until after .31 seconds he begged for mercy and began to cooperate.

... Of the 12 high value targets housed by the CIA, only one did not require water boarding before he talked. Ramzi bin al-Shibh broke down in tears after he was walked past the cell of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the operational planner for Sept. 11. Visibly shaken, he started to cry and became as cooperative as if he had been tied down to a water board, sources said.
Of course, some call all this torture. Some don't, and have various other names for it.

Some say all this is necessary and quite effective, and others say what information is given up is unreliable at best.

Some say this sort of thing makes us hated and scorned around the world, while others say this sort of thing makes us feared, and that's a very, very good thing for our safety. On the other hand, hatred and scorn, and fear, may lead to the very angry acting against us, making us less safe.

Choose your side.

Rice says this - "The captured terrorists of the 21st century do not fit easily into traditional systems of criminal or military justice, which were designed for different needs. We have had to adapt."

And so we have.

Did much of this take place in the old KGB prison in Poland, in a sort of homage to the good old days? Consider -
Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told ABC Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross today: "My president has said there is no truth in these reports."

Ross asked: "Do you know otherwise, sir, are you aware of these sites being shut down in the last few weeks, operating on a base under your direct control?"

Sikorski answered, "I think this is as much as I can tell you about this."
Geez, this is a Tom Clancy movie. There's this secret prison in Romania, at a military base visited last year by Rumsfeld, and the new Romanian prime minister said there is no evidence of a CIA site - but that he will investigate. But ABC has sources saying it's been there since March 2002, and the approval for another secret prison was granted last year by some unnamed North African nation, and the CIA has a system of secretly returning prisoners to their home country when they have "outlived their usefulness" to the United States - and we use Jordan, Syria, Morocco and Egypt to extract confessions quickly "using techniques harsher than those authorized for use by US intelligence officers."

And what of the mistakes? It's not just the German fellow in the December 4th Washington Post story - the ABC reporters were told that Jordanians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, Saudis, Pakistanis, Uzbekistanis and Chinese citizens have been returned to their nations' intelligence services. Sorry about that.

As before, someone at the CIA doesn't much care for what we're doing - some stuffy traditionalist, no doubt - and is trying to stop it. One thinks of Deep Throat meeting the young Bob Woodward in the parking structure late at night, to put an end to the Nixon crew's nastiness - first Dana Priest of the Post and now these two guys from ABC News. Something is up.

And Rice's mission to slap the Europeans back into line and make them grateful to us for saving their butts once again - to put these childish people in their place - is undermined.

This sure is interesting.

Posted by Alan at 23:29 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 5 December 2005 23:32 PST home

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